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Trip Report: Venice, Bologna, Ravenna and Lake Como

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This is the Italian portion of the trip. General issues regarding car leasing and travel were dealt with in my Trip Report: Austria but mainly Vienna. From Austria we went directly to Venice, trying to avoid the autostrada. That was a mistake. Once you leave the Alps, that section of Italy is heavily industrialized (mostly light industry) and there is no joy or interest in fighting truck traffic in the flat land. Even if like me you avoid super highways, this is one area where they should be used. I had printed out directions to the Mestre railroad station, but unfortunately nothing on the autostrada (you have to get on it for the last section anyway just for your sanity) corresponded to the printed directions. After a lot of false turns, we finally came to the train station, found a parking structure about 100 yards from it where we left the car for a cost of 4 euros per day. We walked to the train station and took the train to Venice. From the Venice train station we walked to our B&B which was on the Campo San Polo. The price was right (71 euros a night) and the location was good, and we did not have to give a deposit. But I would not recommend this B&B in the summer because the room gave unto a fairly small light shaft, hence no cross-ventilation, and had no air-conditioning. Worse was that we had two beds "qui se gondolent" as the Edith Piaf song goes, but however appropriate the expression may be since we were in Venice, this is not a desirable condition.

We had not been in Venice since 1967 and wondered if we would be disappointed, what with memory playing tricks and the increase in tourism. We were not. The town is a wonderful walking town, with good food and museums. Talk of the secret tour of the Doges Palace on this forum led us to it. We got there, bought the tickets, and were on the tour in ten minutes. It is very interesting, very much worth the time and the expense. We spent at least 4 hours in the Doges' Palace between that tour and the general viewing that is available afterwards. I was surprised that I found only one chapel in the palace, which was down in the prison. It is difficult to believe that the Doge went next door to St. Marks for every religious service. St. Mark's must of course be seen. We did not make reservations, and I must admit that I do not understand how one makes a reservation for a building generally open to the public. The line moved quite quickly and we had left our bags at the free bag check as recommended. The cathedral is impressive, but from the ground floor we were more taken by the floor tile patterns and mosaics than by the ceiling mosaics. Some of the patterns are like quilts. I strongly urge a visit to the museum because it gives the visitor a close up view of the famous horses, both the originals as well as the copies, a close up view of some mosaic fragments and a close up view of at least part of the ceiling tiles. It also give a wonderful view of the square.

We did a lot of walking around, went to Murano which we found to be pleasant in its low key way (we were there in late May and the crowds were absent). The outdoor market close to the Rialto is worth a visit. We visited the Accademia and the Ca' d'Oro. We had hoped for a tour of the Jewish Quarter but got there too late. Fodor's claims that the Guggenheim is open until 8 on Saturdays but that is false. It closes at 6. Other persons arrived at 6 as we did and found the museum closed. I suspect that someone working for the Fodor's guide confused the Italian for 18h for 8 p.m. American. Because Venice is essentially a walking town we used the vaporetto only one day, buying a one day ticket, and planned accordingly (Murano, and S. Giorgio Maggiore for a view of San Marco).

