Palazzos and arias

Finding good night life is a bit difficult in Venice at this time of year. We had arrived post Christmas season, and well before Carnivale. However, we read about an opera being performed in the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto and decided to go.

The tiny palazzo is not at all grand, nor easy to find. Knowing that it might be impossible to find at night (and perhaps a bit frightening, given the number of dark and tiny alleyways we had to go through), we spent part of an afternoon searching through a maze of canals and side streets. Our wanderings took us to a dead end, where we met a fellow tourist, also looking for the palazzo. She had been assured that this was the location. And although there were no markings or signs, we agreed to come back that evening.

We arrived early, 7:00, to find a single light at the end of the dead end, and a sandwich board with information about the opera. We pressed a buzzer, a gate unlocked and we were guided through a courtyard, up a massive staircase, to a Baroque drawing room where we paid for our tickets. We were advised to return at 8:00, which we did, and joined 38 other audience members for an intimate evening of La Traviata.

The opera was scaled down and performed by only 3 singers, who were accompanied by 4 musicians (violin, viola, cello and piano). Act One took place around a grand piano in the drawing room. Lit by candles, we were complicit in the action, with Violetta handing a Prosecco to Tim as part of the action of the play. We moved to a smaller drawing room for Act Two, where Violetta could compose her tragic letter to Alfredo. Act Three took place in a marvelously decrepit boudoir, cracks in the plaster, smokey trails on the walls, with a huge bed for Violetta to sing and die on.

The whole experience was absolutely marvelous, the soprano’s high notes almost blasting our brains out in that small space. “Musica a Palazzo” regularly performs different opera evenings in Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto. Click the link and watch their trailer to get a feel for what they are doing. It was a treat to be in this environment and a unique way to experience opera.

The other great musical treat of our stay in Venice was “Le Quattro Stagioni di Vivaldi”, the Four Seasons, performed by the San Marco Chamber Orchestra in the church of Ateneo San Basso. Originally built in 1076, the building is no longer a church but is used for classical music concerts. The San Marco Chamber Orchestra works to reproduce the conditions under which Vivaldi’s music was first performed and the Ateneo San Basso has the exact same dimensions as the Pieta Institute Music Hall, where Vivaldi composed.

The concert was sublime. Growing up on the Four Seasons and overwhelmed by CBC’s incessant playing of various seasons, neither of us had ever seen the concertos live. It was like a dance between the soloist and the two violins, viola, cello, bass and harpsichord. We were carried away with the emotion, with the technical virtuosity, with the layers of sound. We walked out into the night of San Marco and it all made sense. The music, the architecture, the art.

Night time in San Marco

Leaving Venice was very, very hard. We wanted to treat ourselves to what we hoped would be a special meal for our last night. In general, Venetian restaurants were overpriced, with uninspired food and arrogant waiters. We decided to try “Gam-Gam” the Kosher restaurant just down the street from our apartment. It was by far the best meal we had in the entire time in Venice.

We had gotten used to small, unappealing portions and so were stunned when our huge Contorni arrived. My “Eggplant, Ghetto Style” was in fact 4 different eggplant dishes which included baba ghanoush, marinated eggplant slices and baked eggplant with tomato. Tim’s Hummous with mushrooms included piles of hot, freshly baked pita breads. The main course of Tagliatelle with Salmon was lemony and light, one of the best pasta meals I have ever tasted. Tim had the exquisite Cous-Cous with fish, harissa sauce and vegetables. Our sorrow was that we were too full to face the Dolci Ebraici, assorted cookies and cakes that looked fabulous as they passed by our table.

We were delighted to find a restaurant that we know we will go back to, soon, on our next trip to Venice.

Amanda on a bridge. Looking forward to another time in Venice.

Excess and Vision in Venice

One of the reasons why Venice was so successful as a republic was its unique governance structure in which the merchant aristocracy was closely involved in the rule of the city. At the head of the republic was “Il Doge”, the Duke, and the Doge’s palace, “Palazzo Ducale”, was the seat of power. Meant to impress visiting dignitaries, it is overwhelmingly impressive to lowly visiting tourists.

Palazzo Ducale from the Grand Canal

Palazzo Ducale ("The Wedding cake") from the side

Palazzo Ducale, detail

Venice was the centre of the universe. Covering the walls of the Map Room are huge 16thcentury maps of the known world, with everything radiating outwards from Venice. The palace is filled with paintings by Titian, Veronese, Bassano, and Tintoretto, everything placing Venice at the centre of the action. Every room is filled, every corner has detail, and excess is the model.

Eve in the garden. Detail on one of the pillars of the Palazzo Ducale. Each pillar is carved with different images, different stories.

The Sala del Maggior Consiglio is the largest room in all of Europe, 53’ long x 25’ wide x 12’ high. Tinteretto’s painting “Paradise”, covers one entire wall and is the largest canvas in the world. The room was designed to hold over 2000 men from the merchant aristocracy who came on a weekly basis to share in the governing of Venice. It is unspeakably vast, as though a whole piazza was put inside the palace. There are portraits around the walls of all of the known Doges, all except for Doge Marin Faliero who, for attempting a coup in 1355, was labeled a traitor and beheaded. He was placed in damnatio memoriae meaning that his name and image were totally expunged. He is represented by a painting of a black cloth, with the irony that it ensures that his name and deed live on in tourist books.

