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.

no shoes no service: alone in italia, day six

Monterosso al Mare. I am ready for my second try of the hike between three villages of le Cinque Terre. It’s a fine day for a hike, not too hot, and we’re getting an early start. We will stop in Vernazza for some pizza and then finish in Corniglia, where the basil gelato is once again calling my name.

I hand the man at the trailhead a ten-euro note and he looks past the money to my feet, which are outfitted in my black Birkenstock slides.

“Oh no, signora. This is not recommended. This is very dangerous.”

I smile, sheepish. “Thank you, I understand. I’ve already done the hike; I understand the risk… I think I would like to try anyway.”

The man narrows his eyes, and for a second I think he’s actually going to make me turn back.

Trying for respectful, yet determined, I offer my best charming smile. There is a silence.

The man waves his hands at my foolishness. “I understand this for you, you are young, no problem,” he shakes his head. “But I tell you this: very dangerous. Not recommended!” He hands me my ticket.

With this “beware the Ides of March” word of encouragement, I start hiking.

In all fairness, I did not expect to be hiking today. In the latest incarnation of my usual plan not to plan, I am in the shuttle down to Riomaggiore with a vague vision of cannoli dancing in my head, when I find a group of guys to go hiking with.

I had met Martin the night before while I was camped out in my office for the week (the computer near the front doors of the hostel), working on a blog post. He sat down beside me: “Hi, what are you doing?”

The first thing I notice is his impressive beard and an accent I’m not sure about. He’s Austrian. Later, he pops back around with a handful of peanuts for me. “Brain food.”

He tells me about his plan to go hiking the next morning with a group of Welsh guys. “Oh cool, hope it’s nice weather,” I say, or something like it, having no clue I will be making the trek with them.

The next morning, we all happen to be taking the same shuttle. “Will you be hiking with us, then?” One of them asks me. I say no, automatically. “I’m not really dressed for it, anyway.” But as we get to talking, I find I do want to go. The sky is so gray and I have nothing better to do. Sandals be damned, I’m doing it.

We get coffee and cornetti al cioccalato before taking the train from Riomaggiore all the way down to the last village, Monterosso, where we’ll start our hike. On the train platform, the conversation turns to food.

“I love a great stack of American pancakes,” says Jimmy. “Smothered in maple syrup. Absolutely de-” I think he’s going to say delicious, but debaucherous is the word he chooses to describe his favorite breakfast.

“Absolutely debaucherous.”

That is when I know for certain this is going to be a fun day. If I survive it.

Thirty seconds into the morning’s activity, I think that my red-painted toenails look absolutely frivolous, and I have a vision of falling to my death, or even just spraining my ankle, while French and Italian families look on, shaking their heads and thinking, she had that coming.

And I do. Hiking in Cinque Terre isn’t complicated; there are just a few rules:

Drink water.

Don’t wear sandals. 

I feel a sudden kinship with the Chinese grandma who is making the hike in dainty ballet flats and a sun hat. The man at the trailhead warned her as well, and she just grinned at him, uncomprehending. It is her and I against the world, respectfully disregarding the naysayers. An Iggy Azalea song flashes through my head: I just can’t worry ’bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind…

Unfortunately, my ally gives up the grind fifteen minutes into it, turning back with her daughter holding her arm.

I forge on ahead.

I don’t like the looks of the heavy clouds, which start spitting rain at us and make the trail woefully slippery. I also don’t like the way these sandals threaten to slip off my feet at any moment.

I admit it. I was wrong. And my punishment is having someone scold me every ten minutes for my impractical choice. The fun part: I hear disapproving and incredulous muttering in at least four languages.

travel notebook: (not so) alone in italia, day three

I’d rather not think about how little sleep I’ve gotten in the last few days. But as my lids lower–once again–of their own volition, it’s getting hard to ignore.

