2 September 2020

Unusual Times in Venice: the New Tourism

I visited Venice in the last week of August 2020, to discover how the city was emerging from the months of lockdown and pandemic, and what the situation was like for visitors.

Atmosphere and visitors

I usually enjoy Venice in early July, avoiding the crowds by visiting islands and the beach, but August is a time I avoid. When I lived part-time in Venice all year round, I would often spend August days indoors with air conditioning on, only venturing out for a stroll after 4pm when the day-trippers were heading home and the heat began to lessen. I'd walk a route around Dorsoduro where there are wider, emptier, pretty routes, passing a busking lute player who became one of my fixed points, in a city where the vast majority of people you pass will be gone by tomorrow. There was something reassuring about his daily presence, usually in the vicinity of the Guggenheim or the Salute church.

This summer everything has changed. The headlines about an "empty" Venice are out of date or exaggerated - but this is certainly not a typical summer. As I walked and surveyed the historic city, there were lots of tourists in evidence. If you didn't know Venice, you'd see this as a reasonably busy tourist destination. Most days the council's warnings for its car parks turn red to show that they are full with day trippers. The week before I visited there were complaints about packed waterbuses, as ACTV, the local transport company, operated an off-peak timetable while the tourist crowds grew.  But when I arrived on the 24th August, the services had been increased to provide more space on the boats, and the traditional peak of the domestic holiday season, the 15th August, had passed.

What I found was a Venice with tourists, but not the usual August tourists, nor the usual numbers. As I walked along the quiet(!) Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront, past the Bridge of Sighs and through St Mark's Square, the changes became more and more obvious. What many Venetians have wanted, for years, has been a different style (or 'class') of tourism. Travellers don't always like to hear it, but they do not all have the same value for local residents. Venice appreciates tourists who stay in the city for several nights, visitors who will adapt themselves to the city's rhythms and conventions: walking on the right, not blocking bridges. Those who will spread themselves across the city, visiting and appreciating churches and museums away from the main honeypots, behaving in a respectful manner, spending in the local shops and restaurants throughout the city. Tourists, on the other hand, who 'eat and run' - those who arrive for the day, crowd out the boats and routes to St Mark's, mill around in big crowds in the Piazza and on the Rialto, eat a picnic on a bridge, leave litter and maybe a padlock that will need removing, then leave again, are the least welcome; the ones who create crowds and a burden without offering anything in return, giving Venice the feel of a Disneyland.

Well, this summer, although there were still some day-trippers, I found a city which was closer to a manageable tourism model. There were no tour parties. No cruise ships. No guides with scarves tied to sticks leading confused and chaotic crowds through the narrow lanes. No bewildered cruise ship passengers set ashore still finding their bearings. No mobs milling around on Riva degli Schiavoni waiting to be carted off to their next destination. It was very noticeable that there were practically no tourists from outside Europe, and I could hear Italian spoken everywhere throughout the city, which is far from the norm in summer, when other languages dominate in the narrow lanes and vaporetti. All the tourists I saw would have been self-motivated independent travellers, people who had chosen to come to Venice as their destination, rather than as a stop on travel company's itinerary. They were in pairs, or family groups, exploring the city with genuine interest. Rather than being focussed around two or three sights, they were out and about, sometimes even carrying guidebooks (a rare sight in recent years).

It was only as I walked through a remarkably quiet St Mark's Square that it really struck me for the first time just how uninterested many of Venice's usual summer visitors are. They come because their tour group brings them here, and deposits them near St Mark's. I've criticised in the past the lack of interest in the visitors to the basilica, the vast majority of whom never raise their eyes to its golden mosaics. But I realised last week that it goes further than that. Those visitors have no investment in being here in Venice, and many of them have no background knowledge, curiosity or  even interest. They're often bewildered by an alien culture, a confusing environment, they might be exhausted after a long journey from Milan or Florence, they don't have the time, energy,  freedom or context to get off the beaten track, or develop an interest in the city around them. Some just want to buy 'souvenirs of Italy' or designer clothes, others are Instagrammers here in impractical clothing for the photo opportunities (I only saw a couple of those last week), others have come because they feel they ought to and because it's the obvious excursion from where they're staying on the mainland. They block the way because they're milling around dazed, grumpy, tired, waiting to be told where they're going next.

