Venice: Nice place to visit, but"¦.

A room with a phew: Venice without the Venetian blinders

VENICE, Italy --
Almost every inquiring tourist in Venice winds up hearing at one point or another: "Do you want to go by the short way, or the beautiful way?" Actually, that bit of rhetorical cleverness is a false dichotomy. What isn't beautiful in this ancient city-state, founded in the Ninth Century and home to everyone from Marco Polo to Cole Porter?

But I didn't come here to praise. My primary aim was to catch up with some English friends, now settled here, and in particular to interview one of them, the best-selling author Laurie Graham (Gone with the Windsors and, more recently, The Importance of Being Kennedy). Venice, the place, was an ancillary issue, i.e., what attracts female English authors like Laurie as well as Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Donna Leon, not to mention mucho machos like Ernest Hemingway, to seek their literary muse here?

Venice hasn't been an easy place for me to know. I came here for the first time about 40 years ago, and, again, another lifetime ago, in the 1980s. On my first sojourn, I accompanied my late father, an art historian, and we divided our/his time inspecting great works and drinking Negronis at Harry's Bar. On this most recent trip, I skipped many of the great works, but the Negronis ($18 a pop) were still first-rate, though Harry's is less glamorous than I remembered. (The Dad factor, I guess).

From Cole Porter to Elton John

In my mind, I've always been put off by Venice's association with a louche, decadent lifestyle, embodied by works by Henry James and Thomas Mann and, in between, by the lives of Peggy Guggenheim, Sarah and Gerald Murphy and, quintessentially, Cole Porter, who, with wife Linda, spent several summers here frittering away fortunes from their palazzos on the Grand Canal. The latter-day songwriter Elton John continues this tradition.

Where else is a city so dedicated to art, an effete connoisseurship, virtu, dilettantism and fashion? I counted two bespoke bootmakers. Numerous paper shops— some purveying handmade and printed varieties-- abound. Antique stores. Shops that are the exclusive preserves for costumes, capes and masks.

Add to that numerous outlets of some of the most luxurious goods anywhere— Italian brands like Ferragamo and Armani, and French names like Cartier and Louis Vuitton— and some of mostly smartly turned out natives and tourists alike, and you further get the idea. All this in a core city of about 50,000 denizens.

What makes the shopping aura also quite different than that, say, at King of Prussia mall (besides canals and gondolas surrounded by 15th-Century palazzos, of course) is the odd absence, amidst otherwise dripping excess, of American luxury marques. What, no Ralph Lauren? Coach, Tiffany— in Venice, whither art thou?

Serenading the women

At plumb, Venice is simply what may be called, in an old-fashioned way, romantic. I reckon that's why so many women— their romance gene kicking in— feel so attracted to this place. (Many visiting groups, small and large, seem to consist largely of women). Joan, my partner, and I were in our room at the Ottocento, a short distance from the Canal Grande, for less than 15 minutes when we began to be serenaded by a gondolier in a rio below. (At this point, even my hard-hearted romance gene jump-started).

Did all hotel guests get this welcome treatment? Actually, looking out the window, I noticed that the passengers in gondola gliding by were really getting the full-frontal Mario Lanza— and paying dearly for it, I'm sure.

The Piazza San Marco, one of the most beautiful constructed urban spaces anywhere, is if anything romantic. Even dark, narrow alleyways (foreboding back home in Philly) are here, well, romantic. You can almost hear the violin strains of Vivaldi wafting in the air about.

Despite Philadelphia's significant Italian-American population and enough of a native Italian presence in Philadelphia to warrant a full-fledged Italian consulate there, US Airways restricts its winter Philly-based direct flights to Rome. As a result, Joan and I took the "beautiful way" to Venice by train, from Rome, with a stopover in Florence. (In the summer, US Airways does provide direct flights to Venice's Marco Polo Airport).

A scene dripping with Venetian romance

Our first night, Laurie Graham and her husband Howard, an art tour guide, served up olives and Champagne at their fourth-floor flat in the 14th-Century Palazzo Loredon, overlooking the Grand Canal. Their full-floor apartment was dark, leased and outfitted with heavy furnishings and a library filled with leather-bound books. Even the 15th-Century etchings on the wall came with the place.

To me, and probably to you, the scene dripped with Venetian romance. Laurie felt otherwise. The plumbing stinks, she told us. The campo in front, the building's de facto forecourt, frequently floods. There are no food markets nearby. No lift in the building. The hallway light, timed on a switch, shuts off regularly before one can reach the fourth-floor landing. The aged woman on the third floor never leaves her apartment.

What's worse, Laurie says, is all the schlepping. Groceries and wine must be purchased a boat ride away and then lugged step by laborious step up to their apartment. Similarly, luggage must dragged up and down. OK for younger persons, perhaps. Does the building have a porter, perhaps? Not done in Venice, Laurie reports.

Heaven help the handicapped

Few children live here, either. The average age of a Venetian today is more than 60, according to Howard. The closest I came to a young Venetian was Valentina Draghi, a 32-year-old lawyer now living in Rome, whom I met on the train returning to the capital. Her parents live near the Palazzo Gritti, she told me, and each month she returns home to Venice.

Another thing. Regardless of age, you don't want to be infirm in Venice. Just picture negotiating a wheelchair down narrow cobble-stoned alleys and over stone bridges with no ramps.

Later, a short walk away, we're at dinner at a trattoria on an embankment next to the Guidecca Canal. The place is nearly empty. The owner greets Howard like a long-lost brother, and we settle down over an abundance of scampi and Chianti.

Where are the other diners? I asked.

Howard explained that Venetians, unlike almost everyone else, do their main social entertaining and dining at lunch. It's then that restaurants are packed. At dinner, restaurants simply cater to tourists and ex-pats. "By the way," Howard adds, "all restaurants in Venice are tourist restaurants."

Go fight City Hall

Municipal controversy also rarely finds its way into tourist publicity. Anger is currently directed at a bridge recently constructed connecting a carpark to the city's railway station. This, though the city government ignores renovations to the uninhabited palazzi on the Grand Canal.

Did I lose my heart in Venice? Actually, it was more like my hat. As I was meandering by the Hotel Danieli one afternoon, the wind ripped off my trilby, depositing it like a twirling brown top onto the Grand Canal. The last I saw, it was floating out to the Adriatic. My heart remained firmly anchored where it was supposed to be.

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