You Almost Don’t Mind Being A Tourist In This Town
Ordinarily, we work hard to avoid tourists and the zones they frequent and recommend that you do the same.
In Venice, in season, as far as I can tell, you’ve no choice but to embrace your tourist status. The canals, the bridges, the gondolas, the water taxis, the narrow cobblestoned passageways, the restaurants, the shops, and the hotels of this lagoon city, this time of year, are overrun with tourists. They’re dozens deep in every direction. We console ourselves by remembering that, in Venice, being a tourist is part of a long and grand tradition.
Founded as a place of refuge by pious pirates, Venice developed into one of the richest trading posts the world has ever known. The great wealth generated by the merchants of Venice was funneled into building an island city that is a living work of art. You don’t need me to remind you of the tourist sights of Venice, but I will tell you that, for this first-time visitor, they have been more impressive than I expected.
This month we’re motoring through Europe, in a rented car, with our two children and our daughter’s boyfriend, recreating, give or take, a version of the Grand Tour. Before they’re off with families of their own, we figured, we’d take our little family on a tour of some of the important sights in the history of Western Civilization.
The real Grand Tourists allowed themselves months for this kind of an expedition. We’re doing it in 17 days. On the other hand, we live in the age of air conditioning. I don’t know how 19th-century tourists traveling in this part of the world in summer survived. A digital sign we passed yesterday told us it was 36 degrees Celsius. We hunker beneath shaded porticos whenever we can and stop often at street cafes to linger beneath their umbrellas savoring cold drinks.
We arrived from Istria. The trip should have taken a few hours. It took us more than eight. Our mistake was making the border crossing on a Saturday morning, when the big resorts along Istria’s coast were turning over their guests and the line of vehicles waiting to cross from Croatia to Slovenia stretched for miles. We inched along the mountain roads in advance of the border point for hours. The global recession doesn’t seem to have affected tourism on the Continent this summer. Everywhere we go, we’re among hordes of us wandering from country to country.
After our long day in the little rental, we hauled our bags from the parked car, loaded them on to the water taxi, and sat back for our first view of Venice, Italy. Shipyards, warehouses, and industrial parks, decorated with graffiti, grimy, grim…
Then, finally, suddenly, the Venice we expected–rows of Gothic structures, along both sides of the Grand Canal, rose colored, blue, green, and white, with arched windows and balconies overflowing with red blossoms, each building appearing to rise directly from the water.
Because the land was more swamp than island, the architects of Venice erected the city on pilings. These have sunk, or the water has risen, so that, today, you don’t see the pilings. Visible only are the ornate facades of the buildings, which appear to float above the sea.
Our third day in the city, we decided to take a gondola from the area where we’d been shopping back to the Piazza San Marco, near our hotel. Nowadays, the gondolas aren’t for getting around Venice. To get from one point to another among the islands of this city nowadays, you take a water taxi. The gondolas are an indulgence, an extravagance.
“The gondolier is your key to Venice,” ours explained as he escorted us to his waiting vessel.
Throughout our 40-minute ride, our gondolier continued to introduce us to his city.
“You must come back,” he told us, “in winter. It’s a different place in winter. The tourists are gone, and Venice is yours alone. It is cold, but with good shoes and a coat, it is fine. And Venice…ah, this beautiful city…she is yours alone…”
We’ve toured the basilica (book your tickets in advance online, as we did, to avoid the hours-long unshaded queue), the Doge’s palace, the ancient prisons, the Campanile, other churches, museums…
We’ve wandered up and down, in and out of the narrow thoroughfares, shopping, snacking, sipping our share of Bellini’s…
We’ve worked tirelessly to fulfill our obligations as tourists in Venice. Time to move on. Next stop: Rome.