My New Best Friend on the other side of The Pond is Adam Zettler of MetroMarks. He’s recently launched a regular feature called My Favourite City on the MetroMarks website, where you can find all sorts of insider info about an ever-growing number of cities around the world. They kicked off My Favourite City with a post about Toronto, Zettler’s hometown, and this week they’ve given me some space to rave about Venice, Italy. If you click on the link below, you’ll find out my top three must dos in Venice, my favourite restaurant for both memorable views AND food, as well as other reasons why I find this city so special. Most importantly, perhaps, are my tips on how to enjoy Venice without falling into the typical tourist traps.
Click here to read My Favourite City – Venice.
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To sign off, here are a few photos of Venice from earlier this year:
Casanova and his latest squeeze, spotted near Frari
A trio of palazzi
View of St Mark’s Square from the bell tower at San Giorgio Maggiore
It’s hard to conceive of a Venice without Harry’s Bar. Opened in 1931 by former hotel barman, Giuseppe Cipriani, it’s found a stone’s throw away from St Mark’s Square, looking directly out at the beginnings of the Grand Canal. Calle Vallaresso, at the water’s end of which Harry’s Bar sits, is lined with designer stores, the likes of which are guarded by bouncers with earpieces, yet the location wasn’t always so exclusive. Once upon a time the Bar was part of an old rope warehouse – humble beginnings for what would become an internationally renowned destination watering hole, for both locals and visitors to Venice alike.
The Harry that donated his name to the bar was a young alcoholic, who’d been despatched by his family to Venice to sober up. He fell on hard times when his accompanying aunt abandoned him at the Hotel Europa, where he was a guest and Giuseppe Cipriani was barman. Cipriani loaned the guest some money, uncertain that he’d ever see it again. Some time later, Harry Pickering returned to Venice, repaid the loan and added an extra sum with which he encouraged Cipriani to open his own bar.
Harry’s Bar is known for inventing the Bellini cocktail and carpaccio of beef, as much as for its patrons; everyone who’s anyone in Venice will visit at least once and the list of famous names that have sought refreshment here is impressive. I, however, have been a little slow off the mark when it comes to darkening the Harry’s Bar doorstep. In spite of having visited the city multiple times over the years, at one point even working there, it was not until this year that I managed to make the pilgrimage to the bar where Ernest Hemingway was once a regular.
Unless you’re teetotal or underage, it’s de rigueur to order the bar’s invention, the Bellini cocktail, when you first go to Harry’s. Named for Giovanni Bellini, one of the city’s great artists, it’s a tasty blend of fresh peach purée and prosecco which, when combined, create a particular shade of pale orange which the painter favoured. I already knew from online reviews that the current rate of extortion for imbibing this particular cocktail at this particular bar would be €16.00 per glass. That’s a heck of a lot of dosh for one drink, especially when plenty of folk are vocal about how small the Harry’s Bar measures are, but in the end I relented. Having a Bellini at Harry’s has been on my Bucket List for so long that I figured it was time to take the financial plunge and cross it off.
And so, at cocktail hour, weary from a day pounding across Ruskin’s stones, Monsieur and I found our way to Harry’s Bar. This took a bit of doing because we walked straight past it several times, so unpretentious is the entrance. Once inside, we found a room simply decorated in Art Deco style, very little altered, I imagine, from the day the bar opened back in 1931. A waiter in smart white smock and black trousers seated us at a tiny table across from the bar. We ordered a pair of Bellinis and sat back to people-watch.
We’d arrived just after 4 in the afternoon, so luckily beat the traffic. A few minutes later and there wouldn’t have been room for us, such was the steady stream of tourists pouring through the door, mouths agape as they drank in the first impressions of the place. Given all the fuss about Harry’s Bar, it really is quite unexpectedly simple in design. Perhaps we expected lashings of gilt and brocade where Charlie Chaplin and Aristotle Onassis once sipped their evening refreshments? Venice certainly does excel at fussy. And yet, when you sit back and start to absorb the atmosphere, it’s obvious that this is an establishment that’s secure in itself and has confidence enough not to seek to impress like a Flash Harry on the make. Even better, for fans of 1930s interiors and traditional service, it’s like walking into a charming time warp.
Our Bellinis arrived in short water glasses, a small bowl of whole, green olives in tow. Having thoroughly enjoyed our Bellinis at the Centurion Palace Hotel terrace on arrival in Venice, Monsieur and I were interested to see how the original stacked up against the new kid on the block. And now, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Harry’s Bar die hard regulars, I must be honest: it was disappointing.
