Archive for August, 2009


See you in September

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There are two months here — well, two and a half, if you count the 12 days of Carnival — which are the most intense (polite way of saying “difficult”).   They are May and September.  

A brigade of lions could help with crowd control. This one doesn't look like leadership material, though. Worry has already taken a toll.

A brigade of lions could help with crowd control. This one doesn't look like leadership material, though. Worry has already taken a toll.

As we’re on the verge of September now, I can say I already feel its ponderous impetus, in the same way a river lifts at the unseen approach of a heavily laden barge.

On September 2 the Venice Film Festival begins (runs till September 12).   This world-class event overwhelms the Lido, where our boat club is, which means that going to row and getting home again is going to be hard.    The Lido is 6 miles [11 km] long and  something like 1/3 of a mile [500 meters] wide, which comes to  about two square miles [5.5 square km].     That’s not a lot of space for thousands of visitors all at once.   True, most of those thousands spend most of their days (and nights) indoors, at hotels or bars or most of all, screening rooms.   But they do come out occasionally, especially to go have a look at Venice, and I leave the rest to your imagination.   The vaporetto stop at the Lido is like the fall of Saigon.

Then there is the Campiello Prize, an important national literary event whose peak moments will occur on September 5 and 6.     So we add all the literati to the  streets and vaporettos.  

Fangs and claws.  Now we're getting somewhere.

Fangs and claws. Now we're getting somewhere.

Then we throw in  the Regata Storica, or Historic Regatta, which is always the first Sunday of September and this year will be on September 6.   This draws mostly day-trippers, or people who are already in town for some other reason.   I don’t believe many non-Venetians do more than come in for the day, and many more now stay home and watch it on television.   But it does majorly disrupt some of the vaporetto service, seeing as the Grand Canal is blocked for about six hours for the races.   Trying to decipher the official timetable for the day is like solving one of those innocent-seeming problems in logic which eventually unhinge you, problems which posit A, B, C and if not A but only B, or if A and C but not B, and so on.   It doesn’t bother me because I’ll be out in a boat most of the day and into the night, but yes, there is disruption.

Or cannon.  A bronze lion with a cannon might be all that's needed to keep the vaporettos in order.  And quiet, too.

Or cannon. A bronze lion with a cannon might be all that's needed to keep the vaporettos in order. And quiet, too.

Then — because the foregoing wasn’t enough — an international show-jumping event, the Venice All Stars,    is planned at the stable next door to our rowing club.   This will be September 16-19.   Workers have been slaving away at primping up the general area, since it is usually in a state of resigned degradation.   The major arteries of the Lido (both of them) will be  sclerotic, I imagine, with vans and horse trailers and cars.     Equine events seem to involve more wheels than hooves, when you think about it.

But all these mammals, however many legs they may have, will require fodder.      So to the restaurants (and also hotels), I wish a hearty mazel tov, this is your big (only; last) chance to recoup whatever losses the skimpy tourist year has inflicted on you.     And I have no doubt that recoup you will.   Then we’ll spend the next three days reading articles in the paper about how expensive Venice is and how people have been carried out on stretchers  after getting the bill for  a pizza and a beer.  

This dude has got the right idea. He's not taking anything seriously. He ought to get to know the bronze lion, who is probably more stressed out than a carnivore with a cannon ought to be.

This dude has got the right idea. If he's serious about anything, he's seriously mellow. He ought to get to know the bronze lion, who is more stressed than a carnivore with a cannon ought to be.

I did in fact just make that last part up.   What does happen, however, is that they get the bill and then go to some office and make a formal protest.   Complaint.   Denunciation.   Assorted Venetians read these accounts and go, “Bummer, man.”   Or the Venetian equivalent, which doesn’t immediately come to mind.

And on we go.

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The power of the Po

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“Every river is compelled to flow toward the sea, and it also carries tears with it.”  

I don’t know who wrote that, but it is the perfect epigraph for the Po River.     And nearly 60 years ago, there were  many, many tears.

The Po near Mantova.

The Po near Mantova.

