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Finding Venice everywhere

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I recently remarked on the extraordinary eagerness of people at every compass point to name some local enterprise for Venice (I exclude the Venetian Casino Resort Hotel in Las Vegas and/or Macao as being too screamingly obvious to be interesting).  And I offered the Trattoria Citta’ di Venezia in Conegliano as an example.

A reader e-mailed me a brief note in response: “Just to prove your theory,” she said, and as evidence presented the photo below, taken in Krakow, Poland.

If any other hardy readers want to join the scavenger hunt, I’d be very glad to get a photo of whatever Venicely-named establishment or undertaking you come across.  For possible, even probable, publication here.

Note: No fair doing any searches and uprooting photos from websites.  The only rule is that it has to be a place you’ve seen with your own eyes. If you can’t take a photo of it, for some reason, I’ll accept a postcard.

This business earns one extra point for throwing in an extra non-Krakovian placename.

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This is fall?

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The first day of autumn came and went as decreed by the cosmos, but around here summer didn’t get the memo.  The heat wave that began some two months ago is still enjoying itself thoroughly, lolling on the beach, gleaming on the Alpine peaks, bringing  joy to the daring hoteliers who risked staying open and not unconsiderable damage to the farmers.

It was the hottest September on record; on average, nearly 3 degrees above the norm. In Piemonte, Torino registered 30 degrees C (86 degrees F), a September temperature it hasn’t felt since 1753. Rainfall has become a distant memory.

The farmers are not amused.  Not only are the crops lollygagging along for lack of rain and excess of heat, but the harvest, whenever they manage to make it, is going to be puny. Ten percent fewer grapes, and they’re already fermenting — unheard of.  Tomatoes and olives and rice are down 20 percent.

No matter where you go, there will be some business named for Venice. In Conegliano Lino paused in front of the Trattoria "Citta' di Venezia," but I discovered a Cafe Venezia in Casablanca. Anyway, there isn't a Trattoria Citta' di Conegliano in Venice, which I think is narrow-minded.

But one crop is still going strong: The Adriatic beaches continue to pullulate with tourists even though the kiosks are closed and the lifeguards have all gone home.  Some wag had his picture taken under his big umbrella holding a batch of chestnuts, two seasonal icons which have never met and probably never even heard of each other.

But let’s make the proverbial hay while the proverbial sun is still proverbially glowing.  Even though school started two weeks ago, Gianni Stival, vice-mayor of Caorle (a beach town) is dreaming of a bumper crop of late vacationers and has proposed — not for the first time — that the Veneto postpone the first day of school for two whole weeks.

“It would be good for tourism,” he explains, “because now when the first school bell rings at the middle of September, families are compelled to go home.” And take all their money with them.  Never mind if little Bepi never learns the names of the European capitals or the definition of plankton or that when a girl says “no” she’s pretty likely to have meant “no” (oh wait — they don’t teach that). Whatever is good for tourism is, by definition, good for everybody, assuming that little Bepi has somehow learned to count past 20.  Or maybe that doesn’t matter either, now that cash registers calculate the correct change.

Last Saturday we decided to become tourists, in our own small way, so we took the train to Conegliano, a small but prosperous provincial town just 58 km (36 miles) from Venice.  Conegliano is  famous for Prosecco and a painter named Giovanni Battista Cima (1460-1518), nicknamed “da Conegliano,” or “from Conegliano,” so we don’t confuse him with all those other Giovanni Battista Cimas.

I ate cappellacci di zucca, or "big straw hats stuffed with pumpkin," which were bestrewn with smoked ricotta and drenched with butter. This is a typical autumn dish -- note the pumpkin -- of the area around Ferrara, but it tasted fine here too. Three of these will give you the strength to harvest another five acres, if you can manage to stay awake.

It was a heavenly day — sorry for the farmers, but we loved it, even though we were thwarted in our intention to browse the weekly market, which spreads along the main street and its tributaries offering everything from socks to handmade baskets.  Don’t assume that Saturday has been ordained by God, or the mayor, as the perfect day for a big market.  Turns out they hold it on Friday. In case you ever need to know.

Members of a local mycology club were setting up an exhibition of just-collected local mushroms ranging from delectable to fatal. The drought made a serious dent in this harvest, as well; there ought to have been several times more than these.

