Venice

Traveling in style on Italotreno at 300 km/h.

On Monday, we checked out of our hotel in Rome, and jumped on a train to Venice. This Italotreno train zoomed along at up to 300 km/h in places, in a comfortable quiet cabin with free WiFi. On arrival, we find the main island of Venice rammed with tourists, not helped by an illusion of density; the “streets” are very narrow. There are no roads, only canals and pedestrian footpaths; no vehicles, save for hand-pulled carts for delivering goods, and of course the famous Venetian gondolas.

Our hotel room was teeny-tiny but manageable, in a Venetian house that had been converted into a hotel. We were to later learn this to be common; the only “locals” we saw were the business owners, tour guides, restaurant staff and the like. One guide told us that not many locals can afford to live on the main island any more due to the increasing costs of maintenance and insurance as the island subsides (and the sea level rises), and the sky-high rents, driven in part by highly lucrative tourism. Most apart from the mega-rich now live on the mainland, and if they still own property on the island, let it out through Airbnb; much of the housing in Venice is now hotels, or even empty.

After settling in we found what turned out to be an awful place for tea, Aciugheta. The service was terrible and they served tired, microwaved frozen seafood on chewy packet pasta.

The next day we found Magna Bevi Tasi, a lovely place to start the day with coffee and a panini in the morning, on the square next to the hotel. From there we embarked on a walking tour around San Marco, and a visit to St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace. In the afternoon we went on the Vaporetto (water bus) out to the island of Murano, with its glass factories that produce the famous and beautiful Venetian glass, and Burano, famous for its lace. By this point the relentless crowds of tourists everywhere drove me to escape down a quiet alleyway, where I found, only a hundred yards away, an oasis of quiet and colourful residential Venice, and managed a few idiot-free photographs.

That night we found Antica Osteria ai Tre Leone for tea, a lovely place right next to the Bridge Hotel with good pasta and wine list.

On Wednesday it was Bek’s birthday, and so we ventured out into the local countryside on a Prosecco tour. What better way to spend a birthday than drinking nice sparkling wine in the sun?

Prosecco vineyards near Valdobbiadene, Italy.

We went to three different Prosecco wineries, all producing Prosecco Superiore DOCG, which is sparkling wine made in a region around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, from the Prosecco grape. The first was Toffoli, near Conegliano. They make a really good millesimato, extra dry. We mailed six magnums home to make use of the good NZ shipping rate. Happy birthday! These will come in handy for special occasions. We also got chatting to one of the staff who came to New Zealand for a couple of years and worked in Marlborough vineyards, and he very kindly gave us a couple of bottles of their sparkling rosé, made from the Marzemino grape.

A prosecco vending machine, in the middle of a vineyard.

On the way to the next vineyard in Valdobbiadene, where we had lunch, we stopped by a prosecco vending machine, out in the middle of the vineyard on a hill, with chairs and tables nearby. The whole thing runs as some sort of local honesty system. Just amazing!

Prosecco Superiore DOCG from Villa Sandi.

The third vineyard was Villa Sandi, which also had a lovely extra dry Prosecco Superiore.

After a hard day of drinking sparkling wine and being chauffeured around the Italian countryside, we went to the Tre Leone again for dinner. It’s a good restaurant, and it was very crowded and tiresome to try to find another good one.

The next day we decided to take it easy. The main island of Venice was relentlessly busy with tourists, so we emerged about midday and decided to bob along Canal Grande on the Vaporetto for about an hour and a half, until we ended up at the Lido.

Here we reclined on the beach for a while with Prosecco and spritz. Dear reader, if you want to visit Venice in the height of summer, go to the island of Lido – it is refreshingly free of tourist crowds and has good local cafés and restaurants. We went to a nice outdoor place for dinner on Gran Viale San Maria Elisabetta with good food and service.

Tomorrow we catch the train to Verona!

