Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No. 478 – Pearly Queen

Performer: Eric Clapton
Songwriters: Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood
Original Release: Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert
Year: 1973
Definitive Version: None

After Laurie and I finally arrived at our casa in Venice, we crashed. Our inn serves a continental breakfast till 10, and at about that time, we got a call from the front desk reminding us. Thanks, but no thanks. We’d just been up 35 straight hours (43 if you go by the clock). We’re going to sleep as long as we want.

When we finally got up, it was after noon. We’d been asleep for 12 hours, and we awoke to a glorious day. Even though it was supposed to be in the 50s and 60s most of the time we’d be in Italy, I packed a pair of shorts, just in case. Good thing, too: It was 75 that day in Venice. We applied the sunscreen, took a deep breath and dove out into a new (old) world.

The plan was … well, there was no real plan. Laurie wanted to go to the Piazza San Marco, which seemed as good an idea as any, but I wanted to take our time, so we could kind of get our bearings. We also had to find a banco to get some euros. Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn and ended up down by the sea.

All of a sudden the canals opened into a huge channel that had sun-beaten churches in all directions. We hiked around past Santa Maria della Salute and then over to the Accademia. We could see the famous belltower at San Marco, but I was getting hungry, so lunch became the priority.

On the other side of the Accademia Bridge, we found ourselves in Campo Santo Stefano, which had several restaurants bustling with tourists and locals. (It was a Sunday.) We stopped at the first one, called Café Artblu.

I ordered the pappardelle con porcini and a quarto of the house red (Laurie got spaghetti alla carbonara and a quarto of white). Across the way, a teen-ager played the Godfather Theme on the accordion. At that point, I achieved everything I wanted from a trip to Italy: hanging out and eating great food.

We made our way to the Piazza San Marco, and it was literally awesome to be there. My attire prevented us from going into the Doge’s Palace or church (shorts are forbidden), so we just ambled about and took dozens of pictures.

It was getting to be cocktail hour. Three cafes were set up in the piazza, each with its own band that played classical music and other tunes. We decided because we had three days in Venice, we’d hit one café each day for a drink and some music.

We started with the only one on the south side of the piazza, the Florian. We were greeted by the café captain with an authoritative “Prego,” and he directed us to seats by the stage. We ordered wine, and they brought us a bit of complimentary cheese, olives and—get this—Ruffles potato chips. Really?

The music inspired a few people to dance in the piazza, and we were there at 6, when a 5-minute peal, rather than a mere six tolls, rolled through the piazza. At that moment, with the wine, the music, the history and the perfect weather (it was no temperature, which I use to describe as feeling neither warm nor cool), I felt euphoric. We were able to communicate in Italian, and the city was incredible. I couldn’t stop saying, “Sono Veneziano!” (I’m a Venetian!)

The timing of that first day became routine—lunch in the early afternoon, cocktails at about 6, then home to clean up before plunging back out again for dinner at about 8:30. The first night, Laurie wanted to find a place we’d passed on the vaporetto the night before on the Grand Canal.

We had dinner close to the Rialto Bridge—a place designed to bring in the tourists. The food was what you’d expect: mediocre, expensive and served by a waiter who was over it. It was easily the worst dining experience that we had and the only one that wasn’t at least good. Most of the time, it was excellent.

Walking home late, we didn’t follow the same route, which was a mistake. We got turned around, and after walking a long time, we found we were across the canal from the train station—almost as far away as we could get from our inn and still be in the city. Sono Veneziano idiota!

Finally, Laurie had had enough of me striking out on my own, trying to find our way, and she asked someone, who put us back on the right path. Oh well, like the guide in Laurie’s ever-present travelog said, if you don’t get lost in Venice at least once, you aren’t doing it right.

The next two days were more of the same—the eating great food, drinking wine and walking around parts, not the getting lost part. The second day in Venice we spent most of the day touring the Doge’s Palace. We went on our own and had no problem. Every room had signs in English, French, Spanish and Italian.

The Doge’s Palace was fascinating. For those of you who don’t know, the Doge was the puppet ruler of Venice at a time when people thought you’d sail off the edge of the world if you went far enough to the West. The bureaucracy ran everything, and in the middle a secret judiciary decided the fate of, well, everyone. The room in which they operated was particularly trippy. If you were a regular citizen and you saw the inside of that room, that meant arrividerci.

The third and final day in Venice was spent in Murano, the big glass-making island. It’s also where we had the best meal of the entire trip—at Trattoria No. 29 on the main canal. We sat next to Richard and Emma, a couple from Cambridge, England, also making their first trip together to Venice. Laurie and I had the same thing—fettucini in a light roasted red pepper sauce and a half-lobster still in the shell. It was incredible—and a deal at 20 euros.

That evening also was the best dinner experience we had. We went back to Campo San Margherita, where we had dinner the night before. The previous night we took notice of Osteria alla Bifora, so that was our destination. Unlike most Italian restaurants, which are almost garishly bright, Osteria alla Bifora was lit by candlelight, so it was cozy and romantic. The menu consisted mainly of salads and carpaccio, which was what we wanted—some wine and prosciutto.

Laurie and I always tried to speak Italian, but most places, the staff would switch to English on us pretty quickly. Not here. They made us work for it, which was cool. Laurie particularly liked that the server, who seemed to be one of the owners, spoke mostly to her. Most other places, they spoke to me, because I was the male.

When the server pointed out that the birthday party at the back of the restaurant had the carpaccio for two, we saw it could have fed a small battalion. Hokey schmokles! OK, bring us the carpaccio for one. As it was, that was overflowing with salumi, prosciutto, ham and who knows what else. It was fabulous.

At the end of the meal, the server made it a point to say she was going to bring us a drink on the house. Laurie got a limoncello; I still had my wine going, so I declined. We complimented her profusely on the food, and she said that was the guy behind the bar’s doing. He gave us a wave, and I toasted him with a “Salud,” to which he responded in kind. If I wasn’t already in love with Italy (and I was), that would have been the capper. Sono Veneziano.

I have to admit, when we first made plans for Italy, Venice was at the bottom of my list of places. But I knew it was Laurie’s favorite city in the world, so, of course, we went. Now, three days later, we were about to head to the place I most wanted to see: Florence. But as we boarded the train in the rain for the four-hour trip, I knew Venice was going to be a hard act to follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment