A Slowly Sinking City ~ Venice, Italy (Prima Parte)

Venice, situated in a lagoon in a calm section of the Adriatic Sea, is Europe’s best-preserved big city.  I had longed to see this romantic, elegantly decaying city since watching a documentary many, many years ago – gondoliers traversing the waters of the Grand Canal, singing Italian ballads to their paying passengers.

Park your car at the bus station just across the causeway (no cars allowed on this island) and come along with me as I give you a sneak peek into this urban wonderland.  Leave your 21st century mindset behind as we step way back in time (about 1,500 years).

Venice, a colorful kaleidoscope of people, 400 bridges, 2,000 alleys, and 177 canals, is made up of more than 118 small islands, joined in the shape of a fish.  What was once a refuge from barbarians is now a slowly sinking city filled with tourists.

Just one of the colorful canals snaking through Venice.

The sinking has not been caused by the hordes of tourists, although some locals may think otherwise during peak travel season.  Venice has battled rising water since the 5th century and the water seems to be winning.  A phenomenon called “aqua alta”, usually occurring mid-autumn until late winter, causes the city to flood about 100 times a year.  The aqua alta occurs when a large tide combines with strong winds and an incoming storm.

This grand deteriorating city sits atop sediments that are still settling and compacting.  Along with the forces of Mother Nature, some man-made events have caused the city to be more vulnerable to flooding as well – offshore pier work and the construction of a railroad bridge to the mainland. You will know the aqua alta has arrived when you step into a paved square and find water pooling in stone grates at the square’s lowest point.  Time to seek higher ground!

Silhouettes during an evening stroll along the alleyway where we stayed.

Since a serious flooding in 1966, officials have struggled to find a solution.  It has taken about four decades for all to agree to install mobile gates on the floor of the sea, where she enters Venice’s lagoon.  When the seawater rises to a certain level, air is pumped into the gates, causing them to rise and shut out the Adriatic.  The project is due to be finished sometime this year.  There are many skeptics.

Coupled with that “sinking feeling”, Venice is also losing her population.  There are 58,000 residents in the “old city” and this number is down to about half of what it was just 30 years ago. It’s an expensive place to live, as everything has to be shipped in and hand-carted to its final destination.  Locals are leaving at a rate of about 1,000/year and of those remaining, roughly 25% are senior citizens.

A more primitive water taxi perhaps?
A more primitive water taxi perhaps?

Even so, the city is thriving thanks to the tourist trade.  But her cultural heart is dying.  City planners fear that in a few short decades once proud Venice won’t be a city any longer, but rather a “cultural theme park”.

So, let’s visit this unique city before it’s too late. Take a deep breath; step onto the vaporetto (water taxi) with the locals and tourists; know you will pay an exorbitant price for some items; and yield to her magic.  It’s time to take a ride on the Grand Canal!

The Rialto Bridge, a major landmark of Venice, is lined with shops and currently being restored. This is the third bridge built on this spot, constructed in 1588. It closed the Grand Canal to shipping and made it a canal of palaces.
The Rialto Bridge, a major landmark of Venice, is lined with shops and currently being restored. This is the third bridge built on this spot, constructed in 1588. It closed the Grand Canal to shipping and made it a canal of palaces.

The Grand Canal is Venice’s “Main Street”.  It is two miles long, 15 feet deep, and nearly 150 feet wide, making it Venice’s largest canal, with some pretty impressive sights along its shoreline.  Nearly 25 miles of canals drain the city, dumping into the Grand Canal.

If you are waiting for your luggage to arrive, this is where you might find it.
If you are waiting for your luggage to arrive, this is where you might find it.

Dating from the days when Venice was the world’s richest city, palaces can still be seen lining the Grand Canal. Sadly they are slowly rotting as there are now very strict laws prohibiting changes to these buildings.  Many of these grand palaces now sit vacant, still with brilliant chandeliers gracing the space above watery, empty ground floors.  But in some ways this only adds to Venice’s charm.

Police, taxis, ambulances, garbage trucks, and gondoliers all travel the waters of the Grand Canal, although gondoliers do prefer the quieter canals.  This is where most accidents between the vaporetti and gondoliers occur.

There’s the bell tower at St. Mark’s Square, rising above the Doge’s Palace.  Ok, here is our stop.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, where the tourists and pigeons compete for space.
St. Mark’s Square and Basilica, where the tourists and pigeons compete for space.
Interesting bell on a building in St. Mark's Square, along with the symbol of Venice, the winged lion. Representing the evangelist St. Mark, it appears in both merchant and military naval flags.
Interesting bell in St. Mark’s Square, along with the symbol of Venice, the winged lion. Representing the evangelist St. Mark, it appears on both merchant and military naval flags.

Time to head back to rest up for a full day of sightseeing tomorrow.  Let’s get back on the vaporetto.

The Accademia Bridge near sunset.
The Accademia Bridge near sunset.

