A Travellerspoint blog


Ticking those 'Must See' boxes in Rome

Seven Hills and so much more

View Rome 2018 on david.byne's travel map.

Our hotel, the Hotel Teatro Pace 33, was located just off Piazza Navona and our pre-booked taxi took us direct to the door. The hotel was a Cardinal’s house before becoming accommodation in what transpired to be a prime location in central Rome.

Our visit to the historical centre was 5 days and upon arrival in the early afternoon of the first day we walked to Piazza Navona and then as far as the Pantheon. I knew little of Piazza Navona before researching and booking this trip but it really is the centre of the city and puts you within easy walking distance of almost everything you would want to see.

Surrounded on its perimeter mainly by bars and restaurants the Piazza is lively from morning till night and has a welcoming atmosphere that makes it a pleasurable place to spend time. At night, the three fountains and the surrounding properties are nicely lit and the street entertainers, artists and traders provide added interest.

We would become very familiar with Piazza Navona as, from our hotel, it was often on route to many of our destinations in Rome. The Pantheon is my first example of this. We knew it was close to where we were staying but like so much else in the city it turned out to be closer than we thought. Literally straight across the square and about five minutes’ walk and we were there.

The Pantheon is old, ridiculously old. Its good condition is incredible and the interior contains the tombs of some of the early Kings and Queens of Italy.

Our plan was soon to walk everywhere, despite the heat. There are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants in Rome without mentioning the on-street water vendors so the draining Roman heat can be alleviated whenever it suits you.

We already had timed tickets for the Vatican the following day and, after all the travelling, the prospect of an evening meal and then bed was beginning to gain favour as we walked back towards the hotel from the Pantheon. Finding somewhere to eat is only difficult because of the number of eateries and the choice. It’s a bit like driving into a car park with lots of spaces and struggling to settle on where is best to stop!

Breakfast in the Teatro Pace 33 is taken in your room. There is no dining area but you chose your breakfast the day before, nominate a time that you want it and the staff deliver it to your room accordingly. It works.

After breakfast on our first morning in Rome we took a slow walk in the direction of Castel St.Angelo (also known as Hadrian’s Tomb). We weren’t on this occasion intending to enter and see the Castel but you cross the bridge of St.Angelo and pass the Castel to reach Vatican City, located just beyond.

Our ticket for entry into the Museum was timed at 11:30. Entry into St.Peter’s is Free but the queue was about 3 to 4 hours long at the time we arrived so decided to give it a miss but possibly return later. The advice from one of the staff marshalling the venue was that it got quiet after 5 pm and up to closing at 6:30.

We had to walk around the perimeter of the Vatican City, following the walls, to our entry point where we went straight in. The voucher that we bought in the UK needed converting to tickets at the first security check and from there we were into the museum.

Vatican City is vast, the smallest country in the world apparently. The entire place is a museum with paintings, relics and sculptures segregated into the different Roman eras, lining long corridors and rooms that in themselves are a work of art with their decorated walls, floors and ceilings.

The number of visitors each day is enormous but the size of the place copes with it comfortably most of the time. Outside, there are gardens at the back to wander in and both before and after your visit it is possible to spend time in St.Peter’s Square with plenty of room all year round EXCEPT EASTER!

The Vatican is on the South side of the River Tiber and after leaving St.Peter’s Square and stopping for coffee we walked on, following the river in the direction of Tiber Island. A bit before the island appears I planned on turning into the residential area of Trastavere. The research that I had undertaken had highlighted Trastavere as a photogenic area filled with narrow lanes, plants, flowers, cafes and bars. I think that with a little more time we would have gained more from the diversion but the evidence was there to support the claim of it being an attractive and not yet commercialised area of the city of Rome.

From Trastavere it was a simple walk across the Bridge at Tiber Island, a left turn and a stroll back towards Piazza Navona and the hotel. It had been a long but enjoyable day with a couple of boxes ticked on our ‘to do’ list. We had no plans as such for dinner but after wandering aimlessly not too far from the hotel we settled at a quiet restaurant where the owner, sensing our uncertainty over the menu, offered to prepare something ‘off menu’. We agreed and he brought us a platter of meats, cheeses, breads, pickles, and salad to share. Perfect.

Day 3 we planned to see the Trevi fountain and the Spanish Steps. An easy walk past the Pantheon, continuing North East to the Trevi. It’s busy, it’s always busy. It’s free. However, bide your time and you can gradually work your way to the bottom level and somewhere at least close to the centre from where you can take the photos. It’s the same at the Spanish Steps but climb to the church at the top for the views over the city rooftops.

Both the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps are obviously two of the ‘must sees’ on the list when anybody visits Rome although in truth there are more worthwhile things to spend time on, such as the Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini. The Domus Romane is an incredible Roman site found underneath the 16th century villa Palazzo Valentini, and located close to Trajan's Forum in the heart of what was once the centre of Imperial Rome.
This relatively new ancient site opened to the public in 2010 and is located close to Rome’s Piazza Venezia. It contains the remains of a Roman era house - or ‘Domus’ - dating to the imperial era and probably belonging to the wealthier elements of Roman society.

Visitors can explore all aspects of the ancient house, including the structure itself, the various chambers, living areas, bathrooms, kitchens, mosaics and even decorative wall frescoes - with the additional option of seeing it all brought back to life through a virtual journey. As well as the archaeological ruins themselves, the Domus Romane comes alive through a series of sophisticated light shows that recreate what the villas would have looked like.

For me, the Domus was the highlight of the day even though photographs weren’t allowed.

The Domus is situated close to the Vittorio Emanuele monument, a massive monolith named after the first king of united Italy. Look at it, admire it, photograph it, and move on. We ended up seeing it from several different vantage points without even trying; it’s that huge. As a bonus we still had time to revisit St.Peter's Church at the Vatican and, as suggested, the queues were minimal and we saw everything we wanted to without much of a wait.

Another evening, another restaurant. This time, a risotto restaurant run by a family for the past 33 years and who grow their own rice and also make their own wine.

Day 4 of 5 had to be The Colosseum. We bought timed tickets at the hotel the day before and had a slot at 11:10. It is amazing how many people don’ buy in advance and who are prepared to queue for hours to buy their tickets before then queuing a bit longer with the tickets to get in.

