Travel in Time Along the Routes Taken by Marco Polo from Italy to Asia
Today we can follow Marco Polo’s itinerary, a fascinating theme that is geographically relevant in the global positioning of Asia today. We hope his tale inspires you to set out on some of your own adventures to the places Marco Polo visited, and especially to keep a record of your trip.
Marco Polo was a 13th-century Venetian merchant and explorer who traveled during with his father and uncle from Venice to China, where he remained for many years at the court of the Mongol Empire. Polo’s account of his journey and the wonders of the East, the product of a collaboration with writer Rustichello of Pisa, was an immediate success throughout Europe, earning Polo widespread fame for centuries despite certain doubts about the legitimacy of some of his tales. Nevertheless, the information Polo provided inspired other adventurers a century later, in particular Christopher Columbus, to set out on voyages of discovery and exploration in pursuit of the legendary riches of the lands of Asia recounted by Marco Polo.
First Stop: Venice We suggest a stay at the Palazzetto Pisani, a historical palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal still owned by the Pisani, a powerful patrician family in Venice during Marco Polo’s time, or the Hotel Malibran, in Canarreggio, attached to the Teatro Malibran, the building that once housed the Polo family in the 14th century.
Polo was born ca. 1254 in Venice while his merchant father, Niccolò, was in the Middle East with his brother Maffeo on a trading expedition. During their journey, as they traveled east from their base in Constantinople they encountered an imperial envoy of the Mongolian court and traveled to meet the emperor Kublai Khan himself, who received Niccolò and Maffeo warmly and expressed a great curiosity about the customs of the Christian West. The great khan entrusted the merchant brothers with letters addressed to the pope and a request that they return with one hundred Christian men to instruct him in the ways of the West. Upon reaching Acre in 1269, they learned from the papal legate that Pope Clement IV had died. They thus continued on to Venice, where they would remain in anticipation of news of the newly elected pope.
Travel as Marco Polo did from Venice to the crusader town of Acre (Akko, Israel), and stay in a boutique hotel built within the actual ancient fortifications of the old city walls from the period at the Akkotel.
Impatient after two years of a stalemate over the papal election, Niccolò and Maffeo departed once again for Acre in 1271, bringing along the 17-year-old Marco. In Acre, they requested letters of reply for the great khan from the papal legate Teobaldo of Piacenza and departed once again for the Mongol empire. Yet shortly after their departure, Teobaldo himself was elected as Pope Gregory X, so they returned to Acre to obtain an official papal reply to Kublai Khan as well as two Dominican monks to accompany them to the Mongol court. After a treacherous overland journey of two years, passing from Turkey through the lands of Persia and then through Central Asia along the Silk Road, during which the monks returned home out of fear, the Polos reached the court of Kublai Khan in China near present-day Beijing in 1275. They would remain as guests and foreign emissaries of the great khan for 24 years, during which they traveled throughout the empire freely, entrusted with a gold engraved medallion that served as a form of “passport” signifying they were to be given safe passage with the emperor’s blessing throughout Mongol territory.
Have a cosmopolitan stay in Istanbul to get a sense of the medieval Ottoman capital of Constantinople staying at the historic House Hotel Galatasaray. Or experience this route in reverse on Intrepid Travel’s 96-day overland Beijing to Istanbul tour.
As guests of the emperor, the Polos conducted lucrative trade and traveled widely throughout Asia. Marco Polo also claims to have served as a type of foreign official in the province of Yangzhou, although scholars question this claim and the translation of the term “official” in this context. There is evidence, however, that Kublai Khan did engage a variety of foreign officials to assist him with establishing the Mongol administration of the conquered Chinese territories, and embraced a cosmopolitan environment at the imperial court.
Visit the ancient imperial gardens of Beihai Park, in Beijing, where you will find the White Dagoba, built on the original site of the Palace in the Moon, where the Kublai Khan first received Marco Polo.
