Soggy Sunday

Sunday was grey and drizzly after overnight rain and wind. In front of our apartment we met a very lost sweet couple fromTaiwan, looking for where to get a gondola. We walked them over to the gondola dock near Ca d’Oro. We had been meaning to go see the Biennial installation there, so went in.

The ground floor with its stunning marble inlay flooring was flooding and unfortunately we were quickly kicked out before we could get the chance to fully appreciate the interesting lamp sculptures there.

Upstairs, the contemporary pieces were scattered about among the art collection, which made for interesting contrasts. We enjoyed it, as well as just being in such a wonderful late gothic Palazzo.

The weather was improving, so we wandered over to the bar in Campo Santi Apostoli for coffee and to share a cornetto while we people watched.

We followed a walk through the area from my Blue Guide, finding familiar sites like the beautiful Palazzo Van Axel that hosted a Biennale show last time; and places new to us like this gorgeous old archway. Probably 12th century, the carvings are worn but still good in the more protected areas. This little Campo carries the name Corte seconda del Milion, one of Marco Polo’s nicknames as he was thought to exaggerate his tale of travel in the east.

And this sobering reminder of later history.

Another hidden delight was late 15th century Chiesa San Giovanni Crisostomo. Dim inside with some lovely features including a Bellini.

And going through a dark sottoportego to find this remaining gothic staircase on Ca Lion in a tiny Campo with wellhead on the Canal.

A pre lunch drink at the Secret Bar, then we walked down for our lunch reservation at old favorite Vini da Gigio. It was surprisingly quiet for a Sunday lunch, but by now the rain was cominG down hard and sensible people were staying home.

We began by sharing their Venetian seafood platter, the best version I’d had on this trip. With razor clams, yum. Then a dish which turned out to be a weak spot, gnocchi with truffles. Very large gnocchi with a lot of cheese, just too heavy a dish for me. But the nice glasses of wine helped. We then split Osso bucco, a very good rendition of tender veal with vegetables, with a side dish of sautéed spinach. Too full for dessert, or even one of their wonderful grappas. Next time.

A bit more wandering through the fondamentas of western Cannaregio, then home to read and relax.

We had Jan and Ken, and their friends Donna and Andy over for a light dinner of salami, salads, and wine. We crowded around our little table, and enjoyed conversation. Nice end to a relaxing day.

Plan B

On Saturday we first crossed to Rialto early to get something for dinner. The shrimp looked great, so got a half kilo. As Larry gave our order and I stepped back, I noticed someone taking a photo with him in it. Pretty funny. Also got more of the tiny artichokes and some radicchio and lettuce.

Back home then headed over to the Arsenale area of the Biennale, figuring with the drenching rain, people would stay cozily inside. As we got off the vaporetto, we saw we were were wrong, wrong wrong. Streams of people were walking over, and as we turned the corner we encountered hundreds of people in line just to enter the doorway for those who already had tickets, as we did.

Quick discussion, get the hell out of Dodge.

Plan B was to go to Casa de Tre Oci on Giudecca. This is a small photography museum I had wanted to get to. So back on the Vap, holding on to not skid on the slippery floors. Through the window I watched a determined gondolier row a group of people huddled under umbrellas. Well, they’d have an adventure to talk about, I guess.

The museum is in a beautifully updated 1913 Gothic Revival house built by an artist, the tre oci referring to three eye shaped windows overlooking the Guidecca canal. The current exhibit is the work of Ferdinando Scianna, a photographer I’d never heard of before.

Born in Sicily, his mostly black and white photos document time and place as well as his eye for composition and capturing moments. There was also a free audio guide in several languages of him discussing his work–running away from then returning to Sicily, the emotional toll of photographing other’s trauma, taking portraits. The show was divided into Memory, Journey, and Story. I loved them all, but here are just a few.

For lunch, we walked along the canal for about 10 minutes In the drizzle and then down a tiny side Calle to Trattoria Altanella.

Cozy inside, quiet at 12:30 but filled up by 1. We split a seppie Nero pasta with shrimp and vegetables, and then shared frito misto. The pasta was very good, and the frito had lots of fish, making Larry happy. Good solid typical Venetian cooking, nothing fancy or exciting.

