Saturday, October 30, 2010

China Syndrome

Unbelievable! Here I was telling everyone within hearing distance to log onto my blog for a regular update on our travels only to discover that blogging was a No No! Simply couldn't get past Big Brother...I was left with no other alternative but to leave my obsession for telling tales until our return. We're now back on Australian soil and over the next few days I will recount my fabulous four-week adventure with His Lordship (HL)...we've travelled from Beijing to Xi'an by train, flown to Wuhan and bused it to the docks on the Yangtze for a four day river cruise, disembarked at Chongqing then flown to Kunming, endured a five hour bus drive to Dali and back again to Kunming, then on we soldiered for a flight to Guilin followed by a cruise down the Li River before disembarking at Yangshou. Then it was back on the bus again to Guilin, a flight to Shanghai before busing it to Suzhou and then Hangzhou before driving back to Shanghai for the end of our tour. It's been a marvellous experience - we've tried all forms of transport from plane, train, bus, rickshaw, and boats (large and small). What has amazed me is my daily daily habits have changed - albeit only temporarily. What habits you may ask? You'll have to read on to find out!

My first blog will start from our Singapore Airlines flight (departing from Brisbane International Airport) and it will be recorded soon...but more importantly I have to get onto blogging my 'bog blog' which I hope to have wrapped up by this evening. It will give you just a taste (pardon the use of this word...) of what HL and I experienced in China...the good, the bad, the ugly, and the fantastic!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beijing Bound

I can't believe it...not long now before we fly out so I've decided to give our new iPad a whirl as this is going to be our source of communication and my blogging tool while we're away. Fingers crossed we have wifi access at our hotels and that I can get used to this absurd two-finger typing on the touchscreen qwerty keyboard! Fortunately we are fleeing with our great mates The Captain and Tennille. They are from the deep south (of the great south east) and hopefully will be well equipped to last the coming weeks with Yours Truly and my partner His Lordship... If the names remind you of a singing duo back in the mid 70s you're halfway there. The Captain is actually named after Captain Von Trapp of The Sound of Music...he has always reminded me of Christopher Plummer! As for his partner, for the purposes of this blog and to keep her anonymity secure, I thought of calling her Maria but that would be totally unsuitable as she is loads of fun and not the convent type at all! Then as fate would have it I spotted an image of The Captain and Tennille and voila!...the perfect name for The Captain's blonde-haired other-half. It's ironic really as the photo had the 70s sensation Captain wearing a ship captain's hat and believe it or not these two fellow travellers love to go yachting whenever the opportunity arises...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

And the journey continues

For those of you who have just joined my 'blog' adventure...To date I have jotted down various tales covering my most recent holiday - a white winter in Europe. I had planned to continue plotting my journey from Prague to Rome, Florence, London, Paris, and HongKong - touching on memorable destinations both in those cities and beyond their fair walls - but time is running out. In a couple of weeks His Lordship and Yours Truly will be travelling to China for a month and I hope to be blogging on a daily basis (or at least every couple of days) pending access to the internet/wi fi etc. I have made the momentous decision (she wrote with tongue in cheek) to cut down on my European scribbles and simply list my top things to do at my favourite locations I have visited to date including my lastest escape which was a brief stay in Melbourne(Australia) in June - I was in dire need of a real 'European-style' winter fix but wanting to seriously avoid that horrendous 24-hour plus plane trip (in cattle class) to get there! Melbourne always does the job 'rawther' nicely. Hopefully I will be able to steal away some time to write about these treasured destinations before we take off on our Asian adventure to the land of the Terracotta Warriors...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Farewell Prague

We spent a glorious week in Prague. I think January was the perfect time to visit - it wasn't inundated with throngs of tourists, the Charles Bridge still endured its barrage of artists, musicians and beggars keen to make a crown or two but it wasn't seething with sightseers - it was a joy to cross. It would be fun to see this city in all of its glory in springtime but I'm not sure I could cope with the masses.
Would I return - absolutely. And what would I do? I would make a date with the Black Light Theatre (in retrospect, I think we should have listened to our friends' advice and taken in a performance), I would go on the Communism Walk (it covers the communist era and the most important events of the 20th century including the occupation of Prague by the Nazis in March 1939) and I would soak up the sounds of a Mozart Christmas Concert inside the ancient Church of St Martin in the Wall. What would I recommend? Definitely the scenic cruise down the Vltava River, time-out in St Nicolas' Church and a tour of the Jewish Quarter...and take a walk up to the Absinth Shop (Uvoz 1, Praha 1) where you'll watch the art of making an absinth drink and you're treated to a sample of this heart-starter. Such fun!

