Veneto: Great Food and New Friends

I’m from where food is grown. Maybe not all the food I want to eat (I love a good orange), but still. Meat, grains, vegetables. We feed people here.

So there’s a special place in my heart to visit places where the food is grown. And in Italy, it’s grown everywhere. But nowhere more than in the Veneto. Our friend and baker Giacomo was from the Veneto and told us so many stories of his homeland that we just had to go check it out.

Our first stop was Bologna, which is actually a little south of the Veneto, in Emilia-Romangna. It’s known as the food capital of Italy, genesis of the entire “Slow Food” movement. It’s the home of tortellini, mortadella (aka “baloney” at home), tagliatelle and, of course, bolognese sauce.

That’s all true, but I’ll remember Bologna as the City of the Portico. Most all the buildings in the old city centre have porticos on all sides; arched coverings that extend over the terrazzo sidewalks. If it’s raining, and country this green must get a lot of it, you can walk all through the centre without getting wet. One portico is over 3km long. Legend has it that it was built to transport a statue of the Virgin Mary between the church and the square; after years of it always raining on festival day, the town fathers built the world’s longest portico for a permanent fix.

Our apartment in Bologna was one of the best of the trip. A cozy rooftop flat tucked into the top corner of a large block, requiring us to pass through three iron gates and cross two passages with open views of the centre courtyard to get to our door. But inside we had a modern kitchen, a low ceiling sitting room, the most comfortable bed of the trip, and window that opened to the sky above. Even with all the sights in Bologna, I needed two afternoon naps in that cool, breezy bedroom.


Temporary bakery set up in the square beside our flat. Baking traditional cookies and bread as a fundraiser. I found it by smell!

Our flat was right beside the main food district, the Quadrilatero, so we walked down there straight away. The narrow four block area has been the food hub of Bologna since Roman times and it’s still going strong. It’s filled with fancy shops selling perfect fruits and vegetables, fresh pasta, cheese, oil, meat and fish. We saw our first butcher specializing in horse meat (a delicacy in northern Italy) although we didn’t have the guts to try any.


Read the label!

The food here is the most expensive we had seen in Italy, but it was so fresh, and presented so well, that we didn’t have any objections to loading up our shopping bags and cooking this great food in our apartment for two meals. There are also many excellent restaurants in the area, but when the food in the shops is that good, I just have to cook. Bags of fresh tomatoes, garlic and zucchini, plus lovingly wrapped parcels of fresh pasta and wedges of the best parmigiano made their way up to our room. We feasted that week.

It’s awesome just how many of what you think of as ‘Italian Food’ came from around Bologna. Aside from pizza, almost all of it. The city of Parma, home of parmigiano reggiano cheese and Parma ham, is just down the road. Modena, where all the best balsamic vinegar comes from is right there too. What a delight.

The city is beautiful too. We explored it in depth thanks to Robyn’s “Walking in Italy” book. Setting aside the miles of porticos for a moment, Bologna also has a huge, interesting main square, anchored with a massive statue of Neptune in the middle (even though the city is far inland.) It also has two huge towers in the city centre, so tall, so narrow and with such drastic leans to them that I was too scared to climb them. Although Cindy braved the climb and took some great pictures to prove it.

The main square also has the best public library of the trip so far. It sits inside the Sala Borsa, the former seat of the civic government, and you can see even older ruins through glass floors on the main level. It’s popular with readers and a major tourist attraction as well. Come on, Regina, get going with the public buildings already!


The public library!!

On our last day, we left the centre of town for a walk in two local parks. Two, because we started off in the wrong direction and found an open ‘wilderness’ park high on a hill outside the old town. It was nice, but a little too remote for our lazy day plans. So we headed back into town and found the ‘city’ park very close to our apartment, but in the opposite direction from where we started the trip. That was OK though, because the detour took us past our new favourite lunch Cafe. We dined on sandwiches, wine, with fresh strawberries and ice cream for dessert, all from a high patio beside the street. It was a perfect venue to hang out and watch the world drift by.


