Raindrops splattered the windscreen like sound effects in a kid’s comic. The summer storm had intensified and visibility was quickly changing from irritatingly poor to downright dangerous. From the back of the car came a half hearted grumble. Einstein didn’t much care for rain at the best of times. This current assault had triggered the rear wipers he detested and he was making his feelings clear.
We’d done a lot of car trips, Einstein and I. My parents had a house on the Mosel and we were regular visitors. We had an understanding. In silence, Einstein would endure the ferry crossing and the many hours in the car. As his reward, we took long, companionable walks. I would order a tub of ice cream at one of the riverside cafes and he would bury his nose into it and lick it clean. Together, we explored castles and bought wine. Not once had his wagging tail knocked a bottle over. He revelled in the fuss he invariably received. In turn, I delighted in the jovial salutations that followed when the locals learned his name: Ein-schtein! Back at the house, Mum and Dad spoiled him rotten, indulging his every whim and fussing him on demand.
This trip was a little more ambitious. We’d spent the night at the house, as usual. But today, instead of snoozing lazily in the sun (me) and flopping across the kitchen doorway in the hope of scraps (him), we’d packed up the car and hit the road again. Golden retrievers are a stubborn breed. It had taken some persuasion to prise Einstein from the breakfast dishes and into the boot of the car. Grumpy didn’t cover it.
So now we were on the autobahn bound for Austria, Einstein’s eyes fixed resolutely on the road behind us. Somewhere near Munich, I thought, but it was hard to see the car in front, let alone the road signs. Not that the weather was slowing down the local drivers, who appeared in the rear view mirror out of nowhere and overtook as if we were standing still. A lone woof nudged above the sound of the engine. It was time to pull off the road and take a break. Spotting a motorway service station, I slowed the car and swung into a space in the middle of the car park.
Raising the tailgate, a doleful face greeted me. In protest, Einstein made no attempt to get out. I waited. Ever since he was a puppy, he’d done things at his own pace and there was little point in trying to hurry him. Finally, he got to his feet and jumped down. A wince crossed his face as his paws hit the asphalt. As he moved forward, there was a pronounced limp. Einstein had been known to fake such a limp for effect, so I wasn’t unduly concerned. I wondered, though, if it might be a slight touch of cramp and figured a gentle walk might do him good. Einstein thought otherwise and after a few steps, laid himself down in the middle of the car park, blocking the traffic. I rummaged in my pocket for a treat but found only crumbs.
It was still raining heavily. Droplets of water dampened my hair before percolating slowly and persistently to the nape of my neck and down to the small of my back. On the surface, Einstein’s thick cream curls were slick, his waterproof overcoat perfectly suited to keeping him dry. My rain jacket was somewhat less effective and as a result, my patience was wearing thinner than a gossamer stocking.
“Come on, get up doggo.”
No response. I tried a lighter tone.
“Einy, sweetie, up you get.”
Defiant, Einstein rolled slowly and deliberately onto his side, exhaling deeply. It wasn’t the first time he’d decided to do this. At the park, my usual tactic was to walk away and wait for him to follow, which he did, eventually. Here, I couldn’t risk leaving him, even to grab a treat from the car.
Trying a different tactic, I knelt down and attempted to lever his dead weight upright. It was hopeless. When he was this uncooperative, I simply wasn’t strong enough. I could lift his head and shoulders off the ground, but as soon as I switched to his rear end, he rolled back again. It was a battle of wills and I was losing. Defeated, I began to look around for someone who might help. A couple of passing Dutchmen brushed me off. I couldn’t blame them. What sane person wanted to lift thirty-odd kilos of wet dog? Beneath all that stubbornness he was sweet natured and gentle, but they couldn’t know that.
Time passed at a crawl. Drivers manoeuvred carefully around us and motorists returning to their vehicles took elaborate detours lest they were called upon to assist. I was just going to have to wait for Einstein to move, however long that might take. I allowed myself a wistful daydream of the holiday we could have been enjoying further north and muttered a silent prayer to the Tyrolean gods that the Alps would be worth all this stress – if we ever got there.
