Venice is Back in Business. Sort of

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Image: Mark Hinshaw

I spent the better part of this past week in and around Venice, Italy. I was attending an exhibition on building design known as the Architecture Biennale, held every two years (as the name suggests) inside the beautiful ancient Arsenale – a vast walled fortress that housed ship-building and various naval functions for centuries. It is now largely a center for the many grand events that Venice hosts each year.

Of course, for the last two years this has been virtually none – with the COVID pandemic shutting down both large group events and international travel. The last time I was in Venice was two years ago, pre-COVID, for the Art Biennale. The place was packed. The fall has always been one of my favorite times, along with early spring, to visit Italy in the past. Now that Venice is only five hours away by train, I have been able experience it in different seasons. At least until the world shut down.

I had seen photos and videos of Venice during the pandemic lockdowns. It was shocking to see it completely empty. Even seeing it second hand, I was so taken aback that I wrote a piece about it. My personal experience this time was quite different. Dispiriting in some ways and heartening in others.

First for the depressing part.

The craze for Airbnbs over the least decade transformed Venice into one massive resort hotel. It’s clear that apartment owners quickly figured out they could make far more money renting to short-term visitors than long-term residents. I recall the era of the small albergo and the then actual B&B where a family would assign you to a room or set of rooms that was a part of, or next to, their home. The experience was intimate, friendly, and personal. One would also meet stranger visiting from around the world and share tales of travel while swooning over sumptuous breakfasts. It was a continuation of an age-old tradition of traveling and staying in roadside inns. But in Venice, the roads are canals.

Now, one meets a manager with a key, gets a quick tutorial on the place, and hands over passports for photocopying. Typically, the place comes with a little kitchen equipped with a coffee maker, buns in plastic wrappings, tiny packets of jams, and boxed juice. Most of the furniture is clearly bought at IKEA. Convenience: 9, perhaps. But character: 0.

The result of this trend was that most of the long-standing families decamped for Mestre on the mainland, connected to Venice by the causeway and a streetcar that is packed with daily commuters. The population of the central historical center of Venice is now around 50,000, a fraction of what it was at its peak. 

Along with this diaspora of ordinary working families went most of the local shops and cafes. Long gone are the little shops carrying clothing and jewelry made in an adjacent room. Also gone are the small, quirky galleries selling authentic works of hand-blown Murano glass. They have been replaced by shops carrying mass-produced tchotchkes for tourists who want souvenirs to cram into their carry-on bags. 

Worse are the vacant storefronts. I hadn’t been to the Piazza San Marco in some time, as it was too jammed before COVID and is now sadly devoid of life. On my recent visit, I walked through several neighborhoods I know that are well away from the main line for day trippers pouring between San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. Normally quiet and serene in the past, these off-the-beaten-track enclaves now are spooky in their mausoleum-like emptiness. It was difficult to find a coffee bar, much less an artisanal shop.

I did eventually find a perfectly wonderful spot for lunch and most of the people seated around me under the umbrellas were Italian. I noticed the prevalence of Italian families, especially those with small children. Perhaps the word is out that this is a good time to see one of their own cultural icons – without the crush of cruisers descending daily upon the island city from their immense floating hotels.

Which leads me to one of the few heartening observations There were no cruise ships. Not a single one in sight, either docked or moving about. The last time I was there in 2019, I counted ten in port. This time, none. After years of contention, protests, counter-protests, and legislative wrangling, the cruise ships have been banned from Venice. Its not entirely good news, however, as the only nearby suitable docking area is Maghera on the mainland, which would still require the ships to use the lagoon – inflicting continuing environmental damage. But at least the ungainly vessels won’t be overpowering the Giudecca Canal for the convenience of well-heeled passengers who want to snap selfies of the clock tower from their stateroom balconies.  

With only a third of its usual visitors, Venice is a pretty pleasant place to spend time. There are no long lines at the floating vaporetto stations; one can board a boat on the first try. The usual frenzy of boat traffic, streaming crowds in narrow lanes, and backpackers lounging about on every horizontal surface is largely absent. The city has cracked down on much of the egregious behavior of thoughtless tourists. For example, the carabinieri arrested and booted out a couple for setting up a camp stove on the steps of the Rialto. People taking photos of themselves swimming in the seasonally flooded piazzas seems to have stopped. 

So maybe Venice is going to be better. My idea – said to anyone who will actually listen – is to have the City convert the vast docklands district that used to berth cruise ships into a new neighborhood. Take the abundant parking lots that cruisers used to park on and build thousands of apartments. It’s a fairly large area, little known to outsiders and not on the path to anywhere. Prohibit hotels or airbnbs. Invite families back onto the island from the mainland. perhaps with incentives such as lowered income taxes and rent controls. Let the unique Venetian culture flourish again. 

At least that is my wish dream for Venice.

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Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

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