Gondola, Gondola!

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May 30th 2010
Published: July 24th 2010
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It has been three years since our last visit to ‘the boot’ and we have been looking forward to seeing another side of Italian life. We were fortunate to have stayed with friends on our last trip and benefitted greatly from their advice and language skills- this time we’re on our own!

Touching down at the airport, we set off in search of the bus to take us to Mestre where we follow a slightly confusing set of instructions in search of our abode for the next three days.

We drop off our bags and immediately head towards the family restaurant recommended by the friendly chap at the desk. It’s packed full of locals enjoying a Saturday evening meal with their families and friends. Luckily it’s past rush hour and we’re given a table straight away.

As it’s a pizzeria we can’t resist ordering one pizza each and a small carafe of wine to share. They’re are pulled out of the huge wood oven in next to no time and pretty soon we’re ooing and aahing over our fantastic meal. What a welcome to Italy!

We’re up bright and early on Sunday in order to head in to town and finally get a glimpse of the city we’ve come here to experience- Venice.

The bus is crowded but we manage to squeeze in to a space beside the driver’s cab and we’re off! Our first glimpse of the water filled city as we head over the long bridge, takes our breaths away and when we finally arrive, we can’t wait to get off and explore!

We choose a direction, walk over the small bridge and we’re in! We’re immediately taken aback by how beautiful the city is. We’re surrounded by rows of gorgeous old buildings carefully painted in an array of bright colours overlooking the narrow waterways with only the choice of a bridge or a boat to reach them. We set off in a random direction choosing to duck this way and weave that. Turn left, go straight, over the bridge- it’s so much fun!

We find ourselves in a square filled with local market stalls selling gorgeous antiques. There is a church at the end of the row of three-story pale coloured buildings and we duck in to a very local looking cafe just in time for the post-church crowd to follow us in. We watch fascinated as the locals file in - grandparents, babies, middle aged couples and children all well dressed and in need of a pastry, coffee or beer. We eventually get the courage up to approach the counter ourselves and order two pastries and espressos. It’s fabulous coffee and so cheap that Lachlan’s almost tempted to have another. Resisting that urge, we head back out in to the streets feeling quite proud of ourselves to have gotten away with that transaction completely in Italian!

Consulting our map we agree that it’s nigh on impossible for us to work out which square we’re in. Even using the name of the church in the centre isn’t much help as there are over one hundred churches in Venice and we aren’t too sure how far or in which direction we’ve been walking in since we left the bus.

Normally getting lost in a city would be a confusing and frustrating feeling but somehow here, we don’t mind. Continuing along in a similarly random fashion we discover all sorts of nooks and crannies that fascinate and impress us. Eventually we find one of the large bridges crossing the Grand Canal
Gondola, GondolaGondola, GondolaGondola, Gondola

San Marco Waterfront
and for the first time all morning we figure out where we are.

Not long afterwards, we reach the Piazza San Marco and the chaos that is the tourist trade of Venice. Venice attracts 50,000 tourists a day and it feels as if they’re all right here! We agree that we need to get as far away from the Piazza as possible if we’re going to find a decent lunch. We escape down an alley and weave our way right and left in any direction that gets us away from the square.

We watch the prices of the set lunch menus drop with every restaurant we pass until we find one that seems like too much of a bargain to resist. We order some Italian beers and a few seafood choices from the set menu. It’s a quaint little restaurant and as we settle in and wait for our meals to arrive we read in the ‘Dining Out’ section of our guide book about how difficult it is to find good food in Venice. When our meals arrive Ariana’s pasta is tasty and her fried white bait main is...well...interesting. Lachlan is delivered a fantastic platter of rock melon draped with prosciutto and a main of fish. It’s tasty but we have a feeling that we’ll experience better food later on in our journey.

Finishing our late lunch, we meander our way back through the crowds to the Grand Canal and find ourselves walking along its edge enjoying the views and the mid afternoon heat.

