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Tossing Lines: An accomplice to the death of Venice

September has come and gone, and I miss Venice, Italy.

Our viral travel woes have me reminiscing about past journeys, and September means Venice, for both of my visits to the city of romance occurred in September.

To fully grasp and appreciate the history, beauty, and culture of the world we live in, the sheer romantic possibilities of civilization, one must visit Venice.

But time is of the essence, as Venice is under siege from forces intent on destroying it, and I am, regretfully, part of the problem.

There’s nothing like wandering through Venice on sunny afternoons, down narrow, residential alleyways so quiet you can hear your footsteps echoing off the stone buildings rising above you, bright with flowery window boxes. There are no cars in Venice, and the resulting peace is tinged with spirituality. One can feel the guilty, uninvited intrusion of the tourist.

I’ve explored its cozy piazzas (town squares) with their fountains and ristorantes. Beautiful architecture silently tells 10,000 historical tales of war, royalty, prisoners and secret liaisons through centuries. Ornate palaces and ancient churches exude a depth of history newborn America cannot imagine.

I’ve experienced solitary moments at small, ancient pedestrian bridges, where gondolas float by in unearthly silence but for the quiet dip of their oars in the canal, a respectful nod the only communication from gondoliers unwilling to insult the moment by speaking aloud. Surreal, a thousand years of history suffuses your mind in the moment.

But the real magic arrives at dusk, as purple hues settle over bell towers and canals, as lights from windows and doorways spill out onto sidewalks, illuminating waiters at outdoor cafes snapping crisp white cloths over intimate tables for two by the canals.

Wandering the city at night, discovering the inviting glow of unexpected shops and cafes down darkened alleys is a wondrous pleasure. Venice at night is a different city: quiet, intimate, a savory, sensual feast.

But, alas, I am the enemy of the enchanting beauty, as both of my visits to Venice have been tied to cruise ships, and it’s those monstrous vessels and the waves of tourists they deliver that are killing Venice.

Hundreds of mega-ships visit Venice each year, towering over the city, causing wave damage, pollution, overcrowding, and health risks.

Moored ships near congested populations keep auxiliary engines running to power onboard services, causing air pollution from fuels 2,700 times dirtier than road fuels that eat away at historic buildings, and increase local residents’ risk of respiratory problems, impaired pulmonary function, risk of cardiovascular disease, asthma, chronic bronchitis and even lung cancer.

The fine particles produced by diesel engines have been labeled Type 1 carcinogens. Oncologists in Venice have recorded a “significant excess” of lung tumors.

Besides pollutants, gargantuan cruise ships further denigrate Venice by disgorging a tsunami of tourists, adding to the 30 million visitors who overcrowd the city far beyond its capacity each year, clogging the local transport system, and increasing vaporetto (water taxi) traffic, causing more wave damage and pollution.

Equally detrimental, serious social changes threaten the city.

Salvatore Settis, Venice resident and author of “If Venice Dies,” says the rich and famous have arrived, driving up prices in the real estate market as they overpay for homes they’ll visit five days a year. Luxury hotels have taken the place of apartments, medical practices and stores. Municipal offices have moved to the mainland to make room for tourism real estate needs, taking the city center with them.

Local jobs have become service-oriented as businesses adapt to the overwhelming tourism culture, changing the very fabric of Venetian life, destroying the social cohesion of residents.

Young Venetians flee tourism’s degradation, flocking to the mainland for jobs and housing, leaving neighborhoods socially decimated. Venice’s population fell from 174,808 in 1951 to 56,072 in 2015.

Mariarita Signorini, president of Italia Nostra (Our Italy), protector of Italy’s cultural and natural heritage, wants the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to put the city on its List of World Heritage in Danger, claiming “unbridled tourism, a steady exodus of longtime residents and environmental decay pose a huge threat to the city’s survival.”

And, as if all this wasn’t enough, Venice continues its age-old fight against “aqua alta,” the “high water” menace.

The city is sinking and leaning towards the east. Rising sea levels flood Venice regularly, leaving many ground floors of buildings unusable and vacant, surrendered to the sea. Solutions are few, inadequate, and extremely expensive.

Venetians worry their city and lives are becoming an out-of-control theme park, with the acquiescence of a government driven by money.

Venetians also say the city belongs only to them, but, formed over thousands of years, Venezia is a gift of spectacular history and artistry that belongs to the world, and it’s the world who needs to save her.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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