Venice, the city built on water, is essentially a series of 117 islands crisscrossed by canals, connected by bridges, and surrounded by seawater. So if we wanted to get beneath the skin of the ‘City of Water’, it made sense to get on a boat.

For slow travellers like us, what better way to learn about Venice, the city built on water, and her islands and lagoon than aboard a bragozzo, a traditional Venetian skiff, with marine scientist Luca Zaggia, who leads Context’s Science and Secrets of Venice’s Lagoon tour.

Understanding Venice, the City Built on Water – By Boat

We meet Luca, a coastal oceanographer working for Venice’s Institute of Marine Science, and our skipper, Italo, at the Riva San Biagio, where we hop aboard our blue and white wooden bragozzo, with two visitors from Australia. Our aim is to learn about Venice, the city built on water – by boat.

Minutes later we’re gliding along the Rio della Tana around the fortress-like walls of the Arsenale, and Luca is pointing out damage to historic buildings and walls caused by the seawater, evident by the crumbling bricks and whole sections of collapsed walls. It’s already clear that poor old Venice is in serious trouble.

Venice’s greatest enemy has been the sea

“We lost 25cm to the sea in 100 years,” Luca says, as he points out the layers of protective white marble at the base of buildings. Originally inserted to protect the bricks that are vulnerable to the seawater, which causes them to crumble, they are now mostly underwater and covered in algae.

The ‘regolon’ or ‘big ruler’, as the white layer is called, was also effective in keeping building floors flat. I make a note to check if our palazzo has such a layer as our floors are as crooked as they come in Venice, this enchanting city built on water.

We cruise into the Darsena Grande, Venice’s medieval shipyards, and by its red-brick warehouses which host the city’s Art Biennale. As part of the area’s revitalisation, they will soon host research centres (including Luca’s), restaurants, and the hi-tech computer rooms that will operate the mobile gates of the MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) project, a controversial initiative aimed at protecting Venice from floods.

“Unfortunately the City of Venice is spending more money on restoring the building damage caused by water than solving the water problems,” Luca says, pointing to new reinforced walls and paving, and shaking his head.

As we cruise out between the Arsenale’s robust walls and tower once used for building masts, passing Isola San Pietro, Luca tells us that the towers were intended to give Venice a more powerful appearance.

“The Venetians were scared of a Turkish invasion,” he explains, spreading out a reproduction of an old map painted by a Turkish sailor, featuring a row of colossal defence walls in the sea. They were no doubt painted from his imagination, as Luca tells us there were never any such things on the barrier islands.

“The irony,” Luca says, smiling, “is that Venice’s greatest enemy has been the sea.”

Most Venetians want to see cruise ship visits halted

It’s almost impossible for a sailor who doesn’t know Venice’s lagoon, channels, and tides to sail through safely without guidance. The deep-water channels are narrow, there are many marshes and mud-flats, and in parts the shallow waters are only one metre deep.

Luca has serious concerns for the cruise ships that sail through the port on a daily basis. Not only because of the environmental damage they incur, but because it would be so easy for a ship to become stranded, particularly in a strong northeasterly wind, and disaster to strike.

But Venice has always made money from its port, since the very beginning of the islands’ history and the time of the Crusades when ships stopped here on their way to the East.

If anything, Luca believes, the City of Venice is planning to expand its port business, rather than reduce and regulate it – an idea repugnant to most Venetians, who want to see cruise ship visits halted.

It’s common to see melodramatic “Venice is sinking!” stories from time to time in the media, generally after an acqua alta or high water, which mostly occurs in winter, autumn and spring, but can also occur with less frequency in summer. However, of greatest concern is the pace that the water is rising and the environmental damage to the lagoon.

As we learn from Luca over the course of our four hour excursion, the problems of this city built on water are significant and complex.

A large integrated defence system to protect Venice

Italo takes us through a peaceful canal that slices lovely Isola le Vignole in half, where Luca reveals there is a good restaurant that only Venetians go to that we must try. “Tell the owner that I sent you!” Italo insists.

Once at the Lido inlet, we can see the dredging and other works where a system of 78 gates is being installed as part of the MOSE project, aimed at protecting the lagoon from storm surges and high water from the Adriatic Sea.

When the tide reaches more than 110 cm and up to a maximum of 3m, the mobile gates will be closed isolating the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Similar work is also underway at the other two lagoon inlets of Malamocco and Chioggia, through which the tide ebbs and flows.