The Centurion Bellini was intensely peachy with a delightful fizz. It tasted as if the peach had been grown in the Garden of Eden and had fallen gently off the tree into a padded basket that very morning. Sadly, the Harry’s Bar Bellini lacked that fresh fruit quality. I’m not saying that they didn’t use fresh peaches; I trust they did. It’s just that, even if the peach content had been fresh, this Bellini still managed to taste like a blend of bottled Paga juice and prosecco. Perhaps it’s because of the excessive demand of visitors like us that their signature drink has lost its fizz. I’d suspect that’s the case. It’s just a shame that we didn’t find the Centurion Bellini within the Harry’s Bar atmosphere. We were certainly fortunate to have experienced both, but my advice to anyone intending to pay homage at Harry’s Bar - don’t order the Bellini here. Ask for one of their other traditional cocktails: a Manhattan or a Martini. Given the way those Harry’s boys shake and stir, I’m sure you’ll get the real deal and it should be better for not being produced for the masses who come here seeking to drink THE Bellini.
Would I return to Harry’s Bar? Definitely, but only when I’m cashed up and not for their blessed Bellini. I hear good things about their set menu lunches and might be tempted in that direction… Perhaps with a Sidecar apéritif.
Where would I go for a Bellini in Venice? The Centurion Palace Hotel. Ask for a terrace table. Fantastic views. AND the Bellini is a whole Euro cheaper.
Plus points: history, time-warp atmosphere, tradition, décor, free olives.
Minus points: costly, tourist haunt, the Bellini, apparently you’re not allowed to take photos but I did and no one stopped me! Woops.
How to find Harry’s Bar: stand at the end of St Mark’s Square looking out at the lagoon. Turn right. Follow the water’s edge as it leads to the Grand Canal, keeping the large white church of Santa Maria della Salute on your left. Just after the Square, there’s a small bridge. Cross it. The path will lead you into a calle on the right (Calle Vallaresso). Harry’s Bar is right on the right-hand corner of that calle.
A long time ago, in happy-go-lucky, freewheeling times, I lived in Venice. It wasn’t a long-term thing; just a summer internship over the course of a few months, but it was long enough for me to fall head over my Supergas in love with the place. When I returned to London, there remained some Venetian experiences on my Bucket List that would have to wait for subsequent visits. Quite unbelievably, if you think about my passion for food and drink, one such missed undertaking was to drink a Bellini at the erstwhile Hemingway haunt of Harry’s Bar.
As a student intern, my salary just about covered rent and food, but didn’t quite stretch to evenings, let alone just one drink at this eponymous venue, with the enduring reputation of being horrifically expensive. In the interest of keeping some Lira (yes, these were pre-Euro days) in the bank, I avoided it like the plague.
Some years later, I returned to Venice to introduce Monsieur to this grand city of canals. It was winter. For different reasons, I didn’t have a lot of dosh at the time, so, yet again, for reasons of economy, Harry’s Bar didn’t happen. Then, on my birthday this year, my dear French husband surprised me with tickets to Venice and boy, did he ever score brownie points. This time I was determined not to leave without sipping on a Harry’s Bar Bellini, all sixteen extortionate Euros of it.
Before we could even begin to factor Harry’s Bar into our trip, Monsieur and I found ourselves thirsty in Dorsoduro. We’d just about reached the white-domed magnificence of Santa Maria della Salute when we peeped through a gate to find a new hotel: the lush Centurion Palace.
Walking through the courtyard, we were surprised to find its elegant tables and seating areas empty at what was most certainly cocktail hour. Across the airy lobby we spotted a small terrace giving directly onto the Grand Canal. There were only a few tables, but all were free, so we sat and ordered a pair of Bellinis to celebrate our arrival in La Serenissima. It might not have been Harry’s Bar, but the view was hard to beat. Resting our feet we lazily watched the Venetian world pass us by on boats. Even the occasional scream of Vigili del Fuoco or Polizia sirens (also on boats) couldn’t bother us; this was bliss.
The Bellinis arrived after a suitable amount of time, which I must say I found comforting as it showed that our drinks hadn’t been poured out of a ready-mix cocktail bottle. One sip alone verified this. There was at least one whole fresh white peach involved per glass, blitzed with a healthy dose of gently bubbling prosecco. Ah, yes, we had lucked out in our impromptu cocktail stop and were now relaxing, the finest of godly nectars (I swear this is not hyperbole) slipping with ease down thirsty throats. What’s more, the generosity of measure and syrupy nature of the drink meant we could take time to smell the roses (or canals) before heading off across town to our dinner destination.
A while later, as we churned up the Grand Canal on a vaporetto, I snapped the terrace where we’d so enjoyed our first Bellinis of the trip. Sadly, this pic doesn’t do it justice.
