Italy is a relatively young country, as young as Canada actually, with the unification of all of its regions and cities finalized in 1870. I will spare you the complex historical evolution of how it came to be a nation-state, but suffice to know that prior to the unification, Italy was a collection of city-state government, (with oversight directly from the Pope) and where decisions were made by a council of representatives, or by a head of state such as a highly influential member/family of nobility rank.
It is one reason why in Italy, cities such as Milan, Napoli, Pisa, Rome, Florence, Venice and even Tuscany, are unique in their own right, and very hard to draw similarities. They are a product of their citizens and the culture they created, a unique history influenced by trade and conquests. This explanation will hopefully be useful as a backdrop for my summary of a visit to Venice.
As a somewhat experienced traveller, I can usually “feel” the mood of a city after spending a few hours in it. No mood or purpose of a city could be more distinctive, then Venice. A city where streets are replaced by canals, snaking through the man-made, over built terrain. Once a marshland of small islands, inhabited mostly by fishermen, Venice was never meant to become a city that would welcome 23 million visitors a year.
When one thinks of Venice, one conjures images and fantasies of one of the most beautiful and romantic city in the world. The marketing has been effective – as you see gondoliers guiding couples and families, through the canals, sipping on a glass of Prosecco.
We did not hire a gondola, but we did take a 1.5 hour sunset tour on board a beautiful motorised water taxi, sipping on Prosecco. Did it give us fantastic views of the cities great palaces and key sights of the city such as Piazza square? Of course. Despite being awed by the city’s incredible architecture and marvelling at the engineering allowing this city built on stilts to still be here more than 1600 years later, I could not help but feel I had contributed to its decadence, as a tourist.
It is an expensive city to visit, and even more expensive to live in. People who were raised in Venice and neighbouring island of Murano are forced off the island, to live on the mainland and commute to Venice to work, so tourists can sleep, eat and float. Originally meant to be a safe haven for people from the north, fleeing a Barbarian invasion in the 5th century, it now appears that people are running back to the north, because of the invasion of tourists, streaming from trains, planes and cruise ships.
In the ’40s, the city was home to writers, and artists and painters who went about freely amidst its cafes by the canal, being the free spirits that they were beckoned to be. Peggy Guggenheim, American art collector, bohemian and socialite made Venice her home among these artists, and ensured her own immortality by leaving behind a foundation transforming her home and personal gardens into a world-renowned art museum, with more than 800 pieces in the collection. That was the Venice to visit and know.
Now, its a slowly decaying city fighting for its environmental and economical survival. And…it is sinking. The council-run city has to find unique solutions to its sinking, and its flooding. Tourism sure helps cover some of those costs – but those same tourists are part of the problem.
I empathize with those residents – all 55,000 of them. They have lost 120,000 citizens in the last 20 years, probably their most young and able, looking for affordable places to raise a family, and to earn a living other than hosting the tourists. They want Venice to be “great again”. The Venice that it used to be. You can’t turn back the clock, and how do you turn away the foe that actually is your biggest economic generator?
The city, is incredibly beautiful. What city, sitting on stilts in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, bejewelled by 1600 year old marble palaces and churches with a unique Venetian style created by centuries of Greek, Roman and Ottoman influences would not be a beauty.
I left Venice, feeling sad and slightly nostalgic for its pride. Residents are hurt. They generously offered to share their beautiful city with the rest of the world, and now, its looking trampled, feeling disrespected and having to clean up after the popular kids have left your party.
That is the mood that I felt in Venice. I really pray and hope that the world, (it is a UNESCO protected heritage site) will support its efforts. I would say that if you want to visit Venice do it soon. In 5 years, they might declare a moratorium on tourism…..