Just One Street Over: A Cicchetti & Wine Tour of Venice

Venice really does sound like something out of a fantasy novel. It’s an historic city of small islands in the middle of a lagoon, a pattern of criss-crossing canals and labyrinthine streets. It is a city traversed only by foot or water. You might find Venice swollen with thousands of masked and costumed revellers, or perhaps with the supernatural tides of the acqua alta. Venice is art and music and elegant decay.

Venice is cicchetti, and Venice is wine.

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We met Elisabetta in Campo de la Maddalenna late in the morning along with three other couples eager for a taste of the real Venice. It was clear that Elisabetta was a character; she was perpetually smiling and had a vigorous affection for the city she called home. She promised to show us the side of Venice many travellers miss, imparting a simple philosophy: ‘just one street over’. Yes, the city might seem crowded and touristy to those on the well-worn sightseer’s path – but divert as little as one street over and oftentimes you’ll find yourself in a whole other Venice. 

With that we slipped into this other Venice: cool and quiet streets where Elisabetta revealed her font of local knowledge. She led us to the Grand Canal where we crossed standing in a traghetto – a gondola used by locals simply to cross the Grand Canal when there is no bridge nearby. On the other side was the Rialto Market and here we explored the inspiration for all great dishes in Venice. This is the place where Venetian chefs shop for fresh, local ingredients on a daily basis – except for Mondays, when the market is closed (and this, Elisabetta urged, is why you should never eat at a Venetian restaurant that serves seafood on a Monday). 

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Most of the day’s catch had long disappeared by the time we arrived, but a few stalls still glistened brightly with octopus and crab, squid and scallop. It was precisely this moment in which Mat and I knew that upon next visit to Venice we would most definitely be staying in an apartment with a very well-equipped kitchen. Outside, the produce section was vivid with colour: red radishes and purple plums and more sun-dried tomatoes I’d ever seen before.

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It was quickly time to delve into the part of the tour we’d all been most eager for. Again, Elisabetta led us away from the throng – and yet not so far at all – to the door of our very first bàcaro, a special type of wine bar indeed. Bàcari are the home of cicchetti, Venice’s answer to tapas or pintxos. 

Cicchetti is perhaps the heart of Venetian food culture. Cicchetti bars began popping up around the Rialto Markets as a place for Venice’s fishermen and market workers to finish their day’s work with a quick bite and a glass of wine – no matter that these customers would, of course, be finishing their day’s work still very much in the morning hours. And for this, cicchetti is traditionally a daytime offering, extending to early evening at the latest and often with a closed period during the afternoon. 

Elisabetta magicked us through four different bàcari, each with its own unique history and personality. The cicchetti came thick and fast: little deep-fried sandwiches, toothpicks pierced with cured meats and pickled vegetables, polenta and crusty breads topped with all manner of fresh, seasonal ingredients. The cod paste was a wonderfully surprising favourite. You see why we eased into bàcaro life so very comfortably. In these small, hole-in-the-wall bars our little group hovered happily, a piece of cicchetti in one hand and a glass of local wine in the other.

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By two o’clock we’d arrived at our final cicchetti bar, where a sparkling Raboso wine enchanted a stay far, far longer than anticipated. It is indeed the custom to hop from one bàcaro to the next, but it seems we found ourselves rather content to while away the rest of the afternoon in this one. Elisabetta eventually sang her goodbyes, but the cicchetti and wine did not stop flowing at all. I would certainly recommend not planning anything for the rest of your day should you partake in this tour. The lovely folk at this cicchetti bar took care of us very well.

It is a very special kind of bliss to slow down and explore an incredible place like Venice through its food, and even moreso to be guided by the hand of a kind, passionate local. To spend a day learning and eating and drinking our way through the city centre’s quiet little corners, Elisabetta at helm and flanked by fellow foodies from across the world – this was one of those beautiful, perfect travel days that makes my heart swell just to remember. If you have but one day to spare for Venice, honestly – find a way to squeeze this tour in. The cicchetti trail waits for you too. x

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DETAILS:

I booked this tour through Urban Adventures, a wonderful little company that runs day tours all over the world. I have been on several UA tours now (including one in my hometown!) and absolutely adore them.

The Cicchetti and Wine Tour of Venice runs twice a day: 11.30am for the morning tour and 5.15pm for the evening tour. Tour duration is 2.5 hours. The tour does not run on Sundays or during the low Winter season.

