Paul's Travel Pics

Friday, November 20, 2015

Day-Trip to World Heritage Padova

We stopped at Padova for a pleasant day-trip, midway on our move from Venice to Verona.

Yes, beautiful Padova. World renowned enough that many coworkers urged me to visit, yet somehow underrated enough not to be overrun by tourists. The walled medieval city still boasts Italy's largest square, its second oldest university, arguably its most influential piece of medieval artwork, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Like most visitors we headed straight for Giotto's 700-year-old masterpiece inside the Scrovegni Chapel. Reservation was an absolute must as visitors were released into a climate controlled chamber every half hour in small groups. Protecting one of the greatest examples of pre-Renaissance artwork was serious business, and photographs are strictly forbidden. The above picture of Roman mosaics was from the Museo Civico next door where we waited for our turn to enter the chapel.

For its relatively compact historic centre, Padova features a large number of unmistakeable landmarks such as the Palazzo della Ragione, one of the largest halls in the world surviving from the Middle Ages. With the PadovaCard in hand (pre-ordered online as we reserved our timeslot at Scrovegni) most of the attractions in town, as well as unlimited use of public transportation, were all covered. This was immensely useful as the tram line connected the train station with every major sight within the city walls.

Sandwiching the Palazzo are the town's two main squares, Piazza della Frutta and Piazza delle Erbe, which turn into open-air markets every morning for vendors of fresh local vegetables, handicrafts and cheap clothing from Eastern Europe.

Underneath Palazzo della Ragione is a medieval arcade of butchers and fishmongers which probably hasn't changed much over the past 700 years. We weren't intent on buying any local produce until we became sidetracked by the display window of a little Salumeria.

Parma, San Daniele or Montagnana: you simply can't go wrong with the selection in a good Prosciutteria. At this point of the journey I still knew nothing of the flavor of top quality Montagnana, and we decided on some Parma instead.

"Un etto per favore!" was the most useful Italian phrase I learned on this trip. This was 100g of mouthwatering goodness for an impromptu picnic at Prato della Valle, arguably the most photographed symbol of Padova.

5 minutes of tram ride and we reached the Prato, a handsome elliptical piazza of greenery encircled by a double ring of statues and a canal filled with carps. We sat down by the water and enjoyed our lovely Prosciutto under the shade, leaving the fierce midday sun to the sunbathing local students in their last week of summer vacation.

Well hidden in the university blocks to the east of Prato is one of Italy's less visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the oldest academic botanical garden in the world. To this date the Orto Botanico remains a research facility of the University of Padova and still features a palm tree from the 1500's.

We wrapped up our day-trip with a visit to the 13th Century Basilica di Sant'Antonio and its striking Byzantine domes, then picked up our luggage at the train station for the next leg of our journey. Without a doubt Padova has to be the best day-trip from Venice, above Burano and the lagoon islands in my opinion.

With so many attractions to see in so little time, we grabbed a quick bite from Padova's own indigenous fast food joint, the popular Panineria Dalla Zita at the centre of town just off Piazza della Frutta. Everyone seemed to know about this place, and during our half-hour visit the queue for Panini never stopped.

The entire wall was smothered with square stickies offering more Panini flavors than you could imagine, from Mortadella to Anchovies to Tandoori Chicken. With practically everything priced at 4 Euros or less, choices were tough.

Sandwiches here weren't as incredibly cheap as those at Bacareto Da Lele in Venice, but the toppings were of good quality and even the Piccolo size was rather large. We ordered three in total, including the pictured Porchetta, Lardo and Peperoni combination nicknamed "Steve."

My favorite was the "Popolo e Nobilta" with Mortadella, Crema Tartufo and Pomodoro ... I had to get my daily dose of Mortadella somewhere! Three sandwiches and a couple glasses of the house Friulano (not as good as the bottle served at Bacareto Da Lele, but at 1.5 Euros nobody should complain) later, this filling and authentically Padovani lunch came to 7 Euros per person.

Bill for Two Persons
Piccolo Panino "Steve"3.5 Euros
Piccolo Panino "Popolo e Nobilta"3.5 Euros
Piccolo Panino "Lappone"4 Euros
Glass of Friulano x 23 Euros
TOTAL14 Euros (CAD$19.6)


Once again the Trenitalia website was wrong (surprise surprise). There IS a luggage deposit inside Padova's train station right beside Binario 1, which is a lifesaver for anyone passing through on a day-trip like ours. At the time of writing the office closes at 18:00 or so, so make sure you check the closing time and return to pick up your bags.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Cheap Authentic Eats in Venice

Venice isn't cheap. 40 Euros for 3 days of ferry rides. 9 Euros for a public toilet pass. While we'd never deviate from our goal to sample the authentic local fare wherever we go, it took some effort to find good quality at our moderate budget (final tally: 15 Euros per person per meal). Reviewed below are 6 eateries that fit our criteria, though some were better value than others.

