I never thought I’d go back to Venice, a city now synonymous with the worst excesses of mass tourism. Venice, the improbable city floating magically on the shimmering waters of Venice Lagoon, is a truly dreamlike place. My 18-year old self had never seen, or imagined, anything quite like it. I instantly fell in love with this extraordinary place. The idea of returning, having my memories shattered by the degradations of modern tourism, didn’t seem worthwhile.
So news that tourist numbers were significantly down thanks to virus-related tour group cancellations, seemed like a golden opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Queen of the Adriatic. In retrospect, this now seems foolish. When I booked the flights though, things were normal. By the time it came to go to the airport parts of the region north of Venice were in lockdown, and we debated whether it was worth the risk.
We weren’t alone. A plane that had been almost fully booked with over two hundred people, left Berlin with fewer than thirty passengers. Venice’s Marco Polo Airport was practically deserted, and only one other passenger was on the vaporetto that whisked us from the airport across the lagoon to Venice. I’d hoped that it might feel like we’d stepped back in time, instead it felt like we’d stepped onto the set of a post-apocalypse movie.
On my first visit to Venice, I was traveling around Europe on an Interrail Pass during one of the two gap years I managed to squeeze into my education. I stopped in Venice en route to Zagreb, at that time a major city in the former Yugoslavia – it was that long ago. I have memories of dashing about on vaporetto water transport between islands, basking in the sunshine of St. Mark’s Square, watching glass being blown on Murano and looking out over the Adriatic from the beach along the Lido.
I’m sure there were tourists, but I don’t recall that being a prominent part of my visit. Certainly the horror stories of crowded squares, streets and canals, long queues for most sights, rip-off restaurants and scam artists, didn’t feature. Today, Venice regularly stars in media articles about what happens when tourism goes bad. Venice, it is said, has sold its soul to tourism, and residents have left the city in droves as a result of rising property prices and living costs.
If you want to know what Venice looks like without the tourist hoards – we were able to walk through St. Mark’s Square on a Friday afternoon with only a handful of people for company – now is the time to visit. Restaurants that are normally fully booked for months in advance, welcomed walk-in trade; normally packed vaporettos were empty as people avoided people. The downside for businesses that have become tourism-dependent, was clear.
Shops were empty, horribly expensive water taxis floated by, searching for a fare, and dozens of disconsolate-looking gondoliers hung around offering discounts unthinkable in better days. Everyone we spoke to complained about the ‘overreaction’ of people to the coronavirus. In an attempt to restore public faith, the regional authorities closed all museums in the city for three days. This was inconvenient, especially as it was pouring with rain on two days of our visit.
Luckily, the Doge’s Palace reopened on our final day in the city, and we got to tour the city’s most famous sight without the usual crowds. It was quite incredible. How long this state of affairs will last is anyone’s guess, and a return to normal is a double-edged sword for Venetians and tourists alike. Still, I’m glad I was able to revisit a place I never thought I’d set foot in again.
* I read this morning that Venice is included in the Italian government’s lockdown of around 16 million people in the north of the country. No one is allowed to enter or leave for the foreseeable future.