VENICE: THE LION IN WINTER

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WALKING along a street in Venice one winter night 100 years ago, an Englishman named Horatio Brown, who lived in the city and wrote about it like an angel, caught a snatch of conversation among some passers-by. One sentence lodged itself indelibly in his memory: "When desire comes, there can never be too much of it." You won't see these words written up throughout the city as you will the Latin inscription Pax tibi Marce Evangelista, which St Mark's lion cradles between his paws as the traditional Venetian motto, yet for many people they must be the unofficial credo of this supernaturally impossible place.

For Venice's very existence derives from a simple human yearning to make things happen against all odds, and to make them happen now; and it's in winter that this let-it-be-now feeling fixes its grip most firmly on the city. The cruise liners and state-of-the-art yachts have vanished from the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront, the sellers of glass gondolas and souvenir T-shirts have retreated to Mestre with the summer's rich pickings, the cafe orchestras of the Piazza have quit slicing through "My Way" and "Lara's Theme", and it is actually possible to drop into the basilica of St Mark to light a candle to the wonder-working Virgin of Nicopeia or to mumble a prayer under the spangled mosaics of St Isidore's shrine.

Freezing fogs roll in off the lagoon, and the population - what is left of it - reaches for gumboots and galoshes to splosh through acqua alta, the capricious overflow of the canals into streets and squares. This is the season when the funeral florists opposite the cemetery island of San Michele do a brisker trade and when, according to a Venetian friend of mine, murders, which are rare here, tend to take place, generally high-profile crimes and generally seasoned with a sprinkling of gilded sleaze - which appeals to those for whom Venice is merely a theme-park of classic decadence.

Of course it isn't, and winter here underlines the banality of such a vision. Amid the whorls of sea-mist surrounding the pinkish street lamps, under the rain spotting the slick grey surface of a canal or in the wind scraping and rattling a clutch of tarpaulined gondolas against their moorings, you notice the physicality of the place, an imponderably old body not yet quite consenting to become an absolute carcass - even if the great, blanched Istrian marble hulk of a church or the cracks and blears across a palace facade savour rather too much of skin and bone at this time of year.

In the gloom, with the sense of abuse, abandonment and betrayal by Italian governments, unthinking tourists or its own money-grubbing citizens almost palpable, Venice hangs on to life. The lamp on the prow of a motorboat scudding through the night towards the Giudecca, the echo of a cough in a deserted calle, a guttural singsong of Venetian voices from some half- shuttered bar or a shadowed figure at an attic window are little messages of survival from ordinary, workaday Venice, awaiting all those deceptive promises of renewal brought by the first tourist wave of the February Carnival season.

To the traveller, this sense of the winter city poised and expectant within its rheumatic solitude becomes infectious. Let it be now, the moment she turns at the top of the bridge or he raises his eyes on the vaporetto deck, the epiphany among the church confessional boxes or under the arcades of the Piazza. When desire comes, there can never be too much of it. At least, not in Venice in January. !

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