I made two new friends with my paints

We left Bologna after stopping at our new favourite gelato shop for breakfast. Hey, when you make unique flavours, in house, from organic ingredients, and get recognition from the ‘slow food’ folks, and when you’re right across the street from our apartment, you are a perfect gelato shop for breakfast! Gelato then a walk to the train station – talk about leaving you wanting more…


Our favourite gelateria in the world! #1 of a series

We stayed in Verona on a whim. Our friend Giacomo, who is from the Veneto, sent us a message that said “Verona is nice.” That was enough for us! And you know what? It is nice. Very, very nice.


Verona

The train ride was very short but intriguing, because the landscape looked a lot like home. We sped through flat, green farmland, just like at home if we still had trains. Sure, many of the farms had grape vines and orchards, but there was wheat too and attractive vegetable gardens. And mountains! The start of the Alps, with Gran Paradiso and the Italian Lakes off in hazy blue distance. They’d have to wait, but on a clear day they set off Verona’s buildings beautifully.

You may know Verona as the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There’s a bit of recognition here; a balcony with a sign “just like Juliet’s” etc. but not too much. What Verona had for us is the Holy Trinity of Awesome European Cities: rivers with lots of bridges; a castle; and a Roman Arena. We spent two wonderful days strolling along the river and trying to figure out the best view of the castle, and touring the local cathedrals. When that got tiring, we’d sit in the town square, sip Spritz (the local specialty) and gaze at the Arena that was smack dab in the middle of the square. It’s in good enough shape that the Arena is still used for operas in the summer.

I don’t want to gloss over the beauty of Verona. It’s awesome. But by this point we were settled into a gentle Italian groove that was so relaxing and so satisfying that I could keep it going forever. Our toughest decisions were selecting the right gelato shop from fifty options, or whether to dine at a small family run pizza shop or the neighbourhood Osteria (we did both!) We found a lovely square near our apartment, and away from the tourist loop, which had enough bars and restaurants to keep us occupied for a week. So long as you knew the Italian words for ‘horse’ and ‘donkey’ in order to navigate the menu, it was smooth sailing.

It was bliss. I was in a beautiful country, with amazing scenery and delicious food that was reasonably priced, with friendly people and just enough chaos to keep things interesting. I was with the woman I love. The sun was shining and the river was blue.

At this point we didn’t think things could get any better. But it did. It got better because we got to meet Giacomo’s mom.

Giacomo grew up in Padua, east of Verona, but his mom Alessandra recently moved to Malcesine, west of Verona, along Lake Garda in the famous Italian Lake District. So on Saturday we packed up and took a train, then a bus to Malcesine to meet her and her partner Angelo.

Malcesine is beautiful. The whole lake is, really. It’s a resort lake, for sure. A deep blue lake, surrounded by tall mountains and full of sailboats, windsurfers and very few powerboats. The single highway along the lake was crowded with cars and hundreds of cyclists. Everyone was out in the sun and having fun. The lake is very popular with Germans; most of the signs were in Italian and German and the owner of our hotel spoke better German than English. We even saw some German bakeries in the town. But there was enough pasta and gelato available to confirm we were still in Italy.

Alessandra is a delightful lady, who misses her son very much. Cindy and I were her connection to her boy so we have many hugs to give him when we get home. And she fed us enough that I’m sure some of the food was for Giacomo too!

We had a lovely day together, wandering through the old town, strolling along the lake, eating gelato and comparing Italy to Canada. Alessandra’s English was better than our Italian and we had Google Translate to bridge any gaps. Angelo didn’t speak any English at all, but he spoke sports, so he and I talked football and cycling. We even watched the end of the day’s Giro d’Italia stage on TV together and cheered whenever anyone named Giacomo was mentioned. And I learned that I must cheer for Juventus and never Milan.

We could only spend one day together, sadly, because Alessandra had to work and we had to get back to Verona for my special splurge of the trip. I saw a poster that the Hellas Verona football club was playing their final home game of the season on Sunday night, against Serie A champions Juventus no less! Since Juventus had already clinched the title, and Verona was guaranteed to be relegated at season’s end, there were still tickets available, and we got two very nice seats in the neutral side of the stadium.

