Imagine the gods allowed you to make any city imaginable...
“So little Shelly, my inner child, what would you do if you were ruler of the world?”
“Well, big Shelly, I would build a city that floats on water, and I would make sure that it has no roads and no cars, just narrow cobblestone alleyways and canals: so people would have to walk or go by boat wherever they wanted to go. Then I would make the people of this city be ferried along these narrow waterways by men wearing blue and white striped shirts and red-ribboned straw hats, while reclining on plush velvet cushions in shiny black, crescent-shaped boats with elaborate gold decorations. They would feel just like movie stars! I would also wind all the alleyways of the city into a convoluted maze, so that at every twist and turn you would be constantly surprised by where you are, and you would never get tired of exploring. Along the way, I would make sure that there were musicians playing and singing in every square, so that your journey through this tangle of lanes would always be accompanied by beautiful sounds.”
“The streets would be lined with the most wonderful shops you could ever imagine. There would be hundreds of stores selling glass ornaments, in a million different colours, and a thousand more selling magnificent masks, adorned with glitter and feathers. That way, the people of the city could masquerade as fanciful fairy-tale creatures, or just pretend to be more extravagant versions of themselves. The world’s best artisans would sell precious jewellery and beads, priceless art and paintings, books and fine paper, antiques and other curiosities. There would be clothes stores and shoe shops too, but only for garments made of the most exquisite fabrics and sewn by the greatest tailors”.
“Oh and there would be lots of food, of course! I would make sure that there would be plenty of bakeries and sweet shops and that all the restaurants served pizza, pasta, or ice cream; they’re my favourites! But I’ll throw in some great café’s and wine bars for you too, big Shelly, because I know you like them. All the delicious smells will drift onto the streets and into the air. They’ll waft into the people’s noses making them wish that they were always eating.”
“People will come from all over the world to visit my town, and they will always be happy and amazed because of all the stupendous beauty of this exotic city.”
“But little Shelly, such a city already exists!
“Yes dear. It’s called Venice”
Ah, Venice, what an enchanting, yet utterly absurd city you are! A living relic of a metropolis, Venice has for centuries sustained a preposterous, yet profitable, existence semi-submerged (and sinking) in the middle of a tidal lagoon. As the philosopher, Alexander Herzen, eloquently declared, “To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself; but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.”
Over the years, countless writers and philosophers have attempted to explain and illuminate Venice’s unique, seductive magic. Yet, no matter how much you read, nothing can truly prepare you for the bizarre, inimitable allure of this captivating watery town. For me, I decided it was easiest to understand Venice’s beguiling charm by imagining that the entire city was designed by a precocious 10 year-old girl intent on indulging her whimsical fairy-tale fancies. A city of costumes and masks, beads and feathers, chocolate, pizza, ice cream, and debonair men who whisk you away on romantic floating sojourns in lavish gondolas. Is that not the stuff of little girl dreams?
Of course Venice is not exactly as idyllic as the utopian imaginations of my inner child would have you believe. First of all, aside from the exceedingly picturesque canals, Venice is not nearly as beautiful as people may claim. There are no tree-lined boulevards here. There are very few green spaces, no mountainous backdrops, and no epic vistas to behold (save for San Marco Square, whose façades appear grotesquely overt and ostentatiously grandiose after the subtle loveliness of Venice’s maze of alleyways). In addition, many of Venice’s buildings are blackened and grimy as a result of the corrosive effect of the excessively salty air (a situation against which the Venetian council fights an endless, and valiant, but ultimately futile, battle).
Venice is also unashamedly and unapologetically expensive. Dorm beds in dingy 8-bunk rooms start at 40 euro, while a 1-hour gondola ride will set you back over 100 euros. Yet, despite the exorbitant price tags, tourists’ long-held romantic notions surrounding this hallowed city seem to engender within them with the need for excessive consumerism. People spend decadently and self-indulgently here. I got the impression that most tourists would gladly pay the gondoliers double the asking price, if that was what it cost to have ‘a gondola ride in Venice’. Well, if people are prepared to stand in San Marco square, happily posing for photos in their finery, while festooned with hundreds of dirty pigeons, then the romantic fog of Venice is thick indeed.
But perhaps Venice’s biggest problem is simply the sea of tourists that pour out of hotels and trains each day to flood the city centre. Close to two million people visit this tiny, 15km2, pontoon of buildings every year. According to Wikipedia, on an average day tourists outnumber residents by two to one. Alarmingly, this ratio is becoming more and more visitor-biased; because Venice is not only famously sinking, it is also rapidly shrinking! Between 1980 and 2009 the population of this historic city shrunk by 50% (from 120,000 to 60,000 inhabitants), and Venice continues to lose around 1000 residents a year. Ironically, it is the exorbitant cost of living and poor job prospects, a legacy of excessive tourism, which has driven most locals to disperse.
Not surprisingly then, as a tourist, it is virtually impossible to find and interact with local Venetians (if you visit in summer, it will be hard enough just finding somewhere to eat!) And unfortunately, with so few people living ‘real’ lives it is extremely difficult to envisage Venice as a ‘real’ city. Indeed, although I wandered the labyrinthine streets of Venice for two entire days, enthralled by every sight and sound, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all being staged. I felt like I had somehow wandered onto the set of a big movie spectacular or had entered one of those re-enactment villages where actors dress up in period costumes and speak in ye olde English.
I’m by no means the first person to sense this city’s struggle to stay ‘alive’, and to feel that Venice is fast becoming a glorified theme park. Viscount Norwich, chair of the ‘Venice in Peril’ fund, famously stated that the Venice of the future will be a “dead city inhabited entirely by tourists; a sort of thinking man’s Disneyland.” Although an intellectual amusement park version of Venice is a sad scenario for the future, and would constitute a tragic cultural loss for Europe, you can rest assured that the flood of tourists will continue unabated. For despite all its flaws, Venice, this fairy-tale oddity of a city, is irresistible: a truly sumptuous feast for all the senses. It is simply impossible not to enjoy the ride.