The Rialto is undoubtedly one of the most famous and historically important places in Venice, somewhere that every visitor wants to go to. Even though my feelings about it are somewhat mixed, spending a little extra time there revealed to me some initially unsuspected subtle charms.
The most obvious focal point of the area is white marble bridge of the same name, which is the oldest spanning the Grand Canal and an instantly recognisable symbol of the city. I first saw it after rounding a bend on the famous waterway whilst travelling on a Vaporetto. Viewing the robust-looking and classically styled crossing was certainly a moving experience at the time, especially as the familiarity of the sight reinforced the sense of location and excitement. Sadly, such a favourable impression did not last, because although the views from the pinnacle are quite superb, the short walk up to see them is made less than nice by the shabby souvenir shops that now occupy the distinctive terraced buildings and the crowds that invariably throng the footpaths.
Meanwhile, the alleyways that lead towards the equally popular Piazza San Marco are similarly full of both tourists and sellers of tacky goods. Such uninspired items have replaced the valuable commodities and international information that the vicinity was once famous for, which prompted Shakespeare to use the memorable line "Now, what news on the Rialto?" in The Merchant of Venice. However, one equally long serving but humbler type of trader has survived, and they continue to operate in the markets that are found on the opposite bank. Every local foodstuff imaginable can be purchased somewhere in the vibrant open-air emporium, from the renowned produce of the region to the abundant catches of Adriatic fishermen. The rich colours of the fresh fruit and vegetables, the aromas of the recently caught fish, and the banter between the vendors and their potential customers all combine to make what is perhaps the most wonderfully atmospheric Venetian setting that I have had the pleasure to encounter.
On an appealing square right in the middle of the hectic scene is the charming and venerable Byzantine-style Church of St James. It has been unsurprisingly popular with the stallholders for many centuries, and visiting is possible most mornings, which is a worthwhile thing to do because the peaceful and graceful interior is both attractive and a fine contrast to the vibrant chaos outside. Finally, whilst on the same plaza, look out for an unusual statue of a hunchback.