Venice Blog

The Journey of 5,000 steps…

5,000 steps

With the reality of the end our Barcelona adventure heavy on our minds, we were doubly committed to planning, so as to fit in as many activities as possible in to the remaining day and a half of our stay.  We decided that the first order of the day would be to check out (there not being any availability for the remaining night at Hostal Muntaner), followed by breakfast, and then a trip to our second hostel where we would spend our final night.  With the assistance of the same wonderful Barcelona Metro rep who had directed us to the Beach the day before, we planned our route to the Catalunyan hills overlooking the city.

The trip required us to step outside our comfort zone of the Barcelona metro system and familiarize ourselves with the trains of the FGC (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya).  The directions taken from our hostel’s website (IN and OUT Hostel) reassured us that once we exited the train, the hostel was a mere 5,000 steps up the mountain.  Sam and I weren’t sure if to be tickle or mortified… 5,000 steps??  That has to be a typo… right?  Images of sure-footed mountain goats, the Von Graf family crossing the Alps and oxygen masks falling from overhead cabins began to dance across my suddenly hyperactive mind.

Baixador

The ride from the city center to our Baixador de Valvidrera stop lasted a merciful 15 minutes, but it was already a little after 11 am by the time we got off and the sun was in its full morning glory.  Sam carried his tote bag slung over one shoulder, while I was weighted down with my backpack, and up ahead of us a lay a short trip up Mt. Everest.  Neither of us was counting, but thankfully the reality wasn’t as bad as we imagined.

lush hills

The beautiful lush green hills were a welcomed departure from not only Barcelona with its urban concrete vibe, but Venice as well, quaint architecture, terra cotta shingles and stone pavers notwithstanding.  We were slightly out of breath when we finally arrived at the reception desk, but all told the hike wasn’t that bad… certainly not 5,000 (500 maybe?) steps.  Having secured our bags in the lockers provided at the hostel we turned right around and made our way back to the train station to begin a full day of sight-seeing.

Our first stop was the Camp Nou, the famed if charmless home of one of my favorite football clubs, FC Barcelona.  It’s hard to describe for the uninitiated the passion that many “soccer” fans have for their teams, but it’s unlike anything we have here in the US.  Myself I’m a fan of Liverpool FC, the team from the famed blue collar city hard on the banks of the Mersey estuary, whose fans share a unique bond with the team, having endured such dark periods as the Heysel Stadium disaster and the Hillsborough tragedy.  It has also been the team of childhood heroes such as John Barnes, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish.  I’ve long been an admirer of Barca however, with their distinctive blaugrana uniform and fabled stars such as Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Johann Cruyff and Luis Figo.

FC Barcelona

Barça also has an unmistakable place in Spanish history, and an indelible bond with the Catalunyan (Catalonian) people themselves.  Catalunyans have long held to their unique identity, and over the centuries have resisted successive Spanish efforts to break their will and assimilate them into Castellano (Castilian) society.  At no other time was this more the case than during the reign of the dictator Franco, for whom the subjugation of Catalunya became a personal crusade of oppression.  If their fiery idealism was catalyzed during Franco’s reign, then much of the flame of that fire was fanned in the very offices of club FC Barcelona.  Club executives were harangued by Franco, and in at least one infamous case one club president was murdered by fascist troops in 1937.  The club itself was bombed at his command in 1938.  The defiance of the club has thus become both a source of pride and symbol of hope to the Catalunyan people, for whom Barça remains “Més que un club” (More than a club).

Over the past century and a half Barça has enjoyed (and endured) a spirited and sometimes bloody rivalry with perennial Spanish powers Real Madrid, which was Franco’s club.  Real in Spanish means “royal”, and the club’s title is fitting, in that this is the team which historically has always been patronized by the Spanish royal family… the King’s team, or as they are somewhat derisively known the “Galacticos”, in part due the perennial cast of superstars they often bought and stockpiled like so much spare parts, if for no other reason but because they could… as well as to keep such players away from their rivals.  It should be pretty easy then to understand passion, and sometimes bad blood that exists between fans of Barça and fans of Madrid.

