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The lost city

Part 5 of a 2007 Italian travelogue

by Thor Iverson

Something fishy this way comes

Venice’s culinary reputation, which persists despite decades of touristy restaurant hellholes trying to destroy it, rests on two pillars. One of them is the influence of the many cultures with which the Venetian Republic traded. The Venetian menu is pan-Italian in a way perhaps unparalleled by most of the rest of Italy, but it also borrows from the other side of the Adriatic, the entire circumference of the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. And the second pillar is, like the many thousands that keep the city from sinking into the muck, firmly planted in the lagoon. The delicacy and quality of Venetian seafood is legendary.

Unfortunately, it’s also largely mythological at this point. Most of what’s available in public markets and the majority of restaurants could – and does – come from “anywhere but here.” Only a few select stores and a handful of top-quality restaurants get true lagoon fish, and even then only on a sporadic basis. Thankfully, even if the lagoon itself is a little dry, nearby waters are not. At the famous Rialto Market, many of the fishmongers carefully label their bounty with its point of origin, rendering it fairly easy to assemble a reasonably regional menu.

Pushing through the bustling crowds, Theresa and I split up, study, then reassemble with a plan, pool our cash, and go to work. To a bag full of springy, light brown porcini, a stall proprietor adds a basketball-sized bouquet of parsley, which we cannot possibly use before the end of our stay. Delicate little zucchini (flowers intact) are added to the mix, along with some plump heads of garlic. And then, the fishy finale: what seems like hundreds of tiny vongole, each the size of those tiny shells one finds littering beaches. A few crowded alleys away, a bottle of wine is procured, along with a little cheese from the Veneto. Our kitchen is fully stocked. Until tomorrow, that is.


Leo time
[san marco in the rain]

St. Mark’s the spot

Back to our apartment we go, bumping against hordes of Venetians and tourists similarly laden with their purchases, for a decadent lunch. Clams, garlic, and wine join in a briny marriage, as do porcini, more garlic, and butter, and each receives a healthy shower of parsley (which doesn’t even make a dent in the bushel). Zucchini are left parsley-free, and allowed a warm rest in olive oil as compensation.

Ronchi di Cialla 2006 Colli Orientali del Friuli Ribolla Gialla (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Lightly waxy, chenin-like, and saline. Dry, despite a rich weightiness that usually only comes with residual sugar, and tannic (not to Gravner-esque levels, but definitely in the fashion of long-hanging ribolla). Intense. I like it, though Theresa thinks it tastes like a dry version of communion wine. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.

Arrivederci, mia moglie

Travel can bring experiences so revelatory that they give the traveler an adrenaline rush…not just in the doing, necessarily, but also in the contemplation thereof. Venice is full of moments like that, and most of them are visual. Anyone who does not feel a little burst of excitement the first time their boat pulls into the Grand Canal is dead inside, or perhaps over-stimulated in their everyday life.

Sometimes, these moments are unexpected. And so, I’m a bit taken aback by the electric tingle I experience as I bid my wife goodbye.

Perhaps that requires an explanation….

Theresa has to take leave this most romantic of cities for a two-day conference in London. Her job involves near-constant travel, so this is no surprise, though it’s a little sad to contemplate being alone in Venice. Nevertheless, the process of putting her on the Alilaguna to the airport fills me with a giddy delight.

“This is pretty cool,” I note, as we drag her suitcase along the quay to a nearby vaporetto stop.


“You’re going on a business trip. From Venice. I’m taking you to the airport taxi so you can go speak in London…and we’re in Venice.”

She laughs. “You’re right. That is pretty cool.”

[giudecca in the rain]

Pole dancing
[door & wellhead]

Well done

What’s wet, dock?
[san giorgio maggiore]

Here today, gondola tomorrow

Nap time

As she motors off into the bright, water-reflected sun, I wander the streets of the Castello and the eastern edge of San Marco, soaking up the atmosphere and doing a little preparatory window shopping. With some trial and error, I find an actual, serious wine shop, something I’ve been missing thus far. Prices are high (no shock there) at Vino e…vini, but the selection is compelling, and the proprietress is helpful but patient as I take a long, lingering look at pretty much every bottle in the store.

Walking back to the apartment with a heavy satchel full of bottles, a strange lethargy starts to overtake me. I’m initially unsurprised by this, given that we polished off a bottle of wine with lunch and I have remained uncaffeinated since that time, but as the sun sets and the opportunities for tourism come to a close, I’m suddenly and entirely exhausted. I stop to rest my bottle-burdened wrists and watch the majestic sunset, but as I recommence my homeward journey I find that my energy is nearly tapped. Back at the apartment and on the sofa, thumbing through some flyers and booklets in search of an early-evening musical performance worth a last-minute drop-in, I fall unexpectedly but blissfully asleep.

