The vaporetto is Venice's public transit service. Venice being Venice, the public transit does not have tires nor rides on rails. It floats. This alone makes it superior to any public bus, train, or subway on earth. Add in the canals and lagoons of Venice and the comparison to public transit anywhere else becomes a bit silly. Riding a vaporetto is like nothing else that life has to offer.
The vaporetto's name is derived from the days when it was steam-powered. Now the boats are propelled by diesel engines. Their unique form has evolved as well, appearing now like enormous, floating cigars with windows as they tool their way around the major arteries of their Venetian world.
The locals mostly choose to sit inside the long cabin of the boats. It frees them from the insane tourists that crowd the outside deck. The tourist gang sloshes from side to side as landmarks attract it like shiny objects do a cauldron of crows. The boats list this way, then that way as the tourists go back and forth with silly grins and cameras aloft. The locals just watch the show with weary eyes from the cabins. When they reach their stop they have a way of weaving past the suitcases and backpacks and cameras and knickknacks and somehow get off the boat before everyone else. They disappear into the labyrinth of Venetian alleys, their footsteps echoing against the stones that are everywhere.
The tourists mostly get on and off at the predictable places along the Grand Canal; stops like the train station, Rialto, and Piazza San Marco. The locals come and go like ghosts in their own city, trying to ignore the whole thing. Occasionally they lose patience and shoot the evil eye or a quick elbow into a distracted tourist who has plowed into them. But, mostly they are patient and silent as the mobs ebb and flow. The vaporetto is faithful and democratic as it takes them all from here to there.
The best time to take the vaporetto is early or late in the day. And there are routes that are off the touristed trail where locals pretty much have the boats to themselves. Here the rides are peaceful and where one gets the true meaning of living in a city of the sea. One smells the salty lagoon, feels the shivers of the ghostly past, gets the brisk Adriatic air in face and lungs. One understands why Venice is being loved to death as thousands crowd into her most every morning and abandon her most every night.
One also knows, on this homely boat called the vaporetto, why Venice will survive it all. The vaporetto ride, even at its most insane and crowded moments, is a journey of optimism. It is where Venice can be truly understood and seen from its best perspective. It is being, for a few rare moments, of the heart of Venice. One can simply be on a vaporetto and—with a little imagination, and for a short time—be Venetian as well.