A Travellerspoint blog

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Slovenia

all seasons in one day 19 °C
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Saturday October 1st, 1 AM

Slovenia. Been there. It was great. Talked to a real Slovenian (border guard). Our conversation was limited, but meaningful. No opportunity to purchase souvenir t-shirt due to time constraints.

Posted by teamkarim 18:00 Archived in Slovenia Comments (0)

Venezia

sunny 29 °C
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Saturday October 1st

Spent the night on the train from Zagreb. It arrived in Zagreb 40 minutes late but arrived more or less on time in Venice. I have now officially been to Slovenia, as the border guards woke us up at 1AM and stamped our passports. Add it to the list.

We dropped our bags at the Hotel Bernardi and went exploring. We found our way to St. Mark's Square and checked out all the exterior details of the square, St. Mark's Basilica, the Campanile, and the Doge's Palace. The Bridge of Sighs is officially surrounded by gaudy scaffolding. The Rickster says this is a necessary evil, as are the TEEMING crowds of tourists. I agree. We are tourists, and we don't care. Venice is still truly magnificent, even if you have to look past millions of other people. However, those of us who are capable of arising early will head out before the masses arrive, because there is something special about seeing it without the masses.

The Grand Canal, seen from the Rialto Bridge

The Grand Canal, seen from the Rialto Bridge

Venice canal

Venice canal

Alison here.

Here are the souvenirs purchases we made today: Sunny and mum bought a purple hoodie that says "University of Venice" at a stall on the street where the marketer dude gave me a little Venetian masked face magnet that's about the size of a cat's brain (puny) for free. The masks are special to Venice because they are traditional during a special festival. They are very very elegant and colourful. Sometimes they can be animals. I also bought a t-shirt that has a ton of pictures of masks. Mom bought a very beautiful wine stopper made of Venetian glass.

Venice is almost exactly how I imagined it, but we didn't pass as many canals as I thought there would be. The weather was definitely the opposite of how I expected it to be. I always imagine Venice to be cloudy and rainy, but it turned out to be a beautiful, sunny, around 27 degree day. On the plus side I haven't seen any stray cats or dogs, but there are many small dogs, one of which was wearing a tutu. ;)

Posted by teamkarim 06:22 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Venezia

sunny 26 °C
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Tuesday, October 4th

19:52. In five minutes, our train will begin its long journey from Venice to Paris. We will, with any luck, be sleeping for most of the trip. We shall arrive in Paris at 9:16, and our hotel appears to be relatively close, although any walk feels long with 20 or 30 pounds on your back. Hopefully we will be well rested and ready for a full day of exploring, as the weather forecast suggests that our good weather is about to turn. The weather here in Venice seems to have been unseasonably warm, about 27 degrees compared to an average of 21. The forecast for Wednesday in Paris looks good, but Thursday is supposed to be about 16 and rainy. Which is exactly how I remember Paris. We are unsure of our route, but at 13 hours this is a very efficient way to travel such a long distance. And reasonably cheap, too. We purchased the tickets well in advance, for 45 Euros apiece.

Venice, we are all agreed, was excellent. Despite the hordes of tourists milling about aimlessly, everywhere in Venice was a joy to look at and wander about. We all agree that we are part of the problem, no illusions about that. We are tourists, and we came to Venice for exactly the same reasons as everyone else. Although I must say that the tour groups do exacerbate the problem. It can be rather tedious to spend five minutes trying to cross one tiny bridge near the Doge’s Palace, simply because three different tour groups have chosen to stop right in front of the bridge, all next to each other. Move it, people. Once again, no hypocrisy here. We are going on our cruise in November, and we are expecting to enjoy ourselves. I just hope that in port we don’t end up following some guide largely ignoring us as she recites her script into her microphone, our brightly coloured earpieces marking us as total nubes as we march from one point of interest to another. Venice, I would say, is a city that does not require the use of a guide. In fact, following a guide would prevent you from enjoying wandering from place to place aimlessly, seeing what you can find and what turns up, which is exactly what we enjoy doing.

