Debt in Venice

Sun, 07/24/2005 - 00:00
page 1

By Alan C. Robles

You can stay in a really cheap hotel, even bunk out 16 to a room at the youth hostel; you can choose to walk instead of taking the water bus; you can even - God help you - limit yourself to just one or two museums. All this you can will yourself to do, in the name of saving money in one of Europe's most expensive cities.

But you've still got to eat. And that's when Venice will skin you alive. Tired from all the walking, disgruntled by the measly roll that passes for "breakfast" in your locanda (assuming they serve you any), dazzled by the city's unreal magic, you'll eventually wind up hot, exhausted, famished and thirsty, your senses inflamed. This is a fatal combination in a city so apparently given over to eating that every few meters there's a ristorante, trattoria or pizzeria.

It might be the smell of freshly baked pizza, or the achingly beautiful sight of tourists enjoying their lunch, tended by white-coated waiters, on tables artfully set along the Grand Canal. It might be the unfairly alluring way Italians have of displaying food: glistening bottles of juice heaped on ice under a gentle spray of of water; tall, chilled glasses of fresh mixed fruit arrayed like a painting in a store front display; sandwiches artfully piled on plates inside a counter.

At some point, you will lose it. You'll barge into the nearest restaurant, sit down at a table and will be as putty in the hands of the waiter, nodding ravenously as the cameriere asks, "primo piatto? Secondo? Contorno? Formaggio? Vino rosso? Aqua minerale? Espresso? Dolci?"

He'll bring it on and you'll take it all, in a binge that will leave you sated and dazed. And after the meal, when you've polished off the last of the tiramisu and scoop of gelato, you'll see the appalling bill. Fifty euros? Sixty? Is that correct? Just one meal! At this rate you'll be bankrupt by midnight.

Shocked at how effortlessly the city has grabbed you, flung you upside down and had its way with your shekels, you'll feel victimized and guilty. Perhaps the rest of your vacation, you'll penitently live off stale breadsticks and tap water. Returning home, you'll associate Venice with gut-wrenching expense, extravagance and (if your choice of restaurant was unfortunate) bland food.

But it doesn't have to be this way. You can enjoy Venice without feeling shorn and fiscally violated, as long as you accept one fact: there's no getting around high prices in this city. Everybody pays them.

Costs are high all around because everything is brought in by boat, and then carted to wherever its final destination is - over bridges, through narrow streets - using muscle power. Look at it this way, your expenses help sustain this ancient, unreal, dazzling place in the face of the millions of tourists who flood it everyday.

  Everything gets to Venice by boat. Of course, you probably took the train
photo by Alan C. Robles

Ease up, be frugal but not wretched. Walk that fine line between being a cheapskate and ducking into McDonald's (round the corner from the Basilica di San Marco, along the Calle de Canonica), and living a debauched life patronizing costa-plente joints such as Harry's Bar (Vallaresso, on the vaporetto stop).

To do this you first have to understand the city's subtle tourist snares. Back in the Middle Ages, Venice dominated through gold and guile. Now it ruthlessly rules the tourist world through two infernal tributes, servizio and coperto. Twin terrors these; one for service the other for cover, and when brought to bear on your bill, they can multiply innocuous prices to ludicrous levels. To forestall that dinner you think so affordable mutating into the main nightmare budget event of your year, consult the menu posted outside every restaurant. Check the charges.


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