Criminality was on our minds as we wound our way down to the prisons. We walked across “The Bridge of Sighs”, named so by Bryon as the bridge was the last glimpse that a prisoner would have of the outer world as he travelled from the criminal court to the wet, stone cells beneath the palace.

Bridge of Sighs, connecting the criminal courts and the prison

Apparently acclaimed as a paragon of comfort in the 17th century, the cells were cold, dark and cramped, with graffiti carvings and charcoal drawings by 16th and 17th century prisoners. We were relieved to make our way back to the sunshine into the vastness of Piazza San Marco, Napoleon’s “drawing room of Europe”, the place to see and be seen.

Peggy Guggenheim knew all about being seen and about showing what was important to be seen. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of 20thcentury European and American art is in her Palazzo, where she lived and collected art for over 40 years.

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

An heiress who met and worked with all of the important visual artists of the 20th century, she brought modern European art to America and American art to Italy. The café in the museum is filled with photos of her at the palazzo –  standing beside her Calder bedstead sporting her Calder earrings, or in front of the fireplace with the Brancusi sculpture on the hearth. The current exhibit is “The Avant-Garde, from Picasso to Pollack”. It is a personal and moving collection, a wonderful balance to the excess at Palazzo Ducale. The Guggenheim palazzo was under restoration, so we were not able to visit all of the magnificent rooms, nor visit Peggy’s simple grave in the garden. (As one guide book quipped, it is the only gallery in the world where the patron is buried out back). But even with that, it was one of the best gallery experiences either of us have ever had. Her artistic eye led her to collect pieces that made a profound impact on 20th century art. She was a visionary who helped us to see who we are.

Entering the world of the lagoon

Even in January, Venice is filled with tourists. While the Piazza San Marco holds architectural wonders, we wanted to continue to enjoy the quiet nooks of Venice wherever possible.

Deserted islands in the lagoon

The Venetian lagoon, at 520 square kilometers, is the world’s largest wetland. The islands are mostly empty, sporting bits of crumbling masonry from centuries gone by. They are used by the local population for picnics and for fishing. But there are a few islands where people live and one very important island for the dead.

We started the day on Cimitero di San Michele, the cemetery island.

The church of San Michele in Isola

Cimitero di San Michele, a sculpture of the dead being ferried to the island in a gondola

The Roman Catholic church of San Michele in Isola was built on the island in 1469, on the site of an older church and in 1807, during the French occupation, the island was selected as the site for the city’s cemetery. Napoleon had decreed that it was unsanitary to have a cemetery within the city boundaries, so all cities had to move their burials plots outside of the city walls.

It is a beautiful and peaceful place, with tall cypress trees and large topiaries. There are different sections – the sad children’s section, the Greeks and Protestants, the war veterans, the gondoliers. There were fresh flowers on many of the graves, and we shared the early morning boat with Venetians paying their respects. Cimitero di San Michele is the final resting place for a number of famous people who died in Venice, including Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev.

Photo and pointe shoes on Diaghilev's tomb

Diaghilev's tomb

The pointe shoes on Diaghilev’s tomb were fresh and clean – clearly recently renewed.

From Cimitero, we took the boat to Murano, the glass island. In 1291, the Venetian’s decided to move all glass making production to the island of Murano, for fear of the effects of a possible fire from glass factories in the main city. The expertise of the craftsmen flourished and by the 16th & 17th centuries it was the world centre for glass production. Murano trained craftsmen were not permitted to leave the island – anyone doing so was proclaimed a traitor. Today, the island caters to the tourist trade, with tours of the glass blowing facilities and stores selling an overabundance of mass market glass beads and knick knacks. In and amongst these, however, there are still fine craftsmen, producing unique and collectable art.

Coming in the off-season, we were not harassed by glass salesmen and could enjoy walking around the island.

The Grand Canal in Murano

The Murano Grand Canal weaves lazily through the town. There’s a great museum on the history of glass, the Museo dell’Arte Vetrario, housed in the 17th century Palazzo Giustinian. With huge glass chandeliers, a great exhibit of early Roman glass, and fabulous contemporary pieces, the museum helped us to see past some of the tacky glass shops to the history and beauty of glass.

From Murano, we took the boat to the small island of Mazzorbo. Mazzorbo has no claim to fame, other than to be a quiet and tranquil place to live. It was settled around the 10thcentury, but is not at all built up.

The quiet church of Santa Caterina on Mazzorbo

There are quiet garden plots, and little fishing boats. The 14th Century church of Santa Caterina still has its original bell, dating from 1318, making it one of the oldest in Europe. Apparently Winston Churchill, amongst many others, came here regularly to paint. Yet you can walk through Mazzorbo in about 10 minutes, cross the lovely wooden bridge and arrive at the island of Burano.

Burano is the lace island. It had a thriving lace industry in the 16th century, and an important lace making school in the 18thcentury, but today is mostly known for it’s colourful houses.

