The Ugly Side of Venice

Venezia Bella. You broke my heart.

When the vaporetto approached S. Zaccaria stop near Piazza San Marco, I was filled with anticipation. It was my second trip to Venice. The first was a whirlwind stay and I could barely wait to revisit some of the iconic sights that had captured my imagination.

Until I saw this.

Billboards in Venice

Ugly monstrosities in the form of massive advertisements covered the iconic buildings. A nightmare was realised. I’ve come all the way to Venice to see gigantic billboards?

Billboards Venice

By the time I shuffled past the crowds and stopped at the Bridge of Sighs, I wondered if you could ask a city for a refund. Awe-struck tourists posed for a snapshot. What was there to see and photograph?

Bridge of Sighs - Venice

Ponte de Sospiri was barely visible, dwarfed by fake skies and make belief clouds.

Bridge of Sighs - Venice Bridge of Sighs - Venice

Anyone paying for a gondola ride to see billboards must be happy to toss their euros in the canal. Venezia, you should bow your head in shame.

I looked around me as tourists shuffled about and posed for photographs. Young couples in love embraced under images of Geox shoes and Guess fashions. Ah… l’amore! Love can be blind indeed.

Piazza San Marco - Venice

Further along, Piazza San Marco was under the effects of Acqua Alta. But this inconvenient yet natural phenomenon paled in comparison to the giant Trussardi advertisement towering above the square.

Piazza San Marco - Venice

Granted, many of Venice’s buildings are in a state of disrepair and require sizeable funding for restoration. But hiding the beauty of the city with ugliness should come with a travel warning.

Don’t come here.

And that is exactly what the city is doing.

When I voiced my anger to my Italian relatives, Giuseppe, a Veneto-born resident was very passionate in his defence of the city’s decision to accept such advertising.

“Tourists aren’t spending money in Venice,” he explained. “One million visitors a day wander aimlessly, looking at the exterior of buildings. Nobody pays to see inside and learn about history and architecture. They may as well buy a book and look at it! The majority don’t eat at restaurants. They buy cheap panini or bring their food with them. Many don’t even stay overnight in Venice.”

True. We saw the evidence in overloaded vaporetti packed with day trippers from the assembly of mega cruisers docked near the lagoon.

He further explained the stress it has on natural resources. If every visitor did one pipi per day, that’s a lot of flushing toilets in a city that was never designed to accommodate a large number of people.

Venice is already sinking. Physically and figuratively. And we, as visitors are contributors.

Make no mistake. The Venetians don’t want us there and the idea of charging visitors €50 to enter the city has been the subject of heated debates. Would I pay such an amount for a day pass?

La Serenissima is no longer serene. The city itself is no longer a pleasure to be in. You may get lost through its narrow streets and stop at photogenic bridges but you can no longer lose yourself in the moment. Too many people do the Venetian shuffle. Tourists are constantly wheeling their luggage past you. Backpackers are bumping into you without a mere scusi. These are not large boulevards that can accommodate such traffic but tiny calle. Finding a spot for a pleasant passegiata is near impossible.

There is also another ugly side to Venice. The photograph below speaks in volume about how some tourists behave and this is not what the city wants to encourage.

Loitering tourists in Venice

I didn’t raise an eyebrow at the multilingual signs on rubbish bins forbidding tourists from littering, loitering, eating and drinking in Piazza San Marco.

Garbage Bin Sign - Venice

Experiencing Venice this time left me with a bitter after-taste. Two full days were spent navigating our way around closed streets during Acqua Alta and traipsing around on foot during a vaporetto strike. On another day, we escaped the enchanting and serene islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello away from ugliness and crowds.

When it came to bidding farewell, I left with mixed feelings and a heavy heart. I had enough frustration and not enough enjoyment. I was nostalgic for the feelings Venice had evoked during my first visit. Back then, I fell in love with its unique charms. I was serenaded by the sights. I was inspired by the whole experience, even found my writing muse.

As I walked towards Venezia Santa Lucia station on a train bound to Mogliano Veneto, I glanced over my shoulder for one last look. A giant Geox advertisement stood prominently across the lagoon.

