Venice Under Water

Environmental issues come back to the fore after the Aqua Alta

On The Town | Will Savage | February 2009

Ponte di Rialto submerged (Photos: Sarah Fallon)

In Italy for the second time in three weeks, I still had yet to see the sun.  For my last traveling weekend in Europe, I had decided on Venice, the city of canals, boats and pedestrians, and almost no cars: to me the very idea of such a city existing seemed like an oxymoron.

Of course I had heard about the Dec. 1 flooding that crested to 1.56 meters, but I figured that by the time I arrived the waters would have subsided.

I stepped out of the train station into nearly a foot of water – my assumptions clearly needed to be re-evaluated. Makeshift boardwalks had been set up in the middle of the streets, as at least six inches of water covered 90% of anywhere it was feasible to walk.  Other travelers and locals had come prepared armed (and legged) with galoshes and wading pants. Unfortunately for me, my Nikes weren’t quite as waterproof...  Of course the local shops had anticipated my predicament and pull-on rubber boots were available everywhere.  After dropping 15 euros on a serviceable pair, I was off.

Venice is, of course, no stranger to floods.  Ever since the first reported acqua alta in 589, the city on the lagoon has seen repeated floods over the centuries.  This recent flood became the fourth highest since 1923, when Venice’s Tide Center began keeping records.  The highest by far in the 20th century was the Nov. 4, 1966 inundation that reached 1.94 meters.

Today, in spite of water up to the knees, most of the local stores were still doing business.  Every five minutes or so, proprietors would squeegee waves of water through the front door back into the street and then return to their customers.  Shops made sure to keep the merchandise at least a foot above ground level, to prevent precious goods like the famous carnival masks,  painted fans and replica artworks from being damaged by the floodwater.

My search for San Marco, the famous piazza and cathedral in Venice, ran into several snags.  Not only did the narrow winding streets confuse me, but several of the street signs often pointed in opposite directions for the same location.  After being lost for what seemed like forever of time, I finally stumbled upon Piazza San Marco.

The square I had seen in many pictures was nowhere to be seen; the water that nearly rose to my knees.  And the famous pigeons…. Well, I saw several of them float past, well on their way to their eternal rest. I gave a respectful nod.

With the increasingly frequent floods causing so many headaches for the locals ¬– not to mention the feathered casualties – Venice will have to reconsider the $2.2 billion Moses Project, in which nearly 80,000 ton steel panels will seal off three inlets during high waters. Environmentalists point out potential harm to the lagoon’s ecosystem and that global warming is the real culprit. Yet, the 700 workers at the three construction sites continue to toil away towards a planed 2012 completion date.

However, the inundation of tourists did not look to be subsiding in spite of the (aqueous) conditions.  On the bright side, the flooding allowed me to take fantastic pictures.  With most tourists confined to the boardwalks, I was able to freely walk and shoot from nearly every part of the square.  A few wedding parties were taking advantage of the deserted space, with several brides sacrificing the hems of their dresses for a once in a lifetime photo opportunity.

By the time I began to make my way out of the square, the water had risen, spreading to streets that an hour ago had been completely dry, and several sneaker-clad tourists stood perplexed, staring down flooded alleys they had hoped to follow back to their hotels, stretches now completely covered in the by-waters of the Adriatic.  Several couples were piggybacking through the wet, thus avoiding a second pair of soggy socks.  This seemed to work well until one slipped and both ended up with much more than wet feet.

Mentally thanking myself for not scrimping on the rain boots, I made my way to a restaurant, totally empty due to the flood.  As I sat in the deserted trattoria eating my spaghetti with cuttlefish – which I discovered is as black as tar – with my personal waiter hovering behind, ready to cater to my every whim, I mused on the chance of such encounters with true contentment.

Maybe Venice in flood time wasn’t such a bad thing after all.


Christopher Anderson contributed to this story

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    the vienna review February 2009