I’ll begin with a startling fact: Venice, Italy has no automobiles, trucks or streets. It has water-filled canals.
Okay. You knew that. I realize you expect more of me.
Nearly everything that ends up in an apartment, shop, construction site, hospital, theater, church, school or cemetery (yes) in Venice gets transported by water. Some goods arrive by train, and some by car or truck, but they only reach the train station or warehouses and loading areas near the road connection to the mainland. From there, with few exceptions that are wheeled by hand-pushed carts, everything is loaded onto boats for distribution.
To serve, supply and maintain a city with 60,000 permanent residents and about 20 million visitors a year requires a lot of boats. There is so much to see in Venice, it’s possible to miss the mundane aspects of living there. Moving material through Venice isn’t at all mundane, and an almost limitless variety of interesting watercraft are in use.
Life on the water has been integral to Venice since its founding. I have no facts on what percentage of Venice’s residents have boats of their own, but you see them moored in every small canal.
When you go, you’ll be be busy seeing the architecture, eating the food, shopping, walking (lots of walking!), looking at churches, museums, paintings (so many paintings!), sculpture, fellow tourists, stupid pigeons in Piazza San Marco and then eating again. Amidst it all, don’t fail to simply stop for a moment and notice the water traffic.
There are boats full of canned goods, fruit and vegetables, bricks and building material, kegs of beer, cases of wine (so much vino!) and everything else under the Adriatic sun. Near the stern of this boat (to the left), you’ll see a cart common in Venice used to wheel things from the boat to their destinations.
The photos in this article were taken within just a few hours of one another on one day, mostly along the Grand Canal, and primarily snapped on the spur of the moment in pauses between walking, eating, gawking, studying the route (a lot of map-reading required!) and talking with The Counselor. Skilled people pilot them, and hard-working people load and unload them, then haul the goods to their final destination by hand, often over cobblestones. Moving freight in Venice is a ceaseless, labor-intensive enterprise.
Oh yes, one other thing moves around Venice on the water: people. The workhorse of Venetian commuting is the vaporetto. Numerous vaporetto routes that connect the points of the city as well as the outlying islands. Make certain you ride one. It’s as simple as boarding a bus elsewhere. Small launches abound, and there are striking, powerful motorboats, too.
Fixed in everyone’s imagination, though, is that iconic symbol, the gondola, the universally recognized embodiment of Venetian transport.
You can hire your own private gondola and gondolier (so far as I know, there are no pilot-it-yourself gondolas, perish the thought!), but I must caution you: It is not bargain transportation; it’s a form of entertainment. Make certain that you determine in advance how much you’re going to be charged and how long your ride will be. Your gondolier will probably sing to you. You’re welcome to ask them not to, but I’m not going to suggest how you’d request that in Italian. I can’t imagine doing it. Besides, you’re paying. Might as well get your money’s worth.
Instead, admire the skill of the gondolier, especially the agility required to pass under some of the bridges.
There is a less expensive way to ride in a gondola. Venetians, themselves, do it. At numerous points in the city, there are established routes for ferrying passengers across canals. This service is called a traghetto. There are seven points along the Grand Canal between the train station and St. Mark’s basin served by traghetti. Costs a couple of Euros now, I understand.
(You don’t always get to stand. Especially if you’re crossing a big expanse of water that may be choppy, like the traghetto from near St. Mark’s to the Fondamenta San Giovanni.)
Many of the streets that access these points include the word traghetto in the street name. They’re easy to find. Seek one out. For a few minutes, you’ll BE Venetian.
Here’s an article with details about using a traghetto: CLICK HERE.
It’s not unique to Venice; whether you’re in Venice, Paris, Hong Kong or Atlanta, the ordinary details of how people live in those places can be just as interesting as the tourist sights. It all depends on your attitude, and your willingness to look around you.
Here’s my suggestion. If you wake up early in Venice, after you dash out to see Piazza San Marco or Rialto Bridge nearly free from throngs of tourists, stop. Just stop and look. Watch the water. It will already be busy. The boats and their crews will already be working, hauling in the day’s goods and, yes, hauling out the trash.
Have you had an interesting waterborne experience in Venice? I welcome your comments.
© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017
For more about boats in Venice, including gondola makers, READ HERE.