Archive for ” Paolo Costa

This is not a cretinata tree, it's one of the most amazing wisteria trees in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria.  I wait for it all year.

This is not a cretinata tree, it’s one of the most amazing wisterias in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria. I wait for it all year.

Cretinate” (kreh-tee-NAH-teh) are actions or statements perpetrated by one or more cretins — a far too useful term in these parts, and one I’m sorry doesn’t exist in English.

But maybe it’s not that there are so many cretins here.  Maybe there are lots of highly intelligent, profoundly sensitive, extremely kind and rich people who just happen to say cretinous things.  If so, there are still too many of them.

A few days ago we heard the latest of an infinite string of fantasies stated as facts by Paolo Costa, the president of the Venice Port Authority.  He gives every sign of being a born believer in the inherent importance and value of Mastodontic Projects, as they put it here, because he has spent the last few years pushing ferociously for approval for the excavation of the Contorta Canal to bring the big cruise ships to the Maritime Zone by way of the lagoon, and not by the Giudecca Canal.

Apart from whether or not this would be a smart move for Venice and its economy (read: keep the port working at full speed), the canal itself has been recognized by an array of environmentalists and even politicians as being enormously damaging to the lagoon ecosystem.  (May I note, once again, that the lagoon is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a fact which apparently is difficult to remember, seeing how casually everybody goes rampaging around doing whatever they want, though if harm were done to the city to the degree that it’s done to the lagoon, the world outcry would resemble several sonic booms).

Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.

Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.

I’m coming to the cretinata, uttered by Mr. Costa.  He has uttered many since the subject of banning the big ships has been current.  The reason he utters them is because it appears to be his heart’s desire to be involved in a Mastodontic Project, seeing as he missed out on the riches lavished on everyone involved in the last one, which is MOSE.

Actually, I don’t know that he missed out.  Perhaps he got his share that time around, and is determined to have a reprise.

Whatever the case may be, no Crusader ever made a vow that could match the vow he seems to have made to himself to get that @#*$%! canal dug.

So where’s the cretinata?  Here it is:

The Contorta Canal is the only intervention which can save the lagoon and the jobs of the cruise business.”

First, it can’t be the “only”  intervention” that could be effective.  There are a number of alternatives which are struggling to be considered, pushing frantically against the inert bulk of the Contorta proposal.  To be accurate, it is the only intervention which has the active interest and support of Mr. Costa, and he is applying pressure for its approval by every means known to humans.  After all, sheer dogged perseverance finally got the MOSE project approved, although it took 30 years.  So it ought to work just as well for this project.  That seems to be the approach he’s taking.

In my opinion, saying that something or someone is the “only” one of its kind, when that just happens to be the thing the speaker wants, is a statement more often made by young, distraught children than mature, responsible adults.  It sounds fishy to me.

Second, I have never heard anyone except Mr. Costa hazard the statement that the excavation of the new canal would “save the lagoon” (though he doesn’t say from what).  I totally understand his desire to keep the port humming, but his opportunistic addition of saying the canal will “save the lagoon” is like telling a woman “By the way, you’re beautiful” when you’ve just asked her to lend you $500.

Many Venetians have long been aware that the lagoon needs saving (from the voracious motondoso, from devastating illegal clam digging, and from the incessant erosion exacerbated by the Petroleum Canal — another Mastodontic Project!).  I didn’t realize that digging a new canal would be a positive step in any direction except more erosion and more environmental degradation.

Since Mr. Costa has never made anything resembling an environmentalist statement, I have to assume that “saving the lagoon” is Costaspeak for “doing what I want.”

Here endeth the first cretinata.

No lilac trees at all in Venice, as far as I can tell, but I'll take what I can get at the Rialto for the few days the lilacs are on sale.

I’ve never discovered lilac trees in Venice, which makes me all the more grateful to see these at the Rialto for the few days they’re on sale.

