As we strolled along the Strada Nuova a few mornings ago toward the station, we came upon a curious addition to the urban fabric: A very fancy sign at a very tricky spot warning people not to slip on the steps in four languages. First, the steps:
As you see, with each descending step the risk increases. You wouldn’t think a sign would be necessary to draw attention to that, but signs are always in short supply, and nearby merchants often volunteer to provide that missing piece. It’s not so much civic spirit as a desire to do something more with one’s day in the shop than answering the same lost-tourist questions over and over again.
A sterling example of the sort of done-it-myself sign at a crucial intersection; it reminds me of those signs you see depicted at military bases overseas that give the distance from there to everywhere. It does not give the direction to your home town, though, or to your hotel. Life is short, paper is even shorter. But the spirit was spot-on. In order from top: To San Marco, To Rialto, To Campo (indecipherable here), To Strada Nuova, To Campo Santa Maria Formosa, and blah blah. I can’t read the photo, I’ll have to go past there someday to review the contents. I’m sure this effort has broken at least 15 decrees and ordinances, but that’s nothing considering how many the Superintendency of Fine Arts, etc. overrides every day.
Back to the sign on the Strada Nuova. You can see that someone has gone to considerable trouble and expense on this one. It almost looks official.
Reminds me of those yellow plastic sandwich-board signs they put out when they’re mopping the airport floor. I wonder if anybody pays any attention to them?
This morning, Sunday, at about 10:00 AM, we walked by here again. There was no sign. I conclude that either it keeps hours that correspond to the sign-maker’s work schedule (they’d have to take it inside overnight, that much is obvious. So you’re free to slip to a spectacular fall in the evening.) Or the Superintendency was annoyed by it and sent a culture-policeman to remove it. If I wanted to pursue this any further, I’d have to go back and check on the fate of the taped-up sign, as well. But I don’t care that much.
Water you wouldn’t enjoy falling into this morning: Ice. Not covering all the canal surface, and it’s that fine, filmy sort that remains somewhat flexible. I’m sure the next passing motorboat busted it to bits. But it’s been below freezing here for three days, and is expected to continue for a while longer. This is, by the way, exactly the blast of frigid weather that brings the seppie to the surface and back into our lives (if the southwest wind is blowing, I must note). I have no idea why, but I’ll be watching for their appearance. Maybe they’ve heard that we’ve got hot chocolate at home.
I’m aware that a month has passed since my last post — I plead the Summer Defense. Heat, mental depletion, and lots of stuff to do with the energy I don’t have.
Did I ever mention that we have no air conditioning in our hovel? Our first, second, and only line of defense is the lagoon, into which we have gone frequently.
Some evidence follows, just to reconnect with the outside world (my readers), even if I have no deep wisdom, or deep anything, to impart. I’ve had to give up talking about Venice itself for a while because living here is like living in freaking “Groundhog Day.” And when I begin to bore myself, it’s time for a big, big pause.
To start things off in a lively way was the unusually powerful “scirocal,” or southeast wind, which roared through Venice for a while the other day. This was a refreshing change, as long as you didn’t have to be on the water in any craft smaller than an aircraft carrier.
Case in point: Not aircraft carriers. Lino and I have found ourselves having to traverse water in this sort of weather in a boat with oars. One remembers only fragments of the experience due to the ungodly concentration such a traverse requires.
Much better — going out at dawn (5:30, for the record) at LOOOOOOW tide. There must be clams out there and we’re going to find them.
What I mean is that Lino is going to find them. He’s so good at it.
My job — for which I have hired myself — is to admire the view. By now it’s no secret that I adore the lagoon at an exceptional low tide. It’s like sneaking into somebody’s house.
Having found exactly zero clams in Place A, we rowed around to Place B, where the quest continued. I especially like this area because there’s so much variety in the sediment. Among other reasons.
The mushy green area in the center of the picture is eelgrass. When the tide is high (and it’s on its way right now) it floats like tresses.
Just pull the boat up and go exploring. Remember that the tide is going to begin rising before long, potentially floating your vehicle away.
Lino came across the first sea urchin I’ve ever seen in the lagoon (I’ve seen them on rocks). Happily, he did not discover it with his bare foot. People eat them, but it seemed pointless to take just one home, so we released it back into its habitat. Far from our bare feet.
Speaking of eating — as one does — we came across a few dauntless sea snails making a meal of a crab. Whatever birds walked by either couldn’t manage it, didn’t like it, or were driven away by the snails. And left only their footprints.
