Europe overflows with towns and cities and landscapes that evoke romance. Consider how many poets and composers and writers and painters drew their inspiration from a continent that heaves with twisty stone streets and landscapes bleeding history. But one city rears its red-tiled rooftops above all others in Europe and for that matter, the world. Venice defines unique. It rises from the Adriatic–a mirage that must disappear with the wind. But it doesn’t. The moment you arrive in Venice–step out from the train station or reach the parking lot at the Piazzale Roma–you are on the Grand Canal. Cars and busses stop dead and every engine sound comes from a boat.
How can such a place exist in the 21st Century? Boats instead of cars; canals instead of sidewalks; dark alleys instead of wide streets; swishing water instead of cars. Sleek wooden launches cut elegant waves and turn with the flick of long fingers on small steering wheels, inboard motors growl, water sluices. Barges are piled high with the behind-the-scenes dross of living that we never see in the real world—crates of food and bags of garbage, stacks of wrapped packages, sacks bulging with building materials—cement, sand, dirt—who knows? In the other, wheel-powered, world, everything is hidden in trucks. Here, everything is out in the open—vegetables and bottles of wine and tacky souvenirs and plumbing fixtures are all transported on flat-topped barges by wiry Venetian men in T-shirts and jeans. The chubby vaporetto chug back and forth across the canal, lumbering like old ladies pushing shopping carts, slow but determined. Cutting across white-foamed wakes glide the gondolas. I can watch them forever–the gondoliers in their striped shirts like ballet dancers with buzz cuts and features chiseled by wind and sun.
The Venetians have a serious look about them as if surviving, never mind thriving, in a sinking city, takes all their energy. With patient stoicism they dodge tourists who walk too slowly with their massive suitcases and cameras and ipads and selfie sticks brandished from the apex of every bridge, wide-eyed with the wonder of an impossible city. On any given day, particularly in the high season, tourists outnumber Venetians by about 2 to 1. How can a city overrun with people who only want to have a good time function? And yet it does function, and appears to function remarkably well. The Venetians in charge of running the city do so with grace and a long-suffering serenity that does not, at least in my experience so far, descend to surliness. The attendants on the vaporetti—the water busses—spend all day pushing through the crowds to go from one side of the boat to the other side at every single stop along the Grand Canal. First the right side, then the left, then the right again, on and on to the end of the canal and then back again. Every three minutes or so the attendant cries “Permesso, permesso.” During one vaporetto ride, the boat is so crowded that the attendant accidentally knocks into me while trying to part the crowd on his way to the other side of the boat. I in turn am knocked into a formidable old lady who sits on her walker with her bare toes exposed and ready to be stepped on. Of course, I step on them. She yelps; I apologize profusely in English, she lets forth a volley of abuse that I don’t understand, and then grabs onto the attendant and gives him hell for pushing me into her. Yikes! The poor guy. But he handles her with calm forbearance and when it is time for her to get off the boat, he helps shuffle her to the edge and lift her walker onto the dock with all the patience of a devoted grandson.
We walk just a few steps away from the main thoroughfares linking San Marco with Rialto, Accademia, and Ferrovia (the train station) and are transported into sober tranquility. The tramping of tourist feet recedes, the narrow sidewalks clear, the walls of the old houses press into silence. The only sounds are the lapping of water from nearby canals, the occasional rumble of a motor going dead slow through waterways built for human-powered boats, the sound of our own footsteps slipping over stone.
Here are some shots of quiet Venice.
The loudest sound, the only sound when we are walking is the sound of voices—Italian mostly—staccato and rapido and cheerful. We are in a world where sound is human not man made, apart from the occasional rumbling of a barge sliding by. On the Grand Canal, horns blare and the sound of water bubbling through motors brings back the 21st century.
Venice in September means cappuccinos in outdoor cafes in piazzas that bustle with locals and tourists. Fall is starting. The wind freshens and a sweater is needed in the morning. Skies are clear blue; muggy August with its mosquitoes and heavy heat are forgotten. Here is the Venice of perfection – bright, breezy, and pleasantly warm, the locals just starting to take back their city after another summer of tourists.
In every other European city I’ve been to—Paris, Rome, London—there is always the common thread of modernity. Even in Rome, ugly seventies concrete buildings and ultra-modern glass concoctions mar ancient skylines. In Venice, every building is old or at least looks old. Crumbling walls, plaster cracked to show bricks underneath, ancient wood beams scored with age and rot. Venice reminds me of an elegant older lady. I see two in a café where I pause to drink a cappuccino and write. Both of the ladies are well into their seventies, both with bright red hair permed to frizz, both wearing huge earrings with lips bright red in shades that clash spectacularly with the hair, eyes carefully made up. Cigarettes that dangle from claw-like hands account for the spider webs of wrinkles across skin the color of old parchment. The overall effect is of incredible style and self-confidence. They make no apologies for who they are and what life has made of them. They are not sloppy even as faces crack with living. They are Venice in human form.
Venice is sensory overload. Just as the crowds become too much, the window displays of close-packed shops blurring into cloying masses of color, a turn takes us into a quiet street alongside a canal. A man lies atop his barge asleep in the sun. Another turn and we are back with heaving masses of tourists, then two minutes later, we are alone on a tiny bridge arching like a stretching cat over a canal flowing with timeless indifference. Another turn takes us into a wide piazza empty in the sun or full of tables and tourists, cheap stalls and fast walking Venetians.
As the days pass, we slowly, inexorably, fall deeply in love with stone and water and sky. This impossible city clutches at our hearts and wraps around our minds. Venice is crowded and hot and over-commercialized and in constant danger from a rising sea. And at the same time, Venice glitters and swirls—diamonds glinting under moving water, leaving us with the feeling that, for all its troubles, Venice has discovered how best to live.
Our last day in Venice feels bittersweet–like leaving a new friend who feels as old as time. The morning in Venice belongs to Venetians on their way to work or keeping the city afloat and functioning in a world without cars. Garbagemen, delivery men, workers with grubby t shifts and squinty eyes. Most streets are empty and people walk with quick purpose. As the morning progresses, the tourists emerge, mingling at first with the Venetians and then overwhelming them.
Venice, like no other city I’ve ever been in, burrows deep into your soul, nestling into parts of you never examined in the bustle of city life or even a car-dependent life in the country. Where the only transport is legs or boat, you slow down, readjust your definition of time, and do not resent detours and wrong turns and dead ends. All are equally important.