I wake with a sore neck, a dry mouth, and a strangely numb sensation. Have I missed dinner? Well, no…I’m making my own dinner, and it’s not really all that late. But the evening is advanced enough that my earlier expectations of a little pre-dinner “shadow-chasing” seem unlikely, and music is out of the question. In any case, I don’t much feel like going out. Despite being in Venice, a destination I’ve been desperate to revisit for years, I’m actually eager to stay inside and do nothing. I can rationalize it, though. It’s only one night. Right? Leftovers are reassembled into an easy dinner, alongside samples from a pair of intriguing wine shop purchases.

Livon 2003 Colli Orientali del Friuli Pignolo (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Outright nasty when first opened, as if it wants to punish me for having the audacity to remove its cork. After some soothing words and calming gestures, it recedes to the status of tannic monster, like so many of its 2003 brethren. There’s great concentration here, coalescing a wine that moves from the darkness to the light with relative ease despite the weighty oppression of its structure. Floral compost aromatics dominate. There may be a lot of potential here, but the wall of tannin is currently impenetrable, and so I guess one must – as with any 2003 for which there is hope – wait and see. Emphasis on “wait.”

St. Michael-Eppan “Sanct Valentin” 1997 “Comtess” Vino Passito – Though I assume this is made from Alto Adige grapes, there’s no indication of appellation or origin anywhere on the label. Is that even legal? Well, I guess anything’s possible in Italy. This is rather light and well-aged, and I think it’s a little past its best. Candied orange peel and tarragon stand out, but to be honest there’s not much to rise above, other than a fresh, crisp acid wash in the background. The wine’s juicy enough, but there’s no complexity whatsoever. I expect more from this winery and this line, which probably affects my impressions and renders this reaction more negative than it might be were this the work of a different producer.


Light palace
[Frari lantern]

Not-so-light basilica

That old familiar malady

I’m sick. No, scratch that. I’m sick. The lethargy and unplanned narcolepsy of the previous evening is recast with increased clarity – or at least, it would be were my head not gripped in a haze of pain and congestion. The alarm is braying, but I’m in no condition to rise. I pause for a moment, though, to reconsider. I’m in Venice. Is that something I really want to waste?

Involuntary unconsciousness settles the issue for me, and when I wake once more the day has progressed past lunch. It’s afternoon already? Yes, and I feel no better. This is a disaster.

I force myself to verticality, stumbling around the apartment in a daze. Thankfully, I’ve remembered medicine (forgotten on our last trip, necessitating an amusing encounter with a Barcelona pharmacist), and it helps…but not enough. Walking around the apartment, I can handle. Going out? The very thought makes me dizzy.

Worst of all, it’s another beautiful day. That’s three in a row. And here I am, unwilling to enjoy it. Anger and frustration set in, and I start preparing to go out anyway. But defiance has its limits, and a few blocks down the via Garibaldi, I feel like I’m about to pass out. Damn, damn, damn!

Back at the apartment and now fairly miserable for multiple reasons, I determine to make the most of what’s possible. I do the laundry, rework plans for the next two stages of our trip, and start the first draft of my next wine column. Eventually, it’s dinnertime, and a quiet meal of leftovers is consumed without much enthusiasm. Only a fairly interesting wine manages to garner my attention.

Le Vigne di Zamò 1999 Colli Orientali del Friuli Pignolo (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Striking, and unlike anything I’ve tasted before. A smoky nose gestures towards meatiness that’s not quite brett or the concentrated animalism of Rhône syrah, but this is in turn washed away by a crisp, boisterous surf of blackberries and plums. Dark and very purple-tasting, with seeds and peppercorns on the finish. Juicy, wet, and long. The acidity here is almost scraping, and yet the wine somehow manages to retain its balance and poise. I have no idea how this is aging, because my experience with pignolo is virtually nil – and because I can’t even imagine how to contextualize what I’m tasting – but in any case, it’s delicious right now.

Even this pathetic excuse for a half-day has left me drained, and I crawl back into bed, trying to convince myself that ongoing health over a three-week vacation packed with activity is more important than whether or not I’ve wasted a single day. As I drift into sleep, the pessimist is winning the argument.


By the power vested in me

Preaching to the

Rain o’er me

With no alarm set, and only the internal equilibrium of my body to tell me when I’m ready to arise, I sleep until noon. Ugh. The tally is now about a day and a half of wasted time. This cannot last.

Thankfully, I feel a little bit better. At least, I feel like I can take on the outside world. Thankfully, the Venetian schedule – in which pretty much everything that’s not a restaurant is closed until 2, 3, or even 4 – gives me some extra recuperation time, and I finish up the last of the laundry and hang it on the outdoor lines that stretch above our door. It’s a cloudy, grey day…one which seems to lend the city a mysterious air. The sense that Venice is an apparition from the past rather than a living, breathing member of the present is heightened, and the sites and vistas seem even more ghostly than usual.

