So cait+tiff are still nowhere to be found. We’re lucky to have a bunch of friends with wandering feet to jump in for us this week!
Miss Emily is the reason cait+tiff exists in the first place. We basically owe everything to her. But since abandoning us in Cambodia, she’s planted her feet in London and is living the sophisticated wine-sipping, cobblestone street European life with the occasional hops to Italy. We’re flat out jealous and miss her beyond words. And as the first of Emily’s Posts (get it? haha), we asked our dearest to tell us what one great day in Venice looked like.
Greetings from Europe, Cait+Tiff’s faithful readers! While your two loyal correspondents gallivant around Asia this week, they’ve tasked me with chronicling my recent trip to Venice. I’m new to the travel writing biz, but since I introduced Cait and Tiff way back in 2012, maybe they felt I could add a certain something. Also, I promised to write about pasta.
I’d been to Venice a number of times during a summer I lived in northern Italy. But because it’s so high on many people’s Must See Lists, I only ever went when friends were visiting; meaning my experience of Venice was that of an inexperienced tour guide. A little stressful, and hitting repeatedly the same classic and beautiful, but also crowded and touristy spots.
So, back for a visit and armed with my new Italian language skillz (I can count to ten AND say my name *brushes shoulder*), I thought I’d give Venice another try. In preparing to go, I found I was nervous about how to do the trip well, as it wasn’t my first visit I felt a pressure to know the city more intimately than I do.
Venice brings out this ‘doing it well’ concern more than most places because it is such an intensely historic and cultural location that in some parts of the city (I’m looking at you San Marco or Rialto Bridge) you can feel both crushed by tourists and overwhelmed by what you are seeing but not necessarily understanding. Part of the fun of travel is imagining living somewhere, and imagining the lives, past and present, of those who do. But Venice in my experience had always felt less like a vibrant city and more like walking into a painting; stunning to be sure, but also difficult to interact with.
This trip, however, perhaps because I didn’t feel the pressure to Do the Things You’re Supposed to Do, was a happy exception. We started out badly, as we’d gone especially to attend the Venice International Architectural Exhibit* but we’d misread the open hours and missed our chance to go. This ended up having a happy outcome. In the walk from Piazza San Marco (near our hotel) to the Arsenale di Venezia, where the exhibit was taking place, we went through the Castello neighborhood which I’d never visited before, full of small art shops and streets virtually empty of other people. There are no cars in Venice, so frequently the only walking one does is the well-worn track from the train station to the Rialto Bridge and on to San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs. By that time your feet are pretty tired, you’ve been in line for the museums, and all you want is a glass of vino and a foot rub. But as pretty as that walk is, it’s crowded, so if you have the time (and comfy shoes) it’s great to branch out into different neighborhoods.
On the way back from the Arsenale, we went via the Venice lagoon, which is a stroll well worth taking if you can time it to align with sunset. The sun sets over the Santa Maria Della Salute Basilica and is breathtaking . This stroll also allows you to approach San Marco from a different angle, thereby granting you a whole new view and perspective of the timeless city center.
We continued along the lagoon, now much quieter as the cruise ships normally re-board at dusk, leaving the city’s main areas totally changed, to the Gritti Palace, a hotel bar recommended in the NYTimes’ 36 Hours series. Built in 1475, it was a private residence till the late 1940s, and remains one of the city’s poshest hotels (note to the reader: we just went to the bar). It was pricy (cocktails started at 18 euros), but well worth it as a treat. While the inside looks like a lot of stuffy hotel bars, the view from the heated balcony is unmatched, and looking out over the water you see Santa Maria Della Salute lit up at night in all its glory, and the water taxis of the uber wealthy pull up to the city’s (many) posh hotels. The ambiance was slow moving and blurrily calm. I had an Aviation cocktail made from gin, maraschino liqeur, crème de violette and lemon juice; it was delicious and both sweet and sour. My trusty companion (here on out referred to simply as MTC) ordered a balsamic martini, and it was as heavenly and intriguing as it sounded. Venice is not too far from Modena, the home of the world’s best balsamic vinegar, which I only discovered on moving to Italy can range from light textured and tart to goopy and sweet. In any case the cocktail was like maple syrup with a punch. I want one now just typing that. The Gritti Palace claims to have been Ernest Hemmingway’s favorite Venetian bar, but if you counted up all the bars in the world that claim to be EH’s favorite, it paints him as a pretty fickle dude. Regardless, it’s fun to imagine him there; and easy in a way, as the peaceful vibe lends itself to picturing Hemmingway in a corner, writing in a notebook, hitting on the waitresses.
