The Venetian Gondola may be romantic and exotic, but fundamentally, it is still just a boat whose bottom needs scrubbing every day, according to the gondolier.
After a very rainy night, Thursday dawned with brilliant blue skies, the perfect weather to explore the three outer islands in the Venice archipelago.
San Marco took on a completely different personality in the brilliant sunshine, as the waiters started to set up their al fresco seating, tourists poured in, dressed in their tri-corner hats, capes and masks, and the lines were already long to enter the bell tower and the basilica.
We invested 20 euros for the Alilaguna guided tour of Murano (glass), Burano (lace) and Torcello (monastery). The boat ride alone was worth 20, and the short stays on each island gave us just a little taste of each in case we wanted to return.
Murano is famous for its glass, but the schedule only permits a 15-minute demonstration of glass blowing in one foundry, leaving just a few minutes to walk along the waterfront to visit some of the shops. None had any offerings better than what we had already seen in the glass shops in Venice. But it is worth further exploration. The regular vaporetto water bus has a route to Murano and the other islands too, for that matter.
Burano is more colorful, as the houses are painted in bright hues to help returning mariners recognize their homes. The island is known for its lace, in which we have no interest at all. So we ducked out of the lace demonstration and wandered a bit in search of a quick lunch. We also located the leaning tower at the church, which is off by exactly the same amount as the more famous Leaning Tower of Pisa–five degrees.
Torcello is all but abandoned, with only about a dozen residents, four or five restaurants (depends on how you count them) and one very famous monastery church. The flat overgrown terrain cut through by canals reminded us both of Shell Beach or Myrtle Grove. Hemingway used to hunt at Torcello, which reinforces our impressions.
From start to finish, the tour takes four and a half hours. Combined with gawking at tourists in San Marco coming and going, our day was pretty full. Plus, we had to navigate back to the Coop supermarket to buy the necessities we had failed to purchase the first time out–beer and garbage bags.
Incredibly, we did not get lost once. We’re getting to know this town.
Lynn wanted badly to visit La Fenice opera house, where we had stayed our last time in Venice but never actually entered the building. So armed with the trusty iPod, on Wednesday we ventured forth under gloomy skies and persistent mist.
Wonder of wonders, we found La Fenice without problem. This opera house dates back to 1792 but the current structure is only 20 years old. La Fenice is aptly named–it has burned down three times, the latest by arson in 1996. The only elements to survive the last fire were the exterior walls and the foyer (which actually survived all the fires) so the entire interior was recreated as it had been from the 19th century.
Although La Fenice is no Garnier Opera in Paris, it’s pretty spectacular in its own Italian way. And in its own Italian way, it is more historically important, as here is where all of Verdi’s works were first performed. La Fenice was also Maria Callas’s favorite venue, and one of the reception rooms showcases a number of her contracts and documents from her performances there.
The interior is a display of gold leaf and pastels decorating the 150 or so boxes that surround the orchestra and look out over the stage. The ceiling looks for all the world like a dome, but it is actually flat. The illusion of the dome is created by a brilliantly conceived gradation of paint colors moving toward a sunlit center where the huge chandelier hangs, itself recreated exactly as the original was in the last building.
Buoyed by our success in reaching La Fenice, Lynn then wanted to find the little restaurant that we had enjoyed so much the last time we were in Venice. Once again, her restaurant radar was unerring. We walked around the corner, and there was VinoVino, where we enjoyed a “light” lunch of spinach ravioli (Lynn) and meatballs with mashed potatoes that were obviously made from flakes (Tom). With a glass of wine and a beer, the tab came to 40 euros, nearly twice what we had been accustomed to spending on a similar lunch in Nice. And the waiter made a point of saying that the tip was not included, when the ticket clearly said it was, as is Italian custom. I didn’t bother to argue and left a few euros behind.
(Italian restaurants add a “coperto,” a cover charge of two or three euros per person on each bill. This has nothing to do with whether you get bread or not. And water is always purchased by the bottle, never the tap you get for free in France. Those charges generally add 6-8 euros to every bill, no matter what you order.)
Feeling emboldened by our navigation to La Fenice, we decided to keep pushing to San Marco to catch the Carnival scene at the source. Sort of like going straight to Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Even in the mist, we immediately realized that Carnival in Venice is very different from what we know in New Orleans. Very, very different. Details in another post.
Regardless of the season, Piazza San Marco takes on an entirely different personality in the mist. This is why novels and movies are set here.
As soon as we arrived in our apartment Monday evening, we carried out the first essential errand, buying wine at the enotica conveniently located right across the campiello from us.
But bigger chores awaited Tuesday, as we needed to find the supermarket and fetch the third bag of luggage, both intimidating travel routes through the maze that makes Venice. But Google Maps and iPods have removed much of the fear, mystery and loathing about navigating this unnavigable city.
