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The Beauty and the Beast that is Venice

Venice is one of those cities you have to experience at least once in your lifetime. Everything you’ve already seen in the movies is true — it is ancient, vibrant, dreamy, brimming with art and history.

And then you add 28 million tourists.

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Throughout the year, Venice is swarmed by tourists — to the chagrin of locals.

Suddenly, you get a different picture of the place: hostile locals, shoulder-to-shoulder human traffic, made-in-China souvenirs, and a sinking World Heritage City. It becomes clear that Venice’s unique beauty is also its curse, bringing in mass tourism that Venetians say has ruined their quality of life. Hence, the unsmiling, protesting remaining residents who don’t really want you there.

So why still go to Venice?

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Venice, a UNESCO heritage site, has stood on water for over 1,200 years.

1. Because it is, without a doubt, the most architecturally fascinating city in the world. The capital of the Veneto region in northeastern Italy, Venice is a 1,200-year-old city that stands on millions of wooden trunks piled underwater to keep the city afloat. Romans escaping barbarian invaders in the 5th century sought refuge in the marshlands of Torcello, Jesolo and Malamocco, where they built settlements on 118 islands that comprise Venice. These settlements, connected by 403 bridges crossing over 150 canals, soon became a merchant and maritime powerhouse. By the 8th century, Venice was one of the greatest capitals in the medieval world, ruled by the doge. Today, some of those original settlement buildings still stand. Such extraordinary architectural phenomenon is not without maintenance. Every few years, Venice’s canals are drained, and portions of the islands are rebuilt because saltwater damages the bricks and mortar that hold the perimeter of the islands together.

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Peggy Guggenheim, who owns one of the largest private collections of artworks, relocated to Venice as a young woman. She is buried there, with her dogs.

2. Because Venice is heaven for art lovers (and those pretending to be). With over 100 churches and 40 museums packed in such a tight area, the lagoon of Venice has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces in the world, according to UNESCO, which inscribed Venice in its World Heritage List in 1987. If you must enter only a few structures, let it be the Doge’s Palace, which was the center of power for 10 centuries and remains the grandest palazzo in Venice; the Gallery of the Accademia, which contains five centuries of the most important Venetian art by Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione and other ancient masters; and the Basilica de San Marco, the most iconic symbol of Venice. But if the lines are too long – and they always are – you can explore instead the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, a Baroque masterpiece credited with ending the plague that killed one-third of the Venetian population. Since 1631, Venetians have been celebrating thanksgiving every November 21.

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There are over 200 palazzi in Venice, and the 18th century Ca’ Rezzonico is always on the list of must-see palaces as a testament to glamorous Venetian style.

3. Because there’s a chance you might not be allowed to visit Venice in the future. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Venice earned €3 billion from tourism in 2016, and 78 percent of this came from international tourists. But herein, too, is the problem: Venetians believe the onslaught of tourists who stay only a day or two is doing more harm than good. Venice’s population has fallen from 175,000 in the 1950s to 55,000 today as residents are driven out of the city by the rising cost of rent and the stress of hosting curious throngs. There is unmistakable hostility in the sharp stares locals give tourists, particularly Asians, in the curt replies of shopkeepers, in the hard shoves as you disembark from the water buses, in the way residents clutch their bags when you sit next to them, as though you were a thief. The beauty of the city stands in contrast to the behavior of the city people. In 2017, some 2,000 Venetians marched in protest against mass tourism, and in April 2018, the city government installed turnstiles in certain areas to manage crowds (which I hear had been removed). UNESCO has said that Venice could be included in the List of World Heritage in Danger if a sustainable tourism plan is not drafted and executed by December 2018. On top of that, Venice is sinking – or rather the sea level is rising – an average of 2 mm to 4 mm per year, which puts Venice on environmentalists’ watchlist as well.

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While Venice’s tourism revenues largely come from foreign visitors, Venetians have been protesting the presence of millions of tourists in the city, saying they do more harm than good.

So should you visit Venice?

If you can handle the aloofness that comes with the beauty, then by all means, go and see this wonder. But stretch your patience and understanding because this former capital of La Serenissimia is anything but serene these days. There are charming destinations nearby, such as Verona. However, if you do decide to come to Venice for a few days, here are a few tips:

• Go with a credible walking tour. Venice is truly overwhelming. It is one of those cities where you would rather not DIY your exploration if you had only a few days because the place is a maze. La Bussola, an association of locals and sympathizers that care about preserving Venice, offers an Introduction to the City tour and a Landmarks of Venice tour. They will help you cram 12 centuries of history in two days, if that is at all possible. They will also tell you where the best gelato is.

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La Bussola Walking Tour

• Buy and eat local. The Venetian shops are more expensive but these are owned by artisans whose work do deserve their prices. When eating, ask around. The locals would know which restaurants serve real Venetian fare. Our La Bussola guide’s tip: if you see a gorgeous guy in front of a restaurant asking you to come in, and there’s an English translation of the menu displayed outside, stay away. Look for where the locals hang out, usually in nondescript establishments.

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Sweets, anyone?

• Watch your purchases and your ferry pass. Just as locals are wary of immigrants and tourists, so should you be wary of Venetian tourist traps. Some locals tend to think tourists are clueless; they will sell anybody anything. Also, it’s best to get a multi-day pass for your water buses because inspectors are hot especially on Chinese-looking tourists, sometimes checking only their tickets and not of, say, the French visitors.

• Get out of the mainland. Explore Murano for authentic Murano glass products (but not much else), and Burano for a glimpse of a real fishing village. It is known for the burst of colors that define its neighborhoods. Frankly, the weather and the people seem nicer in Burano. It’s probably all that fresh seafood and fine weather. Burano truly is a breath of fresh air, it deserves a post all its own.

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The famous colorful fishing houses give Burano its own character as an island.

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Burano, 45 minutes from the mainland, is a respite for weary travellers.

 

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