Venice - quote

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The Ugly Side of Venice was last modified: December 20th, 2015 by Corinne Mossati

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Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is the Founder/Editor of popular online magazine Gourmantic and Cocktails & Bars, a website dedicated to cocktail culture and the discerning drinker. She is named in Australian Bartender Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential List, is a member of The Academy responsible for judging the World’s 50 Best Bars. She has also judged the inaugural Australasian Whisky Awards and various national cocktail competitions.

45 Comments:

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Ugly Side of Venice | Gourmantic -- Topsy.com

  2. Oh Corinne, I feel your pain! They were just putting up those monstrosities on my last visit. I thought they might simply be a cover-up for construction work or something. How sad that it is permanent advertising. I always felt sorry for the Venetians with us constantly overflowing their city. I hope they can find a helpful and beautiful solution to all this.

    • I feel for the people who live in Venice and have to put up with the massive crowds, especially workers carting off supplies to shops and having to navigate their around. I’m not sure if a 50 euro entry fee to the city is a viable solution. There are certainly monetary advantages but will it become the domain of those willing to pay and can afford it…

  3. I visited Venice 3 times in the 70’s. I am happy I saw it before these ugly advertisements became so common place. There must be other ways the people of Venice can entice visitors to spend money.

    • Like you, I cherish the vision of Venice from my first visit and that was in the early 90s. Although it was in the height of summer and it was busy, Venice was so beautiful and romantic. I can’t help but wonder what it will look like in the next 10 years.

  4. @Gourmantic – My love for Venice pushes me to disagree. The same way Times Square doesn’t embody NYC, those ads don’t embody all of Venice.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    • @jessicacolley Not all Venice, sure. But it’s 1st thing visitors see wch leaves a lasting impression. Many don’t even venture further afield.

      This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  5. No, no, no I don’t want to hear this. I love love love Venice and refuse to admit that it has an ugly side. This post has bothered me all day. I, like your relative, want to rush to Venice’s defense. But, I can’t completely defend Venice because what you say is true. Those bulletin boards are so ugly. I thought they were covering construction a year ago, but have learned they are there to stay. I doubt that the companies that place those ads actually have substantial increases in revenue from them. Che vergogna!

    There is a bigger problem, of which the bulletin boards are just an effect. Venice can’t sustain itself with the estimated 100,000 a DAY tourists that visit during peak months. And,too many people come to Venice only to trample on it and then check it off their list, while paying no/little attention to Venice beyond St. Marks Square, the Grand Canale and the Rialto Bridge? As your relative said, they don’t spend money on the museums, hotels, quality restaurants, or on things that would help to improve the city. Instead they buy pigeon fodder and “Venetian” masks imported from another country. Part of me favors a 50 euro (or even higher) day charge for those coming without staying overnight, except immaging the chaos of enforcing it changes my mind. Something does need to be done though….billboards aren’t the answer, but what is?

    • Che vergogna indeed!

      Covering up construction is a fact of life in parts of Europe, and when I compare it to the way Paris does it, often with a replica of the building underneath it, it upsets me more that the most popular parts of Venice are deliberately covered.

      Not sure how much revenue is being generated and whether it influences sales. One thing for certain, the brand GEOX (which I didn’t know before) is imprinted in my mind for ever. But not in a good way.

      I agree with your views in the second paragraph and I had a similar discussion with Giuseppe and family. Part of me favoured the 50 euros, provided it was a charge for those who are not staying overnight in the city. For those arriving by cruise ship, it wouldn’t be too difficult to administer. People often say there aren’t any good/cheap places to eat yet we found a few restaurants even behind Piazza San Marco that didn’t cost the earth and they served local cuisine. Maybe better education/information is an option? Not sure what the long term solution is. All I know is that I feel privileged to have seen Venice pre billboards. And I may even feature a tribute with older photographs in a future article.

  6. How disappointing! It’s been twenty years since I’ve been to Venice and I was disappointed then with just the scaffolding obstructing the buildings. That was nothing, apparently. Wish I had the answer to their economic woes.