I’ve been turning in at a decent hour, but like a little girl stuck in the cheerful purgatory of the night before Christmas, I’ve been finding it extremely hard to get to sleep.

That’s why I’m just a little behind on these trip notes.

Monday was magical.

Great splashes of color. Turquoise waves crashing against cliffs. Sprightly flowers in unlikely places. Saltwater smell. Heady jasmine. Church bells.

More of the same, in other words. Not that I’ve gotten used to it. Au contraire.

Yesterday I was again bombarded by beauty.

It was a day of seaside cocktails, ambitious hikes, new freckles, and megawatt American smiles–spent among charming company.

But back to the beginning: a morning started the right way, with bread and butter and €1,20 cappuccino at the hostel.

At Ostello Tramonti, I’ve got a room with a view and a feeling they’ll have to drag me outta here. I read in the garden for awhile as I waited for Victor to arrive. Just back from a business trip, he made the four-hour drive at 7am on Monday to profite from the last two days of this long holiday weekend.

We met in France and both live close enough to the Italian border that an extended date in Cinque Terre was possible on a whim.

I was pretty excited about that (exhibit 1 in evidence for not being able to sleep).

Victor picked me up around 11 and we drove to Manarola, one of the closer villages. I had my eye on a stunning spot for lunch, but it was crazy busy, so we walked around and took some pictures amidst the scads of people doing the same. (Funny how this is so annoying until you’re the one doing it. Oops). img_4919-1

We then took the train to Monterosso al Mare, the furthest village out and the only one I didn’t get to on Sunday. Monterosso was unique in that in featured great swaths of sandy beach: by far the best swimming spot I’ve seen here.

After pasta and aperol spritzes with a view, I changed out of my dress and sandals and into a more practical walking outfit. Our objective for the day, in addition to eat a lot of pizza, was to make the fairly challenging hike from Monterosso to Vernazza to Corniglia.

Along the way, I spotted two of my roommates from Tramonti. It was refreshing to see familiar faces amidst the stampede of strangers. The world felt really small for a minute.

The hike was just as sweaty as I figured, and just as rewarding as I’d hoped. We had just what we needed according to a sign I saw: water, good shoes, spirit of adventure, compliance.

We crossed hillsides with tiny vineyards, scrambled up stone steps and down muddy bridges, scratched our hands on cacti, and craned our necks for views of the next village to come. In Vernazza, we made up lost calories with a great slice of pesto pizza.

In Corniglia, we stopped for some of Rick Steves’ favorite gelato. Though he may be too tragically acquainted with khaki shorts, I must admit: the man’s got taste. The local basil gelato flavor was dream-about-it good.

It was getting late by then so we battled the bafflingly unorganized train station for a ticket back to Manarola. I still haven’t seen a train here that’s been less than 7 minutes late and crammed stomach-to-backpack with tourists. Ours was half an hour late just to inch a few hundred meters down the rails. Unfortunately, we were at one of the stretches of trails closed for maintenance.

Happily for my mental wellbeing, having someone next to me with whom to exchange eye rolls on the train platform made all the difference.

Back in the car, we saw the sunset on the road. We changed and had dinner in La Spezia.

I yearned to bottle this sunshine, these colors, this rosy happiness.

I have realized it’s hard to write about happiness without bowing to cliches and hyperbole. Since I do my best to battle idealism, sometimes I just avoid the subject of happiness altogether.

“The perfect day”

But what if it really was? I do think we get a few of those every once and awhile. Days we remove the glasses and the world is still tinted rose.

(More pictures to come at a time when I don’t have to hold up my eyelids with clothespins)

A presto, ciao.

travel notebook: alone in italia, day two

Cinque Terre teems with tourists.

