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Country Roads: Aqua Alta in Venice
Country Roads:
Venice Splashed by Aqua Alta

Story and photos by Tom Weber

he 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.

crossing a Venice street during aqua alta on a temporary walkway

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.

the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal

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.

local resident clearing out water from the aqua alta

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 dry.

"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 the Adriatic.

scenes of Venice at aqua alta

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.

barista pouring wine

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.

For complete information on Insight Vacations' 12 Italian premium and luxury-escorted itineraries and over 100 journeys throughout Europe, just click HERE, or call toll free (888) 680-1241, or contact your travel agent.

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.

Related Articles:
La Rua: Vicenza's Wheel of Fortune; Piazza dei Signori, Vicenza; The Little Village Atop the Hill (Castelluccio di Norcia); Norcia, Umbria

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Let Tom know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Destination Bosnia: Inside Sarajevo's Tunnel of Hope

Spent time in Sarajevo in the fall of 1973…beer was excellent!

--- David

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Hi Tom,

I must say, you're photographs are always amazing. They are top notch. You bring so much class to Traveling Boy. It's photographs like yours that make me want to go out and do my own traveling. Please don't get tired of sending us your amazing adventures. It's such a delight for the soul.

--- Raoul, Whittier, CA

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Hi Tom:

I'm also an American living in Italy. I've read with interest your blog and articles. I'd like to speak with you regarding residency and citizenship for Americans in Italy as you do seem to have a great deal of knowledge on all of these subjects. Would it be possible to give you a call on the phone? If so, please let me know how to reach you. If not, I can ask my questions via email.

Thank you!

--- David

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Hey Tom – Wow! Love those photos – they are so super that they make me A) Want to start eating NOW. B) Go there myself. C) See all that pristine beauty that looks so restful and peaceful. Great story, superb pix!!! Bravo!!

--- John, Los Angeles, CA

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Feedback for Destination Southwestern France: Saint-Émilion

Good job, Tom, and timely info. St. Émilion is in the list of places Jim Hayes and I will visit in September 2014. If we get the chance, we will exploit your experience to enhance the trip!

--- Bobby Harper, Dameron, MD

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Feedback for Vicenza Walks – Monte Berico

I lived in Vicenza for 4 years in the U.S. ARMY from 1963 to 1967. A wonderful place to explore. Palladio’s works are amazing. Have been back twice since and find new places to visit. My favorite is MONTE BERICO where I have some wonderful photos of my family.

--- Dr. Albert Pizzi, Hanover, MA

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I liked the new TB particularly the Vicenza article that took me back as a youth when we lived in Naples and travelled up there for a baseball tourney (U.S. Military Bases dependent schools played each other.)

Took me back to the plaza.

--- Bill

Feedback for A Canterbury Trail (Sutri)

Very interesting note. I have wedroned which route the early pre-Christian and Christian pilgrims travelled to Rome from England. Is it still possible to travel the Francigena trail?

--- Pawel

You can find out more info on walking tours of Via Francigena at this site: Thanks for stopping by and commenting..


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Good article, enjoyed reading it. Saved your recommended sights for future use.

--- Dardenne Prairie, MO

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You're going to be great at this Tom. Congrats.

--- Donna Vissa -Montreal

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