Venice.. oh my lovely Venice…

August 18, 2009
Hotel

Hotel Riva‘s location, literally on the back side of the St. Mark’s square, made it really convenient for us to get to most of the attractions that most tourists come to Venice to see. We paid 140 Euro/night for our double-room, in-suite bathroom, A/C and a canal view. Next time, I probably would not pay the extra 20Euro to pay for the canal view. But I would definitely stay at this location again, the location is hard to beat!

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Breakfast was very basic, literally hard rolls and fruit jams or nutella. Drinks selection was coffee, hot chocolate, teas, or juice. It was very basic, but at this point, we were getting used to the continental breakfast and was fine with it.

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Hotel & train station– arrival tip
  • One thing that I wish that I would have known was that, I should plan to either arrive early in the morning, before 9AM or late afternoon, after 5PM. The crowd in the afternoon is almost unbearable; and it’s not fun navigating through the crowds while pulling your suitcase through unfamiliar cobblestone streets.
  • I also did not research enough on Venice and wasn’t aware that I could have bought my vaparetto’s (water-bus) ticket ahead of time. This would have saved me at least the 30-45 mins we spent waiting on the line getting the one way ticket to the hotel. Our hotel would have been about 35-mins walk from the train station, and was about less than 10 mins walk from the closest water-bus station.
  • The toilet in the train station is free of charge! I took advantage of it as soon as I got off the train, since I wasn’t sure how long before I was able to get to the hotel.

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Restaurants & Gelataria Reviews

Ristorante Al Conto
This restaurant was the best restaurant that we ate at in Italy. The quality of the food (the freshness of their seafood), ambiance, service, wine selection, and overall value for your money. This place is tucked in a corner of one of the small streets off the main drag of Riva degli Schiavoni and a little bit hard to find… but totally worth it!

When we first found it, it was around 1:30 in the afternoon, and the waitress said the kitchen was closed, and asked if we wanted to make a reservation and come back that evening? We said yes, and so glad we did. We arrived around 7:30PM, which was early for Italians, but early enough that we got to select our private table tucked in the corner of their small courtyard, just outside the main entrance to their restaurant.

The chef and owner Cesare Benelli and his Texas-born wife, Diane, were out mingling with guests and asked if we enjoyed our food. It was just a superb experience for us and I savored every delicious minute of our dinner that evening.

Mike ordered their chef’s specialty that night, which includes a starter of fresh pasta, a second course of meat and dessert. The first course was homemade pasta with a very delicate clam-sauce, a grape tomato, and fresh dill. The pasta literally melted in my mouth, with just enough flavoring in the broth.

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The second course, was a seared top round beef, cooked just enough to provide some crispiness to the outside edges.

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Oh, and there was a small plate of this wonderful marinated chopped eggplant that was seasoned to perfection.

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I ordered their delicious fritto misto (a sampler of fried fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables) with scampi, squid, baby red snapper, white fish, cuttlefish and fried vegetables.  This is a specialty dish that you will find in every Ventian restaurant.

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There is also a nice little mound of potato strings, crispy in the outside and soft in the inside. There wasn’t any greasy feeling that you’d typically get in fried bar-food. Everything was fried to perfection, I could not find any bits of burnt pieces.

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I asked, “What type of vegetables would I have?”

The waiter said, “Mushrooms.”

I said, “Do you have zucchini flowers?”

He shook his head and said, “Let me ask the chef, since you know… he’s the super star.”

He went in, came back shortly and said, “Yes of course, we can make those for you.”

My heart sang! Red’s face lit up! I had been dreaming about these delicate little flowers since I first read about them in one of my favorite books of all time, A Thousand Days in Venice.

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Osteria alla Staffa

This place was literally a hole in the wall, with six tables and a small bar. We found it on a rainy afternoon when we felt like we had just missed a lunch crowd, and wanted to sit somewhere by the window, and people watch. There was no menu & no English spoken. I ordered a plate of spaghetti with onion sauteed with bacon and arugula. It was so simple and delicious. When I first saw the plate, I thought, on no, there wasn’t enough sauce. Boy, was I wrong. There was a perfect amount of olive oil in this dish, and I wasn’t missing my tomato-based sauce. This dish was simplicity at its best.

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Red ordered spaghetti primavera, and it was pretty good. It didn’t have any meat in it, so I knew that he was missing his protein. But it was delicious. Our table was right by the window so we could look out and watch the rain and people go by. We ordered two beers, these two pasta dishes and two espresso. The bill came to about 23 Euro, which was an awesome deal in Venice, or anywhere in Italy really. We would definitely seek this place out again when we return!

