Getting here wasn't half the fun.
A gale as cold as an Italian mama's disapproving glare battered the wooden water taxi Serenella as it left its dock at Marco Polo Airport and headed east into the choppy Laguna Veneta amid a frigid spring rain. Inside the polished wood cabin, passengers hunkered down along cushioned benches for a 15-minute rock 'n' roll ride to Venice.The Serene One - or "La Serenissima" as this unique city is often called - was not living up to her name.
On the other hand, the Serenella, and her pilot, a Richard Gere lookalike, were steadily easing across the wind-whipped water, then making a precise turn into a narrow canal marked Senso Unico, Venice's version of a one-way street.
On the left, ivy-encrusted columns framed an ancient wooden door, its bottom decayed and jagged from the water's constant lashing. Down and to the right, laundry - bluejeans, orange plaid shirt, black lace bikini underpants - flapped overhead in the wind and rain, a blunt reminder that Venice is more than a floating museum. People live and work here. Old and new cohabit.
It's been said with good reason that no matter how one pictures Venice, the reality is often stranger than anticipated. And not everyone falls in love with this eccentric grande dame of Italian cities. Still, "La Serenissima" knows her worth and, without apology, is an expensive date. There are ways, however, to take in her charms without being taken to the cleaners.
For instance, the cheapest room at the Gritti Palace, an old palazzo and celebrity hangout at the mouth of the Grand Canal, runs about $800 a night. Atmosphere, reputation and that the Gritti is owned by the Aga Khan contribute to the high prices. But, for about $8 each, just plain folks can claim a seat at the Gritti's dockside bar, sip a cup of espresso or glass of wine, and take in the same view and atmosphere.
Or consider that a water taxi from the airport to docks adjacent to the Piazza San Marco costs $75 for two people. But the same trip aboard one of the water buses, or vaporettos, is a relative bargain at about $13 a person.
Simply eating - even eating simply - is also expensive. But Venice isn't known for fine restaurants, so why frequent a pricey place? Instead, opt for a canal-side table at a modest eatery, such as Ristorante da Raffaele near the Ponte delle Ostreghe, and feast on minestrone, pasta and a pitcher of Prosecco (a light, red wine) for about $30. Make one of the day's meals a sandwich, sweet and soft drink (about $7) from one of the small pastry shops scattered throughout Venice. And remember that continental breakfast is usually included in the cost of a hotel room.
Still, there's no getting around the price of romance. The going rate for a 30-minute gondola ride is about $70, plus a tip if the gondolier sings. One may choose traditional romance: a gondolier in full regalia - navy jacket, red and white striped shirt, straw boater with red ribbon streamers - who has decorated his gondola with Oriental carpets, velvet upholstery and a vase of fresh flowers. Or one may choose modern romance: a bare-bones gondola piloted by a man wearing corduroy trousers, an all-weather jacket and Reeboks. One modern fellow had gone so far as to attach a small motor to the back of his gondola. His passenger, not surprisingly, was a lone male with a cellular phone glued to his ear.
Visions such as this can make it hard to visualize what the city was like centuries ago when the Venetians fled invading barbarians and settled on what were deemed uninhabitable islands. But the Venetians not only survived, they created a wealthy city that became a haven for artists such as Titian and Tintoretto.
Today, "barbarians" descend daily as water buses from the mainland begin disgorging tourists by the hundreds before 9 a.m. at the San Marco docks. Onto the Piazza San Marco they swarm, scooping up such souvenirs as cheesy $5 gondolier hats, $14 ceramic carnival masks and $90 etchings of the Rialto Bridge. Moving on, they clog the narrow pedestrian streets where shops sell Valentino designer dresses, Bruno Magli shoes and Fendi furs just across the street from "galleries" filled with such treasures as a 3-foot-tall purple cobra with a "diamond" in its mouth, made at the glass factory on the nearby island of Murano. The cobra, by the way, may be had for a mere $2,000 or so.
The tourists come for a variety of reasons: curiosity, to be able to say they've been here, for the art, and because Venice is a doomed city. The pilings that support the buildings are sinking about 21/2 inches a decade, and experts estimate pollution from the industrial cities of Mestre and Tessera to the east will hopelessly damage one-third of the city's art in the next 10 to 20 years if nothing is done to save it. It is a morbid lure for some and a great shame for all.
