05 August, 2006

72. Hitching posts

If you have never been to Venice it is easy to make quite false assumptions about it.

Every schoolkid who knows anything at all about Venice knows at least this: that the main roads are all canals. Consequently, we all understand that Venetians have to use boats instead of wheeled vehicles. It is then easy to make direct mental substitutes, one type of vehicle for the other, eg bicycles/rickshaws = rowboats; taxis/cars = motorboats; buses = vaporetti; trucks = barges, and at a functional level, this analogy works.

It would be very wrong, though, to assume as a result of that comparison that Venice is a lot like other cities, except with very soggy roads and different vehicles. The fact is that people in Venice have a profoundly different relationship to transport.

In most cities, vehicular transport is the norm, walking is the exception and very localised – and in some places, like Los Angeles, walking is an aberration to be discouraged, achieved only with great difficulty and physical danger from pedestrian-hostile traffic systems.

In Venice, it's the very opposite. Because of its island nature, everything in Venice is within walking distance, so most people who live here don't even want to own a boat, they walk everywhere. There is no Hertz or Thrifty Rent-a-boat service, so most visitors don't hire their own boat for the duration, they walk. Everybody uses vaporetti to get from island to island around the lagoon, or from one end of the city to the other, but otherwise they walk. And because of the total lack of any kind of wheeled vehicles in the land-based streets, Venice is a walker's paradise.

The relatively small proportion of residents who do own a boat also don't seem to wrestle with any of the traffic restrictions that vehicle owners have to cope with in other cities. There are no double yellow lines painted on the sides of canals, no Clearway signs, no roundabouts, traffic lights, stop signs, or parking meters. And there is so little traffic, they don't even have any trouble parking their boat when they get to where they want to go.

in the walls of medieval buildings in the old city centres of Europe, it is common to see iron rings or posts set into the stonework at about a metre above the ground. These are hitching posts and it is to them that you would have tied the reins of your horse when you wanted to park.

There were horses in Venice at one time, but I don't recall ever seeing that sort of hitching post here. Hitching posts in Venice mostly look like this – an iron ring set into the paving at the edges of the canals – and many of them are still used for their original purpose, which is to tie the reins of your vehicle to when you want to park. That's if you are unfortunate enough to have to have a vehicle.

Doesn't that make you green with envy?

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