Google Need Another Holiday: September 2012

Monday, 24 September 2012

Venice: The Holiday Addict Lowdown

It occurred to me that it might be helpful to give you the lowdown on some of my key points for getting the most out of your trip to Venice. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful. For my full Venice story, see my earlier post, Let's Get Lost in Venice.

Purchase transport tickets online before you travel
I did a lot of research on getting around before I left. On my first visit, I’d purchased 72 hour tourist tickets once we arrived, but on my second trip, I decided to pre-purchase online and I didn’t regret it. I got a discounted ticket which I combined with a return airport bus transfer to Piazzale Roma. Go to Venice Connected, book online and find a link to a video guide showing you the step by step process of how to print your tickets out at an ACTV machine when you arrive.

Buy a guidebook
Different people get what they need from different guidebooks. Personally, I’ve never been let down by the DK series. Venice and the Veneto made a happy bedtime read in the days and weeks before we left and it was a good planning tool I used whilst eating breakfast on my trip. I don’t like to weigh myself down though, so I always left it at the hotel and took a compact pocket book and map out and about.

Don’t stress about where to eat
Go with your instincts and remember that it doesn’t have to be stupidly expensive. Try and book somewhere with breakfast included in the rate so you can fill up in the morning and don’t worry if you haven’t got the money to eat at restaurants every night, there are less formal (and cheaper places) to eat. Bottom line; you won’t starve just because you’re on a budget.

Discover the Islands
I could see that Murano was lovely despite the sky pouring buckets of water over me. Still, you can’t change the weather and you shouldn’t be put off by it.  You have your Vaporetto ticket, so just go explore!

Don’t be scared of getting lost
This is probably the best place in the world to get lost. And you will, even if you have a map and the skills to use it. Remember that if you are on foot, you will never wander so far off that you will never make it back. And don’t worry about walking into unsavoury areas. Venice is known for being remarkably safe. Plus, the chances are you might be completely isolated one minute, but then you’ll simply turn a corner and find yourself hitting a wall of people again.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Just Look Up...

It always amazes me how something someone says to you during a conversation that can only be described as small talk, can stay with you for years to come.

I had such a conversation a long time ago. The person concerned was a colleague I knew only a little, and the conversation began with a very standard enquiry from me about what this man was planning to do at the weekend.

He told me that it was his wedding anniversary, and that he had booked himself and his wife into a hotel in the centre of Manchester. They never went into the city centre, you see, despite living in Manchester all their lives. Of course, they did go into town on occasion, I knew that. But I understood what he meant.

He went on to tell me how much they were looking forward to just ambling about, enjoying their own city. We never look up while we’re walking, he said. And I tried to remember the last time I walked round my own city and looked at anything but my feet or the city centre traffic that was out to get me.

These words, spoken to me by this person I knew next to nothing about, told me a lot about the lives of busy people who live in big cities. Especially cities that capture the imagination of visitors and which prove popular destinations for many a traveller.

I thought about how so many journeys taken “into town” by native dwellers are tedious and task driven. We go to appointments; we run errands; we need to visit a particular shop for a particular thing. We rush; we get in and get out. We keep our heads down.

We rarely look up.

Now I’ve taken the time to have a go, and look at my own city of Liverpool with new eyes, it feels a bit different. I’ve noticed tranquil havens and buildings of great significance that I’m not sure I ever paid attention to before. And as Liverpool is a place loved by many of its visitors, it’s my plan to share more of its charm with you soon.

In the meantime though, perhaps you have stories of discoveries from your hometown or city? I’d love to know and maybe add some places to my own wish list of destinations.

Or perhaps someone said something to you, once in passing, and it stayed with you...

Travelling is exciting, but sometimes you don’t need to go more than a few miles to discover something new, especially if money is tight or you are between adventures.

So discover a new city; the one you live in.

Sometimes all you need is to set aside a day.

And just look up.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

By All Means, Rome

In a way, we threw a curve ball at the honeymoon ideal with this one. Instead of beaching it up, we went to Rome for four days. I won’t lie, this option was half driven by budget (don’t talk to me about the cost of the average wedding), but it was also half driven by the fact that we knew the memories of a city break tend to have much more impact on the subconscious than chilling on a sunbed (although we do love that, too). We were right – talking about it now still has us questioning how we could have only been there for four days.

Rome is a joy to visit. People aren’t exaggerating when they say it’s an open air museum. There is history in every viewpoint. I foolishly thought the Trevi Fountain was just a fountain. It is awe inspiring. I could never have imagined the scale of it and no photo I have ever seen does it justice.

