Venice again and Pronto Pesce

A lunchtime aperativo

Another day and another visit to Venice but this time we’d decided to take the autostrada all the way. We loaded up the Smart – such fun cars to drive – and started down the bumpiest road in Italy. Just as we left the parking area two girls came out of that shed and a delivery guy was going in – what was it they did in there?

We parked at Piazzale Roma for €23 – a bit steep, I think – instead of the €9 it cost at Fusina and walked to the market, which was still busy despite it being mid-morning. Any visit gains from spending some time in this busy place and it was a pleasure to sit and absorb the essence of Italy with a capuccino. Spending some time in the market provides a glimpse of how Venice used to be as it still caters to local residents and businesses. The majority of the food shops on the main island surround it. The fish market or pescheria – the produce market is called the erberia – is a delight although it’s at its best before 7.00am and is about over by midday. It is something of a tourist attraction, especially later in the day, so if you are serious about food and how it’s still sold there you need to be early. A few stalls selling cheap tat have appeared over the years so it’s possible to buy fresh octopus, hand-made pasta and an ‘I love Venice’ tee-shirt without having to buckle-up your money belt.

We discovered a little gem in the fish market – a café called Pronto Pesce has opened since our last visit and is quite unique. It’s a sort of stand-up, fast-food gourmet place that serves a variety of small but exquisite fish dishes on a portion by portion basis. You receive each on disposable platters so you order a dish at a time and dump plate, cutlery and glasses when you’re done. So you can snack, eat a lot or just taste. It’s run by two young guys; one is the chef and he’s on hand to serve as well. The wine – we chose prosecco like the procession of fish vendors coming in for snacks from the market – is sold the same way; you drink what you want and pay by the glass at the end. It’s a clever and unpretentious business model made special by virtue of the quality of the food. Lasagne made with prawns, fried sardines, seafood couscous, croissants with fish fillings, various fillets, crème fraiche with flaked cod and herbs – people were standing at the counter or sitting at one of the high, bar tables; food was going out to the market; vendors were coming in. We sampled a few different dishes as a light lunch and it was a delicious, intensely Italian and extremely friendly experience.

Not having to think about getting a ferry back to Fusina meant that we had the luxury of time to walk the back streets again although we did the tourist route too. Harry’s Bar was packed, Piazza San Marco less so and the route back to Piazzale Roma was interrupted with light showers that had the cruise ship visitors scurrying back to queue for dinner.

We said ‘arrivederci’ for this time and went in search of dinner in the Venetian countryside. The tortuous drive on the first day had enabled us to become fairly familiar with the local towns so we drove until we found a place we liked. It turned out to be Piove di Sacco in Padua and the meal in Tre Corone, the local enoteca was excellent. It’s very much asparagus season so the salads and dishes featuring it were matched in excellence only by the enthusiasm and friendliness of the staff. Yet another memorable meal.

Honour, obligation and doing the right thing

So David Laws resigns and our coalition wobbles a bit – but not much. We’ll soon get over it.

One of the things that so frustrated us about our politicians was their apparent lack of concern for what used to be appropriate behaviour and an inherent ability to carry on regardless of what we, their employers, thought. Laws was allegedly claiming £950 a month for eight years and has now agreed to pay back around £40000 in misappropriated expenses. And quite right. The guy is an ex-VP at merchant banker JP Morgan and, although I don’t know anything about his personal life, he is reportedly a millionaire. So, from a financial standpoint, paying back that money will take him no more time or worry than it takes to write the cheque. The issue hinges on the fact that the money he was claiming has gone to his partner, which breaks parliamentary rules. He has rationalised it by saying that he was trying to balance the stigma of being gay with working in public office but, with the Prince of Darkness resplendent in the ranks of Labour, that really doesn’t wash. He wasn’t in Government when he started trousering the money, was he?