Eating: We ate well but it was not cheap. If set menus are offered in Italian restaurants, I failed to see them; everything is à la carte. I recommend Alle Testiere for an inventive adaptation of bistro cooking. No menu, the owner tells you what is available (he is fluent in English and French). It is not cheap, but excellent and interesting--my wife bought a bag of chestnut flour because of its chestnut flour dessert (she wants to reproduce it). Price of meal for two with wine: 114.50 euros $141.62. We also ate at Al Mascaron for about the same price. The food was not as inventive, but it was an ample meal of traditional Venetian fish and seafood (just order the fish first course and the fish grill--my wife claims that it was fried--main course). Less interesting and somewhat disappointing was Ristorante ai Gondoliere: 139 euros $171.58 + a 20 euro tip. It was the only restaurant that indicated that tips were not included, and when I did not add a tip to the credit card, the staff was a little frosty as we prepared to leave until they noticed the 20 euro note on the table, and suddenly they were gracious and amiable. The food was very good, but nothing very special. The setting is much more elegant than the other two restaurants mentioned, with more room between tables, more attentive service, fancier table settings, etc. It was the only restaurant where smoking was allowed, presumably because they had a proper ventilation system. Even the local trattorias seemed to have a no smoking rule, often represented by sign with a picture of a cigarette tied in a knot. The one where we had lunch ( 38 euros - expensive for what it was) had the locals snacking and drinking at the bar in front and stepping outside if they wanted to smoke. We did have one low priced meal; a picnic in an under-developed park on the north side of Murano, but it had a few picnic tables. We were there at the wrong time, otherwise we would have taken a sandwich and a glass of wine at the small stands near the fish market.
We used the autostrada to go from Venice to Bologna because we were meeting some relatives who came in for the day from Tuscany. They were unfamiliar with Bologna and di not have the idea of looking for the address of our B&B on the internet, which meant that it took half the afternoon to hook up. We were on the southern edge of the old town, they parked on the northern edge. Driving in the old town is impossible because of blocked streets and one way streets. I picked the B&B Miramonte because it was said to be within walking distance of the main square--the information was correct--but close enough to the peripheral boulevards that we could get there by car without too much trouble--famous last words. We never were able to drive to the front of it, but close enough that we got our luggage there without too much trouble. Parking was not a problem because the blue zone is not in effect on Sundays. I subsequently found a non-pay parking spot about 20 minutes walk from the B&B, but the owner was so adamant about the possibility of being hauled away by the police that I gave in a used a paid parking that was close by. The B&B Miramonte was very nice and recently renovated, the owner speaks English, and the location is good, but I don't think that it had air-conditioning, which could be a problem in the summer. The cost was 70 euros a night, the bed was very comfortable, the bathroom was large, but you had to leave a deposit sent either via the bank or by mail--in other words, no credit cards.
While we used Bologna as a base because it is a fairly large city, we did not intend to spend all our time there. We drove to Ravenna to see the mosaics, stopped on the way in Faenza to visit a very large ceramics museum. I recommend both very highly, although if one has to choose, Ravenna is the first choice without any question. This was one of the few times I found and bought slides--a packet of 36--of which I will keep only a few. It turns out that the pictures I was not supposed to take sometimes represented what we saw better than the professional slides. Anyone interested in having the unwanted slides should reply to this post and give an e-mail address. Once I have culled out what I want, I'll give the rest for the price of the postage needed to send them. Another outing from Bologna was a drive along the dikes of the lower Po valley to Ferrara. The cathedral is nice, and the town clearly was a day's destination for the Italians, but we were not overly impressed by it. The palazzi are grand buildings along wide avenues; I prefer the Bologna palazzi and their protective arcades within the confines of the old twisted streets.
Bologna itself is a nice town. The remaining towers are impressive and the climb a nice exercise. From the top one gets a clear view of Bologna's geographical location: on flat land, but abutting the hills that are the beginning of the Tuscan landscape. Its municipal museum is interesting and the Basilica di San Petronio is immense. In it there is a perpetual solar calendar embedded in the floor. I understand its principle, but would like someone explain to me how the sun's rays can shine on the line when the hole in the ceiling is on the northeastern side (construction did not allow us to see the entire calendar, particularly the relevant time period--May-June). As for the other churches, we found the Basilica di San Stefano the most interesting because it is 7 different churches from different periods within one complex. But Bologna is a walking city, with its arcade giving the pedestrian protection from sun and rain, and probably waste waters before proper sewage systems were installed. Some of the arcades are surprisingly tall, and for a while I thought that they were 19th century grandiose imitation of Renaissance architecture, but it turns out that they are for the most part original to the period. I found the via Castiglione particularly attractive in this respect.
Eating: for lunches we generally picnicked on a square. Our first dinner was on a Sunday, when better restaurants seem to be closed. We stumbled unto the Trattoria Tony (I believe that it is between the train station and the city center) and had the traditional brodo and subsequent boiled meats (42.70 euros or $52.71). I liked it, my wife was less enchanted. The boiled meat is served plain, but with a relish that had neither mustard nor horseradish in it, but provided the piquant that the meat lacked. For dessert, my wife had fresh strawberries with balsamic vinegar that flowed like a thick syrup--we found the same vinegar in an enoteca and bought back two bottles to the States. We also ate at the Ristorante da Carlo (72 euros or $89.41), and were not impressed. More interesting was Ristorante da Cesari (78.50 euros or $97.20), both in terms of menu and the wines which come form the owner's vineyards. (A large aside: The restaurant with the owner vineyard is not near San Stefano, unless there are two restaurants like that. I am questioning Ira's memory of the restaurant's location). A fun place, with no pretensions, was a trattoria recommended by our B&B host. I do not recall the name but I bleieve that it was on the via Solferino within 50 yards of its intersection with the via Miramonte. It was definitely cheap, more like a student place but with overwhelming smoke.
Our Italian driving was generally not scenic. We took the autostrada as far as we could from Bologna to Bellagio, did not trust the mappy directions and therefore found ourselves going around Milano, losing quite a bit of time. We wanted to get to Bellagio fairly quickly so that we could tour the gardens of the Villa Melzi. They are very nice, with beautiful vistas over the lake, but not overwhelming (I recall the garden of Apremont sur Allier as more impressive, and most definitely Vasterival in Normandy). We stayed at Il Perlo Panorama above Bellagio, and I highly recommend the place. Ours was not a room fronting the peninsula but still gave us a view of the lake. It had a little balcony with two chairs and a tiny table, but the better view was on the veranda in front of the hotel. Drinks are reasonable (2 euros for a glass of white wine) and we sat there inhaling the scenery. Cost for one night: 85 euros, including a buffet breakfast. Our evening meal was at Silvio. We ordered from every course and were not disappointed. The pasta came with a fish egg sauce that was a little too strong, but the waiter had warned us and we decided that we had to try it anyway. All the fish dishes are based on fish caught in the lake and delivered directly to them. There are essentially two kinds of fish: a type of trout and a type of sardine or smelt. When it came to pay, they told us that the credit card machine was broken and that we had to pay cash. Fortunately I happen to have it on me; around 110 euros if I remember correctly. The next day we left for Switzerland, stopping by to see the gardens of the Villa Carlotta. They are much more impressive than the previous day's, and would have been even more had we been there earlier in the spring. The terraced gardens are lined with azaleas and rhododendrons as hedges and must be absolutely spectacular when in bloom. Not to be missed in the right season.
This is the end of our Italian trip. We went to Lucerne without using the super highway, over the top of the St. Gotthard instead of taking the tunnel, which makes it a very long drive but very scenic. The problem is that Switzerland, unlike France and Italy, does not give good directions to alternatives, and when we left Lucerne for France, we actually had to use a short stretch of the superhighway because the other road had simply disappeared.
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