I am a bit of a curmudgeon, but I’m still able to experience the sense of awe and wonder that is so necessary if I want to be a happy and satisfied traveler. When I first visited Venice over the New Year holiday 2004, I was ready to be blown away by its beauty. In visiting for the first time, I was able to either ignore or repress my sense that the Venetian attitude towards me as a tourist was less than positive. In the winter, the venues weren’t as crowded, except for maybe New Year’s Eve, and the atmosphere was more welcoming. At that time of year, most of the visitors are Italian whereas in the summer, most of the visitors are foreigners. Maybe this fact contributes to the overall difference in atmosphere between my first visit and my second.
I was taken by the beauty of Venice both times I was there. I enjoyed the walking and drank in the architecture and culture of this attractive but fast-fading beauty. The problem, as I see it, is that all there is to Venice is tourism drawn by decaying attractions that are slowly being eaten away by the sea. I live in Hong Kong, and have lived in San Francisco, both very hot tourist destinations. So I am familiar with some of the frustrations that can arise when a place is inundated with visitors. Tourists are mistreated in both places by some of the locals. In San Francisco, it’s mostly crime that tourists are victimized by. In Hong Kong, it’s the cultural divide that often creates misunderstandings. Customer service, as ideally practiced in the West, is not as important in the Chinese culture, though that is changing.
The difference is that both these places are not totally dependent on tourism for their very existence. Venice is. I suspect that might grate on those who must earn a living serving tourists. It manifests itself in a number of ways. Granted these are anecdotal stories nevertheless, I can’t imagine that I am the only person who has run into similar situations.
As I mentioned elsewhere, most of the restaurants have a cover charge during the high tourist season whether you eat there or not. I understand the need to insure that those people using your facilities help pay for them but if I’m eating in your restaurant what is the rationale for a "Cover charge?" There’s no entertainment, the prices on the menu are the same as in the low season, and the service, if anything is worse. The only motivation I can come up with is greed. I reviewed Ristorante Roma elsewhere. Stay away. Planet Dream Pizzeria, which was a joy to visit in December, added a cover charge and cut down on the service in August. One evening, we tried to find a non-touristy place to drink some wine. We found such a place, but unfortunately, the owners obviously didn’t want tourists, so they basically just ignored us and refused to take our order even when we asked them to. We got the message and moved on down the street to a friendlier venue, which was about 25% more expensive for a similar bottle of wine. Eventually, Tom and I stopped going to restaurants and instead bought food to go and ate sitting on public benches or, in one case, in our hotel lobby, not to save money, but rather to save the hassle. Even in December, my wife Pam and I walked out of a restaurant at lunch time that was totally disorganized and where the owner or manager yelled at us in Italian when we asked to be waited on after sitting there for 15 minutes.
The Piazza San Marco is a world famous spot. It is the first place tourists head for when they arrive in Venice. Unfortunately it exemplifies the juxtaposition in Venice of beauty and greed. The square, which is architecturally fascinating, contains many overpriced jewelry stores, souvenir shops, restaurants serving $15 cups of espresso, etc. Musically challenged bands duel for attention while the tourists try to attract pigeons (Woody Allen calls them rats with wings) to sit on their arms by buying overpriced birdseed. The only difference between the tourists and the statues the pigeons usually sit on is that the statues can’t contract any diseases from the pigeons.
On New Year’s Eve, Pam and I were in the Piazza for the celebration. The celebration consisted of the bells ringing in the tower and individuals setting off fireworks wherever they pleased. It wasn’t safe and there was no police presence that I could see. Venice is the most popular destination in Italy for New Year’s Eve. Pam and I have celebrated New Year’s Eve all over the world and this was the lamest "celebration" we’ve ever experienced.
Is Venice all bad? Of course not, or it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. What I am suggesting is that its reputation is undeserved. Pam, Tom, and I agree that we were treated far better in Florence and Rome than here. I understand how the constant crush of tourists could get on people’s nerves, but that same situation has not created the same effect in places like Florence, Siena, or San Gimignano, all of which are similarly inundated with tourists.
What I advise is that, if you are going, and I do believe everyone should go there once, don’t go in the summer or other highly touristy times. Plan your time carefully so you can see the sites you want to see while giving yourself plenty of time to walk. My fondest memories of Venice are walking along the waterfront in the Dorsodura section, getting lost in the warren of streets between the Piazza San Marco and the Castello section, searching for the Ca’ Rezzonica in Dorsodura, and wandering the streets of San Polo on our way to and from the Frari Basilica.
I highly recommend that you do research on eating places before you leave. Something I did not do either time, trusting the techniques that work for me elsewhere in Europe. In Venice, where food is expensive, you need to be more careful. The Internet is full of restaurant recommendations. Use them. Also, use the Internet to find a hotel. People were paying much more for a room in my hotel than I was both times I visited. I cannot say anything bad about the hotel personnel I encountered on both trips. They were generally friendly and helpful.
Venetian art is interesting but it doesn’t, in my opinion, measure up to the art on display in Florence, Rome, Paris, London, Madrid, or New York, to name a few other cities. I think that what separates Venice from other tourist destinations are its architecture, its history, and its canals. I suggest you focus on those aspects of the Venetian experience.
No question, this place is beautiful, though decaying. I am glad I visited Venice, but I doubt I needed the second trip. I further doubt I will ever return. There are just too many other places that are more welcoming. For instance, I plan to return to Florence as soon as I can, and I've been there twice. Maybe the problem is, quite simply, too many tourists and too few residents.