Friday, April 13, 2012

Dining in Venice

Dining experiences in Venice can be hit or miss. I've experienced many misses when trying restaurants alongside well trodden tourist thoroughfares, even though some hits have been had on the same streets. My general approach is to:
1. Avoid restaurants that offer regional foods from other areas of Italy, as they are trying for the tourist trade and not depending on repeat business, so the quality and value of their food is not as much of an issue as it would be for a restaurant depending on locals for support. Even though Ai Tre Archi offers Bistecca Fiorentina, their menu is filled with Venetian favorites, with a heavy emphasis on seafood and all their pasta is hand made.
2. Look for restaurants off the beaten path for good local food and do a little research before your trip to discover exactly what the regional foods are in the Veneto. La Aciugheta was one restaurant that had several unusual dishes that were laced with spices we do not typically associate with Italian food. I couldn't help but think of Marco Polo as I read their menu, and the influence that the spice trade brought to the Western World. I wondered if these were centuries old recipes.
3. Before the E.U formed, you could just go to a restaurant that didn't have a multi language menu, but nowadays most restaurants will have English, German, French and Spanish, besides Italian, on their menus. I'd definitely try the restaurants that didn't. That's how I found La Perla Pizzeria There was no English on the menu, so I just had to try it. Also it was priced for locals as their prices were so much lower than what I had seen at other restaurants that day.
4. When in doubt, order fish. The fish market in Venice is world famous and the local cuisine is dominated by seafood.
Here a few of my favorites:
  Vini Da Gigio
 Osteria Al Bomba  
 Al Mascaron

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sleeping in Venice

Ever since our 2nd trip to Venice, we have been going to Locanda Di Orsaria. We arrived in Venice on our honeymoon without a booking, and as we stood in line at the hotel kiosk in the train station, we were approached by someone trying to lure tourists to Hotel Dolomiti around the corner. We refused the offer of a room for $75 until we kept hearing people ahead of us in line asking if they had something cheaper than $125. Hotel Dolomiti was sounding better and better, so we relented and walked around the corner. It was a decent place and we enjoyed our stay there.

We looked for it again when we were planning another visit but it was closed at that time of year and we ended up canceling plans for Venice entirely. On our 2nd trip we successfully booked Hotel Dolomiti, but after the first night we needed to find another hotel, and fast. I spent the entire night trying to avoid being eaten alive by mosquitoes. It was very warm, and the sheet covering my head, to avoid dive bombing and buzzing by mosquitoes, made me so uncomfortably hot I couldn’t sleep at all. While my husband strolled around the following morning, I was on a quest to find another room. I found it directly across the street at Locanda Di Orsaria. When I saw the room and noticed window screens I knew I had found the right place. I have never looked back. Here are some photos of this lovely hotel:



There are two types of rooms, standard and superior. If you need to feel like a princess, try the superior rooms as seen in the photos above. Personally, I like the old fashioned appearance of the standard rooms, and you can book a family room for 4 with that class. Prices have risen over the years and this has become a highly sought after hotel. I count myself lucky to be able to afford it from time to time.


When I first booked the hotel, they didn't have a website and you could get a discount for cash. You could also opt out of breakfast to reduce the room price by a small amount. There is no longer an opt out for breakfast, but it's a great way to start your day, so why not indulge yourself? The lattes come in a bowl the way you see them served in France.


Locanda Di Orsaria's Website

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sant Maria Del Fiore...The Duomo in Florence

The basilica of Santa Maria Del Fiore has been for centuries, and remains, one of the top tourist attractions in Florence. It took more than a century and a half to complete, but until modern times, with technological advances in materials, this cathedral had the largest dome ever built. To this day it still has the largest brick constructed dome in the world. One would have to say that there had been quite a feat of engineering that went into producing the octagonal dome.

The Carrara marble facade with bands of pink and green marble is purely ornamental and quite distinctive on this cathedral that remains one of the largest religious edifices in all of Italy. It was resurfaced in the late 19th century, but it mimicked the campanile that had been completed for some time. The list of artists involved in the construction reads like a who's who in Renaissance Art with names such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Giotto, Pisano and Donatello. But no matter what their contributions, the main attention has always been on the dome itself, hence the nickname "duomo".

The dome was not even commissioned until after the first century of work had been completed. During the final phase of construction, it came down to only two artists that were vying for the commission, Fillippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is quite amazing that both were goldsmiths, men used to working on very small objects in minute detail. Where were the architects and engineers? Ghiberti had already won the commission for the baptistery doors, so Brunelleschi, a Medici favorite, won the commission but had to share the honor, though not much of the work with Ghiberti. When what has been considered a feigned illness by Brunelleschi left Ghiberti alone on the project, he backed out and Brunelleschi was able to finish the project alone and with full credit. Neither ever received the commission money. One other incredible detail, the dome was built without a wooden supporting frame; designed by a goldsmith working with brick.

These photos of the dome were taken during an ascent to the top of the campanile and are courtesy of my fearless traveling companion. I climbed the dome on my very first trip to Florence and discovered then that I have acrophobia. My knees were shaking and I felt light headed, but once you start up, you have to complete the journey, because the ascent is one way up narrow stairs, around the interior of the dome, along what seemed to me at the time like the shortest railing in all Christendom, then up and over the space between the interior frescoed dome and the exterior tiled dome. After looking at the frescoes of demons and hell I felt that falling over the railing was a distinct possibility, since it seemed much shorter than waist high, so after freezing in my tracks, I literally hugged the wall, as I slowly inched toward the small door into the interior of the dome. As I recall I stayed on top more to avoid the descent, than to absorb the stunning views of the city that spread before me in all directions.

Be certain to look at the Vasari frescoes of the Last judgement in the dome, and if you can, make the climb. It is truly the most interesting thing about the interior, as the rest is rather plain and unadorned, so much so that it came as a rather unpleasant surprise. I don't think it was always so, because I've attended mass there several times and on this last visit it seemed stark, a word I would not imagine I would use in describing any part of this cathedral.

I've always appreciated how the baptistery emulated the octagonal of the great dome, but Ghiberti's doors grab most of the attention, as well they should. They are truly magnificent. The use of perspective is more than masterful, it's magical considering how shallow the doors really are. I think a trained goldsmith and sculptor was the perfect person to attend to such detail.

While Pisano worked with Ghiberti on the baptistery doors (he made the south facing doors), Donatello was responsible for some of the exterior sculptures. It was Giotto who took over the project who is credited with the campanile (bell tower), although it was Pisano who completed it after Giotto's death. The encroaching city does not give one an optimal vantage point for photographs of Santa Maria Del Fiore, but on each trip I work on a better angle. I plan to enlist the aid of my niece for climbing the dome to take some more photos for me on our upcoming trip. I hope acrophobia doesn't run in the family.