A Beautiful Reunion with an Old Friend: Italy

Thanks to the gigantic monkey wrench that COVID threw into all of our lives, I haven’t traveled abroad since the summer of 2019. To some, this may not seem like such a big deal, but for me, who was once described by Diletta, my former Italian teacher, as someone who “goes to Europe the way some people go to the grocery store,” this hiatus from international travel was a huge change in my life. Ambiguous and ever-changing COVID restrictions that varied from country to country, uncertainty about the economy and my own finances, and the threat of a larger war developing in Europe all made me wonder whether I would ever get back to Europe, and especially to my beloved Italy again.

In early October, as COVID restrictions of every kind were lifted across Europe, I began to entertain the idea that perhaps it was time to go back. I spent hours looking for travel bargains, researching places to stay, and plotting out an itinerary, and finally was able to plan to depart for Europe at the end of October. I used frequent flyer miles to get myself a one-way flight on Swiss Air to Venice and planned to spend two weeks in Italy. After that I decided to hop on a cheap Ryan Air flight to London for the sole purpose of seeing the ABBA Voyage show there, and then I gambled on a new budget airline called Play to take me from London to Reykjavik and back to Boston again, making a 4 day stop in Iceland in mid-November along the way. For the first time in quite a while, I felt like the old, globe-trotting Matt again.

I always enjoyed flying on Swiss Air and this time was no exception; we actually boarded and departed from Boston about a half an hour early. How often does that happen?  The flight was comfortable, and I scored an exit row window seat. After a short layover in Zurich, I arrived in Venice at 2:00 in the afternoon on Halloween. It was a remarkably warm, 70-degree day there, and I found myself sweating as I rushed from the airport terminal to the boat dock from which the AliLaguna boats depart for the city center. There was a line waiting to board and just as I got up to the gate, they held me back, saying the boat was full and that I’d have to wait for the next one in another half hour. My momentary disappointment quickly dissipated when I saw the boat operator indicate that they had a space on the boat for one more person, so off I went, and an hour later found myself disembarking, once again marveling at the beauty of what is probably my favorite city in the world, Venezia.

My hotel was just a short walk from the boat dock, and though the room was about the size of a large shoebox, it was cozy and decorated in typical Venetian fashion in shades of purple and gold, and the small twin bed was comfortable. I resisted the urge to nap, and quickly showered and changed clothes to have a walk before dinner. I was surprised to see how crowded the city was at this time of year, but  although Halloween is not the big deal in Italy that it is in the U.S., All Saints Day, November 1, is a national holiday in Italy, and Italians also celebrate All Soul’s Day on November 2. That may have been part of the reason for the large crowds. Several times I witnessed large, extended families, all dressed to the nines, gathering at various spots along the Venetian Lagoon, seemingly remembering and honoring their lost relatives by throwing roses into the sea. It was a lovely thing to watch.

My first night in Venice I dined at an old favorite restaurant, L’Oliva Nera (the Black Olive), where I enjoyed an outdoor table and a beautiful four course dinner of fried zucchini flowers, spaghetti with fresh clams, a platter of roasted vegetables and the signature Venetian dessert, tiramisu. I had the pleasure of sitting next to a delightful family from Brazil, Ricardo and his wife Liliane, and their teenagers, Clara and Inácio, who were so articulate and sociable I wished I’d had them as students in one of my classes. One of the things I’ve always loved about traveling is meeting people from all corners of the globe. Ricardo and his family told me about their area of Brazil, tucked away close to the border of Uruguay. After Venice they were heading to Rome, and I cautioned them to beware of pickpockets on the Metro and buses there, since I have been a target four times on past visits to what is otherwise, a wonderful city. Inácio made me laugh out loud when he told me that pickpocketing in big cities in Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro is not common; “The thieves there have guns and they just rob you!’ Suddenly my past pickpocketing experiences didn’t seem quite so serious.

I spent my days in Venice just walking, riding the vaporetti or water buses up and down the Grand Canal, and enjoying wonderful meals and delicious gelato. It was like reconnecting with an old friend after having been estranged for many years. I had a nice lunch at an old favorite of mine, Osteria La Zucca, and though it was still very good, I felt like it has perhaps become too popular for its own good and the quality has suffered a bit. I also discovered a new restaurant, Osteria Fanal del Codega, which is rated #3 out of over 1200 restaurants in the city according to TripAdvisor. It certainly won me over; I dined at one of their outside tables alongside a small canal two of the four nights I spent in the city. I feasted on delicious seafood pasta one time and a sausage and truffle pasta another time, followed both nights by a generously portioned platter of lightly battered fried seafood or fritto misto. I have a new favorite restaurant in Venezia!

