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One of the globe’s most popular tourism destinations, Venice is sinking under the weight of its visitors; here, resident Thea Hawlin talks to responsible tourism agencies Venezia Autentica and We Are Here Venice to discover how you can visit this floating city sustainably.
Truman Capote once said that visiting Venice was “like eating an entire box of chocolates in one go.” The richness of the city was also noted by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, where his protagonist revels in the city’s sweetness: “I was drowning in honey, stingless.” A voracious appetite for the city is stronger than ever, yet Venice might just be the prime example of how our modern models for tourism need to change.
According to Valeria Duflot, co-founder of sustainable tourism company Venezia Autentica, “Seventy percent of the residents have had to leave the city in the past 70 years.” If visitors keep gorging on the offerings of this unique destination without giving back to the local community, it will be destroyed (and that’s before we even get onto the topic of rising sea levels.) In the meantime, we gathered together some helpful tips on how to visit Venice with a clean conscience.
First things first: don’t rush. Venice is a city you’ll want to stay in for as long as possible in order to have the best experience. Avoid visiting Venice on a day trip from another area, and try and book your visit for a weekend at the very least; not only will this give you time to get to know the city but it’ll give you the chance to get to know it at all hours of the day, and it’s actually better for the city, too. As Valeria notes, “This way you will both contribute more to the city and have the opportunity to live in Venice when we, locals, like it most: before and after the crowd is gone. A completely different experience.”
Those water taxi rides and gondolas may be great for your Instagram photos, but they’re terrible for Venice’s economy. If you want to grace the waters of the Grand Canal, why not join the city’s residents and use the public vaporetto system? This way, your money goes to supporting city infrastructure – it’s also much more cost effective. However, as Valeria notes, “Don’t be shy about walking!” Even honorary Venetian Peggy Guggenheim advocated getting to know Venice on foot and via the vaporetto system before she bought a speedboat (named, with her customary flair, Cleopatra) and a private gondola. With no cars, Valeria points out, “Venice is considered by many the greatest pedestrian city in the world.” Just be sure to wear the right shoes!
It’s all very well saying you care about being a responsible tourist, but you need to follow through on how you spend your money in the floating city. Remember that who you’re giving money to matters. Resist buying badly made souvenirs from temporary shop vendors and instead invest your money in real craftspeople who are part of Venice’s ecosystem (and economy). Reward the locals who are there to stay. As Valeria says, “Buying souvenirs which are locally and sustainably made helps incentivise the right kind of production.” Venezia Autentica even have a handy map on their site with a host of local artisans for you to discover. You can help local businesses flourish – so choose wisely which shops to support.
What you consume, literally, can also have a huge effect on your impact as a visitor. “Eating, drinking and shopping in the right places goes a long way,” Valeria notes. Try your best to eat food that is local and in season, and you’ll notice the quality increase exponentially. Often when it comes to food it’s about knowing where to look.
“Venice has a bad reputation for price/quality ratio in restaurants, but as soon as you step outside of the San Marco area the prices go down and the quality goes up,” says Carolyn Smith from the eco-charity We Are Here Venice. Anywhere in particular she recommends to head for a good meal? “Campo Santa Margherita is easy to find and eateries in the area are very reasonable.” So venture forth, think ahead, and eat to your heart’s content (even on a budget).
Forget St Mark’s – if you want Byzantine mosaics, why not head to Torcello’s Church of Santa Maria Assunta? Here, you can find impressive depictions of the Last Judgement minus the crowds, and afterwards sip a Negroni at Hemingway’s favourite bar. There are a wealth of small islands to explore in the lagoon: the monastery of San Francesco del Deserto sits on its own island, and the countryside-style idyll of Sant’Erasmo is filled with huge swathes of greenery (a pleasant contrast when you’re tired of flagstone streets). There’s even a 13th-century bell tower on the mini-island of Mazzorbo, which also hosts a secret vineyard once favoured by Venetian Doges. “During the day, we encourage you to venture off the beaten path,” says Valeria. It pays to explore, so step off the tourist trail and forge your own itinerary.
While you’re on the go, another great tip from Valeria is to carry a refillable bottle of water to stay hydrated and cut down on plastic. After all, like many Italian cities, Venice has its own network of free water fountains. “You can refill your bottle with one of the best quality waters in Italy, coming from the mountains!”
In case you need any more convincing, Carolyn discovered that the water is actually “from the same source as the San Benedetto bottled water.” The increase in plastic waste brought by visitors is one of the most serious impacts tourism has on Venice, so even something as small as resisting buying one plastic bottle can do a lot for the bigger picture. Every little bit helps.
With language, a little goes a long way. “One of the best and most natural things you can do if you have time is to learn a few words in Italian,” suggests Valeria. No one expects you to become fluent for a single holiday, but finding the time to look over a few key phrases will always stand you in good stead. It doesn’t matter if you forget words, if your pronunciation is terrible or you stumble: however awkwardly delivered, a word or two in Italian shows a respect that locals will appreciate. A willingness to try and experience Italian as part of your visit to Italy will always enrich it. So welcome the barista in the morning with a smile and a ‘Buongiorno!’ – and never forget the power of saying ‘Grazie!’
Read up before you go! You’ve already started by reaching the end of this article. There’s a wealth of knowledge about Venice waiting to be discovered in the world: articles, guidebooks, novels, poetry, films. Arm yourself before you enter the ancient city. “Reading up before your visit is always a great idea,” Valeria agrees. “It helps you discover what aspect of Venice excites you most and know where to spend your time and money when you are here so you can maximise your fun and positive impact.” Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of Venetian visitors such as Casanova, John Ruskin, George Eliot or even George Clooney – or create your own adventures – it’s worth learning about the place you want to explore. You never know what you might discover.