Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

Venice at the Biennale

In Life in Italy, Venice on June 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Venice is the stuff of legends—so why has it taken me so long to write about it? The answer is simple: Venice wears many masks. In fact, it’s almost as if I experienced a new Venice every week.

I started with tourist Venice, facing the challenges of the tangled labyrinth of streets and the unique Venetian working schedule. But as I learned how to navigate this island, I discovered other Venices.

There’s student Venice, characterized by private house parties, cheap Spritz and slices of pizza to go, and a full library where half of the people seem not to be working.

Or there’s expat Venice, where British and American dreamers who have spent years aspiring to live on this island of legends finally make it here, perhaps by chance—by falling in love and marrying an Italian—or perhaps by hard work, the result of a successful career which allows them to shuttle back and forth to their second home in Venice.

There’s the Venice of the locals—numbering less than 60,000, Venetians pause to chat on the street, dash into hidden eateries for an authentic bite, or converse from second-floor windows across narrow alleyways.

Then there’s Venice at Carnevale, a tourist orgy where streets are packed to overflowing and folks in rented costumes seek to recreate Venice’s storied past.

There’s historic Venice—the old cafés of San Marco, the few remaining squeros (shipyards) where workers spend months slowly laboring to create a single gondola, and the hundreds of palazzi packed with art and history.

And then there’s the Venice of the Biennale, a biannual celebration that attracts the best of modern art, a time when Venice pulls out the stops and glories in her true splendor.


Venice of the Biennale
It’s two in the morning. We approach Venice from the island of San Servolo, and watch as the city unfolds before us. Everything is aglow with light. Mega-yachts dot the shoreline, framing the city skyline. To our left is Santa Maria della Salute, emerging from the dark water like a pillar of light. Behind us, the churches of Giudecca hover, silent testaments to the city’s historic past. Straight ahead lies Piazza San Marco. The Basilica of San Marco reflects sparks of gold-hued light, while the square itself shimmers, filled with well-dressed people even at this late hour.

Every single part of Venice seems to have pulled out all the stops, to have bathed itself in brilliance in honor of this most special of occasions. The terraces at five-star hotels are awash with colors, filled with private events, well-dressed partiers dancing to the rhythm of the latest hits or relaxing and savoring a moment’s reprieve to the sounds of a string quartet.

The canals are packed. I’ve never seen so much traffic in Venice’s “streets.” Taxi drivers work overtime, chauffeuring fashionable couples from one event to another, from hotels to restaurants to private islands. Vaporettos are packed to overflowing. Their schedules have been extended until later in the night and reinforced to handle the traffic of special parties and events. And ironically, the service appears to be free. A visiting friend asks if anybody ever pays for the vaporettos—she has no idea how to do so. With the number of people on the boats, it probably doesn’t matter—it would be nearly impossible for an inspector to push through the crowds to check your ticket, anyways.

Every June, the city welcomes the Biennale. In even years, it hosts the architecture Biennale, while in odd years, the art Biennale stops in. Either way, the entire city is transformed. The Giardini Pubblici – a far-off corner of the city few tourists ever reach – is recast, as its 30 international pavilions are decorated with art installations created by citizens of their countries. Disparate in styles, the pavilions square off as a testament to the multi-national flavor of this international event. Created by Napoleon, the Giardini – normally a quiet place of reprieve – shift gears, as gaggles of people queue up to see works by the featured guest countries.

But the Giardini cannot contain the Biennale. Indeed, every corner of the city is transformed by this colossal event. Art galleries and pavilions for countries not lucky enough to have a permanent headquarters at the Giardini spring up in warehouses, palazzi, and almost any other space that can be rented out. Even in my own neighborhood, a corner of Dorsoduro far from the tourist track, galleries have opened in libraries, storage spaces, and historic homes. In addition to the Biennale’s main events, there are hundreds of officially sponsored eventi collaterali (supplementary events), and then there’s everything else. Local galleries plan special events and hold openings to coincide with the Biennale, and art students even take to the streets to stage performance art pieces. Venice, long renowned as the mystical artistic city on the water, puts on its Sunday best and comes into its own.

