What news from the Rialto?

Nine days in the lagoon, work honestly, though you won’t see the results until 2023 🤞. Publishing is a long game. Reminder — you can subscribe to this newsletter trip for free here. Anyway here’s an issue about travel and travel alone.

So how is Venice?

The honest answer… pretty much as you’d expect in November. Quiet except at weekends and around the usual hotspots such as the Rialto and the Piazza San Marco. All the locals told me there were fewer tourists than usual and I’m sure that’s right. But it’s far from a ghost town. The steady transformation of essential local shops into places selling tourist tat and yet more bars continues. The huge cruise liners have gone but any idea that the pandemic is going to result in a huge reset for the nature of international tourism there seems to me naive. The people who think the place is Disneyland with gondolas are still around, and occasionally that colours their behaviour.

The big event when I was there was the Festa della Salute, an annual weekend ceremony very popular with the locals. A temporary bridge appears across the Grand Canal to the Salute church, and crowds gather to light candles. This year was quieter than usual I gather, with restrictions to try to keep down the crowds. It was pretty busy all the same around Salute, and sombre too since this is an event to mark the end of plague in the 17th century, an odd resonance with today.

Getting there and back

The last time I visited in July I had to quarantine for five days, which wasn’t fun at all. At least that rule has vanished — for now anyway. On this occasion I flew British Airways from Heathrow and it was, in part, fantastic. I was urged to upload my three outgoing documents in pdf — proof of vaccination, a pre-flight lateral flow test and a filled-in EU passenger locator form — to BA in advance. Without that, it appears you can’t check in online in advance.

It seems a touch bureaucratic, but I discovered the reason when I got to the airport. First there was American-style kerbside check-in just outside the entrance. The friendly chap there checked my status and passport, took my case, and guided me towards security. I was through in minutes. In Venice all I had to do was slap my passport on the egate, go to the officer at the counter, get my passport stamped (that always hurts) and I was through. Fast and easy and no BA’s crew didn’t say a word to the couple in the row in front of me who thought mask-wearing was for squares.

Just like last time coming home was the hardest part. The UK passenger locator form now demands a code for the lateral flow test you’ve pre-bought to use when you’re back. More awkwardly when it comes to proving you’re double jabbed it won’t accept an upload of the pdf provided by the NHS app. All it wants to see is your latest QR code. The online form offered to scan the code but that didn’t work for me. So I wound up screenshotting it and uploading the jpeg. A lot of hassle and a struggle for anyone who hasn’t got a handle on screenshots. This was on a laptop. It may work with the scanner on a phone or iPad — I don’t know. But however you do it you will need some device and a web connection before you leave for the airport.

Getting back was fine apart from the fact BA parked the plane at Heathrow on a remote stand and, after all those lectures on distancing, slung us onto a crammed bus to the terminal. This is happening a lot with them at Terminal 5 apparently. Oh, and the Heathrow egate machines still hate me. I was only allowed through on the third try by pressing down the passport very hard. Still, it could be worse.

Travel tip

If you’re in Italy — and quite a few places in Europe — you will have to show proof of double vaccination. The famed Green Pass as Italy calls it. You’ll be asked for it and ID at all museums and public buildings before entry. In theory, you should be asked to present it as you enter cafes and restaurants too though this only happened to me on a few occasions. When I queried this with one barista he said, ‘I’m not paid to be a policeman for the government.’

That said, mask wearing is standard everywhere, on vaporetti, in shops, in cafes until you get your food and drink. The lax approach to it seen in the UK will soon get you into trouble in Italy.

But back to that magic pass. If you have the UK NHS vaccination pass you’re ready to go. Italy has its own app for checking the QR code of vax passes and recognises the latest one provided by the NHS app. You can show it on your phone or carry a printout. But the easiest way I found was simply to stuff a copy into my phone case so I could show the code whenever needed like this.

Code printout – blurred for publication

This worked every time and saved me having to faff around with the phone.

What’s in the kitchen

I wouldn’t normally mention something you doubtless can’t cook at home. But since I was there for Salute I have to tell you about a dish you’ll only find at that time of year, and in Venice too… castradina.

Castradina at the Trattoria Ponte del Megio

As I said earlier, Salute marks the end of a plague in the 17th century. During this period one of the few foods people could get was smoked mutton from Dalmatia. This was made into a very rustic and hearty soup with cabbage… castradina.

Today it’s a traditional dish around this time of year. You can find the recipe here but to make it you’d need to find one of the chunks of smoked, spiced mutton the Venetian butchers sell in November. Much easier if you’re there to find a restaurant that’s making it for the weekend. By Saturday they were everywhere. This bowl was just €12. One of the locals who spotted me eating it was surprised a foreigner had even heard of it and wondered what I thought.

Lovely, I said, naturally. And it was too on a cold day, though very much the kind of cucina povera fare you’d expect from mutton and cabbage. If you’re around when it’s there you have to try it. Don’t think it needs to be a regular though.


Newsletter 3 – some good travel news and a recipe for panforte

There’s a new newsletter up — you can read it and subscribe for free here.

In it I cover some welcome changes for travel to Italy if you’re flying from Heathrow with British Airways, offer a little travel and writing advice along with a recipe for Christmas panforte. Please excuse the typo which refers ‘Piazzale San Marco’. It should read ‘Piazzalle Roma’, of course.


Newsletter 2 – and it’s mostly about travel

If you’d like to read this newsletter in full with all the pretty bits please go for the release version here. And do subscribe if you like and share — it will always be free. And the next one should be from Venice.