I’m pleased he has resigned because he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar and has done the only honourable thing. He knew he was acting inappropriately when he was taking the money but, in pre-coalition days, the consequences of sorting that part out may well have seemed less traumatic than ‘coming out’ as homosexual. And, of course, that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? What the heck should it matter if his partner is a guy?

He’s apparently a good bloke and is liked in his constituency. I wish him well and expect to see him come to prominence again. Bottom line is; if you hold public office you have to maintain minimal standards and he was right to go – but his private life should be private and he shouldn’t have been compromised into misappropriating expenses because of the stigma attached to it in the first place. Maybe honesty across several fronts, uncomfortable as that might sometimes be, is the right policy after all.

Old bikes and coffee

The breakfast at the castel was enjoyable, as much for the surroundings as for the cornetti; Italian sweet croissants. They were just-from-the-oven fresh each day and were evidence of a local pasticerria that will be very proud of its culinary art. I found them irresistible, unlike the coffee which was not so special at all. And as a guy who is very picky indeed about the one cup a day he indulges in – Mission Control says I’m a miserable git until I get it but I’d argue against that as I have the character of a Saint – I wasn’t moved to compliment the Contessa on it. The day was again sunny and warm so, after having further worn the ancient footways of Venice the day before we decided we’d explore the local area by making use of the vast selection of cycles that were stored under a canopy near the shed beside the discrete parking area.

Old farm buildings and maize at San Martino di Venezze

That large windowless shed remained something of a mystery to me during our stay. It clearly stored some tools but there was something else going on there, something secret and mysterious. The little old man who was continuously hammering, scraping, painting or generally busying himself with various parts of the old buildings would arrive in the mornings, carefully unlock it, disappear into it and emerge in a grey overall. He’d bring out, or put away, or carry off a variety of tools, machine parts, pieces of wood or boxes. But it was locked if he was in any other part of the estate and when it was open he kept himself firmly between me and the door, subtly keeping himself in my line of sight as I vied for a view over his shoulder and into its dark interior. More intriguingly, other members of the estate’s staff were clearly party to the secrets of the shed and would disappear into it on a regular basis, more than once a day and often for a considerable period. Kitchen staff, cleaners, even delivery guys – it seemed to me that anyone who wasn’t actually a guest would spend some time each day in that shed.

There were about twenty cycles racked or hanging and they ranged from twenty-gear, Schwalbe-tyred mountain bikes to small pink-painted models with training wheels. The first that we selected were in a sad state of disrepair, with chains dislodged, gears jammed, saddles missing or tyres deflated. In fact, they were all in a sorry state and as we inspected cycle after cycle to see if any was useable the little man slipped quietly into the shed and emerged with a sparkling upright foot pump, which he handed to me with the briefest nod of his head and an expressionless face. It didn’t fit any of the cycle valves so we set it aside but we eventually settled on two bikes that were serviceable. Returning the foot pump was, I hoped, my entry into the shed but, adding to the frustration of not finding a cycle that was comfortable, I discovered that our man had already returned it to the shed, quietly locked it again and vanished. As we set off through the dappled sunshine along the bumpiest road in northern Italy the sound of laughter broke through the birdsong; it was three of the kitchen staff tripping across the road and going into the shed. I never did discover what was inside it.

Poppies at San Marino di Vennezze

The area around the castel comprised largely long, flat fields defined by drainage channels that served to reclaim the land from the marshes and wetlands of the nearby Po Delta. It is rich farmland and agriculture is consequently a substantial aspect of the local economy. There is a lot of market gardening and vine-growing but where we were located the main crops appeared to be maize, wheat and peas. Exploring this was simple; the land was so flat and featureless that by standing on a shoe-box and turning through 360 degrees you could see all there was to see. We wobbled through it at a very sedate pace in anticipation of a decent espresso in the village.

