Archive for Tourism in Venice
It pains me to write this, but I hope that doing so will serve some useful purpose.
Gondoliers are arguably the symbol of Venice, and as such could be expected to evince a sense of the importance of same. That’s just my opinion.
What is not opinion, but fact, is that they are independent, masters of their own boats, lords of their lives, and – yes — of their money. I mean, of your money.
I know a good number of gondoliers and can attest that many are fine, professional people and first-rate ambassadors for their amazing city. Among other things, they’re often the first to fish tourists out of the canals when the said tourists have misjudged the slipperiness of the algae on that stone step, or to have miscalculated other maneuvers.
Then there are the others. There are some that easily inspire apprehension, who resemble inmates out on a work-release program, with boats to match. But don’t be distracted by the externals, because how a gondolier behaves depends on many and easily shifting factors apart from his housekeeping and personal care, and you don’t want to find yourself in the middle when the shifting is going on.
I wouldn’t bring it up at all, but there has been a recent situation here, amply reported in the Gazzettino, in which a gondolier charged a Russian couple 400 euros ($496) for a spin in his gondola that took less than an hour. You could probably justify that price if you included a bottle of the Shipwrecked 1907 Heidsieck champagne poured into Baccarat flutes while the gondolier rowed you to Trieste singing the ”Improvviso” from Andrea Chenier.
Then again, he could skip all that and just ask for the dough. Which he did.
As you see by the rates standardized by the Ente Gondola, the gondoliers’ sort-of governing body, he should have asked 80 euros, or 100 euros, depending on the time of day.
People tend to be intimidated by gondoliers. People need to get past that. The Ente Gondola has tried to help, by insisting that the gondoliers exhibit the price scale. Most gondoliers have done so, by attaching a piece of plastificated paper 5 1/2 inches square to the prow of their boat — a place a potential passenger isn’t likely to approach, even if armed with the necessary magnifying glass to read the type.
And it’s printed on both sides, so you’d have to turn it over to get the complete information.
Let’s move on to the happy ending: The Russian couple registered a complaint and got their money back, with a promise from the Ente Gondola of a free ride next time. To which I’m pretty sure they replied “There’s not going to be a next time.” It doesn’t sound better in Russian.
So here’s the simplest solution. Let’s say that you and a gondolier have begun to converse. Whether you approached him or vice versa, you’re talking about money.
He mentions a figure that doesn’t sound like what is printed on the Ente Gondola’s site. So you say, “Would you please show me the rates printed on the card on your gondola?”
If he doesn’t have the card on his gondola, you move on. If he has it but can’t explain why the rate he quoted you doesn’t match what’s printed, you move on. No need for complicated discussions or heated words. It’s a big world, and there will always be another gondolier.
Some time ago I embarked on a series of what were going to be five posts, each dedicated to one of the classic senses, and how I indulge them here.
I haven’t yet shared my thoughts on the remaining two (sight and touch) and I’ll be putting that off for a little while longer.
What has pushed ahead of them in line are few non-traditional senses which have inordinate importance here. If you awaken these senses, the benefits ought to be many, such as helping to increase your enjoyment of Venice and, at the same time, minimize your impressive ability to spoil it for others.
By “you” I originally meant “tourists,” and much of what I’m going to say is, in fact, aimed at people who are just passing through. But I have to say that Venetians themselves can be astonishingly oblivious to the world around them. I just want you to know that I recognize that, in case anyone is tempted to retort “Well what about them?” Fine: They’re guilty too. But this is their city, and their country, too.
So today I present the sense of space. There isn’t much of it here. The city covers only about two square miles, and I estimate that 97 percent of that area is occupied by buildings or water. So you can see how tricky it’s going to be to fit everybody, particularly 20 million tourists or so, into a town not much bigger than New York’s 41st Precinct.
And it’s not useful to imagine there’s any difference between “public” and “personal” space. All the space here is personal. I mean public.
Venice has always been crowded — in fact, it was once almost three times more populous than it is now. But that didn’t particularly bother anyone, if the songs are to be believed.
There are many which praise some aspect of the city’s beauty or the beauty of life here. I’m not aware of a modern song praising Venice. (I do not regard “Ciao Venezia” as a song, even if it is transmitted by human vocal cords.) Maybe I should try to write one.
