Venice has enchanted me. Maybe it’s the gondolas, the canals snaking under the stone bridges, the decaying buildings and flooded steps, the shiny carnival masks on display or the gondoliers who blow kisses. Or maybe it’s the gelato shops on every corner. Whatever it is, Venice feels good.

I arrived by train Friday evening and was immediately smitten. I pulled my heavy suitcase over footbridges and through little streets lined with shops and old buildings that still retain an air of opulence. There are no cars in Venice – you walk or take a boat. (Just when I was getting the hang of walking out into traffic confidently like the Italians! Seriously, this is a nation of confident people. I even saw railway maintenance workers wearing fuchsia pink uniforms.)

I found my hotel quite by accident, tucked away in a dead-end side alley in a building tunnel with only a small plaque with the name engraved, not looking anything like a hotel, and not on the street that Google Maps had sent me to.

The city is a haven for getting lost. The street and alley names don’t necessarily match the maps, it’s common to have two names on the same street, arrows point in the wrong direction – or sometimes in the right one – addresses are by number and neighbourhood rather than by street and number, and the streets are cut off by canals, dead ends and alleyways through the buildings. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s a lot of fun! Venetians, whenever asked for directions, invariably respond with a smile and a vague wave of the arm in the general direction of the desired location, as if it were obvious: “You can’t miss it!”

Venice is very romantic, and is just as fun experienced with a good friend. Deanne, my high school buddy now living in London, met me for the weekend. We dined by candlelight right on the side of a small canal (as a clumsy Sagittarius, I had reason to be a little concerned, but luckily, I didn’t fall in). We started with what the English menu referred to as lobster, which looked more like aquatic centipedes with heads. They tasted good, though. My fish ravioli was disappointing, but the cute waiter, the good company, the delicious Chianti, and the atmosphere all made up for it! Some locals took us for a boat ride through the canals later – beautiful and quiet at night, with lights reflecting off the water, gliding under the old stone bridges. One of the passengers fell in! Probably a fellow Sagittarius.

We spent most of our time in Venice exploring the less touristy areas. We hung out on small piers and on moored barges, chatting and watching the world go by: water taxis, gondolas with relaxed tourists and happy brides, garbage boats, police boats, postal boats. It’s a busy place! We tried the original Bellini from Harry’s Bar (15 euros for a child-sized glass!). It’s more of a purée, not the fancy slushy version that I know. We walked barefoot through a flooded Piazza San Marco, the most famous square in Venice, which was cool until I later spotted all the pigeons droppings when it was dry …

It’s incredible to me how the buildings stay upright. Many are leaning a little bit. Some have big screws across the exterior walls to hold them together. Most have decaying plaster, with foundations, wooden doors and front steps under water. Much of Venice seems uninhabited: many buildings are boarded up, or only the top floors seem lived in. And for some reason, all of it is utterly charming.

I liked the unexpected touches I found in Venice. A magnificent old building housing an ultra-modern futuristic architectural design exhibit – with cloves and cardamom seeds, of all things. Laundry day, with sheets and socks in series of matching colours dancing on lines strewn overhead between the buildings. A collection of bathroom hardware pieces in a restaurant. A glass of red wine garnished with a slice of pineapple – in Italy?

Venice has left a warm glow in my heart, and with the accordion playing O Sole Mio in my head, I can’t help but smile.