Venice, a city of many stories

Venice is definitely a city to explore.  It has an incredible number of canals and walkways, and each time we would start our exploration from St Marks square.

Everyone I have spoken to about exploring Venice has told me how easy it is to get lost.  It has not happened to me, but with the infinite number of ways you can go, I guess it is possible.

We started our exploration of Venice in St Marks square, where, on one side there was the Museo di Palazzo Ducale and, next door, the Basilica di San Marco.  Early morning and/or at high tide, water can be seen bubbling up from under the square, partially flooding it.  I have seen this happen several times.  Each morning as we walked from the hotel (the time we stayed in the Savoia and Jolanda) we passed the Bridge of Sighs.

Around the other three sides of the square are archways and shops.  We have bought both confectionary and souvenirs from some of these stores, albeit relatively expensive.  Prices are cheaper in stores that are away from the square and we found some of these when we walked from St Marks square to the Railway station, through many walkways, and crossing many bridges, and passing through a number of small piazzas.  That day, after the trek, we caught the waterbus back to San Marco, and then went on the tour of the Museo di Palazzo Du which included the dungeons and the Bridge of Sighs from the inside.  It took a few hours, longer than I’d anticipated because there was so much to see.

The next day, we caught the waterbus from San Marco to the Ponte di Rialto bridge.  Just upstream from the wharf there was a very large passenger ship, and I noticed there were a number of passengers from the ship on the waterbus, one of whom spoke to us about visiting Venice.  I didn’t realize we looked like professional tourists who knew where we were going.    After a pleasant conversation, and taking in the views up and down the Grand Canal, we disembarked and headed for the bridge, looking at the shops, mostly selling upmarket and expensive gifts, and eventually crossing to the other side where there was a lot of small market type stalls selling souvenirs as well as clothes, and most importantly, it being a hot day, cold Limonata.  This was my first taste of Limonata and I was hooked.

Continuing on from there was a wide street at the end and a number of restaurants where we had lunch.  We had a map of Venice and I was going to plot a course back to the hotel, taking what would be a large circular route that would come out at the Accademia Bridge, and further on to the Terminal Fusina Venezia where there was another church to explore, the Santa Maria del Rosario.

It was useful knowledge for the second time we visited Venice because the waterbus from the Hilton hotel made its first stop, before San Marco, there.  We also discovered on that second visit a number of restaurants on the way from the terminal and church to the Accademia Bridge.

Items to note:

Restaurants off the beaten track were much cheaper and the food a lot different to that in the middle of the tourist areas.

There are a lot of churches, big and small, tucked away in interesting spots where there are small piazza’s.  You can look in all of them, though some asked for a small fee.

Souvenirs, coffee, and confectionary are very expensive in St Marks square.

New York, where getting there is a story in itself

It is an amazing coincidence that both times we have flown into New York, it is the day after the worst snow storms.

The first time, we were delayed out of Los Angeles and waited for hours before the plane left.  We had a free lunch and our first introduction to American hamburgers and chips.  Wow!

I had thought we had left enough time with connections to make it in time for New Year’s Eve, like four to five hours before.  As it turned out, we arrived in New York at 10:30, and thanks to continual updating with our limousine service, he was there to take us to the hotel.

The landing was rough, the plane swaying all over the place and many of the passengers were sick.  Blankets were in short supply!

We made it to the hotel, despite the snow, traffic, and the inevitable problems associated with NYE in New York, with enough time to throw our baggage in the room, put on our warm clothes, and get out onto the streets.  We could not go to Times Square but finished up at Central Park with thousands of others, in time to see the ball drop on a big screen, exchange new year’s greetings, and see the fireworks.

Then, as luck would have it, we were able to get an authentic New York hotdog, just before the police moved the vendor on, and our night was complete.

 

The second time we were the last plane out of Los Angeles to New York.  After waiting and waiting, we boarded, and then started circling the airport waiting for takeoff permission.  We stopped once to refuel, and then the pilot decided we were leaving.

This time we took our eldest granddaughter, who was 9 at the time, and she thought it was an adventure.  It was.

When we landed, we were directed to an older part of the airport, a disused terminal.  We were not the only plane to land, at about one in the morning, but one of about four.  The terminal building filled very quickly, and we were all waiting for baggage.  The baggage belts broke so there were a lot of porters bring the baggage in by hand.

One part of the terminal was just a sea of bags.  To find ours our granddaughter, who, while waiting, sat on top of the cabin baggage playing her DSI until the announcement our bags were available, walked across the top of the bags till she found them.  Thankfully no one was really looking in her direction.