The game was awesome. I’ve never heard so much noise and singing at a sporting event before. The away fans from Torino were extremely loud, singing praise on their Juventus or abuse at the Verona fans. And then the Verona Ultras would reply and the stadium would shake with their booming songs. Thankfully I don’t know enough Italian to understand the words. I assume it was mild, like “Our Team Is A-OK” or “Bad Luck, Visitors” and stuff like that.

Things started off rocky for us until we realized that, even though Verona was the home team, there were many, many people in our section who were there to see the champions Juventus. Lots of families with young boys wearing the black and white stripes of their heroes on the visiting team. So we made sure to cheer everyone and not look too happy when the home team spanked the champs 2-1 to end their season on a high. Verona striker Luca Toni, playing his last game as a pro, took a lap of honour after the game and I cheered along; his was the only name I recognized from the home team, after all.

Leaving Verona for the second, and final, time on Monday morning, we headed east to Padua. We’d been in the Veneto for a long time now but we still wanted to see some of Giacomo and Martina’s home town. Plus, Padua is just outside Venice, so was a nice stepping stone to the famous lagoon.


Padua!

Padua is a beautiful city and well worth a visit on its own. It’s got some amazing architecture, not least is the huge market building that is surrounded by three distinct squares. The building itself is full of market stalls; butchers, bakers, fishmongers, cheesemongers and wine shops and the surrounding squares are full of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

One of the coolest things about these market squares is the variety of what’s on offer. It goes well beyond food. So many of the market stalls, up to half in some cases, are for non-food items. Soap, dishes, small appliances. Clothes too. Racks of shirts. Stacks of denim, or socks, or underwear. Mannequins displaying lingerie even. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it. I’d try horse meat before I’d buy underwear from a market stall. Or even a new outfit. I’m not ready for that yet. But lots of people are, that’s for sure.

We were also blessed with one of the very best gelaterias in Italy (better than Bologna? OK, a tie) right beside our Padua apartment. We couldn’t go there for breakfast, because “La Romana” didn’t open till noon. But we went for several nightcaps, along with 50 or 60 other Padovans, just before the midnight closing time. Even after we met Francesco and Nicolo for a late goodbye beer, we still had time for one last gelato at La Romana.


Our favourite gelateria in the world!

The Tour d’Giacomo included a bus ride out to the suburbs to visit Pasticceria Paride, the bakery Giacomo worked at before he left Italy. It’s a lovely little place, right in among the residential neighbourhood, with coffee and gelato and croissants and delicious little sweets. After a few attempts with our bad Italian, they figured out why we were so interested in the place, and Paride invited us into the back to watch them work for twenty minutes or so. One of the bakers spoke English so we had a great time comparing equipment, techniques and bakers hours. Paride wanted to know what type of things we made at Orange Boot. He doesn’t make bread, and I think he likes the fancy pastries better, but we got along. Especially after I grinned and complemented him on his chocolate tempering machines. I can’t see how Orange Boot version 3 can exist without them. And gelato.

We also connected up with Francesco and Nicolo, two friends of Giacomo’s who all lived together in London before Giacomo came to Canada and they returned to Padua. They took us all around the city, taught us the right way to order Spritz and tramezzini (tiny sandwiches) at the bar, and then took us out into the country for an amazing authentic Veneto meal. We talked for hours about life in Italy and they asked a ton of questions about life in Canada. They want to come visit soon. I sure hope they do, so we can show them around Regina like they treated us in Padua.

On our last day in Padua, we went to the Scrovegni Chapel to view the famous frescos by the master Giotti. The entire chapel is covered in a cycle of paintings telling the same bible stories about Jesus and Mary that I learned in Sunday School. Except in this case, the paintings were done in 1305! It was stunning. The paintings were in remarkably good condition; I was surprised to learn that any deteriorating has happened in just the last 100 years, as structures surrounding the chapel were torn down. Now water can damage the paintings from the outside in. But I think some of the exorbitant viewing fee is used to pay for restoration work. I hope so; it’s an amazing space of art and history, and well worth preserving.

And then we went to Venice. One of three tear-inducing, I-can’t-believe we’re-actually-here places on our trip, along with Paris and Odeceixe, Portugal. After all the beautiful places we’ve seen in Italy, I really wasn’t expecting much of a thrill from Venice, but oh boy was I thrilled.


