Strange Geographies: Searching for the "Real" Venice

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It's been said that Venice is not just a city of museums, but a museum city, a place to be visited and appreciated but not lived in, where on a sunny summer day tourists can outnumber locals two-to-one. When I announced my trip to Venice a few weeks ago and asked our readers what they'd like me to look into while there, several people voiced the same question: what's the real Venice like? How do the locals live? What goes on beyond the crowds and behind the touristy facade?

What I discovered was an endangered species: the native Venetian. The shrinking but still vital population hovers around 60,000, which is just half of what it was 40 years ago, when the city began flooding regularly. And it's not just millionaire playboys in vacation homes, either: there are working class people, kids, college students, and old folks, and to find out more about how they live, I did two things that most visitors to Venice don't do: I stayed the night -- most tourists are day-trippers who come and go with the sun, only a few hours to "see Venice" before their train or cruise ship shoves off -- and I got as far away from the Piazza San Marco, Venice's tourist-thronged version of Disneyland, as I could. This is what I found.

The signs for Piazza San Marco are everywhere, and they take every conceivable form, from official-looking placards to handwritten signs taped in windows to graffiti spray-painted by locals, undoubtedly sick of being asked, in halting, guide-book Italian, Scusi, dov'e Piazza San Marco? My strategy was simple: whenever I saw one of these signs, I turned on my heel and headed in the opposite direction. This resulted in my getting hopelessly, desperately lost over and over -- truly accurate maps of Venice do not seem to exist -- but I would argue that the only way to begin to find Venice is to get lost in it.

I started out early in the morning, and discovered the city in its native state, before most tourists had arrived or emerged yawning from their hotels. Around the tourist hotspots, it was almost like going backstage at the opera before a performance and watching the actors warm up -- Venice puts on a mask for its visitors, with singing gondoliers and dueling orchestras playing across piazzas from one another -- and I saw vendors pushing souvenir-laden carts down narrow alleys, waiters walking with starched white jackets slung over their shoulders, and gondoliers who hadn't yet donned their signature stripey shirts, reading the paper in their boats while waiting for just-bolted espressos to kick in.

There were regular people walking to work, who you could easily tell were regular people because they weren't armed with cameras or standing in the middle of a crowded bridge, poring over maps. Also, the Venetians seem to be universally stylish: even the vaporetto (waterbus) drivers wore trendy sunglasses and combed their hair like male models.

And there is the sunrise, when the city is at its most sublime and photogenic.

It was when I stopped seeing signs for San Marco -- or any signs in English -- that I found some of the regular, "working class" neighborhoods, if you can call them that. The eastern parts of Castello and northern parts of Canareggio are where ostentatious palaces are replaced by modest blocks of houses, leaning toward one another over narrow courtyards, and where you only hear Italian being spoken (or, if you can recognize it, the Venetian dialect), and where no one seems to be in a hurry. I spent a lot of time wandering these streets, trying to get a sense of how people lived.

The houses are small, and made even smaller because many people don't use the ground floors, which can flood several times a year. They're also dark, with windows that get sun only a few hours a day. Perhaps as a result -- and also because they live in one of the world's most beautiful and atmospheric cities -- the city itself becomes an extension of their living space. The first signal of a neighborhood street are lines of colorful laundry strung between buildings.

On warm days -- this is northern Italy, remember, and it can be cold and rainy six months out of the year -- people congregate outside, soaking up the sun and hanging out with friends. (Hey there, sailor.)

Old folks watch the world go by in parks and in sunny spots in campos. The native population of Venice is aging rapidly -- 25% are over age 65.

But there are plenty of kids around, too, who you can hear playing from blocks away when school lets out in the afternoon. These little girls came tearing around the corner so fast that they almost knocked this lady over -- and without even a permesso, signora!

The anachronistic insanity of texting atop an ancient wellcap kinda blew my mind.

