The nature of special places

A busy canal in Venice.

A busy canal in Venice.

Venice is a bit like Amsterdam when it rains, except that instead of it being bikes which seem to outnumber faces, it’s umbrellas – streets and streets full of them. Large wooden and steel platforms are laid down when flooding is expected, raising you twenty or so centimeters above the old cobblestone. The higgledy-piggledy (dis)organisation of it all begs exploration.

After a few hours of getting lost in the maze of Venetian mask stalls, churches, and quaint stone bridges, the similarities with Amsterdam begin to fade, however, and the Italian culture becomes more pronounced.

Memory of the once glorious city state, the Venetian Republic,­ fades much slower in the minds of many who call this place home, however. Ornate gold and rose flags don window-cum-­balconies along nearly every street. A secession referendum was held as recently as a few years ago, but failed by the slimmest of margins. Though how well Venice could function without the mainland was an open question. Tourism would surely account for almost its entire export, except whether it should is a sticky topic in the half-floating city.

Venetians seem to have a love-hate relationship with tourists. Large posters promoting anti-tourism rallies lined at least one back-alley and not all locals greeted you with a smile. It’s easy to sympathise with the historic city’s 70,000 residents playing host to millions of gondola-riders and mask-­wearers and clothes-­buyers and glass-­blowing-watchers. Whether Venice is for the Venetians or for the tourists should be a question with an obvious answer, and yet I don’t know if there is one.

When Egyptians make decisions about access to or maintenance of the pyramids, or Athenians decide things about the Parthenon, I think they ought to make decisions which aren’t purely and always in their own interests. There is, at least to me, a shared human heritage which we are all responsible for and should all have access to. Sadly, not all states and actors agree (see extremists blowing up Buddhas in Afghanistan or the wreckage of much of the Levant’s ancient history).

But, for the Venetians, I ask: for how long can your home be a stranger’s hotel? In such a small place, can space ever be personal and if not, at what point does its invasion become tantamount to assault on a culture or on a place or on a people?

Perhaps I was wrong in adding to the masses or perhaps this is simply the nature of special places.


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