Spotting a supermarket we duck in to see what we can find to take back to our hostel for dinner. One of our must do activities on any trip to Europe is to visit a supermarket. It gives you a real sense of the lifestyle of the people living in the country and as well as a chance to experience the food as it’s sold to the people. As expected, the deli section is full of Italian cheeses and meats and there is a huge range of dried pasta. Looking through the pre-packaged meat, Lachlan spots ‘carpaccio de equine’ written on one of the labels. That’s raw horse to you and me! Eventually settling on some prosciutto, cheese, bread and a few bottles of beer we head back out in to the afternoon sunshine and wind our way back to the bus station.

Finding your way through the streets of Venice is quite a challenge and we’re grateful for the many signs on each corner and bridge so that, providing you at least know what vicinity of Venice you’re in, you’re generally able to find your location and a route out. A little bit like having a map of a traditional hedge row maze!

Back at the hotel, we start our night off with some bottled ‘Bellinis’ we cheekily added to our shopping basket at the last minute. The Bellini (a peach and Prosecco cocktail) originated at the famous Harry’s Bar in Venice so it seems only fitting that we enjoy some while we’re here. Sitting out on the cool patio of the hostel we reflect on our day and how surprisingly enjoyable Venice has been so far.

Consulting our guide book, we agree that we can afford to have a day off from Venice tomorrow and instead we agree on a day trip to Verona.

Arriving at the train station the next morning we use our best Italian to request two tickets to Verona. It’s only once the man inside the ticket booth starts asking difficult questions

A nice spot on the river...
about which train we want to catch that we get stuck and revert back to English... which, luckily the ticket man speaks quite well.

We board the double deck train early and find we have the second floor of our carriage all to ourselves. It’s a two hour journey to Verona but the scenery is so picturesque, the time flies by and before we know it we’re disembarking and on our way towards the city centre.

After a short walk we walk under an ancient gateway and arrive into an area of wide cobblestone roads flanked by open air cafes surrounding a large Roman arena. It’s impressive and we immediately get a sense of what Verona’s all about.

Our first mission is to find lunch and having already settled on a recommendation from our guidebook we make a beeline straight for a highly recommended restaurant frequented by locals (and seemingly very few tourists). We’re seated immediately, offered wine and bread and before long our entrees have arrived. Ariana can’t resist trying the minestrone soup and Lachlan chooses the carbonara. We aren’t too sure how we’ll fit in the meat mains but somehow we do. The food is
Roman ArenaRoman ArenaRoman Arena

Verona City Centre
incredible and we agree that the tasty lunch alone was reason enough for the journey to Verona.

A leisurely stroll along the river’s edge is just what we need after such a lovely meal and what a breathtaking riverside it is. We can see a castle up high in the mountains, roman ruins down below, all rimmed with colourful Italian buildings.

Consulting our guide book, we realise that there is a magnificent church we need to visit while in Verona as well as the famous ‘House of Capulet’ and Juliet’s balcony. The winding roads lead us to the impressive Duomo di Verona and later onto a crowded archway covered floor to ceiling in ‘letters to Juliet’ with more notes being added to it by the second. Further in, jostling for personal space with the many organised tour groups which are swamping the site, we enter the courtyard and spot ‘the balcony’ which gives this site its name due to its likeness to the romantic balcony scene in Shakespeare's play.

We have time for one last gelato and a walk past the arena to once again admire its stature before we walk back to the station to catch our train back to Venice.

We take an alternate route back to our hostel from Mestre Sation in order to find another supermarket to pick up souvenir supplies. We catch it just in time before it shuts and are able to grab some goodies for breakfast as well as some pasta and biscuits to take back to the UK.

We then choose to take another ‘short cut’ back to the hostel from the supermarket which proves to be a rookie mistake when we (lost again) spend the next half an hour taking an unnecessary detour through the Mestre until we finally come to a somewhat familiar street.

Knowing we can’t leave the country without trying spaghetti vongole, we freshen up and head back out to the family restaurant where we enjoyed a meal on our first night in Venice. Fortunately, they have spaghetti vongole on the menu and plenty of tiramisu in the dessert cabinet for us to pre-order some so as not to miss out as we had two nights ago. The spaghetti comes out piping hot and is absolutely delicious. It has to be the best meal we’ve had so far and we vow to make some using the recipe we saw Jamie Oliver use on TV when we return to Nottingham.

