the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

first impressions of an upside-down forest: venice by vaporetto

Venice: the setting of sights that will haunt my daydreams for a long time.

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Not the city that never sleeps (it does), maybe it’s the city that’s never still. Built on the water, Venice sloshes, splashes, seems to breathe. Venice is sinking. Venice has always been improbable.

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The city was built by driving wooden piles, millions of them, deep down into the lagoon. It would be a moat of a city, safe from attackers. On top came a brick and stone base, the setting for the brilliant palaces and wide piazzas of the future. Entombed in mud from 1500 AD, the wood was safe from the deteriorating effects of oxygen and is solid still. This gives rise to the first fairy-tale metaphor: Venice is an upside-down forest.

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On the bottoms of buildings today there is a white crust of salt, souvenir of acqua alta, high water, reminder of the ever-present threat of flooding and the likelihood that Venice will one day be swallowed by the Adriatic Sea.

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When flooding arrives, certainly a matter of when, raised boards are laid down along walkways. Residents don rubber boots. Shopkeepers scramble to move items from low shelves.

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In Venice you must work with the water (and isn’t that always how it goes? Water, at once so innocent and furious. Can’t do without it if we wanted to; hard to change its mind). The casual visitor takes a vaporetto, or water bus, to navigate the Grand Canal. Attendants work quickly, throwing heavy ropes into thick knots on the dock. Attenzione ! Attenzione ! 

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Like a bus or metro, this is a purposeful ride, a no-nonsense means of transport, but I’d like to stay on this boat all day. Everywhere I look is something unusual, impossible, unlikely.

There are two carved hands rising out of the canal. Giant, elegant, they reach for a nearby building. They birth thoughts about what might be lurking under the teal water.

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Small boats dodge each other to make the morning deliveries. One is packed full with potted white lilies. Another holds orange soda and bottled water. In another–perhaps destined for a market somewhere–delicate green herbs.

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I glimpse a rose garden overlooking the water, walls of crumbling brick, just space enough for the two wrought iron chairs filled by two friends having breakfast.

There is a couple, elegantly dressed, stepping gingerly from their hotel directly into a boat. He extends his hand, she brushes off her pantsuit, they are off somewhere.

There is the sudden spectacle–could this ever be prosaic?–of an isolated church rising from the lagoon, its own island.

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