It's not uncommon to find people -- not homeless! -- sleeping on park benches. Or making out on them; canoodling was rampant.

Venetian-style rowing is a huge deal, and something a lot of kids learn to do from an early age. They compete in regattas like American kids compete in tennis tournaments and go out for little league.

One thing that all visitors to Italy obsess about is the food, so I wanted to know how the locals eat and drink. While tourists tend to indulge in two-hour, five-course meals -- I saw more than one person stumbling along holding their gut, saying "I'll die if I keep eating this way!" -- many locals eat much more informally, at unpretentious osterie (pub-restaurants) and bacari (neighborhood bars, AKA "houses of bacchus") where you order at the bar and eat either standing up or at improvised tables. (This dude is so over it.)

Lunch often consists of chicchetti, which are essentially Venetian tapas -- something I'd never encountered in any other part of Italy, and one of my favorite new foods (not that I can find them in the states). They're cheap, fresh and fast, and range from basic bar snacks like spicy meatballs and sardine-wrapped olives to mind-blowing local specialties like squid in ink and lagoon shrimp wrapped in pancetta. You can also get sandwiches (panini and regular) and crostini, and if you don't order a glass of wine or prosecco (a regional specialty) to wash it all down, you'll earn a suspicious glare from whoever's manning the bar.

Speaking of wine and prosecco, it was all amazing: abundant, fresh and inexpensive. While tourists lug home bottles of the relatively expensive stuff, locals buy table wine by the liter at BYOB wine shops, their walls lined with a dozen or more varieties in barrels, dispensed by hose into whatever container you like (empty water bottles are popular), for as little as 3 euro per liter. I went to one with some friends, and the owner happily poured us five or six sample glasses for free to help us decide which kind to buy a few liters of. I'm telling you, if they had this where I live, I'd be an alcoholic.

It may be no coincidence, then, that the Veneto region has one of the highest concentrations of alcoholics in Italy. Venice seems to be a city built for drinking: its streets lined with charming little bars dispensing good, cheap wine; it's also the city that invented the Bellini, and if that weren't enough, and there are very few ways to get a DUI in Venice, where most wheeled conveyances are outlawed. (You can't even ride a bike.) Venice may have pioneered the pub crawl -- its version is called the giro d'ombra, which means, roughly translated, wheel of shade, a tradition that stretches back 600 years to the days when merchants from the fish and vegetable market would take a break from the heat of the day to rest in the shade -- the ombra -- a term which eventually became synonymous with wine. (So when you're asking for a glass of wine in Venice, you're literally asking for a glass of shade. I like that.)

One bar I went into a few times had its ceiling lined with little jugs, each one with a name painted on it. When I asked the bartender what this was about, she told me they belonged to her regulars -- folks over 60 who came in for glasses of wine throughout the day. Some of them, she said, would stop in 20 or 30 times a day, having just one glass each time, bolted while standing at the bar. Some of Venice's retirees, it seems, are living a perpetual gire d'ombra.

When they're not snacking on world-class seafood tapas in osterie, locals get their food from neighborhood markets, butchers and corner grocery stores. You never have to buy food more than a day or two before you use it, because the store is often downstairs, or just around the corner.

The markets are eye-popping, especially the famous fish and vegetable markets of the Rialto, which have been arrayed along the banks of the Grand Canal for nearly a thousand years, and rated mention in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. It's like the craziest farmer's market you've ever seen, with seasonal specialties like white asparagus and baby artichokes.

At least half of it is fish -- cuttlefish, octopus, live crabs, and plenty of things I can't name, most of which is delivered fresh from the lagoon and the nearby Adriatic via fleets of fishermen whose families have worked those waters for generations.

The city begins to quiet down when the cruise ships leave, obscene floating cities that dominate the horizon of the Guidecca Canal on their way back to the Adriatic, their decks lined with regretful passengers who only got a few hours to explore a city that would take years to fully grasp.

