Put Off by Venice’s Crowds? Try the Oasis Next Door

The website of the city of Venice provides high water advisories to help people avoid flooded areas. Now it also forecasts another kind of flood: tourist inundations. It uses a scale of 1 to 20 stick figures, the kind found on the doors of men’s bathrooms. A recent April day could have been worse: 15 men’s-room men. Still, the city felt crowded, pungent, a little sticky. I boarded a train, eager to breathe in a gulp of fresh, authentic Italian air. I went to Treviso.

Treviso? For those who have actually heard of Treviso, the question is probably still — Treviso? Who in their right mind would willingly abandon Venice, home to a mind-boggling maze of architectural, artistic and historical treasures for a mostly overlooked destination best known for crimson radicchio, bright Benetton sweaters and The Fountain of the Boobs: a statue of a topless woman squeezing two arcs of drinking water — and on holidays, wine — from an ample bosom. And it’s not even the original.

But in one critical respect, Treviso’s scantiness is its salvation, just as Venice’s abundance is its ruin.

Venice has become arguably the European capital of overtourism, an inelegant neologism describing the hoards of tourists who have laid waste to the neighborhoods and character of some of the European continent’s most cherished cities.

Nobody knows for sure how many tourists visit Venice every year. Some estimates are as high as 30 million, but the city, which puts the number at around 12 million (up from about 9 million a decade ago) says such outlandish figures count single people multiple times. In any case, it’s clearly too many tourists for a town hemorrhaging residents, so much so that newspapers are running out of “Death in Venice” and “Submerged City” themed headlines.

This month, they got some new material when, after years of warning bells about the damage mega cruise liners — floating high-rise hotels that tower over St. Mark’s — cause to the city’s fragile lagoon, a nearly 900-foot long ship sounded its alarm as it plowed into a smaller tour ship and wharf. Footage of the scene, with people running in panic off the quay, made Venice seem like the set of a disaster movie. Locals say it is, but because of all the tourists those ships bring.

Venice isn’t the only European city overwhelmed by tourists. Barcelona, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik and others are all under assault. Some of them have fought back with tourism taxes, bans on Airbnb rentals and fines on bad behavior. Rome has simply made itself less desirable.

But Treviso, and kindred cities across Europe, offer an alternative. About a half-an-hour train ride from Venice, Treviso is the oasis next door, a place to replenish on the culture and modern manners of an Italian-speaking Italian city before rejoining the madding crowd. They exist all over Europe. You just need to look.

The first time I visited Treviso, it was on a detour. Last year, I arrived in town to conduct interviews for an economics story and then planned to continue on to Venice with my wife and children. But bad weather had left Venice flooded and inaccessible. So we stayed in Treviso.

As I talked about budgets and debt ceilings with the town’s entrepreneurs my family walked under the city’s sheltering arcades, appreciating the antique stores and the Tiramisù. They shopped for sweaters at Benetton. Between interviews, a photo arrived of my kids, their faces puckered toward the camera as they drank with delight from the Fountain of the Boobs.

That night they talked the city up. So did our friends in the United States who first used it as a base for their day trips to Venice, lightening the load on a sinking city, but then ended up preferring Treviso and skipping Venice. So did my Italian friends who begged me to keep it secret. (Sorry.) I wanted to see more than the headquarters of the Confartigianato small business association. I wanted to be a tourist in Treviso.

A world away

And so on a recent afternoon, I watched the bell towers and domes of Venice grow hazy as the train pulled out of the station. We rolled over the lagoon and past the sun-blotting cruise ships leaking day-trippers. I got off the train a short while later. I was a world away.

Canals flow in Treviso, too, but trout swim in them, water hens glide on them, and water mills, the ones that once made the bread for the Venice Republic’s fearsome navy — still wheel in them, though now they’re just for show. At the confluence of rivers marked in Dante’s Paradiso — “where Cagnano meets with Sile” — joggers and bike riders set out on excursions. After the faithful observe vespers in the packed St. Francis church, where Dante’s son is buried across from Petrarch’s daughter, Treviso’s residents observe the sacred hour of aperitif, when candy-colored Spritzes and sparkling proseccos are worshiped.

Prosecco is produced in the surrounding hills, themselves spotted with villas. On Fishmarket Island, between two lazy canals, hundreds of locals sip an enormous variety of prosecco. Corked bottle necks stick out of the ice beds, like a fisherman’s fresh catch. Around the corner, the beautiful people gather around the tables outside Osteria al Corder, opposite the exquisite porcelain shop Morandin. The bohemian crowd prefers Osteria Muscoli, where old men spend the mornings, and soak up the spirits with salted pork sandwiches.