But we didn’t care.  We wandered around enjoying the sun, sat outside the duomo watching the guests arriving for a big wedding, we ate too much, we sprawled in the garden of the ruined hilltop castle. If it sounds like we did nothing, I want to tell you that nothing was exactly what we needed and we did plenty of it.
As far as I’m concerned, if this is autumn, it can stay like this forever.



The backdrop of tiny wild apples and unshelled chestnuts (the green spiky ball) made a very attractive arrangement


The chestnut squad at work: One man roasting them, two others sitting by bags of chestnuts from Cuneo, slitting their shells, one by one, to prevent their exploding in the heat.


A classic autumn assortment (though no pumpkins). Clockwise from bottom left are walnuts, plums, chestnuts, giuggiole (jujubes), persimmons and grapes.

Mirtilli, or wild blueberries, at only 12 euros a kilo ($8 a pound). Pretty cheap, considering these are all picked by hand in the woods.


These mushrooms, on the other hand, are absolutely for eating: "Galletti" and "finferli," also uncultivated. Delectable.




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A situation has been brought to light — actually, had light suddenly and dramatically shone on it — that ought to be noticed more clearly than by the faint gleam discernible over here.  Allow me to step in with at least a couple of highway flares.

A few paragraphs in the Gazzettino recently revealed that the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta at Torcello is falling apart.  Brief and brutal, but there it is. This news may not have interested very many people here because the paper is full of stories, depressingly often, about the ways in which Venice is falling apart.

The basilica of Santa Maria Assunta is on the left; the smaller church of Santa Fosca to the right. May I mention that despite many notations to the contrary, "basilica" and "cathedral" are not synonymous. A basilica describes a building with a specific floor plan, which could just as easily be your school gym. The world is full of basilicas which aren't cathedrals; they don't even have to be churches. A cathedral is the church where the bishop has his cathedra, or seat, which could just as easily be in an Airstream trailer. The cathedral of Venice (also a basilica, as it happens) is San Marco. (Photo: necrothesp)

Pieces of stone drop off facades (November, 2007, a 110-pound/50- kilo chunk fell from the Palazzo Ducale and grazed an elderly German tourist; November, 2008, a 15-inch/40 cm bit of marble from a house in the San Marco area grazed a Swiss tourist as it headed earthward; March, 2010, a 132-pound/60-kilo piece broke off the convent of Cristo Re near the Celestia; October, 2010, a bit of stone decoration fell off the Court building and struck an employee…..).  Roofs collapse, bell-towers are braced, and so on. The reason?  All together now: No ghe xe schei. The mayor himself has said that he may have to ask for money, not for the sake of the buildings per se, but for the sake of public safety.

But back to Torcello, a lovely, almost uninhabited little island famous for the aforementioned basilica, which is arguably one of the gemmiest of the gems of Venetian history, art, architecture, and above all, mosaics.

Life is hard on Venice in so many ways, from high water  to tourist trampling. But let us not overlook what may be the most dangerous hazard of all: Neglect.

Torcello’s parish priest, don Ettore Fornezza, recently drew attention to one example of what neglect can lead to: The floor mosaics are breaking up.

I went to Torcello the other day to see don Ettore and the situation that he was describing.

The ten-minute walk from the vaporetto stop to the church has never been so lovely.

For anybody who loves Torcello, or who believes that there is no place within 50 miles where you can go to escape the tourist tidal waves, I cheerfully recommend you visit the island early on a freezing, windy, gray Sunday morning in January.  Yes, it was colder than I don’t know what. (Down side.) But there was literally no one and nothing in sight. (Up side!) I’ve been going to Torcello for years and I have never seen it utterly deserted.  The lagoon was empty too.  It was so astonishing that it was worth not being able to feel my feet.

Looking toward Burano, normally a scene of motor-driven anarchy.

People go to Torcello to admire the mosaics on the walls.  But the floors are no less valuable, and they get a lot more punishment. You can see the evidence of this deterioration everywhere, in the widening spaces between the bits of stone and even in grotty, dark empty areas as big as salad plates and as much as an inch deep. Unchecked humidity, for one thing, has gradually loosened the tesserae (as the bits of stone are called) and made them vulnerable to other forces.  Like people and their footwear.