Anyway, one particular Venetian song (which naturally sounds better in Venetian) contains this refrain: “Long live this great immensity/only Venice is beautiful/only our city.”
“Great immensity”? Besides being redundant, it seems crazy. This is a city that’s all twisted up in lots of skinny little streets and random knotty open spaces swarming with people pushing children in strollers, dragging overloaded shopping trolleys, brandishing large open umbrellas, or merely groups standing stock still at the exact point where there is no room to get around them.
The “immensity” praised in the song about Venice refers, I believe, to its environment: the lagoon. Anyone who has ever gone out in a boat even a quarter mile from the city realizes that this extraordinary city is floating in the center of a vast amount of water and sky.
My experience, and — I deduce — that of countless Venetians who have come before, shows that the lagoon is not only the matrix of the city but the only known antidote to its compression.
But even if your only chance to feel this spaciousness is from a vaporetto (which will be crowded….), I hope you will somehow feel the enchantment and, yes, immensity of the city’s surroundings.
In any case, you’ll have to go ashore eventually, which is where your sense of space is going to have to get to work. Because your awareness of where you are, and what you do there, is going to have a really important effect not only on how you feel about Venice, but how everybody around you — especially any Venetians, if you care — feels about it too.
I respectfully recall to your attention the fact that Venice, small as it may be, at its apex was both the home and the workplace of almost 200,000 residents, not to mention an uncounted number of visitors, here on either business or pleasure or even displeasure. Among other things, Venice was a major port for pilgrims headed from Europe to the Holy Land. They could have been here as long as a month, waiting to find a berth on a ship (no reservations, obviously). This was much longer than the average modern tourist’s visit, and there were periods in which there were 50 ships leaving in a single month, or roughly two a day. (Not made up.) Which adds up to a fairly crushing quantity of people.
Furthermore, if you think the city is crowded now, spare a thought for the old days, when everyone who had a choice lived as much of their lives outdoors as they could. Except for sleeping and eating, families (which were numerous) spent most of their day out in the courtyard or the street, or somewhere other than home, where there also was no space.
And then there was the cargo: Vast amounts of often really space-intensive items being offloaded and transported from A to B. Bricks. Blocks of marble. Lumber. Bales of wool. Imagine yourself walking down a street behind three people who are carrying enormous wicker backpacks loaded with coal. So it’s always been pretty cramped here.
Nevertheless, today we have all sorts of modern ideas about comfort and manners which make Venice demanding in an equally intense way.
Having said all that, I’d like to offer a few fundamental suggestions as to how to minimize the crampage. If you accept them, you have a chance at making life more pleasant for you and certainly for everyone around you. If you don’t really care — and there seems to be an abundance of visitors in this category — then you may fire when you are ready, Gridley.
There are three situations in which you have no choice but to share space outdoors: Walking, standing, and sitting.
Walking: To keep everybody, including you, moving in even some semblance of progress, try to imagine that you’re driving your car. The same general rules apply here when you’re walking.
If you’re moving slowly, keep to the side. Do not make sudden stops. Do not make sudden turns. Do not stop in the middle of the street and just stand there. Check your rear-view mirror often, because it’s very likely somebody is coming up behind you intending to pass you. In which case, move aside and let them. You’d be astonished at how many people do not do any of those things.
Forget the car metaphor and keep in mind that you are living in three dimensions. Fingers: Tempting as it may be, try to avoid suddenly pointing at something, no matter how surprising or beautiful it is; for some reason, a person pointing is often indicating something dangerously close to eye level. Elbows: If you stand somewhere with your hands on your hips, you’ve just taken space away from the persons on your elbow side for no clearly necessary reason.
If somebody wants to get past you, they will most likely start with a polite “Permesso.” (Or “con permesso.”) Venetians may say this as many as three times; if there’s no reaction, they push. The international language. If it happens to you, there was a reason.
Standing: If there appear to be too many people, you can be sure there will be far too much of their stuff. If you need to stop to check your map or hold an unscheduled meeting of the family committee, make an effort to put your boxcar-load of baggage somewhere out of the way. Slalom races are fun if you’re aiming for a medal in the World Cup, but not for somebody trying to get somewhere that’s important to him, like his accountant or home to his kid who’s running a fever.
