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 The headlines about an "empty" Venice are out of date or exaggerated - but this is certainly not a typical summer.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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