Venice Splashed by Aqua Alta
Story and photos by Tom Weber
late Robert Benchley, a 20th century American humorist, newspaper columnist
and Hollywood actor, was sent packing to Europe one summer by good friends
and fellow film stars David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Niven and Fairbanks put their heads together
and, like a reputable travel agency, mapped out Benchley's sojourn,
which included a stop in Venice.
Immediately upon arriving in La Serenissima,
Benchley sent a five-worded cable to Niven. It read: Streets full
of water. Advise.
His short, to-the-point funnygram was obviously
sent tongue-in-cheek, but if dearly departed Benchley had come to Venice
in wintertime, that note to Niven would've been alarmingly true. I know,
because I'm here right now, in St. Mark's Square, watching Europe's
"drawing room" tread water.
Either shocking or somewhat entertaining
to tourists, Venetians just take the extra splashes in stride, with
feet tucked inside colorful rubber boots, whenever the level of the
Adriatic Sea crests above and beyond and starts flowing into the calle
(streets) of the City of Canals.
So common is this phenomena, and so routine
the reaction to it by residents of the former Most Serene Republic of
Venice, that it has its own name that's become imbedded in the Italian
lexicon: ACQUA ALTA (high waters).
Earlier today, my band of merry media,
guests of Insight Vacations' Country Roads of Italy itinerary,
went on an
informative walk around parts of the Centro Storico (historic
center) with "Granny Annie," Insight's resident Venice expert.
When questioned about the high waters by
a member of our group, Anna replied, "We're quite an innovative
people, we Venetians, and take whatever Mother Nature throws at us with
a smile." She added, "Don't worry, the aqua alta will
be gone in just a couple of hours.
Like a finely tuned Swiss timepiece, the
water begins to ebb back out to sea. With centuries of experience under
their belts, Venetians, to a person, pretty much know when the acqua
alta will arrive and when it'll recede. It's as if the onslaught
of high waters is an accepted routine, just part of everyday life for
the anonimo veneziano.
According to the city's Centro Maree
Comunale (City Tide Center), if there's a sea level forecast of
+110 cm or higher on the mareographic zero the conventional reference
point, or Punta della Salute, measured in front of the ornate
Basilica Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal the population
is alerted by high-pitched, acoustic sirens that sound around the areas
predicted to be affected, along with text messages sent directly to
their handhelds, much like a gondolier dropping off his fare.
While folks are being forewarned of the
imminent arrival of saltwater delivered to their front doors and shops
courtesy of Mare Adriatico, city workers fly into action erecting
passerelle elevated wooden platforms that serve as temporary
walkways for pedestrians to get around the affected areas and remain
"Acqua alta is not a dangerous
phenomenon," so reads the city administration's online bulletin.
"It's important to understand that, most of the time, high tides
cause very limited inconvenience to residents and tourists." The
bulletin goes on to remind everyone to just be patient and wait a few
hours for the next ebb tide to carry the excess water back out into
No longer fearing a deluge of Biblical
proportions, I hop atop the nearest passerella and join the masses
for a walk on water, knowing that, like Allstate Insurance, I'm in good
hands with these maritime-minded veneziani.
After the "boardwalk" stroll,
I find a neighborhood within the Centro Storico that's relatively
dry and pop into a bar for a quick, late lunch.
In between bites and sips, I chat it up
with the cute barista, born and raised right here, and ask her to enlighten
me on the aqua alta phenomenon.
She pauses for a moment, gives the question
some serious thought, then smiles and says, "It's a part of who
we Venetians are. We accept aqua alta almost as if it's our duty,
because if weren't for water, calm or otherwise, there simply wouldn't
be La Serenissima."
I pay my tab, leave the change on the counter
and walk out the door thinking, Good answer.
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If you're up for it, I'll see you down
at the gondola landing in about an hour. There's an accordion player
who wants to serenade us around some canals. Right now, I've gotta head
back to the hotel and blow-dry my shoes.
Ciao for now.
Rua: Vicenza's Wheel of Fortune; Piazza
dei Signori, Vicenza; The
Little Village Atop the Hill (Castelluccio di Norcia); Norcia,