Venice: Discovering a local legend

Published in NZ Sunday Star Times, October 4 2015

After an unpromising start, Pam Neville discovers an extraordinary restaurant hiding in Venice      

da marisa 1

“We are closed,” snaps an unwelcoming woman as we stick our noses into an unpretentious little restaurant fronting one of the quieter canals of Venice. It’s late afternoon and the door is open, but there is no opening for conversation.

We ask, politely, if she has a menu so we can decide whether to come back for dinner?

“No. We have no menu.”

Giving up and walking on seems the best option, but then our matriarch offers a morsel of information.

“Tonight, there will be fish.”

Directly opposite the nondescript doorway of the little restaurant, on the opposite side of the canal, is our hotel. Later in the evening, tired and hungry, we ask the receptionist whether this surreptitious little hole-in-the-wall across the canal is worth trying. The receptionist’s face lights up.

“The best in town! If you get the chance you should go!”

She is doubtful we will get the chance, as it’s almost dinner time already, but she telephones just in case. Yes, they can take us. We must go now, she says. They are waiting for us, and they won’t keep the table for long. Back we trudge, over the charming little arched bridge to the other side of the canal.

A pleasant young man greets us and sits us canal-side at inexpensive and slightly flimsy aluminium chairs and tables which have sprouted up along the canal path.IMG_0096

canale di cannaregioWithin minutes, all the tables are full with groups of laughing, hugging, chattering Italians. For many in this university/residential area north of the Piazza San Marco, this is their local.

At Da Marisa, or Dalla Marisa, or Tratoria da’a Marisa, depending on your dialect, the rules are simple. You arrive at 8pm on the dot (if you don’t, they will give your table to someone else), you sit down and eat whatever Marisa and her family decide to serve you, and you pay a set price – cash only – of 35 euro per person, which includes the wine.

“What sort of wine would you like?” asks the young man.  We begin to suggest perhaps a pinot grigio when he clarifies. “We have two kinds, white or red.”

It’s the Henry Ford approach, says my companion. You can have whatever car you want, so long as it’s a black Model T.

We choose the white. It comes in carafes, slightly foaming at the top, from big beer taps at the counter.

“Drink as much as you like”, says our waiter, cheerfully slapping down a second carafe. “We might start charging after you have drunk five litres.” He’s joking.  Or perhaps he thinks we are Australians.

And then the food starts coming. It is indeed fish, course after course of fish, with a creamy, swirly plate of polenta the only side dish. There may have been bread – I can’t remember -but there was so much fish that anything extra was unnecessary.

“Codfish”, announces the waiter as he smacks one of his armload of plates onto the table. After the lightly salted cod comes sea bass carpaccio, marinated in lemon and olive oil and garnished with roasted red capsicum. In quick succession comes more armloads of dishes and large servings. Baby octopus in a spicy red wine sauce, and stuffed mussels in their shells. Fish lasagne, silky and delicate yet filling, the stand-out dish of the night. Finally a platter announced simply as “fried fish”. There are squid, prawns and tiny flatfish.

Although we started out hungry, it is difficult to eat so much fish in one sitting. But our Italian neighbours do. There is not a scrap left on any plate. To finish off, we all have mascarpone with biscotti and amaretto to dip, and of course espresso, all part of the set price.

As quickly as it began, our evening is over. The whirl of laughter, chatter and hugs is now filtered through cigarette smoke as the locals untie their dogs from table legs and disappear into the darkness. It has been a two-hour fish frenzy, an extravaganza of seafood served in the simplest of manners.

Next morning, the tables and chairs have disappeared from beside the canal, Marisa’s door is shut, and there is only the faintest little painted sign to suggest that an extraordinary restaurant hides within. But every local, and quite a few tourists, know about Da Marisa. In 1965, Marisa opened her restaurant to feed workers along the canal, specialising in cheap cuts of meat from a nearby abattoir, and fish from the lagoon 100 metres or so along the Canale di Cannaregio. Today, it’s still a family affair with Marisa’s daughter Wanda running the kitchen. I don’t know whether the unsmiling woman of our first encounter was Marisa, or Wanda, or neither of them, but she was almost certainly a family member.