Before making our way to the Colisseum we decided to take in the local market at Campo di Fiori. A matter of ten minutes from the hotel the market opens every morning and is predominantly Flowers, Fruit, Vegetables, Nuts, Cheeses and Condiments.

It was a really hot day and the Colosseum is a fairly unforgiving place when it comes to exposure to the elements but the arena is another example of the astonishing history that makes up the city of Rome. It can be a bit of a procession walking around the levels from the top down to the bottom level but this world famous slice of roman history is another ‘must see’.

Next door to the Colosseum are Palatine Hill and The Forum. Our tickets covered all three and on this occasion we decided to opt for The Forum as we could make it a part of the walk back towards Piazza Navona. Palatine Hill is supposed to be worth the time but we knew we couldn’t get all three banked so we made our way to and through The Forum. The history here is amazing but you need to take the time to realise it by reading the various information boards or taking an audio guide at the entrance. Aside from the buildings there are points of interest such as the place that Caesar was cremated (The place where Caesar was stabbed is close to Campo di Fiori).

The weather took a turn while we were in The Forum. The sky gradually blackened, the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around the seven hills. Accompanying the light show was a brief period of steady rain which we took cover from and then continued our walk past the Vittorio Emanuele monument (again!) and to the nearest coffee shop.

We started the day at Campo di Fiori and before returning to the hotel we returned to the site of the morning market which was in the final stage of being cleaned up for the evening restaurant trade; a transformation that Campo di Fiori undergoes each and every day. There, we found a bar which happened to be showing the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. The bar wasn’t overly busy so two hours later ……………………………

In the evening we walked as far as Castel St.Angelo again to see it at night before turning back and finding a restaurant for our final evening meal of the trip.

Our flight on the last day was a late one so we had an almost full day left to spend in Rome. The ‘to do’ list was almost fully ticked but we wanted to try and see the Capuchin Monks at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini and then if we have time the Church of San Clemente near the Colisseum.

The museum for the Capuchin Monks is quite bizarre, some would say macabre or even disturbing. The bones of Franciscan monks are arranged in forms of artwork along with some reconstructed as complete skeletons wearing the cloak of the order. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy seeing it simply because it was so unusual.

With time running out and after a coffee we decided to get a taxi to the Church of San Clemente. Not realising that it would close for lunch we arrived with only about five minutes to spare. This was a shame because apart from the church being extremely old the existing church sits on top of an earlier church which has been opened up to the public. Unfortunately, the lunch break ran until 3 o’clock in the afternoon which was too late even for us o try and return later in the day.

Our walk back to Piazza Navona took us via the Pantheon where, close by, there is an ice cream shop to kill some time at, so we did. And so with ice cream suitably demolished we had a final look around the Pantheon and then took our time getting back to the Piazza and our hotel to collect the bags for the taxi journey to the airport.

It had been a really busy five days. Feet were hurting and wallet was aching - the cost of ticking that ‘to do’ list off!

Posted by david.byne 13:19 Archived in Italy Tagged bridges churches art buildings skylines night architecture rivers religion city Comments (0)

From San Siro to the Lakes

Milan and Lake Lugano

sunny -32 °C

Milan - as far as I was concerned the city of A.C. and Internazionale and the San Siro. However, a little research prior to travelling helped me realise there were other things to see and that there were probably two full days worth spending. So, we flew into Milan’s Linate Airport and caught the shuttle bus to Milano Centrale Station which we knew was reasonably close to the Zurigo Hotel where we were booked in for three nights.

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2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (95)

Milano Centrale is a bit like Waterloo (with shops!!) until you take a look at the destinations and arrivals boards. And it makes you appreciate that travelling by train is a real alternative to flying for people living in mainland Europe. Our intention was to spend three days and nights in Milan before catching the train to Lugano in Switzerland and spending a week there. In comparison to some of the journeys taking place in and out of Milano Centrale this is no distance at all. Zurich, Paris, Venice, Munich etc; they were all there.
Anyway, for the time being and whilst we were at the station, we decided to buy our return tickets to Lugano before finding our way to our hotel in Corsa d’Italia. A quick journey on the Milano Metro – five stops – took us to Missori and, with the help of a very kind lady, we quickly found Corsa d’Italia and the Hotel Zurigo.

It was late afternoon when we arrived and, for a major city, Milan seemed so quiet. Not much on the roads, the occasional tram and a few people wandering around. We knew we were within walking distance of the Duomo, Milan’s Cathedral and the focal point of central Milano and surely that would be much busier when we eventually got there.
For our first evening we didn’t venture far. It was almost time to eat and had been a long day. We were recommended the Manhattan Restaurant which was just around the corner from the hotel and this turned out to be fine for two of the three nights that we stayed in the city.

We had planned what to see and had already booked and paid for a Milano Card (to get us around the city on public transport) and tickets to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. So, first thing on the Friday morning we made our way to the Castello to find the office to collect the Milano Card. With this in hand we would then be able to work our way down the list, starting with the San Siro!! But getting the Milano Card turned out to be more difficult than we had hoped. We got it eventually but only after convincing the Agent that the Voucher we had been provided with to exchange for the Milano Card was correct and valid. He wasn’t 100% happy but we got the cards and off we went to find the No.16 tram to get to the stadium.

1_Milan_San Siro

1_Milan_San Siro

As football stadiums go, the San Siro is probably as famous as most. It is also different in that two of Europe’s most successful teams share it and so there are three changing rooms (one for Milan, one for Internazionale and one for the visiting team), the seating is segregated in certain areas for the two sets of ‘home’ fans, and the stadium museum and the shop are segregated right down the middle with Milan on one side and Inter on the other. And Silvio Berlusconi’s influence as owner of ‘A.C.’ Milan was plain to see compared to the more conservative nature of everything ‘Inter’.

1_Milan_San Siro (11)

1_Milan_San Siro (11)

Back on tram No.16, we returned to Castello and spent some time in the grounds of Sforza Castle and Sempione Park leading up to the Arch of Peace. There was also somewhere convenient to have lunch in a shaded café in the middle of the park so we sat and fended off the small birds that were intent on stealing every falling crumb.

