I t doesn’t take long for this city to work its magic on me. Just one look at that long, low horizon shaped by the lagoon and I find myself breathing a sigh. Venice never gets old: the water-lapped maze of streets and canals; the campi (squares) where people position themselves in the sun; ducking down side streets in search of the best sugar-crusted frittelle in a bar piled with baccalà mantecato (whipped cod). Enshrouded in fog or under a beaming sun, Venice continues to take my breath away.
Experiencing Venice without mass tourism over the past two years was a highlight of the pandemic: canals ran crystal clear, and with no crowds, Piazza San Marco was empty and the best seats on the vaporetto always free. But this quiet “pause” made some of the immediate threats to the city glaringly obvious too. With fewer residents than ever, Venetians have taken this moment to ask themselves how their city can remain liveable – a question that sits alongside the issue of rising sea levels and how a city built on water can cope in a warming world?
Venice, a uniquely improbable yet resilient city, was born on a network of 118 islands connected by about 400 bridges and countless canals, its buildings held atop wooden piles driven into the mud, creating an urban environment that UNESCO rightly describes as an “architectural masterpiece”.
Rosa Salzberg, a historian of Venice, is hopeful and points out in her foreword to my book Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice (Hardie Grant Books, $40), that the city has already proven its capacity to bounce back: “Venice at its heart is a model of a sustainable city – since its foundation it has learnt to survive and, on more than one occasion, come back to life after plague brought its global traffic to a halt and wiped out large parts of its population.”
She refers to the plague in 1630-1631, when Venice devastatingly lost a third of its population. The lagoon city is of course no stranger to flooding, a regular occurrence, but the flood in November 2019 saw 80 percent of the city submerged under water. The subject of the acqua alta (literally “high waters”) and how to slow it in the face of climate change is one on every Venetian’s lips. In the summer of 2020 the first, trial of the MOSE construction – a huge mobile gate that blocks water from the Adriatic Sea from coming into the Venetian lagoon, protecting it from the tides that cause the city to flood – was completed. It has successfully kept Venice dry since then, despite it being notoriously expensive and complicated to deploy.
To find out more I spoke to Jane da Mosto, environmental scientist and executive director of We are Here Venice (WahV), a non-profit organisation that addresses Venice’s challenges, who tells me: “Fascination with Venice no longer derives exclusively from its unique beauty and artistic heritage, it is now seen as a microcosm of global challenges mirroring the world and carrying the fate of humanity.”
Da Mosto, who became a poster woman for the lagoon when she was captured in a dramatic photograph during a demonstration against cruise ships in Venice atop a small row boat, believes if you lose the health of the lagoon, you will lose Venice itself and so protecting the lagoon ecosystem is invaluable for future generations. In a WahV project that aims to restore the barene (salt marsh), a powerful carbon sink, companies could contribute to the restoration of these areas in a carbon-offset program.”Barene and the associated mudflats host a unique combination of plants, animals and microorganisms that are known to provide ‘ecosystem services’ to human society, some of which are measured directly in monetary terms like providing fish for fishermen or indirectly like carbon sequestration and storage to mitigate climate change,” explains da Mosto, who collaborates with VITAL, an initiative dedicated to the preservation of the lagoon, and Venetian glassmakers Laguna B. “The salt marsh represents the lagoon’s vital organs. There is great potential to expand the area of lagoon occupied by salt marsh and replace big bodies of open waters, and a necessity to do so,” says da Mosto.
Marine biologist Camilla Bertolini is also working on an experimental project to re-introduce native flat oysters to the lagoon. Native oysters were over-harvested in the 19th century, and dredging (the preferred harvesting method) removes the seabed, stones and other materials where oysters usually settle. They eventually gave way to more robust Pacific oysters, an invasive species. Bertolini works with local mussel farms in the lagoon, using their existing suspension method for her oyster broodstock – being suspended, they are less affected by dredging or other human activity. If successful, native oysters could become once again a sustainable, zero-kilometre ingredient.
“The mussel farmers are very interested,” says Bertolini, with a laugh. “If they can do some mussels and some oysters then they could make a lot more money.” It would be a great win for the lagoon.
Mass tourism, particularly the kind brought on by day-tripping cruisers, is another threat to Venice. Tourism has been Venice’s main source of income since the days of the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries, and although things have gotten out of hand, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, says writer Valeria Necchio.