Venice at Biennale is a constant party, a whirlwind of activities – for those who are in the know. During the week of the Vernissage, the extended pre-party leading up to the official inauguration of the Biennale, dash from one pavilion opening to the next. Slide in and grab a prosecco as you listen to the de rigeur speeches by politicians bestowing their official blessings and artists selling their cryptic contributions. If you’re lucky, afterwards you’ll manage to actually see the pavilion—although it almost seems as if the art is merely the excuse, a reason to socialize and be seen, to grab a drink and be merry before you dash off to the next opening on your busy social agenda.

And then there are the parties. Last week saw Palazzo da Brizzo turned into a Venetian-only private party as “in” Venetians made their way to this towering mansion. Well off the beaten tourist track, this villa-for-rent was recently the home to the behind-the-scenes team supporting the filming of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp’s The Tourist. On the night of the party, the music is thumping, the dance floor is moving, and the bar is packed with party-goers awaiting that summer treat, mojitos dished up by the dozen by a somewhat intoxicated bartender. The party spills out into the garden, as people socialize, catch up with old friends and make new ones, stitching together the social fabric of Venetian life.

Well-funded nations rent out historic palazzi and throw smashing parties attended by their invited guests and a smattering of literati from the arts world. Last night, we hopped on a vaporetto and crossed the lagoon to the Island of San Servolo. Tucked between Giudecca and the Lido, this small island is home to the Venice International University. Just a ten minute boat ride from Piazza San Marco, the university campus has been transformed into a private party thrown by the Spanish Pavilion. Torches light the pathways and the music beckons, and we stroll past sculptures and well-dressed waiters bearing trays of sumptuous hors-d’oeuvres, pass tables that have hosted the elaborate dinner for politicians and other bigwigs, and shimmy on up to the open bar where your drink of choice is served to you in a real glass—no plastic at these parties. An elevated deck provides stunning views over the lagoon, and I’m left marveling at the fact that a government has rented out a third of an entire island—a whole university campus—to throw a party for a thousand or so art-goers. I don’t even want to think about what it must have cost.

This exclusive side of the Biennale is all about connections. The real VIPs can get into any event, but others socialize at the pavilions of the Giardini by day (themselves open only by invitation), inquiring politely if their friend might by chance have an extra invitation for that special event this evening. Luckily, one of our friends penned this year’s guide to the Biennale, and therefore knows scores of people on the Venice arts scene. We show up at a party without an invitation and she makes a few phone calls. A moment later, her friends call back, and we step up to the entryway and say the “password”—literally, a special name that grants you access to the party. The list-checkers don wide smiles and wave us on in.

We ended up party-hopping two nights ago. With a bit of time to spare between the opening of the Catalan pavilion and the main event of the evening, we stroll over to a selective event in the Abbazia di San Gregorio, located right next to Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal. A quick phone call, the magic word, and we’re in, sipping away at drinks (the bartender ended up handing us our own bottle of prosecco) and ogling the incredible views of the canal from the stunning second-floor conservatory. We then jump on the vaporetto for a quick hop across the canal, and stop in at another party for a moment before heading to the evening’s finale. The United Arab Emirates are hosting a party on a boat they have rented out for the evening. The bouncer is a friend and waves us in, and we step up to the boat’s upper deck. We spend the evening cruising up and down the Giudecca canal, enjoying mojitos and daiquiris, and dancing the night away at this stellar open-air party.

At the Abbazia di San Gregorio, overlooking the Grand Canal

Venice at Biennale is about being seen, and being seen means dressing to the nines. Every group seems to have a different look: though the standard is jacket and shirt – no tie – you’ll see politicians in full suits inaugurating pavilion and gallery openings, waiters in tuxedo and bow tie dashing off to their next for-hire event, and of course, the inimitable artists, decked out in outfits from stylish to absurd—some sporting the classic all-black look, others pushing beyond hipster to the true domain of the independent artist, pairing flamboyant fabrics with seeming cast-offs to create extravagant combinations. No matter whether their ensembles flourish or flop, it’s always easy to spot the artists.

