Saturday, October 4, 2014: Venice to Padua: A Change of Pace in So Many Ways

Services are underway in the two synagogues in the upper rooms of the four story buildings just down the narrow walkway from our hotel. As we turn out from there into the wider canal path we are swept up in the great swarms of weekend visitors arriving in Venice at the train and bus stations. It is a good day to be leaving town.

We purchase our tickets without confusion, remember to validate them, find our platform (among the two dozen choices), and soon are rushing over the low causeway, past four massive cruise ships, and out of the city. The twenty-five minutes ride costs less then ten Euros. Venice has been a splendid four days but we both are happy to be back at a slower pace in a less crowded setting and, tomorrow, to be on the bike again.

We lunch again at Pedrocchi on a simple ham and mozzarella (or, for Mrs. C, provolone) sandwich made with what she deems the best baguette yet in Italy. Outside kids are playing on all four of the stone lions guarding the broad steps to the building. (I was secretly hoping I could perch for a few minutes on one of the beasts.)

We drop our bags at the Casa del Pellegrino where familiar faces recognize and greet us and then head across the street to the Basilica of St. Anthony. It is an enormous space with multiple domes and side chapels, one of them holding the tomb of the saint who is the object of many pilgrim visits, some deep in prayer with hands and foreheads pressed to the stone side of the tomb. While much of the art — paintings, sculpture, and frescoes — is from centuries ago, the (side) Chapel of Saint Sacremento, done in the 1920s and 1930s, hints of Surrealism. Behind the main altar, another chapel holds a small air force of angels and other flying figures in fresco, stone, and plaster.

The Botanical Garden of Padova dates from 1548 and in its UNESCO World Heritage citation is described as “the original of all botanical gardens.” Operated by the University of Padua today, the garden still holds thousands of plants specimens, especially those with medicinal uses. Its massive trees include a ginko dated to about 1750 and a grandiflora magnolia from 1786, both looking immensely vigorous.

The greatest surprise in the Garden is a very new massive glass and white metal building called the Garden of Biodiversity. It contains examples of trees and plants from the major climate zones along with explanatory panels and audio-visual projections that discuss broad issues of the relationships of humans and plants and the environments they share. The English translations are highly readable and the visual techniques as well done as anything I’ve seen in the museum world. The building has two floors enabling visitors to walk among the specimens at ground level and then look down on them from high above, a unique perspective on the symmetry (and its opposite) in the plant world. In all, it is an extraordinary marriage of architecture and a cultural landscape.

Last week we were unable to find a seat at Antica Trattoria Dei Paccagnello, but at 7:15 the place is empty and the manager takes us in, a stroke of good fortune because it will be my best meal thus far in Italy and Mrs. C’s best ever-anywhere fried squash flowers stuffed with cheese. My antipasta uses bacala, a regional specialty of dried and salted cod properly spelled with an accent mark on the last letter. Mixed with milk and other ingredients, it is made into pine cone shape forms and presented slightly chilled accompanied by warm polenta slices on a plate thinly ringed with olive oil and finely chopped parsley. The flavor is mild but unmistakably from the sea and it gives life to the otherwise bland polenta.

My main dish of roast pork sirloin is baseball sized, wrapped in prosciutto, and cooked beyond rare but still pink. A dark sauce of juices keeps the meat moist and flavors the accompanying polenta while a small stew of unsweetened rhubarb adds tartness to it all. Tomorrow we will bike through the Colli Euganei region just south of Padova, the source of our merlot wine, a 2012 bottling from the Cantina Colli Euganei. The wine is dark, balanced, with good body and, at ten Euro, a great bargain. While we await the check we amuse one year old Penelope whose mother is carrying her about in an effort to quiet her, a scene any parent or grandparent can immediately visualize. My baby Italian and Santa beard again are guaranteed one-year-old pleasers.

Friday, October 3, 2014 Venice: A Great Day on the Water

We visit the Venetian lagoon islands of Murano and Burano under warm, brilliantly blue skies. All together we spend about two hours on board admiring the great views across the open waters and marshes.