No, getting here wasn't half the fun. But after sampling the pleasures of Venice, leaving wasn't any fun either.
Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1565, New York, N.Y. 10111; (212) 245-4822.
In Venice, the main tourist office, Ente Provinciale per il Turismo, is just off Piazza San Marco at Calle dell'Ascensione 71C; telephone 041/522-7402. Hours are 8:30 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Monday-Saturday. However, these hours are not always kept.
Getting here: Leave the car behind. Parking is a nightmare and long traffic lines develop on the causeway from the mainland. Train service from nearby Padua, Treviso and Verona is excellent and links directly to the heart of Venice. Marco Polo airport is at Tessera and is linked by ATVO buses that run every 25 minutes to the Piazzale Roma, located at the end of the causeway, and by water taxis and water buses.
What to do
Take a gondola, or a water taxi, up the Grand Canal. This is Venice's Main Street, lined with elegant palazzi and boat moorings that protrude from the water like aquatic peppermint sticks. Napoleon kept a palazzo here, as have other rich and famous. Expect to pay about $35 a person for a water taxi, $70 a half hour for a gondola.
Examine the Basilica de San Marco inside and out. The Pala d'Oro gold altar piece is encrusted with 300 sapphires, 300 emeralds, 400 garnets, 15 rubies, 1,300 pearls and countless lesser stones. There's so much gold in this Byzantine church, the altar piece, elaborate as it is, may be hard to pinpoint. Try to time a visit during Sunday Mass when the clear, pure voices of a boys choir fill the church. The piazza out front has been a location site for many a movie. Go ahead, blow $1 on a bag of corn to feed the pigeons, and prepare to feel like you're starring in a remake of "The Birds." Free. Piazza San Marco.
Take in the Accademia, a treasure chest of Venetian paintings from the 13th through the 18th centuries, including a series of allegorical panels by Giovanni Bellini. Admission: $4.80. Campo della Carita.
See one of the more comprehensive modern art collections in the Western World at The Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, which was founded by Guggenheim, who died in 1979. Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, Picasso and Dali are a few of the artists represented. Admission: $4.20 adults, $2.40 students and children. Admission is free 4-6 p.m. Saturdays. Calle San Cristoforo.
View the world's largest collection of Tintorettos at The Scuola Grande de San Rocco. Admission: $3.60 adults, 60 cents children. Campo San Rocco.
Take a vaporetto or water taxi out to The Lido, Italy's most fashionable beach and former haunt of everyone from Goethe to Byron. Great people-watching here on a warm day. There's a lot of each person on display, as well. Take lots of lire.
By all means, stop by Harry's Bar, not for the people watching (most will be tourists, and most of the tourists will be American) but for one of the world's better vodka martinis, the vodka chilled to syrupy consistency and a bowl of green olives served on the side. A more subtle but no less satisfying libation is the bar's own creation, a Bellini, fresh peach juice and champagne. Expect to spend $8-$10 a drink. Calle Vallaresso 1323.
Next best place to sip a martini is Florian Caffe, called "the most Venetian" of Venice's cafes, on the Piazza San Marco. Drinks are shaken, not stirred, tableside, and accompanied by the requisite bowl of olives. Check out the painted ceilings and walls of this fashionable spot, relax and listen to a band playing across the piazza at the rival cafe, the Quadri. Florian also offers afternoon tea, coffee and light meals. Martinis cost about $9 each.
To satisfy a sweet tooth, drop by Pasticceria Marchini, where buttery biscotti and whimsical - but delicious - sweets are available by the piece or packaged. A bag of 18 delicious-to-the-last-crumb almond cookies cost about $7 and were well worth the price. Ponte S. Maurizio 2769.
Survey the various roof lines and chimneys of Venice, works of art in themselves. Try to imagine the view without the numerous TV antennas.
Stroll the riva degli Schiavoni that runs along the waterfront from the Palazzo Ducale. It's a memorable walk, particularly at sunset.