Wellingtons of romance

When you’re planning to visit Venice in autumn or winter, you will surely experience the distinctiveness of this beautiful city. However, if you don’t pack proper shoes, you’re likely to end up buying boots – the most fashionable shoes in Venice, as the aqua alta (high water) has been troubling the city for over 1500 years.

The idea of building the city on the swampy subsoil arose from the need to provide the Venetians security against the barbarians. A shallow lagoon with the city on it, cut all over by the myriad of canals, has become a jewel of the civilisation. Unfortunately, living a few inches above the altering sea level has been inconvenient ever since.

However, it’s not only because of the marshy ground. Venice is subsiding and at the same time the level of the sea is rising. The archaeologists of Colgate University published research into this phenomenon. Throughout 4500 years until 450 A.D. the level of the sea was increasing around 7.5cm per 100 years. Since 450 A.D., the pace of that rise has been much faster and now it is around 25cm per century with a worsening tendency. The following example illustrates the impact of this rate of change – at the beginning of the XX-th century, St. Mark’s Square, the lowest point of Venice, was flooded seven times a year. Nowadays, the Square is covered by the water about 100 times within twenty months.  

Acqua alta appears periodically and is alarmed by the wail of the sirens to allow the dwellers enough time to get prepared properly. At the vaporetto – the water tram stops, there are special maps for pedestrians presenting alternative tide routes. A regular water level is around 80cm. When the water in Venice rises to 100cm, 4% of usually dry land  is covered by the water. When the level grows by another 10cm, the flooded land reaches 12% and one can hear the alarm sirens.  

The flood also affects the water traffic routes, because an unusually high level of the water hinders easy movement of vessels under the bridges. Some of them are laid so low that the passengers of gondolas may face culs-de-sac impossible to get out from. 

In Venice, the most fashionable among all shoes are definitely wellingtons, and they rule not only during the autumn and winter seasons. The dwellers don’t mind putting on rubber boots with elegant suits, dresses and coats. 

Women usually wear black, stylish, knee reaching models with profiled heels. Flowery, rainbow-coloured patterns are also in fashion. Men often wear rubber fishing boots that provide efficient legs protection to very tights. However, those tourists, who aren’t prepared for acqua alta, usually help themselves with commonly accessible plastic overshoes.

The tide doesn’t flood the whole city. The most jeopardised areas are narrow low quays and St. Mark’s Square where municipal services put out a network of raised platforms and footbridges. Making it possible to walk with dry feet through the Square and get to the higher districts. The charming streets are often partially flooded.  

On St. Mark’s Square the flood changes the proportions of the land and water. The old black-and-white photographs show the Square covered with water to the point where it enabled gondolas to float on it. In Venice, the level of the water changes significantly. For example, between 1923 and 1997, the highest level of the water was noted on 4 Nov 1966, which was 190cm above the usual sea level. The lowest water was recorded in 14 Feb 1934 at 118cm below average. The water levels altering within a range of 307cm.  

There are plenty of ways to rescue Venice. One of them is a project to build a system of anti-flood gates that cut the lagoon off from the Adriatic Sea every time it’s needed. The purpose of another one is to pump the sea water under the city which is to raise its level by 30cm. Still another is the oldest Venice method which simply advices to “build higher.” The most important thing while the heat of the discussions of advocates of particular ideas is not loosing the moment when it’s too late. 

When the tide comes, the dwellers don’t panic as for them the high water is nothing new. However, walking on the platforms makes the feeling of temporality of the place even stronger. Looking at the beautiful and old Venice buildings, it’s obvious that the most famous Italian town is desperately defending itself against submersion.  

Joanna Gulbinska

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