Trevi by day...

And even more spectacular, Trevi by night

I know we probably only skimmed the surface of all the sights Rome has to offer, but we had a good go and I am more than happy to say it needs another visit before I’m willing to actually cross it off my list. This time I think I’d book in Spring or Autumn – to be fair, July was just too hot for me, though I did kind of enjoy prancing around with a parasol. 

The Eternal City felt like a dream probably because I’ve seen Roman Holiday just too many times, if that’s even possible. Every square has its own fabulous water feature and the drinking fountains you find everywhere you go provide welcome refreshment when you are thirsty for more than just sightseeing and need to keep going. This is not one of those “only drink bottled water” places. Indeed, drinking from Rome’s fountains feels like soaking up the city’s life source itself.

The Spanish Steps are much more than just steps and you can taste Rome here; literally in the form of a gelato, figuratively in the form of people watching. Tourists mill and take photographs, local youths gabble garrulously in groups, gesticulating dramatically to punctuate their lively Italian; students sit quietly reading nearby, oblivious to the din. The mixture of people is magical and the steps are almost alive. Don’t miss spending some time here.

To get a chance to see a bit of everything, I would advise that you buy a ticket for a hop-on, hop-off tour bus. It’s possible to get everywhere by foot, but this way you can efficiently pass all the major sights, jumping off at those you feel drawn to.

We stayed near Villa Borghese, about ten minutes walk up the historically stylish Via Veneto from Piazza Barberini. The tour bus was a handy way for us to make our way to the Vatican City.

Wednesday's Papal General Audience

The Vatican itself is a jewel you would be insane to miss out on. It is an extraordinary fusion of tourism and spirituality. Travellers queue to gain entry to the sights while nuns and priests swish by in their robes. The magnificence of St Peter’s Basilica is nothing short of spellbinding from the outside, while inside, the church is breathtaking. My favourite feature was undoubtedly Michaelangelo’s Pieta, a sculpture depicting Mary, holding her son, Jesus, after his crucifixion. To those for whom the sculpture has religious significance, it really is something that could move you to tears. As a piece of artwork, the detail and beauty of it is really wonderful to view. You look at it and know instantly that you are before a masterpiece, the likes of which you might never see again. Until you enter the Sistine Chapel of course!

St Peter's Basilica

There is a real sense of being somewhere unique in the Vatican City. You know you are not quite still in Rome. It has a vibe all of its own. As for the Vatican Museum; I believe it to be one of the most impressive collections I’ve seen anywhere. Half a day flies by. Do the sensible thing though, pre-book your tour – skip the queues and be guided by someone who can tell you what you’re looking at. Otherwise you’ll probably wander round in a state of somewhat confused awe. Try Maximus Tours; we found a fair price and enthusiastic guides.

When you get a chance to deviate from your "must-see" list, the best thing to do in Rome is just get walking. There is always something to see. This is how we discovered several of the five hundred or so pictures and statues of the Virgin Mary that are scattered about the buildings and streets of Rome. It was like discovering one of Rome's little secrets; we would spot another, and another by simply looking up and around us. These little shrines were both beautiful art and a poignant reminder of a perhaps somewhat forgotten devotion. Indeed, at one time there were a great deal more of these hidden gems. Thankfully, there are still a healthy number that remain. So get walking. And get looking...

Something stunning down every alley
A Secret Mary Watches Over Rome

Eating out in the Eternal City was a bit hit and miss. I would always try to avoid the tourist menus, although we fell a little foul of that advice ourselves. In the end, we went for recommendations from our hotel which put us onto a winner – we went back to the same place on consecutive nights. It's called Piccolo Mondo.

Prices were decent and the complimentary aperitivo of Prosecco, as well as a hit of some limoncello after the feast added to the enjoyment. Our last night was a gem really, we had a few (admittedly quite pricey, but totally worth it) beers sat outside a bar near the Trevi Fountain, followed by a copious amount of vino with dinner. We put the world to rights as you do when you hit “optimum tipsiness” and consequently were a tad worse for wear for a stupidly early start to our journey home the next day. Oh well....

Our accommodation, Roma Boutique Hotel, was lovely. It was a one floor affair in a beautiful, large building with only five or six rooms. Now, I am someone who would happily stay in a hotel every weekend, despite the fact that I find it incredibly difficult to sleep anywhere but my own bed; I slept like a log here. I think it was the combination of peace and the location close to the American Embassy which had a constant police presence meaning we felt safe at all times.

