Monday, November 16, 2009

VISIONS OF VENETO


by Barbara Barton Sloane


Stepping into an ankle-deep puddle, I almost lost my footing and quickly had to grab the hand of an elderly gentleman who then ceremoniously led me onto a large wooden plank sitting atop several inches of water, courtesy of the Grand Canal. Walking the plank before I reached the hotel door, a fierce gust of wind blew off my hat and turned my umbrella into a bowl-shaped, useless thing. After this inauspicious start, if one were to look at me they’d see someone with eyes sparkling and a mouth turned upward in a silly grin. So why is this gal smiling? It’s simple – I’m in Venice, and I dare anyone, in any weather and under any circumstance, not to greet the site of this Wonder on the Water without smiling. Impossible. Can’t be done. My venture into the Veneto region of Italy did, indeed, start off soggily but soon the fabled sun that graces this region was out and my umbrella was in – back in my luggage, not to make another appearance for the rest of the trip.

Once ensconced in my room at the Luna Hotel Baglioni, I was quickly transported into a Venetian dream with a window that looked out on a canal, water softly plashing against the hotel’s walls. That evening, my travel companions and I had a special treat awaiting us. We walked a short distance to Piazza San Marco and stood transfixed by a luminous silver sky, mauve clouds scudding quickly across the Campanile, and of course, ubiquitous grey pigeons swooping overhead in gay greeting. We dined at the renowned Caffe Ristorante Quadri which dates to 1725. Over the years everyone from Stendhal, Proust, Wagner and Byron has dined here and in this pinch-myself moment, now me!

Cruising
The best ride one will ever have and one of life’s great pleasures – plying the waters of the Grand Canal. I had the feeling I was in a living Canaletto painting, the sky an impossible blue and surrounded by ancient palazzos, their colors soft terra cotta, cream, gray and beige. This great road of water was filled with vaporetti, motorboats and gondolas, the boat moorings like peppermint sticks jutting up from the water - a scene that will thrill even the most jaded world traveler.


One could say Venice has just about everything to wish for. Just
about. Built on water, the city, of course, doesn’t have much greenery, trees, parks or gardens. Enter Certosa, an island situated a mere 15 minutes by ferry from Piazza San Marco. This verdant refuge from the tourist-clogged streets of Venice is a tranquil escape. One night I stayed at the Certosa Hotel, a peaceful oasis in the lagoon. Certosa and its sister hotel/restaurant Venissa on the island of Mazzorbo, a few minutes by ferry from Certosa, are the creations of Gian Luca Bisol whose wine producing family goes back to 1542. Both hotels’ restaurants are managed by the incomparable chef Paola Budel whose culinary offerings are delicious and memorable.

Wherefore Art Thou
The city of Verona is 71 miles west of Venice, and is, of course, the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. A long-forgotten editor of one of the Bard’s plays wrote: “Verona, so rich in real history has an even greater charm for those who would live in the poetry of the past.” Hummm - live in the poetry of the past - that’s my kind of neighborhood, and the past is ever present in this, one of the great cities of Italy.

Our sightseeing took us, naturally, to Casa di Giulietta, a house the city acquired in 1905. Many locals believe that in the 19th century the house was a bordello, but I prefer to close my eyes and picture the dear girl leaning over her balcony, swooning over that Montague boy.

A visit to the Giardino Giusti, created in the 14th century, is one of Verona’s highlights. A wall of cypress trees created a cool and relaxing spot where we chilled after having made the challenging hike up to what is called the Monster Balcony for an incomparable view of the city.

Passage to Padua
This is a major art center of the Veneto. Standing below the imposing fa├žade of Padua University, Italy’s second oldest, we learned that Dante and Galileo were once professors here. In the square, we heard a loud commotion, singing, shouting and laughing. Turns out it was a large group of the university’s students serenading a recent graduate in a traditional and bawdy fashion. The embarrassed girl was being marched through the square wearing a crazy costume, her head adorned with a shower cap, flippers on her feet, and carrying a sign that proclaimed her graduate status. The crowd sang something our guide loosely translated as “You’re a doctor now, big deal, go…….yourself!” All in good fun, but I suspect the graduate would be very happy when her “fun” was over.

The modest Chapel of the Scrovegni is one of the best reasons to visit Padua. Sometime around 1305, the artist Giotto did several frescos on the Chapel’s walls, and we stood enthralled before one of his most awe-inspiring, “The Last Judgment.”

An Architectural Delight
In the 16th century, Vicenza was transformed into a virtual laboratory for the architectural experiments of Andrea di Pietro known as Palladio, one of the great architects of the High Renaissance. Here we came upon the alabaster-white Basilica Palladiana shimmering in the sunlight. On our city tour, we were rendered speechless by one of Palladio’s greatest masterpieces, the Olympic Theater which was completed five years after the architect’s death in 1585. The trompe l’oeil renderings on stage are, themselves, worth a visit.