    • Scaffolding is disappointing to see but at least you know it’s temporary and restoration is underway. As I mentioned in a comment above, I love the way Paris does it. Recently, the Arc de Triomphe was covered for restoration with a life size photograph of the arch. But in Venice, it is done mainly for monetary reasons. I hope they find a better solution soon, or future generations may be looking at a virtual Venice.

  7. I’ve nt been to Venice and I intend to see it one day for it’s beauty and architecture. It’s a shane that the place is now covered by billboard like a major city. I’m appalled to say the least. Sighs there goes another romantic dream

    • I’d take the romance out of your expectations and venture further afield than around the station, Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. It’s sad indeed and I wonder what future generations will make of it.

  8. The Ugly Side Of Venice – photos & story by @Gourmantic http://bit.ly/bk6d8f

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  9. Wow! I was in Venice just three years ago and it wasn’t this bad. I did feel it was just an amusement park, but these billboards are a sad addition. I can’t believe the negative effect of tourism on this city. Food Lover Kathy has it exactly right about the hoards of list checkers and souvenir buyers. My husband and I wandered around outside of the “sight seeing” area and were alone. Everyone sticks to the guidebook routes. We did pay to go into many of the museums and buildings and loved the knowledge we gained. It doesn’t seem like Venice will last much longer…

    • We were there the first time in the height of summer but before the cruise ships made it a regular stop, and it was busy and touristy but romantic and lovely all the same. I’m not sure when the billboards first made an appearance but it looks like they’re here to stay.

  10. The sad state of Venice. Such a tragically beautiful city. http://t.co/QX69NKq via @gourmantic

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  11. I saw a lot of advertising in Rome too and while my work in advertising paid for my current travels I also can’t help but feel disappointed. Some cities are too lovely for billboards.

  12. It’s all about money: no public funding, no financing, wild tourism and this is the result.

    Because of their age and fragility there will always be buildings to restore in Venice.

    For your information:
    The 2.8 million euro spent on the renovation of the Palazzo Ducale were entirely covered by advertising revenue. Unfortunately no other alternative nowadays.

    • It is very very sad. I would much rather learn that money from tourism (even the proposed 50 euro fee) is funding restoration than what is in essence defacing ancient buildings.

  13. Venice sucks. RT @2UNB The sad state of Venice. Such a tragically beautiful city. http://t.co/QX69NKq via @gourmantic

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  14. This really depresses me :( Heavy heart… RT @Gourmantic The Ugly Side of #Venice revealed in photographs http://bit.ly/aEye7p #italy

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  15. I agree, this is a very depressing sight indeed. Maybe the saddest photograph of all is the one about the tourist Venice being “the real Venice”. I have to say that when I lived in Italy, most of the people I met (expats) always planned day-trips to the city & very rarely considered staying overnight.
    It seems a very delicate issue – on the one hand the concern for preserving the beauty of a magnificent city & on the other, the desire of residents to protect their heritage while still trying to make a living. Very sad indeed.

    • That last photograph speaks volumes about the state of affairs and the varying opinions on Venice. I can understand if people are staying in nearby areas and visit for the day. On the other hand, you’ve got cruise ships around the canal pouring in people daily. Where does one draw the line?

      I wonder if we can ever go back to the times when tourist euros could fund restoration without compromising the future of the city.

  16. oh no! i love venice and have been several times – but those big billboards are such a shame…kind of breaks my heart to see them there. I’ve seen other cities that put up those things with pics of the buildings on them instead of ads. I guess something has to pay for restoration, but it really does change the feel of the place.

    • Photos of the buildings at least respect the work of art. Ads deface it, in my opinion. Such an eyesore in a beautiful city.

  17. I was in Venice at this time last year and was saddened to see these billboards around the place. I was repulsed at the time, outlining my disgust to my wife, but I admit to not knowing about the sad state that Venice is in, and how the tourism is not benefiting the city very much at all. In fact, I might have even somehow contributed to this very phenomenon, having been to Venice earlier before these boards went up.

