Saturday, September 28, 2013

On the Way to Tuscany

On the Way to Tuscany

Sunday, September 22, 2013

It was time to say good bye to our Australian friends and to Cinque Terre. It was amazing how quickly four days had passed, how much time we had spent together in that time and yet, how fleeting the connections seemed to be.  As always, Jim and I were welcomed as part of the group, as pseudo-Aussies, and that is what makes it so difficult to leave this group, knowing we will see them all again, yet not knowing when.

We waved goodbye to the group and got back into our car which had been sitting idle for four days. We were on our way to Tuscany by way of Portofino and Pisa. 

On the way north to Portofino, we soaked in stunning views of both mountains and sea coast. The freeway paralleled the coastline and tunneled through mountains. We lost track counting after 20 tunnels, some of which were almost 2 kilometres long.

Villages dotted the hillsides on both sides of the highway. We wondered why they were built in such rugged and remote locations. Often a bell tower soared into the sky well above the other buildings.

We left highway and travelled on a local road around the peninsula coast to Portofino. We passed through Ragalio and Santa Margherita in Ligure along the way. There is only one road into the peninsula and the same road back out to the main highway. As pretty as it was to be driving within metres of the sea, we tried to imagine what this place would be like at the height of tourist season.

Finally we reached Portofino, parked the car and walked the short distance to the main square on the waterfront. Although it was still mid morning, it was already hot and it was crowded!! Shops and cafes were all bustling. We sought a table in the shade and ordered a cappuccino. FIVE Euros ($7.00) each!! Portofino lived up to its reputation of being an expensive place. After finishing our cappuccino and our people watching, we strolled down toward the water to look at the yachts that were crowded into the small port area. Wow! Breathtaking! Jim took my photo in front of the town clock, sponsored by Rolex. I think that says something about the town in and of itself.

We had had enough of Portofino by this point and began to wander back toward the car. We popped into a very busy bakery to pick up some bread for lunch. We purchased 2 small panettones, one for lunch and one for breakfast tomorrow. Our jaws dropped when the server handed us a ribbon-wrapped package and said, “26 Euros, please.” That was almost $35.00 for two small loaves of bread. Add on eleven more euros for parking and this was likely the most expensive hour of our entire trip!!

We did enjoy the lovely coastal drive back out to the highway. And then we headed south, back through the tunnels, eventually passing the Levanto exit where we had started this morning

The landscape along our route was constantly changing. Mountains got higher with multiple ranges visible in the distance. Some were quite white on some slopes. The white areas almost looked like glaciers but were actually marble quarries. In this area some of the world’s finest marble is harvested. We noticed many marble factories along the sides of the highways with massive slabs of marble awaiting processing.

The land flattened as we drove further south. Agriculture abounded – corn, tomatoes, horses, vineyards and the iconic sunflowers of Tuscany. Sadly the blooms were slightly past their prime. No beautiful sunflower photos for us.

Pisa was amazing. Yes, there is a tower there that leans … and I gasped audibly when I saw it. I have held this image in my mind for probably 50 years and there it was for real. The tower was much larger around than I expected. We walked around it, gazed at the top, studied the lean and did our best to take a photo of me holding up the tower. We did not get it quite right but it was fun trying.

We also visited the Baptistry, a beautiful yet gentle 8 sided building with very little in it other than a pulpit and a large central baptismal font. Galileo was baptized here. One of the significant features of this bapstistry is the quality of the acoustics. Periodically throughout the day, a chanter will come in and sing three notes. As he lets go of one note, the sounds hangs in the air of the space. As he produces the second note, the two notes blend in harmony and when he produces the third note, this man has effectively created a three part harmony sound all by himself. What an amazing sound it was. The people in the baptistry were respectfully silent until the last note seeped away. We were awed by the experience.

The Pisa Cathedral was large and elegant. It featured a huge, ornate, gold leaf ceiling, beautiful stained glass windows, and detailed carvings on original pulpit.  With the original pulpit left in place, a new pulpit and sacrament table were recently  installed. They are much more contemporary in style although very tasteful and beautiful. Not surprisingly, this decision created much controversy within the congregation. One can only imagine the tenor of the committee meetings leading to this decision.

How much marble does it take to built a cathedral or a Baptistry or  a tower? How was that marble quarried and transported to the building site? How many skilled marble workers were on site creating the magnificent buildings that now command our attention? There seems to be a trend to create broad black and white marble stripes in the facades of many of these buildings.  To achieve such a pattern would certainly require substantial skill and much precision in the work.

Finally it was time to move on, to head for Tuscany and the countryside apartment we will be sharing with friends, Deb and Bill, for the next 6 days. We left the main highway and travelled on more local roads, passing through wonderful agricultural land and crossing hills in and out of valleys. Our destination, La Ripa near Ulugnano, was a bit difficult to find but its setting and facilities made it all worthwhile. The view of the hilltop village from the window is perfect.

So was the pasta and pesto from Portovenere that we enjoyed for dinner and the long, quiet pleasant evening we spent engaged in conversation with good friends.

Monday, September 23, 2013

We were up early in the morning, eager to get on with the day’s adventure. Breakfast consisted of panettone from Portofino and parmesan cheese from Parma. It was a great way to begin an exciting day.

Deb, Bill , Jim and I all hopped into the car and headed for the village of San Gimignano, visible from our rural apartment but still several kilometres away. San Gimignano is a village that was initially constructed many hundreds of years ago (1200’s). It was walled city with a myriad of main streets, side alleyways and public plazas. As the village grew, newcomers built homes along the roadways. There were many different styles of stone, brick and other materials used in the construction. One thing was consistent though. You could almost say that this is the place that ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ got started. As new homes were built, each builder strived to make the new one taller than any other building in town. The result is that this town has a unique skyline punctuated by up to 14 towers which rise above the homes of the initial wealthy landowners.

Today, San Gimignano is a haven for tourists. The street level of most buildings is filled with shops – leather, specialized food items, tourist trinkets, ceramics, linens, wine, chocolate, cafés, shoes ….. The upper levels are either homes and apartments owned by permanent or holiday residents. Many others are holiday rentals. I can only imagine what the rental rates would be to live inside the walls of San Gimignano.

In spite of the crowds, we thoroughly enjoyed our day. What was anticipated as a fairly short visit extended into a several hour excursion including lunch. I must say that Deb and I enjoyed the shops more than Bill and Jim and, in the end, they were very patient about waiting at the gate through which we would exit the village. It’s a good thing there was a café nearby.

From San Gimignano, we travelled on several beautiful roads surrounded by the patterned and rolling landscape of Tuscany. Olive groves and vineyards dominated this part of the countryside. More than once, each of us was heard to say, “Pinch me. Am I really in Tuscany?” It is truly more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

We finally arrived at Poggibonsi, the home of the closest supermarket. It was time to stock up on some food for the week as we had facilities to prepare our own meals. PAM was the supermarket that was suggested to us. It was large, well lit, and well organized. Yet, at the beginning of our shopping expedition, it all felt a little overwhelming. Familiar foods with unfamiliar customs for purchasing them …. Or unfamiliar foods with labels in Italian.

We had prepared a list and slowly made our way through the items we needed. Fresh fruit and vegetables were abundant. Each item needed to be bagged, weighed and labeled in order to be ready for the check-out. Staples such a cereal and crackers were easy to find but the brands were generally unfamiliar. Fewer options seemed to be available than we have at home. Cheese and other dairy products were challenging since we could not read the language and, even if we could, we were not familiar with the kinds of cheese that are readily available in Italy. We found bread, eggs and meat. But we searched and searched for milk. We finally discerned that fresh milk was generally not available anywhere and we thought we would have to purchase UHT milk. Finally, Jim found a small quantity of fresh milk at the front of the store. Our shopping experience had ended with success. We loaded our groceries into the car and headed home. Deb and I were looking forward to preparing a home made meal in our Italian kitchen. It was well equipped although there was no microwave.

Dinner consisted of pasta, sauce, fresh salad and fruit. A healthy and tasty alternative to the restaurant meals we have been having. Many more nutritious and tasty meals with good company lie ahead of us this week.

Tuesday, September 23, 2013

A new day dawned and new adventures awaited. Deb and Bill were off early to catch the train to Florence. Jim and I had a slightly more leisurely start. Our goal for the day was to simply roam and explore the Tuscan landscape. The sun shone gloriously and beckoned us out onto the roads.

We left our town, Ulugnano, and headed back toward Poggibonsi on a different road than the one travelled yesterday. We were excited when we saw PAM, the supermarket again, and felt like we knew where we were.

The roads in Tuscany follow the contour of the hillsides and rise to the tops of the hills and tumble back into the valleys, sometimes rising or descending in a gentle manner and sometimes using a more straight-line approach to descend or ascend a hill. The hillsides and valley floors are filled with vineyards and olive groves planted in straight lines at varying angles. The result is beautiful patchwork quilt effect stretching for as far as the eye can see.

Tuscan homes, built from yellow or red stone, dot the landscape and at the top of many hills, church bell towers rise to meet the sky. We passed through several quiet villages throughout this day.

Two specific villages caught our attention and invited us to linger. Panzano was the first one. It was perched high on a hill overlooking a vast valley. We drove to the upper town and enjoyed simply sitting on a park bench admiring the countryside that stretched for miles below. Such precision, such beauty, such colour … Pinch me! Am I really in Tuscany?

We strolled along the ancient streets of Panzano, stopping at the foot of the steps leading to the stunning church perched atop the hill. Flowers baskets adorned each step as we made our way up to the door. Once inside, we were touched by the simplicity of what we saw. This was a very modest church, starkly contrasting with the cathedrals and basilicas we have visited recently. It was quiet and cool, elegant yet peaceful. The nave was adorned with ancient and well worn frescoes and the large front doors featured beautiful bronze carvings of well known stories. This church is a treasure in Tuscany.

