Italy: It’s About the Food (2000)

Venitian Holiday

You can never spend too much time in Paris, but sometimes a change of venue is a good idea too. An itinerary across Northern Italy, starting in Milan and ending in Venice presented itself as a most pleasant way to spend a week in the fall. While airfare to Italy is more expensive than France, the benefits of climate and food offset the expense.

We selected our hotels from guide books and, increasingly, web sites, and Andrew booked most of them via email and fax. We planned our itinerary to focus on the smaller towns, avoiding anything larger than Mantua, except for Venice.

I started a new contract job during the week before the trip, so by the time we met a JFK on Friday afternoon I was fairly exhausted. I thought I was tired enough to sleep on the flight . . .

“I’m Reading the First One”: New York to Mantua

On our Delta flight out of JFK, my seatmate is a man with a Harry Potter volume in his lap. By way of greeting, I ask which one he’s reading.

“The fourth one. The brick,” he replies, referring to it’s heft. “It’s definitely the best. The first one was not that good, I mean, the first half you were meeting the characters and all, but the second half, why bother?”

I mumbled something about having only read the first one so far.

“Well they get progressively better. I’d say you could almost skip the first one.”

I offer that the writer is bound to get better, it was, after all, her first novel.

“I plan to drink and pass out on this flight,” he offers. I get the hint. But he goes on, “this is the second leg of a 17 hour trip, and I’m going to have to do a full day of work in Milan.”

“Where did you start from?”

“San Francisco.”

Andrew, sitting across the aisle, pipes in then, “what do you do that you have to work on Saturday when you arrive?”

My seatmate looks sheepish. “I’m a wine writer.”

Andrew and I guffaw, and express mock saddness over his work schedule, a response he’s obviously accustomed to.

Andrew asks where we might have read his reviews.

“You wouldn’t have. I write for very small-circulation publications.”

“For wine buyers and restaurants?” Andrew asks.

Our first cafe, in Mantua.

“Yes, and collectors.”

I, and probably Andrew too, are a little put off by his assumption that we have no exposure to the publications he writes for. The fact that we haven’t is irrelevant.

Busts line the inner wall of a loggia in the Palazzo Te.

We go on to discuss wine with him, Andrew holding up our end very nicely. At least I assume so since, contrary to his assertion, my seat mate did not immediately order lots of liquor and go to sleep. Unfortunately. As the flight glides on and I try to achieve that boneless relaxed state that’s impossible in an airplane seat, but necessary for sleep, he keeps fidgeting. While during the meal and movie we have no interaction, once I try to doze, his elbow is constantly in my ribs. After our initial conversation, during which he offers tips on good grappa and vinegar to look for, our only other verbal contact are his observation about the movie, “Insipid,” and his comment, at the end of the flight, that his plan to sleep failed. Mine too.

Our bags arrive. Always an promising beginning for a trip. The car rental cubicle is hot, stuffy, and crowded with other tourists who have vastly more luggage than we do. And lots more questions. We finally get our car and follow directions to the parking lot. We find our little VW parked on the street outside the lot. The outskirts of Milan blur past the windows as I drive us straight to Mantua. As we get close, I’m get more and more drowsy. I try all the tricks: window open wide, window closed and fan on, radio on loud. I’m about to give up and ask Andrew to take over when we reach the outskirts of Mantua.

The lobby of our hotel in Mantua is decorated with reproductions of the frescoes we’ll see in the city’s Palazzo.

Once off the boring highway I’m revived enough to navigate the medieval streets. We don’t have the hotel’s address, only that it’s in the historic center of town. So we follow the signs to the historic center (“centro”). When we’ve blundered into a square full of parked cars, a restaurant, and a construction barrier hiding a crane, we stop. Andrew asks the proprietress of the restaurant for directions. She sends us down a narrow lane that, we shortly find, is blocked at the far end by stone pilings. Beyond them lies a busy, medieval square.

Mantuan architecture.

I back the car up the lane and Andrew goes back to the restaurant. This time the proprietress phones the hotel and speaks with someone who she seems to know. Elaborate directions that take us out and around the edge of the “centro” are provided and we’re able to follow them, coming at last to the front of the hotel on the edge of the square. We’d been very close, but for the barrier!

