LA SERENISSIMA – October 19th

After a semi-hearty breakfast, featuring not enough coffee, we bid arrivederci to Venice. We have walked our asses off, overcome colds, prayed for rain, and thrilled to the process of exhausting ourselves. This fog could be rain, except the moisture is not falling. Slowly we make our way around the Lagoon on the Alilaguna.

At the airport, we schlep from line to line as the semi-mystical process of embarkation unspools in airport time. Then, we enplane; then, we’re aloft. Eight hours later, we’re in the taxi line at JFK International Arrivals. Joss and I share a cab to the Hooters in Fresh Meadows where I’ll pick up the jitney to Greenport. We hug, knowing we’ll see one another later in the week.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 18th

On the today’s docket is a barge cruise down the Brenta Canal from Padua to Venice. We lug our luggage across the cobblestones, making the universal noise, and board Il Bruchiello at 7:45. Joss takes one look around and observes, “I’m the youngest one on this boat.” In addition to leisurely vistas, we will visit three Palladian villas – Villa Pisani, Villa Widmar, and Villa Foscari, known as La Malcontenta. Actually, Villa Widmar was not designed by Palladio. Villa Pisani is more a palace than a villa. It has over 100 rooms and an enormous ballroom with four chandeliers, a forty-foot ceiling, and convincing trompe l’oeil elements, notably elaborate Rococo woodwork. The obverse is true for Villa Widmar. It’s just a house. Frescoed to a fare-thee-well, of course, but simply a home. Prominently displayed is a very old telephone. Why? Some dispute with A.G. Bell? La Malcontenta, though, is the real Palladian deal. It doesn’t have the majesty of La Rotonda, but its exterior symmetry and the wonderful faded frescoes throughout create a sense of almost painful sophistication. Our guide for the day speaks for eight hours straight, first in Italian, then German, and finally English. Rinse and Repeat.

We have been hoping for rain. This whole trip – NOT ONE DROP. Instead today we have a dense, chill fog. Interesting lunch sidebar – the red wine vinegar on the table is called Aroma Antico, or Old Smell.

Once again, we approach Venice via the Lagoon. This somehow makes the magic of our journey complete. Our final Italian resting place, the Savoie and Jolanda, is a few steps from the drop-off and just across the Riva degli Schiavoni from the Alilaguna Blue Line which will transport us to the airport tomorrow. I inquire at the front desk for a dinner recommendation. I am so through making decisions every five fucking minutes. Her suggestion results in a quiet dinner at Osteria ae Spezia; pasta with cuttlefish for Joss and a chicken cutlet for me. Our final gelato is at La Mela Verde. When we get back to the hotel, rather than go to our rooms, we opt for a stroll along the quay to the Amerigo Vespucci, Italy’s tall ship and very formidable. Its three masts are lit green, white, and red.

Ciao.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 17th

A brilliant day has dawned. We caffeinate and croissanate at a café mere steps away from our front door. We have a 9am spot for our designated quarter hour in the Scrovegni Chapel, but it’s a little hard to find due to my mistrust of the obvious. Enormous care has been taken to preserve and protect these frescoes of Giotto’s; building stabilization, climate control, and the meticulous restoration of the work itself. Joss and I must sit for a preliminary fifteen minutes in a acclimatizing room with thirty other 9am-ers, that’s how strictly controlled the environment is. Then we’re led into the Chapel and for fifteen minutes we are spiritually transported. Not an inch of the interior is without decoration. It is Giotto’s masterwork, an epic rendering of the stories of Jesus and of Mary, as well as Heaven and Hell. This is a world treasure of the first magnitude. I’m an atheist, but this is humbling, exquisite, and human. Storytelling at its most profound.

Padua is a relatively charmless city, certainly compared to the beauties we’ve seen. Though architectural modernity encroaches on the old infrastructure with abandon, Padua has many and various treasures. A walk through the Eremitani Museum, of which the Scrovegni Chapel is part, yields some amusing curiosities, but serves primarily as a way to come down from Giotto. Walk it off. I particularly loved a 14th century angelic bowling league, a golden-winged heavenly host earnestly holding black spheres in their laps. What I wouldn’t give for one of their bowling shirts.