The atmosphere was fit for bottling. Gondolas swaying in one direction:
Salute and San Marco beckoning from the other:
A crane in the background kept us firmly grounded in the current century, but it’s hard not to daydream when confronted by fairy tale palaces rising from the water:
In summary, the Centurion Palace would be hard to beat for a Bellini on the go. The drinks are fabulous, the vistas magnificent and the nibbles original and moreish (curry cracker, anyone?). If you’re a keen boatspotter, this is the terrace at which to imbibe.
A Bellini costs €15.00 here. Expensive, yes, but not quite as hefty as that establishment across the way where its forefather was conceived by a certain Signor Cipriani. All I can say is that if you feel like dropping €15.00 for one drink and a nibble or two, go no further; it’s money well-invested in a memory that will last a lifetime. As for Harry’s Bar? That’s a whole post of it’s own, but it had a lot to live up to after Bellinis at the Centurion. Suffice to say that I’ll never forget our evening there, for all the right reasons.
The easiest way to find the Centurion Palace: Take a vaporetto to the Salute stop. Get off and turn right immediately, heading away from the church. You’ll pass through an arch. A zigzag later will find the Centurion’s gate on your right hand side (Grand Canal side). Alternatively, if you’re made of moola, just whistle for a water taxi and they’ll drop you right next to the terrace I’ve been lauding above.
There’s nothing quite like a quality Continental breakfast, especially the way the Italians do it. The Maleti Bar on Venice’s Lido island knows exactly how to get the day off to a good start with just a few, simple ingredients:
Excellent coffee with a proper Italian kick, just the way I like it. Freshly squeezed orange juice. Warm brioches, the Northern name for croissants, one hiding a soft chocolate filling. My waistline didn’t thank me for that particular indulgence, but my tastebuds rose in a standing ovation.
One of my favourite lunchtime bites is the Venetian take on a sandwich: the tramezzino. The Maleti Bar tempted us via its counters filled with snacking potential. The tramezzini sit in fattened white triangles on the bottom shelf. If you ask me, a tuna and onion sandwich made Venetian-style is the world champ of its species.
If you’re more of a wrap-enthusiast, check out the top shelf here. Have you ever seen anything so artfully appetising? These wraps are colourful, stylish and huge; the Pavarottis of the wrap world.
Ah, Italy. Repeatedly, you win my heart, and always through my stomach.
*To find the Bar Maleti, take a vaporetto to the Lido. Get off at Lido Santa Maria Elisabetta. The Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta is the long road in front of you, moving away from the water. The Bar Maleti, a favourite with Lido locals, is about halfway down on the left hand side.
I’m not at all averse to change, yet I do find it comforting to know that some favourite things don’t necessarily shapeshift when you turn your back for a while. When I was an intern in Venice, on a poor intern’s wage, my colleagues and I had a little black book of great places to eat that were cheaper than the cost of dining in. Al Profeta was one of our favourites. I decided to risk Monsieur’s Bad Pizza Wrath by taking him there for a slice of Venetian pie.
Following the main route between the Accademia Gallery and San Barnaba, take the first calle on the left immediately on entering San Barnaba’s square. Keep walking and part-way down on the left hand side you’ll find an old fashioned lantern hanging above the entry to Al Profeta.
As we avoided the main door, heading instead down the back to the vine-covered terrace that bears witness to many fond memories of balmy evenings with now- far-flung friends, Monsieur looked dubious. “Are you sure this place does good pizza?” I wasn’t, at least, not anymore. “It’s been a long time, but they used to do the best.” We took our seats, reading the menu with intent. We’re somewhat fussy about pizza; Monsieur especially so. It must sport the best of thin crusts and be topped with fresh, top quality ingredients, or he simply won’t bother. I noted with chagrin that the three hundred and something pizza varieties that once graced Al Profeta’s menu had been whittled down somewhat, but there was still plenty of choice.
The waiter returned to take our order. It was time to take the plunge.
In our sunny, sheltered corner of a springtime Serenissima, we could only drink beer. Two large glasses of chilled König Ludwig came our way.
Next to appear at our table was a plate of fresh prosciutto crudo, topped with a segmented ball of mozzarella, fresh from its bowl of milky water. Monsieur and I shared this plate in the hope that we’d have plenty of vacant space available for inhabitation by forthcoming pizzas. We wrestled with cutlery, stabbing each other’s wrists and fingers with our forks in the attempt to win more ham. No, seriously, we’re not THAT obsessed with food. Monsieur and I played nicely, which may surprise some, considering that the prosciutto was paper-thin with a big porcine character and the mozzarella so very Italian in taste and crumbly creaminess. You could almost taste the farmyard in the best possible of ways.
