Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Get Your Satiricon

When we last left you, which was only yesterday, we were beating a retreat across the island of Sicily in our slightly wounded rental car, having attempted to fit it through a street just a bit narrower than its own width.  Although the front panel scraping and the subsequent backing into a parked car left my ego more bruised than our Lancia’s sheetmetal skin, by dinnertime we had arrived at our home for the next two nights, the estate of Gianfranco Becchina, producer of the award winning Olio Verde extravirgin olive oil in Castelvetrano.  Even under cloak of darkness, when we arrived at the Tenuta Pignatelli we knew we were in for a treat.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Maalox and Autovelox

Day One of our post Food & Wine Tour itinerary is under our belts.  After two weeks of eating and drinking with our guests (I tell my father it’s work) it’s surprising there was any room left under there.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Food and Wine - Part Due

And so 2011 Umbria Food and Wine II, the second installment of our annual food and grape binge in Umbria came to an end yesterday.  And the second week was as intense, enjoyable and interesting as the first.  And completely different.

Now we need a vacation.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Two weeks and it’s time to pull up stakes and move on.  For just over two weeks we have been eating and drinking and touring and guiding, introducing two wonderful groups of fellow travellers, now known as friends, to the wonders that make up life in Umbria.  Two separate week-long Umbria Food and Wine tours.  It’s time to close the book on this year’s experience.  It has been memorable.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Only in America

Only in America.

I thought this was a Jimmy Durante quote.  Wikipedia does not agree.  Nonetheless, we have a sense that certain things can happen only in America.

We keep returning to Italy, to Umbria, because days like yesterday can happen only in Italy.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Wow.  It’s hard to find another word to describe Fabriano.  Yesterday was our third visit to this little town tucked away in an obscure corner of our next door neighbor province Le Marche.  Fabriano definitely has it goin’ on.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I'm a Pickin' and I'm a Grinnin'

Some of our experiences here in Italy just cannot be written about.  Others, like the impact of seeing a particular painting for the first time, the joy of spending a day cooking with a local chef, the taste of a great meal or an unforgettable bottle of wine, lend themselves to recreation through words and pictures.

But others are so elemental that have to be lived to fully understand and appreciate them.  Picking olives with the Palermis is one of those experiences.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

B-E-N-G-O and Ben-Go Was his Name-O

In this blog, in which I primarily recount our daily adventures here in Italy, I often try to tie together the day’s disparate activities by employing a common thematic strain.  Often, many of you will agree, doing so is a real strain.  Yesterday’s activities, at least for the first part of the day, however, lend themselves well to a theme.

Benozzo Gozzoli.

Monday, October 31, 2011

New Beginnings

Sometimes it’s difficult to see something that’s right in front of your face until someone points it out to you.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gli Azzurri

In with the new.  Today our second weekly installment of Umbria Food & Wine 2011 began with the arrival of Mary Ellen and Robert.  You might recognize their names.  They joined us on our 2010 Umbria Food & Wine tour.  Some people just don’t learn from their mistakes.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ci Vediamo!

Yesterday marked the end of our 2011 Umbria Food & Wine Tour I, our Friday being a sort of super add on bonus day for our one remaining guest.  This morning – very early this morning – we said goodbye to our last guest and begin the turn around before shifting gears and welcoming our guests to 2011 Umbria Food & Wine II. 

La dolce vita in high gear.  Like a Ferrari.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Olive Italy

And so we come to the end of our 2011 Food and Wine Tour, having said goodbye a day early to some of our guests, but adding an extra day for others as compensation.  And we get ready to welcome tomorrow our guests for our 2011 Food and Wine II Tour, a second week of eating, drinking, chattering, laughing and smiling in English and Italian.  We’re looking forward to it.

But there is some unfinished business to take care of on week I.  There is still food to be tasted, smelled, studied, looked at and learned about.  There is still wine to be sniffed, swirled, squinted at, slurped and quaffed.  So yesterday we set off in search of olive oil and cheese.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rainy Days and Wednesdays

Wednesday is pork day on our Food and Wine itinerary, a day dedicated to driving to the far corner of Umbria to visit Norcia, the capital of pork butchery of Italy and the hometown of Saint Benedict, the patron saint of Europe.  Thursday is also hiking day in Castelluccio, the beautiful mountain valley town just beyond Norcia, whose vast lunar-like valley is blanketed with fields of lentils prized throughout Italy.

The itinerary says Wednesday is pork and hiking day.  But the weather says no.  A steady rain, which started the previous evening has thrown the proverbial spanner in the works.  We scramble to make new plans.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Kitchens and Garages

To spend time with Salvatore Denaro is to step into a fantasy world.  His personality literally bends and reshapes reality to suit himself.  From the numerous times we have been fortunate to spend a day with Salvatore, we can say it suits us too.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

It's Pardi Time

Seven o’clock rolls around pretty early here in Italy.

I am aware that in reality it comes right after six o’clock, just like back home, but it sure seems earlier.  Maybe it has something to do with the euro/dollar exchange rate or the English/metric conversion.  But it seems awfully early.

Maybe it has something to do with our daytime activities.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lions and Truffles and Lambs, Oh My!

My high school roommate’s father used to be fond of telling me (and presumably others) a certain joke.  He would start by asking, “William . . . have I ever told you the story of the lion and the lamb?”  Having heard the story on numerous occasions I would invariably reply, “why yes, Mr. Burton.  You have.”  “Good.  Let me tell it to you.”

The story goes like this.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Unchain My Heart, with Apologies to Ray Charles

When I was a kid in school there was a popular syllogism going around that said:
“God is love.
Love is blind.
Ray Charles is blind.
Therefore Ray Charles is God.” 

As we arrived at our villa in Cannara yesterday, after a day in Rome, my slightly jetlagged brain creakily came up with a new syllogism for our time in Italy:
“Umbria is called is the ‘green heart of Italy.’
Home is where the heart is.
Therefore Umbria is our home.”

I think to be completely accurate it should be “Umbria is our green home.”  Or green Umbria is our home.”  Or “Umbria is our home.  Green.”  I’ll keep working on it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Real. Comfortable. Italy.

How easy it is to return to Italy.  Like a comfortable pair of jeans, it seems slip on so effortlessly and fit like it was always part of you.  And as an added bonus, it doesn’t make your butt look to big.  Yet.