In 1292, the Polos received the emperor’s permission to return to Venice. For their voyage home, they were entrusted with accompanying a Mongol princess to Persia, where she was to be wed to a prince, with a fleet of 14 ships traveling throughout Southeast Asia and along the western coast of India, reaching the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Once they delivered the princess at the end of their extremely treacherous journey, during which a majority of the sailors perished and the Polos lost a significant portion of the wealth they had acquired during their stay in the Mongol Empire, they crossed overland to Trebizond, on the Black Sea, and then by ship to Venice, where they arrived in 1295 to the utter disbelief and amazement of their Venetian friends and family who had long since assumed they were dead.
Stay in northeastern Turkey on the Black Sea in Trebizond (Trabzon) at the Zorlu Grand Hotel and visit local Ottoman archaeological sites from the era of the Silk Road frequented by the Venetian and Genoese merchants who passed through this significant port during Marco Polo’s era.
One year after his return to Venice, Marco Polo was taken prisoner by the Genoese while commanding a Venetian galley during a naval battle in the war between Venice and Genoa. While imprisoned, Polo met the writer Rustichello of Pisa, to whom he recounted the tales of his travels throughout the East during a year of imprisonment. Written in the vernacular Franco-Italian and published under a variety of titles, including Il Milione, A Description of the World, and, most commonly, The Travels of Marco Polo, met with instant popularity throughout Europe. By the early 14th century, the manuscript had been translated into a variety of European languages. Upon his return to Venice, Polo soon married Donata Badoer, daughter of a wealthy merchant, with whom he had three daughters. He went on to develop his family’s trading business into an increasingly lucrative enterprise. During his own lifetime, Polo faced doubts and criticism about the truths of his claims about his voyage. Asked to recant his stories and acknowledge the tale as fiction upon his deathbed, Polo instead is claimed to have answered that in fact he had only told of half of what he truly had seen. He died on 8 January 1324 in Venice, where he was buried in the church of San Lorenzo.
Stay in Genoa at the historic Locanda di Palazzo Cicola and explore the port city’s rich maritime history. This is a great stop for families who may want to explore sites related to Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, tying in tales of Ottoman pirates!
The Travels of Marco Polo proved to be of widespread historical significance in large part due to the book’s elaborate descriptions of the wealth of gold in the East. Among the many wonders described by Polo, detailed descriptions of the availability of gold dust and ore in the geographic terrain and the many sumptuous golden textiles, treasures, adornments, and architectural features in a vast region abound in the book. Of his travels from Persia through Central Asia to Cathay, Polo describes cities with towers of gold, rivers, lakes, and mountains containing “vast quantities of gold”, abundant textile production of luxurious cloth of gold, cultures where men adorned themselves with teeth cast in pure gold, and an imperial court adorned with so much gold and silver that “none without seeing it could possibly believe it.”
In accounts of his stay in the Mongol Empire, Marco Polo provides insights about the khan’s use of the wealth of gold politically and in connection to a form of paper currency, and tells second-hand of the legends of the gold to be found in Cipangu, or Japan, where he reports there are palaces covered in two-inches-thick layers of gold and a widespread abundance of gold. Of his sea voyage home through Southeast Asia and the archipelagos of the Indian Ocean, Polo observes that gold is to be found “in almost incredible quantities.”
These tales of wealth in gold and the geographic position of the capital cities of the East relative to Europe inspired advances in cartography over the course of the next century and fueled the interests of navigators and explorers in the possibility of a shorter, safer ocean passage to Asia. Perhaps most notoriously, Christopher Columbus carried an annotated copy of The Travels of Marco Polo with him on his watershed voyage in search of the riches of the Indies. Columbus’ manuscript is conserved today at the Bibliotheca Colombina in Seville, where you can see his notes scribbled in the margins.
Author Shannon Kenny is CEO of Via Papera and Founding Partner of the boutique travel concierge, Elaia Travel, where she assists client with off-the-beaten itinerary requests. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Italiakids.com, an online guide to Family Travel and Lifestyle in Italy. Adapted from Gold: A Cultural Encyclopedia, by Shannon Kenny.