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2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (24)

We walked back down Via Dante towards Duomo and took refuge inside, out of the heat of the day. It’s a huge cathedral and has been recently cleaned so it stands out, gleaming White at the end of Milan’s main Piazza. Alongside is the Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II – an ornate shopping centre which has some very impressive architecture but fewer shops than you would expect (although all quite exclusive – except McDonald’s, cheapest bottled water in town by the way!!) and which basically serves as a crossroads to four directions from central Milano.
From Duomo, it was about a ten minute walk back to the hotel or one Metro stop. We took the Metro. It had been a hot, energy sapping day and it was time to freshen up before hitting the Manhattan restaurant again and the free pizza bread with olive oil and the complementary bottle of Limoncello at the end of the meal.

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2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (64)

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2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (55)

After breakfast on Saturday morning we had already pre-booked to go and see Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. Tucked away a short distance from the centre of Milan in the Santa Maria della Grazie church, in a temperature controlled room, you pass through an air lock before being permitted inside in small groups. You are then allowed a very strict fifteen minutes to look at Da Vinci’s work.
Back out in the heat of the city we made use of our Milano cards to once again get back to Duomo from where we could walk through the centre and out to the opposite side of Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II where we would easily find La Scala, one of the world’s premier opera houses. When we arrived we discovered that it was shut and wouldn’t reopen for about another hour so we killed some time by looking round the Brera Art Gallery. Back at La Scala, entry to the Opera House was via the Museum where the route took you into some of the boxes where we could see people busy at work around the stage, presumably preparing for whatever the next performance may be – La Boheme, Romeo & Juliet, La Traviata etc.

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2_Milan_Central_Aug11 (60)

Once we had stocked up on our daily dose of culture we returned to McDonald’s for more water and another stroll around the Galleria.
Saturday evening was our final evening in Milan and we wanted to go back to Duomo to see the square lit up so we decided to forego the Manhattan Restaurant and find somewhere to eat in Via Dante. It wasn’t difficult!! In fact, we were almost dragged off of the precinct to a hurriedly prepared table with two ‘soon to arrive’ chairs. All of the restaurants in Via Dante were busy and the Head Waiter in ours appeared determined to fight off any competition. Anyway, we had a laugh, a meal and a bottle of wine and, compared to what was to follow in Switzerland, the price was reasonable.

Sunday morning and we had to get ready for our 1:30 train from Milano Centrale to Lugano. We made certain to have a good breakfast and gave ourselves plenty of time after seeing one of the local churches to get the Metro to the station. Milano Centrale is not just a railway and bus station; it’s also a shopping mall so it was easy to spend time there and also spend money!! We both ended up buying something in Zara before climbing aboard the train which, without any air conditioning doubled as a sauna for the thirty minutes that we had to wait before departure. When we did leave, the air conditioning made very little impact on the tropical environment that we had found ourselves trapped in. Thankfully, we were asked to change trains at Chiasso (on the Italian/Swiss border) and we were grateful that we could as the replacement train was both newer and an awful lot cooler and made the second half of the journey a lot nicer.
Lugano, Switzerland (21st to 28th August).

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (2)

On arrival in Lugano, finding the Continental Parkhotel couldn’t have been simpler. A 250 yard walk across the car park and it was right in front of us. The town of Lugano and the lake sat below us at the bottom of the hill with either the funicular or a ten minute walk (twenty coming back up!) being the options.

The sudden realisation that I booked the hotel when the exchange rate was 1.6 Swiss Francs to the £1 and that I would be paying after it had dropped to 1.1 was balanced at least a little by the surprise upgrade that we received to our room. Key 54 opened a room on the third floor that had a good sized bedroom with fridge, t.v., sofa, chairs, double French doors and a double balcony overlooking the lake and the mountains plus a bath, separate shower and a separate room with toilet and wash basin plus. It was worth in the region of £550 more for the week than we were paying although some of that benefit would disappear from my wallet thanks to the exchange rate having dropped so much in a short space of time.

We ate at the hotel on the first night, not knowing much about the town and without the energy or inclination to venture down the hill and back up again until the following day. So, after stocking the fridge with one or two things from the supermarket by the station and having a look around the hotel grounds we sorted ourselves out in the room and headed for dinner. The potential financial damage that was to ensue over the next seven days was starting to hit home. Menu of the Day = 35 CHF …….. or about £32!! Further experience would also soon tell us that a portion of chips would be £8, a beer £8, a bottle of water £4 and a donut £3. Oh well, we were here now and it was too nice a place not to enjoy it.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (188)

Our original plan was to buy a Regional Lugano Pass that would provide us with all of our transport both in and around the lake. However, the cost of this was now a bit prohibitive so we compromised on a 3-day Lake Pass plus a day at Monte Generoso. Having bought the Boat Pass we immediately made plans to visit both Gandria and Morcote with a boat leaving early in the afternoon. Just like in Milan, the sky was cloudless and the sun shone brightly with temperatures creeping into the 30’s and to an extent it had already turned into a bit of a race to find the shade on the boat.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (10)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (10)

Gandria was just around the first corner on the lake from Lugano but every boat that we were to use during our stay headed first for Paradiso (Lugano’s other port) to collect passengers before setting off for Gandria or any other destination. Gandria was both pretty and hot. Perched on the mountainside we walked to the top of the village only to be denied a drink and a seat by the only café being closed. So, we walked back down again and found a lakeside bar where we watched a few more small, fearless birds in search of crumbs. Half an hour later we boarded the next boat and this took us to Morcote which was back past Lugano and under the railway/road bridge that crosses Lake Lugano near Campione d’Italia, a small Italian enclave surrounded by Swiss territory that has become famous for its large but architecturally disastrous Casino. Morcote is another pretty, lakeside village but unlike Gandria, Morcote has a proper waterfront with a road running along it. This makes it easier in some ways to walk around but doesn’t disguise the fact that it is still perched on the mountainside and once you drop back behind the lakeside road it’s a steady climb to see the rest of the village – but it’s worth it.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (13)

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (70)