On the vaporetto, try to organize your bags in as little space as possible. A person (for example, me) shouldn’t have to explain that you could put your smaller bag on top of your larger bag, instead of next to it. I mean, when you think about it.
If you’re carrying anything larger than an empty messenger bag, handle it with the awareness that wherever you put it, it’s taking precious square inches away from somebody else. I know it’s really hard to haul all that baggage down cramped streets and over bridges and so on. I know that there is little or no space on the vaporettos for anything larger than you, and often not even that. But the fact that many people devote more attention and concern to their steamer trunks or Himalayan-expedition backpacks than they do to their fellow passengers is something that baffles, and can often irritate, any nearby Venetians, especially if they’re trying to get past you (see: “slalom,” above).
What to do?
First: Minimize the space you occupy. For example: Do not put your suitcases/duffel bags/backpacks on the seat next to you. Seem obvious? Apparently it isn’t. ”Hey! Empty space! It’s mine!” Actually, it’s not!
Second: Take off your backpack. They’ve even made it a rule on the vaporettos, but the simple sense of this little act continues to elude nine and a half out of every ten people. If it’s on your back, take it off. Even a daypack is a huge nuisance to everyone around you. You may think it’s part of you, but the only person who wouldn’t annoy their fellow passengers with something protruding from his or her spine would be the hunchback of Notre Dame. If you can take it off, do so immediately and put it at your feet. Or in a corner. Or maybe don’t even bring it. How far could it be to the next oasis?
Third: Get out of the way. Every day, oblivious people stand right where everybody else needs to pass. On the street, on the vaporetto, wherever. On the vaporetto dock — particularly, for some reason, at the Accademia stop — masses of eager people who want to get on fill the entire area needed for the arriving passengers to get off. If there is an explanation for this, it will have to come from the realm of astronomy, where matter retains all sorts of contradictory characteristics. Here, though, matter occupies space.
Then there are people who find a spot that works for them and just……you know…..stand there….as if nobody else existed. They block doorways, they block aisles. It’s not as if their kid is having an asthma attack and nothing else matters. They just stand there. Even the fact that you have to contort yourself to get past them doesn’t make any impression whatever. That’s where they are, just deal with it, Maude. I have never understood what attracts people to standing in the vaporetto doorway. Go out, or stay in. Why are you trying to do both? Are you not able to decide where you want to be?
Then there are all those time when you must force your way onto a vaporetto because it’s crammed with people in the open middle space where boarding and exiting takes place, while the interior of the boat is almost empty. I realize that visitors want to be outside where they can look around and take pictures. If you’re determined to stay outside, please do everything in your power not to block the only area available for getting on and off.
Sitting: People between the ages of 12 and 18 seem to have decided that the floor is their tribal territory. Sitting or sprawling in groups on the ground anywhere that appeals to them is not merely the best thing ever, it has become something like a right. I’ve seen teenagers literally lying on the ground where lots of people need to walk. One memorable pair of girls (American) was stretched out across the wooden dock in front of the ramp leading to the vaporetto dock. Hundreds of people needed to walk there. (See: “slalom,” above).
It all seems so obvious.
But wait! — I hear you cry — what about all those rude Venetians who do all those rude things (except for sitting on the ground), as if WE didn’t exist?
I know. I know they’re there, and I know they do those things, and they don’t have any more of a good excuse than anyone else.
I know theyalso position themselves in the exit area of the vaporetto dock so that they can get on the vaporetto first.
I know they somehow manage to slither past you to claim that minuscule empty spot in front of you. You might feel that they’re jumping a queue, but they don’t see a queue. I have finally concluded that a person who does this has decided that since you’re not occupying that space, that means you’ve relinquished it and it’s available to anybody who wants it. Now I actually do it myself because it makes sense to me — seeing how little space there is around.
So what solution is there to the problem of trying to put 100X of people and things into just 1Y of space?
Be aware. Be courteous. Create as few problems for other people and you will simultaneously be creating fewer problems for yourself.
That’s the only possible solution.
