Lent in Venice: Basilica San Marco

sanmarco

Visit the Basilica San Marco at 9:30 in the morning, about a half hour before the tour groups arrive. We climbed the steep stairs to the balcony, and had the outdoor roof terrace, overlooking the piazza, almost completely to ourselves. They charge three euros to access the balcony now, and inside they have created a little museum with mosaics and marble fragments, and models, and of course the originals of the four bronze horses which have been replaced on the façade with copies. But the best part of the balcony is still the view of the piazza from the outside, and the view of the interior of the church and its mosaics from the inside. And having it not mobbed with people is great. Afterwards walk through the church again—the vastness of the space and the richness of decoration and the detail of the mosaics are almost overwhelming.

Lent in Venice: Hotel Villa Igea

venvillaig

The Hotel Villa Igea, right on the Campo San Zaccaria, was a real find: comfortable, quiet, conveniently located. It had two lovely terraces overlooking the largely unvisited campo (despite being a steps from the main vaporetto stop as well as a short walk to Piazza San Marco.) We were fortunate too in having the very kind and helpful Tomasso, a native Venetian, at the front desk. He steered us to what was our best meal in Venice, as well as providing constant advice and assistance. The hotel has two nice terraces that overlook the campo—perfect for enjoying a bottle of wine from a neighborhood shop; and the daily breakfast buffet is excellent. While the room Eric and I shared was small and comfortable, nonna and Mr Logan were upgraded to a grand two bedroom suite, very spacious, and 50 euros per night less than the two single rooms we had booked.

view from the Villa Igea terrace

Lent in Venice: Torcello

torcello

Perhaps nowhere has as many beautiful sites to see as Venice, so it can be quite a challenge to tear yourself away from the city’s main sestieri. Still, Venice comprises many far flung islands, each with its own character. If you have more than a few days to explore the area, trips to the outlying islands can be most rewarding.

Torcello is a largely uninhabited island, boasting only a few canals from its long-ago era as an urban center, a small luxury hotel, a couple of impressive churches and two first-rate restaurants to lure visitors. Surprisingly, as sparsely populated as it is today, Torcello was once a thriving city, way back in the 12th century and it’s now-larger neighbor Venice was the undeveloped outpost. Those days are long gone, but an afternoon on Torcello can provide a swell few hours of quiet bliss.
Torcello is served by vaporetto from Venice, via either Murano Island or the Lido. The trip will take from 1 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on the route, but provides a wonderfully scenic tour of the Lagoon. Disembark at the island’s small wooden dock. Follow your fellow passengers up the lone sidewalk bordering a pretty little canal into the heart of the island. Pass the first restaurant on your left, but as you make it to the next establishment, the Ostaria Ponte del Diavolo, you definitely want to stop and have a big, delightful (if pricey) lunch. On one of the restaurant’s patios, you’ll enjoy course after course of brilliant, delicious Venetian cuisine amidst a vista of flowers, trees and pastures. Make sure you enjoy a Bellini or Americano cocktail as an aperitif, and try to save room for the stunning, rich deserts.
After lunch, enjoy a much-needed stroll to the island’s beautifully preserved Romanesque Cathedral. And don’t fail to stop in the dark and lovely adjacent chapel, built on a Greek cross plan. There is also a small museum, although you may find a further walk in the open air more compelling.
Ostaria Ponte del Diavolo
Torcello (Venice)
tel. 39 041 730 401
fax 39 041 730 240
Closed Thursday, and all evenings except Saturday.
Reservations recommended.

Lent in Venice: Eating Well

eats

The only restaurant guide worth having is Venice Osterie, a slim volume available in English, and on sale in Venice (and perhaps nowhere else). Even this requires some reading between the lines, and won’t include the obscure, bargainy places seemingly known only to locals. For some dining suggestions, see my previous post:

Venice Restaurant picks

Lent in Venice: Getting Lost

ven2

Guidebooks, and even recent articles on Venice seemed of little use, and in fact we rarely used our maps. It’s important to settle into the slow rhythm of the city—a slowness dictated by the complete absence of cars and scooters, and the necessity of walking everywhere in a city of tangled alleyways in which it is very easy, even desirable, to get lost.