 We were meant to return.   Otherwise the travel gods wouldn’t have found us a cheap upgrade to business class.  They wouldn’t have made traffic to National Airport light and skies from Washington to Rome clear of (most) bumps.   They wouldn’t have had us arrive 45 minutes early so we would meet up with Mary Ellen and her son Dan, who we will host next week, at the baggage carousel at Fiumicino.  Those travel gods kindly unleashed a once in a generation deluge on Rome the day before we arrived, rather than upon our arrival.  A flash flood so great that a day later everyone was still marveling over images of vespa riders being swept away by walls of water.

Those travel gods were just toying with us as little play things when they refused to let our in-seat video systems to work, facing us with the prospect of 8 hours no Nemo, no Marli, of no Snape, MadEye Moody or Hermione.  And they seemed to laugh out loud when they rendered inoperable the tiny button to turn off our overhead lights, leaving a searing laser of light pointed right at our faces as we sought to get a little shuteye on our videoless flight.  But toying it was, as those muses of travel whispered into the flight attendant’s ear to take a blanket and tuck it into the ceiling air vents, crossing the lights and covering their daytime blast.  And toying they were when they reminded us that we had packed a DVD of Roman Holiday, inviting Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn to urge us eastward, saying “come in, the water’s fine” even as Rome’s floodwaters began to recede.

I would recommend a viewing of Roman Holiday (our first was yesterday on the fight over) to anyone planning to spend a few days in Rome.  Even with its dated 1950’s black and white take on Rome, it catches something eternal about the spirit of the Eternal City.  And watching Gregory and Audrey wobble on their Vespa down the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle will make anyone want to risk the insane traffic to relive that experience.  We’ll save that for another trip, as we have only one night here in Rome.  But it was clearly fortune shining on us as we dropped off Karen, one of our companions for the next week, at her hotel at Via Margutta, 56, just a few doors down from Joe Bradley’s (Peck’s) flat at Via Margutta, 51.

Many would suggest that a walking tour of the Vatican would not be the best way to challenge jet lag on one’s first day in Rome.  They wouldn’t know Professore Enrico Bruschini, doubtless Rome’s very best tourguide, its most knowledgeable art historian and most passionate booster of Rome.  We began our two week plus trip to Italy with not a two hour or three hour or four hour walking tour of Rome, but a full five hours on our feet, chasing the eternally young professore down the corridors of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, as he pointed out a tapestry here, a piece of breccia marble or porphyry there, and shared personal accounts of his cleaning the centuries of accumulated grime from the walls of the Sistine Chapel.  Enrico is every bit a part of the beating heart of Rome as is Gregory Peck or a Vespa ride.

And just below that beating heart is a yawning stomach.  It was fed early and often on our first day back.  First at a simple lunch at the Osteria alla Rampa, a simple but authentic trattoria in the shadow of the Spanish Steps.  And then at an anonymous Trastevere trattoria for a fabulous dinner of mostly raw seafood with our Roman friends Kay and Massimo, Clark and Raffaella and Frances and our guests for the week, Karen, Willia and John.  How our souls had been yearning for the experience of sitting around a table with friends, old and new, enjoying a great meal and even better company.  How our feet had been yearning for nearly four hours seated, a chance to recover from five hours racing.

Yes, Italy is like a pair of comfortable jeans.  So easy to slip on, so flattering, just so right.  And today, as we head to Umbria to begin the first of our two week long Umbria Food and Wine tours, I suspect we might just have to unbutton her top button.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Friday, October 7, 2011

Thank You!

A big thank you to all of you who joined us on Sept. 24 to celebrate Bella Italia's anniversary bash.  It's been eight truly wonderful years of discovery and sharing with our customers. And it's been a memorable and rewarding year since we moved from Cupcake Alley (Bethesda Avenue) to our new location on Hampden Lane.  While the pedestrian traffic may be lighter we feel like we have found our home.

As with most anniversaries, this one gave us an opportunity to reflect on our journey over the past years. And I wanted to share a few thoughts about what it's like to own and operate a small business these days.  While politicians fight with each other just a few miles away about "job creators" and stimuli, it is clear to us that their machinations are barely relevant to our daily lives. No, we have learned -- as we have toiled to keep open the doors of a high end, narrow niche business and scraped pennies together to meet payroll to maintain the jobs of some terrific colleagues, all the while coping with a series of disruptive construction projects, a historic world financial crisis and a tepid recovery -- that what is important is not the macro, but the micro.  We can't control the cost of the Euro or even know if it will exist next year.  We can't control if people will shop more during the holidays than they did last year.  All we can control is what we do and love it with all of our heart.  And we do.

A happy result -- perhaps the most important result of all -- of our frequent trips to Italy over the past few years has been our discovery of what we have found, for us, is a far better way of life than the "American" life that preceded it.  In Italy we have experienced a modo di vivere that values relationships and connectedness first - connections with the natural world and selfless loving relationships with those around you - and then takes it as an article of faith that the material needs will take care of themselves.  We feel this spirit strongly in our adopted home near Assisi, it perhaps being a vestige of the Saint's presence there centuries ago.  But we see and feel it too in the faces and hearts of the Italians we have met across that lovely peninsula.

The past year has seen Suzy and me redouble our efforts at Bella Italia but even more so our commitment to what made us hatch this crazy idea nearly a decade ago.  A love for la dolce vita and all that it represents.  Some may think that we sell products.  We think we share treasures.  Treasures that hold inside them the spirit of a loving artist who wakes up every morning loving his work the same way his father and grandfather and grandfather's father did.  We think that those people and that way of life deserves to be supported.  We wake up every day, too, loving our work and thinking of who we are working for.

Small businesses like ours are fragile creatures.  We don't have marketing budgets, IT departments or corporate jets.  If you like what you see or what you've experienced at Bella Italia, it's likely due to the efforts of one of the small handful of us who do this daily. And what you told us last Saturday by celebrating our anniversary with us is that you do like what we do (even if some of you came only for the chance to win a week at the villa).

So if you do love the Bella experience like we do, you can help.  More than you can imagine.  Help us spread the word about Bella Italia.  When your friend says she is going to buy a wedding present at Nordstroms, let her know that a gift from Bella Italia will be more unique and thoughtful. Bring a friend or two (or three) by to meet us.  Think of us when you shop for the holidays.  Come with us on our Umbria Food and Wine tour or rent our villa in Umbria. Come to our book club, wine tastings or other special events.  Have your company send custom gift baskets to your clients.  Take a cooking class when Chef Simone visits in January.  Talk us up in the press.
Because as much as we believe in Bella Italia and la dolce vita we can't do it alone.  If you believe too, we welcome your support.