Looking from Mazzorbo to the colourful houses on Burano

The apocryphal story is that local fishermen all painted their houses bright colours so that they could see them from out in the lagoon. Apparently the colours are highly regulated now, and owners must apply to the local government to find out which colour they are permitted to paint. Because we were visiting in the off-season, the island was even quieter than normal.

The colourful houses on the quiet canals of Burano

We found a great place to have some lunchtime pasta, but the charm of the island was mostly in the walking amidst such exuberant and vibrating colours.

From Burano we took the ferry to Torcello, said to be the birthplace of modern Venice.

Walking into quiet Torcello

It was founded in the 5th century by citizens of the town of Altino, fleeing from the mainland. In the 14thcentury there were 20,000 people living on the island. But it is the most boggy and marshy of the islands, and inhabitants suffered from the excessive mosquito population and thus plagues of malaria. Today the island is home to about 100 residents. In tourist season there are a couple of lovely places to eat, but when we arrived everything was closed and shuttered. It was late in the afternoon and we were just in time to enter the church of Santa Maria Assunta, one of the oldest and most beautiful of all the churches we saw in our time in Venice.

The church of Santa Maria Assunta

Santa Maria Assunta dates from 639 and has amazing floor, vault and wall mosaics dating from the 9th to the 12th century. A huge Romanesque/Byzantine wall mosaic of the Last Judgment covers one whole wall of the church and shows pictures of the blessed and damned, of heaven and hell. Sitting on the edge of a small, virtually deserted island, the church had a magical and spiritual feel that was stronger than all of the huge cathedrals in Venice combined.

Sunset over the canal of Torcello

We walked back to the vaporetto dock into a magnificent sunset. We left the deep, murky mysteries of the lagoon and headed back on into the city, “the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” –Erica Jong. We had travelled far.

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” –Giuseppe Verdi

The shock of Venice

Welcome to Venice. Greeted by the church of San Simeone Piccolo

It is impossible to go to Venice without a preconceived vision. It must be the most painted, photographed, fictionalized and filmed city in the world. But it was still a shock. It was the most “foreign” experience I have ever had.

One knows that Venice in on the water. But I don’t think I had really understood what that meant. On another planet, in another universe, perhaps all cities are built on the water. Here on earth, there is only one.

The city of Venice is on a lagoon of 117 islands. While lagoon dwellers have lived there since the 10th century B.C., the impetus for modern day Venice began when people from northern Italy were fleeing Germanic and Hun invasions in the 4th century A.D. The early peoples brought wood from the forests of northern Italy and began the process of building on the lagoon and creating a unique world of interconnected islands. Their strategic position at the head of the Adriatic eventually gave the city naval and commercial supremacy and by the late 13th century, Venice was the richest city in all of Europe. It was ruled by the “Great Council”, made up of all of the leading Venetian families. They vied with each other to build the largest palazzos (palaces), decorated with the work of the greatest artists of their time.

But as with all empires, Venetian fortunes changed. Trade routes altered. Over a three-year period in the 16th century, the Black Death killed a third of Venice’s population. Venice would never have the same military force. But it has never lost its grace and beauty.

Today, the city relies on tourism to keep it afloat, quite literally. Over 50,000 tourists visit Venice per day. We were, again, very glad to be visiting in the off-season.

“Ask Venetians why they stay, nearly suffocated by mass tourism and rising water levels, and they will tell you that the tourists are supernumeraries, the acqua alta part of the scenery, and the play itself is still the greatest show on earth” (Time Out, Venice)

Of course, I love a good stage set. I love crumbling and fading beauty, where sculptures and painting are tucked in and around every façade. A world where attention is paid to every detail, and yet so little is kept in good repair.

And I love living in a city with no cars, where early morning deliveries are made by quiet barges skillfully maneuvered through narrow canals.

The view from our window in Cannaregio

We had rented an apartment in the Cannaregio region, near the Jewish ghetto, away from the mad tourist dash of San Marco and the consumerism of the Rialto.

Tim outside the door of our apartment

Here, people were living their lives amidst the beauty and decay. There were little stores on every corner, with all manner of cheeses, meats and wines. There was a large fruit and vegetable market, fish market, bakeries and cafes.  What more could a person ask for?

The word ghetto comes from Venice. It meant iron foundry, a place where iron was cast (gettato). The foundry was in the island of Cannaregio until 1390. In 1516, the Jewish population was given permanent residency status in Venice, but they were confined to this area. It was a haven for Jews who could take refuge here from other parts of northern Italy. But it also became a prison where the bridges were locked after dusk. It is the one region where there are tall buildings — since people were confined to a small area, they built upwards. It was not until the arrival of Napoleon in the 18th century that the Jewish population were given full rights of citizenship. Many chose to remain in Cannaregio.

The Ghetto

Living in Cannaregio, we decided to make our first stop a pilgrimage to the memorial for the 202 Venetian Jews who were deported from Venice to death camps in 1943. The central piazza in the ghetto was cold and still in the early morning sunshine. The memorial was overpowering.

Memorial for the Venetian Jews deported during the holocaust

Venice is a city built on water, but it is also a city made for walking and getting lost. No street is straight or long. It is an intense maze in which a map is almost useless.  We spent the morning walking. And walking. And walking. Trying to get a sense of the geography, and realizing that it is more like understanding a forest than a city. Learning to recognize shapes, trusting more to instinct than reason.

