Monday, November 06, 2006

Venice Casts a Spell

“Venice is the most beautiful city in the world,” wrote an interminable traveling friend in a recent letter to me. "I am envious you are living so close to it.” Like many other travelers who visit this city of a hundred islands and 400 bridges, my friend fell in love with Venice. Whether it is the hazy image of a forgotten era, a timeless walk through the mysterious winding alleys, or the omnipresent dance between light and the water, Venice casts a spell over the most jaded traveler.

Eighteen million tourists visit Venice every year. A highlight for many of them is taking a romantic gondola ride on the Grand Canal. Before my first trip to Venice, I could even picture myself drifting serendipitously along in a midnight black gondola, husband by my side, the soothing sweet song of the gondolier immersing us ever deeper into a night that resembles a watercolor painting. Later, an enchanting meal along the Canal, a glass of wine at one of the famous cafes in St. Mark’s Square, and maybe an impromptu dance on the plaza. Who wouldn’t fall in love?

It's with great expectation, then, that I make my intial foray into the city. Yet, standing on the edge of the Grand Canal with not a gondola in sight, I'm not feeling any love. Maybe it’s because my senses are overloaded by the brilliant sunlight reflecting off the water and the multiplicity of languages I hear around me. Or maybe it’s the remembered warning to be alert for pickpockets that keeps me on guard, with a watchful eye on everyone and everything except the beauty that is right in front of me. Or maybe it’s just that I am already hungry for lunch and feeling panicky about finding gluten free food in a city overrun by tourists who don’t have to give a second thought to where they will find their next meal.

Restaurants, snack bars, and pastry shops abound in Venice, their menus and daily special boards touting pasta dishes, panini sandwiches, and decadent desserts. The morning air, thick with the aroma of freshly baked cornetti (similar to croissants) nearly sends me back onto the train that just brought me into the city, and away from having to deal with my celiac disease in such an overwhelming environment.

This trip into Venice is my first attempt to travel around Italy with celiac disease. Since moving to Italy a few months ago, there've been many new experiences and challenges, involving housing, driving, shopping, and eating. At times, it’s all been a bit too much for me, and I’ve wanted to stay hidden inside my house. But I refuse to let celiac disease dictate what I can and can’t do. So for excursions such as my day in Venice, I spend time preparing for the journey, travel with the expectation that stress will occur, and learn to take lots of deep breaths!

It’s now that I breathe deeply, and recognize that the small plaza that separates the train station from the Grand Canal is bustling. Initial befuddlement must be typical for many newcomers to the city. Refocusing my mind and my eyes, I allow the hazy images of the palaces from the other side of the water to come into view. The cacophony of languages around me becomes an international symphony, and I marvel at the extent to which tourism has been a part of this city for hundreds of years. As a gateway to the Orient, Venice was an independent, wealthy, and powerful republic as far back as the 10th century. It was also a city with religious importance due to the bones of St. Mark having arrived here in the early 9th century. Today, many of the local population are involved in the business of tourism. Most speak several languages, including English.

Ready to continue the journey deeper into Venice, we take our place in a line just down the steps from the train station, and purchase tickets for a vaporetto, or water bus. Other than walking, it is the most practical and inexpensive way to get around Venice, serving the same function as a city bus does in other metropolitan areas. Maps of the various routes are posted at each vaporetto platform around the city.

The most popular vaporetto route for tourists is the #1. It’s the “slow boat” that stops at every platform along the Grand Canal, providing ample time to admire the faded facades of palaces from a long gone affluent era. It also gives me time to mentally review my preparation checklist – guidebook, itinerary, camera, gluten free snacks, and Italian dining card – so I can relax some more and fully appreciate my Venetian encounter. It doesn’t matter that I'm not riding in a gondola, that the vaporetto sounds like a tugboat, or that I'm surrounded by other tourists jostling each other for a better viewing spot. The beauty and history of this city is entrancing; my mind tries to wrap itself around a lifestyle, both past and present, so tied to the miles of waterways, where delivery boats, garbage boats, and even ambulance and funeral boats are just part of the flow. The angry shout of a vaporetto horn, cursing at the gondoliers who dare venture into its path, breaks my thoughts. It is like watching a bumper car ride at an amusement park, except that the boats thankfully rarely crash into each other.

We disembark after 45-minutes, arriving at St. Mark’s Square. I am hungrier now, and know I will not fully appreciate an afternoon of sightseeing unless I first find a place where I can enjoy a gluten free meal. Following well-heeled advice that is perhaps even more prudent in a tourist area, I want to get to a restaurant ahead of the lunch-crunch. This way, I will have the unflustered attention of either the waiter or owner while explaining the celiac diet.

The Italian Celiac Association has an online guide to celiac friendly restaurants around Italy, but there currently are no listings for Venice. So prior to our daytrip, I reviewed a few travel guidebooks for restaurant suggestions, looking at online menus when available. I also conducted an internet search to gain a better understanding of Venetian cuisine, specifically tracking down recipes to see which ingredients are generally used in the local or typical dishes. Even without such research, an overall rule of thumb to get the best quality food at the best price when traveling anywhere in Italy is to avoid touristy restaurants.

As my itinerary for the day focuses on sights centered on St. Mark’s square, I choose a restaurant that seems to be known only by locals, and fans of Rick Steves’ Italy 2005 guidebook (which is where I found the listing). Two blocks away from St. Mark’s Square, yet located beyond a tunnel through which few tourists seem to venture, Osteria Da Carla serves up traditional Venetian fare that includes plates of sardines, squid, and cod. After discussing my needs with the owner, Menaka Heenatigala, and showing him my Italian dining card, I decide to lunch on a plate of grilled polenta and mixed vegetables. Polenta is cornmeal that has first been made into a thick porridge and formed into a loaf, and then sliced and grilled. The vegetables -potatoes, peas, peppers, carrots, green beans, onions, and mushrooms - have either been steamed or grilled, the latter being a common method of cooking vegetables in northeast Italy. Menaka also recommends a glass of the house white wine. At the table next to us, an Italian grandfather having lunch with his grandson nods his approval when my meal arrives.

Fortified for the afternoon, we return to St. Mark’s Square to dutifully make our rounds of some of Venice’s most famous sights. This includes St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace, the seat of the Venetian government and home of the elected doge, or ruler, during the time of the Republic. Then, we while away the rest of the day, feeding the pigeons in the Square and indulging ourselves with a few scoops of gelato. Sitting alongside the Grand Canal, with the late summer sun upon my face, and gondolas bobbing at my feet, I'm smitten. (September 2005)

1 comment:

  1. oh what a wonderful blog entry...the simplicity...the loveliness of your afternoon after finding a delicious, nutricious safe meal. What more can one want?

    i actually found your blog accidentally, as we are seriously considering a move to Italy. I googled "celiac moving to italy" trying to learn how I can get gf foods (traditional grocers, pharmacies etc).

    My husband and I love travel and of course it is quite daunting (one son and myself are GF and we are vegetarian as well) since our DX!

    Thank you...i look forward to enjoying more of your posts!

    Love & Light,