Saturday, March 29, 2008

Some Italy notes... (from May 2006)

Matthew McConnaughy piloting a gondola...

Recently I've been sorting through old emails that were sent to friends during some of my trips in the past few years, here is another installment, somewhat edited after the fact. I put the ballooning experience as its own separate posting below. This was my 2006 trip to Venice, Florence and Rome. I have to seek out the Rome part of it, and also add photos later. For now, enjoy!

Hi everyone!

I am here in Venice, finally, and unbelievably had no jetlag at all yesterday, at least until dinner when I had a few glasses of prosecco. Then it hit me like a brick. I was only awake for 36 hours straight! I don't know what the problem was. ar ar

I took Air France through Paris to Venice. If anyone remembers my posting from the spring, I wasn't sure if the bewilderingly short connection AF allows in Paris was a bright idea and in the end I opted for the 3+ hour layover. I was quite glad I did because the 50-odd minutes connection time they offer is a joke. Why they allow for that is beyond me – if you are reading this, please heed – CDG needs more than an hour for connections if you are coming from the US. The good news is that they broke their perfect streak of losing my luggage and it actually arrived with me. You can imagine my horror at Dulles when I left – I was so proud that I had managed to pack only one 22 inch case for the whole trip and they simply wouldn't let me carry it on. There was a bit of a tug-of-war at the ticket counter but in the end I lost. Since I hadn't done triage on my luggage as I usually do (one small carryon, one checked) I was biting my nails for a while. But, it made it – wonders never cease.
When I landed in Venice I couldn't believe I had really waited five years since the last visit! What is wrong with me?? Because I had already been in transit for quite some time I decided to splurge with the water taxi straight to the Hotel Wildner. That's a spendy trip but it was so much fun.
The Wildner is a great little hotel and a wonderful value. I will post a photo of “the view from my room” and the view was certainly grand. I only paid 220E per night. It's a few doors down from the Danieli, right on St. Mark's Basin, so you can get the same view for about a quarter of the price! I did walk into the Danieli - it's quite an elegant hotel but I'd prefer to stay at the Wildner unless I was on my honeymoon or something. Elisabetta and the other managers there were very friendly and welcoming. I'm definitely staying there again!
My best meal in Venice was at Osteria San Marco. Don't be put off by the name, proximity to St. Mark's in this case does NOT mean mediocre quality. It was fabulous and in fact my stomach hurt after I left; I ate so much. (Well, it was that and the full BIG bottle of San Pellegrino that I drank.) There I had a 1/4 carafe of prosecco, the above devil-drink (gassy water) and a big caprese salad (big enough for a meal) and also ravioli filled with ricotta and drenched in butter and topped with lightly sauteed asparagus. In order to find it on Frezzeria, you need to head west while in St. Mark's square. When you are about two-thirds of the way down the square, look off to your right and you will see a little sotoportego. Once you go through this, you will see the gondola ranch (I call it this because there must be 10-20 gondolas all lined up there, ar ar ar). Turn left and keep walking. You will shortly intersect with Calle Frezzeria.
I also met up with my friend Monica on this trip. She was ending her Italy trip in Venice; I was beginning it. So we met for dinner each night and my first full morning in Venice (after sleeping off the jetlag) I was up quite early and walked from my hotel to La Calcina where she stayed and had breakfast with her at La Calcina's outdoor terrace. Here is a photo from my morning walk.
I must say early mornings are the best time – you have the city to yourself (and a few locals walking their dogs, and the odd storekeeper and restaurateur). I'll have to come back later with the restaurants she chose since when we met up for dinners I let her pick from her lists. She's much more organized than I am and especially when it comes to food!
Three days is simply not enough, not enough by far, for this city. It takes me that long to settle down. I think I had Stendhal Syndrome (not Stockholm syndrome! although I suppose I was held captive by the city so maybe that isn't far off the mark either. heh heh).
I will catch major grief in some quarters but I only went to one museum - Ca Rezzonico. I went on a guided tour that had me inside St. Mark's for all of 5 minutes. I went into a few smaller churches but most of this trip was walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, and of course photo taking. And walking. My last trip 5 yrs ago saw me going in to several museums and churches and since it was SO nice out (and my last trip was in winter so I didn't cover as much city ground) I decided to spend more time outdoors). I did very much enjoy the boat tour we took one evening. They are quite easy to find, but if anyone is interested I will look up the one we took.

