- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

VENICE — From Venice Marco Polo Airport, the early morning ride is a bit surreal as we cross the marshy expanse that separates the mainland Veneto region from its capital, Venice, created in the middle of the lagoon.

Aboard Starwood Hotels’ private motoscafo — water taxi — we enter the city from the north through the Cannereggio Canal and within minutes are on the Grand Canal itself, passing crumbling facades and regal palazzi and the vessels that work these busy waterways: the vaporetto (water bus), the motoscafo (which is much smaller), and the gondola, the most famous of the three.

We pass under the Rialto Bridge. Just beyond the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, we arrive at the entrance to our first stop, the Gritti Palace, a spectacular hotel. After checking in, we embark on a walking tour of the San Marco district to orient ourselves.

We stroll down narrow streets filled with shops, then emerge for our first glimpse of the Piazza San Marco. It is breathtaking. The multidomed San Marco Basilica is a grand centerpiece and the end of the piazza, with the Doge’s Palace and then the Campanile to the right and closer to the canal. The bell tower rises almost 325 feet from the piazza and, along with the basilica and several other churches, is one of the city’s icons. A long series of colonnades on both of the long sides of the piazza lead the eye to the basilica and tower. Otherwise, the piazza is filled to the brim with pigeons and tourists, and occasionally its surface is flooded with water.

We stop at an outdoor table of the venerable Cafe Florian for a beer and to affirm that this, astonishingly, is real, although we have observed this scene hundreds of times in paintings and photographs. Our disbelieving minds run down the checklist, and, yes, it is real.

We walk down the central shopping street beneath the clock tower, toward the Rialto Bridge and join the crowd. Actually, it is more like a throng. The bridge over the Grand Canal was built on the highest point of land in Venice; it is a transcendent span of splendid white marble over the Grand Canal, and it is filled with jewelry stores.

As we get to the other side to the sestieri of Santa Croce, one of the six quarters of Venice, a remarkable thing happens. The number of people subsides substantially, and the bustling street gives way to quiet alleys, the charm emerges, and another Venice takes shape. We spend two hours wandering the narrow streets of Santa Croce and San Polo, discovering one wonderful corner after another, quaint alleyways leading to quiet courtyards. The Church of San Polo was begun more than 1,000 years ago.

CIOCCOLATERIA

We have a simple meal of spaghetti with squid ink at La Privetta, a charming canal-side trattoria. We spot Vizio Virtu Cioccolateria, a boutique chocolate shop, at the Ponte della Frescada and sample four of the finest homemade concoctions imaginable, dark and lustrous. We find our way through the labyrinth of alleys and wayward side streets before emerging at the Accademia Bridge and crossing the Grand Canal back into the San Marco quarter and returning to the Gritti.

The Gritti Palace is one of life’s treasures, with a standard of service that must be experienced to be believed. Our room on the third floor overlooks the Grand Canal and directly across to the impressive Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, as impressive as the baroque can be.

The golden glow of the Venetian afternoon sun lends an ethereal quality to the wonderland outside. A chandelier of Murano glass shimmers overhead in the high-ceilinged room of luxury and comfort. In the evening, we dine in the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant, Club del Doge. The spaghettini with clams, veal with pumpkin flam, and lamb chops are cooked to perfection, served with a Brunello di Montalcino by a seasoned staff that operates like a precision watch. Dinner in this intimate 500-year-old dining room is a stylishly romantic end to our first day in Venice.

LA SALUTE

We sleep like pampered nobility and rise with the sun as it glints off the Grand Canal. After a lovely breakfast, we walk out into a brilliantly sunny fall day for one of Venice’s great bargains, a gondola to take us across the Grand Canal to the Dorsoduro quarter for only 1 euro — less, so far, than $1.50. We wander through a few narrow alleys to Santa Maria della Salute, affectionately known as La Salute.

