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A few years ago, I went to Venice during its acqua alta season. Some tourists travel to Venice specifically for the acqua alta. Others avoid Venice at this time. I did not know about it until my travel companion and I arrived during our European vacation. It was quite a unique experience, and one that I am glad I had the chance to see firsthand!
Looking for more crazy travel stories? Check out this one about The Time I Tried to Go to Nicaragua!
What is the Acqua Alta?
The official Venice CityPass website describes the acqua alta as “nothing more than a spike in the high tide affecting the city in the Fall and Winter”. The Adriatic Sea, to which the Venice Lagoon is connected, experiences daily tidal waters caused by the moon. These tides occur year-round. When they are accompanied by scirocco, strong winds crossing the Mediterranean that push water into the Lagoon where the city of Venice sits, the acqua alta occurs. An odd experience for visitors, the acqua alta has occurred in Venice every year for hundreds of years, so it is part of daily life for inhabitants.
Experiencing the Acqua Alta
When I lived in London, I had a week break “for studying” in early November. Seeing as final exams were not until mid-December, I instead decided to use this week for traveling. A friend from Boston came across the pond to travel with me for the week. We agreed to spend the first half of the week in Barcelona and the second half in Venice. Our timing was purely based on my schedule.
During our pre-vacation research we read about gondola rides, Aperol spritzes, the Piazza San Marco, Dodge’s Palace, and this phenomenon called acqua alta. I had heard rumors about Venice “sinking”, but thought it was sinking in the same way the Maldives are sinking: because ocean levels are rising very slowly, one day low-lying lands will be fully covered with water. However, the Maldives aren’t facing this fate until at least 2030. It is not an annual occurrence like the acqua alta.
Arrival in Venice: Dry Land
I was hopeful my friend and I would experience the acqua alta during our trip after reading about it. To my disappointment, the sidewalks and piazzas were bone dry when we arrived on a Thursday afternoon. This did give us time to spend the afternoon and evening wandering around Venice’s streets, exploring the city and trying to get lost among its many twists and turns. We headed for the Ponte Rialto, crossed the Grand Canal, enjoyed a glass of Italian wine at an outdoor cafe, stopped in a few shops selling murano glass souvenirs, and ended the night eating squid-ink pasta and drinking our first Aperol Spritzes. There are so many great things to do in Venice at night; I recommend checking them out before the water rises in the morning!
Note: if you dislike Aperol, drinking it as a spritz does not make it better. My travel companion and I had met only a few months prior and were still trying to impress each other, so we spent all weekend drinking this “signature” Venetian drink that we both disliked. We only admitted this to each other months later!
Waking Up to the Acqua Alta
The Albergo Cavalletto & Doge Orseolo hotel in which my friend and I stayed was just outside of the Piazza San Marco. You can book this perfectly-located boutique hotel here*. Our first morning in Venice, I woke up and opened our window shades to look out at the square. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. “Alex, you have to come look at this,” I said. There were fish swimming down the sidewalks on which we had walked just a few hours before! The acqua alta was upon us.
This was not a slowly-occurring phenomenon, but one that appeared suddenly for a few hours almost every morning in the Fall and Winter! The first issue we dealt with was that our hotel was now surrounded by water a few inches deep. We needed to figure out how to still go out and enjoy the flooded city. Our shoes were not going to last for hours of wading. Luckily for us – and most tourists – the Venetians had found a solution to this. Every souvenir shop, including the one across the street from our hotel, sold “acqua alta boots,” or thin plastic knee-high covers that go over your shoes and pants and are secured by elastic bands. They are available for about 10 euro when you are in Venice, but you can also get yours ahead of time on Amazon here*.
Wading Around Venice
The Venetians were clearly used to the acqua alta. They all had their acqua alta boots ready to slip over their very nice Italian shoes. They were content to go about their days as though there was not water all around them. The outdoor cafes were still open, and people were sitting around enjoying their morning coffees as birds and fish swam by their ankles. Those in charge of the San Marco Basilica had set up temporary platforms for tourists to wait on above the water outside the cathedral and in the foyer. And of course, the gondola rides continued as usual.
By the time we ate lunch, the water had receded. My friend and I shed our boots and continued our exploration of the city. We were far more prepared the next morning when the sidewalks were flooded again!
Is Venice Sinking?
Most sources say yes, the city is slowly sinking. However, this is unrelated to its acqua alta floods. The land on which Venice is built is boggy, not solid, and therefore it is sinking under the weight of the buildings.
On the other hand, acqua alta flooding was first noted in 589 A.D. It has occurred every year since. If the flooding was evidence of sinking, surely the city would have sunk by now. Instead, the tidal floods are seasonal and cyclical, similar to those in the Bay of Fundy in Canada. An inconvenience to some, a unique experience to those with open minds looking for some fun, the acqua alta is not evidence of the sinking of Venice.
Next time you are planning a trip to Venice, go in November or December to experience the acqua alta phenomenon!
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