Notes from a drowning city
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 22, 2020 - 12:00am

Visiting Venice was always going to be a unique experience. Italy is only an hour or so away from London where I grew up and returned a few years ago, so I’ve been to other areas of Italy a few times but if I’m honest I couldn’t make sense of the jumble of stories about the city. It seemed that for all the former city state’s legendary beauty and romance there was also a dark side to being a tourist there that had always won out, until last weekend.

For as long as I can remember there have been news stories about Venice sinking, even before I had seen “Death in Venice” or “Don’t Look Now,” or knew about any of the great Italian painters. Now the triple threat of climate change, mass tourism and poor planning are intensifying the sense that the city is doomed unless rapid action is taken. The city is used to “acqua alta” when the water rises due to seasonal high tides and winds, but last November and December the floods were five feet above average sea level and brought the city to its knees, in the words of its Mayor Luigi Brugnaro. He blamed the situation on climate change, but a series of projects including the creation of an industrial area and the excavation of a channel for big ships through the shallow lagoon where Venice has stood since the fifth century have altered the conditions that allowed for its foundation and may have had an irreversible and catastrophic impact. So not only is Venice sinking, but the sea level itself is also rising.

Another reason not to visit Venice was that I’d heard from friends that they hadn’t enjoyed their visits because of the ludicrously large crowds of tourists that make it impossible to navigate the narrow streets. The Venetian economy relies on tourism so much that it is the life and death of the place. I didn’t want to join the crowds if it meant contributing to the very forces that are destroying Venice and not enjoying it. The number of people living in the historic city has dropped from 120,000 in 1980 to about 50,000 today, threatening the actual activity and living culture of the place.

Environmental scientist Jane da Mosto has made her home there with her husband, architect and broadcaster Francesco, whose family has lived in Venice for more than a thousand years. After their family, their shared passion is to protect the city. Da Mosto is at the vanguard of the movement to save Venice, having founded a solutions-based campaign and advocacy group with other residents: “We Are Here Venice.” Finally, I’d managed to find a date when she would be in town, before the high season for tourists. With her guidance, I hoped that our independent visit would be a bit more responsible than the cruise ship crowds and tour groups that are hated by some residents, because of the enormous toll on the environment taken by their visits that are often less than a day long.

If all the stories were to be believed, this was a place where time seems to stand still and the legacies of the explorers, traders, painters, priests, poets and architects that built Venice into a multicultural economic and maritime superpower of the Renaissance live on. It’s a place the very name of which reeks of nostalgia and history.

My excitement had been simmering slowly right up until the electric doors at Marco Polo airport silently parted and ... the smell of the sea announced our arrival. It was late in the evening, pools of light celebrated Venice’s gothic architecture, but as our boat steered its way along the narrow canals, it seemed as if we passed among shadows shifting their way along the canals and alleyways. The night was splendidly clear and cold, even the stars had come out to welcome us.

We spent the next few days avoiding big crowds, visiting churches and palazzi that were off the beaten track and getting lost. It was surprising how deserted alleys only a block away from the main streets were, and how quiet the whole city was without vehicles. In Venice, floating serenely and improbably in its lagoon, maps and GPS fail, you feel disorientated as if lost in a labyrinth.

We were blessed with cloudless weather and a sunset so glamorous over the Giudecca canal that I asked Jane if they happened a lot. “Yes,” she replied, “but you never tire of them.” It is tragic – Italian opera tragic – that the essential nature of the place: its astonishing beauty lavishly nurtured for generations is threatening its own survival. The unsustainable rush to welcome more and more people and profit from the tourist dollar has forged ahead untrammelled even though there are many proposed solutions to mitigate and adapt to the impact on the environment. A massive flood barrier project to reduce the impact of exceptional high water has been under construction since 2003 and was supposed to have been finished in 2018, but it’s still not complete and has been dogged by controversy. It was supposed to cost 800 million euro but will ultimately end up costing 7 billion, 2 billion of which has reportedly been lost to corruption. It might have prevented the floods in November and December but there are no guarantees it will work nor that it will not damage the environment in other ways.

(Venice’s predicament reminded me of the Philippines’ cities by the sea, including Manila. They are used to seasonal flooding, but now, facing climate change, the negative impacts of short-sighted decisions on land use are being intensified. What is the plan for millions of residents who live in Manila’s coastal areas? To save historical and cultural landmarks such as Malacañang, Luneta and Intramuros from sea levels that are set to rise by as much as four feet by 2100?)

I feel incredibly fortunate to have visited Venice in all its fragile glory, I hold in my heart the memory of its extravagant beauty, its open, expressive, and ancient soul that forces you to lift your eyes, draws you into its labyrinth and feast on its treasures. Every moment that passes brings its end closer, even in this city on water where time stands still.

VISITING VENICE
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