Standing on Venice's Grand Canal, I feel as though I'm seeing the city for the very first time. Of the hundreds of photographs I've viewed of Venice, none of them do it justice.
Perhaps it's the way the light glints off the emerald waters, the sheer frenzy of movement on their surface or the way sun and shadow give texture to the facades of the fondaco houses that edge the canals.
Whichever, I'm gorging on the main dish of a real feast for the senses.
To call her the Queen of the Adriatic is not to hyperbolise, that much is clear from my first morning gazing on the city from the sun deck on the River Countess.
I'm here during Uniworld's new eight-day itinerary up the Po River, a waterway that skewers Veneto, draining most of the province out to the Adriatic Sea.
This journey begins and ends in Venice on this sleek river ship but, even when I am ashore, there is a feeling of being afloat here in the middle of this great lagoon, sheltered from open sea by a long thin sliver of land.
I arrived by night, swashing through darkened canals by water taxi, or vaporetto. And even though it's a drizzly morning as we disembark River Countess, nothing prepares me for the splendour that awaits.
It's from the water that Venice gained its riches.
This jewel that glimmers on so many islands had gained its lustre by the 12th century when its location on the sea, with its back to Europe, facing the east and Asia, saw it become the greatest of the city-states and perhaps the world's wealthiest port.
A place where silk, grain, salt and spice merchants, headed by an elected leader, or doge, rather than politicians or the church, ruled and the Venetians controlled much of the trade in the Mediterranean.
This was the conduit through which business with the Middle East was done.
And the city became so powerful it even annexed Cyprus and Crete.
Much trade was done with the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, which was based in Constantinople, and when the city fell to the Crusaders the Venetians plundered it for antiquities, statues, friezes and art.Now the Doge's Palace, St Mark's Basilica and the more than 170 merchant's houses that line the Grand Canal, inspired by both the Byzantines and the Moors, are the proud vestiges of this largesse.
But she never fell from grace.
The city that has gained so much from the sea is also threatened by it.
Venice is sinking into the sponge cake of wooden piles and soft mud and sand on which it has been built.
And at high tide, or acqua alta, the sea sweeps in to submerge the doorways of low-lying buildings.
I'm beginning to wonder if it was a mistake not to pack a pair of Wellington boots.
As the grey drizzle turns to rain, the milky green canals swash high, lapping at the edges of the cobbled walkways.
Venice is riven with more than 117 canals, spidery green veins which cut it into rough squares and rectangles, fragmented flamboyance sluiced by the sea.
More than 400 bridges cross these waterways, which give the lie to Venice's grand old nickname of La Serenissima, or the most serene one.
For in this flooded city these streets of water are as busy as in any metropolis. Venice is car-free but the canals are a flurry of gondolas, water taxis and vaporetti (water buses).
The streets may be drizzle- soaked but I'm not alone for there are thousands of tourists doing the same and I escape into the narrow alleys, or calle, some so narrow that more than four people would struggle to walk abreast.
I round an elbow in the lane, passing a butcher's where roughly cleaved marble chunks of meat are stacked in the window. Pizzerias, pastry shops and dingy tavernas spill light, beacons in the grey.
A courier drags bags of cement into a hardware store and a chef in a white hat carrying a box full of waxy cheeses emerges from a door, jumps a puddle and disappears into an opening in the far wall.
The drizzle has been a constant all morning but it doesn't dampen my spirits.
Instead it adds depth to the calle's pastel pink and terracotta buildings, higgledy-piggledy black window shutters and the wrought-iron balconies that lean over the alley, collecting then dropping heavy raindrops.
"White stone, black bottom" is an old Venetian saying I keep in mind crossing the ornate ivory Istrian stone bridges in the wet.In this city of churches, I pass a splendid Orthodox version where a damp blue and white flag hangs limp.
It was the former home of one of Venice's doges, elected supreme leaders of the mighty Republic.
A teenager in a blue tracksuit leaps into a jet black gondola "parked" out the front then positions cushions on the seat and sticks badges on the bow.
Then he steers out of the narrow waterway and off in the direction of the Grand Canal in search of a fare.I follow suit and rejoin the hordes at the Doge's Palace, one of the most distinctive buildings in this city which has its own style of architecture, Venetian Gothic, a melange of Gothic, Byzantine and Moorish influences.
The golden staircase to the chambers is typical of the spirit of self- satisfaction that permeated the republic.
It is said they used gold because it wasn't corroded by the salt waters that lapped at the buildings. I think they used gold because it was gold.
Through the palace the thread of extravagance winds; in the formal antechamber to the council rooms, with its four huge doors framed in chocolatey eastern marble and the stuccoed ceilings adorned with frescoes of cities once under Venetian rule.
