Scientists estimate that this world treasure is sinking about 6.4 cm (2 1 / 2 IN .) per decade. Flooding is the most urgent problem. A plan to hold back the rising Adriatic with a system of mobile underwater barriers has met with controversy, and at any rate won’t be completed until at least 2011.
Set on 118 separate islands, dredged out of a marshy lagoon and shored up on wooden pylons, Venice floats upon the Adriatic Sea like a mirage. Amsterdam and Bruges and a few other European cities may have a network of canals draining their cityscape, but in Venice the canals are the cityscape—creating land to go with it was an engineering triumph over nature.
Nature, however, has a way of striking back. In the first decade of the 20th century, the city’s central piazza, St. Mark’s Square, flooded less than 10 times a year, but by the 1980s it generally was underwater 40 times a year. In recent years, the problem has grown even more acute, with as many as 40 floods between September and March alone.
Unlike other canal cities, Venice has no streets at all, only canals (more than 150 of them) and paved walkways. Motor launches and anachronistic black gondolas are the way to get around town—that and walk-ing, which usually means getting lost in a maze of narrow stone lanes and high-arched bridges. Perplexing as it is, that layout was a matter of necessity—buildings were erected wherever land seemed solid enough, while winding channels between the islands became the major canals, like the sinuous Grand Canal, or the unbridged (cross it by ferry) Giudecca channel.
Most tourists simply mill around the colonnaded Piazza San Marco—arguably the loveliest public space in the world—and file through the guidebook must-sees: St. Mark’s Basilica, a glorious Byzantine church with glittering gold mosaics; the iconic Campanile bell-tower; and next to it the exotic Doge’s Palace, with its Arabian Nights facade. But getting beyond San Marco is essential to understand Venice. Cruise the Grand Canal, lined with Venetian Gothic pallazzi; stroll around the city, popping into obscure churches and browsing street markets. Hop on a vaporetto and visit the outlying islands—Murano, home of exquisite glass makers; Burano, the island of lace makers; or the Lido, Venice’s local beachfront.
Every time I visit Venice, I’m struck by its unique sensory impact, all of it expressing the watery essence of the city. There’s a constant murmur of water lapping against stone; the very air feels magically moist against your skin. Then there’s that faint scent of decay, a blend of rotting foundations, crumbling plaster, and sediment slushing around the canal floors. Somehow it manages to be intensely evocative, even magical. It’s the sheer Venice-ness of Venice—and it can never be reproduced.