Where better to go for distinctive Christmas gifts than one of the world's most inspirational cities? Matthew Hoffman flexes his credit card

Why Venice rather than Milan? That was the question put to me by an Italian friend in London when I told her where I was going to do my Christmas shopping this year. I could see her point. Milan is the centre of Italian design. Venice, for all its historical prominence as a great trading centre, seems, to the casual observer at least, to have but two kinds of goods on offer: tourist tat and over-priced luxury items. But in reality Venice also offers a range of local crafts - in glass, ceramics and textiles - that are reasonably priced and beautiful.

Why Venice rather than Milan? That was the question put to me by an Italian friend in London when I told her where I was going to do my Christmas shopping this year. I could see her point. Milan is the centre of Italian design. Venice, for all its historical prominence as a great trading centre, seems, to the casual observer at least, to have but two kinds of goods on offer: tourist tat and over-priced luxury items. But in reality Venice also offers a range of local crafts - in glass, ceramics and textiles - that are reasonably priced and beautiful.

Then, of course, there is Venice itself. A city that for all the praise and over-familiar images never fails to delight or surprise. Just to be there is a privilege, and to combine it with the annual Christmas shopping chore seemed to me a great way to look for inspiration. A holiday for me, and an opportunity to surprise my friends with distinctive gifts.

I set out on the first Monday in December, intending to return the following Saturday with 20 gifts and an assortment of Christmas cards. The auspices were good, as I had found a flight on Ryanair to Treviso, near Venice, for an absurdly low £26 return. I would be staying in a friend's flat in Castello, Venice's eastern quarter, near the Arsenal and just off a delightful square, Campo Bandiera o Moro. This is the home of the Gothic church of San Giovanni in Bragora,which contains a most beguiling painting by Cima da Conegliano, Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

I arrived in time to drop off my belongings at the flat and head out for dinner. I made for Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of my favourite squares in Castello, and was lucky to get the only free table in Mascaron, a seafood restaurant that served the best spaghetti vongole I've ever eaten. I then took a walk, taking in Piazza San Marco, to one of Venice's new late-night bars, Centrale, where a small glass of grappa finished me off for the night.

The next day the shopping began in earnest - after a detour. The perfect golden light of a cloudless winter morning inspired me to visit the religious complex of San Pietro de Castello. I particularly wanted to look at the Renaissance bell tower, by Mauro Codussi, that I had been reading about in Deborah Howard's excellent book, Venice & The East.

That done, I headed to a puppet shop, Leon d' Oro Boutique, in Calle Frezzeria (San Marco 1770), which does marvellous marionettes in the style of commedia dell'arte characters. Here I bought a Pierrot, costumed in blue silk and lace, for a four-year old; over the years I plan to invest in a few similar puppets so she can put on theatrical performances. For lunch: Madonna, a large trattoria in Rialto that is patronised by both locals and tourists. After a good feed, we headed for Arras (Dorsoduro 3235) in Campiello Squelini, just behind the main university building, Ca'Foscari. This is a shop selling woollen goods that are woven on the premises on old-fashioned wooden looms, partially by persone svantaggiate (disadvantaged people). The light, warm multi-coloured fabrics are subsequently made into clothing. I bought a pink-hued shawl and a grey-green scarf for my two goddaughters.

Later, passing through Campo Santa Margherita, we came across students celebrating the completion of their degrees by cross-dressing and reading obscene satirical poetry. Passing through Camp San Barnaba, I saw a shop selling wooden block puzzles of Venetian scenes where I have bought gifts for children in the past. We made our way, burdened with shopping, down Calle del Traghetto to the vaporetto stop at Ca Rezzonico on the Grand Canal. Perhaps it was the excitement of returning to the most glorious street in Europe, but after settling down in the boat, I suddenly realised that I had lost a shopping bag - the one containing the shawl.

What should I do? Where had I left it? Campo Santa Margherita, where I had put it down to photograph the students? The vaporetto stop? I got off at Santa Maria del Giglio across the canal, and took the next boat back to Ca'Rezzonico. Two workmen who saw me frantically looking about told me that they had just seen a woman hand it to the boatman on the departing vaporetto. Some shouting followed, and the bag was handed from person to person and across a yard of water just as the boat on which I had returned pulled away. Never had I been so grateful for Venice's reputation as a virtually crime-free city.

After the delay I just managed to catch the last couple of hours of an exhibition at the Biblioteca Marciana in Piazza San Marco on life at the Palazzo Barbaro in the late 19th century. The American owners of the palazzo had played host to many of the cultural figures of the day, including Henry James (whose novel Wings of the Dove is set there), Robert Browning and the painters James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent.

For dinner, I returned to my favourite Venetian restaurant, Corte Sconte, happily located just around the corner from the flat. The gnocchi with swordfish followed by soft-shelled crabs and finished off with caramelised figs and vanilla ice cream would have been worth the trip to Venice alone.

Wednesday was not a success from a shopping point of view, but there were compensations - the Carpaccio exhibition at the Accademia in the morning, followed by coffee with a Venetian friend in Cannaregio. At a children's clothing shop in Strada Nova I bought a light-blue outfit for a newly born boy. Then I took a quick trip to a remote church near the northern lagoon, St Alvise, to see a powerfully realised religious work by Giambattista Tiepolo. In the late afternoon I took in a concert of Christmas songs at another local church near Castello, San Martino, where the choir's concluding rendition of "White Christmas", sung in English and Italian, was at once silly and touching.

By Thursday morning the shopping had become the top priority. I had 17 presents to go, two days in which to find them and I still hadn't bought any Christmas cards. I decided to begin the blitz locally. There is a pottery shop, Questoequeo, in Salizzada Sant'Antonin (Castello 3542), where Martina Purisiol decorates her work with motifs from Venetian architecture. I bought a squat, round vase from her (for, as she said, a canopy of flowers) and a small brooch of a masked carnival figure.

Then off to Campo Santo Stefano in San Marco, where there is always a Christmas fair comprised of alpine huts from which are sold crafts and foods. There I found a supply of Christmas cards at a much better price than in the shops. Nearby, at the Ponte delle Ostreghe, I went to La Ricerca (San Marco 24310), to buy a leather-bound sketch book. Next, walking east towards Piazza San Marco, I passed a glass shop, L'Isola (San Marco 1468), at Salizzada San Moise, where I saw a small, salmon-coloured vase that was so pretty that I decided to jettison a friend's request to get her an Alessi cheese grater.

Soon I had mastered the phrase " un sconto per pagare in contanti" ("a discount for paying in cash"), and with these helpful words I bought three antique glass bead ( perle Veneziane) bracelets, a carved wooden angel, and a little glass Christmas tree and matching Father Christmas ( Babbo Natale) on skis. I also found some small blue glasses with white toothpaste-like decorations, perfect for classy bathroom cups, from L'Angolo del Passato (Dorsoduro 3276) in Calle del Cappeller, and a couple of leather-bound notebooks from Paolo Olbi (San Marco 3563) in Calle della Mandola.

I wound up my shopping spree on Saturday morning back in Salizzada Sant'Antonin with the purchase of an embroidered white-and-gold purse from Banco No 10 (Castello 3478), whose products are made by inmates at the female correctional centre on the island of Giudecca. My final act was to take a quick stroll in the winter sunshine to the Basilica of San Marco to look at the Joseph mosaics in the north atrium, before returning to the flat to pack up my goods, and finally, sadly, taking the long vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal to the bus station at Piazzale Roma before flying back to cold, grey Britain.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Treviso; other airlines fly from a wide range of UK airports to Venice Marco Polo

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