So we switched our perspective and took a trip through the city by boat. At 75 euros for 50 minutes, we couldn’t afford a gondola, but for 6.50 euros we could take the vaporetto (the water bus) through the city, enjoying the twists and turns of the Grand Canal. We armed ourselves with a great guide book and Tim read through the “tour” as we went along.

The perspective on the city is entirely altered from the water. Grand entrances, designed for water access and invisible from the streets, are revealed in all their glory.

Ca d'oro, The Palazzo Santa Sophia

Commerce and daily lives are conducted here.

The fish market. Where fish can be unloaded directly from the boat.

The rich and mighty socialize, wheel and deal. It is a vision of power, wealth and astonishing beauty.

Red carpet treatment at the grand Casino. Lives of the rich and famous

We finished our Grand Canal tour at the Piazza San Marco. But we decided that we needed to wait a couple of days before submersing ourselves in the intensity of San Marco. Instead, we walked away from the tourist hub, along the cobbled seaside walkway, far enough that we could find a glass of wine that we could afford (the closer you are to San Marco, the more expensive the wine, and the seats).

Wine in the January sunshine

We watched the world go by, the boats heading to islands, the sun starting to set behind the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. As the dusk set in, we headed back through the narrow streets, finding new adventures around each corner.

Sunset behind San Giorgio Maggiore

An Epiphany in Florence

Exquisite architecture, extraordinary sculptures in every piazza, and more galleries than a person could see in one lifetime.

A view of Florence

To say that Florence is a city dedicated to art is gross understatement.Of course it is also filled with tourists and an infinite number of reproductions of Michelangelo’s David in all sizes and mediums. For me, the challenge was to try and come to the art with a fresh eye, and see if I could find a real city under the excessive tourist trade.

The David must be the most reproduced image in the world. Making the pilgrimage to see it “in the flesh” felt a bit false. A bit touristy, to say the least. Apparently 5 people a year die when they see David. True fact. Knowing this, could the sculpture possibly live up to the hype?

Yes.

We gasped. Our jaws dropped. We were weak in the knees. Words will not do. Art critic Giorgio Vasari stated in the 16th century that there really wasn’t any point in looking at any other art. He was probably right. Michelangelo was 26 when he began his commission on the sculpture. It took him only two years to complete. I felt as though I could have stayed routed to the spot for at least that long.

Gradually we began to breathe again, and slid away to see other works in the Accademia. There was a show of beautiful sculptures by Lorenzo Bronzino (19th century) that included his exquisite Nymph with Scorpion. But we kept circling back and paying homage and burning the experience  of David into our hearts and minds. We needed to be able to withstand the streets immediately outside the gallery, filled with David T-shirts, key chains and mugs.

Our trip to the Uffizi was moving on a more subtle scale, both of us soaking up the perfect Botticellis, every golden hair in perfect harmony with nature. The Uffizi building is in itself a marvel, with glorious painted ceilings, and an art collection developed over four centuries. It has a grand, dusty, jumbled up feeling that is drastically different from a contemporary, antiseptic gallery. It was built in 1581, by Granduca Francisco de’ Medici, son of Cosimo Medici I, and although there have been a few renovations over the years it has not been modernized in the least. It is an intense place. There is just so much there. You could go every day for a year and see something new each time. Tim and I travelled in different directions, at different speeds, and compared notes over afternoon macchiato having only just touched the surface.

The next day was Epiphany, and a chance to connect with Florentines outside of the galleries. Epiphany is an important holiday in Italy. Many businesses are closed and families celebrate the arrival of La Befana. According to legend, the Three Wise Men, when looking for the manger, asked directions of an old woman. They told her where they were going and invited her to come with them, but she said she was busy. A shepherd did the same, but again, she didn’t go. Later that night, when she saw a great light in the sky, she decided to go, bearing gifts that had belonged to her own child, who had died. But she got lost and never found the manger. Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick on the 11th night of Christmas (January 5), bringing gifts to children who have been good and coal to those who have been bad.

We began our Epiphany celebrations on the Piazza Michelangelo, high above the city of Florence. La Befana  bought me a glass of Prosecco from a roadside stand to celebrate the day.

Celebrating Epiphany, with the wind in my hair

Piazza Michelangelo offers an amazing view of the city. You can clearly see the old Roman wall and fortifications delineating the separation between the city and the country.

View from Piazzale Michelangelo. The city/country divide along the old Roman wall

We walked high above the town, to the old Roman gate of the city, past palaces converted to luxury hotels and vast Italianate gardens.

Piazzale di Porto Romano

Well outside the tourist area, we were able to get a good, simple lunch of risotto and a great salad of thin shavings of fennel, orange slices and black Sicilian olives at a neighbourhood café. We headed to the Piazza Pitti for the Epiphany parade.

Being in this section of Florence, on the other side of the river Arno, we felt like we were in an entirely different town. Although there are many galleries that surround Piazza Pitti, we were there to feast our eyes on the “Cavalcade of the Three Kings” and to see Florentines out enjoying a holiday.

Looking from her window to the parade below

The parade participants were just gathering, preparing for the long walk through the city to the Duomo in the centre of Florence.

