Thursday, 10 April 2014

Insider tips for a hassle-free visit to Venice

Many people have come visit me in Venice throughout the years. Over time I have come up with some tips that will make your visit to Venice more rewarding and completely free of hassles. As a hyper-touristic city, Venice is not always easy to navigate without passing dozens of shops with tacky souvenirs, expensive restaurants and hordes of people with cameras and shorts, but I have done my best here to show you how to enjoy Venice.


Ponte dei Sospiri, Venice
Ponte dei Sospiri



Try to avoid July and August! During the summer Venice is so full of tourists that it's almost impossible to appreciate its beauty. With all those people taking the same photo from the Accademia Bridge or fighting to have their picture taken in front of Ponte dei Sospiri, you'll find yourself fighting for space. Most people who have visited Venice and have hated it came in the summer, stayed only one or two days, saw how packed it can be and left disappointed. Moreover, Venice can become uncomfortably wet when it's hot. Try to come in spring (April or May are perfect) or in autumn (September is great). Winter can also be an interesting time to visit, because the city is often covered in fog, and there's hardly anywhere around.


Nightmare in Venice, St. Mark's Square

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Treviso: not just the Ryanair airport

Treviso is the town in north-eastern Italy where I went to school, and the village where I grew up is only half an hour away in the countryside. I don't go often to Treviso nowadays, but the other day I coupled my walk in the historic centre with a visit to an exhibition held at Ca' dei Carraresi on classical India and its charms.

Treviso is a sleepy town with absolutely no tourists, half an hour away from Venice by train, and it's full of medieval buildings, quiet canals and also stylish boutique shops. It is smaller than Verona or Vicenza, and life here runs slowly. Even though it's not a touristic town, there are some cute corners if you know where to look. The fact that there are virtually no tourists made me look strange with a camera in my hands: people were staring at me and wondering why I was taking pictures! Has that ever happened to you?


Canale dei Buranelli, Treviso
A view of Treviso (Canale dei Buranelli)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

My next trip: Austria & Southern Bavaria

In April I will be attending a conference in Innsbruck, Austria. I thought that it would be nice to have a look around the area, before and/or after the 5-day conference. I've already been to both Austria and Germany, but there are many places I haven't visited in both countries, including this Alpine town famous for its ski facilities. 

Innsbruck

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Travel guides vs. travel blogs

Do you use travel guides, either when you're planning your next holiday or when you're on the road? In spite of the fact that I read a lot of travel blogs, I do use guide-books as well. In fact, I love them!


Some travel books I keep in my room


Compared to travel blogs, I find guide-books on specific destinations more reliable on things concerning history and cultural insights. I tend to dislike people who don't make the effort of reading a little bit about the place they're visiting or they're going to visit. And mind that this doesn't mean only jotting down the names of a couple of places where you can eat or drink! Some of the most famous travel bloggers take pride in avoiding travel guides at all costs, but sometimes they misinterpret the places they are visiting, even inserting a couple of wrong historical facts in their posts. This hurts me, especially when it happens with my country, Italy, or the town where I'm living right now, Venice.

On the other hand, I find resources on the web more useful for things like updated information about bus timetables, hostel reviews and the like. Moreover, travel blogs can give you that personal experience a travel guide-book can never have. I read travel blogs because of the people who write them. I want to know what they found cool and what they found disappointing, I want to read about their misadventures and their discoveries. Above all, I like to read their personal opinions and views on the places they visit. 

There are two favourite books I love to browse.

The first is Travel Eyewitness (published in Italian by Mondadori). It's a book full of images and can be very helpful when you're planning what to see, because it gives you a comprehensive view of a country or a city, together with plans of the main attractions, just to give you an idea on how big and how many things there are to explore. The Travel Eyewitness series also helps me identifying things and paying attention to details: it has plenty of pictures of architectural details, which I love. It's also an excellent book to keep at home and it's perfectly enjoyable to browse after your trip. 

Reading about Campo Santo Stefano while looking at the church of the same name


I prefer a Lonely Planet guide when I'm on the road for many reasons. One is that Lonely Planet is geared towards independent travellers and it gives plenty of advice on how to get from A to B with public transport, and it provides you with detailed maps for when you need to find that bus station or the exact location of a museum. It also gives good advice on restaurants and cheap eateries. I like to read about the options I have - in terms of attractions and activities - before leaving, and then I store my guide in my backpack (if it's not full already!).   


Planning my trip to Crete

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Austrians in Venice

So, I'm going to Austria next month. By the way, did you know that Venice was occupied by Austria in the 19th century? But what did the Austrians do in Venice? I guess that they didn't just sit and stare at the beauty of the town.

In 1797 Venice was invaded by Napoleon, after more than 1000 years of independence. Napoleon gave it away in the peace treaty with Austria. The Austrians were never really accepted in Venice and in 1848 the city organized a rebellion against the Habsburg Austrian empire that resulted in the formation of the republic of San Marco, which lasted a year. Venice and its territories remained Austrian until 1866, when the former independent Republic was annexed to the newly unified Italian kingdom.


  • The spritz.