Yes, that car in the middle of the road was PARKED!

One of the highlights for me was the breakfast served in your room. It was a continental affair, but there were several options to choose from and best of all, you could enjoy it leisurely in your complimentary robe and slippers while gearing up for the day ahead. I loved it. The staff of the hotel were genuinely happy to help and even arranged our collection from the airport free of charge as a honeymoon extra. On the journey home, however, we took our usual approach of sampling public transport. Again, mainland Europe did not let us down either in terms of cost or efficiency.

It’s hard to sum up Rome really – because, like I said, I don’t think I’ve really seen enough of it. So I’ll just go with a line from Audrey Hepburn’s character, Princess Ann:

Rome. By all means, Rome.

Go and see for yourself.

Nothing on this trip was sponsored and all recommendations come from personal opinions

Have you been to Rome? Please comment and let me know!

Can You Get 15 Pairs of Shoes into a 15kg Luggage Allowance?

It has to be said, I love shoes almost as much as I love travelling. In fact, if I didn’t own so many pairs, I could probably have funded a few more city breaks. Never the less, I doubt shoe shopping is a habit I’ll be breaking any time soon. This plethora of footwear options leaves me with a very challenging dilemma when it comes to suitcase packing. Especially in the current climate of “hand baggage only” flight tickets.

I remember when I was a kid, my Mum and Dad seemed to pack everything for our annual exodus from Britain *including* the proverbial kitchen sink. What happened?

These days, Other Half and myself seem to have a last minute, frantic suitcase fumbling session (reminiscent of a “Crystal Maze” style challenge), in a bid to transfer just enough weight from one suitcase to another before we leave for the airport. This year was no exception, apart from the shock bordering on serious alarm I experienced when faced with the question,
“Well, how many pairs of shoes have you got in there?”

I panicked. What could I possibly not take? Everything was in there for a reason, after all. I had given this capsule shoe collection considerable thought. Husband stood firm though, and (if I’m honest) justifiably so. Alas, with reluctance, I had to let the second pair of Birkenstocks and the second pair of Havaianas go. And the chic, summer wedges I had decided would be “good for evening cocktails”. Hmmmm.

One day I’ll learn to travel light, but in the meantime, I’ll just overload Husband with the full 10kg of hand baggage. I mean, I managed to convince him that stuffing the extra pair of Havaianas into his back pack made sense after all – and you know what? I actually needed them! On the flight! They rescued my feet from soggy sandals, courtesy of a torrential down pour while boarding.

I knew there was a reason I’d need those shoes!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Greek Island Bliss: Kos

When I hear someone say “holiday”, I immediately think of the Greek Islands. I imagine olive trees, random goats clambering about hillsides, the smell of lamb kleftico cooking in the oven and the warm feeling you get travelling right down to your toes from that first sip of raki.

Random mountain goats wait for a bus in Kos

This year’s two-week trip to Kos included all of the above. Not to mention the obligatory sugar-cube houses and blue-domed churches one treasures the sight of.

Kos has been on my radar for ten years – I was much younger then, and I’m not ashamed to say I was familiar with many of the nightspots in the lively tourist resort of Kardamena. Kos remained special to me, however, because it’s the island on which I met one of my best friends, and despite the fact that we are no longer those same, young twenty-somethings, we have remained close and I have always hankered to go back to Kos.

Tigaki was the ideal place for me to recharge my batteries, just the right amount of low-key buzz, and a blissfully, beautiful beach. This was a place that felt cosy to me, even though I had never been before. Perhaps it was the familiar comfort I get from staying somewhere family run; where you can see and sense the care that’s devoted to making you feel welcome. This is how the people of the Greek Islands are, and I love them for it. 

These islands always gently persuade me to slow down; something the speed of daily life means I am not skilled in. There was no rush here in Tigaki. My hectic, home persona was soon lulled into submission by the rich smells of mouth-wateringly delicious Greek cooking on that first night. I emerged from the taverna table, warm with wine; my belly groaning  because I’d forced down just a little too much (it seems such a sin not to finish heaven on a plate). I wasn't ready for bed though; just open and ready to let whatever would be wash over me.

And what followed was day after day of complete and total tranquility.

I swirled around in the clear sea and watched the world go by with a Margarita in my hand. I went wine tasting before lunch (I was on holiday!) and I boiled my work-weary bones in the sulphuric sedative that was the Thermal Spring. 

