Friday, September 11, 2009

Venetian Jade and Ligurian Diamonds

Exactly one year ago, I vowed to myself and those around me that I would never ever ever return to the world’s largest, sinking tourist trap—Venice. Like the other Italian tourist meccas, Venice must have been beautiful once. Now, it’s a watery maze of trinket shops, bad restaurants and over-priced hotels.

Who can we blame for this? Let’s find at least a few people to pillory. Let’s start by pointing the finger at me (but remember: when I point a finger at myself, I’ve got four pointing at you, buster). Do you remember my vow up there in the first sentence? If you don’t, you have an awful short-term memory problem. Well, I’ve been back to Venice twice since making that promise.

“But why?”

An obvious question. I took my niece there and then a close friend because they’d never been to Venice before—and one should see Venice once. Once. Both of these wonderful people said, as the sun set on their Venetian day, that they’d had enough.

Following the train of tired tourists through Venice, you can’t help feeling the jadedness in the air. It’s palpable—from the apathetic service in trattorias to the lazy gondoliers, who’ve lost all interest in singing “O Sole Mio.” Venice is sinking in more ways than one.

If you must see Venice once, avoid weekends, stay on the Lido, visit the other islands (Murano is famous for glass), eat in the ristoranti in the areas of the city where the Italians are eating, and try to be there when the Biennale is going on. And one last thing: don’t pay to enter churches. That’s just wrong.

Now get back in your car and drive to Cinque Terre on the western coast of Northern Italy—where Italy is still molto italiano.

Cinque Terre is a group of fishing villages north of La Spezia, where you can stay in a moderately priced hotel and take the train to the villages. This is the most convenient way—even if the trains are unreliable—to visit the villages since most of them offer limited access to automobiles. Also, if you get carsick on windy roads, you won’t want to drive into the villages.

Monterosso, which you can drive into, has larger hotels and, for the region, a fair sized beach. If you buy a train ticket to Monterosso from La Spezia, you can stop at the other villages along the way as long as your entire trip in one direction is not longer than six hours. Make sure you cancel your ticket before boarding the train, and make sure you’re in Monterosso in time for dinner. Eat fresh seafood or risotto at “Ciak” in the old part of town. More Information and Reservations

In Vernazza, you can sip Lemoncello in one of the cafés that dot the cliffs, or you can climb the rocks and rough it with a thermos of white wine and some focaccia from one of the local bakeries. From the cliffs overlooking the Ligurian sea, the water sparkles like a million diamonds.

You’ll see more smiles on people’s faces in Cinque Terre because these folks are having a great time. Liguria is where to go if you want to see Italy still shining.

I must be off,