Posts Tagged With: vineyard

Under the Not-Altogether-Tuscan Sun

…Which is to say, that though we are not technically in Tuscany (yet; we are still in the region called Veneto), the “look and feel” of this part of Italy comports quite perfectly with your mental image of sun-drenched hillside vineyards and rustic farmhouses. (Please note that, as in Greece and similar Mediterranean tourist destinations, “sun-drenched” is the officially-approved adjective and must be used at least once every three days in all missives back home. I have now fulfilled my quota.)

Anyway, our particular farmhouse was a lovely two-story structure with two bedrooms and a comfortable modern kitchen and living room area, accessible by a tortuous narrow (and unlit) road, and situated on a you-know-what-drenched hillside full of vineyards adjacent to a stereotypically charming village. And here are the pictures to prove it:

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This was essentially an overnight way station en route to our next “real” destination, which were the towns of Asolo and Bassano del Grappa. (Pay attention to the “del Grappa” part of the name; it’ll become important later.) Both are medieval towns – they’re all medieval towns around here – of about 50,000 people. Asolo is known primarily for having been the site of a gruesome World War I battle. It is all steep cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, like this:

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I should mention that while I was taking the picture of the bicycle I was observed with great interest, and then engaged, by an elderly local gentlemen, spectacularly drunk and straight out of Central Casting with the largest, most mottled cauliflower nose I have ever seen, about one-third the size of an actual cauliflower. He commented at cheerful length in heavily slurred and fully incomprehensible Italian, nearly incapacitating first me and then Alice with breath that, were an open flame to have passed nearby, would have incinerated us all.

The town is dominated by a tall bell tower and by a castle built as a sort of a consolation prize to house the reluctant bride of a local nobleman.  You can enter the grounds and ramparts of the castle (via a steep cobblestone path, of course) to get an excellent view of the town and surrounding hills, including of course the bell tower, as you can see.

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We spent the morning and early afternoon in Asolo before moving on to Bassano del Grappo, which in overall appearance is pretty similar, right down to the alleys:

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Bassano, however, has two claims to fame, one being this attractive covered bridge that was built in 1569, repeatedly destroyed by fire, and rebuilt most recently about 50 years ago.

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We walked across the bridge, of course. But the part of its history of which Bassano is most proud – and probably makes the most money off of – is the “del Grappa” part, which is to say that Bassano, in particular via the efforts of the highly venerated Poli family, is for practical purposes the birthplace of grappa. Grappa, if you are not familiar with it, is the highly potent, multiple-distilled product of, essentially, the dregs of the winemaking process. It is cheap, flavorful, and highly toxic to carbon-based life forms. Some people love it. Some people are crazy.

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Do not drink.

 

Now, needless to say, the city fathers of Bassano would like to encourage you to consume their home-grown claim to fame, and so the Poli Grappa Museum gives you the opportunity to do so responsibly, if somewhat surrealistically. The museum displays a variety of archaic distillery apparatuses, tangled collections of flasks and retorts that would be right at home in any mad scientist’s lab. The culmination of the self-guided tour (immediately prior to the gift shop, of course) is a sampling gallery. But they are smart enough not to let you actually drink the stuff, which would be catastrophic. No, they let you smell it.

Huh? You enter a room lined with what appears to be about 20 coffee urns, each representing a flavor of grappa. You push a button on the counter in front of the “urn”, and it blasts a mist of some kind of synthesized ersatz grappa with exactly the correct smell and (sort of) taste into your face. See Alice imbibing the aerosol below:

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The world’s only olfactory hangover

 

At that point, if you’re anything like me, you react exactly as you would to a real swig of grappa, which is to say your olfactory system seizes up as your entire body briefly convulses.  Jim managed to give himself a zinger of a headache by performing this exercise once too often. This may be the single most bizarre interactive display I have ever experienced. It was a fitting end to our brief stay in Basanno. You have been warned.

We continued on to our destination of the next four days: Vicenza, about an hour’s drive further. Vicenza is a somewhat larger town of about 100,000, somewhat spread out with actual suburbs but enjoying an old walled city in the center, the nexus of its cultural heritage. Our plan is to use it as a base of operation for the next four days, visiting some of the surrounding towns like Padua and Verona. Our B&B – a quite spectacular one that I will describe at length in my next post – is located on a hillside outside of town. We arrived around 7:00 PM, settled in for an hour or two, then struck out to find some dinner.

