Venice is no mere fantasy land but a superior theme park for the soul. The city offers a cradle-to-the-grave experience in the best possible taste. You can sleep in Tchaikovsky’s bed in the Londra Palace or wake up in cavernous apartments that once welcomed princes and Doges, Henry James and Hemingway. For romance, you can literally walk in Casanova’s footsteps; for Baroque passion, succumb to a Vivaldi concerto in Vivaldi’s church, or savour the gondoliers’ songs that inspired Verdi and Wagner. If feeling adventurous, explore the world of Marco Polo in his home city, or bargain in the Rialto with latter-day merchants of Venice. Pick up the cobalt blue cabbages that sent Elizabeth David into culinary raptures, or roam the world’s first ghetto with a wily Shylock in tow.
If feeling contemplative, ponder the passing of time with Proust’s ghost in Caffè Florian. If fortunate, capture Canaletto’s views with your camera, or see Titian’s painting in the church it was designed for. If feeling gregarious, savour the gossip and martinis at Harry’s Bar, Hemingway’s favourite. If feeling Byronic, swim from the Lido (but only retrace the poet’s Grand Canal exploits if you can face a stomach pump afterwards). The morbid can play roulette in Wagner’s death chamber, now the city casino. The melancholic can even die in Thomas Mann’s Venice, followed by a costly but atmospheric burial in Stravinsky’s cemetery.
One person’s theme park is another’s time capsule. Wealth and leisure mean we spend it searching out capsules of past cultures, "if only because the past is another country and we like to travel”, says Simon Jenkins of Venice, the perfect time capsule. Old Venice hands regret the passing of the city’s presumed melancholy, nostalgia and yearning for empire. Such critics take a maudlin delight in charting the city’s social decline: Venice is no longer a voluptuous dowager on a drawing-room sofa but a tawdry show run by guides and gondoliers. Yet as Jan Morris concedes, “The sadness of Venice is a much more nebulous abstraction, a wistful sense of wasted purpose and lost nobility, a suspicion of degradation, a whiff of hollow snobbery, the clang of the turnstyle and the sing-song banalities of the guides.” The romantic `decline’ of Venice has been a common refrain down the centuries.