    • Tourism isn’t always of benefit to a city even a country. Seems to me like Venice would be happy to just be, on its own, far from the hoards of tourists. But the problems would still be there and the lack of funding would still be an issue.

      Like you, I was outraged and once my relatives explained the situation to me, I still thought there had to be a better option. As for contributing to the demise, if you were to return, would you be mindful of spending a little more this time? I wonder how visitors will feel once they’re aware of the issues.

  18. Venice is one place I have purposely chosen not to visit because it is ruined and suffers from poor planning. Much like how Machu Picchu is fast becoming minus the tacky billboards. But that is what happens when people want to see history, experience a great culture and officials don’t plan accordingly with quotas or control speculators who come in by the dozen drooling at the thought of making millions. There has been much talk about controlling the tourist masses in Venice but little action has been taken. Until something is done for the sake of Venetians and their city (not ours) I don’t plan on visiting.

    • Frankly, it wasn’t an enjoyable visit this time. Much better going out to the islands where you get a feel of what it used to be like. I hope improvements are made and you get the chance to see it the way it used to be. It certainly is unique in so many ways.

  19. Yeah, I would be peeved if I went all the way to Venice and saw that. Was looking at the last picture, seems quite a few are upset and the direction that Venice is heading towards.

    • They have every right to be upset, then again so do the visitors when see have come a long way to see Venice and they get billboards instead. Hiding the Bridge of Sighs as they have done is unforgivable.

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  23. I almost choked when I saw those billboards on the plaza. I’m so glad they weren’t there when we visited. This almost makes me cry that the city allows this to happen :(

    • Sadly, Venice needs the funds and uses the billboards as justification. You’re very lucky if you didn’t see them. I hope when I return some day, I can see Venice the way I remember it from the first time.

  24. Have to agree. Anyone who knows me or has had a conversation with me about Venice knows that I just don’t like the city. It is overhyped, overcrowded, too expensive, and not a genuine destination. I’ve even talked about Venice on my Travel Tuesday question of the week as the most overrated destination. It’s not a real experience for people anymore but a tourist trap. Once you pay the huge prices for hotels, meals, and gondola rides, the rest of your time is spent with tourists while locals avoid you like the plague. There are some moments I enjoyed where I got lost in the back streets but Venice is not worth it.

    If you want a place with canals and a fun place to hang out that is interesting and lively with a culture that still thrives today, visit Brugge or Belgium

    • I think you’d be hard pressed to find a genuine experience in Venice if you’re only visiting for a few days, which is what the majority of people do. I found that visiting the islands was a more rewarding experience with less tourists and a slower pace – kind of what I imagine Venice would have been like at some point.

  25. When I saw the title of this post, I thought “impossible – there is no ugly side to Venice.” But when I saw the photos, I was horrified, much as you were. I’ve been to Venice twice, and it’s my favorite city in all of Europe. Seeing that advertising there is disheartening. I’ve actually spent a ton of money in that city. I’ve spent a total of four nights in “cheap” hotels (which were actually very expensive), eaten lots of food, ridden a gondola, traveled by water bus to other islands, and bought an extremely expensive glass decoration for my home. I’m sure other people likewise spend money, at least on hotels, food and transport and even maybe a gondola ride. I don’t think they need a 50 Euro fee to enter. Venice, what is happening to you?

    • If everyone spent the money, there would be no need for an entry fee. But when you see the volume of people who flock in on day trips off the cruise ships, these are the ones to be targeted as they rarely spend their euros.

  26. mmm.. i live in near Venice.. and i have to say that the billboards are to cover construction work(restructuring the building!!)
    yes venice gets flooded and a lot.. but… there is a new project that consists in closing the venice lagoon with a type of door (MOSE) that why it wont get flooded

    • Hi Nicolas and thank you for your comment. My relatives who live near Venice don’t mind the billboards so much but they ruined the experience for me. compared to Paris where they cover construction with replica images of the building, I can’t help but feel Venice has sold out.

      The new project sounds very interesting, I wonder if it will work efficiently and how much change to the Venetian way of life it will bring.

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