Thursday, April 10, 2008

Review: Agriturismo da Merlo

Anchoring a dusty lane in the comune of Trivignano, Agriturismo da Merlo is a well-kept, comfortable and affordable bed-and-breakfast. This alternative to the high-priced accommodations within the weathered walls of ancient Venice is a short 7.5 miles from the train station in Venice-Mestre and is fairly accessible by bus.

The tranquil Venetian countryside offers a quiet place to relax away from the congested tourist-ridden core of Venice. This makes places like da Merlo ideal for couples or families that are looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of tourism and instead experience Venetian country living.

Though some agriturismi offer the opportunity to help out on the farm as part of the experience, da Merlo does not. This renovated farmhouse offers all the comforts of modern living surrounded by the charm and simplicity of rural country life.

Marco Maguolo and his wife Martina offer four second-floor non-smoking rooms with all the modern conveniences and a comfortable king-size bed. Each room includes a private bath with shower and hair dryer, stocked mini refrigerator, independent heating and air conditioning, cable television, telephone, safe and wi-fi Internet access. The entry door from the outside to the main hallway where the rooms are located employs a modern security system which requires card-key access. When leaving the property it is requested that the room keys are left with the host so that the card key doesn't get lost.

The nightly rate varies by season but typically runs around €75 for two adults. Each child over age two or additional adult is €15 per person, per night with a maximum of two additional beds per room. This needs to be arranged in advance. Children under age two are free.

Martina is the only English speaker in the house. She is quite fluent but, as usual, English slang should be avoided to alleviate miscommunication.

A bus stop 400 meters from da Merlo isn't a regularly scheduled stop. Martina or Marco will drive guests to the bus stop roughly one mile away where the #20 ACTV bus stops about every 20 minutes. On the plus side, there is only one bus running from Trivignano to the train station and vice-versa making it easy to remember the bus number. On the down side, the last run of the bus from the train station is at 7:50 p.m. This means no late nights in Venice when relying on bus transportation.

Continental breakfast is included in the cost of the room. It is simple, light and enjoyable meal consisting of marmalade-filled croissant, juice, cappuccino, toast, jelly, cheese and fruit. Lunch and dinner, which are made from ingredients grown on the farm, are available but not included in the cost of the room and must be booked in advance.

Bicycles are available for rent at da Merlo. Other recreational activities, including swimming, tennis and golf are nearby, but not on the property itself.

Agriturismo da Merlo is a comfortable home-away-from-home with all the charm of old-world Italian country living and all the modern conveniences for the traveler who requires them.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Romance on €50 a day

The wide cobblestone pathway, which rests between the old three and four-story buildings and the ancient seawall, begins to cool to the touch. The sun's fingers loosen their summertime grip.

A day-worn traveler plunks down on the path and dangles her feet over stalwart, primeval barrier that has defended the buildings of these 117 islands from the ravages of the benevolent waterway for centuries. Squeak, thwaft, pop, she wrestles the cork from the wine bottle. Chorgle, glug, glug, glug she fills the small plastic cup. Setting the bottle to the side, she tilts the cup to her lips, sips, sighs and smiles. The amber rays cast ever lengthening shadows that anchor her to the cobblestone.

Ripples of darker pink and orange crawl from the belly of a passing water taxi and crash harmlessly below the feet of the weary traveler. She leans back, eyes closed, and lets the sunlight dance across her body on its way to yesterday.

Venezia—la città d'amore ... Venice—the city of love—is the setting for numerous romantic novels and fantasies. But, where those pages and ideas end, the heart of Venice begins.

Dining in Venice

West of the Rialto:
Cantina do Mori
Address: San Polo 429
This stand-up only place is open Monday through Saturday from noon until 8:30 p.m.

Osteria ai Storti
20 yards away from Cantina do Mori.
Monday through Saturday from noon until 10:30 p.m. for those wanting a late snack.

Antica Osteria Ruga Rialto
Address: Ruga Vecchio San Giovanni 692
Open daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. & 7 p.m. to midnight.

Al Marco
on Campo Cesare Battisti
Monday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

East of the Rialto:
Osteria "Alla Butte" Cicchetteria
Nestled in a corner behind the statue on Calle dela Bisa, two blocks off of Campo San Bartolomeo
Open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. & 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day except Thursday and Sunday

One-hundred-seventy-seven square miles of heartbreakingly beautiful multi-story buildings, narrow alleyways and gondola filled canals hearken back a thousand years to Venice's heyday as a sea-faring superpower. Gone are those glory days, but the charm and the magic of the "Queen of the Adriatic" lives on.