Ah, now. Pizza time. Whatever would I have? In the olden days of interning, I would usually opt for a variety known affectionately as Ciribiri. My friends and I would chant this word with excitement, all the way to al Profeta. CHEEREEBEEREE CHEEREEBEEREE! It was a concoction unique to this Venetian pizzeria – tomato-smothered base topped with wilted spinach – perfectly seasoned, and generous handfuls of fresh ricotta crumbled across the top.
The Ciribiri is sadly a casualty of Father Time and menu re-writing, but with a pinch of hope flickering away in my overly-nostalgic brain, I asked the waiter for it anyway. “Ciribiri?” he repeated with quizzical face, “No, we don’t have the Ciribiri now. Ma, di mi, how is it made and we will make it for you.” I could have kissed him for his kindness. Bless his big Venetian heart.
In actuality, I amended the Ciribiri a bit, asking for tomato base, fresh spinach, mozzarella di bufala (the starter’s mozzarella had been too good and the glutton in me demanded MORE) and onions. Before it was demolished by a certain starving Kiwi lass, it looked like this:
It. Was. Superb. Between mouthfuls, I felt waves of relief. If my pizza could be so perfect with it’s incredibly parchment-like crust and ingredients so fresh they may have been run across on demand from the Tiozzos’ vege barge at San Barnaba, then my reputation as pizza provider was surely safe. Looking across at a particularly quiet Monsieur, I could see that I was right; he was so happy in the eating of his Venetian pizza (a Quattro Stagioni) that his laughing gear was fully employed in the act of contented mastication, no words possible, nor required.
And, so, to the verdict. Had Al Profeta remained the best pizzeria in Venice, after all these years? For me, undoubtably yes. We’d only be in Venice for a few days on this occasion, so we could hardly run a full comparison of all of Al Profeta’s competition in this fair city but, in my opinion, she’d be hard to beat. As for Monsieur, he’s still talking about it. “It’s the best pizza I’ve had in a long time,” he says. Repeatedly. I can tell you one thing: if we ever go back to Venice together, Monsieur won’t be there for the art or history, the vistas or the churches; he’ll be there for the pizza. Al Profeta pizza. Long may it last.
Address: Sestiere Dorsoduro 2671, 30123 Venice (to get there, follow the directions at the beginning of this post; Venetian addresses are a bit tricky)
Tel: +39 (0)415 237 466
You can find Al Profeta on Facebook – search for Pizzeria Ristorante Al Profeta.
Monsieur and I were to be married this year, but as we’re grown up and responsible, we made the grown-up and responsible decision to postpone the happiest day of our lives, just in case we lost our jobs, something that was a very real threat at just the hour when the demands for deposits various were due.
Some grown up and responsible months later, the day that was to be our big day approached and I felt a tinge of sadness.
“Darling, I think we should do something to celebrate, especially as it’s a bank holiday weekend.” I said to Monsieur, eager to eliminate the threat of regret.
“You’re right,” he agreed, “I’ll look into it.” Even better, Monsieur was making the arrangements and if there’s one thing I can say about my future husband, it’s that he’s VERY good at surprises.
At first I thought we’d be going to a restaurant, perhaps somewhere with a star or two after its name or even a starless wonder with enough starch in just one of their white tablecloths to keep a man’s shirt collars stiff for a year. Yes, the sort of place that makes a girl feel adored, even when she gets out her camera to snap the foie gras from sixteen different angles.
And so, as I can’t remember a single time that Monsieur has failed in surprising me, I spent an inordinate amount of time fantasising about where we might be going. Before long, curiosity got this particular cat and the Epic Inquisition began.
“So where are we going?” I demanded on a daily, if not hourly basis, sometimes by e-mail with giant, red font in BOLD.
“It’s a surprise.” came the reply, over and over and over again. He would not budge. He would not stir. Monsieur would simply smile that infuriating smile he has when he holds a secret.
Then, the week before our celebration of The Wedding that Wasn’t, Monsieur let slip that we would be staying overnight wherever we were going. No, he would not be whizzing me off to Venice for some O Sole Mios in a bobbing gondola; I knew that much because Monsieur’s passport was at the consulate. We’d therefore be somewhere in the UK, but where?
Next he booked a car – another clue to toy with. Knowing that Monsieur would never drive 5 hours to spend a single night at a place, only to drive 5 hours back the following day, I figured that our destination must be relatively close to London. Hmmmm. But where?
The e-mail font got bigger and bolder, but still Monsieur wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I felt like a five year old counting the sleeps until Christmas. At long last D-day dawned and we packed our overnight cases.