It takes about an hour to get back from Morcote to Lugano, stopping at the various villages along the way on each side of the lake. This gave us time to think about how to plan the rest of the week and when to do what. Tuesday could be spent in the town and by the pool, then on Wednesday we could get a ticket for Monte Generoso, Thursday we could be back on the lake and by the pool, on Friday there is a free trip to Monte Bre (and anything ‘free’ has to be grabbed with both hands in Switzerland!!), and then on Saturday we could spend some time at the hotel by the pool and also get back on the lake and go to Porlezza for the market. That was the plan. Unfortunately, a stomach bug prevented me doing much at all on the Tuesday so Jan ventured down on the funicular in the morning and did the walking tour of Lugano (She said that I would have been bored and I think she was right). In the afternoon she spent time reading by the pool while I struggled to move, eventually getting up late afternoon to join her. Food was definitely off of the agenda on the Tuesday evening apart from some bread and cheese which in hindsight may also have been a mistake! However, energy levels were low and I needed to eat something if we were to get to Monte Generoso the following day – which we were – and we did.

I really wanted to get up into the mountains while we were in Switzerland and the trip to Monte Generoso gave us the chance. The boat from Lugano took us to the far end of one stretch of the lake to the town of Capo Lago. From here we took the Cog Railway and climbed the 5,500 feet to the top of Monte Generoso. The views stretched as far as the Alps and you could see Lakes Lugano, Maggiore and Como from the top. We had a couple of hours at the top of the mountain; enough time to climb to the very top and then walk back and have lunch. Prices again dictated things and we ended up having a drink each and sharing a sandwich. The journey each way by cog railway took about 45 minutes and at the bottom we made our way to the main station platform at Capo Lago to get the train back to Lugano and our hotel. I was pleased to have survived the trip after the experiences of the previous day.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (89)

By now the camera was becoming fairly well loaded with images although obviously not to the extent that I captured in Vietnam. The views across the mountains had been fantastic even with the slight haze that the sun had created – it would have been colder but better in April or November – but we would have some decent photographs to look back on.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (120)

We self catered in the evening and bought a bottle of wine from the supermarket which meant that we could eat in and, if we had the energy, go down into town for a couple of hours. We didn’t.

Thursday was going to be an easy day. Time spent around the pool reading and then a boat trip around the lake, taking in all of the other sections of the lake that we hadn’t yet visited with the exception of Porlezza which we would do on Saturday. We were aboard for about three hours on another very hot day so the breeze as we sailed plus any shade that was on offer were more than welcome. And the sky was broken up with a few clouds which made it much better for photographs than it had been earlier in the week.
Back on land at Lugano we wandered through the old town and bought an ice cream before eventually setting back off up the funicular to the station and then the hotel. Later that evening we headed back down into town and found a restaurant to eat at prior to the start of the Lugano ‘Blues to Bop’ 2011 Music Festival. Five or six stages had been set up at various points in the town and from 21:00 until 00:30 bands would be playing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was good to see the town filled with people; eating drinking, and listening to the bands. Probably because of the exchange rate, tourist numbers were down (which suited us) so it was nice that the locals came out to support the festival. Food and drink was available from stalls and was marginally cheaper than elsewhere so eating there either Friday or Saturday night was probably an option.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (180)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (180)

Friday was set aside for our freebie (!) - the trip up Monte Bre and to see the village; supposedly fairly exclusive and home to a number of famous but unnamed people. We had to meet at the foot of Monte Bre by the funicular so this gave us the opportunity to walk along the promenade in Lugano and through the park where we found yet another stage that had been set up for the music festival. It took about twenty minutes to get there and we then had a few minutes wait until the guide arrived to organise the tickets. We were clearly in the new part of Lugano as it felt much more like a modern residential town than a lakeside holiday retreat. Monte Bre is around 900 metres high and the funicular is in two parts. When you arrive at the top there is a short walk to the attractive and very quiet village of Bre and you are surrounded by views of Lake Lugano. The village of Gandria sits immediately below Bre at the base of the mountain but isn’t visible from the village. It’s easy to see the appeal of a place like Bre if you need or prefer somewhere a little isolated but at the same time its very classy and civilised.

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (152)

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3_Lugano_Aug11 (159)

We met Nathan and Sarah Rowe (a couple from Glastonbury) while we were in Bre and started talking about travelling so when we got back down the mountain to Lugano we stopped and had a drink before going our separate ways. The plan that evening was to get back to the hotel, spend some time by the pool and then change before going back into town for the festival again. It didn’t work out that way. By the time we had got back to the hotel having called in at the supermarket to buy a few things the thought of going out again was just too much so we stayed around, got ourselves something to eat and drank wine on the balcony watching the lights come on around the lake. Oh and counting the trains of course. It had become a bit of a hobby – train-spotting almost ….but not quite that sad! Jan had taken a liking for counting the number of commercial trains that were being pulled by the front engines. I think we got up to 32. And you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor motorist who reached the rail crossing just as the gates were coming down because they stayed down for an awful long time as one but more often two and occasionally three separate trains made their way through busy Lugano railway station.

Saturday was our last full day of our stay in Lugano and also the holiday; Sunday would be spent almost entirely on the move making our way home. We had one day left on our Lake Pass and had already decided to walk down the hill and catch the boat that would take us to Porlezza at the far end of the lake. Porlezza was officially in Italy and held a market every Saturday so we caught the boat from Lugano knowing that it stopped for about an hour before starting the return journey to Lugano. As it turned out, an hour was plenty. Porlezza is nice enough but the market consisted of five or six waterfront stalls selling very little of what we would even think of buying so instead of browsing we headed off to a café for coffee and cake. It was the cheapest café-stop that we had for the whole ten days. Just over 6 Euros felt very cheap!

