It takes a certain amount of recklessness to walk through the flood-ravaged streets of an ancient city. But there we were, three Americans and an Australian, walking barefoot in Venice, Italy.
We were there for a weekend holiday, just a week after the city was declared to be in a state of emergency due to flooding. We had bought the tickets a month before, and unless they stopped permitting travel to and from the city, a little water wasn’t going to stop us.
We put on our most waterproof shoes, rain jackets and umbrellas and carried on to see the lagooned city.
Of course, we encountered more than “a little water.”
At the height of the flooding, water levels rose to more than six feet, the highest it has been since 1966. Of course, the locals are used to seasonal and tidal flooding, but the devastation over the past couple weeks is more than many of them have seen for a long time.
According to the BBC, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte referred to the flooding as “a blow to the heart of our country.” Climate change seems to be the biggest factor accused of causing such extreme water levels through the city, and it is speculated that this is just the beginning of something much bigger. The flooding has done hundreds of millions of euros in damage, especially to the magnificent historic landmarks throughout the city.
One of the worst hit areas was Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, the hub of tourist attraction, and the home of St. Mark’s Basilica.
On our way to the site from our Airbnb, which was about a 10-minute walk from the center, we had come across some high waters that compromised some of our shoes. I was wearing leather boots, which have never left me with wet feet, but once the water level went above the laces (about three inches) there was water leaking in.
Fortunately, most shops and vendors sell plastic booties that go on over your shoes so you don’t have to buy a pair of rain boots. The ones that we got cost about €8, which we had to pay in cash because all ATMs and credit card machines were broken due to the flooding. They were very silly-looking and made me feel like a duck, but (at least mine) were well worth the purchase.
Pro tip: if you ever visit Venice and find yourself purchasing these for yourself, don’t drag your feet and don’t take them on and off if you can help it. There is one seam that seals the tougher plastic soles to the rest of the bootie, and this tears very easily under that kind of stress. Between the four of us, who each got a pair, by the end of the trip we were down to one pair and two halves. Also, don’t wear heels in them, or they will be soon be known as your Achilles heels when they rip a hole in the back and all the water flows in all at once.
We bought ours at seemingly the last possible moment, when we got to a corner and saw water flowing down the street we needed to go on. And we were glad we did, because then we were in the middle of St. Mark’s Square, and so in the middle of the worst flooding in the city.
Upon arrival, we waded into the square into about 19 inches of water. Seagulls were floating around as people sat at outdoor cafe seating, barely hovering above the water level.
We had gotten there fairly early in the morning, so preparations for the day were just starting to come together.
Platforms were set up along the most heavy foot-traffic areas so that unprepared tourists could walk above the water. The platforms were only about five feet wide and had difficulties allowing for two lanes of traffic, which was mostly older folks who were already prone to teetering. Many people were also dragging luggage behind them. We figured we would leave those paths available to them and rough it with our new booties.
The Basilica is a stunning sight. Its highest dome stands at 43 meters (141 feet, but only about 139 feet above sea level at the time), with pillars and embellishments everywhere you look. It is almost overwhelming to take it all in because of the attention to detail. It was closed when we arrived due to the flooding, so we did some looking around and waited for the tide to go back out enough to go in.
It was free to enter the building when we visited, and although the gilded domes, steadfast pillars and remarkable murals were awe-inspiring, due to the flooding, the floors looked incredibly run-down from the inability to maintain the site.
This site has had significance since the year 828, when Doge Agnell Participazio ordered the first structure to be built (which burned a few years after completion in 976). The people were determined, however, building it again and adding additions, leading to its consecration in 1117. The latest additions to the structure were made in the 1500’s with the closing off of the Zen Chapel.
Despite its age, the basilica is not impervious to damage, and flooding presents particular dangers because a lot of it is made of marble, which erodes easily when exposed to salt water.
The rest of the day we were able to take off the booties and wander the city with relative ease once the tide went in.
Despite the hundreds and hundreds of euros that each vendor must have made selling those booties, the cost of the damages done to their shops and stalls definitely hit them hard financially.
Businesses and some houses have “aqua doors,” which act as a barricade in the doorway to keep the water out, but (in theory) allow foot traffic to flow in and out by stepping over. However, what I saw made me wonder if the doors were really effective. I only saw two of these shields actually working.
There were sump pumps throwing water back into the streets and shopkeepers were moving merchandise to higher shelves as they haplessly squeegeed the floors.
Some businesses tried to attract customers by putting up little bridges from the walking platforms to their doors. Every local that we met seemed frustrated and tired.
We wrapped up our first day with dinner at Trattoria Il Vagone near the city center, which was one of the best experiences of the trip.
The waiter was very pleasant and cracked jokes through the whole night. Two of my companions ordered wine, while myself and another friend got nothing because we didn’t want to have to pay for water, which is what you have to do in Venice because they don’t have safe drinking water a lot of the time.
Upon our hesitance, our waiter brought over water for the table on the house.
I ordered a four-cheese gnocchi dish, that was drizzled with balsamic vinegar and absolutely scrumptious. Our dinner came with fresh bread, which was warm and made for the perfect addition to all our meals.
Once we had finished eating, we asked for the check so we could go home and get some much-needed sleep. The waiter said, “No, stay! Enjoy yourself.”
Of course we knew that they take meal time very seriously in Italy and like to take their time and enjoy everything from the food and drink to the social bit. But we were very tired and had no more food.
He came back with four glasses of Limoncello, which he jokingly placed in front of one of my friends, saying they were all for her before distributing them out to the rest of us.
I’m not the biggest fan of alcoholic beverages, but limoncello tastes like a melted lemon gumdrop. It’s meant for sipping, so that’s what we did for the next little while, while recapping what a crazy day we had.
Apparently we also finished that too quickly, however, or he saw us laughing and having a good time and wanted to keep that up, because he came over when we were all finished, with a little pitcher of more limoncello.We ended up spending two and a half hours there without even realizing it.
We tried to tip him at the end even though it’s not customary, but he told us that he wouldn’t accept one because our smiles were enough.
It was a perfect wrap up to the day.
Our second day we hit the streets after check-out, booties prepped, headed to the center of town and then to the bus that would take us to the airport. One of my companions’ booties ripped immediately, so she got a piggyback ride from her partner who still had his.
Before we found breakfast, most of us were again walking barefoot through the streets, saving our shoes so they would be dry on the flight home and be spared from any potential damage.
We turned a corner and saw people up to their knees at the end of the alley. So before splashing on, we stopped at a pastry shop to get some breakfast. As soon as the shopkeeper saw our ragtag group walk in with half our shoes and soaked from the rain, she started throwing paper towels at us and shaking her head with laughter.
I got freshly made pastries, among them a chocolate croissant, which was fresh out of the oven and heavenly.
We finally had to leave and face the shockingly cold Mediterranean water.
When we got to the city center at last, vendors started laughing at us and using our struggle as a way to get people to buy booties and cheap rain boots. “You don’t have to be like them!” they laughed as they pointed at us. Some folks took pictures of us wading through the water on a budget, and I caught some older folks saying, “Ah, to be young and crazy!” in English.
Overall, this has been my favorite European adventure and I will definitely be going back to Italy and hopefully to Venice. That is, if it’s still there.