Those two words — Po River — are tremendously evocative to millions, especially those living near it, or in some way depending on it.  It’s the longest  river  in Italy, and although it isn’t much compared to the Nile or the Congo, it is Italy’s mythic mass of water.  

The Po valley comprises some of the richest and most heavily cultivated land in Europe.

The Po valley comprises some of the richest and most heavily cultivated land in Europe.

The Po flows 405 miles [652 kilometers] from Monviso, a dazzling mountain in the Cottian Alps,  to the Adriatic,  through the core of the  north Italian Padania Plain and drains an area of  28,946 square miles [74,970 square kilometers].  

Some people think it’s monotonous and boring, but that’s when it’s just rolling along like Ol’ Man River.   Then every once in a while it floods, and turns into  something cataclysmic, and suddenly people  are  praying to God to make it boring again.   You can read more  in the article I wrote for National Geographic in the May, 2002 issue.

I’m talking about all this because of   my chronic curiosity about a statue stuck off by itself amid a few trees near the Giardini vaporetto stop.

It’s dramatic yet curiously detached; nevertheless, you realize something serious is underway.   A rescue, obviously, but it isn’t immediately clear what the danger is.   It’s the Po.

img_2129-statua-alluvione-compCatastrophic floods have occurred many times, but in November of 1951 there was a confluence of factors which spelled doom for man, beast, buildings, crops, bridges, soil, and anything else that was in, on, or near the river.   People seem to get all worked up about high tide in Venice, but that’s a Gilbert and Sullivan ditty compared to the Wagnerian devastation the Po visited on 200,000 people, nearly 1,000 of whom lost their lives.

I’m not going to try to describe it; the numbers can do it for me.   But I do remember what a friend of mine in Cremona told me about the Po in the major flood of 2000:   “The river under the bridge sounded like a waterfall.”   In 1951, the volume of water was measured at Cremona at 399,055 cubic feet per second  [11,300 cubic meters per second] — it must have sounded like the Last Judgment.

That autumn was especially rainy, not only in Italy but elsewhere in Europe and also in the United States.   From November 7-13, two weather fronts — one from the Atlantic, the other from Africa — brought rain that wasn’t particularly intense,   but it was continuous.   In fact, due to the nature and extent of the catchment basin, it’s long rains, rather than intense ones, that  create serious floods.  

piena515-compBefore long, the ground was saturated, unable to absorb any more water.   Then the rain intensified.      A hot southeast wind hit the snow that was falling in the Alps, and melted it.   More water.  

In the  five days between November 8-12, 600 billion cubic feet [17 billion cubic meters] of water  fell on the Po Plain, the amount which would normally fall in six months.

The Po’s average discharge is 48,400 cubic feet per second [1,370 cubic meters]; at its flood peak in 1951, the Po’s discharge was estimated at almost ten times that, or 424,000 cubic feet [12,000 cubit meters] per second.   That would be Niagara Falls doubled, thundering horizontally toward the sea.  

The river was rising because many of its 141 tributaries were also rising, obviously.   But when some of these smaller rivers tried to empty into the Po, the power of its flow actually forced them back, where they began to flood their own immediate surrounding territory.   That southeast wind wasn’t merely melting snow, it was preventing the Po from emptying into the sea.  

Nov. 13:   During the night, the church bells in Casalmaggiore (Cremona) and Sabbioneta (Mantova) and all the bells in the surrounding towns and villages begin to ring, to summon the men to try to block the rising water.   Urgent requests go out for sandbags.      

Nov. 14:   The Po exceeds 14 feet [4.30 meters].   At 7:00 pm the river bursts its embankments at Paviole di Canaro.   An hour later, it breaks through at Bosco and Malcantone at  the rate of    211,883 cubic feet [6,000 cubic meters] of water per second.    In a few hours 156 square miles [404 square kilometers] are flooded.  

When the flood crest reaches the Po Delta, the area also called Polesine, the level is higher at Rovigo — 15.7 feet [4.8 meters]    — than any recorded flood ever.

Nov. 15:  An emergency truck evacuating people is caught by the water at Frassinelle Polesine; 84 people, including women and children, die in what is remembered as the “death lorry.”      

