I felt a thrill flutter in my chest as the first bridge passed overhead and Venice opened up before us. I had seen images of the city in photos and paintings a hundred times but it was something else entirely to be there in person, experiencing it from within. The warm afternoon sunlight illuminated a seemingly familiar scene of old waterfront buildings with never-ending rows of arched windows. Connected end on end, hotels, markets, restaurants and museums united to form the walls that bound the timeless Grand Canal.
Unlike the carefully constructed windows into this world that I had been offered in museum paintings, the dynamic view from our water bus grew around me, evolving on all sides. As we zipped along past gleaming black gondolas, I was tempted by fleeting glimpses of smaller, charismatic canals that broke away on either side. Reminiscent of some mighty river's tributaries, they led from the main traffic into the depths of new territory I had yet to explore.
Little did I know exactly how much time would be spent navigating these little laneways over the next few days. Both intentionally and unintentionally, we ultimately did a very thorough job of exploring numerous narrow side streets. Bordered by florists and galleries, private terraces and colour spectrums stretched out on washing lines, the many shapes and hues materialised are a photographer's dream.
We soon discovered that Venice is not a city to be purposefully traversed but rather a labyrinth that takes you where you ought to be. Invariably, every point we arrived at had its own beauty, so we learned to let Venice happen and enjoy the surprises that came our way.
One hidden treasure that caught our interest was the Ghetto Vecchio, the world's original ghetto. Entered through an unassuming archway next to the Gam Gam Kosher Restaurant, this dark street was once the required home of all Jews living in Venice.
The quarter represents another shameful chapter in the history of the persecution of this people. Each night, guards would close and lock the iron gates of the ghetto effectively to contain them in one concentrated corner of the island. If you look closely, you can still make out where hinges once gripped the stone archway.
Still an area with a strong and visible Jewish presence, the Jewish Community of Venice offers historical tours of the ghetto's main points of interest, such as the Jewish Museum of Venice and several of its synagogues. Alternatively, a helpful map located outside of the ghetto's info point highlights several landmarks to spot along a self-guided wander through the dilapidated district, such as Hebrew plaques and the main square, Ghetto Nuovo.
Due to its tangible historical significance, the ghetto ended up being one of our favourite places on the island. However, for its sheer awe-inspiring majesty, nothing quite compares to the famous Piazza San Marco. The domed St Marco's Basilica and its towering red-brick belltower, the Campanile, frame a view of bobbing gondolas lashed to port in the harbour. In a polar opposite scene to the quiet backstreets of the city, the open piazza buzzes with human life.
The square attracts masses of tourists snapping phones and cameras in every direction, and for good reason. The cheerful accordion music of expensive restaurants, the open briny water and carved motifs of winged lions combine to create a scene as typically Venetian as it gets.
The busy, bustling crowds spill over into the adjacent thoroughfares leading to and away from the splendour of San Marco. Glamorous shops, markets and food vendors, all catering to the ever-present population of tourists, scatter themselves along the walk to Rialto Bridge. Like our fellow visitors around us, we inevitably had fun availing ourselves of all of these: sampling gelato, produce, sun-dried tomatoes and souvenirs.
As for the "genuine Murano glass" advertised in shop windows, though, we were somewhat wary. Unfortunately, these days much of the "specialty" glass to be found in Venice has dubious origins, often much further afield than Venice's sister island across the bay.
A mere 20-minute water bus ride away, a trip to the island of Murano is undoubtedly worth the short commute to buy glass beads and jewellery straight from the maker. Set in the same earthy tones as Venice, the emptier streets of Murano are filled with dozens of traditional "fornaces" and their accompanying glass boutiques. Feeling as though we had discovered a more private version of the tourist destination across the way, we enjoyed strolling through and peeking inside the glass factories at the sticky, glowing orbs being blown and shaped inside.
Lesser known, but equally as interesting, the small island Burano is also highly recommended. While known for its excellent lacework, the main attraction of the little outpost for us was an architectural colour palette that starkly contrasted with those of its neighbouring islands. Pink, tangerine, turquoise and lavender houses sat snugly side by side in the brightest and most generous display of colour I had ever seen.
Freshly painted, and clearly residential rather than commercial, we were refreshed by the rainbow island, which seemed so much more connected to the day-to-day lives of local people in comparison to the entertaining but undoubtedly touristy Venetian streets beyond. The character of Burano was epitomised for us in a charming local character. Sitting leisurely in his doorway, the smiling man delighted in showing off his romping teacup-sized kitten to passers-by. With no money tin in sight, the total timelessness and innocence of this simple picture struck a note, perfectly rounding out my enchantment with Burano.
Filled with attractions, both known and unknown, ancient and ephemeral, the romance of a journey to Venice has a unique quality. Abstract, yet as readily perceptible as the accordion harmonies in San Marco; the marble cathedrals, the dogs and the masks, the ghettos and the boutiques all weave together an atmosphere of wonder and mystery that hangs over the canals like morning mist. Ultimately, Venice is a place like no other and an adventure that shouldn't be missed in a lifetime.