Saturday, January 27, 2007

In celebration of firsts

Life's most treasured memories and celebrations are firsts - a first birthday, a first kiss, a first grandchild, a first wedding anniversary. There is the first time we fall in love and the first time our hearts are broken. We never repeat our firsts and after that we just have seconds.

As we get older, there seem to be fewer and fewer firsts or maybe they just happen without the cards and celebratory wishes. These are firsts that we hold onto and are often things we only know about.
My firsts include my first taste of coriander. It was pungent and its deep green taste seemed so foreign and exotic. There was my first black truffle savoured and eaten using a recipe from the Mushroom Man at Prahran Market. I still remember the recipe - eggs, cream, orange zest, orange juice, all combined to make eggs on sourdough with truffles. I remember receiving my first cookbook - Green's Cookbook, and the first time I went to a four star restaurant and ordered wine. I felt like a grown up and it was with a man that I loved very much. These different firsts came in my twenties and much later.
This week I experienced another first - snow in London. I woke up on Wednesday morning to discover that overnight an inch of snow had fallen . It was soft and dewy, pristine white and crisp like the day itself.
I ran to Hyde Park making snowballs on the way and throwing them on the footpath. I felt like a child again - it was wonderful. I made my first snowman complete with a hat (courtesy of Helen Kaminski) and even ate some snow. (Note to self: take carrot when wishing to make snowman in the park.)
I wanted to know what it tasted like and it tastes just like snow. It's cold.

Self portrait in Kensington Gardens - I threw snow over myself, so the photograph would look more authentic! Big thank-you to my cousin Kate for sending me my wonderful Helen Kaminski hat from Australia. It has been gratefully worn in Venice and now London.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Venetian tale

Everything that anyone has ever written about Venice is true. It’s a magical city that glistens in the sunlight and turns into a deceptive maze of streets at night.

Proust wrote of Venice that ‘my dream became my address’. It's true. Venice is a subterranean city where dreams are born in the waterways only to dissolve in the city’s mists that roll in from the sea and cover its islands. It is a city that harbours lovers and is haunted by death.

The way to discover Venice is to abandon yourself to the city. The Piazza San Marco is spectacular but it is in the neighbourhoods beyond this famous landmark that you'll discover all that is unique about this city on water. Explore the labyrinthine of bridges and connected streets and get lost. Maps will prove useless as streets that seem straight on paper turn out to be sinuous lines that resist navigation. Perhaps it’s the endless tides that result in these shifts of the cityscape. How else can you find a piazza one day but not the next?

The only people who know the city are the boatmen, who travel its waters and the inhabitants of San Michele, the centuries old resting place of Venetians. Their ghosts are the spectres of light that you see dance across the water at night.

From the Basilica di San Marco. you can look out to the piazza, take in the soaring heights of the Campanile and the grandeur of the Palazzo Ducale. Such a spectacle is only rivalled by the inside view of the basilica. This is a church made of gold. Saintly figures stare out, so poignantly human in their expressions and gestures.

Board a gondola and see Venice as the boatmen do. Travel the canals to the recorded sounds of O Mia Caro (or if you are lucky a tenor accompanied by a guitarist) and discover the hidden waterways of the city and abandoned palazzos.

At dusk, stand on the bridge opposite the Galleria dell' Academia and watch the sun set over Venice. This view of the Canal Grande takes in the Basicilica di Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana di Mare. Truly magically.


You’ll need several hours to visit the Gallerie dell’Academia. This gallery houses some of the best examples of Renaissance art. Be sure to find Bellini’s La Tempesta and attempt to solve its puzzling symbolism (room 13). Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi represents the mastery of this period; a controversial work in its day (room 10). The artist was brought before the Sant’ Uffizio and accused of heresy because of his unconventional approach to his subject of this painting.

No trip to Venice would be complete without a trip to the Museo de Peggy Guggenheim. This Dogess of modern art stated that she wanted to collect a piece of art a day. Her former residence houses a formidable collection of surrealist art. Most striking is the collection of Murano glassware. Intrigued by the qualities of glass, she organised a number of collaborations between Venetian artisans and artists like Chagall, Picasso among others.

In many of the shops throughout Venetian, you’ll find reproduction Fortuny lampshades and fabrics. At the Museo de Fortuny, you can visit the palazzo of this 20th Century designer, photographer and artist. On display are examples of his fabrics as well as lampshades made for the Hotel Excelsior on the Lido in the 1920s but the real highlight is the photographic collection. Look for the 1902 photograph of Piazza San Marco without the Campanile, which famously collapsed the same year.


Hidden in the neighbourhood of Dorodorso is Do Farai, an osteria that specialises in seafood carpaccio. Order the carpaccio di brancino all’hg and Stefano will create fine shaving of fish dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and wine from a whole fish in less than five minutes. Move onto the spaghetti con nero di seppia and as Stefano tells it ‘you’ll eat like the Venetians do’.

