Spires in galoshes

BRIAN JOHNSTON
Last updated 15:18 05/05/2014
Venice
Brian Johnston

PICTURE PERFECT: A reflection of the Basilica bounces off the water in St Mark's Square.

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Before we even arrive in Venice, the naysayers are moaning.

A combination of full moon, high tides and rain-sodden winds are threatening another acqua alta, those tourist-annoying high tides that regularly submerge Venice.

Yet though I'm bootless and umbrella-free, I'm secretly pleased that our arrival coincides with the city's most infamous event. There's nowhere else can you see a city submerged, secure in the knowledge that it isn't a natural disaster but a predictable event that locals take in their stride.

Next morning, as I leave my hotel, city workers are setting up passerelle, elevated wooden walkways on metal legs. Shop owners slot metal barriers across the thresholds of their doors.

At 9.50am an alarm sounds: a dull beep like a reversing truck that barely penetrates over clanging church bells. The more frequent the tone, the higher the tide expected. The beeping sounds urgent. Water is slopping over the landing steps of the Grand Canal and bubbling up through grates in the flagstones of St Mark's Square.

Fifteen minutes later, water is sopping between cafe chairs by the Rialto Bridge. Stall owners set out lurid yellow or purple plastic boot-coverings, outrageously priced at €18 (NZ$28.8). Water rises and I have to find an alternative alley to the Rialto markets.

Soon I'm a little lost. I go from squares packed like battery-hen farms with tourists into empty back alleys where water slaps against apartment blocks. Cracks appear in the clouds and the sun throws pale light on to gargoyles and gateways.

By 10.45am I'm down on the waterfront, where deformed pigeons hobble on pink legs. Water laps the Doge's Palace and is now ankle-deep along the shopfronts that line the northern side of St Mark's Square. The cafes opposite are as yet unaffected. In one, a pianist determinedly plays, like a musician aboard the Titanic.

I finish my coffee as seawater laps at my toes, but am still able to hop across dry patches and on to a passarelle that brings me to St Mark's Basilica. Water has covered mosaic floors under the gold-leaf porticos, providing the feel of wanton Roman baths.

Venice's acqua alta is caused when high tides in the northern Adriatic coincide with a warm sirocco from North Africa, usually between September and April. Low-pressure systems and heavy rain combine to worsen the effect.

Media reports of particularly bad acqua alta - such as those that hit at the end of 2012 - show pictures of miserable tourists trudging through floods with their suitcases. Yet so far, I've kept my socks dry. Tides can rise 85 centimetres and not be too bothersome, flooding only the area around St Mark's Square, the city's lowest point.

Apart from unforeseen plunges between pavement and canal, there are few dangers in this flooding. Because they've happened for centuries, they do little damage to foundations; Venetians worry more about cruise-ship wash and vibrations.

Acqua alta conditions are predicable and the city well prepared. High tides are announced on a website, in newspapers and on noticeboards around town. As a tourist, you'll be well warned by the clang of arriving passarelle. There are maps of walkway routes if you don't want to get your feet wet.

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Acqua alta is more an inconvenience to tourists than locals. Fussy tourists beat a retreat, but ordinary life goes on, allowing a momentary glimpse into a more normal Venice. After all, Venetians are used to water. Everything here is floated in and hauled on to wharfs, and life is lived to the rhythm of boat timetables. The ebb of tides is the blood pressure of the city.

I'm happy. The dense crowds of a previous, sunnier visit are absent. I have warm clothes and my Henry James novels. The streets may be damp, but I can lose myself in a labyrinth of sad beauty.

There are things to dislike about Disneyland Venice, but its wondrous theatrical allure touches your soul. Besides, it might be winter, but the floods have made people slightly giddy, like little kids let loose in the mud. Adults in galoshes splash, and smiles are sunny.

I take a ride on the harbour. You can complain about the bad weather, or you can admire the raw sky-scapes of bloated purple clouds that drift over sun-touched campaniles and cupolas. By the time I return to St Mark's Square, blue sky has emerged. Turrets and towers are reflected in the floodwaters in a shimmer of gorgeous architecture.

The water usually falls after four hours unless winds are particularly strong. By 2am it's already trickling down drains in St Mark's, but only a ridge in the centre of the square is water free. Still, waiters in gumboots are putting out chairs and, in the Bar Americano, staff sweep the last water out with brooms. An hour later, tourists are pulling off their plastic shoe-covers.

The walkways are already stacked up on the route to my hotel. Venice's mad crowds emerge once more. Shopfronts clang open, and North Africans spread leather handbags across still-damp pavements.

The Venice that everyone wants is back but, in the frantic pace of this battered peep-show of a town, the flood has slowed things for a moment, and created moments of magic.

The writer travelled courtesy of Insight Vacations.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Fly to Dubai and then to Venice (6hr 40min); see emirates.com.

GETTING AROUND Insight Vacations offers several Italian tours that include Venice, such as its 16-day "Country Roads of Italy" tour from A$5025 (NZ$5384) which takes in Rome, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Umbria, Tuscany and Venice. See insightvacations.com.

MORE INFORMATION venice-tourism.com.

- FFX Aus

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