Last week, by contrast, all the visitors I saw were engaged with their surroundings. They'd had to make an effort to come here, and they wanted to make the most of their time. Actually choosing to be somewhere makes a big difference, it turns out. I stopped to sketch in Campo San Zanipolo near Venice's northern shore, and I'd say that there was almost the same number of tourists in that picturesque square as there had been in St Mark's Square. Outdoor restaurant tables were busy everywhere I went. I only spent a couple of weekdays wandering in the sunshine through the city's maze, but I felt that the atmosphere, though somewhat touristy, was extremely good. Maybe it was busier than the winters I used to experience in a quiet, 'local' Venice, but with a level of tourism that was manageable. Last week I barely saw any examples of the 'bad behaviour' which makes residents and Venice-lovers so irritated during the summer. I rarely found my way blocked, and I almost always got a seat when I caught a vaporetto. Simply for street viability alone, I found myself wishing Venice could successfully ban all tour groups in future, or all those over a certain size. It makes a huge difference to the San Marco district - and in recent years the groups' routes have been spreading to block lanes elsewhere in the city too. Venice's narrow lanes and bridges just can't cope with groups of 50-plus people crowding behind their guide.

Pandemic changes and practicalities

Italy has strict laws regarding the wearing of masks or face coverings. These must be close-fitting, of several layers, cover the mouth and nose securely, and be worn indoors and - currently - after 6pm in outdoor places likely to be busy. (Read the latest Italian government instructions and advice). In Venice, within a region that had a high rate of Covid-19 cases, these rules were taken very seriously.  A Venetian friend complained about young people out drinking and crowding together while not wearing masks, but in the daytime and on public transport, I found the rules were followed quite strictly. On the vaporetto network, 100% of passengers I saw had masks, unlike London where it's 70% at best, in my experience. There were occasional incompetents who wore a mask under the nose, or removed it to talk, but these were few in number, and I saw no-one removing their mask entirely, refusing to wear one, or swaggering maskless as happens in the UK.  Embarrassingly, the worst people I saw in Venice at conforming to the local rules were north European tourists, the British in particular. 

The masks worn around Venice are mostly the disposable paper medical kind, although some more individual fabric ones were in evidence, including popular models printed with the Venetian flag. Worn around the arm when not in use, masks were taken for granted as a modern accessory; it was refreshing to see this treated so matter-of-factly in comparison with the hostile debates in the UK and US. The paper kind are available cheaply in supermarkets - I bought some Coop branded ones at 20 for €5 -which probably helps the wide take-up.

Personally I found the dutiful following of the mask rule quite touching; the idea that this was a community who had been through a lot together, who would wear masks as part of a society-wide effort to protect each other and to get back to normal as soon as possible. Venice has a history of plagues and of coping with challenges and living with tricky logistics every day. I fear that the increased presence of foreigners flouting the rules might test the tolerance of Italians, who have always been very hospitable even when foreigners offend against local sensibilities. Causing fear and being seen to endanger public health might be viewed as a worse sin than the public drunkenness or inappropriate clothing that are the most common etiquette breaches by tourists.

The recommended social distancing in Italy is a minimum of 1 metre, and there were signs reminding of this in restaurants and shops. This wasn't so strictly followed as mask-wearing, and wasn't possible in the narrow lanes or canalsides of the city. Some chose to wear masks as protection in these situations, and I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a requirement should the local infection rates rise. There are hand sanitising gel pumps in shops, though they didn't seem to be used much. In the past I've generally found Italians to be very concerned with health, and less with hygiene, and maybe that continues to be the case.

