The Story of St Mark’s Mosaics (Video)

Discover the primary story told in the 12th century mosaics that decorate Venice’s St Mark’s Basilica. Approach Guides founder, David Raezer, walks through the most important images from the church’s mosaic domes, pointing out key features, figures and symbols.

Best Restaurants: Venice, Italy

A Venetian speciaity, moeche: fried softshell crabs

A Venetian speciaity, moeche: fried softshell crabs

Venice is one of the most architecturally rich, varied, and exceptionally well-preserved cities in the world, but given the high number of tourists visiting the city every day, the restaurants in Venice can really be hit-or-miss. Nevertheless, the best restaurants in Venice offer up some of the best food in Italy.

To help you have the best culinary experience in Venice, we have included a few of our favorite Venetian foods, local wines from the Veneto, and of course, a list of our favorite restaurants.

Top Local Foods to Order in Venice

Seafood is definitely the way to go in Venice. We have pulled out some of our favorite local foods that are typically Venetian. For more tips on the local cuisine, check out our Italian food guide.

  • Seppie: cuttlefish, which is basically squid, but a little larger, and with darker ink.
  • Cappelunghe: razor shell clams.
  • Canestrelli: Venetian scallops.
  • Moeche: tiny soft shell crabs, usually fried.
  • Branzino: sea bass.
  • Razza: ray/skate – although we enjoy this dish (pan sautéed) in the States, sadly, we never found the dish to be appealing in Venezia.

The Wine of Venice

The Veneto produces some excellent wines. However, while we would certainly recommend going with the Veneto’s signature sparker, prosecco (particularly from the Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOC), the region’s vast and impressive red wine repertoire is not going to work with Venice’s seafood-based cuisine. Since the Veneto’s whites are generally disappointing (based on the trebbiano and garganega varieties), we would suggest looking to the nearby Friuli region. Friuli’s whites are probably the best in Italy. Look for the wines based on the friulano, sauvignon, ribolla gialla grape varieties. Keep in mind that the wines from the Collio and Collio Orientali DOC zones set the standard for the region.

If you are traveling to Italy, consider downloading our wine guide app for the iPhone, iPad or iTouch. You will learn all you need to know about Italian wines and be able to order with confidence in a restaurant or a lcoal wine shop. In addition, the app never requires an internet connection so you don’t risk using an expensive international data plan.

Recommended Restaurants

  • Antiche Carampane. Rio Terra Rampani (San Polo) 041/524-0165. Great seafood, focused on home-style preparation with high quality ingredients. Excellent, slightly out of the way place for dinner, with a solid friendly staff and a classy, casual atmosphere. Best overall.  Antiche Carampane is a great experience, one of our favorite in Italy.  Closed Sunday and Monday.
  • Alle Testiere. 5801 Calle del Mondo Novo (Castello). tel 041/522 7220. Excellent seafood restaurant. Good food, cool vibe, and the best wine list. The most elegant dining of all of the restaurants on this list. The only negative is that the seafood can be a bit over-prepared, meaning that the sauces can sometimes overwhelm the more delicate flavors of the seafood. Only 9 tables, so you have to reserve. 2 seatings: 7:30 and 9:30. Closed Sunday and Monday.
  • Al Covo. Campiello della Pescheria (Castello). 041/522 3812. Delicious, very high quality Venetian seafood. Right up there with Antiche Carampane and Alle Testiere, however, we would argue that the energy level and feel are superior at the other two. Further, prices here are at least 10-20% higher than the other restaurants. However, this is the best option for dining on a Sunday or Monday, when the other top two are closed (Al Covo is closed Tuesday and Wednesday).
  • La Corte Sconta. (Calle del Prestin, Castello, 3886. Near the Arsenale. tel. 041-522-7024; closed Sunday and Monday; also from 7 January to 7 February, and from 15 July to 15 August. ). An old-school seafood-oriented trattoria, that has a slightly simpler décor than the others on the list (tables topped with butcher paper and red napkins); the seafood quality is like Antiche Carampane and Alle Testiere, but it is more casual and offers simpler preparations. They base their daily menu on whatever the Chioggia fish market has to offer. We do find the service rushed, a bit pushy and prices (food and wine) higher than its peers. Although still a good dining experience, the food is the weakest of the top three.

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Venice Revealed: St. Mark’s Basilica

Since the founding of the Venetian Republic in 697, it fought to preserve its status as an independent trading center bridging East and West. Explore St. Mark’s Basilica, both a symbol of and justification for the city’s greatness.