Some observations: Pigeons + kids = cute cute cute. Pigeons - kids = damn shitting birds.

Gondoliers on the Grand Canal are either brave, or lost. I watched a few navigate their gondolas as we passed in the vaporetto. Maybe the best word for them is "deft" (at handling the waves).

Peggy Guggenheim's dogs all seemed to die very young! Out of something like 12 dogs only a few made it past age 10 and the rest lived 1 or 2 years it seemed like. She buried them all in her garden and she's buried next to them. Leave it to me to notice something weird like that. (Peggy was a very eccentric rich American who moved to Venice in her middle age and made it her permanent home. Think Guggenheim Museum in NYC - THOSE Guggenheims.)

I am going to take the brave position here (quite controversial) and say I prefer Venice without all the bloody tourists (which I, of course, am not one.. ha) The best time to wander around is very early or late if you don't want to feel like you're at a crowded rock concert.
You can find any famous Italian designer you can imagine, in Venice. It was far more interesting in that regard than say, Fifth Avenue.

Venice is as beautiful and as decadent as I remember it. I've spent most of my time merely wandering and I think I've taken 200 photos so far (sad but true. not kidding. in 24 hours.) Don't worry I won't send them all to you. I've got to slow that down because despite the 2 gig cards, I am blazing through one pretty quickly.

I gotta run so I'll write more later when the mood strikes. I hope this email finds everyone well and I'll catch ya later. Beth

And now today, in Florence (ps. I was wrong on photos, it was more like 500 the first 24 hours...!!)
My trip from Venice to Florence was mostly uneventful but for a little bit of a surprise at the train station. I had gone the day previously to buy my ES Italia tickets to Florence and used the ticket machines instead of standing in line for a ticket. I wasn't paying attention and when I bought the ticket hit the button for Venezia/Mestre to Firenze. I imagine you know what happened... I showed up with plenty of time to spare for my 9AM train – but from the wrong station! Yep, you guessed it, I needed to get a ticket from Venice's main station to Mestre and another one to Florence. I had the Mestre-Florence leg... and the only way I made it was to jump on the first train to Mestre (which was the only one I could have taken to make the connection on time) and hope it wasn't a long run to the correct track.

As it turned out it was no problem at all – once off the one train I merely had to walk across the platform – a distance of a few feet – but I was sweating it until I got on the ES train! The next train into Florence was that afternoon and I didn't want to waste it in a train station. Take heed – if you get your own tickets make sure to get both legs sorted out!
Once in town it was rather grey and the second surprise of the day was that my hotel, the Antica Torre di via Tornabuoni, had a problem in one room the night before.. and had put the person there in MY room thus leaving me room-less for that night. Why they couldn't put me in a different room I don't know – I asked. They sent me to the Albergotto, just up the street, for one night. It was no problem at all in the end because they took care of the taxi ride up and the Albergotto was also a fabulous hotel. I may not have found it but for that little hiccup and I'd definitely recommend it as a place to stay, too. My room rate was 250E a night for the Antica Torre and 230E a night for the Albergotto and I stayed two nights total.

It would be a tossup which one I liked better, too. The Antica Torre had by far the best view and of course the rooftop terrace. My own room there had a terrace, which, if you stretched your neck, you could see the Arno!
I didn't make a lot of use of the room terrace due to the lovely rooftop one. The room was large enough but not massive like the Albergotto... and it had carpeting not hardwood floors. It did have a huge bathroom which is always a plus. The room in the Albergotto I liked better – spacious room... hardwood floors.. big windows which when opened allowed the breeze to waft in through the long white sheer curtains... spacious bathroom with tile flooring.. but no terrace.

In the end the terrace really counted for a lot so if you are going during a time of nice weather – I would recommend the Antica Torre. If it is too cold to be outdoors you could go with either one but I'd likely stay at the Albergotto. You won't be displeased with either.
I had the best meal in Italy (this time) in Florence. I stumbled across this excellent enoteca by perusing Time Out shortly after getting settled in. My meal was simple: a glass of Brunello (10E), Crostone with melted gorgonzola, honey, and celery as an appetizer, and, ravioli in a light cream sauce, filled with pecorino cheese and pear. The ravioli was delicate and had the appearance of a tiny package, tied up at the little neck, rather than a square blob as you see here. The whole meal came to 25E and I ended up going back AGAIN before I left since I knew I'd never find that in the US. The food just melted in my mouth. It's very close to the Duomo, if anyone wants to find it let me know and I'll look it up – but it is in Time Out Florence.

