I wanted to say I have finally just about finished reading Jan Morris' Venice and the one thing that struck me more strongly about it than any other impression, was how much it reminded me of Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. Of course, Morris is frequently in the business of evocative, poetic prose, something Hemingway would never allow himself, but the everyday prose style is very similar. Also the way in which the subject is examined from a number of different points of view, not necessarily making a single complete story or narrative of it, but genuinely adding texture and layer of detail until the whole becomes a sort of onion, skin over skin over skin. Finally, both have the feeling of someone who has not entirely been drawn in, not lost her or his identity to the subject, but has definitely looked deeply into it and loves it dearly.
Tourists set great store by "authentic" experiences but the previous generation's were always more authentic. Jan Morris makes it clear that even sixties Venice was subject to crap that 19th century tourists wouldn't have had to put up with. Yet the city still exercises a powerful attraction for many. I don't think the charm of twisty, cobbled streets is simply to do with their appearance or their age; I think we bring additional cultural meaning and expectations with us when visiting such places, and when thinking about them. Particularly, I think places like Venice create a self-reflective frisson for us- I am here. It isn't, I don't think, purely an aesthetic experience- part of us is bound up personally in how we experience places like this. They seduce us with the weight of history, with their complexity, their own self-containedness. We thrill at becoming a small part of them, for a little while.
And then we go and get a coffee at Starbucks to recover.
Yes, the weight of time and history, and our being a small part of them, work on us, as much as the aesthetic. If I ever make it back to Venice (I went there last year on a cruise) it will almost certainly be as a dreaded tourist which is mostly about how much time you dispose of. Some places, like Venice, Machu Picchu, or the Great Wall were part of my imagination long before I ever got there in their own shadowy way.
For what it's worth I think Venice is closer to "Invisible Cities" or Borges than it is to a "Lonely Planet Guide."