Venice – day 1

Venice pics

Water, boats & buildings? Venice.

Today I broke my shoes. Well, kind of. The insole decided it didn’t like being anchored to the sole and thought it might be entertaining to make a break for freedom via the ankle. I’ll re-secure it when I get home.

The reason for the shoe destriction was a huge amount of walking. After the short bus journey from the hotel, over the bridge and into Venice City, we nominated “east” as the direction of travel and started off.

Venice isn’t really that big. It’s possible to walk from end to end of the majority of it in a couple of hours, if that, with the exception of a couple of outlying islands it takes a short boat trip to reach. We didn’t have any kind of plan, just wander around and soak the place up.

The first thing I noticed with Venice is that there are approximately six different shops which are replicated infinitely like some kind of 16th century kaleidoscope. As a result, it does get a little wearing walking past yet another papier-mache mask retailer, or someone else selling “genuine” Murano glasswork. Most of the stuff’s not bad, though obviously overpriced. If you do want to shop here – and most will – then compare merchandise and prices from area to area. Certain regions are far more expensive than others for the exact same goods. And don’t be afraid to haggle a little, either. Especially in the off-season you can find marked prices being dramatically chipped away with very little effort indeed.

Canal view

View from a bridge

Once away from the opening area near the Piazzale Roma, the streets start to converge, more bridges appear and little alleyways delight, confound, point at your sense of direction and burst into fits of giggling. This is the Venice I was looking for. Much like the tight, meandering streets of Jerusalem or Varanasi, but with a more modern architecture, they were fun to walk around and generally filled with flats rather than shops. Very occasionally a little bar would surprise us and be far more interesting than the expensive street corner ones near the major churches.

Up in the Cannaregio area we hopped into a little nondescript cafe for a cuppa and paid an incredibly reasonable €1 each. Not too long later we picked up lunch at a little café in the Armoury area for a handful of Euros. Staying away from the built up and hectic areas by no means reduces the quality of the food, but it does lighten the load on the purse-strings!

Albergo Malibran

Recommended for dinner!

As the day wore on and it got chillier, the sun went down and we picked a random restaurant (“Albergo Malibran”) for dinner. Despite its close proximity to one of the main shopping thoroughfares, the prices were incredibly reasonable. Pizza and pasta were consumed and we ambled home via a supermarket. 2 litres of local rosé wine for €4 was a chance we couldn’t pass up. Likewise, a bottle of Jagermeister for €10.79. Come on – that’s pushing it for half the price in the UK.

Venice closes fairly early. It’s no party city, but it’s bustling during the day. With bellies and shopping bags laden down, we caught the bus back to the hotel. That bottle of wine was demolished over a couple of classic Peter Jackson films on the netbook. It wasn’t bad, either. Mind you, alcohol always helps when you’re watching Bad Taste and Brain Dead.

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Glasgow to Venice (via Amsterdam)

Wetherspoons "cutlery"

Dear Wetherspoons - this is NOT a knife

We got to Glasgow airport at 10-ish, with breakfast at the Wetherspoons which was fine aside from being provided with something akin to a spatula with which to cut my sausages and bacon. Our flight to Amsterdam was on time, and in fact we anded early which gave us over 4 hours to run into the city for some food and drinks. Transport tickets are available in the baggage collection area – as we were heading through to Venice we didn’t have to worry about our one piece of luggage as it would be transferred directly onto the next flight.

Amsterdam’s a bit of a maze (with some incredibly artistic graffiti in places), and we wandered for almost the full four hours after getting there on the train. The weather wasn’t great, but it was better to plod around that spend ages at the airport getting bored. We had a couple of beers and found some shops with some very strange battery-operated toys in them. I guess you put them on the table

Dutch graffiti

Pretty pictures

top and the vibrations make them move around. Maybe you’re supposed to get several and have fights with them. Just in case the security at the airport thought they were weapons (some did look very scary), we decided not to buy any for the kids.

Our next flight to Venice Marco Polo Airport was also on time, comfy and well tended with drinks and snacks and we landed a few minutes ahead of schedule. It was still late in the evening, but the public transport runs to the flights so we had no trouble getting one of the shuttle buses to our hotel. Don’t bother queueing for the ticket machine in the arrival hall – there are loads of others outside, which we discovered later. €3 will get you a bus to various destinations. We were heading for Mestre railway station, a short walk from the Hotel Dolfino, to which our nice bus driver gave us directions.

Marco Polo Airport

Big glowing balls

The hotel itself was pretty nice, although the room was way too hot when we got in. Also, the wi-fi, despite having a good signal, seemed to be connected to a dial-up modem which dropped out every 30 seconds making the free internet rather pointless. A shame, as otherwise we really enjoyed staying there. Friendly staff, excellent buffet breakfast and a lovely meal on the Monday night. It’s also ridiculously convenient for buses to Venice City and they sell tickets at reception for buses and boats.

After a quick drink from the bar, we unpacked, settled in, watched Roadhouse in Italian (why? WHY?!) and zonked out for the night.

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Venice, here we come!

Mestre (Venice) Clock Tower

Mestre (Venice) Clock Tower - Image via Wikipedia

OK, getting ahead of myself by a day or so. Gill and I will be on a plane to Venice via Schipol on Saturday, coming back Tuesday night. I’ve been to Italy twice before (a couple of days in Rome, and hiking up the north west as part of the 1000 Mile Walk) – oh and a brief visit to a health spa through the Mont Blanc Tunnel when I was working in Chamonix.

