Tuesday, April 24, 2018

(Tourist) Hell on Two Wheels

                                                                                                                                            photo credit: Stefano Varponi
If water bikes can completely overturn in the calm waters of a small canal (as above), imagine how they will fare in the heavy, wavy traffic on the Grand Canal
                




It is illegal to ride bicycles in the historic center of Venice. A Venetian child caught doing so is subject to a substantial multa (ticket and fine)

But apparently, as you can see from the images of this post, it's perfectly fine to ride bicycles in the canals of the historic center.

In fact, any moronic tourist willing to pay 100 euro for an hour-long guided "tour" to the shameless proprietors of this newest degradation of the city's historic waterways can do it!

Even as I type these words, even as I look at the images taken by Stefano Varponi, I feel certain that I'm indulging in one of the satires I sometimes post on this blog.

But this is no satire, these photos are not doctored or fake. The city administration really has licensed a water bike rental business in the very center of Venice.

Disneyland?

No, this is Brugnaroland!

Where no money-grubbing enterprise is considered too demeaning of Venice's long history and its traditions, too antithetical to the proper functioning of the city's waterways, too hazardous for the rubes and "thrill-seekers" who apparently cannot discern the slightest difference between the seat of the ancient Republic of Venice and any backwater port-of-call on the sleaziest cruise line.

After all, mass tourism ain't about history or culture, it's about ticking something off your "bucket list;" about the adrenaline or ego rush of having your own "special," "personalized," "individualized," "unique" experience purchased from businesses who provide them in bulk: about finding the best selfie backdrops.

Why should only celebs be allowed to do this?
How long until the first ziplines are strung across the Grand Canal?

And why should only two celebrities during Carnevale experience the thrill of descending from the Campanile of San Marco to the stones to the Piazza? Why it's positively anti-democratic! A zipline from the campanile could become a major tourist draw--and a good "populist" businessman/politician is just the type needed to rectify this great inequality (and put a nice bit of change into his own or some crony's pocket in doing so).

Four years ago I was foolish enough to think that the very last thing that Venice's waterways needed was to be turned into yet another tourist play-space for private profit. After all, not only are these waterways the arteries of the city's commerce, they were (and are) already so jammed with traffic as to be dangerous (and deadly) even to those who actually know the rules and regulations that are supposed to govern them, and those who actually know where they're going on them.

The solution devised by the city administration, however, was not to ban all manner of tourist craft on the city's waterways, but to require that tourists no longer be shoved out into them alone and utterly ignorant. As long as the tourists followed like ducklings in the wake of a tour guide all would be well.

This started with kayaks. It has continued with paddle boards, which not only look ridiculous in the city's rii, but seem ill-suited to managing the wakes created by water traffic. And now it has metastasized into the even more ill-suited water bikes. Which, as you can see above, overturn in even a quiet rio.

The legendary beauty of Venice (photo: Stefano Varponi)
But, I can hear the proprietors of such rental services objecting, we are the good guys, we give ECO tours!

Ah, yes, "eco", the magic word of what's known as "green-washing" when it's used, for example, by oil companies in their marketing campaigns. The latest in that long string of magic marketing words, each evoking its particular era and the (feigned) principles of their panderers: "all-natural," "low-tar," "low-fat," "hypo-allergenic," etc.

True, kayaks and paddle boards and, now, water bikes do not use petrol. And yet when introduced into the waterways of the historic center their effects upon them can ultimately be as deleterious to that unique setting as algal blooms are to marine ecosystems. And I doubt that dead sea birds and fish take much consolation from the fact that a human-induced algal bloom killed them instead of an oil spill.

Moreover, the particular "eco" proprietors of this new water bike venture, progressive as they almost certainly consider themselves to be, don't take too kindly to open discourse. After I posted my thoughts on the damage their new business does to Venice and the hazards it present to its customers in the "Reviews" section of their Facebook page--and after my review began to receive "likes"--not only did my review disappear from the page, but so did the entire "Reviews" tab.

Like Venice's non-resident "first citizen" himself, it seems the last thing that the fine proprietors of this new tourist business want to hear are the thoughts of Venice residents on their little venture.

(And, by the way, who are the proprietors of this new venture? They don't identify themselves in the "About" tab of their Facebook page. Are they Venetians exploiting their own city or outside "entrepreneurs"?) 

Last summer I sarcastically wrote that I was planning to start my own "eco" guided tourist experience on Venice's historic waterways with inflatable human hamster wheels, as below.


