COVID-19 has stabbed Venice to her heart – a city that would be normally worth 3.2 billion U.S. dollars in annual tourism-related revenue. Like hundreds of European towns, she has suffered the mortal wound of the two-month lockdown restrictions that have kept millions of Italians and foreign tourists at home for nearly two months.
Venice is like the Grand Dame of International tourism. A must-see, the honeymoon dream destination, the town that no self-respecting traveler can leave out of their itinerary. If only for a few hours in her narrow streets negotiating a tiny slot of space to keep tortuously walking while gently elbowing off hordes of other tourists hungry for a souvenir glass giraffe. The grandiose St. Mark’s square is the unique special prize, if only enjoyed from the balcony of a gigantic cruise ship that slows down and allows the glimpse of hundreds of years of art and history captured in a quick snapshot. ‘We’ve done Venice’ would the lucky tourist say on returning home.”We’ve done Venice”…
None of that was there on the second week of June, Venice freshly liberated from the shackles of its forced isolation. Her streets empty, her canals silent, her bars, cafés, hotels, airbnbs and shops closed in the vast majority provided a unique moment in time to check her out.
Venice welcomed us crying out her pain. It was raining gently, a subtle insistent drizzle, the cold light on the buildings uninviting photographs. Almost no one around, the few people in the lanes or hanging out in the rare “open-for-business” empty cafés were speaking the local dialect. Grumpy gondoliers trying to look busy on their gondolas or chatting away their empty time. However, Venice in her sad mood was just gorgeous.
Covid-19 was casting its ominous shadow everywhere. Ninety percent of hotels was still closed, shutters locked, glass doors dusty. Tens of shops had given up, signs for ‘for rent’ or ‘for sale’ or ‘total clearance, everything one euro’ yellowing in their windows. The few cafés and restaurants showing the codes of safety: masks and social distancing mandatory. Here and there on walls respectful bulletins announcing the death of this old lady, that old gentleman, their smiling faces photographed at a time when they were happy, as happy as Venice’s coffers.
However, even if business was dead with the tragically infected, and Venice is no longer the gaudily dressed Grand Lady, the almost mystical atmosphere of the town enveloped us, the privileged visitors, and we felt the excitement of living this unique opportunity. An eerie silence accompanied our steps around town, and we almost felt like we should tiptoe, not walk. Out of respect, admiration, love for a town whose soul mass tourism has pillaged.
No business for the old beggar, a regular fixture of Venice streets. Undeterred by the lack of people she walks past pigeons and seagulls as if today is like any other day. The tourists will come and the plastic cup will be full.
Chairs and tables are out, in perfect formation, in St Mark’s Square. But it’s only for adding a touch of color, a scent of hope – the café is still closed and the few lucky visitors can enjoy the privilege of sitting at the tables and breathe in the magnificence of St Mark’s Square, free of charge.
A plague doctor costume and beak-like mask stand in guard of a piazza. No one hired it to revel in a Carnival that, ironically, wasn’t celebrated due to the pandemic disease. During the bubonic plague in the 17th century doctors used to stuff the beak with herbs aimed at avoiding contagion and keep off the smell of decomposing bodies.
Carnival masks peek out of their window in search of the coveted tourists and buyers, the lifeline of the business they are in. But the square is empty, the church locked, the air carries no sounds.
The immensity of the church, with its enormous columns and paintings, makes the lonely tourist feel even more small and insignificant. The silence is deep and thick. Lights are sparse and dimmed. Venice feels suspended in time, waiting for resurrection. It will happen, it’s in the paintings.
The vaporetto is the public transportation of Venice. No frills, efficient, fast, expensive. In and out, fast – in normal times. But Covid-19 times are not normal times. The scarce face-mask covered passengers practice conscious and careful self-distancing. The region of Veneto has been one of the hardest to be hit in the first stages of the pandemia. Fear dictates prudence and rigorous obedience to the new safety regulations.
Venice must have felt she should reward us for visiting during her hard times and on the last evening of our stay she gave us a gift. Unexpectedly and untimely, water started bubbling up and out from the drains in St. Mark’s Square. It was the Acqua Alta phenomenon, an exceptional tide that usually occurs in October, November but very rarely in June. Water slowly flooded the piazzas, the streets, the cafés, the shops. We were blessed by a mild occurrence, no more than 3-4 inches that caused very minor inconvenience to our shoes but gave us the most spectacular pictures.
Walking through the maze of labyrinthine alleyways of Venice at night is a magic experience, especially when the chattering of tourists noisily celebrating their vacation in the uniqueness of the town have been silenced by the Covid.
The vaporetto stop: a single passenger, a pigeon and three happy girls on a poster A pale sun peeks in the floating waiting room. Time feels suspended, no rush to see everything, to visit and follow the tourist guide. Nowhere to go, no destination and must-see attraction. Venice welcomes her first visitors with the magnificence of an old lady that doesn’t need to show it all in a three-hour rush-and-go. Venice lets herself be tasted like an old wine, in tiny thoughtful sips.
The wounded city cannot welcome visitors without bandages. Restrictions are detailed and enforced: a small price to pay to enjoy a town like no other, at a time like no other.