Have you ever experienced a beautiful city standing still for a moment just for you?
I think I've been lucky to have encountered that feeling more than once - I remember New Year's Day a couple of years ago in Kyoto when that gorgeous city was made even more enchanting by a thick and unexpected cover of snow. Walking down Shijo Avenue with the lanterns sparkling through the snowflakes and the sound of music drifting over the wind... no one else in sight... was a moment I will never forget.
More recently, standing on London's Millennium Bridge on a cold winter's night just before Christmas, it seemed like the entire city had cuddled indoors for the festive season and left its otherwise busy streets and bridges deserted - a near silent London, except for the sound of the bells at St Paul's striking the hour.
But I digress... the reason why I remembered this magical feeling is because of everything I had heard recently about visiting Venice. "Crowded, a tourist trap, Disneyland, queues, package tour groups" - all words I try and avoid like the plague when I am on holiday. Had I thought I would ever experience the feeling of having Venice to myself? Having been to the city before, I can tell you in all honesty that I did not expect or dream I would.
I am happy to say I was wrong.
You see, I thankfully ignored the people who said Venice in winter is bitterly cold, miserable, windy... that I may have to wade through acqua alta - that strange winter tidal phenomenon that sometimes submerges this floating city and renders St Mark's square a swimming pool. I'd been to St Mark's square before, I would pass if it came to it.
I sided instead with the ones who said Venice in winter is unbelievably beautiful, with few tour groups, no cruise liners, no queues, gorgeous milky winter light, soft rolling fog and everything in my mind that generally conjures up a perfect holiday.
Thankfully these people were right.
The feeling of having Venice to myself began from the moment I stepped off the ferry onto the main island. Hardly any people, empty streets, near silence save for the clatter of my suitcase on the cobbles. Heaven!
My home for the night was the 140-year-old Londra Palace, poised on the Riva degli Schiavoni with a heart-stopping view of St Mark's Basin and the Venice Lagoon. The Grand Canal may have its romance and charm, but to appreciate Venice's immensely rich and prosperous trading history, there is no better perch than a hotel offering views of the Lagoon - you can almost imagine the rush and tumble of the local and foreign traders, beggars and princes, grimy tricksters and freshly laundered and perfumed merchants who would have paraded up and down the waterfront promenade hundreds of years ago.
This gracious Relais & Chateaux hotel has a reputation for attracting those with a sensitive literary and artistic bent of mind. It was thrilling to think that I was going to sleep under the same roof as the famous Russian composer Petr Il’lc Tchaikovsky who stayed at the hotel in the winter of 1877. (You can stay in his actual room, 106, which bears his name on the door and still has some of its original furniture).
He composed the first three movements of Symphony No. 4, originally entitled ‘Do Leoni’ - the name that is now attached to the hotel's elegant restaurant and is celebrated by a few proud pairs of lions stationed across the property.
The restaurant was definitely a cosy place to curl up at for dinner, with a few glasses of a Venetian Red bursting with the berry flavours this region is famous for, The hotel's chef Loris Indri is known for conjuring up delicious creations from the best ingredients the lagoon and its surrounding land offers, and we had a taste of some of the regional specialties - a delicate serving of razor clams with turmeric flavored vegetables (a subtle hark back to Venice's exotic trading past with the Orient), the local pasta bigola which was flavored with pumpkin, coriander and pistachio, and some hearty calf's liver, served Venetian style with a side of the typical polenta di Marano, made from Marano corn characteristic of the Vicenza region of which Venice is a part.
The hotel's 53 rooms and suites are each individually decorated in a rich Biedermeier style, favored by European bourgeoisie in the 19th century. A deep palate of reds, golds and blues made the sumptuous suites seem even more decadent, while thoughtful modern touches (like Londra Palace ziplock bags left on your sink on your last night to store your toiletries for the plane ride home) showcased that this old school beauty was well aware of the needs of its 21st century clientele.
The hotel's famous 100 windows look out either onto the waters of the lagoon - bobbing with gondolas and crisscrossed by the wake of water taxis - or alternatively on the orange-tiled bell towers and rooftops of Venice. The breathtaking 360-view can be enjoyed from the hotel's altana - the traditional Venetian wooden terrace that you can see crowning many old buildings in the city - and is a beautiful spot to enjoy a slice of Venice all by yourself.
But it wasn't this spot, nor the many quiet walks enjoyed across the Cannareggio or Dorsoduro districts where one has the many picturesque calles and osteria all to yourself, or even the rare joy of wandering around a completely deserted St Mark's square that gave me that magical moment of understanding why Venice has been known as La Serenissima (the serene one) for hundreds of decades.