The origins of spritz are unknown, as it is the case with many of Venetian dishes, included tiramisu, but it is believed that the Austrian soldiers stationed in Venice created this drink, by watering down Venetian wines with sparkling water because they found them too strong. Later, other "corrections" were added, and nowadays spritz is mostly made with either aperol, select, or bitter, all aperitif drinks. There are endless variations to the spritz, also changing from city to city. The spritz is now popular all over northern Italy, and it's spreading to other parts of the country, as well as to other cities. I've seen it in London, for example!

Holding a spritz


  • I Nizioleti


"Nizioleti" are the beautiful squared frescoes that indicate the names of calli, bridges and campi in Venice. Sometimes they have funny names, like Ponte delle Tette ("bridge of the boobs"), or Sotoporgego del Casin dei Nobili ("close of the noblemen's casino"). The former indicates an area that was supposedly inhabited by prostitutes, who showed their "merchandise" from the windows. The latter also reveals the libertine past of the city, as it recalls a casino frequented only by noblemen. The nizioleti were adopted during the Austrian domination. Before that, only the number on a street door could indicate that you were at the right address, and people knew the name of the streets by heart. As a matter of fact, in Venice houses are numbered within districts, not streets, so that your address could be simply San Marco 3567. Even today, when you give a Venetian address, you give the name of one of the six sestieri, the neighbourhoods, and the door number, but never the name of the street. 

    Me pointing at a 'nizioleto' displaying the name of the town where I come from, Treviso

  • The railway bridge.


The Austrian emperor, Ferdinand I, decided he wanted a railway connection from Milan to Venice, the two biggest cities of the Lombardo-Veneto. In 1842 the first part was inaugurated: it was the third railway ever constructed in Italy. At the beginning the railway connection arrived until Mestre,  in the mainland, and from there people had to take a boat to reach Venice. In 1846 the railway bridge that connects Venice to the mainland was inaugurated. You still cross that railway bridge if you arrive to Venice by train or by car. It is very scenic because you can see all the lagoon in its beauty.


Verso il Ponte della Libertà.
What you can expect to see from Ponte della Libertà (photo by Marco Trevisan)


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Carnival of Venice: the good and the bad

The world-famous Carnevale di Venezia, the carnival of Venice, is one of the most attended festivals in the area. Carnevale is a long-standing tradition in Venice, but nobody knows when it started and why. What we know is that it became very famous in the eighteenth century, when Venice was famous for its libertines and mask balls.



 
Photo I took of my friend and travel blogger Diana (Close to Eternity) at the Venice Carnival


Carnevale is celebrated everywhere in Italy, but only in Venice it acquires this characteristic aura, with traditional masks walking down the narrow calli or celebrating in St. Mark's Square. Some masks have become famous, like that of Colombina, who originally was a character from commedia dell'arte, or that of il dottore della peste (the plague's doctor), with the characteristic long nose to protect himself from the bad smells of the infected people. Some of the costumes are very expensive, others are "knocked together" from random clothes and old costumes you have at home.


Masks are sold all year around in shops in Venice, you can buy one for 5 or 50 , according to the material, the design, and the complexity of the decorations.

Masks for sell around Campo Santo Stefano
There are entertainment and music events everywhere in town, and people are up to pranks like shoving the famous coriandoli (confetti in English) up your face.

Things you can eat during Carnival: frittelle (fritters with cream or other fillings), and galani (a fritter-biscuit sprinkled with icing sugar). You can buy some in any pasticceria (pastry shop) around town.


Galani


The Carnival of Venice is the best and the worst moment to visit Venice. It is certainly a unique celebration, but it falls on a season that is relatively cold and wet, and the streets can get really crowded, to the point that you'll have to shove your way through the main streets.  The city gets flooded with a jovial atmosphere, but it's nearly impossible to get on a vaporetto (water boat). I suggest that you weigh these points BEFORE going. If you don't like crowds, don't go! If you like fancy costumes, don't mind a bit of confusion, and you have already seen the main sights in Venice, it's a fun moment to be in town.


Another picture from the Venice carnival


On two separate Sundays in St. Mark's Square you can see Volo dell'Angelo (Angel Flight) and Volo dell'Aquila (Eagle Flight), when a girl is chosen to be sent on a rope from the clock tower to the centre of the square. This year for Volo dell'Aquila the girl chosen was Carolina Kostner, a famous Italian ice skater who won a medal at Sochi Olympic Games.


Volo dell'Aquila with Carolina Kostner



I must be honest: I have never been a huge fan of the Venice carnival. I much prefer the celebrations in small towns, where you can simply enjoy the parades of allegorical floats. Perhaps I have seen the Venice carnival too many times, and perhaps it's that I don't like the crowds when I have to do my daily chores or I go out for a drink with my friends. Moreover, even though Italians celebrate carnevale all over Italy,  in Venice the celebrations  seem to be geared towards tourists rather than locals. Everything is about reviving the traditions that were almost lost, rather than observing a celebration that has been going on in the same way for centuries. As a matter of fact, the Carnival in Venice as a huge festival has been"recreated" since 1979 only.