We did some good wandering, and I think we managed to see some of the areas of Venice that most tourists don’t visit. Not that there was much going on there, I suppose. Just streets, and canals, and old decrepit palazzos, and palazzos on the edge of a canal with colourfully lit interiors and a man with long dreadlocks standing in his underwear in a boat in front of the door, and the edge of Venice, and residential areas with cats in the window but no souvenir shops evident. In one deserted area near our hotel, we found a really nice Baroque church and enjoyed looking at its overblown but beautiful facade in peace. Later, we read in the guide book that Titian’s house was just down the street from the church and he’d done a nice painting inside the church (his local, I guess). No one goes there, though. It’s not on the cruise ship tour’s itinerary.

The cost of boat travel in Venice is extraordinarily expensive for visitors. One trip on the vaporetto, which is the Venetian equivalent of a bus, costs 6.5 Euros one way. You can get a pass that lasts from 12 hours up to 36 hours which is a better value but still unreasonably expensive. Luckily for people who live in Venice, the actual cost of water travel is quite reasonable, with a yearly pass available for just over $300. We took the#1 line vaporetto on the route down the Grand Canal, to see all the lovely palazzos that you can’t see except from the water, after waiting out the 24 hour transit strike. We also, on the Rickster’s recommendation, took the traghetto twice. These are gondolas that take people across the Grand Canal at key points to save them having to walk to one of the 3 or 4 bridges that cross it. The ride takes just a couple of minutes, but is basically like a short, shared gondola ride for just 50 Euro cents apiece. Great fun. Alison and I rode standing up, like the locals do.

The cost of going on a traditional, romantic gondola ride is exorbitant, at 80 Euros for a 20-30 minute ride. I hear a water taxi driver offering to take a couple on a big tour, 40 minutes, for 110 Euros. The funny thing about watching people in gondolas (and there are many of them to watch so apparently many people have way more money to waste than we do) is that most of them are either videotaping their journey or snapping photos the entire way. How fun is that? If you really want the full Venice experience and are willing to slap down the cash, surely you should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Apart from wandering around, we hit three of the must see places, all of which are on Piazza San Marco. First we went up the Campanile, which gives you a spectacular view of Venice. They are in the process of putting titanium rod reinforcements around the foundation in an effort to control cracks that have been progressing for the last fifty years. The first Campanile was built in ????. In 1902, Venetians heard loud noises coming from the Campanile and saw a big crack running up the whole height of it to the bell tower, and the following morning it collapsed into Piazza San Marco. It was rebuilt in 1903, but clearly the more modern engineers weren’t quite as successful at accommodating the unique requirements of Venice’s “ground”. While we were at the top of the tower, the noon bell rang. Which doesn’t sound like much, except that it was a gigantic metal bell swinging back and forth about two feet above our heads for around a minute, and it was loud.

A man on the train just offered us some food from the trolley. A tray of food, salad and pasta, was 19.50 Euros, except that the cost was so outrageous we can’t really believe he just said that. We actually thought he had said 9 Euros. We ate today (and yesterday) at Brek, a chain of “self-service” restaurants that Susan discovered on the internet. If you’re in Venice, just go to the train station. If you walk out of the station, turn left, and walk 50m then you’ll see it. Don’t be fooled by the 5 Euro sandwiches in the case at the front of the place; walk to the back and you’ll be richly rewarded. We paid 2.10 Euros each for a nicely sized bowl of a delicious tuna penne with heaps of olive oil (I can’t remember the Italian name, Penne Fortigliana or something like that), and shared a big 4.2 Euro bowl of salad with chick peas and beans and corn and all that. Yesterday, our splurge meal out there was 26 Euros, for Pasta Pomodoro (tomato sauce) for the girls, and Risotto Spinaci i Gorgonzola (you can figure that one out) for the grownups, a shared 4.2 Euro bowl of salad, an iced tea, and a half litre of red wine. Compare that to the “tourist menus” offered by all the restaurants on the tourist trail, the entry level of which includes a pasta or a pizza, a salad, and a half litre of water, for around 10-12 Euro. We did much, much better. Considerably less atmosphere, maybe, but way better value, and the food was really good.