Just like on the highway.
Everybody creates their own ranking of what’s important to them, or to their friends, or to the world supply of gum arabic, or to the Ethiopian wolf, and so forth.
Naturally many people would have considered yesterday, the last Sunday of Carnival, to have been a day of supreme importance to Venice. And considering what beautiful, warm, sunny weather was bestowed on the revelers (and, by extension, to the phalanxes of people making money from them), it was indeed a day worth noting.
Lino and I, being somewhat naturally contrary to many kinds of commonly accepted tendencies, did not go to the Piazza San Marco to look at people in costumes. One reason was because we knew we wouldn’t have been able even to get close to the Piazza, and the idea of spending hours standing wedged into a wall of humanity attempting to get there didn’t sound like fun at all. You know the amazing ashlar masonry at Machu Picchu? San Marco would have been like that, with people instead of stones.
So we went to the Palasport, an all-purpose sports facility just around the corner, safely out of the way behind the Naval Museum, to watch a fencing championship.
But this was not just any championship. Our little Venice, which seems to exist only to be looked at, was hosting what happens to be a honking important international sporting event, the 34th Coppa Citta’ di Venezia (City of Venice Cup).
We know nothing about fencing, except that it’s very cool and extremely different from our usual activities. (Years ago I spent a few months at it, trying to get the hang of the basics, but eventually gave up.) So instead of wandering around outside in the sun and fresh air like everybody else, we sat inside for four hours breathing indoor-fluorescent-lights air and watching what amounts to a dramatically physical version of chess.
The City of Venice Cup is one of the most important elements in the Venetian events calendar. Even if you don’t care about sabers, en garde, touche’ or parry and riposte, you might be surprised to learn that this contest is a major component of the World Cup of fencing, Men’s Foil division. Which, I assume, leads eventually to the Olympics.
Venice is not merely one of only three cities holding meets composing the world Grand Prix of fencing, the other cities being Tokyo and St. Petersburg. This was the only Men’s Foil competition for the World Cup to be held in Italy. Yes, right here in can-you-bargain-for-a-gondola-ride Venice.
Therefore intense international attention was focused Saturday and Sunday on the athletes, which were among the best in the world. I noticed only a few of the country names on assorted teams: Japan, France, Ukraine, Germany, Korea, Russia, and the increasingly redoubtable China. It was impressive.
We got in (for free, like everybody else) to watch the end of the eliminations, the semi-final, and the final, which was broadcast live on national sports television. From about 3:00 to 7:00 PM, we sat on concrete risers surrounded by families, girlfriends, aficionados, assorted kids, and momentarily unoccupied athletes, most of whom urgently needed to go somewhere and then return by way of the tiny space in front of us. More was going on in the stands than there was on the floor. (I exaggerate, somewhat.) There may not have been thousands of spectators, but we still felt as if we’d parked ourselves on the shoulder of I-95.
It was gripping to watch. You don’t need to be an expert in the sport, nor to be a fan of any particular competitor, to find yourself involved in what was obviously serious battle at an extremely high level. There were many exotic details — the judges’ gestures were as gnomic as those of a baseball catcher signaling the pitcher, or bidders at an auction — but even in complete ignorance you could appreciate the differing styles of the players and feel the intensity of their confrontation.
The winner by one point was Valerio Aspromonte (for the record), bringing joy to the old Bel Paese. It’s always great to win before a home crowd. Second, by one point, was a certain J.E. Ma, a tall, serene, spectacularly ferocious fencer from China. Third was a tie between Simoncelli and Cheremisinov (Russia). The trophies were large beautiful objects of blown Murano glass.
I was rooting for Ma, but didn’t dare clap or call out his name for fear of being lynched. I loved his concentration, his reflexes, his skill not only in scoring points but avoiding the attacks of his adversary.
Aspromonte’s arsenal of tactics involved a series of highly annoying antics. For example, his primal scream whenever he scored, or whenever his opponent scored. This must be a custom borrowed from soccer, but struck me as ridiculously out of place in a sport (like dressage) which was born of elegance and noblesse.
