Sensazione: MOLTO BELLA
(Translation: Feeling Very Nice). (Ve(ry)nice, get it?).
(200th Pop Yarn baby, wahoo!).
The day dawned with alarms singing out to rouse us for gapping to none other than the legendary Venice.
It’s rather bizarre; out of all the countries on the list, Italy was one I wasn’t effervescenting with eagerness for. I’m not sure why; maybe as it seems to be “overdone” what with movies and what not? Because I’ve seen so many photos of all the mythical monuments, heard tales of all the tantalising treats? Perhaps because Italy is renowned for its fabulously fantastic food and as I am not one to overly indulge in carbohydrate and creamy glory, it didn’t hold the same allure?
Whatever reason, it was frazzled to fragments as soon as we boarded the boat and sights were set upon the Venetian vista.
I mean, you see pictures on Google, you see scenes on the screen, but nothing can compare with actually walking in wonder among the criss-cross of narrow lanes and bridges conduiting the “lands” across the canals.
Kid in a candy store? Mate, I was one but three-point-oh. Like a dog in a cattery, a magnet in a barrel of ferromagnetic matter, a teenage boy at an all girls’ school social. It was absolutely thrillingly delightful. An adult Disneyland, a wonder world of wow, a (and here is our “word” for Venice) Labyrinth of Lovely – albeit with a whole load of sassy ‘tude. (Because seriously, how rude and offhand are the majority of staff in stores and shops! Aside from maybe three people we encountered, the myriad rest were mean, neglectful and heedless. It left me quite browbeaten).
We arrived on the island at about half midday (is that a phrase? If not, it should be), gathering as a group and open-eyed-ly filing along to St Mark’s Square to the centre of the three poles (our meeting point for the day). I exclaimed out at the rows upon rows upon rows of trinkety trucks all selling a superfluity of baubles – including a plethora of key rings – and the waterways with gondolas gliding along, people and partners nestled up as they were gambolled about by piloting Italians. What rapture!
(Insert: I have found my Most Favourite Building in the (TM). St Mark’s Basilica. Seriously, the intricate detail on each and every part was astounding, like a big canopy cream puff pavlova covered with religious etchings. It propelled any other forefront structures up to now right out of the tide).
Venice is a city in north eastern Italy, set upon a group of 117 smallish islands that are split by canals and affiliated by linking bridges. Why on water? There is good reason.
Let’s go back to about 400AD. In the early years of the fifth century the Roman Empire flopped and folded, and Barbarians started marauding down from northern Europe. The chain of splendid cities along the Adriatic shores were catapulted into disarray and disorder and the prosperous lives of the Italian people took a turn for the terrorised.
The people started to flee, desperately seeking refuge where the assailants could not supervene. A few frightened men came across the Venetian Lagoon and settled in the shoals; as further waves of invaders poured into the mainland, more and more of the newly impoverished and impecunious Italians too sought sanctuary in the channels.
Legend declares that Venice formally came into existence at the stroke of noon on March 25, 421AD. However the biggest influx of inhabitants rowed over around 450AD when Attila the Hun muscled in to mangle and maul the mainland – Venice was no longer a temporary home, instead becoming a permanent place for people to live life in the lagoon. The new “land”‘s geographical isolation gave a congenial way of being, an independence from the upheavals that were shaking the rest of Italy.
So Venice; a city built out of fear, now one of great beauty and fame. And the Floating City may have to be re-nicknamed the Sinking City; due to tectonic plate movements and what not, Venice is in slow subsidence at a rate of three to four millimetres each year. Flooding is widespread, with St Mark’s Square becoming a pool every so often. It is literally drowning in itself.
Anyway. Back to me in Venice.
Now, Contiki tours offer a thing called “Me Time”, where in each city there are optional to-do’s that you can sign up for at an extra cost. They include such things as the walking tour in Berlin (fab), the past and present tour in Budapest (bad), dinners on cruises in the evenings (I didn’t opt for any of these, but those on board sung out with praises) and “discoes” in Florence, tours of certain museums and landmarks and rides up the Swiss alps.
Venice had on offer two options to opt in for, being a gondola ride and a “Taste of Venice” taste and tipple tour. When we had ticked the boxes of what we wanted to do at the beginning of the trip, Sheri and I had decided to leave the boxes blank for the water-wayed city – exploring and roaming ourselves seemed a lot more appealing.
So we had a fair few hours to fill in. And oh, how we roamed. (Once we finally located a toilet for Sheri to make her wees. She was rather beside herself as we tried to make sense of our map – at first being read upside down, but soon rectified after querying a shop owner – one of the few friendly ones of the day). (But seriously, must needed to note point: beware – in many of the European cities, toilets – heralded by big “WC” signs – need to be paid for to use. This fee ranges from the more standard 50 cents to the steep Venetian one-euro-fifty – expensive wee).(And this often includes toilets in places such as service stations, restaurants, all that what not. Even if you are a customer or have dined there. They still charge you to relieve yourself of P&W’s. There is honestly a person sitting outside the door to take your coins. I mean, same was the case in India but it greatly startled me to see it in Europe). (New back up plan; if the writing/yogaing/blogging/marrying/journalisming/nutritioning/everything doesn’t work out, I am going to research the busiest toilets in NZ and plant myself outside the door there and start charging. I’d be flush in no time).
