Arrigo Cipriani has calmed down a bit. But he’s still a little upset with a great many people, including the government in Rome, the European Union, the mayor of Venice and a few journalists. Wearing a pine-green, tailor-made linen suit and a red tie, the 88-year-old and I are talking—at an acceptable distance—in his office, two floors above his mythical Harry’s Bar. It is Monday, May 18th—the first day after almost two and a half months of virus-related lockdowns—when restaurants in Italy are once again permitted to welcome guests. Through his office window, the restaurateur looks out over the Canale della Giudecca, which, devoid of tourists, lies more quiet and pristine than ever before. Cipriani’s own establishments are still closed; just a few days earlier, he had been quoted in the media as saying that Harry’s Bar, one of the most famous and historic sites in the entire industry, would never open again—a statement shared countless times on the Internet, to worldwide consternation.
“Such nonsense; of course I never said that,” Cipriani tells me. “But you know journalists; they write whatever they want.” What he actually said was: his restaurant would (conditional) never open again under the circumstances as they were originally proposed by the government in Rome. But two days before the deadline of 18 May, new rules were finally issued that are much easier to apply, as Cipriani confirms. “Now they suddenly require only one meter between guests, instead of two. And the tables no longer have to be four meters apart either. That all sounds much more reasonable—we can probably live with that.” And so the first of his Venetian restaurants, the more casual Harry’s Dolci, will open in June, with the legendary Harry’s Bar to follow in August.
Venice is certainly not the only place whose innkeepers went through hard times during the lockdown, and are now facing an uncertain future. But there’s arguably no any other city that has suffered so much from tourism while simultaneously being so dependent on it. In recent years, Venice has become a symbol of the plague of mass tourism and its devastating effects. This is especially true of its upscale gastronomy, in which space Cipriani undoubtedly plays; among its finer restaurants and hotels, many had wished for fewer tourists. “But the fact that from one day to the next nobody comes at all was of course a hard blow for the whole industry,” says the doyen of Venetian restaurateurs.
Like many others, he now also hopes for radical changes, for a new relationship between the city and its visitors. “In any case, we now have at least a few months before tourism recovers. That time should be used to find a new way to make Venice a real city again.”
How exactly this is to be achieved remains unclear for the time being. And far from all Venetians are eyeing the future with confidence. “The whole thing is a political issue,” says Giberto Arrivabene, who with his wife Bianca di Savoia Aosta owns the Palazzo Papadopoli, the Grand Canal palace that’s better known as Aman Venice. “And if the politicians don’t do anything, which I assume they won’t, things will soon be back to the way they were before.” We’re talking in the hotel’s lush, magnificent garden, where the couple are consulting with some of the staff to determine how to apply and enforce the new hygiene regulations when operations resume in a few weeks’ time.
The Arrivabenes see Venice’s main problem as being in the fact that the city does not have its own administration. “Politically, Venice forms a single municipality with the industrial towns of Mestre and Marghera on the mainland, which have over 300,000 inhabitants. So the mainlanders outvote us every time we have to make decisions that are important for this city,” says Giberto, smoking a cigar and wearing a military jacket with the Italian tricolor and the Lion of Saint Mark—the symbol of Venice— pinned on it.
One change for the better could, however, be observed during the Lockdown, ventures Bianca: “There was something like solidarity among the Venetians”, she says. “For example the merchants delivered food directly to peoples’ apartments, a service which they had not offered for decades. And those who had boats or gondolas offered to help, conducting locals around.” But her expectation is that all this will soon be over. “The crowds will return. And again, they will only stay a few hours, squeezing through the narrow streets, shooting selfies and maybe buying some carnival masks. And soon everything will be just like before.”
Benedetta and Luca Fullin are much more confident. The young siblings—she is 35, he 38—run the respected Pensione Wildner not far from St. Mark’s Square. They also own a restaurant called The Local, which opened in 2015. My route to reach it traverses a version of Venice that few have seen. The souvenir shops around the Rialto Bridge, in normal times a hotspot for pedestrian traffic jams, are closed. Nobody crosses the bridge; no one stands on it and takes pictures. Underneath, a vaporetto docks; a few locals get off, greeting those who board. Generally speaking, in these extraordinary times, one has the impression that in Venice, everybody knows everybody. Everywhere people stop, greet each other, chat through their protective masks – like in any small town, somewhere in Italy.
The Local is a trendy restaurant with sophisticated cuisine and a large selection of oh-so-cool “natural” wines. The interior is minimally styled, with, by Venetian standards, a lot of space between tables. However, there is no terrace, which is one of the reasons why the Fullins are still waiting before reopening the restaurant. “We have to figure out how to deal with the new regulations first,” says Benedetta. “Of course it would be easier with outdoor seating, but as long as there are no tourists at all, it doesn’t pay off for us anyway.”
Of course Luca looks forward to when the tourists are back—the sooner the better. But hopefully not to the same extent, he insists. “It would be nice if people would stop storming the city like muggers, and really visit and enjoy it. We hope with all our hearts that this world we used to live in is irreversibly gone, and that a new one can now emerge.” Politicians must understand that salvation cannot possibly lie in tourism alone, Luca says; and that incentives are needed so that fewer people leave Venice, as has been the case in recent years, and instead new ones move to the city.
Benedetta agrees, noting that the city has had almost exclusively negative press in recent years. “There were the cruise ships that polluted everything and even caused accidents. There was the flooding, then the masses of tourists, and on top of that the absurdly excessive prices in some restaurants. Venice had become the symbol of all that goes wrong in tourism,” she says.
Despite that fact, that the quality of life here is extraordinary. “Thanks to the lagoon, we are surrounded by a unique natural paradise right in the heart of Europe,” says Luca. “We also have the sea, the Lido with its beaches, and the Alps are a little more than an hour’s drive away. Living and working here is simply fantastic. In the last few weeks, you could see that many people had gotten used to working from home. Recently, the whole city had fiber-optic connectivity installed.” But in the future, “all this has to be communicated,” he notes. “And tax breaks for start-ups that want to set settle here, have to created.”
The way back to the Rialto Bridge is via St. Mark’s Square, whose dimensions seem more gigantic than ever before. One reason is of course that there are hardly any people around. Another is that the innumerable coffee house chairs and tables, usually generously distributed all over the square, are stacked on top of each other at its edge. On the banks of the canal, the Doge’s Palace glistens in the evening sun; countless idle gondolas bob gently in a light swell. Everything is silent, except for the songs of the swallows, as they trace their rounds over the churches and the palazzi.
A couple of canals and bridges further on, a few restaurants have opened – for the first time in 10 weeks. Young Venetians stand outside, drinking €3 Aperol Spritzes. Which is an amazingly low price, not just for Venice. Dishes on the menu are all reduced by 20 percent. A little gift for clients, one of the owners explains; “a special offer that I and many other operators of restaurants, boutiques and hotels in town, are proposing for the next few weeks.”
No one can yet say whether Venice will one day become again the world center of mass tourism and rip-offs, as the Arrivabenes fear; or if instead, with a new start and new goals, it can become a real city with a strong, committed community, as Signore Cipriani and the Fullins hope. But one thing is already clear: those who have the privilege to travel in these strange times should exercise it soon, because there will probably never again be such a singular moment to visit the most beautiful city in the world.
Born in Paris and raised in Vienna, Georges Desrues is a journalist and photo reporter living in Trieste.