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Is Venice going under?

Drowning in tourists, corruption and high tides, many locals are abandoning Italy’s most fragile city in favour of life on the mainland. But can visitors help without contributing to its demise?

Is Venice going under?
Piazza San Marco, Venice. Image: Getty

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Fifty years ago, Venice suffered the greatest floods of its history, with 80% of the city swamped by high tides, priceless pieces of art destroyed and 5,000 people made homeless. The world was stirred to action, and heritage bodies sprang up to save La Serenissima from sinking beneath the waves. So far, so romantic — although mercantile Venice tends to buy into profits rather than fairytales.

Since then, tourists have come in their shiploads and become part of a perfect storm that threatens the future of this fragile lagoon city. Europa Nostra, which bills itself as Europe’s cultural voice, is the latest heritage body to raise the alarm. This March it declared the Venice Lagoon ‘the most endangered site in Europe’, citing mass tourism, cruising, dredging, depopulation and poor governance as key factors. Venice is even at risk of losing its prized UNESCO World Heritage Site status, with the organisation threatening to add it to its World Heritage in Danger register in 2017 if ‘no substantial progress is made’.

As a Venice-lover with a conscience, do I have any right to encourage yet more visitors? Are we so toxic en masse that we’d be better off staying at home and dining at Pizza Express, where profits from the Veneziana pizza have long been helping to fill the coffers of the Venice in Peril Fund? My mission is to see what the city is doing to save herself and to work out what we can do to help, including looking towards a more sustainable future for it.

St Mark’s Square, the city’s principal piazza, is awash with selfie-snapping day-trippers torn between Venezia T-shirts and tawdry Taiwanese-made masks.

“The city is cannibalising itself,” admits Paola Basso, of the tourist board. Profiteering Venetians are also to blame for fostering a Venice that’s ‘half fairytale, half tourist-trap,’ as the writer Thomas Mann put it back in 1911. Tourist numbers can reach 30 million a year, of which around half are grab-and-go day-trippers. As for the falling population, a dot-matrix counter in the window of Farmacia Morelli tells the true story, keeping track of the number of permanent Venetian residents. The figure stands at 55,415, a fall of almost half since 1981. Pharmacist Nicolo Morelli sheepishly admits to living in Mestre, on the mainland, citing the soaring rents that stifle city life, as well as “the inconvenience” of Venice. At the Mille Vini wine shop around the corner, Lorenzo Menegus sees tourism as the root cause: “The mask-makers chase out the barbers — so if I have to travel to Mestre to have my hair cut, why not just live there?”

I struggle along Riva degli Schiavoni, a wide promenade lined with illegal bag-sellers and travesties of Carnival characters. Further north, the Arsenale — the Republic’s ancient shipyard — holds a solution to the city’s flooding, the issue that most captures the imagination of the international media. Mose is the controversial mobile barrier designed to save Venice from the sea. Architect Monica Ambrosini updates me on its progress in the control room. “We’re 87% there, working on the electromechanical side, and will be ready in 2018,” she explains. Models of the 78 giant steel gates loom before us: gates designed to block the three inlets through which the Adriatic rushes into the Venetian Lagoon. We discuss the tidal wave of corruption, linked to flood defence funds, that swept out the previous mayor of Venice and the consortium’s top brass in 2014. “The guilty firms are still duty-bound to deliver the project on budget and to refund the €20m [£16.9m] they stole,” Monica says. “Despite cost overruns and slipped dates, Mose must work. Venice is resilient but must respond to storm surges and high tides.”

Jane da Mosto, environmental scientist and co-founder of social enterprise We are here Venice, believes flood barriers are necessary to protect the city from occasional extreme events, such as the flood of 1966, but questions the need for such a huge scheme with high operating costs. Da Mosto also believes poor management is an issue. “There’s a syndication of responsibility to the point where it hasn’t even been decided who’ll manage Mose,” she says.

Francesca Barbini, head of FAI, an Italian equivalent of the National Trust, elaborates: “Mose is a pharaonic project that should have cost €800m [£675m] but will cost at least €7bn [£6bn]. If the barriers are closed at only 90cm of high water, most of St Mark’s will be flooded anyway; but if closed at very high levels only, then people will wonder at the logic of spending such sums on something that didn’t solve the problem. And pressure will come from the cruise ships to keep the gates open.” Although the city suffers sporadic winter flooding, it’s for brief periods only and, as Venetian hotelier Francesca Bortolotto Possati says, “media reports tend to be exaggerated”.