From the church we proceeded to the lower town where we were seeking a particular butcher shop, Antica Macelloria Cecchini's Butcher Shop. This butcher is known for his incredible skill, the flavour of his meats (beef and pork) and his amazing marketing skills. From the instant you enter his shop, you know you are going to have a unique experience.

Classical music fills the tiny shop as the staff offer special focaccia, salami and pork butter on bread to all who enter. Red wine is poured into glasses and a party atmosphere permeates the space. Behind the counter stands Antica, carving meat, preparing packages, arranging the display case, serving customers. Antica is known far and wide for the quality of his meat and claims that he is in the business of selling meat and will use all techniques available to achieve this goal.

One strategy that has proven to be very successful for him is to open first one, then two and now four restaurants that feature his meat on the menu. No vegetarian options in these places. Jim and I decided to have lunch in the open air rooftop restaurant located above the butcher shop. We were escorted up the stairs and shown to seats at a very long table. We were joined, coincidentally, by 4 other Canadians as well as a German couple.  A lively conversation accompanied out meal.

As the menu is prix fixe, it was simple to select our lunches. Jim and I each had a succulent quarter pound burger (no bun) accompanied by crudités, special olive oil, Tuscan soup, Tuscan beans, fried potatoes, grilled onions, red wine and later, coffee and cake. The fare …. 15 Euros (about $20.00) To complete the experience, in the butcher shop, we purchased some roast pork to share with Deb and Bill for dinner. It looked as delicious as the burgers had.

We walked back to the car, exclaiming over and over how good lunch had been. The food was delectable, the company was great and the setting absolutely beautiful.

We spent much of the afternoon exploring more roadways, stopping to admire views and take photographs whenever traffic and road conditions allowed (the roads are very narrow and winding). We visited another small village named Gaiole, reported to be the prettiest village in all of Tuscany. A small river ran alongside the main road through town and flower beds and pots adorned the roadway, public spaces, and private homes. It was indeed a delightful place.

Unfortunately, we arrived in Gaiole during the traditional afternoon siesta time (approximately 2 – 5 pm) when most shops and many cafes and restaurants are closed. We were sorry that we did not have the opportunity to explore Gaiole to the extent we would have enjoyed.

Heading back home, we realized that we were on several roads that we had seen earlier in the day. Landmarks were becoming familiar and we felt we knew where we were. I am not ready yet to head out without benefit of a map or GPS though.

I went for a swim when we arrived ‘home’. The day was hot and the water refreshing. In fact, it was downright cold!! Although the days are still hot, the nights are quite cool (wonderful for sleeping) and the water is settling into its fall temperature. Nonetheless, it was refreshing and washed away the heat of the day.

Another homemade meal completed the day, and we all whiled the evening away catching up on email, diaries, blogs and photographs. What a comfortable place to be with good friends.

Wednesday, September 24, 2013

Jim and Bill headed off for a truffle hunting expedition this morning, complete with dogs sniffing and digging the truffles they found. After collecting the truffles, the men then participated in the preparation of food using the truffles they had dug and enjoyed a large lunch with truffles on most things along with some very good red wine. They were completely sated when they arrived back at our apartment.

Deb and I had a totally different kind of morning. First, we tried to do the laundry and learned that the machine was broken. Our landlord immediately called a repairperson and also took our laundry with him to do the washing in his machine. Other than knowing he was handling our ‘delicates’, we were quite content to await his return with our clean laundry. We hung it out on the line under the Tuscan sun and headed off into the nearby village of Ulugnano.

Ulugnano is a small village that has basically one main street that runs from the bottom of a long hill all the way to the top, a couple of kilometres in total. We had hoped to find a café, a grocery store, a bakery … almost anything in the village that would be of some interest. We were sorely disappointed with our exploration. Other than several older men sitting on benches along the road, there was virtually nothing of interest in this village. One shop, a combination bar/café was open for business but was singularly uninviting. We went in and asked where we might find a bakery and were told in very clear English, “Not in Ulugnano.”

So we got back into the car and drove the short distance to Poggibonci where we parked and wandered around the central area of the town. Poggibonci is predominantly an industrial town with virtually no tourist attractions at all. We did find a lovely church in the middle of town, a number of apartment blocks with laundry hanging out the windows,  some stylish clothing stores and a few white linen restaurants. It was almost noon and the streets were almost empty of people. Shops were closing as siesta time began.

We happened upon a modest patisseria that offered cappuccino or espresso for one euro and sweet items also for one euro. It was a great find!

Following our coffee, we headed along the main street of town and realized that there were many more shops than we had encountered in the town square. Overall, it was a humble town, one where real people seemed to live and work. Quite a contrast to many of the tourist meccas we have been in in previous days.

Our final stop in Poggibonci was at PAM, the supermarket. We needed a few items for our enjoyable homecooked meals. It was easier to find them all in the store this time. We were at least slightly familiar with its organization.

We arrived home just after Jim and Bill and spent the balance of the afternoon chatting, reading, using the internet and sleeping. It was a luxuriously relaxing day for all of us.

Dinner consisted of pasta with home made sauce and a tossed salad. It was delicious!

Thursday, September 25, 2013

Today was a day for Donna and Deb to have an adventure. Early this morning we headed off to Certaldo to attend a Tuscan cooking class at La Cucina di Guiseppina (Josephine’s Kitchen).  We were a bit early for the class so our day began with a stroll through part of the upper town in Certaldo, a medieval walled city. There were very few people on the streets and the town was quiet. We walked along inner streets, through alleyways, into courtyards and along the outer walls. It was a beautiful place and has been well preserved. Archways, towers and elaborate brickwork punctuate every street. What a great way to begin our day.

At 10:30, Deb and I proceeded to La Cucina and donned our red aprons. It was clear that we were going to learn a lot, indulge in much delicious food and wine and have a good time doing it. Guiseppina and her daughter-in-law were working together to prepare for and instruct this class. Both women spoke good English and were eager to engage in conversations on many topics, especially related to food. It was evident right from the start that Guiseppina was passionate about food, passionate about teaching about food, and passionate about creating a successful business enterprise with food as the central component.

The menu for the day was shared with us – bruschetta with cannelloni beans, antipasto, fettucini DonnaMaria, chicken with vegetables and finally, tiramisu.

We made the tiramisu first, beginning by beating one egg and adding sugar. Biscotti was dipped in espresso coffee and laid in the bottom of a dish. Marscoponi cream was blended with the egg mixture and placed on top of the biscotti. Chocolate was sprinkled on top and it was placed in the fridge. Presto … as easy as that!

Then we moved on to the chicken dish which had to cook for the longest time. Garlic and sage along with the chicken, including the skin and bones, was placed in a fry pan with olive oil. Over medium heat, the chicken was coated and turned over several times as it cooked through. When the oil was absorbed into the chicken a healthy portion of white wine was poured into the pan to provide additional moisture. Meanwhile, the vegetables were being prepared – onion, zucchini, red pepper and tomatoes were cleaned and chopped. When they were ready they were added to the chicken along with another healthy portion of white wine. A cover was placed on the pan, the heat turned down and the dish was left to simmer.

Next came the bruschetta. Thick crusty bread was lightly toasted while more tomatoes, basil, garlic and cannelloni beans were prepared. When the bread was ready, the beans/tomato mixture was generously placed atop the bread. Deb and I were offered Chianti to sip and escorted out to the Certaldo wall where we ate the bruschetta and sipped wine while looking out over the Tuscan countryside. The sun shone brightly and the day was glorious.

We also nibbled on our antipasto course – hard cheese, salami and onion marmalade. One of Certaldo’s main agricultural products is sweet red onions. The marmalade was a delicious complement to the foods before us.

Soon enough though, we were invited back into the kitchen where we learned to make pasta in the traditional way. A portion of flour was placed on a wooden board and a well was created in the middle. One beaten egg was poured into the well and our task was to mix the flour with the egg until the dough no longer stuck to our hands. Just the right moment … Then we kneaded the dough until it was spongy to touch and it was set to rest under a cotton towel for 10 minutes.

No rest for us though …. Now we needed to make the sauce, a simple combination of fresh tomatoes (have I mentioned how delicious the tomatoes are here?), basil, garlic and onion. We prepared the vegetables and set them aside until the pasta was completed.

Back to the pasta …. We cut the pasta into small sections and began to put it through the pasta machine. I had no idea that in order to make thin pasta, the dough had to pass through the machine as many as 8 times, each time pressing it thinner and thinner. Great exercise for the upper arms, I assure you. Finally, the pasta was appropriately thin and we could pass it through the fettucine setting. A little flour to dust it and a pot of boiling water to cook it came next. While the water was boiling, we cooked the vegetables for the sauce. Only slightly cooked them to blend the flavours but not lose the shapes. The fettucine was placed in the water and only allowed to boil for about 3 minutes. Then the fettucine was placed into the sauce on the stove and stirred.  Presto … onto the plates and another course for lunch was served. If I do say so myself, it was superb! Probably among the best pasta I have ever eaten. Yum!!

Next came the completed chicken dish, equally delicious … along with more wine. Chianti, of course, made by Guiseppina’s family. Deb and I were beginning to fade a little – so much food, so much wine and it was only noon.

Yet, we managed to save space for the tiramisu, another culinary triumph!!

