Many labels come to mind when I think of Venice: magical, mysterious, one-of-a-kind, legendary – it’s not an easy place to define.
On my first visit, in scorching midsummer many years ago, I wandered the dark narrow alleyways fully intrigued. To dodge the crowds and the heat, I would walk around at dawn when it was refreshingly quiet and desolate. I felt captivated by its bizarre and unique layout. Later in the day, as the crowds grew, I would seek out hidden courtyards and peep into private gardens.
But then, as I headed on to another destination, I had a slightly bitter aftertaste in my mouth – of a city that isn’t a city, of one of the most popular and dreamt of places in the world, where, to initial appearances, no one actually resides in.
I wondered: could I ever live in a city where I wouldn’t be able to ride a bike? On the other hand, I loved that it is car-free: no fumes, no traffic, no road rage. Instead, all the essential city services were carried out by boats: ambulances, garbage men, firefighters, police men – all were sailors!
Sometime down the road, in a curious play of events, one late-September day I found myself knocking on heavy gates of Palazzo Zorzi, hoping to call the palace my new office. And a few days later, I also began calling Venice my home. Palazzo Zorzi houses UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe and I joined the environmental science team to contribute to, among other things, the Venice lagoon conservation and tourism management projects.
Soon after I moved there, my colleague Giorgio – one of those mysterious prototypes that wears a cape and a fedora and looks like a phantom stealthily cutting corners of narrow street corridors in thick misty winter fogs – taught me how to circumnavigate the maze of timeworn streets like a local. Then, a very important sense of belonging to the community, he taught me how to give directions: ‘just keep going straight (‘sempre dritto’) and inquire again at the next bridge!’ The phrase ‘sempre dritto’ is the most common and commonly-acceptable instruction to navigate Venice.
That said, it is next to impossible to keep going straight almost anywhere in Venice for more than a few meters, given the city’s amusing labyrinth-like composition. A few exceptions involve Riva del Schiavoni from San Marco to Giardini and a long passage Strada Nuova through Cannaregio. But the dark, winding back alleys are like a game of treasure hunt.
Anyhow, I have always encouraged my visitors to leave all the maps at home and disregard the signposts, sending them off to stroll leisurely, with an accompanying message that ‘Venice is quite small and you can’t get lost, but you can get tired!’
As I worked on projects that see Venice struggling to brave centuries of existence, cyclical changes, and pressures of increased economic and tourist activity, I was struggling to find myself in it as a new Venetian, no longer a traveler or a passer-by.
Being employed by a UN organization has been as helpful as ineffectual in sorting out important errands. The Italian administrative organs were confused about what status to grant me: which visa, which residential permit, what bank account? As it is all tied together, it took me months to ‘settle in’.
Urban growth is not an option in here, as the city has been at its maximum capacity for centuries – physical space is a factor already deficient in this equation. But there is room for restoration.
The sole fact that this is a very busy and demanding tourism destination affects its other functions, especially as a residential city, offering a range of tourism services but limited facilities for living or for cultivating a business here. They are not entirely unavailable, but they are sparse due to the lack of demand.
Also, the costs of residing, doing business and visiting Venice are justifiably higher due to the constant need to maintain and support its delicate system, as those who reside in it and profit from it are directly involved in its promotion against neglect and deterioration.
Water erosion due to seasonal flooding also jeopardizes the state of its settlements, and although it runs no risk of becoming the lost city of Atlantis, the repercussions are already apparent in the perpetual need to clean and repair the foundations that are susceptible to decay and damage.
And finding a solution to compensate for the coinciding tourism forces and environmental toll might lie in preventing the city from reaching full capacity at any one time by stabilizing congestion and limiting visits.
I could often, later, imagine Venice becoming an open-air museum.
Years down the road, to preserve the cultural and natural splendors of this exquisite setting, residents would almost entirely move out, hotels and businesses would close, daily visits would be limited to a low volume, and an entrance fee charged. Only museums and exhibits would serve as entertainment, with a selective few souvenir shops and restaurants uniformly arranged across the 7 neighborhoods. All the tacky, touristy ploys and clutter would be eliminated, just pure and simple la Serenissima remaining.
La Serenissima is its locally used designation, meaning the most serene.
That is just an idealistic vision of mine, born in the times of frustration with the tourist invasions.
Although, I must admit it was rather enjoyable living in such a place, almost like living in Disneyland – everyone was always on a vacation, the lazy smiles and loud songs of the Gondolieri resonated down the canals, and the streets were full of exuberant and enthusiastic crowds on a daily basis.
When I returned to Venice once to visit my colleagues, I wondered how much has it changed. Like a movie on queue, everything played out routinely and formulaically: a salesgirl from the gloves shop was on her way to work, my old shoe-repairman was buffing away in his little workshop, the waitress at L’Olandese Volante cleaned the tables, gondolieri were already slumped on the bridge awaiting early customers, my fruit/veggie vendors were still there, an old couple in Ruga Giuffa were bickering, as usual, and my hairdresser was having his morning cigarette and a coffee at the doorstep of the salon.
It all played out like clockwork, that sunny morning, as always.
This is my Venice and it is, admittedly, ever more charming.
Deja Dragovic is a freelance writer, regularly contributing to Living Green Magazine, Travel Culture Magazine, and Ooska News. She previously worked for UNESCO, UNDP, National Geographic Traveler (UK) and National Geographic Go Green. Having lived in London, Venice, Moscow, Toronto and Buenos Aires, she speaks seven languages. Deja is an active member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Follow her journeys at http://arebelwithacause.org