Rome and the Vatican

We spent most of a whole day on a tour of the Vatican museums, Cistine Chapel, and St Peter’s Basilica. The frescos in St Peter’s Basilica are all amazing examples of the art of the time, but there is not a single drop of paint in the whole building. They are not paintings, they are mosaics, painstakingly made from chips of stone no larger than 5mm in diameter, in beautiful mineral colours that will never fade, flake, peel or disintegrate.

In the Vatican museums there is a map room, a hundred metres long, with gilded ceilings and huge illuminated maps of the old world on the walls. There are mosaics on the floor from 100 B.C. that look like they were laid only last century. There are huge paintings on walls that I’ve only seen in tiny pictures in art history books, and there is the Pigna, a giant bronze pine cone several metres high, originally from an ancient Roman fountain of around 100 B.C. at the Temple of Isis near the Pantheon.

I Pini di Villa Borghese

The next day we walked to the Villa Borghese gardens and walked around for a few hours looking at the gardens, pine trees and fountains. Several Respighi movements were found: I pini di Villa Borghese, La fontana di Villa Medici al tramonto, and possibly also La fontana di Valle Giulia all’Alba; although the fountains were photographed in the afternoon. We found a Leonardo da Vinci machines exhibit next to Fontana del Nettuno, and a small modern art gallery in the aranciera (an old Italian word for orangery, a glasshouse for growing citrus trees in cooler climates).

La fontana di Valle Giulia

Our feet were killing us by this stage but we went and found Ristorante Maccheroni, as recommended by Damian. Since we arrived a bit early, we went next door to the Osterio dello Copello and had some cocktails first. When the restaurant opened, I was obliged to compare another cacio e pepe, and an unremarkable chicken piato secondo, but a bottle of a local Lazio region 2014 Shiraz was beautiful and made up for it.

Cocktail recipes

Schiarparelli Sour: vodka, lychee liqueur, lime juice, syrup, red fruit infusion, violet spray.

Rue di Rivoli: cognac, green chartreuse, lime juice, beer sugar, angostura.

Venez m’Aider: gin, aparol, lemon juice, Rabarbero Zucca, orange bitters, prosecco.

Olandese Volante: tangerine infused gin, lime juice, syrup, amaro sibilla, orange soda.

Casa Coppelle Swizzle: white rum, dark rum, spiced rum, falernum, cinnanon syrup, passionfruit, lime juice.

The following day we were pretty exhausted and didn’t do a lot. We went for a walk about lunch time (seemingly about 3pm in Italy) and concluded that fat people don’t exist in Rome. Or, if they do, they keep themselves well hidden. They certainly don’t buy their shorts in any of the clothing shops I could find, and the shop attendants practically shooed me out the door.

We went out for dinner to Ristorante l’Excellenza, as recommended by Tim. It was indeed excellent; I had the Beef fillet with pickled and brined porcini mushrooms, whole garlic cloves, and a rosemary-infused olive oil. Beautiful savory tastes. A glass of the house red was another Lazio Shiraz which turned out to be smashing.

La fontana del Tritone al mattino

The next morning we investigated the Triton Fountain on the way to the Appian Way, and the catacombs. Just to make things interesting, my tooth crown fractured at breakfast, so we had to phone around using our best Italiano and find a dentist. The fantastic woman who fixed it runs a dentist shop by the Villa Torlonia park, which contains La Limonaia, another orangery building, now converted into a café where we went for a nice drink. The dentist recommended we go to Hostario Insolato just up the road from the Colosseum for their pasta tasting. They bring out dishes of pasta from the kitchen until you are full, for €9 for the first, and €1 for each subsequent dish. We had 5 dishes and another great bottle of Lazio red.

Arriving in Rome

Pines of the Jainiculum, Rome.

We arrived from the airport by cab and checked in to the Hearth Hotel, on Via Santamaura, right next to the Vatican museum gate. A good spot and very handy by foot and Metro to the rest of the city.

