I suspect people have been declaring Venice “ruined” for years, probably for centuries. It is sinking. It is crumbling. It is crowded. Young Venetians can’t afford to live there. Older Venetians can’t stay because of the steps and bridges.
Venice is like a faded dowager trying to keep up appearances. Her splendor is evident, but worn. After you’ve spent some time in Venice you start to wonder whether the real thing that holds the city together is not its soggy pilings, but rather the muscle of its residents, the pride of its social royalty and its tradition of being a place where people do things a little more decadently than they do on the mainland.
Before I went to Venice for the first time, I read everything I could find about the city and its history. I watched Katherine Hepburn discover Venice in David Lean’s 1955 film Summertime, which is as much a love poem to Venice as it is about Hepburn and Rossana Brazzi.
Almost any way you arrive in Venice is dramatic, whether from the water or through the stark Mussolini-era train station. On our first visit we arrived early in the morning. We watched and listened as Venice came alive. Day workers arrived from the mainland. Work boats stocking shops and restaurants clogged narrow canals. Clunky vaporettos ferried Venetians from one island to another. Rich tourists staying at the Gritti stepped into sleek wooden water taxis for the run over to the sunny Adriatic beaches of the Lido.
We stepped into a small piazza near the Arsenale. From an open window above us, we heard a pianist rehearsing a Rachmaninoff concerto. It was one of those transcendent moments you hope for in travel. We listened for almost an hour while the pianist played and occasionally repeated passages.
Venice can be a pretty miserable place to visit in the daytime in the summer. There are just too many people, decked out in their pastel cruise line visors and grasping lace toilet roll covers from Burano and glass horses from Murano, or following bellowing guides, stumpy umbrellas held high to keep their flocks together.
But in the late afternoon the day trippers return to the mainland and cruise crowds return to their ships. The pace slows way down. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs are more relaxed and welcoming. Venetians come out to stroll and visit with neighbors. A patient visitor stands half a chance of being let in on a good local place to eat instead of being at the mercy of costly tourist traps.
At night the Piazza San Marco comes alive with music. On one side, a tuxedoed tango orchestra plays outside the always formal Caffé Florian, where Balzac once hung out. Across the piazza, a decidedly more boisterous orchestra plays outside the Gran Caffé Quadri, the one-time haunt of Stendhal, Lord Byron, Wagner and Proust.
I can think of no finer way to spend an evening with friends than sipping a cool drink while listening to the music under the summer stars in San Marco.