Next stop: overnight in Rome then onto Florence.

Astronomical Clock

I have to admit it was what I refer to as a Mona Lisa Moment when I finally caught the clock in motion. I don't know what I was expecting - maybe a little more activity, maybe a few more characters popping out of its edifice, but it was splendid just the same.

Located in the oldest Gothic part of Old Town, the Astronomical Clock (early 15th century) features 12 apostles which appear every hour between 9am and 9pm. The bottom portion of the clock is supplemented with a round calendarium which including the signs of the zodiac. It is the main meeting place for guided tours and a key tourist attraction.
You can't miss simply can't miss it (in more ways than one!). I've purposely not included an image of the clock in full action - why spoil the surprise. Go to Prague and experience it for yourselves!

Haunted happenings

Ghost trails are big business in Prague with the city's Old Town streets and alleys providing the perfect backdrop for tales of haunted happenings. Prague is 'besieged' by infamous spirits and, according to some locals, it has the dubious distinction of being the most haunted city in Europe. There are walking tours aplenty and whether or not we made the right decision, we opted for McGee's Ghost Tours of Prague. Maybe the name McGee's should have rung the warning bell - sounds like an Irish comedy doesn't it? At the appointed hour, layered with our thermals and thicker than thick coats, we ventured out into the Old Town Square for our arranged meeting with the Man with the Red Umbrella. As fate would have it, we were the only two crazy enough to wander the city streets in the freezing cold at night in search of paranormal activity. I admit it would have been difficult to get into the spirit (pardon the pun) of things when there are only two observers on the ghoulish adventure but the ghost hunter was witty and enthusiastic, much to our surprise. The fact that he was an American ghost hunter took the gloss of the experience a little - I think it would have been more tantalising had he spewed forth his narrative with a strong Czech accent. At 9pm, from our meeting place under the Astronomical Clock, we ventured forth to explore "the darker side of Prague" following our ghost hunter's lantern as he lead the way down narrow lanes, twisting corridors and passages that lead to nowhere, past ancient structures, haunted churches and legendary theatres that have "birthed many of Hollywood's monsters". Our American ghost hunter and paranormal investigator spoke of mass executions, homicidal thieves, and Gothic creatures whetting our apetite for as many gruesome tales that he could dish up. Check out for a full rundown of his "bone chillin' ride". We took this tour in the middle of an icey Prague winter...perhaps in summer the tour is packed, but I rather liked having this wicked gent all to ourselves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

History with views

Old Town Bridge Tower is a gem of a location. Not only will you learn about Prague's history (tower incorporates a museum and slide show) but climb to the very top (the parapet) and you will be privy to a spectacular panorama of the city.

View from the castle hill

Following our castle and cathedral tour, we made our way back to the city via the castle's hilltop vineyard. From this vantage point you are afforded a bird's eye of Prague.

Gothic glory

Prague Castle and its cathedral tower above Prague from the long hill known as Hradcany. Prague isn't the easiest city when it comes to disciphering the language so we opted to join a tour group and bused our way to the castle precinct. This proved to be a clever move as the guide regaled us with wonderful snippets, intelligent answers and quirky tales as we meandered through the castle grounds and wandered inside St Vitus's Cathedral (pictured) and its silver-laden St Wenceslas' Chapel. The cathedral is an ornate yet medieval masterpiece with is towering spires and beautiful stained-glass windows and gargoyles. Originally the residence of Bohemian royalty, today the castle is a political stronghold and the seat of the modern-day Czech government, overseen by its President.

The Jewish Quarter

Heart-wrenching and truly unforgettable, the Jewish Quarter is a must-see for anyone visiting Prague. Known as Josefov - the Jewish Quarter encompasses a number of wonderful historic sights including the Maisel, Spanish, Klaus and Pinkas Synagogues but for me, the most emotionally moving part of our journey was the Old Jewish Cemetery - walking in silent reverence as the snow crunched loudly under the weight of our boots. Here we were surrounded by hundreds of graves and their crumbling, leaning headstones...testament to the treatment of the Jews who were confined to their own ghetto, even in death.

Winter Hungries

It's amazing how winter gets the tummy rumbling. Whenever His Lordship and I have travelled in the past it's always been during the summer months. Europe in June/July can be pretty hot - I remember one time in Rome it was 40 degrees; an absolute scorcher! This holiday is such a breath of fresh air for me because I simply love the cold. Add snow, hot toddies and man-sized meals and I'm simply in heaven. However, it seems in Prague walking the tourist track is considerably more pleasurable than wearing the boots of a working Czech. On our first day in Prague, while walking the streets in search of a cosy lunch retreat, we passed some poor sod handing out his business card trying top get customers into the restaurant he was promoting. I later learned he would only be paid commission if we actually went into the restaurant and ordered a meal. It was freezing cold that day and he looked as though he was almost turning blue. Tough way to make a crown.

