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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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South of France - July 06
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Venice

Ah Venice! City of sighs!

You can't help but sigh when you take in the canals and bridges and peeling palazzos of Venice. Even when the smell is ripe, as it sometimes is, there's something enchanting about the place, something that no other city has ever been able to emulate.

It is the heart of romance.

Id been to Venice once before but that was definitely not a romantic occasion. I'd just been dumped after flying halfway around the world to meet up with my faithless girlfriend. But hey, we were 'still friends', so I got to traipse around Venice with her. Still, even then, the city restored some of my faith in love.

This time was different.

Veronika and I left Prague on the overnight train for a romantic weekend away.

I had tried to book a first class compartment for us but the only one of the train was already taken. So we ended up in a four-bed second class apartment but, with a wink and a nod to the conductor, we ended up with it all to ourselves.

We left Prague as the sun was setting and rolled through the green foot hills of Bohemia towards the Austrian border. As we passed out of the Czech Republic and down into the mountains around Salzburg I cracked open the picnic dinner and we feasted on white wine, pâté and blue cheese.

We slept well that night.

In the morning we rolled into Venice, a little late but still early enough for breakfast. We spent two nights and three days in Venice, departing for home on Sunday night. We strolled around the Piazza San Marco and visited the glittering Basilica. We cruised the Grand Canal in a vaporetta, peered into innumerable churches, gorged ourselves on takeaway pizza and we walked and walked and walked.

We dropped in to the Peggy Guggenheim museum, perhaps one of my favourite of all galleries. The bite sized collection was just right for Veronika (who suffers from prolonged exposure to art) and I got to revisit some fondly remembered pieces from Brancusi, Pollock and Kandinsky.

But perhaps our best idea was to take the forty minute ride out to the island of Burano, cousin to the often-visited Murano where Venice's staggeringly ugly glassware is made. Burano is a pretty little island with bright and tiny houses and canal lined streets. Although far from tourist-free it was definitely more relaxed than the city itself and we enjoyed an impromptu lunch by the water.

We stayed in the lovely but pricey Pension Naoemi, only a stone's throw from the Piazza San Marco. Better bargains could be had by staying out on Lido, but we only had two days and wanted to make the most of it. The rooms are decorated in traditional Venetian style with plush red carpet on the walls and ornate woodwork. The breakfasts are nice but the staff are little brusque.

The first night we dined at a silver service restaurant not far from the Ponte di Rialto. The maitre'd was a smooth talking, silver haired old Italian who offered to read us the menu in French, Italian, German or English. I asked for Czech and cracked his smile, if only briefly. He retaliated by introducing us to the pianist. The food was good, the service attentive and the bill only staggering if you stopped to think about it.

But we dined better on our second night when we opted for a smaller, bistro style restaurant near the hotel. The food was as good, if not better, the surroundings more friendly and the prices more reasonable. We lingered over cheese and coffee, and Veronika fell in love with the Goronzola. We staggered home to the hotel, ten metres up the street and stopped for gelati along the way.

If you like ice cream, Italian gelati is second to none. For a measly 1€ you can buy a tennis ball sized scoop from Nico's on the Zattere waterfront walkway and you'll never have tasted anything better. But you can't go ten metres in Venice without bumping into a gelati stand, so don't worry if you can't walk that far.

On the train on the way back we had to share our compartment with a grumpy Russian and his wife and our carriage with a bus load of excitable Italian teenagers. After a rough start we got to talking and it turned out he was a writer too. We chatted and shared some food and wine and reflected upon the glories of Venice.

It was an excellent weekend. In retrospect there was little that could have been better.

While the rain fell in Prague the sun shone in Venice.

And was it romantic?

<sigh>