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. 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. 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 past 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.
Venice's resident population continues to drop, partly because of the challenges in 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.
Despite all the changes, Venice still awes me with its ethereal beauty and lovely views -- which can hit you from any direction. In fact, if you pause anywhere in Venice and simply observe, from that single viewpoint you find the unique wonder of this forever unique city on the lagoon.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2012 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.
If you visit
Sleeping: To splurge try the lacy Hotel Campiello, once part of a 19th-century convent; www.hcampiello.it. The more moderate Pensione la Calcina is in a peaceful canal-side setting; www.lacalcina.com.
Eating: Osteria alle Testiere has market-fresh seafood and no meat on the menu; Calle del Mondo Novo at no. 5801; tel. 041-522-7220. Pizzeria Vesuvio is on Rio Tera Farsetti up from San Marcuola vaporetto stop; tel. 041-795-688.
Getting around: Venice is made for walking, but Venice's public transit system is a fleet of motorized bus-boats called vaporetti.
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