Here’s my stop, San Basilio in Dursoduro (the belly of the fish), where I have secured an apartment for us for the next three days.  See you soon for part two, where we’ll take a peek inside some of these beautiful old buildings.


36 thoughts on “A Slowly Sinking City ~ Venice, Italy (Prima Parte)

  • Gorgeous photos. You captured Venice at its finest. Our daughter, Carrie, and I visited Italy a few years back and loved Venice. We sat in St. Mark’s Square and just people watched for several hours. There is where we tasted our first real taste of gelato. Outstanding.

    • I loved sitting in St. Mark’s Basilica early morning, before the church was open to the public. There is a smaller chapel set aside for prayer and meditation. There was a high mass being said in another part of the basilica that we could hear. It was a very moving experience. We have been taste-testing gelato all over Italy. 🙂

  • What a wonderful post LuAnn. It brought back many memories, and the opening photo is a beauty! Venice is one of my favourite cities in the world. Thanks for a little re-visit, and a lot of information about the city that I didn’t know.

  • Like Alison you have brought back many wonderful memories of our time in Venice. I remember so much repair work going on. What can one expect with a sinking city? Wonderful to follow along.

  • Never having been to Venice, I had to go to Google Earth to see the city from above. I find it fascinating that there are so many small canals that make up the “roads.” This is one place I would like to see in person. You are doing a great job introducing the city to us from water level. Your photos are gorgeous, especially the header:) Looking forward to your next day!

    • Thanks Pam. This has been one of my favorite cities in Italy. Just the idea that there are no roads, just waterways, is rather mind-boggling. We got out early morning to watch the city come alive. Seeing children on the vaporetto going to school, ambulances racing to respond to emergencies, cranes being carried down the canal to begin work on a building…just fascinating!

  • What an excellent tour guide you are, LuAnn! It’s wonderful to revisit Venice through your lens (and your storytelling, which makes history much more interesting. :-)) Your beautiful photos transport me back in time—it seems like only yesterday that I was marveling at the grand architecture lining the canals (with water lapping at the doorsteps!) and sitting in St. Mark’s Square, enjoying gelato and a view of the magnificent Basilica. Thanks for taking us along with you.

  • Mmmm great memories. We were in Venice in winter years back, for Christmas and attended mass at the main square. It was an incredible experience. Especially as the square was flooded and boards were set up for everyone to navigate from one side to another. (Few tourists in sight… I guess most avoid Venice in winter but even though it was cold, it was absolutely beautiful and very “local” with just a handful of travellers.)

    Beautiful photos… makes me rather nostalgic.


  • Thank you for this wonderful tour and enlightenment about this fascinating city. In due time that city will only have tourist and no more residents with 1000/per year departure! How are the sewage handled?
    All captures are just wonderful, I feel like I’m sitting right next to you listening to your narration.

    • It is sad to think that soon Venice could be no more. It is such an interesting city. I am not sure how they handle the sewage but for a city with its issues, there is surprisingly no foul smells coming from the canals. I found it to be a charming city.

  • Your photos and written tour might be the push I needed to try to see this city. Venice is one of those places, like Prague, that I know I need to see but keep putting off for more exotic or strange places. The soft light you captured and the small scenes of quieter streets somehow make this famous city seem more “real” and appealing.

    • I was captivated by this city, even more so than I thought I would be. I loved everything about it but most enjoyed just wandering the alleys near sunset when the shadows starting to grow longer and the crowds thinned. Prague is on our radar as well.

  • Love the photos, I didn’t know about the sea gates they were working on. It’s good to see that cars can be left behind as well, we need more of that. I hear the scents of Venice are something to be remembered if not spoken about in glowing terms.

    • One can only hope the sea gates work for Venice. As for the smells, I didn’t notice any unusual odors throughout Venice. Perhaps when flooding occurs and there is lots of standing water the aroma of the area changes. 😉

  • You not only showed Venice, but told so much more of it. I’m glad you chose to ride the gondola despite the price. Travelers have questioned whether it is worth it or not.
    A commentator from my Rome post said that the Spanish Steps have closed off due to rehabilitation while the Trevi Fountain just recently got reopened. It was the other way around when I was there last year.

  • Such an evocative post LuAnn. I enjoyed revisiting beautiful Venezia through your eyes and words. You photos are stunning. Especially love the light and shadows in the alley shot.

    Have missed you. Haven’t been too regular on WP myself. Hope all’s well with you and Terry.

    • Hello Madhu. Good to hear from you. Thanks for the lovely comment. I took a very long hiatus and wasn’t sure I would go back to blogging but I missed writing so here I am again. Once I return from Europe and have a better internet signal and more time, I will be visiting more blogs, yours included. 🙂

  • Magnificent. Truly beautiful, although I have to question their choice of putting a poster on the side of a bridge. I get that they need to advertise, but it takes away the olde worlde feeling to the place by reminding you that you are not the 1700s.

    Thank you for sharing these with us LuAnn.

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