And there’s another reason I love Italy. If you head for the next village where we live in England you’re heading for Pond Street or Ugley; here the next village, decked out in bunting, posters and all manner of glittery decoration in anticipation of an upcoming minor Saint’s Day, was called San Martino di Venezze. Below the church and leaning clock-tower the café in the square had shaded tables outside and a bar filled with aperitivo snacks. The girl who served us was dressed in jersey, a jewel-encrusted belt and ‘pirate’ boots; her hair pulled back past designer glasses and, no surprise, produced excellent coffee – twice. Attractive, competent and friendly – an interesting and welcome change from the girl in our local Costa Coffee, who takes 15 minutes to make her unique form of cappuccino and combines a bovine personality with the slow-blinking eyes of an amphibian. Just being in Italy is an experience in itself.

In the afternoon it became hotter and we drove over to the Po Delta, stopping in Adria to buy wine, proscuitto, salami, cheese, bread and fruit for a meal outside. The delta is protected by the Parco Del Delta Del Po, covering nearly 54000ha of lagoons, wetlands and dunes and we spent the rest of the day surrounded by the songs of nearby Nightingales, Melodious and Cetti’s Warblers. Numerous Montagu’s Harriers drifted along the banks beside where we sat and Pygmy Cormorants flew overhead. A cool experience if you’re a birder.

We planned to spend the next day in Venice and have lunch in the market but we’d avoid those unreliable short-cuts this time and drive right into Piazzale Roma. We drove back the castel via Rovigo, where we walked the pleasant streets of the quiet town and had a beautifully thin-crusted pizza on the way.

Venice and lunch with Harry

I expect that most people who have travelled in Europe and certainly those that have visited Venice will have heard of Harry’s Bar. It’s on Calle Vallaresso very near Piazza San Marco and is a well-known if staggeringly expensive waterside retreat that famously serves its clientele Bellinis. In fact, it is rumoured that the cocktail – a combination of peach puree and prosecco – was invented in the bar and there appear to be no other claims to its origins.

Harry’s Bar was founded by Guiseppe Cipriani in1931 on money received in return for a loan he’d made to an acquaintance – called Harry – who had suffered financial losses in the Depression. The bar was renown not only for its Bellinis but also for martinis. It is also claimed that the serving of carpaccio was invented there but I’m not entirely convinced by that particular claim to fame. But famous it is; in 2001 the Italian Ministry for Cultural Affairs declared it a national landmark. Guiseppe clearly had a reputation as well as what we today would call a network as the bar quickly became fashionable and was famously frequented by Ernest Hemingway. The list of famous names is extensive but patrons, aside from yours truly, have included Humphrey Bogart, Sinclair Lewis, Orson Welles, Arturo Toscanini, Marconi, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Aristotle Onassis, Barbara Hutton and Peggy Guggenheim.

The Cipriani name is now incorporated in a privately owned company that is still run by family members and which owns luxury restaurants, bars, residences and resorts in several countries. Harry’s Dolci on Giudecca is no exception but a little more off the beaten track than some of the others and we simply love it. The view from the terrace at the front, which is directly on the water, is north across to the city and all the movement is marine, not tourist. The restaurant has no pressure to offer a menu turistico as its customers have arrived by ferry to what is now an exclusive residential area and not having chanced upon a place to eat on their circuit back to the boat.

Lunch was, as always, exquisite; after prosecco we drank locally-produced Soave Classico with scampi e cannellini [scampi with white beans] dressed with vinaigrette containing a hint of oranges, tonno scottato con finocchi brasati [seared tuna with braised fennel] and filetto di San Pietro alla carlina [grilled John Dory with rice pillaf]. The restaurant is known for its desserts – dolci – so it goes without further comment that the mousse di cioccolato fredda and torte limone were sumptuous.

Venice is a city where you can walk so after that long, enjoyable lunch we walked. Back to the main island by vaporetto, then to San Polo, Rialto and back to Academia – such evocative names. And such an evocative city even if it is gradually turning into a living museum seemingly populated by map-wielding transients.

