Just before the arrival of spring in 2016, we journeyed to Italy. I would like to return to the adventure that I shared with my family on the Italian peninsula, a place which neither my command of English nor my nascent awareness of Italian will successfully convey. So with what words and images I have, please enjoy a story of l’Italia of the North (or at least the northern half of our journey) with some occasional use of Italian names and language.
At night, riding above deck on a mid-size boat known as a vaporetto, we experienced our first moment of vacation stress as we searched for a seafood restaurant called Al Covo. We originally had a reservation for 8:00 pm, but it was already 8:31, and we were having difficulty capping off our day of arrival in the country with a successful navigation of the island city of Venezia (Venice). We called the restaurant and found out that after 9:00 we couldn’t be seated. So after disembarking in what we hoped was the quartiere, or neighborhood, of the restaurant, we proceeded on foot with map in hand.
La Venezia at night is a place that instantly brought me to thinking of Shakespeare’s opening scenes in Othello. As we watched the boats and felt the damp air in the darkness, there could be no doubt that with Meredith’s help, I found myself in the Old World. With the assistance of a hotel concierge who spoke perfect English, we found Al Covo at 8:52 pm. The owners were an Italian-American pairing, the husband a native of Italy and the wife from Lubbock, Texas. Needless to say, she gave my wife a warm hug of greeting after learning that we hail from the Capital of Texas, and this felt like an apt celebration as well of our finding the restaurant just in time.
One interpretation of Al Covo is “The Hideout,” and we found the delicious fish and inviting atmosphere to be excellent. The restaurant offered me my first ever glass of Amarone Valpolicella wine, and its rich flavor was an appropriate pairing for their incomparably fresh and painstakingly prepared regional fish. The restaurant is highly recommended—if you can find it!
During the overcast and rainy weather, we explored Venice and witnessed the flooding and the tourism-based economy at work. As we walked about this damp and sinking city, we took note and captured some picturesque views from its bridges.
We toured the Palazzo del Doge (Palace of the Duke) where we saw the interrogation room and learned of the story of Casanova while visiting his cell in this secretive old structure. The Palazzo was the political center of the old kingdom of Venice, and the weaponry and armor of centuries past is on display along with many other artifacts from bygone eras.
For Meredith, La Venezia is not necessarily a city that she would visit regularly, and yet her sense is that anyone remotely interested ought to see it at least once. She was so right, and our adventure had begun perfectly. We concluded our trip with a visit to see the glasswares and other products of the craft-making artisans on Murano and Burano.
There can be no doubt that Italy’s cuisine was as brilliant as billed from the start of our trip. On Burano, after shopping for crafts and linens at the shops of several merchants, we went for a late lunch at the Gatto Nero (black cat), where we enjoyed the house red wine and fresh made linguini and seafood pasta.
The authentic culinary gesture of having extra virgin olive oil added fresh to my grilled fish plate was the perfect touch, and the dining room of the Gatto reminded me of Italian restaurants in South Philadelphia as well as the experiences I remember of eating pasta in the homes of my relatives during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
We rode the Freccia Rossa, or ‘red arrow’ train, south to Firenze (Florence). As was the case in Venezia, Meredith was eagerly awaiting my reaction to various sights in the city. Our Air BnB was located in the shadow of one such sight—a certain giant “cathedral in pajamas” called Il Duomo. This grand structure provided us with a challenging climb up 464(?) steps to picturesque views of the city in every direction. The climb from the bottom floor to the observation deck at the top is a circuitous route that requires a great deal of effort and patience as one paces and angles around the old, dark, stony interior with fellow tourists squeezing past on their way back down.
The climb presented us with a brilliant look at the rust colored rooftops of Firenze and the distant mountains…
The climb up to the Duomo’s zenith led to one small problem for me. I became fairly tired and shaky and actually developed a fever that night. Una febbre per la gioia d’Italia forse? No it was an actual fever, and I was suddenly in a bad state of body and mind on the most rapturous vacation of my life. Lesson learned: adversity can strike any time. Meredith, equipped with a willingness to use her “Spagnolo dei bambini” (baby Spanish), set out to find me apple juice and chicken soup for my severely rattled stomach. (Fortunately, many Florentines speak English quite competently).
Each time I thought I was getting better, night-time would bring back the effects of the fever in full. However, there was a trip that I had no intention of missing: our guided tour of some small vineyards of the Chianti region.
Our tour guide turned out to be a delightful woman who was definitely our kind of person, a vegetarian from Sicily who had a fondness for fostering rescue dogs. As she noted my questions on the Italian language and my embryonic competency, she prompted me to speak in the language whenever I could.
On this tour, we visited two vineyards of the town Greve in Chianti. At Castello Vichiomaggio, we tried a delicious “super Tuscan” as well as two varieties of Chianti while enjoying a savory pasta lunch. We were also shown a courtyard that had been featured in the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s 12th Night.
We also visited the Solatione vineyard, where we learned about how they produce their vintages, and we sampled some of the most alcoholically rich and robust Chianti that I’ve ever tasted.
In Città (in the city), we saw a great many sights of artistic beauty in places such as the Museum of the Uffizi. The statues, architecture, and cosmopolitan air of Firenze were quite engaging. As a former English teacher and religion major, I delighted in the presence of the Greco-Roman heroes and gods in their various forms.
When in Italy, one must take advantage of opportunities to have gelato, and in Firenze, Meredith and I found a suitably fantastic establishment for this pursuit. At Venchi, they spared no effort on either the pomp or the delicious flavors that could be offered.
One afternoon, Mere mapped out our path to a bustling and modern locale called Mercato Centrale. We tried out some fresh made gnocchi while I sampled an unusual lemon beer…
Just before our southward excursion to Greve in Chianti, we took in a delightful view of the main part of the city from just beyond the Arno river…
The transition from Venice to Florence was an exhilarating juxtaposition. From old and flooding streets, sea spray, and cozy restaurants to the sophisticated city of the famous Medici, we enjoyed the first half of our trip, and we savored every dish and sip of house wine that we tasted. (Not to mention the gelato).
Soon we would be headed for Rome with the memory of these two brilliant and contrasting cities in mind. Thanks for reading, and more sights and sounds from further south to come!