However, this will be a first trip to the – I am told – gorgeous city/region of Venice. We’re staying on the mainland in an area called Mestre, right by the bus stop to get over the 5km bridge (Ponte della Libertà). I gather this is a little better than staying on the islands as there will be more chance of nightlife!

Anyway, reports as usual once we get there and so forth. The hotel has free wi-fi which I’ll be making full use of. It’ll be good to be somewhere new again, especially with such good company.

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New plans!

Due to my change in circumstance (i.e. having a job and finding someone stupid enough to go out with me), backpacking is a little bit of a no-goer at the moment. Travelling, though, is still very much on the cards.

First up, the amazing Gillian is treating me to a long weekend in Venice for Valentine’s. I’ve been to Italy twice (once a quick visit to Rome, and again during The Walk when I covered the north west of the country by foot), but never seen this particular place. I’m very much looking forward to it and we’ll be there from February 12th to 15th.

Next, we’ll be taking the kids to Egypt at the start of July right after I finish work for summer. It’s only for a week and it’s a package tour but we will be aiming to fit in some diving and a trip to Luxor from our base in Sharm El Sheikh.

Plans are already afoot for a fortnight in Thailand in 2012. Assuming the Aztecs weren’t right and we’re all dead by then.

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Food and water

Terme Pre-Saint-DidierWe decided to do something different on my day off, and Leah has wanted to go to a spa in St Gervais. My boss, however, handed me some leaflets from a place over the hills (or through the Mont Blanc Tunnel) in Cormayeur. A bit of a traipse but actually easier to get to as they were offering a free bus service for a limited time. Big saving as it’s €40 return for the tunnel alone. The spa was called the Terme Pre-Saint-Didier and we opted for it. This would make it the third spa I’d been to on my trip along with Cologne and Hanmer Springs.

Glad we did as well. The free bus was almost exactly 15 minutes late at the pick-up point (with the same delay on the return trip), but otherwise it was a great day out. The spa were offering a deal to get cheap tickets for a chairlift up onto the Hellbronner pass but we decided against that as the weather was really poor. For €35 each, we got the full run of the place (which was enormous); towel, sandal and bathrobe; body lotion; and grub. Lots of grub. Lovely grub. Bready products, very good quality fresh fruit, delicious yoghurt and about 6 different fruit (and vegetable) drinks. Available all day as a buffet.

Having a splashThe sheer variety of rooms and so forth was staggering. Leah had a mud bath for an additional €10 and aside from that, everything else we did was in with the cover charge. There was a large outdoor area where we enjoyed the snow landing on our heads as we basked in warm water (with jets). We laughed at a very skinny girl with boobs far too large for her running across the cold ground to one of the saunas. I overheard a couple in one of the steam rooms definitely having more than just a conversation and a civilised sweat.

There were waterfalls, bubble baths, chromatography pools, whirlpool baths, saunas of various temperatures, saunas with various smells (including pine – fantastic – and hay, which was more reminiscent of a hamster cage), steam rooms, a Turkish sauna with scented salt to rub on, hot showers, cold showers, a fire room, an air room with hanging baskets to sit in, a water relaxation room with water beds, a darkened relaxation room with soothing music… the list goes on.

Yes, in places it could have done with a lick of paint (literally – probably moisture getting under the last coat) but other than that it was superb. Clean, well-decorated, well-lit and with very new-looking equipment. You can tell we had a good time, can’t you? My back’s even been better since we’ve been. That won’t last long with the crappy bed in my apartment but never mind.

The Chomoatography PoolWe caught the last afternoon bus back and chilled out for a little as we waited for dinner at the Sap at 20:00. Only when we got there, Pieter apologised profusely as he’s forgotten they had to cater for an additional 12 guests and couldn’t squeeze us in. No problem. As a bonus, the overseas director had told me to take my guest out for dinner on the company when she was visiting. Chris, one of the head chefs, recommended Casa Volaria out past the casino so we walked down there.

Definitely a good choice for Leah, who had some kind of dead sea thing and pasta. I settled on a 300g rib steak that was very well cooked but about 50% fat and gristle. A shame as my starter and dessert were both very nice indeed. Mind, I can’t complain as I pocketed the receipt to shove on expenses. Our thanks to Goran!

The following evening, we did get that dinner in the hotel. The advantage for me was that we had been going on a Tuesday when I’d eaten there before so the menu was the same. This way I got to try another couple of dishes, although we missed sticky toffee pudding night. Instead we had to put up with chocolate brownies. For which I’ve been ordered to get the recipe to Leah. So she was impressed, then.

More chomatographic wonderfullnessNext day was home day for Leah. After a mad panicked dash around half of Chamonix to find our handyman (who’d gone AWOL with the van keys), we set off a little earlier than originally planned. Apparently there was some kind of demonstration closing the tunnel which was causing problems with traffic all around town. I found a rat-run to get us passed it and we raced off to the airport in the brake-less deathwagon. In fairness the brakes worked. If you hammered the middle pedal down, allowed for 2-3 times the braking distance and covered your ears to the grinding sound. Not ideal as the heavens opened on the journey to Geneva. It was raining so much I actually stuck to the speed limit for most of the drive.

Thankfully the rain eased off on the way back, although it came down in town again today. Looks like the season may be drawing to a close. This weekend coming we are taking guests to Geneva and not bringing any more back with us. I will not make any more statements about this reducing the possibility of disaster. Not after last time.