Venice is famous for its fish restaurants. Whether Da Marisa is “the best in town” as the hotel receptionist claimed, I have no idea. But the place is certainly a local legend, and it provided a couple of tourists from New Zealand with a wonderful food memory of Venice.

Da Marisa, 652b Cannaregio. The restaurant is open for dinner at 8pm several days of the week. On other days, it opens for lunch. Usually fish is served for dinner and meat for lunch. Bookings are essential, unless you are lucky. There is no website so it is probably wise to ask your hotel to book.

The hotel across the canal is Carnival Palace, carnival palace hotelIf you fancy something closer to Piazza San Marco, and self-catering, try Ca’Grisostomo, a canal-front apartment owned by Aucklanders.

Nearby: Mojita Bar, just along from Carnival Palace, is a tiny canal-side bar serving food all day, and always the classic Venetian aperitif, Spritz, made with Aperol. Around the corner heading to Piazza San Marco, at Cannaregio 1355, is Rizzo San Leonardo bakery, one of the most famous pastry shops of Venice. Pastries are made from recipes a century old, and Rizzo also has wine, bread, and ready-made lunch food.mojita bar

Tip: Choose your Venice accommodation based on transport. Hauling luggage long distances over paving stones is difficult, and water taxis are expensive. Try to be near a water bus stop for cheap, efficient travel. For transport from the airport, try to be within easy reach of an Alilaguna stop.

What to do next? Venice is a launching point for many cruise ship itineraries. The writer joined Seadream 1, one of only two small ships owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club, to sail towards Croatia and Greece. Small ‘boutique’ liners allow guilt-free cruising along the Guidecca Canal past Piazza San Marco. Bitter argument continues about giant cruise ships sailing close to the square and creating wash which damages the fragile old city. Venetian protesters swam in the Guidecca Canal to stop the passage of cruise liners in 2013, and the large ships were banned for several months from November 2014. Now the ban is lifted but protest continues, aimed at ships weighing over 96,000 tonnes. Fortunately our little Seadream weighs only 4300 tonnes, and makes little more wash than George Clooney’s wedding procession. SeaDream

Ahoy, Birthday on Board

Story published in the NZ Sunday Star Times, August 31, 2015
In a fantasy worthy of Game of Thrones, Pam Neville throws a birthday party on the best little cruise ship in the world

Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, is bursting at the seams. Tourists are cramming the marble streets and narrow stone stairways, making no impact of course on the mighty walls, up to 25 metres high and six metres thick, which enclose the old town. Walking around the top of the walls is tourist attraction number one.Seadream in Croatia We are here because Dubrovnik is beautiful, a World Heritage site, a sea fortress with magnificent churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains. But many of us are thinking not so much medieval history as Game of Thrones as we wander around. The television fantasy series has done for Croatian tourism what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. Fans of GoT are flocking to filming locations throughout Croatia, and multiple tour businesses have sprung up to guide them.
The city of Dubrovnik is King’s Landing, capital of Westeros. Scenes shot in Dubrovnik feature in most episodes. In a crush of other tourists, it’s easy to visit Pile Gate, site of the peasants’ dung-hurling revolt against the evil king Joffrey, to stroll Gradac Park, the location for Joffrey’s ill-fated wedding celebration, and to search for the steps and stairways where Cersei was forced to do her walk of shame in the final of series 5.
Amidst this Game of Thrones fantasy, I’m caught up in a make-believe of my own. It’s my birthday (or nameday, as they would call it in Westeros) and – although Games of Thrones seldom gives anyone cause for celebration – I’m daydreaming an epic party.
Would you believe I have 100 friends and family with me. We are partying up a storm on a small cruise ship hired just for us. After Dubrovnik, the route is flexible. She who pays the bill gets to choose where we go (in consultation with the captain of course). If the wind changes direction, we follow suit. So it’s always smooth sailing.
SeaDream entering Kotor, MontenegroWe slip into Kotor, Montenegro, for my guest who is a country-counter. She doesn’t mind which country we go to, so long as she hasn’t been there before. Another pin in the world map on her wall at home. Montenegro is a beautiful little country bordered all around by Croatia. It is not universally popular with its neighbour as it supported Serbia during the 1990s war.

