Ask A Local: Venice

Well, OK. full disclosure here.

I did not actually stop a random local on a Venetian street and ask where to have a decent meal.  That is exactly what I have done in the other “Ask a Local” blog entries, and will continue to do things that way – it’s just that I go to Venice pretty frequently and have learned to accept the advice of Michela Scibilia.  She is a local author passionate about the search for high quality at a fair price.

While I have not had (yet) the chance to meet her, I have read some of her books. After using them for about 20 years now, I get the feeling she (like me) is unhappy with the theme park atmosphere Venice takes on, particularly during summer months.

When I say theme park atmosphere, I am talking about crappy souvenir stands, the junk in stores that pretends to be Venetian or Italian, but so clearly comes from someplace – let’s just say to the East – and restaurants or osterie or even bars where not a single person working there is Italian, let alone from Venice.

But good quality and fair prices do exist in Venice, and Michela is likely the best source to find that rare combination.

So today, with her book “Venezia Low Cost” in hand, we stopped by two new (to us) places, and had lunch at an old favorite.

First stop was at Vecio Biavarol (Fondamenta dei Tolentini 225). Two glasses of prosecco and four classic Venetian cichetti (fancy bar snacks) set us back only 10.20 euro. I know a place in Venice where a single glass of prosecco costs 10 euro. Outside, the owner’s son (maybe 5 years old) was working with the owner’s father (in his 60’s is my guess) attaching little tables to the railing along the canal.

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

We then went to lunch at one of our old favorites – Trattoria Bar Pontini (Cannareggio 1268). We’ve probably been here ten or twelve times now. Plates are pretty simple, but always good. They have a terrific wine list, and the service is warm and welcoming and friendly.

This little trattoria is right off what we call the Tourist Death Route – the wide street leading from the train station. It’s always crowded and busy and full of not very good but overpriced restaurants. Both sides of the avenue are lined with way too many sleazy looking guys selling schlocky looking souvenirs.

But do not despair; cross the first bridge (called Ponte Guglie) and turn left. You’ll find it in about 50 meters.

 

 

After lunch we needed a coffee, of course. Right around the corner from Trattoria Pontini is Torrefazione Cannareggio (Cannareggio 1337). It is the last authentic coffee bean roaster in Venice. Yes, almost every bar in the country serves excellent espresso, but for me nothing beats the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans! They have 8 or 10 different blends available, which will rotate occasionally (giving me reason for a return visit!)

 

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Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!

Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!

 

They also sell beans (whole or ground) so you can take this treasure home with you.

 

In fact, I take a treasure home pretty much every time I visit Venice – especially if I ask advice from Michela Scibilia.

Ask a Local: Krakow, Poland

We’d been planning our first trip to Krakow, Poland for months so were quite happy to finally arrive. Our friend Pam, coming in from a different airport, had already been there a few hours. After getting situated in the apartment, she had gone out and done the smart thing every traveler should do: asked a local.

Pam spoke with a 20-something named Ania who suggested we try a few restaurants. The first place, called Pod Aniolami, was billed as traditional Polish cuisine. I have to rate the food as OK. The service was speedy and friendly, and the price was reasonable. We had gone downstairs in the restaurant, into what reminded me of the old wine cellars I see so often at home in Italy. To be honest, it felt a little bit like a dungeon to me and that detracted from the experience, I think.  I’d suggest if you insist on eating here to stay upstairs in the more spacious and better lit dining areas.

The Pod Aniolami restuarant offers good food, but it might be better to eat upstairs

The Pod Aniolami restuarant offers good food, but it might be better to eat upstairs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also had a meal at a place called Resto Illuminati. I am trying to think of over-the-top adjectives to describe it: fabulous, fantastic, amazing, awesome, terrific, and wonderful. They don’t really cover it, though. Let me put it this way: I am in my late 50’s, travel professionally, and have dined in thousands of restaurants, from beach-side shacks to multiple-starred luxury digs. Resto Illuminati is without a doubt in the top 20 restaurants I have ever visited. 

 

The ambiance at Resto Illuminati is charming.

The ambiance at Resto Illuminati is charming.

Just a sample of what is on the menu at Resto Illuminati.

Just a sample of what is on the menu at Resto Illuminati.

 

Ambiance was exquisite, service was perfect, the inventive dishes simply extraordinary. All at a fair price, too. We’ll go back to Krakow – that is certain – and will eat here again, probably twice.