We virtually waddled away after lunch and met up with Jim and Bill who took us home (La Ripa) in nearby Ulugnano where we relaxed for the balance of the afternoon. It would be fair to say that dinner was a meager affair this night.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Today began early as we all headed off together to visit the city of Siena. We left early so that we would be ahead of most tourists. The traffic was a challenge en route and it took us longer to travel there than we had anticipated. Bill did a great job driving under arduous circumstances.

Once we were there, we were very glad that we had come early. It was clear by the number of people already in the upper town that it was going to be very crowded as the day went on.

The climb from the parking lot to the upper town looked daunting, that is, until we discovered the 5 escalators that had been installed to transport people to the upper level. Each escalator was en extension of the one below it. It was a long way to the top!

Siena is another walled city and has been superbly preserved over time. The buildings are in good repair. Narrow streets and alleys crisscross throughout the town and roadways follow the contour of the land with steep slopes whether going up or down. Overall, it was a beautiful and interesting place to spend a couple of hours.

We had two specific destinations in mind when we came. The first was the duomo, the cathedral which is the focal point of the entire city. The bell tower rises far above the walls and buildings,  built with black and white marble in the 11th century.

The exterior of the cathedral was magnificent, built entirely of marble in many different hues – pink, white, grey, black. Columns punctuated the exterior of the cathedral and each column was beautifully carved in a unique pattern. Although very detailed, it was not ostentatious in any way. The overall effect was tasteful and beautiful.

Inside the cathedral was equally stunning. Tall columns of marble supported the ceilings and the central dome. Chapels along the side also had smaller domes. The pipe organ was magnificent, three consuls of pipes, including a section of horns that extended out from the pipes. The walls of the cathedral were covered with large paintings and murals. Of particular note was the library where there were 16th century frescoes that looked like they had been painted last year. The colours were so vivid and fresh that it was difficult to believe they were already 5oo years old!

But the feature of the Siena Cathedral that sets it apart is the marble artwork on the floors. Inlaid marble is found everywhere in many intricate and beautiful patterns.  Fifty-six marble murals depicting scenes from biblical stories cover most of the floor of the cathedral. For 9 months of the year, these murals are covered so as to preserve the murals. We were fortunate to be here during the period of time that the murals were visible to the public. Red ropes cordoned them off so that no one would walk on them. Visitors quietly moved from one to the next to admire the truly exquisite work of the artists who created them.

After exploring the cathedral, we headed for the Piazzo Publica, a large open plaza built in the shape of a large seashell. It is of such a size that the ring around the exterior is used for horse races. The crowd that gathers fills the central area during the races. It is described as a spectacle to behold. It was still early in the day when we were there and, although the crowd was growing, it was difficult to imagine how many people it would take to fill the entire square.

We walked along streets and through alleys, under arches and past sculptures until we reached the escalators that had carried us to the top. I walked down the stairs while Jim rode along in comfort. I wish I had counted how many stairs there were, several  hundred to be sure.

We met Deb and Bill at the bottom and headed back to the car to make our way to our next destination. Deb especially was curious about the butcher shop we had visited in Panzano earlier in the week so we were returning there for lunch today. Once again, Bill did an outstanding job of driving along the winding hilly roads through the Tuscan landscape. It does not really seem fair that, while the passengers oooh and ahhh and the views from the car, the driver has little time to enjoy any of it, lest he miss a turn in the road.

The butcher shop was busy when we arrived but it did not take long for us to be seated in one of the restaurants and offered a delicious beef burger meal. We were hungry, the food came promptly and we were sated easily.

Next stop was Greve, a nearby village with a unique approach to wine-tasting. They had over 140 wines on offer. One needed to purchase a ticket and proceed to taste the wines of choice, deducting a fee from the card for each wine tasted. The prices varied with the age of the wine and the size of the sample. Jim was especially interested in some $100+/bottle wine which he knew he would never have the opportunity to taste in any other setting. It was fun to sample such wines without having to buy a whole bottle.

The afternoon was wearing on and it was time to head back to La Ripa for our last evening there. Beautiful sunshine, stunning landscape and great company was all part of this final journey together.

Tomorrow morning, we will all take our leave and head in different directions for the balance of our Italian experience. It has been a wonderful week together, a week of fun, relaxation, exploration and conversation. When we will meet again is not known at the moment but we have some great memories to carry us through until our paths cross once more.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cinque Terre, Here We Come

Cinque Terre , Here We Come

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Happy Birthday, Karen!!

Well, it has been four days since I have typed a single word in this diary. And it is the entire four days that we have been in Cinque Terre. I wonder if meeting up with our 14 Australian friends has changed the balance in our time??

We travelled from Parma to Levanto by car on Wednesday morning. I was still a tad under the weather so Jim drove most of the way and I slept some more. I have to say I am looking forward to the return trip so that I can enjoy some of the mountain scenery that Jim described to me later.

Once we arrived at the Hotel Carla we began to encounter friends. We had brought some Parmesan cheese, some prosciutto and some bread from Parma so we were able to put out a spread of local delicacies which were consumed with wine and much conversation. The hotel has a fine covered deck with comfortable chairs which made a great gathering place for catching up on news.

The last of our party of 16 arrived just before dinner and once their bags were inside, we headed out onto the streets of Levanto to find a place to enjoy a meal together. Levanto and the other Cinque Terre towns are all coastal towns so there is abundant seafood on all menus. We ended up in a restaurant on the main town square that featured seafood as a mainstay of its menu. Jim and I both had spaghetti with a seafood sauce which was absolutely delicious.

Then it was home to bed in order to be well rested for the lengthy and arduous walk that was scheduled for the next day.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Right after breakfast we headed to the train station for the 4 minute ride to the next town, Montessero. From there the 15 hikers prepared themselves for a several hour walk that would take them up 300 metres in altitude and along a 10 km track which would descend back into Levanto.

The plan that Jim and I had made was that he would join the walking group when he felt inclined and I would occupy myself by exploring the various towns in which the walks began or ended. 

Today my focus was Montessero. This town had two distinctive areas. The first was most obvious from the train station. The beach and the sparkling beauty of the Mediterranean Sea spread before one’s eyes. Along with the beach came all the anticipated beach activities, shops and cafes. Of course, cappuccino was readily available to the early morning crowd. Other shops featuring beachwear, beach toys, paddle board rentals, beach chair rentals, towel shops and all manner of other shops lined the long, narrow strip of land that ran between the beach and the mountain.

But there was another total section of Montessero to be explored and, frankly, it was of far more interest. It was actually hidden from the sea by a rather steep and high hill. A tunnel had been bored through the hill to enable pedestrians and vehicles alike to be able to access the main village from the seaside.

Upon emerging from the tunnel, it became apparent that this was market day. Fruit, meat, cheese and merchandise stalls were set up in the underpasses created by the railway line that travelled through the town. It was fun to explore the products at each stall. Leather and wooden goods were especially popular with tourists (or should I say visitors to the town?).

Beyond the market, the town extended up a slope. Narrow roads and alleys were lined with colourful buildings that generally had a business at street level and housing on the second floor and higher. Pink, green, blue painted buildings created a wonderful sense of life and energy in this town. Merchandise in the stores was beautifully displayed.

I visited a rather unique church in Monteserro. It was painted with wide black and white stripes on the outside and displayed the label, ‘Mortis e Orationis’, meaning Death and Prayers. Unusual to say the least. But there was more to come. Inside the church, the sanctuary featured various carvings around the walls just where they joined the ceilings. In this case, the carvings were of cherubs and skeletons. Yikes. I do not think it was by design, but there was even a dead plant on one of the side tables in the church. I did not stay in that church very long.

As I walked further up the hill, there were fewer and fewer shops and more and more residential properties. Laundry billowed from lines on many balconies, flowers adorned the balcony railings, occasionally chairs and a table were set up on the balconies. It was here that I felt that I had left the tourist area far behind and I was meandering among the real residents of Monteserro.

A coffee and a bottle of water quenched my thirst and just after noon, I began to make the trek back through the tunnel and down the hill to the train station. It was time to head back to Levanto.

I attempted unsuccessfully to purchase a ticket for the short trip at one of the automatic machines. No ticket emerged so I made my way to the  ticket booth where there was a person who would be able to help. The line was long and the conversations interesting, in many different languages. I listened in to the ones I could understand and was fascinated by the long list of destinations for which ticket would be required.

Finally, it was my turn at the counter and when I began to request my ticket, I realized that the name of the town which was my destination had totally flown out of my head. I truly did not know where I was going.

“I need a train ticket, please.”
“Where are you going?”
“I think I am going to Livorno.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. Can you please tell me the name of the town that is the next station?”
“Where are you staying?”
“I cannot remember.”
Woman now shaking her head in disbelief …..
“Can you please name the five villages that are a part of Cinque Terre?”
“Yes, that’s it! Levanto!”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so.”

And thus I purchased my train ticket back to Levanto which is, in fact, the town we are staying in. The woman in the booth was flabbergasted and I was too embarrassed to look at the people around me. I just took the ticket and hurried out onto the platform, willing the train to come soon.

Once back in Levanto, I walked to the hotel (only making one wrong turn), got my book and continued on to the main square in town to have some lunch and quietly read for a while. It was lovely to be in a shaded area with a wonderful focaccia in front of me and a great book in my hand.

Later in the afternoon, the walkers arrived back at our hotel. We gathered to tell the stories of the day. It turned out that the walk had been much ore arduous than many had anticipated. But there was a sense of satisfaction for having completed it.

After before dinner drinks on the hotel deck, we once again headed to the centre of town for our evening meal. Two restaurants were chosen and a group went to each one. We always order a salad mista (mixed salad) which is invariably fresh and delicious. I also had a wonderful swordfish steak and Jim had an amazing seafood chowder which had an enormous amount of seafood and only a little broth. It looked fabulous and Jim raved about it..