Andrew goes back down to put the car in the garage. Upon returning he says, “I hope you enjoyed driving that car, because you aren’t going to have another chance.”

“Why?” I wonder if he could possibly like it that much.

A wedding cake of Mantuan stonework, the Rotunda di San Lorenzo, the clock tower, and the Duomo under scaffolding.

“Because I have no idea where it is!” He busts out laughing and takes me to the window to point up the side street where the garage is hidden. “It’s under that building, I think, behind locked doors and down ramps.” It turns out that we can only get the car out with the assistance of hotel staff.

Andrew has a rule that the best way to overcome jet lag when you arrive in Europe in the morning is to push on through the day. Embracing this, I guide us first to a bit of lunch – pizza in the next square over – followed by a visit to the Ducal Palace. Its rooms are full of important frescoes and other art, not to mention the historic building itself. But the Italian-only descriptions are beyond us, and it’s soon too much to take. We complete the visit and adjourn to the quiet park where we both doze off on a bench.

After a while I rouse and suggest that we pick up some afternoon refreshment. We end up with lovely pastries and bottled water in our room, followed by a two-hour nap, after which I chide Andrew for breaking his own rule. I think, even with mister elbow, I got more sleep on the plane than he did.

We’re awakened from our nap by a band playing “Fortress ‘Round Your Heart.” We go down and ask the desk clerk what’s up. It turns out to be the annual squash festival, where everyone eats pumpkin ravioli and drinks wine at trestle tables on the street. Sounds good to us.

No sooner do we get our plates of pasta and wine than a thunderstorm hits. We sprint with our plates and bottle to the hotel and take our food to our room to eat. The storm soon passes and we go back out for gelato and to watch the children playing around the 15th century Rotunda di San Lorenzo across the street from our hotel.

Frescoes and Fragile Dwellings: Mantua and Lago de Garda

A beloved horse from the Gonzaga stables, celebrated in frescoe, Palazzo Te.
Tower of Babel, ceiling detail from Palazzo Te.

In the morning, on the way out of town, we visit Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga family’s mostly for show summer residence. First we wander into a photo exhibit entitled Fragile Dwellings. It turns out to be photographs of homeless people in New York. The contrast with this ancient pile is not lost on us. Here are frescoes and more frescoes, and here they are described on printed cards in each room. In English. Maybe it’s just that we’re rested, but we enjoy the Palazzo much more than the Ducal Palace in town.

We’ve decided to spend the afternoon at Lago di Garda, about an hour’s drive north. We aim first for the town of Bardolino, where the wine comes from, but end up lunching in the town of Garda, next door. Then we drive around the southern end of the lake to Desenzano del Garda to find the ruins of a Roman Villa that are mentioned in both guide books (Cadogan and Michelin Green).

18th century graffiti on a 15th century fresco (restored).

Both guidebooks’ directions are vague at best, so we do a bit of backtracking. Desenzano del Garda is a classic beach town, with a big marina, a promenade, and lots of shops. We finally park and get directions from a shop – it turns out we’re just around the corner. The Villa ruins are a big disappointment, unless, we suppose, you’re an archeologist. It’s most fragments of mosaic floor, exposed, in some cases to their detriment, so we can picture the rooms they were in. We can’t. We walk back to the waterfront and onto the beach to touch the water of the lake and collect some driftglass and pebbles.

Mantua’s art culture. Left: Street artist and girlfriend. Center: Chef photographs street artist. Right: Chef shows picture to artist. Must be a new camera.

We conclude the day by driving up the east coast of the lake, watching it change from congested vacation zone to wine zone to alpine lake. We find an alternate road to the one that goes buy the big amusement park, which is fortunately since traffic there is worse than Orange County on a Saturday afternoon. At the north end of the lake the road climbs into the foothills of the Alps, then drops back down in the next valley. I follow a bicycle path near the road, wondering what that ride would be like: up, over and down. It explains the musculature on the legs of many of the cyclists we’ve seen. The highway carries us home and we find our way back to the hotel again. This time I deposit the car in the byzantine lot. My guide, however, takes me on a more direct route than Andrew’s.

Into the Alps, on the north end of Lago di Garda.