San Marco may be only five minutes way away, but Corte Sconta is a true Venetian secret. You will need to book regardless of the time of year so popular is this restaurant with locals. Follow the tradition of this restaurant and order the selection of seafood appertizers. The scallops are particularly memorable as are the Venetian style Scampi buzara served with fresh tomatoes and apples.

Across the lagoon on the island of Giudecca is Mistra, a shipmakers’ canteen that does a brisk business for only a few euros. At Ai Gatto Nero on the island of Burano, the antipasto degustazione is a three course symphony that begins with sardines and baked scallops and concludes with muscles and pipis. For a more upmarket affair, try Da Fiore, Venice’s only Michelin star restaurant.


I’m just wild about Harry and he’s just wild about me; so the song goes. It’s a little clichéd and admittedly overpriced but there’s no better way to celebrate being in Venice that drinking a Bellini at Harry’s Bar. This mid-afternoon drink is the perfect way to people-watch and enjoy the atmosphere of this famous institution.

Cantina do Mori is not easy to find but once found it’s the perfect place to sample ciceti (Venetian term for small bites). Enjoy the dark cavernous feel of this bar with its overhanging pots and large vats of wine and the seafood ciceti inspired by produce from the nearby Percaria market. The Osteria ae Cravate in San Croce is another local bar offering excellent food and service.

The best seats in town are at Café Florian overlooking the Piazza San Marco. Your view will be expensive but regardless of whether it is day or night, you’ll describe the experience and the cost for years to come. If the Florian is full, then the Gran Caffe Ristorante Quadri is just as good.


Venice is famous for its Carnivale. Even if you don’t get to this most extravagant of festivals, you can purchase one of its famed masks. Ca’Macana is one of the best known having made masks for Kubrick’s Eyes Mind Shut. For marionettes, try Il Gatto Matto. This store also sells masks richly decorated in Venetian moretti glass; others are inspired by the richly ornate work of Gustav Klimt.

You’ll find the famed marbled paper at one of the outlets of Il Papiro and La Ricerca, but at Legatoria Piazzesi you find something unique. This store first opened in 1828 and paper is still made using the original wooden blocks. For the literary at heart, there are books, diaries and journals, and desk accessories.

Giacomo Rizzo is the place for specialist pasta. Some are simply for decoration (surely) but the more traditional funghi, seppia and pomodoro are excellent buys to take home. Another stop on your food trait is Antica Drogheria Mascari for porcini mushrooms, lemoncello, chocolates, teas and sweets.

Formerly the residence of the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti, the Palazzo Gritti is the most luxurious hotels in Venice. Its rich furnishings are what you would expect of such an elite residence that has attracted guests such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace of Monaco. Recognised as a world-class hotel for its elegance and discreet service, this hotel with its view onto the Canal Grande is the hotel to be pampered.

Situated close to the Museo de Peggy Guggenheim, the Ca’ Pisano was the first design hotel in Venice and has a reputation for outstanding service. Its modern design in a sixteenth century palazzo will appeal to those with a modern sensibility.

Hotel Al Sole is one of the many converted palazzos that you will find throughout Venice. It’s location across a canal in San Croce and its picturesque courtyard makes it an ideal place to stay.

ISLAND HOPPING Venice is famous for its glassware and lace, so a day trip to the island of Murano and Burano to see these centuries old craftsmanship is a must.

The reputation of Murano glassware is well deserved. You’ll find the normal array of tourist items, moretti jewellery and reproduction goblets, but also some spectacular modern pieces. The best showrooms are Venini and Barovier and Tasso. Most showrooms will ship anywhere in the world.

Burano is a quiet and picturesque island celebrated for its brightly coloured houses and lace-makers. Each woman specialises in a stitch and it’s possible to watch this intricate and painstaking work in many of the local shops. Try La Perla and Martina for specialised homeware.


Away from the tourist hordes, the neighbourhoods of Venice offer the perfect opportunity to sit at a café Venetian style.

Grab a mid-morning coffee at one of the city’s many pasticceri. The Café Toletta is typical of these small shops. With no seats or tables, this is the closest that Italy gets to fast food. Do as the locals do and order a café and perhaps a pantoza from the dolci and pastries on display.

The Campo San Margherita offers a lively spectacle of a fresh vegetable, fruit and fish market and by 12 noon, the outside tables are full. It is easy to understand why Italy is the home of slow food. Linger over your café for an hour; grab a midday ciceti at one of the many cafes or a gelati from Gelateria Igloo. Stop at look at Vinaria de Oro, where local residents buy their bulk wine. While you are there, visit the Scuola dei Carmini to see the ceiling paintings by Tiepolo.

Beyond the Rialto bridge and tourist shops, you’ll find the Pescatoria and fruit and vegetable market. Here is the place to buy dried porcini mushroom and dried tomatoes to take home. For a lesson in how to prepare artichokes, the local vendors trim, cut and slice these extraordinary vegetables ready to take home.