“Bring your golf clothes,” instructed Monsieur. Ah, apparently small white balls would be involved in the surprise, as he pulled our golf bags out of the closet.
“And a swimsuit.” he continued.
“And something smart to wear to dinner.” Well, that was a given. I’d taken for granted that I’d have to dress up for some special food on our special occasion. After all, Monsieur has never been a fish ‘n’ chips-on-a-freezing-beach-with-a-bottle-of-wine-sort of romantic.
Then we got into the car with our clubs and our bags and some little white balls and drove out of London. Goodbye, Westfield Shopping Centre. Goodbye Heathrow Airport. Goodbye Windsor Castle… and just before reaching the Slough of John Betjeman’s disparaging poem of the same name, which starts with ‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough, It isn’t fit for humans now.’, and only worsens in its damnation of the town, we turned off the motorway.
“We’d better not be lunching in Slough,” I thought to myself in unattractive snobbish manner, as Monsieur turned the car this way and that, eventually easing it onto leafy back-roads dappled with shade. Here were not concrete block buildings and superstores but tall brick walls and gate houses and hedges and vicarages and lots and lots of green. Perhaps we were going to Bray? It wasn’t far from here and Monsieur and I have long planned to visit Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck for some bacon and egg ice cream, among other culinary delights.
“I know where you’re taking me.” I said, rendered smug by my skills of deduction.
“No you don’t.” replied Monsieur, rendered equally smug by his own self-assurance.
And with that, we swept across to the left, onto a broad driveway climbing a gentle slope amidst the handiwork of Capability Brown and the manicured greens of a golf course.
No. I didn’t know where Monsieur was taking me. Not in the least.
I don’t usually write about feet or shoes, apart from the fact that I’d rather spend my annual footwear allowance on travel than on a pair of Manolos and I just might have set up a site called Clogblogger once upon a time. However, if you’ve ever worn Fit Flops, you’ll know why I’m writing about them today.
Last year, I invested in a pair of these flip flops with ‘the gym built in,’ that claim to help you tone and exercise muscles in your legs and back whilst simply walking. A couple of friends already had them and swore by them, so I bought a pair of rather unsubtle gold-sequinned Fit Flops with the suitably flamboyant style name of Elektra. By the end of last summer, including a full two weeks in Vietnam where I seldom wore anything else (on my feet, to be specific, because clothes definitely did feature. At times.), I didn’t want to take them off. No, it’s worse than that. My feet, a couple of particularly sensitive souls (pardon the pun), grieved the advent of autumn, for it meant that their beloved Fit Flops would be exiled to the back of the wardrobe. Poor feet!
Here’s the gold variety that stirs an alarming amount of interest from my male colleagues. Oo er, missus! Who knew they’d be such attention-grabbers?
And this is the black equivalent that I wear on more sombre occasions:
There are one, two, three, four more Fit Flop wearers within 5 metres of me right now. Most of my girlfriends are advocates, and when I went to a wedding recently, my feet were understandably NOT happy about abandoning the Fit Flops in favour of something high and elegant. No siree. In case of a Feet-Against-Heels uprising during the day, I stuffed a pair of ballet pumps in my bag, but as it was, most of the girls went barefoot in the grass at the reception, so the ballet pumps were surplus to requirement. Chatting to an acquaintance, I admitted being relieved not to have to trot around in my heels all afternoon,
“My feet are spoiled. They’ve been in Fit Flops all week.”
“Mine, too!” confessed the acquaintance, “and I have a pair of ballet pumps in my bag, for dancing, later.”
“Me, too!” I squeaked, so happy to have located a kindred spirit with high-maintenance feet like mine. High five, girlfriend!
Even so, I couldn’t wait to slide back into my Fit Flops when we got home.
The next question is inevitably: do they work? Well, it’s hard to tell, because my legs are the most-utilised part of me and are therefore pretty fit already. But a good test was during the recent 48-hour tube strike when I had to walk to and from work each day. That was a total of 4 hours and 40 minutes fast walking, in Fit Flops, over a two-day period, and boy, did I ache by the end of it. The aches were in unusual places, too, usually untouched by regular walking or hiking. (At least, that’s how THIS particular body behaves.) So the Fit Flop’s claims to give you a workout while you walk seem to be true. Having said that, for me it’s kinda like TV. I’m not interested in knowing how it works, as long as it works.
Long may the summer last, though, because in spite of Fit Flop’s foray into winter-weather alternatives, they’re lacking the funk of the spangly Elektra, and I’m not a big UGG fan. But I may have to eat my words soon, because this here high heel-phobe has been invited to an evening with Jimmy Choo. Help. I’ve never spent £368.00 on a pair of shoes in my life and I really can’t afford to start such an expensive habit now. Besides which, £368.00 could pay for a long weekend in Venice, in my Fit Flops, and that’s what I’d really rather do.
