Travel Italy: 48 hours in Venice

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The Independent Online
You need a break - and a shortcut to the soul of Italy's most romantic city. Declan Pratt provides a prescription for the perfect, watery weekend trip

Why go now?

Because this architectural feast of sumptuous churches and palaces is only two hours away, where you'll now get 2,884 lire for your pound. Yet you don't really need a reason to visit Venice - it's without a doubt the world's most romantic city.

Beam down

From this week, Venice is more accessible with Ryanair (0541 569569) now flying from Stansted for pounds 129 return. Expect retaliation from British Airways (0345 222111) and Alitalia (0171-602 7111), which fly from Heathrow and Gatwick respectively.

Get your bearings

The appropriately named Marco Polo Airport is on the mainland, around eight miles from the city. ACTV Bus 5 makes the 30-minute journey across the causeway that connects Venice to the rest of Italy. To arrive in more style take a motoscafo (regular motorboat) to San Marco for around pounds 6. A water taxi will set you back pounds 30. Venice is a good definition of the word "unique": 118 islands caught in a web of 150 canals and more than 400 bridges. The heart, metaphorically if not geographically, is the piazza San Marco.

Check in

If you want luxury, Venice has no shortage of choice: the Bauer-Grunwald, Cipriani, Des Bains, Excelsior and Gritti Palace could grace any list of the world's finest hotels. But for James Bond there was only one choice: "The Danieli, of course". In this magnificent Gothic palace (0039 41 522 6480) on the lagoon front, the price for a double en-suite room ranges from pounds 160 to pounds 320 - breakfast is extra. For something a little more down- to-earth the Three Star Hotel Firenze (0039 41 522 2858) might be more suitable. Prices start at pounds 50 for a double en suite (with breakfast), just yards from the action in San Marco. Some of Venice's many hotels claim not to reduce their rack rates, yet both the Firenze and the Danieli itself make substantial reductions, so do persevere.

Take a ride

Gondolas may be the classic symbol of romantic Venice but they're not cheap - they cost more than pounds 30 an hour. On the other hand, the city's public transport, the vaporettos, are both inexpensive and fun. A trip along the Grand Canal, from Santa Lucia Station to San Marco, is a great introduction to Venice for just pounds l.50. Vaporetto No 1 zigzags up the canal, affording a clear view of the stunning buildings massed along it. The extraordinary architectural parade includes Venetian Baroque, Byzantine, classical, Gothic and late-Gothic styles. The Grand Canal is spanned by just three bridges, including the shop-lined Rialto, one of the city's most enduring symbols. The design reflects the 16th-century Venetian desire to demonstrate to the world its opulence and technical skill. A 24-hour vaporetto ticket costs around pounds 5, a three-day ticket pounds 10.

Take a hike

"A piedi" really is the way to discover a city which, by nature, demands a reasonable amount of legwork. The main tourist thoroughfare between the station and San Marco is well trodden, but duck down a side-alley into the back-streets and you'll soon find yourself in the "other" Venice. Parts of the city are empty of tourists even in high season and you can be lost for hours in the narrow, winding lanes, stumbling across seemingly forgotten churches squeezed into tiny squares, then stepping out blinking on to the broad sweep of the lagoon.

Lunch on the run

Try a tramezzo, one of Venice's fast food sandwich triangles, which come crammed with every imaginable filling. They are served with lunch-time drinks in bars all over the city, for around pounds l.50, to eat standing up.

Cultural afternoon

Devote your afternoon to piazza San Marco, one of the world's most magnificent squares, dominated by St Mark's basilica and the Palazzo Ducale, buildings of superb quality and importance. The Basilica di San Marco with its colourfully chaotic facade is unique, having been built to house the remains of Saint Mark, stolen from Alexandria in 828AD. The exterior was continually added to over the centuries, the famous horses (now replicas) having been plundered from Constantinople in 1204. The interior of this grand cathedral is opulent in the extreme, with 4,000 square metres of mosaics adorning its walls.

