“Italians don’t look to their future, preferring to think of their pasta” goes the joke currently doing the rounds. And Venice is a city steeped in the past. Many concepts have their origins in the city. The word for a public open-air swimming pool comes from the Italian Lido, the famous Venetian bathing beach. The original arsenal developed in the 11th century and was the heart of the naval industry. The original ghetto was established in 1516 on the site of a foundry (‘getto’). The word quarantine itself originates from the Venetian dialect quaranta giorni, meaning ‘forty days’.
The lack of car combustion allows other sounds to come to the fore. Church bells chime with different tones at charmingly slightly different times. Gondoliers sing their barcarole folk songs. The vaporettos and outboard motors add their own vitality. And the water laps and splashes against the stone walls. Water is in the Venetian blood. Swap cars for boats and you get shipyards for garages, docks and marinas for parks.
I had a day’s private boat trip with Lagunalonga. Francesco the charismatic de Niro lookalike skipper was dedicated to giving me the day I wanted. It is important to get a sense of the whole lagoon. By taking this personalised and intimate service you don’t have to hire your own boat or take the vaporetto. I got to have my own captain, who could judge the tricky streams and channels, as I sat outfront on a sunlounger soaking up the rays.
Small, light offerings were outstandingly cooked on board by chef Flavio using local ingredients. There was definitely a magic to his menu of schie on soft polenta, followed by seafood spaghetti, fillet of sea bream and vegetables and finishing with panna cotta with wild berries.
Francesco showed me the north lagoon. To Murano with her glass factories that are still thriving from centuries of family-owned concerns and with a church bedecked in lovely chandeliers made from the local factories. To Burano, the lace island, with her quaint array of vivid coloured houses that were danced upon by the fierce sun and shimmering water. And onto Torcello, an original settlement, now an innocent outpost blessed with a cathedral in a lovely pastural precinct.
I stayed first at The Londra Palace (www.londrapalace.com), right by St. Mark’s, which overlooks the bacino. How romantic to wake up and open the shutters to the central waterway hub of boating traffic emanating from the Grand Canal. Not to mention the view across to the San Giorgio church. Furnished with Murano glass chandeliers and offering al fresco dining this classic, rather than old-fashioned, hotel cleverly blends with its blue rooms the water beyond.
Then I hopped across the city on a vaporetto using a Venezaia Unica city pass to stay at the resplendent Aman Venice. Aman is a Hindi word for peace. This late-Renaissance Palazzo has a discreet gateway from the street, tucked away down a narrow passageway. But the front entrance has its own jetty, set on the broadest part of the Grand Canal. It has the fabulous asset of a large garden overlooking the canal. The piano nobile houses the ball room and the silk wall coverings are by the Italian textile houses Bevilacqua, Fortuny and Rubelli. It’s extremely ornate with gilt corners to the frescoed ceilings. With only 25 rooms this place of peace feels very spacious in the midst of the main thoroughfare of Venetian frenzy. The service seems telepathic, warm and friendly but not intrusive. The main room on the second floor blends its original beams and ceilings with contemporary Italian chic: big mirrors making it light along with long white silk drapes. The bedrooms blend Venetian ornament with fresh tones of grey, cream and white. Everything that happens in Aman Venice is done with immaculate and graceful ease.
It’s actually easy to escape the hordes who follow sheepishly the yellow arrow from the station via the Rialto to St Mark’s Square. I prefer to watch the Venetians go about their daily lives, garrulous, gesticular and hardened by the elements. But it was time to head north to the mountains, to fresher air and utter silence. Split between the Austrian and Italian Alps is the South Tyrol and the Dolomite mountains. I stayed in San Cassiano at Rosa Alpina. This old family concern begun in 1850. Nearby is the Bear Museum and opposite is the church with its unusually ornate metal crosses over the graves.
In 1994 Norbert Niederkofler helped open the hotel’s St. Hubertus Restaurant. This very sophisticated gastronomic maestro offers a unique menu, light but extensive like a long list of amuse-bouches. Among the best of the many usages of local produce are the thinnest of sliced peaches with mint, pine steamed bread, and dew sprayed on wild herb salad like a mist of scent. It’s all done with considerable theatricality.
I highly recommend the experience. Each course is brought by a parade of waiters with a synchronised service. Less of a performance is the taciturn breakfast whose buffet island reflects a modern diet of chia, linseed, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, not to mention nuts, homemade jams and honey fresh on the comb.
Ladin is the officially recognised language amongst parts of the Alta Badia vicinity. It has its own vocabulary and it’s still taught in schools. I had a typical Ladin dinner at the Maso Runch nearby, for me, the most picturesque of all the valleys, the Val Badia, with mountain peaks, pine forests and streams overlooking the pine chalets studded across the rich green pastures below. The setting is pure Heidi country. It’s steeped in tradition with Lederhosen waiters and checkered shirt waitresses. Cow barns only feet away. Locally grown produce all over the confidently set menu including barley soup, and tutres (tarts) filled with either spinach, cabbage or poncerli da pave (poppy, jam and ricotta).
My popping ears heralded the altitude and my gaping yawns the fresh air. I took a day’s hiking. Starting at Colfosco up the Stella Alpina valley to Jimmy’s restaurant for lunch. It’s a perfect lunch time spot after passing the other options of Edelweiss and Forcelles. Wonderful were the views of forest and streams, and then wide expanses of mountains and meadows. It all expresses an easy Alpine feel. The villages are evenly spaced across the valleys. The summer landscape has greater variety than the white of nature, the snow, cloud and smoke of winter.
The Dolomites are a hive of activity. Busy between December and April with the skiers and then July and August with the hikers and bikers. This Alta Badia region is truly a cyclist’s paradise. But that’s not the half of it! Daredevils take advantage of the altitude and let themselves be swept away by the lightness of air and follow the thermals and whipping wind. There’s paragliding, hang-gliding, slacklining and base jumping (which apparently involves leaping into the air from various points and then landing with a parachute). I can quite sense the adrenalin rush, and the freedom. For others there’s trekking, climbing, exploring, tackling dirt tracks, free riding, speedhiking, trail running, orienteering, and geocaching (a treasure hunt for techy types). Thankfully there’s e-biking for those who want to experience the excitement of a mountain bike but without too much of the hard work. Lots of ways to work off the pasta!
Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of QI, the BBC series presented by Stephen Fry and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo published by Penguin Press.
Classic Collection Holidays ( 0800 294 9323; classic-collection.co.uk) offers 3/7 nights at Rosa Alpina Hotel & Spa, Alta Badia, South Tyrol from £1153/£1885 per person. Price based on 2 adults sharing a deluxe room on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick to Innsbruck (other departure and arrival airports available) and private transfers. Travel in the UK was courtesy of Gatwick and Heathrow Express, inter airport transfers starting from £25 one way.