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.