Lino went out armed with a net bag to bring home the clams. But all he was finding were “noni,” or sea snails (Bolinus brandaris). Which were doomed.
Which he displayed, briefly, on the bow, along with two Belon oysters (Ostrea edulis). The lagoon is full of them but nobody is — inexplicably — interested in them anymore. I really like them, but there again, taking only two seemed a little too apex-predator for us. So after being booked and photographed, back they went.
Ditto for this little newcomer, a type of clam called a “longone” (Tapes aureus). Not to be confused with “cape lunghe” (Solen marginatus). I’ve heard Lino mention them, but this was my first sighting. Immortalized, and returned to the primordial homeland.
Another newcomer to my album: Vongola verace (Tapes decussatus) — the shell slightly smashed by something, but still looking good. You can recognize them by the darkish (or sometimes whitish) band around the flattish outer edge of the shell (among other distinguishing traits). These are the native “caparossoli,” which are the acknowledged kings of the molluskian world, but if you don’t know what they look like you might be fooled by some other clam on the menu, presented — how may I put this? — under false pretenses.
Lots of half-buried fan mussels (Atrina fragilis) swathed in eelgrass, strewn about like Mollusk-henge.
When the water is high, you try not to row over them — you can find out too late that the water’s not quite high enough when you hear a little scrape or crunch under the boat. Not good.
Rising tide is also nice.
How can I put this? We found just about everything except clams. But we had a great time visiting the neighborhood.
This is one view of what a lagoon looks like, especially when the tide is going out and the clams are just waking up.
This is an unusual step for me, but I think it’s worth it. Even though I don’t place much trust in the power of petitions, maybe this time it will be different.
In any case, I’d like to inform you of one which has gone from 700 to 20,000 signatures and counting in about ten days. I think that means something.
“Gruppo 25 aprile” is a new group of Venetians and Venice-lovers which is concentrating its efforts on stopping the digging of the “Canale Contorta.” Its reasons are shared by many scientific and environmental experts, not to mention a huge percentage of everyday Venetians.
Once the subject of the big cruise ships and their potential to damage Venice became one of the hottest debates and power struggles of the year, the need for finding an alternate route from the Adriatic to Venice obviously became paramount. My own opinion is that any “cure” they find will be worse than the “disease” (i.e., the ships in the Bacino of San Marco) — or, as the Venetians put it, el tacon xe pezo del buso (the patch is worse than the hole).
Many solutions have been proposed, but only one had the political muscle behind it to get itself officially considered by the “Comitatone” (“Big Committee”) in Rome, which had the power to decide yes or no. That “solution” is the dredging of the Canale Contorta.
Sorry it’s in Italian. The red line shows the current route by which cruise ships enter and leave Venice. The solid yellow line is the Petroleum Canal. The dotted yellow line is the Canale Contorta, which already exists in a simple, primitive, shallow way. Changing that will change a whole lot besides. (www.corriere.it).
Thanks to a calculated maneuver by its promoters, the meeting at which the decision was to be made was held in August. (“August” is Italian for “vacation.”)
As Marco Gasparinetti, the coordinator of Gruppo 25 aprile, explains (translated by me from the Gazzettino):
“The decision of the Comitatone on August 8 was a summer blitz with which they hoped to surprise a city on vacation. But the city is fed up with being expropriated from the decisions which concern it, and this time is going to make its voice heard.”
The political vacuum in Venice since the government fell on June 4 has at least one positive aspect, and that is that finally there seems to be some possibility that the voices of Venetians might be heard somewhere beyond their living rooms and favorite bars. Yes, there is chaos in almost every aspect of daily life here now, but the fact that essentially only one man is in charge — Vittorio Zappalorto, the Commissario who is temporary governor — means that the city is less strangled by the political and bureaucratic tentacles of the past 20 years. It’s as if — to try another metaphor — a colossal dose of drain cleaner has ripped through the city’s emotional and civic pipes.
Back to the Canale Contorta. It may not be too late to stop it. Therefore Gruppo 25 aprile has created a petition addressed to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as well as all the ministers concerned (Environment, Infrastructure and Transport, Culture, etc.) urging them to withdraw the hasty approval of what it (and I) regard as a catastrophic move, the last nail in the coffin of the lagoon after the drastic effects of the MOSE floodgates, not to mention the Canale dei Petroli (“Petroleum Canal”), dug in 1969.