Prague is a haven for foodies. We dined out every lunch, dinner and in-between meal snacks. Each day was kick-started with a generous continental breakfast consisting of bread rolls, sliced meats and cheeses washed down with a hot beverage - daily ritual which took place in our hotel's cosy dining room. Although our bellies were always full after breakfast it's amazing how often you're inspired to duck into a restaurant or cafe or tavern for a quick bite to eat, glass or two of red and platter of mixed cheeses.

Marie Teresie Restaurant is a wonderful introduction to Prague fare. Their menu is extensive, presented in six languages, and each dish is numbered so there's no possible mix-up when the waiter is taking your order. We opted for traditional Czech cuisine.

His Lordship ordered the veprovy gulas krusovice (hearty pork goulash) and I chose selska veprova (a big slab of cooked-to-perfection farmer's roast leg of pork served with white and red cabbage); we also added houskove (white bread dumplings) to our dishes. These plump doughy additions helped to mop up the left-over gravy on our plates.

Another food destination we highly recommend is Potrefena Husa - a Czech pub with lashings of modernity. We heard of the pub through staff at our hotel - this is their local 'watering hole' and the place where they meet their friends after work. On a snow-laden winter's night there's nothing better than tucking into a cob of bread that has had it's soft centre removed and replaced by a generous serve of hot, thick potato soup. His Lordship ordered a goulash version - sensational! (pictured) Needless to say, after a feast of that size we both opted to take a leisurely walk across Charles Bridge. Although there were other equally good eating places (namely Old Town Square's Hotel Cerna Liska - for pea & pork knuckle soup; Pivnice U Kata which is conveniently next door to our hotel Tri Bubnu - for soup that was so thick you could stick a spoon in and it would almost stay upright on its own; and for a quick pick-me-up afternoon glass of red and cheese plate U Pavouka - it is wonderful medieval tavern) on our last night in Prague we returned to Potrefena Husa to try the house specialties - I chose the 1-kilo pork knuckle (that's right ... and no, I couldn't finish it all) served with a crunchy crackling crust, mustard, gherkin and fresh horseradish and His Lordship opted for the grilled duck breast with glazed shallots, mashed potatoes and plumb sauce. We washed this huge meal down with a few glasses of Frankovaka red and went to bed feeling well and truly bursting at the sides. Although we happily succumbed to every restaurant's goulash or port offering, after one week of this winter food I was looking forward to our next destination for a change of pace.

Just a thought: most of the restaurants mentioned above should have websites if you're keen to check them out.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Me Myself + Prague

OK so we've landed in Prague and arrived at our hotel - and it is picture perfect! The Hotel & Residence U Tri Bubnu at U Radnice 8, 10 Prague 1 is in The Old Town and literally just around the corner from the Old Town Square (pictured). I know we opted for a typically touristy spot but it's so central to everything including the Palladium Shopping Centre which was very handy when I needed to purchase a thicker coat to ward off the minus two degrees icy chills. Family friends who have been to Prague twice before recommended this hotel; they also suggested we should catch a performance at the Black Light Theatre. I know it's a specialty of Prague's but it just didn't grab my attention. And when you have only a week in a city it's important you cull your list and prioritise to ensure you see those 'musts' first. If you want to know more about the Black Light Theatre there are plenty of sites on the web which will give you a detailed overview supported by a plethora of images taken by countless amateur photographers.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Prague-a-licious snowy heaven

Having spent six wonderful days in Venice (kick started with chilled Bellini-filled flutes), I wondered whether Prague could outdo Venice...or at least leave us in a similar spellbound state. I had already counted my blessings - Venice was everything and more. Neither HL nor I hadn't succumbed to the precarious icey pavement and slid into a canal, the aqua alta had left us in peace, and the fog lasted for only one day gifting us with blue skies the remainder of our time there.  Could we be so lucky in Prague? Friends told me that Prague is a beautiful city - but I admit I wondered how much of the city we would see if it was covered with snow. But didn't I beg for snow? Isn't it what this holiday was all about? Flying sky high over jagged mountains didn't do my nerves a world of good. You see I'm not an avid flyer by any stretch of the imagination...and flying high above those craggy snow-covered mountains didn't fuel me with confidence. The plane was a toy-sized, not the 'normal' dimensions I was accustomed to. All I could help thinking was: "if we crashed no one will find us" and "we'll have to resort to cannibalism if we're stuck there..." Gruesome thoughts I know...and to top them off there wasn't even a whisker of alcohol to be offered on the flight, not even a nasty cheap red to quell my nerves. Thankfully the flight was a safe dropping thousands of feet without warning. OK, so wasn't alcohol on offer but hot tea and Prague's version of a cold bread roll with ham and pickled cucumber were served. The in-flight meal was my first indication that we were on our way to a new destination and a new culture so very different from Italy's. Many years ago I was in Vienna for a winter holiday and I soaked up the energy of the city like a hungry child. I feel that Prague will be no different for me - the city seems to draw me to it like a magnet.