As long as we were there, we went to see Palladio’s Il Redentore, built by Venice after the Plague at the end of the 16th century. From the water you see the massive front with dome and pediment , with wide steeps leading up. Inside is white and grey, the lightness interrupted by large, rather gloomy artwork. Around the side in the Sacristy is a collection of macabre wax heads of Franciscans from 1710. Very creepy.

Decided to return home and relax with reading and wine. Leftover mushrooms for dinner.

Let The Sun Shine

It started out as a sunny day, so we decided to spend most of our time walking. From our apartment in Cannaregio, we first walked over to the Rialto bridge. I love this little Campo with palazzo, and a shrine around the corner.

Today was All Saints Day, a holiday with businesses and schools closed; and the start of a long weekend. Many Italians were here visiting family, both resident and long resting on the cemetery island. It seemed that Venice was filling up with not only the usual tourists, but also many Italian, German and French families trying to get a little Venice weekend in their lives before winter. The congestion around the Rialto bridge was so thick we had to fight our way around to get to Palazzo Bembo to see the rest of the Interiors show we had enjoyed the other day.

All was serene inside, except for an aggressively fashionably dressed group posing for photos in the windows. We enjoyed the views down. In the exhibit were some quite interesting pieces we missed last time.

Nelson Akamo from South Africa.

Paintings by a Russian artist, Alexy Tronin.

I was very taken by a video and painting series showing an older woman walking through a variety of landscapes, some desolate, some lush, some man made environments, some natural. One I found particularly fascinating was of a sort of boat graveyard full of rusting, falling apart boats that each seemed to have personalities. Damn, I didn’t note the artist.

Another interesting installation was by a Chilean plastic surgeon, who had an artistic past but was pressured by family into studying medicine. His aesthetic bent had him specializing in plastic surgery; but then he starting painting again, his canvas the human body.

And loved these paintings using the opposites on the color wheel by Israeli Ika Abravamel.

We resumed our walk slowly negotiating the mass of people on the bridge. Once in San Polo we got off the main pedestrian path, and the crowds disappeared. We just aimlessly wandered in San Polo and Santa Croce, ducking into Biennale offsite exhibits or across bridges and down narrow calles which empty into a Campo.

For lunch, we tried a newish Sicilian place I’d heard about. Small menu of Sicilian standards, done well. It was busy with a mostly Italian speaking crowd, nice to see a different regional food getting the love. We split fried appetizers, a pistachio spaghetti with shrimp, and swordfish involtini. Not quite as awesome as much of what I’d had in Sicily, but good and different from Venetian food. Nice owners, too. Baccaretto, on Corte de Trozzi. It got busy, so reserve.

Kept walking, past the Frari, through Campos with people sitting in the sun, trying to ward off the increasing chill.

Stopped in to Ca Foscari, where the 15th century university building was hosting a show of Russian painter Geliy Korshev. Soviet Realism huge portraits and still lifes. Some fascinating things from both an art and historical view. And I love how he used red.

Into Dorsoduro, down quiet Rios to the 17th century San Trovaso boatyard. Then to the Zatarre, where the people who weren’t in San Marco were strolling. We got gelato from Nico, which we couldn’t finish, a shame. Then back home.

Early that morning I had made a mushroom ragu from fresh mushrooms and dried porcini. With a bitter greens salad, we had for a late dinner it over a thin layer of polenta, classic cold weather food.

Splitting Up

On Thursday, I had arranged a Venetian cooking class with chef Carolyn Burkhardt, American born but living and cooking in Venice for many years. We met up with Florida friend Jan at Bar Puppa, along with her friend Donna. It was great to see Jan again! We walked across Venice, fighting the crowds around the Rialto bridge. Once in Dorsoduro, we met up with Nan in Campo S. Margarita and then Carolyn, who brought us to her family’s palazzo on the Campo. Upstairs, Carolyn has a huge (by Venetian standards) kitchen in her pretty apartment. We got to work, first making traditional league de gatto (cats tongue) cookies and a mascarpone-based Doge’s Cream for dessert.

We made fresh squid ink pasta, a very traditional Venetian preparation. Carolyn laughed that Halloween seemed an appropriate day to make black pasta. To my surprise, you can get the little packets of ink at the supermarket here, and Carolyn gave us each one to bring home.

Mixing the egg gradually into the flour takes a bit of practice, and then the dough is kneaded before being wrapped and left to rest. The sauce today was another Venetian tradition, Alla Busara, shrimp with tomatoes. Carolyn shared a tip for getting the most flavor and texture from shrimp, a brief brining.

