Exploring the world’s canal settlements

ONE of the great pleasures of travelling is the ever increasing capacity to compare. Making neural connections between the place you’re at and locations you’ve been. These startling links may be nothing more than an emotional trigger, or it may be a more substantial physical resemblance, historical connection or even cultural crossover. The one thing they all have in common is the traveller’s magical sense of wonderment!

Take canal settlements… Venice is probably the most famous canal city in the world. Even before Marco Polo set off to explore the exotic orient, enthralled tourists flocked to the Grand Canal, admiring the Rialto Bridge, Ca’ d’Oro and the Doge’s Palace. Today, Venice is – in a figurative sense – sinking under the sheer weight of tourist numbers.

Venice canal
Getting away from Venice traffic on the Grand Canal

More than 650 cruise ships visit the Italian city annually, having prompted recent calls from locals for city fathers to cap the number of visitors. The dramatic increase in water traffic on the Grand Canal late in 2013 resulted in the tragic death of a German tourist when a reversing vaporetto crushed the gondola he was travelling on against a dock.

However, there are other settlements in the world that boast their own canal charm. Setting sail from Venice in 1271, Marco Polo would have been blithely unaware of the ancient Chinese water towns that straddle the mighty Yangtze River Delta in the triangle formed by modern Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou. A lack of knowledge that unbelievably persists, even today!

 

Tongli
Sipping an illy coffee is equally as good in Tongli as it is in Venice

Unfamiliar names such as Zhouzhuang, Tongli, Xitang, Luzhi and Wuzhen all drip with elegant Chinese ink painting-like scenery… Traditional homes built on gentle waterways plied by ancient water craft. Red lanterns spilling puddles of soft amber light onto stone quays. Freshwater fish sizzling in blackened woks, sending tendrils of mouth-watering scents to beckon hungry diners…

A wonderland continents removed from Venice, but fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle in the traveller’s mind.

Gent
Panoramic Gent view from St Michael’s Bridge

However, you don’t have to travel to the Far East to experience a Little Venice. Only slightly to the north of Italy, Belgium offers not one but two idyllic water towns! The view from Gent’s St Michael’s Bridge towards Graslei and Korenlei is breathtaking, while Dijver, Rozenhoedkaai and Stone Cutter’s Quay provide for a sublime stroll along Brugge’s romantic waterways.

Brugge
Poortersloge looks down on Brugge’s Jan van Eyckplein

France is yet another country that prides itself on having its own Little Venice – in the ridiculously quaint Alsace town of Colmar. Exploding into a riot of colour in spring and summer, cozy restaurants and Christmas decorations cast festive reflections on the canals in the vicinity of Quai de la Poisonnerie in winter. A scene not vastly dissimilar to the reflection of lanterns in Tongli, or the street lamps of Piazza San Marco dancing in an aqua alta pool in front of Venice’s Basilica di San Marco.

Colmar
Christmas light reflections in Colmar

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