Once again we kept our limousine service updated, and, once we knew what terminal we were at, he came to pick us up.  This time we arrived some days before NYE, so there was not so much of a rush.  We got to the hotel about 3:30 in the morning, checked in, and then went over the road to an all-night diner where we ordered hamburgers and chips.

And a Dr Pepper.

 

Next:  New York after a snow storm.

So you think research is fun?

Hotels can also be one of the major let downs of a trip for whatever reason.  If you are going to use a travel agent to pick a hotel for you, make sure you check as much as you can because no matter how it is described, seeing it, in reality, is always completely different than the pictures in a brochure and sometimes on the Internet. 

It requires research and a good look at TripAdvisor.  Or word of mouth by someone you know and trust who has stayed there.

Take, for instance, staying in a five-star hotel, the usual stomping ground of the rich and famous.  It is always interesting to see how the less privileged fare.  Where hotel staff are supposed to treat each guess equally it is not always the case.  Certainly, if you’re flashing money around, the staff will be happy to take it though you may not necessarily get what you’re expecting.

Currently, we are lucky to be in the highest loyalty level and this affords us a number of privileges; this time working in our favour.  But it’s not always the case.  Privilege can sometimes count for nothing.  It often depends on the humour of the front desk clerk and woe betide you if you get the receptionist from hell.

Been there, done that, more than once.

Then there is the room.  There is such a wide variety of rooms available even if the hotel site or brochure had representative pictures the odds are you can still get a room that is nothing like you’re expecting or was promised.  Believe me, there are rooms with a view, overlooking pigeon coops or air-conditioning vents.  And if you’re lucky, at Niagara Falls, it might be that six inches of window space that allows a very limited view of the falls.  Still, why should I complain, you can see the Falls can you not?

Then, if there is one, there is access to the lounge, usually bestowed upon high-level loyalty members, and those who win the check-in lottery.  Yes, guests can be ‘selected’ to be given lounge privileges.  I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes having a high level in loyalty does not necessarily get you lounge access.

Kind of beats the purpose of being loyal does it not?

A bone of contention often can be the location of the hotel and sometimes parking facilities, not the least of which is the cost of Valet parking.  In some cities, it is astronomical, which, on top of the cost of the hire car, can be a reason to select a more convenient hotel in the inner city area.

This time we are reasonably near transport, yes, if we could walk the distance (which feels like the length of a marathon) to the nearest bus or tram stop.  The problem is we both have trouble with knees and ankles and walking distances are difficult at the best of times, and for us, it is a long, long way when you can’t walk and that’s when the hotel starts to feel like a prison.  Taxis may be cheap but when you have to use them three or four times a day it all adds up.

Also, be wary when a hotel says it is close to public transport.  While that may be true in London, anywhere else and especially in Europe, you could find yourself in the middle of nowhere.  It’s when you discover your travel agent didn’t exactly lie but it is why that weekly rate was so cheap.  In the end, the sum of the taxi fares and the accommodation turns out to be dearer that if you stayed at the Savoy or the Ritz, or the Waldorf Astoria.

Unfortunately, I still can’t afford to stay at the latter hotel.

So airline, hire car and hotel aside those front line experiences are fodder for the travel blogger, these people who are also known as road warriors.

I wondered why until we started travelling and discovered the incredible highs and lows, of flying, yes there are good and bad airlines and the bad are not confined to the low cost, of rental cars and of hotels.  There is a very large gulf between five stars and three and sometimes three can be very generous.  And of course, l now have a list of hotels l would never stay in again, the names of which might surprise you.  That said, five stars sometimes can be two too many.

And those hotels who have self-rated themselves, well, that’s another story altogether.

 

When everything goes according to plan, or has it?

We manage to arrive early at the airport.  Rather than wait three hours for our flight we decide to try and get on an earlier departure.  This will depend on our ticket type and whether there are seats available, preferably together.

We line up in the service queue, which by its very description means you have a long wait as service is mostly between difficult to impossible depending on the request.  We wait for twenty minutes.  There’s a long queue behind us.  Our request is taken care of quickly and efficiently making it almost seamless, certainly painless.  I’m sure our request was one of the very few easy ones the staff will get.

Today it seems it is our lucky day.  The transfer to an earlier flight is free and there are two seats available together.  All we have to do is alert the pickup driver at our destination we are going to be an hour earlier.  Done.

Checking in bags is usually the bane of the traveller’s existence.  No matter which airport in whatever country you are departing from the only difference is the length of the queue; from incredibly long with a half hour wait to the head of the line to up to an hour.  Our queue is 15 to 20 minutes.