One afternoon I took the 45-minute boat trip to Burano, a picturesque fishing village on one of the many islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Unfortunately, late in the day it began to rain heavily, and there was a line a block long waiting to get onto the next boat to Venice. I was without an umbrella and was getting drenched. Suddenly there was a huge commotion as a second boat pulled in and the crew started shouting, “Per San Marco! Per San Marco!”  San Marco was actually a much closer stop to my hotel than the place where the boat I was waiting in line for was going. In what seemed like an evacuation from a war-torn country or a natural disaster site, people started making a mad rush for the new boat, me included. I was able to get aboard, but there were no seats to be had, it was hot and steamy inside the boat, and I was soaking wet, so I knew this would not be a pleasant 45-minute trip back into the city. Thankfully I found myself standing near a young couple from Los Angeles and our spirited conversation made the journey go by a lot faster.

The morning of my last day in Venice I discovered that I had no hot water in my shower, and when I went to the lobby to see what was up, the hostess, Elena told me that the hotel’s boiler had exploded and that they were moving me to a room in another hotel for my last night. Before she could give me the details, she had to take a call from someone who was planning a stay at the hotel in the upcoming weeks, and as I waited for her to finish the call, listening only to her side of the conversation, I was both amused and horrified by the questions Elena had to field for this person. She explained in painstaking detail how to get from the airport to the hotel, the various prices of each mode of transport, the times they departed, etc. Despite saying at least three times that all these details would be in the confirmation e-mail from the hotel, the person persisted in asking again and again. Since I was only hearing Elena’s side of the conversation, I could only glean what was being asked, but I started laughing when Elena patiently told the person on the phone, “Well, I don’t know what things your children like to do, but I am sure they will find interesting sites to see here.” Then she had to explain that no, it would not be possible for them to arrive at the hotel in a rental car because there are no roads and no cars in the city of Venice. Good lord!  I would have thought that someone planning a trip to Venice would have at least read something about the city, enough to know that you cannot drive there and to provide an idea of what your family might do for fun once they get there. When she finally and politely got off the phone, I dubbed her “Saint Elena” and complimented her on her incredible patience, to which she replied simply, “No, it’s fine. It is my job.” Then, since Americans do not have the best reputation as international travelers and mortified that the person on the phone have been one of my countrymen, I said, “Please tell me that it was not an American on the phone!” and she smiled and assured me that no, the person was British, so I was relieved to hear that. She then walked me to my new hotel, and I have to say the room there was beautiful and three times the size of the room I had, so my stay ended on a very high note.

During my four days in Venice, the pedometer on my phone told me that I had walked a total of 26 miles, over 6 miles a day, and while I knew how good all that exercise was for me, my feet and legs were not being so forgiving. I was relieved to head to the airport to pick up a rental car for the next part of my trip. It was another warm, sunny day and as I navigated my little Volkswagen Golf out of the airport and onto the autostrada, I turned the radio dial to my favorite music station, Radio Italia, and was soon singing along to old favorites and listening to new songs by some of my most beloved artists. The Italian Road Trip had now begun!

I spent that night in the Dolomiti, the Italian Alps, at a spa hotel high up on a mountainside only 45 minutes from the Austrian border. On the way to the hotel, I ended up on winding, hilly road that was partly unpaved, covered in wet leaves, and barely a car’s width wide. It was almost dark as I descended a very steep hill, and met a car coming from the opposite direction that blocked my way, silently demanding that I should back up. Well, between trying to back up with a stick shift on wet leaves and mud, the fact that in the dark it was hard to see behind me, and that this guy’s headlights were blinding me, I had a terrible time trying to back up the hill. The car stalled several times and I was pleading that the guy would back up for me, but he didn’t budge. Finally, his wife got out of the car and came to my window and in heavily German-accented English (this area of Italy is predominantly German-speaking), told me I needed to back up. I wish I’d known how to say, “Easier said than done, lady!” in German. I continued to try, but then I saw smoke coming from my car and realized I was starting to burn the clutch. Beautiful. After some degree of hysteria on my part, the woman asked if I wanted her husband to help me and I was out of the car and handing him the keys before you could count “Eins, zwei, drei!” in German. He was able to get my car backed up and into a grassy area with enough room for him to get by and I was grateful, though the whole thing could have been avoided if he’d just backed up on level ground on a road that was familiar to him! I held my breath to see if my car would go into first gear, but it seemed fine and I got to my hotel without further incident. I quickly headed down to the hotel’s outdoor heated pool, and although the pool deck was covered with a sheet of snow and ice, I soaked in the hot water and let my stresses melt away.