Our first view of Venice

I think it starts before you even get there. The city really is an island, just like they tell you. OK, a series of islands, but they are way out there. The train line crosses more water than you expect before you get to the station. And you can’t really see the city from the train. You cross along the causeway, leave the train, wade through the station along with a thousand other people, then pop out onto the plaza with the Grand Canal, water taxis, those lovely stacked buildings and a Cathedral just right there, staring at you. It’s breathtaking.

Venice is so tight, so narrow and twisty, and full of canals and bridges and interesting little shops, that it’s almost a requirement to get lost. We spent four hours wandering around the city, based loosely on the route in Robyn’s book. We tried to follow the map but got lost repeatedly, weaving off and on the route the entire way. It was a cool and rainy day, but we went with the flow and always seemed to duck into a bar or restaurant just as the sky opened up. Let it rain – we have Spritz and pizza!


Unique Venetian fashion

Oh, and here’s a tip. Even if you’re travelling light, like us, consider checking your bags at the train station, rather than lugging them through town. We only stayed one night in the city, so we put a change of clothes in our backpacks and left the rest at the station overnight. It was much easier finding our hotel without lugging bags up and down the bridge steps and dodging fellow tourists. Watch even one newlywed couple try to get back to the trains, with a chivalrous husband lugging two huge suitcases through the alleys of Venice and you’ll forego luggage all together.

Even though Venice is packed with tourists (and it is packed, let me tell you) the vast, vast majority of people head straight to Plaza San Marco and stay there. We went, we walked, and we admired it, but then we left the square and wandered to the edges. It was pretty much empty out there but no less interesting. There are just as many shops, and amazing contemporary art, and excellent coffee, and food too. And you can walk a bit in peace.


Dead end!

Then in the evening, after the busses have gone back to Mestre for the night, we went back to the square and really took it all in. It’s wild. Really, the best formal square of the trip, and we’ve seen a few. It’s just really weighty, heavy and perfectly proportioned, from the clock tower that is huge and solid, to the St. Mark’s Basilica, that is big and gorgeous and shiny and gold in the evening light, to the three rows of buildings and continuous porticos that make up the square, but run at odd angles, so the square really isn’t. It’s awesome. It’s heavy enough to be very, very impressive. It’s so heavy, in fact, and so close to the Grand Canal, that you really do get the impression that Venice is sinking. I mean, you pile that much stone on a spot and it’s bound to sink a little, right?

For our last night in Venice, our last night in Italy in fact, we took it slow. A nice meal of chicken and vegetables and pasta, sharing a table with two delightful Dutch ladies. A gondola ride that went right past our hotel. A stroll along the Grand Canal and past the opera house. Then off to sleep in our romantic old 6 room hotel deep in the Venetian maze. Tomorrow will be a new country and a new adventure.

Our trip is nearly over and the thought of coming home, of no longer travelling, of not having markets and terraces and good coffee and gelato and local fruit has me in a melancholy funk. My mood is the same grey-blue that is all over Venice at dusk. Dusk is the time that you feel the age of the place.

Venice feels old. Really old, and tired. More tired than anywhere we’ve been. It’s carried the weight of its citizens for hundreds of years, and now carries the weight of the hoards of tourists. One news agent had a sign saying “Venice Is Not A Theme Park” but honestly, with so many tourists coming through every day, even in this ‘shoulder season’, it kind of is. There isn’t a single business on street level that isn’t focused on the tourist trade, and I was looking.

And that’s the thing about Italy. The place really pulls at you. We came here as tourists and we’re leaving as tourists too, I guess. But it’s just so damn comfortable. Sure there’ street history and architecture, I wasn’t here long before I started acting like I lived here. Where’s the hardware store? Where can I buy a toaster? Where’s the bike repair shop?

I’d live and work here in a minute, if I could. Give me a coffee bar, a fruit stand, a gelateria and an Internet connection and I wouldn’t leave my block. “Buongiorno. Il mio nome è Marco. Sì, l’Italia è bella . Vieni a sederti. Hanno po ‘di vino!”