He also frequently stopped, however briefly, to attend to an endless series of temporary, perhaps genuine, injuries (rubbing his ankle — sprained? no, it’s okay — massaging his calf — torn muscle? no, it’s okay — manipulating his shoulder — inflamed rotator cuff? no, it’s okay), and so on. He changed foils three times. He even pulled off his mask after Ma’s foil touched it, rubbing his left temple as if having nearly missed being blinded. I still can’t understand what could have happened behind the wire wall that protects the face, but it was all part of the show. He reminded me of James Brown at the culminating moment of a concert, simulating near-collapse and being helped off the stage, only to suddenly spring to life again.
Outside, there were plenty of kids dressed up as Zorro, or Prince Charming, or a medieval knight, or any other character required to carry some sort of spadroon.
Inside a very ugly cement building there was brilliance and beauty flashing among men who had the real thing, and knew exactly how to use it.
I want to come back next year, but I may bring a big wool sock for Aspromonte. Bless his heart.
Carnival opened officially last Saturday with the parade of the “Marias.” And it opened in a super-mega-jumbo-cast-of-thousandsly way on Sunday with the “Volo dell’ Angelo,” or flight of the angel, in the Piazza San Marco.
On Saturday we personally got our first taste of Carnival by going — do not ask me why, we must have a death wish — to the Rialto market to shop, as we often do on Saturday morning.
There were so many people in the city at 10:00 AM that they were being left on the vaporetto docks because the vaporettos couldn’t take any more passengers.
Let me pause here, because I don’t want to rant at random. Let me organize the current Carnival scene in as concise a way as I can. And I do this, not because I want to dash glacial water onto anybody’s fantasies of a festival which some widely distributed photographs lead you to believe is made only of dreams and glamor and a batch of feathers. No, I don’t want to do that.
But neither is it Rio or Trinidad or the Fasnacht in Basel or the Carnival in Patras or even, God help us, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It is a strangely soulless, almost totally manufactured event which every year baffles me more than the year before, the only occurrence here which distresses Venetians more than the cost of living and the lack of affordable housing put together. I’ve lived in other cities which swarm with tourists every day (New York, Washington). The difference is that those are cities. Here, it’s like 70,000 people (official Saturday count) are trying to get into your living room.
So every year I wonder why people come and what they remember when they leave — I mean, apart from the spectacular cost of everything. (A bag of confetti, 2.50 euros, or $3.50, in the Piazza San Marco, is one small example. I ask myself, why acquire pieces of colored paper just to throw them away? You’ll already be doing that with fistfuls of other colored pieces of paper issued by the European Central Bank, beginning the minute you need to pay for anything at all, from a drink to a bathroom, not to mention dinner or a bed.)
Here is what has happened so far:
Parade of the Marias – check. Lovely girls borne aloft on wooden platforms hoisted by gondoliers, and a costumed entourage, wend from San Pietro di Castello to the Piazza San Marco. Great for pictures. So far, so good.
The “Flight of the Angel” — check. Under the Venetian Republic, the intrepid soul who undertook this Flying-Wallendas sort of stunt literally risked (and occasionally lost) his life. This is just a person in a costume sliding down a cable to which she has been cinched at least eight different ways. But there were 80,000 people crammed into the Piazza to watch. Great for pictures.
A “white strike.” I’m not referring to some exotic piece of performance art. It means a major slowdown — not a total strike — by the ACTV, our eccentric public transport company. In its wisdom, the first real weekend of Carnival was clearly the ideal time — two days in which the city’s population doubles — in which to make its labor grievances known, whatever they may be.
On a normal day, the ACTV skips an average of 150 runs anyway. (I’ll wait while that sinks in.) Saturday was worse, because not only did they skip runs at random, thereby creating large accumulations of people at each stop, but the vaporettos went v-e-r-r-r-r-r-y s-l-o-o-o-o-o-o-w-l-y between stops. Seeing as the workers refused to effect extra runs for the entire duration of Carnival, the city was ultimately compelled to hire a private company to provide extra service during peak hours.
