Never say arrivederci

Locals complain day-trippers stealing Venetians blind

Mary Richardson / Special to American Press

So it had come to this. We were standing in one of the most beautiful places on earth, but we were what the Venetians call “barbarians” or, less violently, “day trippers.”

And all because we had come to Venice for the day, but we weren’t spending the night.

Instead, we had caught a train in Padua, where we were staying in a fairly cheap, very clean, little hotel next to the railroad station. The trains run several times an hour, and the trip is only a half hour.

Tomorrow morning, we were going to do it again. Staying in Venice itself is just too expensive.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a native Venetian as saying that people like us “pillage the city.” He said, “The tourists come, they urinate, they defecate, and then arrivederci.”

He had a point. The population of Venice has been declining steadily and is now down to 70,000 people. But on any given day during the tourist season, 140,000 people visit Venice.

And most of them don’t spend the night either.

People who still live in Venice are increasingly elderly. The young people leave for places that have jobs, lower prices and (maybe) cars.

Too expensive

A shocking 70 percent of the economy is based on tourism. So there seem to be millions of (mostly high priced) restaurants, hundreds of (mostly high priced) hotels, thousands of (always high priced) tourist shops — but it is pretty hard to find a grocery store. And “The Rough Guide to Venice” says that only eight plumbers are registered in Venice — not a good situation with all those canals.

We had arrived at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday. Nothing was open. No one was stirring. The city was ours.

We finally found a place open for breakfast. We had waffles and cappuccino. The owner/cook was friendly. (Possibly since we had arrived so early, he didn’t know we were day-trippers and barbarians.)

When we left, we wandered around the deserted streets and squares. We couldn’t turn a corner without encountering scenes of canals, flowers, pastel-colored palaces and shiny gondolas at rest.

So much to see

There is so much to see in Venice. There is a danger of treating it as if it were Disney World, without even trying to understand the history behind the grandeur. But this watery city was once the head of the Venetian Republic. Some 200,000 people lived here. Its ships ruled the seas, and its merchants were the wealthiest in the world.

Fishermen and hunters have lived on the Venetian islands since the beginning of the Christian era. But it was Attila the Hun who inspired the first large migration. He invaded in 453, and people fled to the safety of the marshy islands.

As the island communities developed, they always looked to the east. They were ruled by Byzantium, not Rome.

Venice became stronger, and in the eighth century the Venetians elected their first Doge. They were a maritime power. Their independence was marked by a great theft — Venetians stole the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria in 828. From then on, Saint Mark was the Patron Saint of Venice, and thus was built the No. 1 tourist attraction of all Venice — the Basilica di San Marco.

Riches upon riches

The basilica is one of the most exotic buildings in the world with ornate Byzantine architecture, golden mosaics, marble and riches upon riches. It was built as a symbol of the Venetian Republic’s power and might, as a fitting tomb for St. Mark, and as a place to store the incredible loot that the city acquired from trade and war. It was the Doge’s private chapel. And it was the symbol of secular power for almost 1,000 years.

Venice prospered. It benefited greatly from the First Crusade. But the Fourth Crusade brought unbelievable riches. After the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the Venetians brought back shipload after shipload of treasure.

The Venetians gained land as well as treasure. More than a quarter of the Roman Empire came under Venice’s control, and the Venetian Republic had a chain of ports throughout the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea.

The city gained so much power that in the early 16 th century almost the entire Christian world banded together against little Venice.

The double whammy of continual wars and the threat of the Ottoman Turks weakened Venice terribly, but the real end of Venetian power came because of Vasco da Gama. After Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India around the Cape of Good Hope, trade routes could bypass Venice.

Tourist invasion

By the 18 th century, Venice was no longer a great power, and at the end of that century, Napoleon took over the city, bringing a formal end to the Venetian Republic.

The decline continued. The “Rough Guide” travel book says that by 1820 begging was the main means of support for a quarter of the population. So much of the art and other treasures were sold by destitute families that only 4 percent of what was in Venice at the fall of the Republic remains in the city today.

But then came the tourist invasion. In the 19 th century, Venice was Europe’s most fashionable tourist destination.

The symbol of the city’s former grandeur, the Basilica di San Marco, is the most crowded tourist destination in Venice. It is located on the most crowded square, the famed Piazza San Marco, and right on the famed Grande Canal. The Doge’s Palace is next door. And it shouldn’t be missed, in spite of the crowds. There’s nothing like it in the world.

But Venice has so much to see. Eyewitness Travel Books has published a “Top 10 Venice” book. In addition to the Basilica and its surroundings, it lists the Accademia Galleries, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Rialto Market, the island of Torcello, Campo Santa Margherita, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection — much more than you can absorb in just a day.

The tops

Strangely, many of the tourist books ignore my personal second favorite place (after the Basilica) — the Scuola di San Rocco. Perhaps because it is skipped by so many tourist books, this 16 th century building isn’t even crowded, yet it is decorated top to bottom with artwork by the great Italian master Tintoretto.

The Arsenale didn’t make the Top 10 list either. Now a museum, the Arsenale is located in a quiet neighborhood where Italian families are more numerous than tourists. The two museums there hold huge replicas of famous Venetian ships and recall the centuries when Venice was the greatest maritime power in the world.

In its glory days, Venice shipyards could build a ship in a single day. When Henry III of France visited in 1574, the Arsenale built a whole ship while the King was at a state reception.

Then there is the other, often not recommended, great attraction of Venice — just wandering around. You can’t go wrong. Any little alleyway is apt to open onto a square with a couple of medieval or Renaissance buildings. And if you stand on a bridge, the boat drivers will wave to you.

Just wandering

You will wander into neighborhoods where people still live — although it will still be hard to find a grocery store, and I worry about the lack of plumbers.

But wandering may be the secret of Venice. Get off the beaten path. Go early. Have coffee, and ice cream.

Don’t stay the night.

But never say “arrivederci.” You’ll be back.

This canal is in a neighborhood near the Arsenale and the Naval Museum, where tourists are pretty much absent. We nicknamed it the Laundry Canal. (Joe Richardson/Special to the American Press)

 

*This story first appeared in the American Press on September 19, 2004. ””

The Basilica di San Marco isn the nucleus of Venice and one of the most distinctive buildings in the world. (Joe Richardson/Special to the American Press)

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