After what seemed forever, help arrived in the form of a rotund German with extravagant facial whiskers. His car was parked next to mine. Scanning the scene, he understood my predicament. Without speaking he lifted the boot. Inside was a cool box. And inside that was a fat heap of sausages. My spirits lifted. At last, something to determine whether Einstein was genuinely in pain.
It didn’t take long to get my answer. Spying the sausage, Einstein raised his head and leapt to his feet. He trotted over to the man without a backward glance, miraculously cured. Stiffly, I got to my feet and smoothed down my wet trousers in a vain attempt to look presentable. I walked over, relief mixed with exasperation, as the dog wriggled himself into a perfect sit in front of his new best friend and sneezed with excitement. Gazing up with adoration, Einstein wolfed down the first tasty morsel. With a cute tilt of the head, he raised a damp paw in anticipation of the next.
I grinned. We’d be hiking those Alpine trails after all. Red cheeked, I enticed him to our car and high-tailed it to the border.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Germany’s excellent Christmas markets, then why not head over the border to Austria? Salzburg is one of Europe’s most elegant cities, and during the run up to Christmas, it’s bedecked with festive lights and crammed full of stalls. I spent the weekend exploring its Christmas markets and experienced Advent Austrian-style. Here are my tips for getting the best out of a pre-Christmas trip.
Make the most of public transport with a day pass
An extensive network of buses and trolley buses makes getting around easy. Day passes are available, as is the more expensive Salzburg Card which includes free admission to visitor attractions as well as free transport. It does cost 24 euros for the day, however, so you need to be sure you’re going to get your money’s worth for the extra 20 euros you’ll be spending per person. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time at the markets it’s unlikely the Salzburg Card will represent good value for money.
But if you buy regular, transport-only day passes from a machine they cost just 4 euros a day, compared to 5,70 euros if you purchase them from the driver of the bus. If you’re arriving in Salzburg by train or plane, you’ll find these machines in the main bus station or at the airport. They are valid for a complete 24 hour period rather than by calendar days, so you’ll most likely be able to use them the following morning too – good to know if you’re going to be starting your day somewhere there’s no machine. Print off or download maps before you go to make sense of the network; there’s also an app featuring timetables and mobile ticketing.
There’s an English option available, but if not these are the maps you’ll find most useful:
City: Liniennetzplan Stadt Salzburg Region: SVV Zonenplan
Wrap up warm
You might not get a dumping of snow as I did, but if you’re visiting Salzburg in December, it is likely to be very cold. Temperatures during my visit hovered just below freezing, but if like me you’re tempted out onto the Wolfgangsee, the wind that blows across the lake is a chill one. Pack accordingly, and layer up with hat, scarf, gloves and thermal underlayers. If all else fails, drink gluhwein!
Plan your market trips
As you might expect, there’s more than just one market in the city, as well as some delightful markets in the surrounding towns and villages. I took a trip out to St Gilgen and Strobl on the shores of the Wolfgangsee. Strobl’s market featured livestock in the form of sheep, goats and reindeer and boat trips were possible too between the lakeshore villages. St Gilgen’s market was bigger and had a lot of character. A day pass on the #150 bus meant I could hop on and hop off all day for a fare of 17,60 euros.
In the city itself, the largest market is the Christkindlmarkt in Domplatz. As the name suggests, it’s right by the cathedral in the Old Town. It has its origins in a market that started in the 15th century, though in its present incarnation it’s been going since 1974. Just around the corner you’ll find an ice rink. The Christkindlmarkt had a huge concentration of stalls but as a result was packed; if you’re not so keen on crowds, I’d recommend visiting this one during the day.
There is also a smaller market at Mirabellplatz, which is handy if you need to kill time or grab a hot drink before your bus leaves as it’s right by the stops. This year the market up at the Hohensalzburg fortress is closed due to renovation work, but well worth checking out next year.
