Venice. The very word conjures up half a dozen visual clichés.
Gondoliers in their black and white striped uniform, steering glossy black gondolas, with ruby red velvet cushions, through the Grand Canal.
Sun-dappled medieval buildings, promising all sorts of intrigue, even decadence.
Masks, Murano glass, wine, Renaissance art. And of course St Mark’s Square, with its famous bell tower and basilica.
Oh, and tourists, don’t forget the tourists. Every day, thousands of people teeming through the narrow alleys, often with selfie stick in hand. And all, it seems, headed for St Mark’s Square.
I loved our first hour in Venice. My excitement started building from the moment we stepped on to the water bus just outside our camp site, was at fever pitch when, twenty minutes later, we embarked.
We wandered through the narrow streets, stopping every time something caught our eye – and there was plenty to see.
Impromptu art exhibitions in tiny courtyards. Too cute, tiny bridges leading to someone’s impossibly large front door.
Shop windows full of Murano glass, gaudy masks reeking of illicit sex, vintage Hermes handbags and the latest Chanel 2.5 (in orange).
Elegant ladies in mink coats, often with cigarette in hand, or tiny lap dog at their heel. Sometimes both.
Eccentric was the word that sprang to mind. This collection of 100 tiny islands, once one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world, and now slowly sinking into the sea, is crazy, I thought. And I love it.
Until we stumbled into St Mark’s Square. I cannot remember being so disappointed. It was not because it was too full of tourists, or pigeons, though there was plenty of both, even on a freezing January Sunday.
It was just…underwhelming.
St Mark’s Basilica is far too baroque for my taste, I much prefer the perfectly clean symmetrical lines of the Acropolis to St Mark’s Byzantine flourishes.
There were no George Clooney lookalikes sipping expensive coffee in the square, no romance, or even wonder, in the air. Just the chatter of day-trippers.
My disappointment quickly turned to delight when we sat at the bar of Harry’s Bar, just round the corner.
Hemingway had his own seat here, and it is renowned for inventing the Bellini cocktail.
Somehow, despite the stream of tourists tripping throught its famous door, it retains its 1930’s cool.
Rich locals eating osso bucco and drinking red wine, while gossiping loudly, mingle easily with the day-trippers struck dumb by the cost of a drink.
The price list made us gulp, but what the hell, we were in Harry’s Bar, in Venice, and the bartender was friendly and funny, and the priceless people watching made us almost forget the cost of our Bloody Marys.
We left just before we succumbed to the bartender’s dry charm and ordered vodka martinis.
Before catching the second last water bus back to Camping Fusina, we marvelled at the gold in St Mark’s ceiling, lit a candle in another, more modest, church, enjoyed a sandwich and Aperol spritz, and got lost several times as we made our way back to the bus stop.
Just like typical tourists.
Only 55,000 people live in Venice. In the peak season 60,000 tourists descend on the city every day, half of them from cruise ships.
Little wonder that a local campaign group Comitato NO Grandi Navi took to the water last September to protest about the giant cruise ships and their human cargo, which threaten to overwhelm the fragile city.
And Generation 90 represents young Venetians who struggle to afford to live in their city, as landlords grow rich through Airbnb.
Venice prospered because of its strategic position on the Adriatic. It grew rich beyond even its own dreams through trade and banking. It was politically powerful too, and home to some of history’s most important artists and musicians.
Today, its past is its most powerful commodity.
That is why thousands flock here every day, to gaze upon its eccentric, and fast-fading beauty.
Venice could not exist without the hordes of young Japanese women and their selfie sticks. But those same day trippers may be its unknowing executioner.
We are staying at Camping Fusina, a campsite on the coast straight across from Venice. I can see the city’s unforgettable panorama as I write.
We are one of only two motorhomes on the site, which can hold scores of vans.
Many of the sites facilities: the bar, pizzeria and shop, are closed for the winter, but the heated shower rooms, toilets and laundry are open, well designed, and very clean. And there is a Lidl a short drive away.
Best of all, there is a water bus stop only a few steps from the site. The boat ride into the heart of the city takes only 20 minutes.
The cost (in the low season) of €19.40 a night, for such easy access to Venice, is very good value for money.