Friday, September 20, 2013

Following another delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt and pastries at the Carla Hotel, we set out for the train station where we met Francesca, a guide from ICNOS, the company with whom we have booked this adventure. Francesca was young, knowledgeable, energetic and optimistic. So optimistic, in fact, that she totally missed the fact that she would be spending the day with 16 people, all of whom were at least 35 years older than she and certainly had a full range of fitness levels.  Oh… to be so young and fit!! Was I ever??

And so we set off at a fast pace and boarded the first train to another Cinque Terre village, Manarola, this time. From the station, the village stretched high up on the mountainside. Colourful homes and dazzling views made this village very special. So did the steep incline that took us higher and higher … all at a pace that was beyond what I could maintain. Before long, I began to follow my own path as the rest of the group reached for the sky. I climbed the slope that was the main street in town, stopping to admire homes, shops, views and gardens.  The gardens were particularly fascinating. Properties were terraced and every square inch of space was used to grow edible plants. Tomatoes were abundant, salad greens prominent, even a little corn poked its head toward the sun. But it was the basil that caught my attention. Row after row after row of bright green basil, quivering in the breeze under the bright light of the day. Rustic garden tools sat along fence lines along with woven baskets ready to harvest the ripened vegetables and the fresh herbs that were a part of every garden.  One garden, in particular, was nestled in a hard to reach location – up a steep drive, along a stone wall, up an old metal ladder and finally into a tiny patch of land that was filled with delicious crops. The entire garden patch was likely less than 2 square metres. Every morsel of available land was in use!!

Every once in a while, I was able to catch sight of the other walkers who were high up on a ridge at this point, looking down over the town and the sea. Later we discussed the very different perspectives we each had of this town. And yet we all reached the same conclusions – a bustling community, a service town filled with tourists; a challenging place to live because of the steep slopes on all the surfaces.

The street I spend most of my time on was the main thoroughfare from the top of the mountain down to the sea. It was clearly a popular tourist track, a steep, yet walkable, slope, filled to the brim at times with bus loads of visitors making their way from top to bottom, following the bobbing umbrella, or the ribbons on sticks held high in the breeze. Literally several hundreds of people travelled down the slope in this manner.

Sadly, for the community, all the people who arrived by bus at the top of the hill were hurried to the pier at the bottom in such fashion that there was no time to visit the shops and cafes along the way. Consequently, the local town folk gained little benefit from the parade of visitors who passed through Manarola each day.

At the bottom of the hill was the pier where a ferry took passengers along the coast to view all 5 Cinque Terre villages from the water (more about that tomorrow).

I reconnected with our larger group in a café near the pier. We paused for a coffee and then headed to the train station to visit another village, Corniglia.

Corniglia is only accessible on foot (or so we were told) and it involved climbing 400 hundred steps. Francesca, the guide, spoke very clearly about the level of difficulty of these steps and ultimately intimidated me into believing I could not possibly make it to the top. Unfortunately, not once did she mention that there was a bus available for those who preferred not to climb the steps.

I decided not to stop in Corniglia and continued on the train to Monterosso, a village I had enjoyed earlier in this experience.  Within moments of the train leaving the station, my fellow travellers discovered the bus but it was too late to alert me and so I was not able to come back and visit Corniglia with them. (I must say I was pretty annoyed at the guide who could have at least mentioned the bus once in all her descriptions of this community. Alas, I remind myself … she was young and fit and oblivious to how age and fitness level might affect one’s ability to get around.)

I enjoyed a lunch of focaccia in Monterosso, delicious fresh tomatoes and basil on toasted bread, while sitting on a bench overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea. I was sitting in the direct sunlight which felt wonderful for a while but eventually it got to hot so I moved into the shade. Unfortunately, I was no longer able to see the sea but engaged in people watching as an alternative. There were people from all over the world, strolling the paths and going in and out of the train station. Many languages can be heard in Cinque Terre and all ages, shapes, sizes and colours of people converge in the area. What a universal destination this is.

Meanwhile the walkers in the group had divided into two groups. They all met for lunch in Corniglia. Following lunch several in our group continued to walk along the coast and enjoy the views from on high as well as the challenge of the walk itself. Others had decided that it was too hot to continue walking and it was time to return to Levanto by train.

It does get remarkably hot here in the afternoon, despite the fact that it is almost the end of September. Almost daily, the temperature hits 30C as the sun shines brightly in a cloudless sky. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like at the height of tourist season in July and August. The heat and the crowds would make it unbearable. At this time of year, thankfully, the evenings are cool and clear and provide wonderful relief from the heat of the day.

We had a lovely evening with our friends, Deb and Bill, at a very popular restaurant off the beaten track in Levanto. The food was delicious!! Jim’s seabass was very delicate and my ravioli was filled with fish and coated in a splendid seafood sauce. We indulged in dessert as well, a rare event. I had profiteroles covered in chocolate sauce and Jim enjoyed tiramisu. A delightful meal overall.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

This would be our last full day in Cinque Terre and for Jim and I, it seemed we had saved the best for last. This morning, we would board a ferry in Levanto and sail south to Portovenero. En route, we would pass by all five Cinque Terre villages and fully embrace the landscape from the sea.

The sea was calm, the sun was bright and spirits aboard the boat were high. A spectacular landscape passed before our eyes as we sailed. High rugged mountains that plunged into the water permeated the entire view. Villages nestled into coves, protecting themselves from the water by extending far up onto the mountain slopes. Home and buildings of many hues peppered the green and grey landscape with splashes of colour – pink, yellow, green, blue.  Outside the seasides towns, there were homes that clung precipitously to rockfaces halfway up or halfway down the mountain. One of the homes had 1500 steps rise above it, the only way in or out of this place.

The first village we passed was Monterosso, a village I had visited several times. Its beach area extended along the shoreline to the north, a thin slip of land bounded by sea and mountain. The larger town rose behind a rock face on the right and the train station stood proudly in the middle.

Next came Vernazza, peppered with coloured houses hugging closely to one another at the entrance to the town. Other homes spread out along cliffs and hilltops in both directions.

Corniglia was next, perched high up on the mountainside. Four hundred steps were its connection to the sea and to the train line. Only the brave and the hardy would venture to make the trip to the centre of this town.

The town of Manarola rose gently from the sea. The harbor was created from mountain rock and protected the lower part of the town from the power of the sea. Yet, the people of this town still chose to live high on the hillside. The roofs of tall narrow buildings created a path for the eye to follow all the way to the bell tower (previously a lighthouse) and to the terraced farmland which produced tomatoes, basil, beans and more. A shining statue of Jesus drew one’s eye to the trails at the very top.

Rio Maggiore is the fifth of the Cinque Terre villages. It is one of only 2 towns in this group to have a small beach on the water. Yet it also has a precipitous harbor in which the ferry had to approach the land bow first and passengers scrambled over ladders from the bow to the land to embark and disembark.  Steep stairs led up to a narrow rock wall and then plunged down onto a flatter area at the entrance to the town. Small shops and cafes lined the steep slope of the main street, yet the town is quite inhospitable in its terrain. The train station sits well above the sea far to the north of the main town, accessed only through a tunnel, many hundreds of meters in length.

Soon after we passed by Rio Maggiore, we began to see some of the battlement ruins of Portovenero.  It is clear that over time historically, this site was considered a significant defense point on the west coast of Italy. Ruins of various fortifications are  visible from the sea. As well, other islands nearby were also a part of the defense system and stone forts, walls and other signs of military installations remain as a testament to a rugged history in the area.

Portovenero has a beautiful harbor, naturally protected from the open sea water. Ferries ply its waters, travelling in every direction to the small islands that lie offshore.  Pleasure craft abound, both large and small. Private fishing vessels were coming and going, or simply anchored slightly offshore while patient fishermen put their lines in the water.  It was a busy port.

We opted for a second ‘Mediterranean cruise’, this one taking us around three nearby islands. Each island told a story of a part of Italy’s military, religious or economic history. Fortifications, stone walls, religious grottos and a marble quarry were all highlights of the commentary. The dazzling sun, sparkling water, the clear blue sky and the bustle of the harbor also enhanced the overall experience. If only the man in the orange pants had occasionally remained in his seat, we would have had many more beautiful photos to share!
Once back to Portovenere, we disembarked and strolled slowly toward the town. Slowly, I say, in part due to the weekend crowds and in part to an obstacle that was in our path. Yes, the man with the orange pants was directly ahead of us, veritably blocking our way from making forward progress. We could neither pass him on the left or on the right, once again limited by his speed and choice of direction. I am feeling a certain dislike of men in orange trousers.

We finally reached our destination and the man in the orange pants disappeared into the crowd. We were planning to enjoy a simple lunch on an upstairs deck looking out over the harbor. It must have seemed odd to anyone watching us to see us line our chairs up all along one side of our table so that no one had their back to the sea. The food was delicious (focaccia and caprese salad), the company was wonderful and the view of the busy harbor an absolute delight.

After lunch, we strolled along a quaint street replete with little shops selling all manner og things nautical and/or Italian. Jim and I would soon have cooking facilities at our disposal so we purchased some specialty food items to enjoy over the next several days.

After a couple of hours in Portovenere, we reboarded the ferry and travelled by water back to Rio Maggiore.  It was an interesting landing and we joined the throngs of tourists disembarking across the bow of the boat. Up the stairs we went … and down again …. And up …. And up …. And up again. Then the steep street lie ahead. A cappuccino called our names and soon after a glass of fresh orange juice. The shops did not seem to hold much interest for us (Portovenere had more variety) so soon we headed to the train station and took our final Cinque Terre train back to Levanto.