But given the way in which the mis-administration and exploitation of Venice continually outruns even the most bitterly sarcastic gallows humor, I wouldn't be surprised to find them available for rent on the Grand Canal by next summer at the latest.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Traghetto Training on the Grand Canal, This Morning


Taking advantage of the diminished traffic flow of a Sunday morning, two gondole loop repeatedly from one side of the Grand Canal to the other: the black-shirted young rower in the prua of each boat practicing the skills needed to work as part of the two-man traghetti crews that ferry passengers across the Grand Canal at seven different points. 

 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Wending Through the Wonders of the Ospedale Civile



I'm generally not fond of doctor's appointments, but when your appointment is at the Ospedale Civile there are certain consolations to be found, or stumbled upon, as the case may be, as you wander through grand spaces once belonging to the Scuola Grande di San Marco and, above, the Mendicanti.

The Mendicanti were "one of the most important charitable institutions of early modern Venice" and their church of San Lazzaro, fronting the Rio dei Mendicanti (between the campo of SS Giovanni and Paolo and Fondamente Nove), is worth a visit--on the rare occasions it's open.

The church of the Mendicanti became renowned for its girls choir (Vivaldi's father was an instructor), but their primary mission was caring for lepers, as well as, it seems, the indigent.

These days, fortunately, one need not be in such bad shape to find oneself wandering its halls looking for the right department.

It's easy to lose one's way in any large hospital complex--but it's even easier when there are distracting stairways like the above whose allure is hard to resist

By the time I ended up in this hallway I was quite lost--but I can't say I regretted being so 


Inlaid stone stairwell landing (just visible in the first two images of this post)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Death in Venice


Until fairly recently--or very recently when viewed in the context of Venice's long history--Venetians made their final trip on this earth under the power of oar: my last post included a photograph taken in 1961 by Fulvio Roiter of a coffin being rowed to the cemetery island of San Michele. But you almost never see this any more. In nearly 8 years of living here I've never seen it at all.

Which is why the sight of a gondola cloaked in black waiting in the canal before the church of SS Giovanni and Paolo was such a surprise last Thursday.

At the door of the church stood a large spray of flowers, whose silk sash identified it as a memorial gift from the Danieli gondola stand. This made me think the deceased must have been a gondolier. But when I asked a young gondolier loitering beside the gangplank leading to the funeral boat if this was the case he answered "Non lo so," in a tone that suggested not only did he not know, he really didn't care.  

He then boarded one of the two gondole double-parked at the end of the gangplank (see images below) and returned with a slender red-and-white striped pole and sign. He set up the pole beside the gangplank, then affixed to it the usual "Gondola Service" sign you see at gondola stands, setting out the price and terms of service in different languages.

Strange though it seemed, I assumed this was part of the final rites and that, as such, and in spite of the young man's professed (and possibly feigned ignorance), the deceased had to have been a gondolier.  For why would any other type of Venetian want to explicitly associate his or her last voyage with a blatantly touristic activity? The vast majority of Venetians wouldn't, as they say, be caught dead paying to take a ride from a gondola stand.

It wasn't until a couple of days later that it occurred to me that the "Gondola Service" sign wasn't serving as a prop for the funeral--that is, indicating the profession of the deceased--but was merely doing what those signs always do: soliciting tourists for a gondola ride. And that the second gondola double-parked beside the funeral boat wasn't part of the funeral at all.

Which is why the young gondolier replied to my question about the deceased with what struck me as such cold indifference. He actually did not know or care whom the deceased was. He was just angry that the funeral gondola was temporarily moored in the place of his gondola for hire.

That is, that the death of a Venetian was potentially cutting into his tourist-based business.

Indeed, for as long as the funeral gondola was there, his passengers would have to step into the  black-draped funeral gondola before stepping into his own gondola. (Though judging by the utterly nonplussed response of two tourists whose Italian guide paused at the sight of the funeral gondola to snap her own photo of what she described to them in English as an extremely rare sight, most of his clients aren't likely to have registered what they were passing through.)
  
In any case, I didn't disturb the mass going on inside the church, and didn't linger to see the mourners and coffin come out. Instead, I walked to the bridge at the end of Rio dei Mendicanti, from which I could watch the funeral gondola pass out into the north lagoon toward the island of San Michele--and take pictures from the same vantage point Fulvio Roiter seemed to have used in his photo from 1961.

The sight of the gondola making that trip was still on my mind late in the afternoon that same day when I boarded the traghetto to cross the Grand Canal at Santa Sofia and vaguely happened to catch a few words said by the rower in the prua, or front of the boat, to the one in the poppa. Something--I don't remember exactly what--that seemed to allude to the, or at least a funeral. I mentioned that I'd seen a coffin being rowed to San Michele earlier that day and the man nodded and gestured to another traghetto-style gondola moored to one side of us, to indicate that there it was, the very gondola that had been used--though no longer covered in black cloth, and without the boards that had been laid across its mid-section to support the coffin.

