As our elegant boat passed through the narrow canal, the wake lapped at the edges of ancient facades of crumbling plaster and exposed brickwork of walls rising directly out of the water, each with a time-worn patina of terracotta, ochre, pink, with the occasional splash of yellow.
The hot and humid August weather was about to break. Clouds were closing in over the lagoon, and drops of rain were beginning to fall, beading on the chrome navigation light and immaculately polished wooden bow of the vintage boat. Sitting aboard this classic Italian-crafted launch from the 1950s, beneath a stormy sky, I felt immersed in the Venice of bygone movies.
Despite it being high season in one of the world's most visited cities, I was never battling crowds or noise. Of course, this is no 'normal summer'.
Just a few months after the reopening of European borders, Venice has emerged from lockdown into a new travel and tourism landscape, one where island residents have regained the city for themselves, able to live and work without the usual mass-tourism that has been inundating Venice in recent years.
My boat trip gave me an insider's perspective of this romantic lagoon city. My hosts Anne, who was born here, and her French husband Frederic are international designers who have made Venice their home. A striking signature project of theirs has been the renovation of a 16th-century noble house standing on the square of Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
Christened Palazzo Cristo, it is now home to four magnificent, luxury serviced apartments created by the refined style and creativity of Frederic and Anna, for visitors looking for a stylish yet authentic Venice experience. As part of my stay, living like a (pampered) local, the boat tour had introduced me to some of the less well-known canals, running through neighbourhoods that are home to Venetians that still reside on the islands.
I was seeing the unexpected Venice, away from the familiar renaissance grandeur, offering an alternative viewpoint that felt all the more powerful during this year, which has probably changed tourism for ever. Cities like Venice are presently not facing the perils of over-tourism for the first time in decades.
That said, the city was lively with international tourism; European couples and families strolled through St Mark's Square and took selfies on gondolas. Yet there were no waves of group tours brought in with the usual unrelenting flow of coaches or cruise ships.
To come to Venice this year is a privilege. The ocean liners that used to unload almost two million day-visitors a year have yet to return. In addition, North American and Asian travellers are not coming to Europe. Venice is free from the usually ever-rising tide of tourists; residents are reconnecting with their home.
This extraordinary year could be the one when Venice chooses to reevaluate its approach to tourism and the way it attracts international tourists.
Frederic of Palazzo Cristo explains, "Venice really deserves to be treated as an exclusive destination as it is a city steeped in history, culture and art. It is a fragile city, built on water. It is being gradually eroded due to over-tourism."
Early this year Venice was making international headlines. During the unprecedented lockdown, the city had started to recover from the pressures of millions of visitors. The lagoon was said to be cleaner than ever, attracting more wildlife from the Adriatic, while the canals, without the regular commercial and public transport traffic, had become clear.
Frederic continues, "During lockdown the Venetians took back possession of their beautiful city, freed from mass tourism, and now at Palazzo Cristo we have noticed that post-lockdown guests are more informed and respectful. They understand the need to limit access to Venice, which can truly be appreciated without the large groups of tourists."
As I explored the waterways of Venice, I imagined this must be how it was in the 70s and 80s, before the arrival of low-cost travel. Modern tourism creates challenges that need to be addressed; difficult choices need to be made. The cruise industry brings affluent visitors that often stay a few nights at the beginning or end of their voyages at luxury hotels in Venice, creating valuable employment and wealth. Meanwhile the day-trippers support a diverse restaurant scene and a myriad boutiques and gift shops. Their absence is causing closures, and significant unemployment. So how does Venice find the right balance?
Monica Cesarato is a well-known Venetian food and travel blogger who is undeniably in love with Venice and its citizens. She hopes that post-pandemic, residents, hospitality professionals and the local tourism authorities can "work all together to see a different sort of tourism for the city: visitors who choose to stay longer than 48 hours, who are curious and want to discover not just the monuments, but the arts and crafts of the city, and above all the people of Venice. We need to work together to share the message that Venice should be a destination for slow tourism".
Monica is so inspired to share the authentic Venice that she knows and loves, that she has launched a project to create Anima Veneziana (https://animaveneziana.com/en/) a short film currently attracting crowd funding. The idea is for a documentary entirely made in Venice, for Venice, with the support of those who love the city. The film is set to tell the story of Venice through the Venetians - how they live and know the city.
Death of Venice
As Monica explains, "The quote, 'Make your life a dream, and a dream a reality' from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, has been my motto during lockdown and it captures the motivation for the project Anima Veneziana. During the lockdown here in Venice we saw too many videos, usually by international media, who did not really know what was happening. They showed an empty city... almost depicting the Death of Venice - but this was not the reality in the city. On the contrary, during lockdown Venice people rediscovered the sense of community and helping each other. So, with a group of Venetians we wanted to show this new sense of belonging, we wanted to show a city made of people, not just of static monuments."
Initially for visitors, the more than 1,200 years of Venice history is epitomised by the renaissance art and architecture. Yet it is still a living city, not a theme park. For example, the lagoon's food and wine scene are a very contemporary expression of this vibrancy and creativity. From the humble cicchetti snacks of fresh lagoon seafood to fine-dining, Venice is more than ever connected to its provenance as a lagoon city looking out to the Adriatic.
Venice, as an ancient city, has faced huge challenges before. Its strategic position has of course shaped the course of this city's fortunes. It evolved into the epicentre of global trade in the Middle Ages, the rewards of which built the palazzos, basilicas and monasteries.
For Venice, this 2020 pandemic is not the city's first. In fact, the concept of quarantine originated here. At the peak of its international trading might 700 years ago, Venice was vulnerable to the black plague carried by the many merchant ships that would come to the city. So, Venice instigated a 40-day isolation period 'quaranta giorni' for incoming vessels, an approach designed to protect Venice and the surrounding lagoon communities. This was the dawn of quarantine.
Lagoon islands were dedicated to containment and treatment of the bubonic plague. Those evocative Venetian masks with the almost grotesque 'beaks' that one sees in museums and in movies were the PPE of the time - the elongated nose cavity of the protective mask was filled with herbs to filter the contaminated air.
This resilient and innovative spirit is showing itself one again in Venice, an ancient city that is more than an open-air museum, but a living city of engaged residents looking to prepare the city for the new era of travel.