Medieval Marvel
In Treviso we strolled through this well-preserved ancient city gaping at the fantastically frescoed houses. We sat on a bench by a slow-flowing canal and enjoyed a spectacular lunch at the Park Hotel Bolognese, a villa of the late 1800s. Viewing Dante’s Bridge, we were told it was so named because Dante actually referred to this town in his “Paradiso.”

Enchantment Enhanced
The treasures of the Veneto are many, its charms incalculable. However, choosing to visit this region of Italy with all that it offers can be daunting, with the worry that one will miss some dream-worthy site. The Italian Travel Promotion Council (ITPC) is an organization that represents 20 major U.S. tour operators working with Italy and is committed to giving American travelers the best possible experience. Suggestion: to ensure quality, reliability and value, when planning your trip be sure that your local travel agent partners with one of the 20 tour operators affiliated with the ITPC.

Arrivederci
The time to depart Italy arrived but no final farewell for me. I preferred to say Arrivederci- so long for now, see you again. And by the way, that silly grin that adorned my face when I arrived – well, I’m still smiling, and when you visit the Veneto, you’ll smile too!

Veneto 411
:

Hotels Restaurants
Baglioni Hotels, Venice & Verona Gran Caffe Ristorante Quadri, Venice
www.baglionihotels.com www.quadrivenice.com

Certosa Hotel Palazzo and Giardino Giusti
Isola della Certosa, Venice Verona
www.venicecertosahotel.com

Residenza Art Deco, Venice Villa Pace, Park Hotel Bolognese, Treviso
(for a private loft/apartment experience) www.hotelbolognese.com
www.residenzaartdeco.com

Hotel Savoia & Jolanda, Venice Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista
www.hotelsavoiajolanda.com Venice
www.scuolasangiovanni.it
NH Mantegna, Padua
www.nh-hotels.com

Italian Travel Promotion Council
www.ItalianTravelPromotionCouncil.com
Tel: 310-649-1684











Tuesday, November 10, 2009

WONDERFUL CITY


Carnival Time in Rio

by Barbara Barton Sloane

Cidade Maravilhosa – Wonderful City. This is the name the Cariocas (residents of Rio) fondly call their town – and with good reason. A city of six million inhabitants, Rio de Janeiro has a special vibe all its own – a Samba vibe, to be sure, and it all begins when we deplane at Tom Jobim, an airport like no other. Warm smiles greet us, music pulses from all corners of the building, and men and women sway to the beat of Samba. The city is gearing up for its most famous event – Carnival – and so are we!

First reached in January, 1501 by Portuguese explorers in an expedition led by Amerigo Vespucci, the Europeans thought at first the Bay of Guaranbara was the mouth of a river which they then named “Rio de Janeiro,” river of January.

Our ride from the airport to Copacabana Beach seemed to take just about as long as it probably took those explorers to discover Rio. Traffic here is appalling and driving even a very short distance takes hours. Finally ensconced in my hotel room, I checked out the scene from my window. Below all was bustling and vibrant. I smiled as I glimpsed the familiar sight I’d long associated with Rio, the wave-patterned sidewalks and Copacabana Beach. Gentle waves washed the shore and the ocean curved off into the distant, odd-shaped mountains beyond.

BRIEF IS BEST
To call Rio informal is a gross understatement. The sidewalks teemed with people in various stages of undress – short shorts, minis and teeny, tiny string bikinis that adorned bronzed, beautiful bodies. This is not a place for the shy, the retiring, or for my boring, one-piece black bathing suit. In fact, I’m sure the color black must be banned in Brazil. Instead, a kaleidoscope of riotous color reigns. Later, peering from my window at 3 a.m., I was surprised to see the beach still alive with countless strollers, water gently lapping at their ankles. I’m told that Rio’s citizens routinely hit the beach on their lunch hour, as well. For them, the beach is an integral, necessary part of life. Quite simply, here life is a beach.

I planned on getting in some beach time myself, but the main reason we’re here is for Carnival so let the cutir (fun) begin!

The first records of this festival date back to 1723 when immigrants from the Portuguese islands introduced it to Rio and, by 1855, Carnival acquired unique elements derived from the African culture – organized parades, luxurious costumes, music, masks and flowers. Fast forward to the 21st century with the event drawing 500,000 foreign visitors and tens of thousands participating in spectacular parades with fantasy floats and dancing till dawn at the Sambodrome – an event that everyone must experience at least once in life. During these four days offices, banks and shops close. Everything stops and the insanity begins. As sure as the glorious sun shines on this luminous city, without fail, Rio’s Carnival will take place again in 2010 from Saturday, February 13 through Fat Tuesday, February 16.

