Just over the decorative old stone bridge, the alley was so narrow that wrought iron balconies on opposite sides almost touched. Despite a general lack of light, bright red hanging potted geraniums seemed to thrive miraculously. I had meandered away from St. Mark’s Square and the tourist area as the streets, or “calles,” as they are called in Venice, became more narrow with far less foot traffic. I walked over another bridge, crossing a canal that could hardly hold the width of two gondolas, and continued down through a “sottoportego,” a street that actually leads under a house, where I came to a small square. A huge nettle or hackberry tree, common in Mediterranean countries, dominated the middle of the square with a dried-up pond of ancient stones surrounding its base. On the far side of the square was one of Venice’s many churches, probably dating back to around the year 1200, although it could even have been much older as San Giacomo is rumored to be the first church in Venice and was allegedly consecrated in the year 421.
A beautiful sound of string instruments wafted outside. I carefully pushed open the heavy door, trying to create as little disturbance as possible. The only natural light came from enormous stained-glass windows depicting religious scenes through a kaleidoscope of colors. Near the ancient altar, two ladies in simple black dresses were playing violins. An older gentleman in jeans was playing a cello. They were surrounded by candles on the floor. There was no one else in the church.
I carefully sat down in a pew near the back of the church as the light classical music was enhanced by the high ceiling with near perfect acoustics.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Venice as a child and have travelled back numerous times since, both in beautiful weather as well as during flooded periods.
It truly is a romantic city at any time, but my musical experience was one of my favorite times, as it occurred unexpectedly while I was trying to find my way to a public “water bus” vaporetto, going to the island of Burano, one of the other 124 islands in the Venice lagoon and a mini-Venice but with small narrow homes painted in a rainbow of colors.
It is a splendidly scenic side trip out of Venice.
Called the City of Canals and Floating City, Venice is part of the 124 islands on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. There are 177 canals and over 400 bridges and what most people do not realize is that, despite all the water, the city also is home to over 500 gardens. Originally constructed in the Fifth Century for people fleeing the mainland, platforms were built on top of wooden pilings in the water. The so-called Alder wood, renowned for its water resistance, was imported from what is now Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. The wood survived remarkably also because of the salt, minerals, and poor water quality lacking oxygen. However, Venetians still have to live with their city slowly sinking in the water by one to two centimeters a year. In 1987 the authorities got together to construct movable barriers to prevent high water. But it wasn’t until July of 2020 that the barriers were finished and proved their success in keeping in most flooding out of the city. It certainly is an experience to wade through the waters in high plastic boots, available at every souvenir shop, when the water does rise.
All the main areas also provide elevated wooden walkways during storms, but it becomes extremely congested with thousands of tourists trying to keep dry by balancing on the temporary walkways.
Venice is the only fully pedestrian city in the world and the tourist center is rather small.
People arrive at the Piazzale Roma and the artificially built parking island of Tronchetto by car, train, or cruise ship. A local bus, boat or vaporetto, and water taxis take tourists mostly to Piazza San Marco, the center of romantic Venice. There you will find the fabulous Doges Palace dating back to 1340 and the home of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the former Republic. Many hotels, restaurants and shops are located within easy walking distance right around the square area, including the world famous 300-year-old Florian Café and Harry’s Bar known for its patrons, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. Another short walk brings one to the Rialto Bridge, another of the popular sights in Venice built in 1591 and lined with a plethora of gold jewelry shops.
Over the last years, before COVID-19, this historical star city has been in the news as Venice leaders had to grapple with massive over-tourism. Venetians were leaving in droves as they could not stand the masses anymore. Many of the souvenir shops were taken over by people from other countries, and it became the norm that even typical Italian restaurants all over Venice were run by people from India, Pakistan, and the former Eastern Europe. Huge cruise ships were towering over the city, sailing through the famous Giudecca Canal, in and out of the cruise port just on the outskirts of the city.
Massive tax hikes on cruise lines, hotels and about everything else did not change the situation, but then in August of 2019 many Venetians sighed in relief when the mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, announced that cruise ships were going to be banned from the famous Giudecca Canal in front of St Mark’s Square.
It was sooner than anyone expected when suddenly there was not a tourist to be seen in San Marco Square, and all cruise ships disappeared. Unexpectedly COVID-19 gave the Venetians their wish. Covid-19 prevented tourists from visiting. The waters became clear, all sorts of fish could now be seen far into the canals, and despite the lock-down, many locals were at first relieved. But the pandemic seems to repeat the horrific experiences of the Seventeenth Century plague, or “Black Death,” when sailors arriving in Venice had to quarantine for 40 days on outside islands. Many of the intriguing carnival masks Venice is famous for have long noses, and it is said that doctors wore them to specifically keep their distance from patients. And now Venetians are wearing masks once again, albeit not the beautiful ornate ones the stores no longer sell, because there are no tourists to sell them to.
The pandemic has hit hard in Venice and beyond, and many Venetians begin to realize tourists were not so bad after all. As vaccines become more readily available and people begin to travel again, I wonder if there will be a way to satisfy both tourists and locals in experiencing one of the most magical cities in the world. For now, some of the major cruise lines have already decided they will use the port of Ravenna when they are able to cruise again. The two-hour drive, instead of the spectacular sea entry past St. Mark’s Square and the Doges’s Palace, will certainly not be the same. But perhaps it will allow this fascinating treasure of a city to survive.
Ewout Rijk de Vries is a photographer and journalist who has lived full-time on Marco Island since 1984. He travels to the far-out corners of the world in search of the best photos and stories. He and his wife, Jill, also own America Travel Arrangements, Inc., a travel company on the island with clientele in six different countries. Ewout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.