Carolyn had prepared some toppings for cichetti, which we assembled. With a glass of Prosecco, a delicious snack, especially since I’d skipped breakfast.

We rolled out the pasta by hand, Carolyn checking carefully and giving guidance so we had an even thickness. We then cut the pasta, and Carolyn demonstrated how to fill and form two stuffed kinds, ravioli and tortelli. Our stuffing was baccala montecata, the traditional creamed cod that I’ve only eaten as a cicheti topping. We cut the remaining pasta into tagliatelle. More than a bit of variation in our ravioli and tortellini sizes and shapes, this is something that will take practice to do by hand.

Then the pasta went into pots, the sauce finished, and we sat down to eat. The baccala made for a nice filling, and I was pleasantly surprised by the delicate flavor of the squid ink pasta, subtly tasting of the sea. I also loved the sauce, with the fresh tomatoes instead of the purée tomato sauce I’ve had in restaurant alla busara dishes.

Fun, informative class, and Carolyn gives excellent instruction. She can be contacted at

clbinitaly@hotmail.com for information and to reserve.

Pictorial proof I was there too.

Meanwhile, Larry had decided to go find the ancient Jewish cemetery on Lido, which we had heard about when we toured the synagogues in the Ghetto. It is about a 15 minute walk from the vaporetto stop, and luckily the gate was upon. The cemetery was established in 1386. You can read about it here- Jewish Cemetery on Lido

Larry met up with me aftward, and we took the vaporetto to the Arsenale for some more of the Biennale. We only stayed about an hour, since we had week long tickets which allowed us to return. I find the Biennale more enjoyable and rewarding if I don’t have to try to take the whole thing in one gulp. Not too much was pulling me this afternoon, although I did enjoy a textile installation of crocheted coral and a weird and funny video of sandwiches being made and unmade with ingredients like tomato and businessmen.

The work that most resonated with me on this visit was a sound installation by Shilpta Gulpta called “For In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit.” The artist describes it as a “symphony of recorded voices which speak or sing the verses of 100 poets who were imprisoned for their work or politics from the 7th century through today. ” You walk through a field of spikes which impale scraps of paper holding fragments of poetry, with microphones above and audio of whispered or sung poetry. It is mesmerizing, with an unsettling mixture of gentleness and harshness. I found it compelling.

Ugh, there’s a Grandi Navi , big ship, going through the mouth of the canal.

Back home on the vap, very crowded this time of day, especially on the start of the long weekend of All Saints Day tomorrow. We first had a drink in Campo S. Apostoli , watching the kids dressed in Halloween costumes careening around trick or treating at the shops. Then home for leftover fish and salad for dinner.

Art in Many Forms

Wednesday morning was cool and grey, but as usual we were up early so decided to go to the Rialto markets to get a few things for dinner. First, we walked the Pescheria to see what fish appealed.

We got a beautiful little swordfish steak, and then went to my favorite vegetable stand staffed by an older couple where there’s always a line. A huge head of Romesco, one of my favorite cold weather vegetables that is challenging to find at home. Then went to the stand where we spotted two lonely bunches of zucchini flowers. Asked if he’d have any tomorrow, the vendor laughed, “yes, next year!” So the last fiori di zucca went in the bag. and I couldn’t resist some mushrooms for tomorrow.

Crossed the Canal, and popped into the little San Erasmo farm store. Everything from their organic farm on the island, strictly seasonal. When the owner learned we were from Boston, he and Larry had a spirited exchange about Larry Bird and the 80’s Celtics. Two kinds of radicchio (my new obsession) and some apples went into the bag.

A stop at the bakery for the crunchy dark bread we like, the deli for a bit of fresh ricotta, and back home.

It was still barely 10 am, so we thought we’d go to one of the art installations around town. I had read that the group show at the European Cultural Center at Palazzo Bembo was good. And yes, we loved it. We actually only got through one of the two floors, deciding to return on another day to finish. The theme was Personal Structures.

Lots of variation, much of it wonderful. A few things I was particularly struck by…

The Hidden Library, a two room installation by Jim Rattenbury of sculturalmpieces with video.

Song of Songs, a romantic, pink hued room by Tineke Smith, where everything invites touch– including a pink knitted piano cover!

Eerie and evocative paintings of an abandoned German TB sanatorium.

