I have to go from Germany to the South of Italy every year in summer. To shorten the long journey and to make it less exhausting I always put in a stopover in Venice.
Is that true? No, it is what I tell my friends and acquaintances who feel the urge to advise me against it. Even if they have never been in Venice they know it is not worth seeing (any more) as it has become a kind of Italian Disneyland which the inhabitants have fled and where tourists only meet other tourists. They would rather abstain and preserve their dreams and complain the fact that they were born too late. Oh, had they lived when Byron stayed there and used to swim home after parties pushing a board with a candle through the canals to show him the way home! But today? Stinking water, garbage everywhere. A swim would mean if not immediate death at least a prolonged stay in hospital.
So why do I go and keep going and hope to see the town many more times?
I get up early before the tourist buses arrive. At that time of day I have no difficulty in meeting the locals, old people walking their dogs (a depressing affair for the latter what with hardly any trees around) and young mothers pushing prams up and down the bridges. I like the soft accent of the Venetians and therefore keep asking for directions even if I am not lost. Every now and then a friendly person decides to accompany me instead of explaining the way.
Going down the Canal Grande in a vaporetto ('steam' boat in Italian, but not anymore) I watch the town prepare itself for the day. Barges deliver all kinds of goods, market stalls are put up, fruit and vegetables polished and piled up into decorative heaps. The palazzi, whose facades glow in a light pink in the morning sun, wake up, too, and open their windows onto the Canal.
From the platform of the Campanile on St Marc's Square I see the waiters lay the tables of the cafés and shoo the first pigeons away. (The early pigeon catches the crumb!) After revisiting St Marc's Cathedral and the Doge's Palace with the very first (few) tourists I leave the centre and cross the Canal Grande. Nobody hires a gondola when alone in the town of the honeymoon couples, but gondola it must be! So I take a ferry gondola like a real Venetian lady (standing, never sitting down while crossing the Canal!) and look down on the poor tourists who know nothing of this pleasure. Then perhaps another visit to the Guggenheim Museum and stroll along the zattere to watch the big cruise liners go by.
Venice is not only narrow alleyways and canals, but also the lagoon and open water. I may take a boat to the islands Murano, Burano and Torcello and enjoy the wind and the waves for a while. Or I go to the Lido, preferably at the end of the season when the beach is already nearly empty, but the facilities are still there. Stretched out on a deckchair with a cappuccino or two beside me, I become engrossed in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" and accompany Mr Aschenbach through the sick beauty of the town for a while.
In the Biennale years I spend my day at the Giardini. When throngs of people crowd the sights of the centre, only a few cognoscenti stroll through the gardens, enjoy the charm of the more or less decrepit buildings, like or dislike the exhibitions of international modern art. Wandering around I can easily fall into a kind of stupor and stay until the gates are closed. But then there is also the Arsenale to see, a branch of the Biennale for young artists who have already attracted attention, but are not yet renowned internationally.
The Arsenale is only one stop from the Giardini, yet difficult to find as the entrance is somewhat hidden. What does that bother Venice or the Venetians? No signs at the landing place to help the arty tourists from all over the world find their way. Moreover, nobody living in that area can point out the way (or does not want to?). When at last the art lovers have rounded the right corner just by chance they find a piece of cardboard pinned to a wall with some handwritten directions in Italian.
Alas, this is no exceptional incident, rather a symptomatic one. Try leaving Venice by train! If you need to know something about connections and go to the station you will find an elderly civil servant dreaming of his approaching retirement behind the counter on which another piece of cardboard tells the world 'Italian only', written in Italian, of course. It is pure abstract theatre when a, say, Japanese claims information in broken English about a trip to Paris with possible stopovers in Munich and Brussels and the informant(?) tells him in fluent Italian that the same night a 24 hour strike will begin with neither trains nor buses running.
All this puts relations right, I feel. May the council complain about the dwindling numbers of tourists and scorn the ones who come only for the day, laden with food so that the only money they spend is for a postcard and a stamp. It is really not Venice that needs the tourists, it is the other way round.
Dead tired, with blistered and aching feet, I sink down on a chair in a restaurant on the Canal Grande and enjoy a thoroughly kitschy evening listening to the gondolieri singing Neapolitan(!) love songs. So what? This is Venice, too, it celebrates itself as long as it still looks out of the water and I hope it will not disappear during my lifetime.