Located on Campo dei Tolentini; 3 minutes walk from Piazzale Roma bus terminal

This was by far our cheapest meal in Venice, and in fact the cheapest of our 23-day journey across Italy. You absolutely can't beat 2.5 Euros per person for a light lunch ... including wine!

Bacareto Da Lele is exactly what it calls itself -- a tiny, no frills Bacaro tucked away on an obscure piazza at the far edge of Venice. While it's far from the tourist circuit, it was perfect for us stepping off the airport bus at Piazzale Roma.

Don't expect any chairs, and the only tables came in the form of two weathered wine barrels outside the shop. Small panini were 1 Euro each, large panini cost 1.8 to 2.3 Euros, and every local wine from Refosco to Friulano to Prosecco were all priced between 0.6 to 1 Euro. I had never seen anything cheaper in Italy. Period.

We snatched up the last 3 panini of the day as we arrived for a late lunch, though wine was free-flowing as always. A little prosciutto, a little roasted porchetta, a couple glasses of Friulano and Prosecco, all served on the front steps of San Nicola da Tolentino under the blue Venetian sky. The only catch is that one should plan to arrive early -- the last edible tidbit was scooped up by 12:45 on this day.

Bill for Two Persons
Small Sandwich with Prosciutto and Giardiniera1 Euro
Small Sandwich with Porchetta and Mustard1 Euro
Small Sandwich with Speck and Cheese1 Euro
Glass of Friulano1 Euro
Glass of Prosecco0.9 Euro
TOTAL4.9 Euros (CAD$6.9)

Calle Galeazza 406; in a small alley just southwest of the Rialto Market

Out of the four popular cicchetteria we tried during our stay in Venice, this tiny Bacaro was my personal favorite. You'd be lucky to claim one of the four or so tables at lunchtime as the place seemed perpetually packed, and for good reasons.

A long wine list, great food, all at reasonable prices especially for Venice. Not quite as dirt cheap as Bacareto Da Lele, but you could get a Friulano for 1.5 Euros or a Valpolicella for 2.5. It's also one of the rare Bacari that actually listed the prices of its Cicchetti offerings. And why not? Almost everything was under 2 Euros anyway!

A variety of seafood Cicchetti, some crunchy Crostini, and a couple glasses of Spritz Veneziano to round off the meal.

The Polpetta and Arancino were nice and filling, the stuffed Fiori di Zucca were better, but the best were the Mediterranean prawns peeled and deep-fried in batter, so fresh that one could taste the seawater inside. This place was cheap, but they certainly did not cheap out on ingredients.

Another of my favorites was the Crostini with Prosciutto Crudo, Gorgonzola and Arugula. The final bill for a satisfying lunch at the heart of infamously expensive Venice? 21 Euros for two including wine, within a few minutes walk from Rialto Bridge. This is a Bacaro I fully recommend ... just be prepared to stand and eat outside.

Bill for Two Persons
Polpetta and Arancino3 Euros
Fiori di Zucca x 23 Euros
Deep-Fried Prawns x 23.6 Euros
Crostini x 23 Euros
Spiedini x 23.5 Euros
Spritz x 25 Euros
TOTAL21.1 Euros (CAD$29.6)

Located on Calle Forneri; just across the bridge north of Campo San Lio

While Alla Ciurma was crowded enough, we could barely find a spot to stand inside the impossibly crammed Osteria Al Portego on a Saturday night. This place was actually minutes from our apartment, but we never came back for the simple reason that it's near impossible to find a table.

We ended up standing outside and putting our plates on an old barrel-top that we shared with some Italian neighbours. Most of the crowd didn't even get half a barrel-top to place their drinks ... it's THAT crazy. This little Bacaro must be doing something right.

Vinegared Sardines. Cuttlefish stewed in ink. Octopus Salad. Crostino with Creamed Baccala. All Venetian favorites designed to be washed down with the Ombre from the bar.

While the variety of offerings was broader compared with Alla Ciurma, honestly I thought the quality was just half a notch below. Nevertheless we're talking about the rock bottom price of 11 Euros per person for dinner, including wine, at one of the world's premier tourist destinations. Nobody should be able to complain.

