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.