Today, by the way, we picked up some wine on the way to the train station. This particular store, one of six in Venice, will fill your bottle with one of a number of varieties of local wine. We chose a litre of Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.70 Euros, which the nice man decanted from the barrel into a reused plastic water bottle. It is quite good and is currently enhancing our train ride.

Where were we? Oh yes, after the Campanile we hit the Doge’s Palace. This was the single most expensive activity on our trip so far, at 46 Euros (OMG) for a family pass. However, the Doge’s Palace is the single most ridiculously impressive set of rooms on the entire planet. Every time we went into a room, I thought, “Wow, this is a large, extraordinarily lavishly decorated room. Surely, the next room can’t be this extravagant.” Not only the walls but also the ceilings were covered in carved gold leafed wood and paintings by 15th to 18th century artists. And then, the next room would be equally large and extravagant, or perhaps even more so. The hall of the Grand Council was huge, and when I say huge I don’t even really know just how big it was, except that it is apparently one of the largest rooms in Europe. Imagine the gym of any high school. Double the size. Now cover one of the smaller end walls with the largest canvas painting in the world, by Titian (technically most of the work was done by his son). Now cover all of the other walls with paintings. Then cover the ceiling with paintings, framed by gilt carved wooden frames. That’s the hall of the Grand Council, and it is ridiculous. The girls were a little glazy-eyed with the Doge’s Palace, Alison more so than Sunny, who recognized more the import of the building and the paintings, but they quite liked the adjoining prison, which looked like quite an awful place to serve a sentence. Alison felt bad for the criminals who couldn’t afford a nicer cell on an upper floor and had to suffer in the darkest, dampest basement cells. There was an exhibition there of some of the doodles and drawings found on the cell walls over the years; apparently, artistic ability and criminal tendencies aren’t on the same gene, because these baddies were no artists.

The next day we went to Basilica San Marco. The architecture is very Byzantine, with onion shaped domes, a Greek cross basilica shape, pointy arches, and gilt mosaics. I think that seeing Haiga Sophia first was probably a good thing, as many aspects of Basilica San Marco are similar. Touring the Basilica was free, which was nice. It was quite spectacular, and we had an informative tour using Rick Steve’s Venice book. It was amusing seeing all of the tour guides giving their speeches in front of the signs which said “Silence” in several different languages and gave specific prohibitions against verbal explanations. After working our way through the Basilica, we visited the San Marco Museum in the upstairs of the Basilica, which at 3 Euros a piece (Alison free) was an excellent deal. It afforded a great view of the Plaza, allowed us to wander around the upstairs of the Basilica, and gave us an up close and personal encounter with the famous 4 bronze horses. These particular horses are dated anywhere from 300BC to 300AD. They were stolen by the Venetians from Constantinople, stolen from Venice by Napoleon and placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe, and then returned to Venice after Napoleon was finally done away with.

So, after Venice, night train to Paris. That’s night train number two, for those who like to keep track of these things.

By the way, we finally found Falafel for the first time. Yeah!

Posted by teamkarim 12:14 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Paris, City of Lights

overcast 16 °C
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Friday, October 7

Paris. Paris is a big city, and if you try to walk everywhere you want to go then your feet will hurt a lot. If you take the metro occasionally for the longest trips, then your feet will just hurt. I like cities with metros. I like walking through cities, because I enjoy seeing life happening and because I feel as if I am getting a more complete experience of the city. But metros are cool. And, I think, as a newcomer to a city they are much easier to use properly than a bus system.

