The Dark Side of Venice - My Family Travels

My greatest impression as we left Venice was that it is a dying city, although that was not my first impression.

After multiple delays that stretched our overnight train ride from Paris to Venice into a lingering sixteen hours, we finally caught our first glimpse of the Floating City.  The students of my ambassadorial group squeezed against the long row of luggage in the crowded aisle, pressing camera lenses against the dirty window glass and chattering excitedly.


The water was a faded Alice blue, like a shirt that’s been washed too many times.  Rising from the water’s wrinkled surface was a horizon of muted orange buildings, looking as if they emerged straight from the depths of the ocean.  Venice would have been less impressive if the water had been deep and blue, but offset by such a bland preface it gleamed appealingly in the noon sunlight.

Only as we drew nearer did we see the graffiti, the rusted corrugated sheet metal erected into makeshift walls, the decrepit sixteenth century buildings with shattered glass forming a jagged perimeter in the window holes.  Moored along a temporary dock were several dilapidated gondolas, the chipped paint faded brown.  For a few brief seconds, there was a lull in the animated chatter.

But in a matter of moments our train had zipped past the debris into a pristine train station.  In half an hour we were strolling along the Grand Canal, diverted by gondoliers in striped red and black shirts with beribboned straw hats and tourist shops exploding with brilliantly colored masks and fans.  The brief glimpse of the architectural detritus littering the outskirts of the city now seemed like the exception, not the rule.  Venice was as colorful and lively as we had hoped.

But as we moved further away from the Grand Canal, the streets steadily grew more deserted.  Soon we were the only ones walking down a long, cobbled alley with stacked buildings leaning over us. Not even the murmur of distant tourists could reach us. We were in our own private Venice, away from the rest of the populated world.

Here, rising water levels had eroded the brightly colored plaster until we could see the sad gray brickwork hidden beneath.  In the window boxes the flowers were brown and dead, dry husks that would collapse at the touch of a finger.  Laundry lines crisscrossed the narrow alleys, many crowded with lingerie ballooning in a breeze we never felt.

It was here that our tour guide began to list the sobering facts no one ever thinks of when one pictures Venice.  There was a defeated hunch in his shoulders as he spoke.  His words came out lifeless, listless, a monotonous speech that he gave day in and day out.

Essentially, Venice is dying, both geographically and demographically. The population peaked in 1951 at 175,000 people.  In 2009, the population was under 60,000 and still falling.  On any given day, 60,000 tourists enter the city, doubling the population. The mayor and local government are currently attempting to “diversify the city’s industry away from tourism so fewer residents will leave to take jobs on the mainland.”  In other words, the economy is so tourism-centric that few people can find jobs in Venice outside of the tourism industry.  If one doesn’t want to go into tourism, one must escape to the “mainland.”

He told us this, and we walked on.

We walked through a city where no one lives but everyone visits.  But it wasn’t the same.  We had seen the cancer behind the bright façade.

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