Goodbye Venice, Hello France

Goodbye Venice, Hello France

Monday and Tuesday, June 2-3, 2014
To France!

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We wave goodbye to fish-shaped Venice (just like all the maps we’ve perused on the ground) far below as we wing our way to France. Can you see the squiggle of the Grand Canal snaking through the city, to the left? The “tail” on the right is beyond where most tourists spend their time, the far reaches of the Castello Sestiere (neighborhood) The big square of water on the upper part of the tail is the Arsenale, where super-power Venice built a ship a day at the height of its power.

Our next couple of days will quickly accustom us to driving rather than floating, with hours on the road on our schedule. We’ve landed at Marseilles, but our first task is two hours southwest, where the jasmine is threatening to take over the courtyard of La Belle Cour!

Kirk finds his garden tools and tames the jasmine (what a difference!), as I clean the house and greet our guests, Peter and Susan. We’ve traded houses with them, and tomorrow will drive to their Dordogne apartment about 4 hours north.

Our favorite Vias restaurant, L’Amandine, is closed tonight, but Peter and Susan have found a new little place right across from the church, and greet the owner like old friends. She quickly prepares some delicious open-face toasted sandwiches and salads, and we enjoy getting to know this interesting couple as we eat. Peter and Susan are Australian, but spend half of the year in France, and often swap their home. They’ve recently been in Sausalito, California, and Spain, and have come to Vias from the St. Remy area of Provence.  Eager to see their little village, we listen as we eat to tales of how they’ve restored their home over the years.

Tuesday morning finds us on the road again, keys to the apartment in hand, and we whiz by the turreted walls of Carcassonne as we make our way north.

We get just a quick look at the pretty village of Castillonnés, since we’ve got to meet some fellow Slow Travel Tours partners for dinner tonight. We unpack enough to pack AGAIN, and hit the road.

Next stop, Sarlat, one of the highlights of the Dordogne region, a golden-stone beauty whose warm colors remind us of Aix.

Instead of driving yet 1 1/2 hours more BACK to Casti (as Peter and Susan call their village) we’ve decided it’d be wiser to spend the night in this dreamy town, and check into a hotel that is rather the epitome of an old French auberge – no air conditioning (don’t need it today, fortunately), quirky stairs heading this way and that, creaky floors, a bit shabby, but full of character – reminds us of places we stayed decades ago when we first started traveling to France.Our top floor room has great views out over the lauze – stone roofs of town.

The evening flies by, as we meet Steve and Judi of Caves and Castles, who live north of Sarlat near Montignac, not far from the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux. Their tour focus and expertise is in the fascinating prehistory of the region, as well as the beautiful fortress castles that dot the area. This is an absolutely gorgeous part of France, and it’s been over a decade since we’ve spent time here, so we’re eager to explore for the next few days in preparation for a special tour in September. 
Walking back to the hotel, we feel as if we’re in a fairytale,

walking between towers and quiet lanes, mullioned windows and ancient doors. We’ll be back!

Inland from the Grand Canal

Inland from the Grand Canal

Friday, May 30, 2014
The Veneto, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  Join us on a summer tour on the Amalfi Coast, in Provence, or in Amsterdam/Belgium

We leave Venice in an unexpectedly classy way – via taxi! Our carefully purchased and registered transport passes, scheduled to last just long enough to get us down the Grand Canal and to Piazzale Roma (where we’ll pick up our rental car) this morning, are useless. Why? That dreaded Italian word “scopero”  – the public transport is on strike today.

The alternative would have been walking to Piazzale Roma, an easy task if we were unencumbered, but leaving town with luggage, trundling it up, over, and down multiple bridges, is NOT the way we want our Music and Markets guests to depart Venice! So we’ve bitten the bullet, and the sleek taxi pulls up at the water entrance of the hotel right on time. The 15 minute ride down the Grand Canal rings in at a grand 70€  – just a mere $100 or so.

The causeway connecting Venice to the mainland is bumper to bumper – no quick escape for us!
But we’re finally on the autoroute heading for Montegrotto Terme. Remember that wonderful spa hotel we discovered earlier this year? The Miramonti welcomes us with a smile, but we wait to check in, just drop our luggage, and head for Padova, where ancient beauties await us.
First, lunch, then we’re ready to spend a bit of time in the historic center, pointing out the grand market squares,

before our appointment at the Scrovegni Chapel. A scattering of modern and ancient Roman sculpture outside (the Chapel is beside the ruins of a Roman arena) ,

but inside are Giotto’s marvelous frescoes of the life of Christ and other Bible stories, meticulously restored most recently in this millenium, the colors as vivid as when they were painted in the early 1300s.