Yes, I know I said I’d have a standard format for these newsletters. But that was before I got into thinking what they’re really about. And that’s… random things that crop up. It makes no sense to be tied down to a format that stops you improvising.Right now I’m planning my second travel trip of the year. Back to Italy for work. I was last there in July to finish one project and had to quarantine for five days on the way in which was a pain you can read about on the blog.

Quarantine was lifted at the beginning of September for those of us coming from the UK. To be honest, given the way Covid has been allowed to let rip here over the last few months, I’ve been expecting it to return. But with any luck I will make it there first. However, travel is still a lot more complicated than it used to be so I thought I’d set down a few tricks I’ve picked up preparing for this trip.

Here, as far as I understand it, is how you need to prepare to go to Italy from the UK at the moment.As far as I can see we’re going to be performing Covid tests out and back for many journeys for a quite a while. You know the routine – get a test to prove you’re fit to fly 48 or 72 hours beforehand. But here’s the rub. What does 48 or 72 hours mean? Is that before you get on the plane? Or when you land?

Answer: it varies. So do check. When it comes to Italy it is, from the UK at the moment, 48 hours before you land. So if you rush in and get the test two days before the flight you might find you’re in trouble. What kind of test? An antigen, one of those quick ones, will do. You can buy them online, test yourself and send a picture of the result to the provider. You should then get a certificate declaring you fit to fly. Take it to the airport where they will inspect it at check-in and probably at immigration at the other end (they did in July for me). You will also need to fill in an EU Passenger Locator Form here.

If you’re double jabbed you will be expected to show proof of it. Your NHS app should have that stored on your phone. It will let you download a pdf of the certificate to print out. I really recommend doing this. That way you have an easy copy when you need it. That same certificate will count as a green pass in Italy. You’ll need it and photo ID to get into museums, restaurants, cafes, pretty much anywhere. From what I gather the whole Covid control and mask-wearing regime is much tougher in Italy than in the UK (it could hardly be less) and you will be expected to comply.If you can’t show proof of being double jabbed you will still have to have proof of a fit to fly certificate and be expected to quarantine for five days on arrival. I don’t recommend this.

Coming back, if you’re double jabbed, you can go to the airport without any previous test (which is better than last July). But you must have bought a Covid test to perform in the UK within two days of your arrival. This can be a cheapish antigen, around £25 to £30 like the departure test, carried out at home. But you have to be able to prove you’ve bought one by typing the reference number for it into the UK Passenger Locator Form you need to fill in on the way back. There’s no reason you can’t buy that kit before you leave and get your reference number then.

So… test before flying to Italy, proof of double jabbing and locator form on the way out; test booked prior to return, locator form and test on arrival when you get back. Budget for £50 a head or so.

I think that’s it.

The writing tip

Since I’m on the subject I ought to add a simple tip about using a foreign location. Some people write foreign scenes without ever going there, which is fine if that’s what you want – it worked for Jules Verne who’d barely set foot outside France before writing about travelling round the world in eighty days.

Others, like me, want to dive deep into real-life locations and get inspiration from there. Whichever way you set about it here’s one tip I’d try to stick to – if you want to use something factual do make sure it is factual, and not a common travel myth (there are many) or something scalped from an unreliable source on the web.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Years ago, I was involved in one of those round robin writing projects you tackle for fund-raising, in this case for an authors’ organisation. One writer pens a chapter which is then handed onto the next.

The writer before me had the story moving to Italy, for which I was grateful. But he also had the protagonist landing at something called Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome.

For anyone who knows Rome this is a real giveaway. Yes, the web will tell you the official name of the main Rome airport is Leonardo da Vinci. But no one calls it that. It’s Fiumicino. It says that on most of the road signs, and the airport code is FCO. If uncertain, fake it. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

What’s in the kitchen

Venice is my destination, so I ought to give you one of my favourite local dishes there, one that’s especially welcome on a chilly winter day: Bigoli (or bigoi to use the Venetian) in salsa.

In essence it’s fat spaghetti – bigoli – with anchovies and onions. Which sounds disgusting but it’s not, honest. The onion and the anchovies are slowly cooked down till they’re a sweet and succulent sauce for the pasta, one which, if it’s cooked correctly, isn’t recognisable either as anchovy or onion. Luca Marchiori, whose recipe I link to below, recommends cooking the onions for as much as an hour. He knows more about Italian food than I ever will — his entire site is worth a look. But I never cook them quite that long. And ordinary spaghetti is fine if you can’t find bigoli itself.

Bigoli in salsa: Venetian pasta (recipe) – Luca’s Italy
Bigoli in salsa is the only really traditional Venetian pasta dish. Made with simple ingredients from the Venetian lagoon it’s packed with

There was a fast food chain called Bigoi started in Venice a few years back, and very good it was too with pasta made on the premises and great salsa as well as duck ragu. Unfortunately it closed during the pandemic – hope it comes back.

That’s all for now. If you enjoy the newsletter do please share around – the more the merrier if it’s to be worthwhile. And I will have another missive coming from Venice shortly.


Fancy the occasional newsletter?

In these odd times it’s hard to know how to communicate with readers. Book events and conventions are few and far between, and travel is still pretty much up, or rather down, in the air.

As an experiment I thought I’d try writing the occasional newsletter. It’s free, of course, and it has a distinct format. You can see the first and subscribe here.

Basically at uncertain intervals (you won’t be getting these that often) I’ll fill you in on book news, appearances, offer a simple writing tip and something about travel then close with a recipe out of the kitchen here.

Costs nothing and will always cost nothing. If you’d like to sign up please do so and share if you like since this is all hooked up into some kind of Twitter mechanism I don’t really understand.

It’s not the same as meeting people out there in the real world but I hope it closes the gap until that’s easier.