The ferry back to Fusina headed into a pink sunset and we left the tourists hiking across the bus station to their boat. We were more certain of the route back so we abandoned the Contessa’s directions and meandered through a rural tranquillity that we thought was just a little more direct – but it still took over an hour.

Tourists in front; visitors behind – and be back at the boat by six

Venice, described as one of the most romantic of European cities, is always a destination that responds magnificently to visitors’ aspirations. It provides a unique combination of old buildings and narrow streets, superb palazzos, inspirational churches, secluded campos, restaurants, shops, bars and, of course, the canals. It never disappoints even seasoned travellers. I’ve seen Venice through the heat of the hottest summer day when it’s criminally full of tourists and I’ve broken ice on the lagoon in winter before walking through deserted, misty calles with only the sound of echoing footsteps to remind you that there might be someone else just around the corner. It’s magical always but when you see at this time of year, it’s a bit full.

Clever of us then to find our castel away from the seething masses so that we could take a short, uncrowded ferry ride from Fusina to the stop at zattere, on the big Canale Della Giudecca. Of course, we had to get to Fusina first and that proved to be no simple matter. Allowing an hour was probably about right but that was based on the presumption of accurate and, if I’m brutally frank, honest directions. It took nearly two hours because we were directed – with the best intentions – down narrow, convoluted, rural byways that were, at the same time, picturesque and indirect. I suppose that if you’ve lived in the region for thirty years and eventually determine the perfect way to the bread shop that avoids six-lane autostrada, toll booths, heavy truck routes and major towns then you want to share it. Unfortunately, no route in Italy allows you to avoid the multitudes of suicidal individuals that stalk any asphalted surface. By the time we’d arrived in Fusina I’d concluded that it would have been more comfortable if the roads had been wider and a good deal safer if the traffic on my side of them was all going in the same direction. Nonetheless, we made it safely and there was a good, guarded car park that is third of the cost of parking in Venice itself. The port, in a pretty area, is very small and of little consequence but it is being improved and has a café with the inevitable €1-a-go toilet [per person, of course].

Just before arriving at zattere the ferry passes the Stazione Maritima, the commercial port that accommodates big ferries, cargo ships and liners. Several were docked but the largest by far was a huge cruise ship that, I was told, frequently arrived and disgorged around 3000 activity-hungry tourists into the city. At nearly 400m long and 70m high it dwarfed the adjacent buildings and could be seen above the roofs from around the city. Nearly 10% of the total daily visitors in one lump has a noticeable effect; you couldn’t avoid bumping into people striding around staring at maps [they have to see all the landmarks, buy something and be back at the boat to queue for dinner] and every second shop now sells tee-shirts. In the time I’ve been visiting there’s been an invidious reorientation of the merchandise on sale with a loss of both variety and, in many areas, quality as the shops chase this army of knick-knack hunters. Sad, because it belittles a wonderful city that deserves better but which depends so heavily on the daily influx. And sad because the reducing resident population means that local shops and services and their associated skills are disappearing rapidly. When I first came to Venice by train as a student and walked out of the ferrovia the place simply took my breath away. It became a bigger experience subsequently to stay for a few days and explore the areas off the tourist route, which were quieter, populated by residents and relatively free from crowds. Those areas are now derelict, under-populated and, where some shops remain, sell a variety of worthless mementoes. I recall Alan Whicker writing that Venice remained one of his favourite places and how wonderful it was when he first lived there just after the war. He regretted that it had changed with the advent of inexpensive air travel but pondered whether or not the wonders of such a special place should be restricted to the enjoyment of a privileged few? There’s the rub – it’s not part of The Grand Tour these days and most of the people on the calles were tourists, not visitors. And they weren’t Italian either. One very pleasant American lady told her audience in Harry’s Bar that she adored Venice and thought it a ‘Mecca for shopping’. But she hadn’t been in any churches or walked the area behind the Arsenal.