Back on the boat we hid from the sun again as best we could but spending time on the lake was a lovely thing to do and a great way of seeing some of the surrounding villages and countryside.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (127)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (127)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (169)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (169)

It was about 5:30 when we arrived back at the waterfront in Lugano so, after a quick wander around town and an ice cream, we headed back to the funicular and up to the hotel again. Tonight we would eat in town at the festival. We chose to walk down to town again and planned on getting one of the late funiculars back up. The bands had already started by the time we got down into the square and, with it being the weekend, it was already busy. I quickly found somewhere to grab something to drink and then to eat as I was starving after not eating much during the previous three or four days. We spent time around the different stages and also a while around the waterfront where the road had been closed to traffic. It was a really nice time to be in Lugano and at that precise moment not very expensive either!
It was a good ten days. Not as cheap as I would have liked and certainly the trip cost more than we had estimated (thanks to the exchange rate) but we enjoyed both Milan and Lugano. Milan was a typical city break and you know what you’re going to get from most cities whereas Lugano was as relaxing as any holiday we’ve had recently, even though we saw and did a lot. Switzerland is a very pretty country but for the Brits it simply isn’t good value for money at the moment and generally there were fewer tourists around than you would expect in August. As for the weather, I always expected Milan to be hot but didn’t anticipate the same for Lake Lugano - it was regularly between 30 and 35 degrees. I should imagine that March/April and October/November could be really nice. Colder but clearer days with great visibility across the mountain ranges.

3_Lugano_Aug11 (187)

3_Lugano_Aug11 (187)

Posted by david.byne 07:50 Archived in Italy Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes buildings trees sky boats trains Comments (0)

Venice - That Sinking Feeling

Behind the Masks

all seasons in one day -10 °C
View Venice on david.byne's travel map.

People told me that Venice is a tatty, dirty, smelly place and that it was over-rated. But the Venice that I first visited in August 2005 is a magical place that I can’t ever imagine getting tired of walking around.

It’s a bit tatty, Yes, but therein lies some of its appeal. Dirty? Well, no more than anywhere else. And smelly? No, not when I’ve been there although I understand that the canals had been dredged and therefore if you were unfortunate enough to visit just prior to this exercise then perhaps the overall impression could have been different. But to generalise and describe Venice as tatty, dirty and smelly is not appropriate.

It was only when sat on the aircraft at Gatwick waiting to take off that I realised that we were only just over an hour and a half away from Venice. It’s just 700 miles away!! No wonder the Americans regard us as lucky; they would hardly clear there own state lines by travelling 700 miles!

On arrival at Marco Polo Airport, you can choose to enter Venice by road, rail or water. It’s a simple decision to make; you have to enter Venice on the water to experience it properly in my opinion. Somehow I can’t imagine arriving at the railway station or the car park on the western side of the islands and immediately being gripped by the atmosphere of the place in the same way as you do when you travel from the airport by boat and it skirts around the southern edges of Murano and Burano, before turning on to the Grand Canal and dropping you off just outside your hotel in one of the smaller side waterways. Magic!

The 2005 visit was for 5 nights, a Friday to a Wednesday, but it turned out to not be long enough to see everything even just once and so a second visit was probably subconsciously being planned even before we finished the first.

Our hotel, the Giorgiano (lovely hotel by the way!), was between the Rialto and the Ca D’Oro and possibly ten minutes walk over numerous bridges to reach St. Mark’s Square.

We had already decided to buy a 72-hour pass for the Vaporetto boat service which would enable us to get around easily to what we wanted to see. So, once settled into the Giorgiano, we set off to get the boat pass and continue the walk past Rialto and on to St. Mark’s Square. The entire landscape in Venice is like a film set and wherever you turn and look there is another photograph to be taken.

Our first stop turned out to be the Doge’s Palace, next to St. Mark’s Basilica. A fantastic building from the outside and full of Venetian art and style inside. It also provided our first real viewpoint of the entrance to the Grand Canal with San Salute on the left and St.Mark’s Square on the right. It’s a view that, like so many in Venice, has become so famous and familiar over the years that it feels quite surreal to see it properly for the first time.

Across the square from the Doge’s Palace and around the corner, canal side, can be found Harry’s Bar, one of many Ernest Hemingway haunts that appear to be dotted around the world (Pamplona, Havana, Venice etc). Said to serve the best Bellini Cocktail’s you can get, we couldn’t confirm as we managed no more than a passing glance from the outside because inside it was impossible to move. Maybe next time.

Having given up on Harry’s Bar, the walk back through St.Marks Square took us past the three exclusive café’s that have also become very much a part of Venice and its culture. The Quadri, the Floriana and the Llevana all compete for trade on both a gastronomic and musical level from their prime locations on the square. Each has its own orchestra that sits outside and, in turn and equal measure, plays for those that sit in the café and others that simply stand to watch and listen. The Llevana is possibly (and very marginally) the more reasonably priced of the three but don’t fool yourself because it’s still very expensive and a charge for the musicians is listed on the bill at all three. But you have to do it!

Eating out on the first evening was the next challenge. Like many hotels in Venice, the Giorgiano served only Breakfast so we had to venture out and find somewhere to have dinner. Venice is one of those places where you can choose to spend little or lots and that includes eating. We already had one expensive day and evening planned so this one had to be reasonable if not cheap. The good thing was, whatever you wanted and whatever you were prepared to pay, it wasn’t too difficult to find.

We had so much to see that we had to plan our days as much as possible. We decided that we wanted to see Murano, Burano and Torcello and we would set aside a day for it, hopping from one to the other and then returning to Venice when we had had enough. We knew that Torcello wouldn’t take long and so it proved whereas both Murano and Burano were larger and had a lot more to keep you interested. Murano = Venetian glass and canals; Burano = colourful houses and canals; both are worth seeing.

The queues to enter St.Mark’s Basilica, one of the prime focal point buildings in Venice, can be long and when we arrived in St.Mark’s Square on Saturday afternoon it was precisely that. So we decided to return on Sunday morning and be there as it opened. This worked out well and we joined a very short queue of people waiting for the Basilica to open. But to be perfectly honest, queuing in St.Mark’s Square for a while isn’t really a hardship!!

Inside the Basilica, the interior takes your breath away. I’m really not into seeing the inside of churches and cathedrals because apart from very rare occasions they all look very similar to me. And if anything, seeing St.Mark’s Basilica has made me feel even less inclined to bother with looking at others because I can’t imagine seeing any church or cathedral more impressive.

Having said all of that, you can’t really visit Venice without going over from St.Mark’s Square to see San Salute, the white-domed church that is seen in half of the photographs ever taken of Venice – it’s location being at the mouth of the Grand Canal.

