I’m one of those tourists who hates looking like a tourist. I’d rather get lost in New York than open my Google Maps app on Fifth Avenue. I can live with a mental image of the London Eye if it means I can avoid having an camera dangling off my neck. A maple-leaf patch on a backpack is anathema – and so are backpacks, those utilitarian conveyors of sandwiches and sunscreen. You can’t fit much in a tote bag, and it will give you back pain after a day of walking on cobbled Parisian streets, but it’s worth it if someone looks at me and assumes I’ve just popped out of my apartment in the Marais.
None of these strategies, however, felt particularly necessary for Venice: While I normally spend most of my energy trying to impress the locals, in Venice there just aren’t many locals to impress. Since the fall of the Most Serene Republic in 1797, this dazzlingly strange floating metropolis has been a magnet for tourists. Although sophisticated visitors such as Ruskin, Proust and Mann idealized Venice as an otherworldly site of ethereal delights, today, Venice is the world capital of “overtourism.” In the era of cruise ships and EasyJet, it seems as though there are as many tourists as Venetians. The problem of tourist hordes is so massive that the city is experimenting with with Draconian ways of discouraging them, including turnstiles at entrances to the city and, most recently, a €10 entry fee.
As fate would have it, my trip to Venice brought me to the only corner of the city that can be called non-touristy. Unable to find a reasonably priced hotel through my usual means, I turned to the roulette wheel that is the Hotwire “Hot Deal” function, where you learn the name and precise location of your accommodation only after completing a non-refundable payment. In my case, the ball landed on the Hotel Sant’Elena, the only official lodging on the easternmost of Venice’s main islands. Some quick Googling revealed little about Sant’Elena other than that it is primarily residential, adjacent to the main Biennale grounds and an irritatingly long walk from all the famed landmarks.
I arrived in Venice in the most shamelessly tourist-like way possible: snapping photos of St. Mark’s Square from the deck of a massive cruise ship. After disembarking, I found myself in the historical centre with a few hours to kill until check-in. I thought I’d see if I could get in to the Palazzo Ducale – the palatial former residence of the Doge of Venice – but, as expected, the lineup was endless. I tried unsuccessfully to get lost in the narrow alleys lined with souvenir shops selling Carnival masks. All I found was frustration: crumbling buildings, damp air, piercing light and dark shadow, all potentially charming but all impossible to appreciate while being pushed along in a conveyor belt of travellers.
Having had enough, I set out for Sant’Elena. Heading east on the half-hour walk, the sidewalks and bridges slowly transitioned from mobbed to merely packed. As the path narrowed around the Biennale, the crowds finally thinned. Crossing the Ponte dei Giardini into Sant’Elena’s Parco delle Rimembranze, the volume dropped. Birds were chirping in the stone pines. Beyond them, a vaporetto was docking. A group of teenagers kicked around a soccer ball while onlookers ate ice cream. Families stopped on the paths to chat. Dogs sniffed one another, their leashes dragging behind them. A tai chi group performed co-ordinated movements by the water. Groups of friends dressed in the orange, black and green of Venezia FC headed off to Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, where a soccer game was about to begin. There wasn’t a tourist in sight.
In the days that followed, I dutifully explored every corner of Venice. Once or twice, I won a momentary victory against the tourism industry’s Eye of Sauron, stumbling upon a quiet alleyway where I could contemplate some detail of Venetian oddness in peace – a door opening onto empty space, the sound of a violin emerging out of nowhere, an electric doorbell shaped like a human eye. The best parts of every day, though, were the early evenings among Venetians in Sant’Elena’s Parco delle Rimembranze. Sitting on a bench, reading a book, the pale pink sunset over the Basilica di San Marco a safe distance away, I watched the locals living their lives.
Pleasant as it was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be there – that I was an intruder in the Venetians’ last outpost. Much as I enjoyed witnessing their routines, it was clear that the locals of Sant’Elena resented my presence. Waiting in a long line at the supermarket, two older women pushed imperiously past everyone they regarded as outsiders, shoving our groceries aside and shooting us angry looks. On my last evening in the Rimembranze – the place that had become my refuge – I noticed some graffiti on the pink wall of the public toilet: No lancioni di turisti a Sant’Elena. The spraypainter had helpfully provided an English translation: Tourists are not welcome.
Until recently, the question of whether to visit Venice had a clear answer. As one of the strangest, most distinctive places on Earth – lagoons, canals, carnivals, masks, glass, opulence, doges – it was an obvious yes. Today, the question is not whether to visit Venice but if that’s even possible. For the first day or so, the overwhelming beauty of the place might be enough to hold your attention. After that, all you see is the toxic melodrama of overtourism: visitors desperately trying to see a city that depends on their presence but is being ruined by them.
Travel to Venice has become meta-tourism – not a portal into an ancient republic, but a place to reflect on what it means to visit a place and how your presence affects the lives of those who call it home. This makes it a fascinating – even an ethically affecting – experience. But it’s not everyone’s idea of an Italian holiday.
If you’re looking for peace and solitude in the main island group of Venice, there is no better option than the Hotel Sant’Elena. Built in a former convent on a quiet street just steps from the Parco delle Rimembranze, the four-star property has clean, modern rooms and a paradisal courtyard garden with comfortable lounge chairs. Whatever lingering disdain for tourists local Sant’Elenans may display, the staff here are absolute pros: When I needed to arrange a complicated trip to the airport on waterborne public transit in the middle of the night, they were knowledgeable, friendly, and patient. Rooms from €135 ($203); hotelsantelena.com
The streets running off the Parco delle Rimembranze make for excellent strolling and offer rare slices of local life (one night I heard a young man belting out Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from an open window). Another rare experience to be had in these streets: eating in reasonably priced, family-run restaurants mostly free of foreigners. Particularly recommended are Vecia Gina, for thin-crust pizza and views of the park, and Osterio da Pampo, located in a quiet square, for prawn taglioni and ravioli with walnut sauce.
If you’re looking to experience the Venetian everyday but don’t want to make the trek all the way to Sant’Elena, head to Via Guiseppe Garibaldi in Castello. I was never treated more like a local than in Le Spighe Venezia, where my membership in the international fraternity of vegetarians won me especially friendly service from the chatty owner, who prepared a delicious spread of vegan delicacies including a particularly flavourful “liver” and onions. The section of the Gardini della Biennale around the Monumento a Giuseppe Garibaldi makes for a quiet place to people-watch outside of Biennale season. Situated in the gardens themselves, the stunning and spacious Caffè La Serra, with its relaxed vibe and greenhouse architecture, is an ideal place for espresso and toast. The local Coop supermarket is a great place to buy your groceries – just try not to be offended when the grannies elbow you out of the way on their way to the checkout.
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