Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Venice may be feeling the effects of overtourism, but there’s still peace and quiet to be found. Mary Novakovich discovers how to slow down and see Venice in a whole new light.
Venice is heaving. It’s a victim of its own popularity—on any given day, tourists outnumber the shrinking resident population of 55,000. Everyone wants to come here, and we continue to go, helplessly drawn to the city’s incomparable beauty.
Some visitors are less welcome than others. Although cruise ships were banned from the Grand Canal, you can still see the monsters rolling through the Giudecca Canal. Thousands of ship passengers swarm through the narrow streets of San Marco, and even an attempt at installing turnstiles during major holidays to allow locals to move about more easily did little to stem the flow. Those Venetians who haven’t yet been priced out of their city feel under siege for most of the year.
Despite all of this, I can’t keep away myself. But I do know that if I want to stay sane, I have to get away from the crowds and perhaps do things differently. And luckily, that’s easily done.
I head over to Piazzale Roma, where vaporetti (waterbuses) arrive to take people up and down the Grand Canal. But there’s a special boat waiting for me around the corner, along with its skipper, Paolo, and Martina Raehr from a company called Slow Venice. Martina is on a mission to show people that there’s more to Venice than being trapped in slow-moving crowds and feeling compelled to pay €10 ($12) for a coffee at Caffè Florian simply because it’s the most famous café in Venice. “Come and see another side of Venice,” she beckons. “A wilder, quieter side.”
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I’m immediately struck by the simple beauty of our bragozzo, a 19th-century fishing boat, with its highly polished wooden bridge, vivid yellow deck and a red and black hull. With its flat bottom, it’s made for a lazy chug around the remarkably shallow Venetian lagoon, reaching parts other boats can’t reach.
Instead of church spires and fishermen’s cottages of Burano, I see deserted marshy islands and brown mudflats. It’s bleak but hypnotically beautiful. We go beyond the limit of the wooden stakes that mark the channels and into a seemingly empty world.
Only it’s not quite empty. We pass a mudflat where two men had moored their dinghy and are now on their knees in the mud, digging for clams. Evidently it’s worth the effort to come out here in the middle of nowhere and dig for your dinner. They seem to be having better luck than Sebastiano, whose nets remain stubbornly empty.
He’s not surprised, as he tells me that fish stocks and species have been reducing over the year. Now in his 40s, Sebastiano has been fishing since he was a child but recently has had to find other ways of supplementing his income—this particular form of fishing tourism, for one. “And my wife runs a souvenir shop in Burano, which helps,” he says.