Queen of Tides: Once a route to riches and empire, the sea is now lapping at the future of Venice and other maritime cities
When I emerged for breakfast in my Venice hotel, a stylish establishment with fine furnishings and carpets, and a garden courtyard, there was a stench. Salt, sewage and seaweed had combined in a thick, rising miasma. The beautiful, ornate staircase led down to chaos. A round-faced, dark-haired boy aged about 10 stood at the top of the stairs, staring with some excitement down into the mess. He was a fellow guest and when he saw me about to descend, he pronounced solemnly: ‘Breakfast’s been cancelled. The kitchen’s flooded.’ Food deliveries had been disrupted, cooking was impossible, voices were raised.
Water had risen up from the foundations. The cobbled streets of Venice had become shallow canals. The same street-sellers who were flogging bags and trinkets yesterday were touting thigh-length plastic boots today. Outside the door of the hotel, people were ploughing through water up to their calves, tourists were stumbling towards their travel deadlines with suitcases above their heads, and in the Piazza San Marco they were up to their waists in seawater. Youngsters could swim under the campanile.
Even on days of normal tides, the Basilica di San Marco looks like a coral-encrusted jewellery box hauled up from the depths, a Neptune’s Palace cast in the corner of the square. The sea washed through it this day in an attempt to reclaim it, leaving the beautiful floor tiles glistening with its longing.
Venice is wedded to the Adriatic and the lagoon is its bridal bed. A thousand years ago, the Doge Pietro Orseolo II took his triumphant naval fleet to the sea entrance at the Lido and ceremoniously threw a diamond ring into the water, thus marrying his city to the Adriatic and securing Venice’s dominion over its waters and trade routes. Hundreds of rings are now somewhere in the mud and at least one was found inside a fish. The Bride of the Adriatic is built on the remnants of the Brenta river delta. She rests on mud, clay, stone and a forest of chestnut logs, and is protected from the sea by sand bars and sea walls. High tides have always threatened and enlivened the city and its lagoon.