Venice is best seen at its emptiest, at dawn, before the tourists arrive on the scene. For the Square of St. Mark's, a symbol of the city, is all too often the most crowded, although always the most beautiful, of Europe's many drawing XI rooms, both indoor and outdoor. The first-time visitor to Venice may make a bee-line for a chair in that marble-colonnaded parlour. But the frequent visitor knows better -- and may avoid St. Mark's altogether. That takes considerable strategy, but it can be done. The trouble with Venice is that all movement is either by foot or by boat, and all foot navigation ultimately leads you to a bridge where you are forced to converge with other walkers. Venice is a labyrinth which is difficult to master. It also seems to have been designed in such a way that, however much you try, you are helplessly funnelled into one of the main streets leading to St. Mark's. It is an astounding fact that no map exists which both shows and names each Venetian street. So the traveller who boasts that he can study the map, leave it at the hotel, and get to where he wants to go is out of luck in Venice. Wherever he may be heading, he is bound to end up in St. Mark's Square.
The majority of tourists anywhere in Italy are Italians, and even though you may not be aware of this, the Venetians certainly are. Most Italian tourists are day-trippers -- families, parishioners led by their priest, entire classrooms of rowdy schoolchildren happy to be anywhere but in school. But there are also hordes of Bavarian peasants, who do arrive at dawn in their hired bus, toting their lunch of sausages, brown bread, and wine in string-bags, and who return to their farms the following dawn. After writing some postcards, and maybe buying a gondola-shaped ashtray, all that these day-trippers leave behind them are a few lire and a lot of rubbish.
There has been a ten-year debate in the city council about limiting the number of tourists who may enter Venice during the high season. Even though the closure of the causeway that connects Venice with the mainland is easy enough -- it was done during the last days of Carnival in 1984-85, when the number of revellers in St. Mark's Square was estimated to exceed 100,000 people -- a "democratic" filtering system for tourists during the rest of the year has yet to be devised.
Venice should also be seen in winter, a winter dawn if you like, for under a heavy snowfall it is the most beautiful sight on earth. But beware. If the snow freezes, the bridges, which are really flights of steps, become hazardous. Winter is the only season in which Venice is both visible and sometimes also invisible, for from November to mid-March there are very few tourists. The rest of the year they "swarm like locusts" as a Venice city councillor put it, St. Mark's, the Rialto and the Accademia being the three bases that everyone feels they must touch before making the home-run.
Venice is like a once-great beauty who deserves to be seen by candlelight, and the soft light of winter works like a photographer's air-brush on the city's many cracks and wrinkles. Venice is particularly beautiful in a winter mist. But only for one day, and not in those frequent dense fogs when even the vaporetti (water-buses) cannot safely navigate the Grand Canal.
In winter, too, there is a real chance of being hindered by the acqua alta (high water), which happens about fifty-five times a year. The approach of these high tidal waters, which cover the city's lower areas (St. Mark's being one) with two or three feet of water, is announced in the morning newspapers. If the water is expected to be exceptionally high, sixteen exceptionally loud and alarming sirens warn Venetian merchants to put their merchandise on the highest shelf. But the lagoon's tidal waters follow the laws of the universe (or of the moon?) and reverse themselves every six hours. Even the acqua alta can be considered part of "seeing" Venice and the Venetians.
The cliche's about Venice are imposed upon us because, like most cliche's, they are based on true observations which have occurred to some of the greatest and most modest minds alike. "Venice is unique" is the supreme, mother-cliche' of them all. And no other three words can ever be truer. "There is nothing new to be said about her [Venice] certainly . . . it would be a sad day indeed where there should be something new to say," wrote Henry James a hundred years ago. "Nothing can be said here (including this statement) that has not been said before," wrote Mary McCarthy, many years later in "Venice Observed." When you go to Venice for the first time, unlace yourselves for your own cliche's.