Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Before the Flood

Summer reading in a small town on Lake Como

Not a single postcard for sale anywhere in the whole town.

Of this fact I became aware only gradually during the just-concluded week we spent in a village on Lake Como.

More immediately striking upon our arrival in such a beautiful setting was that in the town's small lake-side playground I heard only Italian being spoken. And on its little beach. And among the cafe tables under the trees beside the lake.

How was it possible? Given the town's position upon the lake, its long waterside promenade, its charming marina in the heart of the village, its circolo di vela (sailing club and school) near one end, the small medieval maze of streets set back from the waterfront (rather like a mini-Genova), among which were a fruit and vegetable seller, two butchers, a couple of grocery stores, an optometrist--where were the tourist hordes? The guided tours, 75 strong, clogging up the narrow shaded lanes, the day-trippers sprawled on the stones around the monument to one of the town's past luminaries?

I suppose this is what living in Venice does to you. Forget about any romantic old notions that living among great beauty, such as that for which Venice is famous, refines your capacity for aesthetic appreciation or sharpens your senses. I'm not so sure about that. But what it definitely does is make you marvel, when confronted with a setting of great beauty, that the place hasn't been exploited more.

My heavens, you think, this is stunning! Then, immediately: What the hell are these backward people waiting for? This is a mass tourism goldmine!  

 Not that you actually want it to be exploited. It's simply staggering that it hasn't been.

Because you just know that it won't last. It can't last. You see the retired people who meet in the town square before dinner each day; you see the empty textile mill along the river that is likely to have employed a number of them before it closed in the early 1980s; you see the parents with young children in the park and wonder about their sources of livelihood; you look at the ads posted in the windows of the few real estate agencies, at the price of the apartments and the nature of their sales pitches (still entirely in Italian); you look at the (not inexpensive) menu prices of the waterfront bars, cafes, restaurants; and you find yourself calculating, "How many years until the whole economy turns? Until speculation, under the guise of 'development', gets a firm grip and its major proponents begin presenting their demands as the only way forward, with all the vehemence of well-practiced extortionists? 

I checked on the Trip Adviser website to see what had been said about this town and took some comfort in the fact that a couple of people who had posted queries about it--"Is it a good town to stay in on the lake in the summer? What is it like?"--were actually counseled against it by more seasoned travelers. These wise and worldly expeditionists advised the original questioners that to get a more authentic experience of Lake Como one should, on one's first visit to the lake, stay in either Bellagio or Varenna or Menaggio.

Excellent advice. At least in terms of preserving everything I found appealing in the town we stayed in.

We visited Varenna and Bellagio, and my main reaction to both, in differing levels of intensity, was that if I wanted to see so much tourist-oriented commerce I would have stayed in Venice.

But of course, after six years in Venice, we're over-saturated with that; just as someone who, say, lived near Utah's Great Salt Lake might want to vacation beside fresh water. A lot of other people might find--and obviously do find--the shops and menus and international crowds exciting or fun.

We just wanted quiet.

There were of course some tourists in the town we stayed in, but tourists in themselves--speaking as one of them--aren't bad, despite the rhetoric that can sometimes be heard in Venice. Most of us tourists travel with the intention of seeing something of the life of a place, and in places where tourism has not eradicated that local life visitors can be as interesting for those who live in the place as the locals are for the visitors. In contrast, in a situation like Venice, both visitors and locals often lose out on the chance to recognize the singularity in each other, to connect in any way, even fleetingly, beyond commerce.

The fact is that tourism is one of the world's biggest industries. It's not going away--short of some global cataclysm that would make us nostalgic for the days of mass tourism. Venice, as something like a ground zero of mass tourism, is uniquely positioned to become a laboratory for innovative approaches to problems that afflict cities and communities around the world.

Alas, innovation is not what those who control Venice seem to have on their mind.

We found the apartment in the little town on Lake Como on Airbnb. Yes, the same Airbnb that is causing so many problems in Venice and Barcelona and elsewhere. But the apartment we stayed in seemed to be the actual home of the woman who rented it to us. While we were there she was staying elsewhere, and other members of her family lived downstairs. They were not the proprietors of a number of tourist flats; they had only their own home to let.

Is it then okay to rent via Airbnb from someone like this, or is it simply the tip of a wedge, making its first entrance into a housing market it will inevitably upend? Or at least help to?

I don't know.

As our landlord's brother-in-law, who lived downstairs from our vacation apartment, gave us a lift to the train station he asked us where we were from. When we told him Venice he expressed surprise that we could bear living there. Too many tourists, he said, too expensive--like Varenna, the most touristy place on his side of the lake.

Then he said that before last year there weren't any tourists in his town at all. Which seemed like a bit of an exaggeration to us, made simply to suggest that even the limited numbers we saw during our stay were the beginning of what he recognized as an important shift.

An important shift, I might add, to which he and his family, and we ourselves, might be contributing.

NOTE: As tempting as it may be in the comments section to identify (or guess at) the town we stayed in, I'll delete any such attempts. Though if you're wondering, I'll tell you via the contact form found on the right side of this page under "About Me".


  1. For the first time in my life, I'm going to write a comment on this excellent blog. And it must be a grateful comment. Because thanks to reading every week its nuanced and complex use of english language I was able to get my Proficiency Certificate of English a couple of years ago. Thanks to its continuous attempt of converting into written language the always ephemeral nature of life wherever we live it (in Venezia or elsewhere). And it's thanks to its effort of avoiding any simplistic approach to reality that I've become a "fervent" reader of its posts.

    As a catalan who lives near Barcelona and who loves Venezia is not easy to read such an honest and complex writing about the problems and opportunities of the global tourism. I support every word of your post and, in fact, when my wife and I visit Venezia always try to stay in places (like the excellent B&B of Francesco Trevisan in Dorsoduro you reccomended years ago...) where we know that local citizens of Venezia will profit from our presence. For sure it's not an easy issue to cope with but global tourism is there and -as you said- only through innovation we'll be able to find a perfect balance. Thanks for sharing your Venezia experience (or "life experience" we might say...) with the readers.

    Lluís from Catalonia

    1. Thank you very much Lluís, you're very kind--not least of all because living where you do near Barcelona you know at least as much about the issues raised by mass tourism as I do. I find it hard to work it all out, and fear that I'm not getting it (and a lot of other subjects) right, so I appreciate very much your encouragement and the time you take to read this blog.

      And to be able to express myself even a small fraction as well in the second language of Italian as you do in English is an impossible dream, but you're a helpful reminder of the direction I should at least be heading!

  2. Please don't let that Rick Steves fellow find out about this place.

    1. Perish the thought, Yvonne! Perhaps, like those people on the travel forum, it doesn't seem "authentic" enough yet?