Years ago I studied Italian at the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco. We had a great class of 12 people who all got along famously and shared a love for Italy, the Italian language and our phenomenal teacher, Diletta. We were also a group of avid travelers. One night in class, a student named Andrew shared that he’d be missing the class the following week as he was off to Rome for a week. A couple of weeks down the road, it was my turn to announce that I would be away in Italy and would have to miss class for the following two weeks. Then our classmate Judy volunteered that she and her husband would be in Venice at the end of the month and that she too would be missing class. Diletta, shaking her head in a mix of disbelief and envy muttered, “You people run off to Italy the way I run to the grocery store!”
Spring break at my university began on March 3, and instead of running off to Safeway to get some bread and milk, I cashed in some frequent flier miles and was off to Italy once again, making my 5th visit to my adopted second country in the last year. In the days before I left, I was not feeling my best physically. I don’t think it was anything too serious, but rather a half a dozen minor things that cumulatively left me feeling tired, in some physical pain, and just generally depressed. I hoped that as always, Italy could work its magic and perk up my spirits.
My first stop was Venice for three nights. I arrived at almost 7:00 PM on Friday night after 14 hours or so of travel, counting a layover in Zurich, Switzerland. I easily got some money from an ATM, bought my 72 hour vaporetto (water bus) pass and motor bus ticket from the airport into the city, got my luggage and was off to revisit my favorite city in the world. I stayed at a small hotel called Ca’ Gottardi and liked the hotel’s overall feel and location, but my room was, well, odd. To reach the room I had to climb a narrow, metal, spiral staircase that looked like it should be on a submarine. It led to a single door marked, “Privato” and behind the mysterious private door, I found a very tiny room, 2/3 of which was covered by a queen-sized bed topped by 4 big fluffy pillows (I am such a pillow hog – the more the merrier!). I would not be doing much strolling around the room, but I would have a comfortable place to sleep!
By now it was 8:30PM and I struggled between feelings of exhaustion and feelings of needing real food after a day of airline snacks. I did not want to travel far, so I got on trusty tripadvisor.com and found a very well-recommended restaurant that was located directly across the street from the hotel. The place was called A Beccafico Arte and was located in a lovely, modern space with a view of a canal out the large windows on one side of the room, a rather rare perk in Venice. The place specialized in seafood, and I was welcomed to Venice with a warm seafood salad of mussels, shrimp, clams, and calamari, followed by a pasta with scallops, clams and zucchini, and all of it was absolutely delicious. A new place to put on my “must go” list for future visits to Venice.
By midnight I was out like a light and slept till almost 9:30 AM, at which time I crawled down my spiral staircase for breakfast (lots of fresh fruit, cereal, croissants and jam, cheese, ham and cappuccino). I then went back up to my room, pondering what I wanted to do with my day given that it was raining quite hard outside. I felt totally devoid of energy, so I simply crawled back into bed and slept… and slept some more… and slept until 3PM! Good Lord, what was wrong with me? To be dead honest, I could easily have just stayed in bed the rest of the day, but I forced myself to get out and spend time with my beloved city. It had stopped raining by then, and I took a long vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal to a part of town called Arsenale that I am really quite unfamiliar with. I proceeded to wander the area and actually discovered a lot of sights I’d never seen before. I decided to walk back to my hotel from there, a distance of about 2 miles, of course making a stop at Venchi, my favorite place for gelato. They have recently renovated the chocolate/ice cream shop and there was a new, young waiter who was very funny and entertaining. (Yes, I go to Venice so often I even know when there are new employees at my favorite ice cream shop!). As I savored my dark chocolate and cinnamon gelato, I chuckled at how the new waiter teased indecisive patrons, and I couldn’t help but notice that everyone I saw was ordering fruit flavored gelato in a chocolate shop that has been in business for 135 years! I couldn’t help myself, and playfully said to one group, “You DO know that this place is known for its CHOCOLATE???” I pointed out the several different chocolate flavors being offered, but as I left I heard the group ordering coconut and lemon and vanilla. Oh well… more dark chocolate for Matteo!
That night I had dinner at my favorite restaurant, La Zucca and as usual, it did not disappoint. None of the usual pastas that I order were on the menu, so I tried a new dish, a pasta with a ragout of duck meat. The meal was absolutely delicious; I am astounded by how the Italians can create such simple dishes with only a few ingredients and they just explode with flavor! I also could not help but notice that the grated cheese I was putting on my pasta was just out of this world, leading me to inquire as to whether it was perhaps a different kind of cheese. The waiter, whom I know well now, assured me that it was “just Parmesan”, but then with a wink added, “but it’s really GOOD Parmigiano…” He was not kidding. Wow!