Back at Miramonti, we walk our guests through the spa area….and they want to make sure to fit in a visit or two to the warm pools!

This Venice/Veneto tour is designed around the International Encounter of Chamber Music, now in its 7th year, presented by the Auryn Quartet. Each year they invite other musicians to join them for a series of concerts in the 12th century church of St. Martin in Este.
The long piazza is lined with people enjoying an aperitif, and we’ve got what we think is the best café chosen for a light dinner before the concert.

Mozart’s Quintets are the focus of this series,

and the intimate and simple St. Martins, with excellent acoustics (as is normal for small solid Romanesque structures), is a perfect place to listen to some of the best works of this young genius.

Island Colors in the Lagoon

Island Colors in the Lagoon

Thursday, May 29, 2014
Lagoon Islands, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  Join us on a summer tour on the Amalfi Coast, in Provence, or in Amsterdam/Belgium

The morning deliveries are coming in as we glide down the Grand Canal – just one stop, then we’ll walk to the north side of the island and catch the vaporetto for a 40 minute sail to the outer islands.

We get off at quiet Mazzorbo, where you can almost hear the grapes growing in the hush,

then cross the long bridge to Burano 

for a quick cup of coffee and a short stroll beside the brilliant homes.

Then back on a boat for a 5 minute trip to Torcello, where this island nation began centuries ago, in the first millenium.
A nun is telling her class tales of their ancient heritage – what a privilege to go on a field trip in such an historic place!

We pass a few trattorias, grass trimmed, flowers abundant, tables ready for lunch-time diners, and come to the core of Torcello, with the 13th century church of Santa Maria Assunta. Inside, the exquisite byzantine mosaics are the star of the island – a beautiful piece of ancient history still intact.

Attila’s chair provides a convenient photo op, then we head back to Burano,

its bright colors quite a contrast to the quiet stones of Torcello. You’ve heard the tale, no doubt – these bright colors made it easy for returning fishermen to spot their own home as they returned from the sea.

Gatto Nero has our table ready, right by the canal,

and we feast on fresh seafood to our stomach’s content – here, Sarde in Saor, a lagoon specialty of fresh sardines in a sweet and sour onion sauce.

More colors await us after lunch,

and a glance at the tilting tower of Burano’s church – doesn’t look like it’s any worse than last year!

The long ride back is a prime opportunity for a nap after that delicious lunch, then one more Venetian treat awaits – an evening cruise through the back lanes of San Marco and Castello neighborhoods, our multi-tasking gondolier telling us tales of the buildings we pass, crouching under bridges, chatting on his cell phone, pushing off a wall or two.

An intriguing sky shimmers across the water as we stroll by Saint Marks Basilica,

and as we walk to dinner we’re stopped time and again by the beauty of the sunset-blushed canals.

A light dinner is plenty after our abundant lunch,

and our perch beside the Giudecca Canal is the perfect place to take in the sunset as we dine.

There’s just nowhere like Venice, is there?!

Venice from on High, Venice from the Water

Venice from on High, Venice from the Water

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Venice, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  Join us on a summer tour on the Amalfi Coast, in Provence, or in Amsterdam/Belgium

Our tour days begin with breakfast in the lovely courtyard of Al Ponte Mocenigo. There is so much to appreciate about this property – walls covered with exquisite silk in the spacious bedrooms, an abundant buffet breakfast with homemade pastries and jams, smiling and helpful staff, an excellent location- no wonder everyone raves about it!

Whenever possible, we appreciate getting “above it all” to see our surroundings – it’s a great way to get a perspective on a city or area. The best spot to do so in Venice is from the belltower of San Giorgio Maggiore, across the basin from Piazza San Marco. So we’re on our way, chugging down the Grand Canal on the morning bus. The gondolas are already booked, cruising and singing on their way.

We walk back onto an island at the San Zaccaria stop, and before boarding another vaporetto (the buses of Venice, so named because they were originally powered by  steam – vapore) walk through a passage under buildings lining the broad Fondamenta. We’ve got time to go through centuries of history in one little church, San Zaccaria. On the left, as we enter, is one of Bellini’s best, a jewel-toned Conversazione Sacra (Sacred Conversation), Mary and chosen saints chatting, with musical accompaniment by the sweetest angels and their stringed instruments. This masterpiece was completed in 1505, when Bellini was 75 – a super long life at that time!

Tucked away in chapels behind the main church are centuries of treasures…traces of mosaic floors from the original structure, begun in the 7th century, a Tiepolo or two, and the first trace of the Renaissance in Venice in the vaults above a fabulously ornate Gothic altarpiece. The Tuscan artist Andrea del Castagno painted the lifelike figures in 1442, actually BEFORE the gilded structure, a prime example of spiky Gothic below, was built.

