Sunday, February 28, 2010

Venice - top spots when time is tight

Not everyone has plenty of time up their sleeves (or plenty of money for that matter ) when travelling the tourist trail. Venice is one city which leaves you blissfully numb because of its heavenly draws you in like a magnet and you never want to leave. It's labyrinth of narrow streets, quaint bridges and cul-de-sacs transports you to another time. Nothing follows suit...everything is a surprise - even the numbers don't follow each other - they refer to the sections of the city - so it's important that you have some idea of where you want to go and what you want to do before you get there.

Here are my tips for fellow hapless travellers who embrace the nicer things in life while keeping an eye on the budget:
Gondola versus Vaporetto
If budget is the key then do you really need to take the mandatory gondola ride? They can be exorbitant stripping your wallet of cash which could be spent on other enjoyable pursuits. In winter, the cost to swan along the canals in a gondola was around 80 euro. In summer it could be more? Why not take the vaporetti. These efficient forms of public transport zip you here and there with the greatest of ease. But please, don't be like some of our friends who jumped on and off without paying for a ticket. You may save money in the short term but if you are caught you will be fined. More importantly, this is a major source of income for the city of Venice. Remember - you're their guests, treat them with decency and pay up. Depending how long you are staying in Venice, buy the ticket that suits your purpose. There are tickets for one hour, 24 hours, and three-day usage. Or you can buy a Venice card which is valid for one, two or seven days - this card also gives you unlimited access to some museums as well as other perks. The Travel Pass is great for the lucky ones who are staying for a minimum of one week. Search the net and find out what's going to best for you.
If you are desperate to experience a gondola ride then check out the traghetto - shared gondolas which link the Grand Canal.
The Doge's Palace - The Secret Itineraries tour
It 's a good idea to book online in advance if you are travelling in summer; in winter, it was relatively easy with a very short queue. Follow in the footsteps of some of Venice's most famous and infamous leaders throughout history; discover concealed doors, hidden corners and passageways; visit the jail where Casanova (who was more than 7 feet tall) was incarcerated until his escape in 1775; traverse the Bridge of Sighs and relive the final walk across the water to the 'new prison'. It's worth every minute and a great investment of your time and money.
Harry's Bar
This is quaint bar, once Hemingway's favourite drinking haunt, is hidden at the back of St Mark's Square; you could easily walk past if it you didn't know it was there. You'll find the iconic bellini (prosecco and freshly squeezed white peach juice) beckoning you at a mere 15 euro a glass! If you have kids in tow, just pop your head in the door and have a stickybeak; if you're with your partner or a good friend then just do it - damn the cost. (They serve a small dish of olives too compliments of the bar.)
Caffe Florian
Tucked away under one of St Mark's Square arcades, the Florian Cafe is a typical tourist spot you simply must visit. Circa 1720, the Florian Cafe is exquisitely sumptuous in decor, but also hideously expensive. Look but don't indulge.
Venice is like most European cities - churches are ubiquitous. I suppose if you're keen you could pop into the Basilica di San Marco next to Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) but my preference was to wander off the beaten track with HL and head to Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Salute - an imposing Venetian Baroque church which stands at the mouth of the Grand Canal. No queues of tourists plus wonderful paintings by the masters Titan and Tintoretto for your viewing pleasure.