My favourite of all the city markets was that at Hellbrunn, a short ride away by #25 bus and included in the 4 euros day pass. Nestled in the courtyard of this attractive palace, there are plenty of artisan stalls so a lot of choice if you plan to do some gift-shopping. The inclusion of hundreds of trees festooned with red baubles and the use of the palace shutters to turn the palace into a huge Advent calendar makes this one extra special.
There is a 3 euros entrance charge at the weekend (it’s free on weekdays) but this is redeemable for a mug of Gluhwein which would have cost 3,50 euros. If you have kids with you, it’s good to know that this is the place where they have the trick fountains and although they used to be a summer-only attraction, for the last couple of years these have been opened during Advent too.
To check opening times and other details, this is the link you’ll need:
Don’t just visit the markets
Space them out and punctuate your visits with other activities. There are carol concerts and muscial recitals at many of the markets; you’ll find schedules online, though not all sites are in English. For something completely different, I caught a train out to Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit the Silent Night chapel, a memorial chapel in the village where schoolmaster Franz Gruber and pastor Josef Mohr composed and performed the popular carol for the first time. In the company of a band of actors and local dignitaries, I participated in a themed walk that crossed the Salzach River into Laufen, Germany. there, at the Salzachhalle, watched a play which recounted the tale of the history of those twin villages as well as the story of how Silent Night came to be. I won’t pretend I understood a lot with my schoolgirl German, but the music was heavenly.
Attending a Krampus run is also good fun and it’s worth checking out where the nearest is during your visit. If you haven’t already seen the blog I wrote about Gnigl’s Krampus festivities, check out the post here where you’ll also find some useful links if you plan to go yourself:
If you’ve already been to Salzburg’s Christmas markets and they’ve given you a taste for more, why not try these alternatives? Last year I blogged about Copenhagen and Regensburg, both of which can be visited in a day from London:
Wherever you are this Advent, have a safe and happy time!
I was thrilled when an opportunity arose to review the latest edition of Europe by Rail in exchange for a complimentary copy. This guide, now in its fifteenth incarnation, is to print what the Man in Seat 61’s website is to the internet – the definitive guide. But with so much information freely available on the internet, should you buy this book at all?
A task of epic proportions
Covering all the railways of all the European countries in a book light enough to carry onto a train is a huge undertaking. As a consequence this book acts as an overview. While it’s definitive, it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive. The guide is designed to be used together with the European Rail Timetable – or in these times of data roaming, in conjunction with the websites of national rail providers in the countries it covers. The authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, have updated the guide once more, expanding coverage of the Baltics and the Balkans, as well as providing current information about rail travel across the continent. Schedules change frequently, and I was sad to learn that the excellent CityNightLine service which I enjoyed in 2015 ceased operations between Munich and Berlin last year.
An inspiring guide
The authors wanted to take the guide in a different direction and as such, set out to inspire as well as inform. So although there are factual sections in the guide, its greatest strength is in the persuasiveness of the descriptions that comprise the bulk of its pages. Underpinning this erudite prose is a fundamental belief that train journeys are fun and, most crucial of all, to be savoured. While acknowledging the important role Europe’s high speed trains have to play, Gardner and Kries put the case for slow travel, yet never come across as preachy. If you need to zip across the continent in a hurry, then so be it, but for those with more time, there are routes to be savoured on local stopping trains, with tempting sidetracks built in as well.
Punctuating the narrative are frank insights into the realities of each trip: “It’s an easy run south to Barcelona. The railway enters the Catalan city through its unexciting northern suburbs and terminates in the subterranean gloom at the Estació de Sants.” Nuggets of advice are also in abundance, such as this on Italy’s fabulous Cinque Terre: “A long sequence of tunnels means that you’ll see little of the area from the train, but take time to stop and explore. Vernazza is a good base; it’s the prettiest of the villages.” Gardner and Kries have put the hours in and travelled these routes, which makes them authoritative as well as engaging.
What could be improved?