MOSE is just one of a number of interventions that are part of a larger integrated defence system intended to protect Venice and its lagoon environment by slowing down degradation caused by subsidence and erosion from wave motion and wash.

Quays are being raised, walls around island shores are being rebuilt, marshes and mudflats are being reinforced and reconstructed, and lagoon canals and channels are being dredged.

In the Porto Marghera industrial area, contaminated canals are being sealed, islands formerly used as industrial waste dumps are being revitalized, and polluted sediments are being removed.

We slow down in front of the imposing fortifications of Sant’Andrea on the island of Certosa at the Lido inlet to see the low level openings where an impressive 46 cannons once scared off any enemies, including Napoleon. Fired only twice, they were said to sound and feel like an earthquake and look like a volcano erupting.

Luca points out how much higher the water is now, lapping into the lower part of the openings.

As Venice is sinking, its population is shrinking

On our way back into the lagoon we pass some fresh wooden pilings being installed to replace old pilings being eaten by shipworms. According to Luca, if it wasn’t for the worms, the pilings could last forever as long as the wood was beneath the mud and had no contact with oxygen, and therefore remained strong, almost petrified.

Turbulence from boats compounds the problem by removing sediment and exposing the pilings. A potent bacteria had protected the wood from the pilings, the same bacteria that breaks down the untreated effluence that is discharged from Venetian buildings straight into the canals.

We cruise into shallow waters in the centre of the lagoon, a long way from any land, and come across a dozen or so people seemingly walking upon water – that’s how low the water level is here – while their friends sunbathe and snooze on their boats and dinghies nearby.

Luca reveals that they’re searching for clams and razor clams, but this is nothing, he tells us. Tomorrow (Sunday) there’ll be hundreds of boats here, as there are few things more typically Venetian to do on a weekend than picnic on the lagoon.

And now it’s our turn to do as the locals do. Italo pulls out bread rolls, prosciutto and cheeses, while Luca pops open a bottle of prosecco and pours us all some sparkling wine.

Over lunch in the boat, we learn that while Venice, this city built on water, is sinking, its population is shrinking.

And one of the city’s many problems, as far as its water quality is concerned, is a reluctance on the part of its older population to spend money on introducing septic tanks to treat water before it enters the canal.

Venetians can smell a flood coming

A high tide is expected at midnight that night, when St Marco’s square is due to flood, Luca reveals. He has checked a website, which locals can subscribe to, which offers a text message service advising them of expected tide levels.

“But Venetians can smell a flood coming,” Luca confides. “We can smell the algae in the wind and we know to take our rainboots!”

As the sky is quickly darkening to a slate grey as a storm begins to move in, we push on.

We pass the agricultural island of Sant’Erasmo, the former monastery island of San Francesco del Deserto, and Burano, famous for its lace, as we make our way toward the tranquil island of Torcello for a bathroom stop – and to watch a local wedding as it turns out.

On our way back to Venice, Italo and Luca bring out a bottle of sweet wine and some buranelli, typical Venetian biscuits, to dip in the wine, as is the local custom.

As we pass some lush marshes Luca points out the ‘sausages’ created from rolls of oyster shells that have been placed around their perimeter to protect the marshes from the tides and the short but damaging waves from small boats.

Luca is pleased to see a lot of regeneration on the marshes that form one of Europe’s largest wetland areas.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be messing with nature”

Also following old customs, our traditional boat makes a speedy short cut straight across the shallow waters, because its motor is smaller and it does less damage to the lagoon.

The speedboats and ferries, on the other hand, have to take a longer route between the deeper waters marked by pilings.

As I watch the boats bump across the water, I now cringe, imagining the damage being done to Venice’s fragile environment.

We cruise by the Arsenale into the canals of the Castello, one of Venice’s most authentic old neighbourhoods.

“Sometimes, I think, this is what the Venetians have always done, since the beginning…,” Luca says, as he looks at the grand palazzi that line the canals. Since 421, to be precise, when mainland farmers fled to the lagoon’s marshy islands to escape invaders, and first began building their new home on water.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be messing with nature,” Luca suggests. “Maybe we should just let nature take care of itself.”

Click through to learn more about Venice, the city built on water, on Context’s Science and Secrets of the Lagoon tour. Get Luca’s Venice tips in his Local Knowledge interview.

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