VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Watching thousands of tourists stroll through Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square, steward Giovanna is ready to step in at the first sign of unacceptable behavior -- picnics, bare torsos or discarded food wrappers.
Speaking languages ranging from Chinese to Polish, Giovanna and six other women have been deployed by the lagoon city to improve decorum and cleanliness in the square Napoleon called “the drawing room of Europe”.
Since June, they have patrolled areas which are split into Saint Mark’s Basilica and Clock tower, the Grand Canal and the Doge’s Palace, telling tourists they cannot lay out food or walk around bare-chested.
Signs warning of fines have been plastered on bins as well as canal water bus stops, and the stewards -- dressed in special T-shirts -- give out leaflets telling tourists where they can have their picnics.
If situations get tricky, the women who work for a municipal agency and who have been nicknamed “guardians of the square” -- call for back-up from police who can hand out fines ranging from 25 euros ($34) to 500 euros.
In early August, more than 100 tourists were given 25 euro fines, according to news agency ANSA.
“The other day there was a lady sitting with a saucepan but she had no gas bottle,” said Giovanna, who declined to give her surname. “As I approached she leapt up saying ‘don’t worry, I’m not going to start cooking’.”
“People usually say they didn’t know. We advise them that there is a picnic area where they can go, we do not want them to get angry -- usually the reaction is positive but there are times when we’ve had to make calls (for back-up).”
Thousands wander across Saint Mark’s Square every day, large groups form around flag-waving tour guides and parents take pictures of children with pigeons alighting on their arms.
Those who can afford it sip coffee in style while listening to live music at the Caffe Florian, which dates from 1720 and was frequented by, among others, Goethe and Marcel Proust.
But in a city where a simple breakfast of coffee and a croissant can cost over 5 euros ($6.78) -- more than double the rate in Milan -- many day-trippers bring their own food or opt for take-away refreshments.
Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had nearly 20 million tourists last year and the city council wants the visitors to be respectable.
“There were people who wanted to go around Venice bare-chested and this is unacceptable, there were people who mistook the Grand Canal for a beach,” the council’s Augusto Salvadori, in charge of tourism and the city’s image, said.
“Venice is a city of art and a city that belongs to the world, guests are welcome -- but Venice has to be respected.”
Mario Martini, who sells grain to feed pigeons, which pose their own problem in Saint Mark’s Square, thinks the stewards are good for the city’s image.
“It’s a good idea, maybe there should be more stewards,” he said.
At the designated picnic area some 150 meters (yards) away, British tourist Glenda List said she respected the decision.
“They want some standards, I can understand that,” she said. “They don’t want it to be scruffy but maybe they could just provide more bins.”
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.