A place in my heart

Ah, St Mark's and the Rialto... the writer and broadcaster Irma Kurtz tells how she rekindled her love affair with Venice, tourists and all

Venice is the most beautiful city in Europe, possibly the most beautiful on the planet. Say this at any dinner party, or proclaim it from any soapbox in our quarrelsome over-travelled society, and nine out of 10 who hear you will agree. The first sight of Venice defeats weariness and sophistication: time stops when a traveller sees Venice for the first time. Light thrown back on fairyland constructions from canals that reflect their tracery; clouds and colours exclusive to the enchanted lagoon; bridges where there should be traffic lights; boats instead of buses - Venice is a celestial theme-park, Disneyland designed by angels.

Venice is the most beautiful city in Europe, possibly the most beautiful on the planet. Say this at any dinner party, or proclaim it from any soapbox in our quarrelsome over-travelled society, and nine out of 10 who hear you will agree. The first sight of Venice defeats weariness and sophistication: time stops when a traveller sees Venice for the first time. Light thrown back on fairyland constructions from canals that reflect their tracery; clouds and colours exclusive to the enchanted lagoon; bridges where there should be traffic lights; boats instead of buses - Venice is a celestial theme-park, Disneyland designed by angels.

Travellers seeing that vision for the first time find themselves suddenly ecstatic, and thunderstruck that such grace and glory could be manmade. Rapture is understandable from Shelley and Byron when they first saw Venice floating into sight. Even the hard-headed Mark Twain, on his 19th-century proto-blue-rinse cruise around the Mediterranean, went silly at the sight. No matter how old the travellers, with that first look at Venice not only are they in love, but they have never been in love before.

Poor Venice, to be loved on sight so indiscriminately. Her beauty was designed to impress the world with her status as a power of the time. Is beauty now her only power - beauty restored and protected and reinforced against watery nature trying to reclaim its own? Not a tourist keeps the cap on the lens in Venice. The city must be Europe's most-photographed attraction; everyone wants evidence not of Venetian magnificence - postcards do that better - but proof of having stood there under that famous lion among the pigeons. Snapshots are a kind of reverse graffiti: they leave no mark behind, but maybe they take something away, an iota of integrity, a smidgeon of mystery.

When Venice turned up on the itinerary for a BBC4 documentary called Mediterranean Tales that I've been working on in pursuit of crusty old Mark Twain, I was not delighted. First love, as Venice always is, does not wear well. On previous visits, on the very spot near St Mark's Square where decades earlier, as a touring American college girl, I had trembled with love, I saw with grief that a McDonald's had been opened.

As it turned out, resigned never again to loving Venice, I learnt to like the place. Allow a travelling agony-aunt to tell you how I rekindled my affection for Venice, and perhaps to help you to do the same. For a start, rise early and hurry out there. Engine-free silence, flattering light and caressing shadows conspire to make Venice sexy. Casanova was Venetian, and Lord Byron kept a canalside bachelor pad. Furthermore, there is no particularly vivid nightlife to keep the fancy-free carousing past the wee hours, so tourists tend to miss the dawn that rises in such a display of Venetian Gothic splendour that it is hard to imagine that a humdrum day can follow. Of course, you will visit or revisit some of the treasure-packed galleries and churches; the Gallerie dell'Accademia, if no other, containing the most important collection of Venetian art in the world. Go as soon as it opens, race to the last rooms and work backwards, thus improving your chance of basking for a little while in the intimacy of olden days, before package tours and weekend breaks made Venice a city for all in all seasons.

When the Renaissance and the culture-vultures who pursue it start to get you down, let the Peggy Guggenheim Collection work as an antidote. The quantity of modern art (and artists) acquired by the troubled American heiress is extraordinary, and so eclectic that I always find myself more impressed by Peggy's hunger than her taste. Her aesthetic gluttony is somehow refreshing in Venice, where the best taste in European history prevails, staunch and proud before threatening floods and modern technology, impervious to so-called youth culture. And, according to local demographics that show a minuscule birth-rate, Venetian good taste is strong enough to resist youth itself.