Numbers rather than names refer to each of the fifty routes covered by the guide once you get past each one’s title. Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, many of them cross international borders so it’s hard to see how they could be referred to in any other way. It doesn’t help, however, that some of the subtitles within each section, specifically those of the major cities en route, are in the same sized font, making it confusing as to whether you’ve reached the end of a route or not. It takes a bit of time to get your head around, but once you’ve got into a rhythm, you won’t be bothered by it.
Each route features a map. The presentation is simple, with a table attached that shows the journey time, frequency and cross-reference for the European Rail Timetable. While I could see that the authors were aiming for clarity, I thought it was a shame that these maps couldn’t have been illustrated to showcase some of the key attractions along the way. This would have added to the temptation to jump on a train and follow in their footsteps. I’m guessing publishing constraints required the photographs to be grouped in their own section, as is the way with most guidebooks, but it’s again a pity that these couldn’t have been integrated with the text. Instead, I wanted to skim over them, impatient to get to the routes themselves.
There’s a lot of page turning, back and forth, which breaks into reveries and brings the reader back to reality. I appreciate that logic dictates a section entitled “Before you leave” should be placed at the beginning of a guide, but perhaps the parts detailing rail passes, ticket classes and the like would have been just as at home in an appendix. These are minor criticisms, more a measure of how keen I was to get stuck in than any fault with the guide.
The verdict: would I buy this guide?
For anyone planning to embark on a rail holiday in Europe, this guide is an invaluable companion. Even if you’ve travelled extensively by rail across the continent, things change regularly and it’s an easy way to bring yourself up to date. Don’t wait until you leave to buy it. The suggestions for stopovers and detours will help with your planning and you’ll have information at your fingertips about rail passes, supplements, connections and the like. If you’re like me, it won’t help you make a decision, as there are so many tempting routes from which to choose, but it will give you hours of pleasure as you take a virtual journey on some of Europe’s most scenic tracks. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to go back to that chapter on Arctic Norway…
The bus is packed and tempers are fraying as those who can’t fit are left to wait on the snowy pavement. On board, spirits are high. Childish excitement is contagious. At Gnigl station, the bus spews its pasengers onto the street and the pace quickens as I follow the crowd up the street. A fire engine blocks the road and the scream of labouring engines marks the point where the trolley buses unhook and divert to continue their journey under their own power. Behind metal barriers, the crowd is already four or five thick. I squeeze past and make my way along the street until I find a space next to three youngsters of primary age. I take a few test shots with the camera and the little boy next to me tells me sternly to use the flash.
Soon, the parade gets underway. The Krampuslauf has a long history in Austria, its origins in pagan rituals dating from the Middle Ages. While St Nicolaus rewards good children with sweets, those who have been naughty have to face the consequences of their actions. Chains and claws set the Krampus apart from the evil Schiachperchten, who are also masked creatures with shaggy pelts and curved horns. Traditionally, the perchten weren’t seen during Advent, instead being associated with the period between the Winter solstice and Epiphany. These days the once defined lines between the two have become blurred, though no one seems to mind.
The costumes are elaborate, with no visible trace of the human inside. Hand carved wooden masks are painted in garish colours. From head to toe a suit of shaggy sheep wool, plus tail of course, tops shoes hidden behind hooves. The jarring sound of the bells on their backs marks their arrival. The children next to me fall silent, their fearful eyes widening. They’re young enough still to believe. A six foot beast runs at the barrier and clambers up, rearing over the children’s heads to great effect. Their shrieks pierce the night and they shrink back, momentarily afraid. Even as an adult, it’s a frightening moment, and I can’t help myself as I jump back too.
One child finds the courage to roar back at the Krampus and the monster ruffles his hair in a good-natured response. Everyone plays along, and the atmosphere is one of family fun. But there are more terrifying figures behind him. As they dart up the street, they twist this way and that. The cow bells on their backs clank heavily and they swish whips fashioned, I’m told, from a horse’s tail. I’ve heard that it’s common for them to thrash spectators’ legs and it makes me a little nervous.
