The small, medieval square rang with the laughter of two Venetian children playing soccer with their father. Beneath a lone shade tree, an elderly man sat on a bench, his cane propped up beside him, a newspaper on his lap. He seemed more interested in the goings-on around him than in the paper. Two stories up, a middle-aged woman leaned out her window, hanging her laundry.

Off in one corner of the square, my wife and I sat at a tiny cafe table, basking in the warm sunshine, sipping our cappuccinos and absorbing the local scene. The handful of other cafe patrons looked like residents.Here we were in Venice, in the middle of the summer, and not a tourist in sight.

Five months before, I had wondered if I could beat the high prices, hordes of tourists, and heat and humidity of summertime Venice. In my wife's eyes, our vacation and my reputation as a professional travel writer were at stake.

Leaving the heat and humidity to the weather gods, I attacked the problems of prices and tourists.

Because it would be our first time in Venice, I began with serious research - books (Lonely Planet guides are my favorites), information from friends, family and colleagues, and free materials from the Italian Tourist Board in Los Angeles.

First, I had to find a moderately priced, air-conditioned, comfortable hotel (no hostels this trip). Reportedly, a room overlooking a canal, especially the Grand Canal, would cost around $300 a day - unacceptable to our tight budget.

Cross-checking my literature with various Internet sites, I found five acceptable hotels with rates about $150 a night. E-mailing those with cyberspace addresses and faxing the others, I quickly booked a room overlooking a side canal in the small Hotel Ala ($160 a night, double occupancy, including breakfast).

Now it remained to be seen if the room was worth it, and if we could avoid Venice's infamous summertime crowds.

Arriving at Venice's airport, we found a perfect day - high 80s, cool breeze and a deep blue sky. From our research, we knew if we wanted our first sight of Venice from the water there were two choices: A $50 water taxi right to our hotel; or a $10 motoscafo (motorboat) to St. Mark's Square, then a short walk to a local vaporetto ferry ($18 for a three-day pass), which would drop us near the hotel. Our budget chose the latter.

All thoughts of budgets and money vanished as we neared Venice. Rising out of the pale blue water like a regal mermaid, the city wore a magnificent crown of steeples and spires, domes and towers glistening in the sunshine. Graceful palaces, ancient churches and medieval buildings crowded the shoreline like finely dressed mardi gras revelers at a parade.With no cars, scooters or bicycles allowed, people walk, take water taxis or use public vaporetto ferries.

When the vaporetto landed at our stop, we rolled our bags across the dock and through the only exit - an alley formed by two tall buildings. The passage was so narrow three people couldn't walk abreast, and so dark we could barely see.

Blinking and squinting, we emerged from the other end into a sunlit square that was postcard perfect. Freshly washed cobblestones glistened, a little stone bridge arched over a canal, and a cafe with bright white tablecloths was half full with early afternoon patrons. On one side of this idyllic square was the Hotel Ala - our home for the next three days.

While our room was small by U.S. standards, it was fine for us and overlooked a side canal. In the mornings, with our heavy window shutters thrown open, we heard birds chirping, an occasional dog barking, church bells and the everyday sounds of nearby apartment dwellers - clinking silverware, the beating of rugs out of windows and people speaking Italian.

From such a charming home, we explored Venice. A city built on 118 islands, it boasts more than 400 bridges, 150 canals and 190 churches. With no cars, scooters or bicycles allowed, people walk, take water taxis or use public vaporetto ferries.

The best vaporetto is No. 1, which pulls into every ferry stop along the Grand Canal, giving passengers a million-dollar ride for pennies. Winding through Venice for 21/2 miles, the Grand Canal boasts 200 palaces built from the 12th to 18th centuries. Sporting graceful columns, arches and terraces, the palaces are a magnificent backdrop to a frantic play of ferries and taxis, gondolas and barges that buzz about like a swarm of worker bees.

The bustling canal traffic was nothing, however, compared to the crowds we found aboard the vaporetti. While the canal views were worth the cramped quarters, we were anxious to see if we could find parts of Venice vacant of crowds.It's a Robert Frost kind of place that instantly rewards those who take the streets less traveled.

It was easier than we thought. Most tourists stick to a few locations: St. Mark's Square, the Rialto Bridge, Mercerie Street, which connects the two; and the vicinity of well-known museums such as Ca'd'Oro and the Academy of Fine Arts.

