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Regatta time on the Grand Canal

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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.

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.

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