Beautiful Decay

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Oct 08, 2009

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Flag of Italy  , Veneto,
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Since World War II Italy has had 62 governments. Sixty-two governments in 63 years.  That fact should help you understand a little about Italy.  Agreement on much of anything here is a rarity.  Which is great for discussing football, but not so much for running a country.  Sometimes it seems like Italy's last attempt at efficient organization was some two thousand years ago.  And they’ve pretty much been coasting on those laurels ever since.  Don’t believe me?  Spend some time in Italy.  Spend one day.  Everything works just enough to get by, but not well.  If it is actually working, that is.  Most equipment has out of order signs or sitting idly with no master to operate.  I’m pretty sure the last great Italian invention is the shrug.  It’s the last thing you see done properly by individuals going on their three hour lunch break.  

The three hour mid-day break is a fantastic part of the Italian tradition- unless you are visiting.  Then it’s just a pain in the ass and definitely requires planning one’s days in advance.  Being that we’re a couple of vacationing slackers bent on sleeping in as much as possible, decent food has been a challenge to get when we want it. By the time we’re up and about most the restaurants and stores have started closing for the afternoon break.  Which is funny because they often seem to be open for about 90 minutes before taking a break.  I suspect that’s when their last cappuccino is wearing off and a new one is in need.

So, you’d think Italy is a drag, right?  Wrong.  You love Italy despite all this.  You love Italy as if they are the super talented family screw up.  Their lack of ambition frustrates you, but their ability to produce and appreciate great art (including food, wine, forms of relaxing, etc.) is magnificent to observe, enjoy and live.

Venice is obviously a huge tourist destination.  Which is why we took the advice of our good friends Mike and Wendy Mudd (who visited last year) and stayed out of the fray on Lido Beach ("the Lido".)  It’s about a 20-25 minute trip on the waterbuses (vaporetti) from Venice proper.  Our plan worked to perfection. We spent the daytime at the sandy beach of Lido and bypassed the swollen hordes that jam the old city.  Then in the evening we’d get ready and at around sunset ride the vaporetto into the heart of Venice.  There are still crowds there after 6 pm, but when the light starts to fade the crowds thin out and the night time Venice begins to show.  European cities always appear to be two cities in one.  There is the day time city with the hustle and bustle of daily life (along with the tourists clogging everything up) and then there is the night time city.  The tourists tend to waddle back to their hotels, eat and crash before starting their whole early morning cycle of tedium over again.  Night time is when the locals come out.  Especially in Venice.  Night time Venice is a joy to experience and it is when you experience the truly romantic aspects of the city. 

I should take a step back and explain that we traveled most of the day from Salzburg to Venice (some more amazing scenery, by the way, near the Austria-Italy border) and that it was 90 degrees with 80 percent humidity when we arrived.  Just brutal.  The vaporetto were packed with tourists and locals and we sweat buckets of water waiting for our stop to arrive.  It took about an hour on the boat and, thankfully, we only had to drag our bags three blocks.  We stayed at Hotel Cristallo (Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta 51, Lido) which is right smack in the middle of the main street to the beach - awesome location.  Three blocks from the waterbuses and three blocks to the beach.  The room was nothing special, but it was clean and quiet and the staff was excellent (especially enjoyed my daily chats with the manager over football, politics and champagne).  Breakfast was included and the buffet was great as we ate out in a small garden patio in the mornings and watched the local lizards warming in the sun next to us.  The first night we were so exhausted and hot that I left Marisa in front of the air conditioner and picked up a couple of pizzas down the street from a place suggested by the hotel manager.  The pizza was good (go figure) and we ate in bed and watched some Italian TV before nodding off.

The next day turned out to be very dark and very wet, so the beach plan was scuttled.  We were both really feeling worn down from two and a half weeks of constant traveling and sight seeing, so we chose to make this our stay-in day and watch shows on the laptop we brought.  In the evening I picked up take out from a Chinese restaurant (yeah, yeah, we’re in Italy – I know, but we wanted something simple requiring little work to order) I found nestled off the main street.  I knew it would be good as it was packed with the locals and lots were ordering take out.  It was excellent Chinese food and while I waited outside (between rain showers) I watched a Saturday night fashion show going on in the main street.  Most of the street was blocked off to car traffic and a huge cat walk was installed with rows of seats for dignitaries of some sort.  Night time on Lido is fun.  It’s pretty much populated by all locals or Italian vacationers and they promenade along the main street with gelato, filling the cafés/pubs/restaurants, watching football matches and talking animatedly about one subject or another.  The butterscotch colored streetlamps overhead adding an old Italy sepia glow to the whole proceedings.  This area does see its share of events – actually, the weekend after we were there the annual big regatta flooded the hotels with visitors and the Venice Film Festival was in full bloom with big name American actors drawing crowds.  But this weekend belonged to the locals and it was fun to soak it in. 