Following our day spent visiting the islands of the lagoon, Monsieur and I returned to the Fondamenta Nuove and followed the signs to Rialto. Turning down a wide, vibrant street leading to the Ferrovia, or train station, we came across a particularly crowded souvenir shop window. Something in it caught Monsieur’s eye and drew him in like a magnet. It was a gaggle of black and gilt plastic gondolas. His interest surprised me.
“My grandfather had one just like that,” Monsieur explained, “It sat on his mantelpiece. Funny. They haven’t changed in fifty years!”
Crossing the street we walked through turnstiles into the brightly-lit Billa supermarket. Inside was a crowded mess of aisles, but ah, the ingredients in those aisles were worth the struggle. We wandered among the shelves of oils and balsamic vinegars, pastas and grissini, past jar upon jar of sundried, sun-blushed and regular tomatoes to the wall of tinned anchovies with retro labels and the bottles of olives in black or green, stuffed with pimento or garlic or lemon or feta. Had a Venetian genie been in a wish-granting mood, right then and there I would have dropped to my knees to beg him to transport the entire Billa and contents to our London neighbourhood. Monsieur and I ogled the fresh deli section with watering mouths. The array of cheeses and meats was begging to come home with us, but we were restricted to what we could realistically carry without it breaking, rotting or leaking en route.
In one refrigerator we found fresh handmade pasta in little twists, just like the type we’d so enjoyed at Algiubagio, so a couple of packs of that christened our wire supermarket basket. Bulbs of smoked provolone cheese joined the pasta, along with long slabs of Italian nougat for my parents and boxes of Cipster!, a moreish potato snack in bright red boxes. Monsieur marvelled at the wine selection while I stood mesmerised by the olive oils – virgin, extra virgin, infused with chilli, garlic, lemon and basil, in different sizes and shapes of bottle and tin, with labels from all over Italy and (quel sacrilege) Spain and Greece.
Following a last circuit of the aisles, we joined the check out queue, something that’s so universally mundane. As in all supermarkets around the world we stood and waited, shifting the heavy basket from arm to arm, listening to incomprehensible conversations ahead of and behind us. Then, as shoppers do all over the world, we stacked our goods for the teller and packed them into sunshiny yellow Billa plastic bags. Our predecessors in the line were now leaving with their loads of as much shopping as their taut tendons could take. We’d be next.
Out of Billa we went and into a delicatessen along the street. There I found cellophane packs of stuffed olives, Ascoli style, filled with a sausage mixture and coated with breadcrumbs. These are a local delicacy, turning up on platters at all the right Venetian events and normally they have to be ordered in advance so this was a real find. As I paid, the man behind the big glass counter full of yet more cuts of meat and rounds of cheese was incredibly brusque, causing me to wonder if he’d stepped out of his gondola on the wrong side that morning. I smiled at the thought of his big, grumpy self splashing into a dirty canal.
Back in the dark outdoors we turned a corner and I stopped in my tracks. “That’s the bar I dreamed of last night,” I told Monsieur. “You know, the one where we drank Campari, which I don’t even like?” Monsieur raised his eyebrows at me as if to say “you’re nuts,”. Perhaps I am, perhaps I’m not. All I know is that we hadn’t passed this bar until now and even when I was an intern so many years ago, I only visited this part of Venice on a very few occasions. I wasn’t a Campari drinker back then and I’d never set foot in this particular bar, so how on earth did it get into my dream?
Trying not to over-analyse the mysterious machinations of my mind, we walked up Canale Cannareggio in search of La Marisa, the restaurant at Tre Archi which had been so enthusiastically recommended to us by the Guggy interns. It was dark and cold next to the wter, with an icy breeze rushing towards us from the lagoon ahead. Flummoxed, with no discernible restaurant to be found, we trotted up the steps into a toasty hotel reception to ask directions.
“La Marisa? Aaaaah,” came the response. “e chiuso.” It’s closed, the receptionist said with a sympathetic nod, slapping his sides in a sort of Latin defeat. He pointed across the canal at the building which housed the hibernating eatery, its windows dark like a pair of napping eyes. So much for that plan.
As we waited at the TRE Archi vaporetto stop for a boat to chug us back to the hotel, we tried in vain not to watch the only other people in the shelter. The pair were not exactly hiding their raging hormones. With their youthful appearance and sporting the latest in leisure brands, I thought they were a teenage Romeo and Juliet until a flash of gold caught my eye. Wedding bands. The babes in arms were married. So far I’d had offers but I’d never actually taken the plunge myself. I could practically be the mother of this pair of kids now cavorting in the snow. It was a sobering moment.