At 2:00 pm the river bursts the banks at Arqua’ Polesine and the water spreads toward Adria.  

Nov. 18:   Rovigo is evacuated.

Nov. 19:   Adria, Cavarzere, Loreo are completely flooded.   The cities are evacuated.    

Nov. 20:   The embankments at Ceserolo are cut to save Rovigo.    

Nov. 25:   The crest reaches the sea, and the water begins to recede.   After three months, toward the end of February, only about one third of the flooded land is still submerged.    

In all, some 425 square miles [1,100 square kilometers] were flooded.

The rescue efforts were massive: The Army, Navy, Air Force, firemen, police, Red Cross, Scouts, and volunteers descended on the stricken towns, working continuously with the help of some 2,000 boatmen.   People spent days trapped on the roofs of their isolated houses, hoping someone would come by.

bovini-compThe damage in Polesine:   900 houses destroyed, 300 houses damaged, 38 communities flooded, 160,000 people forced to evacuate, 113,000 hectares of farmland flooded, and 300 hectares of land covered by a layer of sand 6 feet [2 meters] deep.

4500 cattle, 150 horses, 7800 pigs, 700 sheep and goats, and one million quintals [220 million pounds]  of fodder, all lost.  


37 miles [60 kilometers] of embankments and 52 bridges destroyed.    

Of course no one had insurance.   What was lost was gone forever.   It was Biblical.

Contributions poured — excuse the expression — in, from 65 countries, including Uruguay, Tunisia, Haiti, Indonesia, Lebanon, Costa Rica, Somaliland (as it was known), and Albania, as well as NATO.  

Lino remembers the effect it had on people in Venice who, like people for miles around,  responded by bringing mattresses, clothes, shoes, blankets, and more to collection points around the city.   My friend Roberto, from Milan, was just a tyke at the time, but he still remembers his mother telling him he had to donate one of his toys to the children in Polesine, and not just any toy.   She decreed, “Your favorite toy.'”    

“It was my favorite teddy bear,” he told me, “but I sent it away.”

"To the soldiers of land and sea TKTK" and below it, "To the memory of Alberto Vio, symbol of the generous impulse of Venice for the brothers of Polesine."

"To the soldiers of land and sea Venice salutes the Italians" and below it, "To the memory of Alberto Vio, symbol of the generous impulse of Venice for the brothers of Polesine." On the right side of the pedestal is incised MARZO MDCCCLXXXV and below it, NOVEMBRE MCMLI. The plot thickens.

Many improvements were attempted to prevent anything like this happening again.   One of the measures taken was to build ever higher embankments, often (in the cities) walled with concrete.   You know how water behaves when it’s forced into a tighter channel or tube?   Think of turning on your faucet very hard.   Yes.   That’s what the Po does now when it floods.  

Therefore,  when the river floods in spring (melting snow) or autumn (rains), as it will do until snow and rain cease from the earth,  it inevitably gains force as it races seaward.  

So floods continue — not much anyone can do about that — but the effects are still, if not as catastrophic as in 1951, expensive and distressing.   Because houses and fields and poplar forests planted for cellulose keep increasing, and always closer to the river’s edge.  

Oh, and some 30 million cubic yards of sand and gravel are illegally dug out of the riverbed for construction every year.   Not good if you were looking for ways to minimize flooding, which if you’re a gravel-robber you probably aren’t.

In 1994, the Po flood caused  70 deaths and 10,000 people lost their homes, due mainly to failures in the flood warning system.   The human element — always the wild card.

In 2000, the Po flood caused 25 deaths and 40,000 were evacuated.

And so it goes.   The Po.   Majestic.   Magnificent.   But I’d never call it  monotonous.

NOTE:   About the statue with the double inscription:   Everyone but me will already have figured it out —  it was originally made to commemorate the heroic efforts of the Army to help the victims of the Po flood in the spring of 1882.   (I know that the inscription reads 1885, but I am trusting my source, the immortal Giulio Lorenzetti, for this information.)   After the inundation of 1951, the statue was recycled to commemorate the equally heroic rescue work (hence the noticeably non-1951 garb of the figures depicted).  

