Night train to Venice

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May 31, 1984: Love at first sight. I’m on the steps outside Santa Lucia station. The streets are full of water.

EXACTLY 30 years ago — in the late evening of May 30 — I was on a train rumbling south from the Gare de Lyon in Paris, bound for Venice.

I was 23 and had barely travelled — I’d been to Scotland and that was about it. I was no Alan Whicker. I’d left the UK for the first time four days earlier, seeing London for the first time as I passed through at the end of the first leg of this journey. Carlisle to London Euston. Then onwards to Charing Cross, bound for the Sealink ferry from Folkestone Docks.

We were Inter-Railing. You bought a ticket, a booklet really, which gave access to rail travel across Europe. You wrote in it where you wanted to go – then you got on a train (or a Sealink ferry, because British Railways ran those too) and went. I’m looking at it now, a record of 23 journeys. Only British Rail ever stamped it. I don’t imagine it’s as easy these days.

Four trains and a ferry got us to a youth hostel in Suresnes in the west of Paris — all of those in central Paris being full at such an hour — and a late supper involving a first encounter with real live Americans, who were friendly, but terrifyingly self-confident, and cous cous, which I didn’t try again for years, possibly decades.

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Ticket to ride: write in where you want to go, and it happens

There was no plan, other than Paris, then Italy. We had a chunky red paperback — the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. That, a passport, an Inter-Rail ticket and an ability to sleep sitting up, were all you needed.

Venice became the first Italian destination by default. We needed to sleep, and spend no money on accommodation. Anywhere else was too close. But the train to Venice (and beyond) arrived there at about 7am. So it had to be the one.

And so to Gare de Lyon, the biggest, most confusing, busiest station we’d ever seen. But we found the platform early and walked the length of the outside of the train before boarding, sometime after 8pm.

The further you were travelling, the closer to the front of the train your carriage was. I’d swear now that the one directly behind the loco was Greek and there may have been one from Albania. I could be romanticising. Someone may be able to put me right.

Behind that came carriages from Yugoslavia (remember that?). Our seats were in those belonging to the Italian railway — Ferrovie dello Statto. Behind were French SNCF coaches to be dropped off along the way.

I was more accustomed to the rattler along the Tyne Valley line — for me, exotic didn’t begin to describe this train.

We were heading towards Lyon, then on to Milan. Somewhere in the night there was a desultory passport check, long before the Schengen treaty opened the borders. Then maybe it was Verona and Padua, by which time the sun was up. Anyone who wasn’t awake by then was jolted into the day by some shunting at Venice Mestre.

And then, with the sun burning off the morning lagoon mist, we rolled across the Ponte della Libertà. And got our first sight of Venice with its campanile and domed churches.

Not long later, we were off the train in the morning cool of the unmistakeably Italian Santa Lucia station.

Soon after that, we stepped outside into the heat, and the glare, and I saw the Grand Canal for the first time.

And — I don’t care that it’s a cliche — I fell in love with a city.

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The Giudecca: Venice beyond the crowds

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SIXTY-THOUSAND people visit Venice every day in high season and most of them, I’d guess, never see more than a fraction of the city.

They mostly pack into St Mark’s Square or crowd onto the Rialto bridge and then they’re gone, back to their buses at Piazzale Roma and the mainland or back to their cruise ships and on to the next stopover.

They may even tell friends and family afterwards that Venice is just too crowded. And that is true of the part they saw. Indeed I once heard an American backpacker in the streets behind the basilica complain that the streets should have been built wider in anticipation of the crowds. I was never sure that he was joking.

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The Molino Stucky building, now a hotel on the Giudecca

Yet there are so many other places to go. One of my favourite trips is to the Giudecca, a short journey that few visitors seem to make (unless they’re rich enough to be staying at the Molino Stucky hotel or the Cipriani), yet the Giudecca’s vaporetto stops of Zittelle and Redentore are only a short hop from the San Marco crowds.