A TRULY HEAVENLY VIEW
Gearing up for my first night of Carnival, I spent an inordinate amount of time that morning choosing my dress for the famed Copacabana Palace Ball. Satisfied that I had a killer outfit at the ready, I joined our group for some serious Rio sightseeing. And what should be our first sight? Just the largest art deco statue in the world, Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, the beloved symbol that looms over the city and is considered its protector. It is 73 years old, 98 feet high and rests atop Corcovado Mountain. My reward for climbing the 220 steps to the top (there’s an elevator if you don’t fancy the climb) is a euphoric feeling of standing on top of the world with a panoramic view of sea, sky, mountains and the beaches of Lagoa, Ipanema and Leblon.

I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT

That evening, we had the special privilege of attending the prestigious Carnival Ball, an event I like to refer to as my very own “15 Minutes.” Why? Because to enter the Palace, we walked a Red Carpet (yessss!) while hundreds pressed up against a fence which separated the invited from – well, from those that were not. Flashbulbs popped as we entered this classic hotel and once inside, pure fantasy. This event offered the chance to mingle with the glitterati, international VIPs, top starlets and models, the works. The theme of the ball was “Opera Magic” and as I wove my way through the costumed Carmens, Aidas, Rameses and Rudolfos, I had to pinch myself to believe I was really there. Like most other Carnival events, this ball lasted till dawn and I was grateful that next day’s sightseeing was put off till very late morning.

ONWARD AND UPWARD

Because of its height and its unmistakable outline, Sugar Loaf is one of Rio’s main attractions. On a cable car that has been in operation since 1912, the first leg of our ascent took us to a height of 720 feet above sea level and stopped at the Morro da Urca plateau. There our car was boarded by a group of boisterous musicians who gaily played and sang us to the summit. Sugar Loaf is a green, unearthly peak that rises over the city and affords a bird’s eye view from Copacabana Beach to the Corcovado Mountain. Feeling adventurous? You can take a helicopter ride which leaves from the first plateau. Really adventurous or slightly mad? Try climbing up this mountain. I peered down over the sheer vertical side of Sugar Loaf to see tiny, ant-like figures attempting to make their way to the top. They, more than we who rode a cable car, would find the stunning views a most just reward.

THIS GIRL IN IPANEMA
Throughout the four days of Carnival, there are Bandas (street parades) that take place in the many Rio neighborhoods. Each Banda consists of an orchestra playing well-known music that everybody sings along with. I marched along the Ipanema Banda irreverently titled “Que Merda E Essa?” (no translation needed). The streets were filled with hordes of enthusiastic people dancing the samba in costumes, bathing suits, special T-shirts and even in drag. The crowds were so thick I was literally carried along, at times wondering if I’d ever see my safe, relatively quiet hotel again. Happily, I hung in there. I made it!

ALL NIGHT LONG
The highlight of Carnival is the Samba Parade which is held at the Sambodrome (this coming year on February 14 and 15). The parade starts at 9 p.m., both nights featuring six Samba Schools, each group with as many as 10,000 revelers (you read it right) marching down the Passarela do Samba, the runway. The event ends at dawn the next morning. The phrase Samba School is actually somewhat of a misnomer. It is not a teaching institution; you cannot go there to learn to Samba (a dance unique to Brazil and invented by poor Afro-Brazilians). Instead, the 70 Samba Schools in Rio represent eight neighborhoods that work all year to build the floats, make the costumes and choreograph the dances they will perform in the parade. All night we sat mesmerized, viewing the parade in this amphitheater which was designed by the renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Back in the mid-eighties, the Samba Parades had become too big for improvisation in the streets and needed a professional site to perform in. When commissioned to build the Sambodrome which was to be completed in 110 days, Niemeyer said “We built the capital Brasilia in four years. We certainly can build the Sambodrome in four months,” and he did. About the Samba Parade, may I just say that it is an utterly unbelievable spectacle in color, grandeur and splendor, something you’ve gotta see to believe.

Too soon, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday arrived. Carnival in Rio is a unique experience. Discard inhibitions, wear a wild costume, just let go and have a blast. In short, it’s a moment you will never, ever forget. And, however cheesy it may sound, Rio de Janeiro - mad, magical and mysterious - allows you to live out, if only for a brief moment, your fantasies and dreams.
Cutir - Party on!

RIO de JANEIRO 411:
Hotels
Rio Orthon Palace Hotel Santa Teresa
Great location on Copacabana Beach Bohemian artists’ neighborhood
A.v.Atlantica, 3264 R. Almirante Alexandrina, 660
Tel: +55 (21) 2106-1500 Tel: +55 (21) 2222 2755
www.orthonhotels.com www.hotelsantateresa.com

Copacabana Palace Hotel Brazil Tourist Office
5-Star, Deluxe www.iexplore.com/dmap/brazil
Av. Atlantica 1702
Tel: +55 (21) 2548 7070
www.copacabanapalacehotel.com

Restaurants
Porcao Rio’s Aprazivel
Traditional Brazilian Barbeque Dine in a garden
Av.Infante Dom Henrique Rua Aprazivel 62
Tel:+ 55 (21)3461 9020 Tel:+55 (21)3852 4935