Venice - The Empress of the Laguna.jpg

Venice – The Empress of the Laguna

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VENICE HAS got to rank as one of the strangest man-made places on earth – majestic, eerie and shamelessly romantic.

A living museum where every corner, alley and square is steeped in over 1,000 years of history.

Perhaps the most visited city in the world, the visitor walks around in a daze, as though planted in a strange surreal dream in a place that defies reality.

A magnet for tourists the world over, it is difficult to find a week in the calendar when her piazzas and waterways are not besieged by tourists, but April and September are certainly the quieter periods where one can at least avoid the interminable queues and hoards of Japanese tourists and Italian day trippers.

Three days is just about sufficient to get an overall taste of this monument to Renaissance glory.

Book early enough and it is possible to find a comfortable family owned hotel on San Marco Island, where off season one can pay as little as

Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco

70 euros per night based on sharing a room.

The city has an excellent public transport system of boats (Vaporetto), a maritime metro which, for 14 euros a day, gets you around all the main islands of Murano and Burano and the famous Grand Canal depicted in those stunning Canalettos.

To get a feel for the city and its waterways spend the first day cruising on the boats, a Number 1, 2, 41 or 42 will take you at a leisurely 15km/h around the main canal where you can admire the rich, palatial facades of the waterside townhouses, and see San Marco Square and San Giorgio Maggiore from the lagoon.

Four stops should definitely be made on Day 1: San Marco Square with its Doges Palace, Basilica and Campanille tower; the monastery of San Giorgio where Madonna filmed her Like a Virgin video; the famous Rialto Bridge and colourful fresh fruit and vegetable market, and the Bridge of Sighs between San Marco Square and the famous Hotel Danieli on Riva degli Schiavoni.

Day 2 could be divided into a meandering morning exploring the narrow winding medieval alleyways jam packed with leather and gift shops, cafés and smart boutiques. By doing this you will inevitably cross the smaller canals over the network of ornate stone and wooden bridges that makes this city so famous.

In the afternoon, bargains can be had on Murano Island where you are expected to haggle over the colourful hand blown glassware and can get up to 15 per cent off the listed price and even more if you’re buying several pieces.

If you’ve come to Venice for discos and trendy bars, forget it! This is a city where one takes one’s time to search out a typical Italian eatery (trattoria or osteria), where away from the main streets one can eat well for around 30 euros per head including a half bottle of wine.

After dinner, at around midnight, take a stroll around the alleys and over the narrow turquoise water-coloured canals which, in the dim, yellow street lighting, take on a strange distorted atmosphere, almost like looking through semi-opaque glass.

On a cloudy or rainy day hit the museums – of which there are legion. A Venice City Museum ticket gets you into five museums for 18 euros including the newly restored must see Doges Palace.

The Doge or Duke of Venice was elected for life by the aristocratic families of the city, and usually had a purely ceremonial, advisory and diplomatic role rather like Queen Elizabeth II.

Here you will see his private apartments, the various council chambers and you will cross the Bridge of Sighs from inside – Venice’s Answer to the Tower of London’s Traitor’s Gate – where, contrary to popular belief, well fed and cared-for prisoners were held in the best prison cells in Europe for the time.

No visit to Venice is complete without seeing the massive 15th century Bellini and Carpaccio paintings at the Venice National Gallery or Accademia (6.50 euros) which show the city and people as it was around 1485-1520.

If modern art is your thing just hop on the boat and get off two stops downriver at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (10 euros) with its collection of 200 works of art including works by Picasso, Magritte, and Jackson Pollock.

If you fancy taking a Gondola then make sure you share the costs with other people. A gondola will cost 60 euros for around 45 minutes, regardless of the number of people in the boat. With a capacity of six, that works out at only 10 euros each.

Forget the Venice Lido except in summer, the beaches are a letdown and there’s nothing much left of that turn of the 20th century atmosphere portrayed in the film Death in Venice – however some of the Art Nouveau and Deco hotels, such as the Hotel Hungaria, Hotel des Bains, and Excelsior are interesting if you do have time to go.