A walk about took us to Saint Peter’s Square, and then up to the nearby Jainiculum (Gianicolo) in order to unlock the first of many Respighi achievements, Pini di Roma: III. I pini del Gianicolo. It is one of several hills around Rome, and mostly a public park, with many sculptures and busts of historical Italian figures dotted about.

Later in the afternoon we wandered into Trastevere district, which has lots of art shops and restaurants on either side of old cobbled Roman streets. Along the way we entered Santa Maria in Trastevere, a Roman basilica dating back to the fourth century A.D. Its beautiful gilded ceilings and Cavallini mosaics are a stunning sight.

The next day we went on a guided tour around the Colosseum and Roman Forum, and another around the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain (Respighi achievement unlocked, Fontane di Roma: III. La fontana di Trevi al meriggio) and the Pantheon. A big full day, but thoroughly worth it.

The ancient Romans had figured out how to make strong concrete (opus cæmenticium) using volcanic ash. Unlike the modern technique of using gravel aggregate and pouring it into place, they used it more like a mortar, to lay bigger bits of baked clay bricks or rubble together. The Colosseum was built using brick and concrete around 110 A.D. and must have been a beautiful spectacle in brilliant white travertine, and festooned with many marble sculptures and reliefs.

Whilst it did fall into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire, its current dilapidated state is mostly due to its deliberate dismantling over the following thousand years by builders, who raided its marble statues and outer cladding blocks in order to build other Roman buildings, including much of what is now Vatican City.

The Pantheon is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, built in 120 A.D. with a diameter of 43 metres. It was built using pumice as the aggregate towards the top, to reduce the load on the lower structure.

It is truly remarkable that, despite the Italian peninsula being prone to large earthquakes similar to New Zealand, these buildings are still standing after two thousand years.

Lombardi “Propileo” Cesanese, a good Lazio red.

Along the way we observed that in Rome at least, road rules are mostly optional, and most cars seem to be fitted with broken indicator bulbs. Drivers do stop for pedestrians though, which was a relief. Just around the corner from the hotel was a great restaurant where we could use our colourful Euro beer vouchers to buy great Italian food and local wine, including an IGT red wine from the Lazio region, a Cesanese called Propileo, which has been somewhat hard to track down since. Inevitably, I tried a local dish called Cacio e pepe.

Cacio e pepe

Like many Italian dishes, cacio e pepe (literally “cheese and pepper”) is a fantastic yet deceptively simple dish: pasta served hot straight from the pot with a generous handful of finely grated cheese and black pepper. This restaurant added a squeeze of lemon juice, which makes it exquisite.

Ingredients:

  • 450 g (1 lb) of fresh pasta (spaghetti, tagliatelle)
  • 180 g (6 oz) Pecorino Romano*
  • 40 g (1½ oz) butter
  • about 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • lemon juice to taste (optional)

Bring plenty of salted water to a boil in a big pot and cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes until just tender. Grate the cheese with a fine grater. Melt the butter in a frying pan and fry the pepper for a minute or so. Using tongs drop the cooked pasta into the frying pan with about 100 ml (½ cup) of the hot pasta water,  stir to coat well, then dump the cheese on top, and stir until melted. Serve immediately in bowls, garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a little more ground black pepper. Match with a good red wine with a food-friendly acidity.

Note: Pecorino Romano is a local Italian cheese made from sheep milk. If required, substitute any good hard salty cheese instead, e.g. Parmesan or a good aged cheddar.

British Museum

After a quick squizz in the Liberty and Schott Music shops, we ended up spending the rest of the day in the British Museum. The Rosetta Stone is the first thing you are presented with in the Egypt halls, yet we didn’t see it because it was surrounded by people which we mistook for simply a group of tourists. We wandered around admiring huge granite Babylonian lions, Assyrian friezes, marble chunks of the Parthenon and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, vaguely wondering where it was. Luckily there was a guided tour at 5pm that led us right to it. There was also red figure Greek pottery, bits of a marae, bronze age jewellery, coins from the Thames, cuneiform tablets, mediæval clocks and mechanisms, and Roman mosaics. So much history!