Back across the water at St. Mark’s we walked east past the Doge’s Palace and over the bridge from where you can see the Bridge of Sighs. Continuing our walk we eventually came to Arsenale where boats and weapons used to be made. How much you can see is limited as today it is a Miltary Base and isn’t open to the public but it took us to another part of Venice which was worth seeing. Beyond Arsenale is Venice’s park area and football stadium but it was another area that we would have to save for another visit as there were other things that we wanted to see first.

We were soon treated to the consistently variable weather that Italy tends to offer. The heavens opened, lightning flashed, thunder cracked and the umbrella sellers appeared efficiently from nowhere. For just a couple of hours people dashed inside to shelter in hotels, cafes, and shops while ‘the American’ continued to hog the hotel computer to lose himself in the Internet. “Venice was great” he probably told friends back in the USA. For our part, we waited ten minutes and then decided that regardless of the weather we weren’t staying in the hotel so we hit the streets again, declining the advances of numerous umbrella sellers along the way. And I’m glad we didn’t stay in because the colours of the buildings, dampened by the mid morning rain, were suddenly even more vivid and spectacular than they were before. It was a brilliant time for taking photographs.

Venice soon recovered from the downpour - the sun returned, everything dried quickly and the streets were once again filled with busy tourists. August in Venice is a busy month but I’m told that September is the month to avoid.

Market day in Venice and the Rialto Market sits on the western side of the Rialto Bridge. We spent some time wandering around before looking in the various shops on the bridge itself.

The Grand Canal itself and its various smaller branches are often as busy as a main road in rush hour with its own version of buses, taxis, postmen, police, ambulances etc, and of course the Gondolers. There are still over 400 Gondoliers licensed to work in Venice – you have to be Venetian to qualify – and despite it being disproportionately expensive, much like the café’s in St.Mark’s Square, you have to do it! And we did – after wandering around for a while getting an idea of how many Euros it would cost for either a 30-minute or 60-minute ride we eventually found one. August 30th 2005 was always going to be an expensive day. Our Gondolier turned out to be a nice guy and from our start point we travelled out onto the Grand Canal as far as the Rialto Bridge where we turned and came back. The restaurant (recommended by our hotel) was already booked and it wasn’t going to be cheap but it was all worth it, and it was next door to the hotel which was convenient. After dinner, we walked back to St.Mark’s Square at midnight and watched/listened as the café orchestra’s continued to play under the lights that surrounded the square. Nice.

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Venice2010 355

The next day we were back in St. Marks Square again. One of the dominant features of square is the Campanile, the eye-catching tower that stands opposite the Basilica on one corner. To get to the top there is again likely to be queuing involved but it’s worth the wait for the fantastic, photogenic views of the area.

Venice has more than its fair share of Art Galleries and Museums and it’s impossible to get around all of them (even if you wanted to! ……………. and I didn’t! ……. and still don’t!). But we did a few including the Accademia Gallery.

You get another classic view of the Grand Canal from the wooden bridge that spans it at Accademia where you can see all the way down to San Salute.

La Fenice is Venice’s main theatre/opera house. Burned down a few years ago La Fenice has now been restored and we spent an hour there listening to the story of its history and looking around before moving on. The cost of seeing an Opera or even an Operetta at La Fenice was very prohibitive but we found a reasonable compromise at another theatre in Venice where they were putting on performances lasting no more than 75 minutes covering a sort of ‘Best of Opera’. It was affordable so we bought tickets and the performance was something else that added to the whole Venetian experience. And 75 minutes was plenty as far as I was concerned.

We took a boat over to Lido, the venue every August for the Venice Film Festival, about 20 minutes directly across the lagoon from St.Mark’s Square. It suddenly felt not like Venice at all but more like a Mediterranean resort with palm trees and directions to the casino and the beach ……………………… and cars! You suddenly realise that you haven’t seen a single car since you set foot in Venice. To be honest I couldn’t wait to get the boat back to the car-free zones of the real Venice.

Just around the corner from the hotel at Sant Apostoli sees the start of a long walkway with shops and restaurants and the occasional church. This runs all the way up to and past the Jewish Ghetto and is one of two former canals that Napoleon ordered to be filled in and concreted during his brief time in control of Venice. His plan was to get rid of all of the canals and thus create just a single island but fortunately he was driven out before he got too far.

The Jewish area in Venice is said to be the site of the world’s very first ghetto. Venice is made up of seven separate islands joined together by around 600 bridges. One of the islands is the ghetto; maintained separately years ago to segregate the Jewish community from the rest of the venetian population. The locked gates that fitted the entrance arch to the ghetto have long since gone and it’s now an open area with synagogues and apartments that have been squeezed together by deliberately lowering the ceilings in the apartment block in order to maximise the number of people that could live there.

There were times during our stay where we just walked in a general direction and randomly turned corners to see where it took us. Getting lost in Venice is nothing to be frightened of. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to see it. Sometimes we would reach a dead end and other times we would be walking down a narrow lane, possibly not more than two feet wide and suddenly the canal would prevent you going any further. And other times you would turn a corner and find an area that you could never have planned to find. Great fun. And it will soon be time to do it all over again.

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Venice2010 742

Our second visit was at the end of October 2010 and we were booked into the Hotel Columbina, on the same canal as the Bridge of Sighs – a fortunate upgrade since our original accommodation could not, due to unforeseen circumstances, honour our reservation. We arrived at Marco Polo Airport in mid-morning in the rain which was expected from our studying the forecasts during the previous few days. If the forecast for the rest of the week were as accurate we would be ok.

I had booked a Water Taxi from the airport and after an hour long leisurely tour of the islands we arrived at San Zaccaria next to St.Mark’s Square. I already knew the approximate vicinity of the Hotel Colombina - on the same canal as the Bridge of Sighs - but how to get there? I’ll just say that it took a while; mainly because parts of Venice were flooded by the Autumn High Tide and we were consistently diverted in our attempts to reach the hotel. And the fact that we were dragging suitcases and hand luggage didn’t really speed up the process but eventually we made it.