Alberto Vio, Lino tells me, was “famous” for having provided boats for the rescue efforts.   I don’t know any more than that just now,  but  it explains why he is mentioned on the plinth.   I can tell you, though,  that the statue was made by Augusto Benvenuti in 1885, and that it used to stand in Campo San Biagio, the small area in front of the Naval Museum and church of San Biagio.   Lino remembers seeing it there when he was a lad.   Then someone decided it should move out and they found this anonymous little spot for it by the Giardini.   Kind of a modest end to a work that was entitled “Monument to the Italian Army.”   But if everybody’s fine with this, so am I.

Categories : History, Nature, Water
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“Besieged”: tourism update

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I know it might seem that this subject just won’t go away, even if, as Mark Twain said about something else,  you take a stick and hit it on the snout.   But as it’s one of the central subjects of existence here, there is no escape.

I was interested to see the headline in the Gazzettino two days ago, “Venice doesn’t know how to keep its tourists.”   This is intriguing, considering that much of the criticism hurled at tourism here seems to have to do with wanting the tourists to go away.

Just in case, though, that my recent disquisition on tourism might have seemed like the lonely ravings of  a solitary  misfit,  a recent study by the Confindustria Venezia, a business  consortium,  which looked at Venice, Rome and Florence,  has shown not only the brevity of the average stay (2.47 nights), but that tourists rarely return to Venice.   And they say outright that, as I mentioned the other day,  the city lacks a tourism strategy.

“The central point,” said Elisabetta Fogarin, president of Confindustria Venezia Turismo, “is that Venice needs a policy of Destination Management.   It needs to be relaunched at the international level, to make it an icon and a  glamour destination again, where the visitor and traveler can live an experience that can’t be repeated somewhere else.”

Glamour is the grail of tourism here, the notion that quality can be made to replace quantity in the economic equation.   I’d suggest that this dream is something like wanting all trains to be like the Orient Express, including the Venice-Pordenone local.   Which I would totally endorse, except that there are too many people who just need to get home from work to make that even imaginable.

The statistic of 2.47 nights here is, according to the study,  a sign that Venice is drastically under-realizing its potential; in any case, it’s not indicative of “culture tourism” (for which one needs more time, clearly.   Anybody who has entered the Uffizi Galleryin Florence with the intention of seeing it all knows that about five months is probably  a more reasonable time frame for visiting some cultural  monuments here.)   And 2.47 nights is just another way of saying “not quality tourists.”     Bearing in mind that to reach an average, you must have many people who are staying less time (and at least some who are staying longer, true.)   But mostly tourists just hit and run.

img_2361-venice-out-and-in-compI think somebody has already recognized this and decided to play to Venice’s currently somewhat battered image.   A new campaign promoting the city’s museums shows two scenes: One is a detail of the huddled masses in the Piazza San Marco, next to a shot of the magnificent Scala d’Oro in the Doge’s Palace, a ceremonial staircase dwarfing two lorn humans.   The slogan in Italian translates as, “If you stay outside, you can’t say you’ve seen Venice.”    Which I like better than the way they translated it, snappy as it may be.

So to really see Venice, you have to get away from Venice?   Well, I guess that’s as good an approach to crowd management as another.   It just seems  slightly regrettable that instead of promoting this monument for the wonder of the world that  it is, this angle is  more like “Want to get away from all those uncouth boors outside?   Flee into our gorgeous past, which is deserted,” which actually sounds pretty good unless you know that this means you’re going to have to pay 13 euros ($18)  to walk through endless non-air-conditioned rooms and look at a million paintings that all look alike.   Or so it might seem if your primary motivation for entering was merely because it isn’t Out There.

I happen to worship the Doge’s Palace and consider it a given that if you don’t spend several hours here, you can’t have the tiniest notion of the greatness, brilliance  and sheer power of the Venetian Republic.   Without which, your visit to Venice is just a pointless trek through a flyblown postcard.

It’s just too bad to tell people they should see the museums because there aren’t any of those awful tourists there.   But I guess if you have no tourism strategy, you’ll try all kinds of things.

Categories : Problems, Tourism
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Seeking a new viewpoint

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The location of Rosa Salva's cafe makes an excellent outdoor perch for resting and ingesting many marvelous calories in the form of pastry and ice cream.

