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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 23, 2009

Finding some of the bests of Venice


By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Assistant Features Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

In a city where canals are streets, this is a typical byway in Venice's Sestiere (neighborhood) San Marco, lined with residents' private boats.

WANDA ADAMS | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Traveling to Venice? Some bests and tips based on my two extended trips there:

• Best map: Touring Club Italiano, available online (www.globecorner.com). Detailed, accurate. If you're driving, or if you're in a city such as Venice, a city rife with canals and narrow dead-end calles, Touring Club maps can be relied on. My traveling companion strongly recommends the rip-proof and waterproof maps from Rough Guide, too.

• Best tiny little dictionary: I checked out several portable Italian-English dictionaries; Berlitz was the most comprehensive.

• Best Italian phrase book: "Lonely Planet Italian" (about $8 at local bookstores or online). This portable book, which contains a 2,000-word dictionary, offers a far-reaching, up-to-date but cut-to-the-chase immersion in Italian language and culture. It's rife with amusing (and useful) sidebars, such as why you should never disturb a display in a shop or how to politely deflect (or accept) a pick-up attempt in a bar, plus such extras as a riff on Italian tongue twisters and how to swear.

• Best thing to learn before you go there: Numbers. A few phrases are helpful greetings, the difference between "Permesso" ("May I get by?") and "Mi scusi ("I'm sorry I did something wrong"), "Vorrei" ("I would like ...). But the thing that's going to hang you up the most is if you learn how to say "Quanto costa?" ("How much?") but can't understand the answer. You're better off gesturing and using English; most Italians in tourist centers speak sufficient English to do business with you.

• Best book: "Venice Is a Fish, A Sensual Guide," by Tiziano Scarpa (Gotham Books, about $12). Not a formal guide but rather a celebration of this complex, historic, multifaceted place, this book is so delicious that I haven't yet finished it because I don't want it to end. It's a particularly wonderful read when you're in the city; one of my most memorable mornings there was spent sitting in the courtyard of a Dorsoduro espresso bar, alternately reading and people-watching.

• Best pastime reading: Any of Donna Leon's novels about Commissario Guido Brunetti, a Venetian police detective, whose stories introduce both Venetian cuisine and the thinking and culture of native Venetians (their attitude toward tourists, for example). On the airplane, a Brunetti novel whets your appetite for La Serenessima. While you're there, the books offer delightful touchstones Brunetti walks through a certain campo and you say, "Oh! I was just there today!" But if you require everyday and nighttime reading, stock up before you leave; in Venice, a Brunetti paperback in English costs in excess of 10 euros (almost $15). The most convenient bookshop for fiction, cookbooks and histories in English is Libreria Studium (San Marco 337 on Calle di Canonica), a couple of minutes' walk west of Piazza San Marco. If you want to travel to Venice in fiction, check out the list on Jeff Cotton's interesting book review Web site: www.fictionalcities.co.uk/venice.html (It also covers London and Florence.)

• Best "guide": Not a conventional tourist directory, but an excellent way to get an insider feel for the neighborhoods of Venice is "Brunetti's Venice" by Toni Sepeda. (Grove Press, $16.95), which dogs the steps of Donna Leon's inspector Brunetti.

• Some great food spots: While it's folly to attempt to name a best bakery in Venice there are so many in every neighborhood the one that fascinated me was Panificio Volpe, a traditional Jewish bakery (though run by Christians) in what was once the Jewish ghetto (Canareggio 1143, Calle Ghetto Vecchio). Pantagruelica (Campo San Barnaba 2844) sold me the most meltingly meaty rich mortadella I've ever experienced. This small shop, which stocks dried pasta, oils, cheeses, meats and bread, is on a small plaza that is a hub for great food. Down a nearby alley, Calle Lunga, is La Bitta, possibly the best restaurant we visited in Venice (have the caprese!). Down the nearby fondamenta are a pair of popular cicchetti bars. Back toward Dorsoduro is a wonderful cafe and I'm darned if I can remember its name. And for chocolate, you must visit Vizio Virtu ("vice and virtue"), just off the San Polo vaporetto stop on Calle dei Campaniel; try the cold chocolate drink (OMG!) .

• Best stuff to buy: Sweets, silks and linens, lingerie, lace, eyeglass frames, shoes, purses, glass. But be aware that a) the authentic stuff is heart-stoppingly expensive and b) the not-expensive stuff is bogus, made elsewhere, generally Asia.