A serial memoir by Jean Fogelberg


Only one hotel on Dan’s wish list had been unavailable, and it was the one he wanted the most. For our last days in Italy, he wanted to stay at the Santa Caterina Hotel, in Amalfi. Their summer season was booked solid, but Dan had his heart set on that town, and that hotel, so his travel agent promised to keep checking for cancellations.

    Our first stop in Italy was Venice. If Italy is shaped like a tall boot, then Venice is the pull tab in the back, it’s so far north east. We had reservations at the Hotel Cipriani on Guidecca, an island which is shaped like a short eel, swimming just below the chunky mosaic fish that is Venice. Unlike most cities, where the mosaic grout represents streets, though, on Venice they are all canals. Venice is actually 118 islands, separated by 170 canals. There are no roads, just stone walkways and some 400 footbridges for crossing the canals.

    When I was in high school, I had a poster of gondolas tied up along the Grand Canal at sunset. At the bottom it just said, “VENICE.” I bought it because it was so pretty - I never dreamed I’d actually go there one day. It wasn’t because I thought I wouldn't be able to go, more because the furthest I’d traveled at that point was to Colorado. Europe just didn’t seem very real to me.


    At Marco Polo Airport we boarded a gorgeous wooden motorboat with HOTEL CIPRIANI stenciled in gold letters on the shiny, lacquered sides. Thirty scenic minutes later we were docking at the hotel’s private landing. A porter gathered our luggage and we followed him to the registration office and checked in. Our room was that perfect combination of elegance and light, airy comfort, but we couldn’t wait to get out and do some exploring.

    An Olympic-sized salt-water pool was surrounded by umbrellas and white chaise lounges that spilled from the cement deck on to close-cropped grass. Ten feet from the edge of the pool was the Guidecca Canal, which separated our island getaway from central Venice. Lunch was being served in the restaurant and, as we walked by, we passed two-tiered trolleys full of delectable food: one trolley for desserts; one for cheeses, one for fresh fruit, and all beautifully displayed.

    Dan was very taken with the vineyard, and the Casanova Gardens between the main hotel and 15th century palace. The historian in him loved the idea that we were walking the same grounds as Giovanni Giacomo Casanova. The legendary lover had walked these grounds in the 18th century, wooing two women from a local convent on the island of Murano.

    While we wandered, I took photos with my digital camera and Dan shot videos with his camcorder. He was a perfectionist when filming, sometimes re-shooting scenes three or four times before getting what he wanted. If a pan or a zoom had been particularly clumsy, the scene ended with him saying “That sucked!” In the Casanova gardens, he took the camera and photographed me sitting on a bench in my Kentucky Derby hat and a long black dress with little white polka dots.


    From the hotel boat landing, it was a straight shot across the lagoon to Calle Vallaresso. Our plan was to start there and have lunch at the legendary Harry’s Bar, then walk to the San Marcos Piazza (St Mark’s Square) to see St Mark's Basilica.

    Harry’s Bar was opened in 1931, and became a favorite watering hole for artists, writers, aristocrats, and actors like Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Ernest Hemingway. One of Hemingway’s favorite drinking buddies was Princess Aspasia of Greece and Denmark, who lived on Giudecca and crossed the canal, as we just had, every day to eat at Harry’s Bar. She had secretly married King Alexander I of Greece while a young commoner, and their marriage caused a huge scandal. They fled to Paris and were only allowed to return to Greece after agreeing that Aspasia would never be queen but, months later, a pet monkey bit the king and he died of septicemia. Financially strapped and in debt, Aspasia retired to Venice until her death in 1972.

    We had a lovely lunch at Harry’s, but it was a bit of a letdown after imagining it filled with the fascinating luminaries of the ‘40s. Unlike Voltaire’s, in Paris, there were very few local characters in attendance - it was mostly tourists in tee shirts and shorts.

    After lunch we took our time meandering to St Mark’s Square. Every narrow, winding alley seemed to echo with stories. Unlike the cement and asphalt pavements of our own young country, the ancient stone walkways of Europe, worn smooth by centuries of feet, stoked the imagination. Dan and I agreed that the best superpower would be time travel. We used to fantasize about where we would go and who we would see (while invisible, preferably.) Dan’s first trip would have been to Vienna, to see Mozart and Beethoven, mine would have been to Egypt to see Akenahten and Nefertiti in the short-lived city of Amarna.