Looking forward to another fantastic year.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I know it is possible to raise bees and make honey in America.  I even have friends that do it in Washington, DC.  But in reality it can't be done.  Just like we could flamenco dance when we go out at night.  It just isn't who we are.

But bee keeping and making honey, just like growing fig trees, frying zucchini flowers and taking a nap in the hot afternoon sun, is part of the natural rhythm here in Italy.  It is a part of our life here at our villa, in part because we are an agriturismo - a vacation farm house with a working farm.  We grow tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, basil, sage and more in our garden.  We have fig, apricot, date, walnut and other trees.  Each season we harvest some crops in our modest sized fields - onions, alfalfa, chick peas or tall fields of sunflowers.

But here in Italy everyone gets into the act.  Everyone has his own garden.  Everyone cures his own prosciutto, ages his own cheese.  Everyone, it seems, has his own hive and makes his own honey.

Perhaps that is a slight overstatement, but here in Umbria, at least, it seems everyone you talk to has his own hive or his own prized garden.  It is what they do.  It is who they are.

* * *

This was our second year raising bees.  One day a couple of years ago two wooden hives, two green painted, house-shaped wooden boxes, about a foot and a half high, appeared on the perimiter of the villa compound.  They were put there by Marco, the young Italian man who helps run the villa and who, growing up in Umbria has been steeped in the tradition of beekeeping, asparagus foraging and truffle hunting.  His father, our good friend Lodovico, a retired former pharmaceutical company employee grew up in the southern part of Umbria, where his brother still lives today, listening to and following the cycles of nature.  It is a way of life that he has instilled in his son, who is still in the process of developing this special gift, fighting against the tides of "progress" - Americanization - that would replace a lifestyle in sync with nature with one that values technology and isolation from the natural world.  It is interesting to daily watch how he reconciles the modern with the traditional.  He does a good job at it.

So two years ago Marco started our first effort to raise bees and make honey.  Every trip here I excitedly crept near the beehives, feeling them swarm around me even when they didn't, fascinated by the mass of buzzing bees that clung to the outside of their houses.  I had no idea what was going on inside, but watched with amazement as dozens of bees would enter the small passageway at the bottom of the hive and another dozen would emerge and fly off, presumably to collect pollen at some nearby favorite watering hole.

Our first season of beekeeping was entirely unsuccessful.  No honey was produced, or so at least I was led to believe.  One day when I asked Marco when he would collect the honey, he replied that there would be none this year.  He did not explain anything else, just cryptically saying the bees did not produce.  At least our luck was better than his father's, though, who suffered a colony collapse and ended up with an empty hive.

This year, then, I was determined to keep better tabs on the progress of our hive and honey.  Each trip to the villa I would talk to Marco about how things were going with the bees and my frequent visits to the hive confirmed that at least one of the two hives was thriving, a huge knot of bees sunning themselves on the front wall of their green chalet, non-stop activity in and out of the hive.  At the beginning of this trip Marco reported that they seemed to be working hard and making honey.  We were only a couple of weeks away from our first harvest.

Earlier this week when I asked Marco when he though would be B Day he replied later in the week and when we met at Lodovico's house for a lovely party later in the week he told me that I could borrow Lodovico's beekeeper suit if I wanted to help out.  I was already flying pretty high at Lodovico's party, but this sent me off the edge.

* * *

The next morning a rap on my window awoke me at 7am, announcing that the early morning honey harvest was about to begin.  I emerged a few minutes later, realizing I knew nothing about the process, showing up in shorts and sandals, which would not provide quite the level of protection as the thick shirt and attached mesh helmet.  I found some long pants and shoes, but was a little worried that I had only ankle socks, no long socks, hoping the pants would not ride up too much leaving my ankles exposed to the bees.

Slipping the beekeeper's suit over my head and emerging inside the screened in helmet for the first time was a feeling that I shall never forget.  You see the world in a different way when you are looking out through the screen, the world broken into a million tiny square windows not unlike a fly's eye.  As I approached the hive, the roof of which Marco had already removed, which raised the ire of the colony, the buzzing was palpable and time seemed to slow down.  The angry bees swarmed everywhere, landing on our arms and legs and walking along the screen of the helmet.  But Marco spoke in calm tones, telling jokes in his excellent English (I don't think the bees understood, but it kept my nervousness in check), moving deliberately but purposefully.

Throughout he pumped smoke onto the colony from a teapot like dispenser, a bellows on the back which would propel smoke where aimed.  This magic substance slowed down the bees and made them mostly docile, allowing us to work to pry up the vertically stacked wooden frames that were inside the top floor of the bee house, and which the bees had used to create honeycombs which had been filled with honey and sealed with wax.  Marco pried up a wooden frame, I would apply a bit of smoke to the mass of bees that covered the honeycomb and he would lightly brush them off of it and into the hive.  The comb was then placed in a plastic box that was covered to keep the bees from discovering it and re-defending it.

This process was repeated over and over until all of the combs were removed.  We then moved into the house where a large stainless steel cylinder, about two feet in diameter and three feet high stood.  We took the wooden frames and gently removed the wax covering from the ends of the combs with a knife, basically slicing off the cap on each side of the comb, and quickly inserted the oozing frames into the canister where they slid into place standing upright and radiating from a central core.  After each of the frames had been uncorked and placed in the canister, the top was closed and I cranked a handle which caused the entire core to rotate.  The canister was a large centrifuge and as the frames began to spin the honey in each comb was forced out and onto the side of the can, where it oozed down to the bottom.  In about ten minutes the honeycombs were empty, each frame weighing a fraction of what it had just minutes before, and the bottom of the cannister was full of honey.

We then put the cannister on a table and placed a smaller cannister below it.  Opening the valve of the centrifuge, honey began to stream in thick ribbons into the storage cannister, first passing through a seive to strain out bits of wax and honeycomb and, perhaps, the occaisional bee that had been trapped in this process.  By now all of the villa's guests were awake and watching this spectacle, dipping their fingers in the running stream of honey and oohing and aahing about the taste.  It was truly a moment of pure joy for all.

* * *

Several days later, as I write about this, our pantry is stocked with dozens of jars of honey.  Home made honey from La Fattoria del Gelso.  Even as the buzzing sound in my ears fades into memory, I still enjoy walking into the pantry and just look at the jars.  My jars.  Marco's jars.  Our bee's jars.  It is a satisfaction that I have never really felt before.  One I never got drafting contracts or writing legal briefs.  Not when doing well on a math test or even when having an excellent meal in a restaurant.  This satisfaction comes not from the doing or the accomplishing, but from the being.  From the connection.  I rarely feel it at home but often feel it here in Italy, here in Umbria.  A place where the bees helped put the be in human being.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Tavolo

And so we begin the ending of our Italian odyssey not exactly where it began, but in the center, in the place that always draws us back, that place that cast its magical spell on us and commands that we return.  We return to Umbria.