It had taken us a bit longer than planned getting to the Camp Nou, and our visit also lasted a bit longer than expected, and so it was late afternoon by the time we left.  Sam desperately wanted to visit La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s yet unfinished masterful homage to the Holy (Sacred) Family.

La Sagrada Familia

We were somewhat turned off by line for individuals, and so decided to make ourselves content with just taking in the facades of the exterior.  The building is an architectural marvel… even if somewhat indecipherable at times.  From the seemingly grotto formations on the eastern façade, to the cubist statues to the west, it’s a bit hard for the lay person to determine exactly what the architect’s vision was.  Sometimes however, it’s simply best to suspend the thinking process and simply marvel at the sheer beauty that we as human beings, are capable of creating.  Lest we get too lofty in our appreciation, it also helps to have travelmates such as Sam, who helpfully pointed out “that gold guy hanging out up there…”  Who Jesus you mean, Sam? Lol

Gold guy

After our visit to the shrine, I was desperate to try some authentic Spanish paella and so we headed back to one of our favorite neighborhood spots, Bodega Joan (corner Carrer de Rosello and Carrer d’Aribau, Barcelona), which I was convinced would have it on the menu.  They did, but only in servings for two (made to order I presume) that started at €22… so I went to my excellent back up plan, morcilla con cebollas (black pudding with onions) and sandwiches it was.

Black pudding

Sam ordered his new favorite beer, San Miguel… and all three of us (Sam, myself and the pretty waitress) got a good chuckle out of my butchering the Spanish language when I tried to tell her that Sam liked the beer… and managed to tell her instead that he liked her, lol.  I immediately corrected myself… but it made for good fun.

After dinner we headed back to IN and OUT, showered and made our way for the center of the hostel’s nightlife, the Cafeteria.  There not only was there internet access, but PC stations set up as well… and as a consequence was the de facto meeting place for the largely twenty-something guests.  We quickly made friends with Jeff and his Japanese roommate Nob (“like the thing on the door”) … Nob having come over and struck up a conversation with me.  He told me that he was a former student in Japan (having “retired” from school, lol), and that he was now backpacking across Europe.  Jeff meanwhile is a med student, originally from Chicago, now studying in Boston… also backpacking across Europe for the summer.  Sam had a good laugh when they both recalled Nob’s reaction to seeing the topless women at the beach.  According to Sam, Nob’s account was that he “observed carefully… very carefully”.

“…too carefully”, Jeff helpfully interjected, lol.

About the only thing funnier was when one of the hippie spawns decided that it wasn’t enough feeding bread to the wild piglet that sauntered up every evening at dusk, he had to actually pet it.

quenk1

quenk2

The startled pig let out a squeal that was matched in tone by the equally startled would-be Dr. Doolittle, as they both leaped about two feet in the air and ran off in opposite directions.  The rest of the night melted away in a haze of warm beer, good times and great conversation.

-Nigel

Aahh… the Children of the Night, what sweet music they make…

We eventually made our way to our hostel (Hostal Muntaner, 175 Calle Muntaner, Barcelona) that night where after a bit of teasing in Spanish with one of the staff about how evil the United States was in bringing about the financial crisis… and what little President Obama was actually doing about it (I had to stand up for our guy, lol) he ushered us to our private room with double beds.  Not even one-star accommodations, but pretty swanky by hostel standards, lol.  We did have to share a communal bath though… which was adequate, except the hot water was iffy and the drain didn’t exactly… well, drain.

We were both pretty tired but famished at the same time (I feel like every time I post I talk about how hungry I am… not too sure I want to get on the scale when I get back Stateside).  Food became our top priority, but turned out to be quite a challenge given how late it was.  Barcelona might be a happening city but the restaurateurs would like to have you believe that they have lives, so options become drastically limited later at night.  Having gotten lost trying to find “El Barquito” as directed by Obama’s biggest critic (I suspect he doesn’t know his right from his left, because I followed his directions and ended up in the opposite direction, lol), I stopped this one guy on the street and asked if he knew of any restaurants where we could get something to eat.  He puzzled for a while and started to indicate that it would be tough given how late it was… to which I replied that we really didn’t need a “restaurante”, just someplace where we could grab a bite, a few “bocadillos” as he interjected.  That’s how we ended up at Slavia, having a terrific Catalunyan meal at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night

