The two sides of Venice: Tourists flock to the historic city, residents seek out quieter areas

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The narrow alley ended abruptly and unexpectedly, our route thwarted again by yet another quiet waterway. Hopeless frustration! Surely we couldn’t have wandered too far from the Grand Canal again! We were lost in an impenetrable maze of laneways and water, fruitlessly studying our useless map beneath a string of washing hanging quietly above.

Presently, a sleek and shiny black gondola cut silently through the water, its passengers nestled comfortably within. A lanky Italian stood at its rear, expertly manoeuvring his craft with a single long oar. Across the canal, another boat of a more sturdy and practical nature was moored behind a building. Goods were being unloaded and taken inside what was likely the back entrance to a shop. In Venice, all daily tasks that would normally require a car or truck have to be done by boat.

The day was murky; the lagoon shrouded in a grey cloak of mist, eliminating any possibility of navigation by sun. We were walking purposefully in what we hoped was the direction of Piazza San Marco , or Saint Mark’s Square, the directions to our guesthouse tucked firmly in my pocket, for if we lost them, we would surely never find the place again! Piazza San Marco , a vast plaza flanked by Venice’s most famous landmarks, Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Bell Tower, is one of the city’s mandatory stops. Surely it shouldn’t take all day to find!

There are no cars on the main islands of Venice; no traffic signals or roaring highways to negotiate. Just a large parking lot and a train station at the end of a long causeway that crosses the water from the mainland. In the quiet labyrinth of alleyways, locals were going about their daily routines on foot. Certainly they were used to encountering the odd stray tourist who had foolishly wandered off the bustling main drag, studying a weathered map and looking perplexed. It’s true what the guidebooks say: A trip to Venice is not complete without becoming completely and hopelessly lost!

But what would possess anyone to build a city in such a place? Over 100 natural and artificial islands joined by nearly 400 stone bridges supporting a city of 62,000 residents, not to mention over 50,000 tourists a day. Surely it is not a practical endeavour to construct an entire city on rows of pilings driven into a shallow sea. What inspired such madness? I pondered these thoughts while retracing our steps as we had encountered yet another dead end. The answer is simple: Attila the Hun.

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