You'll find Venetians masks everywhere. (Even in Brisbane I come across copies in the 'dollar stores'. In Venice a plethora of sellers with their carts flock not only to the Piazza San Marco but also along the Fondamenta in front of the square. You'll find mask in shops, in market places...If this is your 'thing' then fine, buy one, but may I suggest you purchase one from an atelier that specialises in making masks. Before we left for our trip, I had read about one particular artist Guerrino Lovato (proprietor of atelier Mondonovo) who makes masks for the Fenice Theatre. (You must read "The City of Falling Angels" by John Berendt - it's all about Venice, the Fenice Theatre burning down in 1996 and the American and English expats living there at the time). We walked Venice looking for his shop Mondonovo, Dorsoduro 3063, Rio Tera Canal (off Campo Santa Margherita). After walking for hours we finally found his atelier - it was closed and he was on holiday until February 8.
Undaunted we powered on until we came across another mascareri (traditional mask maker) on route to the Rialto via Calle Dei Saoneri. I bought an understated Harlequin-inspired creation in black, burgundy and gold for a meagre 13 euro. The artist signed it for me too which made it a one-of-a-kind.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection - Museo D'Arte Moderna
This museum of modern art is spellbindingly 'out there'. The museum is located in Peggy Guggenheim's former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. Pop in on your way to or from the church of Santa Maria della Salute. The entrance to the museum is pictured above. If you're a real history buff or art aficionado then this may interest you: According to the lads at Ristorante All Angelo you can sit in the same alcove, at the same table Ms Guggenheim regularly dined at with her 12 dogs. Email me at and I'm happy to furnish you with a photo that I took of that very table!
The sightseer's tour 'bus'
HL and I always tell our friends to take the sightseer's tour bus when you first reach your travel destination. It is an excellent and cost-effective way to see the city, learn the history, gain an appreciation and general knowledge of where you are, and also it helps you get your bearings. Obviously Venice doesn't have buses but the best way to see Venice is on a vaporetto. There are 15 lines running at regular intervals, four of them seasonal, two at night time. Make sure you take one of the Grand Canal lines which circulate both ways - if memory serves me correctly it is Line 1. This line takes you down the canal where you can see the pretty fronts of the decaying palaces in all their glory. Then there are the lines that circumnavigate Venice, as well as lines that take you to the islands Murano (for the glass blowing houses), Burano (to check out lacemaking), Lido (the summer haunt for local Italians) and Giudecca (which seems to be the haven for wealthy tourists).
Ponte Della Costituzione
This modern bridge sits incongruously in its historic streetscape. Connecting Piazzle Roma to Venice's train station (Stazione di Santa Lucia), the bridge was originally nicknamed the Ponte di Calatrava after the architect. Walk the bridge to the Santa Croce and Cannaregio districts where you'll find 'avenues' of shops and 'street' stalls selling fare that is markedly cheaper than San Marco district - naturally! The division between the districts is a fine line - you don't know if you're in Santa Croce or Cannaregio but it's the latter where you'll find some great wine bars and take-away pizza outlets. The pizza at L'Angolo Della Pizza for 2.50 euro a slice was sensational. Nearby is the Giunti al Punto bookstore which was heaven-sent as we were both keen to buy a book to read - in English - after our departure from Venice.
Campanile di San Marco
Opposite the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) and Basilica di San Marco, the Campanile di San Marco (Bell Tower of St Mark's) provides visitors with unsurpassed views of Venice. Worth the effort if you're prepared to stand in the queues during summer. Entry is via the Piazzetta side of St Mark's Square. And yes, there is an entry fee.