tipico.jpg

Sam had the first of many great (I’m told) sandwiches that night, “York” (ham) and cheese, that was really as simple as it sounds, but much more tantalizing than it seems.  I was a bit more adventurous and got judías con butifarra, which consisted of white beans, a Catalunyan chorizo sausage and some really good mushrooms sauteed in some sort of garlic sauce, and piping hot French fries.  Not being able to decide I had asked our server to recommend something and he suggested a típico, (or Catalunyan staple).  I was more than happy to walk back to our hostel after the meal because trust me, that was one dish that really stuck to the ribs.  After making our way back to the hostel and a quick shower it was off to bed around 1 am.

I awoke about 4 a.m. to the sound of voices, dishes banging away in a sink and the smell of some mystery meal wafting up through my window… and unfortunately this would be par for the course for the two nights we spent at Hostal Muntaner.  Apparently there was a suite beneath our apartment, complete with kitchen and late night gourmands, which made getting any sleep quite challenging.  Not for Sam, he was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.  Unable to get back to sleep I pulled on some clothes and headed into the 2nd Floor lobby.  There I stuck my head out another window and this time was greeted by a different smell and sound wafting down from the room directly above.  This being a family blog, I won’t go into any great detail… but suffice to say it wasn’t exactly cooked onions and food chatter coming out the window.

I decided to go for a walk… exploring if you will.  Probably not the safest or smartest thing to do but I’ve survived some pretty tough streets before… Brownsville and Bed-Stuy during my Brooklyn days… Anacostia in DC’s notorious Southeast quadrant during my post-college days… Barcelona at night couldn’t be all that bad… and thankfully it wasn’t.  I didn’t get too far before I was propositioned by a woman, who didn’t hesitate to interrupt her conversation with two denizens in the alley, having spotted a business opportunity I suppose.  I knew enough Spanish to pick out the one word I needed to, and having heard her three-second pitch I politely declined… “gracias.”

“de nada.”

… she politely responded, as I kept it moving.

I eventually got onto La Avenguda de Diagonal, which seems to be Barcelona’s main artery… and which as it turns out was right near our hostel.  I walked down past La Rambla de Catalunya (“La Rambla”) and to Passeig de Gracia, where the train had deposited us earlier that evening.  I wandered around a bit, then sat down, taking in the late night couples stumbling home from their Saturday night out on the town.  I was feeling a bit wistful and part of me longed for home… nothing like seeing amorous couples about when you’re all alone in an unfamiliar city.  Plus I had hoped to experience a bit of the Barcelona nightlife… maybe next time with better planning, lol.  Before long I noticed a couple gay couples… okay, more than just a couple… it happened to be “Orgullo Barcelona” (“Pride”) weekend, we had no idea.  At any rate, here I was sitting all alone on a park bench at five in the morning… drawing my fair share of stares.  Eventually cars started slowing down… and I decided to leave nothing to chance. Having had my fill of propositions for one night I made my way back to the hostel, climbed into bed to try to decompress from what had been a very long day.

-Nigel

“La Legge e’ Uguale Per Tutti”

La Legge

Today, Thursday June 25th we got a tour of the Venetian courts courtesy a local Avvocato Giovanni Minelli, who proved to be quite the resource with both his knowledge of and familiarity within the local bar.  The tour began with a visit of the Corte d’Assize, Venice’s criminal court of first instance, the equivalent of an American trial court.  The first thing that struck me about the court was the complete lack of pomp and circumstance reflected in the actual edifice itself.  In fact, I had been past the building a couple times and hadn’t even noticed its presence among the nearby gift shops and sundry tourist traps which populated the Rialto neighborhood.  The only thing which gave away its presence was the bronze plaque signifying its purpose as the seat of the tribunal.

tribunale.jpg

Given Venice’s wonderful architectural tradition one would have been forgiven for expecting something with a bit more of an aesthetic flair, to put it mildly. Truth be told however, the only thing architecturally interesting within the perimeter was the wonderful clock tower pictured below, with its subtle nod to the medieval past reflected in the clock face.

