Venice — The Ancient City Where Impossible Dreams Come True
— Diary, 30/11/2022
(Trigger warning: pro-Israel content)
Venice, Italy, is a global tourist attraction. My wife and I got back yesterday from a few days there. You could say that Venice chose us rather than the other way around. We found a last minute ticket and booked ourselves in on Wizz Air, an ultra low cost carrier based in Hungary that now serves Israel.
My wife, Hannah, is an architect —and so is naturally enthralled by the city’s rich art and architecture which can be found around every corner. For her, the city is a kind of Mecca. Me less so. Art isn’t quite my cup of tea and I probably wouldn’t visit the Bienalle if it was happening next door to me. Fortunately my wife and I have plenty of other commonalities and we were happy to pick up the last minute bargain. So off we set for a few days of sipping prosecco, walking on bridges, and seeing what else the city had to offer.
Now I’m back and writing this from my usual operating base in Jerusalem. And I’m feeling oddly energized. This despite barely stopping in any galleries and paying only a cursory visit to Piazza Di San Marco — heaving, as ever, with tourists. I left Venice extremely glad that we had chosen to spend a week there.
So what impressed me about Venice? Why would I recommend it to a friend who had never been?
The food was great (off the tourist trail, that is. Try Bacaro Vintido and thank me later). But I wouldn’t travel to another country just for a few good meals.
Venetians like to call the city “the most beautiful in the world.” It’s full of nice views, no doubt about that. But there’s only so much taking in gorgeous views of canals that one can do.
What inspired me about Venice was in fact none of these things. But rather the sheer ingenuity of the place.
You can geek out online reading about the history of the city and how it was initially constructed to handle overpopulation on the mainland (the point of this article is to convey a point and if I have butchered some historical details here I trust that readers will forgive me…).
About how they initially drove relatively short wooden poles into the muddy floor of the lagoon.
About how the the endeavour was essentially carried out by hand, without the help — needless to say — of heavy machinery.
About how Venice’s early builders essentially conducted a sort of trial-and-error experiment, making modifications to their buildings techniques as scientific understanding of geology and engineering evolved with the passage of time.
How was Venice built? The extraordinary building technique of Venice.
How was Venice built? Just looking at her, walking the narrow streets, and getting a Spritz at the bar, you may not…
Due to some geological phenomenon I am unlikely to ever understand, that bottom layer of Venice — poles literally driven into mud — has now morphed into a material that has a unique consistency that varies between rubber-like and more like marble (the wood is prevented from rotting due to the fact that the surrounding environment is now anaerobic). The foundation on which all the artificial islands are built, however, is essentially still that ancient layer.
When you arrive to Venice by water (like most, we took the public ferry from the airport), it’s hard not to be awed at this city standing in the middle of the water.
But like all sights that are captivating the first time you see them, the novelty eventually wears off — and eventually the most distinctive thing about Venice you notice is the fact that it has waterways rather than streets criss-crossing it.
You forget that beneath your hotel bed are some wooden sticks that some ambitious people drilled into the ground hundreds of years ago.
Here, I perceived a commonality between Venice and Zionism (for those who aren’t politically aligned, I did forewarn)
Both undoubtedly must have struck the majority at the time as outlandish ideas. In retrospect, people can agree that Venice is amazing. But for those who pioneered the city’s establishment and saw this initial trial and error process up close and personal, things mustn't have felt so reassuring. There must have been the constant temptation to give up on this monumental undertaking of engineering. To call it a day.
Populating Israel likewise required clearing vast swamps of mosquitoes and dealing with the immediate hostility of the surrounding and more numerous Arab world — which seemed certain to strike a mortal blow to the country if engaged in combat as they quickly were. I can only imagine that many of Herzl’s contemporaries — and those of early Zionist leaders — must have thought the idea no better than delusional lunacy.
And I can imagine that the environment among the founders of Venice — when that city was taking shape — can’t have been much different.
I can only imagine what conversations were had way-back-then when somebody suggested creating a new city to accommodate people from the mainland by driving big wooden poles into mud.
I kept that mental image in my head for the duration of my trip — as I sipped my aperol spritz from one of the many excellent bars in the city. The steadfast determination to make it through this foundational phase. The backbreaking labor of doing all this without heavy machinery. It must have required an almost unimaginable level of mental toughness and resolve.
What must those conversations have been like back then — when people were debating whether this enterprise of building a city in the mud were even sensible and those lined up in opposition were making their voices heard?
What must the naysayers have said in response (because, like tax and death, their existence seems constant throughout the ages). Building a city on water by sticking pieces of wood into mud must have struck many as suicidal and stupid.
Venice and the founding of Israel both prove, to my mind, the notion that if you really believe in a crazy plan it may just work out. It also drove home the idea for me that once a critical mass of early backers are behind you it may even come to flourish. The naysayers, of course, will look on with retrospective vision, which always tends to be perfect.
Venice had enough people believing in it that it not only sprung up out of the lagoon surrounding it, but became a city state and a major naval power far beyond the lagoon (effectively, in that historical period, a veritable empire). In less than 100 years, Israel has gone from fighting for its survival to forging regional alliances and exerting its might globally as a developed nation.
I liked Venice not for its food nor for its buildings however attractive both were. But rather for the fact that it proved that audacity and ambition can pay off with enough persistence and determination and time.
Venice may be slowly sinking. If worst case climate scenarios come true, it may be sunk as soon as 2100. And it is sobering to think that my future children may be looking at the photos I took on this trip and wondering what it must have been like to stay for a few days in this now-sunk relic of history.
But for now — and until now — it’s been here. Thriving, even.
Venice is worth a visit.
And crazy ideas are sometimes also worth a shot.