April 5th—8th Enchanted City
I had imagined a glorious, old Italian city, like the others…
Then, I thought, to envision Venice correctly, all you have to do, in your mind, is take out the roads and substitute canals. That would be Venice.
I had it all wrong. It isn’t like that at all.
It’s like no other city, Italian or otherwise.
If you haven’t been to Venice and you want to get a sense of it, do this:
First, imagine an island, nothing on it, which you can walk across in any direction in thirty to forty five minutes. Now, right in the middle of it put a wide river, one that curves in a huge “S” shape, from one end to the other. We’ll call that the Grand Canal.
Now make a labyrinth of smaller rivers and canals coming off the “Grand” one. Some are dead ends, some empty into the ocean around the island, most narrow, fifteen or twenty feet at most. They intersect and pass through each other, with some curves, yes, but mostly right angles.
Now put two very large bridges over the Grand Canal, and hundreds of little bridges, small, arched walkways, over all the rest, willy-nilly.
Now add the buildings, all different heights and shapes and colors, some simple, many ornate and pleasing, reflecting both the utility and the opulence of this once most preeminent of all cities.
Include a play of light that creates ever fluid compositions as it darts across roofs and tries unsuccessfully to penetrate a “street” that is no wider than a horse, light that shifts and wanders as the day goes by, until, in the evening, the lights all around the Grand Canal create a chimera of mystery and possibility.
You can stop and eat or simply try and absorb as much of it as you can, but you know, in the end, that you have never been anywhere like this, and there will never be anywhere like this again.
We all know that Venice is sinking. We know that it is becoming something of a Disney exhibition with 50,000 tourists a day. The thought that this magnificent city could one day cease to exist—and that is a very real possibility—is soul damaging. To lose this city would be to lose, in some way, who we are, each one of us, because there is something about this city, above and in addition to all else, that tells us what it is that makes us human, and frail and unique…
Everything in Venice, everything that is there, is enhanced by what is not there.
There are no cars.
You can read about it, and imagine it, this lack of cars, but when you are there, in the midst of this absence, it is only then that you can know how thoroughly you have become inured to a world saturated by cars and exhaust and engine noise, and how you always expect it and steel yourself against it so thoroughly that you barely notice it when it surrounds you, everywhere else, in every corner of the planet, in every city, especially – except this one. It is as if you have spent your life trapped in a small room with thunderous, unappealing music blaring and then suddenly… it stops.
If, in Venice, you had to contend with cars in the same way you do in Rome or Florence, Venice would still be affecting and magnificent. But take away the cars and it is even more than that. Venice, unlike every other city in the world, is a place where you can walk the streets and alleyways in exactly the same way as they did five hundred years ago, with some of those streets – and they are officially and truly “streets”, with names and purpose – being no wider than can accommodate two pedestrians walking abreast, and barely even that.
No bicycles, either. Only those under the age of twelve are permitted to ride a bicycle, and that just for fun. Any other use would be impractical since there are so many stepped bridges and walkways, and the quick and blind intersections would make them dangerous.
You cannot escape the sound of motors entirely: There are motorboats, most especially the Vaporettos, the canal based taxis which are the primary mode of transportation for all, tourists and locals alike, and the working skiffs that haul everything from beer kegs to bricks.
When you notice it the most, this lack of cars, is when you leave and return to your usual places, with those places saturated with automobiles and configured for their accommodation in ways that suddenly become more clear than you would wish…
In the 1500’s there were ten thousand of them and they were the primary mode of transpiration in a metropolis that was, at that time, wealthy beyond imagining.
Now there are a mere 400 of them, the lucky inheritors of the coveted license that, when they die, will pass to their widow who then, by tradition, decides who the lucky next recipient will be.
It is a license to make money from the tourists, and they are resented by those less fortunate, since it is considered easy money – they average more than $150,000 per year – and more than the task should reasonably fetch. They are oleaginous Lotharios (the stereotype is accurate) who shill their services as they leer at the women.
They are very good at what they do, unquestionably skilled and deft, steering these thirty-three foot craft through the narrow byways. They must take a rigorous test and one wrong nudge on another boat, just one, or a tap on the canal wall means failure.
So, yes, they are good and they know it, and if you look up “Tourist Trap” in the dictionary there should be a picture of one of them. 100 Euros for forty minutes, more if you want them to sing, and a tip would be appreciated and the lack of one noted with displeasure.
Still, they give us a taste of history, of how things were, and for that the rest can be overlooked.