Italy: Venice

Everyone knows Venice. The gondolas, the canals, San Marco Piazza and all those pigeons. I hadn’t been to Venice before but it had made a good impression on Luke and he wanted me to see it too.

Right before our trip two of our friends had visited Venice and written about it online separately. Both had mentioned the crowds. Sarah had said that you just needed to get off the beaten path to avoid them, whereas Steve had been so put off that he recommended avoiding the place altogether. Too late, though – we had our train and accommodation booked so off we went. I’m not a big fan of crowds so I would say that my expectations were pretty low.
We’d booked a hostel near San Marco, the busiest spot in the whole city and we walked from the train station across the island with our big packs on our backs. After sending many things home and finally ditching our two person sleeping bag that was taking up about a third of my backpack, carrying my stuff is becoming much easier and we walked for perhaps an hour carrying about 20kgs each. Not a bad effort!
The crowds were pretty intense in parts on that first day. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and walked the busiest route, from the station via the Rialto bridge to San Marco then down the waterfront to our hostel. However as soon as we turned off the waterfront the little alleys and piazzas were very quiet and the charm of Venice became apparent.

So many window boxes full of flowers. Gorgeous!

I’d bought a map of the islands at the train station and it is truly a wonder to behold. The place is a real warren, few streets even run parallel. Most bend and twist and alleys that look like dead ends turn out to have a tiny passageway that joins you up to another square or a bridge. It’s quite magical.
Venice became even more enchanting the first evening when we went for a walk and found the city almost deserted. There were at least 5 gargantuan cruise ships moored near the city during our stay and many of the tourists stay off the island on the mainland where you can get much nicer accommodation for less.

Coincidentally, the day after we left Venice we saw on the news a story about people protesting these huge ships coming into the Venice lagoon. Would be ironic if it’s an environmental issue considering the standard Venetian practice is to throw all cigarette butts into the water.

This means that everyone’s pretty much gone by 8 or 9pm and you can wander without meeting more than a few dog walkers or delivery men. Even in San Marco there were only a couple of restaurants open and a few people gathered to listen to some musicians play by street light.
Needless to say, we bought gelato.
We had two full days to spend. The first we walked around the city and I got to do one of my favourite activities – orienteering! With the map and my trusty compass I navigated us via back streets and alleys to a few well known sights including the Peggy Guggenheim museum, which was not really worth the price of entry (unless you’re a big fan of surrealism and abstract art – which I don’t mind and do appreciate but the cost of entry was too high for such a small collection), although the trip was not wasted because on the way we passed a church that was having a free exhibition of work by a Chinese artist who really appealed to Luke and I. I’d describe it as fantasy-realism. A fascinating juxtaposition of lifelike portraits with backgrounds that depicted collages of objects, natural scenes, space and beautiful colours.

Stunning!

The second day we spent visiting two islands, Murano and Burano. Murano is home to famous glass-blowing factories. Although the island itself was very pretty the glass was… gosh. How do I put this nicely? Tacky as all get-out. Really, truly awful. There was very little that was even slightly appealing. Compared to the delicate precision and restrained tastefulness of Waterford, or the colourful organic exuberance of Turkish ceramics, I can’t say the stuff at Murano appealed to me at all. The worst of the lot of was the thick coloured glass chandeliers. Actually, no. The very worst thing I saw was a glass pillar on which sat a life sized glass eagle. Still, it was nice to see that while Italians might have a firm grasp on food, architecture, paintings and fashion, they aren’t perfect;-).

Sorry about the dreadful photo with all those reflections but you get the idea. I didn’t look at the price tag but how would anyone stupid enough to buy this be smart enough to earn enough money to buy this? Paradox!

I did like this funky big blue sculpture in the middle of town.

The second island, Burano, was an absolute delight. Traditionally the home of fishermen and lace makers, every house on the island is painted a bright colour and it was a photographer’s dream. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here. All I could think was ‘I want to stucco my house and paint it ludicrously bright colours… but which colours?!’.

Squee!

Heads up: when I rule the world you’ll all be forced to paint your houses like this.

My house will be this colour.

I love how the church is the only building not conforming.

We had a delicious lunch then caught the sea bus back to Venice.

Pizza-licious.