Built in homage to the victims of a plague and for the Virgin Mary’s role in saving the city, the church was begun in the 1620s and finished in 1687. This Church of the Virgin Mary of Good Health dominates this end of the Grand Canal and holds several of Titian’s masterworks. The octagonal walls of the main structure rise to a great dome, and its stark white interiors are meant to convey the humility and sacrifice of the survivors of the plague.

A short walk north through a maze of alleys takes us to the palazzo of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Peggy Guggenheim was one of the great patrons of 20th-century art, not just collecting but actively promoting the careers of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, amassing treasures by the known giants of modern art such as Picasso, Braque, Dali, Kandinsky, Klee and Tanguy.

She was married for a time to surrealist Max Ernst, posed famously for Man Ray in the 1920s, lived a flamboyant bohemian life among artists and philosophers, moved into her gleaming white palazzo in 1948 and opened up her incredible personal art collection to the public the following year. After her death in 1979 at 80, the home became the latest outpost of the worldwide Guggenheim museums.

The collection is even more astonishing for the fact that it adorns the walls of her home much as it did when she was alive. Sculptures by Giacometti, mobiles by Calder, an entire room of Pollock and a full wing dedicated to Italian cubists are testament to a life lived promoting compelling artists of the century. The sprawling single-story building has a famous rooftop garden.

We next cross the Accademia Bridge again, the only wooden bridge across the Grand Canal. Passing through the Campo San Stefano and its grand piazza, we go inside the enormous church named for the saint. Next, we make our way through another warren of alleys, but these filled with expensive shops, as we wind back to our hotel, proud of ourselves for having done so much without getting lost.

The sounds of Venice, from the boats on the waterways to bells pealing from churches and footsteps on the stone pavement are magical in a city without cars.

In the evening, we dress up and take a motoscafo into a tiny side canal in San Polo to have dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Osteria da Fiore, where we are greeted by owner and maitre d’ Maurizio Martin. Da Fiore specializes in seafood and has been one of the city’s best restaurants. The interior resembles the hold of a fine yacht, with a curved paneled ceiling of dark wood arching majestically across the restaurant. The liveried staff is impeccable and responds to each detail like the movement of a finely tuned orchestra.

An appetizer of tiny fresh sardines is followed by baked oysters, sweet with a delicate firmness. Scallops in the shell are adorned with the scallop’s coral. Squash soup with porcini mushrooms is delightful in its simplicity. Then the pasta dishes arrive: Tagliolini with gamberone and radicchio in an au-gratin crust is like a sea angel baked in pasta. Tagliolini with black squid ink is a visual feast and one of Venice’s signature dishes.

Mara Martin is the chef and creator of tonight’s extravaganza, and her main dishes are a triumph. Steamed branzino is a subtle, delicate sea bass wrapped in a fruit accouterment. Soft-shell crab with arugula and pomegranate seeds is an explosion of taste, clean, fiery, exhilarating. Then it’s a parade of persimmon — gelato and mousse: two deserts, one fruit, a divine conclusion to a meal in paradise.

Early the next day, we make our way to Campo San Stefano to the Contini Art Gallery, a commercial gallery specializing in modern art. Manager Paula Parmigiana, a Venetian art stalwart, shows us a brilliant string of sculptures and paintings of cutting-edge artists. The manager is a local lady with strong ties to Venice’s oldest families.

Bidding farewell to the Gritti Palace, we move to the Hotel Danieli, another of Venice’s prestigious addresses. The Danieli has housed potentates and kings, movie stars and writers, the uberrich and the flower of European nobility since it’s opening in 1822. Like the Gritti, the Danieli is a jewel in the crown of Starwood Hotels. Originally it belonged to the family of the Venetian doge who led the attack on Constantinople in the 1200s despite being 90 years old and blind. Its lobby has towering gilded ceilings, a startling five-story atrium and impeccable service. Our third-floor room has balconies overlooking the lagoon and the promenade along the waterfront stretching out in both directions.