And it doesn’t matter that tourist honeypots are in short supply on this largely residential island – although there is Palladio’s magnificent Redentore church – because the views back towards San Marco are worth the journey on their own. They’re even better when enjoyed with a beer and a snack at a table right on the edge of the Giudecca canal.

Except when those cruise liners slip their moorings and head off to their next stop of course. Then this happens…

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P&O’s 116,000-tonne cruise ship Ventura about to block out the view from the Giudecca. (2008)

You’re not coming in

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Venice club sign

You’re thinking about a night out and don’t know what to wear. You check the wardrobe and find some old gym clothes. You want to go out but you don’t want to leave your pets home alone. So you gather them up and take them with you. For some reason the doorman at the club isn’t glad to see you.

Sign on a club door, somewhere in San Marco, 2005.

Just one Veneto… 2010

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First published in The Journal, Newcastle, October 2010

LA SERENISSIMA – the city of Venice – is my favourite destination. I’ve Inter-railed there, honeymooned there and introduced my daughter to her beauty. What I hadn’t done, until recently, was venture beyond the city.

And there is a whole region surrounding that remarkable city in the lagoon – operatic Verona excepted – that remains relatively untouched by tourism.

The Veneto region – the Venetian Republic of history – only became part of Italy in 1866. To this day many of its people consider themselves Venetian first and Italian second and the Lion of Venice appears everywhere.

Marco Tiozzo's bragozzo, featuring the Lion of Venice motif seen everywhere in the Veneto

Marco Tiozzo’s bragozzo, featuring the Lion of Venice motif seen everywhere in the Veneto

Venice is the region’s capital but several of its towns reward the visitor.

Chioggia stands on the shores of the lagoon, south of Venice. The town is very much in the mould of its bigger neighbour. There are grand palazzos, narrow streets, massive churches, a waterfront and canals. It has definite charm but it’s a working town, fishing mainly, and feels all together more real than Venice itself.

By Piazzetta Vigo stands a small bridge over a canal. Our local guide, Michela Marangon, explains that it is older than any bridge in Venice. Therefore, she says, proud locals prefer to think not of Chioggia as Little Venice, but of Venice as Big Chioggia. Here also stands a pillar topped by the ever-present Lion, and woe betide anyone who says it looks more like a cat. Some out-of-towners heard to do so returned from their meal to find their car floating in the lagoon. See, told you they were proud locals.

Piazzetta Vigo was the boarding point for a boat tour of the lagoon in the company of Michela and an amiable ex-fisherman, Marco Tiozzo, in his lovingly restored lagoon barge, known as a bragozzo.

Marco took us through the town’s canals, past its fishing fleet, explaining how clams are scraped from the lagoon floor, before navigating out into the lagoon itself, following channels determined centuries ago and marked with the characteristic pencil-shaped poles.

A clam fishing platform in the lagoon of Venice, off Chioggia

A clam fishing platform in the lagoon of Venice, off Chioggia

More than cod and tuna... the fish market in Chioggia

More than cod and tuna… the fish market in Chioggia

We visited friends of his on a platform in the lagoon where the clams are cleaned. In the fishing season the workers live out here and now there are plans to turn one or two of the structures into restaurants where people will dine above the very waters where the fish were caught. It can’t get much fresher than that.

And even if you can’t dine like that you won’t want for a choice of fish or seafood as the town hosts a daily fish market. The abundance and variety  was fascinating when compared to  supermarket cabinets offering not much more than cod, salmon or tuna.

After a day in Chioggia a water taxi whisked us the length of the lagoon to Venice while we sipped Bellinis, the cocktail of prosecco and peach invented at the famous Harry’s Bar, near St Mark’s Square. More of the city later, because this trip also took in Treviso and Vicenza.

Treviso is a quiet, prosperous city. It is the home of Benetton and the company’s name and colours are everywhere. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around, you’re spared any tourist tat and, as always in Italy, you’re never far away from an impressive church. The Piazza dei Signori, rebuilt and restored after terrible damage sustained in the Second World War, is the heart of the city and a great place to sit and watch Treviso go about its daily business.