A meal at Resto Illuminati is a marvelous experience.

A meal at Resto Illuminati is a marvelous experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent some time sitting in the main square being entertained by street musicians, those creepy guys who are costumed and painted who then just stand there waiting for you to drop coins into a hat, and the steady flow of tourists wandering into the schlocky “Cloth Market.” Ania had said it was mostly cheap souvenirs, and she was right. If you are looking for a shot glass (I always am looking for a shot glass, by the way) or a shirt that says I (heart) Krakow, the cloth market is fine. If you want to buy something nice, shop on one of the streets that radiate out from the main square.

Street Musicians are almost always present in Krakow's main square

Street Musicians are almost always present in Krakow’s main square

Inside the Cloth Market,you'll find plenty of cheap souvenirs.

Inside the Cloth Market,you’ll find plenty of cheap souvenirs.

 

I also met a guy named Damian. He works for an outfit called Free Walking Tour.com. I was a little bit skeptical about a free tour, feeling that you often get exactly what you pay for. But Damian was fabulous. I went with him on the excellent Communist Krakow Tour. It was 4.5 hours long, included rides on public transport, walking through an entire city within Krakow (called Nowa Huta) with its planned streets, organized neighborhoods and massive steel mill. All of this was designed and built shortly after the Soviet Union had occupied Poland. They underestimated the resilience of the Polish people, though and Damian’s description of the slow but relentless rebellion against the Soviets was a real testimony to the strength of the human spirit.

We tried (with a different guide) the Old Town Krakow tour. Skip it. You’ll spend most of your time in that part of the city anyway, and any guidebook or pamphlet from the tourist office will tell you anything you need to know while you shop, eat, visit the castle, stop in a museum, or just soak in the fun vibe that is the city center.

Krakow, with its young population, is a vibrant and exciting place. But with its fascinating history of art and culture, it is a dignified and elegant city too.  As I said, we had been planning our visit for months. Now we are planning our return visit!

Ask a Local: Ljubljana, Slovenia

It was a last minute decision to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia this past weekend. I am fortunate to live only two hours away by car, so have the chance to travel there three or four times each year. Luckily, being so close it doesn’t take a great deal of planning.

Ljubljana is a great place for a couple of reasons. Hotels in the city center are plentiful and cheap.  There is a terrific line-up of interesting museum exhibits, live music, cultural events and more. They have one of the very best fresh food markets I have found in Europe (I’ve lived here more than 20 years so have done some research). A very nice movie theater shows first-run films in original language – we went there this weekend to watch “Whiplash,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Still Alice” all three of which were very good.

Ljubljana's fresh market is one of the best I've found in Europe.

Ljubljana’s fresh market is one of the best I’ve found in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, pretty much everyone here under 40 years old speaks fantastic English, and they love to show off their city.

So when checking in to the Hotel Emonec (highly recommended!), I asked Viva, the twentyish girl at reception if she knew of any restaurants serving good Indian cuisine. Score! Just last November, a restaurant sponsored in part by the glossy UK magazine “Curry Life,” opened for business downtown.

The full name of the place is Curry Life Figovec. The last bit comes from the restaurant that had occupied the space for more than a century. Now, that same space boasts a classy, upscale atmosphere and serves drop dead-blow you away-fantastic curry. If you have a trip to Ljubljana in your plans, run, don’t walk, to Curry Life Figovec ! It is new and excellent and popular, so I recommend a reservation, especially during a weekend. You can call them at+386 1 426 4410.

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Since she had given such a good tip with that recommendation, I asked Viva about a café that was right around the corner from where I had parked. She said it was good, so I checked it out the next morning. Le Petit Café has a French bistro feel to it. They serve a nice breakfast (I had a very tasty omelet) and the coffee is excellent – something I treasure. There is also a lunch and dinner menu, so it looks like they are going to see me again later this year!

These two recommendations are an example of why it makes good sense to ask a local!

Ask a Local: London

One of the best ways to find something special when traveling is to ask someone who lives there where they eat, what museum they like, or what do they do for relaxation.

While visiting London last weekend, I did just that and found two great discoveries, one very nice pub and a pretty good place to eat Indian cuisine.

We were strolling through the Portobello Market on a blustery day. Having exhausted our shopping needs, we asked one of the vendors if there was a place nearby to get a warm drink. She suggested we stop in Alexeeva & Jones at 297 Westbourne Grove, right there in the Notting Hill part of London.

