Quel posto è mio. "That is my seat." There you go, that makes it two phrases of Italian I can use in everyday life, if you include vafanculo. Although when there's a guy on the Milan to Venice train occupying your reserved seat and refusing to budge, either phrase seems to be appropriate. In fact, it turns out that our compartment is packed with interlopers taking up all six reserved seats: but with the help of the jolly Australian party who'd booked the remaining four, we eventually manage to eject them all using a combination of broken Italian and hand signals. The guy who was hogging my seat sits grumpily in the passageway outside the compartment for the whole journey, leaving his luggage in there with us. "Let's see what food he's got in his bag," suggests one of the Aussies.
I've been fairly coy about the planned route for our European tour, but it's not giving too much away to reveal that Italy is the only country where we're making two stops rather than one. The contrast between Milan and Venice is a rather spectacular one, of course. The main impression of the Milanese I took away was this: very friendly and welcoming to tourists, incredibly stylish and cultured, but for God's sake who allowed these people to drive? By the end of the two days, we were using the red light on pedestrian crossings as the signal to cross, because you seemed to have a lower risk of being run over than when the traffic was theoretically being told to stop.
No need to worry about that sort of thing in a city totally devoid of motor traffic. And when you first land, the sudden feeling of calm in what's still a bustling metropolis takes a while to get used to. But The Belated Birthday Girl complains that even after two days there, Venice somehow doesn't seem real, and I think I know what she means. Steven Wright used to have a wonderful line about how he'd regularly go on holiday to Disneyland, but always made a point of avoiding the more touristy areas. Trying to do that in Venice would be a similarly doomed exercise: the whole place feels geared entirely towards catering for visitors, there's no real sense of people living and working here in any other context.
And when you're in a place so aggressively targeted at tourists, your tourist paranoia kicks in big time, so you start suspecting that everyone's trying to rip you off. It could be the fake handbag sellers working the streets at night. (I love the way that, for example, the fake Gucci bags are sold from a pitch actually outside the real Gucci shop.) It could be the restaurant trade in Piazza San Marco, where tourist quality meals are sold at price levels literally up there with the best restaurant in Milan (that's the best restaurant in Milan). Or it could be the guys in the same square repeatedly shining laser pointers at your feet, until you don't know whether they're trying to sell you a laser pointer, or using it to indicate potential targets to muggers. At one point on Accademia Bridge I accidentally drop my wallet on the ground, and I swear I hear the chase music from 24 start up in my head.
Which is totally unfair, because despite all this paranoia we don't encounter any trouble in Venice at all. As in all the other cities we've visited so far, everyone's perfectly delightful to you, especially if you make some sort of token attempt at communicating in their own language. Our hotel for this leg is the Ca'Pisani just off Accademia: it isn't quite as overly designed as Kube in Paris or Straf in Milan, but everything's there in just the right place, with a few charming touches to make it stand out. For example, your room key is a large wooden fish (the hotel's logo) with a magnetic insert. So as we've had to use fingers to open the doors in Kube, and fish to open them in Ca'Pisani, I'm hoping one of the other hotels will have keys made out of fish fingers. Or something.
Apparently no-one rates the food in Venice particularly highly. Based on the evidence of the past two days, this seems rather unfair. Sure, there isn't the equivalent of Milan's Cracco-Peck there (though we've heard good things about Da Fiore, holder of a measly one Michelin star compared to Cracco-Peck's two). But there are plenty of small interesting places dotted around between the obvious tourist haunts, taking advantage of all the fresh fish and seafood that arrives daily into the Rialto market. You can spend a hugely enjoyable morning wandering round that market for yourself, but take care that you're not distracted by the stalls selling souvenir tat all around it. (My favourite souvenir purchase to date - and my sister should look away now if she wants to keep it a surprise - is Calendario Romano, a calendar featuring twelve pictures of sexy young priests, with accompanying notes on the history of the Vatican.)
Nothing against the obvious tourist haunts, of course - hey, we stopped off at Harry's Bar for a Bellini the same way that everyone else does, and took pleasure from watching the barman die a little behind the eyes every time someone strolled in and demanded one. But you want to find somewhere that the guidebooks don't mention, and discover it for yourself. To that end, The BBG asked her fencing chum Francesca, a native Venetian, for a few hints. Her first suggestion was to visit Fondamenta della Misericordia in Cannaregio, which has several eateries fairly close to one another. We peek in the windows of a few of them and eventually settle on Ostaria da Rioba, a rather good little family-run place. The food's perfectly fine and the atmosphere's lovely, and I'm somewhat ashamed with myself when we find out that not only is it in our Lonely Planet Best Of Venice guidebook, it's even marked on its map. Pah! Call that a discovery?
Francesca's second recommendation, Corte Sconta, is also in the guidebooks, but the one thing they all tell you is that it's a cow to find: "take the vaporetto to Arsenale then wander around a bit" seems to be the general instruction they give. Using Francesca's notes and a little bit of internet detective work, The BBG eventually comes up with what turns out to be a foolproof set of directions to the restaurant. Like many places in Venice, seafood is the speciality at Corte Sconta, and for the first time in Italy we decide to go for antipasto. The appetiser turns out to be an enormous selection of seafood, presented in four separate servings, and all utterly delicious. By the time we've had that and a (technically) first course of black spaghetti with scallops, there's barely room for anything else, though I just manage to squeeze in a lovely tiramisu. It's easily our best meal in Venice, and once you've worked out how to get there there's no reason why you can't enjoy it too.