The city’s old piazzas hold daily markets. The fruit and vegetable market in Piazza dei Frutti is gorgeous. The corresponding clothing market carries no navy blue crewneck sweaters that I could see. Padua’s Duomo is big. That is all. Following a quick sandwich of speck, we are up on our feet. “Oh, Joss. This. Let’s go here. Palazzo Bo.” She gives me a ‘Palazzo . . . Bo?’ look.

Palazzo Bo is the heart and soul of the University of Padua, the second oldest in Italy founded in 1222. It was the University’s first permanent building, built on the site of La Taverna Bo (Ox). Doing the math, its 800th anniversary is in five years. A guided tour starts in a half hour. We visit a couple of ‘Great Halls’ that look immensely dignified and very Renaissance, where no one ever took off their robes. Galileo Galilei instructed here and his putative podium is on display. In 1678, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman anywhere to be awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree.

The room I really want to see is the oldest operating theater in the world, constructed in 1594. We are ushered into the pit of it and are allowed a couple uncomfortable glances upward. Still, fantastic. Anatomical lessons only took place in the winter, as a precaution. Dead people may be free from pain, but over time they do get exceedingly ripe. In the next room, we gather round a wooden model that serves as a decent surrogate. Padua’s medical school taught men from all over Europe, including William Harvey of England, who discovered the circulation of the blood. Its law school served the same international student population.

“Where to next, Dad?” “How far is Orto Botanico?” “Spell it.” Twenty minutes later, we’re at the gate of the world’s oldest botanical garden, established in the 16th century by the University for the study of medicinal plants. Centered on a spurty fountain, four large square subdivided plots lie within a circular perimeter, around which stands a grove of specimen trees, including an ancient fucking palm that Goethe kvelled about. The vegetation in the Orto Botanico is definitely past its peak, but the place offers us one more evocative connection to antiquity.

Not far is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio, the elaborate final resting place of St. Anthony of Padua. What makes this church different from all the others we’ve seen is the fact that it’s a center of active faith. People by the thousands come here to pray to ‘The Saint’ for medical miracles. There are creepy relics behind the altar and offertory candles of all sizes, used and unused. Worshipers bow their heads and press their palms against his tomb. On either side are spontaneous collages of photographs of the healed. Joss bridles at the religion stuff, but seeing it in action, seeing people honestly place their trust in the whatever has a bit of a mollifying effect.

Months ago I made a reservation for the two of us at a restaurant, Le Calandre. I want our trip to end with a really great meal and Le Calandre has three Michelin stars. Tasting menus, here we come! The menu (only mine had prices) offers three tasting menu price points or, as our waiter explains, if we wish, a complete eleven-course meal. We opt for the doable seven-course option. It will cost us two hundred and fifty euros apiece. Trepidation soon gives way to the giggles. The food is crazy good and we’re just having so much fun. Three hours later, we call a cab.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 16th

We thought we were headed to Padua but we got distracted and spent the day looking for Petrarch’s mummified cat. There’s a unique geological area southwest of Padua called the Euganean Hills comprised of conical hills of volcanic origin. It was here, in the town of Arquà Petrarca, that the poet Petrarch retired from the world near the end of his life. His home may be the oldest writer’s house museum in the world. The dwelling has had countless visitors since the 14th century and, yes, is reputed to contain the remains of his beloved pet cat.

We find the old poet’s digs only to discover 1) it’s fucking chiuso lunedì and 2) we’re famished. Signs point to a place called L’Enoteca di Arquà and we follow ‘em. We’re offered a table by the railing of the terrace. The day is perfectly balmy. We share the meat and cheese plate and the homemade marinated mushrooms and kill two bottles of sparkling water.

Onward to Padua! Today, we will return our VW, it having served us mightily and well. But first we locate our apt for the next two nights. It’s in the middle of the outskirts of the University of Padua campus which is in the middle of Padua. The rental agent is charming and makes us feel at home. Onward! Effortlessly, I fill the tank with many litres. The Hertz folks are mildly amused to see us. The tension of the ding inspection melts away as we’re given a thumbs up. And we just walk away.

