Saturday, May 20, 2006

Wednesday, May 17: Venezia to Firenze

In the morning we just had time to take enjoy the hotel’s ‘free’ breakfast in the garden before we returned to the train station:

Michael braved the coffee flavoured yoghurt, which turned out to be OK. The three-hour train trip passed easily enough and our hostel in Florence was only a 10 minute walk from the station.

Venice has crowded uneven streets full of tourists. So does Florence, but bikes, scooters, cars and trucks had been added to the mix and I felt dirty more from the exhaust fumes in the air than from travelling. The footpaths are extremely narrow and consequently many people walk on the roads, which are often barely wide enough for a single lane of traffic anyway.

The first task was to locate some lunch:

The most common lunch available in cafes is a selection of sandwiches, often toasted. Predictably most options are full of meat, but there’s usually one with tomato and mozzarella. If you’re a lucky vegetarian, you might also score some spinach or roasted veges. Lunch was much cheaper than we expected it to be, but that was probably because we had unintentionally disobeyed local practice: ordering at the counter yields a lower price on the understanding that you will either take the food away or eat it standing up. (This means that even telling them you’ll ‘eat in’ is ambiguous.) Thankfully, the ladies running the café didn’t seem to begrudge a couple of confused tourists a table to rest their travel-weary legs.

We didn’t have any must-see landmarks planned for Florence, but the hostel provided us with an excellent map of the inner city, marking the main buildings of note. We had a wander around The Duomo on our way to dinner:

Amongst other tourist-centric repetitions, I noticed a lot of shoe shops. (‘Noticed’ is perhaps inappropriate, as it suggests that my attention was fleeting.) It seems every woman wants a piece of Italian sophistication. Yes, including me:

Ooh la la… high end fashion hostel-style. I bought those on the way to dinner, and spent the latter part of the evening perfecting the art of photographing one’s own legs. (I promise that’s the last time you’ll ever see me wearing these shoes with rolled-up jeans.)

[While I’m talking about Italian purchases, here’s the toothpaste we just bought:

It has a faint aniseed taste, and reminds me of the candy-coated fennel seeds you get at the end of a meal in an Indian restaurant.]

Dinner, again, was at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant that Michael found through the internet. This one was called Sedano Allegro (Merry Celery) and it had a lovely ‘garden’ area behind the restaurant building:

Primi (first course) was a pumpkin risotto for me, and cheesy-pesto pasta for Michael:

Both very tasty and the right portion size to enjoy our secondi (second courses). Understanding little of the menu, we had both more or less randomly selected a dish that we didn’t recognise from this list. Michael was served a cheese patty smothered in tomato sauce, which was the closest either of us had come to a McDonald’s cheeseburger in years (pickle flavour included):

I think mine was zucchini parmigiano:

Even though I enjoyed it immensely, I let Michael have the last third of it to ensure that I had room for dessert (hehe). I really wanted try some tiramisu while in Italy:

It was deliciously sweet and creamy, though it didn’t quite match the standard set by Melissa’s Nonna when I sampled her tiramisu in Brisbane last October.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tuesday, May 16: Venezia

This was our one full day in Venice. It began at 7:15am when the church bells first clanged outside our window. Then the day paused and resumed at 8:15 when the bells clanged a second time and we decided to get going. A pleasant breakfast downstairs was included in the price of our hotel room, so we took advantage of that before braving the busy streets at about 10am.

During the trip, Michael has made almost all the bookings, tends to take charge of the maps and negotiating transport, and likes to plan each outing a day ahead. It’s been one sweet ride for me, as the only tasks I’ve been left with have been taking most of the photos and reminding him when it’s time for ice cream. Still, I particularly enjoyed the random layout and lack of must-see landmarks in Venice so that we could both, for the most part, just wander about without Michael furrowing his brow over a map or hassling me about which sight I wanted to visit tomorrow.

Nevertheless, our meals on the previous day had been somewhat uninspiring (hence the lack of photos) and our first task in the morning was to locate La Zucca for dinner. A bit of internet research in the hotel had yielded a map that corresponded with neither the detailed map of the city we had nor our visits to the actual square. A restaurant review commented that the best approach was simply to visit the square and wander around the side streets. We made another lengthy attempt at this, methodically visiting every alley we encountered and turning up nothing. Well, almost nothing: there was one restaurant that was positioned similarly to a photograph displayed on La Zucca’s website, but its name was different and the menu was far from vegetarian-friendly. Hot and a bit annoyed at having failed, Michael suggested that we head back to that restaurant and ask for directions. I noticed a couple of chairs on the other side of a small canal, hinting at another café. La Zucca! Dinner was set. I jokingly suggested that we retrace our steps back to the hotel, taking photographs of our surroundings every 5 metres, to ensure we could find our way back in the evening.