The next day the weather was perfect – sunny, 80 degrees and little to no humidity.  The storm had swept away the evil weather and, I swear, for the first time on this trip I didn’t spend the day sweating through my linen shirt.  We had breakfast and headed to the beach.  The main road (the gran viale) in front of the hotel ends at a beach access point called Blue Moon.  It is the most popular entrance for people who know nothing about Lido.  We know from first hand experience. The public beach stretches for a vast distance before the big hotels take over, but we only realized that after jamming ourselves into the dirty sand among the chattering tourists.  There are row after row of little bungalows lined up on the back side of the beach up and down Lido and most people tend to think that means the beach is private, but it isn’t.  Most of the bungalows are rented out by locals or hotels for their guests (ours had one, but it was small and overly busy), but the beach in front of them is open.  There are further entrances south on the beach and we discovered a few paces down that we could have a sparsely populated, groomed sand beach with beautiful, warm water and little surf.  It was heaven.  Well, and a little hell as I burned quite nicely over the weekend.  Marisa just got super brown to rub it in.

Our first night out we chose not to do a sit down dinner [well, actually we had planned on trying out a restaurant near the Rialto Bridge, but the Communist Party was having a party (really) and they took over the small square we had been wanting to eat in and then our next choice was closed for the month – so much for researching in advance] and instead chose to find some cicchetti bars: sort of the Venetian version of tapas, with many types of small food items to try.  We weren’t entirely sure what some of them were, but that’s the fun of it all – just point at what you want and they pile it on a plate.  It was a super satisfying experience.  For the most part we saw locals hopping from bar to bar getting a drink a small bite and moving on to the next hole in the wall and we did the same except we lingered longer trying more items. 

Two places we loved (both not far from the Rialto Bridge): Ostaria all’Antico Dolo and Osteria al Bomba.  The former was adorably tiny (see picture) and served up excellent food (crab fritters, shrimp, onion tart, etc.) and reasonably priced, excellent house wine.  And apparently Hef and the girls visited there recently as a signed picture on the wall (along with a surprising amount of interesting write ups) attests.   The latter was a stand up affair (sometimes more fun than sitting) and run by a lady and gentleman who are fun and very helpful with limited Italian speakers (their English isn’t much better but pantomiming is always useful).  We tried some the local delicacies including cuttlefish (a squid like creature) and some vinegary, sinewy pork fat concoction better left to the adventurous (outside of that, though, everything we had was delicious).   This was definitely a locals favorite as we watched a steady stream of them stop in and then move on to the next haunt.   Some of these places are on the main avenues in Venice, but it takes wandering off the beaten path to find most of them and it is well worth the time - nay - a requirement.

In fact, just wandering off and getting lost in the endless maze that is Venice is the most fun part.  You never know what you will find around the corner.  We wandered our way from Rialto to (eventually, somehow) San Marco Piazza.  In between we found the restaurant we wanted to try the next night, tons of fascinating shops and an upbeat, young crowd out to have fun.  The energy couldn’t have been any more drastic from the day time crowds and making our way through the narrow alleyways wasn’t a hassle like earlier.  We sampled drinks at a juice bar that specialized in high alcohol frozen juice concoctions.  To go cups of vodka juice slushees?  Yes, please! We checked out the famous San Marco Piazza with its dueling small orchestras, the dominatingly beautiful Basilica, the huge open space populated with impromptu dancers enclosed by (except for Napoleon’s handiwork) 12th century buildings.  We needed to find a restroom, so we chose a random alley and followed it looking for a bar.  After a couple of twists and turns and small canal crossings we found a small pub.  We ended up staying for a bit, drinking beer, watching football highlights and making plans for the next day.  It was another locals joint and we enjoyed the youthful, friendly atmosphere (and free chips – the first we’d had since the US, felt a little like home) before heading out to grab a vaporreto back to Lido.  (By the way – the vaporetti run all night long, so you never have to worry about getting stuck in Venice if you stay too late.)

