Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

parma love...cheese, ham, and an Italian

I was excited about Parma. After booking nights in Venice, Milan and Bologna, I knew that I wanted to spend a little bit of time in the countryside, to find some quiet, to write, and to eat. What I actually mean is, I wanted to experience the local specialities that Anthony Bourdain had shown me on a late-night re-run, which I just couldn't get out of my head.

Flash forward a couple of weeks, and I was pulling up in a taxi in front of an old monastery about 5 kms outside of Parma, smack dab in Italy's northern region of Emilia-Romagna...the mecca of all things Italian cuisine.



This is the land of sun-kissed tomato fields, damp, sea-salted cellars filled with hanging Mortadella, Prosciutto di Parma and Culatello di Zibello, and where chunks of Parmigiana Reggiano sit on shelves and wait and wait and wait some more.



(My mouth waters just writing this...and remembering.)

Think Italian and food, and there's a good bet you're picturing something that has its roots in Emilia-Romagna - the much-touted 'food basket of Italy'. Lasagne Verdi. Bolognese. Prosciutto e Melone. Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Porcini Mushrooms. Tagliatelle.



As the taxi came to a halt in front of the arched entrance to the inner courtyard, dust from the gravel path enveloping me as I stepped out, a man stood up from the bench beside the doorway. He greeted me warmly and we shook hands. I gave him my name and said that I had a room for two nights. 'Yes, I know', he said and waved me inside, taking my small suitcase out of my hand.



I should say that the place looked deserted. In Milan, where I had had two meetings the day before, the woman who had driven me to each appointment told me that in August all of the Italians head to the sea. Milan had also been deserted, and here, as I looked out across the golden fields surrounding the monastery I barely even saw a car, let alone a person. Except for this one Italian, who was now checking me in.

He had thinning hair, a three-day beard, was wearing a t-shirt and cut-off jeans and seemed molto rilassato (very relaxed). The Italian led me across the courtyard, past large abstract sculptures which were elegantly scattered around (I later found out that most of the monastery is a museum, while only the monks' former quarters are part of the hotel) and in very broken English he said, "Oh by the way, the bistro is closed. The owners are on holidays." I stopped walking, and in my most friendly tone, said something like "WTF?" I'm kidding. But, I did stop and say, "What do you mean it's closed? I don't have a car as you know, and I will need to eat something over the next two days." "Yes, yes, no problem. I cook for me, so I cook for you too. Yes?" YES!


I asked the Italian when I should come down for dinner and he said around seven. "We'll start with a drink. Prosecco? Yes?" YES!



At the door to my third floor room, he took out a large iron key (the exact one the monks probably used) and opened the small wooden door. I felt a little bit like Alice as I bent down to go into the room. The walls were massively thick...feeling ancient and cold, but the room, actually two rooms (a sitting room plus bedroom and bath) was beautifully new and clean, with a gorgeous fresco painted on one wall. I thanked The Italian and he left, and I began to unpack my things and take a look around.

I decided to go outside and walk the grounds surrounding this impressive building. The warm wind blew over the fields of tomatoes lying dormant among golden arms of grass waving softly to and fro. I have never seen tomatoes growing like this, endless plants just lying out on the ground. The Italian would later tell me that this area around Parma is known for growing some of the best sauce tomatoes in Italy. They smelled earthy and meaty and sweet as I held one to my nose; it looked like a large Roma tomato to my amateur eyes, but I didn't understand what he called them when I asked.



Shortly before seven, I slowly made my way downstairs and outside. My long summer dress, which I had paired with a denim jacket and ballerinas, swayed in the breeze as I walked across the gravel courtyard towards the bistro. The doors were locked, but the Italian came out almost immediately and let me in. He smiled and checked me out a little bit, in a grinning Italian kind of way (which I just ignored) and asked if I would like a drink. I nodded and looked around at the open room which had small white tables and chairs neatly arranged around the edge, while a large bar filled the entire centre of the bistro - wine glasses waiting on glass shelving, bottles standing at attention along the counter, and braids of garlic hanging and wafting.