The street fair is in full swing tonight with new musicians and more ravioli. Out of duty, we walk by the restaurant where Andrew got the directions, but they’re closed. So we happily settle down to ravioli, two bottles of wine, and pumpkin cake for dessert at a trestle table shared with the natives. We listen to the gossip and watch the street artists create pumpkin-oriented images. Afterwards, still digesting the wine, we wander out and around the Ducal Palace in the dark.

Andrew is dwarfed by one of Montagnana’s medieval towers.

Walled Cities and Antique Duck: Mantua to Montegrotto

Onward to the Colli Euganei, a group of volcanic hills in the otherwise flat Po valley. We plan our route via Montagnana, a small town with it’s medieval walled center intact. The 2.5 kilometer walls form a rectangle with 28 towers and four gates surrounded by a wide grassy moat. We drive most of the way around this remarkable “inner city” before entering through one of the gates. We are amazed by the enclosed area, filled with antique and more recent buildings and narrow streets, that’s about the size of New York’s Greenwich Village, or Venice Beach in LA. We stop in the tourist office, at the base of one of the gate towers, and get a tourist map of the area to help plan our route.

Andrew selects a new mode of transportation.

We drive on to Este, seat of the Este family, which held sway in this part of the world for generations. Este’s walled castle is mostly under renovation, so we peek into part of the garden and walk along a street to look at the clock tower. But mostly we’re disappointed by the town, which guides describe as charming.

We move on to Arqua Petrarca, hill-top home of the classicist Petrarch. It’s mid-day so all is quiet. The guide book says Petrarch’s house is closed today, but we park in a small square and follow signs toward it anyway. The road quickly turns up hill and I mutter about going to this effort when the house is closed. I detour into a small courtyard that advertises a potter, but the shop is closed. Next I wander into a church lined with paintings. It doesn’t hold our interest for long.

Montagnana deals with modern traffic in a medieval setting.

Onward and upward, we continue following the signs, and Andrew starts muttering about how now we’ve reached the top and are going back down. “No, no,” I say, “we came this far, by God we’re seeing this house!” By then we’re walking beside the house’s garden wall. We find the closed gate and peer inside. Then turn around and walk back up, then down and down and down.

A conflict of esthetics in Este.

We follow a guide book’s directions to a restaurant near town that turns out to be quite nice. I have duck and polenta prepared from an antique recipe, and finish with a grappa. Andrew picks up a brochure listing related restaurants and finds one near Montegrotto for us to try that night.

Next stop is Villa Barbarigo, an occupied house whose open gardens, laid out in the 1600s, imitate Roman water gardens like Tivoli with fountains and ponds and a hedge maze. Since we missed the hedge maze at Villandry in France (twice!) I’m particularly happy to see this one. It turns out you can go directly to the center raised platform, from which you can plot your course out. Then you’re supposed to plunge in. There’s something out this reversed process that we find discouraging. We also have a map of the maze, but it doesn’t seem to be accurate.

Montagnana’s spectacular walls.

We wander in and around a bit, but then Andrew finds a hole in a hedge that lets him shortcut out. I have to give in and cheat as well, or be left there. We play with the fountains and admire the series of ponds (One with black swans and ducks, another with white swans and ducks and geese. Hummm. . .).

“You missed a spot!”

It’s time to find our hotel in Montegrotto. As with most of our hotels, we don’t have an address, just a general area. In this case, we know from pictures on the Web that the hotel is a rather tall white building. As we approach Montegrotto we begin to suspect we’re on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The shops and restaurant seem geared for a geriatric, sunbelt population. The low skyline is dotted with tall hotels, and we identify ours from a distance then find it via road.

Lost in the maze.

We are shown to our room by the officious woman working at the front desk. Our room is on an end of the building and has a balcony, a sitting area, and his and hers bathrooms. His has the shower, her’s has the tub, bidet, and hair dryer (both have toilets and sinks). We are told that robes and towels for the pool will be brought by the maid, and that the woman who makes massage appointments will be in later.

How’d he stay dry getting there?

