See Venice and Die – Part 2

Actually, the proper expression is “See Naples and die!” but Venice works just as well considering that Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” was filmed at the Excelsior Hotel on the Lido by the legendary film director, Luchino Visconti. The accompanying music of Mahler adds a melancholy touch to this acclaimed film which was awarded top honors at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971.

Death in Venice

At the suggestion of our good friends Anna and Claudio, we decided to visit this “turn of the century” hotel (read 19th century) on the Lido. After a 10 minute ride on the Vaporetto (water bus), we asked for directions to the Hotel. With clear directions, but vague distances – anywhere from a 5 to 20 minute walk (actually 30 minutes) – we arrived at the lobby of the magnificent Excelsior for a well-deserved drink.

To make a long story short, we were so exhausted that we opted for lunch and a most refreshing Excelsior spritz (recipe below) overlooking the lovely beaches and Adriatic Sea. I had a delicious salad of mozzarella and tomatoes, while Sheila opted for a Ceasar salad with chicken and finished with fresh strawberries and lemon juice.

Ricardo Maggio and spouse leaving Excelsior on Vapretto

Ricardo Maggio and spouse leaving Excelsior on Vaporetto

Strolling around the bar rekindled memories of young film stars like Clark Gable, Orson Welles, Brigette Bardot and Kirk Douglas who stayed at this fabled hotel. I am quite sure that not much has changed in the intervening years: true magic! The concierge – taking pity on an old man with a trophy wife – provided a complimentary trip back to St. Mark’s square on the hotel’s luxury vaporetto.

Hotel Excelsior Spritz

  • 1 part Aperol or Bitter Campari
  • 2 parts Prosecco
  • A dash of St. Germaine
  • Slices of lemon and an orange
  • Green olive on a wooden skewer to stir
  • Ice

Food and Dining in Venice

Venice is acclaimed for its great seafood and fine dining, but I suspect that food standards in general have declined to accommodate the non-discerning palates of thousands of tourists that invade this jewel of a city.  Sure, for a price there are still great restaurants (Cipriani springs to mind), but overall we found the food rather monotonous and over-priced.

Rialto Market Venice

For those willing to experiment and with modest cooking facilities, we strongly recommend the Rialto market.  What a joy to find such a well-stocked market of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses and fish that would make any chef’s mouth water.  The fruits and vegetables are certainly better than the lethargic pizzas served at most restaurants.

For non-smokers, make sure you ask for a table inside the restaurant since the chain-smokers have got all of the more romantic outdoor tables on the piazza.  I suppose it would be nice to dine al fresco overlooking a canal with a hint of jasmine in the air, but presumably the smell of burning tars and nicotine is far more appealing to anything nature can provide!

Should art be only used to promote social causes?  According to the organizer of the Bienalle, it should be!  Ummmm … I think I will take a pass.  Join me for Venice – Part 3 when and if the Gods of cyberspace are willing.

Navigating Venice – Part 1

Editor’s Note: I have tried to structure our Italian adventure in a more-or-less chronological order.  Nevertheless, I have taken the liberty of grouping some activities under a common theme to simplify tasks for a lazy blogger.

Our 3 day visit to Venice is chronicled into three relatively brief sections:

  • Navigating Venice – Part 1
  • See Venice and Die – Part 2
  • I Wish I Had Died Before I Saw the Biennale – Part 3

Navigating Venice

Venice is clearly one of the most fascinating cities in the world.  Many have written about its undeniable charm and I see no need to add to the far more eloquent platitudes of others.

St. Mark Square

However, Venice is not a city for old tourists.  Getting in and out of Vaporettos (water busses) is not easy and walking narrow and ill-marked cobbled lanes in the heat is not particularly pleasant.  Despite these difficulties, thousands of tourists – both young and old – can be seen lugging heavy suitcases along the narrow walkways and bridges of Venice.  Found below are a few recommendations to ease your travel in Venice:

  • Visit Venice in the winter.  It is cold, humid and often foggy, but you avoid the crowds.
  • Buy a 2 or 3 day Vaporetto ticket to get around.  Walking is the preferred way to see Venice, but legs grow weary and you can cover more ground on a boat!
  • Never get in the way of an old Venetian woman boarding a Vaporetto! Life is too short!