Bill for Two Persons
Sarde in Saor
Seppie in Umido con il Nero
Crostini di Baccala Mantecato
Polpo Insalata
Ombra di Vino x 2
TOTAL22 Euros (CAD$30.8)

Calle delle Do Spade 19; just south of Campo Beccarie

This is probably the oldest restaurant we've ever visited, anywhere in the world. We're talking mid 1400's, before the fall of Constantinople and the subsequent decline in Venetian fortunes. It may not look its age, but for nearly 600 years this Bacaro has stood tall as a local institution, serving its faithfuls since the age of Titian and Tintoretto.

With a wide range of Cicchetti as well as some Primi and Secondi offerings, Cantina Do Spade is now somewhat halfway between a neighbourhood Bacaro and a full-scale Osteria. It's just as popular as Al Portego, only more difficult to find -- forget the official address (San Polo 860) and look out for the street sign of "Calle delle Spade."

Polpo in Umido, Sarde in Saor, Gamberoni, Merluzzo Gratinato ... it's difficult not to splurge on all this Venetian seafood when everything was priced at a couple euros each. My favorites were probably the grilled calamaro and the Fiori di Zucca stuffed with Baccala.

We ended up with 15 Cicchetti (14 of which were seafood!) and 2 drinks for what would be our most expensive Bacaro visit ... if 15 Euros per person could be considered expensive anywhere in Italy.

Bill for Two Persons
Polpo in Umido
Sarde in Saor
Gamberoni Fritti
Merluzzo Gratinato
Calamaro Grigliata
Fiori di Zucca
Filet of Sole
Baccala Fritti
Grilled Goby
Crab Claw Rissole
Melanzana Gratinate
Ombra di Vino x 2
TOTAL30 Euros (CAD$42.0)

Located on Barbaria delle Tole; 100m east of Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Our best meal in Venice was served by this unassuming trattoria, recommended to us by the owner of our apartment. Situated in a residential neighbourhood about 10 minutes walk north of San Marco, Antica Bandierette is ranked #457 on TripAdvisor and doesn't even seem to be on Google Maps at the time of writing. That's how underrated this place is. But if you trust my tastebuds, I can honestly say that our meal here was probably the best we had in Venice.

Though the trattoria did serve a few Cicchetti items at the bar, most of the clientele seemed to prefer sit-down dinners. We ordered one Antipasto, one Primo and one Secondo to share, starting with this plate of baked scallops in butter. We had a split decision on this one -- my wife remembered the freshness of the scallops fondly while I thought it was the least spectacular of the three courses. The better dishes were still to come.

I loved these Spaghetti con Canocchie. Not only was this great pasta, it might just be the best Mantis Shrimp dish I've had, of any nationality and culinary tradition. While I do enjoy Mantis Shrimps especially in East Asian dishes (Shako in Sushi, Stir-Fried with Chili and Salt in Cantonese Dai Pai Dong), I sometimes overlook them due to their blander flavor compared with prawns or scampi. But this Sugo di Canocchie was anything but bland -- in fact the entire dish of pasta, not just the sauce itself, tasted of the essence of the sea. That's why I love Mediterranean seafood: the salt content of the seawater makes a world of difference in the flavor of its produce.

Equally impressive was the Seppie Veneziana, little morsels of cuttlefish stewed tenderly inside its own ink. We previously had the same dish at Al Portego but this was absolutely better by miles. As with any seafood ingredients freshness was the key, and this ink sauce was as fresh and flavorsome as we could expect.

Did I mention the 1/2 bottle of Valpolicella for 7 Euros? And that they didn't charge us Coperto? For anyone seeking an authentic Venetian trattoria on a modest budget, this little mom-and-pop operation would be my recommendation, as long as you're willing to stray 10 minutes from San Marco.

Bill for Two Persons
Tris di Capesante12 Euros
Seppie alla Veneziana12 Euros
Spaghetti con Canocchie13 Euros
1/2 Bottle of Valpolicella7 Euros
TOTAL44 Euros (CAD$61.6)

6342 A LE TOLE
Located on Barbaria delle Tole; just 20m east of Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo

One evening we headed for Antica Bandierette again but found it closed on Mondays. Half a block away we saw a Spaghetteria completely packed with diners, with an open kitchen where pasta was being handmade. We weren't aware at the time, but this turned out to be the immensely popular Spaghetteria 6342 a le Tole.

Still salivating for the Seppie Nero at Bandierette's from the other night, my wife ordered the Spaghetti Nero half-expecting another miracle. While the pasta's texture did come out perfect, everything else was frankly disappointing -- the scallops tasted of frozen seafood, the sauce was underflavored, and there just wasn't enough ink to bring the dish together.