Within ten minutes after we walk out into our quiet piazza we have two of the types of encounters that make travel such a delight. A middle age man carrying a serious camera and wearing a photographer’s vest stops me in a narrow walkway a hundred yards from our hotel asks to take my photograph. He explains to two camera-bearing women with him that my dark blue shirt and red cap are the perfect primary colors for a shot. I assent but only after I take his picture. We all laugh and head off with well wishes. At the water taxi — vapporetti — stop, while we are trying to interpret the map and schedule, a thirty-something Thai woman who lives in Singapore and begins an energetic conversation that brings in our Washington lives and her pleasure in being away from the high rises and polluted air of her own city.

The first boat ride is noisy and choppy but offers great views of the working docks on the edges of Venice. Murano was a center of glass making since at least the 16th century and even today some artisanal production remains on the back streets and sprinkled among the miles (or at least kilometers) of retail shops where the milling tourists can spend from one Euro to 5,000 on foreign made trinkets or gorgeous vases, bowls, sculptures, and every other imaginable glass object. It is a great place for window shopping along the sidewalks lining Murano’s canal network. Unfortunately, the Chiesei di San Pietro Mortie is a rarity in not permitting inside photographs because its glass chandelier and side windows, made of uniform glass circles, about four inches across and held in place by connecting metal strips, are unique, beautiful, and impossible to describe adequately. A dozen oversized oil paintings of Biblical scenes fill the walls between the windows, most by 17th and 18th century artists including Tintoretto.

The Glass Museum, first created to document the history of the city’s great industry in 1861 and now part of the Venice City Museums complex, is half shuttered for renovation but remains a worthwhile visit. The archeological collections, dating from the first century, are from local finds and from Dalmatia. They are mainly small but lovely pieces, some appearing like new. Venetian glass making flowered in the 16th centuries and its artisans soon spread across Europe, especially to the north. Although some labels went beyond my interest in technical and stylistic details, the great beauty, ingenuity, and diversity in techniques and forms was obvious. One room featured an enormous table centerpiece, to be used at formal palace dinners, consisting of hundreds of pieces shaped and arranged to resemble an Italian garden and its fountains, arches, and flower beds. By the time we had wandered to the far end of the retail promenade we were hungry for lunch at Al Canton. My simple spaghetti with red sauce was a nice complement to the light, chewy, and tasting-of-the-sea, calamari fritti. Mrs. C’s lightly oiled and seasoned tagliatelle came with wonderfully sweet and fresh shrimp. The house rose wine had a good body and flavor that became even better as its chill wore off. Double espressi and a light and creamy house made tiramisu served in a stylish glass bowl fueled us for the next adventure.

The ride to Burano is longer and smoother with views across the great stretches of marsh grass that seem to be bounded with low sea walls. We pass small, low islands that once were naval or military outposts, now overgrown with trees and shrubs, their buildings quickly becoming scenic ruins. Once a center of lace-making, Burano is another shopping opportunity for tourists alongside the canals. Of course, it also has its historic church, this one with a tower than leans precipitously, quiet low rise neighborhoods, nicely landscaped seaside promenades, and even a small fishing fleet. Although auto-free, I do spot the first bicycles I have seen since arriving in Venice. The water taxi gods smile on us and our return to the mainland is aboard an enormous, two level boat that gives all the passengers seats and fine views for a trip that stops along the outer barrier islands of the lagoon before ending at San Marco square as the sun sets. The famed Lido, just across from the mainland, is automobilized and dense with old hotels and an enormous boat dock. Many visitors stay there and make day trips to the main island.