I asked if the deceased had been a gondolier, and he nodded again. Then gestured this time to the traghetto station's little hut on shore, saying he'd worked there.

Was it something sudden? I asked. Yes, he said, a heart attack.

Was he very old? No, sessanta, he replied--in a way that acknowledged that both he and I were old enough (in contrast to the gondolier I'd very briefly questioned earlier that day) for 60 to seem hardly any age at all. At least not age enough to suddenly die.

I cross the Grand Canal on that traghetto a couple of times a week, and beginning with the next time I do I'm sure I'll start to look for who's missing from the usual crew, from among those whom in the course of our usual day we may not even notice that we notice. And if we hardly notice their presence, how will we notice their absence?

But I suspect we notice more than we know.  

Especially in a small town like Venice. For beneath the smothering tourist crush, Venice is a very small town. And getting smaller every day.     












Thursday, April 12, 2018

Verso il Cimitero (after Fulvio Roiter), Today



An explanation of the rare sighting above, and some more photos, will be included in my next post.

An explanation of this post's reference to the great Venetian photographer Fulvio Roiter may be seen below, in one of the many works currently on display until 26 August at Casa dei Tre Oci on Giudecca. The image below is a very poor approximation of the actual photograph, which is really worth seeing in person, along with all of the others, at Tre Oci.

Verso il cimitero di San Michele, 1961, by Fulvio Roiter, from the book Fulvio Roiter: fotografare Venezia

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A View of "The Real Venice"



Whether you're a travel company, a tour operator, a marketer, photographer, or travel writer, there's no more profitable experience to offer your customers than that of the elusive and ever-more-endangered REAL Venice.

A Venice which, I think it's safe to say, looks nothing like the Venice in the image above.

But this too is Venice. I snapped it a couple of days ago after taking a vaporetto to the island of Tronchetto beyond the western end of the city to turn in our application for a docking place for our small boat (one of 60 spots in the newly-expanded harbor in the Sacca della Misericordia to be selected by lottery).

The Pullman parking lot you see above is where a huge number of day-tripping tourists--and remember that 75% of Venice's visitors are only here for about 4 hours--first set foot on the magical soil (or cement) of the famous lagoon city.

Is it everything they imagined it would be? Probably not. At least not yet. But the shanty town of cheap souvenir vendors they must walk through on their way to the lancioni granturismo (large private water buses) that will take them to the historic center gives them a better preview of what awaits them than they might expect.

For the cheap crap and junk food of those shanties is the same cheap crap and junk food they will spend most of their time in Venice being led through by their tour guides, as these are exactly the kinds of businesses that line the old arteries of the historic center like plaque lines--and clogs--the arteries of a diseased heart.

But beyond this, what struck me as I looked at the scene above is that in terms of political power, and in terms of the sheer number of people "processed" on a daily basis, the scene above could probably lay a far more valid claim to being the "REAL Venice" of today than any of the dreamy, romantic, luxurious, nostalgic, or picturesque visions offered up by the all the people who earn their bread by supplying them.

As far as I can tell, the most powerful voices in the formation of city policy belong to those who make their money getting people in and out of Venice--from the airport and cruise ship port, to the train and bus lines, all the way down to the associations of taxi drivers and the lancioni granturismo, which, after collecting tourists en masse from places like Tronchetto, disgorge them ever further down the Riva from Piazza San Marco. (The daily passage of these invading armies of tourists toward the Piazza is akin to a steady stream of poison that inevitably kills any trace of local life along their path, transmogrifying produce sellers or bakeries into ever more plastic mask shops and junk food vendors as residents flee the crowds. Which is why those who propose new docks for the lancioni in Sant' Elena and Canareggio might more aptly be called plague sowers than "developers.")

In 1882 Henry James famously declared that the "Venice of to-day is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers."

These days James's quaint little wicket is a swiftly-spinning revolving door, and you find yourself not so much "marching through an institution" as fighting your way through jam-packed calli that bear far more resemblance to the trashiest county far midway you've ever seen--all candy shops and walk-away chip shops and junk souvenir vendors--than the "museum" some claim it's become (usually in the interest, as per the city's mayor, of more plague sowing "development"), or even the "Disneyland" others claim it is. For, whatever its faults, the management of Disneyland (as has been noted by others before), would never allow its facilities to be so trashed, its souvenirs to be of such low quality, or its customers to be treated with such blatant disregard, if not outright contempt.

The problem, in other words, is not that the commercial shanty town above is the first thing that visitors see when they arrive in the lagoon. The problem is that so much of the city itself, at least at street level, has become indistinguishable from it--and just as barren of resident life.