Eastern Influences on St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy (Video)

In this episode of our Insights series, Jennifer Raezer, Approach Guides founder, explores the eastern influences that shaped the art and architecture of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, highlighting the church’s domes, floorplan, and mosaics, which were influenced by Venice’s interaction with the Byzantine (Constantinople/Istanbul) and Fatimid (Cairo) empires.

Off the Beaten Path in Sicily: Palermo’s Qanats

The qanat (pronounced ka-naht) is an Arab-designed underground canal/irrigation system that directs water from a high-elevation aquifer water source to a town or agricultural area along a perfectly-calculated and very slight downward grade (see illustration). Invented by the Persians in 1000 BCE and functioning as a “below-ground aqueduct,” it is ideally suited to warm, dry climates, such as Sicily.

Visiting a qanat in Palermo

A vestige of Sicily’s Islamic period, Palermo’s qanats make for a fascinating visit. SottoSopra is a local nonprofit that guides small groups into a still-functioning qanat. You can contact them online or by telephone (+39 091/580433). If you don’t speak Italian, it might be best to have your hotel call and set up the appointment for you and to get explicit directions. It’s important to be aware that the water is cool and you get into it up to your chest, so come prepared with clothing that you can get wet (they will provide boots).

Qanat Underground Aqueduct Diagram by Approach Guides

How a qanat delivers water from a high-elevation water source to a lower irrigation area.

Where to eat in Palermo

Here are some of our favorite places to enjoy a bite to eat after a day spent touring the city:

  • Osteria Paradiso. Via Serradifalco, 23 (close to the Zisa). Only open for lunch, this is a very good place for super-fresh seafood and pastas. The owner speaks only Italian (and there are no written menus) but you can just ask them to bring out any of the pastas mentioned and you will be very happy. Closed Sundays.
  • Antica Gelateria Lucchese. Located on the south side of Piazza S. Domenico, 11, this is one of our favorite gelaterie in Palermo. Go with a granita here — the mandorla (almond) is the most traditional and delicious. Locals order their gelato in a brioche.
  • Mi Manda Picone. Via Paternostro 69 at Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi. Excellent wine bar that has a very extensive list of Sicilian wines by the glass. The bar also has a restaurant attached, so you can get food, if you wish.

Eat Slow Food in Italy

While researching our Regional Guide to the Foods of Italy, we traveled throughout Italy visiting local markets and eating in thousands of restaurants seeking out the cucina tipica (typical foods) of each region in Italy.

We found that the best restaurants in Italy are those that remain true to the local cuisine. The country’s Slow Food movement has championed this perspective and developed a great resource for travelers looking to eat local.

Osterie d’Italia (Italian Restaurant Guide and iPhone App)

  • Slow-Food-CoverGet the book or app. We recommend purchasing a Slow Food book, called “Osterie d’Italia.” It really helps with restaurant selection and does a great job at highlighting the most traditional dishes. Buy the book on Amazon before you go, or if you want to travel light, purchase the app on iTunes.
  • Italian only. The book is only written in Italian (a limited English version is available in some bookstores in Milan, Rome and Florence). However, even if you’re not fluent in Italian, you can easily discern the restaurant names and the recommended dishes, which are highlighted in bold typeface.

About Slow Food

Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to local communities and the environment.

Founded in 1989, this global, grassroots organization strives to prevent disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us. Since its beginnings, Slow Food has grown into a global movement involving millions of people, in over 160 countries.

The organization has published seventeen editions of the Osterie d’Italia guide, which promotes Italian regional cooking and has contributed to the revival of eating places that particularly reflect local flavor and character: restaurants, osterias, trattorias, and wine shops–all of which serve foods known for their quality, value, and faithfulness to tradition.

You will see Slow Food stickers on the doors of all of the restaurants that meet its criteria: sourcing food from local, high-quality artisanal producers; having a menu that is true to the local cuisine and achieves successful prepared results; and delivering good value for money.

Slow Food Logo

London Architecture: Wren’s Churches (Video)

Following the Great Fire of 1666, King Charles II of England appointed Christopher Wren as chief architect in charge of rebuilding the city. In this Insights series video, Approach Guides’ founder Jennifer Raezer introduces Christopher Wren, offers insight into his distinctive style that defined London architecture during the early 18th century and points out her favorite London churches.

