Three days at the annual Venice Film Festival is not enough.

Truth is I catch this festival pretty much every year. Usually I am there for five or six days, but this time I had to cut it short. However, it was a pretty lucky three days as only one of the five films I saw was one I recommend you miss.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Before I get to my comments on those movies, there are three new discoveries to mention.

First, (almost) affordable accommodation is becoming more and more common in Venice. You can find decent apartments through many of the on-line services such as Booking.com or Tripadvisor.com. We found ours through Booking. It’s on the island called Giudecca, so it is spared the mass of tourists. The place was called Approdo and it was pretty nice. Good location, easy access to water bus lines, and it was clean. The kitchen was missing a can opener and a cheese grater (in Italy!) but other than that, everything was good.

Second, not far from the apartment we found a ristorante/pizzeria called “da Sandro” (Calle Michelangelo 53/C). Very good, but don’t order their prosecco. Sandro and his wife were very nice and the food quite good.

The pizza at "da Sandro" is very, very good!

The pizza at “da Sandro” is very, very good!

 

Finally, on the island of Lido, where the films are shown, we found a vegetarian restaurant called Bio Sound System. I know, weird name, but it is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant with a real chef in the kitchen. Wide assortment of dishes, three of which we tried, all excellent. Even if you are not vegetarian, this place is worth it.

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

 

OK. Now let’s talk about the films. They are listed in the order I saw them.

Sobytie (The Event)

This is a Russian documentary about the failed coup attempt in 1991. The film is all archive footage taken over the course of a week in August of that year. Since there was very little explanation or back story, I was compelled to research the event after watching the film. But the documentary is a terrific testimony to the strength of a unified population and the real power of democracy. It is the kind of movie you’ll find only in art house cinema and it is worth the effort to go find it.

Black Mass

This is the new Johnny Depp film. I was a little disappointed. It ended up being a typical gangster movie: lots of F-bombs, lots of blood splattering against walls and windows, inept cops, psychopath gangsters. This one is different because it is based on a true story — the life of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston mob boss in the 1980’s. Johnny Depp is usually terrific, but he’s done this kind of part before and seemed uninspired. Ladies, he put on weight for this movie, cut his hair, messed up his teeth and looks nothing like the Johnny Depp you want. Still, if you like gangster movies go see it.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

A fantastic documentary directed by Amy Berg that tells the story of Janis Joplin’s rise to and fall from fame. Let me put it this way, this was a documentary movie, and after it was done the audience gave the director a ten minute standing ovation. She deserved it. Go see it.

Soory about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

Sorry about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

L’attesa (The Wait)

An Italian movie shot in a beautiful villa in Sicily. Painfully slow story, plenty of very nice, artistic camera shots that had nothing to do with the story, many scenes with actresses staring off into the distance with a blank look. Really, not a good movie at all. Do not bother.

Pecore in Erba (Sheep in the Grass)

Another Italian movie, this one a “mockumentary” that satirizes intolerance, bigotry, and senseless hatred. Many references to Italian popular culture and cameo appearances by Italian celebrities and news people. Funny and moving and poignant. Yes, there is a pretty obvious message but it is delivered in a clever and witty film.

 

 

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

All in all, I consider the last three days a successful, but too short visit to the Film Festival.

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.