They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Venice has no shortage of imitators. An online search yields at least 20 canalside wannabes claiming to be the “Venice of the East”. There are also Venices of the north, south and west, not to mention a Venice of the Americas and a Venice of the Jungle. Suzhou is known as the Venice of China and then there’s our very own Tai O, the Venice of Hong Kong.
Flying to the Italian mother city is cheaper and easier than ever, thanks to budget airline flights from other European cities. Onward travel options include Bologna, Italy’s gastronomic capital, and Verona, where Romeo and Juliet did their thing. Slovenia is a 90-minute drive away, or head into the Dolomites – a spiky mountain range that’s also a World Heritage site.
Venice boasts more than 450 palaces and buildings of historic interest on 117 islands linked by over 400 arching bridges, and 425 gondoliers expertly pilot their flat-bottomed craft along 177 canals. But there’s more to the charismatic city than numbers.
“La Serenissima” is at its finest when most people are still in bed, so make a pre-dawn start. The alleyways and cobbled courtyards will be deserted, give or take a bleary-eyed street sweeper, and you’ll have the Rialto Bridge and St Mark’s Square to yourself. As the rising sun infuses the scene with soft pastel shades and the crowds thicken, it’s time to get on the water.
An early-morning gondola ride is a great way to watch the city come to life. Plot a route with your boatman, then sit back and enjoy a Venetian perspective unknown to landlubbers. Prices are fixed but some passengers pay a small gratuity to be serenaded – and a larger one to make it stop. And keep your eyes peeled for Giorgia Boscolo, a mother of two who becameVenice’s first woman gondoliera in 2010.
Alternatively, hop on a vaporetto, or water bus. Single tickets are €6.50 (HK$55) although various transport passes are available. The boats chug up the Grand Canal, under the Rialto Bridge to San Zaccaria jetty, a three-minute walk from the opulent Doge’s Palace, Bridge of Sighs and, ground zero itself, St Mark’s Square.
As lunchtime looms, make a beeline out of the tourist honeypots for the residential neighbourhoods and the backstreet bacari, small bars frequented by locals. Order a plate of cicchetti (Venetian tapas) and a glass of fruity Valpolicella wine, preferably at an outside table. Or head to the nearest supermarket or deli for provisions, then find a picnic spot overlooking the water. You’ll see plenty of tourists doing the same thing.
Numbers can also be used to reveal another side to Venice. Those low-cost airfares I mentioned? They’re cheap because you’ll be arriving at Treviso Airport, more than 40km from St Mark’s Square. Expect to pay €€80 for a taxi into town. I bet your budget flight costs less.
The Queen of the Adriatic is steadily being loved to death. Fifteen million sightseers officially stampede through the city every year (more than 40,000 a day), although the real figure is probably much higher. Only half of all visitors stay in Venice; the rest are day-trippers who spend far less than overnighters and cruise passengers, contributing little to the city’s economy. Besides luxury liners, the waterways are increasingly choked with boats of all shapes and sizes. An estimated 2,000 vessels pass under the Rialto Bridge every 12 hours and in 2013 a German man died when the gondola he was in collided with a vaporetto.
A 40-minute gondola ride (€80) is part of the Venice experience, although an imbalance of supply and demand means the gondoliericall the shots. Most earn about US$150,000 a year, but don’t suggest they’re overpaid unless you want to be tipped into the water. They’ll tell you they had to undergo a rigorous examination involving 400 hours of instruction that tests physical endurance and navigational ability. And don’t get them started on how much it costs to rent or buy an apartment.
Venetians have a “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” attitude towards visitors. Tourists stroll around in bikinis, sleep on the streets and steal gondolas for late-night joyrides. Last year, a Chinese man caused outrage after he was filmed washing himself in a canal.
But it’s not only humans who behave badly. Flocks of menacing seagulls that swoop down to steal food from restaurant tables have become such a problem that authorities installed giant seagull repellent devices. Some residents joke that tourist repellent devices are what are really needed. Unfortunate diners can at least console themselves that the food being swiped is reputedly the worst in Italy.
Eating and drinking in Venice is not cheap, but you’re on holiday, so grit your teeth, stump up the cash and, if you’re from Hong Kong, ponder whether you should have gone to Tai O instead. It might not be in quite the same league as its Italian cousin but at least you won’t be charged €30 for a coffee.
So, does tourism’s perennial overachiever get a thumbs up? As American novelist Truman Capote said, “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
Delectable to start with, sickly by the end, but you’d do it all over again the very next day.
La Serenissima gets less serene with every incoming cruise liner, which clog the city with tourists who dine, shop and pre-book sightseeing trips aboard ship, contributing little to the local economy.