The Busabout bus brought us from Munich to the campsite just outside of Venice at around 4:30pm, discharging us into the PLUS Camping Jolly, one of several camping villages run by this company dotted across Italy. It had a big pool, a small supermarket and a restaurant/bar with sleeping options varying from cabanas or bungalows to permanent tents. At the bottom of the range they offered an area for you to pitch a tent and really rough it. We didn’t see anyone in the camping area until after dinner when a group from Topdeck, a travel company specializing in bus tours of Europe for 18-30 somethings, pulled in and started to unpack their bus. Tents were assembled, inflatable mattresses pumped full of air and sleeping bags rolled out. Should I say that it was going down to about 10 overnight? And I heard a lot of Australian accents? Yikes!
I was up early the next morning – I’m staying in the permanent tent option and those things heat up once the sun arrives – and determined to take public transit into Venice to do some exploring. I had no plans to do any of the sites, no museums on the list and no interest in waiting in lines for something. I wanted to get on the ground and just walk around all day. Which is exactly what I did.
The campsite is about a 10 to 15 minute walk from the bus stop and, being a local bus, it was absolutely packed. People squeezed like sardines on the bus for both the trip to and from Venice. I enjoyed the trip over the long bridge which joined the mainland to Piazzale Roma, even spotting a cruise ship being built or refurbished in the boat yards… seeing as how it had a yellow C on the smokestack (the logo of Costa, Italy’s most competent cruise operator) I’m assuming there was some refurbishment happening. As we approached the city I noticed another cruise ship, this one complete, as Venice is popular both as a port of call and point of origin.
Walking around the city, one of my first impressions was that of abandonment and dereliction. Venice is incredibly beautiful, with its canals and massive homes, but it also feels abandoned to all except the tourists. Window shutters were tightly closed, steps to buildings from the canals were full of green seaweed, paint was faded and chipped from walls. Anytime I spotted a bright splash of colourful flowers or an open shutter, it was almost a relief – look! Life!
I did some research and found out that Venice is actually being depopulated as residents leave the island, sick of the tourists, the flooding, the high cost of living and the high cost of apartments. Locals are being priced out of the city with the last population estimate around 58,000 residents. In 1951, meanwhile, there were 174,000 people living on the island. The last great flood, in 1966, was viewed as a major catalyst for depopulation as the main floors of many homes had to be abandoned, but the number of residents has continued to steadily decline since then. It is estimated that over 60,000 tourists descend on Venice every day, which means that tourists now outnumber Venetians.
There have been protests about the death of Venice as locals try to preserve the character of the city. A population of 60,000 people was viewed as a critical number since many planners believed that was the number required to sustain Venice as a functioning city. A mock funeral was held in 2009, complete with coffin and funeral procession, to mourn the death of the city. Another protest apparently involved fake tickets being handed out, welcoming visitors to an Italian Disneyland. The fears that Venice may become nothing more than an open air museum, an Italian Disney, seem to be unfounded to date but I can’t help but think that the writing could be on the wall. Apparently there is a countdown somewhere near the Rialto Bridge, showing the number of residents, but I couldn’t find it.
I also read that there has been discussion about charging tourists to enter Venice. Seeing as how everything is so expensive – public bathrooms cost €1.50, for example – I think it could help with their tourism overpopulation problem, but I also believe that those who really want to see Venice will still arrive in droves. Also, if Venice really does become an Italian Disney and completely devoid of real residents, they really would have to charge people in order to keep the city from sinking into the ocean. I can’t believe that the maintenance on these buildings would be cheap.
It’s interesting to walk around because it truly is a pedestrian, and boat, friendly city. There were some kids on scooters but no bicycles or motorized vehicles of any kind. This means that everything has to come into the city by boat. If you are getting some appliances delivered, for example, a boat will show up to your house (or near it) and some strong delivery guys will haul it into your house from the nearest canal. This also means they may have to weave through hordes of tourists, your washing machine strapped to a handcart, as they climb and descend bridges. I’m fairly certain that the worst job in Venice has to be that of deliveryman. Or person, to remain gender neutral, but I didn’t see a single female hauling goods through the streets and alleys of the city.
And the gondolas – oh the gondolas! So tacky, so Venetian, so expensive. If you want just a basic gondola ride, down one of the back canals, you’re facing a base fare of €80 for forty minutes. This translates to roughly $125 in Canadian money. If you want your gondolier to sing, the price jumps accordingly. If you want a ride on the Grand Canal, the busiest in the city, the price also jumps. Want to take a ride at night? Add another €20 or so the base fare. If you want a singing gondolier in the Grand Canal at night… well, I wish I had your money.
Eating in Venice is an interesting experience. I know that the guidebooks, and the rules of not getting ripped off while travelling, say to find things off the side streets and back alleys, but I found everything in Venice to be a bit pricy. I also hate trying to make dining decisions while being cajoled and encouraged to enter the restaurant by the waiters outside. Let me look at your menus without disturbance – or at least walk by without disturbance, I’m really not picky – and I will eat there if I feel so inclined! I also don’t understand the point of the tourist menu which always seemed to include lasagne and spaghetti. Is a tourist menu actually Venetian for “Italian stereotype food”? Venice is known for its risotto and rice dishes but I had trouble finding any of it on a menu, possibly because I felt like I was being chased away by the waiters. I survived off snack bars, eating panini’s, panzerottos and gelato. Until I found a small bacari, a sort of wine bar that is often a stop on the way home for Venetians. I had two mini cups of wine for €1.70 (total) and they served small sandwiches on crusty fresh baguettes, stuffed with cured meats and vegetables for €1 each. I tried to find the same place on my second day in Venice, but to no avail. If it wasn’t for the photo below, I would have thought it was nothing more than a figment of my imagination.
Also, in many places, it’s cheaper to eat or drink standing up than if you were to sit down at a table. An espresso at a table could cost you €2.50 while one at the bar, consumed as the locals do, would only run you €1. Many people took advantage of this to save a few euros, especially at the snack bars, taking their food away to save money. But – this is Venice, remember – they want you to spend money so finding a place to sit is impossible. I saw a total of two park benches in the busy tourist areas of Venice and there were a few “sort of” benches – actually folding signs with some weird seating – scattered in a couple of pedestrian areas. Aside from that, however, people sat wherever they could. Church steps, the curb, the edge of fountains… I’m sure that even the real Disneyland has seating, right?
By the end of the day, I was pretty tired and not quite sure why people rave about Venice. At the same time, I didn’t hate the city. I think the best way to describe my thoughts about Venice, after the first day, was confused. I was exhausted, sick of the tourists and sick of the touts and beggars. No, I don’t want to buy a fake handbag, thanks… I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in this city and have to deal with the barrage of visitors on a daily basis. No wonder Venetians are frustrated and a little bit desperate, trying to hold onto their heritage and city as its population doubles every day.
It sure is picturesque, though… that’s one thing that you can’t deny about Venice.