Speaking of food, we opted for dinner and some Newsroom to finish off the day in our hostel so we went to the local Co-op Supermarket and I bought a bag of salad leaves and a tin of tuna for dinner while Luke finished of the cereal we’d bought. The green salads – just a mix of baby rocket, tatsoi and a few other leafy greens, have been one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Italy. I often feel disappointed when eating out in Melbourne and salads are presented full of leaves that are too old, bitter and wilted. Italians *get* a green salad. Tiny leaves, freshly picked, a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic. The beauty of so much of the food we’ve had here has been in its perfect simplicity. It’s been such a pleasure to eat leaves here that I’m already dreaming of getting some styrafoam boxes for growing my own salad mixes at home, hopefully year round.

So the verdict on Venice? I loved it. It’s a city that’s all about walking, which is my favourite way of getting around, and it’s hard to turn a corner without seeing something worth photographing.

Why is old stuff so cool?

Italy as a whole was lovely. Sure, there’s things not to like – people throwing cigarette butts everywhere, the spitting, begging, the ubiquitous dog mess. But the downs are definitely outweighed by the good stuff – the food, the fact that people aren’t generally trying to pull you into their shops (a very nice change after Turkey), the art, architecture and relaxed atmosphere. I think the secret to the generally excellent physiques of the locals (people here are definitely noticeably fitter than at home) is that walking is a big part of the culture here, which suits us just fine. I think we’ve been walking at least 12 kms a day and are feeling all the better for it.
So thanks, Italy! You’ve been grand.

Can you believe Luke thought this would make me look stupid? Old man.

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Turkey: Istanbul

After six weeks in Africa on what I came to think of as the ‘plague truck’ and not getting ill, I was most dismayed to develop a cold and cough a couple of days into our stay in Istanbul. I didn’t really get the most out of the city, particularly since we stayed an extra two nights after Nikki and Leigh left, just to see more stuff. Still, we did make it to a few notable sights and the place certainly made a good impression.

The view from our first apartment.

The weather was pretty good – a trifle hot but it was August after all, and the nights were cooler. Our first apartment had 70 steps to climb (and me with 20kgs of luggage), so I was very happy that our second place was on the ground floor. We chose the ‘Cheers Hostel’, very close to the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. Mosques in Istanbul were much quieter than Dar Es Salaam and provided more of a nice touch of  distant foreign flavour rather than a blare of tinny screeching at 4am.

In the ‘old city’ where we stayed at Cheers, there were some really beautiful buildings. Turkish people know how to go to town with colour and I’ve been totally inspired with regards to home furnishings and craft projects for when I get home.

If unicorns became architects they’d design houses like this.

At night all the lamp shops and bars with lamps and just general abundance of lamps made the place look magical. I may have even bought a few lamps myself, but about 97 less that I actually wanted.

Lucas, Luke and I decided to buy a ticket for a ‘hop on hop off’ bus to see more of the city. It was a bit rubbish, to be honest. The buses seemed to run in different directions each time we got on so there was some back tracking and the recorded commentary was dreadful. For a city with three thousand years of history you’d think there’d be something interesting to say but I can remember almost none of it – and usually trivia sticks in my mind. Heck, with an hour on the internet *I* could’ve done a better tour.

Every time I saw the Istanbul horizon I thought of football because of the pairs of minarets, which is ludicrous because I don’t even think about football when I see people playing football.

However the tour, for a small extra cost, came with a boat trip that we took in the evening. Despite looking like we were going to be crammed aboard a boat like sardines into a can (although that’s a bad simile, because if the can sank the sardines would’ve been fine, unlike us) it turned out that there were multiple boats and the view was great and the guide was ok too. Although I was feeling rather sorry for myself by this point and fell asleep for part of it, the boat did go under a bridge that was huge and did fantastic light displays every half hour with a huge number of LEDs. We’d seen it from our Taksim apartment but getting to get right up close to it was excellent.

This photo does it no justice at all.

Apart from that I basically slept most of the days away or dragged myself around like a snot-producing zombie. One of the things I did quite like was the Basilica Cistern, a huge cavern underneath the middle of Istanbul which was, as the name suggests, a water storage area.

