Imagine arriving in London for the first time to be set down slap-bang in the centre of Trafalgar Square, amidst the crowds of pointing, posing, photo-snapping tourists, hawkers pedalling silly hats and postcards, pigeons strutting and wheeling in greedy, fapping flocks.
So my sister and I found ourselves deposited in Venice's famous San Marco Square. Dazed and tired and disorientated after the ten hour journey from Edinburgh, we clambered from the swaying water bus to find ourselves standing between the elegant twin columns of San Marco and San Teodoro, surrounded by the Byzantine beauty of the Basilica, the sugar pink perfection of the Doge's Palace, the gothic grandeur of the procuratie.
The water taxi to our hotel cost 90,000 lira (that's about thirty quid - a snip!) but it was worth it for the ride up the Grand Canal, the central artery of Venice's network of waterways. The Grand Canal is much wider than I imagined, broad as a motorway and almost as busy, motorboats nosing cheekily in front of staid, tourist-laden Vaporetti (the Venetian answer to public transport), sleek black gondolas navigating the chopping waters with graceful ease. And yet, compared to the chaotic, fume-filled highways of Milan or Rome, how peaceful, how relaxed!
The lazy rhythm of the Grand Canal dictates the pace of life in Venice: laid back, temperate yet at the same time filled with noise and activity: the slap of green waters against the riverbanks, the grinding, grunting, roaring whoosh of the Vaporetti, the cacophonous clanging of church bells, the cries of the boatmen and excited screams of children. And on either side of the Canal, the palazzi: elegant mansions painted red, yellow, orange and pink, adorned with grimacing stone lions, arched gothic windows, rich mosaics gleaming in the evening sunlight. Relics of a golden age of hedonistic grandeur, their bright façades are peeling now, shutters hanging loose; great, beautiful, decaying edifices vainly shored up with creaking timbers, sinking lopsidedly into the murky depths of the Canal.
And all this before we'd even reached our hotel, a delightfully old-fashioned Casa straight out of an E.M. Forster novel. We unloaded our cases, and, already drunk on the magic of Venice, headed out into the maze of narrow streets.
Instantly, we were lost.
Maps are worse than useless here, bearing little or no resemblance to the tangled web of streets and waterways, sunny squares and sudden blind alleys. And yet, who cares? With no unsavoury areas to mistakenly wander into, no cars or motorscooters to knock you down, there is nothing more pleasant than getting lost in the streets of Venice.
Festooned with washing and studded with bright window boxes, punctuated by hump-backed bridges spanning ribbons of still water, then opening out unexpectedly like a smile into sun-warmed peaceful squares, the streets of Venice are nothing if not picturesque. Okay, so they do smell strongly fish, but don't fret, you soon get used to it.
Besides, even if you do eventually locate your chosen destination, ten to one it will be shut. This is Italy, after all.
Still, in five days we managed to track down most of the key sights: the Basilica, the overwhelming opulence of which sent our heads spinning, the solemn Doge's Palace and Correr Museum, the Accademia (the city's principal art gallery) and Ca D'Oro (well worth a visit just to stand on the balcony and watch the sunlight sparkle on the waters of the Canal - and to see Vittorio Carpaccio's Annunciation, which has to be one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted). as well as countless churches, their vast, rather gloomy and cavernous interiors, heavy with monumental stonework, suddenly illuminated by vast and radiant Renaissance paintings.
But beauty, history and gondolas come at a price. Venice is not a place to 'do' on a budget. To stint yourself in this decadent, glittering city is somehow unthinkable.
So go on, spoil yourself. Sip caffe latte and deliciously thick, bitter, hot chocolate in the exorbitantly expensive Café Quaddri in San Marco Square, as the in-house orchestra sweeps its way with molto vibrato through the 'Blue Danube'. (Enjoy this, by the way: you will find a mysterious 'orchestra charge' of 6,500 lira added to your bill.)
Quaff Bellinis in Harry's Bar at £8 a throw, whilst keeping an eye out for film stars. (We saw fab French actor Daniel Auteuil, but he hid in a corner when he realised we'd spotted him.) Glide down the narrow straits in a velvet draped gondola, whilst a smooth-talking, straw-boatered gondolier serenades you in melodious broken English.
Oh, and shop.
If shopping is your fake Gucci bag, you will love Venice. You will love the lively market stalls, slung with tacky T-shirts and strings of translucent Murano beads, the goldsmiths lining the Rialto Bridge, the exclusive designer boutiques around San Marco. Most of all, you will love the mask shops: magical emporiums overflowing with exquisite, handcrafted Carnevale masks, adorned with gold and silver, encrusted with glittering jewels, crested with feathers gleaming purple, red and black, lace. The best outlets we discovered were Tragicomica on the Calle dei Nomboli, a veritable treasure trove of eighteenth century disguises, and Ca' Mancana in Dosodura, the workshop behind the eerie masks in the film Eyes Wide Shut.
But in Venice, the mask is more than just a charming souvenir. Until the collapse of the Venetian Republic in the nineteenth century, masks were an intrinsic part of every day attire. Now making a comeback since the revival of the Mardi Gras Carnevale at the end of the 1970s, the mask offers the perfect symbol for the elusive, mysterious, enticing charm of Venice; this magical, sea-bound, unreal city, where the sea melts seamlessly into the sky and monumental Baroque façades conceal banks and chemists and fast food restaurants, where there is always something unexpected and intriguing around the next corner.
Occasionally the mask slips and you catch a glimpse of life beneath the seductive allure of the Carnevale, the cheesy tourist tat. You see a postman unloading mail sacks from his motorboat, bin men wheeling carts piled high with refuse through the narrow streets, office workers commuting on the Vaporetti, briefcases in hand. Ordinary people going about their ordinary daily business in this extraordinary place.
But this is only momentary, and does little to shatter the impression that Venice is one great, glamorous stage set, contrived with cunning artifice, bewitching, illusory, yet somehow never fake.
Venice needs to be seen to be believed. And even then, you might find it hard to believe it's real.
We travelled from Edinburgh to Venice with Air France, with tickets booked through Airline Network (tel. 0870 241 0019). Our hotel was booked through Magic Of Italy (tel. 0990 462 442 for a brochure or visit their website. Carnevale (during February and March) is undoubtedly the most exciting time to visit Venice, but accommodation must be booked well in advance. For more information on Carnevale and on Venetian masks check out the Tragicomica and Ca' Mancana websites.