The 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 intrepid “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 acqua alta will be gone in just a couple of hours.
Like clockwork, it is! With centuries of experience under their belts, Venetians, to a person, pretty much know when aqua 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 between the Grand and Giudecca Canals — 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, 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 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 to sea.
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 it wasn’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.
©The Palladian Traveler