Life (and Death) in Venice

Life (and Death) in Venice

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Gondola1It’s like no other place in Italy or, for that matter, like no other place on earth.

But someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, Venice may disappear under the waves.

But will its death be inflicted by waves of water, or by waves of tourists?

I grew up in Seattle, which at that time, proclaimed itself “the boating capital of America.”

Venice, like Seattle, is surrounded by water. But I drove, or was driven, around my hometown by car or bus. And even if I rode across Puget Sound on a Washington State ferry, I’d driven or was driven aboard in a car.

Venice, unlike Seattle, has no cars plying its streets. Cars, bus and trains park at the edge of the city. You move inside Venice on foot or by boat.

While trying to cross streets in auto-ridden Rome, pedestrians can end up as “Roman road kill.” In Florence, where “stealth” bicycles can silently sneak up behind them or loudly buzzing Vespas and motorcycles can force them to jump out of harm’s way, tourists are at risk of being involved a personal injury accident.

But you’re unlikely to be run over by any kind of wheeled vehicle while visiting Venice.

Boats are critical to life in Venice. Sleek “cabin cruisers” purr down the canals, taking “swells” to and from their palazzos. Boats or barges haul construction materials in and trash out.

Tourists are serenaded through through Venice while lounging in gondolas. Venetians ride the vaporetti (“water buses”) to get around town.

(Szilveszter Francas Flickr Photo)

Vaporetto Numero Uno, the “slow boat” down Venice’s Grand Canal, is likely to be packed to the gunwales with passengers. It reminded me of the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s “30-Stockton” bus that makes its way from “South of Market” through the city’s downtown, Chinatown, and North Beach districts to “The Marina.”

When I was in Venice a dozen years ago, I took a walking tour with American ex-pat, Samantha Durrell. While was having coffee with her in her flat, Samantha pointed to boats moored in the canal behind her home.

Samantha said that young Venetians, forced to live at home with their parents because they were unable to afford to buy or rent their own digs, sailed these small, open vessels out to the Lido for amorous night-time encounters afloat.

Acqua alta” (“high water”) periodically inundates Venice, forcing tourists and “locals” alike to slosh through flooded piazzas or walk above them on elevated boardwalks.

Venetians have been abandoning Venice. Not because they fear that their homes may permanently sink beneath the waters of the lagoon, but because home prices and rents have risen as fast as flood waters. A 2007 National Geographic article dubbed the city “Vanishing Venice.”

And at least part of the reason for the high cost of living in Venice may be that tourism, which has been the lifeblood of the city for ages, has begun to drown it.

Despite the gaggle of gondolas and other craft sailing the city’s waterways, something was temporarily missing from them during my September, 2001 visit: A large fleet of cruise ships.

Venice Cruise Ship
(John Lord/Yellow Book Flickr Photo)

I didn’t exactly have Venice all to myself during my five-day stay, but it certainly wasn’t overrun by hordes of tourists arriving by ship.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks had immediate adverse impact on Italian tourism.  In a story written three years ago commemorating those attacks, I said that:

“Merchants in Venice and Tuscany bemoaned the fact that Americans who flood Italy in September and cart home lots of expensive souvenirs had mostly cancelled their European trips.”

As a recent report from NPR correspondent Silvia Poggioli points out, two years before my post-9/11 visit to Venice, the number of tourists arriving there by cruise ship was a mere trickle compared to the waterborne surge of visitors flooding into the city today:

“Cruise ship tourism in Venice has gone from under 100,000 passengers in 1999 to 1.8 million in 2011. More than 650 big ships arrive annually. Six ships docking at the lagoon terminal can disgorge in one day more than half the city’s population of 55,000.”

Are cruise ships destroying Venice, or providing it with financial salvation? You’ll find opposing views expressed in the following podcast of that NPR story:

(Dick Jordan and one his of his travel writing mentors, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, were in Venice at the same time in September of 2011. But never simultaneously walking the same lanes and byways of the city, nor riding on the same vaporetto, their paths through that extraordinary Italian city did not cross. It wasn’t until 2010, when Linda contributed this account to the series of 9/11 travel stories published by Tales Told From The Road, that they discovered they had been together, but apart, in that sinking “City of Canals.” )

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