One assumes this is why intending passengers are asked to go to the airport two hours ahead of their fight.  There are times of the day where the queues are horrendous, and that not only applies to Heathrow.

And if you are late, just panic.

And if your bags are overweight be prepared to have your credit card hammered.  Especially if you’re flying Air France from Venice to Paris.

Now it’s time to relax.  There is an hour before we have to be at the gate so just enough time to get coffee and a doughnut.

And be horrified at what shops charge for simple items like sandwiches.  I think $10 is very expensive.  But if you’re hungry and forgot to eat before getting to the airport then be prepared to pay more than you usually would for the same fare.

It’s also time to observe our fellow passengers, and there is always the one who has a last minute dash for a plane that is just about to leave, passengers with panic-stricken looks.  We all know what happens if you miss the flight even as you’re downing that last cocktail in the airline lounge while thinking, yes they’ll hold the flight for me!

Apparently not, these days, because airlines want to keep their ‘on time’ record.

Even so, there’s still three more calls for the missing passengers and then nothing.  If they missed the plane then their problems are just beginning.  It’s the same feeling you have when your name is called out before the flight starts loading.  Only once have we been called up and given an upgrade, and once in the US to be told we could take another flight because our flight was overbooked.  Business class was greatly appreciated and was worth the extra hour we had to wait.

The next bottleneck is the scanners and sometimes the queue here is very long and moving slowly because the scanners are set to pick up belts and shoes so people are scattered everywhere getting redressed and putting shoes on.  Today being a weekday the queue is not so bad.

Loading is painless and reasonably organized except when the passengers in high numbered rows try to board by the front door instead of the rear door and clash midway in the plane.  After they untangle themselves and get to their seats we’re ready to go.

This flight still has a manual safety demonstration which most people ignored but is slightly better than the video demonstration.  Let’s hope we don’t go down over the water.  I’ve charted my path to the emergency exit and l have quite a few people before me.  I guess there’s more than one way to be last off the plane.

Sometimes you get to pick who you get to sit next to, especially if you are travelling with your partner which this time I am, but in a three-seat arrangement you have no control over who takes that third seat.  We are lucky this time because it will not become a tight squeeze but unfortunately, our fellow traveller has a cold and in a confined space for several hours it could turn out to be a problem.

But, in the end, the flight is smooth, the snacks edible.  Unfortunately, there is no liquor service like the full-service rival but that might be a good thing.  No air rage on this flight.

Time flies, pardon the pun, and we have arrived.  Even though it took forever for the baggage to be delivered we still got home early.

Until the next time we fly.

Conversations with my cat – 36

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This is Chester.  He’s still the same grumpy cat I left 12 days ago.

He hasn’t even had the courtesy to ask how the holiday was.

But, despite his surliness, I’m happy to tell him all about it.

And, I know he’s listening, even when he’s pretending not to.  After 16 years, he’s losing his edge.

So…

China for the uninitiated.

The cats are different.  Met one, just like you, except it had a different face.  No, it didn’t speak Chinese, but then neither do I so it could have been saying anything and I wouldn’t know.

But the angry face, yep, just like yours.

We climbed up a wall, much the same as you drive me up the wall, but these steps are steeper and not all the same height.

We visited statues, and no, they didn’t speak, they were made of terracotta.  No, you have no idea what terracotta is, and neither do I though I suspect it’s some form of clay to begin with.

And for some odd reason the emperor wanted to kill all the workers to keep his statues a secret and look how that turned out, and few acres that make up a huge jigsaw puzzle.  Perhaps he would have more luck rounding up the cats and making statues out of them.

Ah, now I have his attention.

No, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.  Boring stuff, you know, a few high-speed train rides, boring museums that had stuff thousands of years old, restaurants that didn’t serve cat food, hotels that would barely fit a cat (no I didn’t try swinging one as a measurement guide), and it was hot.  And cars, you would not survive longer than two minutes on one of their roads.

You try dodging 4.8 million cars.

And those silent assassins, the electric scooters driven by madmen who stop for nothing.

OK, you can stop looking for the tyre marks; I was quick enough to get out of the way.

Travel is part of the story – Greve in Chianti, a perfect setting for a story

When we decided we were going to stay in Tuscany for a few days it was necessary to select a central place to stay.

What I researched first before selecting what would be a central location, was tours.  I considered doing a cooking tour but these turned out to be quite expensive so we decided to look at other types of tours.

Bus tours went out of Florence so our initial intention was to stay there.  We’d been there before and stayed at the Hotel Brunelleschi and loved it.  It is perfectly situated in Florence, especially for discovering the city by foot.

