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Tuesday, Sep 24, 2019

The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Venice is sinking under a flood of tourists, but you can avoid the deluge

Over time, however, as Venice has become more and more of a tourist centre, prices have rocketed. But all this - overpriced gondolas, no space to breathe, expensive restaurants - can be avoided.

more-lifestyle Updated: Aug 29, 2018 12:21 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
A masked reveller poses at St Mark’s Square in Venice during this year’s Venice Carnival.
A masked reveller poses at St Mark’s Square in Venice during this year’s Venice Carnival.(AFP)

Even people who have read about Venice are startled to see the streets when they get to the city. Venice has no cars --- at all. There are complex rules governing the use of bicycles by residents but usually you won’t see anyone on a bike.

So, Venetians walk everywhere. Or they take boats.

In popular legend, the canals of Venice are portrayed as carefully designed streets, meant to mimic roads. The truth is less exciting. Venice is a made-up city, constructed on marshland and by joining up hundreds of tiny islands. The canals are simply the spaces between the islands. Originally there were many more of them but over the centuries at least 30% of the original canals have been filled up to allow for fresh construction. But, even now, you can’t walk for more than five minutes without coming across a bridge that takes you over a canal. 

If the distances are too great for walking, then you take a boat. In the old days, the famous gondolas of Venice were like water rickshaws. Everyone used them and they were not particularly expensive.

 Over time, however, as Venice has become more and more of a tourist centre, the gondolas have ceased to be taxis or rickshaws. They have become gaudily decorated tourist attractions that are too expensive to use as mere transportation. Now gondoliers charge 80 euros for a half hour ride along the Grand Canal, the MG Road of Venice. There is no pretence of going from point A to point B. The ride itself is the purpose of the trip.

In the camera-phone era, most people get into gondolas only so that they can take selfies or videos of the experiences. The video craze has meant that gondolas now have to be more Instagram friendly. There was always a tradition of singing gondoliers but now, for an extra charge you can be entertained by a proper singer and an accordionist.

My balcony at the Gritti Palace hotel overlooked the Grand Canal and throughout the day I could see the gondolas pass. The tourists inside each boat went photo-mad (Venice is the world’s most photographed tourist spot) and the gondoliers hammed it up for the cameras.

The trouble was that most of them had a limited musical repertoire and the only song that they all knew was that old 1950s warhorse, Volare. (You probably know it – Volare is the most played Italian song in history.)

By the time the trip was over, I swear I could recite all the words to Volare (no, I can’t sing) though I still have no idea what they mean. 

If you can’t use a gondola to get around, then what do you do?

Well, most people use the water bus or Vaporetto. This is a proper bus system with properly demarcated routes for each boat and stations dotted all over the city.

Venetians usually have season tickets for the Vaporetto but for tourists, it is not cheap: a one-way ticket costs 7.50 euro per head. So for two people, it is more expensive than say, a taxi in Rome would be. But then this is Venice.

My problem with the Vaporetto is not the price of the ticket but the difficultly involved in buying one. Most stations are unmanned so you have to buy tickets from a machine.

Italians, as you know, are design wizards, capable of creating such marvels as Ferrari and Maserati cars. Unfortunately nobody taught them how to design a ticket machine.

The Vaporetto ticket machine is so badly designed and so confusing that at every stop, you will find a crowd of tourists trying to figure out how to use the damn thing. So the process of buying a ticket, which should be a matter of a few seconds, takes several minutes per ticket as visitors try and figure out what to do. On at least two occasions I missed my Vaporetto because the people ahead of me in the queue were trying to figure out how to use the ticket machines.  

Is Venice too crowded?

You bet!

The city was designed for 200,000 people. Only about 50,000 people still live in Venice and another 150,000 commute to the city from the mainland. So, even without a single tourist, it would be packed to capacity.

But Venice gets between 25 million to 30 million tourists a year. On some days, there are over half a million visitors in the city on a single day. Obviously a city that is meant to accommodate 200,000 people cannot cope with 700,000 people.

But what makes it worse is that the half a million tourists are usually concentrated in a single area: around Piazza San Marco and the waterfront. 

One solution to the overcrowding would be to ban cruise ships. These massive, ugly monsters disgorge masses of tourists who throng the streets but spend very little money: they sleep and eat on the boat. Moreover the ships disfigure the view of the lagoon and may be bad for the local environment.

Many Venetians would be happy to see the cruise ships banned from the lagoon. But there are two problems. One: the local municipality charges them large sums of money and is reluctant to give up that income. Two: many people work in the docks and make their living from the ships. They form a powerful lobby in favour of the cruise ships. It is unlikely therefore that the ships will be stopped from coming. Venice will continue to be overcrowded.