The Italian served me a glass of a local, chilled, sparkling red wine, called Lambrusco, which I had never heard of and immediately fell head over heels in love with. I took my wine outside onto the patio. I wasn't the only guest, which I began to realize as another couple saw me and immediately came over to the patio. They got the Italian's attention and ordered drinks (of course) just as he was about to join me. He apologised, went to serve them and then returned a few minutes later with a plate of thick slices of white Italian bread, buttered with heaping layers of prosciutto di parma, mortadella and salami di parma. "You hungry?" YES! The Italian said he wanted to show me the great hospitality the region is known for. I thought he was already doing a fantastic job of that.



Once the other couple left, and the sun had gone down, he said he would start cooking us dinner. It would just be a simple bolognese sauce with spaghetti, if I was okay with that, because there was a family who he also had to cook for. That would be no problem, I assured him and followed him back into the bistro. I had no where to be. Just here...with my Lambrusco.

The steaming plates of Spaghetti Bolognese came out, first to me, then to the others. At some point during this first evening he started calling me 'princess' which no one has ever called me in my life and I don't know why he started. Quite possibly it was the only 'flirty' word he knew in English. Eventually, he joined me and we ate the simple, but magnificent pasta. He had sautéed shallots in olive oil, and added black olives, and diced tomatoes from the field he had picked that morning.



The family left, he cleared the dishes and filled my glass. It was late (Italian dinnertime is always late) and he poured himself a glass of white wine and sat down beside me on the bench against the wall. He chattered about his work; he was just filling in here at the monastery for ten days and would then head back up to Milan where he worked as a chef. He told me about his girlfriend, who he had earlier mentioned was missing him and constantly sending him loving texts. 

Her name was Francesca or Magdalena or some beautiful Italian name like that. He put his arm me, casually, like he'd done it a million times before. I laughed because it was just so subtle, so, I don't know, Italian. I took his arm and gave it back to him, and said ‘Just friends.' And he grinned, leaned into me and said, "Yes, but really good friends, no?" Ahhh no. "No, no, just normal friends." And with that, I decided that sitting here in the middle of nowhere and drinking with a super-friendly Italian dude might not be the best idea. I said good night.



I slept like a baby in the stillness of the Italian countryside, and awoke to an azure-blue sky with just faint wisps of clouds rolling gently by. The Italian lit up when he saw me, and enthusiastically said good morning, as I entered the bistro for breakfast. I laughed and returned the greeting. He reminded me a bit of my puppy. Very, very friendly. Always in a good mood. Pretty much the perfect kind of host if you think about it.



Before taking a taxi out to the monastery the day before, I had wandered through Parma's old town wanting to get a feeling of this region's reputation of being the culinary centre of the world (or maybe just Italy). The old town was easy to navigate, quaint and pretty, and almost completely empty. Except for me, pulling my orange carry-on suitcase over the cobblestones (not easy my friends), and two middle-age ladies exploring the church, there was not much going on here, on this hot, August day.



I almost always read a lot about a place before I visit, checking blogs and platforms, in order to glean recommendations from locals. Therefore, on this day in Parma, I made my way to La Forchetta, a small trattoria on a quaint side lane within the centre of town. And, when I saw 'Parmigiana-reggiano 26 mesi' on the menu I ordered it almost immediately. How lovely, and a bit strange, to be able to order just chunks of really old parmesan! What I didn't know of course (but had expected) was that this was no ordinary parmesan.

The plate came with bricks of crumbly, pungent cheese along with two small pots, one with honey and one with aceto balsamico di modena (originating just miles away). I dunked and dipped, experimenting with the lovely contradiction of flavours: sweet and savoury, creamy and smooth, mild and intense. Honestly, this was a truly unique dining experience for me...and it was divine.



I spent my free travel day hunkered down in my monk's room, trying to work out some finicky details  within my book project, for which I needed a distraction-free zone. This room was perfect - no TV, barely-functioning wifi, no radio, just quiet.

