The real part of town

A new pair of shoes is just perfect for wandering into the Other Venice, the part missed by the average tourist

July 21, 1999|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VENICE -- Fashion is a cruel mistress, never more so than when one is traveling. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that most tourists -- with the possible exception of the late Grace Kelly -- never have the right wardrobe, regardless of how carefully they pack.

It is not just a matter of weather-preparedness and comfort; it is also the letdown one feels upon arriving in a stylish city such as Venice only to find oneself hopelessly out-of-fashion.

At least this has been the experience of one American in Venice -- we shall call her Signora S. -- who sits now trying on shoes in a trendy shop called Prada. It is the kind of shop, she notes, where most customers have no hope of ever attaining the glossy perfection of its salesclerks, all of whom resemble models or movie stars. For some reason, the signora feels slightly intimidated among these gods and goddesses.

Still, she brings with her a secret weapon: Signora S. knows that shoes are the most democratic of all fashions. Unlike form-fitting capri pants and tiny sweater sets, shoes do not care if you are a size 4 or a size 16. Thanks to this equalizing factor, shoes are the one article of clothing that the signora is able to try on with her usual aplomb.

"Ah, signora, they fit your feet like gloves!" says the divinissima-looking salesman as he slips onto Signora S.'s feet a pair of sporty, black Prada shoes with red stripes on the heels. He studies them. "It is the stripe that makes it Prada!" he says enthusiastically.

Signora S. loves the way Italians talk in exclamation marks! It makes everything sound fresh and exciting! "Si, si, si!" she responds. Standing up, she takes a few steps away from the safety of her chair.

"Bella, signora!" the salesclerk says. "Bellissima!"

The shoes are sort of darlingissima! thinks Signora S. "Quanto costa?" she asks, surprising even herself with the fact that she is not only speaking in Italian but thinking in it as well! The price quoted by the clerk is in the hundreds of thousands of lire! The signora's face, however, registers no shock. By now she has learned that almost everything in Italy comes with a five- or six-digit lire price, and that it is never as bad as it sounds.

"It is our last pair in black!" the salesman says, hoping perhaps to close the deal. Obviously, he does not know Signora S.; otherwise he would know she is not one to be swayed by such a sales pitch.

"I'll take them!" says the signora, after thinking it over carefully for a second or two. She hands the clerk her carto di credito, telling him she will wear the new shoes out of the shop. "They are perfect for the long walk ahead of me!" she tells him, even though he discreetly feigns disinterest in the signora's future life.

No matter. There will be many others interested in her plan to walk from one end to the other of the district known as Dorsoduro. Waiters, for example, will be eager to listen -- not to mention hotel concierges and tourists she meets along the way.

Dorsoduro, one of Venice's six sestieri, or districts, lies on the left bank of the Grand Canal, across from the district of San Marco. It is Signora S.'s favorite sestieri. Why, just yesterday she was overheard speaking at length on Dorsoduro to a couple she met at breakfast on the hotel terrace:

"Why do I love Dorsoduro above all other sestieri? Because it is part of the Other Venice -- a neighborhood removed from the crowded tourism of Piazza San Marco and the Rialto. Si, si, Dorsoduro has its own tourist attractions, such as the art collections at the Accademia Gallery and at Peggy Guggenheim's palazzo, but it's where you'll find real Venetians going about their daily routines."

Friend of dogs

The mention of Peggy Guggenheim reminded Signora S. of how the eccentric American art collector enjoyed taking her beloved dogs for rides in her private gondola. "Because of this the Venetians affectionately called her la dogaressa -- which means `the lady Doge,' " she told her new found friends. The signora had much more to say on the subject but the young couple -- honeymooners, no doubt -- seemed eager to be on their way.

Now, wearing her new black Prada shoes, the American signora is on her way to Dorsoduro. She could take the traghetta -- a gondola that crosses the Grand Canal -- or the vaporetto, but she prefers to walk. This takes more time, but the route to the Accademia Bridge, where she will cross the canal, has always been a favorite of the signora's.

She particularly loves a short lane, Calle Spezier, that runs between Campo San Maurizio and Campo Santo Stefano, one of the largest and liveliest squares in Venice. Signora S. nevers walks through Calle Spezier without stopping at Marchini's, a deliciousissima pastry shop. At Marchini's she always buys, as she does now, a bucellato -- a fig-and-nut concoction baked in the shape of a bagel.

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