What do those places have in common? They all begin with the letter I and I’ve been lucky enough to visit them all. First up is Italy.
In August my Italian boyfriend and I went on an almost 3 week jaunt through Venice and the Croatian coast. My last trip to Venice I was 17 on an EF tour. My memories of that high school trip are sketchy so this time I saw it with new eyes. I have been moderately aware of the wealth of paintings, sculpture, chuches, architecture and music that exists in Venice but once I began researching our trip I couldn’t wait to be there.
Just so you know the hotels and restaurants I suggest are not for the budget traveler nor are we Russian oil barons or Qatari royalty staying in $5,000/night suites. I suggest things comfortably in between. Sometimes we go for cheaper and slightly more expensive but usually it’s down the middle.
The past few summers we’ve used our generous August vacation time to visit faraway places like Indonesia and India. This summer would be no different. Initially we considered Vietnam but the rainy season and threat of typhoons deterred us so we brainstormed new destinations. I’m a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and happened to see the episode where he visits Croatia. Of course every episode I see makes me want to go immediately to Harbin, China or Provence or wherever he is, but the Croatian Coast looked like the best combination of jaw dropping landscape and delicious food and wine. Croatia won’t become part of the EU until July 2013 so it’s affordable. When we were there $1 was equivalent to about 5.5 Croatian Kuna. There are a range of places to stay from hostels to five star hotels and every mode of transportation is available between cities. Best of all it would be summer and there are 1,200 islands one can visit.
How did Venice figure into the itinerary? Looking at a map of Croatia you realize how close they are. In fact the Istrian peninsula of Croatia, which borders Italy at its northernmost part, is only a 3-1/2 hour ferry ride away from Venice. Everything fell into place. We would fly into Venice, take a ferry to Croatia, spend the majority of the time exploring the coast and islands then return to Venice for the last few days of the trip. This way we could take in Venice adjusted to the time difference.
After our destination was settled the details could be sorted out. Please let me introduce you to Zagat Chantal. Instead of relying on a travel agent there’s Zagat Chantal! Living in New York you find the number of restaurants and cuisines represented is endless so you have the chance to be really selective about what you eat. With the handy dandy internet I read anything I can find about a restaurant and decide if it meets the parameters of price, alcohol selection, cash only or not and on and on. Somehow my friends picked up on my willingness to do the recon and began to rely on me for the suggestion of where to eat, hence my nickname Zagat Chantal.
Knowing nothing really about Venice was a little daunting in terms of what sestiere (neighborhood) to stay in and where to eat. Luckily my bf offered some direction: stay away from San Marco and find restaurants who don’t cater to tourists. While Piazza San Marco is outstanding, it’s crowded with tourists petting and feeding the flying rats (pigeons). I can handle tourists but pigeons, ugh. If you walk away from the tourist circuit of Piazza San Marco, the Rialto and Accademia bridges you find a Venice all your own. Of course there are people walking around but instead of dodging people or pigeons you can really take in the light of the city and get a sense of what the dwindling native population experiences. I LOVED it. I spent most of the time wondering what job I could possibly find so I could live there.
One of the many great things about Venice is how small it is. If you walked 20 minutes in Venice you could go from one neighborhood to the next and see a ton of stuff. If you walk 20 minutes in New York you hardly make it anywhere, or so it seems to me. We stayed in Dorsoduro at a gem of a hotel called Ca Maria Adele. It’s steps away from the Grand Canal and the Punta della Dogana, one of Francois Pinault’s exhibition spaces for his contemporary art collection the other being Palazzo Grassi. If modern art is more your thing Peggy Guggenheim’s collection is 5 minutes away, or if Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese or any other major pre-19th century Italian artist twirl your whirl then hit the Accademia. Isn’t that nuts? All these amazing things are within a 5 minute walk of each other and that’s just in one area of Venice!