Reading the massage offerings and settling in, we grow tired of waiting for the robes (which, it turns out, cost several dollars to “rent”). We put on our suits and t-shirts and go to the pool (such terrible rule breakers!). At the uncrowded pool side I notice that many lounges have room number tags on them. We take two that have no tags, just in case these numbers are serious. We suspect that the other guests, almost all Germans, are eyeing us suspiciously and we don’t want to cause trouble. A young woman is conducting a water aerobics class, standing at the edge of the pool directing a group of elderly men and women, and one young woman. The track-suited instructor seems to be the focus of many of the men around the pool. I wonder what they’d do at the Bally pool where the instructor wears a leotard. We slip into the pool, which is quite large enough to accommodate the class as well as separate swimmers. It’s filled with 84-degree mineral water. Heaven. The class breaks up and we’re able to wander all over, even into the indoor part of the pool. We’re sure our mild hijinks cause some gossip. It’s okay, we’ve already determined that we won’t be eating dinner here.

Our view of the Duomo in Montegrotto, just about the only building pre-1940 building in the entire area.

After an hour we dry off and go in to book massages. This requires an informal interview with the scheduler. She gets us both slots at 8:30 a.m. We would have had mud treatments, but for that you have to see the hotel doctor. Of course each of these experiences has a price, cheerfully paid by the German health care system, but not our American HMOs.

We dress and go in search of the heart of the spa towns, certain that there’s an older renaissance or even Roman center somewhere. We don’t find it. The whole area is post war (having been bombed heavily). It’s the Gulf Coast, and not even the good part. Our restaurant is also little Tyrol. Perched on a hill, it’s more Alpine than Italian. The food is acceptable but not as lovely as lunch. Service is by a tired-looking older man who we feel should just go take a break while we serve ourselves.

I’m already not sleeping well when the first thunder clap shakes the hotel around 4:30 a.m. The storm moves in and settles over the hills, dumping tremendous quantities of rain seasoned with thunder and lightning. Sleep isn’t possible. We move out onto the balcony and watch. The sky hardly lightens when morning comes.

A Few Simple Restaurants: Montegrotto to Asolo

A Cittadella moat llama expresses displeasure.

The morning massages are a disappointment. Comparing notes, we both had very light-handed masseuses. To make up for it we float for a while in the warm pool. On the way out we are honest with the scheduler, who asks how we liked it. She promises to find us stronger masseuses next time. We don’t disillusion her about the likelihood of there being a next time.

Cittadella’s gate.

Our route north to Asolo takes us around Padua to Cittadella. This is another walled town with a beautifully preserved wall and moat. We buy some pastries to make up for a light, pre-massage breakfast. We walk out a gate and down into the moat where a fun mix of animals lives. The llamas seem suspicious of us, but the goats are very friendly. One goose sets off an alarm at our presence that brings the rest of the flock flapping toward us. The ostrich seems unfazed by it all.

Monument outside Castlefranco’s walls.

On to Castlefranco, where we’ve picked a restaurant for lunch. We find it, but it’s not open quite yet so we wander. We admire yet another intact medieval wall, this one with a less developed moat (it’s partially filled with algae-covered water and trash). The morning market is closing up outside the walls, but we’re not interested in tube socks and fresh fish, so we walk on. We look in the windows of a ceramics shop with lovely wares, but we can’t find their door, and they’re closed for lunch anyway.

Italian Medieval towns: narrow streets and tiny cars.

Our restaurant opens and we are seated. It’s vastly over decorated with south Pacific, African, and tropical junk. Ceramic half columns are covered with grass skirts and topped with weird displays of baskets and feathers. The ceiling is hung with printed rice-paper banners. An out-of-place Native American headdress hangs forlornly on one wall, while the rest of the wall space is occupied by big, bad canvasses of African scenes. All around these are big sea shells and fans and strings of beads and totems. I go to the toilet and, along the way, find tables covered with fruit and vegetables artfully, if uselessly, arranged, and a whole platoon of little trays of cookies. As it is a fish restaurant, the bathroom offers lemon towelettes and toothbrushes.

The food is perfectly fine, fresh fish well prepared, but my experience is colored by finding a moth larvae crawling in my menu, and, of course, the overwhelmingly vulgar decor.

The right wing of Palladio’s Villa Barbaro.