Life is change, I guess and Venice, the Immortal City, is changing along with it.

This all seems a little morose but it’s not meant to be; Venice is a wonderful place to be and these are thoughts that have occurred since spending a couple of days rubbing shoulders with a few of my ghosts. What we did when we arrived was to go right over to our favourite restaurant, Harry’s Dolci on Giudecca, order prosecco and begin a truly memorable three-hour lunch.

A mediaeval view

I find using the toilet in Italy strangely disorienting these days. Many years ago, when I was first introduced to the malodorous hole in the floor, I was aghast. It was usually located in the darkest of airless rooms somewhere at the back of a bar or shop; a malignant portal to hell, abused by previous occupants and bespattered with smudges of grey and brown. And it was always wet; wet on the floor, wet on the walls, wet on the door-handle. Invariably there was no lock and, once crouched in position – I’ve always assumed that those little ridged areas on either side of the pan were strategically placed for a perfect aim – there was no way of ensuring that the door remained closed to visitors at the most inopportune moment. Using these obscene facilities was rarely a satisfactory experience but, on the brighter side at least, I was always able fall back on my English stoicism. After all, we had flush toilets that you could sit on back in Blighty and there was an intrinsic superiority in the knowledge that this was part of the price you paid for broadening your horizons with travel and, sad as it might be, that that was the way Johnny Foreigner lived. Today, alas, Italian toilets are a different story and a different experience. Gone are the smells and dark alcoves and gone are those smug thoughts of superiority; all the colour is in the tiling and modern suites and, at last, there has been a move to double-ply tissue. There remain a few traditional toilets and it was comforting to find that the age-old practice of redecorating the floor or walls hadn’t quite died out but, by and large, you can now leave the room more or less as dry as when you entered it.

Our 15th century castel had been sensitively modernised and had excellent – in not traditional – facilities so within minutes of arriving we were drinking cold Pinot Grigio and enjoying bruschetta, braised fennel and bright yellow polenta in warm sunshine. The castel is a way off the beaten track so it was quiet save for the sound of the breeze through the Lime trees and the calls of Golden Orioles. There’s something compelling for me about dozing in the sun after a glass of wine and that afternoon in mediaeval surroundings was no exception.

The Tenuta Castel Venezze is ancient and the oldest building in the region, first documented in about 1400. Walking the estate was a pleasure. Considerable work has been undertaken in restoring it by the Contessa Maria Giustiniani and she is a formidable lady. An arched colonnade along one side of the main house faces verdant gardens that are sheltered by mature trees and provides a perfect place for sitting and indulging the joy of being in Italy. The road running through the estate, which is still paved with original stones, is said to have marked the boundary between Venice, the capital of the Veneto, and the interior and a toll was charged each time a traveller passed through. Unfortunately, none of the accrued wealth appears to have been spent on maintaining the road and the approach to the main gates was bumpy enough to loosen the fillings in your teeth.

The castel hosts a cookery school as one of several activities in which the more adventurous can participate so we had elected to have dinner there that evening on the assumption that it would be pretty good. In the event it was, well, OK but we weren’t inspired enough to find out if it was prepared by the chef or the students. Either way, I was left thinking that my time would be better spent not in trying to improve my tortino con gli asparagi but in becoming familiar with the local wine, which was excellent. We finished the bottle outside and it was disappointing that there were no nightingales – they were all on the Po Delta a couple of days later – but the trees and fields were alive with fireflies.

Our plan was to spend the next day in Venice and the best way to get there, by far, is to arrive by boat. The anticipation of getting to the city slowly, while views change and the details of each building and fondamente come into focus, is captivating. When we spoke to the Contessa from Sweden she had advised us that the local port of Fusina was close by and accessible within a few minutes so we’d head for there after breakfast. But what was this she was now telling us – allow an hour to get there? Not with my driving skills and mastery of the Italian geography, I thought.