I discover an interesting osteria and make a fucking reservation. Boy, are we glad I did, because it got packed. It’s just a modest place with a two-page menu. We order the medley of Padovan appetizers (yes, we love bacala) and what’s listed simply as ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ but is the best iteration of gluten I’ve ever encountered. Osteria Ai Scarponi – remember the name.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 15th

We are back on line at the Van Gogh exhibition, intent on following the audio guide this time. The real benefit of the guide is that it slows me down and I rest on each selection. Some of the explanations add to the enjoyment, some are just stem-winders, but seeing this a second time adds immeasurably to the thrill of being in Vincent’s company. Some of the paintings are now imprinted, though perhaps temporarily, in my old memory bank.

Palladio’s Teatro Olympico is not far. It is the oldest extant indoor theater in Europe, planned by him and completed after his death. The first performance took place in 1585. The Globe Theater in London was built in 1599. The onstage scenery, designed by another, depicts a full-height Roman-style screen of statuary, columns, and niches of painted wood and stucco, with three open arches that give the appearance of long streets receding into the distance. We sit in the amphitheater of wooden tiers and gape at the stage. I can imagine Medea killing her kids right here.

This is followed by the aimless search for fucking lunch. When your dogs are barking and the breakfast croissant and coffee are but fumes, what better time to try to make a well-considered decision where to sit and have a midday meal. Meandering is hopeless, then I spot a spot that looked attractive yesterday and still does. Osteria Monelli. It’s dimly lit. They miraculously have a table (this is Sunday after-church / brunch hour). The food is slow to arrive, but my gnocchi in squash purée and Joss’ piece of perfect tuna would set the tone for the rest of the day.

But. A stop back at Campo Marzio reveals that housekeeping has staged a fragrance assault on Joss’ room. She demands and gets new bed linen, but the ever-expiring insect on her windowsill remains extant. We rest the puppies.

In the late afternoon, we take the car and drive to Palladio’s most iconic building, Villa Rotonda. This is his most copied, adapted, and historically important work. Basically, it’s a four-story domed cube with pedimented porticos and grand staircases off each of the four sides. The perfect symmetry and luminous golden stone in the slanting sunlight create an ambience of classic serenity. The interior is closed to us, but wandering the grounds is eminently satisfying. An adaptation of Don Giovanni was filmed there in the late ‘70s.

Several hundred meters from La Rotonda lies Villa Valmarana ai Nani. The three buildings that comprise this ‘villa’ were lavishly frescoed in the 17the century by Giandomenico Tiepolo and his son, Giambattista. The motifs range from rustics at play to exotic Asian tableaux to mythological dramas. Hundreds of putti. The Valmarana family still owns the complex as evidenced by the hoard of family snapshots. FYI: the ‘Nani’ are sculpted dwarves. A cockamamie ‘legend’ involving an ugly princess ignorant of her looks recounts the petrifying of her dwarvish retinue. Walking back to the car, I am struck by the autumn colors of the trees and vines, having completely internalized the morning’s Vincent exhibit.

Once again, we take our chances finding a place to eat. I’ve written down a couple choices on a scrap of paper. Our first try nets us a table. Fuori Modena is its name. I can’t remember what our main courses were, but for an appetizer Joss ordered Culatello di Zibello, a thinly-sliced, aged pork of exquisite flavor. It has an apple scent and melts in your mouth. I’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s not available in the US.

It’s such a perfect day. I’m glad I spent it with you.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 14th

Our next destination, Vicenza, is not far from Treviso, but when I explain our itinerary to Anna, our hostess, she tilts her head to the side and coos, “Asolo.” Asolo, that lovely hillside town situated among the cypresses. There’s no easy way to get there, of course. And once we’ve negotiated the formidable incline, we are forced to confront the dreaded traffico limitata quandary. After a couple painful forays into the outer limits of the town, we settle into perpetual circumnavigation of the closest parking lot. It takes twenty minutes, but we get lucky.