Over the next couple of hours our group of 16 gathered together on the deck of Hotel Clara, sharing stories, laughter and beverages. When the last walkers arrived back from their trek, it was time to head out for dinner as a group one final time.  Happily we found a restaurant that could accommodate all 16 of us, and, as a bonus, it served wonderful seafood. My sea bass and fresh figs were absolutely delicious.

A late night limoncello back on the deck of our hotel completed our Cinque Terre experience. What a delight it has been.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

And now to Verona and Parma ...

And Now …. To Verona and Parma

Monday, September 16, 2013

We managed to be out of our Venice hotel, following breakfast, at 8:30 am and boarded our final vaporetto on our way to the Hertz dealership where we would pick up our car, our transportation for the next 4 weeks. We met David and Heather Bailey at the Hertz office to transport one of their suitcases until we meet again in a few days. Then we were whisked away in a van (my goodness!! A vehicle on wheels!) to the outer reaches of the city where our car was parked.

Along the way, we saw trains, people-movers, all manner of wheeled vehicles and crossed over a several kilometer causeway that connects the City of Venice to the mainland.

We quickly loaded our luggage into our little Ford Fiesta, powered up the GPS and headed out onto the highway to begin our drive to Parma, approximately 2 hours away. It did not take long to acclimatize to the traffic and soon we were discussing optional side trips on the way to Parma.

We decided to go to Verona, of Romeo and Juliette fame. In fact, Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is fiction and thus Romeo and Juliette were not real characters and therefore did not live or love in Verona. That does not stop the townspeople from playing on a theme though. There are streets, cafes, hotels and all manner of other things names after many characters in the play. There is even a house that claims to be Juliette’s home, complete with the infamous balcony.  This element of Verona was very entertaining to us.

What actually drew us to Verona, though, is the enormous Roman arena that was built there during the first century AD and is so well preserved that it is still used today for musical and theatrical concerts. It seats 30,000 people in an open air round theatre. Many seats are the original granite seats that were installed almost 2000 years ago. Some new seats have been installed, no doubt commanding higher ticket prices for the added comfort. In fact, a rock concert was scheduled for this evening and we were there during their sound check. The acoustics were great as far as we could tell. Earplugs, please.

The entire structure was impressive to say the least. Both its size and its beauty, the artistry in the placing of the stone in the walls and on the surrounding walkway were all breathtaking. This arena is described as the best preserved Roman monument in Italy. We were glad to have made the detour to visit.

We had lunch in a small café that served a range of pasta dishes. Of course, we made use of the bathroom while there which leads to me to introduce a whole new topic. Toilets!

Yes, let’s talk about toilets. Jim and I have travelled many different places and have used many different styles of toilets over the years. But Italy has offered yet something new in the style of toilets. I must say that we were fully expecting the toilets here to be as they are at home. Full seated, raised, reasonably comfortable toilets. And, in fairness, many are. So we were quite surprised to encounter a style of toilet that even Jim, with all his toilet research, has never encountered. This style is quite common, especially in public establishments such as museums and restaurants. And often unisex. I describe them as the hover style.

These toilets sit close to the ground, have a porcelain bowl, no seat and are very suitable for a 2 year old boy who is learning to direct his flow accurately into a bowl. However ….. for an aging and out of shape woman, this hover toilet is less than comfortable! Does one sit? Or hover? Or crouch? Or what? And once down, how in the world are creaky knees supposed to get one back to an upright position? Various systems have been used – the doorknob on the stall is particularly useful as a lever as is the purse shelf or the toilet paper dispenser. Fortunately, Jim and I have never been permanently separated due to a toileting malfunction. But we are here for 5 more weeks so time will tell. I will not even begin to describe the experience that occurred in the lovely café in Verona that had a fully Asian style squat toilet!

And so we left Verona behind and headed out onto the Austrade (freeway again).  It was an experience to behold. I had forgotten about the inflated speed of traffic and the need always to be in the right hand lane except for passing that we had encountered many years ago in Germany. It only took a couple of bright headlights in our rearview mirror to let me know that 120Km / hour in the left hand lane was not an acceptable speed. So I moved over to join the long line of slower moving trucks to let the faster cars pass by. And, they were all faster. A short distance later, we encountered a large over the road sign that read, ”Respect the speed limit. 130 km / hour”. No wonder we were the slowest vehicle in the fast lane!

We travelled through some rich agricultural land en route. Olives, grapes, corn and hay were growing abundantly in fields along the roadway. As autumn is close at hand, there was a range of equipment in the fields beginning the harvest, particularly of corn and hay.  It is the kind of travel Jim and I enjoy and we look forward to more of the same but on the local roads, not the autostrade.

We arrived in Parma mid afternoon and made our way to our B&B on San Rosa Street. It was deep in the labyrinth that is at the core of this ancient city. Add to the confusion that visitors are only allowed to bring their cars into the core with a permit to drop off luggage and then find parking at the edge of Centro.  Happily the proprietor of our B&B was at home when we arrived and assisted us in removing luggage from the car and into the house. We then drove along a myriad of narrow one way streets to exit the Centro and find the parking structure that had been suggested to us. The car will remain their until we leave on Wednesday morning.

One of the decisions Jim and I made as a basic tenet of travel is that we will always stay in our selected accommodation for at least two nights. In the case of this B&B, it was a very good decision. Our elegant room is on the first floor of this refurbished old home and filled with beautiful furniture and amenities. There is a glass elevator that travels silently up the wall of a courtyard and delivers us just steps from our room and the equally elegant dining room. The bathroom is well equipped, decorated in white and absolutely gorgeous. We settled in very happily and soon found ourselves out exploring the town.

We first explored the area near the car park. We found there a fish shop that featured over 200 varieties of frozen fish, all flash frozen and gleaming in their bins awaiting selection by hungry patrons. There were certainly many types of fish from all over the world that we had never heard of. Of course, we left empty handed as we had no way to prepare any of the fish, no matter how good it looked.

We headed back toward Centro and instantly were aware of the contrast between the outer area of Parma and the centre of the city. While Parma outside the centro had appeared a bit woebegotten, the core is filled with large ancient buildings, mostly Roman, which have been refurbished. A cathedral, a multitude of churches and museums, an 8 sided building with a cupola, a convent, stately homes, and a main shopping area lined with high end shops and enticing restaurants, bars and gelateries. We wandered somewhat aimlessly, taking photos and enjoying the sites. Of course, streets meandered in every direction and we had to check the map frequently to ensure we were en route to the restaurant suggested by our hostess. She made a reservation for us because it would lead to better service. Except for a short stop in a Desigual shop which I will return to tomorrow, we kept moving and finally turned into a small alley and found our destination, Trattoria del ________ .

The Trattoria was everything our hostess had described. The service was wonderful, the menu varied and the food delicious. Jim order a primo platter that featured three of the house specialties including baked parmesan cheese. I ordered a mixed salad with horsemeat – yes, horsemeat, a local specialty. It was served as medium rare steak on a plate of vegetables and it was actually very nice tasting. It was a bit tough to chew and I later learned that most people prefer it ground and raw, more like steak tartare. I am not sure that I am brave enough for that but I am happy to have tasted it and enjoyed the whole piece of meat. Rather than dessert, we chose to order some fried bread and a plate of parmesan cheese. What a great choice!! Delicious!! And such a mainstay of the local cuisine.

We had a little difficulty finding our way back home. Everything looks so different after dark. Meandering streets looked oh so familiar until we realized we had never been on them before. After getting totally turned around, a kind lady pointed us in the right direction and we successfully found our way home. En route, we encountered the beautiful voices of a choir practicing high in a building late in the evening (after 10 pm). There was something ephemeral about their voices as they wafted across the late night air. A lovely way to end our evening.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Well, this day did not go according to our plan. We enjoyed our breakfast at the large dining room table and had a somewhat slow start, leaving our room about 11 am. I wanted to indulge myself with a manicure at a nearby day spa. Happily, they were able to take me in as soon as we arrived. Jim went out for a walk and I sat contentedly in the chair. The lady who was providing the service spoke no English so it was a time of relaxation and quiet contemplation for me. As she worked, I became more and more aware that I was actually not feeling well. Chills, headache, goosebumps, fatigue …. As soon as she was finished with me, we headed straight back to our B&B where I fell into bed and slept the afternoon away. It was not part of our plan but, truly, there was no choice.

Jim spent some of the time doing more research about things that lie ahead of us and some of the time going out for a walk in Centro. He even went to the Desigual Shop and bought the purse I had my eye on. How nice is that!

We had arranged to go to a traditional Italian dinner at the home of  friends of  our B&B Hostess. As the afternoon wore on, I began to feel slightly better and we decided we would still take in this dinner. We are delighted that we did!

Before I describe the dinner in detail, I need to let you know that not only is Parma the home of parmesan cheese, it is also the home of prosciutto and all other things made from pork, or so it seems. This will become abundantly clear as you read on.

We were welcomed warmly in to the home of our hosts, Ros and Beppe. They were proud of their home and pointed out some features that were very traditional in an Italian home (they clearly enjoy a prosperous lifestyle.) They also have an exquisite country home that was featured in a magazine this month. The photos of the building, the decor and the landscape were breathtaking.

One of the challenges of the evening was that we speak no Italian and they spoke very little English. Fortunately we all had passable French and were able to communicate pretty effectively. When words failed us, re relied on hand gestures and more wine!

The meal was delicious, consisting of several courses. First we were served appetizers in the living room. Parmesan cheese, of course, and some pastries with interesting toppings – ham and pesto. And our first variety of wine.