ARTISAN MASQUES

Crossing the Rialto on a busy day, we stumble into a mask store unlike any other. Venetian carnival masques are ubiquitous throughout the city in an almost annoying manner. Wanting real masques, crafted by artists, we have been reluctant to buy any, until now. We have found La Bottega dei Mascareri, the simple stall of Sergio Boldrin, just over the Rialto in Santa Croce. Mr. Boldrin is the real deal, crafting masques that have been featured in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and celebrated by Woody Allen in “Everyone Says I Love You,” and he retains the air of a craftsman, not a merchant. The masques are surprisingly inexpensive, so we buy a variety of them, perfect souvenirs by an artist.

We continue through the alleyways of Santa Croce until we come to Ca’ Pesaro, a stately palazzo on the Grand Canal and home of the Modern Art Gallery. Here, on a beautifully designed second-floor gallery, are masterful works by Klimt, Kandinsky, Klee, Bonnard, Chagall, Tangay and Ernst. It is a perfect complement to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and helps make Venice an unexpected but fascinating outpost for great collections of modern art. Just as impressive are the ceilings in the galleries, with brilliant murals and woodwork dating from the 16th century.

Dinner at La Terrazza, the rooftop restaurant at the Danieli, offers a panoramic arc of red tile roofs set against sweeping views of the Doge’s Palace and the domes of San Marco. The food is rich and full-bodied, old-school Venetian cooking that stands out for its complexity and presentation. Another treat: Breakfast is served in the same room.

ORIGINAL GHETTO

Today we wander the back streets of the Castello quarter and its quaint alleys with churches and small shops. We make our way to the Calle Nove, an area of shops and restaurants in far-flung Cannereggio quarter. Up a fondamenta (a canal-side walkway) and down an alley is the original Ghetto, from which the name derives. For centuries, Jews were allowed to work during the day in Venice but were obliged at night to live on this small island accessible by three guarded bridges and surrounded by canals. They were locked in for the night — to keep the Venetians out, was the joke among the Jews.

Today this corner of Venice is a surprisingly small courtyard surrounded by apartment blocks on six sides, part of a vibrant neighborhood of long canals, shops and bars favored by the locals. We do a lot of walking in Venice, on some days 10 miles or more, so we take a break and catch a vaporetto at a stop on the Grand Canal for a crowded but interesting ride back to the Danieli.

Dinner is in Vini di Gigio, a lovely trattoria tucked away on Fundamenta San Felice in Cannereggio. This friendly family-run slice of authenticity gets Zagat’s highest rating for food in all of Venice. Sitting under thick ancient wooden beams, we soon find out why. Spaghetti with clams and tagliolini with crab arrive piping hot, in perfect portions.

Osso buco in a tomato, celery, onion and carrot sauce is flavorful, tender, not fatty and undeniably the best osso buco ever. Slowly grilled eel is a masterpiece, like a fine tender steak, astonishingly rich and delicious. Both dishes come with a polenta cake that is divine in its own right. Vini da Gigio defines the family trattoria that takes food to new heights without losing its charm and homespun manner.

We rise early the next day to tour the Doge’s Palace just as it opens to avoid the crowds. The full scope of Venice’s imperial power hits home in room after room of opulence in the doge’s apartments, the grandeur of the state rooms, the council chamber, the Chamber of 10, and the incredible Senate chamber.

The Most Serene Republic of Venice — or La Serenissima — was an independent and thriving city-state for almost 1,000 years before it decayed in the late 1700s and was overthrown by Napoleon in 1797. It was democracy for the aristocracy, and noblemen elected a council, a Senate and a special group of 10 who selected the doge. Checks and balances, a strong court system and a thorough system of accountability led to a thriving empire based on trade.

Venice became a great power that conquered Byzantium, dominated the Mediterranean, kept the papacy and Rome at bay, maintained its independence, and remained intact for almost 1,000 years.

The Grand Chamber of Representatives, one of the largest state halls in Europe, is where Venice’s eligible nobility met with the doge and his six principal counselors to discuss affairs of state, like a town hall meeting.

Finally, we cross the notorious Bridge of Sighs into the prison adjacent the palace, where Casanova and countless others were held prisoner in less than opulent conditions, a reminder that even enlightened Venice had its dark side.