Venice - New Year's Day in the City of Angels

This is my first trip to Venice - but it won't be my last. Next time I would like to come here in April-May or September-October. Talking to the locals Venice is not the place to be after January 5 because many Venetians go on holidays making this tourist destination relatively quiet for the month. I have been told it can get a little 'on the nose' during the peak of summer. For me, winter was perfect timing. No aqua alta to swamp us out and keep us locked inside our hotels. Apart from New Year's Day when the city was covered in an eerily beautiful mist, the weather was truly superb day-in, day-out.
Many shops don't open on New Year's Day, and if they do, not til later in the day, so this is the perfect opportunity to set off on foot (as you do in Venice), walk the city's streets and become acquainted with the six districts or sestieri: San Marco, Cannaregio, San Polo, San Croce, Castello, and Dorsoduro. Often the spelling of some areas and streets differ (both on the building's walls and on maps) but don't stress, you'll work it out. Although there are 160 canals and 400 bridges you won't get lost; there's always a landmark in each area or building that will be 'signposted' to lead you back home.
Before going to Venice, I recommend you check out It is the official website for Venice and it's certainly worth logging on for the latest information from weather to necessary tourist info and other newsy titbits. Their newest portal also deserves a look.

Venice - New Year's Eve snowflakes and fireworks

I can't imagine any other place I would rather be than in Venice on New Year's Eve. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The evening was icy cold, the air crisp and the atmosphere electric as we made our way from our hotel to meet our Swedish friends who had an apartment at Residenzia Castello about three 'calles' away from where we were staying. To reach their apartment you had to climb two very steep flights of stairs but it was worth it as we were greeted with familiar smiles and cold Bellinis in hand. We threw back a Bellini or two to kick start our revelry and then made our way to the restaurant Planet tucked in a narrow 'calle' behind St Mark's Square. The service was excellent; the food well priced. And, as it was NYE, we were treated to a traditional Venetian feast...for a set price of 80 euro per person which included continuous glasses of house wine and a bottle of sparkling red to take out onto the square for our midnight toast. The meals were alternate drop - a continous bounty of plated food. To give you example, this is what my selection consisted of: Hors D'Oeuvre - a plate of anchovies fried, a plate of buffalo's mozzarella & tomatoes, and a plate of assorted vegetables. First courses (that's right courses!) - spaghetti with clams, tagliatelle with artichokes, pasta with bolognese meat sauce, bigoli with sausages & red chicory, spaghetti with lupara sauce (tomatoes, ham, bacon, olives) and lasagna with bolognese meat sauce. Second courses (yes, there's more!) - a slice of beef grilled with rucola & parmesan, and veal escalope in white wine with salad. Dessert - your choice of either apple strudel (not so Venetian), cream pudding with wild berries (not sure about that one either) and chocolate mousse (more French than Italian perhaps). I didn't get as far as the dessert offer but I'm sure it was good...everyone else seemed be scoffing theirs down without any hesitation whatsoever.

Just before midnight we gathered our coats, scarves and hats, and layered up in preparation for the outside winter clime. Leaving the snug restaurant and ruddied faces of fellow diners, with arms linked and full of cheer (in more ways than one) we may our way to St Mark's Squae. We were amongst the thick of it with bands pumping out the coolest sounds. Then suddenly, the music stopped and a cacophony of voices roared the official countdown to midnight. As the hoardes screamed HappyNew Year, fireworks pierced the darkness of night etching rainbows of colour across the laguna. But for me the grand finale felt as if it was orchestrated by God especially for us - the skies above softly dusted us with snowflakes. Welcome to the City of Angels.

New Year's Day was a winter wonderland. The gondolas were ice-covered, the Piazza and Piazzetta San Marco (the part of the Piazza between the Doge's Palace and Biblioteca Marciana open to the lagoon at the mouth of the Grand Canal was shrouded in a veil of mist.

Venice arrival - Room with a View

It took me a lifetime to get there, but I finally arrived, safe and sound but not too high-spirited (thanks to the lack of a bar carriage) in mystical Venice. HL and I disembarked the train and, with bulging baggage barking at our heels, walked to the entrance of the Venice train station. There, before our very eyes, was the Grand Canal. It was everything I had expected it to be and more. The evening was begining to throw its misty cloak over Venice as the vaporetti ploughed their way along the Grand Canal to the awaiting, eager passengers.

In no time at all we had reached our destination, the San Marco stop. Our accommodation for the next week was Albergo All Angelo located literally just behind Piazza San Marco. We had a room with a view of the brook on which it bordered - the Canal of the Angel. Venice is everything I expected and more.

Roma to Venezia - Rail Plus nothing

Depart: Roma Termini. Arrive Stazione Santa Lucia.

For Aussie travellers wishing to book months ahead online on the Eurostar, you can only do so if you are looking at 'Paris-London'. As for anywhere else in Italy, forget it! After what seemed many hours searching the net, I finally deduced that there were two ways I could book online before our departure from Australia - ItaliaRail or RailEurope. As HL and I simply had to be there on New Year's Eve to meet our friends from Stockholm, we had no choice but to book our train trip in advance. We weren't prepared to take any chances and miss our reunion with our friends and NYE celebrations in Piazza San Marco.

I booked two First Class seats on ItaliaRail. What a shocker. This domestic train was tired and grotty. Our 6-berth cabin was our only port of call for a long and boring five-hours-plus junket. As it turned out, we could have got to Venice sooner but I left it too late when making our advance booking and could only score two seats on the route that seemed to stop incessantly at every station between Roma and Venezia. When we finally boarded my fury was further fuelled when I discovered that there was no such 21st century luxury as a carriage bar; the only drinks and food available were sold by a young Italian spruiking his wares up and down the train's carriage corridors. His mobile shop was an ancient trolley - a dilapidated metal contraption with rickety wheels - an irony in itself as a many of Rome's buildings mirror a similar condition. However, it must be said, Rome's magnificent historic structures are steeped in fable and romance - the old trolley not so, and it was uninspiringly ugly to boot.