And just about everyone seems drawn to Cantinetta Venegazzù. Located under my Il Focolare hotel room, where John Grisham wrote “The Broker” — like Treviso, an overlooked thriller — the wine bar draws a nighttime crowd that spills onto the narrow piazza paved with round river stones. Opposite is the restaurant where, legend has it, Tiramisù was born, and where there is talk of opening up a Tiramisù museum.

“In Treviso, it’s better that someone touch your wife than your Tiramisù,” Antonella Stelitano tells me as she greets me outside the hotel.

Ms. Stelitano is the head of cultural activity for the Cassamarca Foundation, which is considering opening its own museum. The frescoed and chandeliered headquarters has enough 20th-century art in its file cabinets and archives to fill floors.

She offered to guide me around town, showing me the Piazza dei Signori, where children rode on a carousel and ate Dassie’s chocolate gelato — voted the best in the country by Gambero Rosso in 2018. She brought me to the workshop of Italo Varisco, a renowned crystal maker and engraver, Treviso’s answer to Venice’s Murano island of glass blowers.

And then, to really hammer home Treviso’s extreme elegance, she showed me the planet’s most beautiful pawnshop. The 15th-century Monte di Pietà of Treviso is roughly above the vaulted ceiling of the 15th-century Santa Lucia church. It was created to help indebted Christians — with the fringe benefit of damaging the city’s Jewish loaners — and its director’s room, shaped like a chapel, is frescoed in great moments of Christian charity. The walls are covered in gold-leafed leather paneling.

Outside, by the Loggia of the Knights, we watched a panel judge traditional Fugassa bread. (Treviso pasta is Bigoli in Salsa, a thick spaghetti bathed in a sauce of onions and anchovies. Toni del Spin does a solid version.) A few minutes later, we bumped into Treviso’s mayor, Mario Conte, carrying a loaf to his car. He was walking between a canal and the Odeon alla Colonna, a stylish restaurant where businessmen lunch on shrimp and almonds over pasta made with coffee, and invited us to his City Hall office.

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“We want people to come here because they choose Treviso, not because there are too many people in Venice,” the mayor told me as he stood under an antique map of the city.

Of course he wanted more people to visit Treviso, he said, and he took heart in the 500 people who that very day had taken a 15-minute ride on a new shuttle bus from Treviso’s airport, a hub for low-cost airlines that is often used to service Venice. The city is working to eventually make the shuttle bus part of a package that would include access to Treviso’s museums and a train ticket to Venice. The mayor’s goal, he said, was to use cultural offerings to attract tourists to spend two nights in Treviso.

“It’s a choice that we have made,” the mayor said. “To raise the level of the visitor.”

Rating tourists?

Treviso isn’t the only city agonizing about “the level of the visitor.” In the era of TripAdvisor, where every restaurant, hotel room and view is rated, many cities have started rating tourists, too — how long they stay and how much money they spend. A recent study out of Cambridge found that a tourist traveling by coach bus spends just $5.40 a day on their destination city.

But some cities are becoming increasingly sensitive to how much tourists burnish the image they want to project and how much they damage that image, or the physical city and its monuments.

It makes economic, cultural and civic sense. And yet, there’s something that doesn’t feel right about rating a tourist, which also means rating a person. Just because someone arrives on a cruise ship or a Ryanair flight, because he eats a packed sandwich in the square and buys nothing but a plastic Gondola keychain, because he seems — maybe is! — boorish and uncouth, unsophisticated and uninitiated, does that mean he is any less moved by the light splintering across the Grand Canal, that he has any less right to see it? And what about the loud woman wearing an expression of pure joy as she washes down her wurstel pizza with another Spritz? Try and tell her she’s the problem.

In an age of populism, to disapprove of the mass democratization of tourism is to risk elitism. To travel to mobbed places, is to undergo a moral stress test.

My family and I recently went to see the “Mona Lisa” in Paris. Ushers herded hundreds of us tourists into a vast hall that made the masterpiece seem miniature. As we jostled through the throng, camera apps and Mona Lisa smiles at the ready, I sensed the displeasure of my wife who considered it absurd to check the Mona Lisa box on a rainy Easter weekend when all the world seemed inside the Louvre.

My loyalties shifted. I suddenly felt aggrieved on behalf of the horde. Who were we to think that there were too many of them? Sure, this was a Mona Lisa mosh pit, but our young children didn’t know it didn’t used to be like this, that you used to be able to linger, and even move your arms, in front of the painting. Why should anyone be denied seeing it just because so many more now could? The children took their pictures of the backs of tourists’ heads and some of Mona Lisa’s brow and I fell into an existential Expedia funk. This, unfortunately, was tourism now. How does one embrace — or at least not judge — the tourist, and condemn the overtourism, or whatever one wants to call it.

A few years ago, Ragat Ali, the founder of Skift, a travel industry news and research site, coined the word “overtourism” to appeal, he later wrote, “to people’s baser instincts with an element of alarm and fear in it.”