Back at the hotel, Monsieur and I decided to spend our final night in Venice dining at Algiubagio. It was far too cold to venture further afield for a meal at some unknown quantity of a restaurant, an act we may later regret. No. The Algiubagio benchmark had proven hard to beat.
Now regular patrons we were met again with glasses of prosecco. More importantly, what would we eat tonight? I tried the starter of a creamy cheese called Burrata, garnished with juicy grapes from the lagoon. Each mouthful melted like a cool marshmallow against my tongue, contrasting beautifully with the tart bite of grape. This was the food of my paradise, sending me off into a cook’s own dreamworld. If only I could find this cheese in London, I’d devote a shelf of my fridge to it and it alone.
I moved onto a main course of those delicious fresh twirls of pasta with cherry tomatoes, warm mozzarella chunks, fresh parsley and Planeta olive oil. Monsieur’s enjoyment of the same pasta dish as his starter was evident. “There isn’t enough of it,” he complained with a grin. Having now tracked down some Planeta of our own for Epicurienne’s kitchen, all I can say is you should definitely try it. The taste is like olive syrup, bringing to mind images of olive groves in the height of summer as Mediterranean cicadas chirp in the shade of the trees.
Monsieur’s main was a laid-back pizza capricciosa drizzled with a liberal dose of chilli oil, and disappeared down his throat so quickly that he had plenty of time to spear my precious pasta twirls with his greedy fork, stealing them from my plate. The minute we’d finished, our waiter was back at our sides. “You must try the warm ice cream,” he urged, and we relented. After all, it was out last night in Venice. We could afford to be decadent and on this occasion, it was worth it. The ice cream was a smooth, vanilla semi-freddo, peppered with shards of spicy chocolate. It was sensational. Would we ever regret dining at Algiubagio on all three nights of our weekend in Venice? In a word: never.
Later we lay cocooned in our bed watching TV. News reports focussed on the inclement weather currently washing over the entire boot of Italy. Down in Tuscany the Arno was flooding and it had snowed that day in Milan. Thus, with images of snowflakes floating through my head, I drifted off to sleep that night, wondering if Monsieur and I might see snow on Venetian gondolas after all.
So dark was our room at the Vecellio that Monsieur and I found it difficult to predict the outside weather when we woke each morning. Today, our third together in Venice, saw the curtains draw back to reveal a glimpse of the lagoon and a blue (yes, blue!) sky. This was indeed fortunate as we wouldn’t spend precious hours squelching about in puddles, but it also meant that the air was even more icy than before.
Monsieur and I ducked out of the toasty hotel, into a very different Algiubagio – that of the day time, when the bar is stocked with snacks and locals stand about stylishly sipping on their first coffees of the weekend as they share local chit chat with their neighbours. I was dying for a tramezzino, or layered sandwich half in soft white crustless bread. The fillings are spread so thick that the sandwiches bulge inelegantly at their centre. The combinations are endless – tuna with baby onions, tuna with egg mayonnaise, cream cheese with grapes, ham and cheese, tomato and egg mayo… This morning’s choice would be tuna and onion, a savoury bite to start the day’s adventures. Monsieur, meanwhile, a creature of habit, remained unmoved from his desire for something more familiar, taking his staple breakfast of a croissant and coffee.
Now running on full tanks, so to speak, we took a vaporetto out across the lagoon to Burano. Being Sunday, there were lots of people dressed in their Sunday best, travelling to the islands to spend time with relatives and friends. This was a festive bunch, mingling alongside the tourists replete with signature baseball caps and gigantic cameras, or the likes of ourselves, relaxed to the point of nodding off at intervals on the long boat ride. As I took photos of San Michele and some abandoned islands, Monsieur dozed on my shoulder. Now and then, mist would descend on a patch of water, but mostly the weather and conditions were fine. In fact, our eyes ached with the brightness of light, having spent two days in the lifeless grey of winter and rain. We stopped twice at Murano to let people off and others on, and did the same at a place called Mazzorbo. From the vaporetto stop at the latter I noticed the houses, neatly lined up in colourful rows, the rainbow increasing as we pulled into Burano.
Although excited to be there and show Monsieur the fisherfolks’ houses, each painted a different hue to allow their owners to find their way home in heavy Venetian fog, it was a wrench to leave the warmth of the boat and be back outside in the bitter air. A path of Astroturf led away from the water, towards the centre of the island. Along the way we passed a house with ample front garden, boasting a couple of mature fruit trees and a resident cat on the prowl. Apparently, this house was for sale, or so said a sign hung on its gates. I wondered who would buy it. The commute into Venice proper would take a while, unless you ignored all the speed restrictions to zoom about in your own, private boat. Besides which, living in the relative isolation of Burano would drive most people slightly potty, no matter how picturesque it may be.