While walking along sleepy Giudecca and marvelling at St Mark’s over the water, my view is blotted out by Norwegian Jade, one of 529 ships due to call in this season, bringing 1,550,000 people. From the city council to the cruise industry trade association, CLIA, all agree that this visual blight has no place in historic Venice. Instead, both the port authority and the city council favour the creation of a large new canal through the Lagoon that will enable (even bigger) ships to reach Venice’s Marittima Cruise Terminal by a back route. Jane da Mosto opposes it. “This cuts through a 14-metre island of contaminated sediment and can’t be done without releasing pollutants into the Lagoon — and it’s the back end of Venice,” she says. “Will cruise passengers want to look at that kind of scenery?”

Many environmentalists either favour the unrealistic solution of moving cruising to Trieste or the feasible option of building reversible docks on the Venetian Lido (a seven-mile-long sandbar), with cruisers then brought into the Lagoon by eco-friendly craft.

At its heart it’s a battle between the cruise economy and the green lobby, backed by many local citizens. CLIA Italy, representing the cruise association, says that Venice keeps the entire Adriatic cruise industry afloat and points out that cruise companies operate a self-regulatory ban on cruise ships over 96 tonnes — once a common sight in the Lagoon. But UNESCO fears that the new canal being proposed could lead to the return of vessels this size — and much larger.

Venice Port’s cruise arm, Venezia Terminal Passeggeri (35% owned by a cruise consortium), claims to respect the Venice Blue Flag protocol (a pledge to use cleaner fuel in the Lagoon). But FAI has expressed concern that this system of self-regulation isn’t effective.

In 2014, the World Monument Fund put Venice on its Watch List because ‘large-scale cruise-ship tourism — which has increased by 400% in the past five years alone — is pushing the city to an environmental tipping point and undermining the quality of life for its citizens’. Bemused by this, I try the unscientific ‘nab a water cabby’ approach. Beyond gondoliers, I meet no one in favour of cruising — and this includes guides, hoteliers and restaurateurs.

The sustainable scene

Despite what the doomsters might lead us to believe, sustainable Venice does exist, often in surprising places. Sustainable tourism isn’t about flashy eco-credentials but about tiny shifts away from Disneyland Venice. “Explore Cannaregio and Santa Croce — areas that still have real shops, real locals,” recommends Jonathan Keates, the chairman of Venice in Peril. “Use your eyes and look at what they need in order to help Venice survive.”

Hotels

Unlike stuffier grand-dame hotels, the Splendid Venice welcomes local residents. “We strive not to be ghettoised, even if we’re off St Mark’s,” says its dapper manager Salvatore Pisani, whose children go to school in Venice. Locals come for cocktails on the rooftop terrace, with views of crumbling bell towers and, occasionally, an elderly signora watering her garden in the sky. Then it’s glimpses of delivery barges overladen with pumpkins and artichokes before dinner in the moody courtyard restaurant below. The Venetian chef sources fish and spider crab from the lagoon and vegetables from the island of Sant’Erasmo.

Elsewhere, the Aman Venice, set beside the Grand Canal, encourages guests to take part in cookery courses at Venetian homes or scout out lunch with the hotel’s chef at the Rialto Market. The aristocratic Venetian owners, meanwhile, still live on the top floor and engage in battles to save the city for future generations.

At the Bauer Palladio Hotel & Spa, I feast on Slow Food in the jasmine-scented garden of a former nunnery where country girls, discarded by their Venetian patrons, once languished. Owner Francesca Bortolotto Possati sees this serene retreat as “a resort for the mind”.

Restaurants

Venissa — with its wine resort, vineyard, Michelin-starred restaurant and Slow Food inn — is behind the revitalisation of the island of Burano. Matteo Bisol, a scion of the winemaking Bisol dynasty, shows me round the Lagoon’s last walled vineyard. The family began by replanting Dorona, a golden grape beloved by the doges. Now the food is as magical as the wine, from the nettle and Asiago cheese ravioli to baked artichokes or gnocchi with cuttlefish — dishes inspired by the Lagoon.

