To Venice and Beyond
Insiders offer Texas couple unconventional and exciting tour of Italy
Advice came fast when folks heard our summer trip to Europe would include Venice — a city that has been a tourist playground for centuries. “Get lost on purpose,” a friend from home told my new fiancé and me. “You’ll love all the wandering around.”
“Leave before the shit in the canals gets to stinking too bad,” said another. “Just, eh, be careful,” added a young bartender in Rome. “They see you are a tourist in Venice, and the prices go up.”
Nothing stank, as it were, and Andrea Zanibellato, our hotelier, didn’t charge much for a small room at the Locanda Herion. I liked Andrea — a hyper, burly guy who often sang to himself and sometimes mopped out guest rooms while wearing shorty-short pajamas.
Locals can point you to the right cafe or lookout point, and you won’t catch them wearing booty shorts into a Renaissance-era church.
“Iz the heat,” he told us in apology, shaking his head. Zanibellato previously worked for a limo company, so he’s met all sorts of tourists, including ones who’d direct him to areas accessible only by water bus, or ask to see the city’s nonexistent alligators.
Last he heard, the beloved, fish-shaped island had nearly 60,000 residents to its more than 20 million annual visitors. “There is no other city in the world with that balance,” he said merrily.
It’s a rude thing to admit, but I can’t stand other tourists. Not when we’re all in a huge, mooing herd, anyway.
Italy’s big crowd magnets — Michelangelo’s David, for instance, or the Vatican — are obviously well worth your time. But locals can point you to the right cafe or lookout point, and you won’t catch them wearing booty shorts into a Renaissance-era church.
As for Venice, my favorite part — and I expect no one to second this — is its convenient water-bus system, or vaporetto, if only for its unapologetic lack of glamour in an otherwise gorgeous setting.
At regular intervals, these weathered boats ram clumsily into docks that are set up exactly like metro stations, with color-coded maps, tourists, tired commuters and a few mentally ill people chattering to themselves — just like the real thing. Even the seats feel familiar. But everything happens on the water, and to a Texas girl, that’s still exotic.
When we arrived in Florence, we had more of an agenda. Well known as the birthplace of the Renaissance and an artistic treasure trove, da Vinci’s hometown is also stickily hot in summertime — even inside go-to museums such as the Uffizi Gallery.
My favorite part of Venice is its convenient water-bus system, if only for its unapologetic lack of glamour in an otherwise gorgeous setting.
So try waking early, hitting popular spots late in the day and letting a street vendor sell you a lacey little hand fan. (Whoever starts marketing a masculine fan will be a genius, by the way, as few men seem willing to brave the regular kind.)
Our favorite heat respite, it turned out, was the Medici Chapels. Your stock guidebook probably mentions this lavish worship ground of Italy’s former ruling family, though it’s hardly a main tourist draw.
“You’ll find art just as famous as in the Uffizi or the Accademia,” insisted Carlo, the stylish Florentine who rented us a beautiful, sweltering apartment, and he’s right. Long lines never seem to form there, the place is air-conditioned, and its sweeping dome and delicate reliquaries are enough to inspire prayer/meditation/silence/gulping.
Carlo, we decided, had some cred. Osteria Toscanella, his friend Fabrizio Gori’s restaurant near the legendary Ponte Vecchio bridge, served wild boar pasta that made us squeal, but the building’s supposed history is what stuck to our ribs.
Gori believes its pillars once upheld the garden loggia of a home frequented by 15th-century movers and shakers, including Paolo Toscanelli, the cartographer whose maps guided (or, rather, misguided) Columbus’ voyage to North America. His own research has been exhaustive, Gori added with a laugh, and to renovate the place, “I destroy all my money.”
The cuisine didn’t stop there, of course.
Rome native Valentina Bassi was our waitress first, then our friend — sharing family photos, cheek kisses and all. Da Benito e Gilberto Al Falco, her family’s Vatican-area seafood restaurant, has drawn the likes of Federico Fellini, and they’ve got the pictures to prove it. (The celebrated director usually took a table by the front window.) It’s not a cheap meal, but it is well worth the 25 or more euros you’ll shell out for an entrée.
Valentina’s biggest travel tip? Visit the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain — another must-see landmark — at night. “It’s a very romantic place,” she said of the fountain. “But there are a lot of people there.”
“In the night,” however, “you can hear the sound of the water.”
You can hear the people too, actually. And you’ll probably like them.