Returning from visit to Venice in 2017 I have been thinking a lot about the dilemma of tourism which is both essential to Venice and also slowly strangling it. Indeed, this is not a problem exclusive to Venice with cities like Prague, Dubrovnik and indeed Edinburgh succumbing to the same issues.
Venice is literally a living mausoleum which understandably draws many to witness its beauty, however I worry that many have little consideration for the fragility of the city. I have been learning about the current campaign by Venetians to take back more control of their city – the most ostensible outcome of this being their desire to remove the cruise ships, and the unseen damage they are wreaking to the city’s foundations.
As we approached by air, and then our water taxi from the airport, 5 huge vessels were clearly visible in the port to the west of the city, towering above all the buildings. A couple of days later we witnessed one of these leaving the city heading slowly east in the waters between Venice and Giudecca. Palladio’s masterpiece San Maggiore was totally swamped by this super scale ship – and the crassness of the vessel, complete with its painted face, sharply contrasted with the sublime beauty of the city. It literally made me shudder watching the crowds on the deck frantically waving and pleased that they had managed to ‘do Venice’ in a day.
This is my fourth visit to the city, and for me I always plan to avoid St Mark’s Square if at all possible as I cannot abide tourist crowds and the detritus they attract. On our visit in 2015 my husband and I found a pocket of the city relatively untouched by tourism. We discovered this wonderful neighbourhood square through our love of tango dancing, my research unearthing a milonga in this particularly plaza on a Tuesday evening. Dancing under the stars with fellow tangeroes, whilst locals sat on benches and chatted, children racing around the centrepiece well and friends frequented the trattoria on the square, this place instantly captured the authenticity of a living city. And that memory stuck.
On our most recent visit we found our way back to the same area, enjoying prosecco for 2.5 euros a glass in the little local bar we found last time, before enjoying a meal at one of the afore mentioned eateries bordering the square. Children were again playing – chalking up the stone flags, racing on their scooters – whilst their parents and friends used the well as a drinks table for their aperitifs. Grannies sat in the shade chatting, and the little Co-op mini market had a continual stream of customers. This place feels like a place for true Venetians – and I felt guilty that our very presence as foreign visitors is eroding this.
So how can I reconcile these feelings with my desire to visit again?
The dual purpose of this visit was to celebrate my husband’s significant birthday and to visit the Art Biennale. For me the reinterpretation of heritage through contemporary art practice gives me a more authentic experience than trooping around the ‘obligatory’ cultural institutions and ‘sights’. Artists give us fresh perspective on how to understand the world around us.
And this is the reason I will return to this city – with fingers crossed that my purposefully unnamed favourite square remains unspoilt!!