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'Venetians,' said my guidebook, in that irritating know-it-all way guidebooks can have, 'forget that the outside world exists. They talk as though Venice is the only place on earth that counts.' I didn't believe it for a minute
The year was 1976, the season was spring, and I was making my first visit here. Times were different. Mass tourism was only just getting started, and Venice was still mostly for the older traveller: panama-hatted, art-inspired readers of Ruskin, Henry James and Proust. It felt like being in a Merchant-Ivory adaptation of an EM Forster book.
I was staying in a distinctly EM Forster hotel: the small, lovely Pensione Seguso in Dorsoduro. An old lady showed me up to my room. 'The hotel is full this weekend,' she said as she toiled upstairs. 'You see, it's Easter in Venice.' As though it wasn't Easter anywhere else. Full points to the guidebook, I thought.
My fellow guests were of a type which seems to have died out completely now: a pair of spinsters in late middle age, a couple with their 30ish daughter who was heading that way, and a Mr Beebe-ish vicar (you remember, the jolly one played by Simon Callow in A Room With a View) together with his wife and her sister.
They looked at me sharply over breakfast, but defrosted when they heard I was from the BBC; Radio 4 was their preferred listening, you could tell. Guidebooks lay on the tables. The names of Titian and Tintoretto floated faintly on the toast-and-Oxford-marmalade air.
I was reporting on a meeting of European foreign ministers, but it didn't start till late afternoon. So I headed out and made straight for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (the School of St George of the Slavs) to the east of St Mark's Square. A smallish building in white marble, it stuck out on the edge of a canal right beside a little humpback bridge. Vittore Carpaccio had done the paintings there in the 15th century.
Why come here first, rather than all Venice's other, more famous treasures? Because my guidebook had told me that Carpaccio was a painter with a sense of humour. I needed a sense of humour with a meeting of
European foreign ministers coming up.
There was no one else in the place, except for an ancient, bowed old lady who took a few lire off me, then left me alone. I soon saw what the guidebook meant. My view of its opinions had anyway shot up as a result of the 'Easter in Venice' incident. Carpaccio was a delight. The comic faces of the terrified monks in one of the paintings, which showed a lion with a thorn in his paw turning up to get help from St Jerome, were superb; and I liked the calm, thoughtful figure of St Augustine in another painting, looking out of the window in his study, his little Cairn terrier rather perplexed beside him. I stayed there for ages.
Venice is very different today. Nothing has changed architecturally, of course, and the vaporetti (the waterbuses), are as jolly and useful as ever. The bronze figure of Fortuna still turns elegantly on top of her globe on the Dogana building at the head of the Grand Canal. But the Rev Beebes and their like have long since disappeared under the vast flood of mass tourism. Around the Rialto and throughout St Mark's Square, visitors flow like a swollen river.
It was always a bit like that in the height of summer, but now the crowds are here all the year round — even in January and February, when it's cold and the mists swirl romantically around the canals. The Venetians, actually outnumbered by the tourists, don't like it. Prices go up, and the food shops close down to be replaced by places selling carnival masks and Murano glass. You can't eat Murano glass.
If you pause on a bridge to take a photo, an irritated local might push past you, muttering something hostile in Venice's impenetrable dialect. Yet what's bad for most Venetians is good for some. In the old days the gondoliers could only operate for six months a year; now they're still going in the depths of winter, and business is booming.
The staff at the hotel I've been staying in — not the Pensione Seguso, because
it's always full — are bad-tempered and unhelpful. In a way, I don't blame them: they too have become overwhelmed by the huge inundation of visitors.;
Prices in restaurants are sometimes grotesque, though the standards remain high. Harry's Bar, still the best place to go, continues to serve those wonderful soft white-bread sandwiches, the egg or ham or chicken heaped up in the middle, and their Bellinis are the real thing.
You can still have the proper old-fashioned Venice experience, even if your hotel is below par and the locals don't want you. The large mass of tourists can be found in three or four main places, so that only 100 yards or so away from St Mark's or the Rialto the streets are almost empty. When I took my wife and little boy to show them the Carpaccios at the Scuola, we wandered through echoing streets and alongside silent canals, getting lost and found again and again.
And the Scuola was empty when we got there, except for a charming old boy who took our four euros. We had the place to ourselves, just as I did 40 years ago. Venice is different today. But if you know where you're going, it is still the most beautiful city on earth.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.