Interlude: I used to know a little boy who, at the age of about 2 1/2, had already grasped that saying that he wanted something didn’t inspire the desired response from his mother.  So he cleverly switched to saying “I need it.”  That little boy did not grow up to become the President of the Port Authority; perhaps he was a cousin.

These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.

These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.

On to the next cretinata, which comes from the Princess Bianca di Savoia Aosta, quoted in “An Insider’s Guide to Venice” in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago.

I admit that statements from people whose names start with Princess (or Defender of the Faith, or Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, or Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great) get attention.

Having a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean that you know things, but it does mean that your statements will probably be taken as true.  Such as the Princess’s following remark:

VENETIAN MOPED // Brussa IS Boat. Rent a “topa,” a zippy four-meter boat, at Brussa, to go for a relaxing and fun spin through the canals before heading out into the lagoon. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds—locals use the topas like mopeds.”

Words such as “zippy” and “spin” give the impression that the canals, like the city itself, are here mainly for entertainment and diversion, just one big amusement park with peeling palaces.  They don’t give any hint of the reality — that the canals are narrow, crowded, and full of boats doing real work which take up space and aren’t especially accommodating to high-spirited gilded youths out for a little run about town before drinks at the Cipriani, or wherever.

Second, “locals” do not use the topas like mopeds.  “Locals” have their own boats, usually, or have friends with boats.  Topas are for special jobs or projects — most often like work — which usually do not involve either zipping or spinning.

Third, apart from being awkward and difficult to perform, zipping and spinning would be a challenge to do without breaking the speed limits, which are now being more strenuously enforced since the new traffic regulations went into effect.  The only boats I can think of whose zipping or spinning is overlooked are the fireboats and the ambulances.

“Like mopeds” implies speed, agility, and quantity, like the swarms in Rome and Florence.  There is no craft here which could be compared in any way to a moped. Not one.

Which leads me to conclude that the princess either doesn’t know what a topa is, or what a moped is.  It would be like me saying “Lapps use reindeer-sleds like mopeds,” or “Somalis use camels like mopeds” or “New Zealanders use dolphins like mopeds.”

For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.

For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.

But I’m being too serious, it’s one of my major defects.  So let me offer a more effervescent cretinata, perpetrated by two incredibly clever employees of the ACTV who went fishing on company time.

Connoisseurs of lagoony creatures know that this is seppia (cuttlefish) season.  Even if you don’t happen to be a connoisseur, all you have to do to realize the season is on is either go to the Rialto to see what’s on sale, or wander along your fondamenta-of-choice in the morning or evening (or night) to peruse the men who are standing there with their fishing rods and nets and ink-stained buckets.  The Zattere, the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Fondamente Nove, and even scabrous old Tronchetto are all excellent places to snag some seppie.

Unless you’re supposed to be doing something else, like work.

I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it's better to indulge it off the clock.

I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it’s better to give in to it off the clock.

On the evening between Tuesday and Wednesday, two employees of the ACTV were on duty at Tronchetto in the area dedicated to the ferryboat from the Lido, and one of their tasks was to keep an eye on things in general and to make sure that nobody was doing anything near the landing-stage that could create problems for the ferry.

It would appear that these two zealots decided that seppia-fishing on the nearby fondamenta was likely to create problems for the ferry (actually, for their own fishing plans), so they wasted no time in banishing the fishermen from the fondamenta.

Shortly thereafter, the banished fishermen, watching from a nearby fondamenta, noticed the two zealots pulling out their own tackle and beginning their own great seppia-hunt from the now-liberated good spot.

This was unwise.

The banished and extremely annoyed fishermen proceeded to phone the Provincial Police, who are responsible, among other things, for checking fishing licenses.  Before long a patrol-boat appeared, and the officers showed as much zeal in the execution of their duty as the two ACTV bullies had done in theirs.

The officers took away their traps, their fishing lines, and their seppie.  The officers also searched their cars, and fined them for fishing without a license.

