Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On Looking for a Quiet Place to Eat in Venice, Barbarians, Gates, and the Big Beat

"Everybody dance now!": The visual distance of the above party boat belies its unfortunate auditory proximity
Another day, another outrage. We seem to live in an Age of Indignation, and yesterday many Venetians were indignant over reports in the local press that a family of six set up a campsite during the middle of the day just a few yards from the old entrance to the Museo Archeologico, in the arcade just across the Piazzeta from the Palazzo Ducale. With this picturesque view before them and shaded from the summer sun, the family heated up spaghetti on a small camp stove and enjoyed a pleasant repast while seated on the old stones of one of the busiest and most famous urban cultural sites in the world.

Where were those young people in the crimson shirts, the "Guardians of San Marco", who used to have the Sisyphean task of shooing seated tourists off the steps all around the Piazza? In a city lacking the funds to even clean its school classrooms, I suppose they've been laid off. After all, billions of euros have been needed to build the MOSE watergates--and we continue to find out just how responsibly those funds have been handled.

Though their main course was spaghetti, the family of picnickers don't appear to have been Italian, and I find myself wondering in what culture anywhere in the world is it considered appropriate to heat up lunch while sprawled about the entrance to a large imposing museum or civic building? Is there someplace where people regularly camp out at the entrance of their city hall, not as a form of protest but simply because it offers a nice view and the pavement is somehow appealing?

In any case, on the longest night of the year, last Saturday, intent on escaping the crowds of the city center, we set out in our small sanpierota for the north lagoon. Tourists may swarm over the 110 or so linked islands of the city like ants upon a neglected picnic blanket, but on the water...! The water, we thought, still belongs to locals.

We didn't head too far out. In a shallow stream between two large grassy barene (or mud flats) a short distance from the island of Sant' Erasmo we planted our two oars and tied up our boat to them. Purple wild flowers bloomed upon spindly but hardy stalks at water's edge; a heron stilt-walked fastidiously through the marsh at one barena's center; another bird, mostly white, flapped furiously in place 20 feet above the water, then folded its wings and dropped like a plumb line (splash!) after its dinner below. Leaning over the side of the boat between bites of his sandwich, Sandro caught and released a paguro (hermit crab), then two crabs. In the distance to the west, airplanes landed silently at Marco Polo Airport on terra ferma. To the north was Burano, and the dark cypresses that cloister San Francesco del Deserto.


Is there anything that sounds so moronic as the looping beat of a pop or disco song when all you really want is quiet and a peace made all the more peaceful by the hushed lapping of water and the shimmery cries of lagoon birds?


A party boat. A "booze cruise," as they're called in America, where they trawl the waters around Manhattan, for example, their music thumping off all the concrete verticality of that restless sleepless city. You hardly notice them there. Whereas music carries far over the wide open waters of the lagoon and there have been late nights at home when we've been presented with the unlikely but poundingly insistent auditory illusion that our elderly neighbors across the calle have suddenly take it into their heads to blast the Village People's "YMCA".

Yes, as we learned, you can abandon the city to tourists as the original settlers of the lagoon abandoned the mainland to invading hordes of barbarians 15 centuries ago, but these days the barbarians, piloted by money-making Venetians, follow you out into the water.

THUMP THUMP THUMPA THUMPA... Imagine being on a boat like that, with the sites of more than 15 centuries of history slipping lazily past you: over 15 centuries of poverty and plague and struggle, of hard subsistence right up through the Second World War amid one of the world's unique ecosystems, an uneasy and endangered collaboration between humans and nature--and you with an iced Moretti beer in your hand and the amplified command of "Everybody dance now!" filling your head.

Of course this is part of the great master plan for the city by the large interests (not necessarily elected) who run it. Though study after study has warned that the city has exceeded its "load capacity," that uncontrolled mass tourism is destroying the infrastructure of the city and the little that remains of its social fabric, that the 75% of the 20 million+ tourists who stay in the city only a few hours are actually costing the city more than they are spending here, the interests who control the city tell us not to fear: all that needs to be done is to encourage the ever-increasing number of tourists to spread out over the lagoon like an oil slick. With just a little encouragement, these controlling interests assure us, there will be herds of day-trippers picnicking in Sant' Elena (goody!) and vast armies of tour groups tramping through the remotest corners of Cannaregio (hurrah!). Kayakers will outnumber the lagoon's birds and booze cruisers will drink themselves dizzy circling the area in a grand armada of booming boats.

Not surprisingly, those behind such plans are those who make their money moving people in and out of the city. Those for whom the city would most profitably function as a big glittery revolving door, taking the masses they deliver to it for a quick whirl then turning them out to be transported profitably away.

As The Venice Report: Demography, Tourism, Financing and Change of Use of Buildings (Cambridge Univ Press, 2009) points out, the only sources of the influx of tourists into Venice actually controlled by the city are parking spaces for cars and scheduled bus service. All other means into and out of the city are in private hands, whose interest is in ever greater flow.

