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'My beloved Venice is struggling to survive - and I am angry'

Roslyn Dee


Roslyn Dee first fell in love with the city 24 years ago. It's all the more special since she scattered her now deceased husband's ashes there. Now, just like the locals, she is beyond mad Venice is being destroyed by floods - and tourists

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People walk in a flooded street in Venice, during "acqua alta", or high water, of over five feet, on November 17, 2019. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

People walk in a flooded street in Venice, during "acqua alta", or high water, of over five feet, on November 17, 2019. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

People walk in a flooded street in Venice, during "acqua alta", or high water, of over five feet, on November 17, 2019. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

I should be there this week - walking in the early mornings through the districts of Santa Croce and San Polo, strolling through the awakening city where, with the extraordinary winter light reflecting off the canals and bathing Venice with a distinctive golden radiance, it's a sight that never fails to take my breath away.

From San Polo, I always walk on, past the Frari church, before eventually crossing the second largest square in the city after St Mark's. Here, on Campo San Polo, they always erect an ice-rink at this time of the year. Indeed, I have sat here with my late husband many times in early December when we often found ourselves in the city to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

The last time Gerry and I sat together here in the sunshine watching the local children whizzing expertly around the ice was actually on St Stephen's Day in 2014 - our last ever Venice visit together. Little did I know then that the following December I would return, alright, with valued family and friends - but this time to scatter Gerry's ashes on a cold, wedding-anniversary morning.

Back on my regular walk, meanwhile, I head on from San Polo, past the shop where Lucia - whose daughter works in Dublin - crafts her beautiful ceramic pieces, and from there it's on to the bridge that most defines this magical place, the famous Rialto. Up and over I go and then, cutting my way up through the Cannaregio district where the vegetable stall holders are setting up shop for the day, finally I reach the Cannaregio Canal. It's here that I duck off to my right and head into the small café where - 'Buon Giorno!' - I'm greeted by the elderly Federico and a caffè macchiato is immediately plonked in front of me on the bar.

Thanks to the floods I'm not there this week, however, not walking this city that I know like the back of my hand, this place like no other that I fell in love with 24 years ago and have been visiting three or four times annually ever since.

"It's a disaster!" my friend Andrea told me on the phone on Sunday. "An absolute disaster - and none of the bars and restaurants are open."

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Ros and Gerry on one of their happy visits to the city

Ros and Gerry on one of their happy visits to the city

Booked to travel to Venice yesterday, I dithered all day Sunday, undecided about what to do. Finally, on the advice of Andrea and two other Venetian friends, I decided not to travel.

"It will make you too sad," Giulia, another friend, told me.

Sad? Sad is only the half of it. Anger is the other bit.

St Mark's stunning basilica flooded; the city's famous Didovich patisserie pumping out water all weekend; La Fenice, the beautiful opera house, and the place where Maria Callas made her debut in 1947, also damaged. And on and on and on…

I first visited Venice with Gerry at Christmas in 1995, and for the next two decades we returned time and again to this fairytale city, often staying for a month, and making real connections with both the people and the place.

We hosted a party in Venice to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Friends flew in from far and wide and Alberto, owner of the little restaurant across the canal from our regular-visit apartment, lent us wine glasses and crockery for the occasion.

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Changing: People walk in a flooded street during a period of seasonal high water in Venice last Sunday. Photo: Manuel Silvestri/Reuters

Changing: People walk in a flooded street during a period of seasonal high water in Venice last Sunday. Photo: Manuel Silvestri/Reuters

REUTERS

We got to know the guys who ran the jazz club near Campo Santa Barnaba (getting a discount because we went so often!), we worked out how to enjoy the legendary Florian's café on St Mark's Square without paying a fortune for a coffee or a glass of Prosecco, and we became the proud owners of 'local' passes for the vaporetti waterbuses, costing us just over €1 per journey instead of the exorbitant tourist rate of €7 a go.

On a prolonged stay in 2010 we even got to know the local hospital because, when the snows came that March, my photographer husband suffered a fall on a bridge while out and about in an early morning blizzard. While saving his precious Canon, he managed to break a couple of ribs and bruise his lung so badly that he had to be hospitalised for three days.

So yes, I know Venice like the back of my hand. And I love it like nowhere else on earth. So I'm angry that it has come to this.

I'm not the only one, of course, for there is great anger in the city right now and it's an anger that has been brewing for some time, and over a number of issues.

Whether it's the local craftspeople being squeezed out by the influx of cheap Asian tourist tat, or the fact that the city authorities keep changing their minds on their cruise ships policy (ban them completely, I say), or allowing 20 million tourists a year to tramp all over this tiny city, it's a fact of Venetian life that the authorities constantly let the inhabitants down.

The MOSE project, first mooted after the 1966 floods as the definitive answer to the high-tide problem, and finally begun in 2003, is still not complete. With constant hold-ups, and with arguments and allegations of corruption getting in the way of what is actually the issue here - protecting this fragile city from the tidal elements that sweep across the lagoon and into the city itself - the MOSE will essentially provide three lots of breakwater gates that can be raised to literally hold back the tide. They are actually built. It's a system that is almost ready to go. But still not operational. And now it's too late.

In all my years of visiting Venice, only in the last two have I seen anti-tourist graffiti. And the locals' hatred of the cruise ships is particularly ferocious, with 'No Grandi Navi' (no big ships) now a common scrawl on walls all over Venice.

Last summer, sitting with my friend Andrea in the blazing sunshine outside Nico's café beside the Giudecca Canal, the sunlight suddenly vanished and we were left in shadow. I looked up. Right in front of me was one of the largest cruise ships I had ever seen and it had, literally, blocked out the sun.

Andrea was fit to be tied, his normally excellent English deserting him as he lapsed back into Italian. The cheek of them - coming here, sleeping on the ship, eating on the ship, contributing nothing to the city, and sailing off again the next day, having 'ticked' Venice off their list.

He's right, of course. But, with port fees a commercial reality for the authorities, Andrea - and all the 50,000 inhabitants who are lucky enough to call Venice their home - have been whistling in the wind.

Until now. For now, with Venice rocked to its foundations and with both home and business owners all struggling to cope and to survive, surely it's time to take control before it really is too late. And to save this beautiful city for the generations still to come.

On that December morning back in 2015, I scattered Gerry's ashes in a side canal close to the Accademia bridge. It's always my immediate port of call within my first hour of being back in the city. It grounds me just to stand there. And it brings me a peculiar kind of comfort.

I thought I'd be standing there yesterday afternoon, letting all the joyous memories of our years together sweep back over me.

But I'm not there. I'm here. And that's something that makes me, yes, extremely sad, but also very, very angry.

Irish Independent