Venice is magic. It is seductive, charming, decadent, fun.
The Piazza San Marcos glows in the late afternoon sunlight, relatively sparsely populated now that the basilica is closed and all the tour groups with the legions of Americans, Brits, Germans, Japanese, all following leaders holding flags so that nobody gets lost, have gone away. People feed the pigeons, which are so tame they will eat from your hand while your friends snap pictures on their iPhones. (One little boy, about four, has crumbs on top of his head, placed there no doubt by a curious parent or mischievous older sibling.) The riot of colorful porphyry and glittering mosaics on the front of St. Mark’s stands in brilliant contrast to the white marble colonnades opposite. The dueling orchestras start up in front of the cafes — one playing Mozart, one “My Heart Will Go On” — as the Moors in the clock strike their bell indicating another hour has passed.
I roam the sidewalks along the back canals away from the piazza, looking for a restaurant I have heard of, moving away from the stores selling glass trinkets and jewelry and beautiful Carnevale masks to other, more mundane places like a tobacconists’ shop. Every so often I cross a bridge and turn a corner and find a tiny piazza with a small (by Venetian standards) church fronted by white marble and with a sign on the door indicating when masses are held.
Even public transport is fun: boats (called “vaporettos”) cruise the main canals. You can take them up and down the Grand Canal, watching the people in the gondolas as you pass them and gawking back at the tourists on the Rialto who are staring down at you.
It is clearly an important tourist destination.
It is not a city.
As I meander through the streets, many of the people I see look up above their heads at the buildings, not straight in front of them or down. There are shops, and more shops, but many (not all) the shops cater to tourists. There are artisans, such as the man with the intricately beautiful masks in his shop window — the most glorious craftsman of a Venetian staple — but then again, the artisans market to visitors.
Aside from the occasional hotel, too many lifeless buildings line the Grand Canal at night. Even looking out into the side canals, there are too many darkened windows. Wandering away from the main tourist area, I see more signs of permanent life, yet there are still buildings which look as though they are uninhabited, at least on a regular basis.
Travel writer Rick Steves, in his Italy guide book, says “80% of Venice is not touristy, but 80% of tourists never notice.” Yet in his audiobook, he talks about the difficulty and expense of living there, of maintaining property in a city with extremely stringent codes that is slowly sinking into the sea. He points out in his audio tour of the Grand Canal how difficult it is to do simple chores such as grocery shopping while schlepping up and down the myriad of small stepped bridges. A 2006 article in the Guardian stated that Venice was on a course to become a city without residents in 30 years, turning into “Italy’s Disneyland.” Wealthy Italians maintain second homes there, while property soars out of reach of average Venetians. In 2009, the city held a mock funeral to protest its shrinking population, which had fallen below 60,000, the minimum for it to be classified as a city.
It is not a city, and may never be a city again.
Torino, Italy, is not a tourist destination. Steves doesn’t even bother to include an entry on it in his guide book. Even though its city centre was built in the 18th century, and contains many charming squares with cafes along the side streets, and notwithstanding its fine film museum, it is not on anybody’s ‘must see in Italy’ list. Torino’s major claims to fame are the 2006 Winter Olympics and the Shroud of Turin.
It is a city, though. An unfortunate amount of graffiti mars the baroque buildings.* There are jewelry stores, but there are also home decor stores and clothing stores and art supply stores and bookstores. There are restaurants and cafes, but there are also supermarkets (although there must be in Venice, too, they are just better hidden) and a tobacconist and pharmacia on every block, it seems. There are office buildings: I look out the window of my hotel room in the morning and across the street I can peer down at a young woman sorting papers on her desk and entering figures into a spreadsheet.
When I watch the people as they pass by, they are going somewhere, and they know how to get there. They walk with purpose, eyes straight ahead or looking down. They could be residents of any other city — San Francisco, say, or New York, away from the tourist hot spots — who are in their element, at home. They are not outsiders, tourists: I am, standing on the corner of Via Mazzini and Via Carlo Alberto, looking at my map, trying to find my way back to the Hotel Victoria.
Fewer people speak even miniscule English, so my nearly non-exististent Italian (mainly “buon giorno,” “por favore,” “grazie,” and a few numbers) and pointing becomes my primary method of communication. (I now appreciate how many Europeans speak English, and how few Americans speak other languages, and how difficult it must be for foreigners traveling in the United States. All of the hotel clerks we encountered, and many of the waiters at the restaurants, spoke at least a little English.)
After the glamor and excitement of Venice, the normalcy of Torino is refreshing. I like watching people just walking by or sitting at tables drinking cappuccino. I like not having to worry every moment that I am about to be pick-pocketed. I like not having wares hawked at me, aggressive flower sellers wandering into restaurants trying to get me to buy roses.
Magic is all well and good, but sometimes you just need a city.
*Although, even in Venice, I saw tagging on a building edging the Piazza San Marcos. The mentality that would think it fun to scar a World Heritage Site can only be described as “philistine.”