Since I first learned of the phenomenon of Venice’s aqua alta, I’ve been eager to experience it first hand. You can imagine my excitement when, booking the hotel for our upcoming trip to Venice, the staff warned us to bring boots due to the rising tides.
Aqua alta, which literally translates to “high water”, is the term used for exceptionally hide tides that flood all or a portion of the streets of Venice. While aqua alta is an annoyance to Venetians, it is a surreal and enchanting occurrence for anyone seeing it for the first time.
I woke at 6am. The sky was still dark and the water, while already covering a good portion of the streets, was steadily rising. I took the stairs down from the third floor (elevators of course aren’t prudent under such conditions). The last step landed me in the lobby, ankle deep in water. It resembled a scene from the movie Poltergeist. Chairs and tables were stacked one on top of the other like daring and skilled acrobats. While I surveyed the situation with incredulous eyes, the staff went out their business as if nothing was unusual. Breakfast was served by a waitress bearing knee high rubber boots.
During periods of aqua alta, an alarm is sounded to warn citizens and visitors alike. Not long ago the sirens employed for this purpose were the same ones used during World War II to warn citizens of air raids. With this system in place, Venice found many of its guests fleeing hotels in a panic, often clothed in only underwear or pajamas – the memory of actual air raids and nights of carpet bombing all too recent to suppress. It was agreed that the sirens would be retired and replaced by the ringing of bells.
I giddily sloshed through the streets in my rubber boots, my over-bubbly “Buon Giorno-s!” wasted on the weary Venetian walking his dog, and the others making their way to work. By 9am the water was already making its retreat back to the canals leaving me with soggy feet and frankly a little saddened that it had passed so quickly. For the Venetians, however, the ebb and flow of the tides meant that aqua alta was not water under the bridge. For days to come they would wake to much of the same.