Fellow travellers take note: If you're carefree and young then this will be of no interest to you. If you are at the wrong end of 40 (or beyond) then read on. If you want to travel on the Eurostar in Italy you should easily score a seat without prior booking. Simply get up early on the day of your departure and head for Rome's Termini Then, with the time you have left, enjoy what little remains by drowning in this sublimely beautiful crumbling city. Don't, if you can avoid it, travel on the other rail option like we did - without being too critical, it's not pleasant.

Please note: things may have changed since the time of posting this blog. Do double check when booking rail travel to ensure you have chosen the right route, noted that it is taking you to the right station, and checked on the number of stops or stations it bypasses.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Roman Sleepover

It’s crazy but true – I’m not a great lover of flying. I don’t know why? Perhaps it’s because the plane is so far above the ground, skimming across the cloud tops, and if something should go wrong, it’s a dammed long way down! So to get over my nerves His Lordship (HL) and I concluded it was best to break our trip from Australia to Venice with a Japan pitstop followed by a sleepover in Rome.

Although our flights (Qantas from Brisbane to Narita, Japan; Japan Airlines from Narita to Rome) were thankfully uneventful, on the morning of our departure from our home in Brisbane HL put his back out. He had gallantly grabbed our suitcases with great gusto and then…crack! Luckily while we were at Narita Airport we had access to massage chairs which worked wonders and seemed to put his back into a happier state. It was quite amazing – you lie in the chair and it gently grips your wrists and ankles then proceeds to pleasantly pummel your body from your calves to your buttocks and right up to your neck. I slid onto one too. We found these chairs were an absolute godsend and so relaxing in preparation for the 12 hour flight to Rome.

Thankfully the flight was uneventful. Once the plane had landed in Rome and we had gone through customs, we wandered outside into the golden light bathing the street. We tossed up whether to take the train or catch a cab but it was late in the evening, we were tired and elected to go for luxury rather than economy. While waiting to hail a cab, an amiable chap offered us a ride cheaper than a cab fare – naturally we took up the offer. We climbed into the car and sat back in quiet comfort as the driver steered his vehicle around silent streets, past ancient buildings and finally to our destination: Hotel Diana

We had pre-booked a room for the night in preparation for our rail trip to Venice the following day. Hotel Diana has a four-star rating on travel sites. The room was fine – not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination but clean and reasonably spacious by Rome’s standards. One of the hotel’s drawcards is its rooftop garden which I would think would be beautiful in summer, but being winter it was closed. By the time we finally we hit the sack it was quite late. By 12.45 am we were still wide awake. By 3.00am we were getting desperate because the street light was filtering into our room. “Surely there is a blind” I claimed in sheer desperation. “Nope, nothing, just these flimsy curtains” HL groaned. By 4.45am we decided “stuff it, let’s get up and go for a walk”. HL popped off to the bathroom first to have a shower while I pulled my notebook out and jotted down a few “must-dos”. Suddenly I heard HL roaring with laughter – he had found the blind. They were metal and they were of the wind-up, wind-down variety mechanically driven by manually cranking a handle which protruded from the wall. All you had to do was crank it around - just like starting the engine on a vintage car. Extraordinary! We had found the secret on how to operate the blind a little too late or more like a little too early! It was now 5.30am and here we were already scrubbed and neatly dressed from head to toe - so what better thing to do than to venture out onto the cobblestone streets. This was our first time in Rome in winter and surprising the air was satisfyingly chilled. It wasn’t bitterly cold, just refreshingly icy. My thick scarf and full-length overcoat provided ample warmth as we segued from the hotel to the Stazione di Roma Termini, Rome’s main train station, in search of hot coffee. We found a bakery inside the Termini which had just opened and there, sitting on top of the glass display cabinet were timber trays laden with piping hot cornetto (the Italian equivalent of French croissant) oozing with gooey raspberry jam. We scoffed them down with a cappuccino…stupendo!

