Europe

Venice: the Sinking City

On the short boat ride from the mainland to the floating city of Venice, the laguna Veneta surrounds you on every side. Watching the monumental palaces and churches of Venice approach, seemingly out of nowhere, is a breathtaking sight. But if you’re expecting your seasickness to subside the minute your feet hit the dry land in the distance, think again. Dry land may be further than you think.

My first thought, when our ferry stops on the Venetian dock, is boy, I didn’t expect so many pigeons.

My second thought is why are we stopping in the middle of the ocean? Looking around at the bemused faces of my companions, I can tell I’m not alone. The waves are lapping at the edge of the pavement, but it’s a pavement at least 200 meters away.

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Venice is phenomenal. The monumental city of stone perches on top of a couple of marshy islands, supported by submerged wooden piles older than your national borders. Love it or hate it, Venice is a feat of engineering, artistic and cultural genius.

It’s also sinking. Not as rapidly as the Doomsdayers would like you to believe, but at a rate of about 1mm a year. (Which, to be fair, is probably fast enough. Especially if you live on the ground floor). It’s a combination of shifting tectonic plates, soil compression, rising sea levels and the extraction of groundwater in the early 20th Century. The Italian authorities are hard at work to slow this down even further, from speed limits for the incoming boats, to giant inflatable gates, designed to keep the high tides at bay. But if you arrive in the middle of acqua alta, like I did, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s not going too well.

Acqua alta, loosely translated, means ‘put your boots on, it’s wet out.’ The exceptional tide peaks which flood the low lying areas of the city are a common enough occurrence that the Venetians are fully prepared: bridges and walkways of raised planks will take you where you need to go, and the trusty vendors will be on hand to sell you plastic boot covers that will rise above your knees and add an authentic drowned-chic look to all your selfies.

Don’t let the high seas spoil your mood though. Sure, a couple of ground floor shops won’t be able to open their doors, and the Piazzo San Marco will look more like Peter Pan’s mermaid lagoon than an Italian town square. Your odds of slipping off of a slippery bridge into the canal below are ever so slightly increased. But where else in the world will you see a flooded city casually going about it’s business as normal? It takes a great deal more than a few feet of water to wash the magic out of the Queen of the Adriatic.

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And believe it or not, it really will have drained by lunchtime.

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