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Peter Popham: A high-water mark of tourist culture

Venice Notebook: Waiters splosh through the winding <I>calle </I>dressed in dinner jacket, bow tie and galoshes

Full moon, damp sirocco wind from the south, the wettest February in recent memory and the rain still seeping out of the clouds – conditions in Venice were perfect this weekend for an Acqua Alta ("high water") to remember. In 1966 when the tide in St Mark's Square reached 194 cms – well over six feet – the conditions were similar. On Saturday it peaked at 124cm or four feet.

The joy of Venice's perennial natural irritant is that it punishes the rich first – Harry's Bar, Caffe Chioggia and all the other posh emporiums crowded around this, the smartest corner of the city. The inundation is nowadays so regular that the natives waste no time gazing at it: forecasts are monitored attentively and within minutes of the angry little waves breaking over the St Mark's quayside, elevated catwalks are slammed into place across the piazza and in the other lowest-lying, most heavily frequented corners, and the tourists – of whom there are plenty even in soggy, post-carnival February – squeeze and jostle along them. Waiters splosh through the winding calle (lanes) bearing trays with outside orders, dressed in dinner jacket, bow tie and galoshes; shopkeepers near the square hawk bootees made of flimsy pink transparent plastic at €10 a pop, but many locals merely pull off their shoes, roll up their trousers and wade.

"What about Mose?" I ask the man who shows me to my hotel room. The famous mobile gate system of that name, designed to save Venice from flooding, was first discussed after the great flood of '66, and has been under construction now for the best part of a decade. "Who knows if they will ever finish it?" he says. "And who knows if it will even work?" Meanwhile the giddier young tourists snap each other frolicking through the flood and cackles of hysterical laughter echo through the watery city.

Sighs at a mayoral legacy

As Venice's philosopher mayor Massimo Cacciari approaches the end of his term, two things about him will stick in my mind: Silvio Berlusconi's identification of him as the lover of his (then) wife, Veronica, when by all accounts the pair had never even met; and his decision to allow some of Venice's finest buildings to be obscured by huge advertising hoardings. Today there is a socking great ad opposite the Duomo screaming "Istanbul – the ultimate destination"; a few steps away, the Bridge of Sighs is almost invisible under a carapace of publicity. The bridge's nickname has never seemed more appropriate.

The Orient expressed

There is something hallucinatory about Constantinople vaunting itself in the very heart of its ancient enemy; equally so is the fact that every other snack bar, in the town that invented trade with the Orient, is staffed by Chinese girls, some of whom speak no Italian at all.