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Page last updated at 07:34 GMT, Saturday, 29 August 2009 08:34 UK
Venice: Majesty and melancholy


David Willey, the veteran BBC correspondent, who has Venetian roots, reflects on the past glories and uncertain future of Queen of The Adriatic.

Until the building in the mid-nineteenth century of the road and railway bridge linking the mainland with the islands on which Venice rose from the waters, the city was a natural fortress.

It was the bastion of a small, but powerful seafaring merchant nation which for many centuries dominated trade in the Mediterranean.

Venice is the adoptive home of the Evangelist Saint Mark, his body stolen from Alexandria and brought North by a bunch of merchant adventurers to embellish the gilded basilica which now bears his name, in order to provide Holy protection for their city.

The Venetian Lion, the symbol of Saint Mark, is portrayed all over the city.

The Victorians loved Venice. The poet Robert Browning died there, so did Richard Wagner. John Ruskin found inspiration from its stones.

Venice was the bastion of a small, but powerful seafaring merchant nation

When I first visited Venice as a student to meet some of my long lost relations, the resident population was three times as large as it is now.

There were hundreds of artisans working in small workshops and a host of stores where we bought groceries, bread and all the boring items of daily life. There was hardly a boutique in sight.

Now as I make my way through the labyrinth of narrow calles, as they call the streets in Venice, I find it increasingly hard to find a wine shop, a greengrocer, or a simple trattoria where you can have a cheap meal.

Venice is littered with so called 'souvenir' shops selling Carnival masks made in China, sellers of fake 'Venetian' glass, expensive fashion boutiques, and mediocre fast food joints for the tourist in a rush.

The picturesque fish market, reconstructed in the Gothic style in the nineteenth century near the Rialto Bridge is still there and there are still a few real farmers markets operating, but by and large most Venetians have migrated to the mainland, to the dreary town of Mestre, scene of immense traffic jams these August holidays.

Venice is becoming a city of second homes for wealthy Italians and foreigners, and hosts a lively student population, but the main activity is now not printing books, or painting frescoes, or holding religious rites in its hundreds of churches, but catering for the daily flood of tourists who invade the city each day anxious to eat up Venetian culture in a few brief hours.

A female gondolier in training
You can now even send email while travelling down the Grand Canal

The pressure of visitors is so great that the narrow calles frequently get blocked by human traffic jams, even though blessedly there is never a car in sight.

Beside the human flood and the ever present threat of being swamped by a natural disaster in the shape of winter storms coinciding with high Adriatic tides, there are new and insidious threats to the lagoon city, not obvious to the average visitor.

The authorities want to develop a new port for bulk carriers at nearby Marghera on an inland shore of the Ventian lagoon. To enable big cargo ships to enter the new port, there will have to be deep dredging, which during the past century has played a large part in the steady degradation of the environment, and the raising of the water level.

Each year ever bigger cruise ships are being encouraged to visit Venice.

Last year more than five hundred of them, some of them sixteen decks high, docked at the sea terminal, only a five minute water taxi journey from Saint Marks. The new floating hotels rise up out of the sea and dwarf the famous landmarks, the Doge's Palace, the Church of San Giorgio, which look puny in comparison.

Cruise ships dwarf Venice's arcitecture
Venice is becoming a city of second homes for wealthy Italians

The city mayor, a bearded left-wing intellectual called Massimo Cacciari, is trying to keep up with the people pressure, but seems to be fighting a losing battle against the encroachments of commercial profit from the lucrative mass tourist trade.

Automatic drink dispensers are to appear at the vaporetto stops along the Grand Canal, and gigantic hoardings advertising branded women's fashions adorn the facades of some of Venice's grandest buildings as they undergo restoration.

You can even do your email while travelling down the Grand Canal, if that's what you have to do.

Yet Venice still provides the visitor of an unforgettable vision of its past glories, its slow decline in recent centuries and accepts, grudgingly I suppose, its new role as a museum city not meant for ordinary daily life.

It is officially recognised as a World Heritage Site, but I often wonder what sort of protection that really offers for a very vulnerable and fragile cultural and ecological environment.

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