The third and final thing that Francesca suggests is more of an idea than an actual restaurant. Remember the tradition of the aperitivo that they have in Milan? Well, the Venice equivalent is the spritz, which also involves drinking in a bar after work with free nibbles. It's a much girlier event than the aperitivo, though: the drink of choice (the spritz itself) is a mixture of Campari, soda and prosecco, while the nibbles are limited to crisps, popcorn and crudites - you couldn't make an evening meal out of hopping between a couple of bars doing this. But on the evidence of the place we visited for spritz - Le Cafe in Campo San Stefano - it's a much more sociable affair than the Milan aperitivo. People are meeting up and chatting to each other at these things, rather than just using it as an excuse for drinking in ones and twos. There are theoretically several bars in San Stefano where this takes place, though Le Cafe was the only one where we saw it happening to any great degree: still, it's worth exploring to find others.
So is Venice just too much of a tourist destination to allow you to discover a restaurant that hasn't already been picked to death by Lonely Planet et al? Possibly, unless you luck out like we did and find a place that's only been open for less than a year. Taverna San Lio (on Salizada San Lio in Castello) used to be a standard pizzeria, but a change in management has taken the menu into much more interesting areas. We go there for dinner a few hours after our lunch at Corte Sconta, and at least one of us is defeated by the sheer size and quality of the portions on offer: the mixed fish platter is almost as tall as The BBG's head, while my seabass comes baked in an enormous salt crust that draws gasps of wonder from the people on the table next to us. (Not from me, sadly, as two nights earlier I'd seen Cracco-Peck pull off the same stunt with a fish baked in a chocolate crust.) Taverna San Lio stands out from its more traditional neighbours on the street with its cool modern design, and the food matches up to the look. Go there before it starts turning up in the guidebooks.
Venice is a feast for the eyes as well as the tum, of course. It's as relentlessly lovely as you'd imagine from the pictures you've seen - as an experiment, I'd regularly just hold my cameraphone out and take a photo of whatever was in front of me, and the result always looked beautiful (providing you can see past the surprisingly pervasive graffiti on most of the walls). And once you've worked out the basic rules of the vaporetto water bus service, you can spend endless hours pottering around from place to place on a reasonably priced all-day ticket. Although just wandering the streets and seeing where you end up is a pleasure too: Venice isn't that big a place, and you're never too far away from a sign pointing you in the direction of one of the major landmarks, so you can never really get totally lost.
There are several places worth visiting if you're looking for collections of art, but in the two days or so we have allocated to this city there's very little we can actually fit into the time. But one of Francesca's non-food recommendations was to see the Madonna dell'Orto church, and it turns out to be a detour well worth making. It's a fine-looking Gothic building in its own right, but what separates it from the other churches in town is the stunning collection of religious art it's acquired over the centuries. Pride of place goes to the enormous Tintoretto pieces on either side of the altar, depicting the veneration of the golden calf and the last judgement: conveniently, the painter's crypt is located just to the side of the altar, so you can pay your respects once you've marvelled at his work. But there are plenty of other magnificent pieces of art to be seen inside the church, including a rather apocalyptic depiction of the crucifixion whose only downside is that I forgot to make a note of who painted it.
For me, though, the art highlight of Venice is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It turns out to be the highlight for The BBG as well, who approves of the modern art of the first half of the 20th century, preferring it to "all that installation bollocks" I drag her along to these days. And you can see her point: it's a period when you can visibly see artists suddenly realising they can do anything, and revelling in their new-found freedom, rather than taking it for granted. It's that sort of attitude that Guggenheim herself obviously relished, and which informed the choices of artworks she purchased as she built this collection. Aside from the pieces themselves, there are some splendid photos of Guggenheim relaxing in her various residences, always accompanied by her various artworks and her various dogs. As a caniphobe, The BBG is particularly comforted by the idea of Guggenheim being buried alongside her 'babies' in the gallery's sculpture garden: fourteen dead dogs is the sort of installation she can appreciate.
That sculpture garden could probably justify the 10 Euro admission fee on its own, containing as it does several dozen works from all the acknowledged masters of the age: from Henry Moore to Jenny Holzer, even including an olive tree planted by Yoko Ono as a memorial to Guggenheim. But the main gallery itself is equally impressive, as Guggenheim shows time and again how she had her finger on the pulse of all the key modern art movements. And alongside that you get a larger-than-expected temporary exhibition: when we visit it's a collection of works by the American Richard Pousette-Dart, whose vibrant use of bright colour and thick black outlines make for a very satisfying show. (Although the image chosen for the Pousette-Dart exhibition posters, featuring a series of concentric circles, does make you wonder if he gave his name to the concept of the dart board.) All in all, the Guggenheim is a beautifully selected collection: not too big as to be overwhelming, but big enough to be an inspiring afternoon out in a city that's already pretty damn inspiring itself.
(And before you ask, no, we didn't catch a movie in Venice. The number of cinemas in the city is very small, and we'd already seen virtually everything they were showing. The plan was one film per country, remember? We're still on target, trust me.)