The town of Maser and Villa Barbaro is our next stop. This house was designed by Andrea Palladio and the interior decorated in frescoes by Paolo Veronese between 1560 and 1562. The exterior lines of the house have been imitated many times, including in the US Capitol building. The interior frescoes are delightful trompe l’oeil masterpieces. Pastoral scenes are framed by painted columns, portraits, and statues. Mythic images remind us of the lessons of the gods, while life size figures greet us from behind false doorways painted to match real doorways across the room. Visitors shuffle around in soft slippers covering their shoes to protect the wood and terrazzo floors.

Canova’s temple to his home town in Possagno.

We’re a little awestruck as we move on to Possagno, hometown of prolific sculptor Antonio Canova. First we find our way up to the “Temple,” a hillside church and miniature of the Roman Pantheon, with a columned Acropolis on the front. The inside is decorated with portraits, a pieta, and Canova’s tomb. Down a wide, tree-lined street we find Canova’s “Gipsoteca”: his workshop and home. The workshop is populated by plaster casts of his sculptures.

Now really overwhelmed by art, we follow the road signs to Asolo, where we’ll stay for two nights. The streets get narrower and narrower, the views more and more splendid as we enter the “town of a hundred horizons.” Just when we think the car won’t fit through the narrow lanes we find ourselves in an open piazza near the top of the hill. Andrew gets out to ask for our hotel and comes back immediately, having spotted it still further up hill. We’re shown to a lovely room. The car is parked in a small lot behind the hotel. The woman at the front desk makes us a reservation at a “simple” restaurant in town. I lay down and watch Olympic women’s weightlifting before showering. Andrew goes wandering.

An Asolo horizon with our hotel on the left.

Our waiter at the “simple” restaurant performs the most elaborate wine opening and testing ceremony I’ve ever seen, using a third glass to pour off and decant a little wine for tasting before pouring into our glasses (the ultimate result of this little ceremony was that the waiter got a nice little nip from our bottle from the decanting glass). The food at the “simple” restaurant is glorious. The service is perfect. The prices are appropriate. The clientele is all English and American. Not a German in the dining room. The men at the next table are Americans on a shoe buying trip. Eaves-drop though I do, I can’t figure out what company they’re with. Returning to the hotel we beg the front desk for more “simple” restaurant recommendations.

Fashion Victims: Bassano del Grappa and Environs

…to sun on the heights of Asolo.
Morning mist gives way,,,

Wednesday morning’s breakfast on the hotel terrace is divine. The rising sun picks out the clock tower faÁade across the square, warming the air and carrying the sounds of the waking village to our perch. Also on the terrace are our shoe men, who we finally learn are from Saucony. We realize the hotel, one of only three in two, is a popular business stop.

Bassano del Grappa’s busy main square.

We visit nearby Bassano del Grappa, another walled town that’s retained much of its medieval character. Andrew finds a music store tucked into the corner of a square and squanders a bankroll on Italian pop. I start popping into camera shops looking for an 8 MB Smart Media card for my digital camera. I’m already halfway through the card I have. We find the famous Palladio wooden bridge across the Brenta river, and the Poli grappa distillery (museum closed for lunch, of course). After wandering all morning, we move on, eventually winding up in Marostica, another walled town known for it’s bi-annual living chess game.

Bassano’s river view apartments.

One of the two camera shops in town has a 16 MB Smart Media card, but my old (18 months!) camera doesn’t support it. We take a table in the busy cafe on the chess board piazza. Every two years the town re-stages a 1454 feud, the Partita a Scacchi. Legend has it that two suitors were vying for the daughter of a lord. He decided that they should fight for her, but “in sad memory of the unhappy lovers Madame Juliet Capuleti and Master Romeo Montecchio” he refused to let them have a normal brawl. Instead had had them direct the pieces in a living chess match. Unfortunately, the Partita took place in the square two weeks before we arrived.

A brief shower forces the occupants of tables that aren’t under umbrellas to vacate. When the rain stops, the most aggressive pigeons we’ve ever seen (even compared to New York) hop up onto the vacated tables and dig into leftover pasta and salad. We chuckle at their choice of a balanced meal. Before too long a waiter.

Bassano’s wooden covered bridge is so beloved it’s been rebuilt many times since Palladio designed it in 1599.

