Venice and The Ritual Ride to Nowhere

I heard my first growl of frustration from a Venetian on my second day in the city.

The sound emanated from a woman who was stuck behind me on a crowded, narrow street, and it seemed like an manifestation of my own feelings, as I’d stopped to look at the map I kept palmed in my hand, for what seemed like the 18,000th time.  After I wrinkled my nose at the map, I’d consult the guidebook’s more detailed maps, and then the GPS on my BlackBerry. In between, I’d spin in circles, peering around myopically for signs on the buildings that would tell me what street or campo I was on so I could then again recheck navigational tools. This all took quite a while, and was extra challenging when it was raining, or when it was night time, as it was when the woman behind me bellowed. I squished myself against a store window to let her pass as I yet again performed the entire routine.

Okay, so I don’t have the innate navigational skills of Marco Polo, but in my defense, Venice isn’t compared to a maze for nothing —  the city is a crazy spaghetti-bowl tangle of streets and alleyways, a good number of which terminate in dead ends.  Eventually, I would learn some tricks to navigating the city: for instance, if there’s a gap in a building that seems to have a brick wall just beyond it,  just keep going. A street would reveal itself at the last moment. Except for when it didn’t, but it’s better to be right up against a wall and backtrack than to miss the street you wanted to be on — since the chances of finding an alternate route to that street were not good.

And second, I learned that it’s good to count the number of canals you have to cross en route to your destination, ticking them off mentally as you traverse a bridge.

Venetian Street and Canal

It turns out that the canals really are the secret to navigating Venice without a headache — there are 170 of them, and “they still represent the most direct way to reach most parts of Venice; unlike the contorted maze of calli, campi, and bridges just above them, they generally make sense,” write Robert C. Davis and Garry R. Marvin in their book, Venice: The Tourist Maze. I clicked over to the Google Earth view of Google Maps, and adjusted my gaze so it took in only the waterways. I could see Davis and Marvin’s point — the canals aren’t exactly a grid, but they also are a lot less tortured than the streets. Just after, I looked out of my 24th story apartment window, at Manhattan’s right angles of streets and avenues.

Oh, I get it. Taking the streets in Venice is rather like attempting to navigate New York without taking the streets, by somehow traversing through buildings, rather than going around them.

Gondolas in Venice

Of course, this insight into Venetian navigation is basically completely useless to a visitor intent on exploration. Vaporettos, the public ferries, are banned from the smaller waterways, and motorized water taxis that could get you onto these smaller waterways are prohibitively expensive for a day of meandering.  And how about all those gondolas that still ply the chalky green canal waters? From the time Venice became a major tourist destination, right around the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, until about World War I, the gondola was exactly the solution.  But those days are long over. In 1930, you could ride a gondola for an hour for less than 50 cents, and the point would be transportation. Now a gondola ride will cost you around $100 an hour, and the point isn’t getting from Point A to Point B, it’s more like an amusement park ride, with fixed stops along the way. Some 80% of gondolier’s business is in tour groups, write Davis and Martin. They call it “the ritual ride to nowhere”.

Venice Waterway

Since most tourists don’t have private boats, and most Venetians do, Davis and Marvin call the canals “the final possession of the Venetians…They travel in what is a very different city…keeping their gaze down on the canal before them, below the level of tourist feet, and calling out only to one another, they see a different city, with a good many more half-collapsed warehouses, sewer outlets and rather sordid boarded up storerooms, but also a treasure trove of otherwise secret houses and palaces that show their ornate faces only to these private waters and those who travel them.”

That’s a Venice that I’d love to see someday. But since the approximately 65,000 Venetians are so outnumbered by some 14 million tourists that visit each year,  a crowd that locals have dubbed “the herd,” it’s really hard to begrudge a city it’s final, tourist-free possession — or to justify its invasion.

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