Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Shanwah's Venice

Crossing the bridge from mainland Venice to the lagoon islands is one of those moments that gets you every time. You clatter through the mainland town without so much as a second glance at your surroundings and suddenly the rails shoot you out into the open ocean, your first glimpse of the Venetian lagoon is before you and you have no choice but to sit up in your seat and stick your nose to the window. It gave me goosebumps the first time and a giddy grin every time since.

For my first stay on the island I spent days agonizing over accommodation and ended up at the lovely Hotel Abbazia right near the main station, it taught me a valuable lesson about accommodation in Venice, if you choose a location near a train station or Vaporetti stop then you can always find your way home.

This time around we opted for a more budget friendly base camp near Vaporetti stop Fondamente Nouve and were rewarded for our frugalness with a view over the cemetery island of San Michele and a broken air conditioner affectionately nicknamed "the agitator". Despite having a room that was hotter than Hades, we were well located for some great food and a much quieter position closer to the locals.

After dumping our bags we made an attempt to visit the baroque church of Santa Maria Della Salute, interesting because it was built as an offering to deliver the city from the plague of the 1600's, but instead we succeeded in getting quite lost. Fortunately we spotted an affordable(ish) restaurant that fulfilled my lifelong desires to eat on the waterfront called Linea d'Ombra.

The irony of my chosen attire for the day is not lost on me.

This is Venice, pure and simple. 

On our way back (lost again) we stumbled into Piazza San Marco. We'd planned on visiting San Marco the following day but his have us the perfect opportunity to take some moody dusk pictures around the square and watch the clock tower chime with beautiful statues of young and old representing the passage of time (how apt) called 'the moors'. Something I will definitely be repeating on my next visit.

Some of my artsy dusk photos (so moody...right?!)

Basilica di San Marco all covered in gold. Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace) is connected to the right.

The bustling Piazza San Marco at sundown.

Day number two started off with an early morning Vaporetti trip to the island of Murano, famed for its glasswork. This island presents a great opportunity for shopping as the glassware is generally of a higher quality and much cheaper! You are often buying form the very same place the glassware was made so the shopkeepers are usually a lot more passionate about what they are offering you. I picked up a really beautiful (and very kitsch) piece from an artisan studio for €20.

The canals of Murano... Also a random Gondola picture (always necessary).

Attempting to return from Murano proved more confusing than originally thought, we rushed onto the Vaporetti laden down with purchases only to discover we had taken the Vaporetti in the wrong direction! This meant we had no choice but to take a leisurely tour of Venice from atop The Grand Canal itself (there are certainly worse things). In the afternoon we visited Palazzo Ducale (the Doges Palace) and got to walk across the Bridge of Sighs! The self guided tours of the prison and palace are amazing and I definitely recommend you make some time for it (even If it's only to look out from the little windows in the Bridge of Sighs and see the crowd of people crammed onto the tiny little walkway outside). We finished off the day with a climb to the top of the famous campanile just in time to be at the top when the bells chimed (although it's more of a ear shattering clang when you're that close to them).

The view from the top. I mean look at that! (Btw that is Santa Maria Della Salute in the top right).

Telephone box at the top of the Campanile... So you can share the deafening bells with loved ones.

Basilica di San Marco and the Campanile on a windy summers day.

My last two days in the stunning lagoon city of Venice involved the very glamorous task of laundry followed by more aimless wanderings, waterside dining and a spot of historical theatre for good measure.

If you made it through this lengthy ramble, well done! I suppose I could have just given you a top ten list of things to do in Venice... But that would have been boring for me so too bad! I have included links in case you've been inspired by my trip... so I'm not that selfish.

My feet dangling dangerously close to the lapping water/seaweed/algae.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Shall we share a Gondola?

Venice is amazing... No doubt about it, no questions asked... Amazing. So often is this beautiful island associated with crowds of tourists, tacky gift shops and overpriced eateries that people choose a fleeting visit that is just long enough to see some canals, scoff at the cost of a Gondola ride and take a few selfies in St Mark's Square. Venice has so much to offer if you give it a proper shot! Just remember, everything here is going to be a bit more expensive than the rest of Italy so budget appropriately.

See Venice is Beautiful! "Boy with Frog" statue outside Punta della Dogana (the statue is now removed but the location is amazing), a shiny black gondola resting on the canal, Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) and the inside of Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace).

Here are some easy steps to ensure you get some quality Venice time.

