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Travel flash: The Venice of China
China has its own Venice – and I’m not talking about the recreation of the Most Serene Republic at the Venice Casino in Macao. The real canal city is called Zhouzhuang, and sits at the intersection of a river, a small lake, and a canal halfway between Shanghai and Hangzhou. Its whitewashed buildings with their tile roofs string out on half a dozen islands covering about 124 acres, and to go there is to glide into a vision of the past as seductive, if not as grand, as what Venice provides.
Being somewhat smaller than Venice, Zhouzhuang is also a more manageable experience. You arrive at a visitor center; buy tickets and either wait for a waterbus or rent a boat to take you into the preserved village. Constructed starting in the Ming Dynasty around 1400, most of what you see today was constructed during the subsequent Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1911. Fully restored, it now is a warren of tourist shops, restaurants, inns, and attractions.
I loved gliding down the Nabeishi River and Yinzi Creek, underneath the Twin Bridges (dating to the turn of the 17th century; one has a round arch, the other, a square one), and strolling through the gardens of the sprawling Zhang House. A friend of mine stayed in one of the inns, and reported the evening quiet, with mist rising off the river, is as magical as anything you would find off the Gran Canal. Of course, it is all a bit fake, the result of heavy restoration and careful management. But then again, so are most historic attractions –that is what makes them so attractive. So, I was happy to float away among the carved wood and curving roofs to dream of China, as that visitor from Venice, Marco Polo, must have seen it.