The days of food and wine, too late nights and too early mornings, of racing somewhere to slow down and see and the vagaries of the Italian internet have time shifted these reports from the live to the tape delayed.  We begin our fourth day in Umbria today, three days of nonstop activity, frivolity and excess, but of those three missing days there is only a single thing to report.

The table.

Our friend Marco once told us of a billiard parlor in nearby Foligno.  It described itself as being in Umbria, the center of Italy.  And in Foligno, the center of Umbria.  The parlor itself was in the center of Foligno and one particular table was in the center of the billiard parlor.  Here, then, was the center of Italy.

They got it just slightly wrong.

Each night here in Cannara, both on our first stopover three weeks ago and today, as we host two families whose sons used to go to school with our twins and another family whose daughter now goes to school with them, we dine under the stars at a makeshift table, an assemblage of small wooden tables pushed together to accommodate the evening's group, whether it be the three couples who studied together in Bologna supplemented by my college roommate and his wife, our expat friend from Rome, the chef of a nearby restaurant, our new close friends from nearby Castelnuovo, the gentleman who sold us this house, our twins and their friends.  The table is infinitely expandable to suit our group for whatever occasion.

And every night it is the same.  Three hours under the stars, platters of food, bottles of wine, plastic water bottles everywhere.  And conversations animating the night air, punctuated by laughter, shouting and heads tilted backwards, pointing skyward.  Over these weeks in Cannara old friendships became deeper and new friendships developed easily and naturally.  That is the way here in Italy and that is the way around the table.
Last night, the sixth installment of the grand meal since our new guests arrived ((lunch + dinner) X 2) was more of the same.  But as the evening wound down and I looked across to the other end of the table, to the "children's end" I saw the same thing.  Eight young adults deep in conversation, eyes wide open and fixed on each other, hanging on every word.  For three and a half solid hours.  It gave me hope and it gave me joy to see this generation so engaged, so at peace.  At home no one would make the time to do this.

If you ask me, we can't afford to not do this.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Monday, August 1, 2011

La Spiaggia e Aperta

December 7, 1941.  September 11, 2001.  The day President Kennedy was shot.  Everyone remembers where they were on these fateful days as the news broke that changed the trajectory of history.
Add to that list July 29, 2011.  I was walking down the main street in Ponza, looking for a souvenir of our visit when the tiny Italian cellphone that has been our constant companion on our trips here for the past six or seven years rang.  "They've reopened the Chiaia di Luna beach."
Chiaia di Luna beach - at beach level.

For a moment, words failed me.  I stopped in my tracks, my mind racing but not fixing on anything in particular and then the image began to come into focus.  The beautiful Chiaia di Luna, the half moon shaped bay over which our hotel for the past four summers was perched and down on which we had gazed every day for those four years was reopened.  The magnet which had originally drawn us to this island and to this hotel, that teasingly allowed us to look but not touch, was finally allowing us in.  This was indeed a date for the history books.

* * *

Ponza is a rocky island, a small speck of an island located an hour plus off the Italian coast from Anzio.  It is surrounded on all sides by water but despite that great advantage, it only has a small handful of sandy beaches.  Most of the island's beaches are craggy, volcanic rock outcroppings on which bathers set up chairs and tiptoe over painful, jagged rocks to ease into the crystal clear waters.  The major exception is Frontone, a mega beach close to the main port, but which, with its rows of umbrellas and chairs, looks (at least from a boat offshore, since we have never gone ashore there) like most other coastal Italian beaches.

Right in the middle of the island, however, is an enormous bay, a half moon shaped bay called Chiaia di Luna, which is enclosed by sheer cliffs that give shape to the bay and which shelter a tiny sliver of a beach.  While the beach is made from small stones rather than sand, it has the look of a typical beach.  Except it is deserted.
For as long as we have been coming to Ponza and to the Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna the beach at Chiaia di Luna has been closed.  Closed because the sheer sandstone cliffs that give the beach its unrivaled beauty decided one day, some years ago, to do what sheer sandstone cliffs have been doing since the beginning of time and which the cliffs here have been doing as well.  They caved in.

Unfortunately, some unfortunate bathers happened to be below the cliffs when they decided to do their freefall.

In the four years that we have been coming to Ponza and enjoying sunsets from the hotel's Ki Bar that is perched on top of one of those cliffs overlooking the Chiaia di Luna, enjoying sunset after sunset with electronic music, an aperitif and friends, we have been haunted by the Chiaia di Luna beach.   It was simply abandoned.  As if the police told everyone to get out after the collapse, removed the bodies and left everything else to nature.  The terraces of the couple of bars that once lined the beach still have tables and chairs sitting out, the chairs pushed away from the table as though they were rushed from as the walls came tumbling down, the doors gently swinging in the breeze.  Flotsam and jetsam has washed up on the beach, which has been closed to bathers arriving by boat by a rope with "No Entry" bouys stretched the entire length of the bay.  Despite the efforts of authorities, occasionally one would see bathers who swam under the rope to catch some sun on the deserted beach.

But the main barrier to entry was the closing of the Roman tunnel.

Ponza, it seems, was a favorite of the Romans, presumably both for defensive reasons and as a summer beach destination.  And being engineers with a little time on their hands (they had a thousand years to establish their empire, after all) they set to building a tunnel from the main port through the cliffs and to the beach.  History books and tourist guides tell us that the tunnel was built to permit soldiers to get quickly from the port to the beach, which is on the other side of the island.  But it is more likely that it was built for soldiers to get quickly from the port to the beach so they could enjoy a martinus (one only, please, while on duty) and the sunset.

* * *

So fo four years we walked past the sign trumpeting the Roman tunnel, only to find it fenced in, boarded up and overgrown.  We enjoyed the Chiaia di Luna from above, at sunset, and from the water, anchoring in the bay on numerous circuits of the island, swimming in its cool, clear waters, but unable to come ashore and experience what the Romans of ancient time as well as the Roman holidaymakers of more recent times (before the cave in) were able to experience.

* * *

Only two days before the beach's reopening, I asked our captain, Antonio, during our giro of the island, when the beach would ever be reopened.  This obviously is a sore spot among Ponzese.  There is either disagreement or simply a repressed memory among them, for no one can give a definitive answer for even how long the beach has been closed.  Some say 20 years, other say 4 or 5 years.  From our experience it must have been at least 4 years, as it was closed on our first visit to the island, a fact that the management of the Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna had failed to mention when we booked our room and which they failed to excise from their promotional materials.  At least until this year.