A drawing from the 1980’s shows the network of canals, or “ghebi,” in the lagoon. In 2002, a NASA satelite shows the same area, pretty much leveled and smoothed out by the terrific suction of the Petroleum Canal over the years. (Umberto Sartory, 6/29/2006, venicexplorer.net).
The page connected to the link above shows a map (left) from the 1980’s which outlines the major and some minor natural channels (ghebi) which used to cross and re-cross the lagoon. It represents a complex biological realm which the effects caused by the Canale dei Petroli, in 40 years, has done much to destroy, as shown by the NASA satellite image made in 2002 (right). Do you see ghebi? I see just a broad, anonymous stretch of bottom. That’s what the fish see, too.
Lagoons are rich, meaty environments. The sea is also nice, but not like this. I believe the difference is easy to see.
Coastal lagoons are transitional environments between fully terrestrial and fully marine conditions; in the absence of direct human intervention, their long-term tendency is to infill with sediments. Over the centuries, the Venetian Republic was instrumental in maintaining this vital yet delicate land/sea balance, starting with the huge undertaking to divert the main rivers in the 16th century and stop the region from silting up altogether.
Since that time, however, historical and near contemporary records of changing patterns of lagoonal topography and water depth; tidal currents; and sediment transport from the lagoon to the sea all show unequivocally that the current lagoon is moving in the opposite direction, becoming a downward-eroding, sediment-exporting system. It is thus on a trajectory that will turn it into a fully marine bay. That this process is well underway is evidenced by the appearance of plant and animal species in the lagoon that are characteristic of marine environments.
We may argue about the velocity of this trajectory but the evidence for such a trend, clearly related to a whole series of human interventions from the late 18th century to the present, is not in doubt. As wave height and tidal flows are strongly influenced by water depth, such a shift has critical importance for the sustainability of the historic core of Venice itself. If we drill down into the detail behind this general trend, it is clear that the excavation of two large canals (Canale Vittorio Emanuele, around 1925, and Canale Malamocco Marghera, around 1969) produced strong transversal currents across the original tidal network, with consequent siltation of channels and erosion of adjacent shallows.
There is one simple question that needs to be answered. Can we be assured that the large-scale excavation of the Canale Contorta will not have the same effect and not give the Venice lagoon a further shove in the direction of yet more environmental degradation and urban vulnerability?
The petition asks the national government to reconsider all the proposals. That seems like an extremely modest request.
The petition can be signed online. Here is the link explaining their position, with the possibility of signing. (“Firma” means “signature.”)
If anyone might be tempted to suppose that Venice can be happy and healthy in the middle of a maimed and deformed lagoon, that person should consider this: That the water through the Canale Contorta will enter or leave the lagoon with a force and a quantity that will endanger the city to a degree that the biggest cruise ship could never dream of.
The lagoon is loaded with egrets who might like to be considered in the great scheme of things.
It amuses me to see boats floating up so high. In a really serious acqua alta, they can go high enough to slip off the top of their pilings, though this enterprising/lazy/cheap person has opted to skip buying pilings and tied his destroyer to the barrier instead. This is risky, considering that the force of the tide (either rising or falling) can pull the boat down on one side. Then the boat fills with water. I have seen this with my own eyes; they say the boat has “hanged” itself, just like a person. By the way, I notice that this owner is unnaturally concerned with the potential contact between the hull and the fondamenta. Five fenders? Are we waiting for a tsunami?
Saint Martin’s day yesterday was a lot more emphatic than it usually is with the banging of pots and pans by kids on a quest for candy. In addition to the kids, and the traditional cookies, we got acqua alta — the second visitation of the season, and it was noticeable. The news tonight reported that it had reached 149 cm (4.8 feet) above sea level, the sixth highest since 1872. (The highest on record remains November 4, 1966, which was 190 cm/6.2 feet).
Water didn’t enter our hovel, but it didn’t miss by much.
We heard the sirens sound, as expected, two hours before the peak predicted for 8:20 AM. There were three extra tones, which indicated an anticipated maximum of 120 cm (3.9 feet). Not long after that, we heard the sirens again, this time with four tones (140 cm/4.5 feet). At that point we sat up and began to pay attention.
What made this event more interesting than usual wasn’t simply the height of the water, it was the speed of the wind — I mean, the force of the scirocco, which is always a major factor in keeping the lagoon in when it wants to go out. The wind was blowing around 40 km/hr (24 mph), with gusts of 55 km/hr (34 mph).