Down a few rickety steps is yet more of the ancient church, with several tombs of Doges and a simple altar posed on the shimmery floor, as usual, covered with a few inches of water…we walk on a raised brick path across the room.

Then we’re on our way to San Giorgio Maggiore, a tiny island with a majestic Palladian church, and the perch we’ve anticipated. From the belltower (we advise descending before the bells strike on the hour!) the view’s the best – Saint Marks across the water,

the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal spilling out into the Basino (when on the water, you can always tell when you hit the Basino  – it’s rougher than the canals), with the exclamation point of the Dogana in between.

Next stop, the Zattere, the broad waterside path where the Dorsoduro Sestiere (one of Venice’s six neighborhoods) meets the Giudeca Canal.

A waterside lunch awaits us at La Piscina, where the view is as delicious as the food.

We stroll through the Dorsoduro neighborhood on our way back to the hotel, pointing out galleries, intriguing shops, and one of the few Squeros, Gondola workshops, left on the islands.

Interpreti Veneziani completes our day, with melodies of hometown boy Vivaldi high on the program.

In the elegant church of San Vidal, we’re surrounded with the beauty of this talented ensemble along with graceful sculptures and an impressive Carpaccio of San Vidal himself.

Buona Notte, Venezia…


And the Venice Tour Begins!

And the Venice Tour Begins!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Venice, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  Join us on a summer tour on the Amalfi Coast, in Provence, or in Amsterdam/Belgium

You know we love our markets, so we take time to stroll through the bustle of the Rialto this morning. This shopper decorated her boat to come to market.

Every guidebook on Venice will advise you to not order fish at a restaurant on Monday, since the market’s closed that day. Tuesday morning the stalls of the Rialto fish market are squirming with the freshest shrimp, octupus, eels, squid and more.

This lucky gull gets the first taste of the day.

Russell and Susan arrive right on time, gliding right up to the San Stae stop on the Alilaguna from the airport (just one of the great things about Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo – easy access to anywhere!). After the long overnight flight, on which they were able to sleep quite well, they’re ready to explore Venice, and receive a nice Benvenuto (welcome) as we glide under the Rialto.

Up and over, we cross the Grand Canal

and begin to show off the shabby chic beauty of this watery city

Explaining campos and wells, floating fruttivendolos (fruit and veg seller – one of my favorite Italian words – it just sings!) , and typical Venetian nibbles, cicchetti,

stopping for the quintessential Venetian aperitif, the Aperol Spritz (invented right on these islands), we fill the early afternoon with the sights, tastes and sounds of La Serenissima.

After a refreshing siesta, our guests are ready to continue, and we glide along the Grand Canal to dinner. In late May, the days are lasting much longer already.

Disembarking at San Zaccaria, just beyond Saint Mark’s, we smile at the sunset brushing a glow over San Giorgio Maggiore. We’ll be atop that belltower tomorrow morning.

An al fresco dinner in the garden of Al Giardinetto is as wonderful as ever – I hope they continue delighting us for years to come!

Could we  have seen this seafood

fresh at the Rialto early this morning?

Just Venice

Just Venice

Monday, May 27, 2014
Venice, Italy
 Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  Join us on a summer tour on the Amalfi Coast, in Provence, or in Amsterdam/Belgium
It’s a day of errands in Venice, getting ready for tomorrow’s guests. What better way to start our day than with a visit to an historic coffee roaster, not too far from our hotel? The fragrance of roasting beans draws us in the door, and a fresh caffé gets us going.

We’re reviewing routes from the  hotel we’ll be in with our guests, a new location from previous years, and as always, are sidetracked time and again by the sights of Venice – an ancient door,

the Grand Canal,

oh no – the love lock craze has come here too! Sure hope the Accademia Bridge is not damaged by them, as Paris’ Pont des Arts has been.

Trattoria da Silvio, recommended by fellow Slow Travel Tours member Shannon Esa in her book Chow Venice, is a terrific choice for an alfresco lunch.

Kirk chooses a Venetian specialty – Squid in its own Ink, with Polenta. An excellent lunch – and the owner would NOT let us leave until we had a complimentary house made tiramisu (after plying us with also-complimentary limoncello!)

A few more errands, punctuated by frequent photo stops,

and we’re all ready for tomorrow.
“Please take me to see the Bovolo Stairs,” I ask my fearless guide – and he weaves us through the lanes,  over bridges, and under porticos til – voila! Here it is! Not a place to easily pass by – you have to search it out. An elegant Renaissance spiral staircase, built in 1499, it’s nickname means “snail”. Lovely, no?

An evening spritz on a lively campo near our hotel,

dinner, and to bed, eagerly anticipating our guests’ arrival!