“Venice has always thrived on the exchange of cultures and the passing of people from all over. Today, Venice needs people who love it and want to support it more than ever,” says Necchio.
But with a population of less than 50,000 residents and 20 million tourists annually (pre-pandemic), residents alone are not enough to keep Venetian businesses (cultural activities, hotels and restaurants) alive, and in a vicious cycle effect, potential residents also find it hard to find a place in a city that has been built around tourists. “People who want to live and work here can’t find a place to live, or they get increasingly priced out. There are less and less shops that cater to a living population,” says Necchio who, despite these challenges, made the move to Venice during the pandemic.
This is something that some are hoping to change. With the idea that Venice – pleasantly walkable, small yet worldly, not to mention breathtakingly beautiful, is ideal for nomadic, skilled, creatives. The Università Ca’ Foscari and the Fondazione di Venezia have created Venywhere, a project that will see underused heritage spaces of the city reborn as remote workspaces for international freelancers. Ideal candidates would stay at least six months (the longer the better), and are encouraged to delve into Venetian life by learning Italian, trying their hand at lagoon sports or learning about the incredibly rich melting-pot cuisine.
Try Venice in the low season. “Visit in November, December and January, it will be cold but part of the charm of Venice is its gloomy winter weather, and you’ll be able to find a seat at the nice, honest restaurants and wine bars in town without having to fight for a table,” Necchio says. “You’ll be able to support the city during its slower months and in turn she’ll show you her gratitude by showing you her truest, most charming, less rushed side, find the truest gems and the quaintest artisan shops, simply because you’ll be able to stop and look at the windows.”
How long you stay is important, too. Daytrippers leave the biggest footprint – in fact the government is discussing charging a ticket entry to daytrippers, to be booked in advance. To the potential visitor Jane da Mosto implores: “Please come for longer than a few hours, several days would be the minimum. The city isn’t unique just for its architecture or watery streets but for its rhythm.”
“A day or two to visit the lagoon is also a must,” says da Mosto, recommending exploring the lagoon on a boat with Classic Boats Venice. You can also get a taste of it with Manuel Bognolo on his boat, Bragozzo Rosa dei Venti. His family is the last of the moecanti, the crab fishermen at the Giudecca, and he shares his family stories while you cruise around the lagoon, collecting moeche (Venice’s prized soft-shell crabs, a fleeting delicacy that you can only experience for a few weeks in spring and autumn) and frying them right there on the boat in his well-equipped kitchen as you gaze into the sunset over the lagoon – one of my most treasured Venetian moments.
To see the lagoon close-up, da Mosto also points me to a café garden down an impossibly narrow side street just off the Zattere, where you can find an installation called Laguna Viva, a miniature lagoon environment planted with examples of salt marsh plants such as samphire, marsh grass, sea lavender, sea purslane and wormwood as well as salt-tolerant reeds and saltgrass. Attached is the modern restaurant and bar, SudEst 1401, at the base of the V-A-C Foundation, one of those perfectly well-hidden Venetian spaces that combines art, design, environment and cuisine, the kind of place that will only be found by determined and interested visitors.
For a longer stay in the lagoon consider the stunning Venissa resort on the island of Mazzorbo, where the abandoned garden of an ancient monastery now houses a vineyard of native Dorona grapes for a complex, amber-toned, macerated white wine. Dine at their Michelin-starred restaurant where the dishes are dictated by the garden’s produce and carefully chosen lagoon seafood. “[Chefs] Chiara Pavan and Francesco Brutto deliberately pick neglected species and lesser cuts, or non-native species, such as the blue crab,” Necchio says. This American species was introduced from ballast tanks in ships and have become a threat to the lagoon ecosystem – the sustainable thing to do is to dine on them. Mazzorbo is connected by a wooden footbridge to colourful Burano, a stroll around this ancient island at first light when there is a special stillness and there are only fishermen, pigeons and a pair of swans, is a true Venetian treat.
Salzberg puts it perfectly: “Venice has a great deal to teach us about the pleasures of a life lived on foot (and in boats); about sustaining strong community traditions and neighbourhood ties while also staying open to the world; about stopping to appreciate quotidian rituals and rhythms and finding beauty in the everyday.”
The city has so much to offer us – and we can give back to it – when you get to know its true self by exploring the backstreets, the lagoon and islands at a slower pace.