The officers then reported the incident to their employers, who were probably less concerned about the fines than they were about the fact that their two trusty agents had been amusing themselves in an off-duty sort of way when they were, technically speaking, very much on duty.

Moral: Don’t antagonize seppia-fishermen?  That’s a good one.  Another good one would be: Don’t behave like a cretin.

It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra.  Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.

It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra. Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.

In spite of all this tomfoolery, spring is proceeding in its appointed course, and I am loving every aspect of it.

The trees are fully-leaved, as of about ten minutes ago, and the greenery still looks as fresh as salad.  Trees are blooming according to plan: the white-flowered plums have come and gone, followed by forsythia and cherry and double-cherry, and now the wisteria is slowly being transformed from purple blossoms into green fronds. Random flufflets of cream-colored spores float away from the poplars, and the redbud (called “Judas-tree” here) is making up in color what it lacks in size.

A few days ago I smelled cut grass for the first time this year.  It’s a moment that’s almost as enchanting as hearing the blackbirds at dawn.  And today I got a bonus: Someone had cut a stretch of herbage which contained chives (here called “sultan’s beard,” or “friar’s beard), and the fragile oniony scent was wafting faintly away.  It will be gone by now.

This is one of those perfectly poised moments, when the air is still cool but you can feel the sun’s warmth (if the wind isn’t blowing).  At any time of the day the streets are full of people dressed for every possible temperature: There are couples in T-shirts and even tank tops and shorts, and at the same time there are people in trim down jackets or woolen coats.  Those with bare arms don’t seem to be cold, and those wrapped in feathers don’t seem to be hot.  It’s extraordinary.

Which means that we are approaching one of the tiniest hinges of the season: The moment when everyone ceases to move from the shady to the sunny side of the street, and begins to move from the sunny to the shady side.

When that happens, I declare summer officially open for business.

Down jackets and sunscreen.  We've got weather that everybody can love.

Down jackets and sunscreen. We’ve got weather that everybody can love.

Fred here, or whatever his name is, has found the perfect spot for the perfect dreams.  He's probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.

Spring can be so exhausting.  He’s probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.


Categories : Nature
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Venice and the floating Alps

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The catastrophe of the Costa Concordia two weeks ago today has been a good thing in at least one (sorry, I mean only one) way: It has given a turbo-boost to the local opposition to allowing big cruise ships to slide past the Piazza San Marco like floating Alps.

By now, images of these behemoths and Venice have become as trite as Venice and acqua alta.

Just one example at random of a typical big ship coming to Venice. The top deck is lined with thousands of people, all making the same photograph of the Piazza San Marco. As far as I can tell, this is the main reason why the big ships insist on entering and leaving Venice by the Bacino of San Marco.

There was murmuring before, but the death of a ship and some of its people has created a good deal of commotion, not only in Venice but also at the national level, concerning the desirability of allowing these ships to come here. Needless to say, the political parties have all hoisted their shields and battle-axes and are ready for combat.  And, as usual, the trumpet sounding the charge tends to drown out any other sound.

I’d like to review the main points, though I have to warn you that this subject, like most other subjects here, has become a mass of insanely knotted statistics and semi-statistics and facts and semi-facts interpreted in 11,552 different ways, according to who is speaking and, ergo. what they want.  Debates of the pros and cons of heavy cruise ship traffic in the world’s most beautiful city and environs are so loaded with emotion that it has become virtually impossible to hear what anybody’s really saying, though the various viewpoints are fairly simple to summarize.

Cruise statistics for 2011 as published by the Gazzettino.

Pro: There is only one item in the “pro” column on the proverbial yellow legal pad, and that’s “Money.”  Venice has done everything possible to attract and keep cruise business.  In 2000, only 200 ships visited Venice, and it is now the Number One cruising homeport in the Mediterranean, and the third in Europe. With the shrinking of the income from the Casino, the starving city budget is being kept alive primarily by this new touristic medium.

