Venice, described as one of the most romantic of European cities, is always a destination that responds magnificently to visitors’ aspirations. It provides a unique combination of old buildings and narrow streets, superb palazzos, inspirational churches, secluded campos, restaurants, shops, bars and, of course, the canals. It never disappoints even seasoned travellers. I’ve seen Venice through the heat of the hottest summer day when it’s criminally full of tourists and I’ve broken ice on the lagoon in winter before walking through deserted, misty calles with only the sound of echoing footsteps to remind you that there might be someone else just around the corner. It’s magical always but when you see at this time of year, it’s a bit full.
Clever of us then to find our castel away from the seething masses so that we could take a short, uncrowded ferry ride from Fusina to the stop at zattere, on the big Canale Della Giudecca. Of course, we had to get to Fusina first and that proved to be no simple matter. Allowing an hour was probably about right but that was based on the presumption of accurate and, if I’m brutally frank, honest directions. It took nearly two hours because we were directed – with the best intentions – down narrow, convoluted, rural byways that were, at the same time, picturesque and indirect. I suppose that if you’ve lived in the region for thirty years and eventually determine the perfect way to the bread shop that avoids six-lane autostrada, toll booths, heavy truck routes and major towns then you want to share it. Unfortunately, no route in Italy allows you to avoid the multitudes of suicidal individuals that stalk any asphalted surface. By the time we’d arrived in Fusina I’d concluded that it would have been more comfortable if the roads had been wider and a good deal safer if the traffic on my side of them was all going in the same direction. Nonetheless, we made it safely and there was a good, guarded car park that is third of the cost of parking in Venice itself. The port, in a pretty area, is very small and of little consequence but it is being improved and has a café with the inevitable €1-a-go toilet [per person, of course].
Just before arriving at zattere the ferry passes the Stazione Maritima, the commercial port that accommodates big ferries, cargo ships and liners. Several were docked but the largest by far was a huge cruise ship that, I was told, frequently arrived and disgorged around 3000 activity-hungry tourists into the city. At nearly 400m long and 70m high it dwarfed the adjacent buildings and could be seen above the roofs from around the city. Nearly 10% of the total daily visitors in one lump has a noticeable effect; you couldn’t avoid bumping into people striding around staring at maps [they have to see all the landmarks, buy something and be back at the boat to queue for dinner] and every second shop now sells tee-shirts. In the time I’ve been visiting there’s been an invidious reorientation of the merchandise on sale with a loss of both variety and, in many areas, quality as the shops chase this army of knick-knack hunters. Sad, because it belittles a wonderful city that deserves better but which depends so heavily on the daily influx. And sad because the reducing resident population means that local shops and services and their associated skills are disappearing rapidly. When I first came to Venice by train as a student and walked out of the ferrovia the place simply took my breath away. It became a bigger experience subsequently to stay for a few days and explore the areas off the tourist route, which were quieter, populated by residents and relatively free from crowds. Those areas are now derelict, under-populated and, where some shops remain, sell a variety of worthless mementoes. I recall Alan Whicker writing that Venice remained one of his favourite places and how wonderful it was when he first lived there just after the war. He regretted that it had changed with the advent of inexpensive air travel but pondered whether or not the wonders of such a special place should be restricted to the enjoyment of a privileged few? There’s the rub – it’s not part of The Grand Tour these days and most of the people on the calles were tourists, not visitors. And they weren’t Italian either. One very pleasant American lady told her audience in Harry’s Bar that she adored Venice and thought it a ‘Mecca for shopping’. But she hadn’t been in any churches or walked the area behind the Arsenal.
Life is change, I guess and Venice, the Immortal City, is changing along with it.
This all seems a little morose but it’s not meant to be; Venice is a wonderful place to be and these are thoughts that have occurred since spending a couple of days rubbing shoulders with a few of my ghosts. What we did when we arrived was to go right over to our favourite restaurant, Harry’s Dolci on Giudecca, order prosecco and begin a truly memorable three-hour lunch.