Italian Lakes and Venice: Trip Report

Jun 3rd, 2005, 07:25 PM
  #1  
Biz
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Join Date: Apr 2003
Posts: 78
Italian Lakes and Venice: Trip Report

My wife and I just returned from a delightful ten-day trip to Northern Italy. We flew U.S. Air from Philadelphia direct to Venice, departing on Thursday 5/12/05 and arriving the following Friday morning. The flight was relatively pleasant and uneventful. After collecting our bags, we took the “allalaguna” water bus across the lagoon to San Marco, stopping at Murano and the Lido along the way. We left our bags at the hotel Danelli and went out for awhile while they got the room ready. We had brunch at a cafe on the Campo S. Maria Formosa. It was a brilliantly sunny day and it was very relaxing to sit at the cafe and to unwind from our travels. Upon return to the hotel, we were given room 304. This was a nice room with a view of the Grand Canal, but it was a bit noisy and was in the newer building. We later requested a room in the historic part of the hotel and we were moved on Monday.

We took a nap for a bit and then I headed out and walked through St. Mark’s Square, Campo S. Stefano and across the Accademia Bridge into the Desudorio section of Venice. I wandered around the south side of Venice for awhile and crossed over the Rialto, returning to the vicinity of our hotel. Since my blackberry was working, I e-mailed my wife, who had remained at the hotel, and asked her if she needed any provisions. I stocked up on fruit and water and returned to the hotel. After a bit, we headed out to dinner at Bistrot de Venise, a place a bit north of St. Mark’s Square that serves dishes based on “historic” recipes.

On Saturday, we headed to the eastern end of Venice, which is a bit less touristy that the rest of the city. We saw dozens of turtles frolicking in a fountain and walked through some very pleasant parks. We had lunch in the St. Elena district, at a cafe which appeared to be geared towards servicing locals. I ate some wonderful gnocchi. We headed back to the hotel and took a nap, as it had started to rain. After a bit, we woke up to meet our friend David, who was arriving from the airport. After David checked in a got situated, the rain abated and we headed out to find dinner at a place which David had heard about which is situated a bit to the southwest of the Accedemia. Although we had to wait for awhile, we had a very nice dinner at this informal trattoria.

On Sunday, we woke up to find a regatta consisting of hundreds of boats waiting to start right out in front of our window. At 9:00 am the gun sounded and a multitude of festive boats, from one-person kayacks, to mini-galleys with dozens of oarsmen, began to splash around the lagoon. We walked over to the Ghetto and encountered the regatta boats several times along the way. We had lunch at an outdoor cafe in the main Ghetto campo, where I ate some wonderful pesto lasagne. We saw the exterior of some of the historic Ghetto synagogues, but evidently one has to reserve a tour in advance to see the inside.

After a bit more wandering around the Cannaregio area, we took a vaporetto down the length of the Grand Canal and the across the lagoon to the Lido. After walking on the beach and dipping our toes in the Adriatic Sea, we visited the Hotel Excelsior and enjoyed some Camparis on the terrace overlooking the water. We took the free Starwood water taxi back to the Danelli. After relaxing at the hotel for a bit, we asked the concierge to recommend a restaurant for us. We dined at the “old Galleon” on Garibaldi Square, near the turtle fountain. This place had a lot of character but our attempts at ordering were brushed aside by the waiter who supposedly knew what we would like. I think he was only partly successful but it was an enjoyable dinner nonetheless.

Monday morning started with the big move to room 70, in the historic part of the Danelli. The room was a bit smaller but it was better decorated and had a better view, with less noise form the street. We headed over to the Doge’s palace for the “Secret Itinerary” tour which showed us the behind-the scenes workings of the old Venetian government, including the torture chamber and the cells where Casanova was imprisoned. After a surprisingly tasty lunch at the museum cafe, we took the regular audio guided tour of the public rooms of the palace. I had done this previously, but the spectacularly epic paintings and monumental ceiling frescos are worthy of viewing again and again. There is so much incredible art in this palace that there is a Titian tucked away in a back stairway where virtually no one would see it.

In the evening we took in a Mozart/Vivaldi chamber music performance near San Marco. As this was immediately after dinner, we all dozed for a bit at the start but then perked up when a soprano sang a few arias. After that we wandered around for a bit before settling into a table at Florian’s cafe on St. Mark’s Square. A glass of Poli grappa was 13 Euros, but it was well worth the price to enjoy the magical atmosphere. Florian’s was one of four cafes with live outdoor music, but it seemed to be losing out to the Cafe Quadi across the square, which was drawing a big enthusiastic crowd by playing such traditional Venetian music as “New York, New York.”

