We accidentally discovered the best way to experience Saint Mark's in Venice without the crowds and pretty much the way its builders meant for the basilica to be experienced. We always tour the Byzantine masterpiece when we visit Venice, but we had never seen it like we did three years ago. Carnival ended with the masquerades and bar hopping of Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). The crowded streets emptied by Wednesday morning and a sense of order and tranquility took over.
We saw a notice about a special Ash Wednesday Mass to be given at 6:45 in the evening and we decided to attend. There were no tickets necessary and by arriving at the church at 6 p.m., we were able to get seats right in the center. The ceremony that followed was straight from the Middle Ages. The Bishop of Venice, known as the Patriarch, led a procession of about a dozen clergy members. Incense was burned in gigantic ancient burners and the pungent scents filled the basilica. Candles that were at least 2 feet high added to the Medieval feeling of the Mass as did the beautiful singing.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the experience was being able to really see the golden ceiling of mosaics for the first time. When you visit Saint Mark's as a tourist, you are whisked quickly along the darkened interior and can't really appreciate the awe inspiring beauty of the dazzling gold.
We were even able to admire the Madonna Nicopeia, a Byzantine icon brought to the church from Constantinople in 1204. Usually crowds surround the painting.
It is clear that if you go slightly off the beaten path, your experience will be more rewarding.