In a city like Venice, small but also one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations, one would be forgiven for thinking that there are no quiet corners. However, beyond the crowds of the San Marco lies another side to Venice, one frequented by that rare breed, Venetians themselves, as well as the odd adventurous tourist naturally.
Beyond the waterfront, the side canals of the Dorsoduro provide a welcome relief from the tourist hordes. Locals tend to their boats and frequent intimate wine bars in a way that is almost surprising to see in such a living museum as Venice. As one meanders the back canals from the Accademia eastwards, the towering yet intricate Santa Maria della Salute provides an imposing site. Perhaps internally not as luxuriously furnished as some of Venice’s more well known churches, its position near the edge of the Dorsoduro, seemingly perched above anything else, gives it a sense of scale and magnitude that is truly impressive. From its entrance, one is treated to an awe inspiring panorama, taking in the Grand Canal and the iconic sites of St Mark’s Square. Built as a symbol of gratitude to the end of the plague which had a particularly devastating impact on the city, it represents one of Venice’s iconic views from both the land and the water and is well worth a visit.
Once at Santa Maria della Salute, it is a short walk to the furthest point of the Dorsoduro via a narrow canalside walkway. The confluence of the Grand and Giudecca canals represents an absorbing sight. It also enables a detour to Venice’s exciting contemporary art installation at Punta della Dogana, housed in the city’s old Customs House. Courtesy of French billionaire Francois Pinault’s donation to the city, the collection represents more than just another art gallery, but also shows how the city is diversifying and adapting which is encouraging to see in such a historically preserved urban centre as Venice.
The Jewish quarter and its environs in the northern reaches of Venice, is another of these spaces, characterised by narrow canals with an eclectic mix of local bars, restaurants and unassuming residences. Venetians congregate to catch up and socialise on these canalside walkways, and bridges, as one would on an ordinary street corner in any other city. The Jewish quarter, that has given us the term “Ghetto” is a fascinating if not somewhat unassuming part of Venice. It is a testament to Venice’s cosmopolitan history even if the Jewish population of Venice today numbers no more than a few hundred. Whilst it is true that Venice’s population of just over 60,000 has been dwindling for years, with even the most proud of Venetians priced out to mainland Mestre, an exploration beyond the main thoroughfares reveals a city undergoing a slow renaissance with scaffolding and renovation works as many people are moving back into the city, benefitting from government grants and fiscal incentives, encouraging people to return to this historically great city. Indeed, far from fossilising, the city is revealing a surprising dynamism which bodes well for the future.
Untapped and interesting spaces such as the Arsenale, the former Naval Dockyard, provides modern Venetians the opportunity to stamp their own mark on the city. This area, more akin to London’s Docklands, is home to Venice’s famous Biennale, the annual celebration of art and architecture. Its assortment of warehouses and historic fortifications has so much untapped potential that this could become Venice’s most exciting urban quarter, away from the historically preserved San Marco. It represents one of the few places in the city that can change and develop. The reuse of old traditional spaces such as the Punta della Dogana and the Arsenale represents Venice’s future, creating new spaces and neighbourhoods. Who says that a city such as Venice cannot excite with the new as much as with the old and well preserved?
It is this process of change and adaptation that is also driving Venice’s response to a future of rising sea levels and climate change risk and uncertainty. The city is at the mercy, and increasingly so, of the infamous acqua alta or “high water”. The flooding of St Marks Square has seemingly become a regular event. A boat ride to the edges of Venice reveals large floating platforms, indicative of the flood defence system currently under construction. Venice, far from being a museum piece therefore, is faced with contemporary challenges and is facing these through both dynamism and adaptation which is encouraging to see but also essential for its future.
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