The Chorus pass, a card allowing admission to (16) interesting and sometimes far-flung churches provided a vague structure to some of our walks. Along the way we would find completely tourist-free neighborhoods, cheap bars and coffee bars, unexpected churches and cloisters. And art…both famous works (a constant variety of last suppers by Tintoretto) and obscure (a bit of medieval frieze depicting an ass and ox licking the baby Jesus!)

We found pleasure in local flea markets, junk shops, tiny bookbinders and obscure coffee bars. We also found signs of life, youth, and vibrancy that suggest that Venice has not yet resigned itself to becoming a museum. There are new, youthful bars, modern restaurants, and a vibrant modern art scene—the recently opened Palazzo Grassi, is a splendidly redone grand canal palazzo, it’s entire space devoted to temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.

Lent in Venice: Early Morning Walks

ven2a

Eric and I took advantage of our jet lag—waking the first days at 6 am—to take early morning walks through the deserted streets. We watched Venice slowly come alive: coffee bars just beginning to open, the vegetable sellers setting up shop, and finally hordes of local children rushing off to school. The first morning was sort of magical in a light rain. The second provided sun, and the perfect time for a walk across the almost empty Rialto Bridge to visit the fish market, active only with locals shopping the stalls stocked with gleaming local fish, crabs, shrimps, and island produce. We’d have a quick coffee, then stroll back to the hotel for breakfast with Nonna and Logan.

Lent in Venice: an Introduction

Venice

Lent begins today, and though it is supposed to be a time of penance and sacrifice, if you’d rather indulge yourself, there is no better time to visit Venice than during the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. It’s an especially tranquil time in this usually tourist-mobbed city. For me, Venice is all about tranquility: the absence of cars and scooters of course, but wandering mysterious narrow alleys, getting lost, discovering hidden neighborhoods, churches, restaurants and bars, and most of all experiencing its unique beauty at a leisurely pace.

I’ve been to Venice six times, three times during lent and three times in October. My last October trip, in 2007, revealed that the summer tourist season now extends all through the fall—Lent is perhaps the last occasion where one can find Venice in uncrowded beauty. You’ll miss Mardi Gras of course, and the Film Festival, and the Biennale, but Lent provides a beautiful peace, surprisingly good weather (in my experience) and greatly discounted hotel rooms.

Last year, in early March, we had two days of rain followed by five dry days of mostly glorious sun and pleasantly cool weather. The city was uncrowded, with Venetians remarkably seeming to outnumber the tourists. It was easy to walk around, in even the most touristy parts; even the Academia Gallery was deserted, except for a few school groups, and San Marco delightfully uncrowded. Once you got off the beaten track, the city was quiet and mysterious

Many people dash into Venice for a day; I’ve read travel articles saying three days is plenty of time in Venice. On each of my six visits I’ve stayed for a week, and each time I left with the feeling that much was unseen and undone. Yes, you can see the major monuments in the crowded walk from the Rialto Bridge to San Marco, but the real pleasure of Venice comes in exploring the city at leisure, getting lost in the neighborhoods tourists rarely venture, and adjusting to the wonderful pace of a place where nothing need be done in hurry.

I won’t be in Venice this year, but for Lent I’ll be sharing some of my favorite experiences, from March last year (accompanied by Eric, Logan, Nonna and two good friends,) and from earlier visits.

Eating Beef in Buenos Aires: Best Parrillas

la_dorita


Though Buenos Aires is a large, cosmopolitan city whose exhaustive variety of cuisines range from authentic French Brasseries to Sushi Bars, the national cuisine of Argentina is most definitely beef and the most traditional restaurant the “Parrilla.”

The Parrilla specializes in grilled beef, both steaks of various cuts and mixed grills, plates of offal often including sweetbreads, kidneys, and blood sausage (though never liver, for reasons unknown to me.) The grass fed Argentine beef is delicious, although the default cooking temperature is medium—more done than I like my beef, so if you prefer your steak more on the rare side, you will have to ask.

