The idea of this blog is to facilitate the love of reading by collecting news about new books, or sometimes good old books. It is also dedicated to stamping out the scourge of e-books, Kindles, Kobo's, i-Pads, and all other such abominations.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Venice: Good reads and good guides

If Venice was captivating on our first 3 visits, is was a haven after the bustle of Rome. Bells, footsteps, lively voices and street music greeted us. One of the bars close to us was a meeting place for men who met late in the afternoon to sing. Venice is a city for people who walk--there is really no alternative except for the vaporetto.
We have always booked an apartment in one of the neighbourhoods and this year we chose to book through Cheap Venice, so it was with some trepidation that we approached it. We were pleasantly surprised. The apartment was well appointed and scrupulously clean. The kitchen had two espresso pots, a fine gas burner and a comfortable bed and bath, a hair dryer and a washing machine. Ludovico, our precise and helpful guide, met us at the Fondamento Nuovo vaporetto stop and guided us to the ground floor apartment on Calle Gabrielli. (
This was a new neighbourhood for us. We traded our campo life in San Giacomo dell'Orio for the street life of Cannaregio. At 8 a.m. the calles teem with parents walking their children to school, often stopping at the little bakery across the street for a fresh bun. Next door, the bar is open for men to get their first ombre of the day. On our foray out each morning to pick up the International Herald Tribune at our neighbourhood kiosk, I could choose our morning rolls from three different bakeries.
We were surrounded by food markets of all kinds -- fruit, vegetable, meat, cheese, and a few supermarkets including the Coop store. Venetians do not handle fruit and vegetables with their bare hands. In the outdoor markets customers point to the produce they wish, and in the supermarkets, everyone wears a plastic glove. It's a serious matter when one disregards this custom.

In London, I picked up a paperback copy of CITY OF FALLING ANGELS by John Berendt. As Raincoaster suggested some time ago, it is a good choice to read in Venice. Berendt made a name for himself, writing about Savannah, Georgia in MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. The fire which destroyed the Fenice Opera House in Venice some years ago, provides the framework for his new book. He includes other stories: that of a family of glass makers in Murano, a poet in Giacomo dell' Orio and in one of the most fascinating parts of the book he tells of the relationship between the administrator of the Guggenheim and his wife and Olga Rudge, Ezra Pound's companion. We found the home of Olga Rudge in Dosoduro and were thrilled to find her name on the door. She died some years ago but I think her family still owns the apartment. If you read Berendt's book you will understand the significance of this.

Having read the story of the fire and the restoration of the Fenice, we were enchanted with our tour of the theatre. We were interested to find that the huge clock above the stage had been replaced. The Fenice traditionally was not so much a place to hear opera as it was a place to see and be seen. Many years ago, it served as a community centre, where people met to play cards and gamble during the day. The clock was installed to let people know when it was time to leave. The architects have been faithful in its reproduction as in every other aspect of the building.

Years ago, before our first trip to Venice, I read Sally Vickers, MISS GARNETT'S ANGELS. Gardi's paintings of "Tobias and the Angel" are an important part of her novel. On each of our 3 previous trips, I have trudged over to Chiesa San Angelo Raffaele and always found it under wraps. This year to my delight, the church was open and I spent considerable time taking in the paintings.

I found two book outlets, one of which opens on to a canal on Calle Lunga Santa Formosa. There I found, William Rivere's BY THE GRAND CANAL, a marvelous novel that captures the beauty and mystery of the lagoon, the dynamics and decadence of family and the sense of the city. In the book stall next to Chiesa di Maria dei Miracoli, the jewel box church, I found HENRY JAMES VENICE and a copy of the poem CITY OF THE MIND.
Elizabeth Spencer's LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is as good as it was the first time I read it. Her stories are set in Florence and Rome.
On a previous visit I was captivated by Barry Unsworth's STONE VIRGIN, a haunting book, that brings together Venice's past and present.
A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE by Marlena de Blasis recounts the true story of an American writer and chef who gives up her restaurant and home to move to Venice and marry a Venetian banker. It's an adventure that gives one a glimpse into how a change in culture and language can affect one's life. DeBlasis is at her best discussing food and the great Rialto market. I can vouch for the recipes at the end of the book, especially, the osso buco and the mushrooms.

Other books that have enriched my time in Venice include:
VENICE REVISITED by Paolo Barbaro comes closest to capturing those things about Venice I have never been able to articulate. Barbaro is an engineer who grew up in Venice, moved away to practice his profession and returned with his family. He knows and loves the city, has seen the change from what it was to a mainly tourist destination. He discusses the magic and moods of the city, the failing lagoon, the friends he has kept from childhood and the changes in their lives.

Teresa Aubin de Teran captures the city in her book of photographs

VENICE THE COLLECTED TRAVELLER by Barry Kerper is a collection of writings about
Venice and the Veneto by the likes of Jan Morris ( who has a book on Venice)
Mark Bittman, Andrea Lea, Fred Plotkin, and Paul Hofmann.