The Biennale is an incredible boon for the city. As packed as Carnevale, yet drawing a very different crowd, you’ll find that every hotel is booked solid months or even years in advance. Country delegations books blocks of dozens of rooms, and the press pours into the city, squeezing into every livable space. I check the internet: only two hotels in Venice have rooms available for the opening weekend of the Biennale, for a minimum of $300 a room—for a single. Even hotels on the mainland—half an hour from the city—have prices starting at several hundred dollars a night.

If you’re lucky enough to live here and have a few connections, though, you’ll find yourself enjoying an incredible time at the premier international art event: a week of fabulous parties, non-stop inaugurations, open bars, and art galore, without spending a single dime. That is, unless you’re like me, and pay for the vaporetto.

Thinking fondly about the Biennale...


Homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup

In Food on March 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Albert always tells me not to cook a new dish when guests are coming over, but I don’t always listen. Such was the case just before leaving Trieste, when Alice and Michele joined us for a farewell dinner. We decided that I was in charge of the first course and Albert was in charge of the second course, and given my winter predilection for soups, I decided to concoct up a soup.

Now, we have a minor problem in our household. I love soups. Albert doesn’t. But….he does like mushrooms, and mushroom soups. So when I proposed soup as the first course for dinner, it was mushroom soup or bust.

(For the record, he also quite enjoys my Tom Kha soup…perhaps I’ll send you the recipe for that one in the future, but I didn’t dream that one up on my own!)

This soup turned out fantastic. Literally, stellar. Everyone loved it, and it has since been repeated for other visiting guests (Francesca and Severio) and for special soup nights at home. I strongly recommend you give it a shot. This soup is lush and luxurious, with layers of mixed mushrooms paired with barley and chestnuts and then blended to a delightful, chunky, hearty deliciousness! Served with a dollop of cream and/or oil and freshly grated parmesan cheese, this soup has left every eater asking for seconds.

If you don’t have the chestnuts, the soup is also fine (just a bit less thick and rich) if you skip them. I once tried to sub in some alternate nuts and it just didn’t maintain the flavor profile, so I recommend chestnuts or no nuts.

By the way, pictures of our second course (escalivada and charcuterie, along with Albert’s homemade olive bread, fresh out of the oven) are also below. Looks delicious, eh? It was certainly a wonderful meal!


  • 2 yellow/white onions, finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 10 large/15 medium mushrooms—washed and sliced
  • red wine (2-4 glugs)
  • 1 L water
  • 2/3-1 cup barley
  • 1 cube vegetable bouillon
  • handful of dried mushrooms
  • 100-150g frozen chestnuts
  • Soy sauce
  • 75-125g heavy cream
  • Olive oil
  • A generous sprinkle of salt
  • A sprinkle of pepper
  • A sprinkle of thyme
  • Bay leaves (3-4)
  • Butter (to taste)
  • Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Heat a glug of olive oil in a large pot. Add the onions, and simmer for 5 minutes. Then, add the garlic, and simmer for another 3-5 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and 2-3 glugs of red wine. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes.

In the meantime, boil 1 liter of water in a medium pot. Once the water is boiling, add the barley, vegetable bouillon, and dried mushrooms. After the mushrooms have cooked for 10 minutes, add the water and barley to the large pot.

Add salt, pepper, thyme, and bay leaves. Cover and simmer for 20’, stirring from time to time.

Add the chestnuts and cook for another 20-30’.

Remove the bay leaves. Add cream, a glug of soy sauce, and oil or wine to taste. Blend with an immersion blender. Add salt, pepper, wine, oil, soy sauce, cream, or butter to taste.

Serve topped with oil, cream (optional), and fresh parmesan cheese.


The bread


The spread

Capers in Budapest

In Travels on February 12, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Yes, yes, I know I’m a bad blogger. I had such high hopes about blogging frequently, and then life just swept me up and carried me away. Our trip to Budapest is now three weeks past, and we’ve already moved to Venice. Nevertheless, this post, as promised, is about our wonderful trip to Budapest. I’ll fill you in on Venice in an upcoming post!