Last summer we observed a great deal of activity going on on the cliffs above the beach.  Enormous rolls of wire fencing were placed at the top of the cliffs and drilling and pounding was going on during our entire stay.  Ponzese workmen were doing their best Roman imitation, acting the part of the engineer that was going to make the beach at Chiaia di Luna safe for topless sunbathing once again.  By installing an enormous screen along the entire face of the cliff, to catch falling rocks and giving the bathers below enough time to put their tops back on and change into a dryer speedo before speeding away from the killing zone.

Upon our arrival this summer, it appeared as though the work had been completed.  Yet still the beach was not open.  That is what caused Capitano Antonio to go into a classic Italian rant, words spreeing forth from his mouth, hands jerking back and forth.  Chi sa?  Who knows?  They have been working on this thing for years, spending tons of money and they have nothing to show for it.  It is like a fairy tale.  It probably will never reopen.

The next day, Pete asked our hostess at the hotel when, if ever, the beach would reopen.  No so.  I don't know, but really meaning I don't even know.  Less than 24 hours later I received the phone call from Suzy that the beach had reopened.  Talk about little fanfare.

* * *

Upon hearing the news, I finished my shopping and walked back, as fast as my legs would carry me, toward the Roman tunnel.  I imagined myself a Roman soldier, hearing the sounding of the claxton that could mean only one thing.  Last call at the beach bar.  Or the arrival of a boatload of party girls from nearby Palmarola island. My heart raced.  Hail Caesar.

* * *

I arrived at the entrance to the Roman tunnel, which I had passed dozens of times on my walks from the town to the hotel.  But today the gate, which after a couple of years I had stopped even noticing was closed, was swung open.  I walked down the overgrown pathway and into the tunnel, which is now supported with scaffolding and lined with a wooden boardwalk.  It was dark and narrow and you could feel the spirit of departed Roman soldiers as well as the litter of more recent construction workers.  At one point the single bulb that illuminated the tunnel was burnt out plunging the walkway into total darkness.  But as it straightened out, a bright light from the other side drew me forward.  It was all eerily like a near death experience, but instead it was a rebirth experience.  As the light grew brighter and larger, I finally emerged onto a wooden platform poised a few feet above the stone beach.  Stretched out before me for thousands of feet was the sheer, smooth, slightly arcing cliff of Chiaia di Luna.  I stepped off the platform and onto the smooth stones and felt like I was not making history, but was one with it.

* * *

The beach, or spiaggia, of Chiaia di Luna is made up of about 60 billion small stones, each the size of a new potato or smaller, and smooth and cool to the touch.  About 80 percent of them ended up in my shoes.  With each step, at least for a grown man who has eaten and drunk his way through Italy for the past four weeks, I sunk into this expanse of stones and they were instantly attracted to the souls of my feet.  Never mind.  I was on the spiaggia di Chiaia di Luna, the very place where Roman centurions stripped their armor off centuries ago and lay in their togas (or less), enjoying the faint whistle of the wind and the lapping of the waves against the stones, as they gently crunched and rolled over one another, a glorious background noise that was less white noise than a beautiful symphony of nature.  It is a faint tune that we had been unable to hear from our perch above the beach at our hotel or even from our boat anchored within swimming distance.  But it is a celestial sound that I will always remember on the historic day that I was among the first to visit the newly reopened spiaggia di Chiaia di Luna.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ponza Perfection

The New York Times and I have been spirited competitors for some time.  Ever since I became a member of the journalistic fraternity those many years ago (filling in for my brother's paper route when he was sick, even doing collections from customers) I have felt them sizing me up and they, no doubt, have occasionally looked over their shoulder to see what I am up to.  The similarities between us are nearly endless, starting with their quasi plagiarism from me for their "All the news that's fit to print" tagline (obviously lifted my my mantra - "all the news that fits, I'll print") and the nickname "The Gray Lady" (v. the fat, graying man).

Nonetheless, despite our Hertz-Avis rivalry, we have seen mostly eye to eye over the years.  A recent article, however, shattered the uneasy detente that had existed between us.  I refer, of course, to the article "Off the Roman Coast, Bobbing for Views," which appeared in the Sunday Travel section on May 6 of this year.  The Lady's depiction of the island of Ponza, which we included in this year's itinerary for the fourth consecutive summer, simply did not, in this humble reporter's opinion, meet the high journalistic standards that I expect of myself and of my peers.  When the flat prose and poorly chosen highlights were combined with the dull black and white photos in the print version, the effect on readers was no doubt - "I'll take a pass on that place."

Perhaps the Times was doing us a favor, making Ponza look ordinary.  They hid away the good photos in vivid color in their online article and everyone knows that no one reads online newspapers nowadays when a good handsmudging paper copy is available.   Or perhaps they intentionally misrepresented this magical island, hoping to keep it a secret for their in crowd and premium subscribers.  As noble as that impulse might be, it lacks journalistic integrity.  No, for me, I feel it is right and proper to shout it from the mountaintops, that Ponza is the most perfect place on earth.  And I don't care if my 14 readers all buy tickets tomorrow and flood the island.

The truth must be told.

* * *

I suppose one could find Ponza to be an ordinary place.  Unless one likes fresh seafood, warm people and warmer weather, crystal clear crisp blue seawater, winding mountain roads with panoramic views of the sea from a puttering Vespa, quiet peaceful beaches dotted with a smattering of stylish Italian sunseekers.  Or a relaxing day with family on a rented motor boat with a local captain, exploring every one of the island's thousands of nooks, crannies, cathedral cliffs, grottoes, beaches and beach restaurants.

It takes only a couple of hours to circumnavigate Ponza by boat and you can rent and captain your own, as we did a couple of years ago, or for about the same price you can get a local captain, who happens to know where each Titanic iceberg of a rock lies just below the surface, to take you.  We've done the giro (the circuit) four or five times now in our four years coming here.  I don't think we could ever get tired of it, even if we did it every day for the next thousand days (Ponza days, that is, just in the summer).  Our captain this year, a local man of about 50 named Antonio and who was described by the charter master as the best captain on the island, actually was the best captain on the island.  Our boat, which held Suzy, our twin sons, friends Pete and Nancy and me, in addition to our marinaio could have held a dozen or more souls but in Antonio's hands it was like a little dinghy, as he repeatedly threaded rocky needles in the surging swells that followed us all day.  He spoke no English.  Not a lick.  But we understood him perfectly and bonded with him instantly.   Maybe because he reminded us of another Italian Tony, last name Soprano.  Subconsciously perhaps we didn't want to end up like Big Pussy.

