A little drama does a coastline good 

Earlier this year, around about March, I made a New Year’s Resolution to get around Ireland a bit more. You read that right – it was March. It usually takes me a few months to decide on a resolution or ten. Don’t judge – I’ve accepted my tendency to want to ‘boil the ocean’, as a friend so perfectly described it once.

I could do much better with that resolution, but there’s time yet. And intent – there’s a roadtrip on the cards with the Thelma to my Louise. Or is she the Louise to my Thelma. I guess as long as she doesn’t drive is off a cliff, it doesn’t make much difference.

I have made some effort though. A few weeks ago I went ‘up north’. Specifically to the Co. Antrim coastline. More specifically, the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede, not to mention some incredible coastline in between!

The Weather

Everyone knows the Irish weather can be a bit temperamental. If there were ten seasons instead of four, it’d still manage to cram all of those seasons into one day.

The usual refrain is that we need the rain to keep things green. We do get sun too – find a farmer and you’ll find he has a decent farmer’s tan by the end of the summer. And sometimes we get exactly the weather we need to show off our incredible scenery in all it’s glory.

The weather we had in Antrim was blustery to say the least. Not gale force winds, but far from a gentle breeze. With that wind came choppy seas and a whole level of drama that made the coastline far more engaging than a calm sunny day ever could!

The Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway is an area of interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. Or … Fionn MacCumhaill ripped chunks of the cliffs off to create a path to Scotland so he could go fight a rival Scottish giant.

Take your pick. Or judge by the perfect proportions of the Causeway’s hexagonal columns. Man with superhuman powers? Or nature’s power?

Whichever you believe to be its creator, it is impossible to be anything other than mesmerised by the sheer number of hexagonal columns laid out before you.

Then add some choppy seas.

Naturally I had to walk right out to the very edge. It’s not an easy walk. It’s not a perfectly paved ledge we’re talking about. There’s some climbing involved, there’s some walking at funny angles that are definitely anything big ladylike, and with some rain, there’s some slipping going to happen too! I was in my element. My mother (who was with me) hadn’t a nail left! Someone who’s a bit accident-prone, on something like the Causeway … but no bones broken, happily!

The cobwebs between the ears though, they didn’t fare so well. Completely blown way, those were!

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

There’s a bit of a daredevil in me. I grew up around lots of boys. I tended to spend more time with my head in a book, but I still managed to catch some of the daredevil from them.
So the idea of a narrow rope bridge, suspended over rocks and water and liable to move a bit with the wind … well, it appealed. What if I fell to my death? Well, if you’re going to go, wouldn’t it be some story. ‘Sorry, she won’t be coming back to work as she fell to her death from a rope bridge between two cliffs.’ I think my work crew would probably not be surprised! But I shouldn’t joke about it, should I!
Right, here’s the shocker. I was disappointed. It’s a very short bridge. Just 20 metres! Okay, for a good people, that’d be 19.999 metres too long. But I’d happily have done 200 metres on it.
After the initial disappointment though, it’s not too shabby at all. Better when you look down! Rocks! Lots of them. Not geometrically perfect like the Giant’s Causeway – these are the sharp angry kind of rocks! Don’t look down, a woman in front of me advised the teen she was with. I was dying to shout at them both to look down, for the love of all that is holy, and don’t be doing things by halves! I kept quiet though, don’t worry!

When you get to the other side of the bridge … well the camera simply HAS to come out. Remember if was a bit of a rough day, weather wise? This is what you get …

And what better note to finish on! And maybe play Jack Lukeman’s You Are the Sea, for effect!

Not your average bookshop!

Book. It’s a bit functional, as words go, isn’t it! Guttural. Dull. Definitely not suggestive of how the contents of those pages can transport us from an international space station to 1800s France, from modern day Wicklow to 1920s New York, and from a fantasy world where a wizard reigns supreme to 1904 Dublin (and that’s just a small selection of books in my eye-line right now!).

Similarly, bookshop. Hardly the most awe-inspiring word in the English language. And these days hardly the most awe-inspiring of places either, at least for me. Especially some of those larger chains with shelves whose contents are neatly ordered by popularity or in alphabetical order.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against them, they just don’t excite me. I’m sure that’s something to do with my taste in reading material, which could best be described as ‘all over the place’. Shelves organized neatly would be fantastically helpful if I had even the slightest idea what I was looking for. I rarely do – my selection of reading material can best be described as impulsive. I’ve even been known to buy something that literally falls off the shelf and into my hands! 

