With the disappearance of cruise ships and the closure of souvenir stalls, the coronavirus blockade has transformed the waterways of La Serenissima
John Brunton in Venice
Look out over the canals of Venice today and you'll see an amazing sight - not just a clear view of the sandy bed, but also shoals of small fish, crabs, and multi-colored plants.
"The water is blue and clear," said Gloria Beggiato, owner of the famous Metropole Hotel, just steps from St. Mark's Square and overlooking the Venetian lagoon. “It is calm as a pond, because there are no more waves caused by motorized boats carrying day-long tourists. And of course the giant cruise ships have disappeared. "
Under Venice's strict self-containment rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, all travel except a trip to walk the dog or buy food is prohibited, the ancient city has been transformed almost overnight.
The hundreds of channels of La Serenissima have been emptied of the speed of motor taxis, transport and tourist boats. Vaporetti's squeaky water buses now run on reduced hours. Even most of the gondolas are moored.
The clarity of the water has improved dramatically. Swans and cormorants have gone back to diving for fish that they can now see. At the Piazzale Roma vaporetto stop, the ducks have even made a nest. "Someone has put up a sign that says, 'Don't step on duck eggs,'" Beggiato said. "Everything totally unimaginable a while ago."
As Italy's coronavirus death toll surpasses China's, Giuseppe Conte's government has tried to keep citizens at home using a combination of social media and police checks.
But the locals still move cautiously to do their daily shopping, except now in a city with no visitors. It's a remarkable transformation for a city that until recently saw protests against over-tourism under the slogan No Grande Navi (“No more cruises”).
In the world famous and often overcrowded Rialto Market, most of the fish and vegetable stalls are still open, although customers are few and far between. All markets can serve customers within a minimum distance of one meter.
In line to buy fish, Franco Fabris, an architect, recalled: "When I was a child, there were far fewer boats in the canals and many children would jump and go swimming."
"At the moment I am not going out fishing since all the restaurants I offer have closed, so what is the point?" said Franco Folin, a fisherman. "But when this is all over, we may well see that more fish return because recreational fishing is prohibited at the moment, there will be a lot of extra marine life in the lagoon."
The apparent cleanliness of the water is not due to a lack of contamination, said Davide Tagliapetra, an environmental researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences. The reason is the absence of motorized transport, which normally agitates the muddy canal floor.
Matteo Bisol runs the Venissa vineyard restaurant on the small lagoon island of Mazzorbo, and has been campaigning for a greener and more sustainable tourism model in Venice for some time.
"For the love of God, it is not surprising that there are fish in the canals of Venice," he said. “If it didn't exist, then we should all be concerned as the lagoon here is a fragile ecosystem. People need to realize that if we control and reduce boat traffic in Venice and its lagoon, we could all discover a unique biosphere ”.
It's not just the cruises that are gone: the souvenir stalls that line the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Murano glass and lace shops, and the bars and restaurants are all closed.
It's a brutal blow to an economy dependent on tourism, but in the meantime, the locals seem to be rediscovering their city, in a admittedly limited way.
"We Venetians have the feeling that nature has returned and is taking possession of the city," Beggiato said.
“If you ask me today - sunny blue skies, clear canals - then, yes, we would all like Venice to stay that way for a while. But we need, and we look forward to, the return of tourists, although perhaps not the 20 million a year that we have had to face.
"I honestly believe that we should take the opportunity of this blockade to reflect and see how we can be more organized in the future to find a balance between the city and tourism."