Step one... Book your accommodation on the ISLAND of Venice.
You can choose to save money by staying on the mainland town of Venice, but it means that you have to catch a train to the island every day and you are at the mercy of the traders and their steep lunchtime prices. My preferred option is to stay in one of the hotels on the island. It is definitely a more expensive option but with some persistence, you can get reasonably priced accommodation and nothing beats sitting by the canals in the evening after the throngs of day tourists have left the island and listening to the water lap against the city.

Step two... Stay at least three nights.
You will need one day for settling in, one day for exploring the sights of Venice and one day for heading to one of the smaller islands (Murano, Burano, Lido or Carnellio). Venice is such a labyrinth, that you will inevitably get stressed out if you try and fit it into a smaller stay. For me, a big part of enjoying Venice is aimless wandering... a bit difficult to do if you are power walking between sights to cram them into one day.

Step three... Set up camp somewhere easy to find.
From a way-finding point of view, Venice is a mess! There is no order at all and it would take you months to remember your way around. If you are smart about where you stay, then you should always be able to find your way home. At the fork of every street or canal there are signs on the walls pointing you to one of four things: S Marco (St Mark's Square, Rialto (Rialto Bridge), Ferrovia (Train Station) and Vaporetto. The Vaporetto are the water buses and these signs point to the various stops in the area. If you stay near one of these, all you ever need to do in order to get home is follow the signs to the nearest Vaporetti stop and use the water network to get you home. Much easier than a map and more fun too!

Step three... Get lost.
As I mentioned earlier, Venice has the most to offer to those who wander it's streets aimlessly. Spend a day meandering around the tangled streets until you get completely lost! This is how you find those amazing foodie gems, legitimate handicraft stores and photo opportunities that will make everyone jealous! When you are finished being lost, just follow the signs to one of the many Vaporreto stops, or main tourist destinations and find your way back from there.

Bonus step (because I almost forgot it)... Share the fun.
Gondolas are expensive! You can haggle and you can shop around, but at the end of the day you are going to pay more than you thought reasonable. To save yourself from buyer's remorse, do as the title of this article suggests and share. These bad boys are priced per ride, not per rider, so if you are happy to share the journey with a friend or fellow traveller (or three) then I suggest you do.

That's it! These are just a few basic tips and I should also mention that these steps aren't an original creation of mine and most of the credit should go to Jessica (see my last post).

Stay tuned to see what I did on the lagoon wonder that is Venezia!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

A note on Jessica...

So I think the time has come to pay tribute to one of my travel writing heroes. Whilst researching my very first jaunt to Italy, I stumbled across a neat little tangle of blogs under the umbrella of boots and all travel. More specifically I discovered the Italian section Italylogue and it's main contributor Jessica.

This blog is an absolute goldmine of recommendations, itineraries and experiences! You can have confidence that If it is on the list then you know that Jessica has done it and loved it. The content is accessible and relevant but doesn't stink of sponsored add ons and paid for reviews. Instead, Jessica writes without pretense and makes it feel like a friend is offering you helpful advice rather than the Italian tourist board.

So if you are planning a trip to Italy and want a fool proof guide to enjoying each city from a more intimate perspective than what is offered on a traditional "top ten", then I highly recommend her stuff!

Jessica, I owe my love of travelling Italy to you...Salute!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Under some sort of Tuscan sun!

Before even setting foot in stunning Firenze for the first time, I had beautiful preconceived notions featuring rolling hills of amber and gold delicately crowned with a bustling village studded with quant shops, villas, museums and art houses, markets and friendly locals serving up a load of amazing food... and for once I was pretty much right!

Florence was the first Italian city that fulfilled all my expectations of what an Italian city should be! It has that unique feel of a small town that has gone large. The streets are still quaint, the buildings are beautiful and the people are Italian through and through. This makes it one of my favourite places in Italy to visit and a must on any Mediterranean itinerary.

For me, the sights of Florence are less obvious than those of other major Italian cities. The city is definitely better explored sporadically rather than in any particular type of order... But sometimes it's nice to have a plan, so here is how I did Florence this time around.

First on the list is the intriguing Basilica di San Lorenzo. More specifically, Michaelangelo's Cappelle Medici (Medici Chapels) and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (Laurentian Library). The Medici family were (and probably still are) the "it" family of this region a heap of years ago. They owned/own most of the major buildings in Florence or at least provided money for them to be built. This means that you can see the Medici family crest above entranceways, atop towers and painted into stained glass on almost every building in the city. The Medici family loved a bit of Michaelangelo so a visit to Basilica di San Lorenzo is one of the best ways to see some great examples of his architecture and sculpture. Even If you aren't an art fanatic, the Laurentian Library is a stunning example of what money can buy if you want to read in peace and a fantastic opportunity for you to experience some quiet reflection in a building that isn't strictly a house of religion. A few easy streets away and you will find our next jewel.

