Surrounded by a bunch of noisy gondoliers on their lunch break in one of Venice’s most beloved eateries, Trattoria alla Rivetta, we are served plates of steaming spaghetti topped with succulent clams, followed by tasty chunks of baccala codfish on a bed of creamy polenta.
The gondoliers need a hearty meal as rowing Venetian-style demands a lot of physical energy. But no-one is rushing back to work, as the economic reality means most gondoliers post pandemic are still only operating one day on and three days off. So the conversation quickly turns to everyone’s favourite topic: What is the future of Venice?
The mood seems upbeat, with one grizzled Venetian insisting: "With travel returning to normal, if there is one place in the world people visit first, then it has to be Venice."
That is exactly what I have come back to my adoptive home to discover, because if TV and press coverage of so-called “empty Venice” are to be believed, the clocks have been turned back to the peaceful days before La Serenissima was overwhelmed by a daily tidal wave of mass tourism. But is that the reality that visitors in 2022 will discover?
Few cities in the world are more dependent on tourism than Venice, which leads to the Catch-22 question: Is there the will to really transform the city into a sustainable, less overcrowded destination, or does it need the tourism dollar at any cost to survive?
The outlook for the immediate future is undoubtedly positive. The Biennale of Art has returned with fanfare after an unprecedented three-year absence, officially opening its doors a month earlier than usual on April 23 and running until the end of November, while Anish Kapoor has chosen the city to house his prestigious new arts foundation.
Opera is back at the Fenice, and music lovers will soon be able to enjoy Il Trovatore and Madame Butterfly just as before, with social distancing and compulsory masks a distant memory. Hollywood stars will turn up in hordes for the 79th edition of the Mostra Film Festival in September, the controversial Mose barrier is miraculously curtailing the regular Acqua Alta floods, and even cruise ships have finally been banished from sailing past Piazza San Marco.
For inquisitive foodies, Michelin-starred restaurants are suddenly popping up all over the city. Airlines filled with holidaymakers are jamming the skies again, with a host of new low-cost flights to Venice, and there has been a flurry of activity on the five-star hotel scene. Apart from several new openings in fabulously renovated palaces, like Venice Venice, the exclusive Cipriani is set to have a new lease of life after being snapped up by French luxury multinational, LMVH, while significant investment will be made to renovate the venerable Danieli, which should finally announce the arrival of Four Seasons in Venice.
Marco Novella recently moved from London’s Lanesborough Hotel as the Cipriani’s new director, and is already optimistic. “Since people around the world began to travel again, and especially now when restrictions are finally being relaxed everywhere, Venice has been in a very fortunate position. It has always been near the top of any traveller’s bucket list, and as this is the moment when everyone wants to grab the chance to live out the dream of their life, well, where better than Venice?
“The city remains one of the world’s most inspirational destinations, perfect for this moment when people are trying to live life to the fullest again, but also trying to enjoy everything more slowly. So what we are seeing in our bookings is that guests are coming here for longer stays. And that is reflected across the whole city, with less day trippers, less of the hopping in and out mentality. So in terms of occupancy we had a great 2021 and everything is looking good for 2022. If basic occupancy may not be as high as pre-Covid, stays are longer and that is exactly what we are looking for.
“I managed the Gritti Palace here from 2003 to 2008, and I find that Venice has become much more eclectic; the creative food scene has been transformed, we have a new chef who worked at Noma, international artists are basing themselves here, and fashion has arrived in a big way since the city hosted Italy’s first three post-Covid defiles by Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent.”
Outside of the flourishing luxury hotel sector, daily life in Venice is still complex. Jane da Mosto, environmental activist and member of the vocal NGO, We Are Here Venice, insists that “the city needs to provide more homes for residents who in turn can be fed new job opportunities outside of the tourism monoculture that has dominated the city for so long".
"To ‘Save Venice’ you have to save the residents above all. And tourists will stay longer if we make them aware of a more diversified experience; taking lessons in traditional Venetian rowing, or going to see of a football match at Sant’Elena, a unique water bound stadium where the local team play the giants of Serie A.”
Regular visitors returning here in 2022 may well be disappointed to discover their favourite trattoria, family pensione or Murano glass boutique have closed their doors definitively, unable to survive two years of lockdowns. Gigi Vianello threw in the towel last year, closing his mythical osteria, Il Mascaron, after 42 years. “The building’s owners, like many in Venice, insisted on upping the rent by over 30 per cent while we were still closed for Covid,” he tells me. “Ten years ago I could have sold the Mascaron for half a million euros, instead I left without a penny.”
At 69, Vianello is refusing to give up, though, and has opened a new address, La Mascareta. “I am a proud Venetian, and proud to keep something authentic here. Here, we serve genuine Venetian cuisine and seafood freshly caught from the lagoon. People still come to Venice for this, rather than frozen pizzas. From the first day, locals flooded back to the Mascareta, and with tourists from around the world returning to Venice we are seeing all our loyal customers again.”
I chose to test the water in Venice by returning during the traditional carnival, when tens of thousands of tourists usually stream into the city each day dressed in ornate masks and flowing robes. What I discovered was a Serenissima that has become a split-personality, a tale of two cities.
During the week, tourists are few and far between. No more interminable queues for the Basilica San Marco or Doges Palace, vaporetti water buses half empty, restaurant reservations no longer necessary, and the Rialto market filled with locals doing their shopping rather than foodie tour groups. Come the weekend it is another world, with 130,000 visitors arriving on the Saturday of Carnival alone, forming a mass of humanity all the way from the train station to Piazza San Marco, then carrying on partying until the early hours of Sunday morning at the scores of bars that line Fondamenta Ormesini, Campo Santa Margherita and Rialto’s historic Campo Bella Vienna.
Definitely not idyllic Venice, although, come Monday morning, calm and serenity returns. So my recommendation would be to plan your Venice holiday with care. To begin with, forget a short stay and book for a week. Enjoy the waterways and palaces of the unique historic centre during quiet weekdays, then at the weekend, leave the crowds behind by exploring the islands of the lagoon and the beaches of the Lido and Adriatic littoral, or hop on a half-hour train ride to discover neighbouring Padova with its fabulous Giotto frescoes or chic Treviso, home of the Benetton fashion empire.
At the end of the day, come back to Venice where the sunset over the palaces lining the Grand Canal remains as romantic as ever. Local architect Michele Benzoni, a consultant for the Venice Hotel Association, sums it up perfectly. “When I was based in cities like Berlin, I realised how much I love living in my own city, that I had to come back to live and work here. And the challenge for us Venetians is clear; to combine sustainability with our unique history and civilisation, so that my home is not a museum city or a giant amusement park, but travellers are discovering a vibrant, living city."