Venice in pandemic – what’s it like?

Lots of people have been asking that question and I understand why. Covid has deprived us of our usual senses when it come to travel. After a year of going nowhere I had to think quite hard about what to pack. Visualising a distant city, even one you know well, in the midst of all this uncertainty is hard.

I’ve now had two free days here (and five in quarantine) so let me try to answer it as best I can. Or rather answer the question… how does it compare to the Venice of old? Since ‘what’s it like?’ is really question for an entire book in itself.

Busy but not busy

You occasionally see photos or posts suggesting Venice is empty. It isn’t. But it’s not normal for sure. This morning I headed for the Number One vaporetto, the stops-everywhere slow one I usually avoid to see what it was like.

Getting on the Number One vaporetto at Ca’ Rezzonico

Answer: heaving. In fact at one point the chap in charge was stopping people getting on it was that packed, something I’ve rarely seen before.

Gondola! Gondola!

It was the same at the gondola traffic jam at Ponte San Moisé. Lots of people queuing to get on board. But let’s look at the real barometers of tourist traffic here. First, the queue for the basilica.

Stand in line for San Marco

This snakes back to halfway along the Doge’s Palace. In a normal year, that would be all the way back to the waterfront.

Then the ultimate test: the Ponte della Paglia with that view back to the Bridge of Sighs.

Got to get that picture of the Bridge of Sighs

In normal times this would be heaving and you’d struggle to walk across. This year it was half full and anyone could pass through without a problem.

The truth is that the recovery from the pandemic seems very mixed. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, some of the restaurants and cafes are coming back to life. But many of the luxury shops that lined the piazza are now shuttered.

Shuttered shops

These are places that catered not to locals but to wealthy visitors, many of whom haven’t returned. The landlords, it seems, have often demanded their rent regardless of the fact the businesses have had no income. As a result many have simply given up and you have to wonder… who will take them on now? The Piazza was never my favourite place in Venice — it always seemed a bit artificial. Now it’s that and a bit sad.

Walking round the city over the last few days I found the tourist areas such as the Rialto and the area around San Marco quite busy, while the local quarters seemed very quiet. Campo Santa Margherita, a nightlife hub normally, was fairly sedate, though in part that will be because the students from the nearby universities will have gone home. Via Garibaldi in Castello, a growing tourist area in recent years, was pretty quiet too apart from the usual warring dogs.

I haven’t seen any of the tourist crocodiles you used to get from the cruise ships and other tours. Most people seem to be individual travellers, many from other EU countries. That doesn’t mean there are no idiots. Twice now I’ve had to ask people sitting on bridges if they could kindly move their butts so I could walk across. This is supposed to be a local offence that could get them fined. Whether that happens in practice though…

Meeting up with a Venetian friend she showed me some video she’d taken the day before in the Piazza. There was a brief hour or so of acqua alta, just enough to bubble through the gates (this still happens even with the new flood defences). Sure enough there were young kids happily paddling and trying to swim in the water, watched by happy parents taking pictures, presumably for the folder they’ve set up on Google Photos labelled ‘Offspring playing in sewage’.

This can never be said often enough: the water in Venice is there to be looked at, never touched.

In short, Venice is nowhere near its crammed tourist peak of recent years. It’s amazing to think the city was talking about entry fees and barriers to guide excessive numbers of tourists along designated routes. That is a long way off now.

The place is occasionally hectic and crowded in all the places you’d expect it. Elsewhere, the quieter corners seem decidedly more peaceful than normal. Last night I ate a pizza by the side of a canal and there were just two other customers there.

Next up I’ll try to give you a quick picture of what all this has done to the café and restaurant trade.