A common refrain when I mention we have three months in Venice is “It isn’t that big is it? What will you do for that long?” The answer to that is simple. We intend to get lost. A lot.
I can summarise Venice’s 1600 years of history in one sentence. Attila the Hun hassled the mainlanders so much that they rowed out to the marshes in the middle of the Venetian lagoon with a bazzilion trees they had cut down, hammered them into marshy sand islands and built a wondrous city on top, all financed through the control of European trade routes until controlling European trade routes took more than floating a few warships around the Mediterranean at which point they were taken over by whoever was in the neighbourhood at the time, like the Austrians or Napoleon.
What I can’t summarise in one, ten or one hundred sentences is the amazement and joy we felt wandering the backstreets of Venice on our last journey through Europe.
The city is a maze of small canals and smaller alleyways that connects the 118 islands of the city via 400 bridges. Yes, Piazza San Marco is amazing. The Palazzo Ducale will enthral you. Ponte de Rialto is an architectural marvel. But the real charm of Venice lies in the marvellous rabbit warren of dead ends and map-defying twists. Around each corner is a building worthy of a crowd of tourists. Every corte ends with a postcard view of a small canal that deserves a thousand photos. More likely, though, the famous crowds of Venice will ignore these hidden gems. Day-trippers stick to TripAdvisor’s Top 10 and miss the real Venice.
Our first trip to Venice involved a basic plan. See the main stuff quickly. Then, take a ferry somewhere and wander in circles. See what we happen across. Continue haphazardly criss-crossing the neighbourhood until it gets darkish. Finally, eat pizza. A new day, a new neighbourhood. It seemed to work well.
What were they thinking?
The Venetian lagoon is an unlikely place for a city. Starting in the 5th century the small islands in the lagoon served as defensible havens for mainlanders fleeing barbarians. Over 1400 years the islands progressed from communities of fisherman to more permanent port towns to a unified, thriving metropolis.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but at least they were building on dry land. The stone and concrete foundations of Venice sit on top of tens or hundreds of millions of trees pounded into the water-logged earth. Over hundreds of years, the salt-rich and oxygen poor environment has turned the wood to stone. This petrified underwater forest still holds up Venice today. Mostly.
The lagoon and tides that once protected the Venetians are now the enemy. The canals need constant restoration work to stop the city slipping back under the water. The subsiding ground and rising sea levels magnify the challenge. When the siren signals acqua alta, shopkeepers sandbag their doors or hand gumboots to their clientele. Flooding in the streets, shops and houses of Venice isn’t noteworthy. Its autumn.
When we first went to Venice in 2015, it was because I worried that my children would live to see Venice disappear. I wanted them to experience it before it did. The city is trying its best to avoid that fate however. To limit subsistence, water is no longer drawn from the wells found in the campo or pumped from the groundwater but instead piped from the mainland. In a effort to hold back the rising water levels, the beautifully named project MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico is building a series of sea walls. Due to be finished in 2018, the walls will be raised when extreme high tides are forecast. Here’s hoping it works.
What first – sunk or loved to death?
Venice is stunning, filled with amazing restaurants, and overflowing with history and culture. The maze of canals, pedestrian-only streets and historic architecture lends Venice it’s charm. It also makes business of almost any kind impractical. Not surprisingly then, tourism is the main enterprise – at least of the central islands. Mestre (the mainland) is still a port-based economy. Murano holds on to its glass-making industry. For Venice proper though, it is travellers that bring in the cash. Beyond the normal high season crowds, events such as La Biennale, Carnivale and the Venice Film Festival ensure the city barely has a low season.
A crumbling 1600 year old city interlaced by tidal waterways is expensive to run. Unfortunately, visitors to Venice are more and more likely to be day-trippers. Huge cruise liners spill out thousands of people eager to take a photo of Rialto, buy a Chinese-made Carnivale mask and leave. The support of the local market of this in-and-out custom is limited. No hotel beds are booked. The artisan hand-making a Medico della peste is outsold by the main street trinket shop. Restaurants empty out as the ship’s buffet is served. All this leaves many residents to endure the high prices and crowded alleys but miss out on the benefits.
Thanks to our residency visas I like to number us among locals. I hope our longer stay means we make more of a contribution to this amazing place. Who knows though…