I've been traveling to Venice for more than 30 years. On my most recent trip to film two television shows and research my guidebook, the city felt different. While still one of Europe's most romantic and distinctive destinations, globalization and modern life are changing Venice -- for better or worse.
As I wandered Venice's meandering streets and canal-side walkways, it became obvious just how much the city is changing. A solitary local waved his hands while pacing back and forth across a bridge and talking on his cellphone. Litter grew out of the tops of garbage cans like bums with bushy heads of hair. More multilingual menus featured Russian, thanks to a huge increase in visitors from that part of the world.
Tourism continues to keep Venice afloat -- but it's no longer as lucrative. When I commented to locals that, despite the slow economy, I'd noticed no decrease in crowds, they responded, "Yes, but spending habits are much different." Many tourists blitz in for the day from cruise ships and cheap mainland hotels -- meaning fewer overnights in Venetian hotels and fewer dinnertime customers at restaurants.
Though tough for local businesses, this can be a good thing for travelers willing to hunker down in Venice for a few days. While midday crowds fill the streets and blockbuster sights, mornings and evenings are serene. Getting up for a 7 a.m. film shoot, I was struck by how St. Mark's Square was an entirely different experience without the mobs.
At Caffe Florian, the most venerable cafe on St. Mark's Square, the manager lamented how, in the last decade, the cafe's elegance has been trampled with poorly dressed tourists (not unlike me, I must admit). Still, I love this place, with its smoke-stained mirrors, white-tuxedoed waiters, and finicky piano and string quartet, which somehow gets called an "orchestra." While you can enjoy a romantic drink here with live music and all the tourists, a quiet cup of coffee in the morning, surrounded by the patina of faded elegance, is also a treat. In so many ways, when you get up early and stay out late, you enjoy a different, and it seems more real, Venice.
Likewise, on the vaporetto water buses, there's a stark contrast between the midday/rush-hour mobs and the easygoing joy of riding at quiet times. Venice is two cities: one garishly touristic and the other so romantic and tranquil that it makes you go fortissimo in describing it.
It's not just cruise ships that are changing Venice -- globalization is too. The city has long been known for its exquisite glass, produced on the isle of Murano since 1292, when the furnaces were moved to prevent fires on the main island (and to protect the secrets of Venetian glassmaking). The island's factories still produce ornate vases, beaded necklaces, and other goods. But these days, many glass trinkets being sold to tourists are made in China, and it's undercutting the economy of the local glassmakers. There's a strong push to encourage people to buy genuine Venetian glass with the Murano seal.
In this new, more-diverse Venice, sometimes it seems that restaurants and market stalls are run by as many Sri Lankans and Chinese as Italians. If you see a wedding party posing in front of a famous sight, it's most likely a big shot from Eastern Europe or China. And odds are that the strolling accordionist sussing out tips at your dinner table is Romanian, not Venetian.
Venice's resident population continues to drop, thanks in part to the challenges of raising a family here. Imagine living in a small, expensive apartment that occasionally floods or pushing a stroller over arched bridges while carrying groceries. An electric reader board in a pharmacy window ticks down with each person who moves out or dies. On my first day it read 58,759. The next day it was 58,756.
In many ways, Venice seems built for romantics. But romance isn't what it used to be either. It seems there aren't even lovers on gondolas anymore. Everyone is too busy reading their iPhones or looking into their digital cameras. Desperate to capture someone kissing on a gondola for our TV show, I walked briskly along a canal to get ahead of what I thought was a potentially romantic couple. I got their attention and acted out a charade of kissing. The man pointed to the woman and mouthed with silent yet exaggerated motions, "She's my daughter."
(c)2012 RICK STEVES DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.