Venice is Disneyland.
It’s impossible not to think of the parallel. Entering the city even necessitates a departure from the rest of the world, as a single bridge represents its lone physical connection to the mainland. The bus journey over is long, plain, almost entirely empty. I see just one pedestrian over the course of its four kilometres, a worker probably; our companions on the road otherwise are cars and other buses. There’s a glimpse of water here and there of course, but most of the landscape is hidden by fog, at least for today. It’s eerie, like we’re in purgatory, or the in-between. The feeling is compounded by the eclectic mix of characters on our local bus. All of it builds anticipation.
The bus passes a massive parking lot. A few days later, on our way out, there’ll be no less than three cruise ships anchored alongside the other side of the lot. For now, it’s relatively empty, and the bus continues on to its final stop. We pour out. Some know exactly where they’re going: locals off to a normal day’s work, whatever normal means around here. The rest of us pause on the asphalt. There are streams of people coming from nowhere in particular: buses from the airport, shuttles from hotels, some with tours. I make sense of our surroundings. There are two bridges in sight, relatively adjacent to one another, separating us from Venice proper. The entrance to the theme park.
The streets are so narrow. Consequently, all buildings seem to tower overhead – obscuring churches and larger structures and even the sun until they find an opening and emerge in all their glory, suddenly just a stone’s throw away. Open space is at a premium. Left and right, tourists read their maps, study their phones, trying to make sense of the madness. There are too many canals to count, and too many gondolas and watertaxis and such in those canals – yes, traffic even in the water. Cute (if repetitive) souvenir shops mark the streets, as do any number of aromatic bakeries and colorful gelaterias. The architecture is remarkable, thematic. Like Toontown, only different.
Navigating the labyrinth is all but impossible, but I eventually manage to find our bed and breakfast in the Jewish Quarter, the most northernmost of the historic districts. It’s incredible. The B&B is on a canal, less than 500 meters from a main street – but it couldn’t feel further away from Venice proper. Over the course of the two nights we stay, I see just the occasional tourist (ourselves included) wandering alongs the canal. There’s no hustle or bustle, no loud noises, except from the seagulls and the children playing. It’s serene. Unless we walk over a bridge and ahead five minutes, it certainly doesn’t feel like one of the most visited cities in the world. Here, people are living their lives.
It’s hard to describe the feeling I get everytime we leave the B&B. Of crossing a canal or two, turning the corner, and suddenly being absorbed into Mardi Gras, or Tokyo, or yes, Disneyland. It’s fascinating actually. Because there are locals crowding the bakery, living among the madness. There are old friends having loud conversations in the tiny square or outside the church. There are students gathered at the university, excitedly making plans. But there too are are gondoliers hawking for business at every canal, and delivery guys lifting handcarts atop bridge steps, first up then down. Just as there are thousands upon thousands of tourists, swarming shops, losing themselves in alleyways, gawking at canals and architecture and the overall scenery – ourselves included.
I kind of love it. There’s a magic to all of it, even the kitschiness. Especially the kitschiness. We see a classic concert in a beautiful venue where the performers dress in period costumes; I doubt there’s a single local in the audience. In Piazza San Marco, we gather with others to watch a live band playing Sinatra for cafe customers; less than 50 meters away, two other bands on two other small stages in front of two other cafes pause, respectfully waiting their turn to play. At the newsstand, we catch a glimpse of 2018 calendars – including those that feature attractive priests and gondoliers. We even eat at a place called “We Love Italy – Pasta to Go” – and guess what? It’s fantastic. All of it is.
It’s different for locals though. We take the waterbus – because that’s something people do here, take the waterbus – over to Lido, a neighboring island, to spend a couple of hours with my friend and her parents. They once lived in Venice proper. Venice proper, they tell me, is a place they try to avoid nowadays. It’s us, the tourists. Yes, we make the economy. But we don’t know which side of the street to walk on; we aren’t conscious when we block the roads. We need directions, even when there are none to give, really – too many turns, pathways, canals to remember. Public spots are swamped, restaurants are tourist traps (even for Italians), just tourists, tourists everywhere. And the cruise ships, Jesus Christ. Venice proper is chaotic. Venice proper, they say, is too much.
I think about all this a lot. I wonder whether the crevice is too large to ever stem, let alone reverse the tide. Thing is, Venice runs on tourism, and the tourists keep coming. So Venice changes as a result. But over our three days, we wander alleyways and along canals. We step inside churches with astonishing works, most hundreds of years old, if not more. We see countless galleries and exhibits, some in everyday Venetian apartments, others in striking architectural landmarks. We admire just about every building it seems like, from the windows of normal residences to the gold interiors of the Teatro La Fenice. Over our three days, I say the words “This is so beautiful” more than I can remember – and I mean it every time.
We spent a little time in Lido, a little time in Burano, and a lot of time in the historic districts of Venice proper. And during all of this, I never did stop and wonder whether we had seen the real Venice, nor did I think about where the real Venice was. Because as surreal as it may all seem, even if it sometimes feels like “Venice: the show,” well, the show is indeed Venice. There’s something magical about that. So I get the comparison that Venice is Disneyland, kind of. There’s a ton more art and history, of course, and local flavor. There’s more warts too, certainly a bit more tension. Thing is though, I love Disneyland for what it is. And I love Venice for what it is too.