Oh Venice. The stalls, the shops, the scenery, the surroundings; three hours passed by in a blur of going to town taking photos and just immersing ourselves in the atmosphere. It felt like a film set, all fictional and almost-fake; how could a such a place actually exist? (And my lunch of a plastic cup of mulled wine went down an absolute treat mate).
One moment that really clobbered me was on striding down one market place street (after I had run about the square at the top chasing blown bubble with a cluster of kids; I think the man behind the magic was rather perplexed to see a full-grown girl in her absolute element shoving neonates out of the way so she could burst the big ones) I observed a little family at a stall (selling sensational souvenirs, it must be said). The wife and teenage girl had obviously visited the Dad to bring him a lunch baguette and were just in the midst of saying their goodbyes; the Dad first kissed his daughter on each side of her cheeks as he clasped her upper arms, then moved to the mum and did the same followed by one on the lips. He then blew them each a kiss as they went on their way, his eyes watching with what can only be described as love as they went around the bend and out of sight.
It was not an exhibition, nor fanfare spectacle of show off. It was a genuine encounter that took no notice of the surrounds; just a simple, lovely exchange between a little family trio. Sounds silly, but it really made me melt.
When 3pm struck we decided to settle down at a little café for a stop. Sheri ordered a plate of authentic Italian carbonara – smelt heavenly – and we clocked in for a bit of wife-using admin (I.e., talking to boys and family and friends) and resting the old trotters.
Of course Italy is infamous for its insanely scrummy gelato, and everyone on tour had been declaring with salivating steadfastness their mission to mow back as many flavours as they could. On vacating the café, I looked at all those around spooning back their small scoops and decided I was going to get involved. You can’t go to Italy and not at least have something purely Italian, right? (I shall impart some insight as to Ed on this journey so far soon as well, I promise).
So some scoops. A caramel and a biscotti-biscuit (so so so so out of my comfort zone). As I handed over my cash I almost cancelled my order, but suddenly the obstacle of owning it overpowered the objections of Ed. And you know what? It was so fucking delectable I went for a third.
At this point it was only 5pm, and we were not meeting to boat back to the bus and onto the hostel until 9.15pm. Sheri and I had well and truly “done” Venice, having reconnoitred all around the city, and we were feeling the temp drop (not helped in the slightest but the frozen gelato in our insides). So we were extremely enthusiastic to come across the holy grail of European shopping stores – none other than H&M.
Seriously, H&M is EVERYWHERE. I’m pretty sure I’ve been into at least one in each and every country so far. As we entered into the invitingly balmy shop (in the warmth temperature sense, not that of the staff on sales) we decided a mass try-on of attire was on the cards to pass time and keep with the heat.
(I ended up actually purchasing a fab pair of denim shorts – my ultimate go-to in clothing, I tell yah – and a little lace headband. Hilarious back on the boat later everyone kept complimenting my authentic Venetian laced headwear and I accepted them with glee; it did come from Venice, just from the genuine and intricately adorning H&M).
As Sheri tried on jeans I saw an Italian lass trying on a dress in the wrong size and trying to explain to her boyf where it was to go and fetch her the required (the girl manning the changing rooms was inspecting her hangnails and stalwartly ignoring us all). The gf was growing increasingly errant with her bloke’s inability to follow her instructions as to where the sought-after dress was hung, so I stepped in and offered my services.
“What size do you need?” I enquired. “I can trot off and procure it.”
When I returned with the necessitated size – plus another dress that I felt was much more her and that she actually ended up buying – another girl asked if I could please get her a tee she had on in another colourway. “Of course,” I chirped, and skipped off to obtain it. It was only when yet another changing room curtain swished open to ask my opinion on the dress being tried on that I realised those within thought I was actually working there. (Well, I was certainly doing a better job than the girls and guys half-heartedly refolding tables of t-shirts and glowering at all the customers).
The next few hours saw us wander around a few more stores, lap the lanes to go a little further out to the more local areas and window gaze at glass garnishes (“We’ll come back when we are super rich and go to town,” we agreed with gusto). Finally, the clock chimed 8.45pm and we backtracked to the middle pole to meet the team.
