Monday, 30 September 2013

Stonehenge vs. Ring of Brodgar

Have you ever been let down by a much-hyped tourist attraction? I'm asking because I was a bit disappointed when last summer I visited Stonehenge on my way to Bath.
There were literally dozens of tour buses parking in the proximity of the ring, which incidentally is smaller than I expected. Another thing that put me off is that you are not allowed to walk within the ring, only around it at a safe distance. I can understand why this is, but add a souvenir shop, the chattering teenagers on a school trip and the entrance fee (8£), and the mysterious and magical atmosphere that it should emanate is almost ruined. I say almost, because you can still perceive bits and pieces of good vibes here and there. Among other things, Stonehenge is set among rolling hills, with nothing but green grass in sight.
Stonehenge, England
Stonehenge, England

Friday, 27 September 2013

Battling with the crowds in Santorini

Santorini is very touristic. While in early June when I visited Crete was quiet, Santorini was already full of tour groups.  

Santorini cruises
Four cruises at the same time in Santorini
Is it possible to avoid the hordes of tourists getting off the cruise ships for the day? Well, there is nothing to do about Thira, it will always be crowded, and the atmospheric village of Oia at sunset and dinner time is also a nightmare. In spite of that, there are a few things you can do to make your stay less exasperating.

Greek masks, Thira,
Greek masks for sell in Fira

First of all, you can try to find accommodation outside of Fira and Oia in order to discover the quiet corners of the island. My accommodation was in a hostel/B&B called Caveland,  located in the quiet yet charming village of Karterados. Caveland is a former winery dating back to the 18th century, and the rooms and dormitories are the cells where the wine was kept. That is why the rooms look like caves. There is even a volcanic rock that springs out of the bathtub. I loved  that place! For only 17€ per night I got a super nice room (I was the only one in the dormitory!), free breakfast and wi-fi, swimming pool, and a big shaded courtyard to relax or read a book. They also have double rooms with either shared or ensuite bathrooms.

The double room in Caveland, Santorini
The cosy double room with shared bathroom next to my dormitory

Bath tub, Caveland, Santorini
Bath tub, Caveland, Santorini

The swimming pool in Caveland, Santorini
What you can get for 17€ in Santorini

Grounds, Caveland, Santorini
A corner of the courtyard

The only drawback is that Karterados is 20-25 minutes walking from the main town in Santorini, Fira. You can take one of the buses that pass through Karterados  en route to different areas of the island (€1,50-€1,80), although they are not very frequent. In alternative, ask for a taxi, or do as I did: walk! Of course you can also rent a bike, or a moped. There are yoga classes available at Caveland too, which I find pretty cool. Overall, Caveland is a really good deal, and it allows you to see a different part of the island.

The village of Karterados is somehow less touristy, the houses are more spaced out, and life runs quiet. If you are not looking for a luxury room overlooking the caldera this is the place for you. I'm sure there are more of these spots on the island, you just have to find them.

Karterados, Santorini

A church in quiet Karterados
Another thing you can do is to go to Oia in the early afternoon or even in the morning to explore its cobbled streets and its vistas when there aren't many people. Also enjoy the sunset from there of course. I can't lie: the sunset in Oia was the most beautiful I've ever seen, but it wasn't the experience I had expected. Oia gets packed with people, to the point that every cobbled street with a view of the descending arch of the sun, and every bar or restaurant with a sea view was full of people waiting with their camera in hand. This began 2 or even 3 hours before the actual sunset.

people watching sunset, Santorini
Crowded sunset in Oia
Because I was too restless to sit down and wait in the same spot for two hours, when the sunset started I always had someone's head in front of my camera lenses and it was really hard to take nice shots. Do you think that people step aside just for a moment to let you take a good picture? Not at all.

Santorini Sunset 2
Sunset in Santorini

Santorini sunset 3
Finally a good shot!

In summary, if you are in Santorini do enjoy the sunset in Oia, but make sure to go to there at another time of the day too. If you have more days, think about changing the location for your second sunset: I'm sure that there are other beautiful and less crowded spots where you can see it.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The sheer beauty of Santorini

Santorini has that kind of beauty that blinds you: everything is photogenic, from the blue domes of the characteristic churches  to the flowers hanging from the balconies, from the omnipresent trellises to the churches with multiple bells, not to mention the white-washed houses crammed one against the other. These white "cubist houses" overhanging an impossibly blue sea are the trademark of the Greek islands. Even though images of Santorini are on every poster advertising holidays in Greece, to wander its cobbled streets that endlessly go uphill and downhill offering breath-taking vistas in every corner is quite another thing.