Next we moved into the dining room where we feasted on antipasto – two kinds of Parma ham and salami and, yes, another variety of Italian wine. Ravioli followed this, the first filled with delicious pesto and the second filled with pumpkin and slightly sweetened with a thin coating of sugar. So far, everything was amazing.
Next came our secundi, a course of smoked ham and smooth mashed potatoes. And yet another variety of wine.  I have to say that by this time, I was having difficulty eating another thing. I asked if they ate like this every night and they just laughed and shook their heads. We also asked what time they typically had breakfast and what they ate. Not surprisingly, breakfast is early but very small, usually coffee and fruit or yogurt. That led into a conversation about dining patterns in different countries and cultures.

Finally dessert was served – gelato and some sweet cookies. I declined the cookies and only ate some of the gelato. Jim and I were both fully sated! Three more varieties of wine, liqueurs actually, appeared and we sampled them all. By this time it was 11:30 at night and it was time to go home. Happily it was a very sort walk and I fell into bed and slept the night through.

It had been a unique and wonderful evening. Our French seemed to carry us through and we felt happy about the entire experience. What lucky people we are!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Venice - A Place of Beauty and Fascination

Venice - A Place of Beauty and Fascination


Tuesday September 10, 2013/Wednesday, September 11, 2013

We waited until grandson, Wesley, was installed happily installed in his kindergarten class and had had his 4th birthday (Sept. 9) and we felt free to head for new lands once again. Because we are voracious air mile collectors, Jim had devised a route for us that would maximize the number of air miles we would gather on this journey. Toronto to Chicago (yes, heading west to go east), then Chicago to Dusseldorf and finally, many, many hours later, Dusseldorf to Venice.  It was a long journey to say the least but we did arrive in good form and were ready to take on the city of Venice.

We left the airport with all our luggage and walked the first 400 meters to the Vaporetto Station. The city of Venice has no motor vehicles so that only way you can get around is by boat or on foot. The Vaporetto system is similar to a wheeled transit system. There are many routes with many stations and a map that resembles a Toronto subway map indicating where each vessel travels. We bravely and confidently boarded our first boat and sailed off toward the stop closest to our hotel. Conveniently, it was very near the beginning of this particular route.  The Venice airport is quite a distance from the city so we had time to observe the volume of vehicle traffic on the water. Passenger boats, both large and small, populated the well marked channels. Private taxis, pleasure boats, merchandise delivery vessels, and large ‘bus’ boats known as vaporettos. All these made their way across the Laguna Venita and moved into the complex canal system that has made Venice so famous.

The canal nearest our hotel is the Cannaregio Canal; our stop on this trip was Guglie. We disembarked and began the walk to our hotel. En route we had to cross the Cannaregio Canal by crossing quite a high arched bridge (remember  … we are toting our luggage at this point and we are both very tired) and then we had to cross two smaller canals on smaller bridges. The pedestrian path on all bridges is a set of low rise stairs both up and down the bridges. Not so difficult to navigate without luggage or fatigue.

We finally arrived at our hotel, Ca’ Fontanea, on a quiet courtyard a couple of blocks from the canal. We were instantly delighted. The reception was warm; English was spoken; our room was on the ground floor; the spaces were old, yet elegant; and best of all, the bed was comfortable. We knew we were going to enjoy staying in this place.

We refreshed ourselves and, before long, headed out to explore the area near our hotel.  We strolled along the walkway along the edge of the Cannaregio Canal and were happy to find a variety of shops, the university, and an array of restaurants enticing us to sample their menus. Our first stop involved a glass of wine (vino rosso) at an outside table where we could observe the late afternoon activities of locals and tourists alike. People walking their dogs; stopping to pick up something at the bakery; opening their shutters and waving to neighbours from their windows; parents walking with children; tourists taking pictures (we were too!); and lights coming on in the buildings as the day faded into darkness. After finishing our wine, we looked for another place to have dinner, albeit early by Italian standards.

Along the way, we encountered a crowd of people gathered on the edge of the canal. It was a curious crowd and we were puzzled by what might have brought them all to this spot. Soon, we learned, as a boat pulled up to the side of the canal and began to distribute large bags of mixed vegetables to those who were there. It appeared that is was a cooperative designed for vegetable distribution. Many happy people gathered their bags and headed away. An insight into life in Venice.

We settled on a pizzeria and were seated indoors (the weather was threatening rain outside). We ordered more wine and were amazed at the array of pizza choices on the menu. We ordered varieties that we would not likely find at home and settled in for a good meal. We were not disappointed and ate every last morsel. We also met a couple from the UK who had spent several days in Venice and were able to make some suggestions about places we might like to visit. All very helpful!

It was about 9:30 when we headed back to our hotel and fell into bed. We were amazed and happy that we had managed to stay up that long. But we were ready for a long sleep!

Thursday September 12, 2013

We slept long and with few interruptions and finally were ready to enjoy breakfast just before 10 o’clock. I think if you embark on a journey already tired and do not get much sleep en route, perhaps you are set up well to avoid jet lag and simply deal with exhaustion. A good night’s sleep had done us both a world of good and we were ready and eager to face a new day.

With transit passes in hand, we headed off to the vaporetto stop and boarded the first of many boats today. We were on the Venetian equivalent of a hop on hop off bus with an English commentary.  We enjoyed the journey immensely, both because it gave us a sense of the layout of the city, and also because we were able to identify and photograph many of the significant landmarks, museums and churches from the waters of the canals. Not many heads could get in the way in these photos …. but a lot of boats did!!

Once we had made the tour from beginning to end, we returned to a nearby church called Chiaesa di san Giorgio Maggiore. It was a delightful church, painted bright white with columns flanking the entry, an old monastery along the side and a bell tower that offered stunning views. It was a glorious day and we thoroughly enjoyed the views from the top of the tower, overlooking the waters all around the city as well as a variety of other domes and towers that dotted the landscape. Of particular note, was St. Mark’s Basilica and Bell Tower that were directly across the water. One of the primary differences between the two locations was that Chiaesa di san Giorgio Maggiore was virtually deserted and we did not have to deal with crowds of people or long lines. As well, we encountered an interesting art exhibition along the outer edges of the church site. It featured all manner of seashells sculpted in metal and coated with gold. They were each set on a bed of pea stone and were taller than us. Very impressive in detail and texture, as well as shining brightly in the mid day sun.

We paused for a beverage (coke and coffee) at a café behind the church before we actually went into the sanctuary. It was lovely watching the watercraft make their way in all directions around and across St. Mark’s Basin, where the Grand Canal opens out into a much larger body of water. We also spent some time admiring the many, many sailboats that were moored in the adjacent sailing club. Wow is all we could say about some of them!

Upon entering the church, we were struck by its simplicity, its plain white painted walls and its clear glass windows. One wonders if the impact of the Second World War is still being felt in this church today. There were hints in a few places that it had, at one time, been a much grander place.

We left Chiaesa di san Giorgio Maggiore and headed across the water to the Doge Palace (the home of the government of Venice in its early days) and St. Mark’s Basilica. Disembarking from the vaporetto, we immediately felt we had plunged into the madding crowd! It was difficult to move along the walkways without risking being bowled over by all the foot traffic. And what wasn’t covered with people was covered with stalls selling all sorts of tourist trinkets – masks, scarves, pasta bibs, shirts, purses … and did I mention purses? There were even purses set up on display on the steps of the very narrow bridges crossing the canals en route to St. Mark’s Square. And everyone had to crowd to one side or the other to avoid stepping on them. Of course, the vendors were aggressive in selling their wares and the tourist/photographers stopped wherever they pleased to take just the perfect picture! (Yes, I was one of them!) It collectively made moving forward more than a little bit challenging.

But we finally arrived at the Doge Palace and were pleasantly surprised to find that, in spite of the crowd outside, there was no line up for entry to the palace. We bought our tickets and proceeded on a self-guided tour. Directional arrows were good and there was printed information in each room that we visited. The size of the palace was amazing and the collection of art that it contains is breathtaking. It would take days and days to fully appreciate the murals and paintings on the walls and ceilings. Collectively, they tell the story of the evolution of the government of Venice, an institution that for many centuries was held up as a model for other cities and states. In one room, there is a painted portrait of each Doge (mayor) with a painted scroll outlining his major accomplishments while in office. The other notable feature in the Palace was the amount of gold that was lavished on ceilings in various staircases. It was astounding to see the wealth in this place and how well preserved it is. The final place we visited was the prison cells housed deep in the lower sections of the palace. In order to access them, one had to cross a bridge over a narrow canal. The bridge was appropriately named The Bridge of Sighs. Not a happy place for the visitors of the day.

Following our visit to the Palace, we walked a short distance and entered St. Mark’s Square. Once again we were engulfed by crowds of people moving in every which way and attempting to take photos of their loved ones against various backdrops, most of which I would not even contemplate. I just shook my head as Jim and I joined a short line that we hoped would gain us access to St. Mark’s Basilica. In less than ten minutes, we were entering through the arched doorway and we immediately awed by the profound beauty of this church. The rich wood, the elegant paintings, the polished mosaic tiles on the floors. All in honour of St. Mark whose body, as the story is told, was stolen by Napoleon from its gravesite in Egypt and transported to Italy in a barrel of pork fat to dissuade the Muslims in Egypt from checking the contents of the barrel too closely. The Vatican had reportedly refused the construction of a basilica in Venice. But with the arrival of St. Mark’s remains, there seemed to be little choice. And so this wonderful structure was erected. (There was a fire in the 1500’s and St. Mark’s body was burned,  no longer buried in the basilica.)