From time to time, there’s an injection of humour. One group stop and perform a dance routine, though they’re as far removed from a boy band as you can get. Another pair face off as if in a boxing ring, before dropping to the floor and doing press ups. The children next to me giggle, at least until they jump to their feet. But St Nicolaus isn’t far behind and their pleading cries gain the desired result: sweets. They stuff their faces, eyes bright, their fear of Krampus forgotten.
The frigid air bites my cheeks and I wrap my scarf tighter around my face. The parade’s only about half done, but there’s a gluhwein stand within sight and it’s time to warm up.
Where to see the Krampus in or around Salzburg
Tonight, 5th December, is St Nicolaus Eve and you can attend the Krampus run in Salzburg’s Altstadt. There are also many other parades that take place throughout the Salzburg region, from its suburbs to tiny mountain villages, as well as throughout Austria and the neighbouring German state of Bavaria. The following two links will help you plan which Krampus or Perchten parades coincide with your visit:
If you plan to head to Gnigl next year, it’s an easy ride on the #4 trolley bus from Mirabellplatz in the centre of the city. Alight at Gnigl S-bahn station and follow the crowd a couple of blocks up to Turnerstrasse or Schillinghofstrasse to claim your spot.
If you’re a lover of all things Royal, then you’ll be looking forward to next May’s Royal wedding which is set to take place at Windsor. London, a stone’s throw away, is of course a Royal favourite, but where should you visit to follow in the footsteps of the Royal family? From the obvious locations like Buckingham Palace to places with a less well-known connection to the UK’s best loved family, these excursions will tick all the boxes.
Fortnum and Mason
Along Piccadilly, you’ll see the distinctive eau de nil façade of the Queen’s grocer, Fortnum and Mason. The Queen, despite her advancing years, is a frequent entertainer, hosting heads of state and other dignitaries for lavish banquets. Her annual food bill was recently estimated at around £1.4 million. Fortnum and Mason receive a chunk of that money but there are plenty of affordable goods to be had for regular customers too. Don’t miss the food hall and pick up a picnic fit for Royalty. Time your visit to watch the clock outside chime the hour; Mr Fortnum bows to Mr Mason.
Near to Piccadilly is Green Park, the smallest of the capital’s eight Royal Parks at just 40 acres. Its tree-lined paths and grassy meadows make for a beautiful picnic spot. Aim to reach Buckingham Palace by late morning to coincide with the Changing of the Guard ceremony; you can check the exact time at www.changing-guard.com. For the best view, try to get as close to the Palace gates as possible. If you’re visiting in August and September, then it is possible to take a guided tour inside the palace itself and that’s well worth the entry fee.
At Buckingham Palace, tours of the Queen’s Gallery operate year-round. Located in what was originally one of John Nash’s conservatories, the structure was destroyed during World War Two. It was rebuilt at the suggestion of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to house the Royal Collection in 1962. Exhibits change, but it’s likely you’ll see works of art by an eclectic range of artists including names such as Rembrandt, Hockney, Rubens and da Vinci.
The Royal Mews
The Royal Mews is where you’ll find the Queen’s carriages and it’s found around the corner from the Queen’s Gallery on Buckingham Palace Road. Guided tours operate between April and October and are included in the price of your admission. Wardens dressed in a smart navy and red livery will show you the highlights of the collection of vehicles, including the Diamond Jubilee State Coach which is the newest addition to the fleet. Equally dazzling is the Gold State Coach which dates from the time of George III. It weighs nearly four tonnes and requires eight horses to pull it. It’s the coach that has been used to take each monarch to their coronation since the early 19th century. Animal lovers will also be pleased to learn that you’ll get to meet the horses during the tour.
The Goring Hotel
This exclusive hotel is tucked away a short walk from the Palace in Beeston Place. It describes itself as “London’s last remaining family-owned luxury hotel – a grand hotel with impeccable manners.” It’s the hotel in which Kate Middleton’s family stayed on the eve of her wedding to Prince William and this five-star establishment is sure to impress. If you have the budget, you can stay here too; room rates begin at a little over £300 per night.