The hotel was very nice and not one that we would have afforded without the free upgrade! Our room had a balcony (padded!) overlooking the canal and down to the Bridge of Sighs which was probably about 100 metres away. A great location once we had found our bearings.

After unpacking we made our way to St. Mark’s Square. The hotel should be easy to find from there and therefore if we ever get lost we can just get to the square and walk from St. Marks (good theory). I was hoping that, compared to August, Venice would be much, much quieter. I was wrong. The square was packed and with people queuing to get into the Basilica on temporary ‘high boards’ to avoid the flood waters that were seeping up through the various outlets in the square. Getting about needed some thought as you couldn’t simply walk in a straight line without getting wet. Some paths were flooded, others weren’t. We had to make a decision about how we were going to spend our first afternoon back in Venice.

Lunch was a priority so we quickly found somewhere and started to get used to paying a lot for not much. That’s the way it is in Venice, especially with the Euro exchange rate being so mean. But we had what we wanted and decided to head for the Correr Museum (in the corner of St. Mark’s Square) and then the Doge’s Palace. The Correr Museum turned out to be the first of a few museums that we would see but we didn’t get around to it previously and its location does make it stand out as being one of the main museums. In contrast, we had walked around the Doge’s Palace before (in 2005) but it was one of the places that was worth doing again even though one side of the Bridge of Sighs was covered to obscure the restoration and cleaning work that was being undertaken. [It doesn’t matter where you go, there is nearly always something of interest covered up by scaffolding or tarpaulin]. There were no real surprises although I can’t honestly admit to remembering it all from the first visit but what we did find out was that there is a separate ‘Secret’ tour that you can take, for a price, and you get to see other things such as Casanova’s Cell. Noted for a future visit maybe.

Anyway, with the Doge’s Palace ticked off again we headed back in the direction of our hotel. At least, we thought we did. We walked in circles and zig-zags for ages and ages before finding it - and in truth St.Mark’s Square is about a five minute walk from the Colombina! The two are separated by just two corners and one long shopping ‘street’; it really is that simple but having been caught out once and with it being the end of a very long day we chose a nearby restaurant for our evening meal - one so close to the hotel that we couldn’t possibly get lost ……………… could we? Actually, we didn’t I’m pleased to say.

First night in a hotel room can often be a bit of a challenge (Thinks - Istanbul!!) and despite the relative tranquillity that Venice offers, it is surprising how noisy the canals can be at night. The ‘traffic’ does its best to be as quiet as possible but if you’re a light sleeper then the chances are that you will either take a while to nod off or, as in my case, be woken by the first motor launch or barge of the day before the sun rises. Probably the milkman!!

My curiosity over what we would get for breakfast was now setting in and apart from that there was the urge to get out and get doing what it was we wanted to do while we were here. Breakfast was good and I instantly made friends with the Custard Croissants – and we remained very close throughout the week!

Back we went to St. Mark’s taking careful note of the route. The Basilica opened at a quarter to ten and tends to be easier to get into if you get there either first thing or last thing before it closes. We queued for a while but it really does move quite fast. And unlike the Doge’s Palace, the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica was a familiar sight. The place made quite an impression first time around - it really is a fantastic work of art.

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Venice2010 114

The view of the Square from the balcony wasn’t so good this time as the area around the Campanile was cordoned off with high boards to obscure work going on behind. Maybe next time (if there is a next time) the remedial and cleaning work in and around the main attractions of Venice will have been completed.

We hade made the decision to again buy a 3-day Pass for the Vaporetto’s to get us around the islands including another trip to both Murano and Burano. So, on Tuesday lunchtime we walked to Rialto and bought the Passes which would then last us until Friday lunchtime. I seem to remember paying 22 Euros each in 2005; this time they were 33 Euros each. Having said that, they easily pay for themselves, especially if you take in some of the other islands (Lido, Murano, Burano, San Michele, Torcello etc).

We took advantage of the Passes straight away by heading off up the Grand Canal to the Jewish District and the Ghetto area. We had an independent look around last time but decided this time to take the tour. One Museum and three Synagogues later we sat down and had lunch at the Museum Café before heading off on foot from the ghetto down through one of the two canals that Napoleon decided to fill in and what now resembles a pedestrianised shopping precinct like many others you will see around the world. Thank goodness he was forced out of Venice before he did any more damage! At the end of the ‘precinct’ you pass the Ca D’Oro area and reach water once again at Sant Apostoli which is where the Hotel Giorgione is located; our hotel in 2005. From here we made our way to Rialto and then back to St.Mark’s before tracking down the hotel again.

Evening meals were a challenge; but not to find something to eat, that was easy. The challenge was to find somewhere different each day but one which didn’t (at least openly!) rip the customer off by charging both a Cover Charge and a Service Charge on top of the menu prices. Cover Charges were around 2.50 Euros per head and Service was either 10% or more often 12.5%. So for our second evening we decided to leave the hotel and rather than turn left and head directly towards St Marks we turned right and walked ‘somewhere inland a bit’. We were again on new territory and discovered upon the Natural History Museum and one or two other parts of Venice that we hadn’t seen before, including the small restaurant that we chose to have our Tuesday evening meal in. It was in a very quiet square, probably north east of St Marks, very few people about anywhere and just two others in the restaurant. As a result we weren’t hanging around long before being served and it turned out to be probably the best evening meal that we had during our stay in Venice – and not the most expensive either. Not only that but we also managed to remember the route back to the hotel!!

Wednesday morning – and following two more custard croissants we made plans to get the Vaporetto to Murano and then Burano. So we walked to the north of the island to Fondamente Nuovo from where the boat runs to Murano. Famous for its glass production, Murano attracts tourists in large numbers. None of it was new to us so it was nice to just wander around the island and have a drink in the sunshine away from the madness of St Marks Square. And as we strolled towards the small dock to get the boat to Burano we noticed a sign to a small glass factory so we ventured down the alleyway and stood for a while watching three of Murano’s craftsmen toiling over the furnace.

Burano is even smaller than Murano but slightly more attractive due to the bright colours of the houses. Again, this was a return visit for us so we could stroll without feeling like we were missing out on anything. Seeing the two islands again was a nice way to spend half a day of our 4/5 day trip.

