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HOLIDAYS: A Venice romance without finance; Feel like you're a movie star without splashing the cash in the city of love.. and canals.

Byline: By ZOE GRIFFIN

IHAD been dating a lovely man called Ed for six months when he announced he wanted to treat me to a mini-break for our anniversary.

I suggested we went to Venice, as it's been the setting for some of the greatest love affairs of all times.

Casanova was born in Venice and romanced his lovers in the restaurants by the famous Rialto Bridge. And since the Venice Film Festival started in 1932, the canals and waterways have been plied by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Julia Roberts and Danny Moder and many more Hollywood couples.

My job as a showbiz columnist involves knowing where celebrities hang out and I had extra help from a film producer friend, who made me a list of what he had seen the A-listers do when they weren't promoting movies.

Top of his recommendations was Harry's Bar, and my friend had written in capitals: "ORDER PEACH BELLINIS." This is a cocktail made by mixing sparkling wine with white peach juice, and it's rumoured that the drink was invented at Harry's.

The bar, a stone's throw from St Mark's Square, is stylish in a classical way and looks as if it hasn't been decorated since it opened in 1931. The famous bellinis were served in small shot glasses and cost EUR15.50 each. My glass of fizzy nectar disappeared way too quickly, so Ed ordered me another and we shared a simple but delicious toasted sandwich. That's romance... and all we could afford!

Fortunately, there are lots of places in Venice to eat celebrity standard food at Joe Public prices. My producer pal recommended Ristorante Mistra, on an island in the Venice lagoon called Giudecca. Distinguished diners have included John Travolta, Jim Carrey and Joan Collins. We managed to get a table by the window and had a magnificent view of Venice at night. Dinner was delicious.

Very close to Le Mistra is the Hotel Cipriani, where the VIPs stay when they're in town. It's been a bolthole for stars like Jennifer Lopez, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks and Giorgio Armani since it opened in 1958. If you don't want to pay EUR300-plus for a small room, never mind EUR2,225 for a suite, you can experience the glamour by popping in for a drink at the bar.

Our hotel, the Hilton Molino Stucky, had enough facilities to satisfy the most demanding of celebrities without putting too much pressure on the wallet. I loved the rooftop pool on the eighth floor. It felt utterly decadent to swim high above the bustling city, watching the steady steam of water traffic chug past on the canal below. Breakfast was included in the price of a night's stay, which starts at a reasonable EUR95pp per night, based on two sharing.

After breakfasting like royalty, Ed and I started our first day off in style with a leisurely gondola ride. We felt like celebrities ourselves as we were "chauffeur-driven" down scenic waterways by a smiling yet quiet gondolier.

Remember, though, if you haven't got the bank balance of a celebrity, make sure you bargain with the gondoliers. You should pay approximately EUR60 for 45 minutes, but most try their luck by quoting you double and hoping you won't haggle.

Another must is the Gallerie dell'Accademia art collection for breathtaking pre-1800 paintings.

Nicole Kidman asked the gallery to stay open late for her so she could browse in peace. After feeding our souls with culture, it was time to feed our bodies and Venice is one of the only cities in the world where you may see a figure-conscious star tucking into ice-cream.

Five minutes from the Accademia is a parlour called Gelateria Nico. I went for the healthy option with a scoop of limone (lemon) and ananas (pineapple). Ed opted for Nico's signature gianduitto, which is a nutty slab of chocolate ice-cream floating on whipped cream.

The "gelato" - that's Italian for ice-cream - gave us the energy to tackle more of the sights on our list. We walked over the city's oldest and most famous bridge, the Ponte de Rialto.

After that, was the Basilica de San Marco, where we took an elevator ride 94metres up the bell tower for a sweeping view over Venice and the lagoons. Then we ticked off the Doges Palace, where the city's government used to be based.

Our second day started with another typical celebrity pastime - shopping. We headed to the San Marco district for the designer shops like Armani, Gucci, Missoni and Prada.

In the same area, we found pretty little boutiques selling high-quality leather goods and fine jewellery that is weighed by the kilo. But we made most of our purchases in the markets by the Rialto bridge, where clothes and handbags were more affordable.

We also bought some cheap Venetian costume masks, which should come in useful for fancy dress parties back in England.

My friend's tip sheet also suggested taking the water bus to an island called Murano, which is probably the best place to buy glass products in Europe.

Ed and I visited a glassmaking factory, where we watched the glass being blown and craf ted into delicate shapes.

We were not the only ones - the factory shop had photos of all its famous custom-ers on the walls, including Mick Jagger, Paris Hilton and Sylvester Stallone.

But you have to keep your wits about you before you sp end a small for tune.

Shopkeepers will often give you a glass of Prosecco to loosen your grip on your wallet.

And they mark everything up, so be prepared to haggle.

What's the deal?

HILTON Molino Stucky (pictured) has rooms from around EUR190 per night including breakfast. See www.hilton.co.uk/venice

AER Lingus and Ryanair both operate flights to Venice. See websites for details

CAPTION(S):

Treat... a peach bellini cocktail at Harry's Bar; St Mark's Square..a must for every tourist in Venice; Ed's picture of me on our gondola ride... be prepared to haggle with the gondolier; Over the top... troll over the stunning Ponte de Rialto, Venice's oldest - and most famous - bridge; Good buy... Venetian costume masks at the markets; Glass act... see glassmakers at work on Murano; Pictures: ALAMY
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 7, 2008
Words:1041
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