Photo: tourists gondolas canal Venice

Gondola rides along the canal are a signature attraction of Venice for Lovers.

Photograph by Daniele Dainelli, Contrasto/Redux

By Don George

November 2008

Book of the Month:
Venice for Lovers, by Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein

Every city has its own character and appeal, but the character of Venice seems especially alluring. Partly it's because the city is so ethereal, a place of palace, bridge, and dome but especially of water and the kind of weightlessness that shimmering mirror-surface confers. Partly it is the play of grandeur and decay, testament to man's highest ideals and the mortal mutability at their base. And partly it is the separateness of the place—a lagoon-city rustically cut off from the mainland yet home to exquisite art and industry, a place that in its very singularity can feel like a fairy tale or a dream.

All these qualities have attracted writers for centuries, so much so that a 21st-century writer might feel that there is simply nothing new to say. But happily, as Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein illustrate so richly in their new book,Venice for Lovers, if you embrace Venice wholeheartedly, experience it keenly and grow to know it like a lover, La Serenissima will yield new insights and rewards.

Novelist Begley and biographer Muhlstein live in New York, but they have been faithfully visiting Venice for a fortnight every year for the past three decades, and over that time it has become a second home. Their homage to that adopted home is presented as a triptych. In the first part, "The Keys to Venice," Muhlstein takes us into four restaurants that have become their habitual dining rooms and introduces restaurateurs who present a four-cornered collage of the city's history, culinary art, entrepreneurial ambition, and personal warmth. In the second part, "The Only Way to Enter Venice," Begley weaves the tale of a young man who journeys to Venice in pursuit of an older woman—and ends up falling in love with the city instead. In the third part, "Venice: Reflections of a Novelist," Begley expertly unfolds the ways in which three great fiction writers—Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann—have employed the city's inimitable qualities in their work.

This multi-perspective portrait is refreshing and delightful. Begley and Muhlstein manage to combine in one volume the innocent ardor of a first-time visitor and the seasoned appreciation of longtime lovers. Reading their accounts brought me immediately back to my own most recent trip to Venice last spring, when I discovered on Torcello an astonishingly delicious restaurant called Osteria Al Ponte del Diavolo (in a lovingly refurbished 17th-century fisherman's home), and managed once again to get happily lost late at night in Venice itself, wandering into a still-open mask-maker's shop, passing the occasional bar illumined by lamplight and singing, stopping to savor the watery symphony-slap of canal on gondola, and wondering what century I had stumbled into—exhilarated to know that Venice offers undiscovered treasures still.

New Book Roundups:

Grand Tour of Europe
Novelist Shirley Hazzard presents her literary impressions of another Italian city in The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples, which includes an essay by biographer Francis Steegmuller. In Everything But the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain, British novelist John Barlow tastes chorizo, pork stew, and more unfamiliar dishes during his one-year quest through Galicia, Spain, to eat every single part of the regionally revered pig. New Yorker Mark Greenside goes to Brittany, France, for the summer with his girlfriend, mutually breaks up with her before the summer is halfway over, and ends up unexpectedly buying a house in I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do). Authors such as Franz Kafka and Elfriede Jelinek write with an insider's knowledge about the city in the latest anthology in the Traveler's Literary Companion series, Vienna.

In the Clouds
The photo book African Air, from National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz, is a compilation of ten years of work in Africa. Most of the photos were taken from his motorized paraglider while flying all over the African continent, from Cape Town to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Another photo book with a lofty view, Above All: Mount Whitney and California's Highest Peaks—with photographs by David Stark Wilson, text by Steve Roper, and a foreword by Kenneth Brower—captures images of California's "Fourteeners," mountains over 14,000 feet.

Reading Matchmaker: If You Like...

...Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography check out his latest, Thames: Sacred River. Anglophiles loved the hefty London for its exhaustive lists and anecdotal minutiae; the same attention to detail enlivens this tome about a river only 215 miles long but overflowing with history.

One Last Thing: Pilgrim's Guide to the Planet

I have long believed that every journey is a pilgrimage. It's not so much about where you're going but the reverence with which you go—the openheartedness, respect, and sense of the sacred in the everyday that you bring to the world. This same spirit is embodied in National Geographic's new coffee table book, Sacred Places of a Lifetime. The 500 entries in this 400-page tome range from sacred landscapes and megaliths to religious landmarks and shrines, to festivals, cemeteries, and retreats; each place has a description explaining the significance of the site and offering tips for travelers. This lavish and imaginative book opened my eyes to the vast span of sacred places on our planet—and inspired plans for pilgrimages to come.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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