Beautiful paintings from a Swiss artist

And this was amazing–Two rooms by Frederick Uriel called Plastic Reef, constructed all from throwaway plastics.

Graceful sculptures from Helene Jacubowitz.

Another stunner–in a little alcove, a shimmering textured painting, overplayed by video and music. This was so mesmerizing I watched it twice. Artist is Lala Azra from Indonesia.

For lunch, we walked over to Ai Promessi Sposi, and split a spaghetti with clams and then a frito misto. Larry was happy because there were lots of different itty bitty fishies. A bit over salted to my taste, but still fresh and good.

I had really wanted to see this year’s Biennale prize winner, an Opera in the Lithuanian Pavillion. Staged in an abandoned warehouse at the back end of Castello and performed only two days a week, we arrived to find a long line of people. The line moved every now and then, I think we waited maybe 40 minutes or so while chatting with a woman from Parma and eavesdropping on a really annoying guy bragging about artists he knows.

We climbed stairs to a balcony overlooking a pretend beach, complete with sand, people lounging on blankets, kids playing, dogs sleeping, hundreds of props, and an opera in progress. The libretto is in English, and is slyly funny and quietly perceptive as people sing about the everyday things that are contributing to our plant’s problems. I thought it wonderful, and could have stayed much longer than our allotted 20 minutes.

Back home, rested, then made stuffed zucchini flowers, swordfish “saur” styleand veggies for dinner.

Let it Rain

Although Venice is undoubtedly gorgeous on a sunny day, she also has her charms in the rain. The light gets even softer, land melts into fog, the wet stones under your feet add reflections. Just don’t get caught in one of the overcrowded calles near a tourist hotspot, you’ll lose an eye from someone’s umbrella.

We took the Lagoon-side vaporetto over to Giardini for a morning at the Biennale, the staggeringly huge bi yearly contemporary art extravaganza. It is always a very mixed bag, with some installations leaving me scratching my head or wondering why the artist didn’t go into plumbing instead. But some are either fascinating, intriguing, or just plain beautiful, if often (as Philippa and I agreed on the most nonjudgmental word) Challenging.

The Giardini holds most of the big national pavilions. At opening the ticket lines were long, but since the space is huge it doesn’t feel overcrowded once you get past the entry gate.

As usual, many video installations this year. The one I really loved was from France. Layered and beautiful, full of stunning or odd images as a group of friends travel through a dreamlike adventure, finally getting to Venice. The floor under your feet is padded and soft, and in the dark space are soft sculptures, some you can sit on.

French Pavillion

Another I enjoyed was from Canada, featuring a long, subtlety funny and ultimately sobering conversation between a group of Inuit elders, a young interpreter and an anonymous Whiteman who wants them to move to a settlement. Taken from the history of the Inuit’s forced relocation, it amplifies the huge divide of language and culture.

The Russian Pavillion started out ponderous and heavy, reflecting on the Hermitage and the story of the prodigal son. But downstairs was a hilarious kinetic sculpture, full of bobbing figures and witty images and text.

Larry liked the American Pavillion with sculptures from Martin Puryear, they didn’t do much for me. A few other things I enjoyed, but nothing else was particularly memorable. By this time it was almost 2, so we walked over to Calle Garibaldi to our favorite bar there, Cafe Refolu for some wine and little sandwiches. We will return on another day, I think afternoon would be less crowded as people run out of steam.

Then a soggy vap ride home, stopping to scope out the organic San Erasmus farm store and get a few things at the bigger Coop on Strada Nuova. Quite the selection of polenta to choose from.

Hung out and read in the apartment, and later walked further west in Cannaregio to meet Jonathan and Philippa at Cafe Dodo for a Spritz. Then an excellent dinner at Osteria Da Robia. A bit upscale, and good cooking. Larry and I split gnocchi with crab and bottarga, and then I had duck breast and a beautiful plate of vegetables. We split pistachio bavarese and a panda cotta for dessert. Another enjoyable meal in great company.

Murano

It is pretty funny that in our previous three trips to Venice we’d never made it over to Murano, the “Glass Island.” I think I had always lumped it into the box of tourist attraction, full of crowds buying Chinese imitation Murano glass. It is that, but it is also an important piece of Venice’s history, a community and heritage in danger of disappearing.