A view of the interior of the basilica. Note the condition of the floor in the foreground. This is nothing.

And so it was that during a recent stroll around the church, don Ettore saw a tourist not only dislodge a small piece of 1000-year-old mosaic with the heel of her shoe (regrettable but not intentional), she then picked up the loose bit and made to put it in her pocket.  Or purse. Anyway, to take it away.

When he asked her what she was doing, she replied, “I wanted it as a souvenir.”

Somewhat thunderstruck, he suggested she consider leaving it behind, so it could be kept, if not actually returned to its native habitat.

She gave it back.

When don Ettore reached this point in the story, it occurred to me that it was too bad he hadn’t replied, “Well then, I’d like to take your shoe as a souvenir.”  Just a thought.

A detail of damage to the floor mosaics. I would have taken photographs, but it's strictly forbidden, not that that would have stopped me. But the girl on guard that morning made nabbing me her mission. My admiration and appreciation to the intrepid visitors who managed these images. (Photo: ezioman).

But this is no time for gay repartee.  The incident of the tessera was merely one random event in a long and all-too-evident decline.  Because for some time now, the heels of the shoes of thousands of tourists a day have been weakening what is, in fact, a very fragile creation.  All it takes is for one piece to go, and the discussion shifts from what is happening to merely how long it’s going to continue.

For don Ettore, this moment was, as he put it, “the spark” to bring to light the larger, deeper, wider problems of the basilica.

“We can’t go on like this,” he said. “People come from all over the world, and they see the deterioration and they come to tell me.  I can’t do anything, because I”m responsible for the spiritual side. But I have eyes, and I see the things that don’t go well.  Torcello could be reborn, with a little attention. With the love people have for this place, this would be the pearl, not only of Venice, but of the world.  It’s worth the trouble to insist on this, because Torcello is worth it. We don’t want Torcello to die. If it were up to me, it would have been resolved already.”

There are so many distressing aspects to this situation that you can pick any one at random and ruin your day.  Given that the present mosaics (not the first mosaic flooring, by the way, which was laid in the 8th century) date from 1008, it’s obvious that they will now be in need of constant and expensive care.  Just like a person, actually, when you think of it.

But here we have an ancient and irreplaceable work of religious, historic, and artistic value; we have uncontrolled masses of people using it every day for most of the year; and we also have lack of personnel, lack of serious interest, and — no need to repeat it, but I must — absence (they say “lack”) of money to do anything useful to deal with it.  Here, too, the skeletal hand of chronic poverty is tightening its grip.

Speaking of poverty, however, let me insert some startling observations made to me in Hyderabad, India by Mr. P.K. Mohanty, then Commissioner of the city’s governing body.  (I was there for my article on “Megacities,” National Geographic, November 2002.)

“What we need in India isn’t money,” Mohanty said. “Large cities of the Third World are reservoirs of wealth.  We need political reforms, bureaucratic reforms. The problem is one of poor management. If cities are properly managed, there cannot be resource problems.”  I’d guess that the same could be said of large cities of the First World.

As for the mosaic floor of the basilica, nobody can consider spending the money that would be needed to complete a serious restoration — they say there’s no money even to pay for a protective carpet like the one that often covers the floor of the basilica of San Marco.  But anyone who has visited the Roman-mosaic-blessed former churches at Aquileia and Ravenna will recall that their mosaic pavements  are kept in near-perfect condition. Aquileia and Ravenna have mysteriously found a way to acquire the schei necessary for their mosaic maintenance.  Or maybe, as Mr. Mohanty observed, the problem isn’t really schei.

Small gaps between the stones; you can just imagine where this is going to go.

Back to Torcello. I would like to blame mass tourism, because obviously masses of tourists are not helping the situation.  But I hesitate to use a term which is so general that it could describe almost everything except plants (no wait, those travel too) to describe just one certain type of tourist.  Of course there are cultivated, intelligent, sensitive tourists who leave a very faint footprint on the delicate, peerless places and cultures they visit.

But there is the clueless tourist who tends to come in chaotic herds, and who passes through leaving behind not much beyond a few sous and a lot of accumulating wear and tear on the places and people he or she has encountered.  And some trash, usually.