Restaurants are open; generally respecting the 1m rule between tables, though with sociable diners moving around tables or stopping to chat at outdoor bars, the space can get more crowded than comfortable. I had drinks and a cheap pasta dish on the waterfront of the Giudecca, and an indoor meal at my favourite restaurant, La Zucca, where tables were left empty to ensure comfortable social distancing and I felt safe as I enjoyed three delicious courses, my first proper restaurant meal since February. Masks should be worn everywhere indoors, and this includes moving around in restaurants on arrival and departure or getting up for the loo, but not at your table when eating. The same applied at the beach club I visited: mask on to visit the toilets or the bar, but no need to wear them by your (socially distanced) parasol or going down to the sea. The beach club also had a temperature scanner at the entrance: touch your wrist to the reader and wait for a disembodied voice to pronounce you 'NORMAL'.

Museums have been reopening, though they often have reduced opening days and hours. If you're planning a visit, look this up before you head to a museum or gallery. For me, August is a time for strolling and for the sea and islands, so I didn't revisit any cultural sites. I noticed a short queue outside the Palazzo Ducale. Restaurants are busy, especially in the evening, and may have reduced capacity due to social distancing, so book ahead. There were still some hotels closed, I noticed as I walked around, but there are some decent rates to be found.

I'd recommend taking several masks so you can change them at least daily, or stock up in a supermarket. Check restaurant opening days and book ahead for evening meals. September can have hot summer temperatures, but also storms, so check the forecast if you plan to travel now. And take insect repellent; the lagoon in this time of year is a paradise for mosquitoes; I find using repellent spray or covering up after dark quite successful in minimising bites. Failing that, the local pharmacies are experienced in recommending expensive and powerful healing creams - my latest find is a 'prescription cream with antibiotic properties' according to the pharmacist.

The situation with tourist numbers and with Covid-19 precautions will be changing all the time. I know that many of my readers will be unable to visit Italy right now, and for those of us who can, there is a risk of quarantines or travel warnings being imposed, and flights cancelled. At this time of year the weather conditions and atmosphere are changeable too. So I can't take the responsibility of recommending visiting or not visiting. I can say that I was extremely glad I'd travelled. I loved strolling around the city in glorious weather with a freedom that I wouldn't normally expect in summer, enjoying the views and the uncrowded canalsides. I loved the heat (around 29 degrees C most days) and spending time on the beach at the Lido. I loved visiting a couple of my favourite restaurants and learning that they're coping and that the current levels of business are good. A glass of Prosecco by the Giudecca canal, a picturesque sunset seen from the Zattere, a breeze off the water, being able to get a seat on the number 2 vaporetto - all these were small and satisfying pleasures. A couple of rain showers, wearing a face covering, and filling in a couple of forms before flights were small prices to pay. I've already written about my experience on my outward flight and return flight and at airports. There's no way to travel that will eradicate all worries and risks right now. Each would-be traveller needs to consider their own tolerance for inconvenience and risk, and do their own research. I don't think anyone in Venice at the moment will regret being there, and they'll probably have memories that will last forever.

Last Thursday, having walked in a circle through much of Dorsoduro, San Polo and San Marco, without a single tourist traffic jam or incident of bad behaviour to tut at, I found myself automatically taking my old summer walking route towards the picturesque tip of the district, Punta della Dogana. As I approached the Salute church I heard the strings of a lute, and came upon a white-bloused lute player, the same one, I think, I've passing for a decade or more. A favourite fig tree had vanished from the city, more local shops have been replaced by tourist bars, the current situation is far from settled, the future of Venice is as uncertain as ever, but I found an illogical comfort in this musician's presence and a hope that maybe everything would be alright somehow, and not everything has to change. Later, as I sipped an aperitivo and watched a beautiful sunset from the Zattere waterfront, he walked past again like a kind of unwitting blessing on my stay.

