Venezia Bella. You broke my heart.
When the vaporetto approached S. Zaccaria stop near Piazza San Marco, I was filled with anticipation. It was my second trip to Venice. The first was a whirlwind stay and I could barely wait to revisit some of the iconic sights that had captured my imagination.
Until I saw this.
Ugly monstrosities in the form of massive advertisements covered the iconic buildings. A nightmare was realised. I’ve come all the way to Venice to see gigantic billboards?
By the time I shuffled past the crowds and stopped at the Bridge of Sighs, I wondered if you could ask a city for a refund. Awe-struck tourists posed for a snapshot. What was there to see and photograph?
Ponte de Sospiri was barely visible, dwarfed by fake skies and make belief clouds.
Anyone paying for a gondola ride to see billboards must be happy to toss their euros in the canal. Venezia, you should bow your head in shame.
I looked around me as tourists shuffled about and posed for photographs. Young couples in love embraced under images of Geox shoes and Guess fashions. Ah… l’amore! Love can be blind indeed.
Further along, Piazza San Marco was under the effects of Acqua Alta. But this inconvenient yet natural phenomenon paled in comparison to the giant Trussardi advertisement towering above the square.
Granted, many of Venice’s buildings are in a state of disrepair and require sizeable funding for restoration. But hiding the beauty of the city with ugliness should come with a travel warning.
Don’t come here.
And that is exactly what the city is doing.
When I voiced my anger to my Italian relatives, Giuseppe, a Veneto-born resident was very passionate in his defence of the city’s decision to accept such advertising.
“Tourists aren’t spending money in Venice,” he explained. “One million visitors a day wander aimlessly, looking at the exterior of buildings. Nobody pays to see inside and learn about history and architecture. They may as well buy a book and look at it! The majority don’t eat at restaurants. They buy cheap panini or bring their food with them. Many don’t even stay overnight in Venice.”
True. We saw the evidence in overloaded vaporetti packed with day trippers from the assembly of mega cruisers docked near the lagoon.
He further explained the stress it has on natural resources. If every visitor did one pipi per day, that’s a lot of flushing toilets in a city that was never designed to accommodate a large number of people.
Venice is already sinking. Physically and figuratively. And we, as visitors are contributors.
Make no mistake. The Venetians don’t want us there and the idea of charging visitors €50 to enter the city has been the subject of heated debates. Would I pay such an amount for a day pass?
La Serenissima is no longer serene. The city itself is no longer a pleasure to be in. You may get lost through its narrow streets and stop at photogenic bridges but you can no longer lose yourself in the moment. Too many people do the Venetian shuffle. Tourists are constantly wheeling their luggage past you. Backpackers are bumping into you without a mere scusi. These are not large boulevards that can accommodate such traffic but tiny calle. Finding a spot for a pleasant passegiata is near impossible.
There is also another ugly side to Venice. The photograph below speaks in volume about how some tourists behave and this is not what the city wants to encourage.
I didn’t raise an eyebrow at the multilingual signs on rubbish bins forbidding tourists from littering, loitering, eating and drinking in Piazza San Marco.
Experiencing Venice this time left me with a bitter after-taste. Two full days were spent navigating our way around closed streets during Acqua Alta and traipsing around on foot during a vaporetto strike. On another day, we escaped the enchanting and serene islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello away from ugliness and crowds.
When it came to bidding farewell, I left with mixed feelings and a heavy heart. I had enough frustration and not enough enjoyment. I was nostalgic for the feelings Venice had evoked during my first visit. Back then, I fell in love with its unique charms. I was serenaded by the sights. I was inspired by the whole experience, even found my writing muse.
As I walked towards Venezia Santa Lucia station on a train bound to Mogliano Veneto, I glanced over my shoulder for one last look. A giant Geox advertisement stood prominently across the lagoon.