La Dolce Vita (Travelogue, part 3)

October 2003

Buon giorno,

We arrived in Italy a week ago, after a grand train ride through the Austrian mountains.  Past ski towns with chalets, dense forests with thin, tall alpines, thick fog and beautiful landscapes.

Venice was amazing.  “A living museum,” says Paul.  “A feast for the eyes, as well as the stomach,” say I. What’s my favorite food after Mum & Dad’s cooking? Italian!  Oh, the oodles and oodles of noodles! Paul salivates with the gelato. The smell of espresso and vino.  Yum, yum, yum! Pizza has a paper thin base. Interestingly enough, if you order a pizza with multiple toppings, they are not sprinkled all over. For instance, my vegetarian pizza had a section of red bell peppers, another of mushrooms, another of onions and another of artichoke hearts.

Venice is a crazy maze, where it’s okay to get lost. There are endless passages leading to campos (squares) with the requisite statues and fountains. Some streets so narrow that only one person can pass, some so narrow that Paul could not stretch his arms.  He also had to keep ducking his head through the archways. Countless shrines to saints and Mary adorned with flowers tucked away in corners, over archways, next to windows or built into the bricks. The crumbling edifaces hide lovely interiors, esp. along the Grand Canal.  We took the vaperetto tour and could see into the “palaces” that line the canal.  Vast paintings on the inside of someone’s living room. A mosaic on the ceiling. Chandeliers (sp?) hanging overhead.

Most noticeable is the complete absence of cars and bikes.  It’s a great change and one that we quickly adapted to. If you don’t feel like walking, you take the water bus (vaperetto) or gondola taxi (tragetto). Cheap and efficient, not to mention fun. Also, it’s quite funny to observe a nautical traffic jam, although I suppose it’s not funny if you’re in one.

The Venetians are inordinately fond of lap-toy dogs, and they take them everywhere: restaurants, cafes, shops, bars. They are truly a part of the family, not just a pet.

The Venetians are v. chic, dressed head to toe in the latest fashions for the youth and tailored suits for the more mature.  You can definitely point out the tourists by the jeans and faded clothing.  No fancy, pointed leather shoes for me.  So, to fit in and be chic, how about a $3000 Roberta di Camerino alligator purse or a $850+ Gucci bag?  No? Not in the budget this year?  Not to worry! You can always buy a leather knock-off starting at $45 from the numerous African immigrant vendors.  But, you’d better make that purchase quickly because you never know when there’ll be a police bust and you’re going to be left standing as your purchase is whisked away. In our brief stay, we saw three of these busts.  The police run down the street and the vendors take off, leaving behind the merchandise or sometimes attempting to run with a few bags.  We got the skinny from a local who explained that there are only a certain number of permits for street sales.  Most of the vendors are not on the official list.

Speaking of police, they seem to have a nice life. There’s little violent crime in Venice, and the police, when not chasing illegal bag sellers, amble about checking out the girls, smoking cigarettes, chatting with the merchants, sitting and sipping coffee.  Not only that, but they get to wear a smart-looking, pseudo-military style outfit.

Of course, what is Venice without a gondola ride?  Since a gondola has a very special meaning for us, we took a moonlit ride through the quiet, non-stinky canals of inner Venice.  Just us, the gentle lap of the water, the moonshine, and occasional narration from Roberto, our gondolier.  He pointed out Marco Polo’s  and Casanova’s houses.

Before I describe Cinque Terra, our current stop, I must write about our bathroom in Venice.  Italian bathrooms (toilet and shower and bidet) are extremely compact.  So, compact that not more than one person can fit. Ours was 5 feet long, 4 feet wide and about 6 feet 9 inches high. Paul could just about manage to fit. The sink slid from one end of the wall to the other, so that you can move it out of the way.  The shower is not separate from the rest of the room.  It is a shower head and a curtain that you pull along the rail to cover the sink, bidet and toilet so they don’t get wet while you shower.  Truly space-efficient.

