Regatta time on the Grand Canal

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

No wonder Napoleon called San Marco Square ''the world's most beautiful salon.'' At sunset, as we sit at a table at Florian's in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, the sun bounces gold arrows off the glittering dome of San Marco. Across the square the Quadri cafe orchestra has started to play the theme music from ''A Chorus Line,'' while behind us, the Florian orchestra is playing ''The Blue Danube'' (that's a 1,800 lira music charge on the bill). Off in the distance the Doges' Palace looks like a wedding-cake palazzo, missing only the bride and groom.

To me, Venice is storybook Europe, a place where reality turns into fantasy, where doges and contessas air their tapestries on the balconies of their palazzi and wave to friends in passing gondolas. Where somehow ordinary people still manage to live and thrive in the narrow medieval streets.

It is also for me the symbol of the feast-and-famine Italy I love - a country where luxury and hardship intertwine, where the rich and the poor mingle, where a traveler can choose to spend a fortune or a pittance - the perfect place, in short, for what I call a feast-and-famine tour. At least, that was the original plan.

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Having at various times in the past visited most of the great cities, sampled most of the great museums and palazzi, this was to be a journey of pure pleasure to places I had been and loved and to a few places I had never visited. The feasts would be a long regatta weekend in Venice at the Gritti Palace hotel at the start and then a climactic four days at the incredible San Pietro Hotel near Positano. Reservations for both hotels were secured, so the feasts, so to speak, were assured. In between would be various hill towns, where we would travel without reservations. Would we find hardship and perhaps even famine, theoretically speaking?

Before I summarize the itinerary, let me admit that I have experienced both feast and famine in Italy in the past. I must admit that I prefer the feasts. Early on in this trip, after accepting some rooms without bath and suffering the indignity of waiting on bathroom lines, then experiencing one inexpensive hotel that offered a shower in the room (it was a nozzle in the ceiling), I rationalized that at this stage of my life I have earned a private bathroom - and I gave up cheap hotels for the remainder of the voyage.

A quick rundown of the trip: a flight to Venice via Rome (both Alitalia and TWA will fly you to Venice for the same price as a ticket to Rome); four days at the Gritti Palace, then a car picked up at the central garage in Venice and a drive south with stays in various hill towns; on to the Abruzzi and a stopover on the east coast of Italy; across southern Italy through the trulli country; then a four-day stay in Positano and on to the Rome airport, where the car was abandoned.

If you are planning a trip to Venice, remember that Regata Storica is the first Sunday in September. The Grand Canal is filled with all sorts of river boats, whose crews dress in glorious costumes as they compete against each other. Occupants of palazzi often display their tapestries and banners on the railings of their balconies. It is Venice at its most colorful. Recently the regatta has come at the same time as the film festival and, on alternate years, the biennial art festival. So, if you plan to go next year, expect crowds. And, if you want a room at one of the top hotels, you had better book now. However, Venice is filled with lovely pensions and smaller hotels, at rates from $15-$50 a night, which often have space when the larger hotels are booked solid. The red Michelin guide to Italy is your best bet - if a hotel or pension is not listed there, there's probably something wrong with it.

On this trip, it was decided from the start that money was not to be a factor and the world-renowned Gritti, a 15th-century doge's palace, was the choice. Despite its more recent celebrity guests (Hemingway and Elizabeth Taylor, among others), it has managed to maintain its 16th-century charm, interlaced with many 20th-century amenities. Our luxurious high-ceiling room on the Grand Canal was furnished with Empire antiques and boasted an all-marble bathroom. The bill was around $225 a night, but that includes breakfast.

The arrival in Venice was spectacular, because the Ciga Hotel chain, which owns the Gritti, has its own motor boats at the airport and, if you are a guest, they pile your bags into a boat and zoom you across the lagoon to the Gritti's private dock entrance.

At breakfast the next morning, our waiter informed us that the Gritti would have a pranzo e rinfresco tradizionale for regatta afternoon - a traditional luncheon on the terrace overlooking the Grand Canal so the entire regatta could be viewed comfortably. The menu: Bresavola Gritti Palace (thinly sliced raw beef), Cannelloni alla Sorrentina (the pasta course), Branzino in Bellavista (a delicious local fish), Tournedos Rossini (steak), Souffle Diaccio (dessert). The price: 120,000 lire (around $80) a person. A bargain, considering the fact that grandstand seats in other key positions were selling for as much as $70.

Of course, the waves of boats passed quickly, often in the midst of a delicious course, so I have a more vivid picture of the cannelloni than of the regatta itself.

SECOND HALF OF STORY IS IN QITAL1.