About 1500 years old, it shows how we really don’t make things like we used to. Plus there were big fat fish swimming in the metre or so of water under the walkways. They were a bit creepy. Apparently the place was used in ‘From Russia With Love’, many years ago.

Apart from that Istanbul was notable for the vast number of cats everywhere, the fact that everyone’s brother/cousin/uncle’s-father’s-former-roomate-in-college had a carpet shop we should definitely visit, and the foooooooood. Turkish food is great – and dramatic. They do this thing called a ‘testes kebab’ (yes, I know what you’re thinking, but no!) which is a casserole cooked in a clay pot and then the pot is broken when served. We have also been loving the turkish delight and baklava. I’ve always thought baklava seemed like a good idea but never really had much of it. Until now!

On the topic of food, but only just, Lucas and Luke became addicted to something I dubbed the ‘squishy burger’. These were sold at street side kebab and sandwich vendors and would be stacked, pre-made in a bain-marie. They looked … well, you can see for yourself.

Bun, meat and tomato sauce, left to sit in a glass cabinet all day. It’s hard to believe nothing went wrong.

Not exactly appetising. But they were super cheap (the equivalent of $1 each I think) and I’m ashamed to say that I, too, thought they tasted alright. I limited myself to a single one but the boys had at least one a day, by my reckoning.

I’d like to assure all the parents out there reading this that we ate this kind of thing more frequently:


Farewell drinks with Nikki and Leigh.

Next stop: Cappadocia!

Reykjavik

We spent our first full day on Iceland looking around Reykjavik. For reasons known only to themselves, the company we booked our self-drive trip through booked us into accommodation 40 minutes out of town so it was a bit of a drive back. I was still sick so, while I was glad that it was a bright, sunny day, I was also not feeling my best and my eyes were watering the whole time from the blinding brightness of the near-arctic sun.

First stop, after immediately finding a park right where we wanted for the first time since leaving Australia, was Harpa, the very new and shiny entertainment/conference venue in the middle of town. I’d seen pictures of it in the inflight magazine on the way over and thought to take a look.

Fortunately nothing in Reykjavik is outside of walking distance, so we found it in moments and went inside to take a look. It was like I’d imagine bees would do large scale architecture.

Reykjavik’ll make you… jump, jump!

Then we wandered around town and found a fantastic little skate park full of great graffiti. Later on in the day we walked past again and it was full of families of all ages plus young people in groups hanging out and being a bit rowdy. Everyone around town just seemed to want to be outside in the sun.

We walked over to Roadhouse Burgers, which I’d recommend if you’re not on a budget (heck, I wouldn’t recommend Iceland if you’re on a tight budget) because it was definitely the best meal we’ve eaten so far. Then it was up to Iceland’s most recognisable piece of architecture, their very modern Lutheran church.

The rocket-shaped church with a statue of Leif Erikson in front, a gift from the USA to the ‘original discoverer’ of America. Except for all those pesky native people, of whom Leif himself wrote upon his return to Iceland.

You’ll have to forgive me regarding the paucity of photos at the moment. The internet is slooooow anywhere outside the capital and we haven’t even been able to connect the last few days.

The church looks cool but the inside is as bare as the outside and, after all the gilt and marble of other European churches, it looks sort of unfinished. Maybe needs some paint rather than the bare concrete, I don’t know.

Next we walked down the hill to a bar that had been recommended by a friend of a friend – ‘Lebowski’s’ and of course all the decor was movie themed. It was a bit cheesy but we had a drink anyhow and gave our feet a rest.

The final thing on my to do list for the day was look at some Icelandic wool stuff, even just buy a couple of balls of wool and some needles to keep me occupied. Well. Wool here is nasty, nasty stuff. The locals seem to take great pride in it but I couldn’t feel much difference between the wool jumpers and one of those coir doormats. Blurgh.

We spent the last couple of hours before the show we’d plan to see in the evening, sitting in the foyer of Harpa on a couch is the sun reading our kindles.

The show Luke had found out about was a one hour, one person history of Iceland, performed in the back room of a pub. And we were the only audience, which wasn’t as weird as you’d think, especially after we had a chat with the girl performing it. The show was pretty good, too, although there were a few slow bits. Thanks to my reading a history of Iceland before we came I already knew a fair bit of it but being able to ask questions afterwards was helpful.

