Our Italian journey essentially started with Rome, where we spent three awesome days (on one of which P was down with food poisoning and on the other two I was in the throes of a deathly cold). But the Roman Holiday continued unabated. But we did come back to the city on the penultimate day of our trip, which also happened to be Christmas eve. So Rome will be brushed aside for now and I’ll start my account from the night we boarded the Internottecity to Venice from Roma Termini.
That was just the beginning of my love affair with Trenitalia, Eurorail. We reached Venice at the crack of dawn — the sun hadn’t risen, the roads were deserted and there wasn’t a single human around in what was arguably my first brush with 0º Centigrade. The vaporetto service outside St. Lucia Venezia hadn’t yet started. Shivering in the biting cold but desperate to seize every second, we climbed up a nearby bridge. What met my eyes was way more than what English language can explain. And the moment I cast a glance at the Grand Canal, painted in the golden-orange hues of the morning, I knew the next 72 hours were going to be eventful.
We boarded the 8 o’clock vaporetto to our stop Ospedale. By now we had got a hang of the regular Italian phrases that we fancily wished people we met Buongiorno and Buona Sera. We “grazie-d” folks for every little deed and “ciao-d” them before leaving. So the confidence with which we asked for our tickets to Os-pee-daa-leh and not to Os-pa-dayle kind of took us by surprise as well. 😛
This was the first bed and breakfast we were staying in, and I’d readily recommend any traveller to stay in these informal, homely abodes than shell out a fortune in favour of luxurious hotels. Because come on, this is Italy, and you’re hardly going to stay indoors (or so I presume!) But indoor we did stay, for a brief 3-4 hours after checking in, and that, my friend, cost us the best ever Venetian meal that we could have had! Now I had read tons about this place called Trattoria Al Gatto Nero in the mind-numbingly pretty island of Burano and was fancying a lunch there (after devouring for breakfast the artisan bread, brie cheese, 2 kinds of cold cuts and fruit yoghurt that we had procured from Rome the previous evening). But fatigue got the better of us and by the time we reached Burano, the place, to my utter dismay, had shut down for lunch. We scouted the other restaurants with good Tripadvisor ratings, but as luck would have it, all the restaurants were closed. We were more than willing to wait till dinner, but winter apparently means no tourist after sundown, and that being a Sunday, the restaurant managements were all too ready to pack their bags and head home! I could have been more disappointed than I have been in the long time, but what infused life in my soul was the utter prettiness Burano offered. The bright and happy houses with colours popping from everywhere were postcard perfect — if not more endearing. Christmas was round the corner and many of them were partially decorated with the festive accessories. My heart became mellow, my soul was soothed, my eyes refreshed. And after a hot glass of Ciocolata Calda (which was the first of many, many more) to warm our nerves, we headed back to Venice.
That night saw us dine at a seafood restaurant near St. Mark’s Square where I plunged on my Spaghetti Frutti di Mare and Mixed Seafood Salad and the seafood-allergic P stuck to Spaghetti Bolognese and Cotolleta alla Milanese.
Day 2 in Venice began earlier than Day 1. Partially reluctantly, I was woken up from my sleep at 6 in the morning so that we could walk a 2-km distance to Ponte Accademia to soak in the sunrise and take shots of the same. Braving the chilly wind, we shivered our way to the point, only to stand there for a good two hours and wait for the sun. But we are talking of a European December morning here. The sun had its last laugh and chose not to grace the occasion by its appearance. Dejected, we came back to the BnB and after freshening up and breaking our fast (now breakfast in Italy is a story worth telling, which I’ll come back to again and again) we headed for hotel 2 of our stay in Venice.
P had amassed a massive number of Marriots points which permitted us to stay in any hotel belonging to the Marriots chain in lieu of some of those points. For our Venice leg, we bartered with a massive 45,000 points a day and chose Boscolo Venezia. I have rarely stayed in a hotel of such grandeur (though Boscolo Exedra Roma had prepared me in terms of what to expect!) and the wine and cheese platter that greeted us as soon as we stepped into our room complemented the vintage decor and quaintly sophisticated ambience of the hotel. But as with Italy, you can’t afford the luxury to enjoy a lazy day. So right after checking in we were on the move again — this time to St. Mark’s Square and St. Mark’s Basilica. St. Mark’s Square was intimidating in its expanse, but thank heavens it was winter and post sundown there wasn’t a single soul in sight.
|St. Mark’s Basilica|
|The Bridge of Sighs
Sunset in Venice was again something the lure of which made us walk along the waterfront intermittently for a good one hour. As the lights dimmed, the Square lit up, as did Doge’s Palace opposite it, the gondolas that had taken people out on joyrides were now coming back and getting parked in the harbour. The more we walked the prettier it appeared. Venice was a marvel — enveloped in its pristine beauty, radiant in the hues of the setting sun.