On our last day at the Danieli, the sun is glorious, and we tour the San Marco Basilica, again at opening time. It is impossible not to be moved by the glory and sheer grandeur, a stunning massive sanctuary with ceilings covered in gold mosaics and, most amazing, behind the altar, the sarcophagus holding the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, author of the second Gospel of the New Testament.

The remains were taken from Alexandria, Egypt, and brought to Venice in the eighth century. The choice of St. Mark as patron saint was deliberate, signifying Venice as independent from Rome and the Holy See, which was represented by the legacy of St. Peter. We climb the stairs and stand on the portico of the church, overlooking the piazza, a timeless look at a crossroads of history.

HOTEL CIPRIANI

We leave the Danieli by motoscafo and cross to Hotel Cipriani on the nearby island of Giudecca. Another bastion of luxury with sweeping views of San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute, this landmark Orient-Express hotel has hosted potentates and movie stars for decades. We are staying in the Palazzo Vendramin, a posh suite with private butler, a spectacular sitting room and a corner bedroom with stellar views across the canal from Giudecca. After five hectic days in San Marco, we have two days of relaxation and pampering.

Dinner is in Cips Club, the Cipriani’s smaller second restaurant on the waterfront overlooking the canal. It is elegant yet cozy; the food is delicious. We spend the evening luxuriating in our suite, gazing at the twinkling lights of San Marco.

On our last full day in Venice, the butler serves breakfast in our suite. We then take the Cipriani motoscafo to San Marco for one last waltz around the city. We walk down by the Palazzo Grassi, an art museum in a district full of galleries. Down a narrow alley we find an intriguing private enclave: the gallery of Gigi Bon, a fascinating artist with a wide following. The rhinoceros is a constant in her paintings and sculpture. She points out the home next door. It is the birthplace and home where Casanova grew up.

We cross the Rialto and find the impressive fish market, a landmark in Venice. We finally take a gondola ride along the quiet back canals of the Costello quarter, past the Church of Miracles and Marco Polo’s house. It is touristy, expensive, but essential to do at least once.

In the evening, Miss Parmigiana takes us to Osteria Il Milion, one of Venice’s best-kept secrets. Owner-chef Roberto Bocus opens our eyes to this hidden treasure. Carpaccio of swordfish is stellar; broiled salmon with orange slices is tantalizing; tagliolini with spider crab is simply amazing.

We mention Miss Bon, and Miss Parmigiana laughs, for the two are great friends, and Miss Bon is a client, an artist she has championed for years. She calls Miss Bon, and we stop by the artist’s apartment for a nightcap.

Miss Parmigiana tells us that Miss Bon is from one of Venice’s most distinguished families; a direct ancestor was one of the men who purloined and brought the body of St. Mark from Alexandria.

On our return to the Cipriani, we look back at San Marco. It is hard to leave our dream, for Venice is like no other.

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Delta Airlines is one of the few airlines operating nonstop flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. For more information, go to www.delta.com or phone 800/221-1212.

Hotel Gritti Palace, www.hotelgrittivenice.com, 39/041-794-611

Hotel Danieli, www.hoteldanielivenice.com,39/041-522-6480

Cipriani Hotel, www.hotelcipriani.com, 39/041-520-7744

Osteria da Fiore, 39/041-721-308

Vini da Gigio, www.vinidagigio.com (click on “translate this page”; 39/041-528-5140

Osteria Il Milion, www.ilmilion.com, 39/041-522-9302

Vizio Virtu Cioccolateria, www.viziovirtu.com, 39/041-275-0149

La Bottega dei Mascareri, 39/041-524-2887

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, www.guggenheim-venice.it, 39/041-240-5411

Ca’ Pasero, Galleria d”Arte Moderna, 39/041-524-0695

Contini Gallery, www.continiarte.com, 39/041-520-4942

Gigi Bon, Studio d”Arte Mirabilia, 39/041-523-9570

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