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The Numbers Sound Terrible

By Sir Richard Lambert

Back in the 1950s, a little more than one million tourists a year were coming to Venice: at the most recent count, the figure was 16.5 million and rising. On busy days – during Carnival, for instance, or at the height of the summer – the area around St Mark’s can turn into a vast human traffic jam, and the place feels more like a football stadium than La Serenissima.

More and more homes are being given over to bed and breakfast, and every year more palaces on the Grand Canal are being converted into hotels – driving up the price of accommodation in the process. Because it’s easier to find housing and decent jobs on the mainland, the number of permanent residents in the historic city has been shrinking at an alarming rate, down from a peak of over 170,000 in the 1950s to something like 60,000 or less today.

This inevitably has had an impact on the character of the place. Every time you visit, it seems, a favourite greengrocer has closed down and been turned into yet another tacky mask shop. And it gets harder and harder to find those wonderful fresh cakes that are worth crossing the Alps to savour. There are not enough locals coming in to shop every day, and so the shop windows are more likely to be full of packaged goods and rather dry looking meringues than something that came out of the oven that morning.

Worst of all, perhaps, are the enormous cruise ships which appear out of the blue like the Battlestar Galactica, and – towering over the wonderful churches on the Giudecca – head slowly down towards the Lido. On their way, they disgorge tourists in large numbers, who don’t seem to spend much money and can’t be having a lot of fun on their brief sojourn in the city.

Even the most pacific of observers will long at some point for a Stinger heat seeking rocket launcher that would despatch the cruise ship in a puff of smoke once it’s safely beyond San Giorgio Maggiore.

But despite all this, the city somehow or another retains the capacity that it has always had to charm and enchant. St Mark’s Square may be disfigured by giant advertising hoardings, and the mask shops may have spread a little further from the centre than they did five years ago. But you don’t have to go too far to discover that this remains the most beautiful city in the world. And after about 10pm, when the day trippers have gone home and the tourists have moved on, you still have very large parts of the place more or less to yourself.

The message for those who want to discover or revisit the magic of the place is simple. Avoid the peak of the tourist season, where things can get very jammed and sticky. And don’t plan on just a fleeting visit.

If you are there just for a day or two and don’t know your way around very well, the chances are that you will soon be lost along with almost everyone else. Two weeks are better than one, and a month is better still. If you are really very lucky, and can manage to stay for three months, you get just about the best of everything.

Then it doesn’t matter if the church you’ve been longing to visit is unexpectedly closed: that happens in Venice, so try again tomorrow, or next week. Don’t dream of doing anything in the morning before you’ve taken a stroll down the Zattere, and had a leisurely cappuccino in the Campo San Stefano. And yes, do go out of your way to find that lovely cake shop you’ve been told about: it takes a little finding, but it still exists.

Don’t feel you have to storm around to see all those beautiful things that no-one can possibly afford to miss. Instead, pick them off slowly one after the other, and revisit them when necessary time and again. And on the way, you will find wonders that you have never heard of, and may not even rate a paragraph in the guidebooks.

The University of Warwick has had a footprint in Venice for more than forty years, and it’s hard to imagine anywhere that better captures the spirit of the place than its full-time base, the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava. Down a not very impressive alley to a palace that dates back to the fifteenth century; into an entrance hall that looks like something out of a Visconti movie; up the stairs into the piano nobile and – bang – there’s the stunning view out over the Canale della Misericordia as it heads on its way out to the lagoon.

History is all around you, and it’s not just the mask shops that suddenly feel a very long way away: so too, of course, does Coventry. Those fortunate students who have this as their base for the autumn term get a perspective on Venice that is closed to most of its other visitors. As a place for scholarship, for discussion, or for just simply sitting around, it’s quite simply in a league of its own.

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Around 16.5 million tourists now visit Venice every year; enormous cruise ships – maritime skyscrapers – dominate the Giudecca canal; tacky mask shops abound. But you can still find the essence of the city if you stick to a few simple rules: avoid the peak of the tourist season; don’t plan on just a fleeting visit; don’t feel you have to storm around to see all those beautiful things that no-one can possibly afford to miss. Instead, pick them off slowly one after the other, and revisit them when necessary time and again. And on the way, you will find wonders that you have never heard of, and may not even rate a paragraph in the guidebooks.

Sir Richard Lambert is Chancellor of the University of Warwick. Formerly editor of the ‘Financial Times’, he became Chairman of the Confederation of British Industry – the CBI – in 2006. On his retirement from the CBI at the end of 2010, he and his wife spent three months living in Venice and – just as Warwick students do during the Venice Term – got to know the city from an entirely different perspective.

Sir Richard Lambert

Sir Richard Lambert

Chancellor of the University

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