Don’t be distracted by the number of companies whose ships come to Venice (43), or how many ships visited last year (654) or the number of transits they made of the Bacino of San Marco (1,308) — I’d have thought there were more — or the number of passengers last year (2,248,453), even though all these numbers are pretty impressive (fancy way of saying “huge and scary”).

The only number that matters to the city, and the only factor which virtually guarantees that cruising will continue to be crucial here, is the money the city earns from it: 300 million euros (US$390,246,000) last year.

If you want to object to cruising in or around Venice, you need to come up with a suggestion for some other activity that will make that kind of money.  Or, preferably, even more.  Feel free to get back to me on this.


A view of the docks at Tronchetto. As you see, seven assorted ships can fit in here at any one time, though these is space for smaller ones (yes, there are smaller ones) at the Zona Marittima nearby -- three are moored there in this picture, just to the right of the big docks. Discussion is underway to expand the dock area.

Con:  The conscientious objectors to cruising offer many urgent reasons why it is deleterious to the city. These reasons are more or less persuasive, depending on how deeply their proponents have managed to bury their ulterior motives.

The two main items in the “con” column concern the environmental damage wrought by the floating Alps.

They are:

Erosion caused by waves (there are no waves) and/or by the suction of the motors.  This suction is real: I can attest that the motors of these ships perform a phenomenal sucking/pushing action, very much like what happens to the mouthwash when you rinse your mouth.  I have seen with these very eyes the waters surging in and then surging out as a ship passes, even if it passes at a distance.  It’s hard to think that this could be unimportant.  As we know from the humbler but more destructive daily motondoso, water going into a fissure in a foundation pulls something with it — soil, mainly — when it comes out.  This eventually creates empty spaces under buildings and sidewalks.

Ships maneuvering to enter or back out of their berths also create massive suction, as the brown sediment churned up here attests.

A study done by Worcester Polytechnic Institute on the hydrodynamic effect of big ships found this:  “As cruise ships pass smaller canals along the St. Mark’s Basin and Giudecca Canal, they displace and accelerate the surrounding body of water, essentially pulling water from the smaller canals.  This caused a noticeable increase in canal speed and a drop in the water levels.  A total of five velocity tests were completed resulting in a 57.4% increase in canal speed, and two canal height tests were completed which showed an average water level drop of 11 c (4.3 inches).  The observations suggest that the root cause for these accelerations can be explained by the Bernoulli Effect: the colossal geometry of cruise ships creates fast currents and low pressure areas around the moving vessels.”

Particulate Matter, the form of air pollution made up of tiny bits of stuff from combustion exhaust.  Nobody made an issue of this when Venice was a real industrial center, and nobody brought it up when the Industrial Zone on the shoreline was going full blast.  Nobody made an issue of it, Lino points out, when everybody — everybody — heated their homes or cooked using wood or coal.  “You didn’t need to smoke anything,” he said — “smoke was everywhere.”  But particulate matter from the ships is intolerable.

The view of the Giudecca Canal as seen by the passengers on a departing ship. I'm on a Minoan Lines ferry to Greece. If a ship were to go rogue here it could endanger city on both sides.

Four days after the Concordia ran aground, Corrado Clini, the new Minister for the Environment, came to Venice for a day.  He was shown a number of things (MoSE was not on the list, which I can understand, because nothing can be done about it now), but the subject on everybody’s mind was the big ships.

He offered the following opinion: “Common sense suggests that if the principle value to care for is our natural patrimony, the fundamental resource for our tourism, we must avoid that it be put at risk.”  You can’t argue with that.

He continued: “The traffic of these ‘floating apartment buildings’ in the Bacino of San Marco, with a notable impact, are without utility for the environment and for tourism.”  If he is seeking utility for tourism, all he has to do is look at the municipal balance sheet.  However, “without utility for the environment” is hard to refute.

Luca Zaia, the President of the Veneto Region, who was on hand, remarked that “The big ships in Venice are dangerous and certainly a problem to resolve.  I have to admit that to see these colossi at San Marco is, to say the least, horrifying.”  I myself have to admit that it’s odd that he only became horrified after the Concordia ran aground; the ships have been passing for years.

Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, contributed these observations: “The subject of the big ships is an open one.  With the Port Authority we have begun to reflect on a rapid solution which will satisfy the touristic system as well as the economic one.” Rapid solutions are not easy to come up with, because every player wants his concerns to come first.  Nor would a rapid solution instill much confidence.  If complex, well-reasoned solutions haven’t been found yet, why would a rapid one be any easier to devise, much less implement?

Sandro Trevisanato, president of VTP, which runs the port, stated that the big ships are the least polluting form of tourism, adding that the buses, the big launches, and cars create much more pollution than the big ships.  (For the record, I’d like to say that this is the most intelligent comment so far.)  He points out that emissions are one of the arguments used by those who want to ban the cruise ships from the lagoon, far beyond the aesthetic question.  It’s a question of taste,” says Trevisanato. “In a few seconds the ships have passed and disappear.”  Seconds?  Has he never stood on the embankment on a summer Sunday evening to watch the March of the Pachyderms as they depart? Even one ship, by my estimate, takes at least 45 minutes to pass from Tronchetto to Sant’ Elena.  And there could easily be seven of them, virtually nose to tail.

In any case, everybody directly involved in cruise tourism agrees that  pollution must be kept at “level zero.”  How to do that isn’t explained.

As for the possibility — remote, all agree — that something could go wrong with the motors, or that the ship for some other reason would suddenly become ungovernable, and that the force of inertia would impel it to ram bow-first into the Piazza San Marco or some other bit of Venice, Trevisanato says that the port is one of the most secure in the world, as the ships are protected from the effect of wind and waves, and the ships pass at a reasonable (I put that in) distance from the shores.  Hard to say what is “reasonable” when the Giudecca Canal is only 320 meters (1000 feet) wide, or less.  But you will have noticed that referring to wind and waves prevented him from discussing the consequences of a big ship going adrift in the Bacino of San Marco.

Someone reminded him that in 2004 the ship “Mona Lisa” ran aground in the fog in the Bacino of San Marco.  His reply: “Exactly: and nothing happened.”  This is true; the ship was on its way after a mere hour, undoubtedly thanks to the help of the rising tide.  But the “Mona Lisa” is 201 meters (609 feet) long by 26 meters (85 feet) beam, and a gross tonnage of 28,891; not exactly a floating Alp.

The Concordia was 292 meters (958 feet)  x 35.5 meters (116 feet); gross tonnage 112,000.

In any case, saying “Nothing happened” isn’t very  helpful. It brings to mind the famous exchange in a Ring Lardner story: “‘Daddy, are we lost?’  ‘Shut up,’ he explained.”

The "Mona Lisa." This is what most cruise ships used to look like, before they put them on steroids.

And the mayor’s statement that a “rapid solution” is in the works isn’t very reassuring, even if it were true.  Solutions have been debated for years.

Proposed solutions so far:

Building an “offshore port” in the Adriatic where the floating Alps would tie up, and offload passengers (and luggage) into launches which would bring them to Venice.  Objections: Cost, feasibility, and the obvious pollution, primarily motondoso, which would be caused by thousands of launches trundling to and fro all day.  I can add the element of potential danger to people, if not to Venice, of boarding and traveling in a launch when the bora is blowing.

Make the Bacino and the Giudecca Canal a one-way street.  Tourists get to snap the Piazza San Marco either coming or going, but not both.  This has the advantage of not depriving them totally of this scenic opportunity, while cutting in half the number of transits.  A tour operator told me that it isn’t uncommon for a potential cruise customer to ask if the ship passes in front of the Piazza San Marco.  If the answer is no, it’s an immediate deal-breaker.

Bring the ships into the lagoon via the inlet at Malamocco. Heavy shipping already passes here, heading for the docks at Marghera, so more heavy ships wouldn't make any difference. Theoretically.

