Monday, October 26, 2015

Padua - Land of Old Cathedrals

The morning after our Opera experience was late and leisurely since we did not get home until after 12:30. The hotel we were staying in (Hotel Verona) is much more luxurious than our usual accommodations. It had a separate kitchen / small living room area in addition to the bedroom and bathroom. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed to procure some sustenance, we stopped by Pizzeria Doga, a small pizza stand for lunch. We both got Panzerotti, a small calzone-like creation, while definitely not healthy, was delicious and restorative. I had the spinach and Dr Husband the pepperoni it was exactly what we needed to fuel our trip to Padua.

Luckily we had assigned seats on the train as it was quite full. We arrived in Padua an hour later excited to see what the "oldest" city in Northern Italy looks like. Turns out the area next to the train station is quite modern and not very remarkable. Boldly we purchased tickets for the streetcar and attempted to navigate the new town to find out hotel. This didn't go quite as smoothly as planned, partly because we got off the streetcar two stops too early, and partially because our hotel is not close to a main street. Nevertheless, we were able to find it and get checked in.

Unfortunately for us, and Hundie, our new hotel room was maybe half the size of the one we stayed in the night before. It was difficult to walk around the room because the bed took up most if it, and it was not even a queen size bed. With us, the dog, and the suitcase, it definitely felt pretty cramped. Nevertheless, the we were determined to explore Padua, home to the second-oldest University. That first day / evening there we explored the two main piazzas in the city center, one of which is boarded by the Palazzo della Ragione, 800 years old!

We were able to get cheap drinks at various locations which helped to lucubrate our exploration. Time got away from us however, and we soon realized most restaurants were either full or they were closing. Luckily, there was a very nice restaurant (Trattoria Al Prato) that was still seating people and we were fortunate enough to get a a delicious meal there. We got two antipastas (beef tartar and prosuito) and two prime piattas (tagalioni and ravoli) and split a bottle of Merlot (it's okay, even the Italians drink French wine). It felt relaxing and romantic and Dr Husband got the benefit of the view of the Prato della Vella. We were happy to be on their covered patio as it had begun to rain. There was no English menu and our server didn't speak any English but as would learn pointing is a very effective means of communication.  After dinner we returned to our shoebox so that we might rest for our trip to Venice the next day.

The next day we journeyed to Venice (see here) but returned by the evening where we turned in early because exploring Venice is exhausting. The next morning we slept in and decided we'd rather spend a day leisurely sightseeing in Padua than returning to Venice. We got two croissants and cappuccinos at a nearby cafe where we took bar service so that we didn't have to pay a table fee. I would describe ordering breakfast at an Italian cafe for bar service as orderly chaos. There must have been some sort of system in place but I could not understand it. Luckily, Dr. Husband was not a novice to the cafe ordering system so he seemed to know what to do. Then we took turns going into the Abbey of Saint Giustina since dogs and "scantily" clad women were not allowed. Dr. Husband claims he saw a women get yelled at because you could see her shoulders. I can neither confirm nor deny this, but I wouldn't be surprised. This abbey is massive. If the goal was to intimidate and force the perspective that you were small then the goal was achieved. Additionally, there is a small basilica attached on the side with lovely paint and stonework.

While the abbey was colossal and awe inspiring, the grandeur of the Basilica of Saint Anthony cannot be understated. There was a long line of catholic pilgrims there to pay homage to Saint Anthony whose remains?? are in the attached Chapel of Saint Anthony. There is a saying - if you've seen one cathedral in Europe you've seen them all, This is absolutely not true for the Basilica of Saint Anthony. The Byzantine/Islamic style of the interior domes which were painted dark blue with gold stars was so captivating for me that I stood there looking up for an indeterminate amount of time.

After exiting Dr Husband, Hundie, and I went to a nearby cafe to have second cappuccinos and a famous canoli (not technically a desert from Veneto, but I digress). Feeling better with more sugar and caffeine we went again to the city center. There we walked around while I delved deeper into my new found admiration of campari spritz and Dr. Husband tried some of the Italian craft beer. When it was time another meal we headed to the fish market street stand a few feet away where Dr. Husband picked out some seafood similar to the cicchetti we had in Venice with the exception of the the two people speaking zero English. The fresh fried calamari and scrimp scampi were delicious.

Next we went to the Padua Cathedral. As Dr. Husband would say it was the least inspiring but still impressive of the three cathedrals located in Padua. A block away was a more college-aged bar where the weekend of campari spritz continued, but this time with a side of sandwiches. Earlier we had stopped by a local craft beer store which came in handy for enjoying the Prato della Vella in the twilight - a common and traditional practice for students and others in Padua.

Overall it was a delightful and pleasant day in northern Italy's oldest city. It was the cherry on the cake of a lovely vacation in the Veneto province.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

It's Easy to See Why Shakespear was Inspired by Venice

I don't think I need to make an introduction for Venice. Everyone and their Granny knows what and roughly where (hint: Italy) it is. Since I have now been there, I can say with some credibility: there is definitely a justification for this fact. Stepping out of the train station after getting out of a crowded, late-running regional Italian train, made all of my previous annoyances for the last 45 minutes whisk to the back of my mind as two thoughts rushed to the forefront. 1) Wow. 2) Ho-lee sheeeeet.

While there were hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists milling around I could only focus on the Grand Canal spread before me. The canal is wide with many taxis, buses, and private vehicles, all boats of course, loading and unloading passengers and generally going about their business. The buildings on the far side featured domes, had white paint with blue and gold accents, and were generally very well maintained. There is absolutely no doubt that the wealthy merchants of the past built this city to show-off and impress.

