Walking on Water in Northern Italy

Lake Iseo, (Il Lago D’Iseo,) Italy – June 2016

World-renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude give over a half a million people once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk on water for 16 days this summer. 

 

Pure joy.

Those two words are the best way of describing the feeling of gliding across a ribbon of floating saffron above the sparkling waters of Italy’s Lake Iseo, on summer’s longest day, summer solstice.

A summer solstice like none other on Italy’s Lake Iseo, thanks for “The Floating Piers.”

In a grand artistic and technological experiment, Christo and Jeanne-Claude spent 26 years of their partnership conceptualizing and refining the idea of utilizing a system of floating piers to give visitors the surreal experience of walking across water. (For background, see The Floating Piers via a Long Path.) Although Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009 before seeing the project realized, the spirit of the couple’s long and fruitful partnership is celebrated with this installation.

Resonating Art

Organizers estimated 40,000 visitors per day would stroll across the series of piers stretching just shy of two miles. To put that number in perspective, that’s the same number of daily visitors on an average weekday to New York’s Central Park. All 843-acres of it.

A succession of 40k visitors arriving each day to walk on a undulating piece of artwork hovering on the lake. Not a fence or barrier in sight. It’s as logistically mind-boggling as it is artistically audacious.

Pure magic as late afternoon sunlight deepens the contrast between water and fabric.

The opportunity to experience such innovation and creativity, and take part in the magic, has resonated. Since opening to the public June 18, the installation has attracted far more visitors than expected. Some days by double. The enthusiasm and people-crush have resulted in sections being closed for a few hours here and there as well as one overnight for maintenance. Other than those slight limitations, everything seems to have run smoothly thus far (knocking on wood now.)

A Parade on Water

“The Floating Piers are an extension of the street and belong to everyone,” says the artist, Christo. In every interview, he has encouraged visitors to take off their shoes to better connect with the fabric moving with the water beneath their bare feet.

Shoes off, mind and heart open, the sensation felt like walking across a raft. A really big and luxuriously-crafted raft. With thousands of equally awe-struck friends pacing about too. Everyone grinning from ear to ear.

Twenty minutes earlier, on the train ride from Brescia, this outcome would have seemed unlikely. Our train to the lakeside town of Sulzano, gateway to the installation, should have taken half an hour. Instead we sat on the tracks, at a standstill, for almost two hours. As the temperature rose, nerves frayed. Mainly it was the uncertainty. No one knew how long we would be in limbo – a state brought about by too many visitors bottlenecking on the pier and the temporary closing of a section. Rumors spread along the tracks that the entire exhibit was now closed for the day and our train would soon turn back. Fortunately, that bit of gossip was unfounded and we were soon our way.

Hot and grumpy, passengers alighted from the train only to see a shockingly-long queue waiting for trains returning to other lake towns, Brescia, and beyond.

A mild scene at Sulzano’s train station compared to the crowds we would see amass during the day.

Soon a silver of “pier” came into view, packed with masses of people. The collective stress level seemed to be rising with each shuffle of the feet.

A first glimpse of “The Floating Piers.”

Then, something magical happened. As each person before us stepped onto the fabric lining the town streets, the mood seemed to lighten. By the time we were a few steps in, the hassle and uncertainty of the journey had melted.

Happiness permeated the mood and very air of Lake Iseo.

That feeling would remain intact for the entire day and evening. This is more than a public art project, it’s a people joy-maker.

For us, one of the (highest) highlights was catching a glimpse of the artist who had made such joy possible. Christo, from a top deck perch, could be seen monitoring the pier’s performance and soaking in the sight of happy visitors.

The small figure in the red rain jacket, Christo closely observes the performance of his epic, “The Floating Piers,” installation.

7 Days Remain – Plan Your Visit

You can still experience this amazing installation in person, for seven more days. Flights into Milan are cheaper than in previous summers – even last minute! For instance, there’s are flights from NYC to Milan coming up on Kayak today for less than $750, wow! Then it’s a few hours via train, (in theory) to reach the lake.

Tips for Tipping the Happy Scale:

Just look at this happiness!

1. Pack the right attitude.

As Christo has stated, this is a living installation. Individual sections or the whole darn thing could be closed for maintenance, rain, or wind. Having walked the piers in perfect conditions and feeling how it moved even then, I can see how questionable weather would mean a no-go.

Reduce stress by going early and planning to stay all day and into the night. In other words, don’t have other things on the check list this day, even firm dinner plans. Going with the flow allows you to give the epic feat the time and attention it deserves without stressing about delays. Plus you get to witness the work in the day’s changing light.