But this new system would require deepening a heretofore unimportant natural channel known as the Canal of Sant’ Angelo in order to create a sort of bypass. Enter the lagoon at the inlet at Malamocco, steam up the shoreline via the Petroleum Canal, then turn right in the Canal of Sant’ Angelo, which neatly brings the behemoth to Tronchetto.  The ship would depart via the Giudecca Canal, so the passengers could all snap their photos.

Or, the ship would enter, as it does now, by the inlet at San Nicolo’, steam past San Marco (snap snap snap) to Tronchetto, then depart down the Canal of Sant’ Angelo, Petroleum Canal, and out into the Adriatic at Malamocco.

Sometimes a big ship moors downstream from San Marco at the Riva dei Sette Martiri. It might seem like a bright idea to put them all here, except that the passengers wouldn't get their snaps; also, there isn't enough shoreline for the typical job lot on a summer weekend. And there is also the issue of the vibrations from the generators and the blocking of television reception which are major irritations for the residents. Who would want to spend the summer with these just outside the front door?

What’s extremely wrong with this idea — in my opinion, as well as many environmentalists — is that deepening the Canal of Sant’ Angelo would be a reprise of the digging of the Petroleum Canal, a deed which many have long since recognized as a disaster for the lagoon. A channel as straight as an airport runway and deep enough for cargo ships and tankers behaves like the average water faucet, concentrating and accelerating the force of the water passing through it. Many environmental groups date the beginning of the deterioration of the lagoon ecosystem from the creation of the Petroleum Canal.  Among other things, it is estimated that this canal is responsible for the loss of one million cubic meters of sediment every year. We don’t have to care, but the myriad creatures and plants which depend on the sediment certainly do.

Digging another deep channel will almost certainly cause the same phenomenon, thereby multiplying the damage.  Just what we need, when you add in the same effect caused by the deepening of the three lagoon inlets for the installation of the MoSE floodgates.

So the bypass canal, which looks so good on paper, would be yet another blow to an ecosystem which UNESCO, along with the city of Venice, designated as a World Heritage Site.  Now that I think of it, the only group that hasn’t weighed in yet on this is UNESCO. Maybe they’re thinking.

Last idea: Forget Tronchetto. Move the whole passenger port over to the shoreline at Marghera.  Docks already exist, or could be created, so logistically the idea has a lot in its favor. Except that Marghera is part of the dying Industrial Zone, with all the aesthetic appeal of a dying Industrial Zone.  It’s like selling a cruise from Venice that actually starts in the Port of Newark or Liverpool. Intending no offense.

Speaking of the force of inertia, debates, meetings, commissions, studies (oh good, we can always use more of those) and assorted pronouncements will undoubtedly continue.  I can make that claim because when the “Mona Lisa” ran aground in 2004, the then-mayor, Paolo Costa, ringingly declared that a stop must be put to the  big ships passing in the Bacino of San Marco.

He said (translation by me): “What happened has unfortunately confirmed my worries, and that is that an absolute certainty doesn’t exist on the possibility to guarantee the security in this zone of the city (Bacino San Marco) which is so important and delicate. It was horrifying to see the ship aground a mere 30 meters from a vaporetto stop, and fortunately consequences were avoided that could have been disastrous and unimaginable.  Now we must take rapid measures, more than one, and very detailed, that eliminate the danger of finding, one day, a ship in the Piazza San Marco. Because everything which today is at risk in the Bacino of San Marco isn’t something that can be protected only probably, but certainly, and with safety.”

Eight years have passed, two mayors have succeeded him, Costa is now President of the Port of Venice, and those “rapid measures” are still being fervently invoked.

The Port of Venice may be protected from potentially dangerous winds, but there seems to be no way to protect it from hurricanes of hot air.

A big ship leaving Venice. These proportions once shocked and dismayed me. But you can get used to almost anything.

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Categories : MOSE, Motondoso, Tourism
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