This video was created in conjunction with our travel guidebook to London.

Oftentimes out a great tragedy is born great beauty and such is the case for the City of London’s churches.

The Great Fire of London, 1666

On an early September morning in 1666, a fire that began in a bakery and Pudding Lane raged throughout the center in London. The fire destroyed everything in its path including St. Paul’s Cathedral and 87 parish churches. After the fire, Christopher Wren was appointed chief architect by King Charles II and was tasked with rebuilding what had been lost. It was a project that consumed him for the rest of his life, The fruits of his labor are on full view today — marvels of architecture wedged among modern city.

Wren’s Churches: Characteristics

As you explore Wren’s churches you will notice that although each church is unique in its architecture, there are some very consistent characteristics that carry through from church to church. The first thing you’ll notice is that his churches were designed to admit abundant natural light. He used clear glass windows with round tops, breaking from the standard stain glass windows have earlier Gothic churches. Given his preference for natural light Wren’s architectural decoration is conservative, favoring clean-lined stone colored walls and whitewash ceilings. Finally his church is typically have a square or rectangular plan tower on the west side. These towers often topped by an elaborate spire which is unique enough to differentiate the church from others in the city.

St. Mary Bow Tower - Christopher Wren

St Paul’s cathedral

Wren’s most famous works Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The two most defining features of this massive cathedral are its stunning facade and its enormous dome, which was very dear to Wren’s heart. The facade is defined by a two-story arrangement with two tiers of paired Corinthian columns. These columns form a pyramid topped by sharply angled triangular pediment which points towards the dome above. In addition the two towers on either side of the facade support Wren’s most advanced spire design.

Wren’s dome is a wonder of eighteenth-century engineering: at the time that’s completion there are only four downs in the world that were larger. When viewed from the inside you will see that the dome’s primary illumination is from the drums clear glass rectangular windows.

St. Paul's Dome - Christopher Wren

Wren’s City Parish Churches

St Bride

Among Christopher Wren’s other churches, there are several that stand out, including Saint Brides, which is easily identifiable by its wedding-cake-like spire. Consisting of five levels this is one Wren’s most iconic spires and is his tallest in the city. Once inside you’ll find a space that is both impressive and intimate. The church is filled with natural light and showcases some of the best preserved black and white marble flooring that was favored by Wren.

St. Brides Interior - Christopher Wren

St Stephen Walbrook

Another outstanding churches Saint Stephen Walbrook. This church likely held a very special place in Wren’s heart: it with his parish church. One of the most notable features of this church is its dome. In fact it was England’s first dome and most likely served as a prototype for St. Paul’s.

St. Stephen Walbrook Exterior - Christopher Wren

This church is generally regarded as being Wren’s most well-conceived architectural space. When you walk inside, you will see that light floods into the interior from numerous windows and the dome lantern. In addition, although it has a rectangular plan, you’ll notice that the interior communicates a highly centralized organization.

St Mary Aldermary

Another highlight church is Saint Mary Aldermary, which is unique for its Gothic aesthetic. Its tower is a masterpiece and one of Wren’s most formidable designs. Aanyone who knows Wren’s architecture is bound to be a little surprised when they see the interior of Saint Mary Aldermary. Upon entering, you notice the high ceiling which features plaster fan vaulting. Shallow saucer like domes run the length of the nave and fill the entire ceiling with elegant tracery.

St. Mary Aldermary Interior - Christopher Wren

Guidebook to Wren’s Churches

These churches represent just a small sample of Wren’s masterpieces and the great thing about these churches is that they are located in a very small area in the center of London and can be easily visited in just a few hours.

Guide to London: Wren’s Churches

The city ravaged by the Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding the city’s cultural nexus, St Paul’s and 51 city churches. We invite travelers to explore Wren’s legacy with our latest travel guide.

Dome Mosaics of Martorana (Palermo, Sicily)

Due to its compelling colors, human-sized proportions, and central location in the downtown district, the Martorana will likely be the church that you return to a number of times during your stay in Palermo. It is our favorite stop on our tour of Palermo’s Norman churches.

Martorana Dome

Fig. 1. Dome mosaics, Martorana. Highlights added. Photo by: ChrisO.

About the dome mosaics of the Martorana

The focal point of the Martorana’s decoration is the dome (see Fig. 1), consistent with Byzantine tradition and the church’s original central plan layout. The dome’s decorative scheme is a simplified, more intimate version of that of the nearby Palatine Chapel.

