Earlier this week Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I experienced being in the midst of a natural disaster and human tragedy for the first time. We have seen forest fires from a distance and the damage they have done, seen chronic pollution in Delhi, and seen widespread flooding and wind damage. But we hadn’t seen anything so dramatic or as awful as the tidal flooding that we witnessed in Venice.
We finally arranged our oft postponed city-break and were sanguine about the fact that the weather in our destination city, Venice, was forecast to be rainy for all three days of our visit. After all, we reasoned, there will be loads of churches, museums, galleries and restaurants to visit and waterproofs and umbrellas would enable reasonably comfortable walking through the streets. In practice, the weather wasn’t as bad as forecast anyway.
We first became aware of another difficulty as we arrived at our hotel from the airport in our taxi boat. As it deposited us outside the hotel we immediately saw that there was water about 6 inches deep on the pavement between the jetty and the hotel steps. We looked bemused, considered our inappropriate footwear, and were told the water would subside in 30 minutes.
Within a few minutes, we were approached by someone selling temporary galoshes that fitted over our shoes and trousers. We procrastinated long enough to halve the price (the salesman knew the tide was going out) but bought a couple of pairs. LSWs were a stylish black, mine a lurid blue. They were ugly and identified us as naïve tourists but proved to be the most vital purchase of the holiday.
By the time we had checked in, the tide had gone out. We fuelled up at a modern hipster café called Farini and spent the rest of the day walking past the dense strips of classy palaces, around the drying streets and along the canals strewn with elegant gondolas. Even wrong turns proved to be sources of picturesque views.
We walked over the nearby Rialto Bridge and then south to the astonishing Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) and the incredible Basilica Di San Marco which dominates it. The crumbling grandeur of the palaces along the main canals and the casual beauty of the residences along the tributary canals were awesome. There was just so much that looked unchanged, apart from wear and tear, since it was built centuries ago.
We rounded off our first, long day with a walk around the old market buildings and a very friendly and pleasant bar (Ancora). By this time even the main thoroughfares were empty since the majority of tourists had retreated to their hotels outside of Venice. The city was almost eerily quiet and strangely romantic despite the day’s flood and the threat of more.
Venice was proving to be everything we had anticipated but we both confessed that the scale of the consistent attractiveness of the combination of water and old brickwork or stone, at every turn, had taken us aback. Venice is an amazing city.
Inside Basilica Santa Maria and Basilica Dei Friari
Next morning brought an even higher tide (mainly caused by a combination of the moon’s position and winds piling sea water up in the Adriatic). We had to shuffle out of a hotel side-door in our galoshes to get to Farini once more for breakfast.
The rain intermittently pelted down and the streets were flooded with the tidal water but we set off again to Piazza San Marco. This is the lowest part of the city, and the walk to it and then the view of the lake that the square had become, gave us a dramatic picture of the scale of the ‘acqua alta’ as this seasonal flooding is called.
We sloshed on past inundated shops, through a number of flooded streets and squares, to the wooden Ponte Dell’Academia and then the Gallery Dell’Accademia. This gallery was excellent. It was full of medieval religious works which have retained astounding depth of colour. There were also wonderful ceilings, impressively large sculptures and landscapes by famous Italian artists and others I was unfamiliar with. Surprisingly, there were very few other visitors and the visit was a relaxing break from the hiatus in the streets outside.
We continued our walk through the streets as the tide receded and spent the evening in the bar with wine and snacks. Armed with the following day’s tide times, we tried to plan our last full day around our pre-booked and much anticipated trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery of modern art.
Next morning, all togged up with our waterproof coats and trusty galoshes, we arrived at hotel reception to find we were too late; the tide was higher than ever. We would have needed thigh-height waterproof trousers to negotiate the pavements outside without getting soaked.
By the time the tide had receded enough to venture out it became clear that Venice had suffered a dreadful blow. That afternoon, as we paddled through the streets once more, it was clear that the water levels had been far higher than previously – in fact higher than they had been for over 50 years. The shop keepers who, the previous day, seemed to be taking the flooding in their stride were, by now, looking shocked, drawn and depressed. The stock in the shops, from tourist trinkets to cashmere jumpers and pricey shoes, was ruined or at risk and those sweeping the out of their premises, knew they were in for more days of periodic inundation.
The art galleries, including the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, were all shut as their staff focused on protecting their contents. The shops were closed for business and almost all restaurants were shuttered up. Bars and bacari – stand up cafés – were opening as the afternoon wore on but we needed to sit down having missed out on breakfast and lunch and having walked through the water for a few hours. Fortunately, we stumbled upon a pizzeria high and dry on a bridge and its unexpected quality and our hunger was a winning formula for us.
We brought forward our planned departure next morning by a couple of hours to avoid the next big tidal inundation. The sun rose beautifully and then shone down on the city for the first time in days but we knew there would be little respite for the people of Venice. We both felt sad for them.
Clearly, there are huge challenges to maintain the buildings in the city – both the headline tourist sights and the everyday shops and houses. The project to protect the city from the tides with a huge set of lagoon barriers, is many years late and the will (and probably money) to complete it has seemingly faltered. The international publicity associated with the latest flood disaster may re-galvanise efforts but one wonders how long the sea can be kept at bay as Venice sinks and sea levels creep up as global temperatures rise.
LSW and I would love to visit Venice again. There was so much more to see than we managed this time. We didn’t see the city at its best but it was still incredible and at least we have seen it much as it has been for centuries. Unless drastic action is taken internationally and locally, that may be a privilege unavailable in a few decades time.