So when I discovered Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice, it was pretty much as if I’d died and gone to heaven. I think I may have fallen in love with a bookshop. My mother would probably argue that it’d be more in my line to find a man to fall in love with, but she can blame her brothers for creating a book lover!

Context for the name of the shop first …

Acqua Alta (high water, in Italian) is a phenomenon in Venice which is caused by a combination of a high tide, low atmospheric pressure and a scirocco wind blowing up the Adriatic Sea, all of which force the water levels in the lagoon to rise. Once those water levels rise, they flood Venice. Levels can get past the 1m level, but they’re often much less. Thankfully I’ve only experienced the latter, and it was more of a novelty than a nuisance, barely ankle level. Hence my version of the ‘holiday feet’ photograph!

Because Libreria Acqua Alta is right next to a canal, it’s in an area that floods. So the name is appropriate. And the ‘shop fittings’ are also appropriate. (I use inverted commas because they are no ordinary shop fittings!)

It’s not completely disorganised, don’t worry. The front section is very much geared towards the tourist, with an extensive selection of books about all things Venetian and Italian, all in a range of languages. Whether souvenir or gift, you’re guaranteed to find something of interest. There’s also a good selection of maps, with varying degrees of detail, and some less cheesy postcards and prints. The further back you go, the broader the collection gets. Mostly in Italian, but not completely. All at reasonable prices too, I should add.  

Going further back through the shop requires a modicum of patience though, if the shop is a little busy. There’s not a lot of room to move, not least because there’s a full-sized gondola in the middle of the shop. Yes, I said a full-sized gondola! It’s stacked with about as many books as you could fit in a gondola, with said vessel seemingly propped up by more stacks of books resting on a variety of crates and boxes. 

 On top of the stacks in the gondola is a seemingly random arrangement of decorative objects, all based around a watery theme but nevertheless a bit random. 

Progress through the shop and you happen upon another boat, smaller this time, but no less full. 

Further back, more peculiar and ‘original’ shop fittings. Old cabinets, lockers, shelves, bathtubs. No, that’s not a typo, I did mean bathtubs! You see, the idea is that the shop fittings keep the books safe from the flooding of acqua alta, and what better way to do that than a bathtub!

The shop fittings aren’t the only oddities in this Venetian gem! Out the back of the shop is a staircase crafted from old books and scraps of very worn carpeting. It could so easily be misinterpreted as a ‘waiting for bin day’ situation, until you read the words painted on the wall, urging you to climb the books and look over the wall. Your reward is a view of the canal that the bookshop sits next to, a small bridge crossing that canal, and more often than not a small boat with one of the locals going about his business. In other words, a classic Venetian scene.

There’s something else, which I nearly missed! There’s a door at the back, the fire escape. It’s an open door onto the canal! Well, it’d be a pretty good escape, right! 

Apparently if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to meet the owner’s cat, since it basically has free reign in the shop and minces around among the stacks of books as only a cat can. I didn’t have the ‘pleasure’ of making its acquaintance, which suited me just fine (I don’t like cats, they don’t like me, the world is big enough for us all!). 

Of course there are more than a few books amidst all of this setting, so I easily passed an hour there before I started to get hungry and wandered off to get something to nibble on. But had I gone there fed and watered, I’d have been there for hours. I’ll be going the fed and watered the next time. Because there will definitely be a next time! Probably more than one actually! Well, I did say I’d fallen in love with it!

Pastries and Politics – a perfect morning

Cannaregio is one of those Venetian neighbourhoods I’ve rambled through many times, off in my own little world, pondering the mysteries of the universe. Which means that I probably missed half of what was around me. Deciding to remedy that, I booked a spot on a 3-hour guided tour which promised to combine a healthy dose of walking and history with a somewhat less healthy dose of baked goods and sugar.

In my last post I mentioned how serendipity and I have a bit of a thing going on … well, it happened again! I got an even better morning than I had expected/paid for.

Meeting the guide (an Austrian girl who moved to Venice with her boyfriend) on the steps of Santa Lucia train station, she ran through the itinerary with me while we waited for the others. The first stop would be for a quick espresso to get us moving. My face must involuntarily light up or something at the mere mention of coffee – she and I were soon bonding over a shared appreciation of quality coffee. I freely admit I have a coffee obsession – I’ve chosen not to fight it! It’s very few vices I have really!

There were eight others booked on the tour, but only one turned up, a Chicago-based teacher of Italian. No idea where the other seven people were, perhaps they underestimated how long it takes to get anywhere on the vaporetto in Venice (you’d walk faster, even factoring in getting lost, although not being able to walk on water could be an issue!). 