Last minute costume adjustments. The falcon is very real.

Various guilds, all in 15thcentury dress, were responsible for sections of the parade.

The parade moves past us on its way into the city

The Three Kings made their way first, followed by a shepherd and dignitaries on horseback. There were drummers, flag throwers, men at arms, beautiful couples, aging royalty and children – all very serious in their slow studied march through town.

On horseback with a falcon

The Piazza Pitti filled with spectators of all ages, on the streets, hanging out of windows, to watch the parade go by. It was a celebration of life, of a proud history, of a very real and very beautiful city.

The parade leaves the piazza

A soggy Siena

Travelling in the off-season is terrific. Fewer tourists, lower prices, you get an honest feel for a place. For the most part, the weather has been fabulous. There has only been one day when we were badly rained out and that was when we met up with Xan and Meghan to go to see Siena.

Siena is an extraordinarily beautiful medieval city that in its hay-day rivaled Florence. It was an important trade route between Florence and Rome and like Florence was filled with wealthy patrons of the arts. However, Sienna was decimated by the Black Death in 1348 and never really recovered its stature. What is left is like a time capsule, one of the largest and most beautiful medieval cities in Europe.

We arrived on an overcast afternoon to explore the grand piazza in the centre of town, the Piazzo del Campo.

Tim, Xan and Meghan in Piazzo del Campo

Famous for it’s curved scallop shape, it is the meeting place for thousands in the summer. We practically had it to ourselves, which gave us a chance to appreciate the grace and beauty of one of the largest piazzas in Europe.

Piazza del Campo in January. We could only imagine the summer crowds

We had planned on climbing the famous tower, the Torre del Mangia, which overlooks the piazza. A great engineering feat in its day, the tower is 88 metres high. When it was built in 1338 it was was the tallest secular tower in Europe. It was named after the first bell ringer Giovanni di Duccio, who was nicknamed “Mangiaguadagni” which roughly translates as using all of his money to eat well. We felt an immediate affinity for him.

Torre del Mangia

All of the guidebooks write about the gorgeous view from the top of the tower. But as we stood in line to go up and read the cautionary notes about the climb, we started to have second thoughts. Four hundred steps? Climbing up a tower that is, at some points, only 20” wide? With ceilings less than 5’? Not to be done by people who might suffer from claustrophobia or anxiety? To look out over a mist covered city on an overcast day?

We decided to go have lunch instead and found a lovely place where we could sit outside under a plastic tent with heat lamps. We confined ourselves to a 2-course lunch, with fabulous local red wines, and delicious local specialties such as papparadelle di cinghiale (pasta with wild boar sauce). Feeling replete, refreshed and very pleased with ourselves (perhaps not unlike Mangiaguadagni), we headed out for a bit of sightseeing.

Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was the teeming rain, but I was fully confident of the location of the one tourist place we wanted to visit, the Palazzo Pubblico, a gothic palace which is a museum of medieval art. We arrived, bought the tickets for a special tour and just as we started to go in realized that it was the wrong palace, the wrong tour.  But there were only 6 people on the tour, 4 of whom were us, so we couldn’t retreat gracefully. Thus, we ended up touring the freezing cold palace of Palazzo Chigi Saracini, a palace built in the 12th century, filled with artwork collected in the 17th and 18th centuries. Reflecting the tastes of the last owner, Count Guido Chigi Saracini, we walked through room after room of quiet hideous Baroque furniture and excessively decorative paintings. The palace is now a music school, the Chigana Musical Academy, that was founded by the Count. The school has spawned many of virtuoso performers and is probably a great place to come for a concert in July. But the Count’s artistic tastes were not our own. Quite a hodge podge, in fact.  The best part was the chance to see Liszt’s piano. It is very small.

By the time we finished the tour it was almost dark. Rain was pouring down. We made a quick trip to the Duomo, which as far as Duomo’s go is of a manageable size.

The Duomo, before the rain

There is a small library attached, with a good display of liturgical manuscripts with gorgeous lettering and illumination.

Liturgical Manuscripts in the Duomo

I particularly liked the Duomo’s marble pulpit, designed by Nicola Pisano in the 13th century, with four carved lions at the bottom.

Marble pulpet designed by Pisano

I felt a fondness for the lion that was eating one of the lambs. You just can’t tell with these lions.

One of the pulpit lions

As we headed to the train station, wet and weary, we realized how little of Siena we had seen. It will have to wait for another trip, and a sunny day. We arrived back to the dry streets of Florence, under holiday lights, ending our glorious family holiday with a final dinner with Xan and Meghan before they made their way back to the ice and snow of Canada.

Evening lights in Florence

Starting the new year in a fort

New Years Day, January 1, 2012. The beginning of a new year and the end of our family time together.

The day before New Year’s eve, Tim, my mother and I were driving the hills above the villa in search of a local restaurant. We were lost and cranky. The restaurant was nowhere in sight. But suddenly we saw a sign for Ristorante Forte Mace’. This was not what we were looking for, but we thought we should check it out. We drove up to what looked like a fortification, set deep into the ground, atop a hill. Which is exactly what it was.