Our final night in Venice we planned for a top of the line romantic evening.  A day on the beach left us exceptionally relaxed, the weather was still perfect and we dressed in our grown up clothes before heading across the lagoon again to Venice.  We met with a gondolier the previous day and arranged a ride, but he was nowhere to be found where he said he’d be to confirm.  So we headed up a few alleys to a wine bar ( , there’s a restaurant next door, but the bar was the draw for us) we’d discovered the day before and had some top notch (read: expensive) Valpolicella (of the Amarone type to be exact) and Barolo wines along with terrific wine discussion and gratis snacks with the sommelier.  We timed it perfectly so that we snagged a gondolier right around the corner at an out of the way spot just as the sun was beginning to set.  It costs a bit more to take a trip after 7 pm, but it was well worth it.  It is an expensive splurge, but it is well worth the cost.  For about 40 minutes we wandered through the back canals of Venice, our Venice-born gondolier explaining some of the historic sites and singing back and forth to his gondolier friends (not always the classics since he cheekily claimed Madonna to be a truly Italian icon.)  Mostly, though, we just gazed in awe at the beautiful decay that is Venice, the nearly full moon above us reflecting on the quietly lapping canal waters as we slid under little canal bridges and around hidden bends in the water way.  We snuggled in our seat, holding each other and taking our eyes off the voyage only to kiss. We made our way briefly through the Grand Canal – busy with evening gondolas, water taxis and busses, café crowds and bridge gawkers watching us slowly slide up the way and then disappear into a narrow, dark water alley barely big enough to allow us in.  Towards the end it was dark enough that only the light from home windows and gondolas with candle light put a dent in the moonlight that followed us to the end.

That’s a hard act to follow, but our dinner damned well came close.  We’d eyed a small, high end restaurant the night before and returned for some al fresco dinning at Ristorante Mario Alla Fava ( ).   We couldn’t shake the desire for more of the Amarone, so we got a bottle (it’s now one of our favorite Italian wines).  When we were perusing the menu, Marisa was absolutely confused at how I knew the prices of the items when they weren’t printed.  Well, my menu did have the prices.  Hers didn’t – by design.  I remembered seeing the term “Ladies Menu” some days before, but had no idea what that meant. Then it was clear – in the more traditional Italian eateries they still have separate menus for men and women.  Since it is assumed the man is paying, he gets the standard menu with the prices.  The woman gets the more gentile version without prices since, God forbid, she have to consider what she’s ordering based by the price (or maybe be obligated to “put out”, as it were, if the date spent too much money on her.)  How crude.  In this case ignorance is considered to be dining bliss.  (An aside: we were using Marisa’s credit card through much of Italy and every single time she brought it out to pay they would still hand the receipt to me for signing.  Enlightened on female equality they are not.)

For starters, Marisa got the ricotta and basil stuffed courgettes (zucchini blossoms for the culinary challenged) and I got the shade fish tartar with super fresh gazpacho.  The tartar melted in my mouth and the courgettes were lightly battered and the ricotta simply melted out of it when opened.  We both had the cuttlefish risotto “Venetian style” with fresh baked polenta croutons.  Venetian style means the risotto is cooked in the ink of the cuttlefish (which is also chopped up in the risotto), so its jet black and fantastically delicious with a light fish sauce taste.   Next up for Marisa was prawns roasted in lard with cream of potatoes and asparagus. Need I say more?  I had the sea bass ravioli with asparagus tips and tiny vegetables.  There wasn’t a drop left.  We were as stuffed as Marisa’s courgettes when we finished, but they gave us limoncello shots on the house and I added a cappuccino to hover over a bit while we basked in our food comas.  Note: the limoncello was OK, but nowhere near the quality of what Marisa makes.  I know I’m opening up a can of worms for future production, but if you haven’t had her limoncello, you’re the poorer for it.  The service was old school – table scrappers, etc. - and gave us a taste of old Italy.  The server was an older gentleman who was very gracious (and deeply approved of our wine selection, which ingratiated us to him early on – love it!) and helped make our meal.  (Special note to Bettie and Joe:  your input made the night possible—grazie!)

We walked off our meal by meandering north of San Marco along the small canals in the warm summer night. We finally veered back towards San Marco to take in the piazza scene.  It was a Monday night, but the place was still hopping.  We checked out each of the four orchestras and when one of them broke out the Sinatra – “New York, New York” – and I’m a sucker for Sinatra, so we danced in the square under the moon and the soft piazza lights and absorbed some more of that Italian life.   The two orchestras nearest us were close enough that they stopped during each others songs.  The second orchestra got cute when their turn came and played “My Way” to continue the Sinatra love fest.  It was getting late and the orchestras were winding down, so we ambled our way down to the San Marco valporetto dock.  As the strains of My Way were left behind us, we heard it coming from in front of us, too, from the last of the four bands.  Dueling Sinatras – nice end to a perfect Venetian night.
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