Huffing (me) and striding (Joss) up the narrow cobblestone streets or sticking to the relative safety and anonymity of the arcades, many charms are discovered, including the last house the Eleanora Duse lived in. Duse was Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry’s only competition. Her final resting place can also be found somewhere in Asolo, but not by us. We retreat to the main piazza in hopes of turning lunch from a theory into a practice. We score a table outdoors on the piazza and order a Caprese salad and two ‘toasts’, a grilled ham-and-cheese of sorts. Slim Italian men in navy crewneck sweaters are everywhere. So are spandex-clad, long-in-the-tooth cyclists, a very bro-ish crew high on accomplishment.

It’s a long and circuitous route to Vicenza from Asolo, because, in GPSia, there is no simple, matter-of-fact ‘Point A to Point B’. We wend our way in the city center, park, and walk, but there’s no need. Hotel Campo Marzio has parking. With the VW shuffle accomplished, we accommodate to our snug accommodations. Both our rooms are dorm-size, with just a single bed. And a bidet, always with the bidet. Yeah, the thumping beat of spin class music that penetrates the double-glazed window from God Knows Where.

A flier in the lobby promotes a Van Gogh exhibition at the Basilica Palladiana. We’ve got time this afternoon. The Kröller-Müller Museum contains the second largest collection of Vincent in Holland and has contributed 40 some odd paintings and 80 drawings. Eschewing the audio guide, the work still dazzles. These paintings cover his career and I’ve never seen any of them, not even in books. Immediately upon exiting, we commit to going first thing tomorrow, but with the audio thingie.

Vicenza harbors quite a bit of Andrea Palladio’s work, his classic civic projects, like the Basilica Palladiana and the Teatro Olympico, as well as his most iconic domestic work – La Rotonda. The Basilica Palladiana fills one side of the Piazza dei Signori. Its great bronze roof is supported and surrounded by a dramatically compelling double loggia, a two-story arcade of marble arches and brick vaulting. After Vincent, Joss and I perambulate the loggia, an ideal place to decompress. We stop to watch a fire eater below work an amiable crowd.

We order two splendid pizzas, but don’t finish ‘em.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 13th

At ten o’clock we bid Belluno arrivederci. Earlier, a preemptive scan of Google Maps revealed nearby villages that no roads lead to named Mel, Gus, Gena, and Barp. “I went to Barp and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” Today our aim will be true. Next stop – Treviso. We’re going down, down onto the Veneto plain from whence we came. After many spookily endless tunnels, the VW arcs over a trestle that spools out in front of us for miles while it threads back and forth across the valley floor.

Semi-impulsively, I pull off the highway to stop in the small town of Vittorio Veneto. Some sources say Zeffirelli shot scenes from Romeo and Juliet in its streets and piazzas. I can’t confirm this, but there are some striking spaces and buildings. After strolling as the day warms up, we sit down for a double espresso. The couple sitting in front of us is cinematically elegant. She smokes; he slouches. He is wearing the navy blue crewneck sweater and collared shirt that seems, with only slight variations, to be the uniform of a certain large subset of Italian men. And shades. She appears to be created out of the smoke of her own cigarettes.

We don’t linger. Treviso calls. Again, caution concerning our nemesis, zona di traffico limitata, has us plop the car in a lot and search for our new lodgings on foot. We ring the bell and a bell-like voice answers. I identify myself as a guest. Silence. Bummer. We turn back the way we came. We are startled when a small man in a green brocade tunic stops us. “Come with me,” he says and leads us back. Our lodgings are a palazzo that has been designed with understated, over-the-top, Italian style. The only flaw is the heavy scent of too many lilies. Our hostess, Anna, undertakes to help us move our car from the lot to the back of the palazzo.

Treviso is enchanting, with streams cutting channels through the renaissance city. These waterways are fast-moving and shallow, used to power mills, not for transportation, like Venice. The city fish market is under a arched metal shed on an island called Il Mulini. The current on either side washes the fish slop away after the market shuts down. At least four waterwheels turn, now just for the pure romance of it. Treviso can be compared to Venice, but unfairly. Far smaller in size and ambition, it has charmed me completely.