The old city in the lagoon is nearly always in its "high-season," a time of major tourism. As the population of Venice has dwindled due to lack of work, rising housing costs and the sinking of the city, tourism has become the primary source of income for businesses circumscribed by the Grand Canal. Because of this, it's not the cheapest destination in the boot. But, that doesn't mean a budget minded traveler can't experience the birthplace of Casanova in its full glory.

Three major expenses in all travel are food, lodging and transportation. In Venice, all can chew through your budget, especially if personal requirements include words like "Five-Star."

If private rooms and linen table cloths aren't required, then "la dolce vita," the good life, is in reach.

Dining in Venice can be done on the cheap. Though dining along the Grand Canal will require carry-out. This shouldn't be a problem as the most affordable foods in Venice are available at the cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee) bars, many of which are standing room only [see sidebar: Dining].

Carrying a variety of munchies and finger sandwiches, the cicchetti bars are found very near the two most well-known attractions in Venice: Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square).

Snacking at any of these places can be done for under €10. Sundays and late nights can present a challenge to the hungry traveler, but most other times and days the belly can be filled with a variety of munchies including vegetables, fried cheeses and finger sandwiches and free water fountains dot the city.

Sleeping in Venice

Ostello di Venezia
Fondamenta Zitelle 86
Isola della Giudecca
30133 Venezia (VE)
Italy
Tel. +39-041-5238211
Fax. +39-041-5235689
http://www.ostellovenezia.it
info@ostellovenezia.it

Foresteria della Chiesa Valdese
Castello, 5170
30122 Venezia (VE)
Italy
Tel. +39-041-5286797
www.foresteriavenezia.it

With a full belly, tired feet and heavy eye lids the day-worn traveler has only a few options for under €25 per night accommodations [see sidebar: Sleeping].

On Guidecca island, kitty-corner across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco, is the youth hostel Ostello di Venezia. It provides dorm-style sleeping with large, lockable storage for €21 per person a night. This breakfast-included home away from home offers lunch and dinner at reasonable rates. The drawback to this location is the need for vaporetti (water buses) to get to the core of Venice.

Halfway between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, on Castello, is Foresteria della Chiesa Valdese. This Waldensian-Methodist run place to hang your hat rents dorm beds for €22 per person per night if staying more than one night. €24 per person for a single night stay. Its central location allows exploration of the heart of Venice with little or no need for the vaporetto. For the night owl though, these cheap accommodations do come with a down side.

Late nights at the Jazz club tucked away down some random alleyway can turn into a chilly night sleeping under the stars. The youth hostel on Guidecca island locks its doors at 11 p.m. Foresteria della Chiesa Valdese gives keys to their guests so they may return any time of the night, but they request silence after 11 p.m. so as not to disturb the other guests.

Between dining and sleeping comes sight seeing. Venice's greatest attraction is the city itself. Wandering along the back alleys and over one of the 409 bridges crossing any of the 150 canals is a feast for the senses.

Beautiful ancient architecture dazzles the eyes while the smiling street musicians serenade passers-by. All the while the stomach growls in protest for each bakery that is ignored. Around each corner is an adventure, as getting lost in Venice is half the fun.

Gondola and Vaporetto

Standard rates are set by a council. Each additional 20 minutes during daytime hours is €20. From 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. the rates are higher. Each additional 20 minutes is €50. Be sure to agree on a rate and duration before taking your ride. Negotiating rates is possible though they rarely go below the standard rate. A Gondola can carry six passengers so groups can reduce the per-person rate.

Gondola:
gondolavenezia.it

Vaporetto:
www.actv.it

Travel within Venice is either by foot or by boat. The legendarily romantic Gondola is too pricey for the budget traveler. A 40-minute tour will have the rider singing "O Sole Mío!" as €80 leaves them for the handsome Gondolier. Add musica (singer and accordionist) and the price can nearly double! After 7 p.m. the prices go up to €100 for the Gondolier and musica is still extra.

By far, the most cost effective water travel in Venice is on the Vaporetti. One-way trips up or down the Grand Canal costs €6.50. A more cost effective use of the Vaporetto is the 24 hour and 72 hour passes which run €16 and €31 respectively.

