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.

Ciao!

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