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Venice with Venetians: how the city should really be

Every now and then, drawn by morbid fascination, I can’t resist the temptation to peer into the window of the Farmacia Morelli in campo San Bartolomeo, where a digital counter flashes out a number. When I looked the other day, it said 59,800 precisely. Is my memory playing tricks, or do I remember that just five months ago, it was still almost 60,200? How can 400 people have evaporated in such a short time?

Because the counter in this chemist’s window shows the number of people officially resident in Venice. Had it been there in 1951, it would have flashed almost 175,000. Even in 1981, it would have stood at well over 93,000. (You can keep an eye on the latest tally here: www.venessia.com/contatore.htm.)

Venice’s shrinking population is a worry for those who remain, who fear that they’ll be reduced to costumed extras in the Great Venetian Theme Park experience. For me, it brings mixed feelings.

There’s nothing so exhilarating, I have to admit, as taking an abrupt turn off a crowded Venetian thoroughfare – where slow-moving visitors, stopping to gawp at the city’s marvels, hamper your every step – and finding yourself in an alleyway where the only sounds are the cooing of pigeons and your echoing footsteps. It happens all the time: try it next time you’re here. Great swathes of the city suddenly become your own, slightly mysterious dream world. But as I enjoy my own private Venice, a guilty question often sneaks into the back of my mind: where are all the people? This is how Venice shouldn’t be.

The other day, rushing from the San Pietro vaporetto stop to Sant’Elena, I took a wrong turn (easily done! ... so see my Venice insider tips for ways to avoid it) and found myself on the northernmost bridge over the rio dei Giardini canal that runs behind the Biennale gardens. It’s not the most ‘caratteristico’ part of Venice, with busy, noisy boatyards to your left and unkempt banks along the canal to your right. But it’s bustling with people – real people doing real things. As I zigzagged through the Sant’Elena district there were grandmas walking chattering children home from school and couples canoodling in parks and a comfortable din of everyday life coming out every window. It was Venice, but not as the average visitor knows it: a vibrant Venice where the 21st century has been molded neatly to slot into an historic framework. This, I thought, is how the city should be – all of it.