This is a store that makes high end chocolate treats. We are not talking about supermarket stuff, here. These are exquisite chocolate delights, more expensive than run of the mill pralines, but so worth the difference in price. We each had a hot chocolate, just what the brisk London weather called for. I added a shot of chocolate from Italian chocolate maker Guido Gobino, who hails from Torino (Turin) and is one of the finest chocolatiers in the world. Yum.

Once we were enjoying our chocolate buzz, we asked if there was a nice pub nearby. Hey, it’s London, right? The suggestion was to walk over to Walmer Castle (58 Ledbury Road, across the street from an Ottolenghi deli). We did so and were thrilled to find an excellent Thai kitchen serving upstairs. It is quite common in London for a pub to hire out the kitchen to a specialty chef, and I have found through extensive research that Thai cuisine pairs quite well with a cask aged English bitter. Three of us enjoyed a very nice lunch, followed by going downstairs to watch the England vs Italy rugby match.

The next day, we were strolling through the National Gallery and asked one of the employees if they knew of a good Indian restaurant nearby. She sent us to Masala Zone (48 Floral Street, Covent Garden).  Decorated by hundreds of folkloric dolls hanging from the ceiling, I was a bit worried at first it would be touristy and not so great. To my pleasant surprise, the food was pretty good (not the best Indian I have had in London, but five of us ate for less than 90 pounds). We were all quite happy with the quality and the service.

Finally, and in my mind, the best find was Lupita (13-15 Villiars Street – not far from the Embankment underground station). They serve authentic Mexico City cuisine. Anyone who has visited Europe knows how difficult it is to find really good Mexican food. Well, the problem is solved! They had home-made tortilla chips, the Margaritas were excellent, and I ate a vegetarian burrito with roasted mushrooms that was simply fantastic. Bonus: they make fresh guacamole right at your table!

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This place is going to be on my itinerary every time I visit London.

If you want help from a local for your visit to Italy, check out my collection of eBooks from the Amazon Kindle Store.

 

Visit to the Local High School

Each year, I go visit the local high school to talk to the kids about being a writer.

 

Discussing one of my books at the High School.

Discussing one of my books at the High School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made that pleasant trip today and met an enthusiastic and engaged group. I babbled few minutes about what life is like as a writer (you know – many hours of work, no money) before we started our writing exercises.

The most interesting and fun project was to rewrite a boring sentence. The kids started with “The man walked across the room.”

A group of High School students working to improve a boring sentence.

A group of High School students working to improve a boring sentence.

 

 

 

 

They were split into four groups, each table was asked to rewrite the sentence to make it either scary, funny, exciting, or sad. They had about fifteen minutes to work on their sentences, and some of the results were terrific. I’m not sure why so many of them described the man as “old,” but whatever…

 

 

 

 

Authors, even High School authors, deserve praise for good writing.

Authors, even High School authors, deserve praise for good writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I was able to convince them how important it is to use exciting, descriptive words.  When I read some of their sentences aloud, the reaction to the particularly good ones was a great measure of them wanting to know what happens next! Hopefully they’ll remember that next time they have an English paper and the next time they write a letter to their grandmother.

It was (as always) a fun and interesting time for me, and hopefully also for them.

A Terrific Wine Weekend

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to visit Italy’s northeast corner, specifically the wine production area called Collio. I spent three days tasting five varieties of a local white wine. Read my thoughts about it here.

Cheers

WHen visititng Collio, one must be prepared at all times!

When visiting Collio, one must be prepared at all times!

 

Final Day of Pordenone Book Festival

I know I said I would talk about meeting Umberto Eco in this post, but I am not going to say much. He signed three books for me, which is great, and he is an impressive intellect. But my favorite moment was when he sat on the couch in the lobby of a hotel with Margaret Atwood.

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What I will talk about is meeting Hannah Kent. If you have not yet heard of her, you will. Her first novel, “Burial Rites,” has just been translated to German, Spanish, and Italian. Check out her web page to read what some pretty heavy hitters have said about that book.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

I read and really liked it. She is a young writer, not yet 30 years old. But has a mastery of the craft that far exceeds mine and most other authors I have read. If she continues to write, she will be enormously successful.

So go get a copy of “Burial Rites” today. If you are in a book group, add it to your list.