Now, onto Cinque Terra, part of the Italian Riviera.  It is truly difficult to describe with accuracy in print how happy I am to be back here.  You would have to see my face and hear my tone to really understand. The Mediterranean is one of the most beautiful, breath-taking, wonderful
places on God’s great earth.  It is the cure for all the ills that come with life in urban USA.  The sea is aqua marine by the coast, so clear you can see right through, and becomes a deep turquoise further out to sea.  Clean air, warm skies, friendly people who appreciate life for all of its simple grace. Sitting at the edge of the ocean, soaking in the sun, listening to the sea
gulls, the call of the fishermen, the waves as they hit the shore–all of it simple and peaceful, relaxing. There are no tourist sights here, no cathedrals, no museums, no agendas, nothing to do but appreciate the wonder of it all. We hiked for just over 2 hours along the cliffs, stopping to
observe nature. Local seafood has been our staple, with the best fish we’ve ever had.  Even anchovies, cooked with capers and lemon, are delicious.  Not salty and harsh like back home, but flavorful and delicate. Pesto with pasta. Good wine.  Amazing tiramisu. It truly is la dolce vita.

We leave in a couple of days for Rosenheim, near Munich, into the hospitality of our friend, Martin.

Wishing you well.
Margharita e Paulo

Oh, Vienna! (Travelogue, part 2)

October 2003

We bid Na Sheldanou (goodbye) to Prague and enjoyed a pleasant 5 hour train ride to Vienna. Autumn was showing its true form, as we passed through woods with amber, yellow, brown and red leaves.  Through farmland, little towns, crumbling fortresses atop hills clouded with mist.

And, Gruss Gott (God bless or Bless God; we haven’t figured out which) to Vienna, home of the choir, sausage, coffee and waltz.  Once we gotten our bus-metro passes, we set off to our lovely little pension, which is located just off the fashionable Maria Hilfilg Strasse shopping area.  We
have a metro stop that is 50 ft away and is v. handy.

We decided that as we’d already experienced so much high culture in the last 2 weeks (symphony, opera, museums and cathedrals ad nauseum) that we’d spend our first night in Vienna with some good old American brain candy.  So, we went to see Pirates of the Caribbean at the Eng. language theater just down the street.  Paul liked it a lot, as did I.  And, I must say that Johnny Depp still looks fine, even in flamboyant make-up, and now that Orlando Bloom has shorn his Prell commercial blond locks, he looks really good, too.  But, I digress…

Vienna is a city of contrasts.  It is regal, yet pedestrian. Classical, yet contemporary. Proud of its history and culture, yet cosmopolitan. And, even though we’re in a foreign country, this seems so much more familiar than Prague.  (Paul and I both took Ger. in high school, so our broken Ger.
could be why we feel more comfortable.)  Everything is precise, efficient and clean.  The Viennese are obviously v. proud of their city, as the streets are immaculate and there’s no grafitti (sp?)to be seen. The metro has flat screen TVs inside the carriages displaying the news (no audio, just captions) and there are large screen versions on the actual platforms. In contrast to Prague, there is v. little in the way of public displays of affection.  In P., lots of hand holding, kissing and cuddling; here, v. little of it.  I hugged Paul on the metro platform and got a few curious looks. Little cultural differences are interesting.

We saw a Mozart concert with the orchestra in full dress for the time period, including wigs.  At first we thought it’d be schmaltzy, but they were very good.  The museums are chock-full of lovely art, including a wonderful Gustav Klimt exhibit. Saw just a little of the immense Hapsburg dynasty wealth when we visited the Schonnbrunn Summer Palace.  So much gold, marble, etc.  It’s amazing to view how the royalty lived. As with Prague, we’ve spent much of the time looking up at all the incredible architecture.  A statue here, a fountain there, etc.

I’ve found that central Europe is not an easy place to eat if you don’t eat a lot of beef or pork, such as myself. It is the definite staple here. Heres’s an example of cultural unawareness: I ordered a mixed salad, expecting what I’d get back home.  Instead, it was (a very tasty) potato with kraut salad.  One leaf of lettuce and one wedge of tomato used as garnish.  We encountered a little sticker shock upon arrival.  (Prague is v. cheap–a full meal for two including drinks and appetizer and tip costs about $15, if you stay away from the tourist traps.  Beer is incredibly cheap at around $1.75 a pint.) Really, the only cheap food places here are the wurstel stands–frankfurters, etc,– although beer is also inexpensive.  I’ve never eaten so many hotdogs in a period of 4 days. Fortunately, chocolate is exceptionally cheap, so I’ve been consoling myself with lots of that.

The only down part has been the freezing wind that has chilled us to the bones.  The low to mid 50s temps. and slight rain wouldn’t be a big deal, if we weren’t frozen by the wind.  But, hardy travellers that we are, we aren’t allowing a little inclement weather to slow down our journies.

Off to Venice and warmer weather tomorrow.
Hope all is well with you and yours.
Rita and Paul