We did actually retrace our steps almost back to the hotel, as it was located close to a ferry terminal, and we wanted to take a trip along the grand canal. It was a little bumpy and crowded. Michael took charge of the camera:

We noticed a market and restaurants at Rialto, and agreed to walk through on our way back towards the hotel:

Of course the walk back was packed with tourists and more repetitive souvenir shops, and we were keen to find some quieter alleys whenever we could. But first we needed gelato:

We ate lunch at a slightly expensive but excellent restaurant by the grand canal:

I had super-cold freshly squeezed orange juice and gnocchi with tomato puree. The best gnocchi I’ve ever eaten (not that I’m a connoisseur): they were light and not gluey, the sauce was tangy, and the ground parmesan cheese added some texture. Since the shadow of Michael’s head interfered with that shot of his pizza, here’s another one:

He cut me a generous slice and it was great: the base was light and crunchy and there wasn’t too much cheese.

We had a couple of hours break in the hotel during the afternoon and I lapped up some Italian MTV. We set out again for a walk at about 5:30pm, stopping for a beer, before eventually making our way to La Zucca.

La Zucca appeared to be quite busy, but we were able to get a table inside that was reserved for another group in an hour and a half. The menu was completely in Italian, but we guessed our way through it. It turned out that the man running the restaurant grew up in Canada, so his translation of a couple of options and recommendation of a side dish were very helpful.

I ordered an asparagus flan:

The fresh asparagus flavour was fantastic, and perfectly matched by the cheese sauce (parmesan and maybe also ricotta). The recommended side dish was a gratin of potato and zucchini:

Soft inside, with a bit of a crust: just the texture I like. Delicious, but I was struggling with the rich cheesiness by the end. Michael’s vegetarian plate with rice turned out to be a sampler of the side dishes:

Clockwise from the top: more of the gratin, beans in a spiced tomato sauce, carrots with soy and sesame, spinach, and roast capsicum. Good stuff. By the time we had finished our mains there was less than half an hour until the next party were due to claim their table, so we decided to skip coffee and head home.

Monday 15/5: Venezia

We stumbled out of the train station tired from lack of real sleep and weighed down with all our bags, but even in that state, Venezia is a pretty spectacular city.

It’s also a freaking maze. We had a reasonably clear map showing how to get from the station to the hotel – all of about 250 metres. And we struggled. It turns out that the wide streets marked on the map were actually alleyways barely wide enough for three people to walk side by side. Anyway, after 20 minutes of wandering around laden down like packhorses, we eventually figured out where we were and checked into our hotel. As it was still only 10:30 in the morning, we couldn’t run straight upstairs to the shower and the bed and instead dumped our bags in the luggage room and headed out to explore, looking wistfully at the clean linen and comfortable sitting room as we left.

Having already realised that following a map in Venice was going to be problematic, we decided to just wander aimlessly through the alleys and over the canals and see what we stumbled across. After exhausting ourselves on galleries and old churches in Paris, there was nothing that we had to see during our stay and so we just followed our instincts and explored.

We eventually found our way to St. Mark’s Square – the key tourist mustering point in the city. The Basilica looked very impressive from the outside and is supposedly even more impressive from within, but the lines to get in were too long and our enthusiasm was too meagre.

We quickly rechristened the square – Pigeon Town. It seems that the native rats of the sky have become quite a tourist attraction. You can buy some feed for a few euros and stand with your arms out while flea-infested vermin peck about at you. Good times. (There’s a crouching woman in the photo below, but she’s half blocked by the standing man and half swamped by rabid pigeons).

Deciding that St. Mark’s Square wasn’t really for us we started to head back towards the hotel, intending to get lunch along the way and arrive at around 1ish for check-in, showers and naps. The walking continued to be pretty aimless and the confusion began to set in after we passed the 400th shop selling exactly the same Venetian glass trinkets. In a lot of ways, Venice is basically a giant Italian-themed amusement park. Every block contains an assortment of shops selling the same tourist-targeted pap (glass, masks, prints, maps), an assortment of pizza shops and gelati stands and swarms and swarms of tourists. I’d almost guess that on any given day English would be the most common first language of everyone in the city. Despite all this, it remains a beautiful setting, so you can forgive its flaws (particularly when you, as tourists, embody them).

We had the obligatory pizza for lunch and decided it was time to figure out where we were and how we were getting back. The only way to use a map at all in Venice is to: wander around randomly until you stumble upon a square, locate said square on the map (not nearly as easy as I thought it would be), figure out the rough direction of your end-point and try to walk vaguely in that direction without running into dead-ends or canals. It’s a struggle. So by 2:30 or so, tired and hot (Venice is the first place we’ve been where the weather could be said to have gotten ‘hot’ – 25 degrees anyway), we finally stumbled back into the hotel and dragged ourselves into our room for a rest. Never has a shower felt so good.

Before we knew it, four hours had passed and it was time to head back out for dinner. My list for Venice featured very few options and only one that sounded really delicious. Thankfully, it (La Zucca, which translates as The Pumpkin) was quite close by – it looked like only a 20 minute walk on the map. Ah the map. How I cursed it. After about 40 minutes we finally found the square where La Zucca was (supposedly) located. After another half an hour of lapping the square and poking our heads down sidestreets and alleys like this:

we conceded defeat and stumbled into the nearest trattoria to eat. Between Cindy’s creamy tagliatelle and my tortellini, we ate reasonably well, but it felt like food that we could easily have made ourselves and after our high hopes for La Zucca, was pretty disappointing (hence the lack of pictures). Thankfully, wine is cheap here and by the time we left the restaurant for home my spirits were high again.