Battling the crowds to meet Valeria Duflot and Sebastian Fagarazzi is no easy task. It’s high summer — a time when the city is swamped by tourists who pile in on boats and trains and flood the alleyways that were never built for 30 million pairs of feet a year (and behave so badly that last year the exasperated Venetian authorities introduced fines for antisocial behaviour).
I’m staying in Dorsoduro, close to locals’ bar L’Ombra del Leone — near San Marco — where we’re due to meet. But getting there means pressing against the sweaty flesh of my fellow tourists on a vaporetto (waterbus) across the Grand Canal, fighting my way through thickets of selfie sticks and squeezing through gawping crowds at stalls hawking tatty, foreign-made trinkets.
Over-tourism is a problem the city has long grappled with, but while many Venetians resent the hordes of visitors, Valeria and Sebastian see the relentless flow as an opportunity to be embraced. The couple met when Valeria, who’s French, came to Venice as a tourist. Sebastian grew up bearing witness to the ill effects of tourism — he used to work in his family’s shop, selling high-end menswear, but with residents abandoning the city in their droves, it was forced to close in 2015.
Today’s tourists prize low prices over quality, it seems. “They tell you: I can find it cheaper,” Sebastian shrugs, over a glass of Prosecco. “It’s painful. It’s frustrating.” Those artisans, he says, hold the key to Venice’s past. Skills like forcola carving (the crafting of gondolas’ wooden oarlocks), book-binding and paper-marbling continue centuries-old traditions. If this generation of artisans give up on their trades, that history is gone forever.
The couple’s solution is simple: they’ve created Venezia Autentica, a network of artisans, linked to a loyalty card costing €10 (£9) that gives a 10% discount on purchases over €30 (£27) from shops displaying the Venezia Autentica logo. But it’s not just about the money. Having a network bestowing authenticity is a boon for visitors keen to know whether, say, the ‘Venetian mask’ they’re thinking of buying is actually made in Venice. The Friend scheme currently has 65 members, all of whom have in-depth listings and information on their website for tourists to pore over.
But time is running out — something Valeria and Sebastian are acutely aware of. “Venetians are being pushed out of their city,” says Valeria. “Some leave by choice but many just don’t have the option to stay. Venetians seem to be doomed to disappear.” The couple estimate, however, that if only 5-10% of visitors supported local shops, Venice could be reborn. They plan to have 200 businesses — including bars and restaurants — signed up by this summer.
“Valeria and Sebastian are part of this brilliant young generation who’ll mobilise and succeed in defending what’s left,” says jewellery designer Emanuela Chimenton, of Muranero, one of the few remaining Murano glass-workers and a member of the collective. “Working with them, I’m sure we’ll be able to change many things, and make ‘tomorrow’ better.”
Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)