Ugo Bergamo, the Assessore (councilor) for Transport, gave a brief interview to explain the situation. To the reporter’s question, “Couldn’t this have been anticipated and prevented?” Mr. Bergamo gave the astonishing reply, “A strike is supposed to create problems, otherwise what kind of a strike is it?” Mr. Bergamo didn’t feel it was appropriate to criticize the ACTV (though plenty of criticism has been made over the past year, not only for erratic service but for ticket sellers stealing money, and the deeply rooted practice of hiring relatives of employees). To him, the ACTV was far more sinned-against than sinning.
He blamed lack of money for problems which were seen as having been imposed on, not created by, the ACTV. (Translation: “Get over it.”) Rather than bring up the strike in the next City Council meeting, he wants us all to take to the barricades to protest the national and regional funding cuts which are flensing the finances of the rogue whale which is the ACTV. Not so great for pictures.
Civil unrest. It was inevitable. In the tiny hours of Sunday night/Monday morning, police and Carabinieri were called to Piazzale Roma to deal with a nascent riot. Hundreds of tired, cold, inebriated revelers had accumulated there expecting to find buses which could take them to the mainland. Well yes, there were a few — so few that the masses essentially assaulted them, while the taxi drivers had to deal with many infuriated people who considered the fares to be a ripoff. (Considering how exorbitant the fares are on a normal day, there’s no telling what the drivers were asking on a Carnival night.) After an hour or two of hard labor, calm was restored, mainly by more buses being brought into service.
“Venice on some occasions demonstrates an alarming lack of direction and coordination,” editor and reporter Davide Scalzotto remarked in an opinion piece the next day. “If this is a city that wants to be considered [as a candidate for] European Capital of Culture, they’d better think it over. That in 2011 one of the world capitals of tourism can’t manage to connect the city on the water with the mainland 24 hours a day is verging on the incredible. First they invite tends of thousands of people to a party and bring lots of money to the ‘touristic categories,’ then they abandon them in the middle of the street to work it out for themselves.”
No special trains. This was a departure from past years and obviously creates more logistical misery for the revelers. Negotiations between the city and Trenitalia sputtered and died because nobody could reach an agreement on who would pay the bill for the extra service. Of course we already know that no ghe xe schei. Certainly not here, and evidently not at Trenitalia, either. Perhaps it’s under the potted palm.
The Grand Foyer: Now this was something new. When the partyers finally got to the Piazza San Marco, they discovered that 3/4 of the area had been closed off to form a sort of VIP area called the “Grand Foyer.” Depending on the day, the cost of a ticket to enter this realm ranged from 5 to 100 euros, and was offered as a very special way to enjoy proximity to the stage for the show(s) and some other perks. (Like seats on risers to watch the concert, or bags of confetti for 2.50). The organizers made no secret of their idea that this was intended as another way to make some of that missing schei, but so few people availed themselves of this opportunity– considering that they could see the show just as well from outside the fence — that eventually they let people in for free. (Does this remind you of anything? Peace and love, man.)
It’s true that you could dress up in an expensive rented costume (at least 200 euros) and attend a really glamorous party, like the one given at the Palazzo Pisani-Moretta on the Grand Canal. Tickets to that cost a mere 700 euros.
Or you could buy a mask and walk around taking pictures of people in masks and costumes. Or you could skip buying a mask and just walk around taking pictures. This seems to be what most people prefer.
We ran into a friend as we walked home Monday morning, and we indulged in a few choruses of a song which by now one knows all too well, the title of which could be “This isn’t Carnival, this is madness.” ”People will do anything just to make money.” ”Carnival is dead. Every year they just put more lipstick on the corpse.”
Naturally the city and its various Carnival-not-organizing components have already begun the spin. Speaking of how the Grand Foyer was working out, Piero Rosa Salva, the head of Venezia Eventi e Marketing, tranquilly described it as a sort of creative work-in-progress, an experiment. You can’t call an experiment a mistake, because, well, you’re experimenting. I myself can’t find a way to take seriously a project which could be labeled, “Let’s charge people lots of money for something they can get for free.” (Actually, I haven’t even tried to take it seriously.) But they’re still trying to understand why it didn’t work — so they can make it work better next time. Meanwhile, the private partners (Expo Venice and Attiva), which signed a three-year agreement with the city to share the cost of the stage, among other things, are probably already wondering what they were thinking.
Me, I’m always wondering what they were thinking.