I wasn’t about to complain though – I was essentially getting a personal tour for the price of a group one! And while waiting for the no-shows to materialise, the topic of conversation had switched from coffee to US and Venetian politics, another shared interest, so it had the potential to be an interesting morning.

Our first stop was indeed for that much discussed espresso. I’m fussy about my espresso. There’s a fine line when it comes to bitterness – if it needs sugar, it’s crossed the line. Pasticerria Dal Mas delivered perfectly. It was accompanied by what looked like your standard chocolate croissant from the outside but was had more of a cake-y consistency. (Disclaimer: a food blogger I will never be, so cake-y is as good as it gets.) I pretty much devoured it. I was hungry. Well I had skipped breakfast in preparation!

As we entered the Jewish ghetto, I learnt that he who shall not be named in the US has a counterpart in power in Venetian politics, driven more by his own business interests than any civic responsibility. As Beatrice recounted some of the mayor’s more recent shenanigans, my heart broke a little for my beloved Venice.

Since we were in the Jewish ghetto, kosher Hamantaschen (a classic Purim treat) were next on the menu, at Panificio Volpe Giovanni. Of course they were delicious too! And mood-lightening! Buoyed by the sugar, we became a little more philosophical about the future and the potential that these less-than-ideal leaders may actually cause people to unite more and foster a greater level of activism, or even just engagement, among the younger generations in particular. By the way, the irony wasn’t lost on me that we were having this conversation in the Jewish ghetto.

Our next stop was for something savoury to balance the sugar levels just a bit. A cornetto filled with prosciutto. Okay … the image of an ice cream in a gondola … get rid of that! A cornetto in Italy has nothing to do with ice cream. It’s actually like a croissant, but not a croissant (apparently). Now it makes more sense to have it filled with prosciutto, right! 

And of course it would only be polite to wash it down with the ever-popular Aperol Spritz. You know that saying ‘when in Rome …’ – well when it Italy … even if it’s only mid-morning. Blame the weather – it was warm but it had started to rain a little, so we needed cheering up.

Perked up, Beatrice continued to talk to us about the relationship between Italy and Austria, and in particular the divisions in Tirol, with a conversation about the schools providing a segue to a discussion of the merits of the homeschooling movement in the US, which of course the third member of the party, the teacher (Lisa), felt strongly about. All three of us agreed that, in the current climate, exposure to the wisest range of views possible would be a far better option.

As we strolled on, we found a bookshop. It’s probably my favourite bookshop EVER! It will be getting a blog post of its own soon. It warrants it!

With the sheer excitement that bookshop generated, it was evident (if not surprising) that all three of us were avid readers. It also wasn’t especially surprising that we were all kindle users by necessity but ‘proper’ book readers by preference. There are quite a few of us around, it seems.  

It was time for tiramisu. You know that too-strongly flavoured, rich dessert we’re accustomed to? Well that wasn’t on the menu. The tiramisu served up by Pasticceria Didovich was light as air, with the most delicate of flavours and made with sponge rather than the usual lady fingers. Heavenly.

The rain had stopped, so on we went. At this point we’d parked the heavier subjects of conversation and switched to the infinitely more cheery gelato. I suggested to Beatrice that maybe they should run a gelato-tasting tour – I’d definitely book myself on that one. Again and again. They might have to roll me around, but nevertheless …

The last stop … chocolate! Specifically Vizio Virtù, reputedly Venice’s finest chocolatier. Inspired by the movie Chocolat, the owner (Marieangela) founded Vizio Virtù driven by the same passion for chocolate that has earned her the reputation of a chocolate magician today. As you open the door to the shop, you smell the chocolate before you see it, so your taste buds are quick to awaken in anticipation. And weren’t they in for a treat!

Cuori Morbidi, or ‘soft hearts’. Melting-middle chocolate cake basically. But the lightest cake, filled with the finest chocolate. To use any combination of adjectives to describe it simply wouldn’t do it justice, it was that good. I stopped talking, it was THAT good!

Of course we struggled to leave that shop, and wouldn’t leave empty-handed. I resisted taking home some chocolate covered olives (although I am going to attempt to recreate them) in favour of a jar of pistachio spread. Think of a well-known brand of hazelnut chocolate spread, but with pistachios instead. Tastes similar but a bit more nutty and less chocolatey. 

