You may have read on occasion that Venice is slowly sinking — more about that shortly — but may not have been aware that it is shrinking dramatically in population as well. As recently as 1952 the official population of the lagoon city was over 200,000; today it is roughly 50,000. It has shrunk by 9% in the past 15 years alone, and the fear is that soon it won’t be a “real” city at all, with actual residents, but rather solely a tourist enclave populated entirely by tourists, gondoliers, restaurant owners, and souvenir vendors. In other words, it may become the Colonial Williamsburg of the Adriatic.
But at that, it would still be pretty charming: Venice is one of those places whose appearance comports very nicely with your mental image of it. Which is to say, that it looks like this:
Despite the charm, it’s pretty clear that the city is in decline, struggling to maintain its physical infrastructure. Venice the city-state reached the peak of its influence quite some time ago — the Venetians basically dominated the Western world from about 900 AD to 1300 AD — but, well, what have they done for us lately? At least a bit of this decline is a consequence of the aforementioned sinking, whose signs are everywhere. Basically, the water is lapping at the front door of every canal-side structure, and the “ground” floors of many dwellings are unusable as a result, as you can see here.
So when will you need scuba gear to tour Venice? It depends on who you ask. The “official” rate at which the water is said to be encroaching is roughly 2 mm per year, but those self-same officials ascribe that number mostly to the rise in sea level of the Adriatic rather than the city actually sinking. (The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but the Venetians, Dutch, Seychellians, and other low-lying peoples know better. And if you, gentle blog reader, also disbelieve it, then you are a willfully ignorant idiot and can stop reading now, pausing only to leave some stupid comment that I will delete.)
Where was I? Ah, lapping canals, yes. The official line is that, sea level rise notwithstanding, Venice used to be sinking on its own but isn’t any more. This may actually be true. Venice used to be studded with many artesian wells whose effect on the water table was exactly what you’d expect, and as the underground water was drawn off the city subsided to fill the gap. For that very reason artesian well drilling was halted about 25 years ago, and the subsidence has supposedly stopped as a result.
Maybe. A recent study by a geology group at Stanford claims that the city is in fact still sinking, at a rate of 8 mm per year. That is a lot: a foot every 40 years or so. The city fathers of Venice do not like this number, and there is quite the roiling controversy as to whether the study is correct.
Be that as it may, we will only be in Venice for 5 days, meaning that even if the Stanford study is correct the water will gain only about 0.1 mm on us, which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. And since we are staying in a third-floor apartment, our electronic equipment is probably safe.
We landed at Marco Polo airport at about 8:30 AM today (local time) and took the vaporetto (“water bus”) from the airport to the famous Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, from which we could walk to our apartment. It’s a third-floor walkup that we found through AirBnB, nicely appointed and well-situated maybe a 75 yards from the canal. Although its entrance is an obscure doorway in a tiny grey stone medieval alley, the flat itself is modern and comfortable: 3 bedrooms (though we only need to for ourselves and our traveling companions Jim and Elaine); 1 1/2 baths, a small living room with TV, and a large well-equipped kitchen and breakfast area.
The maid was cleaning the place when we arrived at about 10:45 AM, so we dumped our luggage in the living room and set off to explore the city for a few hours before exhaustion and jet lag felled us altogether. As it happens the particular part of the Grand Canal that our street abuts is the home of a large outdoor produce and fish market, which made for some pleasant wandering. The fish offerings in particular were plentiful and diverse, showcasing a number of creatures that we have seen rarely or not at all, including (a) gigantic black-and-white mottled and blobby-looking cuttlefish about the size of bed pillows; (b) buckets of whelks in their shells; and (c) a variety of unfamiliar crustaceans.
Some further wandering revealed that there are essentially three kind of souvenir vendors in Venice, found in about equal numbers. The sketchiest of these are the African guys who operate off a blanket thrown down just about anywhere on the street. They are everywhere, and they clearly all get their inventory from the same place, because they always all sell the same thing. (I have noticed this in previous trips to Italy and in Paris as well.) The “thing” that they sell is whatever happens to be the fad this year, which in April of 2015 happens to be selfie sticks for about 5 bucks each. Every last one of them was selling selfie sticks, and God knows the market was there because a lot of tourists — especially the Asians — were using them. Despite the availability of ready customers, the vendors were not at all shy at coming up to me and offering to sell me one as well…as I stood there holding my SLR with its soup-can-sized lens. Really? Does this camera look like you could attach it to a selfie stick and hold it at arms length?
The next-least-sleazy species of souvenir vendor is your garden-variety storefront selling plastic gondolas, teeshirts, snow globes…all the traditional tchotchkes. There are approximately one billion of these stores in Venice, and their density increases exponentially with proximity to a major tourist attraction such as Saint Marks’s Square. (Indeed, there are now so many selfie-stick-sellers and teeshirt vendors in Saint Mark’s Square that the famous pigeons have apparently been squeezed out; there were surprisingly few there.)
And finally we have the actual cool souvenir stores: the mask vendors. Venice is famous for its masks, as you may now, ansd there are many stores selling many beautiful ones. Some are whimsical, some grotesque, and many would be right at home in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. The nice ones of course are handmade, often out of papier mache, and one patient owner let us watch her for a while. You can see her at work and one of her simpler creations in these two photos.
We spent the rest of the afternoon variously walking our feet off our getting around on the vaporettos. (Question to my Italian friends: is the plural “vaporetti”?)
Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify the type of water traffic on the canals. The Grand Canal is positively choked with boat traffic which, remarkably, seems to manage itself quite handily with few or no collisions and not even any obvious near-misses. Anyway, a quick glance at the canal immediately reveals:
- Vaporettos, i.e., water buses that hold perhaps 40 people.
- Water taxis, which are much smaller and more expensive teak-paneled speedboats that hold perhaps 4 passengers
- Utility boats delivering supplies and construction, dredging, and other equipment from one point to another
- …and of course hundreds of gondolas, mostly filled with clueless seniors like us or Japanese schoolgirls with selfie sticks
…which pretty much sums up our day so far. The weather today was beautiful — sunny and in the 60s — but is supposed to turn sour tomorrow. So we are considering going out tonight for an obligatory gondola ride, which should be especially nice at night. Perhaps I will buy a selfie stick.