The most romantic city in China
It is often dubbed the Venice of China. 40 per cent of Suzhou is covered by water and its arched stone bridges compete with the Ponte Rialto.
According to a Chinese proverb “There is heaven above and there is Suzhou and Hangzhou below.” On dry land or on the water, because nearly half of Suzhou stands among canals. The Grand Canal, finished at the beginning of the 7th century, during the Sui dynasty, transformed the city into an important trading centre. It flourished in the literal sense of the word. Economic success attracted aristocrats, scholars and painters, some of them creating lavish gardens throughout the whole territory. At one time, there were more than a hundred and, although many have since disappeared, Suzhou is still known as the ‘city of gardens’, winning World Heritage Site status in 1997.
The largest of the green spaces is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, built at the beginning of the 16th century by a senior official. He spent his retirement years there, tending the garden and selling vegetables, living ‘the ideal life of a humble man’. To indulge this idyllic lifestyle, he built this oasis that covers an area of more than five hectares, and filled it with pavilions, bamboo forests and lagoons with huge lotus flowers ‘with a distant fragrance’. Round gates connect the different areas in an impossible labyrinth made of stone and vegetation, within which thousands of tourists get lost every day. Little details, like the small bonsai museum or the carp swimming in the pond don’t go unnoticed by smartphones, which take photos of them non-stop, usually with the help of a selfie stick. Smaller, but just as charming, the rest of the classical gardens of Suzhou are the perfect complement to the romantic ‘Venetian’ streets of the historic quarter. Master-of-Nets Garden is the best conserved; Blue Wave Pavilion one of the oldest; the Couple’s Retreat Garden the least visited and, therefore, the quietest. Liuyuan Garden (Lingering Garden) is close to Shantang Old Street, the street that most resembles ‘Bella Italia’, with Chinese lanterns and stone bridges dressed up in neon lights. Western-style cafés and restaurants have set up terraces from where you can watch the hustle and bustle of this 1,200-year-old street. The houses’ white-washed façades have been renovated but if you carry on walking and go past the bridge on Guangji Street, you will discover the authentic Suzhou, untouched by tourists. The local market, maze-like streets and an air of everyday life, with street vendors selling clothes and improvised cookers in people’s doorways is what awaits the traveller who gets off the beaten path and adventures into the unknown side of the city.
At night, Pinqjiang Road, another popular street, fills with people strolling next to the canal. Dozens of wooden stalls watch over the banks and there’s no lack of Chinese lanterns, silk scarves and tea shops. Elegant parlours selling ice cream (or ‘gelato’, like its Italian twin) coexist with street barbecues that from 10pm start appearing from nowhere. The sweet smell of freshly cooked wafers mingles with other scents such as chicken legs or the five Chinese spices. Then there’s the sound of one merchant maintaining, “the food in Suzhou is not hot” when he is asked not to add too much spice to the noodle soup (please, no là, no là).
After dinner it’s time for a ride in a gondola, though here the Chinese gondoliers swap straw boaters for bamboo hats. It is the most original way of touring Pinqjiang and for discovering the ‘Venice of China’ from a different perspective. A paradise filled with tourists, gondoliers and gardens, some more humble than others.