Other than my little face-off with the German couple, the drive to and from the hotel was simply beautiful. There had been a new snow in the mountains and some trees were still yellow with fall foliage. The effect was stunning, and these mountains, which on any day of the year and in any weather are magnificent, tooked even more beautiful under the cover of snow. Meanwhile, the temperature was warm down below and I had no icy roads to contend with, so it was the best of both worlds. It’s hard to even describe the Dolomiti to someone who has never seen them, but I will try to let my camera speak for me and share some of the photos I took. Just know that in real life, they are indescribably more stunning than the camera lens can convey.

The next two nights I stayed in the town of Abano Terme, set amongst a ring of ancient volcanoes known as the Colli Euganei, and home to a number of thermal hot springs over which dozens of hotels have been built. The first night I joined my dear friends Claudia and Marco, who live only a few miles from Abano, for drinks and then dinner at a local trattoria that Marco had heard good things about. It had been over three years since we’d seen one another, and it was wonderful to reconnect, to share stories of what the past couple of years had been like, and to laugh together again over good food and wine. I had yet another sumptuous pasta entrée, followed by a filet of donkey with polenta, evidently a specialty in this part of the Veneto region. I can report that it did NOT taste like chicken… more like beef!  Claudia is always so sweet and concerned that I understand things being said in Italian or items on the menu that I might be unfamiliar with, and seems to forget that I do have a fairly good knowledge of all things Italian. At one point, as we tried to decide on desserts, she asked if I knew what sorbetto was, and Marco rolled his eyes good naturedly and reminded her, “Claudia, Matt has been to Italy many times! He knows sorbetto!” We had a good laugh over this, and I can’t adequately express how dear these folks are to me. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to spend time with them again and pray that the next visit will not be so far in the future.

The next day, I was feeling a bit tired and achy from my miles of walking in Venice and hours behind the wheel of the car on circuitous mountain roads, so I donned the robe provided in my hotel room and headed down to the enormous indoor-outdoor thermal pool area where I spent a very relaxing afternoon. It was exactly what I needed. That night I was supposed to meet another friend, but wires got crossed and it didn’t happen, so I struck out in search of a nice dinner and found a beautiful restaurant outside of Vicenza, Antica Trattoria al Sole, at which I had one of the most perfect meals I have ever consumed in Italy, but you can read the details about that using this link.  

From Abano I headed northwest to Italy’s Lakes Region, where I spent a night on the shores of Lake Garda at the Du Park et Du Lac Grand Resort in the town of Riva del Garda. Don’t ask me why this place has a French name, but I would say that it was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever stayed. For less than what I recently paid to stay at a Comfort Inn near Albany, New York I had a luxurious room at this hotel that looked out on lush surroundings that reminded me of Jurassic Park, but without the pesky dinosaurs. The grounds included what seemed like miles of trails that wound through lush gardens, past groves of palm trees, ponds inhabited by graceful swans, two outdoor swimming pools, a bamboo grove, and an enormous indoor pool and spa. At the far end of the property, you found yourself on the shores of Lake Garda with a spectacular view, and via a series of trails that skirt the shores of the lake, you could walk into town, about a mile away.

I decided to do just that in my search of dinner that evening and ended up at Pizzeria Bella Napoli, a popular restaurant that featured a brick pizza oven, but I opted for a porcini mushroom risotto served inside an edible bowl of baked Parmesan cheese (what will they think of next?), an enormous salad of avocado, smoked salmon, and eggs, and a classic tiramisu. I am not sure if it’s my three years’ hiatus from Italy that has made the food taste better, or whether they used their down time during the pandemic to perfect their culinary skills, but the food on this trip was just phenomenal.