The location of Rosa Salva's cafe makes an excellent outdoor perch for resting and ingesting many first-class calories in the form of pastry and ice cream.

One Sunday afternoon as I was toiling along toward the Fondamente Nove on my way to Burano, I stopped for refreshment (coffee and use of the bathroom) at the elegant cafe/bar Rosa Salva in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Let me note right here that although travel writers seem to love propagating “Zanipolo,”  the ancient Venetian name for this trusty duet of saints, I myself have never heard any Venetian use that word, even by mistake.   That era, whenever it was, is long, long gone.   (I have seen it written, occasionally, on local boats or bars.)     I just wanted to point that out.

Anyway, it was a miserable day.   When it rains like that the entire world goes sodden, nothing escapes.   Your skin isn’t just wet, it’s saturated.   The air, your clothes, your brain.   A day like this makes you want to just stay in bed, with the (sodden) covers pulled over your (sodden) head.

Not surprisingly, there were no other customers in the cafe.   A dark-haired girl and a young man wearing glasses were standing behind the bar.   I smiled and gave that whaddya-gonna-do shrug toward the weather and the world.

I said, “Why are we here?”

They smiled.   He said, “Good question.   There’s nobody around — nobody.   And there’s five of us here to work today.   Some days even with five we’re working like crazy, but look at this.   There’s nothing to do.”

Helpful little Anglo-Saxon, no-minute-left-unexploited me,  bounces right in: “You could read a book,” I offered.   “Write some letters.   Do needlepoint.   Write the story of your life.   Not the stuff that happened, but the stuff you wish had happened.   Your dreams.”

Did someone say dreams?   He was ready.   “My dream was to become a captain of a vaporetto with  the ACTV [the local transport company],” he replied.

“Good grief!” I said (or rather,  its Venetian equivalent).    “If you’re going to  dream, dream big!   Captain of a vaporetto?   Why not make it captain of a cruise ship?   After all, it’s just dreams.   Go for it!”

“Well, no,” he replied, unruffled.   “It would be enough for me.   It’s a secure position, you work your seven hours and then you go home.”   (This the classic philosophy of a certain sort of person here: I need to work but don’t let it disturb my life.)     “Besides, my father was captain of a cruise ship and he was gone for weeks at a time.”   Oops.   I was aiming at the wrong dream.

“Well, that changes things,” I said.   “You know what you’re talking about.   So fine.   Why don’t you apply to the ACTV?”

“I did.”   He gestured toward his glasses.   “You can’t make it if you wear glasses.”

I didn’t want to give in.   “So have the operation!”

“I could do that” — he had obviously been serious about this dream, small as it might have seemed to me.   “It would correct the near-sightedness, but not the astigmatism.”   (Or the other way around, I can’t remember.)

“I wouldn’t have minded being a train driver,” he went on, “but it’s the same problem about the eyes.  ”

“Subway driver?”   (Somewhere else, obviously, not here.)    Nope — anyone who wants to work at something that’s part of the autotramvieri union, it’s the same story.   He was stuck.

He had sort of made his peace with it, but he was still young enough to feel the empty space where what he wanted to be his life was supposed to have been put.   Meanwhile he’s making do with carrying overpriced cappuccinos to exhausted tourists.   Or not, as is the case today.

“Well,” I said, still trying to be helpful but drastically changing tack, “just think, anyway you’ve still got your eyes.   How many people could say they wish they had your problems?”   Not the best contribution, being repulsively   banal, but   true, which is something, anyway.

He agreed.   Well, what else could he do?   Evidently he had long since reached that conclusion, the idea that things could have been, or be, worse.   But meanwhile the rain is pouring down, and the motor has pretty much stalled in his life, so to speak.   Whether he simply needs more fuel, or new spark plugs, or some part that’s more expensive and hard to find (“…we’ll have to order it…”…”it will be two months…” …”everybody’s closed for Christmas/New Year’s/summer vacation”…) I hope he finds it and gets his life moving again.   He’s too young to stay stalled in the breakdown lane of life like this.

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