We’d been recommended a spot for dinner by an Italian friend, and as many people feel the food in Venice isn’t as good as you find in surrounding areas, we were excited to try it. Unfortunately, dinner didn’t rank especially high, as it was good but not great, but the menu had some intriguing options, including the lobster pasta, which was mild flavored but filling, and a caprese salad, which is hard to do wrong (some places do caprese a little differently, with stewed tomatoes instead of raw. This flavor adds a sweetness which perfectly complements the basil, and is the bane of my ‘recreating in my own kitchen’ existence, so well worth trying if you see it on a menu). Though dinner was unmemorable, we did revisit an old favorite for lunch the next day, Osteria Ae Sconte, which is consistently delicious. I recommend anything seafoody for your main dish. A North Italian favorite is Baccalà alla vicentina, or salted cod, which is really – well it’s salty and fishy (I don’t have Cait+Tiff’s flair for descriptions). In Northern Italy this will normally come with polenta, but you can request roasted veggies instead. Seasonal food is also really popular here too, and as we went during the late fall, pumpkin recipes were abundant (hurray!). MTC had a pumpkin, crouton and bacon soup which was bowl lickingly good. I didn’t see it this time, but normally around Christmas caramelized pineapple slices hit the dolce menu, and it’s not to be missed. Whatever you get though, you should definitely try the gorgonzola and walnut gnocchi, and/or the prosciutto e melone, thinly sliced Italian ham draped over fresh melon. While being close to many of the main tourist locations, Osteria Ae Sconte is in a quiet square, you can sit outside with only the buzz and chatter of other diners, the guys who work there are charming and remember you, and frequently guests are treated to an aperitif (I think we had Montenegros, as that’s a favorite), a welcome glass of Prosecco or a limoncello after your meal.
After dinner we continued with what we do best: we tried out some other famed drinking establishments. We hit up Harry’s, which, famous though it is, felt a little like a cafeteria and less like a nice bar, and then the Hotel Monaco, which was like a slightly less rarified version of the Grotti Palace; but a man on an accordion was not far away, and I’m a sucker for moonlit, accordion soundtracked last drink before bed-ness. MTC had a white Russian and I had my favorite, the patron saint of Italian drinks, a spritz aperol. We walked back to the hotel through Piazza San Marco, which while bird and selfie filled during the day is magical at night, and reminded me of the beautiful main square in Madrid.
One thing I love about Venice is it’s impossible to capture what’s the prettiest about it with a camera. It’s the way the lights in the piazza’s flicker, or the way the city is reflected, recreated and beautifully warped by the tiny canals that zigzag through the streets, or the mini life scenes you peak at from a distance as you twist through the alleys. I think it’s hard to capture because you can never get far enough back to take the expanse of it all in with a camera lens; what a comforting thought, to know some things must be experienced to be truly seen.
In the morning we got up earlyish (9:15 constitutes earlish on the weekends, I say) and headed to Florian‘s, the most famous café on the Piazza San Marco. Sitting in the early morning sun, and despite the cost (be forewarned, a coffee is 12 euro, a sandwich 16) I really enjoyed the ambiance. A jazz band plays during all open hours at a café across the square, and we admired Florian’s lavish interior. Until SWOOSH, out of nowhere we were Bird Bombed by an enormous seagull, who knocked my breakfast into my lap and flew away with MTC’s sandwich in tow. The old pro waiters seemed neither surprised, nor terribly sympathetic, and we were relegated to the sitting area under the walkway, clearly novices at essential bird dodging techniques.