Other fine restaurants where we dined during our Venice feast were Harry's Bar and the Antico Martini. Aside from the crowds of movie people from the Lido, the major attraction at Harry's Bar was a deliciously malicious-looking concoction called ''black rice'' - squids and their ink in rice. A full dinner at Harry's Bar, rated as one of the best restaurants in Venice, comes to around

It was time to leave the feast of Venice. In New York I had reserved a car with Hertz International. I needed an automatic transmission, and the only automatic available was a Ford Grenada with air conditioning. So I confirmed and reconfirmed that reservation before I left New York. But in Venice, when I called Hertz, I was told they did not have any automatic for me. Only after I informed them that I was a travel writer and that I would report this incident truthfully did the firm come through with a Ford Granada.

The plan called for a few days of sightseeing in the hill towns around Florence, Perugia, and Siena. We stayed at a charming little hotel right off the main square of Orvieto, the Virgilio, where we luxuriated in a little bandbox of a $25 room, which actually looked out on the fabulously lit 13th-and 14 th-century cathedral. From Orvieto, we took a number of day trips to such nearby towns as Gubbio, Assisi, and Viterbo.

Since we were anxious to get on down to the Abruzzi area, we decided to start using the autostrade (expressways), which we soon discovered were lovely roads with much more interesting scenery than the regular highways, which tended to pass through mainly industrial areas.

On the Adriatic coast, we stopped for a night in the middle-class seaside resort of Pesaro, the birthplace of the composer Rossini. We had been told that the Da Carlo al Mare is one of the best seafood restaurants on the whole Adriatic coast. It was excellent: Our meal of figs with prosciutto and barbecued prawns came to around $12 a person.

We were tempted to stay on, but it was time to move into the Abruzzi massif, one of the least-traveled areas of Italy. It is an official refuge for wildlife, with a huge national park covering a great deal of the area. As we drove through the mountain villages, we were charmed to find authentic hill towns without boutiques. Real people lived, worked, and skied in the area. Many of the older women still dressed in long black native dresses.

About two miles outside of the town of Scanno, on what seems to be a small crater lake, we discovered the Hotel del Lago. There, for around $30 we had a lovely double room, dinner, and breakfast before we pushed on up the mountain to Scanno. It was a Sunday, and there was a church memorial service in the main piazza in honor of the war dead. It was difficult to realize that the dead they mourned had fought against us in World War II.

Then it was time to head across southern Italy with a stop at the famous trulli district of weird white domed houses. Alberobello, around 30 miles north of Taranto, is in the heart of trulli country, and we felt we had left Italy behind as soon as we arrived in what appeared to be a whitewashed African village, overflowing with souvenir stands and shops inside trulli buildings. The residents, who appeared no different than other residents of southern Italy, invited tourists inside buildings to see the interior and, perhaps, to buy some ugly factory-made artifacts. The trulli heritage stems from prehistoric Saracen and Christian civilizations, and the area is a national monument. Too bad the commercialism couldn't have been held down.

Enroute to the Amalfi coast, we stopped in Paestum to see the remains of the 6th-century Greek colony there. The Temple of Neptune, right off the main road, is one of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world.

Then it was on to the final festive stop on the trip: the Hotel San Pietro. As you drive a few kilometers past Positano on the Amalfi drive, off to the right you can spot a tiny 15th-century church - San Pietro. We pulled off the road, because there seemed to be cars parked there, and discovered that we had arrived at the entrance. The hotel is almost impossible to see from the road unless you know what you are looking for.

A bellhop led us to a lift, which took us down a few hundred feet to the reception area of the hotel, carved out of the rock. It was huge, open on all sides, with bougainvillea, oleander, and roses growing from every ledge outside and creeping inside as well to hang from the roof.

Our room a few steps down was simple but immaculately clean, furnished with local peasant pieces. And, of course, the terrace - every room at the San Pietro has a private terrace, large enough for sunbathing and breakfasting. The terraces have views of the Mediterranean, Positano, and Praiano.

Rates for suites run from around $300 to $500 a day; double rooms go for around $150 to $200, depending upon season. Meals are about $25 a person, and it is possible to take demipension at some saving.

Afternoon excursions are possible from the San Pietro. We made an especially interesting trip to the Hotel Palumbo, an old palazzo in Ravello where it is said JFK and Jacqueline spent some time. It has a fantastic scenic open-air diningroom. You can walk off the superb lunch in the ravishing gardens of the Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo.

The feast was coming to an end. It was time to go home. But where was the famine? Perhaps another time - but don't hold me to it. Practical information

Both the Gritti Palace and the San Pietro have US representatives. Book the Gritti through Ciga Hotels, (212) 935-9540 or (800) 221-2340. Book the San Pietro through E & M Associates, (212) 755-7220 or (800) 223-9832.

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