Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Carnevale without Crowds

Dear God, what were we thinking?
Venice in February during Carnevale has to be the ultimate no-no for devoted nocrowders? I don’t know how it happened. Sometimes I just leaf through the pages of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” and I get the urge to try something because life is, indeed, short. I reckon it is a basic instinct, the basic human instinct that has turned international tourism into a US$ 680 billion dollar business (UNWTO – 2005) and the basic instinct that lures an estimated 500,000 people over a 10 day period into a city with an indigenous population in the ancient centre of 62,000. I guess everyone should see this “re-enactment of that final swan song of the Most Serene Republic, reminiscent of the days of Casanova” at least once in their life and this was our year.

Did we enjoy it? Sure we did. How could you not enjoy being an extra in an 18th century film set. The combination of Venice and costumes is a work of art but the crowds really do overwhelm the experience and one needs to navigate quite carefully. We made some classic mistakes, like going to Piazza San Marco. In a word, it was frightening, too many people, too few exits. I held Eloise’s hand for dear life. But with that said, life is richer for having seen this piece of magic even if I never have to see it again. In the event that you too get the urge and assuming you are not a Hedge Fund Manager and therefore are not staying at the Cipriani, not taking private water taxis and not attending the expensive costume balls, here are some ideas about how to how to have an affordable NoCrowds experience in the Venice during Carnevale.

Stay at the Tiziano Hotel

The Tiziano is a lovely small hotel (12 rooms and 2 junior suites) found in an out-of-the-way location in Dorsoduro. While you can reach the Tiziano on foot from Piazzale Roma in about 10 to 15 minutes, it takes a good half an hour to reach Piazza San Marco. That might be considered a liability at any other time of the year but is a blessing during Carnevale.

The former 15th century home lies on a quiet square, bordered by a canal near the church of “San Nicolo dei Mendicoli”. The rooms have generous proportions and have been tastefully decorated in Venetian style with bathrooms that are modern and perfectly appointed. Breakfast is much better than you often find in Italy with delicious breads and cakes, fresh fruit, yoghurt, sliced meats and cheeses and, of course, excellent coffee. The young woman who works the front desk in the afternoon and evening could not have been more helpful and charming. The owner is “all business” and seems rather gruff but I warmed up to her considerably when she made a big effort to help our daughter fix her broken Carnevale mask. During Carnevale, when prices are at their peak, we paid €200 a night for a triple and €180 for a double, breakfast and taxes included.

Eat and Drink at Pane Vino e San Daniele

This wine bar which also serves wonderful food can be found on a small piazza in a residential neighbourhood a two minute walk from Tiziano and a million miles from touristy Venetian eateries. We were suppose to have dinner at Antiche Carampane in the heart of the one-time red light district in San Polo near the Ponte delle Tette (or Tits Bridge) chosen for its down home non-touristy reputation but after our traumatic trip to San Marco, we decided we did not have another 30 minute walk in us. As it turned out, Pane Vino e San Daniele offered some of the best down home non-touristy cooking to be found in Venice. Our friends ordered the goat which they thought was delicious. The antipasti plate of cured meats was memorable. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming and on the Saturday night of Carnevale, we were the only non-Italian speaking table. For dinner and a healthy amount of wine, we spent €40 per person.

Some other restaurants in Dorsoduro which did not disappoint included Pensione Calcina’s La Piscina on the Zattere, Venice’s sunny, sheltered promenade which should be saved for good weather when you can eat outside directly on the Guidecca Canal. For the last two years in a row, we have eaten blissful lunches in brilliant sunshine in February.

[If you are super organised, you can also try to book at room at Pensione Calcina which is the best value and best located pensione in Venice but to give you a feel for the challenge you face, when I tried to make a reservation in October for February, all I got was the polite response that they had been fully booked for months. If you are interested for next year, book now.]

We also ate outside at the crazy but delicious Osteria Da Toni. This is an old style place where the Carabinieri pitch up at lunch time, where the food is gutsy and fairly priced and where the service is so slow and disorganised that if you are in the right mood, it is hilarious. Do not, under any circumstance, go there if you are in a hurry but if you have time to kill and grab one of the tables on the canal, it can be lots of fun. A meal should cost about €25. Not far from Osteria Da Toni, we also had a good dinner at Osteria S. Barnaba where dinner again set us back €40 per person.

Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni

Oh to be an heiress in Venice. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the coolest museums in Europe. Blessed by its location in a curiously unfinished Palazzo on the Grand Canal which was Guggenheim’s home for 30 years and packed with highlights of almost every major art movement of the 20th century, even during Carnevale, this is a five star experience without the crowds.

