Venice Up in Arms Over Cruise Ships

| Sept. 10, 2013

Cruise ship circled in yellow.
The train station is in black.

Europe's most beautiful city says it has a problem with cruise ships

Why do we so often see cruise ships made into "Bogey Men?" I just read an article about the beautiful and historic city of Venice discussing banning cruise ships.

I saw Venice for the first time from a cruise ship, and sailing through this most interesting and original European city are some of my fondest cruise memories ever. It is one thing I believe every person should experience at least once. Cruise ships are tall, which vexes Venetians who in the 14th Century mandated that no city ctrusture can be taller than St. Mark's Campanile (the bell tower for St Mark's Basilica_ in the famous city square.

If you have ever been to Venice I am sure you would agree that it is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I said so the first moment I walked its streets and saw its building foundations forming the basis of the many canals and canalettos that are the city's "streets." And if you want to see pictures of cruise ships "spoiling" that beauty there are many carefully taken photos using a well-known trick (to photographers) where with a zoom lenses panned fully out you can make the ship appear as if it is practically sailing into the front door of the church.

But in fact, cruise ships are one of the more exciting experiences in Venice even for the shorebound local tourists. The ships tend to arrive in the morning for the dramatic sail in along the Lido, Sant Erasmo, Le Vignole, Isola La Certosa and a number of other islands, all fully developed in the style of the city itself. The ships follow They all tend to leave at about the same time as well - the reason being the best light for photos occurs near sunrise and sunset - and this dramatic 90-minute ride in and out of Venice is one of the most scenic cruising lanes in the world. As the ships come and go they follow one another at a respectable distance like a parade. In the old days thousands of tourists would line up along the Riva degli Schiavoni promenade east of the main square and wave and whistle at the ships going by.

There are no cars in Venice proper, no trucks, busses, railroads or other means of transportation than boats. However, there are boats aplenty, including cargo and "delivery" boats and their version of the city bus called the "Vaporetto." Isn't that a nice word for a "city bus system." The entire Vaporetto system runs day and night throughout Venice (which is only about 20 square miles although the Vaporetto system extends much further).

The Vaporetto stations require you to buy a tiket and queue up on a platform and wait for the Vaporetto to arrive. There are "local" and "express" vaporettos, and many common stops where you can change "lines" (routes much like the New York subway system). When it arrives you walk onboard and you are lucky if you have a place to sit, especially in summer, because the locals inundate them, more so than the tourists who find them confusing to use.

The Vaporetto engines are roaring all the time because the boat never stops running, it uses "thruster-like" engines to keep it pushed against the dock while people board (it does not have time to tie up to the dock and then untie every few minutes as it makes all of its continual stops. The engines roar and spew smoke like an old Dodge truck. And since you are standing when it is time to leave you had better hold on. The driver sets his rudder fast and tight to make his turns like a small speedboat.

Why am I going into so much detail about this? Two reasons - first, the traditional water vessel you associate with Venice is the Gondola, right? But in true fact the 100 or so remaining gondolas are only there for tourists (the source of all the problems in Venice, right?). These little boats are not capable of going faster than one man can literally push them using a stick (except that truthfully, many of them now have little engines, maybe 1 horsepower). And for the record - gondolas also go out in the Grande Canal where the Vaporettos also run.

Why Ban Cruise Ships?

It started with general outrage towards Concordia, however, the real hue and cry to ban cruise ships in Venice started a couple of months ago - supposedly when a Carnival ship tried to "salute" Venice and ended up causing a "wake" (a small splash of water) that in Venice can actually jump small walls and flood the lobbies of beautiful hotels like the Gritti Palace. But that was a few months ago and no real damage was able to be directly atttributed to the cruise ship. In the end it appeared a Vaporetto had caused the wake, but there were rumors of an incident of "saluting by cruise ship."

But the straw that broke the camel's back happened two weeks ago when another Carnival cruise ship was in town and a German tourist died. But how did he die? In fact he was in a Gondola that was crushed against the side of a building on the main canal by a Vaporetto. The Carnival ship was not involved at all - it just happened to be in the area. In fact, cruise ships do not go in the Grande Canal where this accident occurred - cruise ships do pass the entrance to St. Mark's Square, where the Grande Canal starts, but that is the last main site in Venice they pass before the turn into the main shiping channel, same as the cargo ships, to pass along a few industrialized city blocks to the specially built cruise ship passenger terminal.

Importantly, Venice only has one area where either trains or cars can get close enough to let off passengers to walk into the city - and that area is the train station, which is a parking lot on one side - and he authentic "city of Venice" on the other side. It actually has tracks on one side that lead up to a building right on the Grande Canal - with a Vaporetto stop right on the OTHER SIDE of the building.

To be clear, most of the "traansportation" done in Venice is by walking, not by boat. The locals do not drive motor boats around town to go to work, for example - nor do they take Gondolas because they cost about $150 for a 45 minute ride. Like New Yorkers, they either walk (most common), take the public transportation (Vaporetto) or they can use something called a water taxi - which the locals generally avoid because they cost about five times the price of a New York City cab (about $25/mile)

On the out side of the famous Venice train station is a brand new source of transportation - a monorail. Mostly it only encircles the parking lot (outside of the train station) but it also has a short bit of track going to the cruise terminal. This is so cruise passengers can get from the cruise port area to the train station parking lot.

In addition, the size of this cruise terminal has just trebled in size over the last 10 years. I remember when Venice could only handle two cruise ships at one time at the most - now it can handle as many as six. That was not done as an accident; it was done because tourism is the business of Venice.

But once again we hear about cruise ships being the "bogey man" that causes all the problems for every city. Just like in Charleston, Salem and every other town I hear vilifying cruise ships lately. The naysayers are always long on criticism and extremely short on facts.

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