Cost of the tour is currently $108.34 (AUD) / $84.80 (USD). Believe me when I say it is worth every penny and more.

Road Tripping Europe

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Very early into planning our Europe adventure last year, Mat and I decided we wanted to make it a road trip. I’d done Busabout Europe back in 2010, and was keen to do something different, and we were both eager to travel in a way that gave us the freedom to really do our own thing. And so, we picked up our car on the outskirts of Paris one July morning (okay, yes – it was a hair-raising half hour getting out of that city!) and dropped it off in Amsterdam five weeks later. Everything in between made up our beautiful little European road trip; a travel experience that makes my wanderlusting heart burst with joy to remember. 

I loved cosying into the road trip lifestyle; throwing our bags in the boot, climbing into the passenger seat and crooning a couple of lines (the only ones I know!) of Willie Nelson’s ‘On the Road Again’ to Mat before setting out toward the next adventure. Becoming strangely enamoured by Europe’s Autogrills, those beautiful roadside beacons that put Australia’s service stations to shame. Car snacks with a local twist: one day we might munch on a packet of Haribo lollies, the next on our very own makeshift charcuterie platter assembled entirely from an Autogrill fridge (seriously, Autogrills are fantastic and I adore them). Curating the perfect road trip playlist. The inevitable anthropomorphism of the GPS system (‘Gypsy, you’re crazy, that’s not even a road!‘). And of course, having a giggle over foreign roadsigns…

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Road tripping meant freedom. We travelled on our own schedule, which was utterly delightful and not something I’d really experienced whilst abroad. Coming and going didn’t feel like a chore. One night we stayed up chatting with a few other travellers in the kitchen of our hostel in Bled, Slovenia. One backpacker had set up for the night, checked out of his room but forced to wait out until some ungodly hour of the early morning for his train to Budapest. The unavoidably indirect journey would take him almost ten hours (it would have taken us less than five). Another couple were plotting their own early morning, scheming to cab out to the train stop just before Bled’s main station in the hope of beating the throng to a couple of seats together. Train travel certainly has its place, especially in Europe – but waking up on our own time and taking a mosey down to the local bakery for breakfast before a lazy three-and-a-half-hour drive to the other side of Austria was a very nice way of doing things indeed.

Having a car gave us the freedom to explore all those little detours and day trips with total ease. Our Swiss Airbnb hosts, Sonja and Christophe, were thrilled to be able to send us off through the mountains on a little rainy day road trip to Maison Cailler – a chocolate factory with an all-you-can-eat tasting room, and the nearby town of Gruyères – famous, of course, for the cheese; fondue was most heartily consumed. Obviously, this goes down as one of the greatest days in history. We did drive on the wrong side of the road for a short time that day (it was early in the trip!), but luckily the locals seemed unperturbed!

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We could stop in at the Tower of Pisa on our way from Levanto to Montespertoli, and quickly make haste when the heat and crowds got the better of us. Tuscany itself was a wonder to explore by car. Every little town that dotted the vast, ochre landscape was open to us. From our isolated hilltop Airbnb to a castle-come-winery in the town of Montespertoli, from the walled medieval town of San Gimignano and even to gorgeous Florence itself (tip: nab some of the city’s only free parking and avoid those nasty ZTL areas at Piazzale Michelangelo – very conveniently located for exploring the city, and the best spot you’ll find to catch the sunset!). We even took a forty-five minute drive through the hills one afternoon just to hunt down what what is apparently the best gelato in Chianti.

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Even little excursions, like Vintgar Gorge from Bled, or the Almsee from Grünau, Austria, meant we could spend more time exploring the attraction rather than sweating it out just getting there. We paid a solemn visit to Dachau Concentration Camp on our way from Munich to Nuremberg. The mood was lighter a few days later when we discovered that Legoland Deutschland was but a miniature detour on the way to Stuttgart. 

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Oh – and we got to drive our car onto a train in Switzerland to be transported through the pitch black belly of mountain and on to Italy:



Our European road trip was, quite honestly, a magical adventure, and my most treasured travel experience to date. It took a little bit of planning – but with a GPS and a good travel buddy, I believe anyone can do it. 

(I’m already planning the next one. Iceland 2016, here we come!)

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This post was hurried along by the folks at Land Rover, who were kindly looking to sponsor a piece on road trips. Thanks for kicking my butt into gear on this one, guys!