Access to Kensington Palace, former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, its gardens and exhibitions is by ticket only. Inside, you’ll be able to visit the King and Queen’s state apartments, little changed since 1690 when they were built for the then monarchs William and Mary. Temporary exhibits also feature; the “Diana: her fashion story” collection scheduled to open early in 2017 is sure to be immensely popular.
Diana Memorial Garden
Following the edge of Hyde Park, another of London’s Royal Parks, you’ll come to the Diana Memorial Garden. Its highlights include a playground, a nod to Diana’s great love of children, featuring as its centrepiece a huge pirate ship. Also, it’s here you’ll find a memorial fountain built from 545 pieces of Cornish granite. Water flows in cascades and swirls until it reaches a calm pool at the bottom, symbolising Diana’s sometimes turbulent life.
The Brown Cow, Fulham and the Cross Keys, Chelsea
My final suggestion is to down a drink at one of Prince Harry’s favourite pubs. The Brown Cow is owned by one of his friends, Mark Dyer, a former officer in the Welsh Guards. Harry was a regular when in town, before his engagement at least. It’s the place he chose to toast the birth of his nephew Prince George. You’ll find it on the Fulham Road. The Cross Keys in trendy Chelsea is another Mark Dyer establishment. Originally Chelsea’s oldest pub, Harry celebrated his 31st birthday here. You’ll find the pub just before you get to the River Thames near Chelsea Embankment. Cheers!
Regular readers of this blog will perhaps remember how I enjoyed a trip to the Christmas markets in Regensburg, Germany last year. If you’re looking for a German Christmas market destination, then I’d recommend this small city near to Nuremberg as the markets are compact yet very atmospheric, with one located in the grounds of the delightful Thurn und Taxis Palace. I snagged flights with Ryanair for less than a fiver, making it viable both in terms of time and cost for a day out.
Copenhagen’s Christmas markets were also well worth the trip, with the Danish capital adding some Scandi style to the proceedings. This year, I’ll soon be spending the weekend in charming Salzburg, Austria to see how they compare. In the meantime, you can read more about Regensburg and Copenhagen’s markets here:
But what about the markets closer to home? Can the UK compete? A news feature on BBC Look East about increased security at Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre was not only reassuring but perhaps more importantly, brought the event onto my radar. It took about an hour and a half to drive through some of North Essex and Suffolk’s most scenic countryside to reach the town. At midday on the Friday of the Fayre, the Park & Ride was full, as were the town’s long stay car parks. I began to wonder whether I should have taken the train, though it would have involved two changes and an extra hour on the return journey. Finally, we were given permission to tuck the car into the exhibitors’ car park. Was it worth the trip?
With around 300 stalls spread across several locations in the town, there was plenty to hold our attention. In total, we spent around 5 hours at the Fayre, beginning in the pedestrian streets spanning Cornhill and Buttermarket. Moyse’s Hall Museum, which focuses on local and social history, is worth making the time for.
Outside the museum, we found several enticing food stalls, the best of which specialised in salami and sausage. Purchase one in the bag. Not far away, Just Our Stall, which has a permanent base in the town on St John’s Street, had a wide selection of sheepskins and farmed reindeer hides. Prices were very competitive and quality was high.
From there, a stroll down Abbeygate Street led us via shops and cafes towards the Abbey itself. Fairground rides and Santa’s Grotto would keep the kids happy. Inside, we were disappointed at first to find that there weren’t as many seasonally-themed traders as we’d imagined, though once we got to the reindeer pen, things got a lot more Christmassy. One of the two reindeer wasn’t too keen on remaining in the pen, attempting to climb out when someone produced a carrot. He was a real character.
Through the Abbey gate, the concentration of stalls selling Christmas gifts and decorations was higher, making this our favourite part of the Fayre. Stand out traders, for their sense of humour as well as their product range, included HaGA Lifestyle which enthusiastically embraced the Danish concept of hygge. Locals will be aware that their regular base in Eastgate Street has an excellent cafe, a deli and also offers dog grooming.
