Venezia: Splashed by Acqua Alta

January 10, 2014 / Events
Venezia, Veneto

The late Robert Benchley, a 20th century American humorist and Hollywood actor, was sent packing to Europe one summer by good friends and fellow film stars David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. His itinerary included a stop in Venice. Immediately upon arriving in La Serenissima, Benchley sent a five-worded cable to Niven: Streets full of water. Advise.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

His brief funnygram was obviously sent tongue-in-cheek, but if dearly departed Benchley had arrived in wintertime, that note to Niven would’ve been alarmingly true. I know, because I was here recently, in St. Mark’s Square, watching Europe’s “drawing room” tread water as the seasonal phenomena known as ACQUA ALTA (high water) had arrived.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

Either shocking or somewhat entertaining to tourists, Venetians just take the extra splashes in stride, with feet tucked inside colorful rubber boots, whenever the level of the Adriatic Sea crests and starts flowing into the calle (streets) of the City of Canals.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

With centuries of experience under their belts, Venetians pretty much know when acqua alta will arrive and when it’ll recede. It’s as if the onslaught  — +110 cm or higher — is an accepted routine, just part of everyday life for the anonimo veneziano.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

While folks are being forewarned — via sirens and text messages — of the imminent arrival of saltwater delivered to their front doors and shops courtesy of Mare Adriatico, city workers fly into action erecting passerelle — elevated wooden platforms that serve as temporary walkways for pedestrians to get around the affected areas and remain dry.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

According to the city administration’s online bulletin, during periods of acqua alta everyone should just be patient and wait a few hours for the next ebb tide to carry the excess water back out to sea.

No longer fearing a deluge of Biblical proportions, I hopped atop the nearest passerella and joined the masses for a walk on water, knowing that I was in good hands with these maritime-minded veneziani.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images
Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images
Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images
Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

After the “boardwalk” stroll, I popped into a bar for a quick, late lunch. In between bites and sips, I chatted it up with the barista, born and raised in Venice, and asked her how she deals with the inconvenience of acqua alta every year.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

She paused for a moment, giving the question some serious thought, then smiled and said, “It’s a part of who we Venetians are. We accept it almost as if it’s our duty, because if weren’t for water, calm or otherwise, there simply wouldn’t be La Serenissima.”

I paid the tab, left the change on the counter and walked out the door thinking, Good answer.

Venice: Splashed by l'Aqua Alta | ©Tom Palladio Images

by Tom Weber

Tom is a veteran print-broadcast journalist who resides in the Colli Euganei (Euganean Hills) in the province of Padova in the Veneto region of northestern Italy. He hosts the eclectic travel/foodie/photography blog The Palladian Traveler.com, is a regular contributor to Los Angeles-based TravelingBoy.com, and is a member of the International Travel Writers Alliance. Feel free to follow Tom as he “meanders along the cobblestone to somewhere.”

40 Responses to “Venezia: Splashed by Acqua Alta”

  1. Bravo! Just having returned from La Serenissima, I was lucky to only encounter a wee bit of acqua alta in Piazza and Basilica San Marco. Because of the pioggia I did experience acqua on my feet, though. I asked some locals how they dealt with it and one said “sometimes in my pajamas”. :-)

    Reply
  2. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Most enjoyable to see these images Tom. Our Venice trip was also a January one but senza acqua alta, I’m glad to say. Though less picturesque, it made getting around a little easier. Thanks for the great note!

    Reply
    • Penny — Everyone should experience Venezia at least once during Acqua Alta; makes one feel like a real Venetian. That said, I prefer to stroll around La Serenissima without the aid of passerelle. Thanks for the feedback.

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  3. I also experienced the December 26, 2013 acqua alta in my beloved Venezia. There were a lot of doom and gloom newspaper articles stating we would get record high water but it was indeed more “normal”. But I learned a new skill! How to install the metal gate in the doorway to keep the water out of the ground floor apartment where I was staying.
    Venetians have been doing this for centuries and still they survive. It’s tidal…it comes in and it goes out.
    Thanks for the lovely pictures and reminder of my recent 34 days in the City of My Dreams.

    Reply
    • Michelle — Thirty-four days? Lucky you. I’ve been toying with the idea of becoming an “anonymous Venetian” for a month or so. I may just make it happend, but outside the AA season. Thanks much for the comment.