Back to the Ca Maria Adele. Every night they ask you to select your breakfast (included in the rate) for the next morning and you can choose to eat in the breakfast room, your room or a little terrace on the roof of the hotel. We ate on the terrace one morning but realizing how challenging it was for the waitress to bring out a big tray up and out to the terrace we opted for the breakfast room. It wasn’t a big hotel. It probably falls into the boutique category but at least it had character. The bathroom of our room, Salon Noir (it was one of the themed rooms. Really it just meant it had darker colored furnishings. There are rooms with modern, not so dark decor too) was covered in brown, sort of iridescent here and there, mosaic tiles. Awesome! Also it was on the 2nd floor! Yes you had to climb at least a dozen kind of steep steps to use the bathroom. We joked about falling up or down the stairs in the middle of night. Fortunately no one was injured. I wish I had a picture.
Venice is magical. The light is different there. I’ve noticed it in other cities but in Venice it creates a magical atmosphere. Perhaps it’s the light reflected on the water and back onto the light colored buildings, or maybe it was the joy of being on vacation, but I understood why artists, writers and people in general went and continue to go there. If I could sit down with you and tell you each detail about our days spent there maybe you would begin to understand, but everyone takes something different from a trip so all I can tell you is GO. Go see what the guidebooks tell you to see. I do. But also get lost because in getting lost the essence of the city really sinks in.
As for restaurants we ate well every day. Bear in mind that we like sardines, anchovies, fish and seafood of every sort, meat (no offal please), pasta, vegetables, bread and wine, mostly white. Certainly in Venice there are restaurants that serve other things besides fish and seafood (we did go to one) but it is a collection of islands in the Adriatic Sea so take advantage. Here’s a list of where we went with memorable details. I’ve included the neighborhood where each place is located.
They have a fantastic terrace that looks out onto the Giudecca Canal, well actually you’re on a large, square wooden dock sitting over the canal. Either way it’s beautiful especially as the sun sets and you eat by candlelight. We each had an appetizer and an entree. This is how most meals went depending on our appetites. Appetizers: whitefish with onions two ways, one with saffron and the other with red onions and pine nuts; gamberi (shrimp) with mango and grapefruit over arugula. Entrees: pesce di cernia (grouper) with spinach and a potato rosti; linguini with shrimp and zucchini flowers. The thing that stood out about all the food we ate was the freshness and the lack of butter. The funniest conversation we overheard was a mother telling the waiter that her daughter loved the tomatoes and if possible could she just have another plate of tomatoes? The waiter was so puzzled. An entire plate of pomodoro? Also tomatoes did not exist in Italy until someone brought one over in the 16th century!
Antiche Carampane, San Polo
We usually gave ourselves 30 minutes to get to the restaurant. Remember we walked everywhere and this also accounted for possibly getting lost on the way. I had a detailed street map but not every little alley or street was marked on the map. I love maps and I love navigating especially when all of the street names are on the buildings as they are in Venice. We had a little adventure finding Antiche Carampane. We got caught in the rain without an umbrella and the sun had set so between walking quickly through the rain and darkness it was a challenge. There are street lights but not everywhere. Another thing to love or hate about Venice. I loved it because it equalled mystery. Lucky for us we found the restaurant because the food was excellent. We sat outside under an umbrella surrounded by locals and tourists. After we ordered they brought us a brown paper cone of tiny fried shrimp. They were like popcorn, better than popcorn. We asked for a second cone but it never came. Appetizers: a selection of seafood antipasti; arugula salad with shrimp and figs. The seafood antipasti included baccala mantecato which is a whipped cod spread in unromantic terms but it can be so light and delicious and this was. Entrees: spaghetti with spider crab sauce (spaghetti del Doge, yes fit for the Doge); rigatoni with swordfish, tomatoes and olives. The delight we expressed while eating all this inspired the three Italian ladies next to us to inquire what we were eating and in turn order exactly as we had. This was one of the best dinners. I want to go again.
