When Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route from Lisbon to India in the last days of the 15th century, it was bad news for Venice. Suddenly, the wily merchants of this thriving Mediterranean port found themselves irrelevant. All the riches of the East could now be brought to northern Europe by ships sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. They avoided the extortionist taxes of the Venetians and the uncertainties and risks faced by the desert caravans further down the road. Venice, once among the great cities of Europe, never recovered from that blow. Five hundred years ago it had a population of over two lakh. Today, it is down to less than 70,000. The young drifted to the mainland where there were greater employment opportunities and life was more fun. All that remains now of Venice are museums, pizzerias and gelato shops that cater to tourists. They come in droves to see a city built on water where there are no cars, only a flotilla of bobbing boats that take you through busy canals past splendid, sinking palaces.