I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: I’m tired of European churches. Or at least I was until I got to Venice.
Church fatigue is a very real problem that afflicts many people who live in or visit Europe. You visit so many churches, cathedrals and basilicas that they all seem to blend together in your mind and eventually you can’t stand the thought of seeing another religious building.
Before reaching Venice, I already had a worsening case of church fatigue, but when I realized that it would only take me a few hours to wander the streets while pondering if a 30-minute gondola ride was worth 70-80 euros, I knew I would need something else to occupy my time. I also knew that would probably mean visiting St. Mark’s Basilica.
Just when I was about to resign myself to a normal, albeit impressive, visit to Venice’s most famous religious landmark, I stumbled upon an intriguing opportunity offered by the tour company Walks of Italy: Exclusive Alone In St. Mark’s Basilica After Hours.
A knowledgeable Walks of Italy guide would lead small groups through the Basilica while describing its history and taking visitors to parts of the building that are usually closed off to tourists. And all of this would be done after the Basilica was closed to the general public. The group would have the entire place all to themselves.
No crowds, an expert guide and access to restricted areas? Now, that is how I want to visit every church in Europe.
On the day of my special visit to the Basilica, I met with my fellow tour buddies and Mirco, our born and raised Venetian guide, just outside of St. Mark’s. Once we were outfitted with our handy dandy headsets, Mirco wasted no time in beginning to explain the significance of St. Mark and the Basilica dedicated to him. For someone like me who is faaaaaar from being a history buff, Mirco’s explanations were perfect. They were entertaining and simple enough that my head wasn’t left spinning, but not so much so that I wasn’t able to grasp the importance of the history behind the Basilica. Admiring the gorgeous paintings on the façade of the building was also much easier thanks to Mirco’s guidance. Each image is so detailed and tells a different part of St. Mark’s story. Most of it probably would have gone over my head without his help.
Once the tourists visiting during regular hours were cleared out of the building, security let us in for our private viewing. As we walked inside, the first thing I noticed was the uneven floor. It wasn’t just a little uneven. It was like walking up and down mini tile-covered hills. The explanation behind what seemed like an architectural failure just made the beautiful mosaicked floor even more interesting. What I thought of as hills were actually meant to represent the waves of the water that all of Venice was built on. I’m not sure if this was done on purpose or if the poetic explanation was thought up afterwards, but either way it adds a nice touch to the Basilica’s story.
The floors told one tale, but the domes in the ceiling told another. Depicted in the domes of the hallway were some of the Old Testament’s most classic stories, while the domes of the main sanctuary portrayed the story of salvation as told by the New Testament. Tiny stones covered in thin layers of gold were used to decorate these domes in a style reminiscent of Eastern Orthodox Churches. As we sat in the main sanctuary listening to Mirco’s descriptions of the domes, statues and other figures in the room, the security guards turned on the lights one by one making the gold covered stones shine bright and look even more impressive.
It was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was a style completely different from the Baroque and Gothic style cathedrals I was used to, and for the first time in a long time, I was fascinated by the gorgeousness of a church.
After taking a good look at the main sanctuary and its domes, Mirco led us through other parts of the Basilica including some of the usually restricted areas. We were able to get up close and personal with some features of the Basilica like the framed pall behind the main altar that looks like a tapestry made of pure gold, rubies, jade and other gems that I am too poor to know the names of. With around 1,927 gems, the pall is said to be second in worth only to the jewels of the queen of England, and I was standing only two inches away from it! I have never been that close to something so valuable, and that’s probably for my own good. It made me too nervous.
At the beginning of the tour, Mirco told us that there were many differences between him and George Clooney. Obvious right? But there was one difference between them, though, that was a point in Mirco’s favor, and we would have to wait to find out what it was. The little cliffhanger left us all curious to find out exactly what Mirco had over George Clooney, and when we went down to the crypt below the Basilica, we finally found out. The crypt, which is usually off limits to tourists, is home to a very small chapel and the burial site of the patriarchs of the Venetian church. It is also a special place where it is tradition for Venetians to get married, and ONLY Venetians can have their wedding ceremony there. So when George Clooney and his then-fiancé, Amal, came to Venice hoping to get married in the crypt’s chapel, all the money in the world (and they certainly have quite a bit of that) could not buy them the privilege to wed there. Mirco, on the other hand, was proud to tell us that as a Venetian, he and his wife were able to get married in that traditional chapel. That was the one point he had over George Clooney, and it’s a pretty good one to have if you ask me.
Mirco continued to entertain and educate us as he brought our group through every little nook and cranny of St. Mark’s Basilica. His knowledge not only of the Basilica’s history but also of the history of Venice and its importance in Italy’s overall history was truly impressive. There was not a single question that we asked that left him stumped.
This tour with Walks of Italy absolutely cured me of my church fatigue. With such a knowledgeable guide to help me understand every detail of the church’s history, architecture and décor, along with the opportunity to sit in silence in the sanctuary and just admire the grandeur of everything around me, I was able to truly appreciate St. Mark’s Basilica. None of that would have been possible during the normal visiting hours when the Basilica is filled with chatty tourists, and all you can do is quickly walk around.
I have never visited any church or other religious landmark the way I was able to visit St. Mark’s Basilica. Regular visits will all pale in comparison to this wonderful tour thanks to Mirco and Walks of Italy. If they could cure me of my church fatigue, then I would trust them with any one of the other great tours they offer throughout Italy and also in New York an Turkey with their Walks of New York and Walks of Turkey branches.
At this point I don’t know whether I should be happy or upset that the bar has been raised so much. Luckily it’ll be a while before I’m back in Europe visiting more churches because I have been truly spoiled!
Disclaimer: Walks of Italy sponsored me to participate in this tour in exchange for writing a post about my experience. The opinions expressed here, however, are all my own. Duh!