Venice Attractions Beyond the Crowds
The first thing I noticed when getting off the ferry that had brought me to Venice was not the water lapping at the sidewalks, or the water taxis that acted as public transport. Nor was it the alleyways that beckoned me across the waterways or the masks that flashed their hidden faces at tourists. I first noticed the tourists, throngs of them, spitting questions and asking directions.
This is quite like Disneyland, I thought, lost among the crowds who had come to take a gondola ride along the canals. So many tourists, meaning the water-taxi line was 20 minutes long. But I, too, was begrudgingly part of the throng.
My first few hours reinforced my first impression: that Venice is like Disneyland. People from all over had come to feel enchanted. The magic was there, but it was so crafted as to seem artificial. Venice is an island of craftspeople, after all.
At the end of that first day, I retired to my little room a bit sad at the state of the city, and at myself for being a part of it. Who were the men selling selfie-sticks and wooden bowls, obviously not originally from Europe? How could the artisan with the blonde hair and nose ring who made commedia del arte masks tell me she had grown tired of her city? Did anyone come out at night, like Disneyland, to pick up all the trash? There were wrappers and dirtied confetti in the cracks on the sidewalk, in the corners between buildings. If no one picked it up, did the trash fall into the ocean? Why was there so much trash? Was it caused by the tourists or the locals? Was Venice sinking? Was my extra weight too much for its ground? If Venice sunk, would be partly be my fault?
I found myself caught in that whirlpool, those dilemmas that plague people who love to travel. I wanted to tour and see and meet communities without hijacking resources or appropriating daily lives for my Instagram feed. In a place like Venice, I felt that I couldn’t escape the throngs, and with it the fact that I was a tourist.
After acknowledging this, I fell asleep to quiet dreams, lulled by rocking waves. The next morning, I awoke feeling more settled. I left my backpack behind closed doors and set out to find the real Venice, a real hometown, somewhere beyond the bustling throngs and specialty shops. I left with nothing but my notebook and hotel room key.
Did you know that some streets of Venice are completely silent, quiet but for the sound of your breathing? Only one block in from the bustling tourist thoroughfares, I found a Venice consumed by a daily life and totally ignorant of me. In the alleyway behind my hotel, I found an ivy-tunneled passageway, behind which grandmothers gossiped as children swung on the iron poles of a primary colored playground. A little girl bit a bigger boy, and the pink bow on her pigtail grew brighter as she smiled, her baby teeth showing. The seesaw bounced up and down, up and down. The playground was packed, whole families coming outsde to enjoy the sun. I sat to one side and ate a sandwich.
I found myself caught in that whirlpool, those dilemmas that plague people who love to travel. I wanted to tour and see and meet communities without hijacking resources or appropriating daily lives for my Instagram feed.
A boy whistled past, with his hands in his pockets. I decided to follow him, deeper into the maze that makes Venice a hometown for many. When following him began to feel creepy, I turned left. I was much deeper in, now, facing a cemented courtyard where grass and weeds fought their way into the sun through giant cracks in the concrete. The courtyard was lined with salmon-colored apartment buildings, where flowerpots and laundry lines hung out together on the balconies. I kept wandering through this town. It was just me, shadowed, in the alleys, some getting smaller with each step forward, squeezing me out.
At one point, I was so deep in the quiet that I was shocked by voices yelling gently in a language I don’t know. Italian, of course, I thought, and followed the sound down the alleyway.
Two young men sat barebacked at their mother’s table, me peeking in through the open top half of a Dutch door. The cabinets were blue Formica, the plastic tablecloth patterned with yellow flowers. The mother served the boys their meal. They were on the ground floor, arguing with their doors open on this hot summer Sunday, allowing me a little peek inside as I walked by.
The older boy turned halfway and caught my eye. I froze, caught in their private alleyways. He smiled, or snickered, or turned the corners of his mouth up at me. I smiled with my mouth closed, shyly, back. The older one turned away as the brother continued to shout. The mother put a dish away in a cabinet.
I scampered away, down the alleyways with white laundered sheets blown big by the wind. There is a limit to how long I can peek, a tourist, uninvited, even if as a Peeping Jane I invite mostly shy, sly smiles.
The tourist throng appeared suddenly again, and when I found myself among those circles I simply rejoined the flow of footsteps. It seemed that both sides of Venice–the Disneyland and hometown pockets–would show herself happily if I continued to peek into the alleyways.
Venice is a land of Moreno glass and bridges between buildings, water and fish and gondolas gracing choppy waters. It is gracious in its open borders, and we tourists are granted the pleasure of that magic, even if the sidewalk is sinking. Take off the mask and venture deeper through the alleyways. Venice will be pleased to show you her secret corners.