At around 7 pm, as I walked back across the courtyard towards the bistro, I saw the Italian sitting on the bench under the arched portico smoking a cigarette. “Where were you for lunch? I had cooked for you.” I took a step back. “Really? Oh! Sorry about that (the Canadian in me never sleeps). I just decided to keep writing. I hope I didn’t put you out.” He brushed his hand away although I’m not quite sure that he had understood me. He stubbed his cigarette out and flicked it into the terracotta pot on the ground beside the bench, and stood, waving me through the bistro doors.

Again, he offered me a cool glass of Lambrusco, and again I accepted it very hapilly, and brought me a plate of thick bread heaped with ham. Now this was no ordinary ham, which he made clear to me. Unfortunately, I’m not a foodie (and I'm not going to pretend to be) so except for the salty, flavourful meat, which was delicious, I can’t really describe more about it. Of course, I couldn’t tell that there was about a 40€ difference between this and what I ate yesterday. All I can say was that it was very tasty.



The Italian took great care of me, often checking if I was hungry and apologising that he had to cook for the other guests first. I definitely wasn’t hungry, and it was honestly so sweet having that kind of attention paid to me after what has been a rough couple of years in that department. I assured him that I was blissfully content sipping wine, and then he asked if I wanted to come into the kitchen while he cooked. I loved that idea, and followed him with wine in one hand, and my camera in the other.

He said he would be making us something different, as he didn't want to eat spaghetti again. "Something better for us" he grinned. Okay. I was just thinking that this is all pretty perfect and I can watch and learn how to make a few different Italian dishes, from an actual Italian person - glad I hadn't wasted extra money on a cooking class here!

Before I had come to Italy I had looked into cooking classes, food tours, cheese-tasting afternoons and walking excursions around Parma, Bologna and Cinque Terre, but most of the tours were for a minimum of two people, and I was flying solo. So, since he kept reiterating that he wanted to show me the area’s "very good" hospitality, I was more than pleased with this turn of events.



I just hoped that I would remember how to make these, actually very simple, dishes and then also really do it. My problem is follow through. I have lots of great ideas, but the fewest come into fruition and there are no good excuses for why that it is. Well actually, I blame it on netflix.

I watched as the Italian cut off a large, and I’m talking huge, chunk of butter - was it possibly half of a stick, and put it into the already warm pan. Then he picked up a bundle of long, luscious-smelling sage leaves and began pulling off the leaves and added them to the butter. Done. Simple as that.



Add to that Tortelli, a regional stuffed pasta, ravioli-like, from Lombardy, filled with ricotta and spinach, and we had the most savoury and simple meal which would have cost loads in an Italian restaurant in Germany. He spooned seven large Tortelli pockets on my plate, coating them with the sage butter mixture and I’m telling you, it was more than plentiful. We should all try and eat as simply, as locally, and as serenely everyday. I think we would be happier, lighter on our feet and the world would benefit.

“You like?” he looked uncertainly. “Yes, I love!” I assured him. “It really is perfect,” I complimented. He beamed and said, “Ya? Good. Good.” So sweet really.



Receiving two home-cooked meals while on my seven-day Italian vacay was so not on my radar. But, it sure made me happy. And as the Italian drove me to the train station the next morning (“You don’t need to take a taxi! Princess, I have a car of course.”) I knew that these two days spent outside of Parma, being be-cooked (a lovely German term, meaning that someone who cares about you cooks a ton of food for you, while you sit and do nothing) with plump tomatoes, juicy hams, regional pastas and wines, was going to stay with me for a long while. I’m not sure if it was just the cooking, or maybe the monastic-infused hallowed rooms, or maybe just the inspirational Italian-ness of it all. You know, the cooking and loving and gesticulating with such passion and abandon!