These passes allow those staying at the youth hostel on Guidecca, or anyone who wants to travel to the other islands such as Burano or Murano, to travel an unlimited number of trips during the time period of the pass. But before boating off to see the artisans on Burano or Murano, a trip to Piazza San Marco beckons the nostalgic visitor.

Home to Basilica di San Marco (Saint Mark's Basilica), The Doge's (Duke's) Palace, the Correr Museum, the Campanile bell tower and numerous shops and restaurants, Piazza San Marco is the most visited site in Venice.

The people watcher will find no better place in Venice to observe their prey than Piazza San Marco. Pigeons flock to and flutter on anyone who dare buy the bird feed available in the piazza. It's not unusual to see a person standing statue-like as a handful of pigeons roost until the food is gone.

The square is bustling with Venetians and visitors and alive with the sounds of Italy. Competing string quartets with their brass and woodwind accompaniment entertain from nearly every corner of the piazza.

As the tart kiwi gelato from a nearby shop drips across the hand and onto a shoe under the hot Adriatic sun, the shade from Campanile and the occasional sea breeze offer only mild relief. If the line isn't too long, a trip inside Basilica di San Marco, after the gelato has been gobbled up, will offer some relief from the rising heat.

Basilica San Marco

Pala d'oro (€2), the retable of the high alter of St. Mark's, dates back to 1105 AD. It contains his relics and celebrates the evangelist. For enthusiasts of Renaissance or Christian art, this gold and wood work of art is a must see.

The Tesoro (Treasury - €1.50) contains the treasures of St. Mark's. Some of these include relics of saints gathered from Constantinople.

St. Mark's Museum (€3) contains Persian carpets, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries and a number of other religious artifacts.

The Basilica itself is free of charge, a rare fee in Venice. Consecrated in 1094 AD, St. Mark's is the resting place for the earthly remains of Mark the apostle. The ceiling and walls glitter with gold mosaics while cool marble floors squeak under foot. Within the Basilica there are attractions which range in price from €1.50 to €3. Travelers won't lose sleep over missing any of these unless their interest lies in Christian history and art [see sidebar: San Marco]. After cooling down inside of St. Mark's Basilica a trip next door the the Doge's Palace might be in order.

"Palazzo Ducale," the Doge's Palace was the Italian Gothic style home to each of the 118 chief magistrates that ruled over Venice starting in 697 AD. From ornate apartments and artwork to the clock in the courtyard to the prisoner cells in the bowels of the palace, Palazzo Ducale offers a breathtaking example of lavish living a thousand years ago.

For €17, wise travelers will opt for the "Museum Card" which allows them to visit the Doge's Palace and the Correr Museum (at the opposite end of Piazza San Marco), saving them a few Euro for another gelato while looking for bargains in the shopper's paradise on the Rialto Bridge. Though Piazza San Marco is a must see there is still much to take in.

The world-famous glass-blowing artisans on Murano regularly demonstrate their masterful techniques for turning a lump of molten glass on the end of a metal blow tube into everything from small animals to huge chandeliers. The demonstrations are free but often times the emcee will pass a hat for donations. Tipping is, of course, optional.

If blown glass doesn't polish your fancy, a trip to Burano, the home of the lace trade in Venice, could be your next stop.

Like Murano, looking is free in Burano. This is a smaller island so there is less to see outside of the markets peddling their goods. A curious traveler will soon discover that the best part about trips to any of these islands is taking time to interact with the Venetians.

Tourism is the life-blood of Venice these days and the Venetians are anxious to talk visitors into buying their goods. They're also interested in talking about everything Italy and why you won't find a better product anywhere.

Marco the pittore (painter) openly shared stories of how and why he painted such things as the Bridge of Sighs or Campanile.

Color palette, tools, technique and materials are chosen to give each painting a certain mood. Masterful strokes with a palette knife gave texture to the rough canvas turning the two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional sleepy canal in winter where the sun has just begun to set. "This is best quality painting in Venezia," Marco said.

Traveling on a budget is possible even in a tourist hot-spot like Venice. Finger sandwiches, a bottle of house wine, a cool breeze off the Adriatic and a choir of church bells bring all the romance of the Queen of the Adriatic well into reach for those willing to explore off the beaten path on a budget.