Only an hour or so had passed before we touched down without a hiccup on Prague airport's icy tarmac.  Before our departure from Australia we had booked a car to meet us at the airport. Our hotel - U TriBuBnu - had suggested they book a car to collect us from the airport.  Normally if we were travelling in summer we would have been more than content to use the public transport system. But being winter, the slippery street surfaces and chill-to-the-bone cold dissolved our adventurous spirit - just for the short term.  Yes, prearranging a car was a very wise move considering we had no idea how to speak the Czech lingo let alone adequately predetermine what the place would be like. Having travelled to Italy and France in the past you know what you're up for...but Prague with their foreign signage was too daunting to comprehend, particularly if you relied on taking public transport at the height of winter.  When we stepped outside the airport's cosy environs we immediately congratulated on our intelligence - booking the hire car was sensible move. It was snowing heavily and the opportunity to clamber into the warmth of the spongy-seated Volvo resulted in the pair of us looking like Cheshire cats grinning from ear to ear. The 'chaffeur' (admittedly I'm embellishing the hire car driver's title but it does sound sassy doesn't it) drove us from white snow-covered outskirts, through the suburban streets of Prague and on to our final destination in the Old Town right smack in the centre of the city hub. Along the way the driver pointed out the main points of interest, filling in the blank spots regarding the country's politics, while admitting that this city is best seen in spring. Oh wonderful new...he had just reinforced what my husband had been saying all along about taken white winter holidays but that didn't my spirits as we skirted past a royal palace and the impressive municipal building to our charming old hotel in a quaint backstreet not far from the Old Town Square.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Venice 2 Prague

We had booked our flight with Czech Airlines...a no-frills airline similar to Australia's Jetstar and Virgin. When checking in with CA, the ever-cognissant HL decided I needed a distraction during the one hour plus flight across treacherous rocky terrain...he booked me a window seat. As we flew overhead like angels floating above the 'Queen of the Adriatic', I caught an awe-inspiring view of the unique waterways and lagoon landscape, Venice in all its glory crowned by neighbouring islands. It struck me how small the city really is...such a possie on the plane is highly recommended!

Farewell Venice

After the most glorious week in Venice filled with blue skies and sun-drenched days the city had quenched my barren soul. I simply wanted to melt into its buildings and stay forever...but alas...when you are a hapless traveller with a limited time span...a new city always beckons.

Leaving the City of Water

We were sad to leave Venice but the heart-wrenching departure was tempered by our luxe transport to Marco Polo airport via Albergo All Angelo's private motor launch. As we snaked our way through the brooks and canals and out to open water past Murano island we caught an intimate glimpse of this great sinking beauty. The boat trip was a real treat and worth the 70 euros.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My lovely mask maker

Naturally I was disappointed when I discovered Mondonovo was closed for holidays (see previous blog) but my spirits lifted when I discovered this gem along Calle Dei Saoneri (not far from Campo Santa Margherita). The mask maker was busily painting his masterpieces and kindly signed my mask. It now hangs happily on the corner of my oversized gilt-edged mirror in my dining room. An added bonus was the cost of 13 euro compared to one of the more elaborate masks from the Mondonovo atelier which would be been more than 10 times the price. For opera buffs I would still recommend buying a mask from Mondonovo. After all, Lovato (mask maker and proprietor of Mondonovo) is a highly esteemed master of his trade; it was Lovato who was called in to oversee reconstruction of the sculptures and reliefs in the Fenice Theatre (Teatro La Fenice) when it was burned to the ground in 1996. (Recommended reading: The City of Fallings Angels" by John Berendt)

That Table at which Peggy sat!

Yep, this is the famous table that Peggy Guggenheim reserved for her friends; according to the lads at All Angelo she also was often accompanied by her 12 dogs. The location is Albergo Ristorante All Angelo, Calle Larga S. Marco, 403 - 30124 Venezia.

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.