Debt in Venice

Sun, 07/24/2005 - 00:00
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Another diabolical trap to watch out for: the chair. Walk into a bar, order a drink and tipple standing up, everything's bene. The moment you sit down the price doubles. Or even triples. See, in this small city, space is a premium. A couple of sandwiches (panini or tramezzini) and sodas in a crowded tiny "snack bar" where you sit at a alarmingly small, tall table could cost 20 Euros. You're paying for the seats, but unfortunately you can't eat them.

You also need to be aware that portions tend to be small in Venice. Unlike in Germany, where servings are mighty and Teutonic, Italian ones tend to be modest and unobtrusive. That's because a true meal consists of at least two courses -- primo piatto, secondo piatto -- plus side dishes (contorno) such as potatoes, and don't forget the vino or aqua minerale, antipasti, insalata, suppe and dessert, dolci. Accompanied by an espresso of course. With an agenda like this, little wonder that when shops in Italy close for lunch they don't open again until four o'clock.

Finally, there's that tourist pitfall you'll find everywhere -- bad food. Just because you're eating in Venice and paying with an arm or leg (this is the city of Shylock, remember?) doesn't guarantee you'll find gastronomic bliss. I ate spaghetti with tomato sauce at a nice open air restaurant at the Zanipolo where the scenery was nice, but the plate of noodles compared, unfavorably, with the stuff they tortured us with back in my school's canteen.

So here's how to avoid disappointment. Be prepared for high prices. Plan on having at least one nice, expensive meal for your stay. If you really want to have that espresso and listen to the orchestra play Strauss waltzes on the terrace of the 285-year old Caffé Florian on St. Mark's, remember, one cup could cost you 7 to 9 Euros. I won't blame you. At least pick a nice seat and take lots of pictures of yourself strategically posed in front of the café's terrific interiors. What you pay then, your friends will pay later when the time comes to look at your vacation pictures or video.

Breakfast. Ready with your six Euros?
photo by Alan C. Robles

The rest of the time you're in Venice, you can survive by not sitting down and by shopping at the markets. Banish the notion of a heavy breakfast; Italians make do with an espresso and a brioche. Most hotels won't serve it and those that do will charge you extra for a repast that will be basically just coffee and bread.

If this kind of modest colazione isn't to your taste, plenty of shops offer sandwiches and pastries in the morning. It's cheaper if you stand, but the snack bars clustered near the train station will allow you to sit without an extra charge. Some restaurants are also open for breakfast, but don't expect any mercy when it comes to the prices. If you're a caffein addict, you must not pass up drinking the espresso. For all it's worth, you might want to know that breakfast and late afternoon are the only times when Italians take cappucino (in the afternoon you'll see little old ladies standing in the cafes delicately sipping enough java to stun a horse) but you being a heathenish tourist and all don't have to know that, right?

You'll want to fortify yourself against the day's tourist rigors by going to the local supermarket to pick up drinks, bread and cheese. There's actually nothing "super" in these markets, they're usually grocery-sized stores discreetly tucked away in quiet neighborhoods where tourists can't spot them. Also, they only open on specific times, early morning, lunch and late afternoon. Fortunately, there are a couple you won't miss walking the long march between the train station and Piazza San Marco. There's a small store inside the station itself, but the mark-ups on sodas, water and fruit juices are tremendous.

If you're in the station's area you can also buy fresh fruits at the street market on Rio Tera San Leonardo. To reach it: stand facing the stazione. Turn right and keep walking the long narrow street that runs between buildings. You'll come to a bridge, cross that and at the other side are the fruit and vegetable sellers. Cherries go for about 3 Euros a kilo. The other market is near the famous Rialto bridge, crossing over from the San Marco side.

For lunch, choose between sitting down at any restaurant and taking your chances with the 10 Euro "menu turistico", or snacking on that reliable standby of the tourist in Venice, pizza. I don't mean Shakey's or Domino's, I mean the kind that pizzerie bake in huge pies and sell by the slice. The quality has improved vastly from the time, years ago, when pizza slices in Venice cost 100 lire, were square and tasted like chewy cardboard.

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