Built by the Venier family in the 18th century who only managed to complete one floor, the Palazzo feels like “Mies van der Rohe does Venice” and serves as the perfect backdrop for Guggenheims collection of modern masters such as Picasso, Mondrian, Miro, Chagall, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Frances Bacon. The sculpture garden is a leafy haven where Peggy Guggenheim and many of her dogs are buried. You can linger on the terrace fronting the Grand Canal and watch the world go by which is particularly interesting during Carnevale. Don’t miss the black and white photos of Ms. Guggenheim in the agreeable CafĂ© overlooking the garden. There is an excellent gift shop which sells the most divine but quite expensive copies of Guggenheim’s signature sunglasses.

If you are travelling with children or young adults, this museum is a winner. Eloise immediately connected with the woman who wanted to be buried in her garden with all her dogs and thought her art collection was pretty exciting . She also found lots of neat stuff to hit us up for in the gift shop.

If you have not yet had your fill of culture, head over to the Scuola Grande Dei Carmini just off the Campo Santa Margherita with the fabulous Tiepolo painted ceilings. On the day we were there, it was absolutely empty.


Having reviewed this story, I think my advice can be reduce to one word, Dorsoduro, one of Venice’s six districts. Everything we did in that part of town was fun and relatively uncrowded. The Zattere is a good place to watch people parade in costumes, at night the Campo Santa Margherita is not a bad substitute for San Marco. We slept serenely, ate well, bought masks, saw the show and were culturally entertained without crowds. I read after we returned that the crowds had been so bad in the San Marco district that one-way walking traffic had been enforced by the police. No matter how enchanting the experience, nothing could be worth that!
Useful Addresses

Tiziano Hotel
Dorsoduro, Calle Riello 1873
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041 2750071
Fax: 041 2756312

Pane Vino e Daniele
Campo dell’Angelo Raffaele
Dorsoduro 1722 Venezia
Tel: 041 5237 456
Closed Wednesday

Bar Caffe La Piscina
La Calcina Ruskin’s House Dorsoduro, 782
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041 2413889
Fax: 041 5227045
Closed Monday

Osteria da Tone
Fondamenta San Basegio 1642
Tel: 041 523 8272
Closed Monday

Osteria Enoteca S. Barnabo
Calle Lunga S. Barnaba
Dorsoduro 2736
Tel: 041 52 12 754
Closed Wednesday and Thursday morning

Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
701 Dorsoduro
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041 2405411
Fax: 041 5203492
Open daily except Tuesday, 10am to 6pm

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

And We Won't Mention Corvara

Last year at this time, I put my relationship with my brother-in-law on the line by writing about Corvara, an unheralded gem of a ski resort located in the Alta Badia region of the Dolomites in Italy which he wants to keep all to himself. This year, I invited a posse of “Alpha” skiers from the US and Europe to stress- test that overused phrase, “this is the best kept secret in the Alps”. A risky business considering that this season, European resorts have experienced some of the worst conditions on record. But I am happy to report that we had plenty of snow, conditions were excellent, we skied, ate and drank ourselves silly and now I run the risk of alienating not only my family but most of my best ski buddies by writing about Corvara.

Getting my Corvara converts to join me this year was no easy matter. The Dolomites have never commanded the international attention of skiing cognoscenti and there were some in our group who felt the terrain would be too easy, some who could not understand why we weren’t going to Cortina and a mild climate of disbelief that a resort no one had ever heard of could deliver a world class ski experience. To make matters worse, we were going to an untested hotel that, although ideally situated on a run next to a ski lift, was 1.5 kilometres out of town. If we didn’t like the place, we were isolated and stuck. My worries were endless. What if there was no snow? What if we don’t like the hotel? What if my love affair with Corvara and the Dolomites was not contagious? How do you get into a witness protection program?

Things got off to a bumpy start. The Cortina die-hards turned a 2 hour drive from Treviso into a 5 hour marathon, which included several turns around the Cortina one way system, a few stops at local establishments to recuperate, and several wrong attempts at finding the right mountain pass. Well, I did much worse than that three years ago having directed my family to the wrong Corvara (be forewarned, there are two) on the other side of the Dolomites which turned a three hour journey into eight. Even if your marriage can endure these drives, I would encourage you, if you are renting a car and driving to Corvara from any of the gateway airports (Venice, Treviso, Verona, Brescia, Milan or Bergamo), to get yourself a good map. Otherwise, you can order a taxi (roughly €700 round trip for 5 people) to take you to and from the airport. If you can get a flight to Bolzano, the taxi ride is shorter and cheaper. But the bottom line remains that transport to Corvara ain't easy. The assumption is that you are an Italian or German family, you speak the languages and know the roads. In the end of the day, it is probably what saves the place.

As for the skiing, my Alpha skiers were more than sold. When we arrived there was not a lot of snow and some of it was man-made, but what was there was superbly maintained. Overall, conditions were good and at higher elevations, excellent. Forty eight hours into our adventure, it snowed 6 to 8 inches, turned cold and the sun came out. Perfect. With 1,220 kilometres of prepared slopes and 460 lifts to choose from, we skied with abandon and without a lift line in sight.

As good as the skiing was, ultimately it was the drama and majesty of the Dolomites which won the hearts and minds of my friends. Even good photographs rarely do these mountains justice. “I just can’t believe how beautiful this is” was the constant refrain. Two highlights of the week were the ski tour to the Sanctuary of Santa Croce, with a church begun in 1485 by Archbishop “Konrad” of Bressanone with a good restaurant and the Lagazuoi Ski Tour which includes eerie views of World War I trenches set in cliffs almost 3,000 metres above sea level, an 8 kilometre run which descends Mount Lagazuoi (1,130 vertical metres) and a rope tow pulled by draft horses which transports skiers across the valley.

This is skiing about as far away from the maddening crowds as you can get. It has history, phenomenal natural beauty, and no crowds. This is my idea of alpine heaven. And if it is testosterone runs you are looking for, head over to Arraba where you can meet up with the snow boarders for more thrilling slopes. If it is three hour gourmet dining sandwiched between a little skiing and sunbathing that turns you on, try either the terrace restaurant Moritzino at Piz La Ila (the best mountain restaurant I’ve ever eaten at) or the terrace of the Armantarola Hotel near San Cassiano. For an inexpensive but good lunch in an out-of-the-way location, head for the Rifugio Passo Incisa in Arabba.

And what about our hotel? We loved it. The Parkhotel Planac is comfortable, well appointed, well run, fantastically situated and good value. The owner and staff deliver that hard to find combination of being “laid back” and “on top of their game” all at the same time. We were a large and noisy bunch but this fazed Planac not a bit. When we were making too much of a ruckus for our elderly German neighbours at dinner, they were discretely and happily moved to quieter quarters. Throughout our stay, requests were dealt with quickly and with charm. We paid €109 per person for a standard room with breakfast and dinner. Deluxe rooms are also available for €20 more per person per day and if that is in your budget the rooms are beautiful and more than worth it. We ran a pre-dinner bar for the group out of one of the deluxe rooms, Club 111, which saved us a ton of money on our bar bill and it was very “gemuetlich”.

T he food at Planac is classic Sud Tyrolese fare which combines elements of both the Austrian and Italian kitchen. Meals were well prepared, there was plenty of choice and portions were generous. Our waiters were professional but fun. The Welllness centre is run by a delightful and enthusiastic young woman who will massage, exfoliate and beautify you to your heart’s content. The sauna and whirlpool are included in the price of the room. There is a free shuttle service which takes you into town in the morning and afternoons. During the middle of the day, a trip to town is €5 for the journey for a group. Internet and wifi access are available.

If you happen to be at Planac in February for Carnival, get ready for the party of your life. We were all given “behaviour transforming” hats and wigs by hotel staff who were dressed as monks, Chez Guevara, angels, transvestites and more. With the help of a good live band, we danced the night away. My nine year old daughter Eloise was shocked at our behaviour. We were shocked at hers! The next morning, the entire kitchen staff complimented us on our party skills. I can’t remember when I have had more fun and that pretty much sums up our week in the Dolomites.

The bottom line is this. Corvara really is the best kept secret in the Alps. If you want a resort that will impress your friends, go to Lech or Zurs or Zermatt. If you want to pay less, wait less and enjoy yourself more, get a map and head for Corvara. Just be sure not to mention it.

Useful Addresses

For taxi service to and from Corvara
Pescosta Alfredo
Tel 0471 836393
Cell 347 261 5525

Parkhotel Planac
Via Planac, 13
I-39033 Corvara in Badia
Tel: 39 0471 83 62 10
Fax: 39 0471 83 65 98

Moritzino’s Ristorante Gourmet
Piz La Ila
Tel 0471 847407 – 847403
Fax 0471 847395
Cell 335 600 94 56

Hotel Armentarola
I-39030 San Cassiano
Tel: 0471 84 95 22
Fax: 0471 84 93 89

Rifugio Passo Incisa
32020 Arabba
Tel and fax 0436 79313
Photo courtesy of the Alta Badia Tourist Board website

Friday, February 09, 2007

We're Off to the Slopes - Snow or No Snow

All this week, I have been asked, "So, you're going skiing. Is there any snow?"

Well, I have no idea. This nice picture is from last year when there was plenty and in the immortal words of Rhett Butler, frankly, I don't give a damn since everything is paid for and non-refundable . I haven't checked. We'll find our fun as we find it.

I'll be back at my PC on February 19th and with luck I will not be writing about how to enjoy a winter holiday with no winter. Until then.