VENICE — “What people watching CNN don’t realize,” moaned Francesco, the receptionist at our hotel in Venice one late December evening, “is that in Venice, the high water lasts only six hours. They made it look like Venice is flooded all the time.”
Early in December, Venice experienced its worst flooding in 22 years. Francesco's complaint came three weeks later. Evidently, when would-be visitors saw video footage of knee-deep water in St. Mark’s Square and heard that Mayor Massimo Cacciari pleaded for tourists to stay away, many opted for other destinations for Christmas and the New Year. In fact, the mayor wanted the tourists back just as soon as the mess was cleared up, which happened quickly but wasn’t as widely reported.
With the recent floods and the global slump in tourism, my wife Zhanna and I experienced the phenomenon of an almost-deserted Venice when we arrived for an eight-day break at the end of December. There were a fair number of intrepid visitors like Zhanna and me, but we found we could do the touristy things, such as having a drink at the back bar of the Florian café in St. Mark’s Square, or simply crossing the Rialto Bridge, without having to push our way through crowds of people.
The absence of tourists was bad news for Venetians who live off tourism, such as the gondoliers who tout for business along the Grand Canal. Only a few gondolas a day passed beneath our hotel window on the narrow and rather smelly Rio de Fenice, most hired by Asian tourists.
But the lack of crowds was good news for performing arts lovers, who could find seats and enjoy the performances along with locals. Our room at the Hotel Dell’Opera is just a short calle away from La Fenice, the site of many famous operatic premiers such as Giuseppe Verdi’s "La Traviata." The beautiful opera house burned down in 1996 but reopened in 2003. (The story of the fire and the involvement of American philanthropy in the restoration is wonderfully told in John Berendt’s 2005 best-seller, "The City of Falling Angels.")
We went to La Fenice to see a memorable performance of Ruggero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," part of a double bill with Arnold Schoenberg's "Von Heute Auf Morgen." Members of Venetian society were out in force in fur coats and silk ties, peering across at each other from the multiple tiers of boxes.
A couple of nights later, many of the same patrons turned up in the Church of San Vidal by the Academy Bridge for a performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons," given by the nimble-fingered violinists of the gifted ensemble Interpreti Veneziani.
With tourist numbers down we had no problem getting seats at the Christmas Eve midnight mass in St. Mark’s Basilica. During his homily, Cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice, appealed to those in government at every level to take responsibility for “those who lose their jobs, often without any social cushion.”
If ever there was a time to visit and fully appreciate the most popular Venetian destinations such as the Academy Gallery with its displays of Venetian masters such as Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto and Tiepolo without having to peer over other tourists’ heads, this was it. It was the same with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the little island of Burano, famous for its traditional lace-making.
And to our delight, we sometimes found ourselves completely alone among the canals and alleyways, as when we became lost while searching for the 15th-century Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, restored by the New York-based Save Venice Foundation and now a favorite for local weddings.
Despite near-freezing temperatures, and the over-priced and underwhelming Venetian cuisine, we felt that we experienced a rare and enormous privilege, that of sharing the city with Venetians rather than with the touring masses.