  • A seated Christ Pantocrator — head backed by an inscribed cross halo and flanked by the letters ΙCΧC, a Greek Christogram for “Jesus Christ” — occupies the center of the dome.
  • A white ring around the Pantocrator image holds an inscription (see Fig. 2) that quotes, in Greek, from John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”. It matches the inscription that appears in the open books held by the apse Pantocrators at Cefalù Cathedral, the Palatine Chapel, and Monreale Cathedral. Note, however, that the Latin translation held by the apse Pantocrators has been omitted.
  • Four winged archangels — Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel — symbolizing Christ’s divine incarnation in heaven, comprise the balance of the dome’s decoration. They are depicted bent over, with long torsos and extremely short legs. While the distorted proportions might reflect the mosaicists’ desire to symbolically convey their extreme deference to the Pantocrator, it might also be attributable to a poor adaptation from an earlier prototype in which the angels were kneeling rather than standing.
  • Interestingly, around the edge of the base of the dome (at the feet of the archangels, and virtually invisible from the floor of the church) is a wooden frieze with an inscription of a Byzantine hymn in Arabic translation.
  • Eight prophets — each standing with a single arm raised, as if directing beholders to the Pantocrator above — are wedged between the squinches and round arched windows. The mortal counterparts of the archangels, they symbolize Christ’s human incarnation on earth.
  • The four evangelists — Matthew (in northeastern corner), Mark (in northwestern corner), Luke (in southwestern corner), and John (in southeastern corner) — sit in the squinches.
  • Just below the Evangelists, on the eastern side, is a depiction of the Annunciation: Gabriel hovers on the left, announcing to the Virgin Mary (seated on the right) that she will conceive and become the mother of Jesus. On the western side is the Presentation of the Child at the Temple: Mary holds the baby Jesus on the left, handing him over to Simeon, the Jewish High Priest, on the right.

The Pantocrator

Dome Pantocrator

Fig. 2. Closeup, dome Pantocrator, Martorana. Photo by: LongIslander.

Just as with the Palatine Chapel’s dome Pantocrator, Christ suggests his gentler, more forgiving nature with his controlled arm raise and closed book (see Fig. 2). This compares versus an emphasis on his role as supreme god and apocalyptic judge in apse depictions.

Although the original central apse has been destroyed, it likely held an image of the Virgin Mary, consistent with earlier Byzantine prototypes. This is supported by the fact that the Martorana was dedicated to her and the side apses hold images of her parents (Joachim and Anne). Although mosaicists deviated from this traditional model in other churches, they likely adhered to it in the Martorana (and likely the original Palatine Chapel) given its pure central plan layout, wherein the dome over the crossing was still the position of greatest importance.

Visiting Martorana

Located in Piazza Bellini, the church is one of Palermo’s true gems.

Opening times

Officially, the church is open from 8am-1pm and 3:30pm-7:00pm from Monday through Saturday, and from 8:30am-9:45am and 11:45am-1pm on Sunday. However, the church is sometimes closed without warning, so try to visit early in your stay, as you may have to try a few times. Check the most up-to-date times on the Martorana official website.

Visiting tips

If you see an event going on in the church, try to poke your head in — events are one of the few times the lights will be turned on to illuminate the church’s glorious mosaic art.

Check out our art guide to Sicily

Italy Revealed: Mosaics of Sicily

Having finally won the island of Sicily from entrenched Islamic forces after thirty years of battle, the Normans set upon creating a multicultural kingdom to inspire the world. While the Norman civilization has since faded from history, its brilliant churches, glittering with mosaic decoration, serve as enduring reminders of its greatness.

Hidden Gem in Italy: Sanfelice’s Baroque Staircase (Naples)

18th century Neapolitan Rococo architecture is best illustrated in the work of Ferdinando Sanfelice (1675-1748), who is known for his striking staircases.

We especially love the Palazzo della Spagnuolo. Via dei Virgini, 19.  Sanfelice’s stairway in this building is distinctive for its height, the large size of its openings onto the courtyard, and the movement of the design. This is a great example of how architecture of the Baroque keeps your eye in movement: notice in this picture how Sanfelice skillfully draws your gaze upward — the lines are sharply vertical and the flanking arches are not regular but follow the line of the staircase — giving the structure a lightness that would otherwise not exist.

Palazzo della Spagnuolo (Naples)

Palazzo della Spagnuolo (Naples)