I was most interested in hearing about the traditional turf houses and the way in which people lived before modern times. I was told that the last people to move out of turf houses (which mostly had no electricity or plumbing) did so around the 60’s and 70’s. Which meant that there might still be people alive today who transitioned from what was, essentially, a medieval lifestyle to one that involved cars, microwaves and the internet. This boggles my mind in so many ways and I’m not even sure why I find it so enthralling. I think it reminds me of that 80’s movie, Encino Man and how I always wished I could be there to see how someone from the past reacted to all the changes that have occurred over the last X centuries. Either that or I could travel into the future and boggle at what has become of the human race.

I guess travel is a bit like that. You see people living in the technological past and also in elements of the future. You see inventions that amaze you and conditions that appall you. It certainly makes every day interesting.

Budgeting, Iceland

It’s hard to know where to begin when writing about Iceland. I think I’ll leave the scenery for my next post and write about what’s been uppermost in my mind and our conversations when we’ve not been staring, goggle-eyed, at what’s around us.

It’s the thing you can’t help but notice here and it’s something that comes up in most conversations and definitely at meal times – the cost of being here. Food is the most noticeable thing because you’re shelling out for it several times a day. We had the buffet at the restaurant over the road from our hotel two nights ago and it was $52 AUD each (it’s handy that Krona converts to AUD of you drop two zeros). That was $52 for a bowl of soup, a choice of 4 kinds of fish, 2 lamb dishes, salad and some potato bake. No dessert, no drinks. We did pilfer a few chocolates from beside the coffee and tea stand. Tonight’s hotel is $55 for a buffet also. We’ll be having jam sandwiches in our room.

On our first full day here we had lunch at ‘The Roadhouse’, an American style diner in Reykjavik. The food was fantastic but my pulled-pork burger and chips was $18. The most expensive burger on the menu was $35. We were both a bit shell shocked.

Luke’s burger had macaroni cheese in it along with all the regular stuff. Win!

Petrol here is about $2.50 AUD a litre. Fortunately we’re driving a Micra so it’s not as bad as it could be, but everything here except seeing the amazing natural wonders costs a bomb.

I thought it might be handy for people who are thinking of coming here to know what we’ve spent and a few ideas on cost cutting.

Firstly, we booked a self drive tour. Since we needed an automatic that put up the price by a couple of hundred dollars, but for all our hotels (pretty basic, half are shared bathrooms but all have private rooms) ad the car hire it was about $1400 each.

I’d say we’ve spent, on average, about $50 per day on food. We’ve had a few expensive meals, but we’ve also had breakfast included each day (and a sneaky person can make themselves up a take away sandwich), which can fill you up til mid afternoon if you go heavy on the cold meats and eggs. Then we share a plate of something or buy pre-made rolls for lunch (they’re about $7 each and some are nice and others are awful but there’s rarely much choice, particularly at the cafes that are at tourist attractions – go for petrol stations if you can) and last night we ate corn chips and salsa dip for dinner with a movie in our room. Except for mixers with our spirits we’ve been mostly drinking water from bottles we’re refilling at our hotels.

If you’re traveling to Iceland I’d highly recommend filling your suitcase with long lasting food (like fruit and nuts, tinned tuna, etc) so that you’ve got snacks until you find somewhere you want to eat. Not having snacks the first few days meant that we were pretty desperate by the time we found somewhere and felt that we had to pay whatever they asked. If you can spin out your bought meals with some groceries you’ll save heaps. For example, today I got a fishburger and chips and Luke made chip sandwiches using bread from the supermarket. That burger, btw, was $14.

I think my main recommendation, if you like a few drinks, would be to use your duty free allowance before you leave wherever it is you’re traveling to Iceland from. Use it good. Iceland Air don’t seem to care about you having a bag of duty-free as extra carry-on and you could probably get away with bringing in several bottles if you so chose. We bought two one litre bottles and were enormously glad we did when it turned out that one small bottle of cider was $10 – same for beer or a small glass of wine. And the wine was awful.