The Italian took my head in his hands and pulled me down for a kiss - really, so fast I didn’t have time to react, and as he held me there, I gently pushed him away and smiled and said “Okay, okay, stop the kissing.” “It’s just a kiss!” “Yes, but what about your girlfriend?” “I have no problem!” “Wouldn’t she have a problem?” He grinned and held his hand to his heart, “But I have no problem!” Oh my. I laughed, said goodbye and turned towards the station’s entrance.
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Saturday, September 30, 2017

cruising down the rhine...castles, history and oh-so-lovely architecture!

There is much to see along a river as historic as the Rhine River. Father Rhine flows from Switzerland, through the entire length of Germany and ends in the North Sea close to Amsterdam.

For a few days at the beginning of September, I floated from Strasbourg to Düsseldorf as part of a mini family reunion, and of course, to experience some incredible cities and sights from the water.


Strasbourg (Kehl)

 


The Rhine River doesn't technically flow through Strasbourg, more like Strasbourg on the French side and Kehl on the German side straddle the river. Through a series of canals and waterways, Strasbourg is connected to this vital waterway. Our river cruise ship docked on the German side so my aunt to a taxi and my cousin and I walked the couple of kilometres through through the port, over to Strasbourg.


I suggested to the group that we make our way directly to my favourite part of this interesting mixture of French & German, past the impressive Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg and into the most-quaint-of-all-quaint old towns, La Petite France.


Walking across the moat-covered canal bridges and into Petite France you are transported into another time - of simple structures, narrow cobblestoned streets lined with tiny waterfront bistros and dark taverns, and the most gorgeous windows (I have a thing for windows!). In the heart of the Alsace, I half expected Asterix or Obelix to turn a corner, or to see milkmaids and horse-drawn carts loaded down with vegetables or hay...you know, from yesteryear.

Back in the day, this small island was a rougher place, home to tanners, artisans and tradespeople. Most of the windowsills and outer walls of the half-timbered houses would be draped in hides and skins waiting to dry, offering up a distinct stench throughout this eccentric neighbourhood.


Strasbourg has a tumultuous history, flipping sides between Germany and France approximately seven times since 362, and the influences of both countries have made the region extremely unique. The city is now, and has been for decades, a wonderful example of peaceful coexistence, amalgamating influences, people, cultures, and languages of two very strong, tradition-rich countries. And Strasbourg leads by example, specifically to 510 million Europeans, by being home to the European Parliament.


Heidelberg (Mannheim)

 


Heidelberg, a city cherished by poets and king's, including Elvis, lies in the Rhine Rift Valley, on the Neckar River which flows into the Rhine just 22 kms away at the city of Mannheim. Mannheim was where our ship docked for the morning, and we piled into a bus and drove the short distance to this castle-topped, university-focused, fought-over and much-beloved gem of a city.


To get to the Heidelberg Castle, which unless you are a student or researcher of some kind is most likely your target when visiting, you can either walk/hike the many stairs or take the funicular Berg Bahn ('mountain' train). This time I took the train along with the rest of the group and in a jiffy we were at the edge of the huge castle grounds, walking through the Elizabeth arch entrance, named for Elizabeth Stuart. She arrived in 1613 to great fanfare, and lived in the castle for a short but transformative time, as the wife of Prince Frederick V. The future grandparents to King George I of Britain, Elizabeth and Frederick expanded the castle gardens into an Italian Renaissance masterpiece, adding a menagerie, a grotto, exotic plants and intricate mazes. Of course, none of that exists anymore, except for the legend of it...and the drawings.


The castle has now long been mostly in ruins, destroyed several times in various wars and calamities over the centuries; the last attempt at rebuilding the castle ending by lightning strike in 1764. But, a part of the castle, the King's Hall, was built in the early 1930's and is used for special events.


One 'special' element of the castle, which draws lots of tourists, is the Heidelberg Tun, commissioned by Prince Theoder in 1751, and is apparently the world's largest wine barrel. It holds 220 000 litres of wine, has a dance floor on the top of it, and had pipes running from it up the walls and through the floor, to pump the wine into the Prince's rooms above. Ah Germans...so handy.


One story about the castle really moved me - the story about this stone sculpture hanging above one of the large doors in the castle square.