One pleasure of visiting Peggy's former home, now a museum, is that it is staffed by keen, articulate art students from all over the world, most of them in love, for the first time, with Venice. There in Peggy's peaceful garden were scattered her ashes under a stone carved with the names of her eight beloved dogs; no mention is made of her two children. I met Peggy Guggenheim once in Paris: she, of course, did not meet me. I recollect her knobbly potato face and how the avid eyes of a collector swept over me in search of someone interesting. Her restlessness and appetite, her egocentricity, make her, to my mind, a quintessential expatriate in the great stage-set that is Venice, designed for love and disappointment and make-believe.

"You know," I said to the old man behind the desk of my small hotel, "you really do have the most beautiful city in Europe..."

"Yes, Venice is beautiful," he agreed.

We looked out the window at two frantic Swedish tourists hopelessly beseeching passers-by for directions. Everyone passing by was a tourist, too.

"But Venice is not ours..." the old Venetian said. His feeling is endorsed in the windows of estate agents, where many properties, most of them prime, some on the Grand Canal, are offered for sale or rent, "foreigners preferred".

Nevertheless, dutiful sightseeing done, may I suggest that you turn your back on the Grand Canal and the Bridge of Sighs and the cafés of St Mark's Square, where the waiters, few of them locals, dutifully sling an arm around portly Midwestern matrons who want their photos taken with handsome Venetians. Unless you have never before been ferried around Venice in a gondola - something everyone needs to do once, if only to provide immunity - scorn the blandishments of the gondoliers and make it your aim to find not just Venice, but Venetians. Visit the food markets near the Rialto bridge, where local residents, notably elderly, shop for produce so gleaming and fresh that it restores your faith in the regional cuisine. Amble through the Ghetto, established in the 16th century to contain and eventually to confine Jewish refugees from Spain and Germany. Here, people are going about their ordinary Venetian life. If the day is right (it helps to be Jewish) you could be invited in for a glass of sweet wine and a piece of cake.

Like its early politics, Venice is labyrinthine. To lose your way is inevitable, but thanks to the central artery of the Grand Canal, it is impossible to lose it badly. Buy a map, but trust your nose, too, and use ferrybuses - the vaporetti. Church-hop and discover more wonders. Find the real streets, not canals, blissfully devoid of motor traffic, where shops sell things neither made of glass nor shaped like gondolas, and where residents bring life and laughter into Europe's most splendid museum.

Only in Italy, where waiting on table belongs to a tight professional brotherhood similar to London cabbies or New York cops, do I find myself harried by waiters. As a lone traveller, I am bound to take a table for two, eating, drinking and tipping only for a relatively abstemious one. Happily, I discovered that many Venetian waiters learn English working in the restaurants of Soho, London. As soon as I let them know that I live in Soho, their gratitude to my neighbour, Bar Italia, for screening Italian football wins me a rare welcome.

It is as well, for if I go back to Venice, alone is how I will travel. Or, better yet, I'll go in the company of a Venice virgin. "Gosh, mum," said my son, rapt and starry-eyed, when I took him there 15 years ago: "You did not exaggerate... for once." But best of all would be to see Venice again, for the first time.

'Mediterranean Tales' is being shown on BBC4 on Mondays at 8.30pm. The series visits Venice on 2 February

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE: EasyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) flies from Bristol, East Midlands, Newcastle and Stansted.

STAYING THERE: If you are staying at the Cipriani (00 39 041 520 7744; www.hotelcipriaini.it), a luxury world on Giudecca, or the Danieli (00 39 041 522 6480) on the Riva degli Schiavoni, expect to pay around €800 (£550) per night for a double. There are some lovely hotels in less touristy parts of town. The Pensione Seguso at Zattere 779 (00 39 041 528 6858) overlooks the Giudecca Canal and has doubles from €145 (£103).

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