Archive for Tourism in Venice
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.
I went to the airport one morning two weeks ago, and there I discovered that there is a dark side to cruising. The only thing surprising about that is that I was surprised.
Going home from vacation is never very much fun, but it would seem that Marco Polo airport was designed to get you accustomed really fast to the fact that the fun is seriously over.
As I have often mentioned — sorry if I’m becoming repetitive, maybe I should set some of this material to music and we could all join in on the chorus — Venice has become a mega-major passenger port.
Cruise traffic in the last ten years has quadrupled. Expressed in bodies, that comes to 1,420,980 in 2009, which represented a 16.9 per cent increase over the previous year. Venice is now the fourth busiest port in Europe, and the first in the Mediterranean.
The first ship on the dance card this year was the Costa “Deliziosa,” which arrived on January 30 (I don’t know from where — maybe there’s a cruise-ship launching platform somewhere around Queen Maud Land). The last one scheduled this year is the MSC “Magnifica,” which will depart on December 27. The word “season” has taken on new meaning: It’s every month of the year except January.
But until last Sunday, I hadn’t really given any thought to what these numbers might portend, not so much to the ships as to the airport.
After all, passengers mostly arrive by air. I’ve often seen the young women who serve as cruise-passenger wranglers waiting in the Arrivals area at Marco Polo airport, holding up their signs for Princess or Costa or whatever the cruise line might be, to help them gather their arriving clients, each of whom appears to bring about ten metric tons of luggage. The common idea about cruises is that people go on them in order to eat constantly, like blue whales (daily requirement: about 1.5 million calories). But when I look at their bags, I think their main plan must be to pass the time changing clothes.
Anyway, it’s obvious that extraordinary machinery has been developed to keep these ships and their passengers and their supplies coming in and going out, doing a turnaround in the space of a day, for 11 months a year.
It doesn’t appear, however, that the same efficiency has been devoted to the airport phase of the experience. Because when six or seven cruise ships come into Venice on a Sunday morning to finish their dreamy voyages, most of those people head for the airport. Where the party is definitively over.
Venice airport is the third busiest in Italy, preceded only by Rome and Milan. This makes the airport people very proud, as well it should. But while their annual numbers might be impressive on the page, they’re not nearly as impressive as the struggle all those thousands of people have to make in order to leave Venice in something like a four-hour window of time. Certainly there are early flights where the density of humans is less — the first departs at 6:35 AM. But no cruise company in the world would put its passengers on the airport bus at 4:30 AM, unless it were docking in Murmansk.
So as I say, I went to the airport on a Sunday morning to meet some friends who had disembarked from their cruise and were flying out that night. When I slid off the escalator on the Departures level, what greeted me was an appalling combination of the last day at summer camp (when all the kids are milling around being picked up by parents) and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West featuring Annie Oakley.
That morning there were 20 flights scheduled between 9:50 AM and 12:15 PM; that’s one every six minutes. And three of those flights were to major US destinations, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York. I mention that only because I presume that one flight to Atlanta involves more passengers than three flights to Palermo.
When I think back on the previous facility 15 years ago (a nostalgic reminder of the Oneida County airport at Utica, New York in 1968), the shiny new version is something of an improvement. But one has to ask oneself (I’ll stand in for “one,” in this scene), what they were thinking when they designed an airport that has more space for the planes than for the people.
Take the check-in area on the Departures level. It is beautifully long, but ludicrously narrow. There are 60 check-in counters, and the designer(s) evidently assumed that each check-in counter would serve a line of no more than 25 calm, lucid, well-organized passengers with no luggage or children. Then they left just a smidge of space at the end of the line so that people could get through who needed to go somewhere else — another counter, or the newsstand or the bar.
But wait. It turns out there are more than 25 people who need to line up at each counter, so they begin to clump together. And hold on — we actually need lots and lots of space for the people who are walking from here to there because many of them got here the necessary two (or more) hours before departure but whose flight isn’t open for check-in yet. So they wander (mill around, actually) or they sit, if they can find a place among the very designy but not very numerous seats.
Let’s talk about other things people need besides enough space to stand in a check-in line, or to sit and check their tickets and yell at their kids and or maybe take a snooze.
People need to go the bathroom. There are two obvious bathrooms on the Departures level and one hidden away down a hallway. I don’t know about the men’s room (men don’t care, anyway), but each ladies’ room has two (2) toilets. That makes four stalls for women on a floor that is pullulating with hundreds and hundreds of people. There are two ladies’ rooms on the Arrivals floor, too, so make that another four stalls on the ground level. Eight stalls — I mean ten, if you count the hidden facility — for women in an airport that operates an average of 80 flights a day, or an average of one every 12 minutes. (There must be a handicapped-accessible bathroom somewhere, it just doesn’t come to mind.)
