Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
14Trip End Oct 08, 2009
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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.
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.
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.
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 (www.hkvenezia.it , 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.
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 (www.ristorantemarioallafava.it ).
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.
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