Venice is the city of dreams. You might have heard it called Italy’s Disneyland before, though this may sound unappealing to some and rightly so. It is beautiful, but like all of the most beautiful cities in the world, it attracts just about everyone. It all comes down to whether you can handle the crowds.
Stepping out of the train station, I was stunned. I have spent my life dreaming of visiting Venice. I had prepared myself for this moment for a long time. There is nothing I hate more than disappointment. So naturally, I had drilled into my brain that inevitably the city would not meet my expectations. When it in fact surpassed everything I had expected, I was blown away. I have to admit, I actually almost cried. I don’t think I have ever cried on arriving in a city. Fulfilling a childhood dream was just too much for me. I arrived in the evening as the sun was setting and took a waterbus down the Grand Canal all the way past St Mark’s Basilica. The setting sun cast everything in a soft pink and orange glow. It was magical – there is absolutely no other way to describe it. I felt like my heart was jumping up into my throat.
The city is truly remarkable. There isn’t another city in the world that I know of that is built right on the water like Venice. It almost feels like you are on a series of floating platforms connected by bridges. The city is built on wooden piles entrenched in the seabed. It is a well-known fact that parts of the city are slowly sinking and can even be partially submerged on occasion during seasonal high tides, so maybe check ahead before planning your visit. It is definitely a pedestrian city. There are no cars or motorbikes and there are over four hundred bridges. Generally, I got the impression that residents own their own boats. The waterbuses are very expensive, costing about 7.50 euros for a little over an hour and I cannot even guess at how much a water taxi would be. The famous gondolas are price controlled so that they all cost about the same amount. The officially set cost is 80 euros for 40 minutes with prices rising to 100 euros after 7pm. The price is steep but though the gondolas look small they can in fact seat up to six passengers plus the gondolier. And they are all over. The canals are full of lines of gondolas – it all adds to the magic of the city.
The city was the home of the Venetian Republic for several hundred years almost up until Italian Unification. Venetians are clearly still very proud of their heritage with flags of the Venetian Republic all over the city. Venice has done a wonderful job of maintaining its heritage. The Palazzo Ducale is open to the public allowing visitors to take a step back into the city’s prestigious history. Walking through the state apartments, I was certainly impressed by the wealth, organisation and governing of the republic. The beautiful Chamber of the Great Council was particularly astonishing as it is one of the largest rooms in all of Europe. Connected to the Palazzo Ducale by the Bridge of Sighs is the New Prison built in the sixteenth century. Visitors can walk across the bridge getting a glimpse of what would have been the last look at the outside world for many prisoners. The prison itself is much larger than I would have expected with what seems like an endless number of cells across multiple floors. It is simultaneously fascinating and eerie.
If I have one disappointment, it is not with the city itself. Compared to everything that is wonderful about the city this is a small complaint but nonetheless, my stomach cannot be silenced. Despite being one of Italy’s most famous cities, it poorly represents the Italian cuisine. I would certainly not visit Venice again for the sole purpose of enjoying good Italian pizza, pasta or gelato. It was hit and miss at best – though maybe after weeks in Rome and Florence, my standards were raised quite high. And after all, in Venice, you are paying for the scenery, not for the actual food. Nothing can replace sitting by the canal enjoying a drink or a meal as the sun sets.
Sadly, the magic that has drawn so many visitors from around the world has meant the loss of Venice for the Venetians themselves. Since 1980, the population in Venice’s old city has fallen from around 120,000 to less than 55,000. Speaking to a young man working in the glass industry on Murano, he described the sad reality. The fact is the younger generations simply can no longer afford to live in their home city’s historic area. As a young Londoner lacking the funds for a London lifestyle, I sympathise with his plight. Many Venetians now live on the mainland and commute daily to their jobs in Venice, often jobs that cater to the city’s tourism. Even for those who can afford one of Venice’s coveted homes, I imagine the number of tourists who visit Venice makes living daily life difficult. After all, numbers of tourists reach into the tens of millions every year. Would you want to wade through the mass of gaping crowds, ducking under selfie sticks and dodging photos, just to walk home from the supermarket? I certainly wouldn’t.
It is the curse of the modern age. While more and more people are able to travel and experience the world’s greatest beauties, it is marred for those who actually call those beauties home. It is something I have experienced in many of the cities I have visited but nowhere more than Venice. It is a bittersweet reality. But despite the crowds, the cameras and everything that goes with that, I would absolutely return to Venice in a heartbeat. To be honest there is very little, aside from an empty wallet, to keep me away.
Top: Grand Canal
Photography by Savannah and Deanna Hayes