I spot the four young chefs picking wild herbs from the estate gardens, which are cultivated by local pensioners. As a resort, Venissa has just spread into central Burano, with charming rooms scattered throughout the island, drawing visitors into the local community. Guests can go fishing or hire a boat to explore neighbouring monastic islands. “Sustainable tourism is win-win,” smiles Bisol. Over in Dorsoduro, family-run Cantine del Vino già Schiavi is a battered-looking bacaro (Venetian tapas bar) patronised by countesses, chemists and celebrities alike. Barman Paolo takes me through his mother’s cicchetti — nibbles of artichokes, salted cod, shrimps and truffles. Elsewhere, Osteria Bancogiro, on the Rialto, brings the bacaro concept up-to-date and even counts fashion designer Miuccia Prada as a patron.

Cultural trends

Beyond St Mark’s, the museums are empty. Drift into the revamped Gallerie dell’Accademia, a repository of pre-19th-century Venetian art, to see the new Palladian wing. It’s even possible to leave the hordes behind at the Doge’s Palace, on a Secret Itineraries tour that includes everything from a new night tour and entry to the Doge’s private apartments to fearsome reminders of the former police state — ghoulish ‘post boxes’, where citizens were encouraged to betray their peers.

For cypress-framed vistas and monastic solemnity, climb the bell tower of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, rather than San Marco’s; the island of San Giorgio Maggiore rebuffs the commercial maelstrom over the water. Cross to Giudecca, the next island, to explore a bastion of authentic Venetian life with a funky arts scene. Here, hotelier and hipster Alessandro Possati is behind Zuecca Project Space, a not-for-profit art and installation centre, and Hortus, a scheme that aims to open up Venice’s neglected green spaces. Venetians are also fighting to reclaim the Arsenale shipyards but for now, outside of the Venice Biennale, access is limited to the magnificent gates and adjoining Venetian Ships Pavilion. Alessandro also recommends the 500-year-old Venetian Ghetto — an area where Jews were forced to live during the Venetian Republic, now fast becoming “a young, hip neighbourhood”.

Shopping

In Venice, provenance is all. For sustainable shopping, step behind the scenes to meet the master craftsmen and characters. Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop offers a playful take on flooding, with stairs made of soggy tomes and books stored in gondolas. I visit the timeless Orsoni mosaics foundry, whose minor masterpieces grace St Mark’s Basilica and St Paul’s Cathedral. Also in Cannaregio, I catch up with Gianni Basso, an old-school printer with a celebrity clientele. “You hear about ‘saving Venice’ — but it’s craftsmen like us who need saving,” says the Gutenberg of Venice. Gianni learnt his craft from Armenian monks and returned with their ancient printing presses. As local designer Michela Scibilia tells me, “you’re not just buying an object but the story behind it.”

Wild Venice

Venetians recommend rowing or kayaking through the shallow Lagoon to appreciate the shifting tides, sandy channels and the salt marshes, which act as the city’s kidneys. I head into the Lagoon with gondoliera Alex Hai, in her off-duty rowing boat. “Sailing your own boat helps you feel the fragility of the city,” she says. “From the mildewed undersides of palaces to the Lagoon’s wild ducks, derelict forts and deserted monastic islands.”

Saving Venice

Carolyn Spinks, chief operating officer at the Association of British Tour Operators to Italy, says, “Slow holidays are trending and we’re urging visitors to take longer stays outside the busy months.”

Alessandro Possati agrees: “Stay longer and come out of season; mass tourism has deprived Venice of its timelessness — it’s ironic how for a ‘timeless’ city no one has any time for her.” His tips for saving Venice are to “engage with the city, get involved in paper-printing, jewellery design or perfume-making”. Alex Hai’s advice is blunter: “Shun cruise ships, buy genuine crafts, dine in authentic inns — don’t be a day-tripper or picnicker.”

Keeping Venice afloat

Sustaining Venice
Row Venice (Venetian-style rowing).
Venice Kayak.
Musica a Palazzo (opera in palaces).
Gianni Basso (old-school printer) T: 00 39 041 5234681.

Supporting Venice
Venezia Unica (Venice tourist information).

Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)