* * *

One of the main purposes of coming to Ponza, for us at least, is to eat.  If you like seafood it is a place that is impossible to resist.  Every lunch, every dinner a feast not seen since our last visit to Red Lobster.  (I kid the Red Lobster eaters).  Everything fresh, having been pulled from the sea that day by the owner's best friend.  Everything simple - ridiculously perfectly al dente spaghetti topped by fresh vongole (clams), each strand coated with a flavor that tastes like liquid sea.  Fresh whole fish simply grilled.  Fatty tuna seared on the outside and raw in the middle.  Swordfish served lightly cooked, topping pasta or thinly sliced and raw.  Heaps of fried calamari and little fishes that look like the ones I raised as a boy in my aquarium.  Wash it all down with cold white wine from nearby Campagna, where they know how to make a wine that goes well with fish.  Eating on Ponza is not just a pleasure.  It is a moral obligation.

And our return engagement to the island was animated in part, if not in major part, by our desire for a return engagement at the restaurant Cala Feola.  There, a year ago, we enjoyed the most magical afternoon and lunch with our four children and Pete and Nancy, stepping off our rental boat onto the rocky shore that protects a small marina just below the town of Le Forna.  Five paces away a small rectangular shack with a wooden roof and open sides, enclosing a half dozen simple tables and benches awaited us.  Hours later, plates clean, save for the lobster shells that had topped our pasta we reboarded our boat, dreaming of a return some day.  This day we did.

And forget about those who say you can't go home again.  We did go home to Cala Feola and it was a home run.  It was the same in every respect - warm greeting from the owner, a comfortable table with a great view of the beach and the boats, lots of wine and a basket of live lobsters to choose from to top our spaghetti.  It was the same and it was perfect.  How often does one get an opportunity to relive perfection?

* * *

A little over a week ago we were visiting the north of Italy, a region called Friuli.  One of the memorable activities we undertook there was to take our hotel's Vespas for a ride along the winding wine country roads.  At the time I wrote that there is nothing more exhilerating than riding a Vespa in the Collio.  I was wrong or at least partially wrong.  There is something every bit as good as riding a Vespa in the Collio.  Riding a Vespa on the mountain road that runs along the spine of the tiny rock of an island that is Ponza.  And there is nothing better than having your son holding on right behind you, sharing the sounds of the cool air rushing through your helmet and the sight of rocky Palmarola in the distance and rocky beaches dotted with colorful beach chairs and umbrellas hundreds of feet below.  This, too, is perfection.

* * *

Chiaia di Luna beach
The beaches in Ponza are not sandy except for the crowed Frontone beach - beware any beach that offers free boat service to it - and Chiaia di Luna, a long, half moon shaped bay with a sliver of a sandy beach that is abutted by completely vertical cliff and which, due to cave-ins of those cliffs over the years has been closed to beachgoers for many, many years.  But there are numerous rocky beaches, more like platforms that oozed into the water from ancient volcanoes, where industrious Ponzese have set up concessions offering beach chairs and umbrellas, and some with lunch service as well.  We have explored a number of these little makeshift beaches, each one with a little different character, different exposure and view, different clientele.

One of our favorites is la Caletta, a cheery beach run by a cheery fellow named Silverio (Saint Silverio is the patron saint of these island and it seems that every other male here is named Silverio), that is reachable by a perilously steep goat path from the town above.  The climb reinforces the natural inclination that one has of being happy to arrive and upset to leave.

We returned to la Caletta one day on this visit, on a day when the weather was not particularly good.  In fact, we nearly decided to skip it, opting for, surprise, a long lunch.  But just as we were settling the bill, the clouds parted and the sun began to shine.  So we made the trek down the mountain side, arriving at la Caletta before nearly anyone else came up with the same idea.  We rented chairs and umbrellas from a boy who we presumed was Silverio's son, the transaction triggering the return of the clouds.  Despite the mediocre weather we enjoyed the tranquility and cool breezes that lapped the shore and a little later Silverio made his appearance, instantly recognizing us from previous visits and making up for the lack of sunshine with his own.

* * *

The next day, during our giro of the island with our captain it became clear that I had left a pair of swim goggles at la Caletta the previous day.  Because the waters do have an occasional jellyfish (medusa) that can give a very nasty sting, having some of our group on medusa watch with swim goggles is a good idea, and the missing pair was being sorely felt.  So after our lunch at Cala Feola I prevailed upon our captain to drive up as close to la Caletta as he could and that I would swim in shore and ask if they had found my goggles from the previous day.  Tony S. obliged, practically driving our boat on shore and, as we approached, Silverio recognized us, gave us a wave, formed his thumb and forefingers into two circles and placed them over his eyes, acknowledging that he had found our goggles and knew they were ours and retrieved them from his hut.  Then a perfect throw from the shore to our boat and our recovery mission, made with Seal-like precision was over.  Everyone on board shook their heads in disbelief.  Things like this happen in Ponza every day.  The miracle of San Silverio.

* * *

There is a spirited debate going on between Suzy and me, whether it is better to come to Ponza for four or five days, avoiding the more croweded weekends or to stay for several weeks.  I don't know what the right answer to that question is, but I'm more than happy to test each proposition well into the future.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Friday, July 29, 2011

Planes, Trains and Aliscafi

As the Venice portion of our trip comes to a close, we begin to face the grim reality that all travellers eventually must come to grips with.  To be a traveller you have to travel.  And as anyone will tell you nowadays, travel has become a chore.  Our romantic vision of the travel of yesteryear, with its sophisticated transatlantic crossings in black tie, bandying about such high sounding terms as staterooms and steamer trunks has been overtaken with the likes of cattle class, overhead bins and checked baggage fees.  But travel in the days of yore took weeks and was available only to the rich.  Today you can say what the heck in the morning and be sitting on a beach in Phuket before the sun sets.  There are so many options for getting from point A to point B that simply planning the logistics of a trip can take more time than the trip itself.

Our journey from Venice to the island of Ponza, about an hour off the coast from Anzio goes smoothly enough and along the way we meet up with our twin teenaged sons.  But there is much, much more to this trip below the surface.  It is a veritable replay of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," but without the misadventures.

And without the pillows.

