Serene Venice

Author of a new book on Venice, Neal E Robbins reveals his favourite spots in the city and how tourists can help not harm


Over the past few months, the usual crush of tourists and boat traffic has vanished from Venice, leaving the canals of the world heritage city to its residents, and fostering a return of long-unseen fish, cormorants and swans.

After this unexpected tranquillity, many Venetians are being inspired to rethink the future of their fragile city following Covid-19, swapping the previous overtourism for a new post-pandemic style.

With at least a year before the city is expected to get back to previous visitor levels, now is a good time to explore if you can and discover the eternal beauty of La Serenissima — the most serene — with its palazzos rising out of the tidal lagoon.

I’ve seen how this city, a magnet for tourists for centuries, has changed over the decades, since first living there as a 17-year-old exchange student in 1971, and most recently returning after a career as a foreign correspondent to interview more than 150 Venetians for my book, Venice, an Odyssey.

Delving into the city’s past, present and future, exploring how this unique place is caught up in long-term trends of globalisation, climate change and ideological and political battles, I found Venice as beautiful and mystifying as ever, but troubled.

Decades of depopulation, exacerbated lately by the pressures of overtourism, have reduced residents to 52,000, a third of the number after the Second World War. The huge rise in Airbnb accommodation in recent years has drastically cut the availability of residential housing.

But the Venetians are organising, looking ahead and working for change. One of the most hopeful developments is a new platform called Fairbnb, where you can rent in the knowledge that you are helping the residents to stay put and supporting the community.

The other main threat is environmental, brought into sharp focus when acqua alta flooding peaks, or as we see images of giant cruise ships contrasted against the medieval-scale city.

Venice exists only thanks to the surrounding 212-square-mile lagoon, which is critically threatened, eroded by water taxis and ferries and especially cruise ships, whose wakes also damage the delicate ancient buildings.

Tourists can play their part by walking more, if able, and by slowing down. When you arrive, take a moment to depressurise.

Watch the water go by. Wander the labyrinthine streets, looking for serendipities, skipping the hawkers of plastic souvenirs to seek out the rich choice of artisanal workshops and galleries found in the far-flung niches, to support the traditional local economy.

Getting around Venice is part of the experience, and I do recommend a classic gondola ride. But you have other options, such as a sandola, a smaller version of a gondola, that circulates through the quieter canals away from the main tourist streets.

Sportier visitors can row themselves through the less-visited canals on a Venetian-style boat — or at least give it a go — by booking a trip with outfits like Venice on Board or Row Venice. After a string of lessons, I got to the point that I could row solo, almost like a gondolier.

The city’s best-known highlights remain unmissable. Take in the power and prestige of the Venetian empire in St Mark’s Square, feel the political buzz of the seat of government at the Doge’s Palace, and marvel at the awe-inspiring St Mark’s Basilica.

At the far end of the square, all Venice’s greatest treasures (apart from paintings) are displayed in the brilliant Museo Correr. And for vast historical dramas depicted in wall-sized oil paintings — such as Titian’s epic Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple or Giorgione’s enigmatic The Tempest — head to the Accademia dell’Arte near the Accademia Bridge.

From there take the short walk over to the Giudecca Canal side, to Le Zattere, the broad waterside walkway that’s the traditional place for the Venetian passeggiata.

With lots of bars and restaurants, this is the perfect spot for a pizza and prosecco in the sun. Afterwards, catch the two-minute ferry ride across the Giudecca Canal to the island of San Giorgio, where the view from the bell tower is spectacular; you see the whole city from best vantage point.

But to really appreciate the magnificence of Venice, seek out the magical sites beyond the beaten path.

My favourites include the 16th century Scuola Grande di San Rocco, one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Renaissance.

This great hall, that once served as a social self-help society, has 33 ornate ceiling frescoes by Tintoretto and along the walls, allegorical figures of Virtue and Vice sculpted in walnut. If the past feels overwhelming, glimpse the avant-garde in seasonal exhibitions, especially the Biennale of art, and of architecture and theatre, which run on alternate years.

Stop off in some of Venice’s countless out-of-the-way churches, like the outwardly plain 17th century San Pantalon, with its colossal exuberant paintings on the ceiling. Or visit the little gem that is the 15th century “marble church”, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, one of the best loved for its sheer beauty.

Beyond the churches, I love to trace Venice’s Jewish heritage, dating back as far as the 13th century when Jews first found refuge and work in Venice, often escaping oppression. They were doctors, classical scholars, moneylenders and merchants to the growing empire.

The 16th century Ghetto is famously where the word “ghetto” originated and it’s well worth doing the tour from the Jewish Museum, or Museo Ebraico, which includes three of the historic synagogues.

This tiny area closed off the city’s Jews with heavy wooden doors and guards until Napoleon conquered Venice and decreed the end of Jewish segregation, although very few of the city’s Jewish community, which numbers around 450, live there today.

You can expect to see the presence of Chabad though: a few Chabad couples came to Venice in the 1990s, opening one of the two Jewish restaurants and a school and synagogue on the Ghetto square where foreign Chabad students often congregate — living apart from the traditional Venetian Jewish community.

One of the most striking aspects of Venice’s Jewish past are seen all over the city: Stolpersteine (or pietre d’inciampo in Italian), small brass name plaques set in the pavement near the doors of the residences from which some 200 Jews were taken away in 1943 and 1944 by the Nazis and Italian Fascists. A memorial to victims of the Holocaust also stands in the Ghetto.

Venice’s Jewish heritage expands beyond the city to the lagoon, where some locals hid Jews from the Nazis during the war, and especially to the Jewish cemeteries on the island of Lido.

The one on the Riviera San Nicolò, established in 1386, represented a gesture of acceptance and tolerance of Jews at the time — contact the Jewish Museum to book visits. Among the gravestones is that of Sara Copio Sullam, a 17th century woman of letters, a sort of Yentl of her day and leading figure in a literary salon.

Continue beyond Lido to get a feel for the lagoon. A ferry ride takes you to one of the 60 far-flung islands, including Murano and its glass-blowing workshops or Torcello, for the stunning mosaics of the Universal Judgement at the church of Santa Maria Assunta.

Sustainable tourism companies such as Slow Venice also arrange custom boat tours of the lagoon.

Some thousand years after Venice’s first beginnings, many inhabitants are hoping the enforced break during the pandemic will lead to a new model of development and a different future for their beloved city. And with the choices that tourists make, every visitor can be part of that effort.


Neal E Robbins is the author of Venice, an Odyssey, published by Local Secrets Publications


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