Then I found an interesting tour company, Very Tuscany Tours, run by Sara and Andrea, two people who specialize in showing visitors the Tuscany area and I thought; what could be better than tour guides with local knowledge?

So began an exchange of emails, the upshot being that it would cost less if we stayed in Greve.  On that basis, we booked two personalized tours so we could see notable landmarks, scenery, a number of wineries, and sample the real food of Italy.

The tours fulfilled our expectations, and then some.

But back to Greve in Chianti.

We booked an apartment at Antica Pastifico, an old converted pasta factory, a room in fact with a name.  Ours was called ‘Iris’ located on the first floor of the yellow pasta factory.

It was the middle of June and summer so the days were very hot and the evenings were cool and one night it rained.  It was beautiful to watch the raindrops on the terracotta tiles, and take in the aroma of the rain interacting with nature through open windows, and feel the gentle breeze in your face.

It was equally delightful in the morning, to look out over the garden and take in the early morning coolness and scent of the flowers whilst getting ready for the day.

There was a church, The Santa Croce church, at the top of the Piazza Matteotti which we could see from our apartment, and every morning at 8:00 am the bells would sound, making it a much more effective of being woken up than the usual conventional means.  Sadly we never got to visit the church.

Where the apartments were situated it was a five minute walk to the shops and a particular coffee shop where we went every morning for coffee and cake.

A walk on the other side of the square took us past a bakery where every morning the aroma of newly baked bread pulled you in.  There’s something about Italian bread …

Further around was a butcher shop, Antica Marcelleria Falorni, with an incredible collection of meat, small goods and cheese that made selection almost impossible.

Suffice to say our diet mostly consisted of wine, cheese, salami and bread.  It was also served at all the wineries we visited with their wine tastings.  One of the interesting facts is how good the inexpensive wine is and it was not difficult overindulge.

From our visits to several wineries we learned a great deal about the Sangiovese grape and the wine made from these grapes.  Apparently only a small group of wineries can market their wines as Chianti and to prove it is authentic the label has a distinctive cockerel motive on its label.  There is the Chianti Classico and the Chianti Classico Riserva that interested us the most.

There were several restaurants on the piazza and one in particular had my favorite version of pasta, wild boar.  Although the apartment had a full kitchen it was easier to go out and eat rather than cook for ourselves.  We did attempt to cook breakfast several mornings after finding a type of supermarket, Coops, tucked away several streets from the Piazza.

But as for the location of Greve in Chianti, it is very central to all the major tourist spots such as Siena, San Gimignano, and Arezzo.  We visited both Siena and San Gimignano a second time this trip having stayed for three days in San Gimignano as our central base the last time we were in Tuscany.

The only downside to the latest visit was that it was not long enough but isn’t that true of any holiday?

Waiting, perhaps, for the robots to come to life – maybe?

It seems that we spend nearly as much time waiting as some of us do sleeping.  In fact, I’ve been known to be sleeping while waiting.

What is it in this era of mechanization and computerization that we still have to wait.  Is it the human element that is still holding us back?

But, hang on, isn’t it the human element that creates the mechanization and computerization?  Perhaps we are building in redundancy so that we are not replaced by the very things we are creating to make our lives easier?

We don’t have robots who can perform the same tasks as a GP doctor because we still need the human factor, and since one size does not fit all, no consultation can ever be fit into a specific time frame so there will always be waiting especially as the day wears on.

We cannot completely automate phone call answering except for the part where you are put in a queue and told your call is important and then you sit there listening to some awful music, seemingly forgotten

There will always be hundreds of calls in a queue for the most important services. or when you need an answer in a hurry, because only a few people are available to answer the phone.  Robots will not be able to answer calls either, because once again, only a real person can respond to the randomness of callers questions.

Artificial intelligence only works in science fiction.

Then there is the time we spend waiting at traffic lights, and then, even when the lights are with us, in traffic jams.  We are still stumped by trying to find an all-conquering answer to moving masses of people, either by the roads or by public transport.

The latter is all too frequently suffering delays and congestion due to the number of services needed and decaying networks and infrastructure, all of which is only going to get worse, with, of course, longer delays and more waiting.

Maybe the answer is to work from home but sadly the internet, that so-called answer to all our off-site networking, is not going to cope, and in fact, in this country, our latest update is a retrograde step on speed and availability, ie more waiting and less work.

Waiting, it seems, we are stuck with it whether we like it or not.  Good thing then our lives are longer.  But, if we delve into the mystery of longer lives now against what they were back when there was less waiting, maybe we still have the same amount of life, and the fact we’re living longer is negated by all the waiting.

I’m sure we didn’t have to wait very long for anything a hundred years ago.

Just saying.