From here it was time to head south. I spent two nights in the Chianti region of Tuscany, about a half hour south of Florence. My hotel here was called Salvadonica, a small complex of villas situated on property that featured heavenly vistas of surrounding olive groves and vineyards. I dined one night at La Castellana, a rustic, family-run trattoria with only eight tables. I had a handmade pasta called sedanini, which I had never heard of before, and it was served in a sauce of cream, sausage and black truffles. I do not understand how dishes that seem so simple can have such amazing flavors. Then I had a stew of cinghiale, or wild boar, with roasted vegetables, and dessert was a still-warm-from-the-oven cheesecake topped with red currants and various berries. All of this was washed down with a generous glass of Chianti classico wine. I’m not much of a drinker, but if I ever become one, Chianti classico will be my drink of choice.

Another night I ventured into Firenze, Florence. I had to chuckle as I pulled up to Porta Romana, one of the ancient gates to the city where there is a parking lot (private vehicles cannot enter the city center), and despite the traffic chaos, there was a parking spot open seemingly just waiting for me. But as I entered the city on foot, I remembered that even after three years, I still don’t like Firenze all that much! I know this is heresy to some fans of Italy, with many people I meet saying it’s their favorite city. I simply don’t get it. Yes, it has great museums, wonderful cuisine, and a beautiful Duomo, but the city streets are narrow, as are the sidewalks, which barely allow two people to pass one another and force one of you to step into the streets where invariably there is someone racing toward you on a scooter. There is no greenery, it’s loud, and no matter how much I try to like it, we do not get along. Of course, there are those who dislike Venice as much as I dislike Florence, so to each his own, though I have to say I think they are totally insane. 😊 I had dinner at a restaurant that I’ve been frequenting for years, and I’d have to say it was my least favorite meal of the entire trip, so either my tastes have changed, or it has declined in quality over the past few years.

And then there was Rome. My last three days were to be spent in the “Eternal City” and I had originally planned to return my rental car at the airport and take the train into the city. However, the online listing for my guest house in Rome said that they had onsite parking, and since I had to get to the airport fairly early on Sunday morning, I decided to keep the car, park at my guest house, and drive myself to the airport, avoiding all the hassle of walking to the train station and making my connections. I’ve driven in Rome before, and while it’s never exactly been a garden party, it isn’t THAT bad. Unfortunately, my timing was off, and I ended up on the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the multi-lane highway that rings the city, at about 5PM, just in time for rush hour. I got into the city without too much hassle, but once the exit ramp dropped me into the city streets, it was total gridlock. I creeped and crawled at painstakingly slow speeds toward the guest house and had to be ever vigilant as cars jockeyed for position when streets went from five lanes to two. Meanwhile, in answer to an e-mail I’d sent to the guest house, asking for the exact location of the parking area, I received a disturbing reply saying that there was no on-site parking at the property, but I could park on city streets. However, the manager, Valeria, said that I could take her parking space when I got to the guest house. This little wrinkle was unnerving, but there seemed to be an adequate solution. However, as I inched toward the guest house I wondered where the heck Valeria was actually parked and how I could reach it in this traffic.

At about this point I started getting text messages from Valeria inquiring as to what time I would arrive, and though I was less than a mile from there, I couldn’t fathom how long it might take me to actually arrive. I kept losing my phone signal, I didn’t like trying to text while fighting the insane traffic, and Valeria was not being forthcoming as to exactly where I should park!  Almost 40 minutes later, I crept up to the address of the guest house and miraculously there was a space for me to pull into, even though this was a no parking zone. I hopped out of the car and rang the bell for the guest house, but no one answered. I texted the guest house to say that I was at the door. There was no response. I stood there wondering what I would do next, as it would be a challenge just to pull out of the spot I’d parked in and get back into the endless line of traffic. When all hope seemed lost, a man approached me and introduced himself as working for the guest house. “I’m saved!” I thought, but then he told me I’d passed the parking area where Valeria was waiting to give up her space for me and I would need to go around the block to get back there. Mamma mia! With a manic laugh, I got back into the car, I forced my way back into the stream of traffic, I drove around the block, and at last was able to claim the spot that Valeria has saved for me. I will admit that my legs were shaking from sheer adrenaline rush at that point, but the parking space was free, I could stay there all weekend, and I was half a block from the guest house. As Julius Caesar was once quote as saying, “Veni, vidi, vici!” (I came, I saw, I conquered!)

For dinner that evening I happily walked to Trattoria Monti, my favorite Roman restaurant that I have been frequenting for almost 20 years. It’s owned by the Camerucci family, brothers Enrico and Daniele, and their mother is the head chef who, after all this time, have become friends of mine. The “boys” refer to me as their “big brother”, and given their dark, Italian good looks I call myself the “red sheep of the family.”

