Venetian Class
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by Sally Hammond

If you think about it, Venice should never have made it. It ought to have sunk centuries ago. Scarcely even a city in the accepted sense, it is more a collection of over a hundreds islands in a lagoon, tied together haphazardly by around four hundred arched stone bridges. Break those and you could almost imagine the whole place with its total population of around 350,000, bobbing off in various directions into the Adriatic.

And yet, it is a magic place. Rising out of the misty waters, Venice is a mythic kingdom, unlike any other. Once you're there, it is easy to daydream yourself back to the time when it all came about, to picture the  frantic desperation than drove its founders to  annex what was little more than a marshy swamp, daring their attackers to come after them and risk a watery defeat.

Venice has had its ups and downs over the centuries. Acknowledged as the 'Gateway to the Orient', Venice became an independent Byzantine province in the tenth century, and the 1204 Crusade brought it into prominence as a trading link, bestowing wealth and power on its merchants. During the Middle Ages a succession of doges, or feudal dukes, ruled the watery suburbia, until it finally fell to Napoleon in 1797, ultimately joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.

Today's Venice has lost its fiery temperament. It is more staid. More steady. And that's not just a feeling. It actually is more secure. A decade or so ago when the buildings began to sway a little, as the mud that is their foundation began to sag, the city engineers simply shored them up, ramming down new supports beside the original wooden tree-sized pylons that have held the city's head above water so well, for so long.

In such a watery city, what surprises many people is how much walking there is to do. I imagined I would be in a boat all day, but you can walk for hours and hours through tiny back streets and lanes, and always, always there is another arched bridge over yet another canal, so in a day of sightseeing you also climb hundreds of steps. 

But getting lost is another matter. Everything is decided by the shape of each island and so the roads twist and turn all the time. One day I found the famous Rialto Bridge that arches high over the Grand Canal. I climbed onto it, took some photographs, then turned down a side street and round a few more corners and -  well, I found the bridge all over again! Many Venetians say that this is the way to explore Venice: 'Just enjoy losing yourself,' they advise.

And this is the best way. Off the main trail, in the areas where the locals live and eat, you will find superb, inexpensive restaurants and shops. Here the menus feature more rice than pasta, plus the freshest seafood from the lagoon. One day I enjoyed a simple dish of huge scampi that stretched across my plate like crusty pink kebabs.

But wherever you go there are gondolas too, hundreds of them, and the gondoliers really do wear jaunty straw hats with bright bands, but most keep silent and don't sing, as they stand and pole their way through the city. At least ours didn't. We kept waiting for him to clip his head as we passed under some of the lower bridges, but I guess he had done it all a thousand times and he just bent enough sideways to miss them by a whisker. Luckily a following gondolier had a cassette player with Santa Lucia booming out on it, so we tapped into some of their mood.

Everyone knows about Venetian glass, and yet to find the best you need to catch a boat for a ten-minute ride to the nearby island of Murano. Here you can watch an artisan twirl a molten glob into a handkerchief shaped bowl, thin as toffee. Then you can wander through expansive showrooms crammed with the most delicate and avant garde items. Watch your step though as these knick-knacks are not cheap. Film stars and royalty shop here, many ordering one-of-a-kind sets, with massive pricetags, and most of us could not afford to replace even the smallest knick-nack.

Yet not all Venice is gleaming and perfect. Any gondola or vaporetto (waterbus) ride through the canals puts you at eye-level with crumbling stucco and rotting woodwork. The houses, knee-deep in water are painted in fading pinks and yellows and a brightly striped mooring post might be the only remaining indicator that this was once a proud palazzo. The conditions are not easy on buildings here, and many show the stresses of time. 

St Mark's Square, near the hotel where I stayed, was truly magnificent though. Orchestral concerts are held here frequently and you can sit at a bar or a restaurant at the edge of the square, and have a drink and enjoy the music. At night it is magically floodlit against the dark sky, but by day it buzzes with people and pigeons (synonymous with the square, but only brought to Venice about a hundred years ago) and stalls that want to sell you all sorts of tourist junk. This square can be under water up to 40 times a year, and huge wooden platforms are kept at the ready so people can still walk across it.    

If Venice was a relative, she would be a dowager aunt, her wardrobe a little musty, her petticoat showing occasionally, with  some of the lace coming adrift. Picture her with her favourite bonnet slightly askew, and notice she may forget where she is occasionally, lapsing into dreams of her youth. 
But there is still a naughty gleam in her eye, and when she sets the table for a party, such as Venice's annual carnival, the masks come out, many ornately beaded and jeweled, covering the worst of the wear, and she is young and beautiful and elegant - and highly desirable - all over again. 
Then the world can see that while Venice may be known for her glass -  she certainly has class too. 

Sally Hammond travelled to Venice via the Venice-Simplon Orient Express from London, and to London with Qantas.

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