In 1408, the architect of the castle, who mostly worked on-site with his young twin sons, was almost finished the castle, which was commissioned by Kaiser Ruprecht. In a tragic accident both boys were killed when one took a misstep off of the scaffolding and the other tried to catch him.

The father, too distraught to work, braided a new wreath of white roses every morning and laid it on his sons' grave and went to the grave again each evening to say goodnight. Eventually the Kaiser got so fed up that his castle wasn't finished yet, he made the pastor give the architect a final warning. That night, the man had a dream in which his sons appeared as two angels, returning the wreath to him which he had laid at their grave that day.

In the morning, he awoke to the heavy scent of roses in his room, and found the wreath laying on the table, but instead of white roses, they were now red. The architect took this as a powerful sign that he had to finish his work, and with the last piece laid, he designed a sculpture of two angels holding a wreath with a drawing compass at its heart - the symbol of his life's work, and hung it above the entrance. The man then traveled into the hills on the far side of the Neckar and became a monk.


Upper Middle Rhine Valley


Burg Rheinstein

Onward we cruised past Worms and Mainz to one of the most romantic places in Germany. This is where I have lived for the past six years (not exactly in this castle, but just around the corner from it), moving away just last April. I still visit the area often, because it is, well, just incredibly beautiful. I always say to friends who are planning to visit, 'only come if you like lots of wine and lots of castles!'

The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, which begins at Bingen and Rüdesheim as the Rhine flows downwards through steep, narrow, cliff-lined, wine-covered hills, is dotted with gorgeous towns and castles on both sides. My favourite, the Rheinstein Castle, hangs on the slate rocks as if carved right out of them, sits at the beginning of the Binger Loch (Bingen hole). At this point, the river makes a tight turn, and up until the 19th century was very dangerous for ships to pass because of the rocky reef lying below the current.

Burg Reichenstein

Next comes the impressive Reichenstein Castle, once owned by Philipp von Hohenfels (funnily enough his name translates into 'high cliffs'), a knight best-known for his robbing prowess. After centuries of destruction and reconstruction, the castle is now a hotel and museum which can be toured.

Can I just say how much I love that in Germany the most prime real-estate is very often campgrounds?! In North America, a beautiful stretch of river like this one would be plastered with private houses.

Niederheimbach - Burg Hoheneck

In Niederheimbach, a small wine village lined with rows of pastel coloured houses, you'll find the Heimburg (house castle), also called Burg Hoheneck, which has been a private family-home since the late 1800s. How cool (and cold) it would be to grow up in a castle!

Burg Pfalzgrafenstein - Kaub - Burg Gutenfels

One of the neatest castles I've ever seen and visited (and which I've written about before) is the one you find smack dab in the middle of the Rhine - Pfalzgrafenstein Castle. Built in 1327 as the perfectly located toll castle, it is currently a museum which you can reach by small ferryboat from the town of Kaub. Anyone who couldn't pay the toll was threatened with a stay in a 9m deep well shaft! 

The castle feels more like a ship when you're in it. It is mostly open in the middle, with a large keep in the centre of it, but all around the edges are small rooms for the toll captain and staff. Out of every window you just see water flowing by as if out of portholes, and even the toilet, from times of yore, hangs over the water with a hole in the middle. 

On the right-hand shore of the Rhine lies the town of Kaub, dotted with half-timbered houses, striking towers and ruins of the town wall. Looming over the valley and the town below is the Gutenfels Castle, built in the year 1200 and now a hotel.

Ehrenbreitstein Fortress at Koblenz
  
Past the Loreley cliffs (which are just cliffs so I haven't included a pic here) and too many gorgeous little towns to count (you'll just have to come and see for yourself - like my favourites Oberwesel and Boppard) we docked in Koblenz. This city sits firmly at the end of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, but at the historically-important intersection of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers - called the Deutsches Eck (German Corner).

This part of the Rhine was already during Roman times a strategically important place, and the first fortress was built to protect the Mosel entrance, the Rhine upwards, and the Limes (the border of the Roman Empire) on the right side of the Rhine.