Unofortunately, this year the Carnival has been exceptionally wet, with days when the horrible weather even stopped the concerts and the celebrations around town.


A rainy Carnival in St. Mark's Square
What do you think: would you go to the Venice Carnivel in spite of the crowds and the cold weather?

Monday, 24 February 2014

On the steps of kings and queens: Versailles uncovered

I don't know anybody who hasn't heard of Louis XIV, the Sun King, or of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, who lived at the time of the French Revolution and was guillotined in what is today Place de la Concorde. Versailles is the place to learn about the history of the kings and queens of France, and to imagine  the life of the courtesans in the 18th century, when the king together with a bunch of aristocrats decided the fate of people everywhere in Europe.


Versailles
Entrance to Versailles

Going to Versailles isn't exactly low cost. The entrance to the palace is 18€, and even more if it's summer and there are musical fountain shows (25€). The food inside the castle is also extremely pricey, but you can exit, find a small restaurant in town, and then enter again and visit a different part of this huge estate. Another thing to take into consideration is the ticket to get there: Versailles is in zone 4, and you will need a special ticket that costs about 6,50€.

You need a whole day to see Versailles. I started from the palace itself, as it comes more natural when you enter the main gates. I suggest that you buy a passport ticket (18€), so you have access to more or less everything. In alternative, you can visit the main palace alone (15€), or the smaller ones (10€). There are also additional tickets for guided tours of the opera house and the chapel, if you are really into the history of Versailles (16€). You can however see the chapel during your regular tour from the outside. About visiting Versailles in winter and why it wasn't such a good idea I have already written in this post. The best season to see it is probably spring. 
 

Chapel, Versailles
The royal chapel

The Hall of Mirrors is the most impressive of the rooms you will see on your visit, but also the most crowded. It is a long ballroom that features 17 tall mirrors and many golden statues. One thing that struck me about the palace of Versailles is how much gold and golden decorations you see. There is so much of it that your eyes will literally hurt! The style has been imitated so many times everywhere in the world that it can almost look kitsch to people who don't know the importance and influence of Versailles on the rest of the European courts and palaces.

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
The Hall of Mirrors
 
My second favourite room was the queen's bedroom, where the decorations are just exquisite. Some things about Versailles are unbelievable, for example when the queen gave birth courtesans could assist, and what is more she also had to receive guests in her bedroom.


Queen's Bedroom, Versailles
The queen's bedroom, Versailles
 
One thing that disappointed me is that you don't visit many rooms during your tour. I also regret not looking for an audio guide, as there is only cursory information in the rooms. As a matter of fact, I only found out later that it was included in the price of the ticket.
 

Versailles
Another room inside Versailles


The gardens of Versailles
View of the garden from inside the Queen's apartments
 
 
The gardens


 
Fountain Versailles
The main fountain in Versailles

The gardens of Versailles are huge. There are even mini-trains that  take you to different parts of the gardens, but you have to pay to get on one of them (€7,50). If you don't want to pay more take into consideration that you have to walk at least 30 minutes to reach the Grand Trianon, and even more for the Petit Trianon and the queen's hamlet, hameau de la reine.

The gardens are full of geometric paths, carefully tended flower beds and hedges, with statues and buildings scattered everywhere. Pools of water and fountains decorate this beautiful place. It is a pleasure to walk around and discover the hidden gems of the gardens.
 
Gardens, Versailles
Another picture of the gardens


My friends and I decided to walk towards the Grand Trianon. After all, we didn't pay the full price only to see the main palace! The Grand Trianon is a smaller palace within the grounds of the estate, built so that the king could escape from the etiquette of the court and have light meals with his secret wife. After the Revolution, Napoleon lived here with his second wife Marie Louise. It is lavishly furnished, and it gives you the idea of the life at court: the king and the queen were not always relegated in the main palace, but had other places where they could enjoy life without many restrictions.

Grand Trianon, Versailles
A room of the Grand Trianon

 
Another such place is the Petit Trianon, a favourite retreat for Marie Antoinette. It is yet another château, built for one of Louis XV's mistresses, the infamous Madame de Pompadour, who unfortunately died four years after its completion. At the time, the king's chief mistress  had a semi-official status and had her own apartments within the court! Unfortunately, I didn't visit this part of Versailles because on that day it was very cold, and after walking from the main palace to the Grand Trianon my friends and I were tired and freezing. This means that I need to go back to Versailles!
 
Grand Trianon, Versailles
Another room of the Grand Trianon


How to reach Versailles

Can you believe that Lonely Planet's Paris city guide doesn't give you any suggestions on how to reach Versailles from the centre of Paris? Versailles is about 12 miles from the centre of Paris. To reach it you can take RER C, which is a train that serves Paris and its suburbs. Get off at Versailles - Rive Gauche, which is the closest train station to the chateau, only five minutes away. You cannot use your usual T+ ticket, but you need to buy a special ticket, because Versailles is in zone 4. Depending on where your accommodation is located, you can also take the "transilien L" train. It leaves you at Versailles Rive Droite, 15 minutes away from the chateau. I think a return ticket cost me 6,50€ .

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