Just to be clear, let me repeat: there will be delays. Accept it as an unavoidable consequence of being a part of something so magical. Dial up your sense of humor. Smile often. Make friends easily. Bask in the sun.

Take time to enjoy the scene from every angle.

2. Use Brescia as a Base. 

Sure it would be incredible to score a lake-side villa for the week. Chances of that happening at this late date, or even months in advance, well…let’s just say, slim. But, no worries, because it’s still possible to get a reasonably-priced hotel room or Airbnb in nearby Brescia. Besides, the region’s capital helps set the stage for appreciating the installation more deeply through a comprehensive exhibit.

“Christo and Jeanne-Claude Water Projects,” is featured at UNESCO world heritage site, Santa Giulia Museum, through September. See an earlier article for an overview of exhibit.

Brescia also offers other cultural attractions including Roman ruins, smack in the center of the old town.

If going by train, get tickets to Brescia in advance, (even if that means only by a few hours.) During our trip, first class was sold out on all legs. However, second class – our preferred section anyway – was crowded but not full.

For the train from Brescia to Sulzano, arrive early and plan to queue under the Trenord sign near track 1 ovest (remember that bit about having a sense of humor and making friends? Yep.)

3. Pay Attention & Share the Space.

Does this one seem painfully obvious? With news headlines of selfie-taking tourists stumbling off mountains or kids falling into zoo enclosures, apparently it couldn’t hurt to mention awareness. Of surroundings and of others.

When walking through the narrow alleys of town and on the moving surface of piers, pay attention to what you are doing and how your actions effect those around you.

This should be a beautiful experience for every single visitors, right? Do your part to help make it so.

Don’t get too close to the edge. There are rescue boats there, but who needs that stress, really.

Even though they are technically allowed, leave umbrellas behind. Concerned about too much sun? Wear a hat. Worried about rain? Wear a rain jacket. The best an umbrella can do is poke fellow visitors in the head and ruin the mood.

And, please, oh please, leave the selfie stick at home (or in the trash.) If you manage not to knock someone in the face with it during the day, there’s still the annoying aspect of ruining the vista with your outstretched pole. This is a highly social event, ask someone to take your pic…old school!

These guys are there for rescues, but who wants to test to the waters?

These guys would be none to happy about you falling in the water either.

4. Provision, provision, provision. 

We had the romantic notion of being on the pier for sunset, gliding into a lakeside restaurant for dinner, then returning to Brescia for a nightcap on the town.

It didn’t work that way. Not even remotely. After transportation delays,  section closings, and too-crowded restaurants, we gave in to enjoying a slice of pizza on a bench while drinking lukewarm beer from a can. Classy! Arriving back in Brescia near 1 a.m., after catching one in the series of “last” trains, a nightcap wasn’t even a consideration.

Be prepared by bringing snacks for the train, just in case. Bring enough to share with seat mates and you will instantly make friends. If everything goes as schedule, you can enjoy a lakeside picnic. Stalls line the waterfront selling beer and wine and some snacks, plus there are a few small markets (when we were there most shelves were bare reflecting the overabundance of visitors.)

It’s hot right now in Italy. And, you will be in the middle of a lake. No shade, no relief. Wear heaps of sunscreen and reapply often. Also bring a refillable water bottle, which you can replenish at the historic fountain in Sulzano.

This applies to everywhere in Italy, but especially here…bring cash. Some stands and stalls take credit cards but why slow down the process for everyone?

5. Connect & Stay Updated.

Befitting an artist and installation of this scale, the team’s social media communication is tops. Check the Facebook page or twitter account often for updates about weather, closings, train schedules, etc.

Help keep the information fresh by posting realtime updates too!

6. Take the Beauty With You.

Sure photos and social media posts last forever-ish, but how can we take an experience like this and make the beauty and joy last?

As a former arts exec and arts advocate, I will tell you my opinion as to the best way to make the experience more meaningful.

Support artists from your own community, every chance you get.

Visionary art takes visionary stewardship and support. Get involved. Spend money and time. Encourage artists to take chances and push boundaries. Be an arts-activator. Encourage your contacts to embrace new works. Tackle tough issues in your community through art. Use your influence to push the dialogue further and encourage innovation in the arts.

After all, who knows where the next Christo or Jeanne-Claude will blossom?

For additional information:
The Floating Piers
Brescia Museum
The Work and Life of Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Related stories:
The Floating Piers via a Long Path
Celebrating Flower Power in Spello, Italy
Ebb & Flow on Italy’s Isola del Giglio