Clock

clock-2.jpg

Continuing in the architectural vein, we then got a look at highly stylized, if spatially efficient courtroom, designed by one of Venice’s leading modern architects.  The most interesting feature of the room to me was the riveted, paneled walls, which gave the room the look of a sleek, modernist sound room rather than the proletarian tribunal that it was.  Overall the room was hardly a departure from anything that we may see in U.S. courtrooms, except that it was executed perhaps with a bit more of an architectural flair.  Comparing the effort that was put into the design of the room relative to the other courtrooms however, and it’s no small wonder that the locals seemed so taken by it.

The next courtroom we visited down on the first floor of the building was more representative of the Venetian courtrooms we saw, stark, unadorned walls in keeping with the unglamorous task of the bureaucrats who occupied it.  Affixed in large letters about the tribunal however were the words “La Legge e’ Uguale per Tutti“, which roughly translates to “Everyone is Equal in the Eyes of the Law”.  My attempt to photograph the inscription probably could have ended a lot worse than it actually did, lol.  Before you go “well, duh!”, I wasn’t being quite the obnoxious, clueless tourist that you think.  I was actually standing outside the courtroom at the time, in the vestibule actually, trying surreptitiously to focus on just the words high up on the walls without capturing any of the actual happenings within the room.  Still, I was met by a rather firm-looking functionary who quite irritatedly ushered me away, saying “Vai! Vai!” or something to that effect, lol.

Next stop were the offices of one of the local prosecutors… the anteroom to which was simply stunning.

anteroom.jpg

In fact there were many things stunning about that stop on the tour, from the beautiful frescoes on the ceiling and walls of the anteroom pictured above, to the restoration being done to wonderfully aged ceilings inside… to the boxes of files “stored” literally, all over the place.  We even saw a few boxes sunning themselves outside on the balcony.  Thank God for small mercies the fact that it didn’t rain that day, although it would have been fun to see their contingency plans in effect.

Next stop was the Corte d’Appello, on the banks of the Grand Canal.  Again I must stress how friendly and accommodating the Venetian people were (my near minor international incident aside, lol).  Granted that the proceedings we observed were open to the public, but the judges were very accommodating of our sizeable group, including the fact that some of us forgot that we were supposed to “dress appropriately” for the occasion.  At the end of witnessing one bankruptcy proceeding our host, Giovanni explained our presence to the tribunal who then acknowledged us with very kind words (in Italian of course), and later on a local prosecutor prevailed on our behalf in getting the judges to allow us into another tiny courtroom as they first heard, then later announced their decision (after deliberations) in a criminal case.  In the mean time we were able to go downstairs and take some photographs on the courthouse steps along the banks of the Grand Canal.  There too we were able to see local law enforcement in action as a couple of us stragglers were ushered away from the water’s edge as one defendant was brought (by boat, of course) literally to the courthouse doors and then up some secret elevators.

We were given a mini tour of the building, which at one time was the private home of one of Venice’s great families, replete with private stairways for the house staff so that when they went about their chores they wouldn’t have to be seen by the family.  Weird, but interesting all the same.  One of the courthouse staff was very kind to escort us to an upper room, and then to the attic,  which also doubled as, surprise… storage space for files… where we were treated to spectacular vistas of the city.

Rialto Birdseye

Unsolicited and unexpected, this turned out to be the highlight of the tour for many of us.

We concluded our tour of the Venetian courts by retiring for lunch at Osterria Al Assessini, one of the favorite local lawyer hangouts, near the City’s municipal center close to the Rialto.

osteria.jpg

gnocchi.jpg

There we were treated to gnocchi in tomato sauce and ravioli with ricotta and spinach.  The first course was followed by a second course of roast beef and grilled vegetables… no seafood, but otherwise a perfect way to cap off what was a very enjoyable and insightful look at the non-tourist side of Venice.

-Nigel

Giovanni…he’s a good boy.

 

 

Timon

So after Friday night the entertainment bar was set pretty high… we’d have to come pretty darn good to top that night we thought.  And so with that in mind it was decided we’d visit the city-run Casino in Cannaregio’s Campo San Marcuolo neighborhood.  It turns out the Casino workers had other plans, as they quite inconveniently decided to go on strike… the nerve, what no one told them we were coming?  So at this point we were waiting for Debbie and Rachael to arrive, both of them having to catch the vaporetto up from Debbie’s apartment near campus.  Sam, Dana and Ryan had already eaten, but Georgine and I were pretty famished and so we decided that food would be the next order of business.