Paul Morand, friend of Proust and Malraux had a lifelong attachment to Venice which is recorded in VENICE

J. G. Link's very fine VENICE FOR PLEASURE, is an excellent walking guide, bringing the city and its history to life. I found it easier to use after I had learned how to get around.

John Ruskin's STONES OF VENICE, takes on special meaning when one sits having coffee in front of the Calchina, his residence in Venice.


The only way to read Henry James is: first read Colm Toibin's THE MASTER, a good portion of which is set in Venice. Next read THE ASPERN PAPERS and finally
WINGS OF THE DOVE. Berendt draws an interesting parallel between the ASPERN PAPERS and the Olga Rugge story.

Donna Leon has written at least 15 mysteries set in Venice and if you are a mystery buff, read them whether you go to Venice or not. She captures the city in all seasons, and all its states of corruption, through the eyes of Commissario Guido Brunetti, his wife and university professor, Paola and their two teenage children.

David Hewson placed LUCIFER'S SHADOW in Venice. I haven't read it yet but it's on my list.

I loved AN EQUAL MUSIC by Vikram Seth and AS IT WAS IN HEAVEN by Niall Williams. Both are set partly in Venice.


Besides J. G. Link's VENICE FOR PLEASURE, I found
VENICE THE KNOPF GUIDE to be especially good. Whether you are travelling down the
Grand Canal,trying to identify the palazzios and their architecture or the paintings by Bellini , Cannelleto and Tintoretto in various churches it is very helpful. It's a good guide to The Accademia (art gallery) and Peggy Guggenheim's Museum.
LONELY PLANET VENICE is terrific for practical information.
Sandra Gustafson's GOOD EATS IN ITALY took us to wonderful gelaterias, wine bars,
enotecas, osterias, pasticceris, and food markets. It took us on a journey by vaporetto to Sant'Erasmo, the garden island where we had an authentic Venetian multicourse seafood meal at Ca'Vignotto Reservations are required. The food is excellent, and being in the company of large groups of Italian families and friends is great fun.

We purchased weekly vaporetto passes. They are expensive but worth while if you are staying for a week or two. We were able to travel to the airport, all the outlying islands: Murano, the glass island, Burano, the colourful fishing village, and Torcello which reeks of ancient history as well as Sant'Erasmo. The passses also allow free entrance to the city washrooms, which are well maintained.

A good map of Venice is essential. The best one I found is
INSIGHT FLEXIMAP TO VENICE. It's plasticized and every street is named.
There is no question everyone except Venetians get hopelessly lost--when it happens relax because there will be a wonderful sight just around the corner, perhaps a church with a Bellini painting or a Moldavian trio playing gypsy music. There are signs throughout the city that point the way to vaporetto stops and if you follow them you will find your way out. Really all one needs to do, is fall in step with the crowd (it's all single file) and surprisingly you will find the shortcuts. One of the secrets to enjoying the city is to find your favorite coffee bar, wine bar or park bench in a campo and watch the life of the city pass before your eyes. Venice is a remarkably small city of neighbourhoods, everyone worth exploring.

Rome -Travel guides

Guidebooks that suggest one can pop into Rome for a day or two should be highly suspect. One could spend all that time in a line at the Vatican Museum.

We had 9 days in Rome and we spent the first 3 exploring our neighbourhood. I found our apartment on the internet on HOLIDAY RENTALS.COM.UK ROME & LAZIO and selected
property 57930. It was an excellent choice. Margaret Merode, the owner was most helpful.( The apartment besides having a small kitchen and a bathtub, is close to many sights. It is reasonable, and blissfully quiet, an uncommon state in Rome.

The most useful guides book were:
RICK STEVE'S ROME His little drawings are very helpful--especially those that
explain the bus system
EYEWITNESS TOP TEN ROME This also has a guide to the buses.
The Casa per Ferie S. Maria Alle Fornaci dei Padri Trinitaria puts
out a terrific small guide and map. I suspect you have to stay there
to get this.
MAP: LET'S GO ROME plasticized map is readable.

The best guide to restaurants in Rome is
BEST EATS IN ITALY by Sandra Gustafson
We had a wonderful dinner on the patio at Al Fontanone in Trastevere
--an antipasto plate, lasagne, Roman artichokes, succulent roast lamb
and vignole, a vegetable stew accompanied by the house wine. Pino, our lovely host brought us glasses of limoncello and vin santo with biscotti after dinner. Needless to say we returned.

We had terrific pasta and pizza at Da Francesco, located near the Pantheon.
Both restaurants are busy and reasonable.

Because I love to cook, I wisely took along
ITALIAN FOOD by Elizabeth David and I found a copy of

Other reading:
I took along two Ian Pears books, but wasn't as taken with them as I expected.
I enjoyed David Hewson's SEASON FOR THE DEAD. Nic Costa, detective and
Caravaggio buff, finds himself caught up in several murders which echo some of the content of Caragaggio's work and have lots to do with Vatican politics.