After the French Revolution, where Napoleon had held the left side of the Rhine, the Prussian emperor built up the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress into one of the largest bastions in Europe, in order to protect the region from another such attack. The fortress is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


We took the spectacular, 5-minute-long gondola ride from the Deutsche Eck up to the fortress and walked through the park and to the most unique-looking outlook platform I've ever seen. The platform was built for the 2011 national garden show, which takes place every two years in a different city in Germany, and had over 3.5 million visitors that summer. From that vantage point you have uninterrupted views of the two rivers and their vineyard-covered valleys, going on for miles.

Back at our boat, which was conveniently parked directly at the entrance to Koblenz's old town, we got ready for dinner and nighttime shipping onwards.


Düsseldorf

  


Düsseldorf is often referred to as the 'garden city'. We had docked in a perfect location, directly in front of the old town, the heart of this elegant metropolis. With many wide boulevards and green spaces, Düsseldorf can also boast having one of the nicest Rhine promenades.


On the day we were in Düsseldorf, the weather was wet and grey-coloured so we stuck to shopping...and shopping you can do really well here! The Königsallee or the 'Kö' (Kings Alley) is a mini, less sparkly version of the Champs d'Elysee (German-style), lined with all the fashion, jewellery and rich folk to go with it (German-style), you ever wanted to see.

Along with the Kö, possibly a bit more exclusive, with small boutiques, art galleries and plastic surgeons, is the old town district of Carlstadt. Neat and orderly, with grid-style streets, here you will find the finest fabric stores, cute bistros, and high-end vintage shops.

Spools of wrapping paper at Manufactum

Germans really do gift-giving well. Small presents are always given to the host or hostess when accepting an invitation, no matter how informal the gathering is. When you're in a store and have bought a gift for someone, the item is always wrapped in beautifully simple paper, with embellishments like ribbons, greenery or blooms, or all three.

And that is why I love German wrapping paper and gift boxes, and even cards. They are interesting, but simple, and not too flowery. Wrapping paper is often either coloured tissue paper or actual heavy paper, not the cheesy, glossy stuff that we, in North America, mostly use. And one of my favourite stores is called Manufactum, which has all of the useful and not-so-useful, gorgeous decorative items one might think they need. The wares at Manufactum are mostly sustainable items (environmentally-friendly, can be repaired/reused) made with traditional manufacturing methods, using traditional materials, like metal, glass, and wood.

I just couldn't resist these spools of wrapping paper and stacks of gift boxes - so pretty!


But if you're in Düsseldorf, even more important than shopping, is drinking! I'm kidding, of course, but you should definitely check out the old taverns close to the river, deep in the old town. My favourite one is call 'Zum Ürige' (kind of translated as 'to the quaint or rustic') - a very old, very traditional, and very popular brewery. The place is so steeped in history, no one is really sure when it was built, but it was sometime before 1650.

Here, on most evenings of the week, young and old, after-work or after-dinner, the small Stuben (cozy rooms) or the large, open hall with wine barrels for tables and a cement floor, or the standing-room-only high wooden tables lined up outside, are packed full. The crusty older waiters (who I love!) fly around with tablets of home-made Alt Bier in small glasses, which trust me, you need to drink a few of. Just because. The waiters set down a fresh full glass every time they come around, whether you've asked for it or not, clearing the empty one, and jotting a quick mark on the coaster in front of you with the pencil they've pulled from behind their ear. These dudes are just so chill.

This tavern oozes tradition and coolness from every wooden chair and beam. So if you want something local, where actual locals head to in droves, then this is your place! I can't wait to go back!


Cologne


Kölner Dom

One very important tip that I learned about cruising from this, my first cruise, is to check before you book where and when the ship is actually going to dock. Apparently, it's perfectly legal to promote a Rhine River cruise as 'Basel to Amsterdam' as long as a bus is provided to take passengers to some of the destinations. It doesn't have to be by ship! Many of us were not aware that on this particular cruise a bus trip of 3.5 hours each way would be provided to Amsterdam, for anyone wanting to pay an extra 60 Euros. 

