After leaving Padua the land for several miles is flat sand. No grass or tree grows here. Lagoons and canals intersect the land. At the right are marshes bordering the Adriatic. Along the horizon, light smoky clouds blend imperceptibly with the water. Other clouds, floating overhead, are reflected in the brown and waveless water. Far across this expanse glides here and there a small boat, propelled by a man standing erect. Through dim mists, settled over the bay, we sight flying birds that call loudly as they increase their flight. Absolutely without motion is this water. The sole objects that move are boats and birds. The water shimmers and sparkles wherever the sun, passing in and out of clouds, lights it up. The shallow bay broadens until our view includes no land. Everywhere extends a realm of waveless waters, in which fishing stakes stand erect, and tall plants grow.
How strangely all this differs from the blue Mediterranean we saw a fortnight ago when riding from Genoa to Leghorn, under that cloudless sky of blue; in that stirring breeze, and an almost tropical temperature, tho it was late in December; along that rocky, tunnel-pierced coast, with deep olive groves bordering the way; the sea a bound-less vision of water moving and resounding against the shore; whitecaps everywhere visible on its broad expanse. Here on this road to Venice is complete repose, lifeless, sleepy reposeas of the deadnot without poetry, but of the Orient and of mystics, rather than of Provence, or the Ligurian shore and active, stalwart men.
We sight in the distance over the lagoon, the white walls and roof line of Venice. The railway starts on its long course over one of the noblest bridges in the world. It is more than two miles long. Some 80,000 piles were used in its foundations, the superstructure entirely of stone, with arches of 33 feet span each, and 222 in number. Along the roadway, on either side is a stone balustrade. At each pier a balcony curves outward. For four years a thousand men were engaged in building this viaduct, and the total cost was $10,000,000. Having crossed, we reach an island; then cross another, but shorter, bridge and pass to another island. Our train thereafter comes to a stop for we have reached Venice and enter a magnificent station, built of stone, with high semi-circular roof, lofty waiting rooms, mosaic floors. We pass out through a spacious doorway, and directly below, and in front, see the Grand Canal, bordered on its farther shore by palaces and other noble structures of white marble. A wide and broad plaza here fronts the water, and a stairway at its edge leads downward to where are waiting a score of gondolas.
We step into one of these boats, and begin our first gondola ride in Adriatic waters. It is late afternoon. The western sun lies dying in a mass of yellow and soft brown clouds. On the high walls of the great white station its rays fall with startling brightness and cast long shadows of waiting gondoliers upon the plaza floor. The white palaces opposite are shrouded in somber hues. A warm mist seems to rise from the water. All is still as in the mid-Atlantic. When a sound is made, echoes sharp and clear come from shore to shore.
Our boat glides away from this scene. Adjusting ourselves to its motion, we roll from side to side in our little house of glass on a downy seat and could pass the whole night here contentedly. Such rest, such appalling silence, we never knew before. Those gondoliers do their work with consummate skill. They have all the ease that comes of practise in any calling however difficult. The sharp cut of an oar as it enters the water is for a moment heard, but never a splash. The boat rolls constantly, but we feel no strain. It moves as if it were a toy swan drawn by a magnet in a child’s hand.
From the Grand Canal we enter a narrow street. Sharp corners are turned quickly, swift-moving boats are passed, narrow passages entered, and we glide into deep shadows under bridges, but never a collision, or danger of one, occurs. The gondolier at crossings cries out his warning. We hear, but do not see, another who calls aloud in similar tones. The two voices are heard again, each in an echo. Far away in this watery but populous solitude, a church bell tolls.
We have had a quarter-hour’s ride when the gondola comes to rest before broad stone steps ‘leading upward to a wide doorway. Here is our hotel, an ancient palace, rich in marble and granite, with broad corridor, a noble stairway, and mosaic. floors. It is Sunday on St. Mark’s Placea bright, warm Sunday it has been, such as winter can not give in our own country. Here, in-deed, is a foreign land, its life and spirit more foreign than Rome. No scene in the wide world can rival this St. Mark’s scene, with the islands across the way in the broad lagoona magnificent piazza, bordered by the facades of splendid palaces, by statues, columns, and ornate capitals, another piazza near it surrounded on three sides by noble arcaded structures and on the fourth by the half Gothic, half Byzantine Church of St. Mark’s, the most resplendent Christian edifice in Europe. In one corner rises the stupendous Campanile, high above palace roofs, arcades and church domes, its bells sounding their notes upon an otherwise silent world.