To me, Venice is one of the most relaxing cities on earth. The absence of any noise except the slop of water against the canal banks or the toll of bells means I feel any stress drop away. It is not all paradise in this beautiful city; there are two things which you must watch out for - (1) the fabled high tides of Venice - the Aqua Alta - which can flood the Piazza San Marco in five inches of water and (2) is the sheer volume of tourists that visit this city. And when the two are combined (see photo)even the calmest of tempers can get frayed.
But it is essentially a very relaxing city and one which I can't wait to return. Venice in early Autumn has a sense of mystery about it. There is a bleak loneliness to the place huddled in it's little lagoon. It was once master of the world and thought it was it's centre. But as you gaze around you at the crumbling palazzo's, the narrow bridges and the ancient churches you can see why. All this beauty makes narcisstic introspection unavoidable.
The 'Aqua Alta' - High Tides of Venice
As I strolled out the exit of the Palazzo Ducale an extraordinary sight met my eyes - Piazza San Marco had flooded. The Adriatic had gurgled up from beneath the flagstones. The sea swished around cafe table legs and tourists climbed onto duckboards whilst queueing for the Campanile (see photo). To get from one side of the Piazza to the other I had to squeeze between hordes of tourists, flocks of pigeons and spreading pools of water. The Molo was even worse; lagoon waters flowed over the edge squeezing everybody between the sea and the Palazzo Ducale (see photo). Souvenir sellars tried to find dry islands for their stalls and gondolas bashed together on their poles.
Between September and April in Venice there is a fair chance that you will encounter the high tides. To Venetians it's just part of living in their city. When high tides occur and they are coupled with winds preventing outflow from the lagoon then the water level rises and the cities lowest points disappear. When this happen everybody resorts to duckboards. You may see them stacked along the Riva and Molo and they are most frequently used at the vaporetto stops.
Everybody has to use the duckboards including the Venetians so certain etiquette is used and woe betide any tourist who breaks it. But really high tides occur in winter and the city can be under water for days. When this happens klaxons sound and everybody reaches for the rubber boots. Still, Aqua Alta is uniquely Venetian and if you get the chance to experience this phenomenon it can be unforgettable.
The Empire of the Tourist
As I was catching my bus back to Marco Polo airport to fly home I realised that I hadn't spoken to a single Venetian. In Rome and Bologna I had spoken to Italians and in both cities had made friends, but in Venice I felt I hadn't spoken to a single native. The Venetians, of course, are outnumbered a hundred to one by the tourists. In fact Venice at times becomes nothing more then a tourist colony with thousands blocking the alleys and canals. The Venetians are here somewhere; but mostly live east of the Piazza in Castello. Once there were 500,000 people living in Venice - now there is only 50,000.
There are however 28 million tourists visiting a year. Your heart cannot but go out to the Venetians for having to deal with this deluge. Granted many are employed in the tourist industry, Venices' great trading empire vanished hundreds of years ago - but the sheer numbers are stunning. I think the problem are the cruiseships (see photo), whilst we were there four were in port disgorging thousands and thousands of tourists. Each of these wanted to see the Basilica, each of these wanted to see the Rialto bridge until the narrow lanes between the two become a crushed gauntlet of angry, confused, impatient tourists. It is no joke to be trapped on a bridge by a group while a guide won't let you pass.
It must drive the Venetians mad. So they have come up with rules for tourists. In the narrow alleys there is lane discipline where tourists must keep to the right and overtaking is on the left. There are no picnics allowed anywhere in the city (I broke this inadvertantly outside Salute)and you must not block others on bridges and allow others to pass. I try to keep to these rules and if you don't the Venetians will let you know you are in the way by telling you off. And let's face it - you can hardly blame them....