Forte Mace'

The restaurant was closed, but we peered in the window and soon a young woman and her mother came out. We explained, in broken Italian and a bit of Spanish, that there were 8 of us and we were hoping to have dinner on San Silvestro. They told us that they were full for San Silvestro, but could serve us on the following day, lunch at 1:00. A quick tour of the restaurant, a change of plan, and we gratefully accepted.

The entrance to the restaurant

Ristorante Forte Mace’ sits tucked into the hillside, high above the Gulf of La Spezia.

The view from the fort of the Gulf of La Spezia

Built in 1889, the fort provided land defense for the entire region. It was in total disrepair when purchased 14 years ago by the present owners. The have turned it into an extraordinary family restaurant and it was there that we spent New Year’s Day.

What we did not know was that the family opened the restaurant exclusively for us. We were the only diners, and they prepared a very special meal for us.

The son of the family, the business manager for the restaurant, speaks some English and was able to guide us through our meal. We started by ordering delicious local wines and began our way through the extraordinary menu, starting with the Antipasto Desgustazione.

We all shared plates of:

  • Bruschetta al lardo
  • Cipolline in agrondolce all’alloro
  • Crostini con acciughe
  • Torta di farro
  • Torta di zucca gialla

Our little Italian phrase book didn’t help with the subtleties of this menu, but we were able to get the gist of most things. Each taste was unique and special. The Cipolline (baby onions) in a slightly sweet sauce, the fresh anchovies and the Torta di faro (a hearty kind of grain) were especially memorable. The Bruschetta al lardo was amazing, soft and buttery. We were only a bit shocked when we looked at the menu and realized that it was lard.

For the pasta course we each had a choice:

  • Ravioli all spezzina al ragu di carne tradizionale
  • Gnocchi di farina di castagne con crema di zola
  • Gnocchi aromatizzati all zafferanao con speck e radicchio rosso
  • Pansotti con salsa di noci
  • Tagliolini al ragu bianco di granchio

We all shared around tastes of each dish. Meghan’s gnocchi di farina di castagne (chestnut flour) were really surprising and delicious, as were the gnocchi with red radicchio that Lewis had. While in La Spezia we have found a number of dishes that use red radicchio. I love the slightly bitter taste and burnt colour that it adds. I ordered Pansotti con salsa di noci, which were lovely fresh little stuffed pastas in a subtle and soft nut sauce. Amazingly delicate.

For Secondi Piatti we chose from:

  • Salsicce con patate al forno
  • Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola
  • Filetto di maiale al marsala
  • Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate
  • Acciughe fritte con insalata

We searched through the phrase book and placed our orders. A lot of us had the Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola. Thin slices of rare beef, mounded with shavings of Parmesan cheese on a bed of arugula. The perfect combination and incredibly delicious. Tim braved the Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate, little fried pieces of rabbit with grilled eggplant. They use a lot of rabbit in this part of Italy and Tim said it was marvellous, although not unlike chicken.

By the time that we had eaten all of these courses, there was very little room for Dolce. However, the owners had especially made a nut torte, so I willingly had a bit – light and airy, it was the perfect way to end the meal.

Well, not quite the end. When we found that the grandmother of the family makes homemade limoncello, we knew that we wanted to cap off the meal with a glass (or two).

Very full and very happy

Then the father of the family came out from the kitchen saying “Come. Come” to my mother. As he began to guide her out the door, Tim & I followed and he took us on a full tour of the fort. He is the one who has done the bulk of the restoration work, by hand, and we were shown a slideshow of the renovation process. This is more than just a little family restaurant. The daughter and her mother do most of the cooking and we saw a sign for the Italian Cooking Academy on the wall. They serve the specialities of the Ligurian coast and do it with grace and symplicity. The son does the business side and was our host for the afternoon since he was able to speak English.

This is a family that has poured their hearts into creating a unique experience for everyone who comes there. This was more than a meal. We were welcomed into their world and we felt incredibly privileged to be there with them.

By the time we left we were hugging and introducing our children as “Alessandro, Magdalena, e Luigi”, something which I suspect will go into family lore and which Tim & I won’t be able to live down. Laughing until our faces and sides hurt, we rolled down the hill, along the ancient path, to the villa. It was an amazing way to usher in a new year.

San Silvestro in La Spezia

La Spezia is very much a working town, not geared for tourists. It isn’t glamourous, but it is very honest.

A typical street in La Spezia

It gave us a chance to glimpse into a “real” Italian city, filled with hard working families. And when San Silvestro (our New Year’s) rolled around, we got to experience it as La Spezians.

After a large feast at the villa, Xan, Lewis, Meghan and I got dressed up went down into the heart of the city to celebrate.

Lewis gets ready for New Year's

The whole city must have been there. There is a large pedestrian concourse through the centre of town and everyone – babies, children, teens, adults, grandparents –  was strolling up and down the streets to celebrate San Silvestro.

The first thing that hit us, almost literally, was the banging of firecrackers. All around us, constantly, unexpectedly, BANG! BANG, BANG, BANG!!! Children and youth were setting off firecrackers everywhere. Under cars, under people’s feet, even on top of the water in a fountain. Parents gave their kids lit firecrackers to throw! And everyone was laughing constantly at everyone jumping.