The area in front of the Basilica is an enormous square, St. Mark’s Square, which was filled with people and lined with shops, restaurants and at least one ATM machine. Whew!! Did we need that!

Armed with money for food, we paused to have a sandwich at a café across from the water and enjoyed watching the many people pass by as we ate.

Then, it was back onto the vaporetto to continue our journey along the Venetian waterways. This part of the trip took us to the famous Rialto Bridge! It was just as elegant as we expected it to be … and just as crowded!! We took photos and quickly turned our attention away from the bridge as we meandered along the streets and alleyways that took us away from the edge of the canal. Shops galore featuring jewellery, purses, beautiful glass, masks and a myriad of other products that might capture the interest of a tourist.

Jim had to run an errand to arrange for a SIM card for a cell phone and I waited on a small bridge crossing a very narrow canal. The main boat traffic on this canal was privately booked gondolas with drivers that guided the gondolas along using the long oars that are so familiar in movies and photos. The drivers were also all wearing either blue and white or red and white striped nautical shirts with jaunty hats upon their heads. It was a scene right out of a movie!

Jim returned with an Italian cell phone card and we continued our meandering. I will admit that fatigue was setting in … and hunger as well. It was 7 pm and it felt like time for dinner. We landed upon a café right beside The Canada Hotel (nothing Canadian about it however) and settled in for a light dinner. A half litre of red wine, a seafood salad for me and some tasty liver and onions for Jim. It was just what the doctor ordered!

Following our meal, we headed back to the canal and once more boarded the vaporetto to make our journey back to our hotel. It had been a very full day and we were both amazed that we had lasted as long as we had without giving in to jetlag. Time to relax and unwind … and label photographs and write a diary entry and plan for tomorrow.

It has been a terrific day and we look forward to many more just like it!! Pinch me … am I really in Venice?

Friday, September 13, 2013

We had made our plan for today based on recommendations we had receivedfrom others. First, a coffee in a nearby café touted by Tripadvisor as the finest coffee shop in Venice, then a visit to the Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal followed by some exploration in the neighbourhood around Garibaldi Street. Simple and straightforward, or so we thought.

We made our way to Guglie, a nearby vaporetto station, and found a delightful local market featuring fish stalls as well as a myriad of fruit and vegetables. Of course, we took some time to meander among the people and admire the array of products available. We were definitely among local people doing their marketing. Almost every person was pulling a bundle buggy behind them and many, many were also leading small dogs on leashes. It was a tangle of wheels and legs, long and short.

We found the café we were seeking and were aromatically delighted as we stepped inside. The aroma of coffee filled the air and the array of choices rivaled Starbucks. I chose a cappuccino and Jim selected a granite con panna, a thick iced coffee slushy topped with whipping cream. Both were delicious. There were no seats or tables in this café. We are learning that in many places the Italian culture is to stand at the counter, drink your coffee quickly and be on your way. We have also seen several lunch counters operating in the same way.

And now, onto the adventure of the day. And it was an adventure. In the interest of getting a good viewing position on the boat, we boarded the 4.1 vaporetto which the map suggested would take us two stops to the end of our canal (Cannareggio) and turn around and retrace its route and take us to the train station (a major transfer point).  When we reached the end of our canal, we realized that perhaps we had misread the route map. We were heading out over the open waters of Laguna Venita to a station that was far in the distance. We checked the route map again and found that this vaporetto actually travelled to an island that we wanted to visit on another day. Thus, our plan for this day took an abrupt change.

Murano Island became our new destination, an island famous for its glass production. We enjoyed the ride across the breadth of the lagoon, viewing the main city of Venice from far out on the water. Several minutes later, we landed on Murano Island and joined the throngs of people moving toward the main street with another delightful canal. Along our way, we stopped to admire the glass art that was displayed in every shop window. Beautiful, elaborate, colourful, delicate, sophisticated, detailed, pieces of art.

We entered one shop to admire the work of these glass artists more closely and we scooped up by an extremely eager salesperson for a tour of the shop/gallery. We knew we were in for some visual treats and a forceful sales presentation.  It was worth our time and patience to be able to see such an array of glorious glasswork. Sculptures, vases, plates, glasses, bowls, platters, jewellery, photo frames, chandeliers, character pieces (clowns, animals, nativity scenes) – all spectacular in their design, colour and texture. Much to the chagrin of our ‘guide’, we managed to resist temptation (it was tough) and left the gallery empty handed. He did give us his card, printed on newsprint with a promise that if we returned he would give us a real cardboard card when we purchased a piece.

We enjoyed strolling through many more shops/galleries and admired the glass art on display. Happily, we did not encounter any more high pressure sales and could meander at our leisure. Of course, by the end of our visit to Murano Island, we had accumulated a few packages of small glass pieces …. And one that was not so small., a beautiful aquarium-like piece of blue and green with coral reef and tropical fish swimming inside. Absolutely gorgeous!! And well wrapped for travel too.

I will say that I enjoyed the glass necklace I purchased, a string of hand painted red beads, each with a unique picture or design. I immediately put the beads around my neck and happily wore them for the rest of the day. It was fun to note how many other women strolling along the streets were wearing glass jewellery in various colours and forms.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant along the canal. It was a hot, sunny day and we were glad to be seated under an umbrella at a table right on the edge of the canal. We thoroughly enjoyed the ‘menu fixte’, an appetizer, a main course and a salad for 15 euros. Seafood lasagna – mmm!  Calamari – mmm! But perhaps best of all, a beautiful fresh salad!!

It was from this vantage point that we were able to truly observe life on the canal. This canal was too small to have vaporettos and too far from Venice itself for gondolas. But it was teaming with craft! Private boats with local Venetians meandered the waterway, occasionally docking to do some shopping or have lunch. Small delivery boats carrying an array of boxes transported goods to various destinations. Many of these boats ‘double-parked’ along the crowded canal walls and leapt from one boat to another to reach the sidewalk. Clearly, they have much practice and much success using this method of disembarking. 

Occasionally a much larger boat carrying heavier goods would make its way along the canal. One such vessel tied up across from our lunch stop. Construction materials were being delivered – long pieces of lumber and heavy roof sheeting was on board. The crane on the boat was not a helpful device in offloading the materials due to their size and shape. So four men wearing protective gloves lifted each piece of material and carried along the crowded sidewalk, maneuvered it through a narrow doorway into a long narrow corridor and transported it manually to its courtyard destination deep in the middle of the building. It was a long and arduous process.  Meanwhile the canal had only a very narrow thoroughfare for other boats to travel through. They were not deterred and there was a steady stream of boats of all colours and sizes making their way in both directions along the canal. Fascinating!!

Following lunch, we made some purchases and meandered along the sidewalk past the shop windows one last time. What a delightful place to have spent several hours on this perfect day!

Boarding the vaporetto again, we had a better idea where it was going to take us. In fact, this very vessel would transport us on a long journey right to our own stop, Crea. En route we circumnavigated the entire of Murano Island and had an opportunity to understand the geography of Venice. A series of outer islands create  barrier from the sea and the water flows into the vast Laguna Venita. As we travelled around Murano, we were able to see several glass factories and gain a deeper awareness of the magnitude of the glass industry on this island. We also passed a beautiful tall white lighthouse.

The vaporetto then crossed Laguna Venita and we travelled along the outer rim of the city of Venice. In places high walls had been constructed to protect properties from flooding. We encountered the hospital emergency station and several ambulance boats all ready for action. We passed by countless bell towers and domes of the many, many churches that have been built in Venice. We travelled past Chiaesa di san Giorgio Maggiore again as well as the docks at St. Mark’s Square and the Doge Palace (I wonder if the crowds ever diminish?). We then entered a waterway new to us that took us through a substantial residential area, mainly apartment buildings and adjacent parkland, local shops along the canal and several street entertainers with small crowds gathered round. We passed by several cruise ships moored along the shore, through a ship repair area and drydocks as well as the back waters of the port of Venice. We actually saw cars and motorbikes parked there. Clearly we were outside the vehicle free zone.

And finally we floated under a high arched brick bridge, marking our return to the Grand Canal. Bustling canal walkways and café tables along the edges were once again the trademarks of this canalled city. Soon we were viewing familiar sights as we passed the train station, famous hotels and finally made the turn into our own canal, Cannareggio. It had been a long and interesting journey and we were ready to disembark when we arrived at the Crea stop.

But the day was not yet over. We dropped into our local pub for a drink on our way back to the hotel. Spritz was what it was called, bright orange in colour and served in large wine glasses adorned with a large green olive. It is actually not unlike a white wine spritzer at home, a mixture of soda and wine or soda and prosecco. What differentiates a spritz from a spritzer is the use of bitters. Mine tasted a bit like a pseudo martini and Jim’s was simply sweet! Although inexpensive and therefore popular among students and seniors (so they say), we are not likely to indulge in many spritzes along our way.

A quick turn around at the hotel and we were off for dinner at Dalla Marisa, a nearby restaurant with a unique approach to cuisine. It only opens for dinner on 4 days of the week. It is so popular that reservations are absolutely necessary. Yet each night only one meal is available and you are told when you reserve that it will be meat or fish. We knew we were having fish.

We arrived to find a large number of tables set up along the canal, no tablecloths or other adornments visible. We chose a table right on the edge of the canal and waited. Soon, a server offered us wine and/or water and told us our meal would be coming soon. First course was to be a variety of fish dishes. Well … what arrived was amazing!! Baked mussels, marinated in oil, tomato sauce and spices,; marinated seabass with spices and arugula; fish salad (fairly strong in flavour); all served with warm polenta. What an array of beautiful food and that was just the beginning.