Georgine’s feet were hurting so Ryan decided that he would take us both to this one restaurant he knew, where we would wait while he went back (with Sam and Dana) to get Debbie and Rachael when they get off the vaporetto.  As we navigated the twisting passageway that passed for a street I happened to notice the deposit left behind by one of Venice’s canine corps.  I also noticed footsteps behind us and turned to see this pretty signorina following not too far behind.  Georgine and I made a quick right towards the restaurant while signorina continued straight… and wouldn’t you know it, stepped right into the pile of post-digested Scooby snacks. 

I really didn’t have any time to warn her… honestly.  Not that she would have necessarily understood me either, as my lack of Italian would have left me inarticulately gesturing at the ground in front of her. She turned and stared at the spot with a “what the hell??” look on her face, as the dread… and recognition soon set in.  I quickly averted my eyes so as to spare her any further embarrassment, and the last I heard as she disappeared around the bend was the unmistakable sound of leather scraping against concrete, as I imagined her swearing at the gods under her pretty breath.  For what it’s worth though, it was one of life’s great leveling moments… sometimes even the pretty girls step in doggie poop.

We soon abandoned our efforts on dog poop alley, as the two restaurants there were closing the kitchens at 10:30 and here it was already 10:15 with Debbie and Rachael still cruising the canals.  We ran into Arben, the Albanian émigré friend of Dana and Ryan, who worked at a nearby restaurant.  After hearing our plight he phoned his friends at the restaurant and got them to hold the kitchen open for the seven of us as we hurried over.  Our path took us from the Calle del Forno, right on the Fondamenta degli Ormesini, and before long we arrived at Arben’s restaurant, Timon.  The staff there were very friendly and soon set up a table for us along the canal.  Georgine had the eggplant parmesan and Debbie had the artichoke lasagna, while Rachael and I had the meat lasagna.  The food at Timon’s was terrific, the inside of my lasagna had a consistency almost reminiscent of tiramisu, that’s how much it felt like it melted in your mouth, and the same for Debbie’s artichoke variety which I had tasted, even though she confessed that it was too rich for her.

Arben soon joined back up with us and we proceeded to just hang out and shoot the breeze while we digested our meals.  Before long Arben had us downing shots of Grappa, a colorless, fermented, something or the other that was made from grapes, but which was four times as potent as regular wine.  I swear it smelled like jet fuel… but I was curious enough that I decided to be game and play along.  If as it’s said, that liquor puts hair on a man’s chest, then Grappo put an entire weave on my chest. After I swallowed, the flaming liquid seemed to pause at the base of my throat, long enough for me to savor the flavor, before going down. 

Grappa 

Interestingly enough the aftertaste wasn’t bad, a definite sweet-ish grape flavor.  Arben looked at me in part anticipation and part concern.  ”I’m fine,” I assured him, as I struggled to suck oxygen into my lungs.  Ryan was pretty lit from the grappa, and Debbie was getting high just the words coming out of his mouth… and there were a LOT of words.  Ryan took us everywhere from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to 20 Questions with Georgine… before he perfected the thousand-yard stare that is, brought on by the potent potables consumed during the course of the night. 

We finished dinner, took a shortcut through Venice’s historic Jewish neighborhood, past the Campo del Ghetto, and the Museo ebraico and Sinagoghe.  We crossed the Ponte delle Guglie turned down the Fondamenta de Venier and settled on the Ponte Tre Archi, where we chilled… literally, in the 60-degree Fahrenheit air.  Before long we were joined by two of Arben’s friends who were passing through, Matteo and Giovanni… the latter of whom absconded into the night with one of two American co-eds he’d met earlier.  Upon the other expressing concern for her absent friend, she was apparently told not to worry that she was in good hands, ”Giovanni, he’s a good boy”.

-Nigel

Vini, Vidi, Vi…enna sausage??

