Venice, Italy – In this improbable city, built upon islets and platforms of countless pylons slammed over the centuries into the mud of the lagoon, people go about their business, traipsing along lanes and beside canals, up and down the countless bridges. The air hums to the sound of padding feet, chatter resonating off the walls along narrow, crooked streets and bustling, uneven squares.
Down the centuries, the city’s builders seem to have delighted in variety: from the great mosaics of the Basilica di San Marco and Torcello to the sober Gothic majesty of the Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, from the simplicity of Romanesque to the discipline of Palladio, from
the sensuality of Veneto-Byzantine to the extremes of baroque, the concentration of architectural gems is astonishing. The same is true of its art – the parade of past greats from the Venetian school seems infinite. The number of masterpieces left behind by Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Veronese,
Titian and others in the city adds up to the equivalent of death-by-chocolate for art lovers.
The roads of Venice are made of water. Fire engines, police, ambulances and taxis tootle about as wheeled vehicles would elsewhere, only here they are boats and the speed limit is 5km/h. Not that anyone seems to enforce the limit; suntanned taxi drivers pound about in their expensive, oak-panelled vessels, dodging exasperated gondoliers with their boatloads of enthralled visitors.
Used to the accumulation of natural and constructed beauty that surrounds them, and seemingly indifferent to the slow decay of that same beauty, Venetians sometimes seem unaware that Venice has long ceased to be one of the centres of the European universe. They go about their business like phantoms among the tourists. Although at times (especially on hot summer days) it seems impossible to move for the crowds, it is as though the locals don’t even see the day-trippers. But how they wish the visitors would learn to walk in single file in narrower streets – allowing more purposeful individuals to move ahead!
Venice survives largely because of tourism, but the flip side is a constant run on local housing for use as hotel space and second homes. Buying is prohibitive and rents soar. When locals are evicted to make way for such development, they frequently throw in the towel and move to the
mainland – less aesthetically pleasing but eminently more practical. Huge state funding would be required to provide the incentives to encourage people to stay. Shops that are useful to locals continue to close as more and more pizza-slice and cheap glass-bauble outlets open.
With around 61,500 permanent residents (268,700 in the whole municipality, which encompasses the other lagoon islands – totalling around 31,500 people – and Chioggia, Mestre, Marghera and other bits of the mainland), Venice is not what it was. Back in 1951, some 175,000
people were resident in the city itself. The downward demographic trend continues – since 1993 the historic city has lost on average about 1000 residents a year. Those who stay behind are ageing rapidly. The percentage of the population in primary school has dropped from 8%
in 1951 to less than 3% today. There are more women aged over 80 than under 18. Some say the point of no return has been passed.
The city can be frustrating. You can’t park your car outside the front gate (you can’t park one anywhere!) and everything costs more because transport and distribution by boat is dearer than on land. How much shopping you can do is limited by what you can carry. Moving house
involves hiring a removals boat. If you have a large enough window overlooking a canal, so much the better – it’s easier to hoist things up from the boat than to drag furniture around to a street entrance. Living on the ground floor is a trial – humidity and dampness are constant
companions. Work outside of tourism is virtually impossible to come by. If the haemorrhaging continues, the city could be empty by 2040 and perhaps really will turn into an open-air museum, a tacky shadow of its once proud and glorious self.
Still, walking around the city today, it is difficult to feel a sense of impending doom. The timelessness of the place, the uniqueness of the city on water that has survived more dramatic threats in centuries past, lend it an air of quiet self-assuredness. The canal tides flow this way and that in the course of the day, as they have always done. The essence of Venice is intact and its spirit indomitable. – source: Lonely Planet Travel Guide