Venice Moments, at Just the Right Time

Friday, April 8, 2022 | Venice, Italy

A Venetian flag flutters over one of the canals that remain the city's primary arteries.

Given how widely I've been fortunate to travel, it takes a lot to shock me. But the view as we emerged from the Venice train station, squinting in the afternoon sun, really stopped me in my tracks: beyond a small plaza lay the sparkling emerald water of the Grand Canal, crisscrossed by gondolas, water taxis, and pleasure craft—just as I'd always imagined it, yes, but very much alive.

Or maybe I had just forgotten how it feels to travel. By the time Nina, Stella, and I visited Venice back in September, it had been nearly two years since our last proper vacation. After a few days in South Tyrol (the rugged slice of northern Italy that is largely Germanic in language and culture) we spent four nights in Venice. It was a chance to finally discover a place we had both longed to visit but—put off by horror stories of overcrowding—had never dared to.

Amid perfect late summer weather, we spent our days meandering through the city, gelato in hand and Stella in the backpack. We took a sunset gondola ride, snapped a thousand photos, and toured the Basilica di San Marco and Doge's Palace. (The latter is a fascinating relic of Venice's opulence during its heyday as the capital of a sprawling maritime empire and an enlightened hub of commerce and the arts.) We discovered a favorite restaurant, Al Vecio Portal, with astounding seafoods and pastas served in a secluded garden—where little Stella charmed the waiters and fellow patrons several evenings in a row.

Absent the usual crowds, waiters in St. Mark's Square idled.

I've visited Amsterdam, Annecy, and several other cities-with-canals that are sometimes dubbed "the Venice of" their respective lands. But none of these rely on canals as much as Venice, where the waterways are both far more numerous and far more central to the city's daily life than I had anticipated. They aren't merely for the tourists' benefit; in the absence of cars, they remain Venice's principal arteries for moving goods and people, not unlike when they were constructed centuries ago.

It was only in Venice that I discovered that the gondoliers rowed, not poled, their way along the canals, though the waterways are indeed shallow. Our gondolier assured me I could stand comfortably in most of the smaller channels, depending on the tides.

I opted not to test the theory, even if the water was far cleaner than I had expected—impressively so, given the thousands of residents and visitors all around. We hardly ever saw trash floating in the canals (a fact that seems commendable to a guy who's lived in the places I have).

The city's built infrastructure was also well maintained. For years before visiting, and in our research before our trip, Nina and I encountered claims that the city was falling into ruin. ("Venice is crumbling!") But in our eyes, the buildings, streets, and elegant bridges arcing over the canals were in marvelous shape. "Uh, have you seen the Casbah of Algiers?" one of us would mutter each time we heard such laments about Venice.

Baby's first gondola ride

For two people most at home in the world's less hospitable, more off-the-beaten-track destinations, it would have been impossible to enjoy Venice under normal conditions; we picked our moment right. As it turned out, September fell just between the Delta and Omicrons waves of the Covid pandemic, allowing us to travel safely while still experiencing the city as it hasn't looked in years—reasonably peopled, not totally overrun with tourists.

For years, Venice has literally been sinking under the weight of its tourism industry—which grew to attract about 20 million people annually to a core area of just 2 square miles / 6 square kilometers. On bad days, some choke points would grow so congested that police had to establish "one-way pedestrian zones." Massive cruise ships would flood the city with day-trippers but also bring heavy waves and pollution that accelerated the city's slide into the surrounding lagoon. As seas have risen, Venice has sunk by nearly a foot in the last century. Also disconcertingly, the ancient city has seen its population shrink by more than two thirds since the 1950s, hollowing out its soul to make room for more Airbnbs.

Given this pre-pandemic state of affairs, when Covid decimated Venice's tourism industry many locals welcomed the chance to both breathe and rethink the city's approach. Officials are introducing new measures to regulate visitor flows, attract more overnight travelers rather than frenetic day-trippers, and more. They've even launched a new program ("Venywhere") to encourage digital nomads to settle in the city.

Grand Canal, viewed from the Ponte dell'Accademia

Traveling amid the pandemic, we easily found a faded hotel just behind St. Mark's Square (and for a steep discount). The famous square itself was sprinkled with small clusters of visitors, and the streets were comfortable to walk in, far from empty but really only busy in the very heart of the old city, around the Rialto Bridge. (That was also the only place we encountered Nina's nemeses: Instagram princesses, trailed by obedient boyfriends.)

Our favorite day of our trip was one we spent far from there, on the city's northern fringes, where real Venetians, not tourists, filled the streets. After the school day, parents and grandparents sat on benches, chatting and watching their kids play. A girl celebrated her sixth birthday party with friends on folding chairs and tables in the corner of one small square. In another, a gaggle of kids played soccer until an errant shot left their ball wedged between a saint's statue and the church wall it adorned. Judging from their reactions, it didn't seem like the first time.

The feel of those simple moments are what travel is all about. It can sound strange, even hypocritical, for a tourist to lament overtourism, but if more of us are ever to experience those beautiful moments, to glimpse those flickers of the familiar in foreign lands, then we need to spread out, varying our timing and ranging far beyond the most-pinned, most-favorited, most-upvoted hotspots. As always, we are both our own greatest joy and own worst enemy.

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Daily life in a quiet alley of central Venice

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