Venice: a flood of charm

Resident John Brunton reports from the ancient aquatic city, the setting for the Venice Film Festival.

Living in Venice you see a very different city to the one that flashes by for the thousands of trippers that flood in for just a day. This is a place that needs to be savoured slowly and comfortably, and although it is undoubtedly expensive, the Serenissima offers palatial hotels, gourmet restaurants, and tempting boutiques that showcase the work of Europe's finest craftmen. Although Venice has changed in the 20 years I have been here, I still agree with local friends who proudly claim their beloved Venezia is the most human place in the world, where people walk everywhere, stop to chat to friends, and are never rushed or stressed. And if I ever need reminding that this beautiful aquatic city has not lost any of its charm, I just jump on Vaporetto No.1, the humble waterbus that slowly chugs up the Grand Canal past opulent palaces, weaving alongside gondolas, market boats loaded with fruit and sleek taxis with their clients comfortably esconced inside.

If money is no object then there is only one place to stay, the legendary Hotel Cipriani (, 00 39 041 5207 744; double rooms from ?990 [Dh4,620], including breakfast and taxes). Guests are whisked across St Mark's Basin in a private launch and pampered in discreetluxury in a secluded corner of Giudecca island. In Venice itself, it is difficult to resist the charms of the grandiose Hotel Danieli (; 00 39 041 5226 480), housed in a 14th-century palace with grand marble staircases. A double room with views across the water to Palladio's masterpiece, the Chiesa di San Giorgio, costs from ?523 (Dh2,440), including breakfast. The Serenissima also has smaller, seductive hotels hidden away, such as Palazzo Abadessa (; 00 39 041 2413 784), a 16th-century mansion with a lush garden, whose owner, Maria Luisa Rossi, makes guests feel they are staying in her home (double rooms from ?260 [Dh1,200], including breakfast).

The first morning on arriving home in Venice I always rise early and wander among the canals, walking into the Piazza San Marco when it is still almost empty - the best time to visit one of the world's most magical squares. And I always tell friends to be first in line at 9am to ride the elevator up the Campanile, the bell tower of the Piazza's ancient basilica.

While the best advice to discover Venice is to forget guidebooks and get lost in the quiet backstreets, the museums are difficult to resist. All of the Serenissima's greatest artists - Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini - can be found in the Gallerie dell'Accademia, while a tour of the Doge's Palace is crucial to understand this once all-powerful city. While the brand new Punta della Dogana, which showcases the eclectic acquisitions of Francois Pinault, may be top of the list for modern art lovers, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection - with works by Giacometti, Kandinsky, Picasso and Braque - is a unique museum that you will always want to go back to. And after a hard day's sightseeing, the most chic rendezvous for an aperitivo while watching the sun set is the Skyline Bar atop the Hilton Molino Stucky.

On Saturday, all of Venice goes shopping in the Rialto market. For an instant slice of local life, turn up at midday in the Campo Bella Vienna, where everyone gathers outside the Muro restaurant and the chef sets up a table serving generous portions of fritto misto, reasonably priced at ?8 (Dh37). The mythical Harry's Bar continues to draw Venetians and visiting celebrities like a magnet, but while tourists tend to end up having an expensive meal upstairs, the locals prefer to stay at the bar.

Every enthusiastic gourmet wants to book a table at the Met (Riva degli Schiavoni 4149; 00 39 041 5205 044), where Corrado Fasolato, the top chef in town, has just received his second Michelin star. Be prepared to splash out ?130 (Dh605) on the 12-course tasting menu, to experience dishes such as pasta e fagioli con medaglione di tonno e radicchio di Chioggia, Fasolato's unique fusion of traditional Venetian cooking, oriental flavours and a touch of Feran Adria-inspired molecular cuisine.

The hottest new address is Venissa (Fondamenta Santa Caterina 3; 00 39, romantically set among vineyards on the nearby lagoon island of Mazzorbo, and reached in style by a private water taxi. Here, the rising young star Paola Budel creates dishes such as plump scampi served with crunchy baby artichokes, or grilled eel with a tangy olive, capers and tomato sauce (a main course costs ?31, Dh135).

No one can leave Venice without shopping for glass on the island of Murano. The Fondamenta Vetrai has dozens of boutiques seductively stocked with everything from glittering chandeliers to avant garde vases. The perfect first-stop is Venini, which offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the ancient glass foundry. Back in the city, discover the artisan crafts the Serenissima is famous for - fabulous silks, plush velvet and the irresistible style icon of a Fortuny lamp - at Venetia Studium (Calle Larga 22 Marzo 2425 ), and wonderous carnival masks created by Guerrino Lovato at Mondonovo (Rio Tera Canal 3063). And don't think you have to go to Milan for luxury Italian couture; the adjoining streets of Calle Vallaresso and Salizzada San Moise, just by Harry's Bar, are lined with the exclusive boutiques of Bottega Veneta, Fendi, Missoni, Gucci, Versace, Roberto Cavalli and Prada.

Steer clear of places with a "menu turistico" sign - it's a sure recipe for a lousy, over-priced meal.

Despite the extortionate price - ?82 (Dh385) for 40 minutes - a gondola ride remains the ultimate romantic Venetian experience.

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