Il Duomo di Firenze is the central church if Florence. A building that is less immediately inspiring than its Milanese cousin, the Florentine Duomo sits delicately in front of a much smaller and much quieter square than Milan's Duomo. It is perhaps it's cosy locale that makes this beauty in pastel the perfect location to soak up the bustling city centre atmosphere. When you are admiring the beautiful Facade, don't forget to turn around and take a peek at Paradise Gate.

A warm day in Tuscany almost begs you to stroll across the River Arno (via Ponte Vecchio of course) for a visit to Palazzo Pitti and it's Giardino di Boboli. These sprawling greens are home to hills and valleys, mini museums, sculptures, garden beds, observatories, miniature forests and plenty of shaded grassy areas to relax upon. Some of the most amazing views can be obtained from this vantage point and if you make your way to the very back of the grounds to the porcelain museum, you are rewarded with sublime vistas of rolling Tuscan countryside. Bring a picnic lunch (as the vending machines provided are notoriously dodgy) and enjoy the majesty of this regal abode.

For art lovers, there are plenty of Museums brimming with notable artists and artworks. Most popular is Uffzi, who's gallery archive reads like an art world VIP list. Here you can find Botticelli, DaVinci and Carvaggio milling around with Raphael and Rembrandt. Make sure to get your tickets early because the lines get quite big. While you're there, don't pass up a trip to Piazza della Signoria where you can see a replica of Michaelangelo's David. If you want to see the real thing, round off the Florence trip with a stroll to Galleria dell'Accademia on any day that isn't a Monday!

As you can see, Florence is crammed with art, history and some of the most amazing food. It is easy trips like this that really confirm for me that Florence is definitely my favourite Italian city.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Milan, a rediscovery playlist

Arrival Day
The auspicious day of your arrival in Milan should be an easy one, I suggest holding off visiting the big sights today because you are not necessarily going to have the energy to appreciate them. Instead I recommend that you take the time to refresh yourself with a bout of shopping or perhaps an Aperitivo (the Milanese happy hour) and spa.

Shopping - If you have the money then I can suggest you nip to Via Montenapoleone or Via della Spiga for your high end shopping needs, But if you are watching your Euro Cents and want to be able to shop on a budget then take a leisurely stroll down Corso Buenos Aires. It is a long street so it might be advisable to catch the metro through some of it if you need. You can pair your shopping trip with a mini architectural tour as the strip is studded with some fantastic buildings and a rather large park for lunching in.

Aperitivo - Follow up your shopping trip with an aperitivo! The concept is essentially "after work drinks", the Milanese twist is that the venue will throw in a bountiful spread of nibbles to replace the dinner you won't be having by drinking. The food is free as long as you purchase a beverage and the venue will usually finish it all up at a sensible hour! Not only can it be quite a good night, but you get a free feed and have time afterwards to visit the spa! If this combination interests you, and why wouldn't it, I suggest you sample the aperitivo at "Friends" (10 Via Ludovico Muratori) or if you fancy the classic sit down meal, try the nearby "Casa Tua" (Corner of Via Ludovico Muratori and Via Bernardino Corio)

Spa - At the end of a long day, there is nothing more relaxing than a spa ...right?! Whilst researching things to do in this fair city I discovered QC Termemilano. It is essentially an inner city spa retreat (no funny business) in the heart of Milan. There is an amazing array of inclusions in your modest entry cost (€32-€59 depending on time of entry and extras) including saunas, steam rooms, relaxation rooms, aqua massage, pool, a wellness path and included buffet! Plus you get to walk around in a plush white robe and snazzy flip flops. This particular spa is quite close to my above mentioned aperitivos as well as the Porta Romana Metro stop.

Day One
Sightseeing ahoy! Today we meet some of historical Milan. Visit these sights in whichever order works best for you and spend as long or as short a time at each.

Duomo di Milano - This beautiful gothic cathedral is at the heart of Milan and is an absolute stunner! The exterior is an intimidating 65 metres high and opens up into a beautiful plaza full of pigeon feeders, tourists and rushed locals trying to get through to the other side as quickly as possible. (This is prime pickpocket territory so keep your valuables safe when taking your thousands of photos of this photogenic behemoth). If you have the energy I highly recommend you climb to the roof of the cathedral! It is open to the public and it gives you an amazing view over Milan, whilst getting you up close and personal with some of the 135 intricate spires and statues that make this building so beautiful.

Some of the stunning sights you will see if you climb to the roof of Duomo di Milano (known locally as Il Duomo).

Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II - The worlds oldest shopping mall is certainly a sight to behold! Behind it's grandiose entrance can be found the likes of Ferrari, Prada and Gucci as well as an array of overpriced eateries. Shop if you have the funds but, perhaps more interestingly, there is a beautiful mosaic at the crux of the cross shaped mall featuring four distinct crests. These crests represent the capitals of the four kingdoms of Italy; Milan, Rome, Florence and Turin. Legend has it that if you spin three times with your right heel on the testicles of the Turin bull then you will be bestowed good luck!

Teatro Alla Scala - When you stumble across this unassuming building, you would be forgiven for thinking it is nothing more than an uninteresting stock standard government building. Thankfully it is much more than it seems as it houses the stunning La Scala opera theatre! With €5 museum entry and an optional guide book in hand, you can feign aristocracy and peer across the stage from a luxurious booth or perhaps sip an imaginary flute of bubbly in the chandelier laden function areas. Whatever your chosen fantasy, La Scala is a great place to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Central Milan and absorb some theatre culture.

Panzerotti - Now since you are already in Central Milan, take a short stroll from the Piazza to the unassuming "Luini's". Here you will find a long deli cabinet stacked with a delicious array of pastry treats and just general deliciousness! The selection will have your mouth watering but I suggest you try the traditional Mozzarella e Pomodoro Panzerotti first for a traditional Milanese snack... Then go wild!

Day Two
Castle Sforza - This castle museum almost seems more like an odd piazza than a traditional castle. The open hours vary from season to season but if you miss out on getting inside the building then don't be alarmed! The courtyard is always open and show cases some beautiful frescos and plenty of shade. The pockmarked exterior tells volumes about the castle's almost constant re-adaption based on who was ruling at the time. The castle does provide some amazing photo opportunities and the rust coloured interior walls really do remind you that you are in an ancient Italian city. An amazing place to wander, just mind the gypsies and stray cats.

Last supper - this is probably why you came to Milan, da Vinci's famed fresco on the refectory wall of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie Is certainly a talking point. Access to this artwork will cost about €8 and is timed so it is best if you book in advance and maybe base the sightseeing order of your day around this time slot. The experience is actually quite hilarious, due to the delicate nature of the fresco there can only ever be a certain amount of people in the room at one time for only a few minutes and there needs to be a small break between viewings to allow the moisture to be removed from the air. This means that you slowly plod through glass doors and vacuum seals like cattle in a science fiction slaughter house and then once in the room you get yelled at by an irate attendant over a loud speaker as though you are on "Big Brother". Possibly the most strictly archived piece of history in the entire of Italy! Oh and there is another fresco on the other side of the room too, just as good but not by Da Vinci.

Departure Day
I never advise booking in to see anything on your day of departure... Simply because Personally, I end up stressing about checking out, left luggage, missing my flight or not making it to the train in time! If you have a late night departure then I suggest you take some time to relax in one of the many restaurants, cafes and eateries that stud beautiful Milan or alternatively, the age old tradition of shopping always goes down a treat (and that spa is open all day too...)

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Milan Darling, Milan!

On my first visit to vivacious fashion capital Milan, Jade and I had the fortunate pleasure of arriving to pouring rain in the decidedly more suspicious evening light suffering an exhaustion that is known all too well by long haul travellers. We had also just come from a disappointing experience in Pisa (A word to the wise, use a map to find the leaning tower or you might end up wandering the streets of this small town lost and a bit stressed, consequently leaving without having actually seen said tower). This combination is never a good one when discovering a city for the first time... Nor any subsequent time after that really... But fortunately by this stage our sheer laziness had taught us that it was easiest to stay at hotels around the main train station and we only had to schlep our bags (numbering five by this stage thanks to Jade's penchant for shopping) a short way.

This time around was my second visit and thankfully the weather upon arrival was lovely and mild. In my mind, because I had graced the pavement of this fair city once already, I was a seasoned Milano expert (insert sarcastic rolling of the eyes) so I boldly traipsed mapless through the streets, suitcase tumbling begrudgingly behind. To be fair I did basically know my way around the city and I was feeling quite well versed in the Italian way of life at this point, so my confidence was not all together misplaced. Once again our chosen accommodation was as near to the beautiful station as I could get so that there was minimal lugging. Side note here, The main station of Milano Centrale is actually quite magnificent to look at and I suggest you take time to look back as you traverse to your hotel, you might even like to take a picture or two (weather permitting).

My visit consisted of only mild sightseeing and focused more on activities like eating, drinking and shopping, with only a fleeting visit to La Scala and Il Duomo mixed in for cultural good measure. We didn't catch the Last Supper as it was completely booked out and we hadn't had the forethought to book this earlier in the week. But, perhaps most importantly, I did manage to catch a panzerotti at my favourite Milanese panzerotti house Luini's (let's be honest it's the only one I've been too, But it is really good)... This leads me too...

