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Looking for St. Mark’s Square? You May Find Yourself in a Shipyard Instead


MONFALCONE, Italy — Vittoria Comparone had never been to Venice. So for her coming honeymoon, she booked a dream cruise including a majestic approach to the city past St. Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and all the astonishing, photogenic treasures along the Giudecca Canal.

At dawn on Saturday, the 2,500-passenger ship, the MSC Orchestra, glided toward its designated Venice stop, and Ms. Comparone, 28, and her husband, both from Caserta in southern Italy, stepped onto their cabin’s balcony. Under a glorious salmon-hued sky, the couple took in the view.

Towering cranes bent over a vast shipyard. A peppermint-striped thermoelectric cooling tower loomed over walls wrapped in barbed wire. Signs in the distance advertised the main cultural attraction, the Shipbuilding Museum.

“It’s not exactly as charming as Venice,” Ms. Comparone said.

A navigating error did not bring her to Monfalcone, an industrial port with a renowned history of shipbuilding more than two hours’ drive east of Venice. The government did.

On July 13, a day after Ms. Comparone’s wedding, Italy’s prime minister banned cruise ships and other enormous boats from the Venice lagoon and canals — a move long sought by environmentalists and local activists to protect the fragile ecosystem and exasperated residents after years of mass tourism.

By Saturday, the last day before the ban went into effect on Aug. 1, cruise ship companies had already given up on Venice and rerouted to other ports, including Monfalcone. Locals wading opposite the port on a beach sullied with rusted debris and abandoned buildings with shattered windows admired the ship. “Spectacular in the morning light,” said Sabrina Ranni, 55, whose husband worked on a larger mega-cruise ship still in the yard.

But some passengers were less satisfied with Monfalcone than Monfalcone was with them.

“We were really upset,” said Erika Rosini, 43, who learned of the change once the ship set sail. “It wasn’t great to wake up this morning and see this horrible spectacle.”

She decided to avoid the long bus trek into Venice and spend the day with her family on the boat. “The pools are awful,” she said while standing in one of them, drinking a mocktail, shouting over thumping music and trying to look toward the sea rather than the shipyard. “It’s small with a lot — a lot — of people.”

Some passengers, including the newlyweds, braved the bus.

“I hoped we would arrive by sea, but with these changes we knew something would be different,” said Ms. Comparone as she got off the bus at Venice’s cruise ship terminal wearing a black T-shirt reading “Life Is Good.”

“It’s doable,” she said.

She, her husband, Gaetano La Vaccara, 32, and the rest of their group climbed into a smaller boat that brought them down the same Giudecca Canal that the cruise ships used to traverse. They shared space comfortably with public Vaporetto buses, water taxis, an array of motorboats and rocking gondolas.

Under a scorching sun in St. Mark’s Square, the couple followed a tour guide and waded through the pandemic-thinned crowds. They held hands and craned their necks with expressions of wonder at the glorious mosaics of the basilica, the winged lion sculpture atop a column and the towering bell tower.

They learned some history and took some pictures. They looked delighted with each other and with Venice, and without a care in the world or a hard feeling about the extra step to get here.

“It’s right, I think,” Mr. La Vaccara said, his neck draped with a cross-body bag, blue audio guide control and ID cards, referring to the decree keeping the ship out of the lagoon. “It’s more respectful.”

As the couple continued toward the Rialto Bridge, leaders of Venice’s anti-cruise ship resistance basked in their victory.

“For 10 years we protested on the water, right here,” Tommaso Cacciari, a spokesman for the No Big Ships committee said, pointing at the slushing canal. He said that when the ban was announced last month, he was with his wife and son — who is 3 and shouts “ugly ship” whenever he sees a big ship — at a cafe flying a No Big Ships flag.

“A party basically broke out,” he said, calling the decree a “liberation.”

With the war over, the grizzled veteran of the cruise ship conflicts took a drag of his cigarette and said he was considering his next move. Among the possibilities: to fight a proposed cruise dock in Marghera, the lagoon’s commercial port on the mainland, or maybe to help residents of other towns keep the ships away.

Told that earlier in the day, bar workers on Monfalcone’s beach begged that more cruise boats come and that more passengers stay, Mr. Cacciari smiled. “Wait two years,” he said.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, tourists so overran the city that residents took to describing the influx as an “assault,” as existential a threat as flooding from high water. The economy had long become addicted to tourism. Residents converted their apartments into lucrative Airbnbs and abandoned the city. Low-cost airlines brought more and more people from more and more places.

But cruise ships, despite bringing only a tiny fraction of the tourists, became the most glaring symbol of that inundation, and they inspired a passionate resistance. When the pandemic halted the cruises, the opponents gained momentum. And when the ships briefly returned, despite a previous government statement that they would not, anger in the city exploded.

For a long time, No Big Ships flags, T-shirts and stickers covered the windows of the committee’s office in a fashionable section of the city, where cruise ship day trippers hardly ever ventured. And when they did, it often did not go well.

“Some of these people ask me ‘Where’s St. Peter’s or the Leaning Tower of Pisa,’” said Valentina Zanda, 31, who supported the ban and was working in the former kiosk of the No Big Boats committee, which has become a Dr. Green “Hemp Life Benefits” shop. “Seriously, they should preselect who can come here.”

Still, she wasn’t entirely unsympathetic. Ms. Zanda said that, about a decade ago, she herself worked the reception desk at the cruise terminal, and once even spent two weeks aboard a cruise ship working as a hostess.

“I gained 15 pounds. All alcohol,” she said. Then with a highly relaxed glance into the middle distance, she pondered, “On the one hand, it gives work. But at what cost?”

In the last hours of the cruise ship era, that question hung over Venice.

Gondoliers called it a “punch in the gut” when the pandemic had already knocked the city down. Makers of traditional Venetian masks said protesters who had no stake in the tourism industry had acted selfishly.

Many residents remain torn. Alessandra De Rispinis, 75, whose family has owned the Cantine del Vino già Schiavi wine bar for more than 60 years, liked seeing the reflection of the passing ships in her bar mirror. But after accidents, especially when the hulking MSC Opera crashed into a dock in 2019, she said the “fear was real that they would fall on top of you. They are skyscrapers.”

As Venice’s residents contemplated a post-cruise world, the newlyweds blithely took in some more sites and ate a bag lunch before returning to Monfalcone. They rode near the port hotel, where a model of a Crown Princess cruise ship sits in the lobby among groggy sailors and workers, and where the front desk manager recommends the exhibit “dedicated to people who died of asbestos” in the Shipbuilding Museum.

The couple boarded the Orchestra as Ms. Rosini’s husband, out of the pool and on his phone, posted memes about how he had been promised a view of St. Mark’s but only got this lousy shipyard.

As the sun began to set, the Orchestra sailed again. Ms. Comparone stepped onto the balcony and watched the shipyards and cranes and cooling tower grow small. She thought, she said, of Venice — “with its palaces, bridges and bell towers.”

Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome.


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