This Is Why I Love Paris.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Paris for some time. It’s always seemed like too great a task, though. How could I possibly describe my love for that great, gorgeous city? When Anna at Slightly Astray prompted me to enter Accor Hotels’ ‘A Tale of Three Cities‘ competition, however, I couldn’t resist. The mission: write on “three things I love about my favourite city”.

Paris, your time has come.  

Bon Appétit  

Paris is a dream for foodies, as you most certainly already know. It’s more than snails and stuffy restaurants though; far greater than macarons and Michelin stars. My best advice? Find at least one great little place and make it your ‘regular’. The very first thing Mat and I did upon arrival in the City of Lights was collapse upon a table for two at 5e Cru, a wonderful little wine bar near our accommodation in the 5th district. It was small and intimate, the atmosphere casual but unmistakably Parisian. We connected immediately with our waiter (a mixture of unbridled enthusiasm and monolingual awkwardness on our part), who guided us through divine wine and the best charcuterie platter I’ve had the fortune of devouring. That is, of course, on par with the charcuterie platters we devoured on two return visits. By our second sojourn to 5e Cru, our waiter was taking painstaking lengths to make sure our red wine was at the perfect temperature, whilst the third saw us favoured with a generous amount of the night’s almost-emptied wine bottles on the house. 

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And then there was beef bourguignon at La Petite Rose des Sables, tasty indeed, but outshone by the incredible hospitality of eccentric Madame Zouzou and her silent sidekick, Big Boss. The most gorgeous éclairs laid out like jewels at L’Éclair de Génie. Schwartz’s, a New York style deli tucked away in the Jewish Quarter where the delicious, juicy burgers go almost insistently hand in hand with a glass of French red. The most incredible steak I’ve ever sunk my teeth into at Cueva del Diablo, a little Argentinean restaurant in the Latin Quarter, and a hot plate of sliced potato gloriously smothered in blue cheese at nearby Bistro Gladines on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Bon appétit indeed. 

Flânerie

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”
     – Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays

Admittedly, my knowledge of the 19th century Parisian flâneur comes from a mere tutorial or two nested somewhere in my Creative Arts degree – but I’ve always loved that image of the urban wanderer. Yes, Baudelaire’s flâneur was exclusively male and upper class, but I think we’re at liberty to expand that these days.

Once you’re in Paris, the concept of flânerie is palpable. It is a city made for wandering. On a sweltering summer’s eve, a stroll along the Seine from Notre-Dame to Eiffel Tower reveals half the city emptied along the left bank, picnicking and partaking in an extraordinary amount of glistening rosé. On the following Sunday morning (now grey and drizzly), the Georges Pompidou expressway along the Seine’s right bank closes to motor vehicles; the normally frantic stretch is quiet and poised, cyclists and joggers and fisherman slipping through in a hushed truce with the traffic. 

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Explorations of the cosy, cobbled streets of the Marais district give a rare glimpse into medieval Paris before Napoleon came along with his sweeping squares and boulevards. And oh, the delight in being swallowed up by the Art Nouveau entrances of the Métro, where a whole other Paris shines in fluorescent! Or simply take up residence at a little table on a cafe terrace, café au lait in hand, and watch the world go by (prepare for anything – Mat and I watched in awe one day as an unattended dog took take an absurdly large amount of poops all along Boulevard Saint Germain. He truly looked like he was having the best day of his life).

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Vive la Différence

Paris, I’ve learnt, is most rewarding when you simply make it your own. I hear a lot of people say that they were disappointed by Paris, which naturally makes me sad because I think it’s so wonderful. I think a lot of people must find it overwhelming; the city is so heavy with history and culture, and the mad dash to tick off Eiffel Tower and Louvre and Notre-Dame and Sacré-Cœur and everything else in between is exhausting. It is entirely okay if you don’t see those things. Polishing off a fresh croissant in bed at ten in the morning because you’re quite content gazing out over the sea of grey-blue rooftops can be just as rewarding.

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Eating Argentinean steaks and New York style burgers in Paris might sound like treason, but they made up some of the best experiences Mat and I had in Paris. We didn’t make the trek out to Versailles (we traded for Disneyland Paris) nor even Montmartre (we had daily dalliances with Notre-Dame instead). Our Paris was eating and wandering and giving ourselves permission to simply do what we love. Your own Paris might be quite different. And it’s definitely there waiting for you. x

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