Friday, 20 September 2013

My 5 favourite places to eat something in Venice

Many people who have visited Venice complain that the food there is expensive and dull. It is not, if you follow a few rules:
First of all, get away from the area around Saint Mark's Square: the dinner will cost you an arm and a leg. The restaurants overlooking the canal near Rialto Bridge are also very touristic. Basically, all restaurants with touts inviting you in are to be avoided, especially near St. Mark's Square and Strada Nuova. Some of them will even serve you ready meals! Finally, don't order pizza in Venice: because of security reasons wooden ovens are prohibited in the city, so it's really difficult to find a good pizza place in Venice. Just wait for the next Italian town in your itinerary, and enjoy the fish Venice has to offer!
And now, my five favourite places to eat something in Venice, in random order:

1) Impronta Café (Dorsoduro 3815)

Located in the university area, this lounge bar serves pasta, club sandwiches, meat and fish, with a menu that changes daily. For lunch during the week the atmosphere is more  informal, but for dinner and on the weekends expect a refined menu and slightly higher prices. Always affordable anyway. It is one of my favourite places in Venice! Thanks to its big windows you can watch the people go by as you eat.
Chef's dish @ Impronta Cafe
Chef's dish in Impronta Café. Credits: love_yellow

2) Osteria Alla Bifora (Campo Santa Margherita, Dorsoduro 2930)

This stylish and atmospheric bar offers delicious Venetian chiceti (appetizers, similar to Spanish tapas), like tartine with baccalà mantecato (creamed salted codfish) and polpette di carne o di verdure (meatballs and veggie balls). It has also good wines, which you can sip at the wooden candle-lit tables. It is located in one of the most lively squares in Venice, Campo Santa Margherita. It is where students meet in the evening, drinking endless aperol spritz!

Osteria alla Bifora

Osteria alla bifora, Venice
Nice atmosphere at Osteria alla Bifora

3) Al Timon, Cannaregio (Fondamenta dei Ormesini, Cannaregio 2754 )
Located in one of my favourite parts of Venice, the quiet Fondamenta dei Ormesini in Cannaregio, this bar is one of the places where young locals like to hang out in the summer. There is a boat berthed in front of the bar where you can sit with your drink. If you want to eat, enjoy the wide variety of cicheti (1€ each) or order a delicious meat plate. 
just a few Cicheti, Al Timon, Venezia
Just a few cicheti, Al Timon

4) Cantina Do Spade (San Polo, 859)

This place, located near Rialto Bridge, probably has the best fried calamari in town. Come here for fish, or enjoy a drink with your friends sitting outside on the bench, in true Venetian style. The polpette with spianata calabra I tried the other night are also amazing!

bacaro Cantina Do Spade, Venice
Credits: nicole_yoshida

5) Osteria Al Portego (Castello San Lio, 6014)

You can either sit down and enjoy a proper meal at the table, or order some cicheti and a glass of wine and eat it in the courtyard outside this place, tucked behind the Malibran Theatre, the area where the house of Marco Polo is supposed to be. Try the crocchette di patate (potato croquettes) or the mozzarelline fritte (small fried mozzarellas on a stick).
Osteria Al Portego, Venezia
Osteria al Portego

Monday, 16 September 2013

"Travel Your Way" Photo Competition

Rhino Car Hire has launched an interesting photo competition, and I have been invited to participate by Dana from Time Travel Plans. The prize are £1,000 for the overall winner, and a SONY Nex-3N Compact Camera System worth £379 for every category winner. 
Travel bloggers are invited to submit their photos of their travels on different means of transport. Not that I want to compete with "real" photographers, but I thought browsing through my old photographs would be both interesting and funny!
By road
I was on a road trip with my parents through the lakes of Northern Italy. We stopped in Omegna, on the northern tip of Lake d'Orta, a small yet lovely lake in Piedmont, when we spotted this car, parked in front of a driving school. How would it be to take a road trip on this jewel of a car?

Taken at Omegna, Lago D'Orta
Old 'cinquecento' parked in Omegna, Lake d'Orta

By air

I was at Girona airport after a trip to Barcelona, and I snapped this picture from the big window in the waiting hall. I call it "The Power of Ryanair".

The Power of Ryanair
The Power of Ryanair. Girona, Spain

By sea

This one is more about travelling by water, but I realized I hadn't posted this picture. Slovenia is a country for lovers of outdoor activities. In Lake Bohinj you can hike from one side to the other, or you can rent a canoe and paddle your way to the next beach.

Lonely canoeing in Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

By Rail

I travel by train a lot, but I struggled to find a good picture of my journeys on the railways of Europe and beyond. Then I had an illumination: the train is not the only way to travel on rails! And this is when I remembered about this picture taken last May in Istanbul. I was a bit bored and disappointed by Istiklal Caddesi: to me it looked like any other big commercial street. It could have been in any European city. Then I heard the ring of the tram, and I was suddenly ecstatic about Istiklal Caddesi. I travelled with the tram a lot while in Istanbul, and it is a safe and easy way to move around the city.

A tram in Istiklal Caddesi
Tram and veiled woman in Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul

Now it's time to nominate five other bloggers I follow and invite them to participate in this photo competition: Bon Voyage, Lauren, Travelling Book Junkie, abitofculture, You Should Go too! and Danik the Explorer.

