Everything I'd ever heard about Venice led me to think that it would be the most inconvenient city I would probably never visit. It has a certain hype that I know my innate dour core — a by-product of being an Englishman — would grunt at, pretend it was nice and subsequently moan about it down the pub when I got back. Whereas in actual fact, I think it does have a some sort of special charm and, before you ask, no, it didn't smell, so maybe bear that in mind if you're reeling back to a previous visit.
The most direct comparison I had in my mind before I went, which, in a weird way made sense to me, was Paris. Paris is one of those gems that everyone has on their bucket-list: that non-Europeans absolutely laud over; but that bigger city Europeans don't ever get around to actually visiting for it being too cliché or packed full of tourists. It might be the water, but then that's almost every city. Maybe because it's one of the cities of love, or it could just be that I've only really heard people say derogatory things about it. I couldn't help but find parallels between Paris and Venice in this regard. Venice, however, fell short of bridal / wedding photography in front of iconic attractions (though not completely lacking), and the station wasn't anything like Gare du Nord — but that's for another article later down the line.
So, let's break it down. Is it actually too cliché? In reality, no. Where else are you going to find a city that is completely riddled with canals in a way that only nouveau East Londoners can attest? €80 for half an hour on a Gondola is probably a welcome sight in comparison to what you'd pay for bottomless brunch on a Hackney Wick barge. But that's the real charm. There's no traffic, no real hustle and bustle (unless you manage to catch or be a part of one of the tourist groups). Its tiny winding streets seem to catch you out every single time. You manage to end up right back where you started, but not really caring about which way to go. It's quite a liberating feeling. The main attractions have their fair share of gawkers and it can feel like trying to navigate Oxford Circus at times, but rest assured, the majority of the city feels significantly more Oxford, significantly less circus.
The charm of the water comes with the caveat of having to traverse it. It's only really a problem you notice if you can see your destination across the canal, but can't see anywhere to cross. If by chance you're dizzy from going up and down the multitude of bridges (this is a thing), there are an abundance of places to drop into, grab a bite of something delicious, maybe treat yourself to a drink and be on your merry way again.
Now this is the thing, from the copious amounts of Spritz I watched being prepared for me, it suddenly hit me. "La dolce vita" or "dolce far niente", or whatever the Italian phrase is that's doing the rounds on TikTok.
It sums up perfectly the Italian way of living, and no more so than in Venice itself. The undue care in the way the Spritz is prepared — being created rather than curated as most drinks are — leads to an individual experience that you try and come back to or replicate. In many other cities in Europe, you ask for a drink and it is meticulously measured and weighed to provide you with a sterile experience that is guaranteed by the brand serving it to you. But here, it's a dash of this, a healthy heap of that, and the environment is the catalyst for the entire adventure. The same goes for food, too. You can never quite put your finger on what's missing, you can try and take cooking della casa to yours but it won't be as good. I could wax lyrical and say it's the amore that it's prepared with, but it's the general outlook on life, and with a Spritz coming in at €3.50 a go, they can keep giving me as much life as they want.
The pricing of food and drink in Venice came as a huge shock. Getting two €20 notes as well as coins back from a €50 was mind-warping. When the expectation of it costing at least €15 was met with that reality, I had the feeling it was going to be a longer day for my liver than my wallet. If you look in the third photo from left below, you can see the prices for a small glass of wine and you'll see exactly why I made more pit-stops than an F1 driver.
Other than tourism, though, it is hard to know what actually happens in Venice. As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine the city without visitors and you don't see a huge amount of 'work' going on. If there is a business quarter, it isn't as immediately obvious as it is in other places, and I don't remember seeing a single briefcase or someone speaking anything more than nonchalantly on the phone. The city thrives on visitors, and when the sun shines, Venice can hold a tune.
I can only speculate — for now — what Venice is like in the winter, but I can imagine it being the opposite of what I've said so far. It must become a health and safety nightmare with millions of steps up and down and a Crash Bandicoot-esque level of slipping and sliding to avoid ending up in the water. But I don't think I could ever doubt its perennial beauty, and the longevity it has of being one of the go-to destinations in Europe.
Venice is more of a traditional city trip rather than an out-and-out adventure to beguile your mates with, and perhaps it's one that inspires more love than it actually helps to forge.
If it doesn't smell when you actually visit that is.
And also, how the hell do people actually live there? Getting furniture down some of those streets and into apartments must be a nightmare…
Words + Photography by Luke Alland, using Leica's Q2 Reporter.