My Spaghettoni con Scampi was better, as I certainly expected when paying 18 Euros(!) for a Primo. But the Scampi still weren't the freshest, and while the portion was generous I'd much prefer Bandierette's version with Canocchie at 2/3 the price. And considering the overpriced house wine at 4.5 Euros a glass, it really made me question the popularity of this place.

Bill for Two Persons
Spaghetti Neri15 Euros
Spaghettoni con Scampi18 Euros
2 Glasses of House Wine9 Euros
Coperto x 24 Euros
TOTAL46 Euros (CAD$64.4)

The size of our meals usually left us with no room for heavy desserts. Luckily in Venice a Gelateria is never far away, and around our apartment the neighborhood Gelateria was a refreshing little shop called Mela Verde, serving excellent artisan Gelati centered around a killer Mela Verde (green apple) flavor. Spending 2 Euros for a small Gelato, perhaps holding a 1.5 Euro Crostini from a nearby Bacaro in the other hand, savoring Venice doesn't always mean breaking the bank.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Renting an Apartment in Venice

Friends are already asking about where we stayed in expensive Venice. Our criteria were simple -- a clean room, a private bath and most importantly, being located in the historic centre for those quiet evening strolls without the day-tripping tourist hordes. We ended up skipping conventional hotels and rented an apartment by a small canal, about 10 minutes walk north of San Marco Basilica. Sounds expensive? Trust me, it wasn't.

The apartment is actually part of a 16th Century palazzo facing Calle San Lorenzo, with its own mooring on the canal at the back. Out of eight or so units currently occupying different parts of the complex, this apartment happens to be the one overlooking the canal.

The apartments is currently not listed on any vacation rental site but is directly rented out by the owner himself, a Venetian native who no longer lives full time in town. Communication prior to arrival was thru email in simple English, and on the day of arrival our friendly landlord was already awaiting us with his big hug and all sorts of useful travel literature.

As the owner still stayed in the apartment from time to time, appliances such as air-conditioner and fridge were well maintained and the kitchen was stocked with essentials such as pots and pans, cooking oil and dish detergent. A coin laundry place (Effe Erre Laundry) was a short 3 minutes walk away, and a Punto Simply supermarket could be reached in 5 minutes. It doesn't get much more convenient than this -- one could easily rent this place for a few months and settle in as a local.

A pleasant surprise was the occasional serenading of gondoliers outside our bedroom window. The singing typically stopped after 22:00 or so to avoid keeping the neighbours awake, though sometimes the noise of motorized boats could be heard passing by our window in the early morning.

The apartment was situated in a residential neighbourhood in the sestiere of Castello, almost halfway between San Marco in the south and the Hospital in the north. Immediately to the east was Fondamente San Lorenzo and the leaning campanile of San Giorgio dei Greci. The supermarket was another minute's walk further to the east.

A 5 minutes walk to the north, in the direction of the Hospital, leads to the elegant facade of Scuola Grande di San Marco and the Renaissance statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.

Further to the northwest was the pier of Fondamente Nove, departure point of ferries to the lagoon islands of Murano and the colourful and immensely popular Burano.

And to the south was the medieval heart of Venice: Piazza San Marco with its opulent Basilica, Palazzo Ducale and the famous Winged Lion of Saint Mark. A leisurely stroll along the seaside promenade was our nightly ritual.

Aside from San Marco we had one other daily pilgrimage to make. Hidden in a back alley next to the old prison walls of Palazzo Ducale was a little bakery catering mostly to local clientele rather than tourists, as the cheap prices of its Cornetti would attest. Long faded was the store sign which the owner never bothered to replace -- the whole neighbourhood has embraced this shop for decades anyway.

Torta di Mele. Torta di Uvetta. Cornetti alla Crema, or Marmellata if you wish. Everything was exquisitely handcrafted. The staff spoke no English, but neither did their customers as far as I saw every morning.

The most scrumptious Cornetto, some delectable Torta, perhaps a piece of crunchy Palmier or Zaletti. Some of life's simple pleasures for about 3 Euros in total.

Add another 100g of Prosciutto di Parma, some Mortadella con Pistacchio and a large tub of yogurt from the highlands of Alto Adige, and a breakfast for two fit for royalty would be assembled for less than 10 Euros. This, rather than any world-famous destination, is what we miss Italy the most.

If anyone is interested in renting this apartment, please leave a message below with your email address and I'll send you the owner's contact info.