We congratulate ourselves on not making that choice as we make our way back to our neighborhood through the winding and always fascinating byways. I am struck that in four days the city is sufficiently familiar that we can navigate mainly by memory and dead reckoning with only a few map stops. (Puzzled tourists, holding large sheet maps and trying to read the small print in the light of dusk and to determine their locations, are nearly as common as canal bridges.) Mrs. C. guides us to a restaurant she has scouted last night, O’Osteria di Chef Domenico. From our table on this quiet side street we can watch the neighbors returning home and families coming from religious services in neighboring synagogues. Mrs. C. spots a gondlier she had noticed a day or two ago but now out of costume and walking with his young son. Dinner begins with small glasses of Prosecco on the house. Our prosciutto antipasta comes with the familiar melon but also pineapple pieces, a great surprise and a welcome discovery. Mrs. C’s seafood with spaghetti is generously filled with clams, mussels, and the like and seasoned with parsley and garlic. My Venetian style liver, a speciality we are told, has thin, bite-sized pieces cooked soft with onions, pine nuts, and a few raisins and small sides of rice and steamed greens and celery. It all comes in a gondola shaped porcelain dish. I never warm to our wine selection although Mrs. C. finds it smokey on the nose, balanced, tart, and more astringent as it opens: Pino Nero, “Col Blanchis,” Collio (doc), Azienda Vinicola di Ezio Cicuto.

Thursday, October 2, 2014 Venice:

Our plan to do two things — the Island of Murano and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection — gives way to our first principle, do nothing hurriedly (we are on vacation!). Under warm and intensely clear skies, we stroll through the city again, eat well, visit one great art space, and call it another wonderful day in Italy.

In our stroll I am thinking especially about how it is one actually lives in a place like this bounded on all sides — literally — by water. I snap photographs of the boats of every sort — personal runabouts, fire boats, an ambulance boat, boats hauling gravel, a load of dry goods (including a pallet of toilet paper). In addition to the ubiquitous (and annoying loud on stone pavement rolling luggage) I also see handcarts propelled by muscular, mostly young, men with tradesmen’s tools, packages for delivery, groceries, and the many other necessaries for modern life. Sometimes goods are unloaded directly from boats into windows and doors opening directly on the canals rather than stacked canal side. Heavier materials, or small boats, may be hoisted on a beam and maneuvered inside.

Other walking sights: From behind high stone walls come the unmistakeable sounds of a schoolyard in any language. Dogs of every complexion, leashed and free, ignoring the pedestrians but intensely interested in, and often barking about, their own kind. They will join us at restaurant meals, perhaps in a lap, and in grocery stores and bakeries. They will sit patiently while with street corner mendicants who incorporate them into their begging. On a whim I enter a glass door to what once was a large church. The impressive columns and nave remain but all religious materials have been removed. Doors at the far end lead further into what was once a cloister for a monastery but now holds a few smokers, strollers, and three cats. Because the names of our specialities share a common Latin root with Italian it is clear that we are in the midst of an enormous medical campus of re-purposed and new buildings. No one pays us any attention and we are happy to find a free WC. Eventually we retrace our steps and back to the bustle of street life.

It is easy to know that we are approaching the grand San Marco piazza because swarms of visitors are following signs on sticks held overhead by tour group leaders. Most visitors now wear ear buds carrying their leader’s voices. We seek alternative paths down lanes too narrow for more than two abreast. San Marco is a jam again but also a great splendor. I snap a few more shots and we amble on toward our goal. Ristorance da Raffaele is a bit formal and pricey but our shaded table just beside (and a few feet above) a narrow canal trumps those concerns. I take further solace in the excellent service and an outstanding, large plate of scampi and calamari fritta cooked crisp and light like the very best tempura. Mrs. C. enjoys a simple bowl of gnocchi with tomato sauce. We savor these meals and our shared green salad watching at eye level the gondoliers and service boats maneuver the slender passageway.

Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), heir to a small portion of her grandfather Solomon’s great western U.S. mining fortune, was a gallery owner, collector, patron of artists, and, after 1949, operator of a museum in her own home and garden on the Grand Canal. Today the Collection is a part of the larger Guggenheim enterprise and an outstanding place to visit for its art, its location, and its insights into her life and the art world of her era. The small garden has modest sized works by the best known sculptors along with a marker for her ashes and the long list of dogs she called “her beloved babies.” The main building, where she lived, was built as a residence in the 18th century but only a single floor was completed giving it something of a modernist feel. Some of the art remains in the spots where she had installed it and small black and white photographs show her in many of the rooms. Although she had a particular interest in Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and these are very well represented, the Collection includes Cubists from the early 20th century, paintings by Picasso, Leger, and Chagall and a host of other well-knowns, and perhaps my favorite, a Calder mobile in the center hall. In addition to informative wall texts I learned a great deal more from brief intern talks on her life and on the Jackson Pollock room. (She was a great supporter of Pollock.) In addition to the original home, the Collection now includes an addition housing the Schulof Gallery, also with large windows, natural (but filtered) light, and views to the vine covered garden, and an older neighboring building holding a collection of Italian modernists from the pre-World War I era.

We leave the Collection at its closing time, 6:00 pm, heading to the nearby vaporetto stop — a watery bus ride. In the crowded boat there is some confusion about the cost of a ticket because our stop has no ticket sales. We all grab on to the handholds that are available and shift and maneuver as passengers board and leave. The boat heads by massive cruise ships, under the Calatrava bridge, past the train station, and up the smaller canal but a few hundred meters from our hotel. I loved the ride and the views but was happy to get my land legs back and out of the press of bodies. After a stroll to the end of our canal for great post-sunset views out to the small islands and to the open sea beyond, we begin the search for food. Mrs. C. remembers reading of Vesuvio, recommended for its pizza, and we actually find the place. The good news was that her white pizza with smoked cheese, buffalo mozzarella, and ham was, in her words, “the best pizza yet,” and my Rustica with dried tomatoes and Rocket was very good and perhaps the best crust yet. The bad news was that our initial order was lost and we sat for a prolonged time as our server studiously ignored us. Finally, another server asked if we wanted anything more than wine and sparkling water, apologized deeply when we explained, and delivered our pizzas in minutes. The wine, which we stretched out over the very long wait, was a fine Barbera D’Alba, “Raimonda” from Fontanafredda in Serralunga d’Alba.

October 1, 2014 Venice:

A gray rainy day seems to slow us and the rest of Venice. We visit our nearby museum, wash a load of laundry, see a bit more of the city, and eat well.

There are no church bells in the immediate area to toll the morning hours and we sleep late under gray skies that turn to a light rain that persists until evening. A sign in our hotel’s small breakfast area assures us that the meal is Kosher though it looks like many other similar meals on the trip. The Museo Ebraico di Venezia is only a dozen footsteps away and we purchase tickets for admission and a synagogue tour. The Museum occupies a four story building facing the piazza of Ghetto Nuovo. Above the reception area and a book store actually filled with books, are two floors of exhibit areas. Much of the collection of religious objects, shown in the first room, including many ornate Torah towers and crowns, had been hidden away when the Nazis raided the neighborhood and carried off hundreds of inhabitants. Jews had lived in Venice for a long time before an edict in 1516 restricted their residence to what came to be called the Ghetto area, according to some the first use of this word to express this idea of segregation. They were permitted, in part because Catholics were forbidden to lend money (usury). The Museum does especially well in briefly tracing the history of the several “nations” of Jews — from Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Levant and each with its own religious traditions and secular language — who made up the community. The Ghetto had an important publishing tradition and produced hundreds of volumes of religious texts and commentaries. Napoleon abolished the residence requirements when he captured Venice in the early 19th century.

Our synagogue tour guide was very knowledgeable, offering informative introductory remarks and taking questions about the German, Italian, and French synagogues, the former on the upper floor of the Museum building and the other two in adjacent buildings. (Under Jewish law a residence was not permitted above the a synagogue.) The three vary considerably in decorative style but each is a rectangular room that might hold100 worshippers with an altar area, seating around the sides, and screened balconies where women sat. All three have been restored, or maintained, in excellent condition and are used for an occasional religious service or a wedding, often by foreign tourists.