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Italy 2009 Trip Report

June 28, 2009

Destinations
Rome (3.5 days), Florence (6 days, including two day trips: Chianti Wine Tour & a cooking class in Bologna), Venice (3 days), and Milan (1 day). We flew open jaw, arrival into Rome, and flying out from Milan.

Background
My husband and I have always wanted to go to Italy (since neither of us have been there, except my husband who was there very briefly for work). We thought about going there for our honeymoon last August. However, I didn’t have enough time to plan for the trip last year, while juggling a wedding planning, a new job, relocation, selling a house, buying a house, etc. So we decided on a “mini-moon” to Napa for 4 days instead so we could go right after the wedding. Luckily, a few months later we found great deals on tickets using our frequent flier miles to Italy, so we booked those tickets for June — and my planning began.

Travel Style
I’m definitely in between the “fast & furious” and “slow travel” modes. My husband loves museums, arts and you can find him taking pictures of everything with his Nikon, while I prefer to just sit in cafe and people-watch, while taking in the view. Overtime, I have also grown to really enjoy the smaller towns more, with less crowds & it tends to offer a more authentic experience. I think that when I leave the “manicured tourist world”, I get to really enjoy the locals and culture.


Planning
I get asked about this quiet frequently by my friends who are interested to plan their own trip, so I am going to talk a little bit how I usually plan my trips. I have never used a travel agent to plan any of my trips. I don’t mind researching for the destinations reading guide books and the internet.

Tour groups are convenient for travellers who don’t mind to be on a structured schedule during their vacation. I took a Contiki tour once, because I decided, a month before the scheduled departure date, that I wanted to go to Europe. So I booked one of their Superior tours, which at that time, they only took care of the hotels, transportation, some of the meals, offered some optional day tours and provided guides at destinations. They didn’t really take us through all of the major attractions, so it was partially flexible to your own discretion.

For this trip, we did not purchase any new guidebooks. We got literally a pile of old books from friends who had been there before and we just estimated their prices printed to be about ~10% higher since they were from 2006.

Fodors.com
I rely heavily on Fodors.com travel board for recommendations, tips, and answers to my questions. I have found the folks on Fodors to be kind, informative, and helpful during my six-years patronage on the board.

Rick Steve’s
I use Rick Steve’s guidebooks for tips & tricks on getting into major attractions, making reservations with them, hotels and some of the “budget-minded” ideas (i.e.: Where can I find a grocery store? Where can I find a laundromat?). I don’t personally care with his restaurants’ recommendations.

Frommer’s
All of the guidebooks that I have purchased have been Frommer’s. I like their writing style, with a little bit of history in each destination & some commentary on the attractions. I also found their restaurant recommendations to be more to my liking, although they tend to cost more than Rick Steve’s.

Here’s a list of some of the things that I try to plan for:
-Accommodation (as soon as I have the dates and a general idea of where I’d like to go, I book the hotels. The better-valued hotels tend to sell out months in advance, especially in Europe, during the high-season).
-Major attractions (that can be reserved ahead of time, so that I don’t spend my vacation time standing in the line for hours at a time. Some places even must be reserved, or you will not be able to get in at all, like the Last Supper in Milan)
-Other special activities (for this trip, our Chianti Wine Tour with Tuscan Trails & cooking class with Casa Illara)
-Transportation to one destination to the next (train stations location, timetable, where to buy tickets, seat reservation, etc)
-Transportation within the city (I research to understand what my options are: walking vs. bus vs. metro, etc)
-Transportation to and from the airports at arrival & departure. This is one of the areas that I splurge by reserving taxis ahead of time.
-I also try to have an idea of the areas surrounding the hotel, and where everything is in respect to my hotel.


Packing
For this trip, my husband and I each took a 21-inch roller bag: mine was a Delsey Helium (light at 7-lbs when empty) & his was a Swiss Victorinox-brand. I also carried a leather cross body-purse which I can throw around my shoulder, while my husband had a small backpack which carried his camera, our guide book, and bottled water. We did a load of laundry halfway through our trip.

Others
-I used my ATM card the entire trip. Not only that it has a better conversion rate, most places in Europe prefer cash (if not, they only accept cash), and they tend to have penalty for credit card purchases.
-I called my bank before I left and gave them the schedule of where I would be during my trip. I ask them to flag me when there is a suspicious purchase made outside the destinations that I had scheduled. You can also ask your bank to decline any transactions above a certain amount, just in case the card is stolen/lost.
-My husband and I felt safe the entire time during our trip. We were alert, just like we would when traveling to new places, but we did not cling to our belongings like a paranoid tourist. We did not have a money belt, or fanny pack.

Next: Individual Cities’ Trip report, starting with Rome.