This post was originally published on February 2, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance at all. And yet, here is a city that is completely captivating and totally charming, even – or especially – in the middle of winter.
Most cities, even truly ancient ones like Rome, still feel to me like they’re firmly established in the twenty-first century. It doesn’t take much – a few cars go a long way towards setting a sense of time. Venice doesn’t really seem to exist in any particular era. The low-slung, bluntly boxy train station is definitely not ancient, and the wide and busy Strada Nuova with its touristy shops and chain restaurants advertising tourist menus and take-away coffees couldn’t be anything except modern. But as soon as I stray from these areas by even a couple of streets, time falls away. The laundry hanging to dry everywhere and gondolas sliding through the canals feel timeless – at least until I spot a gondola with selfie sticks protruding from every possible angle, a sight that brings me fully back to the twenty-first century.
Venice shows its age, but it does it in the most graceful, captivating way possible. Colours are softened with time and salty sea air into mottled pastel tones. Stone looks as smooth as silk. Doorways sag, rooflines droop, entire buildings lean towards the canals. A startling number of bell towers are not just slightly, but extremely crooked. If I think about the city’s underpinnings – wooden pillars driven into the silty lagoon floor hundreds of years ago as the foundation for all these buildings, walls that are attacked by waves, tides, seaweed and barnacles every single day, and bridges that are crossed by thousands of tourists each month – it’s impressive that the city is still standing at all.
What’s also impressive is the casual, elegant way that Venice puts hazards directly in front of an unsuspecting wanderer. Most cities seem to do a decent job of protecting residents and tourists alike from unnecessary dangers. Venice, on the other hand, is full of sidewalks running alongside canals, dark and narrow streets that dead-end directly into water, doors – even in hotels – that open into water, and slippery stone steps leading straight down into the canal. I spotted numerous life preservers attached to walls and doors, and even a long knotted rescue rope dangling into the canal beside a set of particularly algae-slicked steps.
I have to wonder: how many tourists walk directly into the canals each year, so distracted and overcome by the city’s otherworldly beauty that they forget to watch where they’re going? How often do people topple into the water after a long and wine-laden dinner or even just fail to notice where the sidewalk ends and the canal begins while walking at night?
Venice at night is incredibly atmospheric, but it’s also incredibly dark – the kind of inky, close darkness that I usually associate with being deep in the countryside. There’s something vaguely disconcerting – but lovely – about standing in the middle of a city and hearing nothing except the sound of rain hitting the canals and waves making soft kissing noises as they lap against boats and buildings. Where else in the world does an after dinner stroll take you up and down countless bridges, past boats bobbing gently and through a tangled web of tiny nonsensical streets with (at least during the winter) hardly a single person around? Venice is so unique that it almost feels unreal.
I always wonder what it would be like to live in Venice. At what point would it cease to seem charming to have packages delivered by boat, garbage collected by boat, a new washing machine delivered by boat? Would it get tiring to have to criss-cross a multitude of bridges – stairs going up, stairs going down – just to bring home some groceries? And at what point does someone learn the city’s labyrinth of streets so well that they stop coming up against watery dead-ends every few metres?
After even a few days in Venice, going anywhere else is jarring. It’s strange to see cars again, and asphalt and cobblestones instead of turquoise water. It’s easier to actually live in Rome – or anywhere else, for that matter – than in Venice. But it’s infinitely more interesting to imagineliving in Venice, the city that manages to be both entirely improbable and very real at the same time.