My dream itinerary takes us from the Adriatic Sea through the Corinth Canal to the Aegean Sea. Imagine my floating birthday party stopping off in Santorini for the friend who has always wanted to see that Greek island of cliff-hugging sugar-cube houses, interspersed with the bright blue domes of churches. Recall any iconic photograph of the Greek islands and it will almost certainly have been snapped on Santorini.

We call at Hydra, an island of no vehicles where donkeys are the main form of transport and superyachts tie up in the circular harbour. 

IMG_0491My celebrity-spotting friends will like Hydra. Apparently Mick Jagger and Keith Richards come here. We should stop off at the island of Paros as well. Madonna is a regular here. Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt enjoy Antiparos, a little island nearby. We can anchor-off and take the tender ashore.
A Christian cousin, well-versed in theology, votes for the island of Patmos. He wants to visit the cave where John the Evangelist wrote his Book of Revelations. Towering above is the enormous Monastery of St John, staffed by brusque monks. Be modestly dressed, do not take photos, and do not chatter loudly or you might be yelled at by a black-bearded, black-clad monk who appears from the shadows. Enough to make my birthday party-goers scurry back to our personal luxury super-yacht.
And once aboard, we partake of all-day champagne and nibbles, sundowners on the top deck, cocktails, gourmet meals, and endless attention from the 95 staff. (That’s almost one staffer per guest.) The charming young man delivering my rum punch at the pool asks quietly, “May I clean your sunglasses, Madame?”, and produces a small spray bottle and cloth. Most of my guests are at the age of reading glasses, and at the age of forgetting them. Never fear, a waiter is quickly to hand with a display case of spectacles of varying strength, so everyone can read the multi-course options on the three different menus at dinner.
Fans of antiquity dictate we stop the boat at Itea on the Greek mainland for a tour to the Oracle of Delphi. If you see only one ancient site in Greece, this should be it, so the onboard adviser says. Cruise director Hayden McFarlane is from Waitara, Taranaki, the only Kiwi in a multi-national crew. He is busy signing passengers for future cruises, offering hefty discounts for booking onboard. Hayden recommends my birthday party should also nip into the port of Kusadasi in Turkey, to see Ephesus, another not-to-be-missed site for our classical scholars.

Hayden Mcfarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

Hayden Mcfarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

Most of the above is true. I am not kidding about my birthday, and I am celebrating aboard the Best Small Luxury Cruise Ship of 2015, according to the prestigious Forbes Life awards. The islands and countries are true, and Hayden from Waitara is real. The fantasy involves my 100 best buddies. Sadly, they are not with me.
I’m sailing around the Greek Islands, and along the Croatian coast, on Seadream 1, one of two small ships belonging to Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club. We are ‘Yachting, not Cruising’, according to the company slogan. Such a small vessel – it’s a yacht in the same mode as the Royal Yacht Britannia, in fact a large motor cruiser – can go to ports the cruise liners can’t fit into. Getting on and off is easy, with no queues. A fleet of bikes is off-loaded each day, and a pop-out marina at the stern provides swimming and watersports including yachts, paddleboards and jet-skis. The dress code is ‘yacht casual’ and the style is laid-back luxury.
Had I been able to front up with half a million dollars, I could have taken my 100 best friends and chosen our itinerary, even our food and drink menus and entertainment, for a week of cruising – sorry, yachting.
What they call “whole-of-yacht charters” are popular. People regularly hire Seadream 1 or Seadream 2 for a few days, or a week or more, for birthday parties, weddings, and business outings. An Australian car dealership takes its best staff and clients every year. Sailing in July this year, an elegant clipper moored near us at the island of Rab, Croatia, is a ‘nude cruise’, hired by a group of naturists. Only the staff wear clothes. Rumour has it that Seadream can also be hired by the unclad, but it’s difficult to imagine the crew of perfectly dressed stewards and demure housemaids waiting on the stark naked.
On my cruise, there is a European couple who look on Seadream as their holiday home. They have each spent more than 250 nights aboard, and I work out they would have spent about half a million dollars so far. They were aboard in July, and had booked to return in August. Where would Seadream take them this time? They didn’t know, or care. Simply being aboard was everything.
A week, or two, pass in a flash when you are celebrating a big birthday on a luxury yacht – with or without your best friends. I highly recommend it. Dreams are free.
santorini 3

