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December 03, 2008

Breakwater Blues, or Why in Venice Everything Is on the Second Floor

Venice flood
Photo: Luigi Constantini/AP Photo

by Guy Martin

The Adriatic is the gray-green soul of turbulence at all times of the year, but in the winter, with the bora and sirocco winds battering the eastern coast of Italy, Venice in particular gets pounded by the water. It's the wind (in combination with a few unfortunate tides) that pushes water into the Venetian lagoon and yesterday raised the city's water levels to a 22-year high. This is certainly a finalist in the acqua alta sweepstakes to destroy the world's most fragile 1,600-year-old aquatic urban experiment. 

Theatrics are always a part of the Venetian approach to life--how could they not be so in the birthplace of opera--and so Monday's disastrous five-foot tides (with only a slight retraction of the water this afternoon) have finally opened the Piazza San Marco as a playground for wakeboarders. Wind's up! Get your stick out of the closet!

A giant stage set of a city, Venice and its actors have become all the more crazy as the water has risen. For the last two days the city has been paralyzed. (Add to that a timely strike by some vaporetti workers; even the traditionally rickety acqua alta boardwalks are impassable.) People have started pulling on their fishing waders. But even for Venetians the thing about taking to the water is that you have to remember where the steps are. Given the opacity of the tons of sludge that wash in with an acqua alta, that can be tricky. 

But nothing--not even an epochal acqua alta--gets by in Venice without a huge argument in the political, economic, and artistic spheres. The larger acqua alta debate runs like this: The 30-billion-euro flood barrier named MOSE, or Moses (parting of the Red Sea, get it?), won't be in operation until 2011 at the earliest but is more likely to be completed in 2012. It will be made of 78 three-hundred-ton steel panels hinged together in the three lagoon openings--the Lido port entrance, Malamocco, and Chioggia--to stop the Adriatic waters from crawling into the city.

Half the town is for Moses. The other half, including the city's irrepressible mayor, Massimo Cacciari, and a plethora of environmental groups, isn't. Protesters, including Cacciari's famously radical nephew Tommaso, occasionally sail out to interrupt the construction at the three sites. Patrol boats guard the approximately 700 workers and the project.

Godspeed. There are some 2,200 high tides between now and the end of 2011, the completion date of the Moses gates . . . if the construction goes well.

In the meantime, if you live in Venice or are going there, check out Orvis for water-resistant wear. As most Mississippi Delta duck hunters know, the neoprene waders are strongly recommended for winter.   

Further reading:
* Insider's Venice: To visit Venice is to be steeped in centuries of tradition
* Read more Guy Martin posts from the road in Dispatches

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