Lest you think I am unreasonably obsessed with physiological needs (like, say, space to move around in and yes, to relieve oneself), I have some data from Robert Davis, an architect friend of mine. He writes: “We have a rule of thumb for theaters which is ’30 seats per seat.’ … So a 600-seat facility should have 20 fixtures, evenly divided male/female.”
Assuming that airport design is not radically different from theater design (some people spend more time in airports than they do in theaters, after all), if you have 600 people in the airport you would need ten stalls for the women. So we see that the Venice airport is already in a bathroom deficit situation. Because let’s assume there are more than 600 people in the airport at a given time, a pretty safe assumption based on the evidence of the other morning. The people keep swarming in, but there are still only eight stalls. Just deal with it.
At the other end of the alimentary canal, there are two (2) bar/sandwich counters (one upstairs with no seating and one downstairs with some tables), and one multi-station buffet with very little space to move around in with your tray, and a batch of cramped tables and extremely little space for your luggage, assuming you’re snacking before checking in, or you feel like doing something other than wander and look for a place to sit. The line for this facility stretches out to collide with the lines of people checking in at counters 59 and 60.
I have to say, pretty slim pickings for passengers at an airport which claims to be ready to handle 15 million passengers a year. Especially considering that it is currently handling only about 8 million.
I’m not saying Venice’s aerodrome has to be like Frankfurt or Amsterdam airports, though I wouldn’t mind. All I’m saying is that while everyone has been working night and day to increase cruise traffic, it doesn’t appear that anyone has been attending to how they will be accommodated (I mean wrangled) on the day they leave. So far, Skytrax has not awarded any stars at all to Venice airport. I wonder what that means.
So what advice could I give someone leaving their dream cruise and flying out of Venice airport in the summer? Bring a book. Your own food. A folding chair. A portable toilet. Think of it as camping, in the middle of Times Square. You’ll be fine.
I have taken some cruises, let me state for the record. What follows is not a screed against cruises. Sometimes a screed isn’t even necessary.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, cruises are one of Venice’s main sources of income — not from the paltry trinkets that the passengers may buy as they wander the streets on shore leave, or from the soggy sandwiches or slices of cold pizza they may eat while sitting on a bridge, but from the tax levied on each passenger of about 100 euros each.
Today I only want to share with you the sheer — there must be a word — sheerness of the sight which greeted me as I reached the end of via Garibaldi this morning.
We knew yesterday evening that a cruise ship, as occasionally happens, was destined to be moored at the Riva dei Sette Martiri, because the wire fence that serves as a minimal sort of barrier had already been set up.
What I hadn’t really noticed last night was that the fence stretched the entire length of the Riva, which I now know is about 970 feet, give or take. Because the ship that is tied up there is officially 965 feet long and, by the look of it, about three miles high.
Cruise ships come in and out of Venice virtually every day from April to October (plus a little bit on each end). On weekends it’s the March of the Pachyderms when as many as seven arrive in the morning and depart that evening, a turnaround system that would dazzle the Ferrari pit crew.
My impression, standing by this behemoth, was that this is the largest thing afloat that isn’t an iceberg. But the facts are otherwise (fancy way of saying I was wrong). In fact, I must be really easy to impress, considering how far down the list (34th) of behemoths she ranks.
The “Queen Victoria”‘s stats are: 965 feet long and carries 2,000 passengers.
The “Oasis of the Seas,” which has yet to grace Venice with her presence, God forbid, measures 1,181 feet and carries 5,400 passengers.
I’ve seen plenty of ships which are essentially the same size as the Queen Vic: the “Norwegian Gem” (965 feet), MSC “Musica” (964), “Costa Serena” (952), and the “Ruby Princess” (951). So I really shouldn’t have been so stunned — it’s just that the others moor in the maritime zone and I only see them underway at some moderate distance from the shore. Walking past the “Queen Victoria” is like walking past the Great Wall of China.
And then I got to thinking. It carries 2,000 passengers and about 1,000 crew (I like that ratio, by the way). And it’s got so much square footage that I don’t want to stop to figure it out, amusing as that might be.
All I was thinking is this: The proportions are essentially ludicrous, in the same way that it’s ludicrous that a vehicle has been invented (a car) which weighs 2,000 pounds in order to carry me, which weighs 125. Now we have this leviathan of the seas carrying a mere 2,000 passengers, which probably means that each one rates 4,500 square feet all his or her own.
Or look at it this way: All 2,000 of those paying guests, none of whom is any larger than the crumblike humans in the photographs, are the only thing keeping this mutant mammoth alive. If it weren’t for the assortment of tiny plantigrade mammals I saw descending the gangway in the rain, this colossus would just starve and die.
The idea that something so big could be so vulnerable is nothing new. Other behemoths come to mind, such as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest at Tikal, or the Hill Complex of Great Zimbabwe. But we keep building them all the same. Maybe it makes us feel slightly less crumblike.