Top Tip: If you are sailing along the Croatian coast, pre-book your cabin on the side of the boat facing the coastline. It’s magical to wake up to a new stunning view each day.

Greece: Dancing till the sun shines

greece now IMG_0007 IMG_0013 IMG_0009

Everyone wants euros. They accept credit cards in most places, but cash is king. The banks are closed. Greek people can withdraw a maximum of 60 euros per day from an ATM. Some ATMs run dry, many are out of 10-euro notes with the effect that people can withdraw only 50 euros.

This is not a problem for tourists. With a foreign card, we can withdraw as much as we like. Only once did I experience an empty ATM, but the machine around the corner obliged.

On the five Greek islands I visited in July, the locals were uniformly smiling and welcoming, but concerned and eager to talk about Greece’s economic woes. To a man and woman – whether they had voted yes or no in the referendum on the bail-out – they said “We don’t know what will happen”. The bail-out deal is signed and the banks are open, albeit with severe restrictions on money transfer and withdrawals, but people are still saying the same thing. There is no confidence that Greece will cope with the new austerity and debt-payment regime, but it’s universally agreed that keeping the tourists coming is vital.

Our young female hotelier on Santorini, with an economics degree from Athens university, is aghast at the bail-out. She was an Oxi, or no, voter and wants to dump the euro and return to the drachma. Rich European nations, especially the hard-bargaining Germans, are to blame for Greece’s plight, she says. (A recent story in a British newspaper about anti-German sentiment in Greece was headed ‘Don’t tell the cook we’re German’.

The hotelier’s views are the direct opposite of the academic archaeologist who led a tour of Delphi on the Greek mainland a few days earlier. He believed leaving the Eurozone would be folly. “So long as the tourists come, we will work our way out of this,” he said.

“We are not complaining,” says the rental car man who furnishes a small Hyundai to drive around the island of Paros. That night in Naoussa (the best coastal town to stay in on Paros, by the way) a festival of dancers from around Greece welcomes the summer. Introducing the performers, a woman describes the current crisis as “Greece’s darkest hour in 40 years” – a reference to the Colonels’ Coup of 1967-74 – but it doesn’t stop the Greeks dancing to welcome the sun.

IMG_0014  IMG_0584  hydra pic 1

There are no figures yet to suggest tourist numbers are down this summer but some popular places seem to me to be pleasantly uncrowded. Not the hotspots like Santorini and Mykonos, however. When cruise ships are in port, it’s difficult to move in the village of Oia on Santorini. This is where the iconic photographs of Greek islands are taken, showing sugar-cube houses interspersed with blue-domed churches.

Extra direct flights from Britain have kept up the numbers on Mykonos, famous for its gay scene. Amongst the hundreds of tourists of all ages and nationalities at the ferry port, a young fellow’s T-shirt taunts “I’ve gone to Mykonos, Bitch”.

It’s fun and games as usual on all the main Greek islands. The people, the food, the wine, the sunshine and beaches: the economic crisis doesn’t change them. Any strikes, protests or riots have been confined to a small area of Athens. It seems every Greek understands that frightening or inconveniencing tourists would be a bad move. Tourism is everything. Go now, they need you.