The Chamber of the Great Council itself is more than 53m long and when built in 1340 was the longest column-less room in the world.
At its head is a Tintoretto work, the biggest canvas painting on the planet - it depicts the just in paradise.
The Doge's Palace also housed magistrates' courts and an old prison which was no match for notorious ladies' man, adventurer and author Giacomo Casanova after his arrest for public misdemeanours.
Legend says he made his escape on to the palace roof in a thick fog using an iron spike and a rope made of bedsheets and hotfooted it in a gondola.
The less romantic version is that he bribed his way out.
The enclosed limestone Bridge of Sighs connecting the palace's interrogation rooms to the prison is said to have been named by arch-Romanticist Lord Byron after the prisoners who would exhale with regret at their last sight of beautiful Venice as they were led to their cells.
But my favourite tale is of St Mark the Evangelist, whose legacy is to be seen at every turn.
His winged lion appears both on the city's arms and its flag and small statues depicting the beast are dotted throughout Venice.
St Mark was preaching in the area at the behest of the disciple Peter sometime before AD50 when he was blown off-course by the strong wind that still buffets the lagoon.
After washing up on one of the islands, an angel is said to have appeared to Mark and told him a great city would be built there to receive his remains.
This legend was never forgotten by the people of Venice and in 828 a group of merchants stole his remains from Alexandria in Egypt.
By the time the basilica was started in 1063 Mark's remains had gone missing but, miraculously, in the year of its consecration in 1094, Mark appeared to the doge, the bishop, nobles and a crowd of worshippers from the pillar in which his body was encased.
The basilica then filled with a light perfume smell and the saint's body was interred in a sarcophagus.The mosaics at the front of the basilica now tell the story, depicting the merchants covering the remains with pork in an attempt to stop the Muslim customs officials of Alexandra from seizing the body back.
However much of Mark is inside the Basilica there is no doubting the beauty of the gilded Byzantine mosaics of scenes from the Bible or the value of the booty held within.
St Mark's Treasure is said to contain the relics of saints and 283 pieces of gold and silver, crystal lamps and chalices and bowls moulded by Byzantine goldsmiths and inlaid with precious stones.
They were seized from Constantinople and the Holy Land after Venice's conquest and sit alongside gifts from popes and princes.But the treasure is unseen and cannot be enjoyed, unlike St Mark's Square edged by the basilica and the Clock Tower, a show of Venetian wealth visible from the lagoon, and the grand arcades on which the procuracies have been built, started by merchants and finished by Napoleon.
I stand and drink it all in and exhale a sigh, for one word swirls in my head and it is one I have always resisted using. Overblown and incorrectly used, it has been drained of meaning.
But it is true of this dazzling city of Byzantine and Gothic masterpieces inlaid with gold, filled with treasures, swirling with myth, legend, fiction and fact.
Once the greatest city in Europe and maybe the world, it is still one of the most beautiful. Linked by elaborate bridges like fragile limey ribs, punctured by the great canal, resting on a thin wood and mud base lapped by waters that embellish its beauty.
Venice is unique.
At the Grand Canal, the great white Rialto Bridge crosses the busy thoroughfare, once the only way across, still the most important.
The bone-white bridge swarms with photographers searching for a vantage point or a view with no one else in it.
Beneath me is a liquid highway. By its banks, tourists eat pizza and ice-cream and drink beer. Trade; nothing has changed. Venice bustles and throbs.
A black gondola backs away from the jetty piloted skilfully by a gondolier in barcode shirt, straw hat encircled with a blood-red ribbon.A funeral hearse steams ahead pointed towards St Michael, the cemetery island as decreed by Napoleon, coffin already buried but in red roses. Up on the Rialto watching the scene, I'm exhausted by the crowds.
After a day spent wandering this city of beauty I'm numbed by sensory overload and happy to retreat to the sanctuary of the River Countess.
Up on the sundeck, the last rays of twilight bounce and glimmer off the Adriatic as she washes at her Queen who continues to shine.
Just as the Venetians intended.
San Marco's: An exclusive opening is held for Uniworld passengers as part of the itinerary which, for 2014, has been renamed Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy.
It has departures from April to November and costs from $4199 per person, twin-share.
Until November 29, pay within seven days of booking to save up to $900 per couple.
Until January 31, book and make a deposit at the time of registration to save up to $350 per couple.
In 2014, pricing is all-inclusive, meaning the fare above includes all gratuities, all meals and unlimited drinks onboard including fine wine, beer and spirits, scheduled airport transfers, shore excursions, all entertainment and Signature Lectures, wi-fi, and the use of bicycles and Nordic walking sticks.
Travel agents, uniworld.com or 1300 780 231.Niall McIlroy was a guest of Uniworld.