I relished reading novel after novel and I felt my heart strings being tugged at as I noticed a little girl attempt to empty a swimming pool with a plastic bucket in her dedicated effort to water a large plant!

I simply had a wonderful time.

The coast of Kalymnos

The boat trip we took to Kalymnos and Pserimos was my favourite day of our trip (ignoring an episode of sea-sick husband drama!). Kalymnos looked like the epitome of perfect, picture-postcard Greece as we drifted into it’s harbour. If only we could have spent more time there; that one, single beer I drank overlooking the waterfront tasted better than any other I had in the entire two weeks.

The view from a Pserimos doorstep

When we sailed on to Pserimos, it was quite simply a revelation to me. Tiny houses nestled on the sand, clean washing blowing on the balconies in the sea breeze, and just a handful of tempting tavernas lining the waters edge. If I could ever be granted my wish of a holiday home in Greece, I am convinced this is where it would be. I admit it’s hard for me to pass judgement having never visited anywhere like the Maldives or the Seychelles, but I am almost certain I would say that Pserimos is my paradise.

From a practical point of view, I feel I should offer a recommendation to Theokritos Travel, particularly to Louise. I like to "steer" away from driving on holiday (I do enough of that at home) and the varied tours on offer were incredibly useful. The bus trips helped me to feel like I wasn't part of an organised herd; that I had some travel independence without going completely solo. And although leaving the haven of Tigaki was hard as I became more and more attached to it, discovering a bit more of Kos was a treat. It's just a shame that the olive oil factory we visited was not in production at that time of year. In many ways I'd love to go back in October to see it in action! 

The vista from the village of Zia
Culturally, there's a lot Kos has to offer. I am just sorry I didn't get the chance to soak up as much of it as I would have liked. There is a good deal of history associated with the island that is Hippocrates birth place, so next time I visit, I hope I can get to taste a bit more. 

And although I may not have come back with a tan (my complexion is just a bit too English Rose), I came back with plenty of memories; from strolling through the winding streets of Zia, to drinking the water from the natural spring of Pyli. From waving "Kalimera" to the locals each day as I strolled to the bakery in the morning sunshine, to dragging my contented feet up to bed after one too many Mythos beers

Greece, I miss you already. But there's always next year...

Living With an Obsession for Booking Holidays

So, I'm about to commence another working week and wonder if today I can manage not to check for email updates from Secret Escapes and Voyage Prive.

Somehow, I seem to have made some sort of strange pact with myself that I WILL find a fabulous, luxury bargain break as a result of reading one of these emails. That has yet to happen, though I came remarkably close to booking something last week. And when the right deal comes along, my fingers will surely be typing out my credit card number before I am even aware of what's happening. I won't even need to take said card out of my purse, as I'm ashamed to admit the overuse of it has resulted in the number being burned into my memory such that I can recite it like a little song!

Still, however much I flash the plastic, I am triumphant in my declaration that I can't remember the last time I paid full price for anything. And that includes holidays.

Secret Escapes Sunday Best? Oh go on then... I can spare you five minutes!


Saturday, 15 September 2012

Let's Get Lost in Venice

I should start with an apology. You see, I am almost ashamed to admit that I never wanted to visit Venice without a man as my companion. After all, is it not known to be one of the more romantic destinations on our planet? It is, of course very romantic, but far be it for me to say it is a place purely for couples. Indeed, having been there twice now, fortunate as I am, I have to say it would be somewhere I would be happy to visit alone and honestly feel that everyone should stop by here at least once in their life.

The Grand Canal - even a dull day can't spoil that view
 Others may wince, but it really is a place that looks in real life (even on a cloudy day) just as it does in films. It’s magical, at times unbelievable and certainly beautiful, despite the fact that the age of some of the magnificent palazzos, soaring from the water, may be showing. 

I defy anyone to find a place so easy to wander wistfully around. You will walk miles and not realise it and every corner will be a revelation. Not least because you may feel like you’re onto something, and know where you’re going, only to find that you stumble into a dead end, with nothing before you but mystical green water. There is no better place in which to get lost.

It’s possible to worry about how far your money will go in Venice and you would be right to give your budget considerable thought. It would be very easy to spend a fortune here and if you’ve got it to spend – luck you! Unfortunately, I know that as soon as I get back from a trip, I will want to start thinking about where to go next and with limited funds, it’s important to be sensible. This doesn’t mean being stingy though, just savvy.

The most recent hotel I stayed at was in fact, an annexe to a the better known, extremely well situated Hotel Monaco. It was about a two minute walk away, and although it had its own concierge desk, facilities were to be available at the main sister hotel. This may be a problem for those of you who like to have your hotel bar and a fancy lobby, but for me it was great.

