'At the Time of the Bora Wind'

I spent one day in Venice 27 years ago. I have a few photographs as a memento of that visit. The next time I travelled to Venice was in January 2011. I didn’t know the city or anyone there. The sun was shining. I would have liked to see Venice in the fog or snow, to wade in the streets at high tide.

I strolled and drifted along, taking a vaporetto for longer stretches. It’s best to sit out on deck on the vaporetto – watching the waves, listening to the sounds and smelling the sea air. Sometimes I had the journey to myself, when the frigid northerly Bora wind drove the other passengers inside. At those times I could feel how cold it can be in Venice. The damp chilliness feels colder than frost.

Every New Year’s Day the Lido beach fills up with Venetians. Forty-eight local swimmers were heading into the water. The water was just as cold as the air. As an experienced winter swimmer, I had packed my swimsuit and towel in my camera bag. After all, I’ve been swimming in the iceberg-strewn sea in Greenland and in frozen lakes in Finland.

I met a young man called Francesco on the wintry Lido beach. He lived on the Lido and was a native of Venice. The next day I went for a walk around the city with Francesco. We ended up at the Teatro Goldoni, which was hosting a performance by Circus Klezmer. I got to know Giulia, who lives in Dorsoduro, at a concert in a church. As I was buying a bottle of water, Giulia told me about her project, which encourages people to drink water from public fountains by giving them an empty bottle and a map of the city’s 122 public water fountains. The tap water in Venice is drinkable, but Venetians continue to buy huge quantities of bottled water. According to one study, Italians drink an average of 246 litres of bottled water each year. They are the world’s largest consumers of bottled water.

It was easy to follow the same routes, take the same vaporetti and return to the same places. I would often find myself at San Giorgio Maggiore, La Giudecca, Zattere and Giardini, always near the water. The lights of San Servolo can be seen as far away as Giardini. This island, formerly home to an ancient monastery, was the site of a psychiatric hospital for two and a half centuries, up until 1978, and was known as ‘the island of the mad’.

I permitted myself to wander. Wandering off into Venice at night is captivating. It’s interesting to walk along silent, dark lanes, walking with no particular destination, without knowing what you will encounter around a corner or where you will end up. I looked curiously into the windows of the houses: people were reading, eating, celebrating… and the lights would go out.

A few minutes from the Fondamenta Nuove by vaporetto is the Isola di San Michele, the island of the dead, which used to serve as a prison. It has been a cemetery since the nineteenth century. Space is limited, and deceased residents of Venice are permitted to rest in peace for only a few years before their remains are dug up and taken elsewhere for storage.

Nowadays people can also scatter ashes into the lagoon. A pontoon extending from the shore is being built for this purpose. It is also possible to go and empty an urn into the seven-hundred-metre depths of the Adriatic, on the other side of the Lido.

One Sunday morning before sunrise, the city was asleep. It was silent. The moon illuminated the way to Zattere. I stopped at the Fondamenta to look at La Giudecca in the moonlight. I had heard that the temperature in La Giudecca is a couple of degrees lower than elsewhere in Venice. And that the property prices are higher in La Giudecca than elsewhere. With the sun shining, by the water, the colours change their form. Blue, red, yellow and green, until the darkness envelops the colours. Then there are just the lights in the windows and a streak of light painted in the water by the vaporetto.

A passer-by at Zatterae urged me to be careful. I shouldn’t stand too close to the edge of the promenade. The edge was slippery, and I could slip into the sea. In Giudecca as well, people noticed when I was photographing too close to the edge. Very concerned people there were in Dorsoduro and La Giudecca.

In the winter it’s hard to imagine how Venice fills up with tourists in the summertime – up to 100,000 visitors a day. That’s far more than the number of people who live in the city. So nearly 20 million people visit Venice each year. The locals must enjoy the half-empty city in the wintertime, just as I do. There’s no need to queue, there is room to travel on the vaporetti, I can walk along narrow lanes on my own, it’s quiet. It’s all right to be alone.

To view the works of Tiina Itkonen please click here

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