We had passed a couple of reasonable-looking trattorias not far from the B&B, but decided that we would take the opportunity to find something a little more interesting in the downtown area, near the walled city. This turned out to be an impressively poor plan, as the narrow, poorly-lit streets were nearly deserted and most of the restaurants closed. We wandered and wandered, the hour grew later and later, and we got more and more lost, finally giving up altogether and deciding to return from whence we came and settle for one of the local trattorias after all. This proved to be far easier said than done, because:

  • The streets were not only narrow, dark, and deserted, but there was virtually no signage;
  • Our GPS was blissfully unaware of things like pedestrian streets where traffic was not allowed;
  • Our GPS does not speak Italian and thus mangled the often-lengthy street names as though they were being read by a female version of George W. Bush; and
  • The narrow streets often caused the GPS to lose lock and thus become as confused as we ourselves were.

The upshot was that we followed an essentially random trajectory through the seamiest, Fellini-esque back alleys of nighttime Vicenza. Our GPS gamely struggled to keep up, occasionally emerging from its electronic ataxia (“Recalculating route!”) to attempt to tell us in Bizarro Italian that in 100 feet we should turn left at Viata Santo Ciccianizolo Aleghieri Cruce del Roseannadanna, as we all went “Wha….?” and cruised past the intersection, which didn’t have a street sign to check and was one-way the wrong way anyway.

By 10:30 PM, primarily through Alice’s heroic navigation efforts,we somehow stumbled back into our original B&B neighborhood and walked sheepishly into the very first trattoria we had seen hours before, which was thankfully still open, and where (I am happy to say) we had an excellent and very inexpensive meal. Which just goes to show…something, I guess.

Tomorrow: a description of our jaw-dropping lodgings, and our first full day in Vicenza. (The walled city by daylight!)

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Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Vaporetto to the Ghetto, and Moving on from Venice

Venice-etal-1We had grand plans for Sunday the 19th involving Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, but we overslept and, though we ended up walking arund the ghetto and visiting the Jewish Museum, we had some time constraints that prevented us from taking the tour of the ghetto’s five synagogues. (Photo taken in the staircase inside the museum.)

Venice’s Jewish ghetto has the dubious distinction of being the original Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish population was isolated in 1516 by order of the Doge (it was either that or leave the city altogether), and they were moved to an undesirable area near the edge of the city at the site of a foundry. The Italian word for “foundry” is geto, pronounced like “jetto”, but later German immigrants pronounced it with a hard G since the German language has no soft G. And so the modern word was born.  It’s a remarkably small space, basically a single square with two narrow streets radiating off it. Two of the synagogues are located on the square and the other three on the side streets.

Although World War II-era Pope Pius XII has come in for considerable criticism for what many see as a laissez faire attitude towards the Nazis, Italy did better than most occupied countries when it came to protecting their Jews. They managed to ship off almost none at all until 1943, when Germany invaded and occupied northern Italy after Mussolini figured out who was actually going to win the war and switched sides. It was in late 1943 that the deportations started: 8000 Jews were shipped off to concentration camps, and eight came back. Even so, 80% of Italy’s Jewish population survived the war.

Today, despite the presence of several kosher restaurants, the ghetto is home to approximately zero Jews and — but for the synagogues themselves — is more tourist destination than religious enclave. We toured the museum, and as we were about to leave the square I passed a young (about 30 years old) Hasid — beard, flat hat, black coat, the whole deal — who bade me “shalom“. So I “shalomed” back, and we fell into conversation. He said, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes, and I’m guessing that you are too.” He was Australian, visiting Italy for a month including the recent Passover holiday. So I said, “chag samayach” (“happy holiday” in Hebrew, to my Gentile readers), at which moment I became a marked man. He spent the next several minutes trying to inveigle me into accompanying him to the synagogue to don the tefillin, which are the leather phylacteries worn by orthodox Jews, and it’s all very complicated so just click the damn link on the word “tefillin” to get the full explanation. Suffice it to say that I had not done this since I was 13 years old and was not about to do it now, because (a) I had absolutely no memory of the required prayers; and (b) also had no memory of the appropriate details for winding the leather straps and would in all likelihood have ended up strangling myself. It would not have been a salutary experience for either of us, so I begged off.

Our traveling companions Jim and Elaine arrived from Trieste that afternoon (hence our time constraint); we had flown over with them but they started their sojourn in that city and we were now meeting up again to spend the next 2 1/2 weeks together. Our first joint stop was the Peggy Guggenheim museum. The heiress was quite the force in the art world in the 1940’s — a major patron and collector — and amassed a large collection of contemporary art here in Venice. Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollack, all the biggies form that era. Her grave is on the grounds of the museum, rather oddly surrounded by the graves of her 14 “babies”. One is shocked that she had so many children — all of whom died — until a closer reading of the headstone reveals that (a) they all died between the ages of 5 and 14, and (b) they all had names like “Sir Herbert” and “King Kong”, “Peacock”, and “Cappucino”. Dogs. Lhasa apsos, to be exact. Sheesh.

