Venice can still seduce – 3 May 2007

Venice. Is there a place on Earth with the same hypnotic allure?

“White phantom city, whose untrodden streets are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting shadows of the palaces,” wrote American poet Henry Longfellow. So true.

But, as a more contemporary artist might say: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re really fit. But, my gosh, don’t you just know it?”

I have a love-hate relationship with Venice. It began 15 years ago, while Interailing around Europe.

Staying on Lido island and getting the ferry in seemed the perfect way to see the city. And it was. But when I returned three years later and a lot less awestruck, I began to see the cracks.

The tourist board doesn’t exactly welcome backpackers, who get in the way of higher-spending visitors.

But, curiously enough, it was the original gap year travellers who put Venice on the tourist map. For wealthy aristocrats, it was the stop on the Grand Tour. Club 18th century, if you will.

Venice’s problem is that too many people want to enjoy it at once

Countless authors, artists, poets and playwrights came, and it’s easy to see why: heartbreakingly beautiful, it is literally like no other city on earth. But today it is also full of crowds, overpriced restaurants and tacky souvenir shops.

Venice’s main problem is that too many people want to enjoy it at once. Appropriately enough for somewhere that has been ‘recreated’ in Las Vegas, Venice has almost become a theme park in its own right.

And yet, like a maddeningly pretty debutante, the city still has the power to seduce. There is possibly not a square in the world that can compare with the beauty of St Marks.

At the heart of it, the Basilica and Doge’s Palace are always busy, but large enough to lose yourself in.

Likewise, the streets are constantly clogged around the larger bridges such as the Ponte di Rialto, but there are miles and miles of side streets where the only thing to break the silence is the patter of a stray gondolier.

It may sound like tourism heresy, but don’t bother with a gondola. You’d never catch an Italian engaging in such a cliché.

Instead, take a water taxi somewhere. They’re shockingly expensive, but what price old-school glamour? You can imagine Sophia Loren pouring herself into one after a night at Harry’s Bar.

A point-to-point journey around the city will cost you (up to £65 a time); but a good compromise is the run out to Marco Polo Airport. It takes around 25 minutes and costs €85, but you can fill the boat and share costs with other passengers.

Harry’s Bar is another cliché but a fun one. Sure, the food is overpriced (starters €30-€55; main courses €45-€70) but that’s not the point. Go instead for the time-warp décor (unchanged since its 1930s heyday) and the famously charming service.

If you can’t stretch to dinner, have a Bellini at the bar. The signature blend of prosecco, peach juice and a dot of cranberry tastes as good today as it did in the days when Hemingway drank them – by the bucketload. 

Nowhere is Venice’s split personality more obvious than in its shops. Every luxury Italian label you can think of is here, but they’re no cheaper than they would be anywhere else in the world.

There are plenty of places to buy beautiful Venetian glass – the brightly coloured variety made nearby on the island of Murano. You can tell from the price tag whether it’s genuine.

Below the super-designer level there isn’t much, save for the many trinket shops hawking tiny glass animals.

Of all the artists and writers to idolise Venice, perhaps Thomas Mann was most accurate. “Half fairy tale, half tourist trap,” he said.

Choose your season, your hotel and your restaurant wisely, and you can still live in the fairy tale.

My trip ended perfectly with lunch at La Piscina, at La Calina Hotel near the Ponte dell’Accademia. Early spring sunshine, good company and fine food goes a long way to preserve one’s sanity.

The smell of the canals, by the way, is what they call the whiff of authenticity. You’re not in Las Vegas now. Enjoy it while you still can.

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