I can’t help but notice signs of an ongoing literary conference called CartaCarbone, Carbon Paper. It appears to be four years old and exclusively Italian. Joss and I unsuccessfully visit the Duomo. This shortcoming becomes the basis for a riff on the potential for a Homo Duomo. The permutations are endless. We sit on a stone bench in the main piazza as the twilight gathers, eating the last the crumbs of our Cortina cookies and people-watching. Then we search for the restaurant where Anna has reserved a table for us. It is a sophisticated place, but a couple is feeding their puppy under the table and at another table another couple is negotiating with their toddler while their young daughter plays with a noisy Speak-and-Spell device.

We sleep under canopies.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 12th

Dawn cracks at the Heidi House. I pad about downcast, bereft of coffee. There’s frost on the grass outside. The dark mountains surrounding Cortina give way to pink, developing texture and depth due to the shallow, focused sunlight that breaks on the rugged rocks. Back in the car we drop the keys off, caffeinate at Alverà, and begin a search to find the base for the Freccia nei Cielo (The Arrow to the Sky), the cable car that could take us 10,000 feet up. Up and down, up and down the mountain we drive haplessly. Joss’ directional skills are not working.

Let’s just stop, stop and fill the goddamn gas tank, why don’t we? Something practical, something we can accomplish. How do you fucking open the fuel cover on this VW? I dunno. There’s no sign of a release mechanism anywhere. The cover doesn’t pop open in response to pressure. The VW’s manual is in Italian. Joss’ translator app on her phone makes hilarious hash of it. The tension breaks. We laugh helplessly.

Fig. 160 FLAPS OF THE TANK OF THE FUEL

OPEN AND WITH THE CAP

BEFORE OF MAKE THE SUPPLY OF FUEL,

SWITCH OFF ALWAYS THE ENGINE, THE

PICTURE TOOLS AND THE PHONE MOBILE

AND LEAVE OFF WHILE YES ef- SLICE THE

SUPPLY.

THE INFORMATION ON QUANTITIES OF

SUPPLY ARE REPORTED TO CHAPTER TO.

Pag. 318, data techno-

OPENING OF THE TANK

IT FLAPS OF THE TANK OF THE FUEL YES

tro- K GOES IN THE PART REAR RIGHT OF

THE VEHICLE or pag. 37.

Our predicament must seem pretty abject for the previously occupied attendant comes over and makes the universal sign for ‘Turn on the fucking ignition’. Voila! With the touch of a finger, the fuel cover peeks open. Filling half a tank costs 45 euros.

It’s all downhill now, Autostrada most of the way. We take no chances with ‘restricted traffic’, so upon entering Belluno, leave the car at the train station and hoof it to the hotel, The Albergo delle Alpi. The man behind the front desk offers us parking off an alley in the rear. Soon, we’re situated. Joss got the corner room with a panorama of the mountains; I got a wall.

After ninety minutes downtime, we reconnoiter Belluno, mostly for delayed lunch. Burgers! Then we walk the town. The view of the hazy river valley from Porto Rugo, the original gate of the city, is dreamy. Back at the hotel, we engage the woman at the front desk, our first conversation with someone other than ourselves, who gives us a great dinner tip. La Buca. Italians serve up skirt steak, calling it ‘tagliata di manzo’, and it has been invariably delicious. Tonight is no exception.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 11th

Evidently, there IS a route called The Great Dolomite Road, but all the roads through the Dolomites are great. I have never seen the likes of these mountains or these forests, for that matter. The peaks have incredible personality and the forests are infused with light, not like, say, the Maine Woods which can be a dark, forbidding wall. The road zigzags by way of endless switchbacks through the green and gold forest which will break suddenly to reveal soaring limestone crags. The road is well-engineered; there’s a rhythm to the twists and turns, which mitigates the sensation of imminent peril. Then we make a turn like any other and behold open meadows folding over each other and a chalet perched where no dwelling should possibly be.