So all in all; Venice. Most definitely a Labyrinth of Lovely Interlaced with Sassy ‘Tude. Magical and mesmerising, but to be honest I don’t think a full eight hours there is necessary; perhaps more the case a mid-morning ferry over, a roam of the rows of lanes and lengths, a gondola ride along the canal, a lunch at one of the backstreet cafes (the ones fronting the square are robbing-ly expensive, and the bill often comes with a “cover charge”, being that fee added to the total for your sitting space. Thus it is much better to visit a stand-and-snack bar, or if wanting to sit then searching for signs declaring “no cover charge” on the door), a late afternoon gelato before moseying the souvenir stores and then a dinner of authentic Italian plates – pizza or pasta for sure – before one last gelato and ferry back to the mainland (or trot to the hotel if you have splashed out for a staying-place on the actual island; it is extremely pricey to actually live on Venice itself, so many of the “locals” actually commute in each day for work).
Venice exceeded my expectations wholeheartedly, but I haven’t added it to my list of to-return-to’s. Maybe one day when I can sight see it from a different perspective (I.e., truckloads of cash so I can go hard clear out Swarovski) but for now, I’m content with my taster.
And of course, you can’t natter Italy without alluding to food. So here is a little dish out of details. There will be much more Italian trivia to follow – mate, I still have Rome and Florence over the next four days, as well as a flit about next week, dets to come – but quickly a little insight some of the infamous. (A common saying is, “Oh Italy, how our stomachs love you, how our hips despise you”).
So pizza pizza pizza! (I know the following lends more to Naples than to Venice, but bear with me. It’s interesting). The precursor was the focaccia, a flat bread to which toppings were added to make the child of the pizza. Pizza purists maintain there are only two types – the Marinara and the Margherita. (In fact, some places in Naples only serve these two types). The Marinara is simply tomato, oregano, garlic and olive oil, named so as it was the traditional food served by “la marinara”, being the seaman’s wife, for seafaring husbands returning from fishing. And the Margherita – one of my most much-loved stories –made up of tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil. Back in 1889 Naples baker Raffaele Esposito was given the task of creating three pizzas for King Umberto and Consort Margherita (the queen, but in Italian was always referred to as the “consort”). Raffaele made one of the three up in the colours of the Italian flag as they were the queen’s favourite, coming up with the Margherita named in her honour. (Margherita also means “daisy”, fancy that).
Pizza became such a serious business that a True Neapolitan Pizza Association was founded in 1984 to set specific rule for authentic Neapolitan pizza; must be baked in a wood-fired oven, base must be hand kneaded, must not be more than 35cm in diameter or more than one third of a centimetre thick in the centre. Some pizzerias in Naples go so far as to only use San Marzano tomatoes that have been grown on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius and only add ingredients in a clockwise direction.
A tip: never, ever ask for parmesan for your pizza – it’s considered the ultimate sin of pizza partaking, also well as in pasta putting-back.
To gelato, fittingly translating as “frozen” in Latin; the history of the iced treat is rife with many myths, but the consensus agrees that the very first gelato cart was made in Varese in Northern Italy back in the 1920s. Italy boasts more than 5000 parlours today, employing more than 15,000 people directly.
The tiramisu, meaning “pick me up” in Italians. Two theories stem from the name: First being as a nickname term for the two caffeinated ingredients of cocoa and espresso, and the other being that the dish is so simply splendid that it makes the taster swoon, necessitating he request to “pick me up”. Some say its origins lie in late 17th century Tuscany, however many assert it is a relatively young innovation only having been around since 1971.
And the ever-present Nutella; I had always thought the chocolate hazelnut spread was an American innovation, but it was actually the genius of one Pietro Ferrero, a Piedmont baker back in 1963. It was originally sold in a solid block form before being modified into a creamy version in 1946 under the christening of “Supercrema”. Pietro’s son Michele went on to form the confectionery company Ferrero, adding vegetable oil to the spread to lead to what is the current-tasting Nutella. (He is considered Italy’s richest person worth USD$26.8billion). (And yes, it is the same Ferrero behind Ferrero Rochers, as well as Tictacs and the infamous Kinder Surprise).
Last note: eating on the go? Absolute no no! It’s an anathema to the entire philosophy of eating – food should be sat down to and enjoyed with all senses. Rushing around ramming it into the mouth is seen as sloppy and desperate (although exception is given for the Sunday stroll gelato).
(Quick end: we went to a hotel – our second hotel not hostel night, though I have quickly come to realise I far prefer the hostels – on the mainland for the night, me rooming with Sheri (or course) and new gal pal Melissa (more to come). I hustled the first shower and on getting out, saw the there must have been a crack in the bath (it was one of those shower-bath-combo-things) or something – a good literal lake of water was pooled about the floor. We ran down to reception to tell the desk dude, and he came to inspect; on entering our bathroom he looked at the flood, literally scratched his head, went away without a word then returned with about ten towels. He then just threw them over the wet to soak it up and went on his way. It was a great shock to half-asleep-ly arise in the early hours to make wees and upon entering the bathroom, having your feet sink into squishy wet towelling. Like being back in the Venetian marshlands!).
To Rome! (And Pat. So much info to impart on my next check in).