Thursday, December 29, 2005

T#10: City Without Cars

Excuse me for a second while I continue to bemoan the lack of a broadband connection (I can't help that I'm so cheap), and no-pictures reality this presents.

Ok, there. Done with that. Here's a post for you.

City without cars.

I guess I owe you an explanation.

When I said a bit before Christmas that I was disappearing into the land without internet, I was actually also absenting myself from the influence of the automobile.

I’ve been to Venice before, but never in winter. The cold weather and the companion limitation on the number of tourists makes for a much better experience at this time of year. I should still point out that it wasn’t my idea – spending a couple of days in a city without wheels – but my friend wanted to go somewhere for her birthday, and the sinking city turned out to be the cheapest as well as the favoured option.

I have nothing unique to say about this place – so you can stop looking for deep and meaningful insights right now. But I did find the atmosphere remarkably relaxing; for someone one who lives and breathes the complex hydrocarbons that make our motorized world go round, what struck me even more than the architecture was the slow realisation that there was absolutely no danger of being rundown unawares by an errant road vehicle. It states the obvious to say that there aren’t any (slight exaggeration, we spent a couple of hours following signs to somewhere called the Piazza Roma – I think – only to discover that this was the bus station), but it isn’t immediately that you realise that you aren’t having to check and check again before crossing any kind of thoroughfare.

Yes, I am aware that pedestrianised shopping districts do exist in this country, etc, etc, but even then you have to look out for service vehicles and delivery vans. In Venice, the biggest motive danger you face while ambling around is an out of control hand cart – and you’re more likely to get run down by a man in a straw boater demanding that you accompany him on a gondola ride. This is a city where people have no choice, and are forced to rely on public modes of transportation, the majority of which are waterborne – and much more tranquil as a result.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m not used to it, but using a boat to get around seems like much more of an adventure. There’s no neatly finished and predictable road surface here, rather a moving, bucking act of nature – tranquil, yes, but a challenge too. Feeling rather than seeing the water taxis zipping along with wide open throttles in the pitch darkness stirred something in my soul – but even the gentle undulations of the bus boats was a soothing balm against the pressing worries of my real world. And despite the apparent chaos of movement in the waves, the public transport network runs with indefatigable consistency, too. I don’t think we waited longer than five minutes at any time when we were making a journey. For those who preach collective travel over individual and personal space, the system they are forced to adopt in Venice must appear as some kind of Mecca.

All the more ironic then, that this waterborne transport network endangers the city itself.

We were lucky. We went to Venice in winter and the place was entirely unflooded. Maybe not so surprising given the apparent inconsistencies in our climate patterns these days – though the city authorities and other interested parties are throwing Euros and Euros at improving flood defences all along the islands. But the problem isn’t just the weather, it’s the backwash and the wake from the continuous passage of motor driven boats that prowl up and down along the canals, servicing the city so it can go about its daily business. The situation is such that our guide book claimed hovercraft are being considered as an alternative to the current crop of traditionally keeled craft…er, but I’ll believe that when I see it.

A necessary, community wide project of an apparently idyllic public transportation network, that actually works, and still a city has problems.

I think we’re facing a reality here – even good things come with a price; a generally applicable understanding that we always seem to come to far too late. Our environment, for example: is it already screwed? And if so, what kind of bargain did we get for the price?

Oh, forget I said that. It’s Christmas – well, just previously, anyway – and I’d rather save depressing myself for the new year. And besides which, Venice has been threatening to fall into the sea for centuries – and there’s no reason to suspect it’s going to stop doing so any time soon.

Go see the place, though. It’s lovely.

I’d definitely recommend going in winter; while it was by no means as empty as we expected, at least the street has to get really narrow at this time of year before over-bearing tourist claustrophobia sets in. Try Easyjet for cheap flights – hell, if you’re going to NOx the atmosphere you may as well pay as little as possible for the privilege – they love getting there on time because there schedules are so tight. Plus, I experienced the smoothest landing ever on the return trip into Gatwick – which sets them apart from some of their competitors… And eat at places without any English on the menu – the food costs less, tastes better and the service will actually come with a smile.

I never said I wanted to be a travel writer.

Happy New Year!


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