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.

in pisa: the quirk no one could correct ((not so) alone in italia, day four)

“Pisa is shit.”

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This is how the Italian at the hostel’s front desk responds when I tell him where I went yesterday.

I blink. “Oh. Um, why?”

He tells me it’s a nothing city. Nothing to do; a village on the map because of a big tower, not worth going out of your way.

I appreciate the honesty of Damiano’s opinion. Stuffy hotel concierge he is not. And I can see what he means. Pisa is quite small, lost somewhere after miles and miles of highway. It’s not a place to build your trip around, but a worthy stop on the way somewhere else.

And I wouldn’t call it shit.

Yesterday featured gray, gloomy skies. I left the hostel and met Victor in the car. We had no plan.

J’ai une chose à te proposer, he said.

“I have something to propose to you.” (French syntax thrills me still).

“Would you like to go see the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” He had the route marked on Maps. “It could be originale. We’re actually really close.”

Delighted, of course I said pourquoi pas. Our proximity to Pisa was not something I had considered. The location, within Italy, of the city that houses the “world’s most famous tower” (their distinction), had never crossed my mind, truth be told. It could have been on the other side of the country for all I knew.

But here we were, just an hour and a half away.

After a lot of highway, we park in Pisa and immediately buy an umbrella from a guy hawking them in the lot. I’m already shivering, dressed for Cinque Terre sun. My dress, so nice for the beach, now looks like optimism or stubborn ignorance. Vabbè.

The streets remind me of streets in Florence, all mustard yellows, dark greens and browns, rows of windows with neat shutters. I wonder if these colors are a regional thing, or just an Italian thing. I haven’t seen enough Italy yet to know.

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We walk down a long shopping street to the river, crossing occasional proud churches, looming reminders of the past. My favorite is a paradox of lacy white marble.

We find a quirky gift shop–salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Vespas–and Victor buys me a mug with a Pisa tower as the handle. I can’t remember the last time I got a souvenir so unabashedly obvious, so I HEART NEW YORK. This mug is anything but demure. Its unjaded tourism appeals to me.

img_5146 We eat at a place named for Danté, outside near a heat lamp. We have Campari spritzes (way too bitter for this American), Tuscan cheese and jam on a bed of super-peppery arugula, and finally, pizzas that we can barely finish.

Then (it feels late but isn’t, so gray) we hunt down the tower. It hides pretty well for such a big structure. You can’t see it from everywhere in town, as we had lazily imagined.

Around a corner, there’s a peek. Then there it is, the tall clumsy structure that put Pisa on the map.

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Speckled with cold rain, we take absolutely no time to learn about the history or climb the steps to the top in the bitter wind.

“Wow, it’s pretty,” and “it really does lean” are some of my scintillating observations.

Not every trip has to be educational.

Victor and I amuse ourselves by watching hordes of people trying to ‘hold up the tower’ in what is now perhaps the most unoriginal travel photo op in the world.

Not everyone is a natural. An American woman sighs and snaps, “Jim! Move to the left! No!”

Finally he gets it right, arms craned towards the sky, squinting from the effort. “Oooh,” the woman crows. “That’s good.”

I snicker, but then Victor makes me recreate this photo. It’s as lame as I expected, my hands far from “touching” the tower.

“Well,” Victor says. “It looks like it’s falling and you’re ready to catch it.”

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acs_0760-1At home, I learn that the word “Pisa” comes from the Greek for “marshy land.” 12th-century architects apparently disregarded the area’s mushy subsoil while constructing this tall, heavy belltower meant to crown the “Field of Miracles,” where the city would display the treasures freshly stolen from Sicily.

In a case of pride before folly, one side of the tower began to sink during construction of the second story. It was too late to go back, so the builders continued with some trepidation. Despite efforts to correct the problem, the tower kept its stubborn lean, and baffled builders halted work for close to a century.

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I learn too that Mussolini hated Pisa’s leaning tower, considering it, in no uncertain terms, a disgrace and an embarrassment to Italy’s reputation. His plan to fix the tower backfired, as the grout and mortar introduced to straighten out the lean only caused the structure to sink more heavily into the ground–its awkward angle even more pronounced.

Learning this makes me appreciate the structure even more. Already I admired its stacks of columns, graceful and impractical as a wedding cake. Now there’s an emotional appeal. Sweet little underdog with a quirk no one could correct. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


Source: Walks of Italy

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 !

the tourists, i

I wondered if people would look at anything.

So I took Nothing, its inverse, and I put it high on a pedestal.

I made half-hearted signs, no photos, please, and I waited. And they came, hordes: wandering, stuffed, eager to gobble more– not beauty, but what then?

They pointed cameras at Nothing, and snapped snapped snapped.

They threw peace signs and held ice cream cones and aimed cell phones at their faces, with Nothing lit up behind them.

They gazed at these pictures, admiring their faces: stoic or charming or coy. They saved pictures of Nothing, for they had seen Nothing, they had captured Nothing, and they walked away, shuffling sandals on pavement, forgetting and satisfied. img_2886

Note: seeing as how I am living in a high-profile, heavily-touristed area for the first time in my life, I figured it might be interesting to approach tourists with a writer’s eye. There is certainly no shortage of people to watch. Fueled by Lonely Planet’s doubt of Cannes’ ability to retain a soul amidst its “celebrity playground” status, I wonder if writing consistently on this topic will lead me to any new insights. The goal is to produce 10-15 pieces on the subject.

shoebox in paris

Thoreau said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  

It’s a fair sentiment, though with my budget, I’m more likely to be crowded on a pumpkin.

