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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population, 21: exploring Île Saint-Honorat

(a South-of-France staycation, ii)

When the throbbing commercialism of Rue d’Antibes and the reality of competing for a spot on the beach prove tiresome, just hop on a ferry and leave the bustle of Cannes behind for some peace. Île Saint-Honorat is a storybook-lovely spot for a tranquil morning walk: or, if you’d rather, a weekend (or lifetime) of dedicated prayer. At last count, the island was home to twenty-one people: all Cistercian monks. img_3423

Île Saint-Honorat is one of four Îles de Lérins. All four islands are part of the commune of Cannes, though the smaller two, considered îlots, are uninhabited. Sainte Marguerite, the other island accessible by ferry, is about six times the size of Saint-Honorat. Inhabitants of these islands (about forty altogether) are called Lériniens. I found it charming–a name for something so specific!– but considering the history, I think they’ve earned it: monks have lived here since 410.

Today, besides running the ferries to and from the island, the monks produce red and white wine as well as Lérina: a liquor made from 44 kinds of plants macerated in alcohol. img_3224

For about 17 euros each, Erika and I bought round trip tickets on the speedy little Saint-Honorat III. We left at 9 am and enjoyed the crisp sea air and the view of Cannes from afar.

When we arrived, our few companions scurried off the boat and disappeared up some concrete stairs, moving like they had jobs to do: which was likely true. The island has a gift shop, a restaurant and snack bar, and even, it seemed to me, a small hotel or hostel.

We picked a path along the perimeter, determined to walk the whole thing, lest we miss something (no excuse for that on such a small island). The morning air was cool, the quiet broken only by birdsong and the occasional church bell. The air smelled faintly of pine. And the color! A feast of sage greens, soft browns, and shiny black olives. (So inviting, these olives, framed by dusty green leaves, and yet so bitter. Someday I’ll learn).

We came to an arch and changed direction, walking under it and towards the center of the island. A wide dirt path bisected a vineyard, and over the fences we saw pheasants: their startling blue feathers flashing in the bright sunlight.

As we approached the monastery, the scene changed from sleepy storybook forest to something distinctly tropical. The Abbayé de Lérins, framed by flowers and palmiers, looked like it belonged in Italy or Spain.img_3226

We tried to go inside, but after wrestling a lot of locked doors, we gave it up and continued to faire le tour. We found a chapel every few minutes, it seemed, in various states of restoration or decay. The oldest, I think (12th century?) was in complete ruins, nothing but a historic pile of small stones.

It was interesting to divine the island’s rich history through its architecture. In addition to chapels and statues, there’s even an ancient cannonball oven.

On the presqu’île (which translates literally to almost-island), the lonely Forteresse de l’ile Saint-Honorat seems to sit on the sea.

img_2343We gave ourselves three hours to explore, but didn’t need all the time. A picnic lunch and a book might have extended the visit. As we went to leave, it seemed the new arrivals stepping off the boat had prepared for some serious hiking: the ferry was full this time around, everyone wearing hats and light jackets, many carrying backpacks and walking sticks. I’ve noticed this about France: if you plan to exercise, you’d better dress the part. What felt like a light, refreshing walk to me saw these families of five dressed as one might be for a half-day hike straight uphill. In the desert.

 

 

bad & bougie: our ill-fated vacation turned writing retreat

According to some estimates, Menton, France experiences merely thirty-four sunless days a year.

I have been here for all of them. img_3557-1

That’s an exaggeration. I have learned, though, that even the “sunniest place in France” isn’t always the beach oasis you expect. Not in February, when I visited the first time with my mom, and not now. img_3534-1

I’m here again, this time with Mary, in our last stretch of time together in France this year. It seemed the perfect destination. Small, relaxing, and beautiful. I found an unbeatable deal on an Airbnb, and we figured we wouldn’t need to spend much money; we’d eat gelato and caprese salad and lounge on the beach all day.