Back at the hotel, I sat up in the lobby working on my computer for awhile before bedtime and got quite a show in the process. A British couple came back to their room and evidently something was wrong with the refrigerator in their room. They claimed the room smelled of ammonia. The night clerk behind the desk had limited English skills, but was trying the best he could to deal with the situation given that the hotel was full and there were no other rooms he could offer the couple. As he tried to call the manager to figure something out, the husband just kept screaming at him, saying things like, “Maybe we should come and sleep at YOUR house tonight? Would you like that? We are not paying for our stay here – for tonight or any other night! How can you say there are no more rooms? You better do something fast or there’s gonna be trouble.” All of this was peppered with colorful curse words. Not long after, the husband vanished while the clerk was still on the phone, and returned a few minutes later carrying the refrigerator! He proceeded to throw it onto the front desk, knocking a 4 foot tall glass vase of flowers onto the floor and shattering it. I could not believe what a complete jerk this guy was being. Finally the couple retreated to their room and said they’d sleep in the room now that the fridge was gone, but again shouting and swearing that they would not pay a penny for their stay. I felt so bad for the poor clerk as he spent 15 or 20 minutes trying to clean up the mess. In the morning I actually talked to the manager to tell him that I’d witnessed the whole things and that the night clerk had done nothing wrong. I’ve said it once, and I will say it again: after studying Psychology for 35 years I still don’t understand people.
Sunday was almost an exact repeat of Saturday. I went back to bed after eating breakfast and slept till 2:30. It was warm and sunny outside, so I dragged my butt out of bed and got out for a long boat ride and another long hike. I wandered some of the same neighborhoods as I had the day before, which just brought home to me how totally different the city can look in rain vs. fog, vs. clouds, vs. full sun. It almost never looks the same on any two days, which may be part of its appeal. I had dinner at another of my favorite places and devoured whatever seafood was still left from the lagoon, and then had gelato at a new discovery, La Maison de la Crepe, which despite its very French name, served up delicious Italian gelato.
I have had friends tease me and/or express worry about me because of my focus on food when I travel. But I want to assure you all that my typical day when traveling in Europe is to have a breakfast at the hotel each morning, to have some fruit or a gelato and a lot of water during the day, and to have a nice dinner in the evening. And I probably walk about 2 to 3 miles a day, so my lifestyle is not as gluttonous and slothful as it may sound. Well, except for these 5 hour mid-day naps I have been taking!
Monday was another gorgeous day and I headed to the airport to pick up my rental car for the week, a brand new Fiat 500 (pronounced CHINK-WAY CHENTO) – and I do mean new. It had 5 kilometers on it, so I had the privilege of showing it its home country for the first time! I only traveled about 45 miles to the town of Abano Terme, a resort area built around a series of therapeutic hot springs located about 15 minutes south of Padova. I stayed at the Hotel Europa Terme, which has a huge indoor/outdoor heated thermal pool, and spent the next two days soaking in the springs, walking around the town itself, and trying to relax and catch up on sleep despite a less than comfortable bed. It was a twin size bed, and the two pillows provided were as flat as could be, forcing me to fold them over just to give me some support. I asked the maid for a third pillow on my second day there, and when I placed the three pillows atop one another, I had to laugh because it looked like a short stack of pancakes!
On Monday night I had a delicious dinner at a friendly place called Da Mario, the highlight of which was a huge avocado, heirloom tomato and smoked salmon salad, and hand-made pasta with fresh mushrooms. On Tuesday I met Claudia and Marco for dinner at a place called Il Ristorantino (The Little Restaurant), and the highlight there was handmade tagliatelle with asparagus and crabmeat. How, oh how do these people make such amazing pasta dishes? Sigh.
It is always so much fun to spend time with Claudia and Marco. Claudia was in good spirits after a situation at work which has been troubling her for months has come to an end. A colleague who is a control freak and who seems to resent Claudia went on a rampage and was rude to Claudia, and Claudia finally put her foot down and told this woman off. But evidently the office director overheard this and basically told the rude colleague that everyone was sick of her and that she was finished in that department. So Claudia is now in charge and we laughed because it all sounded like a plot line from the old nighttime soap, “Dallas”. Unfortunately, there was not good news on the adoption front; after an almost year long process of trying to adopt a child, Claudia and Marco have been told that they are not likely to be able to adopt due to some of the answers they gave in their interviews with social workers. It astounds and infuriates me, as I don’t know of any two people who would make better parents. There may still be some other options for them, and I really hope something will work out, but it is a very discouraging situation.