Taking away pieces of Italian history is  nothing new.  The Italians themselves, over the centuries, have removed tons of pieces of their monuments for use in other projects.  And there are, unfortunately, still too many tomb-robbers who steal and sell priceless artifacts from lost civilizations.

And let us not forget the famous advancing barbarian hordes, who pillaged and burned and wrecked large parts of Europe and its treasures. Also bad, but at least you can fit this damage into the category “Conquer and Dominate,” which does make a kind of sense.

But we’re talking about tourists.  They have been known to dislodge and remove, as far as they can, pieces of the Roman walls built by Marcus Aurelius.  Tourists climb over altar railings and try to take away historic sacred vessels.  (I am not making any of this up.)  I learned more than I ever wanted to about this for my article “Italy’s Endangered Art” (National Geographic, August 1999).  These are not necessarily evil people, nor even people seeking to make money by selling what they take.  They just take. Why?

The lady at Torcello admitted why she did it: She wanted a souvenir. Instead of buying something that had been manufactured, she impulsively felt that something genuine would be better. But how does this work?  You take a little piece of old stone, dislodged from its context, dislodged from its reason for being, specifically in order to be reminded of the place you’ve just despoiled?  You don’t run to the ticket booth to say “The floor is coming apart!”? Or does the fact that the piece is loose mean that it’s now free pickings?

I pause here to recognize that there may be an insignificant difference between a souvenir and spoils of war; the Elgin Marbles, which I suppose you could regard as a sort of monumental souvenir, come to mind.  But if the possessors of cultural patrimony have finally come to recognize at least some of the value of their heritage, it ought to follow that visitors ought to value it even more, otherwise why are they there? They could just as well be sitting under an awning somewhere, eating gelato.

To many visitors, a trip to Torcello is mainly a good excuse for a jaunt out into the lagoon. When they're done here, they go to Burano and buy lace-like objects. Real souvenirs.

All this makes my  brain hurt.  Because I am convinced that whatever bits of stone or wood or pottery get carried away — a bit that really mattered where it was born — is going to get lost.  Thrown away. Forgotten. Hidden under stuff in the attic that nobody ever looks at until they have to sell the house and by then nobody remembers what the thing is, or why it’s there. So what was the point?

Wait!  Let’s say the person takes it home and puts it in a beautiful box or frame to display it.  This means that either they are capable of spending the next 50 years looking at something they stole, which probably won’t remind them that they stole it, or they want other people to admire it. So they can say, “Yes — I contributed to the destruction of an irreplaceable landmark by stealing this. Nice, isn’t it? I’m glad you like it.”  Then they send money to protect the dolphins or save the rainforest.

If you’re still reading, you may be edging toward the door.  But I’m not crazy.  Or if I am, I’ll never be as crazy as the tourists.

But let’s be fair. Even if the tourists were all made to tiptoe around the church in cloth slippers, it wouldn’t do much to stave off the inexorable damage caused by humidity, salt in the groundwater, storms, subsidence, and many other factors that are part of life on this planet and whose effects are all too visible at Torcello.

The point isn’t that people want to take bits home, it’s that the church isn’t being protected and cared for. It’s just sitting there, enduring what it must till another piece breaks off.

And by the way, the same thing is happening in the church of Santa Maria e Donato on Murano (first building, 7th century, flooring completed 1140), an edifice equally rich in mosaics.  Don Carlo Gusso, the parish priest, is also ringing the alarm bells.

So far, though, it appears that nobody but you and me have heard them. Or at least have recognized that they’re not the dinner bell.

"The Pavement San Marco" by John Singer Sargent (1898). Who would ever have thought that even here, the floor would have been left to deteriorate like this? I'm not referring to the undulations, but to the holes. But if they could fix the floor here, I'm not clear on what's stopping them at Torcello. Did they have more schei back in 1898?

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Venice in January

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Days — and I suppose nights — can become as routine (fancy way of saying “monotonous”) here in the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world as they can in Tick Bite, North Carolina, or wherever the daily round has worn a groove into your Day Planner, however gorgeous the surroundings may be.