The last time Susan and I were in Paris was in 1992. It was cold and rainy, and to be honest I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. This time around, I enjoyed Paris a lot more. I like the look of the city and the general busy but relaxed ambience. It was still cold and rainy, but we missed the good weather by just a couple of days.

What bothers me about Paris is the COST. Holy. If you want to sit down and enjoy anything resembling a meal, you’re looking at well upwards of 15 Euros. You can sit down and enjoy a miniature espresso for perhaps one or two Euros, but a glass of beer will cost you 6 Euros. How about a mojito? Now, I have no burning desire to mojito my way across Europe, as I’m perfectly capable of making one myself at home. But at 13 Euros, who on earth is buying them? It bothers me that, like Zagreb, Paris is city that in order to really enjoy you should sit down in the nearest cafe at least a few times a day. And yet, while that would be easily affordable in Zagreb, Paris would soon bankrupt you. Or at least me.

But, it should be noted, that like in England I was surprised that the cost of everyday items actually seemed quite reasonable. We shopped in the local supermarkets, and the usual food items were either the same cost as home or cheaper. Certain items, especially cheese, were significantly cheaper. In the Carrefours Market, the man in line in front of us bought twelve bottles of wine and a loaf of bread. Total cost, 20 Euros, and amusingly, he studied the bill intently as if to suggest that, surely, they must have made some sort of mistake. Could it possibly be this much?

So, Paris. We did Notre Dame, walked around the outside of the Louvre, but didn’t have the requisite minimum one day to go inside, and stood under the Arc de Triomphe. We took a tour of Notre Dame; in fact, Alison and I took one tour and Sunny and Susan took a different tour. Our tour guides could not have been more different. Our tour guide was a delightful, quiet spoken, aged English lady. We spend the first hour and a half standing outside the front of the Cathedral, listening to stories about the interwoven history of Paris and the Cathedral, and then spent about 15 minutes inside. Their tour guide was an exuberant and hilarious French lady. They spent an hour inside, listening to the religious stories and scuttlebutt behind the carvings and decorations of the Cathedral. After their tour was over, their guide came to listen to the rest of our tour, but left before it finished to listen to some of the hymns happening inside. We both thought we got the better tour...

We walked 700 steps to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, and then took the elevator to the top. The city view was spectacular. We did, however, miss the opportunity to pee in the lavs at the top. We also skipped the 15 Euro 30ml champagne. We toured the Catacombs, which were a good hike and also quite creepy. The Catacombs are the unusual confluence of there being stone quarries beneath the city, and the ever-growing city running out of cemetery room. Stone had been quarried in the Paris area since prehistoric times. Many underground quarries provided the stone for Roman buildings and the more extensive building projects of the French monarchy and Republic. As Paris grew in size, the city encompassed many old quarries, some of which resulted in damaging subsistence. Eventually, mining in the city limits was prohibited. As Paris continued to grow in both size and population, many of the old Parish cemeteries began to fill up. At some point, in the 1800’s, they decided to dig up all of the dead and place them in the now unused quarries. At first, the bones were just tossed in haphazardly. Eventually, though, they decided to take a bit more care and perhaps demonstrate a bit more concern for the bones, resulting in the decidedly unusual ossuary arrangements. The bones of many famous Parisians are located in the Catacombs; entire graveyards were placed in particular identifiable locations, but within those locations the bones are anonymous. It was decidedly creepy, and an excellent reminder of the whole ashes to ashes, dust to dust aspect of life.

Our last night in Paris we discovered the Italie 2 shopping mall at the Place d’Italie, just down Rue Gobelins from our hotel. We bought dinner fixings from the gigantic Carrefours Market. OK, this is a good deal. A 500g tub of Tabouleh and a 500g tub of carroty vinegarish salad for less than a euro each. That would have been sufficient dinner for all of us, I think (less than 2E!) but we rounded it out with tuna sandwiches, and juice. The only downside to our dinner was that we had to eat it outside, in the freezing cold wind.