We lunch again at Upupa. In the rain it is especially convenient and the food is quite good. My Calzone Classico’s crisp crust neatly enfolds tasty ham, cheese, and mushroom contents. Mrs. C’s spaghetti with tiny clams is tossed with olive oil, chopped parsley, and zucchini bits — simple and classic. As the rain lets up we head toward the train station and the laundromat which turns out to be remarkably simple to operate and although it has only half a dozen machines it is not crowded. We kill the waiting time walking to the Calatrava Bridge but can’t see why this graceful arc over the Grand Canal linking a massive bus lot and some nondescript modern buildings should be so controversial. The bridge seems to echo the lines of the many others over the canals, even to the familiar, low height of the stair steps. Most surprising to me was the small elevator car that can carry non-walkers up from ground level and across the bridge on a separate track. We window shop on our way back, grateful for the fresh laundry. I look at realtors’ apartment prices and Mrs. C. fondles beaded jewelry but we both come away empty handed.

Dinner is just a few canals and bridges — read blocks — away at an Osteria recommended by Rick Steves. As we cross the first bridge we see the very last glow of the sunset framed between the buildings lining the canal that runs West out to the sea. It is picture postcard Venice. At “A Bacco,” Two very casual thirty-something men welcome and serve the dozen or so tables between smoke breaks outside. My squid in its black ink sauce is cooked tender in smaller than bite-size pieces and served over polenta. It is just the taste of the sea that I crave tonight and nicely complemented by thin slices of red peppers, zucchini, and egg plant salted and grilled with and olive oil dressing. Mrs. C. has spaghetti again with a seafood mix that includes a single, imposingly large langoustine.

The Splendor of Venice

September 30, 2014 Padova to Venezia: The Splendor of Venice 0 km We are not the first visitors to Venice over the past millennium or so to be astonished by the wonder that is Venice, but none of the high expectations measured up to the actual experience. From the audacity of building a great island city on mud flats several miles from terra firma, to the array of piazzas, palaces, and churches, to the tiny back streets and canals with scenes of everyday life, to the masses of people from everywhere on earth gathered at the great San Marco square, Venice is nothing remotely like anywhere I’ve been or imagined.

After a final hearty breakfast at the Casa Pellegrino, we ride the crowded one-railed rubber wheeled tram that runs the length of Padova to the train station. (Although it saved just a thirty minute walk, I wanted to experience this stylish and efficient urban transportation enhancement.) Purchasing the eight Euro ticket for two to Venice at the electronic kiosk was remarkably simple: touching the screen for the destination city and then the departure time we wanted, inserting the credit card, and walking away with a paper ticket. The commuter rail car was modern and air conditioned and we easily scored a seat together despite the crowded platform. What we did not do was avoid the rookie mistake of failing to validate the ticket at the time stamp machine before boarding. A grumpy conductor explained our mistake — which I had realized just before the train pulled away — in rapid Italian and flashing several sheets of paper in English and then pulled out a handheld calculator, punched in a few numbers and showed be a 30 Euro fine that he was ready to collect. Although I generally grasped what he was saying, I had no way to respond in Italian except to mutter “non caspicso” and look puzzled and ignorant. Looking down the car at the long rows of victims he had yet to interrogate, he finally scrawled some indecipherable numbers and letters on the back of the ticket and harrumphed off. A middle aged Italian man in the facing seat had been rolling his eyes and when the incident ended he looked at my ticket and explained in a mix of simplified Italian and English what had happened and how absurd the conductor had been. Mrs. C. recalled similar episodes recounted in an Italian travel book she had read recently. I was glad to know that feigning ignorance and testing the patience of my tormentor — which had worked so well for me as a child and a bureaucrat — still had its place in my repertoire.