Now here’s a bit of Treviso trivia: when the fish market was recently rebuilt they designed it to be odour-free so that it could be converted into a concert venue in the evenings, playing host to bands such as the marvellously named Peter Roastbeef and the Trippers.

And so to Vicenza, my new second favourite Italian city. It’s been a World Heritage Site since 1994 and is simply stunning.

The centre of the city is mostly free of vehicles so is ideal for strolling, stopping and  gawping at its remarkable architecture. Rarely will you see a city which looks so at ease with itself, where buildings harmonise perfectly. And that is because much of the city centre is the work of one of the most influential architects of all time – Andrea Palladio.

Palladio was a miller’s son who became a stonecutter and came under the wing of a famous scholar who led him to study architecture and gave him his new name.

Everywhere are palaces, villas, churches, public buildings bearing Palladio’s trademarks: porticos, classical columns, perfectly proportioned windows.

Facing each other in the Piazza dei Signori are two of the most important of his public buildings. They provide a frame for a dramatic public space in which people meet, embrace, talk, eat and drink.

The city of Vicenza, Palladio's masterpiece

The city of Vicenza, Palladio’s masterpiece

Best of all of his buildings is the Teatro Olimpico – the first permanent covered theatre of the Renaissance. It was commissioned by a kind of cultural co-op of rich patrons in 1580 and survives, amazingly, intact. Sadly, Palladio did not live to see the theatre completed.

I knew nothing of the building and was entirely unprepared for how dramatic the theatre space would be. Entry is via a grand, marbled, high-ceilinged reception room, leading to a corridor and stairs familiar from any theatre.

And then you’re in the auditorium where a glance to your right reveals the stage. It is filled with a remarkable set of seven streets, unchanged from opening night. In order to preserve the illusion of the streets going off into the distance children were used to represent crowds at the back of the stage. It is truly remarkable.

And so, back to Venice. We lunched not far from St Mark’s, in the Metropole (though not in its Met restaurant) where the chef has Venice’s only two Michelin starred establishment. Then, passing the Bridge of Sighs, we set off for a walking tour through the sestiere of Cannaregio with guide Luisa Sala.

We start in St Mark’s Square in front of the basilica, cross the piazza and head up to the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo before winding through the tightly  packed shopping streets to the Rialto bridge and the markets area.

The waters of the Grand Canal are lapping at the very edge of the banks, occasionally spilling over the top. The boards and trestles are piled up, ready for acqua alta, the floods which threaten for longer each year.

Venice is constantly under repair and restoration with the Bridge of Sighs surrounded by hoardings generating funds to help pay for the work. They’re calling it the Bridge of Signs.

Venice under renovation - the Bridge of Signs

Venice under renovation – the Bridge of Signs

The city is ever more prone to flooding as the work to protect it from the lagoon that gave it life – and constantly threatens to reclaim it – drags on without an end in sight.

But Venice is still beautiful and magical, more so if you can see it without the crowds.

Venice – still my favourite place in the world. But not, it turns out, the be-all and end-all of this corner of Italy. Parts of her once-Republic are pretty impressive too.

  • This article was researched and written in October 2010 and first appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, http://www.journallive.co.uk The trip was organised by Jet2.com

Hidden Tuscany, 2010

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Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa. If you look closely you'll see people standing on "the Japanese spot"

Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa. If you look closely you’ll see people standing on “the Japanese spot”

First published in The Journal, Newcastle, June 2010

THE great galleries of Florence, the drama of the Palio in Siena, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, perhaps the medieval madness of the hilltop town of San Gimingano. Tuscany, done.

Well, no. There is a whole other Tuscany that city break-ers don’t get to see – a slower moving place of country house hotels, spas and altogether less crowded towns. A place where food, in particular, is taken very seriously. The Italians want you to know about it.

