Needless to say, Venice is a very unique city; all islands and canals. I had been as a kid, but I decided to go again. I was very happy I made the decision and I couldn’t help being amazed when standing on the Constitution Bridge.
On one side, busy roads and a bus station, with a giant multi-story parking building next to it. A hub of ground transportation.
Turn around, and all manners of ground transportation disappear. No buses, no cars, no bicycles, nothing. Quite striking. At this point, those very familiar with the area will realize I am lying, because the building on the left is a train station. But right after the train station everything I wrote becomes true, so you get the idea.
There are a lot of tourists in Venice. I read very different numbers, ranging from 15 to 29 million a year. With a population of under 60,000, this means that on most days – and certainly in high season – tourists outnumber residents. In this area, they probably outnumber them 25 to 1.
And this brings all the disadvantages of mass tourism, from bad, overpriced restaurants to petty crime. But what worried me the most was that I would only find a dead city, like Kotor or Dubrovnik, which I visited recently. Places where cruise ship tourism has completely displaced normal life and transformed the old towns into amusement park attractions. This is something many Venice residents fear and the process is certainly under way. But, much to my satisfaction, I found there is still Venice in Venice.
While the resident population has declined over the decades, you still see the lively mix of tourists and residents, with the deck of the vaporetto filled with standing tourists excited by the idea of cruising on the canal, and the interior seating filled with bored people using public transportation to get home after work.
And if you walk 5 minutes in almost any direction away from the main attractions, you end up in a place with no tourists, just kids making their way to school.
And all the other signs of normal everyday life.
Of course, everyday life is very different when you have no street, and no sidewalk! Historically, houses with walking decks in front, allowing pedestrian access to Venice’s many plazas, were the residences of wealthier people.
Although instead of purchasing a house with “street” access, some moderately wealthy merchants opted for the compromise of building a private bridge to their house. There are over 400 bridges in Venice, linking the 118 islands separated by 170 canals.
And in case you hadn’t heard, Venice is sinking, by about 1-2 mm a year. A slow process, but one you do not have to look far to see.
The city also floods regularly, which often calls for simple solutions, like this floodgate. For tourists, storeowners sell very basic, cheap rubber boots to walk around without getting your feet soaked. They cost only 5 Euros, unless it is raining, of course. Then they cost 15 Euros.
This reality resulted in an unusual phenomenon which can still be observed in a few parts of the city: vertical social stratification. Just as in some cities poor people live in the valley and rich people on the mountain, here this translates into the ground and top floor, which explains the very different level of finishing.
Today Venice is a premium tourist destination. Of course you can buy fridge magnets and miniature gondolas, but also any luxury good your heart desires. I looked up the best reviewed day tours online and was excited to find a very professional looking photo tour. Until I realized it cost 300 Euros for 3 hours. But the reviews were great!
And the market for high end products and services has been there for a while. This used to be the door to a high end brothel. Notice the small hole in the ceiling. When a client knocked, prostitutes would look down the hole, and if the potential patron was not wearing sufficiently elegant and expensive looking clothes, they would not let him in!
Today some joke that the richest people in Venice are the gondola operators. While you often see them waiting for customers, they do charge 80 Euro an hour. Based on my quick online research, I estimate that if they get 3 clients a day, five days a week, they exceed slightly the average gross income of Italian dentists or GP physicians. I will grant however that Venice has a much higher cost of living than the rest of Italy.
So why isn’t everyone a gondola driver? Because very few permits are granted, and very high standards must be met. You cannot get a permit with an aluminium canoe painted to look like a gondola. A gondola is composed of 9 different types of wood and takes about 9 months to make. They cost in excess of 70,000 Euros and are often inherited from father to son (although there are now a few women in the gondola world). There is meaning to the bow’s design. The 6 rectangles in the front represent the 6 districts of Venice while the one at the back represent the area where the buses, cars and cruise ships arrive. The 3 frilly things represent the 3 islands of Venice. (I know, I wrote 118 islands before, but these 3 islands (Murano, Burano, Torcello) are large islands outside the “core” of Venice).
In the days of the Inquisition, Jews were forced to live in a small ghetto in Venice. This may not seem very nice, but they moved there because the Queen of Spain said they were not allowed to live anywhere in her realm, so by comparison it’s not so bad. This building is the first pawn shop that was given to the Jews. They became the money lenders, as the Catholic Church at the time did not allow lending money for interest.
Although life was difficult for the Jews under the Fascist Regime, deportations only began when Germany occupied Italy. Many died, but a majority survived and many still live in Venice. On the top of this building, a small, almost hidden synagogue.
You still see the architectural consequences of the former ghetto laws. Nowhere else are there buildings so high in Venice. This happened because with an ever increasing population and a ban on geographical expansion, Jews had no choice but to build up. The ghetto laws were only abolished when Napoleon invaded the Republic of Venice.
I spent a lot of time just walking around and observing the everyday reality of living on the water. I know it’s obvious, but everything is done with boats. This one maintains the wood pillars that help limit the city’s sinking.
Hardware store delivery boat.
Big doors, lights on all night: a fire station!
Luggage delivery. I hadn’t noticed when taking the picture, but I now see something rather unique in this photo. People usually steer boats with their hands, although in Myanmar I saw people doing it with their legs, but this guy is using his butt!
And bed sheets for the hotels. I suppose it is cheaper to wash them on the mainland.
This one picks-up the garbage, a process which costs 300% more than on the mainland.
Because the canal water is not very appetizing, tourists have trouble believing the tap water is safe to drink. In fact, it comes from an underground spring, but most tourists prefer to pay for very expensive bottled water, which, of course, come from the same spring. The problem is that the logistical footprint of water delivery is enormous. In a normal city as rich as Venice, they could use 18 wheeler trucks and forklifts to move 10 million bottles a day, but here money is not the issue, as the floating city’s reality will always force this inefficient means of delivery.
On that topic, I spoke to a local resident about shopping. She told me you can buy almost everything you need in the city, except large items. Because of limited space and complicated delivery, a store selling refrigerators or couches would not make sense, especially since the mainland town of Mestre is only 10-15 minutes away by train, bus or car.
The touristic centre of Venice, the enormous St Mark’s Square. You have to get up very, very early to see it empty like I did. Or maybe stay very, very late, like the people who drank those bottles of wine – in the most elegant way, paper glasses.
Speaking of Coca-Cola, in the 1960’s an advertisement agency spread grain spelling their name on the place. Pigeons rushed in for the feast, creating this cool, if controversial, picture. Today this would not be possible, as I believe the city authorities significantly curbed the pigeon population, as their droppings destroyed the art and architecture.
Funny how at the crack of dawn, near the square, about 95% of tourists carry a tripod! Only photographers and water delivery crews are up at this time.