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Friday, 31 October 2014

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TRAVEL: What price serenity in Venice?

Legendary explorer Marco Polo set out from his Venetian home in 1271 when he was just 17 and didn’t return until 24 years later. Word has it he was trying to escape the World Cup.

venice196
History: A canal close to Arsenale, Venice

Nearly 800 years later, that’s still the joy of labyrinthine Venice – you so easily lose your way. And for girls running from the tedium of football, there’s no finer retreat.

Not that there’s much chance now of drifting from the Lagoon into Asia to take tea with Kublai Khan. But everywhere in this sublime city of glittering canals and sparkling sunlight is the distinct feeling that anything might be possible during a day of deep, dreamy exploration.

Venice is an extraordinary place of well-rehearsed superlatives – Europe’s most beautiful city, easily the most romantic, arguably the greatest culture-crammed living museum, La Serenissima – the most serene.

Venezia is also Italy’s most expensive city – particularly now, as British travellers face the three-pronged attack of rising prices, a wobbly Euro and a miserably-collapsed pound. To be certain a visit to Venice will be worth every penny, it’s wise to budget to spend a lot – and keep complaints to a minimum. They’ll only spoil the fun.

So, while the guys spend on HD TVs, beer and vuvuzelas, take a deep breath – and a cheap flight – to Venice to crash some cash on cultured, if costly, indulgence.

Caffe Florian, for instance. Italy’s oldest bar/restaurant, established in 1720 and favourite haunt of Lord Byron, Goethe, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Stravinsky, Casanova and Modigliani, is a must-see.

Florian, in Piazza San Marco, is also a must sit down and have a drink spot. But prepare to pay heavily for the privilege of people – and pigeon – watching in the square Napoleon called the finest drawing room in Europe. It’s pure theatre.

A small beer and a Campari soda set us back £35 (thanks largely to the crippling exchange rate twixt pound and Euro).

But what glorious views of the majestic multi-domed Basilica San Marco; elegant Campanile bell tower; the remarkable Doge’s Palace, whose ornate facades have the look of pristine, just-washed filigree lace, draped to dry in the sunshine. Pricey perhaps – but Florian, where the orchestra plays all day and long into the night, has to be done. And dark eyes do smile seductively as they fleece you.

Not every price tag in Venice has panic-attack proportions. There are bargains to be had. Most notable on our not-the-World-Cup trip was our accommodation at Astarte Apartment, just steps away from St Mark’s Square and booked through HomeAway.co.uk holiday rentals.

This charming, well-appointed and impressively-equipped two-bedroom apartment in a typically ancient, canal-side grand Venetian house, easily sleeps four and at between 140 and 155 euros a night, shares costs out into quite a bargain by any standard – let alone Venice’s.

It’s situated in a lovely old cool courtyard with a typical Venetian terrace and centuries-old central freshwater well. Timbered ceilings and canal views from large, shuttered windows immediately create fabulous atmosphere.

It’s quiet too, considering the apartment is at the heart of Venice – at least until morning, when the singing of gondoliers and boatmen drifts through bedroom windows as their day’s work starts.

Added bonus is that a few steps from the apartment’s courtyard is sweet old Campo San Gallo, popular with locals for breakfast cappuccinos at shaded tables in the square which houses an adorable little theatre and church. It’s like being instantly welcomed into your own neighbourhood.

Budget by cooking and eating at home.

Otherwise splash out and choose from thousands of little restaurants tucked away in hidden alleyways, over lantern-lit footbridges and serving local specialities of sumptuously baked fish in rich sauces or calf’s liver, pan fried with onion, red wine and crispy artichokes.

Bargains are actually for the taking all over Venice. They say even a Venetian can’t see all the city’s churches in one lifetime. And since every church is crammed to the rafters with exquisite paintings by – among others – Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Bellini, Raphael, all you need is time, eyes and comfortable walking shoes to enjoy some of the finest Italian masterpieces and the most wonderful Renaissance, Baroque, Palladian and eastern influenced architecture. All for no more than a couple of coins in the poor box and a stiff neck from gazing upwards.

The bustle and buzz of the Rialto Bridge – teeming with people, traders, market stalls, souvenir sellers – is as it was when Shakespeare’s Merchant outwitted his tormentors.

A short walking distance from Venice’s Jewish quarter – the first Ghetto in Europe and well worth a wander through – its atmosphere is so typically Venetian in its edginess, noise and enterprise.

But at water’s edge, in the shadow of Rialto Bridge are some charming bars and caffes, from where all that exhausting business can be viewed at leisure, while sipping a cold beer or glass of Prosecco, watching water taxis, vaporetti, gondolas, private motor boats darting about on the canal.

There’s too much to see, too much to do, too far to walk in one short break. Since football is seemingly so eternal, plan another and another – you’re worth it.

SEE Astarte Apartment, Campo San Gallo at http://www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/p424184.

Bookable through HomeAway.co.uk holiday rentals.

Feeling flush: Water Taxi from Marco Polo Airport to San Marco 100 Eoros for up to five people sharing. Not so flush (or returning to airport when money’s run out): Water Bus Alilaguna, linea oro (gold line) from San Marco 25 euros each.

Do: Spend an evening listening and dancing to the orchestras playing at elegant bars in Piazza San Marco.

Don’t: Sit down and order dinner.

What to buy if loaded: To-die-for designer bags by Fendi, Valentino, Dolce and Gabbana. Murano glass chandeliers.

What to buy if stony broke: Tins of Caffe del Doge, Venetian blend deep, dark, rich roast, ground espresso coffee. Big fat wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano from Rialto market (or airport).

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