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Live Like A Local: Visiting Venice During An Acqua Alta

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

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As we plan our next overseas trip, I looked at my travel log to see where we have visited in October. It brought up one of my best memories: our 2nd time in Venice, Italy, during the season of the Acqua Alta, otherwise known as "high water" season. Many of our trips involve “living like a local." It’s not for everyone. Living in an AirBnB in a neighborhood means the aroma of a neighbor’s spaghetti sauce wafting in your open balcony window (Florence), stopping at the neighborhood store at 10:30 p.m. for a great (and inexpensive at $6 USD) bottle of local wine (also Florence), being attracted at 10 PM to the small restaurant downstairs for fettuccine alfredo (surprise, it was Salzburg, Austria) or hearing kids laughing and running down the narrow alleyways headed for school (Venice).

This trip being a local meant donning a pair of “wellies” and going about as if nothing was out of the ordinary. And, in fact, it wasn't. According to this article, 75% of Acqua Altas occur in November, December, and October, with the greatest likelihood in November and December.

While we had many warm, sunny days during our October trip to Venice, we knew something was pending when I noticed water percolating from the drains in Piazza San Marco on our first night there. It had long since stopped drizzling as it was when we arrived in late afternoon, but there was an occasional puddle here and there.

St. Mark's area is beautiful when the cobblestones are wet. FYI, the famous Piazza, where dueling orchestras play at night while patrons sip Prosecco or an Aperol Spritz, is the lowest part of Venice (and in fact the actual entrance to the famed Basilica San Marco is THE lowest point on the island).

That Venice has been prone to flooding is nothing new, with records going back to the 16th century demonstrating it was a concern of authorities. The correct conditions existed even before the threat of global warming and involve the confluence of high tides and storm systems bringing high water and waves in to the beautiful lagoon.

For the typical Acqua Alta, locals (and tourists) just "go with the flow." An alarm sounds giving a three-hour warning, a signal to home owners and shopkeepers to rush to put up protective barriers or raise belongings. The night we arrived, we noticed the "boardwalk" being constructed for the next day. It reminded me of when our local government puts up snow fences before winter begins to prevent drifts into roadways throughout the season.

My son enjoyed the boardwalk. The fortunate young man has been in Venice twice, but that's another story about how to travel for "school."

The next morning, it was again drizzling and we walked, umbrellas in hand and with no high water, from our AirBNB to the Piazza San Marco and found it with mild flooding and tourists enjoying the sight and sensation.

Probably one of the funniest moments was when I noticed someone sitting at a cafe near the Rialto Bridge, being waited on by an elegantly-dressed server standing in water. Life goes on and little can stop your vacation or your vocation, correct? (My apologies for the photo quality, as it was a cropped enlargment from a distant shot).

The only disruption to our vacation plans was a slightly longer route to our planned visit to the Jewish Ghetto that day. Some vaporetti (water taxis) were not running due to high water under low-clearance bridges. We took the Grand Canal vaporetto route and walked a bit to our destination. The sun came out and we had a brilliant time.

Here's a very rookie video of me trying to capture my son playing with a 4-legged Venice resident. I could have edited it, but keeping it real! My sister Dori is the one wearing the fashionable footwear. Tip: during floods, you go to the local "tabaccheria" (tobacco shop) to buy your wellies.

Would we have booked the trip if we had known we'd have "high water?" Maybe not, but we would have been mistaken to cancel, as it was truly "living like a local" and did NOT prevent us from enjoying Venice and getting to do EVERYTHING that was on our agenda (including a Vivaldi concert in the church where he was a conservatory instructor and composed many of his pieces. But I digress). An update about Venice flooding-- Over 40 years from its conception and after a long period of construction (and corruption), Venice managed to deploy its long-awaited MOSE flood mitigation system in late 2020. It's an interesting bit of engineering that basically floats up from the bottom of the lagoon to block waves coming in to three areas.

Does it work? Yes. Are there still floods? Yes. Most are floods typical to the one we experienced and they don't necessarily deploy MOSE for that (after all, it not only blocks the oncoming water, but also keeps out ships delivering cargo). Several times a year (and the number is increasing), they get a larger flood and the system is designed to mitigate those, and it did that successfully in late 2020. However, the system relies on authorities watching for and getting correct weather forecasts, and as any parent who has lamented an unnecessary school snow day can tell you, sometimes they lack accuracy. August 2021 had several unexpected higher floods with no deployment of MOSE.

Would I still take another trip to Venice? Absolutely! But my personal preferences:

  • Avoid November and December as high probability months for floods (October I can live with, as it's part of "shoulder" season when rates are lower but the weather is still generally beautiful.

  • Make sure to book an AirBnB on the second floor or higher, something we generally do anyway to avoid any mold.

  • Make sure to come with a great attitude, even if there is temporary flooding. After all, the day after the flood we took a vaporetto across the water to this view from Giudecca. Venezia, sei bellissima!

Your first trip to Venice? Or maybe your second, but the first time without a tour or now actually staying on the island instead of a day trip?

We used both Rick Steves' guidebook for Italy and Lonely Planet's Italy on our various trips. We've often used an older book purchased for a previous trip, downloaded his free updates to his books, and used it in subsequent years. We find his recommendations for restaurants especially good, helping to guide us to some authentic experiences we would have otherwise not tried. Check out the book to see where Rick has arranged for discounts with local tour guides or restaurants if you show them the book.

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