Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Features

Postcard to Venice

Words by Paul Maunder; Illustration by trentemoller/Shutterstock

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

For the past few years my family and I have taken our summer vacation in Venice. We stay on the Lido di Jesolo, a long promontory of land at the edge of the lagoon with miles of sandy beaches facing the warm gentle waters of the Adriatic. Bribing the kids with promises of Venetian masks and spectacular gelato, we take a ferry past the candy-colored buildings of the Lido and the lush gardens of La Biennale, then thread a needle between all the various watercraft piloted by men in sunglasses talking on their mobile phones, to dock at the 15th century San Zaccaria church.

PELOTON

Once we’ve dragged the kids away from stalls selling cheap plastic souvenirs, the aim is to escape the chaos of the Piazza San Marco as quickly as possible. In Venice it doesn’t take long to get away from the crowds—and it doesn’t take long to get lost. Whether or not you know where you’re going, a walk has a certain rhythm; in the shadowed alleyways you continuously turn left and right, every so often emerging into a sun-bleached square with a café or a church. Away from the center there are quiet streets with barely a person around, all the houses shuttered and dark. There is always building work going on, a reminder of the city’s fragility. And some of the canals are lined not with gondolas but with low-slung barges carrying sand or timber.

Venice is not only unique in its geography. It’s the only city I can think of that is one-third museum piece, one-third living city, one-third playground for the rich, famous and artsy. Perhaps this multi-faceted nature is why I find something different every time I visit. A gray day brings a sense of melancholy, of lost wealth and long-forgotten parties. The August heat can be oppressive, making one want to escape into the lagoon on a speedboat with a beautiful woman at your side. And a visit to the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim reminds us of all those who have trodden the same paving stones in years past: Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso. This sense of shifting identity is why so many artists come here and why Venice inspires many great works. Every city has an identity, but Venice is so layered, so rich. It is your enigmatic great-aunt who has a thousand stories if only she could tell them.

With its power and influence as a city republic long vanished and its buildings slowly sinking, Venice’s beauty is stunning but shallow. One senses darkness beneath the surface. Walk through the deserted streets at night and you will find yourself glancing over your shoulder. Countless books and films have used the city as a romantic backdrop but the most memorable are those that have played on its inherent creepiness.

Now the city is quiet. As Italy’s appalling outbreak of coronavirus took hold, the authorities prematurely ended the Carnival of Venice and closed the city to visitors. The restaurants around San Marco were closed, the flocks of pigeons had no silly tourists to perch on. No boats on the canals meant the water—usually a murky green—became clearer. The sediment usually churned up by traffic had settled. Fish and crabs have returned. A pair of swans were filmed gliding under a bridge. Air pollution fell. And while some have written of this resurgence of nature as a positive side-effect of the pandemic, it didn’t reassure me. Venice, more than most cities, is an expression of human ambition and ego and determination.

Once one of the most powerful places on the planet (its wealth came from its pivotal position on the East-West trade routes), Venice’s riches may have shifted from business to culture, but it has always thrived on the vivacity and élan of its people. The cafés should be serving coffees with those little caramelized biscuits on the saucer. The gondoliers should be shocking tourists with their prices. The carabinieri should be steering their boats down the Grand Canal. Those little churches should still be a cool oasis away from the crowds. Venice has seen a lot, come through it all and its life will return this time too. I’ll be there again, just another sweaty English tourist, hopelessly lost and in love.

From issue 94, get your copy here.