Both trips went off with no loss of direction, no wanderings down blind alleys and no existential angst (well, for the most part). The wonders of modern electronic gadgetry.
We were so efficient, we had time for a pizza on the way back, which we split, while watching other couples eat en entire pie each. This is not unusual either in Venice or Nice or Paris for that matter. And you rarely ever see anyone fat. Obviously in Venice they walk a lot, but how do you explain the French cities?
We had to wait until 4:30 for the little vegetable shop down the street to open for the afternoon. Venetians take longer lunch breaks than even the Nicoise. When the store finally re-opened, Lynn started to pick up the tomatoes to smell their freshness and feel their firmness, whereupon people in the little shop went dead silent, then customer and manager alike told Lynn that touching the produce was absolutely forbidden. All she was allowed to do was point and tell the clerk how many. That’s never happened before, anywhere. Do they expect to eat the produce as soon as it goes into the bag?
Back at the apartment, we settled in for a dinner at home. We had purchased a few “tramezzini,” little triangles of prosciutto and cheese sandwiched between two pork sausage patties. Two triangles just about equal the area of one slice of white bread. Seared in a frying pan, they tasted faintly spicy and richly cheesy. Combined with the new pasta we had bought at the InCoop supermarket and the untouchable lettuce from the produce market (3 euros compared to one euro in the Nice market), it was quite a tasty home-cooked meal. The locally produced cabernet franc from across the way perfectly complemented our first home-cooked Venetian dinner.
We set the alarm for 6 a.m. just to make sure we would have plenty of time to get to the Nice airport, which you an see from Promenade des Etats Uni, a block from our apartment. Lucky thing we did.
We were ready to roll by 8:30 a.m.–land speed record for us–showered, dressed, croissanted, packed and all three bags hauled down the three flights to the ground floor. I summoned Uber, which indicated a driver arriving at the apartment in less than ten minutes. I was concerned about the car getting down narrow rue de Barillerie, especially since, of all times, no fewer than four vans had parked in front of us performing various commercial chores. It’s Monday, right?
Fifteen minutes later, after watching our Uber driver circle around our street so close, going back and forth around the neighborhood yet not able to get to us, he disappeared from the screen. So I called for another Uber driver. For another 20 minutes, he did the same.
Now we were setting into a mild panic. I walked over to the Patrimonie Office that had been so kind to give us directions to rue de Barillerie when we first arrived after we were dropped off by a cab driver who clearly did not have a clue where he was. They gave me the number to a local cab company.
Back to the apartment, I tried Uber one last time, but the Uber driver hardly showed up on the screen, seeming to be somewhere on the other side of Castle Hill. After two failed tries, this did not give me confidence. I gave up, cancelled the Uber summons and called the taxi company. (Uber would later charge me 6 euros for the cancellation!)
The taxi dispatcher promised a cab in five minutes. Ten minutes later, I called again. And again 10 minutes after that. By now, the dispatcher was tired of hearing from me and said another car would be coming to pick us up. I moved the pickup location to the back of the Palais de Justice, right around the corner, but much easier to find and reach by car. We dragged all three bags down rue de Barillerie and around the corner and waited.
And waited until my phone rang, and I explained we were standing there on rue Alexandre Mari, which she seemed to recognize and assured me another taxi would be there momentarily. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Lynn spied the red lights of a taxi–on the other end of the street. I left Lynn there with the luggage in front of the hard goods market (what if she had been tagged and put up for sale with the silver and the furs and the paintings?).
I ran down the block waving at the taxi, and to my immense relief, he spotted me, and we drove down to the other end of the street to pick up Lynn and the bags. By now, we had spent an hour trying to get transportation to the airport located only 15 minutes away.
The taxi still hit me for a 35 euro charge.
The rest of the day was relatively anti-climactic after that. Two flights over the Alps (the second with spectacular views of the snow-covered peaks), and an early landing in Venice.
The vibe in Venice could not be more different from Nice. Crowds were clustered around all the bus stops at the airport, milling around trying, as we were, to get a sense of direction in a strange locale. I managed to buy tickets to the wrong bus, but thankfully the same destination. Learn from my forsaken mistake next time you visit Venice–remember the difference between these letter designations:
- ACTV is the public transit line that runs a bus from the airport and all the vaporetto water buses. The bus from the airport to Piazzale Roma terminal is the local bus that makes stops throughout the ‘hood on the way to Venice. You drag your bags into the bus and hold on for dear life while the multi-section monster bounds through curbs and lurches through stops.
- ATVO is a private bus service that operates Greyhound-like luxury liners with thickly padded seats and luggage stored in the compartment in a hold below, close to the ground and easy to heft in and out of the belly of the beast. Price is exactly the same as the other one.