My trip practicalities

I'm on a very tight budget, due to coronavirus, so used my frequent flyer Avios to pay for flights (socially distanced in BA's business class). I found a comfortable modern flat with a lift in an unusual location with an unusual view over the southern lagoon for just €384 for 5 nights - it was on the Giudecca, a long island across a wide canal from the central part of Venice, calmer and more 'local' in atmosphere; I'd often considered staying there in summer. The only drawback is spending more on vaporetto journeys;  I'd suggest a travelcard. I ate cheaply at La Palanca and at a modest price at La Zucca. My favoured beach stabilimento is Venezia Spiagge where a parasol, sunlounger and access to facilities cost €18 per day.

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1 September 2020

Flying in a Time of Covid Part 2: The Return Leg and Venice Marco Polo Airport.

 After a fairly successful flight from London Heathrow to Venice Marco Polo last week, I had fewer concerns about the return leg.

> My outward Heathrow-Venice flight report in detail

The reality, though was a little less comfortable than the outward journey. My Alilaguna ferry journey was fine, and the skipper made sure it didn't get too crowded. The only bad point was the inadequate mask-wearing of British tourists, which became a theme of this trip and particularly my return journey to the UK.  If you follow me on Twitter you'll already have seen my complaints about this arrogance. Whatever you think about mask-wearing, if you are visiting a country which has suffered terribly from coronavirus and which has strict laws regarding mask-wearing, observed by all local people, then it is unacceptable behaviour to consider yourself above local law, etiquette and health concerns.

In advance of the  journey I'd checked in online, and I'd completed my UK Passenger Locator form - although there was no quarantine required of travellers from Italy, all passengers must fill in this form in the 48 hours prior to their arrival in the UK, stating their intended place of residence/accommodation for the next 14 days, and contact details.

Venice Marco Polo Airport was probably the quietest I've ever seen it. The moving walkway is still closed, so it's an outdoor trek between the ferry jetties and the terminal building. Unobtrusive temperature checks took place at the entrance. There were few travellers, and few check-in desks open. Unfortunately the queues for my British Airways flight were long, with only two desks open, and an unusually long and slow-moving priority queue. This was the first place I encountered the Most Entitled Family Ever, who went on to be a defining feature of my journey. Entitled Dad just couldn't believe that so many people had the right to wait in front of him in the queue.

Once at the front of the queue the check-in was efficient and friendly; I was warned that the business lounge, the Marco Polo Lounge, was currently closed. This would have been a disappointment if I hadn't already known about the closure: it's a good lounge and has showers which are extremely useful on a hot summer journey; BA's Club Europe passengers and Gold and Silver Executive Club members usually have access. I was also handed an Italian one-page form to fill in with a health/travel declaration; similar to the one I'd completed at Heathrow - this was to be handed in at the gate upon departure. 

Although I was told the priority lane through security was open, it was closed when I got there - the standard queues weren't excessively long, though. Airside, the entire second floor of the terminal was closed, including the lounges, restaurant and shops on that level. Downstairs the main duty-free shops and bars were open and some of the high-end stores, but other shops were still closed. Some of the toilets were closed too, but I didn't encounter queues at the ones I visited. The absence of a business lounge means no free food and drink, no views and no free drinking water for those who normally expect those things; with all passengers left to purchase their own extortionately-priced bottles at the bar, or go thirsty.

The passport checks before non-Schengen flights were done by automatic gates and again there was no queue. Inside the departure area - two UK flights and a Romanian flight departing from this section of the terminal - at least half the seats were taped off to ensure social distancing. This meant seats were in short supply, and it didn't totally work in its aim, as when one family member sat behind me, the rest of her family clustered around very close to me and Entitled Dad (yes, him), mask worn under nose and then discarded, was speaking pretty much over my head. Within this area, where most passengers were British, you would find it hard to believe we were in the middle of a pandemic. Nearly half the masks were off, or under noses or chins, despite repeated announcements. Lots of food and drink was being consumed in the public seating areas, which made an excuse for the jettisoning of face coverings in some cases.