When the tiramisu comes it is equally delicious. This is actually Lachlan’s favourite dessert so to be able to enjoy the real thing in its country of origin (and debatably the region where it was first created) is a real treat.

We wake early ready to make the most of our final day in Venice. Now that we know the drill with the buses and more importantly with the streets, we set out a plan in advance and head straight to the closest water taxi jetty. Watching everyone getting about on the water two days earlier makes us keen to experience it for ourselves and we stop quickly for a standing shot of espresso and a brioche (very Italian!) before boarding water taxi number one - the (stopping all stations) slow boat to San Marco.

Once on the water we relish experiencing Venice from a new perspective. Our boat journey takes as past the most beautiful architecture; the colours, balconies, ornate details, flower boxes filled with blooms, grand doorways and lush gardens all hidden when viewed from the streets are
The church of Santa Maria della SaluteThe church of Santa Maria della SaluteThe church of Santa Maria della Salute

The views from the No1 water bus.
now clearly visible and proudly on display. It’s as if these are the ‘real’ frontages and we enjoy each moment as it unfolds to reveal hidden alleyway-like narrow canals, gondoliers smoothly striding past, and with each stop Venetian locals board and disembark at various points in order to get on with their busy working days.

We finally reach the Piazza San Marco and choose this as the point at the end of our water bus journey. We’re nice and early and beat the queues of tourists waiting to see inside the Basilica. Inside we’re told to not take photos and to keep quiet but there are always a few who think these rules don’t apply to them (and to the group in front of us we’d like to say - no, we’re pretty sure that there isn’t a “church” like this one in North Carolina!).

San Marco Basilica is a lovely building with incredibly intricate tiled decorations, high ceilings and grand marble pillars and our stroll eventually comes to an end as we follow the roped off path back out in to the fresh sunny morning.

We’re keen to explore the San Polo area as we completely
Grand Canal Chaos!  Grand Canal Chaos!  Grand Canal Chaos!

The most small craft water traffic that we've seen since the Mekong.
missed it two days prior and set off with a few cursory glances at our map from time to time to make sure we don’t veer too far off course. We enter a much quieter part of the city and take our time strolling along the canals, through the alleyways, and though Venice’s famous fish market. The side streets of San Polo seems to be where people actually live and we enjoy being away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds for a while- it’s as if we’re exploring our own private Venice.

Eventually our rumbling tummies get the better of us and we head towards one of the many squares expecting to be able to find a menu fitting for our last meal in Italy. Unfortunately they all turn out to be tourist menus and there is not a seafood risotto in sight. All trip we’d been inspecting menus in the hope of finding this treat of the area but with no luck.

Just when we think we’re going to have to head towards one of the other famous foodie areas of the city, we spot a tiny doorway on the edge of a canal and
Gondola, GondolaGondola, GondolaGondola, Gondola

Off street parking...
upon closer inspection we find an Italian only menu with none other than the sought after risotto dei frutti di mare listed! We’re in! We’re welcomed, shown to our table, order some wine and the risotto and it’s not until our friendly waiter attempts a bit of banter that he realises we don’t understand Italian and are just making the best of some simple culinary terms. Never mind! Gazing around at our fellow diners, we understand why he assumed this was the case- everyone is local including some construction workers from a nearby building site.

The dish arrives piping hot and is overflowing with a generous amount of fresh seafood. It’s creamy, oozy and goes perfectly with our small carafe of white wine- we’re in heaven.

We again have fun getting lost on our way back to the bus station but we eventually make it before we return to the hostel to grab our bags. We pop into the Trattoria next door for one final farewell espresso before we say ‘arrivederci’ to the city of canals and head back to England. Job number one when we get back- buy an Italian cook book!


25th July 2010

Sounds like me
Your trip to Venice sounds something like I would do . . . keeping clear of the worst tourist traps and seeking out the more 'local' establishments. Risotto, especially, seafood is one of my favourites. Una visita fantastico in Italia.

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