Guess which one I bought?
But we finally made it to Piazzale Roma, where I dragged the third bag to the storage facility (seven euros for 24 hours). We then boarded the correct vaporetto for Ponte Rialto to meet our Apartments Venice representative at the Golden Point store on the corner. Andrea, guided us to our lodgings overlooking Campiello Bruno Crovato, which Google cannot find, despite knowing everything else in the world. Understandable, since no one else can figure Venice out either.
I still cannot define exactly what our address is, although the number 5992 is prominently displayed over the door. Just don’t know the street name, which in Venice seems to be an fungible element.
If Andrea had not led us to our destination, we would still be wandering around Venice, begging for directions from costumed characters who themselves wander around, entertaining tourists, posing for photos and pointing out directions on maps.
Did I mention it’s Carnival in Venice?
It’s time to go. Three weeks is plenty in Nice, although a year would be better. You can explore all the best of Nice in about two weeks. In the third, you start to feel like a resident, and that’s pretty good.
Saturday was our last full day of leisure, as Sunday would be get-away day. The weather was as good as it ever has been, so we proceeded to the Promenade des Utas Uni for one last stroll along the Mediterranean in January weather warm enough for some hardy residents to swim in the ocean off the rocky beach. We walked all the way down along the Promenade past the huge grandstands now erected for the flower parade to Place Massena and the long linear park that covers the river Paillon.
By the time we arrived at Place Garibaldi, we had pretty much circumnavigated Old Town in its entirety. We grabbed a club sandwich (the Nicoise version of a club is ham, turkey, tomatoes and brie on a baguette), then walked back into the park to soak up the sun and the atmosphere of our last day in beautiful Nice.
Sunday’s chores could wait until after a proper brunch and Bloody Mary at Wayne’s while watching the men’s finals of the Australian Open.
Then it was time for laundry and maid service on the apartment. We packed bags to be ready for the next morning’s ride out to the airport and realized that one of our bags was becoming very compromised. SO back out we went in search of a replacement.
It turned out we had been looking at the replacement the entire time we were doing laundry, as the bag shop across the street from the Lavomatique had one soft bag on rollers that almost exactly matched our old one falling apart. And for half the price we paid in the States. It may not be top quality, but it only has to last for five more weeks, three airline flights and one train ride.
We capped off our three weeks in Nice with dinner at Les Garcons, again a memorable dining experience. The garcons outdid themselves with a hangar steak (Tom) and pork medallions (Lynn) in the same truffle sauce I had the last time we dined there. Tres bien. Au revoir, Nice. We’ll be back. Promise.
On more than one occasion, we saw Optimists practicing out on the Mediterranean, so we assumed that Nice has a yacht club. Google said so. It must be true, right?
But I had e-mailed the yacht club on more than one occasion and never received an answer, so our quest was to find this elusive club and visit.
The club is located all the way on the other side of the port, which is a lengthy walk around the entire perimeter of the port.
Finally, after walking past several rather sleek, upscale looking restaurants and Nice’s version of West Marine, we found it all the way at the end of the promenade–Yacht-Club de Nice.
Now I know why they never answered–there is no one there. It’s one room. Well, I guess they can’t all be New York or Southern.
But the port has some sparkling yachts being made ready for the season, as their crews scurry about cleaning, repairing and painting.
And the classic native boats were all tied up, waiting their turn for the new season to arrive. To us, they were more interesting.
After nearly three weeks in Nice, we are searching for new experiences, and Lynn found that we had not visited Cimiez monastery when we were next door at the Matisse Museum.
The church is smaller and simpler in the Romanesque style than the Baroque eye-candy in our neighborhood. But the ceiling frescos are worth the visit, and most of the paintings in the side altars date back to the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
The monastery was established in the 9th century and is the site of the founding of the Franciscan order in the 13th century. Situated right across the little park from the Matisse Museum, the monastery has its own gardens and cemetery, where Matisse is buried.
The gardens are extremely well maintained and display quite a bit of greenery and color even in the dead of Nicoise winter. Of course, orange and lemon trees are everywhere, reminding us of the fruit on our own trees at home going unpicked.
On our way out from the monastery, we stopped for lunch in the park facing the Matisse Museum. This is a delightful green space where families bring small children, people bring their dogs and old men play boules, the French version of bocce, except is it played with metal balls.
The circular park features busts of the great jazz musicians, all of whom are American and one of whom is a New Orleans native son.
When we returned to Place Massena, we caught a new view of the Carnival stands and infrastructure being built for the celebration here that actually starts after Mardi Gras. What do these people know about parades–they only have two that roll several times over the course of the two-week celebration. And only one, the flower parade that rolls along the promenade, throws anything. Flowers. Who would have guessed?
