I’d been inclined to skip Venice. I’d read that tourism was killing it, both by making it increasingly dependent on the tourist dollar and through damage caused by the ever-increasing volume of tourists who pour through the city every day. On the other hand, I thought to myself, the more tourists who travel to Venice, the less pleasant the experience will be for everyone, and this increasing unpleasantness will discourage people from going! This is sophistry at its worst, and I can scarcely claim that I did my bit to save Venice by visiting it myself.
We decided to arrive as early as the train service could deliver us there, in the hope of missing the worst congestion. We caught the first train from Treviso and arrived in Venice well before 8.00am. When we left the train station everything was foggy. A sea mist had rolled in, increasing the wonder of the city’s fairytale landscape.
Richard graciously allowed me to start the day with the one thing I’d always wanted to do in Venice: linger over a coffee at a cafe in St Mark’s Square. This desire probably springs from reading too many nineteenth century English poets and novelists. Getting to St Mark’s Square was anything but straightforward. We traveled down tiny alleys with unexpected twists and turns, crossed bridges over canals large and small, got lost several times with generally pleasant results. Finally, we arrived.
Even at 9.00am St Mark’s Square already had its fair share of tourists, including large tour parties queued up to visit the Duomo. However, we had no difficulty finding a cafe table with a desirable view of the square. I have to report that the coffee was very poor and, although I don’t begrudge the price of the experience, €9.80 a cup seems cynical.
We decided we’d learn more about Venice from the water. For the price of two (water) bus tickets, we were given a round trip of the centre of the city.
We got off the boat and had lunch at the Arsenale, renowned for centuries of ship-building and now a developing hub for the arts. We saw some interesting exhibitions, both artistic and engineering. The programme to protect Venice from rising sea levels has a display centre there, and we saw some fascinating historical photographs from the Arsenale’s past. For me, the most poignant exhibition was one which featured more than a dozen small fishing boats, overturned and in various stages of decay. It evoked a feeling of loss at what the commercial fishing industry has done to the livelihoods of small communities right around the Mediterranean; indeed, right across the Pacific too.
Then we had a long and not always straightforward walk back into the centre of Venice. We had a gelato, visited the Jewish Ghetto and an Iranian art exhibition, and caught our train home.
A city with no vehicular transport re-frames our view of what city life can be. When you think about it, it’s obvious and logical that services such as postal and courier delivery, septic tank pumping, food deliveries etc will be effected by boat. We saw examples of these, along with ambulance and police services. It took a little longer for me to appreciate how tradesmen, for example, would have to operate in a context where tools and materials would have to be delivered by water, and rubble removed the same way. While those tasks may be more difficult, in most cases the complete absence of cars, trucks and vans has no adverse impact on the quality of life or the ability to foster and maintain a community of thousands of people.
The things I most enjoyed about Venice turned out to be those parts of the city where we got off the beaten track. There was one period in particular on our long and winding road back from the Arsenale which took us through alleys where there appeared to be almost no tourists, just locals enjoying their midday break in small cafes and bars; a precinct with food markets and shops selling the necessities of daily life rather than tawdry souvenirs.
Venice could be a very liveable city. Remind me again why I shouldn’t visit?