Italy 2001: Como and Venice

Dear Reader: This trip covered the period September 1 through September 16, 2001.  Obviously, the tragic events of September 11 came right in the middle. It was very difficult being out of the country on that day and during those first few days afterward. Upon hearing the news, we certainly wanted to come home immediately, but of course, that was impossible.  Thus, as you read these posts, you will get the "before" and "after" of that terrible day.


Saturday, September 1
We left from O'Hare at 5:30 pm. The flight was bumpy but uneventful (except that the video went out about 40 minutes in, so there were no movies!). It was hard to believe we were actually going until the flight attendant started speaking in Italian.   We have planned and are doing this trip all on our own; no tours, no city guides.  Wish us luck!

We landed in Milan, at Malpensa Airport, right on time at 9:00 am.  When we got down to customs, we saw a sign that said "USCITA". naively we thought that that was a special customs line for US Citizens, but we saw lots of people going there and some were "obviously" Italian. So we went toward the sign and down the corridor and there were two signs: "USCITA" and "Customs". Everyone was heading toward "Customs". And then we realized: "USCITA" is Italian for "Exit"!  D'OH!!!!!  Welcome to Italy!!!!!

We got through and got our bags and boarded a shuttle bus to take us to Milan Central Station. Along the way we noticed there is an awful lot of graffiti; it is on almost all public buildings.  Various pictures, words, and symbols. If they are discouraging this or trying to combat it, it seems like they are losing.

The station was really neat: one of those old-time European stations with those funny-looking European trains. We had about 90 minutes before our train left, so we checked out the stores. There was a place that sold sandwiches - mortadella, bologna, etc. We bought a big piece of pizza (pizza! In Italy!). Then we went to our "wagon". It was one of those cute compartments you see in the movies. Just us, so we didn't have to stow our cases. It was a really smooth 40 minute trip to Como. Then a short taxi ride up the mountain to Villa Flori - a magnificent little hotel situated right on lake Como!

Our room (including a balcony) overlook the lake. Beautiful!

So far we have had no problem with the language (except for that "USCITA" incident). We are trying a few Italian words and most everyone speaks some English. After we settled in we went for a walk. We're actually outside of Como, so we walked to the next little town, Cernobbio, which was founded in the 12th century!. Lots of narrow, cobbled streets and tiny cars and motorcycles whizzing by. We stopped for the first of many gelatis and it was wonderfully delicious.  We spent about 2 hours wandering around, most of it within sight of the lake.  Went into one old church where the organist was practicing "Pomp and Circumstance"! 

Side note: they have the outside shutters on the windows, just like they did in France. We saw people leaning out of windows and talking to people below and then closing the shutters.  Most of the buildings are white, the shutters are green, and the roof tiles are red.

Got back to the hotel and sat and read on our balcony; the temp was about 70; just perfect.  Got dressed and went for dinner at 7:30, which tonight was right downstairs in the hotel. That was good since we were quickly becoming sleepy (we had pretty much been up for 30+ hours and a 7-hour time change). We ate outside, right by the lake. The dinner was very good and only 147,000 Lire (including tax and tip - about $70; the Euro comes into being on Jan 1, 2002).  Wendy had risotto with shrimp and arugula, lake fish with zucchini and carrots, fresh berries, and caffe Americaine.  Wayne had potato-bean soup, veal with lemon, pear tart. Yum.

Got up to bed at 9:30 and slept until 8!  Probably would have slept later, but one of those doo-do-dooo-do ambulance sirens woke us up (probably a good thing).

Monday, September 3
Labor Day back home (but not here)

We started with breakfast on the terrace by the lake. A standard European hotel buffet: croissants, Nutella, museli, fresh fruit, ham (pancetta?), hard-boiled eggs (usually in brown shells), mortadella, cappuccino, hot chocolate,and OJ. 

Then we taxied into Como. We walked through the old part of town, saw the Duomo - a real old church.
Inside, there were paintings and sculptures 500 and 600 years old. We saw little boys chasing pigeons in the square (must be a common thing with little boys around the world!). But, of course, there was a McDonalds right there.  The temp was in the mid-70s and sunny.  We noticed that people say "Prego" (which the dictionary defines as "You're welcome") the way the French say "Voila", as in "Here ya go". 