(Did you know: the Italians (like the French) only drink tea or coffee with breakfast or when coffee is ordered, it’s usually after a meal. I’m a tea drinker and in Italy tea is considered a morning or between-meal beverage. And horror of horrors, if you are in need of a major caffeine hit, I was told never to ask for an espresso! Ask for a caffe and you’ll be guaranteed to get your strong coffee hit in a small cup.)

After our milky caffine heart-starters, we wandered back to the hotel and dined in the breakfast room which had surprisingly good views over the city’s rooftops. Breakfast at Hotel Diana was included in the tariff and it was undeniably substantial with plenty on offer. The self-serve hot chocolate was like a cup of hot chocolate mousse – so rich, so delectable. Scrambled eggs and bacon, a typical Westerner’s meal, were on offer along with platters of cheese, salami and flaky golden pastries. This substantial combination provided the perfect fuel for a morning wandering around the Piazza della Repubblica (pictured) and neighbouring streets in winter.

Mid-morning we make our way back to Hotel Diana and with bags packed head back to the Termini for our Italia Rail trip to Venice. I can’t wait to settle into the comfort train travel. And trust me – it won’t be long before I head for the rail bar for a couple of glasses of chianti! It’s the only way to travel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pit stop Japan

Our most recent trip was a 'white' one. After much cajoling I talked my husband 'His Lordship' (a fond tongue-in-cheek nickname only) into agreeing on a winter holiday. Although I love travelling I am not a great flyer (I feel and hear every clunk, wheeze and grating noise the aircraft dishes out) we decided to break our trip into three parts. We were meeting dear friends in Venice for New Year's Eve and wanted to be pumped when we got there. So, for better or worse, we chose to stay overnight at Narita (Japan) and the following night in Rome, before embarking on an arduous train trip to Venice (that's another story...)

For first-timers to Japan (this was our second fleeting trip) it can be a bit mind-numbing. At times you feel as though you are a character in an Astro Boy comic strip. Unlike Australia's Gold Coast you won't find signage in English directing you to your desired destination. No way. It's up to you to sort through the rail map maze and try to decipher exactly where you want to go. Our first time in Japan was an eye-opener. We had the kids with us and instead of ending up at Ginza (the posh district overflowing with gorgeous high-end designer boutiques) we landed at Shinzuku couresty of the Narita Express. Desperate to find kimonos and sushi we found neither - we dined at a Beer Hall (yep that's right)located in narrow alley and eventually found our kimonos in plentiful supply and well priced at the airport!

This time we stayed at Hotel Tobu at Narita. It's where the flight crews stay. The rooms were expansive but the loo was the best - it came fully equipped with a control panel which would spray jets of water targetting perfectly those parts of your anatomy requiring an extra cleanse. An added bonus was the heated seat. What was a little disconcerting was when you sit your rump down ono the warmed seat water starts to fill the loo bowl even though there's plenty of water in it already. I thought the spray jets were a hoot but His Lordship found my squeals all too traumistising and elected not to test the equipment! Sadly a good night's sleep evaded us as the pillows were too flat and the bed likewise.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Carpe Diem

OK I've finally been so badly smitten reading fellow travellers' tales that, quite simply, I have had to start my own travel blog. I was going to write under the moniker Carpe Diem (Latin for Sieze the Day) because my dear old Dad used that as his nom de plume when writing Letters to the Editor. However, while surfing the net, I discovered the moniker was linked to cerebral matters and decided that it wasn't for me as a blog name but the title is perfect as the launch pad for my first entry - I have certainly Siezed the Day to pursue my dream to write about my travels.

Don't be surprised if this blog takes you on haphazzard journeys from my Australian hometown Brisbane to thousands of kilometres across the seas to Europe and Asia. Everything considered that's what Hapless Traveller is all about - enjoying each new adventure, seeing the glass half full, opening our eyes to the wonders of this world. Whether its a snazzy bar just down the road, a seedy cafe in a Euro backstreet somewhere or recounting tales of past travels...I hope you enjoy becoming Another Hapless Traveller with me.