The thick doors of St. Mark’s Basilica close behind us, shutting us off to the whir and clamor of the throngs of people in Venice and we step into the entryway of the historical and iconic St. Mark’s. Located in Piazzo San Marco and connected to the Doge’s Palace, in the most recognizable city in the world (according to moi), tonight our visit to Venice’s St. Mark’s is blessedly quiet. Being one of the most popular things to do in Venice, the tourists which flock to this well-known attraction by the thousands during the day, are not standing here with us tonight. In fact, it is only a handful of us in this building, which dates back to the 800s. I’m really not one for visiting churches, but this opportunity is different; this is a Walks of Italy guided tour with an art historian through this massive, guide-book-recommended must in Venice … at night.
Our tour begins outside, where we look at the exterior of St. Mark’s and learn about the church’s origins which date back to the 9th century and the kidnapping of Mark the Evangelist’s relics from Egypt. Standing outside, we take in the early history of this Italo-Byzantine building and then a custodian comes to the massive door, a key ring with what seems to be hundreds of ancient keys dangling from his hand.
Our guide, Susan, whose background is art history, ushers us in to the main lobby of Venice’s famous cathedral. Stepping in the main entrance, that familiar smell of old church encircles us. It’s that mix of moldy earth and books mixing together. I can feel the damp, cool air envelop me, thanks to the recent downpour which rendered the square empty. We step around ropes, which by day serve as crowd control to the thousands who make their way here, moving slowly over an uneven floor (thanks to Venetian flooding which happens in the winter when the lagoon gets too big for its britches and spills over).
There is a thwack and then, slowly, the lights flicker on, warming up until the entire space becomes illuminated.
With our heads tilted up, our group marvels at the intricate and glittering art, and learn about this church and the many domes covered in mosaics which span centuries. The early evening light shoots through thousand-year-old windows, dancing off the gold in the entryway and illuminating even more of the beauty tucked inside and likely missed among the throngs of tourists during the day.
Walks of Italy limits the amount of people to 12 on this tour, so it really feels like an exclusive experience … not a tour group being hustled from one place to the next with minimal time to soak things up or ask questions.
In fact, Susan encourages questions. But, she is so thorough and interesting, often times our group is left mouths agape, necks craned upwards, listening to her as she weaves stories of religion with art — something I normally have no interest in, but tonight I am thoroughly captivated — and slowly move from point to point in the great building. I’m pretty sure if I had history lessons like the compelling ones she is sharing, I would have taken more of an interest in checking out places like this in my travels.
We learn about the opulent past of the church and it being the place of worship for the Venetian’s wealthiest as we take slow and quiet steps on the marble floor, making our way through this religious masterpiece. Chairs line up in rows in its main area and for a moment, I contemplate attending a service just for the sheer fact that I want to stare longer at the ceiling and the stories being told in every cobwebbed corner.
But, really, it is the mosaics which steal the show.
Set off by dramatic lighting, these stories sparkle in the domes above our heads as Susan weaves biblical tales.
Because of destruction and time, the depictions change in style over the domes, but one thing does not change: the beauty of it being lit up and on display for us … and only us.
After viewing the treasury, we head down to the crypt, a place off-limits to the day crowds but accessible on this special tour. We venture into the underbelly of the church and contemplate the idea that perhaps St. Marks’ bones are actually here, in the same room as us.
And then, we are back in the lobby. Back at the door. Then, back outside in the Venetian evening. The puddles drying along the Piazzo and our little group dispersing back into the tiny cobbled streets of the city.
The bottom line
For €79, this tour is a bit pricey for 90 minutes, but being treated to St. Mark’s after-hours is truly one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Skipping the shoulder-to-shoulder daytime crowds and really learning about the remarkable history of the church from an extremely knowledgeable tour guide is worth the price tag. Plus, the opportunity gives participants to chance of being nearly alone in one of the most visited places on earth. This is, by far, one of the best tours I have ever taken, and one worth the price tag. Personally, I think it is one of the best things to do in Venice.
This post is part of the D Travels Europe (and Israel) series. Stay up-to-date on all of my adventures by following along on Twitter (#dtravelseurope), Instagram,Trover, G+ and Facebook. And, for a look at the health and wellness side of European travel, be sure to follow along at The Comfort Zone Project and on TCZP’s Facebook.
Editor’s Note: I was a guest of Walks of Italy, however all opinions are my own. If you have questions about this, please read my disclosure policy.