November 30, 2013
My Virtual Gondola: Street View Goes Venetian
Google Street View has finally made it to Venice. As one of the last of Europe’s great cities to fall to Google’s relentless digital mapping, Venice posed very special problems. One would expect the fact that Venice effectively stands in murky water would have been the biggest headache for the image gatherers, but in fact the city’s virtually vehicle-free status, narrow back alleys, and pedestrianization appear to have been the greatest obstacles.
In April and May this year, Google employees used a specialized camera known as the “Trekker” to gather the necessary images. The photographers had to be fit — the Trekker is carried in a four-foot high backpack and weighs in at 20kg. It takes a photo at 2.5-second intervals to create the familiar 360-degree footage. As well as wandering Venice’s labyrinth of streets, the Trekkies used the famous gondolas to explore the maze of waterways that define the unique nature of the city.
All this begs the question – does anyone need to bother visiting Venice or, indeed, any other major tourist destination any more? After all, a 50-minute gondola ride with a surly boatman can cost up to $200. Even though official guideline rates are lower, there are still rogue boat owners around. That long-planned, once in a lifetime ride round the canals might include listening to the gondolier arguing with his wife or discussing soccer results on his mobile. And if he starts singing – unless he turns out to be an undiscovered Pavarotti or Andrea Bocelli – shut him up quick, otherwise every note will bump up the price.
Believe me, Venice is expensive if you are not careful. A friend of mine took shelter from the fierce sun and chose a table outside a swanky restaurant in St. Mark’s Square. He and his wife had a coffee and the two kids had an ice cream each. He made the mistake of not asking the price before ordering and picked up a bill for $120.
If you need a comfort break during your virtual Google tour, it will cost you a couple of mouse clicks and no more while you nip to the bathroom. On my visit to Venice I followed the “convenient” yellow footsteps spray-painted on the ground that promised to lead me to a WC. At the end of the Yellow Foot Road I found it was going to cost me over $2 to top up Venice’s water levels. I passed on by and roamed aimlessly through quiet backstreets to the delightful Arsenal area and got a cold beer, friendly welcome, and unlimited toileting for not much more than the rip-off version. Why do so many places that make millions a day herding tourists in and out not provide basic facilities for free, if for no other no reason than to say “Welcome, thank you, please come back”?
Of course a virtual tour can never replace the real thing. My memories of Venice include strange odors from elegant, ancient decay and unforgettable rides crammed like a sardine into an overcrowded Vaporetto water taxi – noisy with locals and tourists from many nations, heady with second-hand garlic, and more languages than Babel’s Tower. It’s a great place to get lost in – you could say it’s almost better experienced without a map, Google or otherwise.
Image Credit: Google Street View