Daniele, Enrico, and the red headed sheep of the Camerucci family…

After three and a half long years, I walked through the door of the restaurant. Instantly, Gellion, a waiter who has worked there forever, ran over and gave me a huge welcoming hug. Soon after, Daniele and Enrico spotted me and dropped what they were doing to greet me with hugs and kisses, leading me to my table. Other diners were looking at me as if they were wondering whether I was some celebrity they hadn’t recognized. I was so touched by this reception, and I got settled at my table I found myself getting very choked up by it all. What I experienced during COVID was really hard on me, harder than I think I realized. But I know that compared to what many other people experienced, I had it easy, and it just struck me how devastating this time has been for all of us and how amazingly healing it was to reconnect with those we’ve been separated from for so long.

If I wasn’t already teary-eyed over these thoughts, I almost wept as I started my meal, as everything was even better than I’d remembered it. Daniele and Enrico, who were as usual, frantically busy, periodically stopped by my table to catch up. I learned that everyone in the family and in the restaurant had had COVID twice, but lucky Enrico had contracted it three times. Daniele joked that given all those anti-bodies, perhaps the doctors should use Enrico’s blood to make a new vaccine. I learned that Mamma is still doing the lunch shift, but no longer works in the evenings as she is getting on in years. Daniele is stressed because he recently bought a house and is trying to get it renovated, and Enrico showed me pictures of his daughter, whom I still remember as a toddler, now nine years old and stunningly beautiful. Both brothers expressed their envy of my retirement, and Enrico said, “I dream about this every day!” It was a wonderful evening and the trials of my arrival in Rome were quickly forgotten.

For the remainder of my time in Rome, I did a lot of walking. In fact, I walked another 25 miles that week between my visits to Florence and Rome. One day I went to Vatican City, not to tour the museum again, but to dine at another favorite restaurant, only to find that it had closed. Relying on Google again, I searched “best pasta near me” and up came a place called Borghiciana Pastificio Artigianale – just try to say that three times, fast! I walked there and found a line out front; there are only about 8 tables in the place, but I decided to wait and soon found myself dining on a beautifully executed appetizer of smoked salmon and avocado with lemon, followed by homemade pasta: rigatoni all’Amatriciana, which is a slightly spicy, hearty sauce made of bacon and tomato and a specialty of Lazio, the region of Italy where Rome is located. It was absolutely wonderful and the prices were easily half of what I paid for dishes all across Italy. What a great find! Of course I also had to revisit all of my favorite gelaterie; even a few years could not erase my memories of how much I adore Italian ice cream.

On my last night in Rome, and Italy, I had dinner back at Trattoria Monti with my friend Fabio. He looked great and we got caught up over another wonderful meal, with Daniele and Enrico dropping by the table occasionally to chat. Fabio described the pandemic lockdowns as a mixed blessing, as he was able to work from home, did not miss the stress of his commute, and didn’t have to spend quite as much time with his parents!  But the lockdowns here were brutal, and people were not even allowed to stray more than 200 meters from their homes for recreational walks or activities. Luckily, Fabio has a beautiful rooftop garden in his 6th floor apartment, so he was able to work in his garden, sunbathe, and be outdoors, perks that many people did not have during the pandemic.

After dinner, I wanted a last gelato, and given that it was almost closing time, Fabio suggested we take his scooter to make better time. He handed me his extra helmet, I climbed on the back, and got a final tour of Rome in a very authentic Italian way. It was hard to say goodbye to Fabio at the end of the evening, and to Daniele and Enrico as well, as I wondered how long it might be before I’d see them all again. Of course, none of us knows for sure what the future will hold, which made me even more grateful for having been able to make this trip when I had the opportunity to do so. It reinforced one of my most strongly held beliefs about life: never put things off if you can do them today.

My exit from Rome on Sunday morning was the antithesis of my arrival a few nights before. It was a warm, sunny day and there was almost no traffic at all. I drove out to Ciampino Airport passing the infamous Colosseo, and along the Via Appia, a main drag that parallels the ancient Roman road of the same name. Rome is amazing. Italy is amazing. Never would I have imagined, the first time I visited this country in 1998 that it would become so much a part of me, and that hopefully, I have become at least a small part of it.

2 thoughts on “A Beautiful Reunion with an Old Friend: Italy

  1. Goodness gracious, Matt, I think you’ve packed in enough adventures for twelve lifetimes. Thanks for letting this confirmed homebody enjoy your travels vicariously. But….filet of donkey?


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