by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, November 14, 2019
Venice has been hit by some of the worst flooding for 50 years, inundating the vestibule of St Mark’s basilica for only the fifth time in its 1,200-year history.
The question is, should tourists carry on with their trip to Venice, or stay at home? Here’s everything you need to know.
Can I still visit Venice?
Yes. In fact, some tourists deliberately travel to Venice during this time of the year to witness the annual high tides, or acqua alta.
However, if you are visiting this week, be aware that getting around will be difficult and slow at times, and it could be dangerous. Wooden platforms are placed around the city during the acqua alta, although a pair of French tourists said they “effectively swum” after the platforms overturned.
Governor Luca Zaia has advised anyone in Venice to avoid overflowing areas in the city.
Mayor Luigi Brugnaro blamed climate change, adding that "Venice is on its knees".
Can I get my money back if I cancel my holiday?
If your hotel is inundated with water and it cancels your booking, you will be eligible for a refund. If you have booked with a tour operator and your hotel cancels your stay, your trip should be Atol-protected and you will be put up in another hotel or offered a full refund.
If you are an independent traveller and choose to cancel your flight or accommodation, this is your decision and you will not be entitled to compensation or an insurance payout.
Will museums, shops and restaurants be open?
Some will be closed, temporarily. St Mark’s Square, for example, is currently submerged and its shops and restaurants flooded.
But Venice is used to the acqua alta. It happens a couple of times a year, every year, and the Venetians are resilient people, so everywhere will be open again before long.
The Ducal Palace and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia are still open for visitors. The latter tweeted: “We are back. We are glaf to inform you that today we are open."
Which parts of the city are affected?
This very helpful interactive map shows where is flooded when waters are at a certain level.
What exactly happens when the acqua alta hits?
A siren calls. Telegraph Travel’s Italy expert Kiki Deere explains: “The population is largely unaffected when the water reaches 1m, although it becomes an issue when it reaches over 110cm. Sirens – used during the Second World War – alert inhabitants of any dangers. An alert siren warns the inhabitants that water levels have reached 110cm, with subsequent warning tones used for every additional 10cm of expected tide level.”
Where are the safest places to go during high tides?
“Locals know where to seek refuge when the water is particularly high,” says Kiki Deere. “The Rialto (which comes from 'Rivo Alto', that is, 'high bank') and the Lido of Venice, where cars can circulate, are among the two safest points in the city.”
Is booking a trip to Venice in winter a good idea?
Kiki Deere doesn’t advise against it. “I have experienced acqua alta in Venice, although it was simply a question of putting on some wellies and getting on with life as normal. I wouldn’t advise against going to Venice in winter. In fact, experiencing acqua alta makes for a rather unique experience. It’s important to remember that yesterday’s acqua alta was completely exceptional.”
The Italian National Tourist Board told Telegraph Travel: “In general we do not discourage visitors to go to Venice in the winter months, sometimes the waters are very shallow and do not prevent visiting the city.
“This year the acqua alta is particularly high – a similar situation was registered in 1966. Winter in Venice can sometimes be the best season to visit, as there are less tourists and the winter weather can make it very alluring, romantic and mysterious.”
What is the view from the ground?
Telegraph Travel's Venice expert Anne Hanley said the city was "frantically busy" on Thursday morning. "Electricians checking sockets for sea water, engineers tapping walls and checking balustrades, city refuse workers righting tumbled wooden flood walkways (30 per cent of which, they say, have been washed away)," she said.
"There’s a sense of bewilderment: 'There was a newspaper kiosk there yesterday,' a man told me, pointing at an empty space on the wide Zattere pavement along the Giudecca canal. 'No one knows where it went.'
"But overwhelmingly there’s a feeling of business as usual. The stillness around shuttered museums and around St Mark’s basilica is foreboding amid so much activity. But in churches where helpful parishioners have helped bail out, tourists rustle in in garishly coloured plastic boot-bags.
"By late afternoon the bars and restaurants that have managed to reopen are packed, full of the noise of Venetians unable to skip their aperitivo ritual whatever the circumstances. But appointments have been made and glasses raised slightly earlier this evening. The tide will rise once again later, and no one’s risking being caught out."
Deirdre Kelly, an artist who has lived in Venice for 15 years, told Telegraph Travel: “It always fills me with sadness and a slight feeling of panic to see high water here in Venice. Usually, however, I am reassured by the reaction of Venetians who have an innate understanding of the special relationship that the city has with water.
“The recurrence of exceptional high water is certainly more frequent. This week a high water is forecast nearly every day – the repeated recurrence means that places do not have a chance to dry out in between times.”
What is acqua alta and why does it happen?
Acqua alta – meaning ‘high water’ – is the convergence of strong sirocco winds (northbound winds along the Adriatic Sea) and high tides which push water into the Venetian Lagoon, causing the partial flooding of Venice and its surrounding areas.
The phenomenon takes place between autumn and spring, most likely between October and January. It generally happens only about a handful of times a year and only lasts for a few hours, depending on the area. The extraordinary level of flooding witnessed this week is classified as exceptional, when water levels exceed 140cm.
Anne Hanley explains: “When putative visitors to Venice in high-water season – which means any time, potentially, from autumn to spring – ask for my advice they seem disappointed to learn that there’s a good chance that, should acqua alta happen, it may pass them by.
“As you wander the city, you may not notice that it’s a collection of islands – some higher, some lower. When tides in the lagoon rise higher than normal, a little water washes over pavements in lower parts, for an hour or so, when the tide is highest, then recedes. That’s it. If you’re in a gallery or having lunch, you won’t even get your shoes damp.”
Why doesn’t Venice have a flood defence?
It has one in development. Begun in 2003, the MOSE project aims to protect the Venetian lagoon from flooding, with mobile gates raised during acqua alta. The majority of the project has been completed, although Kiki Deere says “cost overruns and delays are sure to cause even more of a scandal now that the city has experienced one of the worst floods in history”.
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