Apartment

riva.jpgMy trip to Venice got off to a fairly inauspicious start, as my plane left the gate on time but then proceeded to sit on the runway for the next 45 minutes as the pilot awaited clearance for takeoff.  To compound matters, the flight attendant working my section of the plane was pretty aggressive in adhering to the basics she learned in flight attendant school.  Not only did she ask me to put up my tray while we were idling on the runway, but she also threatened to have the pilot pull the plane off the tarmac if one of the other passengers didn’t take his seat as instructed.  The poor guy had the temerity to be cold, and then to protest at that, that he’d only gotten up so that he could more easily pull a sweater over his shirt.  The arctic blast of the overhead A/C vents aside, I’m happy to say that the rest of the flight turned out to be very pleasant… at least as pleasant as an eight-hour flight can be, and before too long we were descending into the morning sunshine of Venice’s Marco Polo International airport.

The process was pretty efficient as we de-planed and were shepherded through passport control and to baggage claim, and after what only seemed like a few minutes I found myself in search of three things: Euros, a bus ticket to the city and a telephone by which to contact the rental office of my apartment’s leasing agent.  The first two were simple enough, but finding a pay phone… especially one which I could figure out how to use proved a bit more of a challenge.  I eventually abandoned the effort, gambling on catching the departing ACTV (Venice’s public transportation company) bus now, and worrying about the phone call after I get into the city.  We made the short 20-minute trip to the Piazzale Roma, the central bus depot, and from there I caught a vaporetto (the omnipresent public waterbus) to the Riva di Biasio landing as instructed by the rental agent, whom I was desperate to contact now, already late for my 9:30 a.m. Orientation and introductory classes.

Old world charm met modern day reality while searching for a public phone, when I saw graffiti scrawled on one of the alley walls that said “F#%k Tha Police”.  “Great,” I thought, “Venice gives us Gondolas, Romance and Culture… we give them Ice Cube and The N.W.A.”  I eventually happened upon the Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, quite by accident while wandering the maze of alleys and passageways which pass for the city’s public streets.  There I found a phone, which of course did not work, and so tired, beaded with sweat and desperate and frustrated beyond measure I threw myself at the mercy of this kind shopkeeper.  Through her limited English and my non-existent Italian she somehow figured out my predicament and allowed me to use her phone to contact the rental agent, who instructed me to go back to the Riva di Biasio vaporetto landing (pictured below) and await someone from her office. riva.jpg

After another seemingly interminable wait a young woman sauntered up to me and asked if I was waiting for someone to take me to the apartment.  Maybe it was the two oversized suitcases I was carrying, or maybe it was the increasing look of sheer desperation that was creeping over me, but whatever it was, she certainly made me out.  After confirming that I was indeed her charge, she took one look at my luggage, looked me in the eyes as if to say “okay, shall we?” and took off in what could only be described as Olympic speed walking pace to the apartment, as I struggled to haul the luggage over the city’s cobbled stone paths.  I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself, as whatever was in my suitcases was clearly my problem as the rental aide wanted no part in helping me navigate the stairs up and across the frequent footbridges.  Venice may be many things, but wheelchair friendly it isn’t.

We eventually arrived at the charming two-bedroom apartment, where my roommate Sam had already settled in two days prior, and after dispatching with the paperwork… and payment up front, I decided against the prospect of getting lost in the city in trying to meet up with the rest of my class, and opted instead for some much needed rest.  By this point I’d been up nearly a full 24 hours and was running entirely on fumes.  I slept until Sam got in later on in the evening and after making each other’s acquaintances we decided to head out in search of some food, eventually settling on this charming diner staffed by a Korean couple, which, judging from the locals occupying the tables in the ample courtyard seemed a good bet.

Wrong.

We opted for item #59, which promised “bruschetta, marinara and wurtzel”… judging from the accompanying picture seemed to be a tasty Venetian take on a German sausage pizza.  Imagine our dismay then when our pizza finally arrived with a daub of marinara here and there, a sprinkling of cheese and topped with… Vienna sausage??  It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.  The irony was lost on neither Sam nor myself that we left the US, came to Italy for Pizza of all things… and somehow ended up eating hotdog “sausage” on a pizza from a Korean deli.  At least the crust was palatable, which was probably more testament to our hunger than any prowess on the part of the kitchen staff.

-Nigel