Sunday, June 6, 2010


We decided to book a last-minute trip to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, since we plan to be setting sail on a Mediterranean cruise with Nancy and Stephen on the actual day. As you'd expect, had a number of suggestions, including Venice, and so it was.

We flew out of the East Midlands airport, outside Leicester, on an afternoon flight, arriving at Marco Polo Airport (just north of Venice) that evening. One really posh boat ride later – their version of public transportation, although it felt like I was on some cheesy night-time soap about the lives of the rich and famous as I sat on comfy seats below deck, surrounded by wood paneling – up the Grand Canal and we were in San Marco/Saint Mark's Square.

Saint Mark's Basilica
Picture this: just shy of midnight; the surrounding buildings beautifully lit; a string quartet, immaculately dressed, playing to our left; couples dancing, or simply walking hand-in-hand; the water of the canal lapping in the distance behind us. It was unreal, in its most striking sense. (And then there's me, ruining the moment: “Ha, it's just like Vegas!” Curse you, Venetian hotel, for making such a lasting impression on me!)

It wasn't difficult to find our hotel from there, thanks to Tea's knack for orienting herself. We did have to rouse the night man, which was an early test of our Italian (that I failed miserably – thank goodness they get so many English tourists).

The next morning, after quickly breaking fast at the hotel, it was off to the famous Rialto market. Tea's Italian was in fine form as she bought us some cherries, grapes – such grapes! Black, and the size of plum tomatoes! Now I understand the origins of red wine – and 'acqua': it was already heating up; happily, this trend continued for most of the four days, despite the initial forecast for rain throughout.

The view off the Rialto Bridge
At that point we heeded all of our guide books and got lost for a bit. This is exceedingly easy in Venice, incidentally. Simply take a few steps in any direction, and you're unlikely to find your way back. There are many, many signs on the buildings – be they fancy plates, graffiti, or simply print-outs taped to doors – for San Marco Square and the Rialto Bridge. I have no idea how we would've made it back to our hotel each night otherwise; and I honestly don't know how tourists who aren't fortunate enough to be staying near either of those landmarks manage it.

So, yes, we got lost, taking in the wonderful architecture, our fingers sticky with juice of luscious grapes and cherries. Eventually we came upon a little shop; it looked like it was run by a father and his son. The father was in the back, making small sandwiches that the Italians call cicchetti (tapas), and he couldn't keep them in the display, the locals were snapping them up so quickly. Tea bravely waded in, ordering us two, and two glasses of Prosecco, which Venice is famous for. The son poured the latter from a carafe! I wonder whether it'd ever seen a bottle, or if it was some overflow or contraband. Delicious, in either case (and I'm not a big fan of the bubbly as a rule).

We headed back to the hotel for a nap at some point – it was the heat, not my age, I kept telling myself – and ate in a little pizzeria that evening. (You really need to make reservations in Venice. Even places you might consider middle of the road book up quickly.) It was fun, with a large family enjoying all sorts of local appetizers beside us. (I had the Quattro Stagioni, of course; very good.) Then we were off in search of a nightcap.

We aimed a little high, it seemed: before we realized it, our simple finish to the evening turned fancy. You know, when you've asked for some still water – I don't think they have tap water in Venice, by the way – the bread and olives have arrived, and then you open the menu... I mean, don't get me wrong, the cheese plate was the best I've had: a few pecorinos, a few asiagos, and other strange (but tasty) ones that I don't remember the names of and were served on spoons. This was paired with a local fortified wine. For dessert, I had fresh berries in port (hold the ice cream) and Tea had a fabulous chocolate cake of sorts. This was served with a local dessert wine called fragolino (as it's made with strawberries).

We toured Saint Mark's Basilica the following morning. It was overwhelming, really. At one point we passed a young girl sitting on the floor with a sketchbook and coloured pencils in front of her. Every surface of that basilica was a wonder, and the mosaic tiles on the floor were no exception; this girl was drawing pattern of a particular tiled area, with her mother or aunt crouched down beside her, offering colour suggestions.

Having explored a lot of the sestieri (areas) San Marco and San Polo the previous day, we then made our way to Sestiere Dorsoduro. We'd planned to spend some time in the Accademia, but it was so nice out that we decided to continue walking. Tea bought some gelato, and then we found this shaded dock that a restaurant had built out into the lagoon, facing the island of Giudecca.

We picked a corner table near the water, and spent the whole afternoon eating, drinking and enjoying the view. I had this incredible appetizer of six types of raw fish; Tea had an amazing pasta dish. For the main course, we shared a beautiful sea bass that had been caught within the hour, according to our waiter. They cooked it in salt, brought it to the table again to show us, then took it away to break that crust (with a spoon – really neat), clean it and plate it with seasonal veg. Delish! Dessert followed; then tea and espresso; and, finally, limoncello (a digestif – I liked it so much that I bought some in the airport on the way home). A great meal. We just took our time, watching the boats and ships go by – including two cruise ships, tugs in tow. It was picturesque, really.

We spent our last full day exploring Sestiere Cannaregio. Here, again, the highlight was a restaurant (surprise!). We sat outside again, by a canal that led out into the lagoon after a few hundred metres. This made for some interesting boat traffic as we ate: at one point, a boat pulled up beside two others that were parked abreast. The driver – it feels strange, using these road vehicle metaphors, but that's really the way it seems there – stepped lightly over this makeshift bridge and went into the restaurant; a few moments later he came out and retrieved two crates of vegetables from his boat, and then he was off again.

When we'd arrived, two guys had been chatting just outside the entrance to the restaurant. Partway through our meal, they stepped out on a boat that was parked directly behind us, and proceeded to pull Styrofoam trays out of chest freezer just in front of the cabin. It wasn't until black ink began to soak the plastic bags they were transferring the fish to – to say nothing of the trays themselves, or, in short order, the front of the chest freezer – that we realized we were witnessing a cuttlefish sale. We even noticed one of the patrons eating what looked like spaghetti al nero di seppia before we left.

While we weren't brave enough to order that, we did try another seafood antipasti tray. This one also included a few varieties of raw fish, and sea snails in olive oil, garlic and parsley. I believe they call it bovoletti; they give you toothpicks to work in the shells, and it really is very tasty (once you get past the texture). The highlight of the meal was definitely the primi: risotto with scampi and courgettes (zucchini); the best risotto I've ever tasted, hands down. We shared an amazing mixed grill for secondi, and finished with a limoncello (as you do).

And so, an incredible trip to Venice came to a close; my first trip, and Tea's second. It won't be our last, but we'll take in other parts of Italy before then: in a few short weeks, in fact, as our Mediterranean cruise stops in Florence, Rome and Naples!

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