Shortly before reaching Venezia the train pulls through a stretch of industrial yards, ship docks, and refineries and then across the two mile rail and motor bridge to the main island offering views of small boats of all sorts plying the waters. Emerging from the rail station onto the plaza facing the Grand Canal had something of the feel of entering the great Roman amphitheater in Verona although the scene revealed here is filled with boats, ancient palaces, churches, and masses of other awe-struck tourists. The detailed map of Venice that we buy for 2.50 Euro is indispensable for winding our way over bridges and through narrow streets to the Hotel Locando del Ghetto. Booking.com, which I have used regularly, was showing 84% occupancy in Venice when I made my booking, but this small place on a very quiet piazza in the Cannaregio section is a delightful find. The word “ghetto” describing an area in which a group of people is confined is thought to have been first used in Venice for this neighborhood which still has a small Jewish community. The triangular piazza, perhaps half the area of a football field, includes a small olive tree and half a dozen others of several varieties. Just next to us is the Ebraica museum; across the way is an old building with the wording “Casa Israelitica di Ripeso;” on a brick wall across from us are a series of plaques commemorating the Holocaust events here in 1943 and 1944; and when we return late in the evening we see a group of young men in Orthodox garb studying in a ground floor room. The piazza also has one reminder of modern anti-semitism, a small, windowed kiosk holding two armed men in military uniforms.

Lunch on the terrace of the Cafe Upupa next to our hotel is the chef’s special seafood risotto for two with saffron, clams, and mussels. It is creamy and just the right mid-day size and well worth the twenty minute wait for preparation. Properly fueled for an afternoon’s wander we gradually make our way through the city. I don’t keep count of the many small canals we cross on low, stepped bridges or the outboard motored runnabouts that crowd them. Closer to the tourist sections the canals are busy with shiny, slim, black gondolas and their paddlers looking like images just out of a travel brochure. They seem especially popular with tourists from Asia. An interpretive plaque identifies the oldest Lutheran church outside Germany, the only Protestant evidence we have spotted thus far on the trip. On the slightly wider walkways retail shops line the ground level running from the cheapest trinkets to the grand names of Italian luxury. What is missing is anything wheeled: not a car, truck, scooter, or bicycle in sight or sound. On a small cargo boat two men sort and toss packages to each other. I think FedEx Acqua. (Of course, there is no escape from the sound of tourists’ roller luggage.)

Mrs. C. can only repeat “fantastic” when we round a corner into the San Marco piazza, a grand space lined on four sides with great brilliant white marble churches and palaces. The Ateneo di San Basso, a small, less noticeable building just on the fringe of the piazza, draws us in with a poster for a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons this evening. Tickets are available at the door for the senior citizen reduced price of $26 and our evening plans are set. After pressing through the crowd to the Grand Canal we peek into Harry’s Bar, made famous by Hemingway. It still looks like a watering place for high-end artistic types from suburban Oak Park or Paris.

We are ready for dinner by the time we have strolled by the old, arcade-lined Rialto Bridge, another key city landmark. The stylish orange plastic chairs at the Taverna SanLio distinguish it from a score of other places along the winding streets leading back to San Marco. Our shared salad includes mosh and arugula along with other green leaves and cherry tomatoes. My grilled monkfish is firm and lightly salted. It comes with sliced boiled potatoes and a small leaf salad. Mrs. C. has black tagliatella pasta with mussels and tuna roe, a rich, salty, and (in her words) “very sea-foodie” meal appropriate to the location. Our Valpolicella Ripasso is perfect for the seafood, balanced, and long on the palate. Of course, it was perfect with steak and truffles a few nights back too, although this 2012 version, “Torre D’Orti” from Agricola Cavalchina,” may have been just a tad lighter. We have time for my first Tiramisu, a light and not-too-sweet layered delight, especially with a rare evening expresso.

The concert hall seats perhaps two hundred on comfortable folding canvas chairs and has excellent acoustics. After several brief opening pieces the six strings, the Virtuosi di Venezia, are joined by a violin solist (whose name I could not grasp). Although younger than most of the other players, even an amateur music-listener could recognize her grasp of the material and her dramatic flair that seemed to spill over to her colleagues’ performances. The crowd responded enthusiastically, often at moments when American audiences would have stayed silent. In all, a great night at the concert hall. Our walk back was a prolonged exercise in trying to retrace our footsteps, read (in the dark) the tiny print on our map, and guess at which unnamed, narrow street might be the best direction. Patience and a small helping of gelato saw us through.