Scattered about the rocks like camera-happy penguins, people are:

sinking into squats for the photo angle

showing their ‘best side’

crunching on fried things served in cones

dripping gelato (and offering bites to their dogs)

brandishing walking sticks like weapons, the hallmark of the serious hiker

carrying hot cardboard boxes of pizza down to the sea I can’t help but fantasize about these same streets: cleared of about three-fourths of the people. But I’m finding the Cinque Terre villages so lovely to look at and stroll through, I hardly mind. It was a long, sunny day and I am the best kind of tired. My morning started with a view of another nearby village, La Spezia, from my hostel window. The hostel is cheery and pleasant, a refurbished elementary school painted bright yellow. There is an Italian restaurant and a light-filled common room, where you can have coffee at wooden tables with a view of the village church. There are bookshelves filled with battered Hemingway and Salinger and foot-high vintage tomato cans.

I am sharing a four-bed female dorm room. In the morning, it was just me and Lauren, a Londoner who is currently living in Bologna and teaching English.

Greeting people as I go to brush my teeth, it strikes me how funny hostels are: sleepaway summer camp for adults. Something you sign yourself up for. You’re not forced to attend any activities or participate in cringe-inducing ‘team-building’ games. The friendships are all on you. There’s something so charming and old-fashioned about all this sharing, about the choice to live again out of lockers and bunk beds.

Lauren and I take the hostel shuttle together to the first of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre. Riomaggiore. We walk around a bit and then take the train. Typically you could start hiking from here, but landslides and falling rock have made that impossible at the moment. It’s only 9:30 and I am surprised to see that the regional train is crammed. Like nothing I’ve ever seen in France.

Lauren and I part ways for the day and I walk around Manarola, the next village down the coast. The air is woozy with jasmine from the bushes that dot the cliffs. It’s sweet and delicious, a natural eau de parfum.

I find a few picnic tables tucked under a bamboo roof. What a place to write. I am glad I gave myself so much time here (five nights is the plan). I can afford to sit down and write whenever the mood strikes.

It’s a different mentality from most of what I see. It’s approaching 11 and tourists spill onto Manarola’s tiny streets, rushing from the train, snapping selfies as they go. People are almost aggressive in their pursuit of fun: seeing it all, making the most of it.

Below me, a good ten feet down the cliffside, there is a small bar overlooking the bay. Some women sit, smoke, and slice through crates of lemons, limes, and blood oranges. A lazy hour passes and I hop on another train, jumping down the coast to Corniglia. Corniglia offers dizzying views of the sea and a scoop of my new favorite gelato flavor: ricotta, chocolate chip, and pistachio. So basically a creamy cold cannoli.

From Corniglia, finally the trails are safe to start hiking. I buy a 7 euro trail pass and set off for Vernazza.

The hike is rigorous, and filled with Germans and Swedes wearing sun hats and armed with walking sticks. There is sun and much sweat and soon, a view of the village we’ve just left behind.

People are peeling off their clothes in the heat. (This tends not to be the practical Germans and Swedes, but the young Americans and Italians of all ages). There is a way, I learn, to shrug out of your sweater and tie the arms in a bow around your back, forming a nifty tube-top. A few older women, sun-brown, skip the modesty and hike in bubblegum-pink bras. In this instance, I keep my shirt on.

Vernazza is a shock of noise and clatter. Its one main street is absolutely drowning in tourists. I hear the buzz of voices while I’m still high up on the trail. Here it is again, that aggressive enjoyment. Families on towels dot every available square of ‘beach’ next to the port, which is already covered with boats. Instead of sand, it looks to me like mud. But fun will be had, regardless. Vernazza is making me anxious, so I take the train back to Riomaggiore. This way, I’ll be ready when the shuttle comes. I still have four hours until then (I reserved for 8 pm), but I am wilting under the sun.

In Riomaggiore, I linger over cannoli and coffee. I walk around the port, dodge seagulls, and talk to an Italian guy standing on a high rock. You’re not thinking about jumping, are you? I ask, sure I’m joking. He answers like it’s nothing, plunging thirty? fifty? feet down into the blue.