When I finally regained motor-skill function we began to make our way into Venice... overall first impressions were: this place is beautiful, and wow this place is super crowded. While the Venetian city planners of old had definitely succeeded in making the city beautiful and impressive, there skills in accommodating thousands of tourists daily, and making it easy to navigate all the twisty canals and alleys, the only way to travel terrestrially, were seriously lacking. Luckily for us, we have some "international" data on our phones so we were able to get around ok, but this really isn't the type of city to just "get lost in" because that seems to happen very naturally ....with or without a map.

We are also fortunate to have gotten advice from people that had been to Venice before and warned us about the very expensive and non-traditional food found close to all the major tourist destinations. Since we are the sort of tourists that prefer to get to know a city through our bellies, this proved to be invaluable information because we were able to experience authentic Venetian cuisine in an inexpensive and diverse manner, cicchetti. Cicchetti are small plates usually enjoyed with a glass of wine while standing at the bar instead of sitting at a table. The diversity of cicchettis varies from establishment to establishment, from small fish on bread to tiny octopodes in tomato sauce.

Here is a list of places we went with a general idea of what types of cicchetti they served:

Cantina do Spada - traditional Cicchetti Bar, prawns, octopus, fried cheese, sardines (above)

Cantina Do Mori - sliced baguette with fish (left))

Osteria Antico Dolo -  fried and cheese based dishes (below)

Most of these restaurants and/or cicchetti bars are close to the fish market, which we strolled through between food/drink stops. The multitude of fish and tentacled sea creatures of various shapes and sizes was as impressive as it was fragrant... which brings me to my next point. While Venice is famous for its canals, gondolas, and beauty... it is also famous for smelling a little, say, fishy. When we were there it was not especially noticeable, but I have heard from several sources that it can become unpleasant especially if it is hot out.

Next we went to the worst kept secret in all of Italy... St Mark Plaza. While the plaza itself is spacious and absolutely incredible, the narrow allies to and from the plaza are packed with people. This includes the famous Rialto Bridge, which features many shops and eating establishments including a Hard Rock Cafe. The sheer number of human bodies was overwhelming, but they were there for good reason. The Venetians of old certainly knew how to make an impressive plaza.

Unfortunately we were unable to go into the St Marko Basilica, as the line was hundreds of people long, and Hundie was with us meaning we would've had to taken turns going in as animals are generally not allowed in old, well preserved cathedrals... go figure. Instead we headed toward the water where we found an array of artists selling paintings, drawings, and etchings of Venice. We ended up purchasing two oil paintings on canvas, which I think make really lovely souvenirs.

After exploring the more touristy section of Venice for an hour or two (or maybe 45 minutes, who knows?) we went back to the cicchetti bar Cantina do Spada, where we enjoyed smalls plates and drinks until it was time for their afternoon quiet hours (around 3 pm until they reopened for dinner at 7 pm) when we slowly meandered (read: got semi-lost occasionally) back to the train station to return to our home base, Padua. The reason we stayed in Padua was because hotels were literally 1/3 price of staying in Venice. A 22 minute train ride is a small sacrifice to make in order to have more money for cicchetti and wine. On our return trip, we splurged the extra 2€ each for first class tickets.. which proved to be well worth the price as we were guaranteed seats (you are lucky to get 2 sq ft to yourself in 2nd class... it is very crowded), and we were all very tired by the end of the day.          

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Ole timey entertainment -- goin' to the Opera

Three months ago...
The first stop on our tour de (di, die? all of these languages are confusing) Veneto Region of Italy was Verona where we decided to be ├╝ber cultural and take in an opera. The Super Cultural Thing took place in the open air Roman Arena where people had been entertained for hundreds of years. I don't know for certain if people died there, but in my mind it definitely happened (ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!). In the weeks leading up to the Opera, Dr. Husband became increasingly paranoid that there would be blood rain, while I became increasingly obsessed with doing the Roman thumbs up/down motion having Italian wine. While he would be proven to be correct, the five minute rain really didn't add too much time to the OMG SO CULTURAL OPERA, plus it allowed me to obtain an over-priced adult beverage at the Arena.

We (I) decided to see Aida (pronounced eye-ee-da) because the story-line and sets looked more interesting than that of Don Giovanni (one of the most popular Operas of all time), and as the Opera was in Italian I thought this would be helpful to keep us engaged. Now before I go any further in my description of this performance of Aida, I want to say that I love musicals and musical theater. Love it. I once got 9 out of 10 points for my team at bar trivia answering questions about musicals. I’ve been sitting through musicals/ballets/plays since I was old enough to sit upright by myself (BTW why is The Nutcracker considered a children’s show?? ). And while I may not always be  into going to the theater or ballet in general, you can bet your bottom dollar that I at least appreciate the performers and their craft. Back to Aida.

First of all, it was like 4.5 hours long. That is just…. rudely long. Then it made the mistake of being in Italian, which I don’t understand. All of the action took place in like 5 seconds, and there wasn’t much happening in the acting department. If we hadn’t looked up the plot again to read as we watched, I would have just thought a lot of people wandered on stage and started singing at me aggressively. At one point (SPOILERS FOR THIS EPICLY LONG 350 YEAR OLD OPERA) Aida is supposed to be seducing the main guy Heckifiknow, and they were just sort of standing next to each other hugging occasionally. 
I know most guys are easy, but c’mon. Maybe next time show your ankle to really get the juices flowing. Anyways, the sets were really cool, and the costumes looked pretty neat but the length in addition to the woman sitting next to me that would bite the air occasionally (some sort of tick?) made the experience less than stellar. I think Don Giovanni is more popular because it’s 40 minutes shorter. I’m glad we went, and I am definitely open to going to the opera again. Provided it’s shorter, and I’m at least semi-aware of the music in it.