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!

Our Airbnb Experience in Europe

A Parisian studio, a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam, a house on a Tuscan hilltop and even a remodelled sauna in Munich. Yup – we rarely had a boring bed in Europe, and that was largely in thanks to a most glorious and wonderful little thing called Airbnb.

The view from our Tuscan hilltop Airbnb.

Airbnb had kind of been in my peripheral vision for a while. It was a concept that sounded really cool, but one I couldn’t quite process properly; without any travel planned it seemed irrelevant to me, at least temporarily. After booking flights for this year’s trip to Europe, however, that very quickly changed. Now that I had a tangible trip in the works, it was like falling deep, deep into the rabbit hole.

If you’re not familiar with Airbnb, it’s an online community based around the sharing of otherwise private accommodation space with travellers (for a fee). From spare rooms to entire apartments, villas to backyard yurts – the world of Airbnb is vast, fascinating and an incredibly exciting facet of the travel industry. I spent hours upon hours trawling the website, thrilled at the idea of exploring Europe through the homes of locals. This was the first time I’d planned a trip totally from scratch and the accommodation side in particular was very new to me. I mean – sure, we knew we wanted to visit Switzerland for a few days. But where in Switzerland? In this sense, Airbnb turned out to be an absolute godsend. I plugged in a search for a space within our price range, and somewhere we’d also have access to free parking as we travelled mostly by car. It also needed to be somewhere kind of on the way to Italy. That’s how we ended up staying with Sonja and Christophe in the gorgeous little town of Thun – a destination we’d never have discovered if not for Airbnb, and yet it honestly became one of the most incredible parts of our trip. 

We ended up booking roughly 75% of the trip through Airbnb; 11 different spaces in total. What I loved was not just the opportunity to stay in some really beautiful, unique spaces – but to experience a destination in a way that just felt more genuinely local. Take Amsterdam, where we closed out our trip by treating ourselves to three nights aboard Reinhart’s houseboat (docked in a canal). The houseboat itself was gorgeous, and staying aboard was obviously just a seriously cool thing to do. But it also meant that we got well away from the very touristy centre of Amsterdam, whilst still being extraordinarily close to everything we wanted to explore there. You see, to get to Reinhart’s houseboat we had to take a short ferry from the rear of Centraal Station. This ferry runs 24 hours a day – every five minutes during the day, and every ten minutes at night. And it’s totally free. The ferry pulls up, opens its gate to the dock and locals pile on – including cyclists, and even people driving little microcars! It takes but a minute to get over the river IJ, where another gate on the opposite side opens to the new dock in North Amsterdam, and everyone trundles off – right before those waiting on the North side swarm on. Reinhart’s houseboat was just another few minutes’ walk from there. It was such a fun little local ritual. Mat and I loved getting to experience that ferry passage a few times every day during our stay. And North Amsterdam was so lovely. No hostels in sight. No throngs of nineteen year old boys high on their own egos. It was a peaceful place where we we were rocked ever-so-slightly to sleep at night by soft waves.

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I made a point of trying to choose Airbnbs that had rave reviews not only centred around the space itself, but even more so the host and hospitality. Call me picky, but I wanted to choose Airbnb hosts who thrived on making visitors feel welcome in their little part of the world. These would be the first people we’d meet in each destination, and our lifeline to local living. I wanted to put my trust in people who took that kind of ambassadorship seriously. And that selectivity really, truly paid off. 

Cristina and Matteo’s spare studio apartment in Paris was an absolute dream in itself; having our own gorgeous little space overlooking the Parisian rooftops for a week was pure magic. Cristina and Matteo as hosts gave the experience a whole new level of awesome. They invited us into their own (amazing) apartment on the floor below, poured us wine and gave us their best food recommendations for the area. And for anyone who’s been to Paris, you’ll appreciate how incredibly valuable that kind of advice is! We pretty much lived on their food tips, and our tastebuds could not have been any happier for it. I’ve mentioned before how Cristina also worked tirelessly to get us a reservation at La Petite Rose des Sables. As our first Airbnb experience, Cristina and Matteo and their little studio in the Latin Quarter absolutely blew us away. 

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And then there was Sonja and Christophe in Thun, Switzerland. We stayed for three nights in the spare bedroom of their apartment, and were welcomed into their home with a truly touching warmth and generosity. Every night we sat up, lost in conversation with the pair, who were well-travelled adventurers themselves. They told us that – rather than doing it for the money (and believe me, their place is some of the most reasonably priced accommodation you’ll find in a very expensive country!) – they open their home up through Airbnb as a way of experiencing new people from all over the world. Sonja and Christophe gave us some fantastic suggestions to check out in the area – hugely appreciated, as poor weather conditions meant that much of the mountain frolicking we’d thought to do was suddenly a no-go. They even treated us to a delicious home-cooked meal on our final night. Their apartment has a huge, sprawling terrace, and during a brief half-hour of visibility on that final night, we finally got a glimpse of the mountains that loom above Thun. It’s absolutely stunning. Our time in Thun felt very special indeed. 

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Later, during our visit to Munich, we stayed with Matthias in an outer municipality called Vaterstetten. After reading fantastic reviews for Matthias’ spare room, I got in contact requesting a booking. Unfortunately I’d been pipped by someone else in the meantime, but Matthias courteously offered us his other space – a remodelled sauna he called the ‘Cosy Cuddle Box’. This does sound a little horror movie-esque, but you know what? I had a curiously good feeling about it. Plus – what a story, right? The Cosy Cuddle Box was really quite amazing – a loft-style bed had been installed inside the sauna, a bar-fridge and storage space tucked underneath and another wedge of private space curtained off just outside the door. It felt like a grown-up cubby house. And Matthias was the picture of a perfect Airbnb host. Every detail was attended to (including fresh chocolates on our pillows every day, which obviously won me over fairly quickly). He stopped to brew and share a pot of coffee with us most every time our paths crossed, and we enjoyed some great conversation together. He tipped us off to the wonder that is the schmalznudel, and we showed him videos of Aussie Rules Football on YouTube. Matthias was very intrigued indeed.

Airbnb just really opened us up to a world beyond the tourist trail. We discovered the trendy Nuremberg suburb of Gostenhof, or ‘GoHo’, after booking Eva’s ridiculously well-reviewed guest room. It actually felt like a totally separate apartment – a beautiful bedroom, bathroom and living space that split off from the entrance to Eva’s main apartment meant that we were swimming in space (especially after coming directly from the Cosy Cuddle Box!). Eva had painted a huge map of GoHo across one of the walls that detailed her favourite eateries and attractions. It was brilliant. From bakeries to beer gardens, cafés to tapas bars – we loved exploring GoHo even more than the famous Nuremberg old town. GoHo felt almost like the Franconian version of Melbourne’s Brunswick, or Fitzroy, and so – combined with Eva’s beautiful hospitality – we honestly felt so at home there. It was wonderful.

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I could go on and on. A brief night with Christine in Dijon, who didn’t speak English but makes one hell of an apricot jam. Snacking on homemade antipasto platters and sipping Chianti on Marjet’s terrace, with rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eye can see. Maya’s gorgeous spare apartment smack bang in the middle of Ljubljana, a pre-stamped postcard waiting on the table (one of the most thoughtful things you could gift a traveller!). Choosing Airbnb was one of the best decisions we made for the trip, and I can’t imagine ever travelling without it in future. Even downtime at ‘home’ still felt like we were experiencing something unique, rather than time wasted in a hotel or hostel room. It gave us the power to experience a destination in a way that felt more ‘us’ – relaxed and local, rather than breaking our backs rushing around trying to tick off the sights. 

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