So, if you can’t take crowds, here are your options. One: don’t go to Venice. Two: go to Venice but stay away from the tourist areas. Three: go to Venice when it is off-season. Of my visits to Venice, two have been in the autumn and winter and I loved the city the most during those times when the crowds had thinned out.

But whatever you do, don’t do what I did this time and go to Venice in August. It is hot, crowded and the non-tourist places (restaurants etc.) may be shut because August is when Venetians go off on holiday.

My recommendation: go in March-April. Even the hotels are cheaper then. 

As one of the world’s greatest destinations, Venice has its share of iconic hotels and restaurants.

One of them is Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco. Every tourist will see this cafe at some stage because it has tables in the square and an orchestra playing waltzes and other melodies. Its location may lead you to believe it is only a touristy place but it dates back to the 1700s when it was not only the most famous coffee place in Venice but was also the city’s most upmarket bordello. (In those days, Venice was the pleasure capital of the world.)

Also in Piazza San Marco is another iconic restaurant, Quadri. What’s new however is that once you get past the crowds in the square, find the staircase and go up to the first floor, you find an elegant Michelin star restaurant with cutting edge modern cuisine and a fabulous room designed by Philippe Starck that merges Venetian influences with Starck’s own style.

The city’s best hotel is the Gritti Palace. It has only around 80 rooms and can be expensive. But it has a beautiful location with a great view, is housed in a historic palazzo and was lovingly restored a few years ago so that it has the best rooms in Venice.

I loved the Gritti because of the quality of the service. Let’s be honest --- Italian grand hotels can look very good but service can be sniffy, sloppy and grudging. 

The Gritti is the exception. Everything about the service was exactly as you would expect a grand hotel to be. By the evening of the day I checked in, the concierge remembered my room number when I went to ask for my key without my ever having to remind him.Staff addressed all guests by name. I ordered a simple room service breakfast. Within 15 minutes, two waiters had turned up and transformed the table in my room with crisp linen, flowers and full restaurant-style service.

Even when there were minor slip-ups they were quickly resolved. I gave two shirts for laundry and asked for them to be returned on hangers. They came back within a couple of hours --- but folded. I pointed out that this was not how I had wanted them. The lady from laundry apologised, took them back and then, within 15 minutes, they came back freshly-pressed on hangers.

This is what the trade calls Asian levels of service. But frankly, I have rarely got this level of service in Asia, not even in India where they know me at most of the hotels I stay in. And in Europe it is almost impossible to find.

A class act. 

You may not have heard of the Gritti but you will know of Harry’s Bar. It has now become so iconic that there are Harry’s Bars all over the world now, none of which have any connection with the original.

The real Harry’s Bar opened in 1931. Legend has it that a bartender called Giuseppe Cipriani opened it with financing from a young American called Harry Pickering. The bar soon became the place to be seen (mainly by rich visitors, though, not native Venetians) in Venice and its fame increased when it created one of the world’s most famous cocktails the Bellini (made from prosecco and peach juice) and later, invented carpaccio, a dish consisting of thin slices of raw beef.

Then, the Ciprianis met another American, James Sherwood, and sold him a hotel they owned in Venice. The terms of the deal were unclear but many years later, a judge ruled that the Ciprianis had actually sold their own surname plus the Harry’s Bar trademark. They could use the Harry’s Bar name in Venice but not elsewhere.

So now, there are two competing Cipriani empires. The official Harry’s Bars outside Venice (excluding the many rip-offs of the name) belong to Sherwood’s company. So does the name Cipriani, not just at the Cipriani hotel in Venice but at all restaurants of that name all over the world.

When the Cipriani family tried to expand overseas, it was prevented from using its own name. So the Cipriani restaurant in London, for instance, is now called C London.

Harry’s Bar is a strange place. During the day it is a tourist trap (it looks like the bar on a mid-market, mid-size cruise ship in the 1950s) full of people who want to say they tried the iconic Bellinis. At lunch, the room upstairs serves reliable basic food and is the place to go to. At dinner, the downstairs turns into a restaurant for the A list while the tourists are sent upstairs.

If you are in Venice and care about food and wine, you should go, but for a meal, not just a drink. Order simply – Carpaccio, veal cutlet and the very drinkable house wine --- and you will be okay. 

But if it is eating and drinking you want to do, then you are better off in other Italian cities. Venice is not for the stomach. It is for the eyes.

And your eyes will never forget what they saw.

First Published: Aug 29, 2018 09:09 IST