‘How I made the most of Venice, Italy when the canals were closed’

Jul 11, 2019
This year's Regata Storica is being held on September 1. Source: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

In my wildest dreams I could not imagine there’d be a ‘bad’ day to arrive in Venice, Italy; utter nonsense to suggest such an unholy scenario. But then to say that this spectacular part of Europe brought back memories of being caught in 1950s traffic jams in Queensland, Australia, somehow seemed ridiculously absurd; But it did!

Unbelievably, there is such a day in Venice and it’s called the Regata Storica Festival, as my husband and I discovered in September 1992. I presume I don’t have to explain that the canals in Venice are the city’s road system, the connections to get from A to B. Or, in this case, to transport two extremely jet-lagged Australians to their longed-for, desperately needed, accommodation.

Alas, it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen for ‘quite some time’, Italians being rather unclear, imprecise and ambiguous in the time-keeping department. They give new meaning to the words chilled and laid-back.

The Regata Storica is considered one of the most important events in Venice. It consists of a historical boat parade and a series of rowing races. The first thing we encountered as part of this celebration on the first Sunday in September was the closure of all the canals. They were shut tight, no coming and no going. It wouldn’t have mattered if we were Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi, we were landlocked and the situation was not to be resolved ‘momento presto’, anytime soon.

The very first thing that happens on this annual regatta celebration, on the first Sunday in September, is that all the canals are closed. Shut tight; no comings or goings. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi, you, my friend, are land locked and the situation will not be resolved ‘momento presto’, a moment soon.

My husband and I drove into Venice via a causeway over the lagoon called Ponte della Libertà. On the other side of the causeway, there’s a large square called Piazzale Roma, which serves as a bus terminus and turnaround spot, because this is the only section of Venice accessible by car. There are no other options.

There’s no bribery (not that we tried, umm ….), no ‘back entrance’ and no getting around the fact Venice was closed. Every street light was stuck on red. Talk about frustrating!

It reminded me of my childhood, getting stuck in traffic jams between Brisbane and the Gold Coast in Queensland. These days, depending on which part of the Gold Coast you’re travelling to, the average trip should be around an hour, give or take. Yet back in the day it was more like a ‘packed picnic basket/board game/cricket set’ for real road trip adventure that could take three hours or more, the more being the usual traffic congestion because of a breakdown or accident somewhere on the road ahead. Also very frustrating!

Instead of getting all hot under the collar — knowing there was nothing to be done — most stranded motorists would simply get out of their cars, introduce themselves to other motorists and ‘clan bake’ food, drinks and… bored kids. We made the best of a bad situation and had on-the-spot, spontaneous roadside picnics, played cricket on the road verge/shoulder, shared transistor radios for either music, news or the horse racing results.

Our families made the best of an uncomfortable situation. Unbelievably, when faced with this unforeseen ‘hiccup’ in our travel plans in Venice, those Pacific Highway traffic jam memories came flooding back to me. I figured if we were stuck in this waterway traffic jam then the only thing to do was … play! We had to enjoy this new adventure as best we could and not allow frustration to overwhelm us; for goodness sake, we were, after all, in Italy.

Cobblestoned laneways led us to the most enchanting hidey-hole cafes, candles lit in sunset shadows paved the way into twists and turns not normally chanced by the likes of ‘us’ but, ‘roll the dice’ we did! We walked a bit, found an enchanting little bar, met some lovely locals, people-watched, laughed a lot, ate ‘genuine’ pizza, drank Italian wine and grappa all day until sunset and the canals reopened. What a gloriously memorable day!

Who knew childhood memories of being stuck in Pacific Highway traffic jams in Queensland, Australia, would prepare me for an unforeseen itinerary glitch along the canals of Venice. La mente lavora in modi misteriosi; the mind works in mysterious ways.

How have you handled unforseen events while travelling? What challenges have you had while on holiday?

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