Thursday, April 23, 2009

Watery Venice, Meaty Bologna, and Balsamic-y Modena

"A Venice Fish" hostel was our home for 2 nights in Venice. It was pretty fun and the dinner/breakfasts were good, but man was the place gross! All I can say is thank god I brought flip flops just for such sketchy hostel bathroom floor excursions. Other than that, we had a great time. There were a lot of fun people staying there, and the staff was very generous.

One night the owner invited me and a few people (a Mexican guy, 2 Australian girls and 1 Canadian girl) into the "private" part of the hostel to smoke the hookah. Never having done that and being curious, I went with. He got the hookah primed and ready with some banana tobacco and about 4-5 of us sat around the table chatting and smoking. I had heard that smoking the hookah was a primarily social experience, without the a) high of a real drug, and b) harshness of cigarette tobacco, but I never really believed it. However, as it turns out, what I had heard was right on both counts. It was not harsh, though it reminded me nothing of banana as advertised. I didn't even cough after multiple hits and there was zero buzz of any kind. It really WAS just an interesting social and cultural experience. The verdict? I don't smoke, and therefore I would not seek out the hookah in the future; however, if it were offered to me in the future at a party or something and I was with interesting people, I may sit and have a puff with them just for an interesting experience. Anyway, at some point, the Iranian guy busted out his guitar and asked if anyone would sing along to "Hotel California"...I obliged, while he played the guitar and some Mexican dude played the bongos. We watched a YouTube video (Business Time, by a New Zealand group called Flight of the Conchords...VERY should YouTube it) and all sang along. I played a couple of my songs, and also played Brown Eyed Girl to which everyone sang along also.

The other night involved a lot of wine drinking in the common area of the hostel, and about 15-20 of us just hanging out eating, laughing, and chatting. At 11:00, when the hostel quiet hours are to start, one of the staff suggested we all go out to a bar and continue the party. We did just that, walking through Venice at night, the moon reflecting off the quiet canals, many people out for late night strolls or bar/restaurant hopping. We ended up in an outdoor bar, surrounded by buildings while sitting at tables in a large courtyard that apparently used to house one of the biggest meat (ironic, eh?), vegetable, and craft markets in all of Europe, hundreds of years ago. When that place closed down around 1 or 2 a.m., some people still wanted to go out dancing so we went there too, but the place was DEAD. We got a drink anyway (foolishly, at 9 Euros...about 13 bucks...EACH!!) but no one lasted long before we all headed back to our hostel bunks.

During the days, we walked all over the multiple islands of Venice (apparently there are 117 of them) without a map, getting repeatedly lost and discovering different parts of the city. While trying in vain to find the crown jewel Piazza di San Marco (or St. Mark's Square, for those that may have heard of it), we stumbled upon the Arsenal, which was just a huge castle-walled complex on the water which we could not see into...we later found out that this was where the MIGHTY Venice Navy, back in the 1100-1500's, was able to mass-produce ONE WARSHIP PER DAY using 16,000 employees and production-line techniques not seen again until the Industrial Revolution. Are you kidding me?! They built a warship in a day?! Day after day?!

The Piazza di San Marco was extraordinary. The Basilica (church) was full of some of the most intricate and the largest mosaics in all of the world as well as amazing marble floors with intricate inlays. There was a really beautiful clock tower with a half gold/half blue face that told the date, the time, and the phase of the moon. We ascended the campanile, or free-standing bell tower, which was 325 feet tall and looked right down on the plaza, which was surrounded by the basilica, the clock tower, and a long rectangular shape of old palaces which are now cafes and office buildings. Unfortunately, as happened so often throughout this entire trip, there was scaffolding obscuring a large section of the piazza. This piazza is the HEART of Venice and has been for nearly a millenium!! Crazily enough, the piazza occasionally floods under up to 4 feet of water, inundating the surrounding businesses and buildings, so the City of Venice is undertaking several flood preventions measures, including raising the towns outer seawall, improving the square's drainage system, and installing a series of mobile floodgates that could be raised only when floods are imminent. There is a lot of support, but also a lot of opposition for the audacious project, as people wonder if there is a significant conflict of interest given that the companies planning the work are also going to be the ones to eventually do the work. Hmm, I wonder if there is one large organization in particular trying to control the process. Just wondering, that's all.

Trip and I were able to recruit 3 Aussie girls to share in the experience and cost of a gondola ride through the canals of Venice. Having some estrogen in the boat was IMPERATIVE for the two of us, given that the ride feels somewhat romantic. We saw the Grand Canal as well as multiple smaller canals, and it was a super cool ride. The sun was shining, the city was bustling, and we got a completely different perspective on the city itself when on the water. It did not come cheap (100 Euros for a 45 minute ride), but split 5 ways it was manageable enough.