Accomodations in Venice

Unless you are a movie star or a millionaire, money is still an object.  As such, finding affordable accommodations is an important budgetary objective.  Found below are a few suggestions that may prove helpful:

  • Prices of accommodations are generally a function of how close you are to St. Mark’s square or the proximity of your luxury hotel to the Grand Canal.  Explore the fringes to economize.
  • The Rialto and Rialto Market (a must see) are typically where young people congregate.  Visit early, but seek accommodations elsewhere.
  • Remember, you are there to experience Venice, not sleep in it.

Our good friends Claudio and Anna recommended I Crociferi in Nova Fondamento (northern part of island about 1.2 km from St. Mark’s).  Superb accommodations in a refurbished Convent that now serves as part youth hostel and dormitory for students.

Sheila taming Lions at I Crocifeiri

Sheila taming Lions at I Crocifeiri

I Crociferi served as a garrison for troops of Napoleon, the Ottoman Empire and Mussolini.  In the adjacent restaurant there are even Fascist frescos – a new first for me!  Refitted by the Italian Architect’s School, I  Crociferi has all of the latest security and conservation features. Open a window and the air-conditioning stops.  There is a movement sensor in the bathroom that turns lights on or off.

Sadly, the movement sensor does not extend to the toilet where I retired to read my book while Sheila was sleeping.  The lights were programmed to turn off after every two-minutes.  Turning book pages was not considered movement, nor was throwing toilet paper or a towel.  I finally resolved the problem by doing jumping jacks every two minutes. Not good for reading, but good for my cardio,

More in Part 2.  I have to go feed the pigeons.

Three Days in Milano

My offspring have let it be known that they expect regular Blog posts while Sheila and I are on vacation in Italy.  Frankly, I can’t stand to write on an iPad and WiFi connections in Milan and Venice have not been great.  If motivated, I will write when I can in an effort to keep you up to date with our culinary tour of Italy.

We arrived safely at Malpensa airport some 40 minutes early on Air Emirates.  Nice flight, adequate food and the cabin staff were both young and quite courteous as opposed to the staff on US carriers.  We took the Express train to Cadorna station in central Milan.  Hotel Ritter was adequate, but a great location to walk to downtown Milan (Duomo), restaurants and subway connections to Expo 2015.

Now Milano has a reputation of being the most congested city in Europe, but I didn’t find it so.  People walk, cycle (includes motorcycles) and use public transportation, but few seem inclined to drive – how civilized!

Duomo Milano

After checking into the hotel and changing into something a bit more comfortable, we took the subway to the newly restored Duomo.  What a remarkable Cathedral!  While I probably could have used a touch of divine guidance, I settled instead for a Campari spritz at Bifi Bar in the Galleria.  Nets have been placed at all of the entrances to the Galleria to keep marauding pigeons in check.

Having failed to get a ticket to see Da Vinci’s recently restored Last Supper, we settled instead for an even more impressive exhibit of Leonardo’s engineering and artistic brilliance in a nearby gallery.  Working from Da Vinci’s manuscripts (codex), designers had recreated models of his flying machines, cannons, bridges, musical instruments, city plans and the occasional piece of art: the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper where he was simply experimenting with paints.  What genius!

Dinner was at Giaccomo Argentario (Anna and Claudio’s wise recommendation), which overlooks the Duomo.  The food and views were magnificent.  Sheila and I split the traditional and wonderful risotto Milanese, followed by the best grilled calamari I have ever eaten and puntarele (a bitter green escarole).

Expo 2015 Milano

The following day we were off to Expo 2015.  While still not totally completed, this World Fair celebrating the sustainability of food is a gigantic undertaking that showcases the artistry and rich culinary diversity of the world’s nations.  You walk under a great open-air canopy and can visit one or more of the many wonderful national exhibits.  The Brazil exhibit featured a rope-walk over a simulated rain forest; the UK showcased a wild flowering garden and eccentric “humming” piece of modern architecture; and the U.S. exhibit featured hanging gardens (see picture above).  Although very interesting, the Expo was simply too large and overwhelming to fully embrace.  Like most Italian visitors, we eventually settled for San Daniele prosciutto and mozzarella di buffala at Eataly.

The food highlight of the visit to Milano was dinner at Prime near Piazza Garbaldi.  Sheila had a remarkable dish of marinated sliced salmon served over mozzarella with a thin wedge of filo and honey – an unusual but remarkable combination.

Just south of our hotel is the lovely area of Brera – narrow streets and interesting boutiques.  The University of Milano has taken over a very large Jesuit Church.  The enclosed botanical gardens are used to study scents and we were most fortunate to have a walk-through as it is normally closed to the public.

It is now Sunday and we are off to Venice.