Al Covo, Castello
Al Covo is past Piazza San Marco near the Grand Canal and although we had to battle a league of pigeons we found another good one. For some reason everything I ordered that night was fried but so worth it. It was a white tablecloth sort of place but it had a casual feeling. They also had a nice prix fixe for lunch and dinner where you could order an appetizer, entree and dessert (cheese supplemental). We went a la carte but got cheese and dessert in the end. Sometimes the cheese and dessert selections sound more delectable once you’ve read the menu and heard a description of them by the waiter. Appetizers: fried zucchini flowers filled with ricotta; marinated anchovies. Entrees: fried sardines with matchstick potatoes; deconstructed swordfish with eggplant, tomato, olives. Dessert: strawberries shaken with balsamic vinegar; crazy cheeses I cannot remember but wish I had in front of me. The husband and wife owners of Al Covo and their staff were so pleasant and the food, simple but wonderful, that we returned for lunch the next day. We had just finished exploring the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace and all the standing and looking and absorbing led us back to Al Covo. We shared a seafood antipasti plate that had the tiny shrimp cleaned and lightly boiled, razor clams, cockles and clams. Entrees: rigatoni with pesto and pistachios; I can’t remember the other pasta!
La Bitta, Dorsoduro
Originally I had made a reservation at Da Fiore, a restaurant that gets high marks but also has its detractors who say the quality of the food doesn’t merit the price. I try to read a variety of reviews of a restaurant before making a decision and what I read about Da Fiore left me unsure. I’ve made the mistake of believing the hype only to be disappointed so I ditched Da Fiore and went for La Bitta instead. We happened to walk by Da Fiore and I felt so happy I cancelled because it had a smug air. La Bitta has no fish or seafood on its menu, a rarity in Venice. It had a rustic, cozy feel to it, almost like we were in a ski or hunting lodge. Appetizers: crepes with potatoes and cheese fonduta (can’t remember the exact cheese. argh); beef carapaccio. Entrees: gnocchi with ricotta; pork loin with potatoes. I know it sounds heavy but we ate lunch at 1 and spent the next 5 hours walking so something comforting was appropriate. In fact we didn’t feel too gluttonous since the portions were exactly right. Da Fiore who?
Il Ridotto, Castello
This was our last dinner in Venice. It was definitely a contemporary take on Venetian cuisine. The interior felt Scandinavian, by no means a bad thing, but the first time we encountered that in Venice. Appetizers: crudo dal mare (selection of raw fish and seafood); warm fish salad. Entrees: black spaghetti with sea urchin; rabbit with artichokes and potatoes. The food looked and tasted great. The other diners were entertaining. Two couples from somewhere not Italy had a small dog with them, maybe a Yorkie or similar. The dog started barking so it was taken out of the carrier and placed into a lady’s lap and then the floor. I noticed the dog walking around, at least it was on a leash, and then it assumed the position and took a poop in the middle of the restaurant! (please see photo evidence below) Another couple beside us seemed very happy. They had a bottle of white wine, then a bottle of champagne. They took a few cigarette breaks which must have included serious conversation because when they came back the second time the woman revealed that she was no longer interested in the relationship. She said she would pay for dinner and left. The poor guy just sat there shocked. He left presumably to find her because they returned together. They sorted out the bill and left. He still looked heartbroken.
Do Farai, Dorsoduro
We had lunch at Do Farai based on the Lonely Planet review. Lonely Planet hasn’t let me down when I decided to follow their advice and we can add another one to the win column. The standout item was the crudo of branzino with a splash of lemon, olive oil and prosecco. Usually Dino, fixture of the restaurant and chef of the crudo, can debone the fish in four and a half minutes but he slowed it down so we could take pictures of his handiwork. He took a liking to us telling us how Bruce Nauman was a regular during the 2009 Biennale and that if we wanted to watch the Regata Storica (annual rowing competition in Venice) he was sure the owner would let us on his boat. His friendliness and delicious food gave me another reason to love Venice.
Croatia coverage is coming. Stay tuned!