Of course, an hour after I leave the apartment, it starts to rain. There’s a benefit, in that it keeps many of the day-trippers away (or at least off the streets), but to be honest Venice is one of the more miserable cities in which to experience a downpour. That the rain has nowhere to go, and thus pools and puddles on every street, is to be expected. That the narrow and crowded alleys seem to concentrate the rain and its rooftop runoff into cascading sheets is a bit of an unpleasant surprise. Worse, those same alleys make umbrella-toting cross-traffic nearly impossible, and so one is frequently forced to walk without any parasolic protection.

Thus, one gets wet. Powerfully, soaked-to-the-bone wet. And, as the breeze picks up, cold as well. Just the prescription for the walking infirm, right? And I guess that laundry isn’t going to be dry when I get home…

I do a quick calculation, and decide to buy an all-day vaporetto pass. This turns out to be doubly wise, for not only does one of my eventual stops not have a ticket booth, but I’m actually challenged by an on-boat agent at one point. I know this is much-threatened on signs and in guide books, and when successful it’s a nice revenue-generator for the city, but it has been repeatedly suggested to me by locals that it never actually happens. Nonetheless, I will never forget the smug look on the agent’s face when he asks for my ticket, nor the surprised look of dismay when I produce one. Hey, those of us with illnesses find small joys where we can.


Tri, tri again
[altar artwork]

Papal who need papal

Eglise club

The bulk of my afternoon is consumed by an ecclesiastical itinerary. Il Redentore is peaceful and austere (and virtually empty), and San Giorgio Maggiore is no less empty, though the interior is slightly more elaborate. Santa Maria della Salute is covered with scaffolding, and thus somewhat of an eyesore on the exterior skyline, but the interior and main altar are fascinating and full of historical significance. The star of the day, though, is Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, with its majestic paintings, sculptures, and stunning altar and choir. It’s one of the most compelling churches in Venice, but only because of what’s inside; to be honest, it feels much more like a museum than an active place of worship, and the exterior and structural architecture are nothing special.

The rain is coming down harder now, and it’s frankly a misery to be outside and in it. I set off for the busy streets of San Marco in search of an internet café, which I need to finalize some plans for the following week. According to the phone book, there are only two in Venice, and I remember passing one of them on our first day’s wanderings. Certainly, it can’t be that hard to find again, right?

Wrong, of course. But, eventually, I do manage to retrace my steps to the door of a youngster-filled den of technology, and though the usual breathtaking prices apply (€9/hour!), I get done what I need to.

[Frari ceiling]

Oh, what a feeling…

Red palazzi at night

Hey mercato, mercato italiano

The early evening brings a cessation of the rain, but also a sharp decrease in temperature, and the vaporetto ride back down the Grand Canal is a chilly one. There’s a cold beauty, though, as the lights of the city are sputtering into life. Venice is not brightly and festively lit like, say, Paris, and the night is thus one of subtle glows and distant beacon points rather than showy displays of luminescent opulence. But it fits the zeitgeist of the city, which has no need for extra layers of showmanship.

I’ve become a semi-familiar face to the vendors on the via Garibaldi, and even though they now know I’m not especially proficient in Italian, they insist on it as I make my shopping rounds. I don’t follow everything, but I do manage to get what I need with little difficulty, and of course Italians are endlessly helpful when it comes to matters linguistic.

Organic spinach ravioli, served with the remains of the porcini from Theresa’s farewell lunch, suggest quite a few possible wine matches, none of which are what I have left to sample. Thus, I make do with the bottles I have.

Franz Haas 2003 Traminer Aromatico (Alto Adige) – Fat and lightly sweet-seeming (is it? probably not; it could just be the alcohol, which is intrusive), with bitter vanilla overtones and a core featuring a rather bizarre fruit salad: apricot skins, tangerine rind, and grapefruit dusted with a little nutmeg. Decent acidity only becomes apparent on the finish, by which time this blocky, pushy wine has managed to offend. Lacking complexity or actual presence, it replaces these qualities with sheer weight, but little substance. I’d like to try this in a different vintage.

B. Bartolomeo da Breganze 2000 Breganze Torcolato (Veneto) – 500 ml. Tastes thirty years old, possibly due to a dried-out cork, but I have noticed that even the fantastic Maculan Torcolato is probably best in its exuberant youth. Were this a thirty-year wine, it would be pretty good, showing makrut lime, maraschino cherry, and a sine wave of extreme sweetness. At its young age, however, it’s a little disappointing.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson