Friday, May 20, 2016

Venice - Cannaregio Sights

On our first full day in Venice, due to the early morning arrival of our friends Yim and Murray, who would be staying with us for a few days and would be tired after their red-eye flight, we decided to stay close to our accommodations and explore our home district Cannaregio.  As we wandered along canals, over bridges and through narrow, twisty streets, we had four goals in mind.  First we wanted to find the Vodafone store that is located on Strada Nuova, the main commercial street that runs through Cannaregio, in order to buy a data SIM card for our IPAD.  Rich and I try to do this in every new city since it is very useful to have access to Google Maps to help us locate destinations.  Given that finding anything in Venice is challenging since so many of the bridges, canals, streets, shops and restaurants look the same to us and you have to zigzag to get anywhere, the Google Maps feature would be even more useful than ever.  Next, if we passed by a tobacco shop, we wanted to purchase our multi-day Vaporetto boat passes.  Then the plan was to do a cicheti tasting tour, where cicheti are little snacks local to Venice, in the same vein as Spanish tapas or Chinese dim sum.  And finally, if we passed a supermarket on the way home, we would pick up some groceries for that night's dinner and the next day's breakfast.

Purchasing the data SIM card proved to be much more difficult in Italy than in any other place where we've tried this.  In these other countries (United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Holland, Austria), we simply walked into the Telcom provider, handed over our money and asked the clerk to install and configure the chip for us, making sure to test the connection before we left the store.  It took three attempts to secure the SIM card in Venice.  On our first attempt, we found out that we needed to show our passport in order to purchase the SIM.  Luckily we were just 15 minutes from home and had found a huge "Coop" supermarket across from the Vodafone, so the new plan was to do our groceries, bring them home, pick up the passport and head out again.  We returned around 1:30 in the afternoon to find the Vodafone store closed (for siesta) until 3:30pm!  We decided to continue on with our explorations of Cannaregio and check back one last time later in the afternoon.  If we still were unsuccessful, then it was not meant to be.  Finally on the third return to Vodafone, we were able to secure a 2Gig Data SIM card for 25 Euros.  However unlike the other countries where the plan was activated immediately, we were told that this one would not be available for another 3 hours.  We had to leave and take it on faith that it would work!  All's well that ends well, since the SIM card did eventually work, although we did have a brief scare before I remembered to reboot the IPAD.  Now we had access to data for the rest of our stay in Venice without requiring to hunt for WIFI hotspots.

While in the Coop supermarket, we spotted a beautiful purple artichoke shaped like a flower and a weirdly shaped pale-green round zucchini.  We bought the zucchini to add to our salad for dinner, but left the artichoke since we were not sure what to do with it. Some days later, I found a vegetable stall that sold these artichokes by the piece for 0.60 Euro each, whereas most other places wanted you to buy at least 10 of them.  I bought a couple to find out what they were like inside and what they tasted like. I guess I just don't know how to properly open an artichoke.  I peeled and peeled away the purple leaves, looking for the edible heart inside, but I got to the middle without finding anything that seemed remotely fit for eating.  I'm glad I didn't buy 10 of these things as they seem to make better decorations than food.  The zucchini was really tasty though.

Because it took so long to secure our data plan, we were unable to execute our planned cicheti tasting route since without Google Maps, it was impossible to find any of the restaurants that we had pre-selected.  This did not stop us though since there were cicheti bars to be found at every turn.  The first two stops on our eating tour were not actually places that served cicheti, but they were the first food opportunities that we came across.  We started our tasting tour at Fornareto bakery with a couple of "breakfast pastries" including a flaky caramel treat and a Nutella-filled cannoli.  Next we stopped at Arte Della Pizza which was ranked on TripAdvisor as the best pizza in Venice.  I think I will need to go and add my own comment to TripAdvisor since this pizza was not to my taste.  I like thin-crusted pizza like they serve in Naples and Rome but this pizza had a thick, dry, doughy crust.  They did have interesting toppings such as artichoke though.  Our first real cicheti opportunity was at the Osteria de Riccio Peocol.  Following the protocol of the other patrons, we stepped up to counter where the snack offerings were on display and chose from a variety of toasts topped with, and deep fried balls stuffed with, meats, cheese, fish or vegetables, and other fried foods and spreads.  We ordered a skewer of battered seafood, a deep-fried chicken ball and a toast with prosciutto and cheese and took our snacks out to a nearby bench, since all the standup/sitdown places in front of the restaurant were already occupied and it was too nice of a day to eat inside.

Our next stop, Bar Pucca, was probably our favourite place since we were tired by now and were able to sit down and rest, ordered some delicious-looking food, and especially because this was the first time we experienced a Venetian classic drink–the Aperol Spritz.  This bright orange, delightfully refreshing and fizzy cocktail consists of  3 parts prosecco (sparkling wine), 2 parts Aperol liquor (made from bitter and sweet oranges, rhubarb and other herbs and roots), and 1 part soda and is often served with an orange slice and an olive.  Yim and I both tried to suck on what we thought was a straw for the drink, but it turned out to be the swizzle stick that held the olive.  Rich, Yim and I loved this drink so much that we made a pledge to try to drink it every day that we were in Venice–a promise that the three of us kept throughout our friends' stay (Murray preferred beer), and then Rich and I carried on with the tradition for the rest of our time in Venice.  We were so excited by our drinks that our snacks of grilled shrimp and veggie skewers and more breaded deep-fried balls became an afterthought.

Now sated with cicheti, we were ready for some coffee and gelato.  At the Café Brasilia, we drank our coffees "European-style" by standing up at the counter, for which you pay a lower price than if you want to sit at a table.  Surprisingly at this place, it cost more for takeout (because of the cost of the plastic cup?) than to stay in the café.  At the Geleteria Ca' D'Oro, Rich and I got our standard cup of chocolate and tiramisu to share (chocolate and cherry or chocolate and orange are also favourites, with chocolate being the constant), while Yim got what we learned was her standard, a cup of limone.  Only later did I spot the fruit popsicles in the freezer which would have tempted me as well.

We thought we were done with eating and were just wandering around Cannaregio when we spotted a cute little bar tucked away at the end of a narrow street and had to check it out.  At the Osteria Al Bombe, we decided on the breaded crab claws (reminiscent of what we get at Chinese banquets back home) and topped it off with a final chicken and a chive patty.  We were offered a seat in the empty restaurant but decided to just scarf down these last treats as we continued our stroll.

We did end up passing by a Tobacco shop where we bought our multi-day boat passes that would give us infinite rides during a consecutive period of days.  On Strada Nuova, we encountered what must be the most USA-centric restaurant in Venice other than McDonalds.  The Old Wild West Steak House proudly advertises its American fare and even features an American flag and bald eagle in the front window.  It makes one wonder why you would bother to come to Italy and eat at a place like that?  Much more typical Venetian sights included the many shops that sold masks and the Venetian flag featuring the city symbol of St. Mark's winged lion.  As we reached the Grand Canal at the southern end of Cannaregio, we saw some magnificent palazzos including the floral-Gothic styled Ca' D'Oro (Golden House), named for the gilded decorations that once adorned the walls.

It took two days to see all the sites of interest in Cannaregio and a few of them were within blocks of our home.  We lived very close to the Boscolo Venezia Hotel which would be within swimming distance from the Orto Vaporetto boat dock, if the waters were safe for swimming (which it isn't).  This high-end 5-star hotel has a beautiful lobby with what seems like the prerequisite elaborate Murano glass chandelier and an even more picturesque garden and outdoors lounge area that backs onto the Venetian Lagoon.  Since there is a front entrance from the street and a dock on the lagoon, it is presumable that you could approach the Boscolo by land or by water (probably by private water taxi if you could afford to stay here).  Rooms at the Boscolo range from about $430 Canadian up to over $1000 per night.  Free motorboat shuttles between the hotel and St. Marks Square run 4 times per day.

The Madonna dell 'Orto church, whose tall steeple is visible to us from the courtyard of our apartment complex, acts as a beacon to signal the way back home when we wander further afield. Madonna dell 'Orto is a pretty 14th Century Gothic church with a red brick façade that is decorated on each side with six statues, together representing the twelve disciples.  The church is named after an unfinished statue of the Madonna made by Giovanni de Santis which was originally discarded to a nearby orchard (orto) but received reverence when it was reputed to glow and perform miracles.  The sculpture is now installed in the high altar of the church. Many of the works in the church were created by Jacopo Tintoretto, who is also buried here in his home parish. The most well-known of his paintings hanging in the Church is the "Presentation of the Virgin", which is covered in real gold leaf on the depiction of the steps, and has similarities to a painting by rival painter Titian.

A more elaborately decorated church also located in Cannaregio is the Santa Maria Assunta, also known as I Gesuiti meaning "The Jesuits".  Its all-white stone exterior is more traditional in appearance than the red brick façade of Madonna dell ‘Orto and it also features statues of the twelve apostles as well as the Virgin Mary at the peak of the roof.  The real surprise occurs when you first step inside the church and are confronted with a dazzling kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. There are walls and columns that look to be covered with patterned wall paper or fabric, but which are actually intricately inlaid marble.  Gilded trim covers the ceilings and surround a series of circular frescoes, while the high altar consists of a white dome held up by columns of twisted green marble, with a sculpture in the middle of God and Christ sitting on a globe. 