 

I spoke with  her for about 30 minutes. She is quite smart and seems fully committed to becoming a truly great writer. She graciously accepted a copy of my “The Salome Effect.” I will let you know what she says about it (if what she says is good).

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, go get a copy of “Burial Rites,” and let me know what you think.

More news from the Pordenone (Italy) Book Festival

What an amazing Saturday!

First, a press conference with the inspiring Margaret Atwood. Then a break for an excellent lunch (this IS Italy, you know!). Then her presentation to the public – which ended with her singing! Then, purely by chance, I walked with her on my way to the next press conference. That one was Umberto Eco, a pretty accomplished writer, too. Finished off the night with an excellent pizza.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

 

 

Margaret Atwood is a charming and intelligent woman in her mid 70’s. Much of her writing recounts post-apocalyptic survivors struggling to reboot humanity. She is concerned about our collective future. In the press conference she talked about introducing new technologies, warning there are always good, bad, and stupid (or unexpected) consequences. It is the unexpected ones to worry about.  She talked about in the 1990’s a new anti inflammatory drug gets used to treat livestock in India. The drug, as it turns out, is fatal to vultures. So the vulture population there dropped by 99%. With no vultures to eat dead animals, rats and wild dogs show up in huge numbers. This introduces rabies, botulism, anthrax and other horribly dangerous diseases to India.

It is that kind of background she uses in her books, which then tell the stories of the survivors. Good stuff.  Get her MaddAddam trilogy (“Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of the Flood,” and “MaddAddam.”

The audience at an author presentation. Pretty cool stuff.

The audience at an author presentation. Pretty cool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next post will be about the encounter with Umberto Eco.

 

 

 

The Pordenone (Italy) Book Fair

This week the annual book fair in the small town of Pordenone, Italy opened.

I really love this event, as authors from all over the world come and speak to readers, journalists, and other authors.

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Yesterday I met Michael Dobbs, author of “House of Cards.” After great success as a book, and a few seasons on BBC, it is now a huge hit on US television (finally being broadcast on the Sky Network in mainland Europe). Season two of the US TV series opens on Sky next week.

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I sat through a press conference with Dobbs (and about 25 Italian journalists), then his presentation to the public, with perhaps 250 in the audience.

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He talked about how it has taken 27 years for “House of Cards” to become such a big success – so I take some comfort in being stuck for the last year or so on my second novel.

He started writing while on vacation after being sacked from his job as Chief of Staff to then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Sitting by the pool at a resort on the island of Malta, he had a pad, a pencil and a bottle of wine.

By the time the wine was gone, he had written just two letters, F U.

Given what had just happened to his political career, I think we all know what those letters meant. Anyway, as he finally started to get some traction in his writing effort, those letters became the initials of his main (and really, really nasty) character. Francis Urquart in the British version, Frank Underwood in the US (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey).

Dobbs said that drama comes from getting to the dark side of a character, and real drama comes from exploring the deepest depths of that darkness. If you have seen the show, or better yet read the books, it’s pretty clear he has found some drama.

When asked about Scotland voting for independence from the United Kingdom (Dobbs is a member of the British House of Lords), he first said if it were approved, it would be the saddest day of his political life. Results came in today and the independence bid was voted down by the Scots.

Dobbs then talked about leaders, in a political sense. As he is a MP, and has a long political career, and writes compelling drama about politics, this is a theme close to his heart.

He expressed his opinion the world, but Europe in particular, needs new charismatic and creative leaders to figure out solutions to the many vexing problems of our time.

I was more interested in his literature than his politics, but had to ask him if it took one bottle of wine to get him to produce the letters F U, how much wine would he need to be that charismatic and creative leader he wants?

He smiled and said (paraphrasing), “Wine does not keep you young, but it does keep you.”

I told him that since he was in Italy, he was in the right place for plenty of creative inspiration.

I found his presentation interesting and informative, and now can’t wait to read his entire “House of Cards” trilogy.

Later this week, I’ll meet Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco, and Hannah Kent.

 

Talking to young people about writing is an invigorating experience.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

Next, we did an active writing exercise, substituting words and phrases to a painfully boring sentence to make it come alive with vivid descriptions and compelling verbs.

They did seem concerned at how frequently a writer is told “no” by agents or publishers or editors (this writer is, anyway). I asked them if they get back up when they fall down, and they got it.

Get ready for a group writing exercise

Get ready for a group writing exercise

I left them with two pieces of advice on being a better writer:  read more and write more.