Happy travels everyone! 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Palace of Knossos -- a ruins-geek galore

Visiting Knossos was the highlight of my trip to Crete: I had dreamed about visiting the palace of King Minos since I don't remember when. Suspended between legend and history, this is where the king of the Minoans was said to keep the Minotaur, a monster half human and half bull. It was killed by Theseus in the myth, with the help of the king's daughter, Ariadne, who had a crush on him. It is possible that the maze-like structure of the palace led to the creation of the myth of the labyrinth, built by Daedalus for King Minos, who also imprisoned the architect so he would not reveal its secrets.
Knossos, Crete
Ruins of Knossos

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Chania and Heraklion: a mixed heritage.


Chances are that you have never heard of Chania. It is a quaint little town, worth at least a couple of hours of your time if you are in the west of Crete. There are cheap Ryanair flights from many European destinations: I paid mine only 20€! Chania has a harbour built by the Venetians in the 14th century, complete with breakwater, fortresses, bastions now half in ruins, and a pretty lighthouse. You can walk all around the area, and admire the port, then relax and look at the blue sea.

Lighthouse in Chania, Crete
The lighthouse in Chania

Ruins of bastion, Chania
Bastion in Chania

While I was wandering around the harbour area, I noticed a rose-domed construction with several smaller domes at its sides that looked rather incongruous. A free painting exhibition was being held there, but  my guidebook said that the building used to be a mosque, the Mosque of the Janissaries to be precise. Now, if you have been to Istanbul you will maybe remember who the Janissaries were: soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, originally used as bodyguards for the sultan and later stationed in the occupied territories to make sure that the Ottoman laws were enforced. As a matter fact, Crete was under Turkish rule from half of the seventeenth century until 1898.

Chania, waterfront
The waterfront of Chania with the mosque

The streets around the harbour are full of touristy restaurants and shops with the kind of souvenirs that you can find in any seaside resort: shells, model ships, and various other knick-knacks. More interesting, in my opinion, are the streets further away from the harbour, with virtually no tourists in sight. The church of Aghios Nikolaos, tucked in a lateral square, particularly surprised me, because it has both a clock tower and a minaret! Built in 1320 by Dominican monks as part of a monastery, it was converted into the main mosque of the town when the Turks occupied Greece, hence the minaret. Finally, in 1918 it was reconverted and it is now a Greek orthodox church dedicated to the protector of sailors.
Church of Agios Nikolaus, Chania, Crete
Church of Agios Nikolaos

It was also the first time that I entered a Greek orthodox church. They are usually darker than Catholic churches, with golden ornaments and candles in a sandbox (we usually have individual metal sockets in Italian churches).

Candles in a sandbox, Santorini, Greece
Candles in a sandbox, Santorini
As you can see from the pictures, it was cloudy and spitting on and off in Chania the day I visited. I woke up late because I had a late night with some couchsurfers and their friends, plus I stopped for a longish breakfast with a lovely Polish couple I had met. I wished I had checked off more items from my list in Chania, but soon it was time to catch my bus to Heraklion, for the second leg of my trip.


After crossing all the island in length with the bus (€13,80, 2h 45min), I finally arrived in Heraklion (Heracles' city). Guidebooks and Cretans alike will tell you that there is nothing special about this town, the biggest of the island. They will direct you to beaches and other smaller towns in the area, instead. As I wandered around the streets of Heraklion, however, I discovered a pleasant town with a well-groomed seafront, squares with nice cafés and sophisticated restaurants, and some interesting monuments documenting the past of the island.
Harbour, Heraklion
Looking out at the sea from the fortifications

Unfortunately, when I was there both the Archeological Museum and the Historical museum where closed, and the Koulés, which is the square fortress you see at the end of the promenade in the pictures, was under restoration. This fortress, also called Rocca al Mare, was built by the Venetians in the early 13th century to defend the city, then part of the Serenissima. It is built in that kind of architectural style that you can see in other "Venetian" towns in the Adriatic and in the Mediterranean Sea, with the lion of St. Mark clearly visible. In Heraklion there are many other remainders of the Serenissima, for instance the Morosini Fountain, so called after an important  17th-century Captain-General of the Venetian army who during the siege of Candia (the Venetian name of the town) managed to keep the city for 23 years from the Turkish invasion. He later became doge of Venice, and incidentally he is the one who bombed the Parthenon and called it "a good shot".

Morosini Fountain, Heraklion
Morosini Fountain
In spite of past dominations, Heraklion maintains its own cultural identity: it is a very Greek and Cretan town. Here I had the best meal of my Greek trip, and I listened to traditional Cretan music in a local taverna with my couchsurfer and his friends.

The appeal of Heraklion lies nonetheless in the fact that it is so close to the ruins of Knossos palace. Wait for it in my next post!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Hiking the Samaria Gorge in Crete

Crete is not only about beaches: in the interior of the island there are in facts mountains that, even though they might not be the Himalayas, offer some good opportunities for hiking trips. They say that one of the experiences not to be missed in Crete is to hike the Samaria Gorge, which is the longest in Europe. Could I miss this opportunity? Certainly not, so I decided to do my first real hike, as my plane landed in Chania, the perfect base for the excursion.

Mountains in Crete
Mountains in Crete

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