Lost and Found. And Special Finds. Repeat.
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block
alking home to our apartment in Venice, we share a wave through the
window with the owner of Baba, our local osteria. Leaving for a day
of sightseeing, a cup of my favorite pistachio gelato awaits me despite
the early hour. At the Bar Dugole, we relax after a day of sightseeing
and order the regular: vodka for my husband and Amaretto for me. And
we sit and watch everyone else in Venice try to figure out where the
hell they are! But more on that later.
Welcome to UNTOURS, a wonderful well-kept secret that
may change your concept of travel forever. The program offers tourists
a unique opportunity to not be tourists. Serving close to two dozen
European countries, Untours inundates you with information, puts you
up in unusual accommodations, provides whatever transportation is necessary
to get around and voila! You are a local. (Yes, that works as well in
Italian as it does in French
We were learning about our neighborhood, but on our
terms. Rise early or sleep in. Sightsee or stroll around town. Cook
in or eat out. And whatever the choice, we returned to our apartment,
a much roomier and warmer ambiance than any hotel would provide. The
orientation told us where to get the best produce, meat, fish, pastries,
and of course, wine and gelato, the afore-mentioned shop which just
coincidentally was directly next door to our apartment.
Our favorite local discovery? The Filler-Up Wine Shop.
Bring in any empty bottle and fill it with the wine of your choice for
$2.50-$4.00 a bottle less than you would pay for a glass at a local
trattoria. What a terrific way to recycle empty water bottles!
We stayed at a small but cozy 2-story apartment with
a full kitchen, lovely balcony and wood-beam ceilings. First it just
felt homey then it was home. The fact that it was built in the
1700's was just a bonus. The building across the alley was so close
I could reach across the balcony guard rail and tap on their window.
But then everything in Venice is in tight quarters.
Venice is an old city it looks old sometimes very old.
The water-logged foundations date back to the 11th century; the newer
building facades are as recent as the 15th. So many buildings stripped
of paint and plaster on both sides of a small alleyway, I expected them
to crumble before my eyes until I reminded myself they have looked pretty
much the same for over 500 years.
Going from the crowded parking lot area with throngs
of cars, buses and vans the last vestiges of the auto industry
I was to see for a week I was transformed into another
world filled instead with canals, gondolas, water buses, cobbled
streets, alleyways, bridges and cafes. Picture everything that makes
any city run buses, taxis, fire trucks, police cars, ambulances,
postal services, Fedex deliveries, garbage pick-ups but they're
all boats! And the city still runs.
Expect to get lost. And thank goodness because that
is the best way to explore the city and find those gems that are not
part of the major tourist itineraries.
Among those gems is Pinocchio Island, home to a local
Geppetto whose real name is Roberto Comin, maker of magical marionettes.
These brilliant little string creatures represented all aspects of Venetian
historical and theatrical culture lovingly produced by Comin for 25
years in a workshop over 350 years old. Requests now come in for characters
from Shakespeare to Cleopatra and yes, a Johnny Depp look-alike that
was given to the actor for his birthday. The costumes rival the intricacy
and elegance of any Medici gown or regal accessory. Want a marionette
dopple-ganger of yourself? It's doable but it'll cost you about $600.
Another unusual find, especially surprising in such
a Catholic city, home to well over 100 churches, is a small square that
is actually referred to as Ghetto Campo de Nova where there are five
synagogues, several kosher restaurants and residents sporting traditional
Jewish skull caps known as yarmulkes. The kosher menus include antipasto
and spaghetti as well as bagels and potato latkes. Talk about an ecumenical
meal! With a little imagination, and a lot of Manischewitz wine, you
could be in Israel!
Getting lost is a given did I mention that? People
spend as much time looking up at the signs designating different sections,
squares and churches of the city as they do looking down at maps, phones
and GPS's. My favorite response from a young street vendor: "Go
right, over the next bridge, then ask someone else." And then when
you don't think things can get any worse, you see the sign you've been
searching for and it points in both directions. I thought about giving
up and going home but I had no clue how to get there.
We wandered everywhere, sitting at cafes to eat or drink
wine, always aware of how little English we heard again reinforcing
the idea of living like a local. And the more we wandered, the more
enjoyable the discoveries: a delightful mask store, street musicians
in jeans playing Vivaldi, an out-of-the-way Leonardo DaVinci Museum.
Not every stop in Venice is off-the-beaten-path. There's
the de rigueur visit to Piazza San Marco, a World Heritage site and
symbol of Venice. Like the Spanish Steps in Rome
and the Uffizi in Florence, it's the symbol of the city. So if you want
to avoid tourists, don't go there especially not on a weekend. But
part of the reason they're there are the pigeons. Now in my unfiltered
19-year-old memory, the square was covered with them. Decades later,
my first thought was, "Where are all the pigeons?" Then I
saw them. "Oh yes, over there by that guy with all the bird food."
As we took the vaporetto to the island of Murano, we
left the canals behind and felt the freedom of open waters as we entered
the lagoon surrounding the city. Murano, world famous for its glass
figurines, jewelry and home décor since the 11th Century, is
a must destination if you want to be absolutely sure you're buying Murano
glass and not a knock-off. A visit to the factory offers insight into
how the glass is made, the colors created, the intricacies of the designs
and the skills of the master glass blowers. Makes you better appreciate
the high prices you then encounter in the gift shops...sort of....
I was amazed at the intricate convoluted shapes in colors
so vibrant and translucent that the light passing through intensifies
the whole experience. I wanted to decorate my whole house with cups,
vases, dishes and elaborately designed decorative pieces but I settled
for a pair of earrings.
As we exited another vaporetto at Lido, the beachfront
community, we were transported to another era. That of a modern beach
town hawking flip flops, beach toys and sunglasses. And then I saw a
bus! One with actual wheels. Dorothy, you're not in Venice anymore!
Wide sand beach with crowded umbrellas and chaise lounges
on one side and isolated blankets on the other. Large elegant hotels
front the tree-laden boulevards with greenery everywhere, a color sorely
lacking in the squares and alleyways of Venice. It was a fun diversion
but I was so happy to get back home, pick up some Branzini from the
fish market in Santa Margherita Square plus a water bottle full of wine
from the Filler-Up shop, and dine out on our balcony.
Perhaps, that's the essence of the Untour experience.
There's something more special about discovering such treasures on your
own than being herded there as part of a group, according to a pre-determined
time schedule that dictates how long you can spend looking before it
hurries you through because the bus in this case, one on water
is leaving to go to the next stop.
It was so much nicer just to pick up some fresh fish,
wave to shopkeepers we had befriended and return home to sit on our
porch, sip yet another glass of wine and savor our most recent exploits.
And feel reassured that no one has ever been irretrievably lost in Venice,
but if so how lucky for them. They're still there!
For more information, visit www.untours.com.
into the Venetian Sunset; Sipping
Vino and Savoring Vistas in Tuscany; Venice:
La Serenissima; Venice
Splashed by Aqua Alta; Rome:
Basics For Beginners