Every morning at 8 o’clock the church bells of San Pietro di Castello remind me of where I am. They sound for two minutes, resonating through the neighborhood’s labyrinth of calli and campi, bouncing off of the canals, finally arriving with the healing power of Tibetan singing bowls. I moved to Venice in March when the region was still officially a “red zone”: no shops open, bars and restaurants were only allowed to serve takeaway, and there was a 10 pm curfew. Most notably, there were no people around. Venice was, for a brief moment, a veritable ghost town.
For various reasons intimately connected with mass tourism, the “City of Bridges” has lost two-thirds of its residents since the 1960s, and is now home to only around 50,000 people. It felt like less than half of that number were here in March, though. The streets were empty. The ferry boats were empty. There were no trains, planes, or automobiles bringing in the 23 million tourists that visit the city annually. Just locals going about their lives as best they could, in the grips of Covid-19. When the sun was out, there were children playing football and other games in the squares, and families gathered with tables and chairs for lunch outside of their apartments – sightings as rare in Venice over the past decades as those of snow leopards today in their natural habitat. People had the time and space to breathe, even if through an N95 mask.
One might have found this deserted version of Venice to be eerie or sad, and I think some did, but many of us felt like kids left alone in a toy store after closing time. We had the entire city to ourselves. We could stand alone on Ponte della Paglia looking towards the infamous Bridge of Sighs – something that previously could only happen in the wee hours of the morning. We could pause at the top of the Ponte Rialto to relish the view without dodging selfie-takers. I would often cross Piazza San Marco, every time stunned to find it completely void of people. None of the notoriously expensive bars were open – there was just me and the iconic bell tower standing in the square. Fondamenta Misericordia, usually bustling with thirsty students and weary tourists overflowing from every hole in the wall, was almost unrecognizable. The same at the Zattere, looking across to the Giudecca.
With the shutdown of the city in place and time on their side, young Venetians rediscovered the ancient tradition of Venetian-style rowing: “la Voga Veneta”. This unique style, performed standing up, dates back to the 5th century when the early inhabitants needed an efficient means for getting between the islands. The wooden boats are flat-bottomed, designed specifically for navigating the calm, sometimes shallow waters of the lagoon. Rowing clubs offered one of the very few activities still permitted in lockdown, aiding the rebirth in interest. I joined one of these clubs as soon as I arrived, immersing myself in the culture of my new home; I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Many of the older Jedi Master-like instructors speak in Venetian dialect, barely comprehensible to me, and they make it look so incredibly easy. Which it is not. You have to stand on one side of the boat, not in the middle, with one foot in front of the other, and the oar rests in an open oar post. The first challenge is keeping the oar in that oar post without it slipping out after every stroke. Thankfully the experts display great patience in passing on their knowledge, mindful and proud of their responsibility in carrying the proverbial torch. The early evenings on the lagoon with the sun setting, oar in hand, paddling towards the horizon with a team of boatmates, were nothing short of magical.
This period of inaction was not rosy for everyone, however. The hotels, restaurants, shops, tour guides, bars, and any businesses relying on tourism were desperate for a return to some sort of normality. Which is a point of debate here: does Venice really want to go back to the way things were, pre-Covid? The consensus is a resounding “no”. According to many Venetians, the city became unliveable in recent years due to the massive number of people arriving every day, clogging up the narrow streets and the city’s 400 or so bridges. The popularity of online short-term apartment rentals made finding a long-term contract almost impossible, and boarding a ferry was like going to war. The presence of 40,000-tonne cruise ships in the lagoon is a hot topic, too, considering the impact they have on the fragile ecosystem and the foundations of the city. On March 31st, the Italian government issued a decree banning these enormous ships, but low and behold, they are back, and the protests are in full swing again.
There is a feeling in Venice right now like that of being at a crossroads, as tourists start to come back. We have experienced how paradisiacal life can be without the crowds, but paradoxically we need them for business. It is unrealistic to think that it will remain as quiet as it has been. As Henri Cartier Bresson once said, “the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving”. We are on the cusp of summer and people from all over the world are waiting at the doorstep. The hope is that a more sustainable model of tourism can be adopted, taking into account the fact that people actually live here. Befittingly, the Architecture Biennale in Venice this year is entitled “How Will We Live Together?” Time will tell.
In the meantime, I am soaking in as much of this rare atmosphere as I can. This morning I am taking my morning coffee and croissant at a bench on the canal in front of a bridge facing San Giorgio. To my left there are two or three men standing, fishing, waiting for a bite in silence. I give them a nod of “hello”. As I savor my breakfast, I observe the boats coming and going with deliveries and the ferries taking people to work. Looking down the bank towards San Marco, the gondoliers are styling, talking amongst themselves, and the water taxi drivers are cleaning their boats, polishing the shiny fixtures to perfection. Even the seagulls are lined up. Everyone is ready.