IMG_0464  IMG_0491  IMG_0011 santorini 3

Published NZ Herald August 11 2015 as Reviving Greek Ruins



Greece: Feeling the squeeze in the Corinth Canal

published in Escape, Sunday Star Times, August 9 2015

seadream in corinth canal

From a distance it’s a crack on the landscape. As we get closer, the Corinth Canal shows as a small opening in the coastline. From a few hundred metres off, it looks like an inlet with a ditch running inland.

It certainly doesn’t look as though a ship could pass through, and even as we enter the canal I have my doubts. As the eye is drawn along the length of the canal, it seems to narrow almost to nothing, although there is a small slit of light at the end.

A tug takes Seadream 1 in tow. We are one of the larger ships to transit the Corinth Canal, there are only a few metres clearance on either side, and we are not permitted to sail through under our own power. Smaller boats and yachts can make their own way, provided they have booked their passage and paid a fee. It’s a one-way system, for obvious reasons, and some waiting is involved.

The small cruise ship Seadream 1 is booked to pass through in the late afternoon. But we have to wait until night-time for yachts coming in the opposite direction to clear the canal, and a tug comes to pull us. By then, we pass through the canal whilst eating dinner at white-clothed tables on the deck. It’s an unusual experience, and strangely exciting. There is a feeling of being in a tunnel, but without a roof.  It might be claustrophobic but for the stars shining down and reflecting on the water.

dinner on the canal

The Corinth Canal connects the Adriatic Sea with the Aegean Sea, effectively cutting off the Peloponnese Peninsula at the bottom of Greece and turning it into an island. It is unusable for most modern ships and cruise liners, but for small cruise ships and private yachts it is a dream route for tourists sailing down the coast of Croatia then cutting through to the Greek islands (or vice versa).

Several cruise companies with ‘boutique’ ships make the transit of the Corinth Canal a feature of their itineraries. As we begin our crossing on Seadream 1, stewards pass around celebratory shots of raki, the strong local liquor, Greek music plays, and there is an attempt at Greek dancing from passengers. This is a five-star cruise which the Seadream company describes as “yachting not cruising”. In a mix of relaxed luxury, a multi-course multi-choice dinner is served on deck despite the fact we are half-way through this astonishing mini-canal.

The Corinth Canal was completed in 1893 but the idea for a crossing of the isthmus of Corinth goes back 2000 years. The ancients did not have the skills to build a canal but Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth, is credited with building, in about 600BC, a stone road with wheeled platforms which pulled ships overland between the two seas. Traces of the diolkos, or stone road, are visible today.

Eventually the canal was built between 1882 and 1893 by Greek and French engineers. It is dug at sea level, so no locks are needed, but currents and tides, as well as landslides from the walls, make it problematic at times for sailors and ships’ captains. In World War II, New Zealand troops were deployed, unsuccessfully, to protect the Corinth Canal during the failed defence of Greece.

A bridge spanning the canal was destroyed during the attempt to stop German troops taking the canal. Rebuilt, it is today a perfect bungy jumping spot and a popular viewing platform for watching ships squeeze through.

The Corinth canal is about 6.4 kilometres long, 25 metres wide at the top and 21 metres wide at the seabed, and the sides are up to 80 metres high. Seadream 1 is 14 metres wide.


Thanks to the Corinth Canal, the writer was able to combine two week-long itineraries. Seadream 1 departed from Venice, Italy, and sailed across the Adriatic to the Croatian coast, calling at Opatiji, Rab, Sibenik, Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia. After Kotor in Montenego, and Parga and Itea on the Greek mainland, the vessel took its 100 passengers and similar number of crew through the Corinth Canal to the Greek islands. Day-long stops were made at the islands of Hydra, Patmos, and Santorini, as well as at Kusadasi in Turkey. The passengers disembarked in Athens, Greece. The cost of each one-week itinerary on Seadream 1 and Seadream 2 (owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club) begin at about NZ$7000 per person.