After breakfast we walked around the Dorsoduro neighborhood. It felt like smaller, quieter areas of north Italy, with steps down to the water where you can sit and take in the sea, and with its high end boutiques and contemporary art instillations (Dorsoduro also houses the Guggenheim) it was great to be reminded that of course Venice is producing modern artists. Sometimes all the Raphaels and Michelangelos can make it feel too much like a city of the past.
In big swaths of Venice, stores are divided into two easily discernible groups: the affordable or at least attainably priced, usually with very similar wares for sale, and the bazillion euro boutiques. This can be frustrating for visitors, who want to bring something back, but don’t have the budget to shop at the higher end places. This is compounded by the fact that many of the more affordable pieces aren’t actually ‘authentically’ Venetian. Venice is famous for its glass, but much of it (even some pricy pieces) is now made in China, not in the glass workshops that dot the island of Murano and that you can tour for a small fee (approx. 5 euro), and see how glass is traditionally made (this is a fantastic activity for lovers of beauty, crafts and general appreciators of ‘how stuff is done’, and a neat way to bring home something you witnessed being created). Equally, Venetian leather goods and fabrics are world renowned, but most of the pricy shoes and purses and briefcases you see in Venice shops are not what you imagine. Instead of lovingly made by well paid workers from high quality products, they too are frequently from China. The materials are then imported to Italy and assembled by Chinese workers in Italy, so that the finished product can still have the label ‘made in Italy’.
Let’s be clear here: something being made in China doesn’t make it bad, and for that matter something being made in Italy doesn’t make it particularly good. But the ramifications of bringing products all round the world, and the fact that they are mass produced far away to look local, just all feels a little icky, right?
Fortunately, there are pocketed neighborhoods, like Castello, where little art shops don’t quite outnumber the others, but make a pretty good showing. We bought beautiful prints at Chimera from the artist herself, as she made ceramic pieces in the background. It was nice to have something that was both universal – iconic images of Venice – and individual. MTC bought a great print of a 1966 cover of the New Yorker, picturing a gondola ride in Venice, from a tiny print shop in the same neighborhood.
Side note: the gondolas are romantic to be sure, but also ubiquitous, and at 90 euros for 40 minutes, I’m happy to look at them from outside the boat. If you’re tired or have limited mobility, you can always take a water taxi, with ports all over, for a much more reasonable price.
Before boarding the train back home, we stopped for a final gelato. I always get yogurt flavored, which sounds matronly and boring, but is actually tart and refreshing and always makes my stomach feel good. Give it a try, especially if they have fresh fruit toppings on offer (or just go for the triple dark chocolate raspberry). The really good places will ask you if you want fresh cream, or panna, on top. Your answer should be yes J Though it’s a chain, I love Venchi gelato.
It was great to see Venice without the pressure to see The Big Spots, and get a taste of what else the city has to offer. For those planning a visit, I’d say go! but also think about whether you have time to add a side trip (perhaps to Vicenza, the architectural mecca, home of Andrea Palladio, or to Suave, where some of the world’s best white wines comes from, or maybe to Lake Garda, which, though it lacks a certain George Clooney something, more than makes up for in peaceful vistas and ancient world heritage sites, or even Asiago, which is a little farther but is home to the cheese of the same name and a national park full of stunning views, beautiful wildflowers, and heartbreaking WWI memorials). There is so much good stuff to see – and taste – in this beautiful and diverse part of Italy.
* Emily’s Rules to European Travel #1 – if you’re going to a city for just one weekend, try to do one impermanent thing; a short term exhibit, a concert – that isn’t the Vivaldi concert seemingly always going on in every European capital at all times – or a pop up restaurant. You’re more likely to meet people who live in the city and to see an area you wouldn’t if you stuck to traditional guide book recommendations. I don’t have any secret way of finding out about these events. Normally I just Google the city and the month or date I’ll be there, and with not too much searching exciting options pop up.
All photos by Emily. Please request permission for use.
Thanks for the post Em! You can find more of her fabulous euro-life here!