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Getting Lost and Special Finds in Venice

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By Fyllis Hockman- Walking home to our apartment in Venice, we shared a wave through the window with the owner of Baba, our local osteria. Leaving for a day of sightseeing, I found a cup of my favorite pistachio gelato awaiting me despite the early hour. At the Bar Dugole we relaxed at the end of the day and ordered the regular: vodka for my husband and Amaretto for me. And we sat and watched everyone else in Venice try to figure out where the heck they were. But more on that later.

Welcome to Untours, a wonderful well-kept secret that may change your concept of travel forever. The program offers tourists the opportunity to not be tourists. Serving close to two dozen European countries, Untours inundates you with information, puts you up in unusual accommodations, provides whatever transportation is necessary to get around and voila! You are a local. And yes, that works in Italian as well as French.

We were learning about our neighborhood, but on our terms. Rise early or sleep in. Sightsee or stroll around town. Cook in or eat out. And whatever the choice, we returned to our apartment, a much roomier and warmer ambience than any hotel would provide. The orientation told us where to get the best produce, meat, fish, pastries and of course, wine and gelato. The aforementioned shop was just coincidentally directly next door to our apartment.

Our favorite local discovery? The Filler-Up Wine Shop. Bring in any empty bottle and fill it with the wine of your choice for $2.50 to $4 a bottle — less than you would pay for a glass at a local trattoria. What a terrific way to recycle empty water bottles!

Venice is an old city that shows its age. The water-logged foundations date back to the 11th century; the newer building facades are as recent as the 15th. So many buildings are stripped of paint and plaster on both sides of a small alleyway that I expected them to crumble before my eyes until I reminded myself they have looked pretty much the same for more than 500 years.

We were immediately transformed into another world filled with canals, gondolas, water buses, cobbled streets, alleyways, bridges and cafes. Picture every mode of transportation that makes any city run – buses, taxis, fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, postal services, FedEx deliveries, garbage pickups — but they’re all boats. And the city still runs.

Expect to get lost. And thank goodness because that is the best way to explore the city and find those gems that are not part of the major tourist itineraries.

Among those gems is Pinocchio Island, home to a local Geppetto whose real name is Roberto Comin, maker of magical marionettes. These brilliant little string creatures that represent all aspects of Venetian historical and theatrical culture have been lovingly produced by Comin for 25 years in a workshop more than 350 years old. Requests now come in for characters from Shakespeare to Cleopatra and yes, a Johnny Depp look-alike that was given to the actor for his birthday. The costumes rival the intricacy and elegance of any Medici gown or regal accessory. Want a marionette doppelganger of yourself? It’s doable, but it’ll cost you about $600.

Another unusual find, especially surprising in such a Catholic city, home to well over 100 churches, is a small square that is actually referred to as Ghetto Campo de Nova, where there are five synagogues, several kosher restaurants and residents sporting traditional Jewish skull caps known as yarmulkes. The kosher menus include antipasto and spaghetti as well as bagels and potato latkes. Talk about an ecumenical meal. With a little imagination you could be in Israel.

Getting lost is a given — did I mention that? People spend as much time looking up at the signs designating different sections, squares and churches of the city as they do looking down at maps, phones and GPSes. My favorite response from a young street vendor: “Go right over the next bridge, then ask someone else.” And then when you don’t think things can get any worse, you see the sign you’ve been searching for and it points in both directions. I thought about giving up and going home, but I had no clue how to get there.

We wandered everywhere, sitting at cafes to eat or drink wine, always aware of how little English we heard – again reinforcing the idea of living like a local. And the more we wandered, the more enjoyable the discoveries: a delightful mask store, street musicians in jeans playing Vivaldi, an out-of-the-way Leonardo DaVinci Museum.

Not every stop in Venice is off the beaten path. There’s the de rigueur visit to Piazza San Marco, a World Heritage Site and symbol of the city. If you want to avoid tourists, don’t go there. But one of the reasons they’re there is the pigeons. In my 19-year-old memory the square was covered with them. Decades later my first thought was, “Where are all the pigeons?” Then I saw them. “Oh yes, over there by that guy with all the bird food.”

The island of Murano, world famous for its glass figurines, jewelry and home decor since the 11th century, is a must destination if you want to be absolutely sure you’re buying Murano glass and not a knockoff. A factory visit offers insight into how the glass is made, the colors created, the intricacies of the designs and the skills of the master glass-blowers. It makes you better appreciate the high prices you then encounter in the gift shops — sort of.

I was amazed at the intricate convoluted shapes in colors so vibrant and translucent that the light passing through intensified the whole experience. I wanted to decorate my whole house with cups, vases, dishes and elaborately designed decorative pieces, but I settled for a pair of earrings.

As we exited the vaporetto at Lido, the beachfront community, we were transported to yet another era, that of a modern beach town with merchants hawking flip-flops, beach toys and sunglasses. And then I saw a bus! One with actual wheels. Dorothy, you’re not in Venice anymore: a wide sand beach with crowded umbrellas and chaise lounges on one side and isolated blankets on the other, also large elegant hotels that front the tree-laden boulevards with greenery everywhere, a color sorely lacking in the squares and alleyways of Venice. It was a fun diversion, but I was so happy to get back home and pick up some Branzini from the fish market in Santa Margherita Square along with a water bottle full of wine from the Filler-Up shop.

Perhaps that’s the essence of the Untour experience. There’s something more special about discovering such treasures on your own rather than being herded there as part of a group according to a predetermined schedule that dictates how long you can spend looking before it hurries you through because the bus is leaving to go to the next stop.

It was so much nicer just to pick up some fresh fish, wave to shopkeepers we had befriended and return home to sit on our porch, sip yet another glass of wine and savor our most recent exploits. No one has really ever been irretrievably lost in Venice, but if so, how lucky for them. They’re still there!

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