Updated: Aug 14, 2021
In the summer months, tens of thousands of daily tourists flood Venice's streets, overcrowding its many landmarks and straining local hospitality. When winter comes, the floods are of a different kind: the acqua alta caused by subsistence and exacerbated by climate change.
Unsurprising, perhaps, that most visitors choose to brave the crowds over the icy temperatures and aggressively rising tide. But they'd be missing the morning mists, the easy calm of its streets and maze of hidden passageways, the warm refuge of the empty table at the local enoteca.
So bring your boots. Bring a warm coat and scarf. And for God's sake, bring a camera.
A couple of hours or so before the waters rise, an old air raid siren echoes ominously across the city. All of Venice listens intently to what comes next: a series of pitched notes that rises with the projected water level. We hope for only one or two pitches. A third puts two thirds of the city underwater. In November of last year, they ran out of notes. Huge tidal surges forced waters to a 50-year high, causing terrible damage.
Today we hear only two notes. Venice puts on its boots and continues unimpeded.
In St. Mark's Square, puddles cling stubbornly to the stonework long after the floodwaters have receded. I join the collection of photographers huddled at the edges.
In winter, the sense of calm in Venice is palpable, devoid of traffic and tourist traffic, effortlessly beautiful along every inch and from every angle. We pass a few local women, elderly yet imperious and richly clad in furs and jewelry. The low winter sun burns sudden, vivid shapes among the gentle shadows.
As the year draws on and the tourist tide abates, some of the doors that swing endlessly in summer stay closed to December's guests. Weaving our way through a confusion of alleyways armed with a map of popular bars, we weathered some disappointments before finally and gratefully stumbling across a bustling enoteca, where tourists and locals worked steadily to deplete the rows upon rows of cicchetti (Venetian tapas) between ample glasses of wine. We make our contribution.
On our final evening, we take a walk along the city's southernmost edge. St. Mark's Basilica and the San Giorgio Maggiore frame the remnants of the sun's dying glow, and a gondolier gently guides his boat through the choppy waters.
A row of rides and amusements have been installed here, more in hope than expectation. They sit forlornly along the water's edge; their operators, grim-faced, count the days before high season and a new surge of tourists.
We leave this scene behind, tracing the canals and walkways back to the apartment. I feel my eyes darting from building to building, trying to cling on to every detail before the light fails us, and our time here comes to an end.
It's a place like no other, but Venice's constant state of struggle is impossible to avoid: both battling to contain the worsening floods amidst a tide of institutional inefficiency and corruption, and wrestling with the effects of the mass tourism upon which it is so reliant.
Venice is beautiful at any time of the year, but in the winter its beauty is of a poignant kind, its fragility there for all to see.