We learned to look around – if we saw some child rushing away from a corner, we’d rush away too, or risk a deafening explosion. Our collective adrenaline was pumping furiously.

But it wasn’t just firecrackers. People were setting off fireworks everywhere on the street. They were holding lit fireworks as shooting stars poured forth. We were covered in the smell of sulphur.

Pretty soon we got giggly and giddy. Like everyone else on the street, we  jumped whenever something exploded or shot out near us, and laughed.

And then there were the bunny ears. Young men, mostly, were buying and wearing headbands with bunny ears that were lit up in different colours.

Bunny ears on the streets of La Spezia

Bunny ears everywhere. A grand street carnival. There were merry-go-rounds and lights, and everyone eating gelato and crepes with Nutella and cream.

Stages were set up in each of the piazzas and at each there was a different type of band. We walked from piazza to piazza trying to decide where we wanted to be for the big countdown. Did we want to usher in 2012 with the Italian Klezmer band? Or with the outrageously dressed boy band singing a weird kind of gigolo Italian ska? Or with the dueling turntables, mixing oldie goldies, while boys in bunny ears and middle aged parents in ski jackets did a conga-line?

We decided on the flamboyant guys with a hodgepodge of retro costume bits — cape, frilly white shirt, long styled hair, red cummerbund, Paul Revere jacket, zebra pants. They were singing nothing that we recognized, loudly off key. We bought a bottle of Prosecco and four glasses – everyone on the street had bottles – and counted down with everyone else in La Spezia. As the new year broke, everyone around us was singing in Italian (maybe the national anthem?), and we mouthed along, made noise, drank our bubbly and agreed that it was definitely the most unique New Year’s we had ever had.

Lewis, Amanda, Xan & Meghan on the streets of La Spezia. Happy San Silvestro!

The Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre are 5 tiny villages that perch on the edge of the cliffs along the Ligurian coast. The name means five villages, not lands, and stems from medieval times. Cinque Terre comprises the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare.

Historically subject to raiding by pirates from North Africa, the peaceful little villages are now protected by the Cinque Terre National Park authority. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997, the villages are not accessible by car, but are linked by train and, in the summer, by regular boat service. There are also extensive hiking trails between the villages and through the surrounding hills.

Trains leave from La Spezia for Riomaggiore every half hour. The train ride itself is only 8 minutes long but the journey takes you from a busy, gritty working city to a magical fishing village of tiny shops and restaurants, carved into the cliffs.

Riomaggiore

We arrived in Riomaggiore on a gorgeous sunny day a few days after Christmas and set off to walk up the incredibly steep main road, finding churches and piazzas hidden away in the labyrinth of tiny streets. A recording of Placido Domingo was playing on a speaker in the street and we followed it into a tiny room, carved into the rock, filled with a massive nativity scene.

The Nativity Grotto

A whole village was reproduced, with figures fishing, shopping, washing clothes, all powered by water. It was the first of many nativity scenes that we have seen in Italy.

We decided to have lunch in La Grotto, a restaurant built into the cliff, with raw rock forming some of the walls. The village is known for its fish, so some of us decided to see what the local cuisine had to offer from the sea.

The harbour in Riomaggiore. A fish lover's paradise.

My mother Laurie and I ordered a specialty of the region called Ciupin’. “Cuipin’ di pesce fresco del golfo con pomodoro, pepe nero e romarino servitor con frette di pan tostato”. (Fresh fish from the Gulf with fresh tomatoes, pepper, rosemary sauce, served with toasted bread). We thought that it was a fish soup but when it arrived there was no real broth – just a massive amount of fish. Sea bass, sole, mussels, clams, scampi, 3 different parts of squid. All with heads and tails, each tasting unique, in the delicious sauce. It was a bit of work, but with the fabulous breads and local wine it was one of the most delicious meals I have had.

After lunch, we wended our way along the Via dell’Amore toward the next town, Manarola. In reading about the Cinque Terre, the walk is described as a hike, but I think it is better thought of as an exquisite promenade.

Momma Laurie hikes the Via Dell'Amore

It is a paved walkway along the cliff edge, festooned with tiny locks, left by lovers pledging their love together. It really is just about as romantic as you can get.

Lover's locks

We arrived in Manerola as the sun was beginning to set. We walked to the top of the town and stood in the piazza outside the church (built in 1388), watching the sunset.

Sunset in Manarola

Just above the town, in the terraced vineyards above the houses, was a massive nativity scene. Figures of the nativity and of every day working people were lit up as the darkness set in. Apparently these are the work of a local resident, who sets up many different religious scenes as a tribute to his father.

Nativity scene in the terraced vineyards of Manarola

There are over 200 figures illuminated by 12,000 lamps, making it the largest nativity scene in the world. The picture does not do them justice, unfortunately. It was a very memorable sight.

We were a bit too late in the day to go on the vineyard tour, but made up for that by buying several bottles of local wine. There are miles of grape vines on the hills above the towns and the terraced vineyards are one of the reasons for the World Heritage Site status. The sheer number of stone terraces is equivalent to the building of the Great Wall of China. We are happy to take home a sampling.