I’ve been trying to follow the directions the helpful women at the Hotel Grief’s front desk gave us along with Joss’ best, yet, to the best of my understanding, we’re headed in the general direction of Cortina. A most beautiful lake had been mentioned but I don’t remember the name and proceed with little hope of actually finding it. I need a pit stop and we pull off at what I take to be a rest area. The restrooms are down a bunker-style concrete tunnel. Surprise. At the end of the tunnel is Lake Carezza, a crystalline, blue-green pool that mirrors jagged peaks and clouds. I’ve only seen these colors in the mineral springs of Yellowstone, but this one is not thermal. I have the photo.

Switchbacks become second nature. Joss relaxes. We sail along on awe, each vista more enthralling than the one before. The descent into Cortina reactivates the agita, perhaps because civilization now begins to accumulate. Everywhere evidence of the epic winter season. Cortina d’Ampezza – host of the 1956 Winter Olympics. Ski lifts to nowhere and vast empty parking lots. And, yes, in Cortina, our nemesis – the ‘restricted traffic’ zone.

We find only confusion when attempting to contact our rental agent. I can never remember to bring my fucking passport along when we book into our lodgings. This results in a blip or two of self-loathing and its aftermath, the dreary schlep back to the car to get it. Speaking of dreary, recounting in full this rondelay of pathos would no doubt stall any interest anyone might have in this travelogue. Then, the keys are ours.

Our glycemics have taken a potentially disastrous dip into ‘hypo’, so almost automatically we step into the nearest pasticceria. It’s called Panificio Alverà and it is the gluten equivalent of the Dolomites. We gobble one croissant with prosciutto e lattuga e pomodoro and another, then submit to strudel and espresso. On our way out, I buy pastries for the morning and a half kilo of assorted cookies for the road.

We have rented Heidi’s House, though without Grandfather or the lass herself.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 10th

It’s a straight shot from Sirmione to Bolzano on the Autostrada, from the Veneto plain to the mountains of the South Tirol. As we enter Bolzano, Joss does not want to navigate us through another ‘restricted traffic’ zone, however our destination, Hotel Greif, known to us as Hotel Grief, is on the periphery of same. Nevertheless, I pull up in front of the hotel, drop the bags and Joss in the one room that’s ready, and maneuver the VW into Hotel Grief’s nearby parking. The hotel is a stylish modern concoction within a typical Mitteleurope building. We’re hungry and under-caffeinated, so lunch at the café in the alpine sun of Walther Square.

German speakers make up a high percentage of Bolzano’s residents, because the South Tirol has been a contested area for centuries – Austria-Hungary vs. Italy. The architecture is very different from the Veneto. I’d say, “Switzerland”, if I knew what I was talking about.

We’re in Bolzano for two reasons – 1) It’s the gateway to the Dolomites and 2) Otzi, the Iceman, sleeps the long sleep here. Yes, the Iceman, murdered on a mountaintop some 5,500 years ago. The frozen dude they found in 1991 with all his belongings intact. He lies in a custom-built freezer in the South Tirol Museum of Archeology. There are two back-up freezers.

When we arrive, there’s a discouraging line, but it moves. Plugged into the audio guide, we follow Otzi’s story; from the accidental discovery by a pair of hikers to the dispute over the international boundary between Italy and Austria (Italy prevailed, but Austria performed a decade’s-worth of tests before the Iceman was returned to the redesigned Museum in Bolzano) to the continuing reevaluation of the Iceman’s condition. A thorough analysis of everything about the gentleman – his clothes, his weapons, his tattoos, his stomach contents – was performed by the Austrians. And then we step up for a glimpse of him through a window in his special freezer. Macabre and wonderful. At the end of the exhibit a full reconstruction of Otzi standing looking warily over his shoulder is terribly convincing. Pretty fucking unbelievable.

The full comprehension of Otzi and his predicament helps us work up an appetite. We opt for schnitzel at FranzenkanerStuben. We have a drive ahead of us tomorrow.