The weather had improved considerably over the chilly rain we had had the previous two days; the day was sunny though the night was still brisk. It seemed like a good opportunity to take the vaporetto around to St. Mark’s Square to watch the crowd and get some night shots, e.g.:

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One of the curiosities of St. Mark’s is the “dueling orchestras”. Several of the restaurants around the square have rather formal looking outdoor quartets playing both classical music and classical-sounding versions of popular tunes from various eras, e.g., Sinatra’s “My Way”. It is a pleasantly anachronistic sight. Here’s one of them:

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We spent yesterday (Monday April 20) on a boat outing to Venice’s two most popular nearby islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass factories and galleries, but to our eyes seems to be largely coasting on its reputation. Virtually every store along its canals is a glass gallery, and they seem to fall into two broad categories: crap made in China, and genuinely beautiful incredibly expensive locally-made pieces.  Many of the latter have signs in front of the store that say “No China” so you ostensibly know that you’re getting the real deal. But since our choice seemed to come down to lousy stuff or stuff we couldn’t afford, we didn’t buy anything.

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It should be called “Floating French Fries”, but it isn’t.

A few of the stores have resident artisans whom you can watch making glass items on the spot. This was fun to watch. What was not so much fun was when I tried to take a picture of said artisan and got yelled at. “No photos!”  Jeez.  Bunch of glass-holes.

There is an interesting  museum on Murano that displays glass items from the full history of glass, from the earliest Mesopotamian pieces of about 1000 BC to hypermodern art installations like the one I photographed here. The museum was certainly the high point of Murano, but in truth it was no better and in some ways less interesting the Corning Glass Museum in upstate New York. In short, if you’re pressed for time in Venice, you can pretty safely leave Murano off your list.

Our next boat stop was the neighboring island of Burano, very small and known primarily — and for very good reason — for its colorful streets and for its lace industry. We didn’t buy any lace but the houses are insanely photogenic. Here are a few photos from various streets and alleys; the last one is the main canal and shops.

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Burano also has its own leaning tower, a bell tower at tilts at about a 5 degree angle, roughly the same as its more famous cousin in Pisa. But it’s hard to get a good close vantage point that allows the tilt to show up in photos; you see it best from far away, aboard the boat.

This was our last day in Venice, and hence our last opportunity for a gondola ride. Yes, it’s touristy, and yes, it may be overpriced, but c’mon, how jaded do you have to be to go to Venice for the first time and not ride in a gondola? We are experienced travelers, not jaded ones, and so after appropriate due diligence (i.e., reading some web sites to see how much it ought ot cost, how long a typical ride is, etc., we took the plunge (not literally). In case you were wondering, a “standard” ride costs 80 euros and lasts for roughly a half hour. More if you want to go longer, or if you go at night, or if you want the guy — and they are all guys, every one — to sing. The basic package was entirely adequate for our purposes. (And by the way, if you do want to the guy to sing, do not ask for “O Sole Mio”. That’s a Neapolitan song: wrong part of the country.)

Fun facts, courtesy of our gondolier Antonio: there are 500 gondoliers in Venice, all men, and many having come to the career through the family line (Antonio himself claimed to be 5th generation). They all know each other; we saw that in action since we encountered several other gondolas in some of the side canals, and the guys all chatted continuously among themselves. You have to go to Gondolier’s School to get certified. (And you damn well better study; the clearance on some of the tighter turns in the side canals was about an inch.) A gondola is 35′ long, weighs about 1200 lbs, and has six coats of paint. The Rialto Bridge restoration will take two more years. Et cetera. It was quite a lot of fun, and of course very romantic. We were satisfied, as the second of the next two pictures shows.

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And that was the end of our stay in Venice. This morning we picked up our rental car (a brand spanking new Peugeot 5008 that fits us and our luggage perfectly) and set off for Aquileia, about 60 miles to the north, a formerly-great port city during the waning days of the Roman Empire. There is little there now except for a smattering of Roman ruins and, much more impressively, a basilica whose floor is a very old Roman mosaic. Here’s a detail:

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We walked around for a while then struck out for tonight’s lodging, a B&B in the northern foothills, a gorgeous wine region whose hillsides look like, well, exactly what you think they should. I’ll try and get some photos tomorrow. We are staying at a 4-unit lodge built from what appears to be a converted farmhouse overlooking a vineyard. It’s a beautiful place in a rustic hilltop village. In fact, the only thing exciting our cynical instincts is the name of the village, which is San Pietro del Fellete, which we of course call St. Peter of Fellatio. No jokes about “thy rod and they staff”, please.

OK, if I’m writing stuff like that it must be late and I must be exhausted. So I will stop now.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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