Alcohol is also quite hard to get. There’s only 12 government-owned stores in the capital and I’ve not seen any anywhere else. Our hotel today sells small bottles of beer, wine and cider from a fridge by the reception desk but that is the only time I’ve seen it for sale outside a restaurant in the last 4 days. I wanted to have a drink somewhere scenic on midsummer’s night and was very, very glad I’d prepared everything much earlier.

As to buying stuff other than food, booze and accommodation, forget about it. I had a vague idea about buying a nice wooly jumper or hat or something as a momento but the choice is between the ubiquitous so-scratchy-I-think-the-sheep-grow-steel-wool jumpers and lovely angora clothing, both of which are INSANELY expensive. I found a nice sweater dress, simple and black – $328. The average wooly hat is around $60 but with fur you’re looking at around $400. That’s right FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS. Just buy a postcard and be done.

I’d say our trip has probably cost us around $2500 each for the 9 days. You could possibly do cheaper accommodation by camping every second night (but you’d want to pray for good weather) as camping seems to be free here (don’t quote me on that) and buying all your food from supermarkets but even if you do it fairly budget like we have it’s never going to be a cheap place to visit.

After all this whinging though, it’s still been TOTALLY worth it.

Iceland! (Luke)

Figured I may as well give my first impressions of Iceland as well. Amanda’s may have been the toilets at the airport, but mine was the plane! We flew Iceland Air. They had comfortable seats and a good amount of leg room, plus a decent selection of entertainment. I watched Fantastic Mr. Fox (passable) and The Campaign (which, while being an average movie on the whole, had one scene which was so funny that I was crying with laughter, and rewound it just to show Amanda). The seat also had a USB port, presumably for charging devices. The in-flight magazine also said they were getting the planes equipped with wireless internet this year. Soft drink, coffee and tea were complimentary, anything alcoholic you had to pay for. Which is perfectly fine on a flight of less than three hours. So; Iceland Air – two thumbs up!

I do have to mention the airport toilets as well though. Everything was so white and minimalistic, I felt like I was in a Stanley Kubrick film. Clean and streamlined, though, I’ll give them that. The other thing I found strange was that there was no separate arrivals and departures area, so on the way to baggage claim I was walking past gates that had people boarding as well as arriving.

We picked up our rental car and hit the road, traveling to our destination of Hveragerdi, which is an hour from the airport and about 40 minutes from Reykjavik.

Driving here is a bit of a mixed bag. I don’t really enjoy driving all that much, but when I do enjoy it I’m usually on a highway, going fast, not needing to change directions or make navigational decisions, and either happily overtaking people or going a little under the limit and watching everyone else jostle for position. The limit on most UK motorways is 70mph, or 112km/h. Van Failen isn’t the best at high speeds – when he slowly but surely reaches 70mph the steering wheel vibrates so violently that it’s indecent – but he does the job and gets us there, so far without issue.

Here they’ve given us a brilliantly sporty little Nissan Micra which wants to blast off the line at the slightest touch of the pedal – pretty much the opposite of what I’m used to with Van Failen. Not only that but in Iceland they have huge stretches of open road that are fairly empty. They’re begging to be driven on at speed. But the speed limit here is 90km/h on sealed roads. When the weather is good, this feels woefully slow, especially after the UK. However their driving conditions can change drastically, and after driving a short stretch in the pelting rain, I was happy for an excuse to do no more than 80km/h. I imagine in the winter time it can get even worse.

Driving on the wrong side of the road for the first time definitely made me nervous, but nowhere near the level that narrow and single-lane roads have done in the UK. I have at least played computer games where I have needed to drive in a lawful manner on the other side of the road, so my brain has been put to the task of reversing everything before. Additionally, I’m a very new driver (just shy of two years), so left-side driving isn’t as ingrained in me as it is with Amanda – this makes it easier for me to switch.

Anyhow we got to the hotel without incident, and after checking in I went for a wander to scope out the small town, grab a bite to eat and withdraw some cash. I’m always eager to see new currency, and the Iceland Krona (ISK) is fairly spiffy.

Iceland Krona

Icelandic Króna (ISK)

The coins all feature different aquatic animals. Currently, it’s 111 ISK to 1 AUD. I purchased a plain hot dog and a bottle of coke from one of the stores here and it set me back 590 ISK ($5.30 AUD). That’s not too bad, but generally speaking the prices of things here are fairly high. We’re going to have to keep an eye on our wallets! Luckily the main thing we want to do is sight seeing, and that’ll only cost us petrol… which costs on average 248.55 ISK ($2.23 AUD) per litre. Lucky it’s a small island!

