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A masked woman stands by the canal during the Venice Carnevale, a 10-day street party leading up to Ash Wednesday

La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, captivating city of canals and palaces...or tawdry sewer alive with crowds and charlatans? Venice's nature is dual: water and land, long history and doubtful future, airy delicacy and dim melancholy. When this precious place sinks, the world will be the poorer.

For a thousand years the city was one of the most enduring mercantile sea powers on the face of the earth. Today the brilliance and influence have long since faded, leaving a town of tarnished glories, out of time and out of place, so achingly beautiful it's hard not to look for the back of the set.

If you get caught up in the neverending flow of visitors tramping the narrow main thoroughfares Venice can be the epitome of hell. Step off the main drag, however, and you'll discover the subdued, shabby charm of the real Venice, where baroque backstreet churches are framed by lines of washing flapping in the breeze.

Facts for the traveller
Off the beaten track
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