For the previous post, From Gladiators to Gondolas… click here.
Marcus Agrippa’s Pantheon is a remarkable, cylindrical structure that never dates. Its pediment proudly states: ‘Agrippa me fecit’, or ‘Agrippa made me’, and it’s little wonder that this Roman General had his name emblazoned across this building. Initially constructed in 27AD and rebuilt by Hadrian in the year 120, its bold and innovative design holds an architectural fascination for all who pay homage here.
Inside, the Pantheon’s dome hypnotises with its central eye open to the changing sky. However, when we visited, angry rainclouds were gathering so it was gloomy as we wandered around the interior, visiting the various altars and trying to dodge our fellow tourists with heads thrown back, gazing upward at the floating dome.
It started to pour as we walked away from the Piazza della Rotunda, where the Pantheon stands. This was the perfect time to kill two Roman birds with one stone and shelter in a ristorante over some overdue lunch. Scuttling through a terrace of tables with closed umbrellas, into a room with a rainbow of antipasti displayed in earthenware dishes, we shrugged off our coats and shook the raindrops from our hair. Showing no concern for our dishevelled state, the waiter ushered us to a table in a whitewashed dining room, its walls hung with paintings in all sizes, styles and frames.
At an adjacent table, and American family chatted with their guest, a priest in traditional dog collar. At another, two middle-aged Italian gentlement enjoyed their meals whilst talking animatedly with shrugs and elaborate gestures. When they left, their coats perched on their shoulders in true Godfather fashion, and I smiled at how Italian men can get away with wearing their clothes in ways that would make anyone else in the world look effeminate.
Grissini and aqua minerale con gaz appeared before us as we savoured the menu. Every plate sounded delicious, but in the end we shared a starter plate piled with mixed antipasti: breaded garlic mushrooms, marinated peppers, perfectly deep-fried batons of zucchini and a selection of cured meats. I followed this with a bowl of spaghetti alle vongole, my all-time favourite Italian pasta. To date it has never tasted the same to me outside of Italy. The simplicity of clams in their shells, tossed in white wine, oil and garlic, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley is unbeatable in the opinion of this seafood-lover’s palate. Monsieur tried ossobucco, the literal translation of which is ‘hollow bones’. In spite of its unappetising name, it’s a warming dish of braised veal shanks, served with a gremolata, or parsley, garlic and lemon zest salsa. Most importantly, with the weather fast closing in on us, this meal provided necessary respite and sustenance; prior to this late lunch, all we’d eaten all day was an in-flight snack of heavy brioches stuffed with slabs of cheddar.
Monsieur and I tore ourselves away from the bright restaurant, braving the charcoal afternoon once more. It was now raining heavily and we splashed our way along the cobbles to the Trevi Fountain. This time I didn’t find it necessary to throw a coin over my shoulder into the water to ensure my return to Rome. I’m sure I’ll be back, regardless. Monsieur and I managed some photos of the fountain before scurrying on.
The next stop on the list was the Spanish Steps, but by the time we got there we were soaked and squelching. All we wanted to do was get back to the airport, so we found a cab. So wet were we that when I got our of the taxi at Termini, I left a large puddle of rain on the vinyl seat.
Once back on the train we managed to warm up and catnap and were soon walking through a livelier Fiumicino airport than we’d left behind. “Isn’t it strange how things work out?” I asked Monsieur, “We may have missed an afternoon in Venice, but we gained one in Rome!”
Following the short flight, the plane touched down at Marco Polo Airport. As it was late and the Alilaguna shuttle into Venice proper had ceased operating for the day, we looked for alternative transport. It appeared in the form of the orange number 5 bendy bus, taking visitors via terra firma to Piazzale Roma, the terminus at the edge of Venice where road transport stops and gondolas begin.
It was bitterly cold as we motored along the dark streets and it was thrilling to see snow on the ground. We later learned that snow had even left the mainland to venture into Venice that day. As snowfall is a rare occurrence in la Serenissima, it was a shame to have missed it.
At Piazzale Roma, Monsieur and I walked off the bus and straight onto a departing vaporetto which chugged us a little way along the Grand Canal before turning left onto the Canareggio Canal. We then continued along the dark waterway to the Fondamenta Nuove, the embankment opening onto the lagoon, and our home for the next few days.
En route to the hotel, Monsieur asked me more than once if I was sure that we were headed in the right direction. I understood why, because Venice is a confusion of islands and roads of water, alleys and bridges, so it’s daunting for any first-time visitor, especially in the dark. As the minutes passed and we were still navigating the dark canals, only able to see a blur of lights and outlines of palazzi through the misted up windows, I was almost convinced that we were destined never to reach our destination. It was now late and the effects of a challenging day were beginning to show. I felt like a piece on a giant chess board, watched by mischievous Roman gods who thought nothing of playing with us and laughing at each obstacle placed in our way. This particular piece was about to crack from fatigue, cold and hunger. It was definitely not the manner in which I’d dreamed of introducing Monsieur to my beloved Venice.
As if at a click of the deities’ fingers, our luck changed. We found the right stop, walked off the vaporetto without a splash and found Hotel Vecellio immediately before us. The receptionist commiserated with us about the inconvenience of the transport workers’ strike and mentioned that in Venice, all the vaporetti had stopped between the hours of 12 and 4pm. However, we had a much more important issue on our minds, such as where to eat. The response to our enquiry was somewhat nonchalant. Perhaps we could try the place next door where they might be able to make us a pizza. Then again, it’s quite late so we shouldn’t hold out too much hope. If we found ourselves unlucky next door, there was a pub just over the bridge that should be able to serve us bar snacks. (In case you’re wondering, Hotel Vecellio was a delightful little two star hotel in which to stay, but apart from breakfast, it doesn’t serve food.)
We dumped our bags and walked all of about four metres to the restaurant called Algiubagio. Inside, we were led from an informal bar looking out onto the lagoon into a converted boathouse or barchessa. Wooden floors, red brick and the beamed ceiling all added to the warmth of the space. Combined with simple glass tables and an open kitchen with all the modern fittings, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves somewhere a little smarter than the typical red-and-white-checked-tablecloth-with-chianti-bottle-candlestick variety of Italian restaurant. The menu was pure gastro-heaven so in the course of the evening I asked to see it again and again in order to jot down ingredients and recipe ideas in my notebook. Poor Monsieur. He finds these habits of mine rather annoying, but at least I hadn’t started photographing our meals back then!
That night we slip into a deep sleep and I dream. Monsieur and I stand together on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute. It’s 9am. A sign tells us that the doors won’t open until ten. I haven’t yet taken Monsieur to see the Basilica of San Marco, or the Palazzo Ducale. We’ve now run out of time and must leave Venice. Back in London Monsieur’s friends berate him (and me) for not having visited San Marco. I wake up determined to get him there.