Two days later, Xan’s partner Meghan arrived from Canada, and we knew that we wanted to go back and visit the third town, Corniglia, with her. The last two towns, Vernzza and Monterosso al Mare are currently closed to tourists. There were deadly mudslides in October that have closed the towns, as well as the path between Corniglia and Manerola. But we were able to take the train to Corniglia and explore.

The main square in Corniglia

It is the tiniest of the villages (population about 240) and sits highest on the hills. It is not as often visited by tourists, because it is a bit more remote. But it was well worth the climb, or the cost of the shuttle that drives up to the hill top.

Corniglia has been famous for producing good wines since Roman days, and in the regular season there are tours and wine tasting bars. It was exquisitely quiet when we arrived, and much of the town was closed. We spent time in the sunshine in the main square, the Largo Taragio, centre of which spouts the old town well that used to bring in water from the hillside to the locals who lived without plumbing.

The Largo Taragio, with a memorial to the dead from WW1, and the old town well

In the Oratory of Santa Caterina on the Largo Taragio the nativity scene included a tiny pizzeria, with a man putting pizza into the oven. From the square we continued to climb higher to a small clearing and the Santa Maria Belvedere, the most stunning look out point to the sea.

Maddy & Tim looking out from Santa Maria Belvedere in Corniglia

It is a natural sun trap and a perfect picnic spot.

However, we didn’t bring picnics – we were there to sample local cuisine. We discovered the Enoteca Il Pirun, a wine bar and tiny restaurant that served us an amazing meal of pastas. Tim & I shared a plate of acciughe sotto limone (anchovies marinated in lemon and olive oil) that was one of the highlights of our visit. Sweet and lemony – we were eating fish caught directly outside the village with lemons grown on the trees in the village and olive oil made from olives grown on the surrounding terraces. How could it be better? We all shared around our different plates of pastas with mussels, clams, pesto and rolled away from the table late in the afternoon to take the 3-minute train ride to Manerola. From Manerola we walked into the sunset of Via Dell’Amore toward Riomaggiore. A couple of new lovers locks were added to the collection.

Xan & Meghan on the Via Dell'Amore

We’ve only scratched the surface of Cinque Terre. There was so much to take in and we were overwhelmed by the outrageous beauty. We are already making plans to come back to visit the last two towns, to hike the high paths through the vineyards, and to perhaps pick up a few more bottles of local wine.

Sut set on the Via Dell'Amore

Portovenere

Portovenere is on a promontory that juts into the western edge of the Gulf of La Spezia. A 30-minute bus ride from the city of La Spezia, the roads snake along the coast to take you from the work-a-day world of La Spezia to a resort and fishing town of startling beauty.

Portovenere

A piazza runs the length of the town, with restaurants spilling out into the sunshine. Fishing boats bob on the docks and ferry people over to the island of Palmaria, directly across from the town. It is a picture perfect Riviera town.

The Romans built an outpost here as a base en route from Gaul to Spain. The Byzantines, Lombards, the Genovese and Napoleon all passed through, leaving their marks. We walked around the piazza with our jaws dropped. It was our first experience of this kind of Mediterranean beauty.

Tim & Maddy walking by the docks

The path led upwards on cobbled steps to the Chiesa di San Pietro.

Chiesa di San Pietro

Traces of a Roman temple have been found here. The temple is thought to have been dedicated to Venus from which came the name “Portus Veneris” —  Porto Venere. Like most sacred places, successive generations have added and adapted according to needs, and so the Chiesa di San Pietro is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Built of white and black marble in the Gothic-Genoese style, it sits right on the edge of the water. A “back door” leads out to a small stone platform overlooking the bay. A perfect sun trap.

Mother Laurie Lewis behind Chiesa di San Pietro

The church sits on the edge of a large square with access to the Grotta Arpaia. The Grotta Arpaia opens out to the other side of the promontory and has steps walking down to the rocks below.

Grotta Arpaia

The Grotto is dedicated to the poet Byron. Byron and Shelly both spent a lot of time in Portovenere and in Lerici.  Byron made this grotto famous by swimming from here around the promontory and on across the bay to Lerici. Shelly was not so lucky, nor so adept at swimming. He drowned in the bay when his boat capsized, sailing from Lerici.

We explored the winding cobbled streets, with homes, shops and restaurants tucked into narrow alleyways and along steep stairs.

Narrow streets winding up the cliff

A labyrinth of walkways led us to the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, built in 1130. Tim & I were passing by on an upper level right beside the bells as they started to chime. We were almost deafened by the sound. But we were close enough to hear, well, really to feel, the harmonics of the two toned bells. An extraordinary experience.

Chiesa di San Lorenzo,

We walked higher, to the outer ramparts of the Castle, built in 1161. But rather than go in, Tim & I became distracted by a cemetery on the edge of the cliff below the castle. The cemetery has a few mausoleums, but the final resting places are mostly in marble walls facing the ocean. Apparently there is a rotational system – for the first generation after your death you get a fairly prominent position. Gradually, your remains are moved to one of the less accessible places. All in all, we think it is a lovely place to honour the memory of a loved one.

A beautiful final resting place

We ended the day thoughtfully, and happily bundled our family back to the villa for dinner.

Tim on the dock of Portovenere, Lerici in the distance across the bay