Venice – charming or Disneyland for adults?
Built 1500 years ago as an escape from the barbarians after Rome fell, Venice became a medieval powerhouse when clever middlemen turned it into a trading empire between East and West. Venice was a uniquely diverse city at the time, welcoming every race and religion, as long as they carried cash. The discovery of the Americas and new trade routes spelled trouble for Venice, but as the city declined, it became even more decadent – in the 17th and 18th century, Venice continued to party on the wealth it had accumulated before.
Today, the city built on wooden stilts is continuing its decline. Its population of 58,000 is half of what it was 30 years ago, and people continue to leave the lagoon at a rate of 1,000 per year. Triple its current population (yes, that is 150,000) descend on the city in high season. Tourism is the only thing keeping this city alive, but between the population loss and the fact that Venice is sinking due to rising sea levels, it might not be around much longer. Many of the buildings in Venice are abandoned, with their canal-level floors flooded and mossy. Locals struggle finding affordable housing and basic necessities – while it’s possible to find tourist trinkets at every corner, grocery stores and other trapping needed for daily life are scarce and expensive here.
Granted, the city is gorgeous. Public boats called vaporetti take locals and tourists around the island. Two lines run from the train station to San Marco square – a fast line and a slow line. You can take the vaporetto from the train station or walk just to the right over the Caltrava bridge (the only recently built one) to the bus station, where a lot fewer people get on. This allowed me to get to the front of the boat, and with Rick Steves’ audioguide playing on my phone, I spent the next 45 minutes down the main “street” of Venice – the Grand canal.
It was a sight to behold. The Grand Canal was busy with vaporetti, traghetti (boats that take you from one side of the canal to the other, because there are only 4 bridges going across), water taxis, private boats and gondolas. Many of the “casinos” (meaning “little houses” in Venetian dialect – only the Doge’s palace was allowed to actually be called a palace) along the canal have been converted – for example, the Turkish “fondaco” exchange, one of the oldest houses in Venice, is now the Natural History Museum, while Ca’ Pesaro (Ca’ is short for casino) houses the International Gallery of Modern Art.
Others are now hotels, but most of them seem empty. Stringent regulations to preserve the historical architecture combined with the nightmarish logistics of bringing construction materials in these canals mean that many buildings are left in disrepair. We passed under the Rialto bridge – one of the major landmarks in Venice, and the only bridge to cross the Grand Canal until the 1850s.
The bridge has been rebuilt several times, and in its last permutation, it does not open, which means bigger commerce ships could no longer pass through, and this section of the Grand Canal became a canal of palaces. Here is the only stretch of the Grand Canal with landings upon which you can walk. Back in the day, these landings were where loads delivered supplies to the city – oil, wine, charcoal. Today, the quay is lined with tourist trap restaurants. The former palaces of Venice merchants line this section of the canal. Many of the houses sit on foundations of waterproof white stone, above which the brick walls stay high and dry. Some of the posts in front of the houses are painted – that was the Venice equivalent of a family’s coat of arms.
As we continued down the Grand Canal, the green pointed dome of the Campanile peaked from above the palaces. As the vaporetto turned left, the San Marco Square emerged in all of its grandeur. St. Mark’s basilica was hard to see since it doesn’t face the water, but the Campanile (clock tower), the Doge’s palace, and the Bridge of Sighs, which connects the Doge’s palace to the prisons next door, were visible.
I got off at the next stop, and walked over to San Marco square. On the way, I snapped some photos of the gondolas in front of the Doge’s palace.
It didn’t take me long to notice that a big part of the square was full of an inch or two of water, and raised platforms had been put up so that people can make it from one side of the square to the other. This phenomenon is known as “acqua alta”. In the past, Venice did not have a source of drinking water – for centuries, locals hat to make trips to the mainland and carry water back. In the 9th century, Venetians devised a system of cleverly sloped squares, which caught rainwater into underground clay tubs. Venice’s population grew tremendously once citizens were able to collect water by simply dropping a bucket in one of the wells. Now the wells are capped, the clay tubs are rotted out and the rain drains from the squares into the lagoon – except, when the tide gets very high, the opposite happens, and lagoon water seeps into the square. Crazy, right? I thought so. The acqua alta exposed the gentle slant of the square – water was deeper at the edges, while the middle of the square was dry. This phenomenon did not last but about an hour – as the tide receded, so did the water.
I spent a couple of hours in San Marco square – I took the elevator to the top of the clock tower, and made sure I was up there at the top of the hour, when the bells chime. It was really loud, but worth it! I also enjoyed amazing views of Venice from up there.
I toured the St. Mark’s basilica with another Rick Steves audioguide narrating the major things to look out for, and toured the Doge’s palace – I even got to walk through the Bridge of Sighs!
Late afternoon, I stopped for a quick pizza at one of the tourist trap restaurants around Rialto bridge, then walked a bit trying to get away from the tourist crowds and get a better feel for the non-touristy Venice, with mixed results. I did stumble upon a few small squares with kids playing futbol, but I still saw plenty of tourists everywhere I went. I did enjoy getting a closer look at all the gondolas in these smaller canals.
I got back to the train station about an hour before my train was scheduled to leave, and was able to grab a seat on an earlier train by going to the little last-minute service desk right by the platforms.
I was more than happy to come back to Florence. Venice felt almost fake to me, like a Disneyland for adults or like a movie set. The outside might be preserved, but its soul, I’m afraid, might have already been lost.