Eventually we left the shop and it was time to say goodbye to the treasure that was our guide for the morning, but not before she pointed us in the direction of Venice’s only coffee roastery, Torrefazione Cannaregio, where the best espresso I’ve had in Venice provided the perfect bookend to what was a truly enjoyable morning of pastries and politics. 

A Serendipitous Saturday 

‘Serendipity’ has long been one of my favourite words in the English language, not least because it’s been very much a theme of my life for as long as I can remember. For all the planning skill I pride myself on, the universe has always been so much better at it, time and time again, and I’ve always been better off for her intervention.

This past Saturday was no exception.

As a solo traveller, you get quite used to dining alone, and actually come to treasure it, watching the dynamics of family groups and loved-up (and not so loved-up) couples around you. But the occasions when you have company, even that of strangers, are still welcome! The company of a friend you weren’t expecting to see though …that’s a special treat.

Sitting down to my usual breakfast of fruit and coffee (one cancels out the bad in the other, at least in my head anyway!), I looked up to see a familiar face headed my way. A Dutch work colleague who I happen to be very fond of. He was meant to be staying somewhere else but someone booked him into the hotel as well, totally by fluke. He was also the only person I hadn’t said goodbye to the previous day, which bugged me a little, since he organized the event in the first place! What followed was a lovely catch-up chat, during which we were also joined by someone else we knew, and a proper chance to say goodbye.

Feeling more enthusiastic about spending the day in Milan (it wouldn’t be my favourite city), although slightly subdued having watched the Lions lose, I made my way to Duomo du Milano (Milan Cathedral). Or rather to the ticket office for the Duomo. It was hot. There was a queue. My mood wasn’t improving.

‘With stairs or with lift’, the cashier asked when I finally got to the top of the queue. I opted for stairs, not having any idea what the stairs led to, how many steps we were talking about, where they even were. If you need a ticket to get the lift though, that really should be an indication that you should at least know what you’re getting yourself into! I know, would skimming a guide book have killed me?

Anyway … it’s impressive, certainly. The stained glass windows are so full of content that they require far more than a cursory glance to truly appreciate. The organ is reassuringly grand and certain to deliver even the dullest of notes with an added layer of gravity. And the statue of St Bartholomew Flayed is certainly intriguing, if slightly disturbing. 

The real treasure though is on the outside. It’s a very close run race, but for me architecture always trumps art. The Duomo is no different. The Neo-Gothic exterior is an exercise in exuberance and embellishment which is a true feast for the eye. I’d felt that way as we stood outside it on the Thursday evening; I felt the same way now.

So imagine how I felt when I realised that the ‘stairs’ in the ‘stairs or lift?’ question actually took you to the heart of that embellishment on the terraces and the roof, walking between the spires and using the flying buttresses as doorways to the next ‘room’ of gothic splendour!

Admittedly the stairs were tough going, not helped by being spiral and steep (some say 250 steps, others 195, whichever it is, there were a lot of steps!), but the reward was worth every single step! The reward I didn’t even know I was getting.

I would have stayed up there all day, were it not for the tour of La Scala that I had booked myself on, to continue the obsession with theatres (more on that later). So with my legs feeling decidedly gelatinous (those steps!), I toddled along to the somewhat inauspicious-looking building that houses one of the world’s most famous opera houses.

Not long inside the door, the guide announces (and apologises) that, because they are using the theatre for rehearsal at the time, we won’t get the usual experience and will just be able to watch a bit of the rehearsal, but we can come back later and take pictures. I’ll take the rehearsal, thanks very much!!! For the ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Only one of my favourite ballets! And an opportunity to see the La Scala stage in use, with a full orchestra in the pit! You really couldn’t plan that!
Well … you could. If you were the universe and you were so much better at planning than the rest of us. 

I’ll take those kinds of unexpected pleasure any day, and when three of them come together to create a surprisingly perfect day … well who am I to question those planning skills! 

A new departure

A few years ago I started blogging about the many ways I avoided boredom. Then I got too busy not being bored, so ironically that was the end of the blog.

But I miss writing. Some would argue that I do plenty of it still, but there’s no such thing as too much writing, right? My uncle Gerard taught me that!

So, with a shift in focus to tales of my travels, and prompted by the fact that the universe keeps throwing material my way, the blogging recommences!

Sometimes there’s a flight involved, sometimes a train is enough. Sometimes the ‘fits the kitchen sink’ suitcase is needed, sometimes the ‘pricey but indestructible’ backpack is enough. Regardless, there’s always a story to be told.