I also have to give rave reviews for my walking tour the next morning. It was on basic Florence history and amazingly well done. It was the Original and Best Walking Tours which you can find it on the web at I saw that Michael Palin proclaimed it his favorite walking tour in Florence and since hey, he's my fave Python, not to mention a truly inspiring traveler - so why not check it out. (What is it with Brits and world traveling? They put all the rest of us to shame, no matter how much we may travel; they do so much more; I imagine a lot of it is from having so much of "their" sun shine on so much of the globe).
The woman who guided us was getting her doctorate in the Italian Renaissance and she was very thorough as a result. I learned some interesting little factoids on the walk – here are a few (which may be apocryphal but nonetheless entertaining):
“Stinking rich”: the rich used to be buried under the floorboards of churches – the richer you were, the better your “real estate” in a church – with the richest being up near the front. Naturally, dead bodies underneath tended to stink. “Hole in the wall” signifies the little tiny holes built into palace walls with a tiny door on either side. The rich folks inside would leave food and other goodies in their “hole in the wall” for the poor to come by and take for themselves and their families.
We didn't just learn little factoids, she also dissected artwork both on churches and buildings as well as inside them. After the walk I bought three books - two on the Medici (April Blood by Lauro Martinesi, about the Pazzi conspiracy to murder the Medici brothers.. Medici Money by Tim Parks), and the third one was Brunellschi's Dome by Ross King. Did you know because of the Pazzi conspiracy to kill the Medici (and thereafter the Pazzi family was extinguished....) the word pazzi in Italian means crazy?
I also got a number of my gifts for friends and family - Florence is great for leather items so it's going to be a leather birthday for everyone this year (and wedding, etc etc). I bought some beautiful watercolors from a street artist along the Arno. I am a sucker for flowers and especially poppies. I also walked my buns off in Florence – including a walk to Piazzale Michelangelo. That was a stunning view and I wish I had gone up a little closer to sunset. But it was wonderful nonetheless. I definitely got my exercise on this trip. Next up – into Tuscany! (including Pienza and the ballooning ride).
I picked up the car in Florence and drove the S22 down to Pienza. It is a beautiful drive - if you are a ceramics junkie like I am, stop in Castellina and check out Pep Bizzarrie. Stunning ceramic pieces (plates, platters, pitchers, etc.) and all of them hand painted. I bought a 4 piece place setting and a pitcher and shipped them home. I also stopped in Castellina di Chianti and San Gimignano.

My hotel here in Pienza is amazing. It is Il Chiostro di Pienza and I have views over the Val d'Orcia from my room. It is a beautiful hotel and well situated. (see the other blog post for the ballooning story...)

After the ballooning, I dined at Poggio Antico in Montalcino. The setting was beautiful and the food and wine - well let's just say after a two hour meal I was ready to take a nap. There are plenty of good shade trees around for that! I didn't however, I went into the winery itself and bought 3 bottles of 99 Brunello Riserva to bring home. Remember the days when you could carry on liquids? Well, it went into my carryon. Try that now!

After two nights in Pienza I drove to Rome and dropped the car at Ciampino. I'd recommend that over the train station I think.
While in Rome I stayed at the Hotel Parlamento, which was recommended to me a few years ago by Kismetchimera on fodors. I've stayed there twice now and number three will be in May 2007. It's a small family run hotel, nothing fancy but very clean and the terrace rooms are spacious (the double I had in May 2006 was a very small double, but I had a terrace room on a previous trip and it's quite nice - it even had an American electrical outlet next to the Italian one).
I very highly recommend the walking tours offered by Context Rome. I took the Roma Antica tour and it was fascinating. I tend to read a lot before trips (and during, and after) so it was interesting to have some of my readings come alive through the tour guide. As usual a 3 day visit to Rome barely scratches the surface but, since Rome wasn't built in a day I won't see it all in a day either. Must... Go... Back...

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