Rough Guide: Oh, the joy of being mistaken for a native Venetian

Jonathan Buckley, author of the 'Rough Guide to Venice', shares his best discoveries
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The Independent Travel
Best bar

Harry's Bar is Venice's most famous watering-hole, but it has two big drawbacks: its preposterous prices and the fact that, often, the only Venetians in the place are behind the bar. For a genuine taste of the city, seek out Ai Do Mori, hidden in a chicane of an alley on the west side of the Rialto market. A single narrow room, with no seating, it is packed every evening with home-bound shopworkers, Rialto porters, and locals just out for a stroll. The snacks are delicious, the range of wines excellent, and the atmosphere is terrific.

Strangest sight

The churches of Venice offer some very peculiar sights. The desiccated body of St Lucy, displayed in a glass case behind the altar of San Geremia, is not something you are likely to forget in a hurry, nor is the facade of the church of San Moise, which is adorned by a pair of camels unrelated to anything in the natural world. Wackiest of all, perhaps, is the array of wax heads in the sacristy of the Redentore, depicting eminent Franciscans in various attitudes of ecstasy. It comes as no surprise that Venetian dialect gave the word "zany" to the world - it is the local form of "Giovanni".

Favourite hotel

It might not be able to match the Gothic splendour of the Danieli and its million-lire-a-night rivals, but the Sturion has a good location, just a few metres from the Rialto bridge, and it has a decent pedigree - you can see the hotel's original sign of the sturgeon in the Accademia gallery's Miracle of the Relic of the Cross cycle, which was painted around 1500. Formerly one of Venice's choicest one-stars, the Sturion has been transformed into an immaculate three-star, and its breakfast room gives you a grandstand view of the comings and goings on the Grand Canal.

Favourite restaurant

Over on the island of Giudecca, tucked down an alleyway not far from the Redentore, you will find the Altanella, an unpretentious restaurant that has been run by the same family for three generations. As with 90 per cent of Venice's restaurants, the seafood is the best thing they do, and at Altanella it is as good as some places that charge twice as much. The staff are always welcoming, there is a lovely terrace overlooking Giudecca's central canal, and the rooms are decorated with photographs of the boss's ancestors and of the island in its heyday as the city's industrial suburb.

Biggest let-down

I was prepared to pay five quid for a coffee at Florian's outside tables - it is, after all, the finest cafe on the finest city square in Europe. I was not aware, however, that I might have to listen to highlights from Cats played by the Florian band. Nor that, across the Piazza, the band of a rival cafe might be banging out "My Way", followed by "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina", while the Florian crew retaliated with a bit of Abba. And you are paying a fortune for it. If you go to Florian, sit inside.

Favourite souvenir

Byron helped out with the world's first English-Armenian dictionary, which was prepared by the monks of the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni. Today, visitors are given a guided tour of the monastery by a polyglot priest, ending up with a visit to the island's bookshop, which sells books and prints from the monastic press. The prints and maps are beautiful and very reasonably priced - my favourite print is a reduced version of Jacopo de'Barbari's amazing bird's-eye view of Venice, engraved in 1500. The full-size version, on show in the Museo Correr, is about the size of the average Venetian bathroom.

Strangest meeting

Every tourist in Venice longs to be mistaken for a native Venetian. I was first gratifyingly misidentified at around 2am one bleak November night, when a trio of distraught Japanese asked me if I knew where the nearest vaporetto stop might be. They formed a file behind me as I conducted them through the twists and turns of the San Toma district, then down the lane that led to the landing stage. I turned to indicate their goal, to discover that an additional 20 anxious compatriots had crept out from somewhere to join the original three. One by one they bowed in passing, manifestly relieved to be rescued from the nocturnal labyrinth.

Best moment

San Marco is probably the least peaceful church in Christendom - except in the dead of winter, on a day when the floodwaters are high. I had the good fortune to be in the cathedral one December morning as the flood siren started wailing, and I decided to stay put. The result: everyone else rushed to higher ground, San Marco became completely cut off by a waist-high tide, and I had four hours to roam the empty building. The custodians opened up parts of the church normally left under padlock, and took themselves off to watch the gondolas on St Mark's Square.

Biggest bargain

"Bargain" is of course a relative term in Venice, but the ACTV three- day tourist pass is good value, allowing you unrestricted use of the vaporetto network for just L30,000 (pounds 11). The lift to the top of the belltower of San Giorgio Maggiore is recommended, too: far cheaper than the Campanile of San Marco, no queues, and if anything a better view, because the one thing you can't see from the majestic Campanile is the majestic Campanile.

FACT FILE

venice

Getting around

ACTV passes are available from most landing stages, from most tobacconists, from shops displaying the ACTV sign, and from the two ACTV public offices - at Piazzale Roma (daily 8am-8pm), and in Ramo dei Fuseri, close to the northwest corner of the Piazza (Mon-Fri 7.30am-6pm, Sat 7.30am-1pm).

What to experience

Ai Do Mori bar is at Calle Do Mori, San Polo 429. Open 9am-1pm and 5pm- 9pm; closed Wednesday afternoon and Sunday.

The Sturion Hotel is at Calle del Sturion, San Polo 679 (tel: 041 523 6243; fax: 041 522 8378). Doubles from around L250,000 (pounds 95).

Altanella restaurant is at Calle delle Erbe 270, Giudecca (tel: 041 522 7780). No credit cards. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Further information

The Italian State Tourist Board,

1 Princes Street, W1R 8OY

(tel: 0171-408 1254; fax: 0171-493 6695; 24hr information request line: 0891 600 280 - calls cost 50p per minute).

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