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.
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.
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.