On Tuesday morning, we started out by taking the elevator to the top of the campanelli bell tower on St. Mark’s square and were rewarded with fantastic views on this crystal clear day. After that, we scampered through St. Mark’s cathedral, which I had seen before, but which was a first time for David. We explored Starwood’s Europa and Regina Hotel and decided that this might make a better base for our next trip to Venice. Next, we took a tragetto across the Grand Canal to the Accademia. We had to wait on line for a bit as only 300 visitors are allowed inside this fairly large museum at one time. The Accademia was packed with famous Bellinis, Titians, Tintorettos, Veroneses, and so forth. My favorite painting was the “Tempest” by Mantegna. It was interesting to see the development of Bellini, who started as an apprentice working on very gothic icons but matured into high renaissance glory in his later work, essentially evolving through about 300 years of art history in a single lifetime.

After a bit more wandering around on the south side of Venice, it was time to continue contemplating the genius of Bellini by drinking a few Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. I had visited Harry’s previously when I came to Venice with Pete in 2003 and we enjoyed the spectacle of hordes of American tourists being turned away because they were wearing shorts. Harry’s only admits patrons wearing long pants, regardless of the temperature. Unfortunately, it was not quite warm enough for shorts on this day, so we were denied the spectacle of the shorts, but the Bellinis were tasty nonetheless. That night, we had a wonderful dinner at Osteria del Fiore, one of Venice’s finest restaurants.

The next morning, David departed and I did a wrap up of some sites in the northern part of Venice that I had not seen previously. Most interesting was the Scuola Schiavoni, which was a religious fraternity of slavic merchants. The ancient building was decorated with wonderful frescoes. After returning to the hotel and packing up, we checked out and took a water taxi to the Avis car rental office. In just a few minutes we had a nice Renault and we were crossing the causeway to the mainland. A few minutes after that, we were on the autostrada, zipping along at 130 km/hr towards Lake Maggiore. The trip to Maggiore took less than three hours and was very easy. The only difficult part was not looking at the beauty of the lake for more than a half second at a time while negotiating hairpin turns down to the lakeshore. We checked in to the very nice Villa Aminta, which is a couple of miles north of Stresa. Our room had a balcony with a nice view of the Borromean Islands. The only drawback to this hotel is that it is a bit isolated.

On Thursday morning we took a water taxi to the Isola Pescatore and had a lovely breakfast at the Verbano Hotel at the southern tip of the island with a view of Isola Bella. We agreed that if we ever returned to this area, we would stay at this hotel. Next, we took a water taxi to Isola Bella, which is almost entirely taken up with the Palace and gardens of the Borromeo family. I am not usually a fan of audio tours, but this one was very entertaining and was narrated by an actor playing Carlo Borromeo, the 16th Century aristocrat who began construction on the majestic palace, which was not completed until the 1950s. Although the palace is very impressive, it is the gardens that are truly unique. The gardens are situated on several terraces and are inhabited by numerous white peacocks.

After we wandered through the gardens, we hopped back on the water taxi, returned to the mainland and then drove about one hour north to Switzerland. We visited Ascona, a charming town on the northern tip of the lake. We had lunch at a lakeside cafe and then rented a paddleboat to work off the calories. It was almost 80 degrees at the lakeshore, but snow-capped mountains ringed the town in the distance. Next we drove a few minutes to the larger town of Locarno, where we explored the historic sites and took a funicular ride to the top of a hill which afforded great views of the surrounding area. After a bit more sightseeing, we headed back to the Villa Aminta for the night.

We departed from Lake Maggiore on Friday morning and drove to Varenna on the eastern shore of Lake Como in about two hours. We checked into the Villa Cipressi, which provided us with a very spacious room with a loft and a great view of the lake. The only downside was that the room was decorated with 1970s-era IKEA-type furniture, which somewhat detracted from the otherwise elegant surroundings. The Villa has terraced gardens which descend to the lakeshore. We explored the very charming small town of Varenna and ate lunch at a lakeside cafe. It was a good thing that Varenna had ample charm, because a one-day ferry strike essentially trapped us there. We had a delicious dinner at the very good lakeshore restaurant “Vecchia Varenna.”

The next morning the ferries were running again so we crossed Lake Como to Bellagio, which sits on the crux of the inverted “Y” of Lake Como. Bellagio was very charming, but is perhaps too charming for its own good as it has definitely crossed the line into tourist theme park. We did some shopping and internet surfing and then had lunch at a nice restaurant set in a rooftop garden. There were more gardens and villas to see, but we were garden-and-villa’d out by this point. We took a fast hydrofoil back to Varenna and relaxed for the rest of the day, spending the late afternoon in the hotel’s jacuzzi, which we had reserved for our private use. The jacuzzi was outdoors and had a splendid view of the lake. Unfortunately, I spent a bit too much time in the heated jacuzzi and I was a bit woozy afterwards.