All this was part of a major weather system that hit large areas of Italy leaving real drama and destruction in its wake — mudslides, blocked roads, fallen trees, and more mayhem than we could ever manage here, thank God.
Naturally we went out to buy the newspaper and look around the neighborhood. I don’t usually take pictures of acqua alta anymore, as they have long since become repetitive. But this was toward the unusual side of the daily scale of nuisances.
Of course I’m glad the water didn’t exceed our top step, but if it had, I’d still be alive. This is the first of my annual pleas to the world to ignore the wailing and gnashing and published or broadcast claims that the city has been driven to its knees. I do not consider the fact that a tourist has had wade across the Piazza San Marco carrying her suitcase on her head an indication of anything larger than a temporary annoyance — it certainly does not make even the tiniest wail begin to form anywhere in my thorax. Anyone who has been dealing with Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath — not to mention people in stricken areas of Tuscany and Umbria — would find the suggestion that a large but temporary inconvenience could be compared to life-threatening catastrophe not only ridiculous, but offensive. By noon the water was all gone and the streets were drying off.
We hadn’t even reached the end of the fondamenta before we got inconfutable evidence that in spite of the blasting wind and rain and water up to our thighs that the tide had turned: Under the boats, the anguele (Atherina boyeri) were all facing upstream, against the tide.
As usual, somebody had left a bag of garbage out on the street. You can’t pick them all up as they float around and away, but this was the first one we came across and Lino decided he had to do something about it. Nobody would have noticed, or cared, but I was impressed and I know he felt better.
The owner of our favorite cafe didn’t even try to keep the water out, though she did take all the boxes of panettone out of the window display and stacked them up on the counter along the wall. As she told us later, there’s no point in putting a barrier across the door — the water just comes in some other way. In the case of the cafe across the street, jets of water were coming in through fissures in the wall even as he was pumping the water out. Meanwhile, this lady is here every day, reading. Why let a little water ruin a perfectly fine routine?
Many of the shops along via Garibaldi were being pumped out — it was like walking around the gardens of the Villa d’Este with all the fountains.
I was struck by yet another illustration of the fact that Venice is not perfectly flat. We were sloshing along in our hipwaders, while just beyond the gate there was high ground. When the acqua isn’t alta, you’d think it was all level.
As you see, not everybody got the memo that the city was afflicted with a desperate situation. This is Venice with acqua alta: People waist-deep in the Piazza San Marco carrying their suitcases on their heads, people sitting in cafes as the water laps at their chairs, and some people (they were French, for the record) who think it’s all more fun than watching elephants ride a roller-coaster. So take your pick. Tragedy? Comedy? Farce?
As we got closer to the Riva dei Sette Martiri facing the lagoon, the reality of the tide going out began to really mean something. The combined power of the water channeling out of the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal toward the sea hit the embankment approximately at the end of via Garibaldi. Lino said he’d never seen anything like this, and he’s seen every acqua alta in the past 70 years. Walking against this was like walking against an Alpine torrent. (Apologies for the blur — the wind and rain were also picking up force here.)
Someone pauses to assess the situation as we near the edge of the Riva. As you can tell, there’s relatively little to assess. If you’re still standing up, you’re okay.
The only yacht moored near the Arsenal was in a fairly unpleasant situation. Perhaps the waves wouldn’t have lifted it up onto the pavement, but it was making progress to having its expensive hull well and truly bashed and dented. The only two people on board were working like madmen to push the fenders between the stone and the metal. But it was a doomed endeavor. Why? Because the wind and water were pushing against them, and for some incomprehensible reason they had not slackened one of the lines attaching the boat to the fondamenta. Even if these two were Samson and Hercules, they couldn’t have pushed the boat out further than the rope would let them. And yet they kept trying. I wanted to go say “Untie the line!” but Lino said “Don’t even think of getting yourself involved, for the sake of the souls of all my dead relatives.”
I have the utmost respect for the fact that they were giving it all they had to protect the boat (though then again, why it took them so long to remember the fenders is a mystery. The high-water siren sounded at 6:00 AM and it’s now 9:30.) Instinct clearly has taken over, because two people with a combined weight of perhaps 300 pounds couldn’t possibly shift an object weighing at least a ton being pushed by the combined strength of Poseidon and Aeolus. I hope they’re okay today. I hope they didn’t get fined, or fired, when the boss called in to check on his boat.
Despite the surging water and lashing waves and all, here is undeniable proof that the tide is falling: Detritus left behind on the steps of the bridges. I don’t usually find trash appealing, but this was a beautiful thing to see.