Durable Growth

Venice 2007: From travel planning to arrival at Marco Polo Airport

Gondola under Rialto Bridge

Gondola under Rialto Bridge

As I wrote in my previous post, I’m giving myself a gift for the holiday season and likely also for the beginning of the New Year.  For as long as the material lasts, I’ll take a respite from my three post per week schedule by devoting Friday posts to a visit I made to Venice in 2007.

I’ll be starting with material I wrote back in 2007 and editing it to highlight urbanist insights from the travels.  But I won’t strip all the color.  I was still an awestruck observer in a remarkable city.  I’ll let that reality show through.  Along with the humor I found in trying to survive in a place where my only words in the local language were “birra media”.  (That would be a medium beer.  If I ever go again, I need to learn the phrase for a large beer.)

I hope you enjoy traveling with me.

Travel Planning: Spending two weeks in Venice by myself in the late spring of 2007 was a fortunate result of an unfortunate circumstance.

In the winter of 2007, my wife and I, after several trips to England but only one long weekend in Paris, decided that we needed to spend more time on the European continent.  We coordinated our calendars, adjusted our finances, and began making plans.

Italy was our destination of choice, but we struggled to settle on particular destinations.  Rome, Florence, and Venice all held interest, but we knew that we couldn’t do justice to all three in only two weeks of travel.  Plus, there were many smaller cities that we hoped to visit by day trips.  Sorting out our choices was a good problem to have, but a conundrum regardless.

And then fate intervened.  While doing backyard cleanup, my wife slipped and partially tore her hamstring.  I still remind her that she’s the only person I know to sustain serious injury while picking up dog poop.

I arrived home to find the dogs awaiting me at the front door, eager for dinner, while my wife lay on the back patio, in the rain, awaiting assistance.  We didn’t have any Lassies in our household.

My wife recovered quickly, but didn’t think she’d be ready for the walking involved in an Italian vacation.  Looking ahead, we didn’t see another opportunity for a joint vacation, so she encouraged me to go on my own.  I should have argued more strenuously for another resolution, but the vision of an extended exploration of Venice rose before me and I capitulated.

Although I still regret that she wasn’t with me.

Destination Selection: It’d be easy to write that Venice intrigued me because of its walkability, but it wouldn’t be accurate.

For one, Venice isn’t particularly walkable.  Yes, there are no cars to dodge and the city is likely as flat as any place on earth (conforming to sea level will do that), but virtually every canal crossing, of which there are an uncountable number, involves climbing and descending stairs.  Venice is a city-wide violation of handicapped access rules.

And then there’s the fact that Venetian soils are generally too weak to support elevator shafts, so most housing is walk-up.

There are few daily tasks that can be completed without crossing a handful of canals.  The elderly speak of the fear of being forced to leave their beloved city when growing infirmity prevents them from easily traversing stairs.

Gondola on Rio

Gondola on Rio

No, it was the otherworldliness of Venice that attracted me.  It was a place where the inhabitants were securely in the first world, but were dealing with a physical setting that was vastly different from the average city.  In the future, as climate change, peak oil, and municipal finances begin to change our world, we’ll need to adapt a new reality.  Visiting Venice was a chance to observe how to adapt to a vastly different set of circumstances while still retaining a vibrant human culture.

And so I went there.

The Flight: Trans-Atlantic flights are never easy, but my flight to Venice went as well as possible.  My first landing in Europe was in Zurich, from where I was to catch a plane to Venice.

I was concerned about the forty-five minute layover in Zurich, fearing that passport control would require much of the interval.  But there was no passport control, just a walk to the departure gate and a cursory confirmation that my passport and ticket matched.  (But it was a long walk; the Swiss don’t believe in inter-terminal buses or pedestrian belts.  It was good training for walks about Venice.)  I was at the gate and approved for boarding with twenty minutes to spare.

The flight from Zurich to Venice was spectacular.  Only about fifty-five minutes in the air, but almost all of it over the Alps and Dolomites.  Even where cloudy, there were a profusion of peaks popping through the tops of the clouds.

And when it cleared, it was astonishing to have an aerial view of the Swiss way of life.  Wherever water formed a valley or a plain between peaks, there was a community.  Sometimes as many as a hundred homes and sometimes as few as two.   Everywhere there was even a trace of inhabitable land, it was inhabited.  There could be no better visual evidence of why the Swiss rarely fought wars.  There was little of value to potential conquerors, but there were tremendous logistical problems and the fierce determination of the Swiss to stay where they are.

One could look at those isolated villages and think of them as the antithesis of urban, but I’d disagree.  The communities were largely walkable and very self-sufficient.  Although many were tiny compared to what Americans might conceive as urban, they were truly walkable urban microcosms.

When the master planning for Tolay Lake Regional Park near Petaluma was begun, ideas were solicited from the general public.  I thought back to those Swiss villages I’d seen from the air and suggested that a small village might be appropriate, a place for park employees and for seniors who preferred the quiet of nature in their later years.  Nor need it be a car-intensive place.  Scheduled shuttles could take residents to Petaluma for occasional shopping or other chores.  I wasn’t asked to participate any further in the planning.

As the Dolomites dropped behind us, we flew over the Veneto plain, with quick looks at Verona and Padua before swinging over Venice.  It wasn’t a particularly pretty day in the Venetian lagoon, but when the founders of Venice based their civilization in a malaria-ridden swamp, they were looking for safety from the Huns, not bluebird days.

Canareggio from the Grand Canal

Canareggio from the Grand Canal

Passport control at Marco Polo Airport (how cool is that name?) was barely more burdensome that the passport check in Zurich.  With the luggage also delivered quickly, I was soon left to find my way around this marvelous place in which I had little grasp of the language or the culture.  I hadn’t progressed more than a few hundred feet before I hit my first snag.  Which is where I’ll start next Friday.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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