Our last time in Venice I had met local guide Andrea D’Alpaos , among other things art historian, Gospel music director and arranger, and most importantly for today, local boy. Raised on Murano, he conducted a unique tour of the back streets, peppering history with boyhood recollections and musing on Murano’s changes. Jonathan and Philippa joined us, and another couple. As we walked, Andrea traced the history of the island and how forces are changing the traditional industry and community.

One stop which I was enthralled by was the ancient church Santa Maria e San Donato. Most of the present structure was built between 1125 and 1140. Beautiful facade on the eastern side which faces a canal, as people would first see the church when arriving by the water. The western side with entrance is elegantly simple. Inside, the inlaid floor is marvelous, with cosmatesque geometric designs and animal motifs. The floor has been painstakingly restored.

That beautiful simplicity is again evident in the apse mosaics, with Mary surrounded by gold. Andrea asked the caretaker to let us into the small room to the side, containing Roman plaques and the mummified remains of St. Donatus.

Another stop on our walk was a very large glassworks, where we watched workers creating a large fish shape. It was fascinating to see the amount of work and care that goes into such pieces. I will admit for not caring for Some of what is being made in that workshop, but I can certainly appreciate the craftsmanship and years of work involved.

Andrea did show us to just a few of the shops lining the Rio where high quality glass is being sold. Much of the glass sold in a lot of the shops is not made on Murano, much from China. I did see some beautifully sleek contemporary pieces I loved from local glass makers. And I did buy a few earrings for gifts.

Oh, this was hilarious. When we met up with Andrea, another couple came over, said “hi Andrea, ” and introduced themselves. I thought, huh, I guess Andrea combined a tour, I’m fine with that since it brings the per person price down. When the tour ended, they got very embarrassed, and we all realized that they had joined us by mistake, they were supposed to meet a different Andrea at F. Nove! Andrea had assumed they were with us, I assumed Andrea had brought them! Pretty funny, but they agreed that they probably got a better tour. We ate sandwiches together, and went on our way.

Sunny Sunday

This was likely to be the last of the sunny days for a bit, so we headed out early, winding our way through twisting calles to to Palazzo Fortuny. I was really looking forward to this visit, and it did not disappoint. The last time we were inVenice, most of the Palazzo had been devoted to a Biennale exhibit which was wonderful, but there had only been a small fraction devoted to Fortuny. I’m a textile junkie, and have long loved Fortuny fabrics and clothing.

On the ground floor was a exhibit of work of Korean painter Yun Hyong Keun. His life and work was largely influenced by the upheavals and trauma of Korean history–Japanese occupation, Korean War, dictatorships. He was imprisoned several times, and turned to art after teaching. His work is stark, but looking closely one sees texture, movement, and layers within the deep colors.

Walking upstairs, you enter a huge room exploding with objects, artwork, and textiles exploring the people and items which influenced Fortuny. I knew his textile work but was less familiar with his painting and photography. The exhibit showcases the work of both Mariano Fortuny and his father, a Spanish painter. Opulent doesn’t even begin to describe it.

I adored everything, it was such a feast for the eyes. Up on the top floor were examples of Fortuny’s works in progress, sketches, and wood blocks used for fabric printing. I had to be dragged out of there. And now I really want a Fortuny lamp.

We had spent so much time in the Palazzo it was now lunchtime. We walked over to Dorsoduro, fighting the crowds taking selfies on the Accademia bridge. I will admit to slamming into young men wearing huge backpacks. and stopping to take photos.

On our first Venice trip almost 20 years ago we had loved the simple restaurant Ai Cugnai, which had been run by a pair of elderly sisters. The ladies are long gone, but it remains in the family and still serves solid, traditional Venetian food at fair prices. It was mobbed, but we somehow scored a table, I strongly suspect because Larry spoke Italian. Two very good plates of pasta, I had a fish lasagne and Larry spaghetti with shrimp and tomato. And the gondoliers still eat here.

Since it was still so nice out, we walked over to Zatarre to take a vap to Giudecca. Ooh, there’s one of the Boche de Leon, “lion Mouths” where people could put letters denouncing others who might be opposing the Dodges or Venetian nobles.

The Venice Marathon was still going on, with very hot and tired looking runners still coming in. I was glad Philippa and Jonathan had done the earlier 10 k, and were already home resting.