Now there’s one thing about the Boscolo group of hotels that you can never get enough of — their breakfasts. I had feasted on their morning spreads for 3 straight days in Rome (to the extreme that the next instance I felt hungry was dinnertime) and the prospect of a similar paraphernalia waiting for me in Venice thrilled me to bits. The next morning, we did, in all honesty, plan to go to Murano (yes, that island renowned for its glass work), but the breakfast came in our way. The waterboat was supposed to leave at 10.30 am but by the time we had gorged on croissants and brioches, muffins and tarts, cheeses and cold cuts, fruits and juices, that ship had already sailed. Which, on hindsight, was a good thing actually (for my eyes and soul but hardly for my purse!) Striking Murano out of our itinerary meant we could spend more time at the Rialto market which was subsequent in our list. And that, my friend, was more than a blessing in disguise! Rialto market has everything you can ask for, if you’re a hardcore food junkie like me ie! Colours, life. vibrance! Fresh vegetables were on display, bright and ripe fruits stole the show, a plethora of fish and seafood called your name and the bounty of herbs and sauces made you dizzy. I stuffed my bag with pastas of all sorts — squid ink, salmon and the multi-coloured ones. Some sun-dried tomatoes, porcini mushrooms, risotto rice found their way in my bag. So did a couple of packets of orzo and cannellini beans.
By the time I ventured into the not-so-gastronomic part of the market and helped myself to a beanie and a couple of woollen scarves, my bag had started to outweigh me! We trudged to Doge’s Palace with our conquests, praying fervently that they had a cloakroom to house our stuff. They did! But my initial excitement was blown out of the window when the told me that only backpacks are entertained and not petite women’s handbags (even if they are dying from the weight of Italian produce!)
A two-hour tour of Doge’s Palace later we again found ourselves taking the old and familiar route along the waterfront. P was merrily clicking away, enamoured by the blue light that followed the sunset, while I kept shivering inside my jumper + sweater + overcoat and devouring one glass of Ciocolata Calda after another! Venice was probably the only place where I had an insane list of the seafood I’d want to try out. From that list I had struck out Spaghetti in Cuttlefish Ink and Sarde in Saor (Sweet and Sour Sardines) the previous night. What was left was the much beloved Seafood Risotto and the universally-adored Frito Misto. Dinner that night, not surprisingly, comprised of these two items, which, followed by authentic Italian Tiramisu, was possibly the best note on which I could leave Venice the following morning.
But I prophesised too early. And there was a twist in the tale that dealt a severe blow to my mood in the journey from Venice to Milan the next day.
1. Apart from all the touristy things you want to do, I’d strongly recommend setting a day or two aside just to soak in the feel of the city. Trust me when I say that the soul of Venice lies not in the gondolas or the tourist-infested St. Marks Square but in the nooks and crannies, the ever-twisting lanes and alleys. Take a stroll through those epic lanes and you’ll be glad you did that.
2. DO visit the island of Burano, and make sure you get to the place before lunch time is over! Vaporetto service is fairly regular, at a gap of 2-2.30 hours in winter. Check the time in advance to avoid making the mistake we did.
3. The day you plan to go to Burano (and may be Murano), get a vaporetto pass. It costs 20 euros for 24 hours and comes much cheaper than the otherwise 7 euros/ride. Make good use of the pass and ensure you visit all places outside Venice that would require a vaporetto to reach on that day. As long as you’re in Venice itself, your legs are your best friends.
4. This one’s a no-brainer. Gorge on as much seafood as you can! Pasta in Cuttlefish Ink, Pasta Frutti de Mar, Seafood Risotto and Frito Misto should be right there in your list. You can consider going for the 3-course day’s special that cafes and restaurants would offer in abundance. In some places you’ll be allowed to share, in others you’d be required to order for as many number of people. We ended up having separate sets of menu everyday (because P couldn’t have seafish and I wouldn’t compromise on it). We budgeted our food cost to be 20 euros/pax/day and it largely stayed well within limit, unless of course you’re fine-dining every meal.
5. DO NOT give the Ciocolata Calda a miss if you’re visiting in winter. It is the singular most sensational glass of hot chocolate I’ve ever had, and shivering in the Decemember cold, I would impudently wolve down calda after calda. Grom is the gelataria I’d ask you to go to. They charge 3 euros a glass, a euro more than most other places, but trust me, it’s worth every bit of the 75 extra rupees you’d spend!
Squid Ink Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and PrawnsPrint
- Squid Ink Pasta: 200 gm
- Sun-Dried Tomatoes, chopped roughly: 3/4th cup (Here's how I make my sun-dried tomatoes)
- Prawns, cleaned and deveined: 250 gm
- Garlic, chopped finely: 6-8 fat cloves
- Pecorino Romano, shavings: 3-4 tbsp + for garnish (you can also use parmesan cheese)
- Olive oil: 1.5 tsp
- Truffle oil: To drizzle (optional)
- Salt: To taste
- Freshly ground black pepper: To taste:
1. In a big wok, heat water (the proportion should be 1 litre of water per 100 gm of pasta) with some salt and allow to come to a boil. Once the water starts boiling add the squid ink spaghetti (spread it across the wok like a hand fan) and cook covered or according to package instructions till al dente, roughly 13 minutes. Once the pasta is done, reserve 1 cup of pasta water and drain the rest.
2. In another wok, heat the olive oil and add the chopped garlic. Saute for a minute till translucent. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and and sauté for another 2 minutes.
3. Now add the prawns and stir for 5-6 minutes, till prawns are cooked through but not overcooked or rubbery. You can use the pasta water bit by bit to deglaze your pan at this stage.
4. Add salt and pepper. Now add the cooked pasta, mix everything together and let the spaghetti absorb the flavour of the tomatoes and prawns.
5. Add grated pecorino romano and some roughly torn basil/mint or parsley and give a final mix.
6. Garnish for more pecorino, a few fresh herbs and a a drizzle of truffle oil. Serve hot. Venice on a plate!