That leaves a lot of city gloriously free of crowds. Because it's a compact island city (about a mile wide by less than two miles long), the crooked medieval streets and alleyways are a walker's paradise. And getting lost is part of the adventure - it's a Robert Frost kind of place that instantly rewards those who take the streets less traveled.

Our two favorite non-tourist walks each took nearly a day to experience, yet we barely scratched the surface. Both started with a vaporetto to the train station, followed by numerous stops at cafes for leisurely snacks, drinks and ambiance absorbing.

The first walk, through the Dorsoduro and San Polo districts, began at the Piazzale Roma (across from the train station) and ended at the Academia Bridge. In between, we wandered like curious puppies up and down tranquil streets that caught our fancy. In San Polo, we "found" the magnificent Scuola of St. Rocco. As the city's finest guild house, it features the massive works of famous Venetian painter Tintoretto. In Dorsoduro, we lingered in the large and rambling Santa Margherita Square, where we watched neighbors leisurely conversing and rarely saw signs of tourists - sneakers, backpacks and cameras.

The other walk began at the train station and meandered through the Cannaregio and Castello districts, finishing at the Naval Museum. Along the way we admired the church at San Giovanni e Paolo, then watched as jovial garbage men with hand carts picked up neatly tied little bags next to each door. Church bells and birds seemed to announce their progress. Taking a moment to listen, we suddenly realized that coming from a large U.S. city, we rarely heard the lilting sound of bells anymore.

When we weren't walking Venice, we were seeing it by water. Besides using the vaporetti, we contemplated an expensive traditional 50-minute gondola ride ($75 and up). From our research, we had learned of the charming local alternative, a traghetto - a gondola that ferries people across the Grand Canal for about 60 cents per person.

Our research also led us to a little-known spot - Scala Contarini del Bovolo. Near St. Mark's, but tucked into a small courtyard at the end of a narrow alley off Manin Square, Scala is a six-story winding staircase built of marble slabs with slender columns and arches. For a few dollars, we walked to the top and found an inspiring view of the city's red-tiled roofs, belltowers, cupolas and church spires.

Out of our three-day stay, we did one "tourist" day, when we ventured reluctantly into crowded areas to see famous sites. Even here, we found ways around the greatest crowds and longest lines.

Leaving the hotel by 8:30 a.m., we were one of the first in line for St. Mark's Cathedral. As we entered, we left most people behind and took the narrow stairs to the right. They led to a second-story museum where we could look down into the basilica, and also get out onto the roof for magnificent views of St. Mark's Square. We shared the rooftop with just a handful of people.

From the cathedral, we took in the overwhelming Doge's Palace, where each room tops the previous one in ornate woodwork, gild and art. Afterward, we shopped with thousands of other tourists around St. Mark's and at the crowded Rialto Bridge.

We ended the day sitting at one of St Mark's famous outdoor cafes. We splurged on a tourist-priced carafe of wine, listened to live classical music, and watched the rays of a golden sunset creep quietly from the square.

Even with the tourists and the inflated prices, it was a magical moment. But we knew we could easily escape the tourists anytime we wanted.

*****

Additional Information

If you go to the `city of sighs'

Getting there: Marco Polo Airport is 12 miles from Venice and is served by Italian and European airlines. Buses and taxis run to Piazzale Roma (across from the train station); water taxis and regular motoscafo (motorboat) service runs directly to the city.

Climate and when to go: Summers are usually hot (80s/90s) and humid; winters can be cold (40s). High season is July-October. Autumn (September and October) and spring (March-May) are usually very mild and the crowds aren't as bad as in summer.

Prices and where to stay: Venice is expensive. Off the beaten track, prices do drop but not by much. A room with a view, air-conditioning and bathroom averages more than $120 per night. The Riva degli Schiavoni (the waterfront avenue next to St. Mark's Square) boasts the finest, and most expensive, hotels and restaurants. The San Marco district is where most international tourists stay. For something different and less expensive, try the Dorsoduro, San Polo or Cannaregio districts. Recommended for location and price: the 87-room Hotel Ala (high-season: a canal view, double room, including breakfast, $160 per night). Tipping: 10-20 percent for good service. Check to see whether it was added to your bill.

Clothing: Venetians are always well dressed. Sneakers, shorts and T-shirts are frowned upon in nicer restaurants. In most churches, shorts for both men and women are considered improper. Women should also cover their bare shoulders.

Information: Italian Government Tourist Board in Los Angeles, 310-820-0098.