Travel Essay: Venice – half fairy tale, half tourist trap

Venice, the city once declared by The New York Times as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man”, sits somewhat precariously on top of exactly 117 small islands in the northern Mediterranean sea, connected only through numerous canals and bridges, quite many bridges indeed.                

One may argue about Venice being the most beautiful city ever built, but one certainly cannot dispute that Venice is unlike any other city built by man: Upon arriving at the outskirts of Venice by car or by train, the only means of transportation are on water or by foot. Water busses, water taxis, even water ambulances can be seen cruising up and down busy canals. Everywhere else people are walking – no bikes, no joggers, no vespas, just walkers, rubbing shoulders along narrow alleys and over wide and tiny bridges, quite many bridges indeed.

If you wake up early in the morning, you may even encounter another one-of-a-kind Venetian event: the sturdy men and women of the Venice trash collector crew, rushing through bespoke alleys to collect the daily trash in pushcarts, wheeling it to the nearest canal to discard the bags on a near-by trash collecting motor boat. Who knew that Italians were so organized? Venetians may argue that they are not like other Italians, thought, that in fact at one point they were their own entity all-together.

Historically, Venice has been founded as an enclave of refugees fleeing the mainland to hide out in the lagoons during waves of Germanic and Hun invasions.  The early intellectual Cassiodor described the settlement in a letter at the beginning of the 6th century: the people inhabiting the lagoons “seem to be at home on land and on water equally”. Their huts resembled “the nests of sea birds, in front of which their boats were docked like a herd of horses.” The remote location and accessibility only by boat led to an increase in autonomy over the years and positioned the city as ideal trading center for goods from East and West during the Middle Ages.

Initially, Venetians were ancient Veneti (Paleoveneti), who also spoke their own language – Venetic. The root of the word means “to strive, to wish for, to love.” It comes to no surprise then that to this day Venice is the city of dreams and romance, of Marco Polo the adventurer and Casanova the womanizer. Thomas Mann, in town to write the acclaimed novella “Death in Venice” sums up the character of this city poignantly : “This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty – this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.”


As one of the most visited cities in the world today, with roughly 60,000 sightseers daily, it seems difficult to imagine that one could still find the charm and spirit of Venice that once inspired Richard Wagner or Antonio Vivaldi. I found that it is indeed possible, though one may just have to get up with the trash-collecting crowd:

Along with the early-morning pushcars, a quiet group of well-dressed Venetians head out of their apartments and over to the nearby corner bakery for their morning cappuccino, cornetto and a little small talk. Even the Piazza San Marco looks peaceful and stunning in the morning light, with pigeons calmly walking on the grey and white stonework.  The Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) borders “la Piazza” on one side and looks out over the numerous gondolas docked to their striped wooden poles. Gondolieri are beginning to assemble nearby, carrying their straw hats and enjoying a friendly chat before tourist boats arrive to unload the daily crowds.

An easy stroll over the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge), with its volume of touristy shops still closed, one ventures away from future crowds into the more authentic parts of the city. A lively spot, even at that time of day, is the fish market, the Mercato del Pesce. Besides the freshest catch, one can enjoy an abundance of fruit and vegetables. In a near-by alley, elderly men are enjoying a game of chess or cards with their morning espressi. Younger patrons may be sipping their first Spritz of the day, a tasty mix of Aperol and Prosseco, decorated with a slice of orange and topped with an olive. Apparently there is no wrong time for the signature drink – it is truly enjoyed everywhere and always.    

Frequently overlooked is the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, the Ghetto Vecchio and the Ghetto Nuovo, the sections Jewish inhabitants had been confined to in the past. While the Jewish community in Venice is not large anymore, it is still quite active. From here, a walk over to the Fondamente Nove, a quiet stretch along the north-eastern tip of town, for an authentic Italian meal, some grilled fish, or maybe just a Spritz and time for a book. Overlooking the island San Michele, one may understand what Thomas Mann meant when he wrote in “Death in Venice”: “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry.” This is what Venice truly is, a former refugee hideout, a one of a kind original – even today, if one avoids the crowds and gets up with the pushcarts.