Sunday, July 24, 2011

Belly Up to the Sandbar: "Locals Only" off Sant' Erasmo

Domestic outposts anchored on either side of the sandbar
There are times when one hears or reads the statement that "There are no Venetians in Venice" so often that one is almost tempted to believe it. This is something quite different from the statement that the population of Venice has been declining for decades. The latter is a verifiable demographic fact; the former is a favorite among a certain kind of English speaker (or writer) who is troubled by what he or she fears is the lack of "authenticity" to be found in the city, and who usually ends up implying (or stating outright) that the Venetians one sees in shops or in calli or campi are not quite real people at all. That they have no actual life apart from the roles they perform for the tourists.

I suppose one reason such a view is so alluring is that it seems so "knowing", so superior to all the flimflam that takes in lesser mortals. 

But don't believe it.

There may not be too many Venetians left, but I've been struck by how strongly they maintain traditions very particular to the city--beyond the big spectacles that draw crowds of tourists or even the more intimate feste far away from the centro storico.

For one thing, as a Venetian recently told me, "there are two different Venices: one you experience on foot and with the vaporetti, another that requires your own boat."

As much as my wife and son wish otherwise, we do not have our own little boat. But on a recent Sunday we were invited by Venetian friends to spend a very hot late afternoon with them off--not at or on--the island of Sant' Erasmo.

Now a vaporetto does actually run to Sant' Erasmo, which seems to have its own beach scene and at least one restaurant--though I can't tell you anything about them. We never got closer than several hundred yards from the island. We like, dozens of other boats dropped anchor--to a depth of only about 3 feet--on either side of a very long and narrow sandbar some way off the island's shore and extending in the direction of the MOSE in the Lido inlet. Our friend said that when the tide is very low the sandbar is completely exposed from Sant' Erasmo to the inlet.

I feel safe in asserting (as I'm actually only repeating what I was assured) that the sandbar scene really is "locals only." I've certainly never seen anything like it. It's a little like an old American drive-in burger place, where you park in one of a long line of spaces, order your food and eat it in your car. Except in this case, you're in a boat, there are no designated places or curbside service, and the "curb" itself will, if you stay long enough, disappear beneath the lagoon.

As beaches go--well, I'm a native northern Californian, so it doesn't seem fair to make comparisons. The sand is muddy, the water is shallow and too warm for my taste, and, at least on one side of the sandbar, thick with mucky weeds.

As the tide rises real estate gets scarce
But, then, if one is looking for a sublime Nature experience Venice is not really the place to come. At the sandbar, as everywhere else in the city, it's all about human society.

Venetians of every age hang out at the sandbar: entire families (including grandparents), groups of teens, couples of all ages. One early-arriving family, as you can see in the photo above, staked a claim to a large enough plot of sand for a table, chair & umbrella. Groups of adults meet on the sandbar as if it were Via Garibaldi to catch up. Small kids play on the sandbar and as the tide rises struggle, like their Venetian forbears, to deal with the encroaching waves all around them.

But the vast majority of people spend most of their time at the sandbar in their own boat: eating, drinking, and (that favorite Venetian pursuit) sunbathing. Each boat becomes an outpost of the family's own home: a floating living room--small but persistent examples of the Venetian talent for domesticating the lagoon.  

Because it was so hot we went late in the day, for maybe 3 hours, but most people seem to spend much of the day there. One of our friends was concerned that she had seen a good-sized family she knew, including a grandmother who generally didn't fare well in the heat, setting off in their large open boat before noon to spend the entire day at the sandbar.

We didn't see this family at the sandbar but did happen to pass them in the Canale di San Pietro in Castello in their large beautiful old wooden boat as they and we made our way back home around 7:30 pm. Nonna looked absolutely fine, as did all the rest of the family--except for one member stretched out flat on his or her stomach and fast asleep near the boat's prow. A day at the sandbar can be exhausting.

Kids play in the muddy sand as a sunbather behind them catches the last rays


  1. What an absolutely wonderful experience for all of you! Who knew they used that sand bar in such a manner?

    The little girl in the left of the last photo just might be from Australia. Or else, her wee swim suit bottom came from here! And, speaking of Australia .. what about that Cadell Evans!?

    116 days now, and I'm not packing my bathers!

  2. We had a chance to go back to Sant' Erasmo yesterday with some other friends but it was too stormy and cold (yes, cold) here to go through with it.

    You are extremely observant (which is not a surprise at all as I know from your blog); her mother is from Australia (though has lived here for 12 yrs) & her father is Venetian. She speaks Italian.

    You may not be doing any lagoon swimming in November (though on Jan 1 you can go into the Adriatic w/ that "polar bear" group) but you also are less likely to be swimming through the ridiculous crowds of San Marco of these summer days.

    Viva Cadell Evans!

  3. Lovely story & photos - what a way to spend a sunny day! I love the beach umbrella.

  4. Thanks so much for your kind remarks; I'm glad you liked the piece.