We got off at San Giorgio, and went into the church to take the elevator up into the bell tower. Fabulous views down, including on to the pontoon bridge for runners connecting Salute to San Marco. I’m intrigued by the maze and cloister to the south, and a bit of research shows that tours can be booked through the church, now on my to do list.

Next was the Stanze del Veitro, a small contemporary glass museum. The current exhibit of works of Thomas Sterns was enjoyable but didn’t thrill except for the last room; but I loved the huge Pae White sculpture in the garden.

Vap back across to San Marco, dodging the crowds to get to the quieter streets. We stopped first at Campo Giovanni e Paolo, sitting in a cafe with aperitivi, watching kids run around the ancient wellhead.

Back home, I found ricotta and radicchio in the fridge, and googled for recipes using them. Pasta with radicchio, walnuts and ricotta by Nancy Silverman, score. Quick trip to the Coop, and I threw together the pasta and a salad. Delicious and fast, a definite do again. A two pasta day, good thing I’d walked across Venice twice today.

Birthday Weekend—Saturday

We slept extremely well in our cozy room, and enjoyed a nice Italian breakfast (no, not a cigarette and espresso) downstairs. Had a great conversation with the hotel manager, of American parentage but raised in the Veneto. Oh, and bought a few bottles of Amarone to schlep home. We talked about what to do with the beautiful day, and Larry remembered that I had mentioned the Palladian villas around Vicenza. I told him I was taking a day off from planning, so he was in charge. A bit of Googling, and we were on our way.

The towns in this area have swallowed up most of the old buildings, so most have a modern, workaday atmosphere. It is somewhat startling to go through streets of small apartment buildings and shops, the road narrows, and suddenly you’re facing a gated 16th century villa.

Our first stop was Villa Rotunda (Villa Capra), begun by Palladio in 1566. No parking lot, so you need to creep along the road looking for a space, in competition on a Saturday with carloads of Italian families. Scored a space (the miniature car a blessing), we eventually got to the villa. With columned entries on all sides, views across its park and toward carefully placed outbuildings and statues, it is impressive from the exterior. Viewing this, you can see how Palladio influenced American 18th century architecture, from Monticello and the White House, to the porticoed whitewashed buildings in New England towns.

Inside, it has soaring ceilings, huge windows, and although the rooms are heavily frescoed and filled with objects, it still manages to feel inviting. Still privately owned, you could imagine an elderly couple reading in the comfortably furnished drawing room.

The central rotunda is amazing. No photos inside, so take a quick Google visit.

Next we found the nearby Villa Valmarana. The main Villa, La Palladiana was started in 1669. The smaller “guesthouse” La Forestina, in 1720. The Tiepolos, Giambattista and Giandomenico, father and son, painted elaborate frescoes in both homes. Father mainly painted in La Palladiana, son in la Forestina. It is interesting to see the differences in subject matter and style–one with dramatic moments from mythology; the other less about narrative and more about romantic moments or popular themes. My preference is for the son’s work.

The Villa is privately owned, it is neat to see family photos around the rooms.

Up on a wall are statues of dwarves, illustrating the legend of Princess Layana, whose parents surrounded her with other dwarves so she would not know how different she was.

For lunch, we drove up to a restaurant I had read about, Olio e Burro in Arcugnano. Slow on a Saturday, the only other table was an extended family who obviously knew the owners and chef. Excellent food, both our pastas were outstanding. Larry had a delicious thin lasagnette of radicchio and mushroom. I had fresh pasta with a farm egg yolk and shaved white truffle. So damn good.

Our last stop of the day was at the massive Villa Pisani in Stra. Either 114 or 144 rooms, depending on which source you read, it is quite the early 17th century pile. Room after room, it goes on and on, some rooms chock full of furnishings; others tattered and bare.

The gigantic ballroom was decorated by Giovanni Tiepolo, full of mythological heroes, partially hidden satyrs, all sorts of richly painted details. It is fascinating and overwhelming, I wanted to waltz In it. The Pisani Family fell into debt and sold the villa to Napoleon, so some rooms have more Regency decoration. And yes, Napoleon slept here.

We didn’t have time to explore the museum or grounds, but we know we want to come back and spend time in the Veneto some future trip. There is a lot to see and do here, and I could see renting one of the apartments at Massimago.

So back to beautiful Mestre and the train station, where Larry had an adventure trying to return the car to the closed office; and we met a young Canadian with two huge suitcases who didn’t know she couldn’t catch a cab to a hotel. She didn’t even have a place to stay–after helping get her bags off the train we pointed her toward an info desk and wished her luck.