Posted by teamkarim 12:21 Archived in France Comments (0)

Malves en Minervois

semi-overcast 20 °C
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Saturday, October 8

We have been on the road since August 18th. Today, the fifty second day (“Fifty second!” says Susan disbelievingly), we were woken by a rooster crowing at 5:16 AM. This was no ordinary rooster, however, but the iphone of the French man sleeping on one of the lower bunks in our 6 couchette from Paris who, like us, was travelling to Carcassonne. This was one of the “Lunea” trains, specifically designed to move French people from one end of the country to the other in a reasonably cost effective manner. SNCF, the French national rail system, is heavily subsidised by the government, so the cost is still quite competitive with the budget airlines, which consequently don’t seem to have made as many inroads in intercountry travel as in some other European countries. Note that the system is designed to move French people cost-effectively. If you try to buy tickets from the SNCF website and at any time indicate you’d like to try it in a language other than French, or that you might actually live somewhere else, they will shunt you over to one of their partner websites, where you will end up paying more, often significantly more. Our tickets, purchased entirely in French, were about 42 Euros each, or just less than $60. The same tickets priced on the website for North Americans were twice as expensive.

We hopped off the train at Carcassonne at 5:36am. It was dark and cold, and we had no way of getting to our hotel, which is in a small town fifteen minutes drive from Carcassonne. We waited until 9 before finding a hotel where we could drop off our bags for the day and arranging a pick up at 2PM from our hotel. Carcassonne has an old town completely surrounded by walls and is apparently jam packed during the summer season, but I won’t discuss the fortifications at all as we haven’t seen them yet. Instead, we toured the “Ville Bas,” the lower town, which dates back to about 1200. During our tour (this was our first audio tour, and we looked like total noobes wandering around town with our listening devices plastered to our ears, standing silently as the real world happened around us – we did it because it was included in the price of the “Carcassonne Card” we bought, and it was interesting ) we stopped to listen to a salsa drum band, all dressed in black with orange scarves.

We caught our ride to our little town of Malves en Minervois. It has a population of 900, and Line, the daughter of the hotel owners, driving her mum’s Alfa Romeo because her own car is too full of dog hair, was bemused by our suggestion that we lived in a fairly small city with a population of 300,000 (Greater Victoria). In French that it a very big number, she said. Surely we meant 30,000 or perhaps 3,000. Well, Victoria seems pretty small to us. Vancouver, now that’s a big city. Our new town is reminiscent of Thymiana on Chios, small streets and quaint old buildings. It is not devastatingly hot, however, like it was on Chios. It is cold, bitterly so with a constant wind. Just a couple of days ago it was 25 degrees, they tell us here, but now autumn has arrived.

Our hotel is very cool. It is located within the walled confines of the town’s old chateau (maybe 18th century?), and the building would have been part of the castle’s complex in the day. It is all stone walls inside and out, with huge wooden beams holding up the ceiling of our room, which is at the end of an atmospheric hallway. The hotel owners also run the town cafe/bar, which is open for a few hours in the morning and evening, and to which the hotel guests have a private back entrance. The chateau really is the focal point of the town, standing bigger and higher than everything else. It’s pretty cool to be in such historical digs.

Our room has a kitchen, and so we have enjoyed a home cooked meal, a significant improvement to our eating conditions in Paris. We have eggs and cornflakes for breakfast tomorrow. From the local grocery store, which is quite well equipped for such a small town (but then again, it’s the only retail establishment in town that we can see, other than the pizza van that sets up for a few hours each evening and the aforementioned cafe/bar, run by our hotel), we bought a bottle of the very local wine, made just 100m down the road at the caveau. While walking past the caveau this afternoon, we saw a man in gumboots filling or emptying a truck of it, with a wine/water mixture running down the street in a little river. The wine is superb, but pricey for us at about $7.50 a bottle. Still, ya gotta splurge once in a while.

Posted by teamkarim 12:22 Archived in France Comments (0)

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