Salisbury Cathedral

Today we went to Andover to visit a special music shop, and then on to Salisbury Cathedral, via a quick rubber-neck at Stonehenge off the A303. We arrived in time for Evensong to hear the Leighton Magdalen service. The cathedral is huge, nearly 800 years old and beautiful, and the history of its construction inspired Follett’s novel, Pillars of the Earth. The Magna Carta document (or at least, one of the surviving four) hangs out the back on display in the 13th century chapter house, behind the cloister.

Then we went to a nearby pub, called The Chapter House, for tea, then back to London.

Changing of the guard

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Is this not a quintessentially London image?

An hour on the No. 3 bus takes us to Westminster, alighting outside Parliament Buildings. From here we can have a look at Westminster Abbey, the new Supreme Court and then hang around until 11am for Big Ben to go “bong”.

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The gilded statue atop the Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace.

Then we leg it down Birdcage Walk to Buckingham Palace to join the ten thousand other tourists massed around the beautiful gilded Victoria Memorial, to watch the changing of the guard. One of the Royal Army bands played (among other things) arrangements of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and the theme from Game of Thrones. It’s also always a treat to hear cornet players wailing Birdland Maynard Ferguson style.

From there we had lunch at the Lodge Café by the Queen Elizabeth gates to Hyde Park, and strolled around Hyde Park for the afternoon. There are deck chairs out on the grass by Serpentine Lake, and they’re £2 an hour to sit in, which is… an odd thing to charge money for. I’d also forgotten that it’s 20p to use the loo!

A weeping elm in Hyde Park.
A weeping elm in Hyde Park.

We found a massive weeping elm that doubles as a house.

After that we went to Marble Arch and along Oxford Street to sort out SIM cards and suit fits for Hamish & Louise’s wedding, a bit of shopping and then to the pub on Kingly Street round the corner from Steve’s work, and catching up with some of the usual London suspects for curry.

Sunny London welcomes all passengers

After 30 hours of flying in sealed metal tubes breathing other people’s coughs and farts, we’ve finally arrived in London.

Thermokarst lakes in West Siberia
Thermokarst lakes and gas rigs in West Siberia (Google Maps)

The flight from Shanghai to London flies a great circle over Mongolia and northern Russia, Finland, Denmark, across the North Sea, and then along the Thames River estuary. The West Siberian taiga is dotted with remote oil and gas rigs, and pocked with a zillion circular lakes that look like ancient impact craters. They’re not craters; they’re thermokarst lakes, formed from the melting of permafrost.

Circling Heathrow we got a nice aerial overview of some important landmarks. Heathrow Terminal 3 itself however is a cramped Soviet-era concrete affair, replete with peeling vinyl wallpaper, worn-out door latches, leaking refrigerant and blown fluorescent lights; but bright burned-in plasma screens with cheery signs intrude on the squalor, promising to ease your immigration check with speedy e-passport stations. They weren’t working however, which meant that it took 70 minutes to queue and get our passports rubber-stamped.

Sunrise from the air, East China Sea
Sunrise from the air, 12 kilometres above somewhere in the East China Sea.

Steve picked us up and we went home via Hammersmith and Earl’s Court, past where he used to work; it was nice to see bits of London I haven’t seen for nearly 15 years, and try and (mostly fail to) regain my bearings. Much of the way was noticeably leafy, and being summer, all the trees are in full greenery; elms, alders, oaks, planes, sycamores and chestnuts, deciduous trees that immediately invoke “English countryside” for me. I haven’t actually seen a conifer yet.

Today we went for a walk around Dulwich where we’re staying to figure out where the shops are and buy some bread. Otherwise a quiet day in to recover, ring the bank, get UK SIM cards sorted out so we don’t get charged $10 a megabyte, and maybe have a nap. More soon.