Next we took a hydrofoil (way cool) to Bellagio. Bellagio is a small town with a definite tourist area. So we walked up and down (yes, up as in up and down as in down) the streets for about 4 hours.  In the middle we stopped for lunch. We sat on a terrace overlooking the lake. We had grilled sole that the waiter filleted at the table (missed a few bones though) and grilled veggies and gelato. So far the flavors we've had are coffee, pistachio, and raspberry.  Then we went back on the hydrofoil (and slept a good part of the way).  Again, we sat on our balcony and this time saw a seaplane take off from the lake, circle around between the mountains, and land...over and over.  Speaking of the mountains - they are so densely covered with trees that it looks like velour that you could just brush across with your fingertips. 

Then, before we knew it, it was time to eat again! We went to "Sant Anna 1907". Got there at 8:00 and we were the only ones there!  But, it soon filled up.  We had the most wonderful meal. Wendy had zucchini flowers, sea bass with couscous and a plum tarte. Wayne had light ragu-filled ravioli with "crustaceans" (dainty shrimp or lobster), pork slices with mouth-watering mushrooms and a fabulous "stuffing" (which contained many mysterious things). Then a ricotta cheesecake covered with fresh berries. One of the all-time great meals.

Side note: It is so civilized here! The public bathrooms (a good gauge) are the cleanest we've ever seen. The women's bathroom in the train station was spotless (even though it was the "stand up hole-in-the-ground" type!).

Tuesday, September 4

Mostly a travel day. It started with thunderstorms in Como and ended with thunderstorms in Venice. The thunder sounds different here; is that possible? We took a train to Venice- it was very nice and smooth, but about 4 hours. We got in at 5pm, took a motor taxi (e.g., a boat) to our hotel, the Kette. It was fantastic! There were so many boats and the gondoliers were all singing "O Sole Mio" (because the tourists think that's the only song they know). By the time we got to our room (15 minutes), the rain had stopped. We took a short walk to St. Mark's Square.

Really neat - lined with shops: silk, lace, leather, glass, jewelry...repeated ad infinitum. Oh...and a McDonalds and a Foot Locker. There were 1,000s of pigeons in the square, but when we came back after dinner (9:30) they were all gone!  Where'd they go? Venice reminds Wayne of the Far Side cartoon with the frogs in the desert saying "We'll put the swamp here"; this place must have had people on boats in the ocean saying "We'll put the town here"! What were they thinking? Luckily, the square was not flooded, as it so often is.

Venice is a-maze-ing! You never saw so many clueless people (us included) walking around with maps trying to find a certain "street" (street being a 3-foot wide covered walk between one set of stores and another identical set of stores).

Tonight's dinner was at da Mario alla fava. Very intimate, as in sitting on top of your neighbors. We had primo pasta (tagliotini with crab), secondo (misto peche - grilled fish - scampi, sole, sea bass), grilled veggies (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants; apparently they're not big on greens), dessert (Wayne - gelato with hot fudge mousse; Wendy - gelato with berries).

We did get lost going back to the hotel. We knew right where we were, but couldn't find the passageway we needed. So we went into a different hotel and asked where ours was, and the lady (nicely but with a little exasperation) said "Go out the door, left, left". D'Oh! There it was, like 20 feet from where we were.  Just as we got into bed it started to thunder and pour. Cool!! And a good bed, too.

Side notes: The restaurants all give you the regular basket of bread, like we get at home, but they don't give butter or olive oil or anything to go with it! Guess it's supposed to be good enough to eat dry. Also, they don't serve ice in any of the beverages. And in some restaurants, if you order the house wine, they give you the whole bottle and charge you for what you drink.

The fire alarm box in the hotel has a sign above the glass reading "To crash in event of fire".

We've noticed that more than a few of the gondoliers pole along with one hand while using their cell phone in the other!  Old meets new.

Wednesday, September 5

It was still a little drizzly when we awoke. We forced ourselves to partake of the buffet breakfast. It was very crowded in the smallish dining room We chatted with a couple from the Five Towns on Long island! Then we started our hike-of-the-day. The rain had stopped, and we found our way to the Accademia. (Once you figure out the main streets, you realize that Venice is not all that big. It's just the maze of side streets that make it tricky. And since there are NO CARS, the streets don't need to be wider than 3 feet!)  The Accademia is now an art museum filled with 100s of pictures, many of them "Madonna e bambino".  It is also the home to Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci (1487).