On Sunday morning, we checked out of the Villa Cipressi and headed to Padua. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in Bergamo, the ancient town which marked the western frontier of the Venetian Empire from about 1500 to 1797. We had a delicious pizza, our first of the trip, but encountered more difficultly than usual in getting the check. This is often a problem in Italy, but in this instance it took almost a half hour of requesting “il conto, per favore” and making increasingly frantic hand signals to the waiter while baking in the sun before we were given an opportunity to pay. Once we escaped from the pizzeria, we set out to explore the high town of Bergamo, which contained many interesting historic sites. However, we had pretty much run out of site-seeing energy by this point, so we just ambled around for a bit and hopped back on the autostrada.

After another hour of so of driving, we arrived at the bland and modern Sheraton Padua, which is situated right next to the autostrada. We chose this location in order to facilitate a quick departure to the airport the following morning. The hotel provided a free shuttle bus to Padua’s historic center. We had toured Padua a couple of years before with Pete, so we just wandered around without a need to see anything in particular. Padua is less of a tourist destination than most of the other places we had visited on this trip so it was refreshing to be in a place where people were engaged in industries other than tending to vacationers. There was a large carnival which we came upon on the south side of town. It was amazing how much this was like an American carnival, even down to the food, although we did not see any cotton candy. It was growing dark, so after a bit more wandering around the weary travelers took a taxi back to the hotel.

The next morning we were able to drive to the Venice airport in just about a half hour. This went better than expected. The one drawback was that I accidentally filled up the tank with unleaded gas, when I was supposed to use diesel. Somehow, I drove the car to the rental car lot without incident. However, later on, Avis charged me 200 Euros to drain and clean the tank and engine –whoops! Fortunately that was the only problem that we encountered and the trip home was uneventful. In all, an absolutely wonderful trip.

Biz is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2005, 11:53 PM
  #2  
 
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Thanks for the report, Biz. I will be doing almost exactly the same trip in a few months, thanks for the hotel and city pros and cons. I'm taking notes!

Do you remember the names of any of the other restaurants you mentioned? Would you change any portion of the trip?
SeaUrchin is offline  
Jun 4th, 2005, 07:18 AM
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What a great trip---I love your hotel choices. In only 10 days you saw the best of north Italy.
bobthenavigator is offline  
Jun 4th, 2005, 07:29 AM
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This report is a definite keeper for our next trip!

jody is offline  
Jun 4th, 2005, 12:24 PM
  #5  
ira
 
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Thanks for sharing, Biz.
ira is offline  
Jun 4th, 2005, 05:12 PM
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I agree with you 100% about Bellagio. I gave it a bad review in my trip report on Northern Italy, but you said it better. It's too charming for its own good and crossed the line into theme park.

Myles
Mylesaway is offline  
Jun 4th, 2005, 07:51 PM
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Biz: Really nice trip report. Made me relive my time in that area.
I have been trying for years on this board to get people to understand just how beautiful is the Hotel Verbano on the Isola dei Pescatori at Lago Maggiore. I have never read that anyone has stayed there. Maybe its because you can only get there by ferry or water taxi or maybe its because it is only a three star, but if you like old world decore and service it is delightful. The views are amazing and the dinning on that fabulous terrace with the lights from Stresa and the Isola Bella at night are magical. Toscanini liked to stay here and I can appreciate why.
I agree about Bellagio. We found the waterfront area kind of tacky. We were very happy we had stayed at the peaceful Varenna.
Very enjoyable reading. Good job.
joegri is offline  
Jun 5th, 2005, 12:59 AM
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Very fine report of a good time. We were in Venice in March, and the Danieli was a charming, charming hotel.

Thanks for the telling!
smalti is offline  
Jun 5th, 2005, 07:08 AM
  #9  
Biz
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Thanks to all for the positive feedback on this posting. In unpacking my bags, I have come across a couple of other items of interest. The Vivaldi/Mozart chamber music concert that I mentioned was performed by the Orchestra da Camera di San Marco at the Ateneo di San Marco, in the northeast corner of Piazza San Marco. There are several remaining performance dates in June, and the tickets were 25 Euros per person. For information call 39.0415282825 or on the web at www.virtusidivenezia.com. Other similar performances are advertised at hotels and around the city, particularly near the Accademia bridge, where costumed promoters hand out brochures for the performances. We purchased a few Venetian masks from the shop that made the masks for the film "Eyes Wide Shut." There are hundreds of places to buy masks in Venice, but these were a bit unique. The shop is Ca'Macana Venezia at www.camacana.com.
With regard to the question about whether I would have changed anything about the trip, I certainly would have checked that the car was diesel before pumping unleaded into the tank! Other than that, the only change I would have made might have been to depart from Stesa, visit Locarno and continue on to Como by a northern route. This might have taken a it more time as it would have involved smaller roads, but it would have avoided doubling back and the alpine scenery must be fantastic. Some other fodorites have posted regarding driving options through the lakes, so anyone contemplating such a trip might want to look into those posts. I did not find the driving to be as difficult as some have noted, but perhaps that was due to the time of year.
Biz is offline  
Jun 5th, 2005, 02:39 PM
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You've given us some great ideas! Thxs.
grebbs is offline  

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