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  4. Colleen Simpson

    Spent a delightful aqua alta in Venezia last October….still have great memories of the people barefoot, bagged and booted! The tourists were the barefoot and bagged (huge garbage bags)….the locals the booted. We looked like locals because our landlord thoughtfully supplied boots in the hall closet! There is nothing like La Serenissima in all the world.

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  5. Robert Lemon

    I had thought that Benchley’s famous telegram was sent to New Yorker editor Ross who had dispatched Benchley there to write articles for the New Yorker.

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    • Robert Lemon

      The quotation is found in Bartlett’s Quotations and several other online sources as Benchley addressing Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker. I have used and sourced the quote as a beginning for several public lectures on Venice.

      Also, my wife and I were there a year ago November and left just before the water became swim-able (at least for the brave and foolish) on St. Mark’s Square. We had just arrived in Vicenza and the local newspaper featured a picture of those swimmers on the front page.

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    • Robert — I head heard the same, Benchley-New Yorker, but it was David Niven at the Academy Awards some years back who conveyed to the audience, and later in his memoirs, that Benchley sent the cable to him after he and Fairbanks sent him off to Europe and eventually Venice. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  6. Robert Levrini

    I’ll be spending 3 weeks in Venice this coming March. I wonder if I should bring my “Wellies” with me? My apartment entrance is just inches above a side canal steps near the Fenice Opera House. Or, maybe I’ll bring my “aqua socks” to wear to the Rialto and just grin and bare it! Thanks Tom for sharing.

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    • Robert — Don’t quote me on this, but AA usually occurs during November-December. Best of luck on your visit in March.

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  7. It’s a wonderful Venetian philosophy, and the photos are beautiful. Thanks, Tom.

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  8. Paola Girelli Harding

    Loved the ‘acqua alta’ photos and comments! I (finally) experience it Nov. 5th, 2013 during a 4 day stay! Venezia is my favorite (after my home town Verona) and with innumerable visits had never seen it first hand! What an experience, arrived with vaporetto from the Giudecca side at San Zacaria, noticed nothing, after Bidge of Sighs began to see water splasing at “street”next to the canal and lapping on high! Passerelle in place with people walking on it, actually witness the rise from the lagoon AND from the drains (which I never noticed before), went into San Marco, also acqua alta, but noticed all around the floor covered with a ‘straw like!?’ brownish for soaking? The Piazza was magical with the buildings reflections, went up the Campanile, witness the campane force at 12-noon, and what a view, 360 of the most beautiful city in the world as it was a crystal clear, sunny day. Will NEVER forget it!

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  9. Loved the account of AA and photos! What is the likelihood of this happening in April ? Do they have spring showers…?

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    • Mimi — Generally, AA happens during November-December, but you never know. Thanks for the comment and compliment.

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  10. Wonderful photos, classic Venetian response, as a New Englander dealing with blizzards & freezing temps at the momen I can relate. It makes us who we are. Grazie

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  11. Wonderful writeup and photos! Just this morning I read this is Joseph Brodsky’s lovely book on Venice, _Watermark_: “Nobody runs up from downstairs crying, ‘The pipes!’ as there is no downstairs. The city stands ankle-deep in water, and boats, ‘hitched like animals to the walls,’ to quote Cassiodorus, prance. The pilgrim’s shoe, having tested the water, is drying atop his hotel room’s radiator; the native dives into his closet to fish out his pair of rubber boots. ‘Aqua alta,’ says a voice over the radio, and human traffic subsides.”

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  12. Pat Carney Ceccarelli
    Pat Carney Ceccarelli

    Timely reminder for us in Great Britain with lots of flooding about. When I lived in Shrewsbury, Shropshire our local pub had a little row boat ready and
    extra Wellington boots. Adapt and rejoice when possible!m

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  13. Joan Schmelzle

    I have been to Venice about 10 times over many years, but only the last three or four during possible aqua alta. Last November I finally had the experience of walking on the “boards.” Had to cross in front of San Marco, go under the Clock Tower, get off, walk a bit, get back on and into the basilica. The same on my way out. Water wasn’t as deep as in your marvelous pictures, but it was an experience I rather enjoy!

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    • Joan — Like I mentioned earlier, you really haven’t been to Venice until you’ve experienced acqua alta. Thanks very much for the feedback.

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  14. Marianna Raccuglia

    I love Venice! Your photos are wonderful – thank you for sharing.
    Marianna

    Reply

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