How to get from Venice, a series of islands in a lagoon on the Adriatic side of Italy, to Ponza, a big rock of an island an hour off the other coast?  Working backwards, the final leg is pretty obvious.  We have to take some sort of boat to arrive on Ponza.  But what type and from where?  Enter Google.  And a lot of guesswork and patience.

Internet research, both of articles about Ponza and those of the handful of ferryboat companies that provide service to Ponza will tell you that there are a half dozen routes from the mainland to Ponza.  Departures run from a number of towns along the coast south of Rome to the island, some on big ferries that transport cars, others on smaller, faster aliscafi, or hydrofoils.  On our first trip to Ponza we decided to go the aliscafo route, a trip that takes an hour and ten minutes from Anzio to Ponza.  It may not be a transatlantic crossing in a stateroom, but it adds a little excitement and glamor to the trip, especially at the moment when you can feel the hull of the hydrofoil lift itself out of the water and begin what is essentially and hour plus waterskiing trip to this little rock of an island.

But how to buy a ticket, on which boat, how to pay, luggage, parking.  Oy moy, the logistics can be a bit much.  Although it is possible to buy your ticket at the small kiosk in front of the ferry dock in Anzio, it is best to make a reservation and buy your ticket in advance, especially on the weekend during June and July, when the Romans all descend on the island.  Our friends Collin and Yoko, deciding last minute to spend a couple of days on Ponza after departing from their visit with us in Umbria found the morning and early afternoon departures fully booked, requiring them to take a 5pm departure and forcing them to miss a day at the beach.  But Vetor, the aliscafo operator often throws up other roadblocks, such as posting last year's ferry timetable and price list and operating an online booking engine that can best be described as horrible.  This system requires you to enter a great deal of information about each passenger and finally confirms that you can pay by credit card.  It then navigates to the merchant credit card site which begins the process anew, requiring you to receive confirmation of your transaction (which took over 45 minutes in my case) before pressing the "proceed" button on Vetor's site to confirm your reservation.  I have no idea what would happen if I did not follow this strict procedure.  As it was, we never received an email confirmation of our reservation, requiring several phone calls to a tiny ticket booth in Anzio to straighten out the mess.  Integration between the two sites is not, as they say, seamless.  There is a very visible panty line.

After four successful crossings from Anzio to Ponza, these minor challenges in booking a ferry ticket seem like an integral part of the process.  This is probably how the Italians see them.  But for the uninitiated, it is not the aliscafo, but the parking in Anzio that is an unforgettable experience.  Upon arriving in Anzio for the first time on a bright, sunny day several summers ago, we had absolutely no idea what we were going to do with our rental car for the three days we were test driving the island.  I expected there might be a car park near the ferry docks, imagining a cruise ship-type depot with glass waiting rooms and a multilevel parking garage.  The dock in Anzio is not like that.  There is a cleat for the boat to tie up to and a narrow metal gangway to onto the boat.  In front of this is a small shed that operates as a ticket booth.  No champagne, no fireworks.  No parking.

As we arrived in Anzio and made our way from the beach area toward the port, a number of swarthy young Italian men in matching tee shirts were clogging the streets.  This is Anzio's parking garage.  We pulled up in front of the dock, not quite certain that we had arrived there and a young man asked us if we were going to Ponza and needed to park.  When we replied yes, he asked us when we were returning, wrote down a few scribbles in a little ticket book and tore off the bottom half, presumably our claim check but just as likely a raffle ticket.  He took our keys, unloaded our luggage and we began our three day worryfest, wondering if our rental car insurance would cover theft in the case where we actually gave the car away.

Needless to say our car was waiting for us when we got off the ferry three days later.  And it even still had its radio.

Travelling in Italy is always an adventure.  And most of the time it works out fine and leaves you with a good story or two.

* * *

So, how to get from Venice to Anzio.  Here's the Planes, Trains and Automobiles part.

Most travellers to Italy, I imagine, would rent a car and drive to Anzio, or take a train.  Both options would be acceptable, but as with all travel there are some tradeoffs.  Driving would require being on the highway with Italians, an activity just slightly more dangerous than knife juggling (the Discovery Channel ought to consider a new Italian autostrada show along the lines of Deadliest Catch).  And it would take hours.  The train would be more relaxing (they rarely derail) but would require a couple of connections.  We opted, instead, for flying.  Selecting an airline from Europe's myriad low cost carriers.

Low cost carriers.  Those words send shudders down travellers' spines.  We love the low cost part.  Maybe it's the carrier part we don't like, such as a carrier of typhoid or gonhorrea.  Because as most seasoned travellers know, what one lcc's hand giveth, the other taketh away.  Beware the add on fees.

American low cost carriers are expert at collecting additional fees - checked baggage fees, fees for "food," charges for blankets.  One even considered charging for using the toilet (talk about the rule of unintended consequences).  The American LCCs got so good at add ons that the legacy carriers got involved and showed that they are not too entrenched to pass up additional revenue streams.  But the European LCCs have the Americans beat by a mile, led by RyanAir which has reportedly been exploring the possibility of introducing a standing room class.  And here in Italy they charge their fees and set their rules in Italian.  It is a trap waiting to be sprung on the unwary American.

EasyJet. Some restrictions may apply.
Pilot and cabin crew not included.  See box for details. 
The trick to flying on a European LCC is to pack light and to pay for your luggage when you make your reservation.  On EasyJet, which we booked from Venice to Rome, we paid for two bags at 20kg each.  That's 44 lb. and don't expect to take an ounce more.  What's more, EasyJet allows you a single carry on bag, generously allowing you as much weight as you can carry on, as long as it will fit within specified dimensions.  This is useful for LLC passengers carrying gold bars.

The cost of adding a bag at the airport is prohibitive (it could cost you one of your gold bars).  As a result there are generally a bunch of travellers at the front of the check in line frantically repacking their bags after having been told they were overweight, trying to figure out which heavy items to move into their hand luggage (no lady, that thong is not going to help you make your weight and thank you very much for searing that image in my mind).  We travel with a portable electronic baggage scale that is 50% accurate, making us 50% certain that we are not going to be charged an extra fee.  Thankfully, this time the scale is accurate (accurate enough - we are actually 2 kg. over limit, but the check in clerk must like my smile) and we are able to declare victory.  Two tickets from Venice to Rome for a pittance.

* * *

Marco Polo Airport is not in Venice.  If it were, all flights would have to have pontoons.  Instead it is on the mainland, reachable by train, taxi, water bus or water taxi.  Water taxi, a private launch that will pick you up at your hotel (if it is on the canal as our is) and drive you directly to the airport, is the most expensive option.  But at a little over €100 it is worth it.