Shanwah's tasty tip: Luini's is a small delicatessen style eatery specialising in what is possibly Milan's best cultural export... Panzerotti! These flavorsome morsels are small half moon shaped savory pastries filled with various forms of deliciousness... Imagine a calzone, now make it smaller and tastier! Although Panzerotti aren't strictly Milanese, Luini's has made such an impact that they've been somewhat adopted as such. I actually insist (unless dairy or gluten aren't your friends) that you drop in for a visit and try this traditional fare, go for the cheese and tomato version to begin with and then let loose on one of the other countless taste sensations!

The stunning Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele II! The world's oldest shopping mall and possibly the prettiest too! One entrance leads into Milan's main Piazza and Il Duomo, one to La Scala Opera house and another to Luini's Panzerotti! Make sure to take a spin on the mosaic bull's testicles in the centre of the mall for luck!

Milan is definitely the fashion capital of the world, and it is quite evident from first glance that it is very different to other Italian cities, but I don't think people actually realise how interesting a city it really is. Those who do visit tend to only stay long enough to see the Last Supper or to relieve themselves of a few Euro at the shopping streets before disappearing to Florence or Rome, upsettingly I think most people feel it is void of traditional Italian culture and as a result it is left off most Italian itineraries. What we need to remember is that the cultural city of Milano was here long before the skyscrapers and there are plenty of enriching experiences smattering the Milanese sidewalk. I have decided to take some time to prove to the naysayers that there is much more to see and experience in Milano... so heres what I'm going to do! With a bit of research and some fortunate fieldwork, I am creating a sightseeing playlist that I think showcases some of the great things Milan has to offer in a short three night stay (come on you can handle at least three nights right!?)...

So stay tuned...

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A note on train travel...

In all honesty I didn't knowledgeably choose train travel as my preferred method of transportation around Europe. Instead it came about as a direct result of my sheer ignorance of budget airline carriers and the shiny advertisements for Eurail passes (they promised maps and fancy looking tickets okay!). Despite not having researched it fully the first time around, let me tell you now that it is certainly not a bad thing. I have since discovered that although train travel can be a bit arduous and not overly comfortable, it is decidedly more pleasant to spend 5 hours on a high speed train than 2 hours traveling super economy in a flying tin can.

Traveling by rail allows you time to read, write, play a few games of solitaire or poker and best of all it allows you the freedom to get up and stretch your legs whenever you want! Air pressure ear pops are limited to trains that pass through tunnels or climb up mountains, the seats are bigger and usually less cramped plus you get to see some absolutely amazing scenery along the way.

If you get the right combination of deals (Eurail, railpass etc) you can also very easily make train travel the most cost effective solution for your grand tour. Investigate how many times you will be traveling within one country, how often will you be using international rail services, how close are the stations to your hotel, how frequent are the trains? You can use these questions to ascertain whether or not a rail pass is best for you or if its better for you to buy your own point to point tickets.

I talk about this now because it was at this point of my journey that our painfully disrupted train trip from Nice to Milan, involving faulty train carriages, canceled seat reservations and angry Italian mothers, led to a chance meeting with two lovely ladies, a deck of cards and a train trip of raucous card games and laughter. It reminded me of how much fun I have had on my train trips. What it boils down to is simple, you have nowhere else to be and you can't help what time you arrive, so you can just sit back and enjoy the journey (Remind me to tell you about some of my ...Err... less relaxing train journey's sometime).

Two final points...

Buying your tickets in advance through the local rail company (Trenitalia in Italy, TGV in France, Renfe in Spain or Deutsche Bahn in Germany etc) is usually cheaper than leaving it until the last minute or going through a third party provider. So if you have the nouse I suggest you attempt it yourself.

Be aware of your alternatives and try not to hinge your entire journey on one train leg being on time. You are well aware of how the trains in your home town are frequently delayed, so be aware that it is the same in the new city you are visiting and it is no one else's fault but your own that you only left yourself 10 minutes to change trains.

Train travel around Europe is by far the most comfortable and satisfying way to get from amazing A to beautiful B! (Yep I came up with that one all by myself) and who knows, you might end up sitting opposite a new friend*.

*Disclaimer: New friends are not guaranteed. I take no responsibility if you are seated next to a... less than desirable... train buddy. If you are seated next to an undesirable, I suggest you swiftly occupy whichever senses are being assaulted (I have been known to shove my nose in a bottle of orange juice to achieve this).