Our London friends Jonathan and Phillipa were in town, so we had dinner with them at Alla Frasca, an old favorite in Cannaregio. Excellent food, (grilled octopus; gnocchi with shrimp and mint; mixed grilled fish; a Friuli white wine) and even better company.

Birthday Weekend-Friday

For my birthday, we thought it might be nice to have a brief countryside break. I love Amarone wines, so the nearby Valpolicella area seemed a good fit. An old Slowtrav friend recommended an agrituriso winery where he has stayed several times. I learned that they had recently opened a small restaurant on site that has been getting excellent reviews. Sold.

We knew a few days earlier that Italy would be having a transportation strike on Friday. The vaporettos would not be running, so we would need to walk to the train station, not a problem. What we were unsure of was how many trains would be cancelled that day. As it turned out, just a few were cancelled. So about 100 confused people had gotten off trains at the station, waiting ot the docks for vaporetto that wouldn’t be coming.

In Beautiful (not) Mestre, we picked up our rental, a tiny Fiat 500. We started driving west, the highway lined with industrial plants and nondescript office parks. Ah, here are grapevines finally, in the valley floor and climbing hills. We first stopped in the town of Soave. Well preserved walls partially enclose the old town, and climb the hill to the Castello at the top. You can climb the rough steep hill too, or do like we did and find the hidden road to the top. Pretty views up there.

Whoops, rookie mistake, the Castello would be closing for lunch in 30 minutes. We poked around Soave a bit, and then got to the serious business of finding a place for lunch.

Google map recommendations and TripAdvisor Italian (sometimes more reliable than reviews in English) pointed us to Osteria no. 1, in the Volpecella town on F. . Very lively, with a dapper owner singing along with the radio, good smell from the kitchen. Food was slightly gussied up traditional. Mmm, glass of Amarone. We began with tortellini stuffed with radicchio, honey and smoked cheese. Really good. Then pork with fried leeks on a pumpkin purée for Larry, and beef cheeks in an inky dark Amarone sauce for me.

I love Romanesque churches, and had noted some in the area when I was doing research. We found two beauties, each closed up tight. I’ve noticed that these old churches in France usually have a key at the local Marie (town hall) or a note on the door with phone number of key holder, who is usually delighted to show you the village’s pride and joy. But in Italy, you’re out of luck unless the key holder is cleaning. One of the churches was in a cemetery, where graves all sported flowers and decorations for All Saints Day next week. None of the ladies fixing up graves knew who had the church key, ah well.

We then drove to Massimago, the winery-agriturismo Ian had recommended. A beautiful building and grounds, up on a hill surrounded by vines and forest. We arranged for a tour and tasting later that afternoon, checked into our pretty room, and went to read on the patio by the pool.

With Ariana from the winery, we climbed the steep hill terraced with grapevines, learning about the five major grape varieties grown in the region, the wines they produced, and drinking a glass of fresh white wine halfway up. Massimago is an organic winery. The grapes have been grown here for decades, but the family has only been making their own wines for about 15 years.

At the top of the hill we visited the fruttaio, the shed where grapes are dried for 3-4 months before being crushed and slowly fermented for Amarone. This can be a delicate process, highly dependent on the grapes and environment. Rot is a big danger.

Down in the cellars, we tasted five wines, with nibbles of local cheeses. We both really liked the 2013 Amarone, which will be even better in five years or so. Amarone can be a big fruit bomb, but this was nicely balanced.

Dinner downstairs that night was a real treat. We did their five course tasting dinner, each course accompanied by their wines. First a little mouthful of bread made with wine, topped with a light cheese. Then stuffed zucchini flowers. Risotto with ginger, rosemary and a bit of licorice. Sounds odd, but delicious and worked well with the wine. Boned rabbit, topped with shaved black truffle, yes please. We’ll go apologize to the huge rabbits we saw in nice hutches on the hill tomorrow. I’d have never thought of cooking eggplant in red wine, but it too was great. Dessert was also excellent , a tart cherry and beet sorbet with local nut crumble. Ariana had noticed it was my birthday from my passport, so the chef brought out a little slice of cake with candle, very nice. About my only criticism was that the portions were too large for a tasting menu, we had to be careful to not finish everything, particularly the risotto.

We slept well.