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Venice is Dying – and Thriving

December 27, 2010

Gondoliers in Venice. David Frey photo.

The first thing a visitor notices about Venice is, there’s a lot of water. Everywhere. The second thing is, there are no roads. Anywhere. Venice veterans may dismiss this as obvious. People who have never been to Venice may, too. As much as I thought I was prepared for it, though, when I walked out of the train station, the first thing I noticed was, there was water where the streets were supposed to be, boats where the cars were supposed to be, and when they say there are no roads, there are really, really no roads.

“That’s my town,” Hemingway’s fictitious Col. Cantwell said when Venice came into view, three decades after he had fought to protect it in World War I in the same battle where Hemingway handed out chocolates.

Hemingway never got a chance to see Venice as a young man. A successful, wealthy writer, he and his last wife Mary checked in to the luxurious Gritti Palace for the first time in the Forties. The closest we would come to The Gritti was the pizza place across the street. The Colonel may have been laying plans to retire to Venice on his Army pension, but Venice is more than a little pricier now than it was in the Forties. Even Venetians can’t afford to live there anymore, and lots of tourists can’t afford to stay there.

We hopped on the vaporetto, Venice’s aquatic public transit. The vaporetto is to gondolas what Greyhound is to a carriage ride. The boat filled quickly with tourists and their luggage. All aboard, the captain gunned the engine and the boat motored into the Adriatic.

Cristina and I shared a smile. “We’re in Venice,” I said.

As the city fell behind, we stepped onto to the deck to feel the sea air blow against our faces and watch the ancient city roll away. Cristina joined me, and we watched the morning light wash upon the city.

We passed the old cemetery island and soon the island of Murano came into view. “They make wonderful glass day-times for the rich of all the world, and then they come home on the little vaporetto and make bambinis,” the irascible Colonel said.

Murano. David Frey photo.

Murano was our stop. We stepped off the Vaporetto and followed the fondamenta past shop after shop selling that wonderful glass. The windows were filled with hand-blown marvels of fragile color. The farther we walked, the heavier our backpacks got, and after 15 minutes, we saw no sign of our destination.

A silver-haired man stepped out of a glass shop.

“Can I help you?” he asked in English. “What are you looking for?”

“Where is the Murano Palace?” I asked.

“It’s here,” he said. “It’s here.”

The man led us down an alleyway to a hidden entrance. He was Cesare Giordani, the owner, it turned out, of the Murano Palace, the boutique hotel where we had booked our room. It wasn’t the Gritti Palace, maybe, but with Venetian chandeliers adorning the hallways and bedrooms and tall windows overlooking the canal below, like Venice in miniature, it felt like pure luxury.

“We are very big hotel,” Giordani joked, leading us up the tight winding stairs to our room. He spoke to me in English, to Cristina in something close to Spanish, and the two of them chatted in a Latin language of their own invention.

The son of a master glassmaker, Giordani showed us a photo of his father demonstrating the tradition of Venetian glass to Queen Elizabeth II in 1961. Giordani, he said, wasn’t allowed anywhere close to the monarch, who filled the factory with her own entourage.

Giordani was continuing his family’s lineage as Venetian merchants. He has a small Murano empire, with a hotel and a pair of shops selling glass. His son runs a little restaurant in a shaded campiello around the corner. Like a doting Italian father, he sat down over a map and sketched out the lay of the land, and the water. Here were the vaporetto stops in Murano. There were the stops in Venice. Here were the ones that shut down early, the sign of a tourist city without much of a nightlife. There were the ones that stayed open later. Murano, the island with the glassmakers. Burano, the island with the lace makers. Torcello, the island with the ancient church. Lido, the beach resort island.

Gondolier in a gate. David Frey photo.

Venice, he confessed when I asked, was struggling. The city was shrinking. The cost of living was rising. The two trends were intimately connected. “Rick Steves writes very well about Venice,” he told me, and handed me the travel celebrity’s latest guidebook – a book, he noted, which woefully did not list the Murano Palace. The page was headlined “Venice: A Dying City?” It’s a city, Steves wrote, where on any given day, tourists almost certainly outnumber locals. Its population of 162,000 was half of what it was 30 years earlier, and the tide is still going out. Some 1,000 people leave a year. The ones who stay behind are graying.

“Sad, yes,” Steves wrote, “but imagine raising a family here: Apartments are small, high-up and expensive. (A 1,000-square-foot studio can sell for up to $1 million.) Humidity and occasional flooding make basic maintenance a pain. Home-improvement projects requiring navigating miles of red tape, and you must follow regulations intended to preserve the historical ambiance. Everything is expensive because it has to be shipped in from the mainland. You can easily get glass and tourist trinkets, but it’s hard to find groceries or get your shoes fixed.”

It’s a city simultaneously thriving and dying. More than 12 million tourists clog the canals a year. Second-homeowners are moving in. Locals are moving out. “The culture is dying,” Steves wrote. “Even the most hopeful city planners worry that in a few decades, Venice will not be a city at all, but a museum, a cultural theme park, a decaying Disneyland.” Some politicians have suggested visitors should even pay an entry fee.

Murano glass. David Frey photo.

Murano’s glass industry is struggling, too, Giordani said. Just like the Chinese tomato paste muscling out Italian pomodori, Chinese glass is threatening a glass tradition that stretches back ***. Venetian merchants are selling Chinese trinkets for a fraction of the price their neighbors are selling real Murano glass.

“If you want to talk to Murano glassmakers,” Giordani said, “I will introduce you to Murano glassmakers.”