Despite the drizzle, a camera crew is filming jewelry on lanky models in the square. The cameras are shrouded in tarps. The models have to brave the heavy mist in their suave fashions. As lunch progresses we realize that we’re surrounded by the production crew from Diesel, the clothing company. We listen to some web marketing geek going on about beefing up their shoe section, that Nordstrom has sunk a bundle into theirs, and that it’s what they get the most requests for. We flee in our brick-and-mortar purchased shoes. shoos them away.

Marostica’s walls make a precipitous climb up to the hilltop castle.

On the way back to Asolo we continue the search for cool Euro bike togs for Andrew and digital film for me. We follow signs to a Solomon factory, hoping for an outlet store, but there is none. We’re in the land of shoe and clothing manufacture, but they don’t sell it here cheap.

Back in Asolo we wander around the town to do a little shopping. At a gourmet shop we buy expensive vinegar and I really splurge (I meany really) on a bottle of Balsamico. I’m not sure what it is, but I recently saw the host of an Italian cooking show sprinkle it onto homemade ice cream. He said, as he did this, “you don’t need much, and balsamico is dear, but it’s fabulous!” Anything based on vinegar that tastes great on vanilla ice cream is worth a splurge to try.

View of Asolo’s hills from the Cipriani hotel garden.

We wander into the Cipriani hotel like we belong there and pass on through to the garden to admire the view. We had thought to have drinks there, but it’s a drizzly day, so we just wander around a little, inspect the restaurant menu, admire the decor, and return to our only slightly less prestigious hotel. We have drinks on our hotel’s terrace and watch a small bus pull up to the hotel (a large bus would never make it into town). A group of Turkish business people on a buying trip unload and check-in. They’ve just come from Benetton, judging by all the logoed green umbrellas.

Tonight’s “simple” restaurant is in nearby Monfumo. We drive, arriving just as another huge thunderstorm starts. We’re seated on the upstairs porch, surrounded by a substantial vinyl tent. In the main room is a big party, so although the rain on the tent is loud, it’s less distracting than their boisterous voices. We have rabbit and foie gras and I finish with a lemon liquor. By then the storm has stopped and we can get back to the car dry.

Andrew negotiates a typical Asolo street.

The Sinking City: Asolo to Venice

We’re sorry to leave Asolo, but it’s time to move on to Venice.

We plot a course back around Padua and along the Brenta Canal, Venice’s answer to New Orleans’s River Road. A few hundred years ago the canal was the site of many well-spaced country estates. Where in New Orleans industry has taken over the riverfront, dominating the mansions, along the Brenta towns have filled in the open spaces, surrounding the stately homes. Only a very few of the homes are open to visitors, and many have been cannibalized and torn down. We stop at one, but decide not to allocate two or more precious hours to it. Another, one of the most beautiful, is only open to visitors who arrive by tour boat. There’s a tour there when we drive up, but the gate is locked to us. We give up and press on in to Venice.

Andrew buying upholstery fabric.

The first thing that strikes me about Venice, which I last visited when I was 16, is the height of the skyline. The islands and pilings on which the city rests can’t support buildings more than three stories tall, so except for the church domes and campanile, it’s a very low city. The next is the commonly heard notion that “Venice is sinking.” That statement makes it sound as if the entire city is gradually being swallowed by the lagoon, but of course that’s absurd. Some buildings are built on islands, some on ancient pilings, some on modern fill. They aren’t all uniformly sinking.

Marble jewel-box church.

Every winter, storm surge brings an excess of water into the lagoon with the full and new moons, and low points (less than 128 cm above sea level) flood. This isn’t due to the city sinking so much as to too much water getting into the lagoon through the deep dredged channels that also admit the cruise ships and tankers. We ran into this phenomenon as soon as we arrive, in the form of a poster on the vaporetto dock explaining the problem and the designated high-water (aqua alta) paths. Throughout the city we saw stacks of wooden platforms ready to be deployed.

A crooked campanile. Design, or sinkage?

Building settling is another matter, and we saw evidence of that as well, in distorted facades where wooden pilings have failed and buildings are lopsided. The cause of most of the undercutting of old pilings is backwash from boat propellers. But it isn’t the surface wakes-those are caused by the boat hulls–it’s the currents that propellers cause a couple feet beneath the surface that surge in under the buildings.

Morning sun highlights the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace.