On the return boat trip to the main islands we decided to stop off at the eastern point of Venice to have a look at the public gardens. Close to Venezia’s football stadium (Yes, there is a football stadium in Venice!) the gardens are one of just a few green areas that the Venetians can enjoy unless they are lucky enough to have their own garden at home. It is close to Arsenale and to get back to St.Marks we picked our way in the general direction of the square while at the same time trying to use roads and paths that we had never been down before. Eventually, we were back in familiar territory.

Venice is overloaded with old palaces in various states of repair. Ca Rezonnico is open to the public and represents a typical old Venetian house. It sits on the Grand Canal and, even better, the Vaporetto’s stop right outside so we jumped on one that took us from St.Mark’s. It made a change from the usual museums although steps and stairs in one form or another are unavoidable in Venice. From here we walked the short distance to the Plaza San Barnaba. At one time, San Barnaba was regarded as the poorest part of the city but it really does have a nice feel about it and has recently been used in movies such as Indian Jones (& The Last Crusade) and also Quantum of Solace. We stopped for a drink in the plaza, to rest ankles and knees mainly and after the very wet day on Monday when we arrived the weather had been kind to us and now we were enjoying the sunshine. We sat down at a café on one of the outside tables and immediately realised that we were in the shade so quickly moved our drinks and things so we could sit in the sun. Plaza San Barnaba was a busy square with a canal running down one of its sides and, like so many Italian squares, it was dominated by a church. Temporarily, this had been given over to an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work, mainly in the form of reproductions of his engineering models. Anyway, it looked different so we paid the admission fee and spent 45 minutes looking at and playing with the models.

Our route from here took us back towards San Marco (St Marks) and the hotel. We wanted to have a drink in Harry’s Bar (near St Marks Square) and that turned out to be the plan for Wednesday evening, prior to finding a restaurant. We knew that Harry’s would be expensive but just wanted to do it – if only the once! And expensive it definitely was. Said to make the best Bellini Cocktails that you can buy, we ignored every other drink on the list and bought two at the princely sum of 15 Euros each. Described on the drinks list under the heading of ‘Long Drinks’, they turned out to be not really that long and not really that wide either. In fact, the glasses were more like swollen test tubes with flat bottoms but what the hell we made them last and enjoyed our hour in Harry’s Bar.

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Venice2010 357

Giudecca tends to be forgotten by most visiting Venice. Geographically, it underscores the rest of the Venetian islands but sits slightly isolated from the main historical centre. Two of Venice’s most prestigious hotels can be found on Giudecca; namely the Cipriani and the Hilton Molina Stucky, one at either end of the long, slim island. So, on Thursday we decided to take a Vaporetto to the far end of Giudecca and walk from the Hilton back towards the Cipriani where we would get a boat across to San Giorgio Maggiore; a small islet that almost but not quite joins with Giudecca. The Hilton Molina Stucky boasts a rooftop bar that has great views across to St.Marks but alas it was closed when we asked at Reception so we settled for a comfort break and a general poke around the ground floor of what felt like a very nice hotel.

We walked inland when we left the Hilton, away from the waterfront. Giudecca has a Gondola Museum (apparently) and if we happened upon it then we would have a look around. However, not once on our casual stroll around the island did we see a sign or any other indication that such a museum exists. We may never find out. Giudecca is largely residential and also has a University Campus that you simply can’t avoid walking through if you go from one end to the other on foot. Its side canals are picturesque as you would expect whilst the southern edge of the island looks out onto open sea with just one or two small islands for company. The weather was good; warm and sunny but having failed to track down the Gondola Museum and after being ejected from a café for only wanting a drink we made our way to catch the Vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore.

Just a stones throw from Giudecca, San Giorgio has a church, a tower and a marina – not much more than that really. However, it’s still worth a visit for the view back to St Marks and the entrance to the Grand Canal, especially from the top of the tower from where you can see the length of Giudecca plus the few, small surrounding islands.

A place that we never found in 2005 when we were in Venice was the Palazzo Bovolo. Famous to tourists for its unique spiral staircase, the Palazzo Bovolo isn’t the easiest place to find. However, having missed it the first time around, we made a point of finding it this time, eventually discovering it tucked away down a small alleyway behind La Fenice Theatre. It was little more than a photo opportunity and the fact that we could say that we had seen it – and we now have.

In the evening, we ate near Rialto and just before settling at a restaurant dashed back to the bridge to catch a wonderful sunset that was unfolding.

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Venice2010 694

Friday, our final day in Venice but with our flight not being until 20:10 we had almost all day to do something. Check out at the Colombina and the expiry of our Vaporetto Pass was midday so we organised ourselves around that.

It was another lovely day so, having organised our luggage as best we could, we had breakfast and headed for St Marks again. I wanted to take a photograph near Arsenale and we then thought that we could get the Vaporetto to San Salute and then get a Traghetto back across.

San Salute is the church with the prominent dome at the entrance to the Grand Canal and unlike in 2005 it was now possible to walk right around the point of the island and look back across to St.Marks in one direction and both San Giorgio Maggiore and Giudecca in the other. In 2005, access was prohibited with works of some sort being undertaken. These ‘works’ may have included the completion of a slightly bizarre and random statue of a boy holding a frog at arms length. Whatever, the sun was shining and it was warm and made for a nice way to spend some of what time we had left of this trip to Venice.

We queued with others for the Traghetto at the sign marked ‘Gondola Service’. Affording a Gondola as we did in 2005 was out of the question but by using the Traghetto service, basically a communal Gondola from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, we could at least say that we had been in one again!

With knees and ankles in desperate need of recovery time we had almost reached the end of our stay in Venice. We would catch the Alilaguna service from St Marks back to the Airport which was a half-hourly service that took just over the hour to complete the trip. We earmarked the 16:20 which meant that we were back at the Hotel Colombina to collect our luggage by about 15:45 before dragging it all through the hordes of people down to the Alilaguna dock.

The boat delivered us to the airport via both Lido and Murano as we left behind one of our most favourite places, thinking of perhaps coming back for Carnavale in another five years. Maybe.

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Venice2010 732

Posted by david.byne 08:10 Archived in Italy Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises bridges churches art buildings people planes boats Comments (0)

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