From there we took a vaporetto (water "bus") to the area of the Jewish Ghetto. We were walking to it with our map in front of us and a couple said (in English) "Are you looking for the Ghetto?". We said yes and they pointed in the direction to go. Turns out they were from Buffalo Grove! OY!  The Ghetto is very stark; it has two Holocaust monuments. It was the first ghetto in Europe, and, in fact, "ghetto" is the Italian word for foundry; that's what was on this site before the jews were cordoned off here. We took a tour of 3 of the oldest synagogues (one dating back to 1532!). Very ornate inside (which is unusual for a synagogue) because they were built by the Venetians because the jews were not allowed to be carpenters (only merchants, money lenders, second-hand clothes dealers, and doctors!).

We stopped for a quick lunch on our walk back; salad and pizza. We got into the place two minutes before they stopped serving (at 2:30).  They had about 30 varieties of pizza including one with "cavallo". What's that? "It's horse meat, boys!" (We just had onions and olives on ours.)

Then we stopped back in St. mark's Square and toured the Ducal Palace. Lots more BIG paintings (walls, ceilings, etc.). It was very neat. Then we sat outside at Florian (famous eatery) and had a drink (bellini for Wendy) and listened to the live "orchestra", for which they charge L7,500 per person.  After sitting and people watching for a while, we went back to the hotel and changed for dinner. Tonight it was Fischerretta Tratoria. We sat next to a couple from Chicago who had just gotten engaged while on a gondola ride!!  Here our guessing game is "Where are the tourists from?", not "What is the waiter's name?".  First, we split Spaghetti a Vongole (clam spaghetti, but the clams were like candy). Then Wendy had sea bass with olives and zucchini flowers and grilled vegetables (I see a pattern here); Wayne had a steak. Then chocolate cake and fresh berries for dessert.  After that, while walking, we stopped for gelato!  Lemon and hazelnut!

Side note: The only poultry they have on the menu is duck. We asked the waiter about chicken and he said they don't have it in this part of the country!

Thursday, September 6
Guess what? We ate breakfast again...right on schedule. Then, as we'd been instructed, we got to St. Mark's Cathedral very early (we were about 10th in line) and waited 1/2 hour for it to open.

It's really impressive inside (especially the floors for us geometric / quilt types), but there was very little explanation of things (as in many of the other "famous" churches), and we pretty much had to stay on the tourist carpet and it was a constant flow of people, so we were in and out in 10 minutes! Then we went to the top of the adjoining clock tower - great views - but we were sure to leave before the bells started to clang!!!

Side note: Update on the toilets: As noted, the train station had the hole-in-the-ground model. This is also true for many of the older buildings. But even in some of the newer buildings, the women's toilet is "regular" (Western), but the men's is just the bowl; no liftable seat! What's that about? I guess you just need to squat.).

Then we took the ferry to Murano, the glass-making island. it looked just like a little Venice. Same canals, boats, buildings, bridges, churches. We went into a few glass places (what's with the Picasso and clown faces?), and eventually bought a beautiful sculpture from one of the master glassblowers.  Then lunch: mixed salad to share, spaghetti with meat sauce (Wa), grilled sole with veggies (We - again?), cappuccino. Not bad!  Then back to the "mainland", and another relaxing time at Florian's; this time with gelato. A little more walking, and then dinner right near our hotel. Wendy: an appetizer of crab in the shell, tagliatelle with lobster sauce (to share), bream with asparagus and salad, fresh strawberries. Wayne: veal with porcini mushrooms, strawberries.  Wonderful!

Then we went back to the square for more music and gelato. The weather was so perfect, and even at 10:00 there were many people there listening to the "Battle of the orchestras" (form the various cafes lining the square!).

Side note: The shops:  Just like in France, it seems like they are all pretty specialized. The tabacheri, where you can by tobacco, cigarettes, stamps. The farmaceria - drugs and misc. toiletries (they actually hand-mixed some body lotion!). Pastercerias are bakeries. Bars serve snacks / gelato; kind of like a deli. A trattoria is more informal than a ristorante.

Time to head to Florence!

No comments:

Post a Comment