The third striking thing about Venice is that it’s a living city at the same time as being one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world. We strive to venture out of the touristy precincts and into the quiet back alleys where laundry hangs across streets and canals, where private boats are tied all along the narrow canals, where a solitary nun fingers her rosary as she walks, where mothers lean out windows to call in children before closing the shutters to keep out the night chill.

We’re staying on Lido, the barrier island dotted with resort hotels and gelaterias. We’re a little discouraged to find that our hotel is to far to walk to from the vaporetto dock, but we soon begin to enjoy taking the bus, which is included in the 3-day vaporetto tickets we bought, should an inspector ever ask us. While there are many locals on board, there are also many tourists. It’s too cold for the beach, but we enjoy our view of it, and of the ships out on the horizon waiting to come into the lagoon and offload or pick up cargo. In the middle distance fishing boats drag nets to capture our dinner. On the beach, the rows and rows of cabanas, a little city themselves, are empty and closed.

The traghetto are the closest thing to a gondola that we ride.

We spend the afternoon exploring the back streets. Down the street from Ca’ d’Oro, which was closed (as it had been every time Andrew has tried to go there), we find a fabric shop with lovely upholstery fabric. Andrew has been looking for new fabric for two chairs for several years, so we go in. We find enough of two beautiful complimentary patterns in the remnants piles to do the job. Following directions in my Knopf guide, we locate a marble encrusted church that I realize I saw in a television special recently.

After an afternoon of wandering we return to Lido for a very disappointing dinner at a restaurant that our hotel in Asolo recommended. It’s a tourist trap if we ever saw one, where, if you order the most popular dish, you get to take home a complimentary plate. It has sister restaurants all over the world that do the same. Think of the collection you could amass! We stop for gelato on the way home, which is much more satisfying.

We’re struck by the tidiness of the streets of Venice. Where do they put the trash?

Sailing the Lagoon

Friday morning we’ve reserved for the Doge’s Palace secret tour. We arrive at San Marco early and walk around into the Piazza and smack into an endless line of people waiting to go into the church. Yikes! It’s only 9:30 in the morning! These people must have signed on for the “forced march” tour. I take the requisite San Marco pictures (still don’t have another film cartridge), and we go to our tour.

Requisite San Marco picture.

We bypass the usual sights in the palace and are taken to the third floor and through a locked door. We leave the opulent golden staircase and enter the sober, wooden paneled offices of the commoner palace employees. In these small rooms the secretaries and scribes took care of the day-to-day operations of Venice. We’re shown the chancellor’s office, a room no larger than my own office. But the chancellor earned the equivalent of a million dollars a year and was elected for life. The Venetian government believed in paying commoners well to keep them loyal. It also believed in capital punishment. Our next stop is the torture chamber, followed by the attic prison where Casanova, among other honored prisoners, were kept. We’re shown a small armor display and the attic above the huge audience hall, the state archives, and the judges’ chambers where criminals were tried. These are somewhat decorated with canvases to inspire the judges and scare the prisoners.

Waiting for the vaporetto at the Academia stop, Accademia bridge in the background.

After the tour we flee San Marco and search out a glass shop that has been recommended to Andrew. It turns out to be stocked with amusement park quality glass animals. We move on, and wind up having pasta for lunch on the far side of Dosudoru. Then we have to go meet Lorenzo. Andrew has arranged a surprise activity for the afternoon. Over lunch he reveals it, as I have guessed closely enough. Lorenzo has a classic Venetian sailboat and we’re going sailing in the lagoon. [I used this experience in an Avengers fan fiction.]

Sailing on the lagoon with Lorenzo.
Lorenzo’s sister the bow babe, with the island owned by the antique boat club in the background.

We meet Lorenzo and his sister at the St. Elena Vaporetto stop and walk to the marina. Lorenzo’s boat is one of a row of small, brightly painted boats along a dock in the shallowest part of the marina. The deeper waters are populated by more modern sailboats and powerboats. Lorenzo explains that the marina is not too expensive because the city wants to encourage sailing. We climb aboard his 24-foot boat. He asks his sister to sit up on the bow while we are assigned to the center cockpit. He mans the aft cockpit. He uses a gutsy outboard to propel the wooden boat out of the marina and into the lagoon. The boat has no keel, but a flat bottom. Instead, it has an enormous rudder that he can raise when the water is shallow. Gaff-rigged sails can be put up each of the two masts, plus a headsail that we don’t see. The design allows this boat to sail almost anywhere in the lagoon, while most other boats of any size must stick to the channels. Once we’re out of the channel Lorenzo kills the engine and raises the yellow, white, black, and red mainsail. Now we’re skimming across the meter-deep water. The boat points amazingly well for no keel, with just the big rudder to offset the side slippage caused by the breeze. She does even better on a reach and downwind, of course.

