For as far as I could see, there were people. With every step, I bumped into another sweaty arm. I looked over longingly to the water and briefly considered jumping in to get away from the unyielding stream of people. I had been looking for a relaxing weekend but instead found myself in an overcrowded city.
It was the week after midterms, and I had four days off from school. After a stressful midterm week (my roommates might argue that I had a stressful midterm month) I was looking for a city I could set down my roots for a few days to relax, decompress and explore a new city.
When I first flew into Venice early on Oct. 28, I was convinced the most stressful part of my trip was attempting to get from the airport shuttle to my hostel via water taxi. I was well adept at using Google Maps to travel the Madrid metros, but boats were another beast.
Venice is one of those places that is on almost everyone’s ‘someday’ travel destination list. Its beauty and seemingly tranquil environment are displayed prolifically throughout movies and TV shows. The gondolas navigating around the city via canal, eating pasta looking over the water, endless gelato while resting easy, finding beautiful clothes from local thrift stores and the movies always love an Italian love story.
My mother used to tell me when I was younger, “Almost everything you see on television isn’t real, it’s all contrived. You have to go out and live your own life.” Living my own life was what got me to Venice, Italy where I quickly learned all over again that my mother was right. The reality is that Venice is drowning, and the copious amounts of tourists are an added weight pushing it farther down.
In a study done by the European Geosciences Union, they concluded that the city could disappear into the ocean as early as 2100. The buildings, constructed directly into the canals, are already sinking due to repeatedly getting hit by the waves boats create as they displace water. The overwhelming amount of tourists doesn’t help, as they drive out the local population and expedite the effects of global warming.
My choice to travel to Venice was a very easy one, but not a very researched one. The short-notice tickets from Madrid to Venice were much cheaper than to any other city, and as a study abroad student I was looking to see as much as I could for as little as possible. I wasn’t expecting the crowds of people when I stepped off the airplane, and the sheer amount of tourists was, at its best, incredibly fascinating.
San Marco Plaza, one of the most popular tourist destinations and a centric location in the city, looked like a football field that fans rushed onto after their team won. Despite the plaza being monstrous, you’re unable to walk through it without running directly into someone with a selfie stick, photo-bombing 50 pictures, and increasing your body heat by 20 degrees. The major things that characterize every movie set in Venice seem to make it more of a Disney attraction than the culture of a real city.
One of my goals for Venice was to find a dress for an event I had with a fashion magazine I was working for in Madrid. I was planning on searching local thrift stores for something unique that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. It rapidly became apparent that there were no stores that could be considered ‘for locals’. Most of the shops you would consider being a perfect spot for a cafe, bakery, or thrift store were instead tourist shops. All of them sell similar items, bargaining with tourists to get one leg up over the competitor. The environment was not one for unique clothing, and the only vintage shop I did come across had a minimum price of $80.
60 Minutes released a segment on Venice in 2021 about how native Venecians are fighting for more rights against tourists and large cruise ships. One lady spoke saying, “A lot of local shops – your butchers, your bakers, your dressmakers, all the local services have been transformed one by one into souvenir shops, restaurants, fast food places. Nothing seems to be catered to us anymore.”
I did meet one local while in Venice. A boy around my age who helped me find my hostel when I first arrived and was my waiter later on. I stayed in the Generator Hostel which is on a small island south of the big tourist island of Venice, so it was considerably calmer. I asked him on the first day if he had any hidden spots I should check out, and he responded, “local places in Venice? There are none. But I can tell you the favorite tourist spots.”
When I asked him what he liked to do with his friends on the weekend, he replied “I’ve lived here my whole life. I don’t like it, it’s nothing special. There truly is nothing to do.”
We spoke every day, but it wasn’t until my last day that I really asked him the deep questions. “Do you get super annoyed with the tourists? Because I am a tourist and can barely stand it.” He said that he doesn’t go over to the main island for that exact reason. He also told me that the island is currently in its off-season, so if I thought it was crowded now, I better not come back in the summer.
He closed the conversation by saying, “I do wish I lived somewhere less touristy, but if Venice didn’t have the tourists spending money, Venice wouldn’t be here. They stimulate the economy.”
Should you really have to give up the city of your ancestors, one of the most beautiful places in the world, just for a stimulated economy?
Traveling to Venice was my first experience being in a place that seemed as though it was specifically designed to be a tourist’s playground. Despite being annoyed with the crowds and longing for local spots as I had found in other cities, there was also a deep pang of guilt. I was also a tourist, I also came here not knowing Italian, I also had a Canon camera strung around my neck, and I also was a small reason as to why the island is disappearing. It was incredibly disheartening to realize that some of these locals have roots in Venice dating back for centuries, but are now being run out by tourists with their cameras and “I Heart Italy” shirts. It’s uncomfortable to think that, no matter how unlikely, that could happen to my hometown one day.
My house and the one my grandparents lived in, knocked down and replaced with a souvenir shop. The elementary school that fostered my love for learning, now a fast-food restaurant. The soccer field that taught me about life and passion and hardwork, now just a plaza for selfies.
Although Venice gave me this underlying feeling of loss of house and home when I thought too much about it, there is no doubt that Venice is just as beautiful as the movies depict. As I told one of my friends upon arriving back in Madrid, “It’s incredibly beautiful so don’t cross Venice off your list, just don’t plan to spend too much time there.”
As a consequence of booking a 12-dorm hostel, I was generally awake very early in the morning. One of those mornings I decided to take a water taxi to the islands in the North, Burano and Murano. Still tourist destinations, but less traveled simply because of the hour-and-a-half boat trip to get there. Since I arrived so early, I was able to thoroughly explore Burano before the larger tour boats arrived.
Burano is most well-known for its colorful houses. It’s in the top 10 most colorful cities in the world, as each house is painted a different vibrant color. Burano is a fisherman’s island so the colorful houses help the fishermen to see the island better when they are out at sea. Even with the early morning fog, the island can still be spotted from a distance.
In addition to fishing, the locals also make money from selling custom glass that was made in Murano. Storeowners were ecstatic to speak about the history of the jewelry or decorative glass they were selling. The owner of the shop I bought earrings and a necklace from had cousins working in the glass factory, a wife who designed the jewelry, and he had been selling out of his store for the past 20 years.
As I walked the streets of Burano it was apparent that it contained a larger sense of ‘home’. Whether it was neighbors yelling hello to each other while sweeping their front porches, dogs knowing exactly what boat to board, or simply just proof of life through laundry lines.
Of course, there were still selfies, but something about the selfies in Burano felt more appreciative. They seemed less about crossing a picture opportunity from a popular destination off the list and more about documenting the joy they were feeling.
Murano acts as a behind-the-scenes to Burano. It contains the factory that makes the metal and had a lot more unique and intriguing forms of glass. I found stores that sold jewelry, but also chandeliers, animal figurines, and large statues. Murano was very similar, on a smaller scale, to Venice. The areas around the water were very crowded with tourists, restaurants, and shops, while the small, interconnected hallway-like streets that led inside the island were much quieter.
In the airport, I overheard a hotel worker telling two men that he didn’t believe Murano was worth a visit and wasn’t even sure if Burano was either. “There is nothing to do or see on either of the islands, they are pretty, but all you’re supposed to do is sit around and enjoy the prettiness.”
That, the nothingness, was exactly why I fell in love with Burano and Murano. There was nothing else I could do, other than sit on a bench and enjoy the prettiness.
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