Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Studying abroad in the Acqua Alta

The beautiful city of Venice is famous for many reasons, but it is perhaps most known for its position in the middle of the Venetian lagoon, where it sits atop millions of wooden poles hammered into the seabed below. This unique environment is responsible for the regular occurrence of ‘Acqua Alta’, or high water, during the colder months. Contributing factors include rising sea levels, the natural subsidence of the city and strong winds and when combined, water floods from the canals and the lagoon into the maze of alleyways and campi which make up Venice.

I am currently studying in Venice with other third-year History students who chose the Renaissance stream, and with second-year History of Art students, and on 29 October we experienced an exceptionally high acqua alta which flooded more than 75% of the city. The water reached heights of 158cm, so it was a bit more serious than popping on some wellies. When we arrived in Venice we were encouraged to download the Hi!Tide Venice app, which has the tide forecast for the following three days and rates the coming tides in terms of their height. We were also told about the acqua alta siren, used to warn the city of an oncoming high tide. Personally, it is one of the weirdest parts of the whole experience. It uses the old air raid siren, which is fairly eerie sounding, and then is followed by up to four tones which correspond to how high the water will be, sounding in my opinion not dissimilar to the end scene in Close Encounters. When the siren began it felt to me as though the whole city paused, waiting to count the tones, so they could predict the damage to come.

My personal experience of acqua alta involved forgetting my wellies and having to walk home with plastic bin bags tied around my feet, which were surprisingly effective. Acqua alta has yet to really affect me, and so I quite enjoyed the experience, probably because I was warm and safe indoors for most of it. There’s still an aspect of novelty and excitement which no doubt has worn off for the Venetians, who have just learnt to get on with it. You may have seen the video which circulated on social media of a Venetian restaurant continuing to serve food whilst tourists in wellies sit with water up to their ankles. Businesses remained open whilst trying to pump water out of their shops and the Venetian authorities erected gangways in Piazza San Marco so that the main tourist sites were still accessible, although the whole square was later cordoned off due to the sheer height of the water. Unfortunately, some students were travelling back after a weekend out of Venice and were met at the station with the high tide hitting its peak and a storm rolling in. Most of the public transport wasn’t running, and there are no roads in Venice, meaning getting home was incredibly difficult.

As I write this, my Hi!Tide app notifies me that tomorrow is expected to have acqua alta again, though thankfully not nearly as high as last time. Time to dig out my wellies!

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