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Glammy Venice.

NO wonder Venice, a stunning vista of palaces, churches and castles perched on a lagoon, has given us some of the most memorable movie images.

This is where Don't Look Now came to life and a pale Dirk Bogarde confronted his own mortality in a cream three-piece suit and Panama hat.

It is a magical city, especially in the autumn.

On arrival at San Marco airport, visitors not staying in one of the top hotels that provide a private water taxi service should avoid all thoughts of taking the public water launch to save money.

If you can't afford 85 euros (pounds 60) for a private water taxi then beg, borrow or flirt your way into sharing the fare with someone else - it's worth it!

This is what Venice is all about, whether you arrive in daytime or darkness. Nothing is quite as thrilling as cutting through the waves as the splendid outline of the city comes into view for the first time from the comfort of your private cabin.

Then comes a striking stillness as you approach the labyrinth of canals to reach your hotel and step off the motor boat to a guiding outstretched hand and the warm welcome of an Italian. The perfect start to a fairytale weekend.

Our choice - the luxurious 18th-century Westin Europa & Regina - boasts the widest frontage on the Grand Canal. From the terrace, beautiful courtyard or romantic La Cuisina restaurant, the views are stunning and dominated by the baroque magnificence of the dazzlingly domed Santa Maria della Salute.

The hotel's marbled, chandeliered and mirrored interior is quite hypnotic and the perfect backdrop for the opulent and elegant furnishings.

Spacious rooms have wonderful high ceilings, more Venetian glass chandeliers (I never tired of seeing them), antiques and marbled bathrooms. The heavenly beds with antique headboards and multiple pillows in glazed cotton crowning crisp, white bed linen are just perfect to fall into after a day's sightseeing, shopping and sashaying back from Harry's Bar.

With so much to see, where do you start?

First stop on the tourist trail surely should be the most famous square in the world, Piazza San Marco. On a perfect October day with the sun's golden rays highlighting the piazza's crumbling architecture, it is breathtaking.

The crowds are deep, even outside peak season, and pigeons often a nuisance. but it has to be seen to be believed. The mosaic-encrusted Basilica di San Marco is resplendent and the climb up to the gallery delivers the best view of the city.Afterwards, the famous Florian, dating from the 17th Century, is the perfect cafe in which to enjoy a creamy cappuccino and pastry while surveying what Napoleon once called 'Europe's drawing-room'.

Under the surrounding arches of the piazza, in between the many tourist shops and alongside the Murano glass shops, are magnificent contemporary and antique jewellers.

Venetian goldsmiths make the Parisians look a bit sad by comparison. Vesco sells flamboyant cocktail rings with candy coloured gemstones and Attilio Codognato serpent bracelets fit for Cleopatra.

In Frezzeria, one of the many winding streets off the piazza, Gloria Astolfo is famous for fashion, high-quality jewellery and striking pearl chokers. The prettiest glassware is found nearby at Galleria All'Ascensione.

We moved away from the crowds and designer boutiques, over bridges, past Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine churches (the city has 120 in all), trattorias (all inviting) and arrived at Ponte dell'Accademia.

This is the location of the Peggy Guggenheim museum in the 18th-century Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni and her immaculate collection of 20th-century modern art and sculptures. All the greats are here, directly alongside the Gallerie dell'Accademia next door with the finest collection of Venetian masterpieces, including Giorgione's Tempest.

At Ponte di Rialto, where young Venetians hang out in trendy pizzerias and bars and locals shop for fresh produce in Mediterranean-style food markets, you will find one of the best local restaurants, Alla Madonna. It serves the freshest and most delicious seafood (except Mondays) so don't be deterred by the bright lighting: it's reasonable, fun and the food is fabulous.

Closer to home in San Marco, Ristorante da Raffaele sits alongside a quiet canal and is perfect for a romantic dinner. There's an open fireplace for winter and a pretty terrace outside in which to sit in the summer. Excellent Scaloppa Milanese and a one-course dinner for two with a carafe of house wine came to 55 euros (pounds 38).

No weekend in Venice is complete without a trip to the celebrated Hotel Cipriani. Even if you have no intention of eating there, it's worth taking the complimentary private launch (departing every 15 minutes alongside San Zaccaria on Grand Canal for a spectacular ride) just to see this semi-tropical island and to enjoy a glass of Prosecco in the bar overlooking the most immaculate grounds and swimming pool in one of the most famous hotels in the world.

Harry's Bar, birthplace of the Bellini in summer and the Canaletto in winter, is great fun too.

Just off the Piazza San Marco, it is a popular waterfront place, usually heaving, with tables downstairs rare as gold-dust. We saw one couple, strays perhaps from a nearby wedding party - he in silk top hat and tails, she in cocktail hat and fox throw - offered a table instantly. Now that's how to make an entrance and guarantee service with a smile. Four Bellinis & two delicious rissoles cost more than pounds 40.

For a special souvenir, Leda Fabris has reasonably priced linen and lace tableware, parasols and handcrafted Venetian masks - while the fascinating Leon D'Oro Boutique, near La Fenice theatre, is stuffed with marionettes, ornate and bejewelled masks, tricornes and glittering costumes.

Just about perfect for skulking around alleyways on the arm of Don Giovanni, and living out that fairtytale weekend dream.


n Sam Moritz was a guest of Thomson Cities and Short Breaks (0870 606 1476 or and she stayed at the four-star de luxe Westin Europa & Regina which offers two nights B&B from pounds 409 return with BA ex-Gatwick. Various regional supplements include Manchester (direct) for pounds 28. Birmingham via Paris (pounds 64), Bristol via Amsterdam (pounds 90), Glasgow via Paris (pounds 76).

n Thomson also books any low-cost flights from various airports, if cheaper than scheduled fares.
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 3, 2004
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