Our driver picks us up at the Grand Canal entrance to our hotel at the appointed hour and half an hour later we are making the 7 minute walk from the dock to the check in counters.  We have avoided dragging our bags to the vaporetto stop.  To the train station.  To the Piazzale Roma.  Not having to drag your bags through the narrow streets of Venice and through the hordes of tourists, swimming against the tide like a salmon desperate to spawn is worth nearly any price.  Not that we have anything against salmon.

Boldly going where
no man has gone before.
But in addition to convenience, included in the price of the private water taxi is a heaping dose of exhileration.  The day before our departure we took a canal tour with our friend/guide Alessandro who proclaimed the water taxi driver "the best water taxi drive in all of Venice."  He was dead wrong.  Our driver to Marco Polo airport is without doubt, Venice's best.  He took us up canals that hadn't yet been discovered, maneuvered under bridges with less headroom than our boat and then opened it up when we reached the canal, ignoring the 30 KPH speed limit signs and skiing up and down the wake thrown off by boats coming the opposite direction.  The whole trip lasted less than half an hour.  But it is a memory that will last a lifetime.

* * *

The final piece of our multimodal journey was getting from the Rome airport (where we spent the night after flying from Venice so we could pick up our twin sons who arrived from the States the next morning) to Anzio.  Again, we had options, including hourly train service from Rome's Termini station, which we have taken before.  But that would require taking the train from Fiumicino airport to Termini and then a connecting train from Termini to Anzio.  Not to mention schlepping our 42 kg of luggage from the train station through town to the ferry dock.  So instead we enjoyed the trip in a spacious private van, the six of us travelling door to door in airconditioned comfort.  And this really was door to door to door service, as the driver met our sons at baggage claim in the airport and then picked up the rest of our group at the airport hotel before heading south along the coast to Anzio.

* * *

Travel in Italy, as everywhere, can be an ordeal.  It is costly, crowded and dull.  But with a little, or perhaps a lot of planning, it can be enjoyable.  If it is true that life is a journey, you might as well enjoy the ride.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Venice Finale

It's a lazy Sunday in Venice and we are, frankly, a bit spent after three weeks of constant go.  Yesterday we spent the morning and afternoon cooking with Venetian native Patrizia at her beautiful palazzo near San Marco (see liveblogging video footage) and followed that up with a walking tour that called itself a "pub crawl" that was in reality a historic walking tour of this ancient republic.  All in all it was a very worthwhile couple of hours, even if it resulted in sore feet.

So Sunday saw us rise late with no appointments or obligations until late afternoon.  We took advantage of this rare lull and caught up on some work, enjoying the view over the Grand Canal from our room even as the previous days' beautiful weather deteriorated with clouds and occasional showers.  This is our first stay in this hotel, the Palazzo Barbarigo, located on the Salute side of the Grand Canal near the San Toma vaporetto stop.  It is a hip, trendy hotel, with cool furnishings and low lighting, a spare reception area and a large attractive bar and lounge area on the second floor, complete with a small terrace overlooking the canal.  Our arrival on Friday was by water taxi to the hotel's canal entrance, which made for a grand and impressive welcome.  Egres by foot, however, requires you to walk down an impossibly long and even more impossibly narrow alleyway that makes three separate right angle turns, with nary a doorway or entry along the way, before emerging onto a main street just off a large square.  The entrance to our private alley is unmarked save for a small red heart that someone, probably not the hotel, has painted on the entrance.  Thank goodness for grafitti artists.

Suzy and I make a single excursion from the hotel, a leisurely lunch at a touristy nearby pizza restaurant.  Despite the churning at the restaurant, when it became apparent to the staff that we were tucking ourselves in for an extended meal rather than the typical eat and dash of this place, they warmed to us and slowed the pace.  It was a relaxing way to spend a lazy afternoon even if the food was mediocre.  Pete and Nancy, meanwhile, bravely ventured off to Murano to explore the island's glass makers and had what they described as one of, if not the best fritto misto on this trip.  And that is saying a lot.

Our big adventure for the day was a private water taxi tour of the Grand Canal, arranged by our newest bestest friend Alessandro.  He picked us up at the hotel in an immaculate glimmering wooden launch captained by, as he described him, the best taxi driver on the lagoon.  It was only later on in the tour that I overheard him asking the driver "come ti chiama" (what is your name).  Oh those Italians!

Watch your head!
In any event, seeing the palazzos and the churches from the water and gliding under some of the city's 400 bridges rather than limping over them and fighting the hordes of tourists, texting, photographing, wheezing and generally clogging, is a great way to see the city.  I would highly recommend it, particularly in the early evening hours when the light is at its most beautiful and the commercial traffic on the canal is at its minimum.

Our tour ended not back at the Barbarigo, but rather at the ultra luxe Hotel Cipriani on the Giudecca, an island across the canal from San Marco, reachable by vaporetto, private taxi or the hotel's own private launch.  Alessandro and what's his name deliver us to the hotel's private dock where we are greeted by a uniformed attendant who offers us an arm to step from the taxi to the dock.  With that one step we are transported from the ordinary to a fantasy world of perfection.  We have arrived in the world of Cipriani.
Home, James.
We have a dinner engagement with a relative of mine who has the great good fortune of being able to summer here at the Cipriani.  She has agreed to let us into this world and for the next several hours we inhabit a magical world.  The Cipriani sports an enormous swimming pool that is the envy of Venice, it has the best views of San Marco and, as if on cue, the inclement, cloudy weather of the day clears, treating us to a miraculous sunset visible from the hotel's beautiful restaurant, acclaimed as one of the best on the island.  Pete, our resident chef who just earlier in the day proclaimed his Murano lunch spot as having the best fritto misto of the trip proclaims this the best meal on a trip that has seen us dedicate most of our time and resources to eating.  It is an unforgettable conclusion to our Venetian odyssey, an atmospheric evening whose feel, if not details, will become part of our Venice lore, as will the triumphant return to the main island on the Cipriani private launch.

We stop by San Marco for a final drink and to listen to the dueling combos that play at the outdoor caffes in square, the music washing over us like a coat of sealer that will preserve the memories of another visit to this magical, mystical city.

We alight from our vaporetto and make our way to the secret alleyway that will wind back to the Barbarigo, nearly getting stuck in the narrow passage, perhaps a warning that fantasy and reality do not always coexist so well.  But that is a lesson for another day.  Tonight we will sleep soundly dreaming of the fantasy world that is Venice before heading off to the island of Ponza.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy