The Art of Lingering

Signora S. meanders through the canal city, which is, after all, the best way to navigate Italy's glorious puzzle.

July 07, 1999|By ALICE STEINBACH | ALICE STEINBACH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VENICE -- Sooner or later, every traveler to this city winds up at the famous Caffe Florian on the south side of the Piazza San Marco.

Yes, yes -- or si, si, as the Italians seem to prefer saying -- the Florian could be described as the quintessential tourist trap: The food is mediocre, the prices exorbitant, and a stiff extra charge is added for live music.

On the other hand, the Florian could be described as an authentic Venetian experience, one no visitor should miss.

It is a cafe that has earned its place in the city's history. Opened in 1720, it is far older than the Quadri, its rival cafe on the Piazza's north side, and has counted among its customers the likes of Casanova, Wagner and Proust. And, to its eternal credit, Caffe Florian was one of the first places in the world to serve a new and exotic beverage called "coffee."

This last fact inspires intense loyalty in one tourist in Venice -- an American coffee devotee we shall call Signora S. -- who at 11 in the morning sits sipping her second caffe latte at the Florian.

It is a good time to come to the cafe, the American signora thinks: Only a scattering of tourists sit at the outdoor tables, the three-piece band is playing an appealing medley from "West Side Story" and the Piazza San Marco -- the only square Venetians deign to call a piazza; all others are called campo -- is not yet mobbed.

Signora S. has often observed that by 9 o'clock many tourists have already passed through the Piazza, crossing it off their list as they head for the Doge's Palace. Such an observation only adds gravitas to the signora's theory that most tourists like to hit the ground running. After all, it is the only way they can hope to complete their sightseeing program by day's end.

The signora, however, approaches her role as a tourist from a different viewpoint: She believes the secret to successful travel lies in learning how to linger.

Solitary traveler

Of course, there are those who accuse Signora S. of excessive lingering. Such a habit, they point out, causes her to miss many churches and museums and other cultural and historical landmarks. Her response is simple: to travel alone. This allows her to linger whenever the fancy strikes. Her approach has paid off in Venice.

Had she not lingered in the Campo San Salvadore one afternoon, for example, Signora S. would have missed seeing the steady stream of elegant Venetian women in dark suits and bright silk scarves parading their dogs through the square. Sleek, high-stepping Dalmatians seemed to be the dog of the moment, followed by the low-slung, more durable dachshund.

And, were it not for lingering, the American signora would have missed the old woman, her weathered face half-hidden under a black scarf, feeding a dozen cats in a pedestrian alley near the posh Gritti Hotel. Graciously, the woman of the cats allowed Signora S. to stroke the head of a particularly beguiling orange tabby.

But the best lingering one can do, Signora S. has decided, is in a hotel at the concierge's desk. If one lingers long enough in such a location, it is often possible to strike up a relationship, of sorts, with someone behind the desk. And, occasionally, these encounters yield the kind of information not found in the city's official guidebook, "un Ospite di Venezia" ("A Guest in Venice.")

In one such encounter earlier in the week, Signora S. told Franco, an employee at the incredibly bellissima Hotel Cipriani, that Woody Allen had bought Palazzo Dario, on the Grand Canal. It gave her a little thrill to pass this tidbit of gossip on.

"Palazzo Dario?" Franco said, his voice filled with surprise. "Which one is it?"

"It is the delightful early Renaissance palace built in 1487 by Pietro Lombardo," explained Signora S., parroting the words of an art curator she'd queried on the subject. The look on Franco's face remained blank. "It is just one palazzo away from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and across the canal from the Gritti Hotel," she added helpfully.

"Ah, yes," responded Franco. "You know, Woody Allen lives at the Gritti when he's here in Venice."

Signora S. did not know this but tried to arrange her face to look as though she did.

The topic is real estate

Franco continued: "There's been bad fortune with that house. Two people long ago were killed under strange circumstances. More recently, a very rich Italian businessman who bought it killed himself. It's been on the market for years."

Signora S. hung on every word. Unable to remain silent, she blurted out a question: "What do you think Palazzo Dario went for?"

"A few million dollars," he said.

"That little?" said the Signora, aghast. After all, the palace has what every realtor knows is the most important selling point: Location, location, location.

"Some are in bad shape, and it costs so much to keep them up," Franco said. "You don't know what can happen when you buy such an old house."

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