There are a number of venerable and famous Parrillas which have been in operation for decades, such as the rather formal El Mirasol in the upscale Recoleta district, near the embassies and luxury hotels. While El Mirasol is good, and the service impeccable, we found the newer Parrillas in the gentrifying Palermo neighborhood to be more less expensive and more fun, with excellent food.

One of the liveliest is La Dorita, in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood. Seated at a simple sidewalk table, we were able to enjoy the warm Autumn evening in a casual atmosphere—aided by a friendly young waitress, and copious amounts of Malbec served from barrels (there are several varieties of wine to choose from, very inexpensive and considerably better than you would expect) and brought to the table in ceramic penguin-shaped pitchers.

We began the meal with a selection of empanadas—an Argentine staple, before moving on to fresh mixed salads. Then the main event: Thick steaks which we sliced and shared, and platters of grilled sausages, kidneys, and sweetbreads, shared among the more adventurous.

This restaurant is great for a group, and the seven of us ate and drank like gluttons over a period of about three hours, yet the final bill came to less than $25 dollars a person (cash only).

La Dorita is very popular, so reservations are essential; they have a larger but pretty much identical restaurant (La Dorita Enfance) on the corner directly opposite, where we had a nearly identical meal a few days later. Perhaps it was only the enthusiasm of our first waitress, but we all like the original, smaller, La Dorita best.

Perhaps the best Parrilla we found, however, is La Cabrera in Palermo Soho. The food here is truly excellent, and the atmosphere, both inside or at the sidewalk tables, is delightful. In addition to the excellently prepared beef, all the meat dishes are served with a dozen tasty side dishes: various salads, vegetables, beans, etc., making La Cabrera a very fine choice. One main course is plenty for two persons. There is one seating, at 8:30pm. Reservations are essential.

La Dorita (Palermo Hollywood)
Humbolt 1911 at Costa Rica
Tel 4773-0070
Very festive, traditional Argentine Parrilla, lots of meat, casual and fun. Cash only.

La Cabrera (Palermo Soho)
Cabrera 5099 at Thames St.
Tel 4831-7002
Very good meat, very good service; lots of complimentary side dishes, all excellent. One seating at 8:30.

El Mirasol (Recoleta)
Posada 1032 at Av 9 de Julio
Tel 4326 7322
Formal, well-known Parrilla with good meat and excellent service.

La Dorita photograph by James Laur

Spritz Aperol: A Venetian aperitif

aperol

While in Venice in March of this year, we discovered a refreshing warm weather aperitif: the Spritz Aperol. (A true Venetian bargain too… we found them as cheap as 1 euro 50 at a nameless cafe on the Campo Bander e Moro.) Though it is now made by the same company that makes the venerable Italian aperitif Campari, it has not received the marketing push, and is somewhat harder to find, but well worth seeking out. It’s an orange based liqueur, lower in alcohol than Campari, and sweeter. Making the Spritz Aperol is easy, but as every bar in Venice seems to have its own recipe, its worth experimenting to find the proportions that suit your taste. Our favorite recipe is as follows:

Fill a white wine or highball glass with ice, add one ounce of Aperol, fill the glass 2/3 full with either white wine (Pinot Grigio is a classic choice) or prosecco, and top with a splash of sparkling water. If you wish, you can garnish the drink with either an orange slice or green olives. Delicious.

Amsterdam A to Zed: B is for bicycle

amsbike

You just have to ride a bicycle—it’s by far the quickest, easiest way around the city. It may look intimidating at first, but once on a bike you have the advantage as bicycles have the right-of-way. Rent one from Frederic Rent-a-Bike—their bikes don’t have any annoying logos that label you as a tourist. (Many shops that sell bikes also rent them—without the tourist identifying adverts—just ask.) Sadly, bike rentals are not the bargain they once were (now about 10 euros a day, with discounts for longer rentals) so when you rent one, do use it!

Frederic Bike Rentals
Brouwersgracht 78
+31-20/624-5509
www.frederic.nl