The problem with the great master plan, though--aside from the obvious destructiveness of it--is that it isn't working even on the terms promised by its proponents. A recent report http://nuovavenezia.gelocal.it/cronaca/2014/05/30/news/turisti-tutti-nell-area-marciana-1.9331467) showed that attendance at the 15 churches into which tourists can enter with an economical Chorus Pass (which includes I Frari and the famed "jewel box" Santa dei Miracoli)--and which were supposed to act as magnets drawing tourists away from the packed Piazza and Rialto--were down over 21% last year. Attendance at the group of Musei Civici (or city museums such as Ca' Rezzonico and the Museo Correr) was also down nearly 10%. Meanwhile the density of visitors in the packed area between the Rialto and Piazza San Marco actually increased during the same period--in some cases to disastrous and even life-threatening levels.

The vandalism and destruction perpetrated by last year's record crowd for New Year's Eve in the Piazza were well documented in local papers. Marketed as "A Midnight Kiss in Piazza San Marco", what revelers were actually up to that night was far less romantic, as were what they left behind: tons of trash, a lot of broken glass, urine and vomit (as well detailed here: http://iamnotmakingthisup.net/20308/taking-a-closer-look-at-new-years-eve/). While less than two months later, the Carnevale crowd that attended last year's "Flight of the Angel" from the Campanile of San Marco were crammed so tightly in and around the Piazza that there were reports of people panicking at the lack of space and utter impossibility of movement. I saw this first-hand and can attest that the density of people would be legal in no building in the world. But because the Piazza is without a roof--as if in the absence of adequate exits the crowd could simply take wing like a flock of pigeons--Venetian authorities continue to push their luck and endanger the lives of visitors. It takes very little imagination to foresee the day when their luck, and the luck of the scores of tourists who will be trampled to death, is likely to run out. 

I'm afraid this has turned into a longer post than I'd intended, ranging far beyond what was for my family and me, after all, just a minor inconvenience: a bit of encouragement to range further afield in the lagoon, seeking out someplace beyond the routes of party boats.

But a larger point is perhaps worth suggesting: that regardless of the indignation aroused by picnickers under the arcades of Piazza San Marco, Venice's problem is not that there are "barbarians" at the gate, nor (as anti-immigration sorts like to claim) even "barbarians" within the gates, but that there are barbarians who actually control the gates, both the literal water gates (as the MOSE corruption continues to prove) and the metaphorical ones that must be maintained for the well-being of the city's residents, buildings, ecosystem, and, yes, even tourists themselves. The irresponsibility of those with control over such gates is the ugly thumping sense of things that one can hardly go a day here without being assaulted by, and its beat goes on and on, increasing in decibels.


  1. Sadly this is nothing new. The pink floyd concert should have taught everyone something, but history repeats itself over and over.
    I love Venice like nothing else, it is one unique and fragile city, but I don't recognize the Venice I see when I come back. Yes, barbarians are the ones who allow this "scempio".

    We used to go to a canal near lio piccolo, I forgot the name, with high tide coming in the water was pretty clean. Maybe not too far for Il Refolo.

    1. If they learned anything from the Pink Floyd catastrophe, Laura, the lesson seems to have worn off in the last couple of years. I'm hoping they learned something from last year and it will stick. We will have to look into Lio Piccolo; thanks for the suggestion.

  2. I know nothing about the politics of allowing cruise ships in Venice. I don't get why they are allowed when there is no financial benefit the the City, only detriment. Unless someone is benefiting. Surely not the city or people of Venice.

    1. The estimates of how many people have jobs that depend directly upon cruise ships vary, Cindy, but some say as many as 3,000. But however many it is, I don't really believe decisions about cruise ships are being made with those workers in mind, but for the benefit of the few who are making big money from the traffic: for and by people with interests in the port itself. As for merchants, restaurants and the like, the average cruise ship passenger spends very very little.

  3. I suspect that a significant percent of landed tourists experience not elation and the sense of fulfillment but some distinct anxiety - the city is so splendid and complex, it's so beyond their grasp, emotionally and intellectually. To get to know Venice well is too much of an effort - so they resort to...pinch it's magnificent body in some puny way.

    1. I've gotten that sense, too, Sasha, that a place like Venice makes many people rather uncomfortable: there's so much history, so much grandeur, so many famous names associated with it, where do any of us contemporary folks, who are relentlessly told by advertisers & entertainment & politicians that each of us is spectacular and special (or could be if we bought & consumed "properly") really fit in? It's easy to feel--golly!--rather small and insignificant. So we write our names on a lock and attach it to the Rialto... As though that's a bold act of self-assertion that lifts us up into the ranks of past visitors like Galileo and Dante et al. Or at least up their with Brad and Angelina and Johnny...