One of the most striking features of the church is a ornamental pulpit made of marble that includes a cascading drape at one side, and which brings to mind Juliet's balcony in Romeo and Juliet.  I was curious about the traditional-styled confessional that has a space for the priest to sit in the middle while there is a compartment for a confessor on either side of him.  This made me wonder whether a priest would hear two confessions at the same time, and if so, how would he keep the facts of each of them straight?  As you first enter the church, on display is a slab of stone with a frieze that appears to show carvings of rabbits.  When asked about this, the attendant informed us that this stone was part of the original construction of the church and was discovered when the church was rebuilt centuries later.

The square called Campo dei Mori (translated as Square of the Moors) is known for the three turbaned statues along the side of the building of the restaurant Osteria L'Orto Dei Mori.  The sculptures are not actually of Moors but rather of three brothers named Sandi, Afani and Rioba Mastelli, 12th Century Greek merchants from Morea.  The Mastelli family owned the nearby palazzo Ca' Mastelli del Cammello with a beautiful facade facing the canal.  Legend has it that the brothers were turned into these stone statues as punishment for their greed in cheating their customers.  The sculpture of Rioba which stands at the corner of the restaurant has been much vandalized to the point where his original stone nose has been replaced with a black one made of iron.  As recently as 2010, the head of the Rioba statue was decapitated, but found a few days later and restored.  A fourth turbaned sculpture can be found nearby, in front of Tintoretto's house.

The Venetian Ghetto was the area where Jews were forced to live under the Venetian Republic between 1516 to 1797.  The term "ghetto" was therefore coined in Venice. A "new" and "old" ghetto are found side by side in Cannaregio, and is still the centre of Jewish life today with a Jewish community of around 500 people.  Synagogues, restaurants, bakeries and shops reflecting the Jewish faith can be found here, along with Jewish museums and schools.  We were intrigued by a Jewish chess set where the figures on the two sides represent Askenazi versus Sephardic Jews.

The square for the "New" Ghetto contains a poignant memorial to the Venetian Jews who were deported to Nazi Concentration Camps in 1944.  Bronze friezes depict Nazi soldiers torturing and killing their Jewish victims while a large wall of plaques list the names of the deceased.  Barbed wire lines the top of the brick walls on which the plaques and friezes are affixed.  A sobering reminder that racism and antisemitism still exists is enforced by the sight of a guard house situated directly in front of the memorial, which is manned by armed guards.

Even in the relatively non-touristy Cannaregio, searching for a place with ambience to dine on a Saturday night without having a reservation was not an easy task.  Even though we saw many empty tables at the edge of several canals that we strolled along, we discovered that they were all reserved.  Luckily we stumbled on Osteria Ai 40 Ladroni, a restaurant that featured a picturesque outdoors garden patio in the back with pretty flowers planted along the walls.  This turned out to be even better and more intimate than sitting out by the canal where other tourists could pass by and gawk at you. 

We fulfilled one of Rich's dining goals for this trip, which was to try squid ink pasta in Italy.  Members of the cephalopod species (squids, octopus, cuttlefish, etc.) release a dark black ink as a protection mechanism.  Ink extracted from the squid gives the pasta its black colour and a mildly salty, fishy taste, and is mixed up with chunks of squid meat.  The ink also turns your tongue black for a brief period.  While we were trying this delicacy, Yim and Murray went for the linguine and clams.  The noodles in our "primi" courses were cooked perfectly to a nice al dente texture.  For our "secondi" course, each couple shared a plate of fritto misto or breaded seafood, consisting of fish, shrimp, and calamari.

We enjoyed our dining experience at this restaurant so much that we decide to return here for Yim and Murray's final dinner in Venice.  This time we decided to try new appetizers and pastas.  We began by sharing plates of breaded calamari and soft shell crabs, all locally caught from nearby waters.  Rich and I shared a plate of tagliatelle with mushrooms and shrimp and a plate of spaghetti carbonara, accompanied by a green salad.  These were tasty but we were jealous of Murray's choice, the beautifully plated crab gnocchi in a tomato sauce, overflowing out of a a crab shell. 

We saw and experienced so much already just within our home siesteri or district of Cannaregio.  With the major tourist districts and multiple islands still to explore, it was exciting to think about what we had to look forward to.

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