By Marcel Krueger
‘In short, a time for self-oblivion, induced by a city that has ceased to be seen. Unwittingly, you take your cue from it, especially if, like it, you’ve got no company. Having failed to be born here, you at least can take some pride in sharing its invisibility.’
Joseph Brodsky, Watermarks
My room is haunted by mosquitoes. Former inhabitants have smeared them across the white walls in red blotches, and each night it seems more are sneaking in, feasting on me while I sleep. But then in the morning as the church bells wake me up, and sometimes word scraps from the tours on the Giudecca canal waft in when I open the window, the fresh bites are forgotten as I look over the terracotta roofs of the island city.
In a place erected on wooden poles over water, one that has been described as 'imaginary', the island of Giudecca feels somewhat more real than the remainder of Venice. The 58-hectare island is divided from the rest of the city to the north by the 400-metre wide Giudecca canal. Venice’s largest water way is one of its main traffic arteries, constantly populated by a ballet of yachts and cruise ships, and barges carrying lorries and excavatorwhich all seem to bypass the island, with only the vaporetto water buses idling from time to time at one of four stops.
The prevailing colour of the houses here is bleached-out red and yellow, with a few white churches sprinkled in, like the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, a large domed 16th-century building designed by Andrea Palladio. Known under its shortened name, Il Redentore, the church looks across the canal to Venice, sitting on what is Guidecca's spine: one long promenade running along the north side and a series of landings, or fondamenta, running west to east. From the promenade, Giudecca’s arteries reach south to the small lanes and streets where most of the island’s 6,500 inhabitants live, looking out not to Venice but toward the beaches of the Lido and the smaller islands of La Grazia and San Clemente.
On a warm September morning I almost step on one of heaps of rubbish bags lying all along the small lane where my apartment is situated. For a moment I wonder why the normally tidy Venetians would litter so much, but then I see a man in a boiler suit pulling a two-wheeled trolley down the lane from the quay, collecting the plastic bags with a picker. In a city where the streets are only a metre wide and with no cars, the garbage collectors have to walk.
The streets, canals and small squares of Giudecca seem almost deserted. A few grannies are doing their household chores behind open windows, and I see a fancy lady walking an even fancier dog, but otherwise the island feels deserted, everyone else having left for work. Tourism is a big employer in Venice. Yet my feeling of detachment in Giudecca comes mostly from the visible absence of mass tourism. The neighbourhood is literally miles away from the hordes regurgitated by cruise ships, at train station and from buses, trudging along the 'visitor highway' through the Cannaregio area on their way over the Rialto Bridge towards St. Mark’s Square, selfie-sticking the hell out of their memory cards. In the evening, after being a part of the stampede myself, I take a vaporetto back to Giudecca from St. Mark's Square. For a moment, the Canale Grande and the square are lightened up by the setting sun, and the tourists onboard hasten to the starboard side to get some good snaps of the sun reflecting in the orange glasses of spritz on the tables by the cafes.
Though Giudecca was originally a place of large palaces and gardens, a weekend getaway for the nobles of La Serenissima, during the 19th and early-20th century the island became populated with shipyards and factories. Remainders can be seen to this day: the main gondola workshop of the city is still located here, and at the western tip of the island sits the neo-gothic hulk of the red-brick Molino Stucky, a former flour mill converted into a luxury hotel. Even though most of the industry went into decline after World War II, Giudecca has retained a down-to-earth, working class atmosphere.
Come evening, the inhabitants line the few bars and restaurants along the seafront or walk their dogs, ciao-ing each other. I sit in front of the Bar Palanca with a spritz of my own, listening to the chatter and watching the water ballet on the canal. It is slowly getting dark and the clouds are rolling in from the Alps, when suddenly a large white cruise liner the size of an office block passes through the channel. It feels like the ship is dragging the sun out to sea with it. Everyone sitting on the quay gets their feet wet as the waves slosh in, under the force of the massive boat.
Here is a sign of what is wrong with tourism. Venice suffers like many other coastal European cities that have long ceased to house working harbours. Instead they offer history and culture as their main commodities, attracting locust-like hordes on boats, buses and trains. Out of 30 million annual visitors to Venice, only 3 million stay overnight.
‘The twin ships MSC Fantasia and Voyager of the Seas have come to Venice – 311 metres long, 63 metres high, 15 decks, each with an ice skating rink and a casino on board. Also the Carnival Magic, 306 metres long, 3600 passengers. And the Costa Favolosa, 294 metres long and 61 metres high, 114,500 gross tonnes, 52 suites, 1000 rooms, 3800 passengers – it offers its guests the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles, the Imperial Palace of Peking and the Circus Maximus of Rome.’
The quote is from Reversing Course, journalist Silvio Testa’s book about the negative effects of cruise ships and mass tourism on Venice. It feels as if the city is just another commodity for the passengers to consume, the only difference being that it is not installed onboard.
There is one night, however, when the cruise ships are forbidden to pass the channel and Giudecca is connected to the city once more: the Festa del Redentore on the third Sunday of July. In 1577, after a terrible plague, the Doge promised to build a magnificent church in thanks to the Lord; it became Il Redentore. When the foundation stone was laid, a pontoon bridge from the Zattere district opposite was installed, so that the Doge could walk over to Giudecca without getting his feet wet. The day of the first procession was installed as a public festival and hence the Doge made a pilgrimage to Guidecca each year. Nowadays the festival starts on Saturday evening with the opening of the pontoon bridge and a large fireworks display fired from ships in St. Mark's Basin. Sunday sees a regatta in the Guidecca channel and the bishop of Venice crossing the water to hold mass at Il Redentore.
Giudeca, for the moment, remains detached from other Venice neighbourhoods and their tourist swarms. But change may be coming. There are plans to dig another canal door behind the island for cruise ships, the idea being to divert traffic to a new port outside the lagoon under demand from citizens’ organisations as an alternative to an outright ban.
I know that I, as a tourist, am part of the problem; but then Giudecca is still a good place to hide and pretend I have no part in the ships and their masses.
Marcel Krueger is a writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin who often writes about places and their history. His essays and articles have been published in the Daily Telegraph, CNN Travel, the Matador Network, Slow Travel Berlin and many more, and he also works as Book Editor for Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. More info about Marcel can be found at www.kingofpain.org.