Hotel Palazzo Selvadego was a stunning discreet Palazzo, steps away from St Mark’s Square. The walk to breakfast at the Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal was nothing once you realised you would be greeted with a plentiful buffet. The tables were beautifully presented and my coffee came in a lovely silver coffee pot. Ooh I felt the part! And when my husband returned to the table with two glasses of Prosecco (for breakfast!), I drifted off imagining he was Robert Downey Jnr! I tell you, nothing goes down quite as well as an infusion of dry Italian bubbly with your continental cheese and cured meats in the morning, while you gaze out of the window in wonder at the Grand Canal...

View from a Varporetto
Our days were spent walking and soaking up the wonderful bridges and architecture. We stopped by museums and made good use of the Vaporetto boat buses. I had ordered my three day tourist tickets including airport transfer by land bus, on line at Venice Connected, saving me money, but also saving me a heap of time in the arrivals area at Marco Polo as I bypassed a mammoth queue. A few clicks of an automated ticket machine, assisted by a lovely man who worked for ACTV  and we were off. I must applaud ACTV for this, as although my husband and I could have easily navigated the ticket machine, it is to their credit that they provide assistance in this way, so don’t be afraid to prebook and go for it!

The water bus Vaporetto service is as efficient as one would expect public transport in mainland Europe to be, and much more fun than the land versions. I thoroughly recommend it as a means to get about. If I had the funds, I may be tempted by the streamlined style of Venice’s water taxis, but it does mean you would miss out on people watching the locals – immaculately dressed old ladies, floating in a cloud of rich fragrance, not to mention the achingly handsome thirty something dads, effortlessly styled, pushing their toddlers in prams, sans child’s mother. Oh the beauty of European family values! Young, attractive men, unafraid of childcare. You wouldn’t see that in a water taxi.

You also wouldn’t get the chance to hop on the wrong boat accidentally and unexpectedly experience the most unforgettable part of the trip, as we did. We ended up agreeing we should get off the boat at Zitelle, on the island of Giudecca, and do an immediate about turn. But then my husband spotted a tiny cafe bar with just half a dozen or so tables outside, on the water’s edge. It wouldn’t hurt to stop for ten minutes and have a drink. Two hours later, I’m still there looking across the shimmering water at the Doge’s Palace, St Marks and Campanile, knowing I am experiencing one of the best views in the world. I wanted to bottle up that moment and keep it with me forever.

The perfect spot to take it all in
 I took it all in, sat outside that peaceful bar, just a handful of other tourists for company. I breathed in Venice, from the passing car ferry to the barge full of fruit and vegetables, from the magnificence of the domes of Santa Maria del Salute, to the sun soaked awnings of the more well-to-do hotels, lining the basin of the Grand Canal. I could see the heaving mass of tourists moving back and forth in the distance near San Marco and I knew that from this wonderful vista, I was experiencing something truly magical. It was with a heavy heart that we left to head back to the throng. The reality though, was that the boat ride back may well have become somewhat difficult to bear after a couple more beers.

Where to eat is also a question that leaves many groaning with dismay when it comes to Venice. I must say that food is very important to me and although, like many, I profess a wish to lose half a stone, I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that I like my dinner a bit too much and I’ll settle for a size 12 as opposed to a ten. This in mind, researching good dining spots was something I spent far too much time doing, not to mention the fact that it just stressed me out! In the end I went with the flow. Finding cheap, tasty lunches in the form of generously filled toasted focaccia sandwiches is easy and in the end, we ate a fabulously cosy dinner in a little place I spotted only for me to discover afterwards it came highly recommended in the DK guidebook.  Give it a try. It's called Enoteca San Marco and it's moments away from Saint Mark's Square.

Trust your instincts – and you will find food you’re happy to eat. Failing that, there’s always McDonalds! Hey, if it’s what you want, who am I to judge? Enjoy and no one will ever know unless you tell them. It is however, entirely possible that you’ll be yards away from an Italian feast, so explore if you can because this is what you have to do in Venice; open yourself up to getting lost and finding hidden opportunity. If you miss a certain museum because you found a lovely square with sun trapped tables outside quirky bars – sit down and order a drink or three. You won’t regret these moments. You’ll relive them time after time on rainy Mondays back at home.

Any recommendations in this post are purely my own opinions, nothing on my trip to Venice was sponsored

Have you been to Venice?