Our  trip to Budapest was great: the weather was nice (for January) and the city gorgeous. We drove in from Trieste (it was about a five and a half hour drive–not too bad) and arrived on Saturday afternoon. We checked into our hotel, which was a steal–4 stars for only 40€/night for 2 people, with breakfast included–I guess that’s what you get when you travel north into the cold in the heart of January! Then we spent the afternoon strolling the castle district, old town, and the extensive labyrinths system under the castle. (This was highly recommended by my parents, and the best part was that they turned off the lights and we strolled the catacombs with only one lantern between the two of us.) Our nice dinner out  was complicated only slightly by the fact that the credit card machine “didn’t work.” Unsurprisingly, it did work after I put my foot down and threatened not to tip… (the restaurant just wanted to earn cash, and the machine “didn’t work” because it wasn’t plugged into the telephone!)

The Budapest castle at night

The real highlight of the day, however, was going to the thermal baths in the evening. The Rudas baths open from 10 PM to 4 AM on the weekends, so we headed over after dinner, around 11 PM. This was my first experience at a thermal bath, and it was a great way to start our vacation with some relaxation. These baths were small (in comparison to what we saw on Monday–see below), but had various warm thermal pools at different temperatures, saunas, steam rooms, etc. We spent about two hours just relaxing and enjoying.

The Budapest Parliament as seen from across the river

Saturday was packed. We were lucky enough to meet up with Albert’s friend Peter, who spent the day with us. We visited the Parliament (the splendidly gorgeous building in the picture above), the Jewish synagogue and museum (I laughed when they brought us into the synagogue and asked us which language we wanted the tour in–they had 8 or 10 different language groups set up in different places in the pews), and the Basilica (where we accidentally took a tour of the scenic overview, which was apparently closed for winter–hey, it wasn’t our fault they didn’t lock any of the doors!). We had a nice lunch with Peter–I ate a traditional garlic soup which was served in an edible bread bowl (pic below)–before visiting a typical Budapest café, where I had quite the luxuriant coffee (you can see the layers of coffee, foam, and cinnamon syrup in the picture below, with Peter’s cake just peeking through in the background). To cap off the afternoon, we visited Heroes Square, which I didn’t find all that impressive–it was a big square with some statues in it. Perhaps the cold detracted from the potential to be inspired.

Traditional Hungarian garlic soup served in an edible bread bowl

Cinnamon caffe latte

The evening was also quite interesting. After bidding Peter farewell, we met up with a friend of one of my dad’s friends, Guszti, who we had met in Croatia with my parents a few months earlier. Guszti and his wife have a gorgeous home in the hills on the Pest side of Budapest (Budapest used to be two cities, Buda and Pest; the river divides them), and believe it or not, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt apparently rented out their home for a few months when filming a recent movie in Budapest. Yes, for real. We enjoyed dinner with Guszti and his wife Kristina, accompanied by a few delicious bottles of wine and an interesting multilingual conversation in English, some German, some Hungarian (we mostly could figure it out, in context…), and some gestures. It was a very enjoyable evening.

Monday was our last day in town, and we decided to spend it at the Szechenyi baths. They were quite different from their smaller companion we had visited on Saturday night. Located in the city park, these baths are huge and gorgeous. They had more different pools than we could count–literally, we kept discovering new rooms, new saunas, new steamrooms, pools at various temperatures, you name it. The real highlight, though, was the outdoor pools. Imagine this: in the morning, as we arrived at the baths, it was still snowing. We change into our swimsuits and soon after end up in the outside pools. Kept at temperatures of 28 and 30 degrees (Celsius!), these were warm and welcoming; they had bubbles like jacuzzis and numerous spouts of water; one even had a whirlpool section with a current. You settled in as the steam drifted over your head, off the water and into the cool air. We even spent an hour playing chess in the pool–they had about 5 different floating chess boards in the water. This was a blast–until a Hungarian man looked at us and said “finished” and cleared away the pieces of our game before we had actually finished. Oh well. At least neither one of us had to lose.

Albert took some beautiful pictures of the baths:

Whirlpool and jacuzzi at the Szechenyi bath

Steam rising off the water at one of the 3 Szechenyi outdoor pools

Incredible, isn't it?

After a quick but good lunch, it was time to head back to Trieste, our first Budapest experience over, but well enjoyed. Perhaps we’ll go back in the summer!