Using AirBnb, the glorious startup that connects travelers with private homeowners in the perfect meeting of supply and demand, I’ve had the comfort of a cozy, well-priced place to sleep in Strasbourg, Lyon, and the Riviera.

I’ve also found a few pumpkins: simple, private, and deathly uncomfortable.

The most memorable is a studio apartment in Paris.

“Apartment” is generous, “broom closet” somewhere closer to the truth. I think the ad, actually, described the place as A Shoebox in Paris. I respect “Olivier” for the honesty. While poetic, he did not use “shoebox” as a charming diminutive, but as a realistic description of the room’s actual dimensions.

The room was the size of a spacious American bathroom.

But it was Christmastime, and the idea of it all was irresistible. Despite arriving via a seven hour OUI bus from Strasbourg, it felt impossibly glamorous to be spending the week in the City of Lights. Given my history of misadventures, I should have known better, but once again I was starry-eyed. I pictured museums with no lines (and I’d get in free with my carte d’éducation). I dreamt of flawless French classics: buttery steak and perfect crème brûlée. There would be a light snowfall around the Eiffel Tower. 

It was so close: the perfect winter vacation, great escape from Montluçon. But first we had to lug our bags up six flights of stairs.

The task accomplished, the first problem we encountered was where to put our two suitcases. To give an idea of the available space, the bed was such that, should you share it, one person was effectively sleeping in the “kitchen” (a hot plate, a sink), while the other lucky traveler had an excellent view of the bathroom, sleeping nearly inside it as they were.

You had to step on the bed (and over a sleeping roommate), to access the bathroom, actually, which “closed” via a sad little accordion door and which contained a crusty bar of soap and an emphatic note in a rough English translation explaining how exactly to flush the cantankerous toilet.

There was one spot of glamour in the room, a small coffee table that accumulated over the course of our trip articles that advertised an entirely different sort of vacation, the kind that doesn’t involve freezing showers, the kind that might allow a bath towel in place of a washcloth.

The table held bright new novels from the Shakespeare & Co English bookstore, a bottle of pale pink Chanel Mademoiselle, and the creamy pastel boxes and bags from our visits to Ladurée for macarons that, temporarily, made me feel like a queen at Versailles instead of a mouse in a shoebox.

This wobbly balance between glamour and grunge became a theme for the week (and truly, for my whole life in France).

Christmas Eve, we wandered around looking for that perfect little brasserie. An hour and a walk through Montmartre and Pigalle later, we admitted defeat and had Christmas Eve dinner in a Chinese traiteur. We sat in our skirts and tights and heels and ate egg rolls and orange chicken, eight euros a person. The restaurant was empty, save for the family that owned it: the little girl playing by herself, the father watching a ninja movie in the corner. But we ate on fine, pretty plates and drank wine out of heavy glasses, leaving lipstick on the rim.

Then we went to Christmas service at the Notre Dame. Candles, the Christmas story in French. The organ music thundered through the cathedral and I felt stunningly small faced with all this grandeur, all that history, all those people.

Christmas Day we spent at the Pompidou, the quietest I’ve ever seen that place. My Christmas tree this year was a modern art piece: colorful bulbs that lit up suddenly every few minutes.

For Christmas dinner, wanting to avoid Orange Chicken Part II, we googled best Christmas dinners in Paris and booked one, a splurge. We ate at a beautiful place in Montmartre, feasting on oysters and foie gras and a fruit salad with lychees and the recommended wine pairing. The restaurant was full of non-Parisiens. The locals, we assumed, were home with their families.

The trip, like our AirBnb, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was exhausting. Paris was cold, rainy, and gray, and there were more tourists than ever.

One day we went out of our way to go to a Christmas market near Nation. A far cry from the Christmas market we’d enjoyed in Strasbourg, this one was dripping and pitiful, on its last day. Most booths were closed, and still we got conned into buying expensive cheese. A lady yelled at me about gingerbread. We talked with a chef selling Portuguese custard tarts who disclosed his love for Merle Haggard and started singing “Okie from Muskogee” (definitely the best part of that day).

Overall we spent too much time in the dystopian underworld that is the metro, and we ran out of money and had to eat lentils for a month afterwards.

In pictures it is lovely, all pale sunsets and gold lights, but really it was cold and cramped and a little lonely in the way that Christmas without your family can be.

I know this, remember this, and still I am nostalgic. How was it that not so long ago I rented a terrible, memorable little shoebox in Paris with my best friend? Where are the croissant crumbs and freezing fingers, or, on fortunate nights, the oysters and champagne? Where are the endless espressos and afternoons free to wander?

Christmas in Paris was like the room’s promoted “Eiffel Tower view”: both sound a little more glamorous in the telling.

But we did have our shoebox view. It was there, if we stood on the bed to see out the high window. If it wasn’t obscured by the January clouds.

The trip, the view: awkward and uncomfortable and lovely still. There it was, if we were lucky: the top of the tower, sparkling brilliantly into the night.