There is one bar with food and drink after the passport gates, and one set of toilets.  I was glad of the useful charging point for mobile phones - I remembered that having completed my UK Passenger Locator Form yesterday, I would need to display the QR code confirmation on arrival at Heathrow, and had been worried about battery life.

Boarding was by airbridge, and followed the new pandemic policy of boarding by row number, the back of the plane first; of course this caused some confusion and disputes. And after a row over baggage size, the airport police were called, so there was some drama taking place. As on the outward journey, a staggering number of passengers had failed to fill in the Italian form we were given, or denied even having the form, which caused some delays, mostly for the passengers concerned.

As before, on boarding we were given our 'Personal Protection Pack' of an antibacterial wipe and a sachet of sanitising gel. I wiped my armrests and tray with cleaning wipes and noticed the passenger in front of me doing the same. Then we had a delay caused by Entitled Dad and his family, who had a plan for how the crew could rearrange the Club Europe cabin to seat them together. Having refused to give up my choice pre-booked seat I had to put up with Entitled Dad making loud rude comments in the aisle, and a lengthy stand-off where he refused to accept alternative solutions.  Once he had rearranged other passengers to his satisfaction, he took a seat in my row, mask under his nose, and I settled in for a hostile flight. As soon as food and drink appeared, Entitled Dad's mask came off, never to reappear.  I had splashed out with my Avios on Club Europe in order to guarantee an empty middle seat and avoid the aisle (a bigger infection hazard as well as uncomfortable), and I was glad I'd done this - despite the low prevalence of the virus, I would have been uncomfortable with similarly maskless strangers in seats directly adjacent to me.

 As on the outbound journey, food was a box of decent sandwiches, salad and dessert, with a good range of drinks in Club Europe.

The crew were less friendly and warm than the excellent team on my outward flight. When Entitled Maskless Dad wandered around the cabin and stood in the aisle and galley chatting to the crew, they did not ask him to replace his mask as per their announced policy, nor when he was seated, although he was sitting near strangers. And when they made a bored recitation of the requirement for a Passenger Locator Form, they wrongly informed us that we had to self-isolate for 14 days.

The flight itself and the landing went smoothly, with views of Kew Gardens on the descent. Heathrow's arrivals hall was quiet and there was barely a queue for the electronic passport gates. Signs around this area instructed passengers to have their Passenger Locator Form confirmation code ready to scan; I had my phone in my hand but there was no checkpoint and I found myself in the baggage reclaim hall, phone still in hand, unsure if this was policy or error (perhaps the passport check would have flagged anyone whose passport number was not connected to a completed form?).

Although the baggage reclaim area was very quiet - with one exit inconveniently closed - our baggage was extremely slow to arrive. Once retrieved, the route down to the Piccadilly line was straightforward and the lifts were quiet. Then came the interminable underground journey during which 50% of passengers weren't wearing face coverings, including a neighbour who took his mask off to sneeze. I won't declare I was glad to be have swapped Italy for the UK.

I'll write about my experience of post-Covid Venice next, but in the meantime I hope this is informative and partially reassuring for prospective travellers. As I found on my outward journey, you can't control your surroundings or your neighbours while travelling, and running some risks is inevitable. But other concerns can be addressed and exposure minimised - for example,  Club Europe prices can be competitive at the moment, and they guarantee more space around each passenger. British Airways have quite sensible policies, though I wish the crew on my plane had enforced the mask-wearing rule - especially now I'm home and reading about a flight from Zante causing an entire plane-load of passengers to self-isolate. Flying is more stressful in some ways, but less in others. Airports are  much quieter and although I had one or two longish queues and waits, the overall experience was fairly efficient. I'd recommend familiarising yourself with the latest rules and requirements of the countries at either end of your journey, the airports you'll travel through, and the airline you're flying with, so you're prepared and have downloaded and filled in any necessary forms.

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A last view of Venice, seen from the Alilaguna airport ferry