The Harry Potter Studio Tour plus our very first prize giveaway!

Firstly, a plug for two blogs that are not only about travel and exotic places but are also well written and full of lovely photos; www.followtheopenroad.wordpress.com and www.lucasthenomad.com. Over the next couple of months the three of us will be crossing paths and traveling together and it’s going to turn into whatever the blog equivalent of cross pollination is. Or something. While that doesn’t, on the surface, sound exciting, trust me. It’ll be awesome to get in now on the ground level and bond with some extremely likeable characters.
Anyhoo, on to our latest adventure…
…ooo000ooo…
In preparation for visiting the Warner Bros Studios in Watford, north of London, I’d watched all but the first of the Harry Potter movies within the last 2 months. I hadn’t seen them before – I’d been unimpressed with the first movie but as I’d been told the studio tour was well worth doing (thanks for the tip, Linda!) Luke and I spent some of our quiet days between playing tourist watching them on his laptop.
I’m glad we did.

Diagon Alley

The tour was terrific, well, except for the first part, where you spend half an hour in line with eleventy-billion other people. You can’t just turn up to the studio – in fact you can’t get into the carpark without a ticket. We had booked for the 1:30 session. My tip for people thinking of going is to set your date several months in advance and book the first session (10am) or book any time in the day and turn up first thing. They don’t seem to mind letting people in early but it’s probably be better to be organised.
After a long wait in the queue we were ushered into a plain room in a large group and had a guide speak to us and show us a short introductory film while we stood up, then it was into a theatre to sit down and watch a longer film (not much longer) before entering Hogwarts main hall. I imagine they do this to space out groups but it’s also a good introduction and builds some excitement for what you’re about to see.
After the dining hall where some costumes are displayed, there are two large studios full of well-signed displays of props, movie displays, many costumes, latex masks, all kinds of things – in fact just about everything. You can stand in front of the house on Privet Drive, walk through the wooden covered bridge that is part of Hogwarts… the collection includes pretty much everything you could want to see. My favourite part was the cardboard sculptures of all the buildings and the conceptual art paintings. And of course the giant model of Hogwarts that was used for many of the CG shots.

Set schematics. There was a whole room just devoted to these.

Mum and I took about 2 and a half hours to go through, Luke a bit less than 4 but he had paid extra for the audio visual guide and so had more to listen to.
There were lots of interesting bits of info – boards with photos describing the animals used in the films and the fact that each of the staff had their names inscribed on the end of a box in Olivander’s Wand Shop. There were 17,000 boxes altogether in the shop and each had its own unique, hand made label.
The first and last thing we did was look in the gift shop. There was quite a range of merchandise… in fact it was probably the most extensive merch store I’ve ever seen. It was funny to overhear people talking about buying wands for display in their lounge rooms. I’m not sure I’d ever achieve that level of fandom about anything.
I bought a packet of every flavoured beans for my nephews and some chocolate bees. Mum will take them back for me, although I wish I could be there to see their faces when they try the dirt and earwax flavours.
Speaking of Mum, she had only read one of the books and seen none of the movies and still said it was a great day out. She really enjoyed watching the interviews with the directors and what each had tried to bring out in their movie/s.

This model of Buckbeak breathed and moved a little.

So our verdict was that although nearly 30 pounds seems a bit pricey, you get a lot for your money and it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re even mildly interested in the films… or even if you’re just interested in films in general. Luke paid extra for the guide – you got the hand held device plus a guide book to keep (which he forgot to pick up when we left) and it’s probably worth getting if you’re a big fan.
All in all a good day.
Also – I bought 5 postcards and have no idea who to send them to. If you’re a Harry Potter fan leave a note and I’ll send one to the first five replies (you might have to email me your address to a1lenon at yahoo dot com). It may also be worth noting that there’s a series of Dr Who stamps available here in the UK right now so if you want a particular doctor on your postcard I’ll see what I can do.
Now we’re off camping for a week so I’ll post said cards (should anyone be interested) when we get back to civilisation.