From the thousands of tourists coming only for the instagrammable spots to the locals not cleaning after their dogs, there are so many things that are wrong with Venice that I am surprised by myself for still considering it to be my favourite place on Earth.
I first visited Venice for a glorious day about twelve years ago and I have been hopelessly devoted to the city on water ever since then. Yet, lately, no matter how hard I have tried not to, I have started to wake up to the awful truth that Venice really is not just the sum of its history and beauty but of its problems, too.
The demise of every relationship starts with the smallest of cracks. It could be a disagreement over a mundane issue, a lack of communication over a tiny thing or the first signs that trust is about to be broken in the most spectacular way.
Over the years and my many visits to Venice (I consider myself lucky to have had the chance to see this beautifully unique city over a dozen of times), there have been many tiny cracks in my relationship with it. Bad or gross food served for extortionate prices, crowded and very expensive vaporetto rides, unreliable information online about things to do and see in the city, shops selling absolute tatt.
I didn’t mind it at all.
It was all a very small price to pay for the beauty of Venice, for the ability to walk along its canals, look up and see yet another heart-inspiring work of architecture and/or art. I didn’t complain when in winter it would get piercingly cold (it’s a city on water, after all) or when after a rare snowfall the walkways along the canals would get dangerously slippery (it’s all stone, so what do you expect?!). I didn’t mind it when in summer the heat and the humidity would leave me feeling like I was about to get a sunstroke any minute now (there are so many churches, palaces and museums you can pop in to cool off while looking at some fab art!).
It was all fine. It was all part of the experience of being in the greatest city on Earth, a place built on water – the most inhospitable environment for us. The first settlers and dreamers must have experienced many hardships erecting Venice as dramatic and beautiful as it is, so why shouldn’t I suffer a bit trying to see it and feel it for myself?!
As every person who is in love, I was only too happy to ignore the small cracks, the constant warnings that things were not quite right between Venice and me.
The first huge shakeup that my dedication to Venice suffered was during the opening night of the world-famous Venetian Carnival in 2018.
I decided that it would be a great idea to go to Venice for the afternoon together with my small child, see the opening parade in the early evening and then catch the train to Vicenza (where we live) after that.
Having been to many Carnival events in Venice over the last eight years or so, I was absolutely sure that I knew what to expect and that I could navigate the crowds. No problem! I’ve done it many times before.
We had a great afternoon in Venice, my little daughter and I. We took part in a treasure hunt for children organised by a local association in the area of the historical Rialto market. It was a lot of fun and an opportunity for us to socialise with real Venetians – that elusive breed of people who keep living in Venice in spite of all the problems that the city on water has.
In the late afternoon, we headed to Rio di Cannaregio – a large waterway off the Grand Canal – on which the opening parade was to take place. And here the nightmare started for us. And for thousands of other people, too!
As there were thousands of people that were also trying to get to Rio di Cannaregio and see the opening parade for themselves.
This free event had been heavily advertised both online and offline in the days before the start of Carnival. On the way to Rialto earlier that day we had seen the places from where the crowd was to be filed through to Rio di Cannaregio but there was no-one to ask how many people would be let through.
We walked through the crowds which got denser and denser to the point of finding ourselves completely surrounded by people an all sides. There was pushing, shoving, people getting anxious, people starting to act like cornered animals.
You may ask why I put myself in a position like this, seeing that I was with my small child. The answer is that there really was no way to know or to see what was going on until it was too late. Strada Nova – one of Venice’s main thoroughfares – is usually quite crowded. So, at first, it all seemed quite normal to me. When winter darkness fell, street lights were not very bright, to say the least, so I couldn’t see what was happening mere meters ahead of us. And, then, again, walking in Venice is unlike walking anywhere else. The streets leading from Rialto Bridge up to Rio di Cannaregio and to the train station beyond, albeit being ones of the widest (at points) streets in Venice, can also suddenly get very narrow and curvy, creating terrible bottlenecks.
I won’t get into too many details about how scary and hopeless it felt being caught among the sea of people on the opening night of the Venetian Carnival 2018. It’s not because I can’t but because I still find it very traumatic thinking about it all.
In the end, as the crowd stood blocked at the same spot for what felt like ages, I glimpsed through the sea of heads a hotel on my left-hand side. All social decorum dropped, I started shouting: ‘Please, let me pass! There is a small child here!’, I managed to get to the doors of the hotel. Inside, I tried to book a room for the night (impossible! the hotel was full because of Carnival!) and then my little daughter and I spent an hour in the lobby wondering what to do next (thank you, hotel people, for not asking us to leave!).
My little daughter kept her cool (I was very proud of her!) and we kept a line of communication with my husband (who, at the time, was in Greece for work). We watched the bottleneck through the big glass windows of the hotel’s lobby and it didn’t look good. People were blocked there for a very long time. There were lots of children in that crowd, parents had to put them on their shoulders, as other people would push forward mistakenly thinking that a gap by an adult was a free space they could claim.