But when we arrived two days ago, we saw Menton under clouds and a brisk wind. I envied passersby: cozy in thin down jackets. When we couldn’t figure out, for a frustrating thirty minutes, how to make the convertible couches turn into beds, I wondered if we had been way too optimistic. About money, about weather, about what we planned to do with a two week stretch of time not at the beach when we lacked the means to travel anywhere else, or to do much of anything besides feed ourselves modestly.  img_3553-1

I felt a little foolish and a lot disappointed. “Stop trying to make beach vacation happen,” I joked to Mary and myself, paraphrasing a quote from Mean Girls. “It’s not going to happen.”

I hadn’t even looked at weather forecasts for Menton in May, assuming that the area’s “unique micro-climate” (as quoted from approximately every tourism website) would be conducive to napping in the sand and listening to the waves.

Trying to think of ways to get the most out of our time here, I had a change of perspective. We could look at it as a creative getaway. Menton is a beautiful, sleepy little town, perfect for a lazy beach vacation or writing retreat. Voilà.

We figured out the beds (at last), slept in, woke to the first day of our “Writing Retreat in the French Riviera.” It sounds likes something the well-dressed, hat-donning British retirees around us might be doing, but our circumstances are just the slightest bit different.

My project is to catch up on this blog. Much has happened and I hope to share it articulately and with lots of pictures. It helps to be breathing fresh sea air and to know there’s no return to teaching anytime soon. In other words, I can finally relax.

A writing retreat. We will have breakfast every morning at this great boulangerie where the pains au chocolat and croissants are still bien chaud, warm from the oven. img_3543

We will visit the little covered market five minutes from our apartment and cook simple, fresh, Mediterranean and Provençal food. Yesterday we bought a basil plant, fat red tomatoes, a single melon, two banquettes of strawberries, all of it wonderfully fragrant. To finish up provisions we bought a large boule of fresh mozzarella, tagliatelle, garlic, olive oil, salt. img_3554-1

Everywhere we want to go is generally less than twenty minutes by foot. We can walk to Monaco one day if we need the exercise (only about ninety minutes).

If we need inspiration, there’s of course the crashing waves of the Mediterranean, which we can reach in less than a minute. Down the steps of our stone and brick street is a castle by the sea, refurbished by artist Jean Cocteau and now filled with his art. There are scores of gardens and grand pastel-painted hotels lining the Promenade du soleil along the sea.

We’re renting an apartment in le Vieux Menton, and thank goodness for that: we might have ended up in the harbor. img_3539

Trip planning, Mary was scrolling through the Airbnb website. “Come look at this! How cool would this be?” Pretty cool. We could sleep on a boat? Not a bad price–

And then we remembered something. Neither of us knows how to operate a boat.

The horror. I imagined that trip, paying to sleep on a boat that doesn’t leave the boardwalk. The mildew and tight shared spaces of aquatic travel, with absolutely none of the glamour.

Or the alternative, wherein we take the boat out anyway, end up lost at sea without provisions.

All that to say, I’m glad we’re here, high on the fifth floor, with a view of the Mediterranean when you stick your neck out of the side windows and look to the right. A tiny window in the tiny kitchen provides a view of the city: craggy hills and overlapping, bright, boxy buildings. The apartment is small and cozy, like a cabin or a nest, a perfect place to write. This high up, we’re surrounded by whirling pigeons and seagulls, by their spirited calls that mimic the full spectrum of human displays of mirth: from low chuckles to full-fledged maniacal laughter.

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Yesterday the high evening winds meant the beach was deserted, but in a light sweater and a rain jacket, I hardly noticed the cold. The waves rolled toward me, higher than I’ve ever seen them. I watched the sun set, pink over the water.

Despite a weather forecast of straight rain and clouds for the next ten days, the sun has made an appearance plenty of times. We’re flexible. It warms up five degrees, we run home, put on swimsuits, get down to the beach. The wind sets in, we’re back to the apartment, back up the flights of stairs, back to sweaters and chamomile tea.