People who live on glass islands...

The changing face of Venice amid the acque alte (21 November 1999)

Just about every day I was in Venice, we had Acque Alte. That's when the lagoon backwashes into the city streets, starting with Piazza San Marco (the lowest point of Venice) and then filling in the low-lying calle around the Grand Canal.

The air raid sirens go off when the rising waters cause the first gondola moored at Piazzetta San Marco to start nudging over the embankment, usually somewhere around 5 a.m. Since this is an ancient and oft-repeated emergency, the Venetians are perennially prepared during the autumnal Acque Alte season.

Along key arteries of the city they string out a raised wood-plank walkway in long lines of picnic table–looking devices that allow pedestrians to glide over the surface of the water. Once the waters recede, these wide walkways on their stubby aluminum tube legs are stranded high and dry, dividing the streets down the middle, looking sort of like Venice is about to throw a huge outdoor feast for an army of dwarves.

Weather gone wild

Since my hotel—the lovely Ai Do Mori, ludicrously cheap for its prime location—was a half block off the piazza, my calle was one of the first to go under. I handled this on the first morning, when I had an early appointment to meet with some friends at the Rialto Bridge, by putting two freezer-size Ziploc baggies over my shoes and sloshing out to the plank walkways on the main drag.

The other mornings, I solved the problem merely by sleeping in until 10 or 11am, by which time the impromptu canal under my bedroom window was reduced to a shallow puddle I could easily wade through.

Sunday morning was memorable, however (for more than I knew, as it later turned out, as more than a third of the city was inundated with 1.21 meters of water, the most water Venice had seen invade its streets in well over a year).

I awoke for the second time that day at 8am, having already gotten the early alarm call at 5am by the acque alte siren. For a few minutes I lay in bed listening for the telltale "sloosh, sloosh, sloosh" of pedestrians four stories below my room going about their business in hip boots or gaiters.

I glanced over at the window to see if the sky was still cloudy (as it had been almost every day save one since I got here), or if it had by some miracle turned blue. What it was, was snowy.

This it turns out, is highly unusual, as was explained to me by just about every Venetian I met for the rest of the day, each of whom apologized profusely for the triple whammie of freezing rain and snow, bone-chilling winds, and acqua alta.

"This never happens!" they'd cry in dismay, clearly trying to convince me to give their hotels good reviews and not scare tourists away with my tales of Venetian meteorological misery.

As it happens, after an entire (late) morning and early afternoon of trudging through this singularly miserable weather, touring hotels and visiting freezer-like churches, I was damp and frozen to the bone and ended up carrying a nasty, flu-like cold with me for the next week across the Veneto. But I get ahead of myself.

A festival of good health, and many candles

This particular Sunday also happened to be the Festa of Santa Maria della Salute, the plague-halting Madonna to whom is dedicated that gargantuan late-Renaissance church perched at the tip of Dorsoduro (across the Grand Canal from San Marco).

For the occasion, they build a temporary floating bridge across the Grand Canal that stays in place for only that week. (Usually there are but three bridges along the entire, lengthy, lazy-S route of the canal: at the train station, the Rialto, and the Accademia). On November 21 — which by ecclesiastical coincidence fell on a Sunday this year — the normally closed grand central doors of the church are thrown open.

Venetians brave the hellish weather to make a pilgrimage here with clutches of candles firmly in hand, ready to surrender them inside the church to a member of the altar boy squadrons.

The altar boys' job on this day is to dash about the pair of tiny, candelabra-filled corrals flanking the stairs to the high altar, grabbing up those prayer candles from the faithful and lighting them from already-burning ones.

They place each fresh candle in an empty holder on a heavily laden, industrial-sized candelabra before yanking out several others—after the smoke has had a few moments to carry the supplicant's prayer (for the health of a loved one) up to heaven—so as to make room for the next prayer in the candle queue. These adolescents work feverishly and with precision, bathed in the sort of soft, warm, orangey-yellow candle glow that illuminates Flemish paintings.

Their prayer candles successfully bivouacked in a candelabra, the faithful in their fur coats and wool scarves shuffle around to attend one of the standing-room-only masses that are held, back to back, for the duration of the Holy Day.

The secret lives of innkeepers

But I didn't find the most telling window into modern Venetian life in that religious Festa, or in the experience of the Acque Alte, or even in the innumerable churches, museums, and cicchetti bars I visited. It was actually at Venetian inns, on those excruciating but all-important hotel tours, that I dug up the most dirt on La Serenissima.

At the hotel where I spent most of my stay, Ai Do Mori, the young owner, Alessandra, and I chatted quite a bit. One day we were discussing which restaurants were still good in town—or, to be more specific, which were those where you could still eat well, and find friendly service, for a reasonable price.

When the subject came up of the frightening inflation on menu prices, I started to bemoan my former favorite little trattoria, where just three years I enjoyed full meals for.... Alessandra interrupted me, "...30,000L; and now it costs seventy or eighty thousand lire." [Note: At the time, those prices would have equaled roughly $15, followed by $35 to $40.]

Exactly, I agreed, that's precisely what's happened. She shook her head and, after artfully talking a seedy-looking (not to mention slightly tipsy) potential guest out of wanting to stay here with his eleven friends (had they brought the whole team?), she returned to the subject at hand and lay down the rule on dining Venice.

"These days, you either have to find osterie well off the tourist routes, or go to the brand-new ones, before they realize how much they can make by taking advantage of the tourists and quickly sell out," by which she meant turning to high prices, low quality, or more often both. (All this from a woman who operates the one hotel closest to Venice's main sight, the Basilica San Marco, and yet still charges some of the lowest prices in town.)