On Tuesday I continued my trek southward, driving about 180 miles to southern Tuscany and the town of Montepulciano. I spent the next two nights at a B & B called Il Ciliegio Errante (the errant cherry), a rather odd name for a bed and breakfast. It was run by Adamo and Alessandra, very nice folks who have three small kids with strong lungs and a love of crying. Thankfully I couldn’t hear the crying TOO much from my apartment, and while the place was nice enough, it did not have the nice view and facilities I was expecting after having looked over their website. Oh well.
I had dinner that evening in a nearby town called Cetona at a place I discovered last summer, Osteria Le Merlo. Interestingly it was “La Festa delle Donne” on this day – the feast or party of the women – and had heard that it was a day when women take over most of the restaurants. I was the first person to arrive, and afterward a pair of men came in, followed by another group of four men. I joked with the waiter that the women must be partying elsewhere and the men were seeking refuge here. The food was as good as I remembered it last year, but probably the very best meal I had on the whole trip happened the following night at a restaurant in Montepulciano called Pane, Vino e Zucchero (Bread, Wine and Sugar). Rated #1 out of over 80 restaurants in the city according to tripadvisor, I was glad to find they had a table for me when I arrived. I started with a typical meat and cheese board, with garnishes of fresh mandarin oranges and kiwi fruit, and accompanied by delicious Tuscan bread. And of course I had to have a glass of the famous red Montepulciano wine. The pasta course was simply stunning… a handmade pici pasta, which is a Tuscan specialty, and it was covered with a sauce made from fennel sausage and bits of dried apricot. I would kill to know how to make it; it was a wonderful combination of salty and sweet, and there is simply nothing like freshly made pasta. Finally there was dessert: a pear-cinnamon cake served warm, topped with a sauce made from white chocolate and orange, and garnished by slices of Sicilian blood oranges and little chunks of dark chocolate. After having almost gotten emotional over my pasta, I started eating this exquisite dessert and made my waiter laugh out loud when I said in Italian, “I just want to LIVE here in your restaurant!” I will make it a point to return here.
On Thursday I met with a man named Jock in the nearby town of Pienza. Jock is a friend of my friend Fabio in Rome, who’d suggested I talk to Jock about what it was like to move to Italy and try to make a living by hosting visitors and providing tours. Jock is an Australian who quit his full-time job and made a giant leap, moving to Italy and starting his own business 10 years ago and seemingly never looking back, so his story was inspirational for me as I ponder a similar plan for myself. He brought his friend Janet along, and we all sat out on the town square sharing some wine and appetizers.
I then visited Bagni San Filippo, a small town which has natural mineral hot springs that you can hike to for free. It was quite a hike down to the river where the springs are, and a really long, strenuous climb back out, but I had a nice soak in the mineral pools and a long hike down the canyon to see the amazing formation called, Fosso Bianco, a white cliff-like series of mineral deposits similar to what you might find in Yellowstone. Jock and Janet actually appeared as I was soaking; Jock had never been here and after hearing me talk about it, he decided to check it out. I was glad they were there, as they were able to snap a few pictures of me as I soaked!
The week flew by, and Friday I made the final two hour drive down to Rome, where I had lunch at Trattoria Monti and caught up with the family Camerucci who runs the place. Then I met up with Fabio when he got off work, and we spent a nice, restful weekend together.
The weather was nothing short of spectacular, and like a personal trainer, Fabio had me walking and hiking all weekend; we probably covered about 6 miles in two days. On Saturday he brought me to Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s old seaport. Its ruins cover an area that seemed to me as large as Pompeii and I was glad to see it, as it’s been a place I’ve been meaning to visit for ages and never had gotten around to it. It was a quiet, green and shady place with dozens and dozens of ruins to explore. We also walked the boardwalk at Ostia and snacked on freshly caught calamari and shrimp, and some first rate gelato too!
On Sunday we walked across almost the entire city, seeing sights along the way, but mostly just talking and catching up and enjoying a gelato and a nice dinner out together. Poor Fabio; he is always cold and delights in warm weather. I am always too warm and crave cool, refreshing weather. During the day, I was actually sweating from walking so much in the sunny, 70 degree weather, while as soon as the sun went down, the temperatures dropped to the mid to low 40s and I walked around in only a long sleeved shirt, while Fabio donned a sweater, jacket and knitted hat and still declared that he was freezing!
I had to return my car to the airport by 7:30AM on Monday, and then as if it weren’t cruel enough to have to leave my beloved Italy, I was crammed into an airplane seat for a total of 14 hours, with only a two hour layover in Zurich to break up the trip. The plane was hot, there were no individual fans overhead, and I slept maybe two hours total, despite three glasses of red wine and a sleeping pill! I honestly thought the flight would never end. But even with the arduous trip back to San Francisco, I’d just as soon hop right back on the next Italy-bound plane than head over to Safeway to shop for the week’s groceries….