The alarm spread like news of a 30-euro flight to Barcelona. In 2018, the Telegraph suggested it should be the word of the year. And the United Nations World Tourism Organization in January published “‘Overtourism’? Understanding and Managing Urban Tourism Growth beyond Perceptions Volume 2: Case Studies.” It is perhaps the worst beach read ever written.

About 1.4 billion people, about twice as many as 20 years ago, stayed overnight somewhere last year. And the numbers continue to rise. More than 100 million tourists now depart from China, a number expected to quadruple in the next 20 years. In Trieste, another northern Italian city hoping to become a base for Venice tourists, I recently watched set sail a cruise ship, designed for the Chinese market, with an interior décor decked out in faux Venetian street scenes, canals and squares.

For many cities though, tourism has become too much of a good thing. Some cities have adopted a sort of “No Shirt No Shoes No Service” approach to mass tourism.

Venice, for example, has an #EnjoyRespectVenezia campaign listing the finable offenses, including diving into the canals. In September, the city plans to introduce a new daytripper tax, requiring the daily selfie-stick brigades to pay fees from 3 euros, or about $3.35, on relatively uncrowded days, to 10 euros when the city is packed. As for the nearly 1.5 million tourists arriving annually on roughly 500 cruise ships, the city is hoping that this month’s crash will motivate a paralyzed national government to green light a plan to divert the ships elsewhere in the lagoon. Activists want them out altogether.

The Venice mayor’s spokesman, Antonio Bertasi, told me that the city had secured funds for stewards in St. Mark’s Square and other heavily trafficked areas to “maintain the decorum of the place.” Other European countries are also imposing regulations to help resuscitate some Grand Tour decorum.

Amsterdam, which has doubled hotel room taxes and limited Airbnb rentals, has also released a video at airports and on booking sites, reminding gallivanting-age men that spilling bodily fluids into the red light district’s streets is unacceptable and subject to fine. The mayor of Barcelona has promised to limit room-renting to take the helium out of the city’s overinflated real estate market. Dubrovnik’s Rupe Museum for ethnography and folk tradition is now mobbed with tourists — despite being a museum of ethnography and folk tradition — because its facade doubles as a brothel on the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” which was filmed there. Fans of the series have invaded the old city and chased away the vast majority of the residents, forcing the mayor to try and impose limits.

Competitors are seeking to capitalize on the woes of the crowded cities. In 2017, Oslo launched “the Great Escape Oslo,” a publicity campaign in which city officials poached frustrated tourists, including a suspiciously photogenic New Zealand couple who had complained on social media about crowds in Paris.

“We actually want to rescue you guys and fly you over to Oslo,” a city official is recorded saying to the couple. The couple go and have a ball. “If someone contacts you through Instagram saying come to their city, then just go for it,” the satisfied Kiwi tourist testifies, in perhaps the worst advice of the social media age.

In Italy, there is also an effort to divert tourists away from its own tourist traps. “I invite the tour operators to promote the Beautiful Country also away from the most frequented routes,” said Marco Centinaio, a former tour operator who is now Italy’s minister for Farming, Food and Forest Policy, and Tourism, and a member of the governing anti-immigrant League party. “Discover the lesser known and smaller towns,” he said.

But tourists increasingly are seeking out new destinations on their own, ones they often return to, again and again.

A sense of Italian life

There are plenty of reasons to return to Treviso.

Among them is the Salce Collection, a new national museum with a rotating selection of some 25,000 original advertising posters. It shows Armando Testa’s Punt E Mes masterpieces alongside Pirelli and Barilla ads from Italy’s boom years. I was sold.

With Ms. Stelitano showing me around, I walked past other medieval towers and 15th-century townhouses with Gothic windows and facades of faded floral frescoes. We peeked inside the Ca’ dei Carraresi palace, which doubled as an exhibition space, where a show about Japanese geishas and samurais had the backdrop of 15th-century Italian frescoes, including a heart-stopping drawing of a woman stabbing herself in the heart.

Hardly anyone in Treviso would argue that those things, really, can compete with the treasures of Venice. Really, nothing can. But Venice, unfortunately, is less and less able to compete with smaller Italian cities when it comes to offering a sense of real Italian life.

On my last night in Treviso, I prepped with a prosecco before heading to dinner at the restaurant Med, in the University district. I ate exquisite tortelli, as good as anything in Venice. From the tables around me I heard the lilt of the local Veneto tongue. Under my feet, a glass floor showed another canal rushing toward Venice.

I decided I wouldn’t.

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Jason Horowitz is the Rome bureau chief, covering Italy, the Vatican, Greece and other parts of Southern Europe. He previously covered the 2016 presidential campaign, the Obama administration and Congress, with an emphasis on political profiles and features. @jasondhorowitz

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