Yes, it's easy to look at the evil in Venice, the overpriced Canalside Disneyland impression many tourists unfortunately leave with, especially if they stop here for only a day or two.

Those who stay a bit longer start to uncover the magic of Venice, rooting out those unspoilt osterie and getting to know some of the city away from the well-trod roads where signs point tourists down the quickest (read: most overpriced shop-lined) route through the arcane twisting street pattern from San Marco to the Rialto to the Accademia and then out of town again.

(I still maintain that the route along Calle dei Fabbri should be renamed "Rio dei Turisti," or 'Canal of Tourists,' for the unending flow of visitors along it, the same way the bridge just south of the Ponte dei Sospiri should be officially identified as "The Bridge of People Taking Pictures of the Bridge of Sighs," but urban planners never consult me before labeling their maps.)

Those who stay even longer can begin to get under the skin of La Serenissima—"The Most Serene"—and see the city for what it truly is, in all its gorgeous, chaotic, cut-gem splendor, a true wonder of the world and marvel of engineering over nature and yet at the same time a thoroughly shameless self-caricature of opera-warbling gondoliers and merchants earnestly hawking Carnevale masks and glass trinkets, all hand-made—in Taiwan. A most serene decaying beauty.

Marie-France Bailey has lived in Venice for 30 years. But now, even having achieved the prestigious post of PR director at the Londra Palace Hotel (one of those sought-after addresses on Riva degli Schiavoni overlooking the bay into which the Grand Canal empties, and where I spent my first night in Venice sampling the lap of luxury), she has become disillusioned with Venice. She is currently plotting her departure—back to Montreal, or perhaps to her father's homeland of Paris, or just anywhere else.

"This is not the same city I fell in love with," she sighed resignedly toward the end of a fine meal we shared in the hotel's recommendable restaurant. "Venice has changed; Venice is different. I don't enjoy it anymore." She looked downright glum at the sentiment.

But if you catch her at the right moment, Marie-France still betrays a trace romantic view of the city—however tarnished by time and jaded by constant close contact.

When we talked about hopping on the vaporetto to visit the outlying islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello, her eyes sparkled as she agreed that was a fine way to spend a day.

Then she took me up to the tiny roof terrace, the highest point on the whole Riva. Here, she confided, she once had a special dinner prepared and served to Sting and his guest ("A simply lovely, wonderful man," she nodded decisively).

"And what a beautiful view, all before you at your feet..." her hand swept vaguely over the Venetian panorama. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was clearly not speaking in brochure-speak for the benefit of the travel writer now. She was merely expressing her opinion.

She sighed as she tucked her elbows against her body in the cold breeze and swiveled to take in the 360-degree vista of the swooping Grand Canal, the helter-skelter terracotta rooftops and tipsy marble bell towers of the city, the expanse of the bay before us, its tiny wavelets chopping the sunlight into so many glittering yellow diamonds.

"You can see all of Venice..." She trailed off with a faraway look in her eyes, and after a few moments of gazing unfocusedly, her breath trailing out of her mouth in a frosty wisp drawn away from the bay on the stiff breeze, she excused herself to return inside out of the cold while I remained to snap a few pictures.

Sandra, on the other hand, who did a commendable job over the past year of renovating the one-star Casa Verardo Hotel at Ponte Storto (in the oddly little-touristed tangle of streets just east of San Marco), sat me down in the private room off the pensione's frescoed main hall with a glass of white Veneto wine to explain, in between dashing downstairs to check in guests, why she's getting out of the hotel business and selling her little hotel next year.

"Everybody wants to try and get into the game in 2000, for the Giubileo," she told me. "And they all want to charge ridiculous rates," she went on, explaining that her soon to be ex-colleagues have been trying to excuse the usurious prices by 'modernizing' the hotels, which means adding minibars and satellite TVs in the rooms but little else.

But modernization isn't always the best thing, Sandra argues, and in fact is in many ways contrary to what Venice (and her loyal visitors) wants, needs, or, indeed, should have to put up with. Venice, and the people who love it, needs the antique, the old-fashioned, the pensione. Sandra summed up Venice and its contemporary conundrum:

"Venice is not a modern city. Venice is decadent. It doesn't understand the modern and doesn't accept change. You can't make too many changes here because you're not standing on solid ground; you're walking on water. And yet these profiteers would change it to try and make money."

"People, yes, can adapt and can become modern, but the city, it is too delicate," she said. "It's like fine blown glass — which is so very beautiful and refined. But it's so thin you could shatter it with just one shout. And around here, lately, everyone is screaming."

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Venice tourist information
Giardini ex Reali, San Marco (between Piazza San Marco and its western ferry stop)
Vaporetto: San Marco–Giardinetti Reali
tel. +39-041-529-8711

How long does Venice take?

Planning your day: You could spend an afternoon in Venice, a day or two, or a week and never run out of things to do and new corners to discover.

I would try to give Venice at least a day and a half. Three days would be better, but most people don't have that kind of time, even for Venice.

I have suggestions for how to spend anywhere from half a day in Venice up to three full days on the Venice itineraries pages.

Venice is a city that, at first glance, seems excessively touristy and overrun. Some visitors can't wait to move on to someplace that feels a bit less like a canal-rodden Disneyland.

However, given time (and purposefully getting lost once or twice), Venice reveals its serenissima side and begins to seduce even the most jaded of travelers.

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Venice tourist information
Giardini ex Reali, San Marco (between Piazza San Marco and its western ferry stop)
Vaporetto: San Marco–Giardinetti Reali
tel. +39-041-529-8711

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