Which is why I recently spent three days on and off a minibus in the Province of Pisa. Sometimes here at The Journal we do things so that you don’t have to.

We arrive, bleary-eyed, at Pisa airport after a very early flight. Our guide, Vicenzo, has a broken arm, inflicted, he says, by an unhappy customer. He introduces us to our driver, the reassuringly reliable looking Gianfranco.

First destination is Fattoria Varramista, country residence of the Piaggio family, inventors of that most Italian of objects, the Vespa scooter. A light lunch is on offer, which will be most welcome.

Cooked meats, garlic bread, bread soup – a bit like your mam or gran’s broth – and a tasting of estate-bottled wines and grappa follow.  Of the three reds on offer I choose the cheapest as my favourite, proving I know nothing about wine. I suspect you could run a Vespa on the grappa.

Then a tour of the estate. In the house’s massive drawing room a vintage scooter has pride of place. Apparently the family pop in for the odd weekend, but spend most of their time in London. If you had a house like this, why would you?

In the grounds, amid 400ha of vines, are three buildings housing apartments available to rent for up to a month. Each comes with its own pool and tennis court.

Now we’re off to San Miniato, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The town is a centre of the Slow Food movement and hosts a national celebration of the truffle in November. The world record truffle was found here in 1954. It weighed 2.52kg and was presented (sorry, can’t tell you why) to US President Eisenhower.

San Miniato cake magician Paolo Gazzarrini

San Miniato cake magician Paolo Gazzarrini

In San Miniato we meet Paolo Gazzarrini in his shop and laboratory. Think Heston Blumenthal but with cakes. He makes 300 different kinds a year and we must taste several of them, each with a different wine – prosecco with this, maybe a fruity red with that, this one must be dipped in the vin santo. Were he from the North East, he’d have a sticker announcing himself as Passionate about… cake.

Down the road is the butcher’s shop of Signor Falaschi. He is Passionate about… pigs. There are many cooked meats he would like us to try, each with a sip of chianti, and the process of making them is explained in great detail. In Italian. He seriously disapproves of factory farmed pigs so unhappy they have to be given anti-depressants. Happy, outdoor, pigs make better food.

At the town’s street theatre festival Signor Falaschi sponsored a puppet show for children, called I Tre Porcellini in Macellaria. Three Little Pigs in a Butcher’s Shop. Hope the bambini loved that.

We finally get to check in to our lodgings for the night although the entrance to Borgo di Colleoli is so discreet Vicenzo and Gianfranco struggle to find it from 20 metres away.

The place is magnificent. A castle houses suites, the many outbuildings are converted to apartments – mine is a huge former stable – and there are more houses out in the grounds.

Borgo di Colleoli

Borgo di Colleoli

In the resort’s main square a wedding party is in full flow but about to be interrupted for England’s opening World Cup match against USA. The resort’s charming director Irene Pezone tells us the groom, a former Premiership footballer*, has prevailed over his new bride to have the match shown on outdoor screens. Does he now wish he hadn’t bothered?

Day two dawns, sunny and already hot. Breakfast is skipped. The itinerary says there’ll be a light lunch. I think I’m getting the hang of this now.

Vicenzo has been replaced by Ilaria. I hope he hasn’t had another encounter with his unhappy customer.

Ilaria takes us to a copper mining museum near the village of Montecatini Val de Cecina and reveals herself to be a big fan of Billy Elliot. She spent three months at Durham University and has seen the film five times. The museum, unfortunately, is presented only in Italian although English guides are available. There’s also the chance to go down into the former mine itself.

The light lunch is delicious. Cooked meats, pasta, and a delicious dessert. A smear of soft cheese and a drizzle of something fruity. Is it perhaps, we ask the signora, ricotta. No, Philadelphia. What would they make of that back in San Miniato?

Onwards to Volterra, which is gorgeous. Elegant renaissance buildings jostle for attention with medieval tower houses and Roman remains. The cathedral, dating back to the 10th Century, is simple, yet beautiful.