Apparently, the Nice Carnival is a manufactured event dreamed up by the Tourism Bureau only about 20 years ago to bring tourists to town during the down time of off-season. (Where have we heard that before?)
Huge grandstands line two sides of Place Massena, and part of the Place is already barricaded off for what looks like a broadcast studio or mobile police station.
Boy, what could we teach these folks about Carnival.
If Nice is Newport on the Mediterranean, then Cannes is Los Angeles.
In Nice, the Belle Epoch hotels and apartments majestically overlook the rocky beach and cerulean waters on the land side of Promenade des Anglais. In Cannes, buildings of the same style have been butchered by bolting on garish contemporary luxury goods mini-malls facing the street on the beach side.
The seaside walk along the shore is well landscaped, overlooking an actual sand beach, but the water here is a nondescript murky green.
Cannes is unquestionably all about the movie industry. The walkways in the promenade near the Palais des Festivals feature handprints of American and European movie stars. The sleek restaurant where we ate an overpriced lunch also operates an outpost in Los Angeles, which makes perfect sense. The historical sightseeing monuments consist of a small castle and an 18th century church once visited by Napoleon.
The bus ride from Nice, still the same fare, takes nearly two hours. The route runs through fully urbanized areas once it turns north off the Mediterranean at the Nice airport. There is no discernible difference from one town to another, and one starts as soon as the other ends.
From the station, we walked the three blocks down to the shore. Strolling along the beach promenade, we marveled at menu prices in the beachside restaurants that were open during off season. Prices were easily half again more than what the beachside restaurants in Nice charge. We returned via the street side, window shopping at the glitzy stores of designer names, from Armani (which has its own cafe) to Zegna. Harry Winston even has a small storefront on Blvd. de la Croisette. Every last store has at least one if not two black-suited security guards standing out front to screen people entering.
One of our enduring interests is to stop and compare prices at the real estate agents that stand on virtually every block in France. In Paris and Nice, believe it or not, the price of an apartment in some pretty desirable neighborhoods is not unreasonable. In Cannes, they don’t even post prices in some of the windows. That tells you something–if you have to know the price, you can’t afford it. Apparently, the Californie neighborhood is where the richest of the glitterati congregate, because prices there range upward in the mid-single digit millions.
Generally unimpressed with Cannes, we caught the 2 p.m. bus back to the comforts and delights of Old Town Nice. We arrived home just in time for an early cocktail hour before our third dinner downstairs at Chat Noir Chat Blanc. (Melt-in-your-mouth seared foie gras with quince for an appetizer.)
That was the last time we’ll see Giorgio, as he was heading to Marseilles to see his son Wednesday and Thursday, then on to a meeting to discuss opening a third branch of his restaurant near Paris to accompany the one he already operates in Orleans. So Giorgio is not only an splendid chef but an ambitious entrepreneur, something truly rare in France. We wished him the best and promised to stay in touch.
Monday is wash day. There goes a beautiful morning. The forecast had been for clouds. But domestic chores must be done, and that includes a run to the larger Casino grocery store for ingredients to tonight’s dinner at home–our third in a row.
Normally, we would have gone to the Cours Saleya market for vegetables and cheeses, but on Mondays the market changes from food and flowers to hard goods of all kinds. Books, vinyl records, masses of silverware and china, oriental carpets, art (well, framed things to hang on a wall), furniture, chinoisorie and even furs are hawked in hundreds of stalls that fill Cours Saleya and the adjacent square in front of Mary Misericordium church.
But the day was beautiful, with clear skies and temperatures just below 60 F, so we couldn’t resist enjoying the neighborhood scenery the rest of the day. We lunched al fresco at a little place along the seashore that features mediocre food, terrible service from cute young waitresses but a wonderful view of the Mediterranean. All the rest of the little restaurants along that part of the Promenade de Etats Unis are pretty much the same, and we refuse to eat in any place that displays photos of their dishes on a board in front of the entrance.
We walked off lunch by basically circumnavigating the entire Old Town, along the shore down to Place Massena, up the grassy linear park that separates Old Town from the rest of Nice and back to our apartment. Old Nice is so small that our circumnavigation took less than an hour.
We walked back to the apartment to catch up e-mails and whatnot, but we couldn’t let the sun set on such a day without watching. So we walked back through the market, which was now emptying as the vendors packed up all their wares to move to another market in another town the next day.
As expected, sunset was spectacular against a low bank of clouds that had developed behind the mountains to the west. But once the sun goes down, the air chills down too and rapidly. Within minutes, it felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees, and we hustled home for a warming cocktail.
Just another ordinary day on the Med in winter.