Many people are disappointed when they first come to Venice. It strikes them as dirty, smelly and cramp
ed, full of tourists and not affording any real intellectual pleasure
To us, with our inflated notions of vast metropoli, it is almost inconceivable that such a small place could have wielded such immense military and economic power for so long. Venice is indeed tiny - if it were possible to walk all the way around it, it wouldn't take more than a few hours at a leisurely pace.
The famed palaces, or palazzos, of Venice are often dirty and crumbling, and are nowhere near large enough to inspire awe in someone who's expecting an adriatic Paris or Rome. The canals are indeed smelly, narrow and labyrinthine. Streets which are prominently marked on the map turn out to be narrow gaps between buildings, ending abruptly in a watery cul de sac.
Yet Venice is a place charmed like no other I've ever been to. Yes, it's falling apart. It's been falling apart for centuries. In fact, my guess is that it's been sinking steadily into the sea from the day its first settlers laid the foundation for its first stone dwelling. Still, somehow, miraculously, it hasn't quite sunk yet. This atmosphere of doomed serenity - and Venice is known as La Serenissima - is part of what gives the city its captivating quality.
There is no traffic in Venice - a fact that is almost inconceivable to anyone from a modern city. Even when you know about the lack of terrestrial transportation routes in the city, nothing prepares you for what that means in actual terms. The entire place is in effect pedestrianised - after all one cannot hop between gondolas. It's like a giant promenade, and promenade people do. I was amazed at how many people live in Venice, lead apparently normal lives in this bizarre topology. One sees more small dogs - pugs, chihuahuas, terriers, papillons - in Venice than anywhere else, even Paris. They all go about their owners' daily business on dainty leashes, full participants to the constant parade that is their home. Old ladies, immaculately turned out, philosophically rein in their tartan shopping buggies to let the hurrying tourists pass. People hang out of upper story windows to watch the world go by.
In recent years there seem to be half hearted attempts to clean the city up. Buildings are covered in scaffolding and many of the old palazzos are gleaming white and pink. They are dull as muck. A clean Venice is like Sophia Loren after a face lift, a baby blue jeep, a muzac version of Pink Floyd. But the peeling paint, the patches of exposed brickwork, the rotting beams supporting the jutting first floors, the little wooden balconies on rooftops, desperately catching the sun and displaying window boxes alongside washing lines, that is the real thing. If it's not falling apart, it's not proper Venice.