Monsieur and I wandered past the souvenir shops selling Burano lace table cloths and parasols, Murano beads and vases of glass, plates and goblets and more tacky tees. Following a twist of canals, we saw the houses for which this place is so renowned; red, blue and green of various depths, next to pastel pink, lemon yellow and terracotta. The fine day allowed us to take some wonderful photos. Here, with such bright subjects, it seems impossible to be a bad photographer. Considering this, we looked up at the wall of a green house overlooking a tiny communal square. There was a shrine to the Virgin Mary, fresh flowers laid at her feet by some reverent local. Returning to Burano’s main square, we were no longer alone. The islanders strolled around, going about their Sunday business, tourists seeking inspiration stared at menus outside restaurants and others fingered lace-trimmed tableware on display outside specialist shops. The proprietors must have been only too happy of the potential to make a few Euros in the off-season. In spite of the fine, blue sky, the air was still arctic, so we trudged back to the vaporetto stop, huddling in the shelter until our transport arrived.
Back on the boat, we traversed the lagoon, this time visiting Murano. A fellow passenger took advantage of the longish journey to apply a full face of make up without a single smudge. By the time Murano came into view, she was transformed from blank canvas to a blue eyeshadowed diva with fire engine-red lips. I wondered where she was going; hot date with a member of the Vigili del Fuoco, perhaps? Such saucy lips would certainly match his fire boat.
On the glass-making island, we shivered in the already-fading sunlight and walked briskly in search of a restaurant for lunch. Ai Frati had been recommended by one of our guides so once we found it, in we went. The dining room was large and somewhat Spartan, with a tiled floor and simple wood furniture. Our table looked into the open kitchen, with the ruddy chefs working at speed to create meals to satisfy the extended families seated around us. So far, it looked as if our tastebuds would be safe here. Wrong again. To start, we ordered gamberetti (tiny prawns) with polenta. Although tasty, it looked like fake plastic prawn babies on a big block of Styrofoam with vague grill marks. It could even have been toy food created to go into a toy oven on a pink plastic plate so I prayed that the main course would be more inspiring. My spaghetti alle vongole was a reliable choice, tasted exactly as I’d expected it to and disappeared down a satisfied throat, mind you, in Venice it’s hard to find a bad spag vongole. Monsieur’s meal, a plate of ravioli Bolognese, had the air of something bought off a supermarket shelf, added to which, it was depressingly small. Need I say here that the disappointment of the lunch had a direct effect on the mood of that afternoon? Shame on you, Ai Frati! You should know better than to cheat a Frenchman out of a decent lunch. You should know that this is capable of ruining his day. Frenchmen in Venice, be warned. The ravioli at this place will not make you glow with gastronomic pleasure. Head back to Algiubagio for a more reliable feast.
Forcing smiles as we braved the great Venetian outdoors, we walked to the nearby Glass Museum. The highlight of this was that Monsieur immediately homed in on a warm spot in the stairwell, so we basked there for a good few minutes before entering the much cooler exhibition areas. In one room to the rear of the building I stood at a window and gazed out at a cluster of gardens. They’re such a rare delight in Venice that I was curious to peep over the walls from an advantageous height, before continuing to learn about glass from its ancient beginnings through to pretty millefiori paperweights and elaborate chandeliers. It amazes me how sand and heat can create something so beautiful, that is, when you look at tasteful glass items. I coveted the crystal clear wine glasses with a curl of opaque white climbing up their stems like twists of DNA and feared for the contents of certain display cases as our footsteps caused them to rattle in an ominous fashion. There were glass table services causing me to imagine what damage could be done to such plates whilst dragging a knife through a cut of meat. Only the seriously wealthy could afford such risk.
Back outside in the late afternoon we took photos of the canal with its pretty row of houses and the nearby Romanesque church of Santo Donato. “Can you SMILE, please?” urged Monsieur as the camera pointed my way. I hadn’t realised that my face had frozen into a frown.
We were now too late for the glass-blowing demonstrations at the big furnaces on Murano, but that saved us the awkwardness of the hard-sell at the end. In a bead shop, we smiled at how the displays looked edible, more like buckets of hard-boiled sweets in a confectioner’s than glass accessories aimed at tourists, but we could tarry no longer. The sun was now sinking so it was back to Venice proper for us, for yet another culinary adventure, Venetian style.