Tired and hungry on the first night, I head to a spot famed for its nightlife in the Dorsoduro, the Campo Santa Margherita, which unlike most of the city is thronged till all hours with students from local universities and art schools (of which there are several). I find a butcher-turned-bar whose platters of cured meats Lonely Planet raved about, and which is atmospheric as all get-out, with dim chandeliers illuminating exposed brick walls from the 12th century. The place is jammed and the seating is informal and communal, and the hostess seats me at the end of a wooden table full of Italian college girls. After a glass of wine or two, I find the courage to strike up a conversation in my crappy, broken Italian, only to discover that several of them speak English, and in fact one had been in my hometown, LA, just weeks prior. (I asked her what she thought of her visit to America, and after enthusing about her trip for awhile, she turned to me with a question: "Why in America do you have so many flags?")

I told them why I'd come to Venice, and they told me that if I wanted to find the "real" city, all I had to do was walk around at night. So I took them at their word, and did just that. A gire d'camera. What I found was a dark, silent place that seemed almost deserted; a completely different city once the tourists had been stripped away. Sure, there were a few restaurants and bars open, but they were like little islands of life in an ocean of quiet.

The only restaurants with business were the local ones; all the touristy places were empty. It was a little eerie, all those tables and chairs and no people.

Gondolas covered up for the night.

Down a dark alley, the sound of running water -- not a canal, but one of Venice's ancient and perpetually-running public fountains, under which people place containers so the stream doesn't eat through the stonework. The water's clean: I saw children filling up water bottles with it, and even tried some myself. Look, Ma: no dysentery!

The question I kept coming back to was: where is everyone? Except in a few neighborhoods, block after block of houses were shuttered and quiet, with no lights on. The streets were empty. And on Sunday, many of the churches were empty, save tourists who wandered in to gawk at painted masterworks on walls and ceilings. Yes, there were still locals living in Venice, but my night walks suggested that they were few and far between.

I looked into it, and learned that people started moving out in droves after the city began flooding in 1966. There was a lot of industrial activity going on at the time, and they dug too many deep wells, which drained the aquifer below the sand and clay and wood pylon foundations of Venice enough to lower the city itself, making it vulnerable to high tides and heavy rains. The ground floors of 16,000 houses became unusable. And over the years, real estate prices have gone through the roof. I lingered in front of a real estate agent's window display, as I always do when exploring new cities, and the prices were comparable to apartments in New York. Want a third-floor walkup with great views of the Grand Canal? You're looking at a million-plus Euros. As a result, a lot of the people who work in Venice live elsewhere, commuting from towns on the mainland or via waterbus from nearby places like the Lido.

But let's say you're in a daring mood, and you've got a million Euros to blow on a house in Venice. Chances are it's old, and it's going to need fixing up at some point, like this place, whose balcony is being held up by planks and bars:

The logistics of repairing these places are nightmarish. You can't just go to Home Depot. Everything has to be hand-delivered by boat. Really heavy stuff might require a crane, which has to be delivered on another boat. One thing you'll see early in the morning are boat deliveries, which drive home what the added cost of doing business here must be like. Here's one, complete with Venetian plumber's crack!

Once you get whatever it is you're shipping near its destination, you've got to unload, which is a two- or three-person job, with one guy standing on the boat and tossing the goods to someone on the street.

Then you've got to cart it through the city over rampless stair bridges, arched like a cat's back and often swarming with distracted tourists. It's endless, back-breaking labor.

Taken together, what it means is that Venice is on a course to become a city devoid of actual residents -- sometime in the next thirty years, says the city's housing chief, if the current trend isn't reversed. If that happens, it really will become Disneyland, and the "real" Venice will disappear forever. And that would be a great loss both to Venice and its visitors.

Check out all the Strange Geographies columns here.

Prints and high-resolution digital downloads of photos from this essay are available here.

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May 2, 2010 - 8:05pm
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