Venice (Week 13)

Venice I
Gondolas everywhere

Of course there are too many people in Venice. On the Ponte Rialto, visitors from India cross selfie sticks with the Chinese as if they are swords and pickpockets must have lobbyists working city hall to get a spot in the area because it just seems such a safe bet that in that line of work you can earn a very healthy living here. But even in season, it only takes a few turns and you are in a neighborhood of quiet streets and alleys, lined with pastel-colored houses hundreds of years old, an occasional view of a narrow canal opening up as you venture further into the medieval maze. Venice is always, always, worth your time. This week’s visit was very short, I knew the cruise ship I was on would leave with or without me.

Santa Maria Formosa
Santa Maria Formosa

I practically ran from the Piazza di Roma to my first destination: a cheese shop I had found online right across a canal from the Santa Maria Formosa, a church with a  split personality: it has a well-proportioned baroque facade on the north side, but on the side facing the canal and the cheese shop, it looks like a Renaissance church. There is a generation between the two facades. The tower is the best part of the complex: it has some very robust, simple patterns that segment the structure and give it a certain visual rhythm. They did towers quite well in Venice, centuries ago.

Prosciutto e Parmigiano’s website is in two languages and raises the specter of a slick experience, but I was pleasantly surprised: the owner spoke some English, but body parts other than our mouths had to be deployed frequently to ensure that I got what I thought I wanted: some buffalo mozzarella di campagna (try it and you’ll immediately understand why these globs of cheese candy usually are finished off in a single seating); a piece of straw-coated Tuscan Pecorino, and a thick slice of Asiago, the sharpest Provolone Stagionato I have ever tasted, and a piece of Vezzena di Lavarone.

Casa del Parmigiano Venice
Giuliano Aliani at work in his store

With my singular mission (get the cheese) accomplished, I began my quest back to the Piazza di Roma across the Rialto Bridge through the maze of water and stone. And that’s when Venice kept its promise: in the Campo Cesare Battisti già della Bella Vienna (really, you still ask what is in a name?) I stumbled across the Casa del Parmigiano, Giuliano Aliani’s cheese shop, and – but of course – I got even more cheese. A piece of bright yellow Piacentinu Ennese, given its unusual color by adding some saffron to the cheese (it also has peppercorns); the Pannerone Lodigiano that became the cheese of the week, and the Montasio Friulano.

Scuola Grande
Venice – a surprise in every street. The Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista

And a little closer to my destination I came past the beautiful courtyard of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, the building of a religious organization which used to house a piece of the true cross of Jesus. Of course, so many of those pieces existed that the cross poor Jesus carried up Golgotha hill must have been absolutely humongous. The initial inhabitants were so-called flagellants, people that would viciously whip their own backs in a gesture of penance during certain celebrations. Right after this place was founded the city, wisely, outlawed this gruesome practice: who wants blood spraying through the streets? The courtyard has a beautiful Renaissance gateway, dreamed up by architect Pietro Lombardo near the end of the 15th century. After some time looking around I returned to the ship, picking up some rolls and pan pistacchio on the way. With more than half a dozen cheeses in my bag, I was destined for a cheese-arama…

Pan Pistacchio
Venetian Pastries

Porto (Week 24)

We all know someone in our circle of friends and acquaintances who is like this: you come to visit and one of the first things they’ll say is: “Oh, never mind all the stuff lying around, I meant to tidy up, but…” And you pick up a stack of magazines to sit down on the couch. And never once does this entry give you a sense that you are not welcome, on the contrary: you are welcomed into someone’s home and there is no pretense, no tension, no attempt to keep up appearances. Porto is like that. It is rough around the edges, it has some buildings that are starting to fall apart, and some that are much further along on their inevitable way to oblivion. There are also corners with new life, new vitality and high hopes. Most of all, it is a city that feels lived in. Who has time to clean up every last little bit of the house when you need that time to live? Cascading down from its hills to the banks of the Douro River, the streets of Porto are not for the fainthearted and here and there they turn into stairs. One of the hills is crowned by the cathedral, the Sé, another by the Torre dos Clérigos, at 249 feet the tallest church tower in Portugal. It was designed by Niccoló Nasoni, along with the church attached to it. Nasoni, an Italian who spend the better part of his life in Portugal, was directly or indirectly responsible for much of baroque Porto. A third hill is home to city hall, the Câmara Municipal.

Igreja de Santo Idelfonso
Igreja de Santo Idelfonso

And then, there are churches everywhere, many of them clad in the typical tiles, the azulejos, which sometimes just cover walls in simple patterns, and in other places combine to create huge panels telling epic stories. Many ordinary houses are clad in the former, the best examples of the latter may be Porto’s main train station, the Estação de São Bento and the igrejas (churches) do Carmo and de Santo Idelfonso.

Livrario Lello
Livraria Lello

Porto has a world-famous bookstore which, like Tom Cruise, is much smaller in real life than in the pictures. Livraria Lello routinely ranks as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world and it gets so many visitors that they have started to charge an entrance fee: 3 euros, good as a credit towards any purchase you make. One can frown on this of course, but shouldn’t a long line to get into a bookstore be reason for rejoicing? Though it wasn’t as big as I imagined, it is still a pretty cool bookstore, even if I think Dominicanen in Maastricht has the edge. You can be the judge, see below.

Dominicanen Bookstore in Maastricht, the Netherlands

I stayed in a beautiful little hotel in town, Porto A.S. 1829. It is located in a building that for 5 generations was home to a family owned shop for stationary, pens and paper of all kinds. The hotel still has a gift shop with a very strong focus on just such items, and on my floor, there was a display in the hallway showcasing two old typewriters. The room itself was small and it still reminded me of an old office. I had a view of the Sé and the streets below – unbeatable.

Pasteis, pasteis, pasteis….

I spent my time making miles to get to know the city, which takes a bit of stamina, but it otherwise unproblematic, at there are myriad little restaurants, cafes and shops that provide all kinds of sustenance.

Sao Francisco Porto II
Igreja de Sao Francisco

An almost bizarre highlight in Porto is the Igreja de São Francisco, on the edge of Ribeira, the quarter along the river with the narrow streets, the laundry hanging from the windows and the plethora of restaurants that served grilled fish. I am not sure St. Francis, who was a simple man by all accounts, and who stayed away from luxury, would approve. The interior is largely carved wood that has been covered in gold – some sources claim total of 1000 lbs, although that sounds too round of a figure to be true. What is true is that as you walk into the church, it is almost overwhelming and perhaps even a little obscene. But hey, I am a big fan of churches and this one easily makes my top ten. I get it, hundreds of people could have been clothed and fed with the money had they simply painted the wood, and it does on occasion give me pause. But honestly – look at all that GOLD !

Porto Houses
Porto Houses covered with Azulejos

It would be easy to fill another two posts with the things one can see with the assistance of some serious leg power and good shoes, but I will not try to be exhaustive, even if I ended up exhausted. Porto is something you need to experience. Just go there. And don’t miss the gold.