Venice is proof that people can love something so much they squeeze it nearly to death. Unless you enjoy shuffling back-to-back, belly-to-belly with mobs of strangers, there are places in this most romanticized, ancient Italian city that you simply should not venture into. Unfortunately, some, like Santa Lucia train station, are unavoidable.
Our adventure on the Orient Express brought us here, but upon our descent from 19th-century fantasy to early 21st-century reality, we felt like we’d been dumped in the middle of a forced evacuation zone.
The once scenic Grand Canal was so thick with diesel-fume-spewing water taxis and ferries that an agile rock hopper could cross to the other side by jumping from boat to boat.
Confused and frantic new arrivals wheeling bags across the cobblestones dodged grim-faced soon-to-be ex-visitors departing through the same portals.
If you could read their minds, the common thought would be “Get me out of here!”
This was not the Venice I remembered from our last visit 20 years ago.
Then, I was in awe of the grand palazzos, their lowest floors stained by lapping water, and rising elegantly on both sides of the canal, knowing most were centuries old. There were water taxis then too, just not so many. The pace was slower, the people more serene. I could hear music.
So this time, like everybody else, Dottie and I escaped the chaos of Santa Lucia Station as quickly as possible on one of those water taxis. Fortunately, our destination was the Palazzo Abadessa, a former 16th-century abbey and sanctuary for orphans, restored now as a museum-like boutique hotel, well away from the noise and crowds of the Grand Canal.
And that’s the thing about Venice. You can find the quiet side canals, narrow streets, and the small hotels and out-of-the-way restaurants that still make it the city that’s beguiled visitors for centuries.
Our room had 20-foot frescoed ceilings. The walls and floors, marked by time, accented by paintings, ancient rugs and decorated with antiques, held tales of mystery and romance. Nights were so quiet and the air so fresh we slept with the large windows wide open.
Excursions would often find us temporarily lost, but we’d eventually find our way through narrow back alleys, across old stone bridges to restaurants recommended for their crowd-free location and excellent cuisine.
Only once did we venture toward Piazza San Marco so that Dottie could return to a table linen store she’d visited long ago. Huge gaggles of tourists from scores of cruise ships moved shoulder-to-shoulder in every direction following their designated flag bearers. All we could do was press ourselves into doorways until they passed then scurry ahead until the next gaggle appeared.
Dottie found the store, but it took several stops at other shops around San Marco before she found the exact tablecloth she sought. Then, as quickly as possible, we escaped through side streets to the serenity of our hotel’s neighborhood.
Nighttime in Venice is not nearly as bad. At least half of the cruise ship folks are back on board and you can actually move around without being jostled.
Venetian guide Alessandro Schezzini, an effusive advocate for the local vino sfuso, led us on a delightful twilight tour of small, out-of-the-way bars. We also took in a concert performance of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” in an ancient palazzo alongside the Grand Canal.
We did enough to confirm that the Venice we enjoyed two decades ago still exists; you just have to work harder to find it.
Still, I do wonder if Venice can survive the love of so many for much longer.
Note: Several days after I wrote the above column wondering if Venice can survive, a far more deadly and immediate maelstrom swept through our own community. It was sudden, unexpected and frightening. We all have family, friends and neighbors who suffered losses.
Those of us who survived unscathed will step up to help those less fortunate.
Our beautiful Valley of the Moon will survive this.