The large, austere Piazza dei Priori is the heart of the town and it is here that Volterra’s growing numbers of teenage visitors gather at noon in the shadow of the bell tower. As the bell tolls they run out into the square. Volterra is the home of a family of vampires called i Volturi in Stephanie Meyer’s stratospherically successful Twilight saga and the teenagers are re-enacting a key scene. (If this means nothing to you, ask a teenage girl.)

The local tourist people are heavily marketing the connection, bringing in a new kind of visitor who probably wouldn’t have come for the Etruscans and a trip round the alabaster factory. But, whisper this, the film people didn’t shoot in Volterra, but in Montepulciano.

Ilaria takes us to dinner at Ristorante Del Duca, one of Volterra’s finest and it’s really very good. There are, inevitably, cold cuts to start, then the kitchen sends out wild boar, pork and lamb. All are magnificent.

Early next morning the view from the hotel terrace is stunning. The sun is up but the valley below is filled with mist. I walk from Hotel Villa Nencini uphill (almost everywhere on this trip is, in Ilaria’s words “just a little up”) to one of the ancient gateways and find a bar for un caffe. The town is just waking up.

Morning view from Hotel Villa Nencini

Morning view from Hotel Villa Nencini

Day three finds us on the road to Casciana Terme to view a spa resort (nice if you like that sort of thing) and to the village of Lari in the Pisan hills which was awarded an orange flag by the Italian Touring Club for its quality of life. (Do we have such an award, I wonder).

The Martelli family have a pasta factory here but they’re not ready for us yet so we go to see the castle. It’s “just a little up” and the views across the rolling Pisan hills are wonderful.

Back with the Martellis we see them knead durum wheat with water (it’s that simple) then force it through moulds to make spaghetti, spaghettini, maccheroni and penne. Their output in a year is the same as that of an industrial producer in three days. It is made with care and is therefore better, they tell us.

But enough about food. A light lunch is waiting for us further into the hills. Gianfranco pilots the minibus through ever-smaller hamlets along ever-narrowing roads to Fattoria Castelli.

At the bottom of the farm track Gianfranco parks the minibus in the shade and we walk the final 100 yards or so. We have learned that Gianfranco likes the shade. He parks in it. If he has to wait for us, he stands in it. And if the sun moves, and the shade moves, he moves the bus too. You’ll never get too hot if you stick with Gianfranco.

Fattoria Castelli is an agriturismo – small farmers are allowed to convert buildings into holiday accommodation so they can afford to carry on farming in traditional ways. We’re back to that seriousness about food.

The building has four apartments and a large, cool dining hall. And with the temperature at around 30C cool is good. Lunch is three big courses of local produce, finishing with cherries and cherry cake. Cherries are big hereabouts.

And we’re back on the bus and off to the one real tourist hotspot of the trip – Pisa itself.

Pisa is a university city as well as repository of one of the most remarkable collections of buildings on the planet. The university district may well host one of the most remarkable collections of grafitti anywhere on the planet. Even the stuff written in English is spelled correctly. I can’t repeat any of it, suffice to say that Berlusconi, the police and Catholic priests don’t come out of it well.

On the way to the Campo dei Miracoli we encounter Vicenzo leading another party and discover the true story behind that broken arm. He fell over one of the chain fences he’s always warning tourists about.

And then we’re among the seething mass of humanity in the Campo. And there are the monuments, including the Leaning Tower, just as they look in the photographs. And there are queues to get into the right spot to take that clichéd shot where you look like you’re holding the tower up. “We call it the Japanese spot,” says Ilaria.

Later we dine al fresco. The city is quiet with World Cup expectation. The proprietor divides his time between his customers and watching Italy draw disappointingly with Paraguay on a laptop. Oh well, at least it wasn’t his wedding night.

*Dean Holdsworth, since you ask. And England and the USA drew 1-1

  • This article was researched and written in June 2010 and first appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, http://www.journallive.co.uk The trip was organised by Jet2.com