It was waking up to a view of the sunrise over the Lagoon through one of those 100 windows of the Londra Palace, and knowing for just that moment - at the crack of dawn - I had Venice all to myself!
When in Venice:
Eat: Venice's many osteria and baccari are legendary for the quality and simple deliciousness of the cicchetti they serve. These little bite-sized pieces of clam, cuttle fish, polpette (meatballs) fried squid or baccalo mantecato (creamed cod) served on fried polenta are best enjoyed with some of the region's dry white wine, of which the Soave was my favorite. Some places to try are the charming Osteria Bea Vita, Osteria Dal Riccio Peoco and Osteria Al Mariner in Cannareggio.
Visit: No visit to Venice is complete without a trip out to one of its sister islands, of which, Murano - the island famous for flamboyant coloured glass creations - is the most famous. Walking around Murano at twilight as the lights flicker out from the houses onto the canals is a magical experience.
Buy: Ignore the tourist tat and invest in some high quality, unique pieces of Murano glass or Venetian leather. I managed to score a bargain on some elbow-length kidskin gloves that I've been dreaming of for a long time! Pick specialist stores and you are likely to end up with a few great finds.
Wander: Walk, take a ferry, get lost, meander... basically check out every square inch of the city you can. There are few places in the world where almost every vista can be turned into a painting, and that is not overstating the reality!
Disclaimer: Platetrotter stayed as a guest of Londra Palace and Relais & Chateux but all opinions remain true to the wonderful hospitality I received at this spectacularly located hotel. A stay here is worth it for the beautiful dawn views from your window alone! And of course, a glass of prosecco with breakfast does tend to enhance that morning glow... when in Venice! ;)
A new year, a whole new set of opportunities to go platetrotting! And since we are already a week into 2014, I thought it's definitely time to make some dinner plans :)
My New Year's resolution is to eat African food in Africa... We shall see if that one gets ticked off the list. But for now, here’s another list of some of the things I hope to be chomping on in 2014.
Caribbean food at Negril Brixton
All those Food Network shows on chefs cooking up delicious pineapple-strewn curries against a backdrop of blue sky and sea are starting to have an effect on me. It’s time to finally answer the craving for fried plantain and coconuty curries that has been haunting me for several months now. In the absence of being able to board a plane to the Caribbean islands (much as I’d like to) I’m going to settle for the next best thing – Brixton Hill in London. The destination is the little Caribbean restaurant Negril, whose menu of saltfish fritters, spicy jerk ribs, pumpkin curry and plantain wedges is already making my mouth water. Definitely a stop the next time I find myself in London.
Matzah Balls and Latkes
Obviously the UAE isn’t the best place to find authentic Jewish food, so I am super excited to be heading to Poland next month where I hope to finally get a taste of some matzah balls and latkes. I’m already a certified pancake fan, so the latkes I am sure will be a hit. As for the matzah balls, apparently these little balls of dough traditionally made out of matzah meal and schmaltz (chicken fat) can vary widely in texture and density – ranging from light-as-air pillows to dense, stodgy, stomach fillers (floaters or sinkers). I will have to see what the ones I hope to taste in Krakow turn out to be!
Following the Cuban government’s slow easing of policies regarding private entrepreneurship in recent years, the number of paladares - the little family-run restaurants in people’s homes that provide a great counterpoint to touristy state-run restaurants – have increased in number and quality. Travelers to Cuba can rejoice as a result! With most of them run out of old private residences, the paladares sound like just the sort of places I would love to eat at when I hopefully make my way to Cuba this spring. This list of paladares has already whet my appetite!
More travel inspired by TV, this time by Anthony Bourdain's Mozambique episode of No Reservations that I watched on a flight a few months ago. All those African and Portuguese flavours melding together in recipes featuring fresh seafood and veggies sound like my idea of heaven. This is the eat-local-in-Africa goal I WANT to fulfill this year.
Olive Oil Tasting
I will happily go to as many wine tastings as I can get myself to but last year friends who went to Italy mentioned something else that made my ears prick up - olive oil tasting. As someone who gets through far too many bottles of olive oil in a year (and requires a LOT of willpower to walk past the aisle of gourmet oils in the supermarket) this is something I would be very keen to try. Fingers crossed there's some olive oil-tasting in my future!
So what are you looking forward to eating this year?
Named Best Blog for Food & Travel
Top 10 UAE Food Blogs in UAE