I meet up with Lauren again and we eat cones of calamari, inciting bird envy.

More nauseating curves and then it’s back to the hostel. I run outside to see La Spezia before it gets dark.

The only “person” I cross directly is a disgruntled black bulldog that sticks its head between the bars of a fence and snorts at me.

Otherwise, as I walk I can see into living rooms, into lives, into what looks like a stone wine cave, several well-fed Italians pouring wine and listening to music.

Back at the Ostello, I meet our new roommates: Heidi from Australia and Élodie from France. It turns out we’re all here for the same, cheerful reason: we all just wanted to see what this place looks like.

Buona serata !

low-key glamour: monaco in an afternoon

Monaco is home of the eponymous Grand Prix, the belle-époque Monte Carlo casino, scores of luxury yachts, and–let’s not forget– actual royalty.

Despite the evident glamour, I’ve always found a visit to the second-smallest country in the world surprisingly low-key.

It’s the natural beauty that catches my eye: the hardy Mediterranean flowers and cacti clinging to cliffs, the clouds that drift across the mountains, the views that leave you hard-pressed to identify where the sea ends and the sky begins. The setting lends a wild charm to the rows of shining white yachts and the clusters of buildings.

In case you were wondering, Monaco feels just like France. Though Monégasque is a recognized language, spoken by some residents and appearing on the occasional street sign, Monaco doesn’t give the casual visitor the same jolt of newness as when crossing the border from Menton to Ventimiglia, Italy.

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There’s not a ton to do here, so don’t come expecting art museums or a wealth of hip cafés. Rather, be prepared to walk, as Monaco is best explored on foot. In my opinion, Monaco offers one of the most beautiful walks on the French Riviera, and one of the best places to watch the sun set. You don’t even have to plan ahead or bring a backpack–just maybe don’t wear heels. (To capitalize on the country’s glitzy image, visitors often dress up in their trendiest outfits to take pictures with the view from Monaco-Ville, the old section of town that sits on a rocky cliff jutting into the sea. A great photo op, but what you don’t see is the way they have to sidestep down the steep hill in stilettos).

If you come by train, upon exciting the station you’ll soon find yourself across the street from the bay. To fuel your walk, I’d recommend a scoop of gelato from La Gelateria (conveniently located, as fate would have it, right next to the train station). From there you can cross the bay and begin the steep, winding ascent to Monaco-Ville.

At the top, you’ll have a nice view of the city. (Monaco, the city, and Monaco, the country are geographically the same).

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On the other side you’ll see the Palais Princier, the official residence of the prince of Monaco since 1297, and once home to Grace Kelly.

The palace is delicate from the outside, a subtle white or buttercup yellow color depending on the light. Upon seeing it for the first time, my friend remarked that it looked like a paper cut-out. I knew exactly what she meant, and envisioned some Mediterranean mountain giant snipping merrily away with a pair of scissors.

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The old part of town is very small, with just a few restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, most of them are tourist traps, selling piles of refrigerator magnets and average sandwiches. The buildings, though, are lovely. It feels more apt, almost, to describe them in terms of flavor instead of color, as they bring to my mind shades of saltwater taffy. melon, strawberry, orange creamsicle

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Continue through the old town to the Musée Océanographique. If you have time, the aquarium is worth a visit. I’ve been there twice and was fully enthralled both times. It’s easy to spend a good two hours staring at tiny seahorses.

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acs_0390 acs_0403 If you want to stay outside, continue on through the botanical garden along the edge of the promontory. Exiting the garden, you’ll have a view of the port. This is my favorite view in Monaco. acs_0395acs_0398acs_0393acs_0404 acs_0396  As night falls, head back to the palace to see the lights click on, turning the building a whimsical pink.

acs_0401acs_0416acs_0400  End your night on the right note with a glass of wine somewhere. And don’t miss your train!


For more on Monaco (aquarium, casino): Mediterranean Magic, a Walk around Monaco