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Everyone knows Venice. Gondolas bobbing on the Grand Canal, and a picturesquely decaying city sinking slowly into the waters of the Lagoon. And yet Venice is a city of many surprises and delights for the visitor.
The first one is that you will spend most of your time walking - the pavements play as major a role in the city as do the canals. The one thing you won't see is cars, drivers have to leave their vehicles at the city gate, and that makes exploring this romantic, art-filled and utterly unique city very enjoyable. And though tourists crowd the city, most of them head straight for the Basilica di San Marco and the Doge's Palace; a little trip off the beaten track yields huge rewards, as you nip down narrow alleys and find beautiful little churches, street markets and yet another canal before you.
Hunters and fishermen were living on the mudflats of the Lagoon 2000 years ago, but Venice really grew as a place of refuge. The ravaging of Attila the Hun drove many to seek shelter here in the fifth century, and a century later the march of the Lombards into northern Italy saw more settle here. By now the city was ruled by Byzantium, but in 726 Venetians elected their own leader, the first Doge (or Duke).
San Marco became the patron saint and by the end of the tenth century Venice was a powerful and rich trading nation. It profited from the Crusades, from the sacking of Constantinople and from the splitting of the spoils as the riches of the Roman Empire were finally divided up. During the Middle Ages, Venice battled Genoa for supremacy in the region, but in the early sixteenth century Venice found itself at war with Spain, the Pope and practically every European power. Victorious yet bankrupt, and with its trade routes superseded by the new powers of England, Holland and Portugal, Venice went into decline.
By the 1800s Venice, though a popular tourist destination, was poor and decaying. Saved by mass tourism - the Lido became a fashionable resort, immortalised in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. With 116 islands, 150 canals, and 409 bridges, this city is an intricate maze - some of the most unexpected architectural delights are to be found as you lose yourself on your walks.
But there are a few things you must see. There is the Basilica San Marco, the most exotic (or over the top) of European cathedrals and boasting 4000 square metres of golden mosaics. Book yourself onto the Itinerari Segreti del Palazzo Ducale an intriguing behind the scenes tour of the Gothic marvel that is the Doge's Palace, once the seat of government in Venice. Trips down the Grand Canal are a must. A ride on a gondola won't get you anywhere fast - that's not the point - but it will give you a fascinating view of this city built on the water.
Complement this with your wanderings on foot around the highways and byways, the little hidden alleyways and backstreets of old Venice. Check out the Accademia, one of the finest collections of European painting anywhere in the world. And sit and relax with a cappuccino or a prosecco in Piazza San Marco, and drink in one of the world's most complex, diverse, beautiful and romantic cities.