    With no itinerary or destination in mind, we turned when a path grew too crowded and chose restaurants by the smells coming from the front door. Dan carried his green camcorder bag, with extra film cartridges and batteries.


    We window-shopped and bought glass necklaces, made on the island of Murano, for our mothers. Glassmaking in the Veneto region dates back to the Roman era and middle ages. Most of the buildings in Venice were made of wood, and glass furnaces had started a few fires so, in 1270, city officials relocated all glass workshops to Murano, an island just north of Venice. This would also protect the trade secrets of the master glassmakers, which were being leaked across Europe.

    The canals were full of gondolas, and now and then one would drift by, a singer and accordion player serenading their passengers. The most popular song seemed to be Umberto Da Preda’s love song to Venice, “Ciao Venezia.” We quickly learned the catchy chorus and would sing along as they passed.

    That night we ate at a restaurant Dan had read about in a magazine, Ristorante Da Ivo. It was a tiny little place packed with ambience and dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. It was right on a canal, and two steps suspended from the back door meant you could arrive by foot or by boat. We both ordered pasta dishes and were very happy with them. Dan loved to cook Italian food, and each time we had a delicious restaurant meal he tried to break down the recipe, making mental notes of interesting ingredients and spices to try at home.

    The next day we stopped for coffee at an outdoor cafe on a busy square. As we left the cafe, we saw a small stand for the Teatro La Fenice. They were collecting donations to rebuild the famous opera house. Again. 

    La Fenice translates to “The Phoenix,” so called because the theater has risen from the ashes twice. Well, three times, actually. After the San Benedetto Theatre burned down in 1789, they decided to rebuild it, bigger and better, and in a different location. The opulent new theater opened on May 16, 1792 and was named “La Fenice,” after the phoenix, the mythological bird which rose from the ashes. It was a great success until a malfunctioning heater started a fire that burned it down 1836. A year later it rose from the ashes again, to great success.

    Then, in 1996, two electricians who were unhappy about fines imposed against them for late work, set a fire that burned down everything but the facade. Now, five years later, reconstruction would begin again. Naturally, we loved the name. We made a donation and got a commemorative plate in return which, miraculously, made it back to Colorado in one piece. La Fenice reopened two years later, on December 14, 2003.

    On our second night in Venice we had dinner at the Cipriani Hotel restaurant. I asked the waiter about their champagnes and he suggested I try a Bellini instead. White Peaches were in season, he said, and I must try one. Made by combining pureed fresh white peaches and Prosecco, the Bellini was invented in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of the Cipriani Hotel and Harry’s Bar. He named his new drink after Giovanni Bellini, the fifteenth-century Venetian painter. The Bellini was fabulous, and went down way too easy. But, since it was half peach juice, I could drink two glasses without getting plastered.

    Dan was on a mission to get to know Italian reds, so our meals always began with him having an involved conversation with the sommelier or waiter about regions, vineyards, and vintages.

    After an incredible dinner, we had a choice of desserts or a cheese plate. We were feeling adventurous, so we asked about the cheese plate. Our waiter asked a few questions to learn our cheese preferences (soft or hard, sharp or mild) then he put together a plate that blew our socks off. We sipped a red wine recommended by the waiter and sampled Asiago, Parmigiano Reggiano and Gorgonzola cheeses, but the Pecorino Toscano was a revelation to us both.

    One thing we discovered early on was that once you sat down for a meal in Italy, that table was yours, for as long as you were enjoying it. You could eat dinner, have dessert, and linger over coffee for an hour, and still have to wave someone down for the check. It was as if time to digest was included in the dining experience.

    I drank peach juice and Bellinis for the rest of our trip through Italy. At lunch time I looked forward to ordering peach juice in Italian - I liked the way succo di pesca rolled off the tongue.

    On our last night in Venice, Dan hired a gondola and we snuggled together on the thick cushions as we drifted lazily down the Rio di Palazzo canal. He kissed me as we passed under the Bridge of Sighs, and our gondolier turned on to the Grand Canal toward the ancient Rialto Bridge. It was the perfect way to end our beautiful time in Venice, the most romantic city in the world. Perfect, and yet, no proposal.


New chapter coming October 17th

Posted October 10th. 2020 Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2020