I love January here for many reasons, and one of the big ones is that nobody else seems to.  Which is to say that almost all the tourists are dormant somewhere, with the kids in school and the budget busted by Christmas and Crisis, and dark coming on early and so on.

Exhibit A:  The #1 vaporetto on the Grand Canal last Friday morning. In a month or so, Carnival will be here, and if you can find a way to force yourself into the crush on every vehicle in the city then I admire your spinal cord, or your love of your fellow man, or your skill with a flooring chisel or Irish shovel, or whatever.  I would gladly supply a photograph of this inescapable fact of life here, but I never use the vaporettos during Carnival, except maybe at dawn.

And not long after that, the Tourist Season will be declared open, and the vaporettos will become troop transports loaded with brigades of touristic infantry loaded with all their battle gear — suitcases, duffel bags, backpacks, strollers, children and dogs. If there were a way for them to bring their pet guppy to Venice, people would do that too.

So this scene, which may look to you like just a lot of plastic seats, is a Thing of Beauty because those seats are empty.  This vision is so rare and wonderful that it’s almost worth getting on the #1 to go nowhere for no reason just so you can savor it, like a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino, but for a lot less money.

There will always be shopping carts, but seeing only two is amazing.  And not seeing strollers loaded like coalcars, and ponderous rolling suitcases, and monstrous backpacks, is simply amazing.

This is what the #1 looks like at 11:00 AM in January, coming up to the Rialto stop, one of the busiest points in the city. There will always be shopping carts, but seeing only two is remarkable. And not seeing strollers loaded like hopper cars hauling iron ore, and ponderous rolling suitcases, and monstrous backpacks, is simply amazing. Plus the fact that everyone in this vaporetto, as far as I can make out, is Venetian.

This time of year doesn’t call to mind mere metaphors involving food and drink.  The real thing is at hand.

Last Saturday I was in a big supermarket on the Lido and came upon this heavenly vision of something wonderful about Carnival, the quintessential Carnival pastry. You can get the same items in pastry shops, naturally, for more money, naturally, but the important thing is, they’re here.  The galani have returned, like the migrating monarch butterflies landing in Milwaukee.

Crostoli. It's not a trick of the lighting that makes them look so good. They are so good

Crostoli. It's not a trick of the lighting that makes them look so good. They are so good.

As you see, there is freedom of expression in naming this delicacy, whether baked or fried.  “Galani,” “crostoli,” (CROSS-toh-lee) and “chiacchiere” (KYAK-er-eh) all translate as “irresistible and addictive slices of fat and sugar.” Historically, you are allowed to begin eating these any time after Epiphany, right up to Ash Wednesday.  Some culturally degraded but economically advanced vendors continue to sell them during Lent, but they must be related to the C.D. but E.A. vendors who sell Carnival masks and hats all year long. There is something odd about seeing teenagers wearing big plush multi-colored harlequin hats in August, but hey.  It’s no odder than seeing people selling them. Venice must be the city where selling was invented.

As for the galani, I resist buying them.  But it’s entirely possible that I will give in at some point and spend an afternoon making a batch of these crunchy morsels.  I did it last year for the first time and boy, was that a mistake. We ate them all in two days.  True, I could make just half a batch, but that seems unpleasantly intelligent.  Why eat only three pieces of something that’s bad for you?

This version is being sold as "leaves of KAMUT," a relative newcomer to the grain bin being the commercial name of khorasan wheat.  This ancient variety is supposedly richer-tasting and infinitely better for you than more usual wheat.  I don't know quite what the point would be in using a healthy ingredient in an item like this, but I'm certainly willing to try it.

This version is being sold as "leaves of KAMUT," a relative newcomer to the grain bin which is the commercial name of khorasan wheat. This ancient variety is supposedly richer-tasting and infinitely better for you than more usual wheat. I don't know quite what the point would be in using a healthy ingredient in an item like this, but I'm certainly willing to try it.

Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question.

More crostoli.

More crostoli.

And more.

And more.

Let's throw powdered sugar on them.  That ought to obliterate any remaining traces of nutrition.

Let's throw powdered sugar on them. That ought to obliterate any remaining traces of nutrition.

Can't decide?  Buy them all.

Can't decide? Buy them all.

Or wait for me to make some, she said modestly.

Or wait for me to make some, she said modestly.

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