Italy has a larger-than-life image in the minds of non-Italians, perhaps especially Americans. So I went to the country thinking that there was no way it could live up to its reputation. Boys and girls, I can admit when I am wrong (if you catch me in the right mood and maybe a little buzzed). I was wrong. If anything, it was even more over-the-top spectacular than I could have anticipated.
Politically and culturally, Italy is a mixed bag for gay people. While I was in country, a major debate over gay civil unions was raging. The law allowing them has subsequently passed, over the objection of the Vatican. The Church no longer enjoys absolute power over the politics of the country, but it still holds sway over the cultural attitudes of many Italians. So there’s a bit of a tug-of-war between the openness of what’s considered a “Western European” country and the sway of an influential religion that is hostile to the gay community.
In the gay world, Italians have a reputation for being, well, basically Roman gods. Or a country full of David statues standing on a pedestal. Though no one can really live up to these expectations, I’m not going to say that perception is totally wrong either. There is certainly plenty of eye candy.
A lot of Italy’s biggest draws aren’t really about a gaycation, though. You don’t go to Venice for the gay life. At least you shouldn’t. But other destinations offer a lot for the gay visitor. So it’s useful to break it down by city.
Since I was coming by land from the Balkans (last stop Ljubljana, Slovenia), I started in Venice, which is in the far northeast of the country, sitting atop the Adriatic Sea across from Croatia. Venice has been on my must-visit bucket list for most of my life, and I know I’m not exactly alone on that one. The idea of a city in the sea where the boulevards are water and everything you see is history was more than enough of a sell to get me there.
In a country of beautiful cathedrals, few measure up to San Marco in Venice. The adjacent piazza and the Doge’s Palace next door are also must-sees. I could have spent days wandering the labyrinthine, narrow pedestrian streets. In fact, I did just that. Relatedly – in all seriousness, I don’t know how anyone ever got in there and found their way back out again without GPS on a smartphone. I kept expecting to see the skeletons of those who never found their way out. They must have a good street cleaning crew.
Foot bridges over waterways. Gondolas. For the more budget-minded, the vaporetti “water buses” carry you all around the islands and up and down the Grand Canal. It’s all just nearly too much. The question “How is this a real place?” kept running through my head.
As I mentioned, though, Venice isn’t somewhere you’re going to find a bumping gay nightlife. That’s not what you’re there for. That being said, there is a surprisingly vibrant student subculture there, so if that’s your demographic I’m sure you could find some gay boys to hang out with. As another caveat, I just happened to be there (completely unplanned) for the opening of Carnivale. With the theatrical opening ceremony, the elaborate costumes, the general camp of the whole affair you can rest assured the community was well-represented.
If you are able to visit, the time to go is the winter or spring. The summers tend to be smelly and overrun with swarms of both bugs and tourists (neither of which am I a huge fan), and in the fall you can experience some flooding. I visited at the end of January and I was happy with how it worked out. There was some fog some of the time and I had to bundle up on the vaporetti, but it was more than worth it to me to avoid the stench and pests of the insect and human varieties.
There’s nowhere in the world quite like Venice. It’s not to be missed.