Therefore, Cologne was our last city, and Düsseldorf the furthest down the Rhine....which is no where near Amsterdam.

And another very disappointing factor of this cruise, was that we didn't have any time in the most-incredible city of Cologne. We arrived in the evening, as it was getting dark and supper was being served, docking far away from the centre of town, and we left early the next morning.

Luckily, I have been to Cologne a few times, but since it's the city where my mother and my aunt grew up, it was on our list of highlights to explore together. One redeeming quality of the trip was that the food was excellent, and so this our last evening, we hunkered down and enjoyed each other's company, with new friends we had made and thankful for the mighty Rhine to take us here.

My aunt, my cousin, and I above Koblenz
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Thursday, August 31, 2017

venice's great neighbourhood...the enchanting cannaregio!

Venice is magical. It really is like a fairytale...



But, to truly experience Venice you need to move off of the beaten path...only steps away to enjoy Venice's neighbourhoods. Away from the tourists you will find the most beautiful corners where the Venetians actually live.


The six Venetian sestieri (neighbourhoods) are nestled together in bundles of bridges and small canals, and seem to vie for attention from the ‘most beautiful street in the world', the Grand Canal, which carves an elegant ’S’ through each of them.


I hear many comments from visitors to Venice that the crowds of tourists and the cost and quality of the food, made their visit unpleasant and not as remarkable as they had hoped. Trust me, don't leave Venice off of your European adventure. Do not strike it from your bucket list! Just be smart, and visit the parts of the city where the Venetians call home...where the locals eat and live and experience this most incredible place. And most of all, respect the fact that this is their home…where they work and play, and then you will know and see the treasure that this speck of the earth is.


Just like in Amsterdam, where the flow of tourists, like a dedicated stream of ants to a picnic, follow one congested route through the inner city,  in Venice the twenty-minute route along the Strada Nuova, from Piazzale Roma and San Lucia train station to Ponte di Rialto (the bridge) and Piazza San Marco (the square) can seem like three hours. Every day thousands of extra people flood the city between dawn and dusk, only to then clamber back onboard their massive cruise ships and float away again the same day.


Locals say, and I can completely agree after visiting Venice four times (the first time at the tender age of twelve), that the city’s iconic landmarks can only truly be enjoyed in the early morning, or after dusk when the hives of selfie sticks are long back on their boats and preparing to invade the next port.

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Cannaregio


Cannaregio is the sestieri which the most Venetians call home. Here is where the locals come to live…and to eat. It blankets most of the northern part of the city in an almost orderly lattice framework. It is one of the most beautiful parts of Venice, settled in the 15th century, and exudes charm and elegance around every corner.


The architecture is very traditional, and many of the original facades remain wonderfully intact. I received two local tips on where to enjoy a great traditional meal in Cannaregio; Osteria Ai Osti (Corte dei Pali gia Testori), usually filled with locals and which you will miss if you're not looking for it, and Osteria Bea Vita (Fundament Della Capuccine), another local favourite sitting on a quiet side canal away from the tourist masses. If you ask locals where they love to dine you will rarely be disappointed, and that is something that I try to do in each new city I am fortunate to experience. It won't break the bank and you are sure to enjoy the food.


Walk just a few steps north of the tourist hub and you will enter the Venetian Ghetto, or you'll bump into the incomparable Santa Maria dei Miracoli, or you'll just experience the quiet solitude of normal Venetians running errands by boat or foot. Santa Maria dei Miracoli is also known as the 'Marble Church', built in 1481 with a facade completely made from light pink Venetian marble. The houses along the canals will greet you with blooms overflowing from flower boxes and the constant calming sound of the water slapping up against the canal walls will guide you along your way.

Santa Maria dei Miracoli

At the northern edge of the district you will find the Scuola vecchia della Misericordia (School of Mercy) which is attached to the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia, built in 1310. Still very much intact, on the facade hangs an original bas-relief of Madonna with Child by Clemente Moli.