There were both tourists and Venetians caught in the bottleneck. The tourists would complain that they had not expected Venice to be like that. The locals would add that they were trying to get back home after a long day only to find bridges and alleys closed off because of the opening parade.
After a while, a rumour spread that water taxis would pick people from the back of the hotel for ten euros a head and take them to the train station. My child and I rushed to the quay. It was true! I asked the driver of the water taxi that was closest to us to let us get on board. He refused, preferring to pick a company of eight or so people first.
The crowd clamouring for water taxis was getting bigger every minute. We were right on the edge of the Grand Canal, everyone was trying to get the eye of a water taxi driver and pushing us from behind. A kind lady helped me stay on firm ground and, finally, we were allowed to get on a water taxi. I paid 20 euros for me and my child and the several other people on board paid ten euros each.
We all specifically asked to be dropped at the train station, yet the driver continued all the way to the other side of the slippery Constitution Bridge where he finally let us out. And yes, I almost fell on the notorious bridge, becoming one of the many visitors of Venice who have lost their footing on its glass panes.
I was really shaken for a long time after this.
I couldn’t believe that Venice could fail itself so much. What about crowd control? What about avoiding bottlenecks? If you watched the TV news from the opening parade of the Venetian Carnival 2018, I assure you that you saw more than me, even though I was there and you were safely tucked at home.
As the months passed, I tried to put this bad experience behind me. I tried to forget how vulnerable I had felt in that huge mass of people and how scared I had been for my child.
I tried to get back to simply loving Venice for what it truly is: a unique city with a rich history and incredible art. I continued visiting Venice as often as I could (seeing that I only live about 45 mins by train up the road). As everyone who has ever been hopelessly in love or has been suddenly betrayed by their very best friend, I continued finding all sorts of excuses to whitewash the memory of the Carnival’s opening night.
That was until this past Sunday when I was getting ready to get the train and go to Venice yet again. I had booked a very nice tour allowing me to visit the depository of a lovely museum and hear the stories of some of the artefacts they have there which are not shown to the public yet.
I invited my husband to come along with me. He said:
‘I’m OK. You go and have a good day!’
I was rather surprised.
‘Is everything OK?’, I asked.
‘Yes. I am just a bit over Venice at the moment’, he said.
‘What’s wrong with Venice?’, I asked puzzled. After all, we had gotten engaged in Venice and have always enjoyed visiting the city together.
‘You know… The heat, the crowds, the walking. It’s just too much!’
I was rather surprised. But I enjoy spending time on my own and grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I headed to Venice and upon arriving, I realised that my love story with the city will never be the same again.
For the first time in many years, I found it difficult to close my eyes to the actual real life and focus just on the historical and artistic side of things. Let me tell you. It wasn’t even that hot and it wasn’t even that crowded. It was, actually, rather nice for a day at the end of the busiest tourist season.
But, for the first time, I couldn’t ignore things or gloss them over at least.
Starting with the people buying beer on the street and walking around drinking straight from the bottle. Once finished, the beer bottles would be left by the historic water wells which grace the squares of Venice.
Then, I noticed the people who would walk into a church, look carefully around from the door and then quickly walk outside so as to avoid paying the very humble fee that some churches in Venice charge to visit them.
Considering the incredible amount of art each church in Venice has, the fact that many famous artists are buried in the Venetian churches and that each church in Venice has a unique architectonic beauty, I found it quite offensive that people would try to steal a glimpse inside and yet refuse to pay the very humble entrance fee.
It was also painful to see an old man throwing his rubbish on the street and then arguing with his wife (who told him off) that there were no rubbish bins around. It’s true, rubbish bins are hard to spot in Venice but there are some if you look for them. Or you take your litter with you as you would do in London where rubbish bins also don’t abound.
Not to mention the groups of tourists in the early evening blocking the little side streets while they were drinking and eating outside.
And while all of the above were the acts of tourists, the Venetians seemed to be failing their own city in their own way. For everywhere I went, there was dog poo on the streets. There was even a man walking his two dogs around and nonchalantly not cleaning after them. Not to mention the many small black bags filled with dog poo, tied up and left by the edge of the canals and at the bottom step of so many bridges. I kept wondering what was with that. Why leave it there?! What do you expect?! That the next aqua alta would take the plastic and the poo away?! How is this helping the lagoon?!
I had a fabulous day in Venice otherwise. I saw some amazing sights. From the large canvasses of Tintoretto (and his tomb) in the Church of Madonna dell’Orto to the glorious views from the top of St. Mark’s Clocktower. From the concert in support of Rialto Fish Market (which, after 1000 years of existence, seems to be under threat) to the fabulous temporary exhibition on the revolution of book printing in the Museo Correr.
When it comes to history and art, Venice never disappoints.
But I was feeling disappointed with Venice for the first time. And I was feeling sad for it, too. As the city, marketed as the most romantic place on Earth, is so much more than the sum of its instagrammable spots. But to the people coming to see it just to tick it off their bucket lists and to the people leaving their dog poo behind, this didn’t seem to matter at all.
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