Italy: High Tide in Venice? Ok to visit?

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During the autumn and winter, particularly in November and December, Venice can experience high tides and flooding. Don’t let that put you off visiting. There are advantages to visiting at this time of year. It’s certainly less crowded, and people like me who struggle in heels of more then a couple of millimetres get a little glimmer of leading the fashion way in wellies.

My last trip to Venice was a week ago at the beginning of December, and I was warned on my way there by my Venetian friend that some of Venice could be “up to the knees”. In Italian it’s called the “acqua alta“. It was the eve of a full moon when tides are at their highest anyway. I had forgotten my purple wellies.

How does Venice sort this?

It sorts the lack of wellies issue very easily by selling bright yellow “disposable wellies” to tourists. By wearing them you accept that you will be dry but will never lead the way in fashion.

Disposable wellies Venice

Tourist alert. Yellow wellies.

Between mid September and the end of April, the city council also operate the “Pedestrian Mobility Plan”. They erect raised walkways, when necessary, along the lowest sections of street to give access to the main public buildings and the city centre. Some water traffic is restricted often because the boats can’t get under the bridges.

Venice canals high tide

Water beginning to lap over the edges.

High tide bursno

Flooded pavements in Burano

The Piazza San Marco, the main square in Venice and where most tourists congregate, is somewhere you might want to avoid because it’s one of the lowest pieces of land in the area.

Bigger flood prevention plans have been afoot for quite some time – grandly called the Moses project. This ambitious (and controversial) engineering project aims to position 78 massive steel gates across three inlets into Venice’s lagoon to stop water from the Adriatic Sea flooding in. Completion was due in around 2012.

But this is Italy. And corruption allegations on a massive scale have muddied the high tide waters somewhat. The Mayor and a posse of officials were arrested on suspicion of siphoning off 20 million euros destined for the Moses project. The Mayor is no more, after agreeing a suspended jail sentence for his part in the scandal.

At the moment, therefore, you need to stick with the walkways, if walkways are necessary.

How high is “high tide” in Venice?

If the high tide report is between 100 and 120cm you need wellies – at 120cm around 30% of Venice is flooded. Levels of 140cm+ are statistically once every 4 years, so the official council website reports. At this level, a little more than 50% of Venice is flooded – and the actual water levels in say the low-lying St Mark’s square are about 60cm, just above the kneeish.

100cm doesn’t mean a metre of water on the pavement; it means that water is 20cm above a normal tide of 80cm. The waterways can cope with standard tides and a bit above before water starts lapping over the edges.

You can look up 3-day tidal forecasts on the internet.

What causes it?

The usual cycle of the sun and moon causes water levels to rise and fall – a 6 hour rise, 6 hour fall cycle twice in 24 hours. There are higher levels around a full moon.

Strong warm winds, “scirocco”, from the south-east can also make the tide rise by up to a metre. And there’s a special tide called Adriatic seiche. Over and above that, subsidence and global warming have “dropped” Venice by effectively a quarter of a metre in the last 100 years.

Regular readings are taken of water levels. One point is beside the St Mark’s Square, where the level determines what action is to be taken. Another is on the Punta Della Dogana. This a lovely vantage point in Venice, looking over the water to St Mark’s Square.

Punta Della Dogana

Punta Della Dogana

The Punta Della Dogana used to be the location of the Man and Frog sculpture. This big white structure by the artist Charles Ray was a bit like Marmite. You either loved it or you hated it. It was in situ for 4 years and was guarded 24 hours a day by a poor bloke who, during an 8 hour shift, wasn’t allowed to sit, or listen to music or take photos (I tried to get him to do all three, just to alleviate the boredom for him). These drastic measures proved necessary after someone snapped off the frog in a pique of Marmite disgust.

Boy and frog Venice

When Boy and Frog was in Venice, 2011

I loved it. It was supposed to represent our vulnerability in the world, moving through stages in life like a frog, from spawn to tadpole to frog, and a man, from baby to boy to man. And the young boy dangling the fully grown, but weaker frog, I though was a bit poignant. But the Marmite lovers won, and the statue is gone.

So what will a visit in Winter be like?

I like winter in Venice. I prefer the wellies and water to the crowds. I wasn’t planning to be around the area of St Mark’s Square where most of the flooding is concentrated. I didn’t need wellies, just avoided the flooded lanes.

Water traffic routes were amended and some services cancelled. Not really a problem if you are just wandering.

There are still busy dates over winter – notably carnival season in February, and the weekend I was there was busier than normal because of the Holiday Monday. At the beginning of December, there’s the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and lots of Italians go to Venice for the weekend. Lots also go to Paris so you might find trains up to France or back down at the end of the holiday busier and more expensive than normal.

It’s quite nice either wading around the ancient alleyways in wellies, or as I did because of my forgotten wellies, finding new dry passageways I’d not been down before. You also won’t be tempted to take an extortionately tourist-priced gondola ride, because they have all gone to bed for the winter. Going to Venice at any time of the year really, is just lovely. One of my favourite cities.

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