Scuola vecchia della Misericordia

But, what you won’t find here are bikes. I didn’t see a single bike in Venice. Of course, that’s because every 20 feet or so you have to climb 3 or 4 or 5 steps, and then go back down again to cross the insanely many, and oh-so-cute, bridges that pop up around almost every corner.


This is not a friendly place for wheel-chairs or delivery trolleys, or for that matter, luggage-toting tourists. But still they come. Because it really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world…at least that I’ve seen so far.


Here, in Cannaregio, you will find many a osteria or trattoria filled with locals dining on the specials of the day, prepared with the freshest ingredients found that morning at the Rialto Market.

Rialto Market

If you’re Air BnB-ing it during your Venetian holiday, then I recommend heading to the market in the morning hours and watching what the locals are snapping up that day. Located just across the Ponte di Rialto, on the San Polo side of the Grand Canal, the market will provide you with all of the local specialties and freshness from the sea you will need to live like a local.


Or head out to one of the simple Baccari, a traditional Venetian bar, and join the locals after work for an aperitivo while standing at the bar. I knew that this tradition, which originated in Milan but has now become all-round Italian thing, was a must-do on my very busy Italian schedule of ‘doing as the locals do’. So, I sidled up to the bar, in a quiet side calle, where I could see a few people already taking a nip, and asked the bartender for an apertivo...whatever he recommends.


He nodded, and within a minute had prepared, as if he’d done so already a million times (probably has), a beautifully peach-coloured concoction (which I recognised as aperol) in a large wine glass and placed it with a napkin on the bar in front of me. ‘With campari’, he said.  Since I’m not an aperol aficionado I just smiled and said ‘mille grazie’. Thereafter it was easy to strike up conversation with a few smiles and a ‘chin-chin’ (the local 'cheers') and a wave of my glass to the others standing along the bar. After a few sips of my spritzy drink I began to notice that campari is a bit stronger than the usual aperol, white wine and water spritz that I was familiar with. No wonder these people are all so friendly, standing here enjoying their 2nd or 3rd aperitivo, while the gentle laps in the small canal outside serves as the best background music.


You will notice that even the darkest little taverns, if you peek inside, will have people standing at the back in the afternoons, loitering about. That’s because in the back of all the traditional baccaris, hostarias, and even pasticceri, there is a bar at the back, along with a serving of inexpensive cicchetti, the Venetian answer to tapas. This is how many locals get their fill when they go out for lunch or a light dinner. You will find them at the bar, always standing, having a drink and munching on a few cicchetti; such as grilled squid, prosciuttos and salamis, all sorts of amazing Italian cheeses and fresh baked bread.


As you make your way around Venice, two things are for certain: you will get lost, and you will experience amazing moments. Just wait for them.


And, a personal tip, book a hotel or hostel with a rooftop deck (and believe me, it doesn't cost extra). On one recent visit, where I spent only one quick night, I stayed in an exceptionally friendly, perfectly situated hostel, which included breakfast and a rooftop for just 35€ (Bed & Venice, Calle della Pietá, Castello) and for a solo-traveller who just needs a clean bed, it was perfect. It is a treat to experience a city, especially one like Venice, from among its rooftops. And Venice is exceptional. 


Not to be missed on your Venetian holiday, no matter how short or long, is to see the Grand Canal at dusk. Sit down and enjoy a glass of Venetian Friuli and a plate of deliciouso pasta at an outdoor osteria, if the weather permits, and soak in the view. It is hollywood magical, and you will pinch yourself to prove to yourself that you're not watching a movie. At least that's how I felt while I sipped wine and ate a delicious bowl of Spaghetti al Arrabbiata at Al Pesador (Campo San Giacommetto 125, San Polo), taking in the sights around me...while snapping a million pics.



For my last night in Venice, just a couple of weeks ago, I finished off with a Tiramisu. It was as beautiful as it was delicious, and I savoured every bite. Gracie mille Venezia!


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