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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2004

To do Venice justice, you have to be ready to take your time

If Paris is for lovers and Dublin for dreamers, then Venice must surely be for dawdling.

Not just because you have to - dawdle, that is. But also because, in the end, you really want to. The reason is stunningly simple.

Once you start replacing carriageways with canals and tires with tillers, life tends to slow down. And the fastest you can possibly navigate this city of over 100 islands is ... at rambling speed. Eight mph or so in your basic vaporetto water bus or 2 mph in the old gondola - and even that's pushing those sloe-eyed, stripe-chested hunks into an uncharacteristic paddling frenzy!

Walking doesn't really speed the progress of life much either. Because the Venetians have rather deviously laid down speed bumps in the form of 400 knee-buckling bridges to span its many canals and ditches. Everything from the short and stubby brick numbers to the frail and the filligreed, to the classic Rialto, with its built-in shops and dreamy Canaletto views.

Because they don't manufacture too much of their own stuff in Venice proper - besides glass and gondolas - practically everything that the citizens want and need has to be brought in from the outside. From Padua and Parma, from Bologna and Milan, then laboriously barged and bundled into the various shops, markets, offices, clinics, and construction sites - of which there are now hundreds in this sinking, stilted city.

All of which further slows down the tempo and makes waiting in line another fact of Venetian life. You wait at the city's few co-op shops for your milk and your wine and your groceries. You wait with the masses at the ferry stops for Line 1 or 82 to take you to St. Mark's or the Lido. You line up to admire the city's multiple cultural repositories, like its marvelous museums, art galleries, palaces, and 100-odd churches.

Another reason for the city's seemingly sluggish pace is that for much of the year, it is also under siege from hordes of visitors who plug up life to a fare-thee-well.

Some 12 million tourists wash over Venice annually, fully 80 percent of whom are day-trippers who arrive on the morning tide from their trains and their buses just to ogle the city's top attractions: St Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto, the newly constructed La Fenice Opera House, and, of course, Harry's Bar.

They inhale their pizzas, beers, and gelatos and scarf up a few Carnevale hats, T-shirts and the odd glass bauble, then depart again on the evening tide, leaving Venice agasp in their wake.

This, dear reader, is no way to pay homage to the Queen of the Adriatic. And while it may be somewhat tempting, given the horrid price of hotels and the inherent difficulty of reaching them - water buses and bridges - the only way to really "do" Venice is to linger a while, to dawdle a week or more, minimum.

Just adjust to the rhythm of the locals, and start taking the city apart. Section by intriguing section.

For those of a literary bent - classic or modern - you can always follow the footsteps of your heroes, be it Lord Byron or Donna Leon, whose many mysteries featuring Comissario Brunetti have brought her a massive following, no doubt attracted by her flavorful mixture of Venetian intrigue, maritime life, and good Italian cooking.

And, speaking of cooking - and food - a final note. The city has long suffered under the tourist adage that you don't eat well in Venice. Well, for the first three days of our visit, we believed it. Torturing our bodies with a diet of unimaginative pizzas and pasta, until we'd finally had enough and began to work our way through a list of insider recommendations.

The $40 coffee and cake stop at elegant Caffe Florian on Piazza San Marco was a deliberate blow to the budget, and very tasty, but our best meals were found at the bacari, those traditional bars that are very much like the tapas bars of Spain.

One lunchtime we stood shoulder to shoulder with local workers, eating a tray of tiny morsels of fish and sausage and vegetable. For dinner we went to a slightly more upscale version and nearly fainted over innovative dishes like raddichio baked in parchment with blue cheese and walnuts, marinated salmon on a bed of shaved fennel, and John Dory fish topped with grated fresh pumpkin and sprigs of rosemary.

And on the final night, it was the Venetian version of all-you-can-eat. Five-course meals, one meat and one vegetarian, that over the course of three hours presented us with the most delicious antipasti, spinach quiche, squash soup, polenta and ravioli, fine cheeses, and perfectly rare roast beef.

Now that's how we like to dawdle!



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