The antique Venetian boats in their marina.

For the next four hours we learn about Venetian boating culture, Lorenzo and his .com start-up, the lagoon and it’s less visited islands, and Venetian life in general. Lorenzo shows us a deserted island with a recently refurbished seawall and explains that the government gave the island to the antique boat club, but they had to maintain the seawall. The sail to it for picnics and parties. On another island, the runis of a military base remind us of David’s Island off New Rochelle in Long Island Sound. The water in the lagoon is somewhat cleaner looking than that Sound, despite the enormous industrial presence of Maestre on the mainland.

Lorenzo, Mia, and Andrew on the dock.

Lorenzo wants to sail his boat out of the lagoon and across the Adriatic on a several week trip. We silent question his sanity and ask him how his open, keel-less boat would behave in 3-foot swells. He says, “I don’t know and I don’t want to find out!” He says there are races of these boats every week, but he doesn’t often participate. “Some are very serious, and I am not,” he says and we nod understanding. The difference between cruisers and racers are the same everywhere.

As we approach one of the marked channels a powerboat zooms by. I ask Lorenzo which boat has the right-of-way here in Venice. “Well,” he begins in his storytelling manner, “of course the sail boat has the right of way here, except for the big ships. But I don’t know if the motor boat driver knows the rules.” Andrew and I crack up. The differences between sailors and power boaters are the same everywhere, too. Lorenzo offers to drop us off at Lido as we sail by, but we decide to go back to the marina in Venice.

He suggests a local trattoria that the people from the marina go to after sailing. While the food isn’t spectacular, we’re sure we’re the only Americans to eat there recently, and the quiet, local atmosphere is pleasant.

Canal reflections

Glass and Gondolieri

Saturday we allow ourselves a slightly later start, arriving at the Academia around 10 a.m. There’s already a line out the door, and after some deliberation we decided to move on. We seek out another of the glass shops on Andrew’s list-this one turns out to be very high end and modern-and then go to the C’Doro, which Andrew has been trying to visit for years. Not only is it open, but it’s free today. And we’re quite disappointed.

Boat-borne vegetable vendors, kinda like the caribbean!

While the exterior of the palace is fabulous, the interior has been gutted and modernized to serve as a gallery for mostly religious art. We finish with it quickly and make our way over to Murano, the glass blowing island, to see the glass museum. That turns out to be worth the trip. We have a light lunch at a canal-side cafe before taking the vaporetto back. Returning to Venice we see gondolier driving school: Out in the lagoon, men in small launches supervise other men rowing brightly colored “student driver” gondolas. We know they must be training boats because by law all of the city’s gondolas are black. Unless someone is trying to make a statement with a pink gondola!

We stumble upon a gondola repair shop along a canal.

We wander through the streets toward a vaporetto stop that will take us back to Lido. At our bus stop we visit a little shop for cheese and sliced meat for the flight home. We have dinner reservations, so we go on home to change. Il Gondolieri turns out to be a “simple” restaurant where we have the white truffle risotto appetizer and nearly transcend to culinary heaven. We each follow that with amazing meat courses (no fish at the gondolieri), and Andrew goes on to cheese while I order a “cheesecake” dessert. I expect to be experimenting with ricotta, raisins, and pine nuts for a while trying to duplicate this creation. I finish off with a grappa, as Andrew is working on a half carafe of wine (after our shared bottle) that he needed to go with the cheese. We stroll home peeking into dark shop windows and the backdoor of the Peggy Guggenheim, which we didn’t get to visit.

Sunday morning we find some fresh bread for the flight and take our delayed beach walk before catching the boat to the airport. Another trip complete, with many amazing sights to remember and meals to savor. On the flight home we’re both secretly planning our next trip.

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