While we were enjoying our meal, four people were seated beside us. We said hello and the conversation took off from there. They were from St. Thomas and St. Mary’s, Ontario, only one hour away from Waterloo. After we laughed about the coincidence, we toasted the occasion with our wine and thoroughly enjoyed spending the balance of the evening sharing conversation, laughter and excellent food.

The next course that was served was fish lasagna (we had had this at lunch as well) which was also delicious. Such a delicate balance of sauce, soft pasta and seafood flavours. Magnifico!! Next came another large platter of seafood – calamari, shrimp and dried fish. Again, wonderful ….but I have to admit we were getting full! But save room for dessert, a coconut cream mixture served with delicate ginger biscuits.

Coffee followed …. For some of us the coffee tasted remarkably like limoncello! And we said farewell to our dinner companions and waddled the short distance back to our hotel and fell into bed.

Another great day in Venice and surrounds had come to a close!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

It dawned another bright and beautiful day! The weather so far has been glorious. We spent some time in the morning in our room to get organized for the next few days. Then, once again, we headed out on the vaporetto, with the purpose of once again enjoying the comfortable and narrated ride on the VA, the Hop on Hop Off version of the vaporetto system. It begins at the train station and travels along the Grand Canal all the way to the Biennale stop at the opposite end. It is scenic; the architecture is beautiful, varied and interesting; the boat life on the Grand Canal is fascinating. And photo opps abound.

We disembarked at the Arsenale station and walked a short distance to Garibaldi Street (thanks Jim Rodger for the suggestion).  Having not eaten breakfast, we were very hungry by this stage. We stopped for a snack at the first available café on Garibaldi Street and noticed that we were sitting right across from the home of John Cabot. Cabot was born in Genoa but moved to Venice at a young age and lived here for many years. The house was nondescript except for two plaques that recognized his contribution to the English and European settling of Canada. I have always associated John Cabot with England and was not aware of his Italian heritage.

Garibaldi Street is a wide residential street, the widest street in Venice. It is built on top of a filled-in canal in the style that we are more frequently seeing in modern housing developments around home. That is, there were businesses at street level and apartments in the several floors above.  One feature that differentiates these buildings from any new building at home is the absence of elevators. We commented often on the challenge of living on the top floor of a building (often 4 or 5 levels) and having to transport oneself and all one’s goods to the top level at least once or more each day.

We enjoyed meandering along with people who clearly lived in the area and were out doing their Saturday errands or enjoying a coffee or other beverage at the local cafes. Bakeries, green grocers, toy stores, shoe stores, a butcher, a pharmacy, a couple of variety stores and two supermarkets flanked the wide cobbled street. We spent some time in one of the supermarkets examining the array of food items that were available. Some were familiar to us and others were totally new. What we noticed about all of them was that the packages were generally small and, other than Kellogg’s, very few North American brands were in evidence.  Of course, we were not surprised to find a large number of pasta products – noodles and sauces. And quite a number of unusual cookies as well. It was fun to browse for a while. I will say, though, that the aisles were extremely narrow and we were very much in the way at times.

We strolled along until we reached the end of the street, the place where a delightful canal took its place. There was a wonderful café there with a most helpful server who spoke impeccable English. We were able to discuss the various menu items and learn more about food vocabulary and the taste and texture of items we did not know. He was terrific and so was the food he brought us. There was one item, a fish pate,  that neither of us enjoyed. Our server was kind enough to take it right off our bill. While we sat, we were able to observe the people in the street – shoppers pulling bundle buggies; people, young and old, walking dogs; groups of men enjoying some wine; tourists with their cameras; children riding bikes and playing on the street. No cars to worry about here!

Finally, we left the café and wandered through a delightful park en route back to the St. Mark’s Basin and the Grand Canal. The park was an oasis of green in a very hard-surface city. It featured a promenade flanked by tall trees that provided a shaded walk to the water’s edge. Along each side were playgrounds and benches, all in full use by the residents of the area. The park was full of life!!

We passed into a second park, the large green area where The Biennale is headquartered. The Biennale is a large festival of art in all forms – painting, sculpture, dance, music – which is held in Venice each year.  There are concerts, exhibitions, international pavilions, public sculpture, special museum displays, a veritable myriad of things to see and do. We have taken in only a few of the offerings, notably a Music Museum, a display of Sculpture, the pavilion from the Maldives and a display of various dress styles. We could be here for months and not see it all.

We reboarded the vaporetto and set sail for home. Just then Jim’s phone rang. It was our friends, Heather and David Bailey, from Australia. They had just arrived in Venice and we were only 3 stations from their current location. It took less than 15 minutes to make our way there and enjoy a celebratory greeting with hugs and exclamations about being in Venice at the same time!!  As it was dinnertime, the search was on for an outdoor setting where we could catch up with one another and enjoy a great meal together. After a couple of false starts and some rambling along the alleys and corridors of central Venice, we happened upon a wonderful setting in St. Steven’s Square. Wine, pasta, pannacotta, coffee and more wine sated all of us. Even our server joined in the fun and frivolity!! Laughter and stories filled the air until it was time to head home (we were almost the last ones remaining in the bistro)! We agreed to meet in the morning and head off for a new adventure together. Little did Jim and I know that we had yet one more adventure awaiting us tonight.

Let me start by saying, the transit system here (the boats) operate on a different schedule on the weekends. We were not aware of this. So, Jim and I walked leisurely back to the Grand Canal and waited patiently for the next vaporetto that would take us to the train station where we would transfer to our now familiar Number 4.2 and carry on toward our hotel. We did note that the vaporetto that arrived was extremely full and travelling very slowly. But we settled in to enjoy the ride. The Grand Canal at night with all the city lights reflected in the water is a beautiful sight. When we finally arrived at the train station, we walked along the street to our own stop and checked the timetable to determine when our next ride would arrive. That is when we found out! There were no more 4.2’s on Saturday night. In fact, they had stopped running about 90 minutes earlier! It was now approximately midnight and we were about 2 kilometres from our hotel and we really were unsure of the route. You see, those small canals that meander throughout the city and are so charming by day are real impediments to pedestrians as they do not have very many bridges. Alas, we had no choice but to follow our noses and refer to the map (not always helpful) and to begin our midnight trek. We were walking in totally new territory through residential areas where all the lights were out and sensible people were getting their beauty sleep. We made a couple of wrong turns and had to retrace our steps. We felt that we were making reasonable progress and happened upon a young man who was putting his garbage outside. Fortunately he spoke English and responded to our request for directions by sending us most of the way back from whence we had come, to follow a path along the opposite side of a narrow canal. That was not what we wanted to hear at 12:45 am! But, we followed his instructions (what choice did we have?) and sooner rather than later we were on a familiar path and knew the way back to our hotel.  It was after 1 am when we arrived – both relieved and exhausted. It was the first night since arriving that both of slept the whole night through!!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

In spite of our late night, we were up bright and early to meet Heather and David at the train station to begin today’s adventure. We were travelling together to Burano Island, a place famous for its brightly coloured buildings and for the production of exquisite lace. It was quite a long trip that involved a couple of extended rides on vaporettos. After about 90 minutes en route, we finally arrived at Burano. And we were not disappointed  by what we found there.

First stop was for coffee (not the greatest in the world but at least wet and warm). From there we headed into the village …. But not far! Heather and I were immediately sidetracked by a specialty store selling lace. The array of products was wonderful – everything from doilies and table clothes to baby clothes, scarves and beautiful garments for women. It was hard to resist the blue/green lace cardigan that was calling my name.

Not only were the products beautiful but they were also entirely hand stitched. And to our delight there was a woman in the shop today demonstrating how to make lace. It is a painstaking endeavor that is slow and exacting. But the results were amazing!

By the time we finished looking and watching and left the shop, Jim and David were no where to be found! We spent a brief time looking for them (very brief) and then Heather and I headed off on our own quest to explore the island and other shops we might find along the way. It is hard to describe how colourful this island is. Each home is brightly painted using all the primary colours and then some. Vivid reds, blues, yellows, oranges and greens line the streets in every direction. Painted shutters adorn the windows and gaily blooming flowers sit outside many doorways. Most windows have venetian blind covering them on the outside!! I really caused laughter for a man passing us by when he heard me exclaim, “So this is an authentic Venetian blind!” I guess it did sound a bit funny!

Narrow canals ran between the homes and boats lined their edges, for the most part also painted in bright colours. All in all, even though the sun was not shining, the town was as bright as a button!

Along the way, Heather and I took many photos and meandered into many shops. Of course, there were more lace shops. There were also bakeries, delis and shops filled with theatrical minstrel masks. We each made a couple of modest purchases and I am proud to announce that I did continue to resist the sweater that I had so dearly loved.

Finally, Jim and David tracked us down and suggested it was time for lunch. They had already identified a nearby pub that offered nice food and beverages of choice. We each ate some tasty morsels and while Heather and I stuck to water and soda, the men indulged in a couple of local drinks, namely Spritz’s and Gingerino. They were well priced and interesting but also apparently packed a punch! Both David and Jim had a snooze on the boat back to Venice.

Jim and I returned to Venice. Heather and David got off the vaporetto at Murano Island to look at the glass. We made plans to meet again for dinner but those plans were foiled once more by the weekend schedule of the transit system. So Jim and I enjoyed pizza and some delicious seafood soup at a restaurant near the train station. We made sure tonight that we had more than enough time to catch the last ferry home.

Tomorrow morning we will meet Heather and David for a coffee and then pick up our rental car and bid farewell to Venice. Next stop – Parma. Parmesan cheese, anone?