Window shopping

Venice offers some great souvenirs amongst the usual tourist tat, including carnival masks and artwork. The streets of Merceria and Frezzeria, close to San Marco, have a wide selection, but prices can be comparatively high. If you're especially keen on Venetian glass or lace, take the vaporetto out to the islands of Murano and Burano, the glass and lace centres respectively, where choice, quality and price are all superior.

An aperitif

Admire piazza San Marco from one of its many bars and cafes, such as Caffe Florian at No 56/59, Italy's oldest coffee house - expensive, but in terms of ambience you get what you pay for.

Demure dinner

Considering the good reputation of Italian cuisine, Venice is a disappointment. As a general rule, the farther you go from the San Marco or station tourist traps, the lower the prices and often the better the quality. So search out one of the many small trattorie tucked away in the side streets and squares. Meals a la carte are expensive; the menu turistico is often worth trying.

Venetian cooking is relatively plain and features plenty of seafood. Risotto is perhaps the Venetian dish.

Sunday morning: go to church

Venice contains almost inexhaustible examples of religious architecture, yet the perfectly balanced proportions of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore stand out. Built in 1565, the church's white, temple-like facade provides a perfect antidote to the colourful grandeur of the basilica. The campanile, though not as tall as its San Marco rival, provides the best possible panorama over the city and lagoon.

Bracing brunch

Join the locals in one of Venice's osterie, modest bars serving wines by the glass, and cicchetti - bites such as deep-fried vegetables, stuffed olives and pate.

A walk in the park

In a city so truly limited for room, open spaces are predictably few and far between. To escape the city's claustrophobia, take the vaporetto to Sant' Elena or walk along the front from San Marco to the quiet eastern districts and their parks. The spectacular views take in the Palazzo Ducale, San Giorgio Maggiore, and many of the lagoon's islands.

The icing on the cake

Italian ice-cream is justly renowned. Pick one up while strolling the streets, or warm up in one of the many parlours.

A plane

One certainty and two outsiders: that's the look of three new flights from Stansted which began on Thursday. As mentioned above, Ryanair (0541 569569) has started services from the Essex airport to Venice for pounds 129 return. More adventurously, the airline is also starting up to Kristianstad in Sweden - close-ish to Malmo, fare pounds 109 return - and St Etienne, near Lyon, for pounds 119. Next month, Ryanair begins flights to two more Italian destinations - Rimini and Pisa - plus Carcassonne in south-west France.

A train

Reims and Rouen are now less than pounds 100 away from Waterloo International station in London. Destinations in eastern and northern France, notably Alsace and Normandy, have been added to the "Eurostar Plus" scheme. Caen and Le Havre are also available for pounds 99 return; Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Nancy and Deauville cost pounds 109. To qualify for these fares, you should book at least a week in advance and include a Saturday night away. Eurostar (0345 303030); Rail Europe (0990 848848).

A boat

The main pavilion of Expo '98, which begins in Lisbon on 21 May, is the Oceanorium - a giant aquarium designed to look like an imaginary boat. The organisers of the event pointedly say: "A delegation was sent to Seville to understand and learn from the Spanish world exposition, in order to avoid errors done there." Portuguese tourist office: 0171-494 1853.

A room

The most luxurious youth hostel in the world? The new Armagh hostel officially opened this month, close to both the Catholic and Church of Ireland cathedrals in the city. A twin room costs pounds 21 per night, yet includes an en-suite bathroom, a television set and tea-making paraphernalia. Industrial-sized breakfasts cost an additional pounds 3.75 per person. Bookings: 01861 511800.

A meal

"Evening meals will be a minimum of four courses, accompanied by superior wine," promises First Choice (0990 557755) for its Fine Dining Chalets in the forthcoming winter's ski programme. A week at the Chalet Momosses in La Plagne costs from pounds 429, including flights.

A drink

Passengers on an American Airlines flight from Cali, Colombia to Miami almost got a freshly brewed cup of liquid heroin, after 15lb of the drug were hidden in coffee packaging. A spokeswoman for American Airlines told The Independent. "We're working closely with US customs to investigate what happened. We spend a lot of money in trying to halt drug trafficking."

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