Other miscellaneous Venice moments:
**sitting by the harbor, on a rock wall, journaling/reading in the late afternoon sunshine
**sitting on a bridge, using my Leatherman to cut slices of amazing Italian spicy salami and cheese
**happily (yet sadly) eating the best pasta sauce in italy, for free, in copious amounts, at the hostel, cooked by the Iranian guy
**the only EGGS we got for breakfast in Italy, again for free, again in copious amounts, same hostel, same Iranian

After Venice we headed to Bologna. We had heard that Bologna is generally regarded as having the best food in Italy. In fact, we agreed! I had my favorite pizza there, and even though the crust we had in Napoli was slightly better, the Bologna pizza wins out because it had more ingredients and the ingredients were spread over the entire pizza rather than being tossed into quadrants. If you ever go to Bologna, go to Il Veliero restaurant and get the pizza with spicy salami, buffalo mozzarella, grilled eggplant, and arugola. Holy cow. Heaven on a plate.

And just when we thought our gastronomic delight couldn't be topped, we stumbled upon the best GELATO we had had in all of Italy. A place called Grom served an extra dark chocolate gelato, with little flecks of dark chocolate floating throughout its exquisite creaminess, that topped anything we'd had to this point. And I swear I'm not just saying that because of the gorgeous girl that served it to us. Honest!

But wait, there's more. We tasted the best balsamic vinegar we'd thick and sweet as to be easily confused with Trattoria Tony. (In fact, we later learned that we were very lucky to be allowed to eat it because this was a VERY special, 15-year-old balsamic that in the stores costs 23 Euros (32 bucks!!) for just 6 ounces.)

And just when you thought I was finished...we also were steered to the best lunch we'd had in Italy, at Tiburini, which is a cafeteria-style establishment that has been featured on the Food Channel here in America, and yet was still very affordable. We had a great Lasagna Bolognese with fresh noodles and a lot of delicious sausage. (Thank yous to Arlene and Nina, a mom and 12-year-old daughter duo from New Jersey that we met walking down a Bologna street, for their suggestion of Tiburini.)

Though the Bolognese food was amazing, we still feel the lack of spices in sauces throughout Italy. Is it an American thing to actually add oregano, basil, pepper, etc. to the pizza and pasta sauce? Yes, the ingredients here are very fresh and very good quality, but both Trip and I must admit to a newfound appreciation for the flavor of the food we eat in America.

Bologna also had other positive attributes...a cool gathering place called Piazza Maggiore with a cool, you guessed it, cathedral (5th largest in the world); a vibrant university scene; a great Italian duo playing excellent blues in the piazza (bought their CD); a syringe dispensing machine on the street near our hotel (we didn't wanna know either); the tallest tower we ascended in all of Italy (490 steps). Of note...this tall tower was leaning too, just like the one in Pisa, but a bit less. It turns out that many of the tall, old towers and churches throughout Italy have a lean to them. Were we overly trusting to be going up inside these things? I don't know...I didn't want to think about it!!

After 2 nights in Bologna, it was time to head for Florence. We decided to make a 30 minute jaunt over to Modena first so we could see the city/cathedral and so I could buy some olive oil and balsamic vinegar to bring home, given that Modena is THE HOME of balsamic. We headed out early and caught the quick train over there. The cathedral and tower were encased in scaffolding, again, but we still got inside the cathedral. This one was cool for different wasn't super tall and super ornate with marble, granite, and gold decor, but instead was largely dark red brick and dark wood, somewhat oppressive. It made one feel humbled, although in a different way than in bigger, brighter, more ornate duomos. Different is good, though. Variety is the spice of life. :)

We also wandered around a small Modena outdoor market that had a variety of sausage, salami, cheese, wine, and dessert vendors. Feeling like we needed to support the Italian economy, we tasted everything anyone would give us and then eventually I bought a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a bottle of olive oil, a big tube of hot salami, and about a half acre of apple strudel (we had missed out on this when we were in Bolzano the week before because we spent too much time drinking really tasty beer). After this market, we found ANOTHER larger and more permanent one to walk through where I bought even MORE balsamic vinegar and olive oil to take home. This brought my total to 2 big bottles of oil and two moderately sized bottles of balsamic that I was going to have to find a way to creatively pad and store in order to safely bring them home with me to America.

Next....the ordeal of finding our way to Firenze (Florence) followed by 4 days chilling and sightseeing there.

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