The Once I Was stall also brought to mind the recycling theme I’d seen in action in Copenhagen. Each of the products had previously been something else before being repurposed for use in the home. Tealight holders, chopping boards and Christmas decorations had been fashioned from drawer fronts, fence posts and sheets of plywood. Also worthy of a mention is The Crafty Foxes. Based in Queens Road, they offer craft workshops. Here at the Fayre, they had a range of gift bags for sale which made excellent stocking fillers, as well as some rather unique Christmas tree decorations.
Food stalls were in abundance and there were some tempting and very festive offerings from which to choose. In contrast to the European markets, however, there was a lack of seating nearby, which meant either standing around or walking around with food and drink. Hopefully, that’s something which St Edmundsbury Council might consider for next year.
As the sun set, the festive atmosphere ramped up a notch. There hadn’t been time to duck inside the Athenaeum for the indoor stalls or catch one of the cookery demonstrations in the Cathedral Courtyard. Walking back to the car, we reflected on what an enjoyable afternoon it had been and well worth a return visit.
Regular readers of this blog will know how I’ve made a number of day trips by air to some of Europe’s most captivating cities. Yesterday saw me jet off to Venice, in perhaps my most ambitious trip yet.
You’ll find a full list of the others at the bottom of this post or on my Index page here:
While I’m not suggesting for a minute you’re going to truly get under the skin of your chosen destination in such a short space of time, it is great when you have little or no holiday left but still have that pressing need to travel. Or in my case, a desire to keep two dogs out of kennels and into Daddy Day Care which is always a priority. If you believe those predicting Brexit will put an end to cheap European flights from the UK, time could be running out to snap up a bargain. Here’s the how, where, when and what of Venice in a day.
My local airport is Stansted, the main UK base of Ryanair, and once again it was to the controversial budget carrier that I looked for my cheap fare. Normally, Ryanair flies in to Treviso airport, but while the airport has been closed for essential runway maintenance, flights are being rerouted to Marco Polo instead. Marco Polo also has the advantage of being closer to the city and well connected by both boat and bus. The current closure lasts until 18 October, but it’s worth keeping an eye out as it’s not the first time I’ve read flights have been diverted. My flight departed on time from Stansted at 0620 and touched down ten minutes ahead of schedule at 0910. The return left a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 2230 and taxied to the terminal to unload us at 2355, about 15 minutes late. Total ticket cost this time was £34 return. I should also add, as per usual I didn’t bother with a seat reservation and got a randomly allocated window seat on the outbound flight and an aisle on the return leg.
To reach Venice from Marco Polo it’s possible to catch a bus. An express service takes around 20 minutes to make the journey to Piazzale Roma, near the top end of the Grand Canal and the city’s Santa Lucia station. Return tickets cost 15 euros. But to arrive in style, I figured I needed to arrive by boat, though my budget most certainly doesn’t stretch to water taxis. There are, however, direct transfers from the airport with Alilaguna who offer a reliable service on one of three routes. This is double the price of the bus at 30 euros for a return, but in my mind well worth the cost. However, I should mention you do sit low in the boat, which isn’t great for sightseeing if you aren’t tall.
I opted for the orange route as it takes you via Cannaregio and then down the Grand Canal. Journey time to the Rialto Bridge was just under an hour. From there, the boat continues down to Santa Maria del Giglio, just short of St Mark’s. It was busy, and I had to wait for one boat to leave before getting on the second one, which added about a 30 minute delay to my journey. However, the boats serving the blue route were bigger and there wasn’t a wait. They loop via Murano and Giudecca instead, and calling at San Marco on the way. This is a really convenient option if seeing Murano’s famous glass is on your wishlist. However, it does take about 90 minutes to get to San Marco and it doesn’t transit the Grand Canal. The way I see it is that this transfer is part of your day out rather than just transport, but if time is the priority then the bus is a no-brainer.
Note: From Treviso, an airport bus scheduled to coincide with arrivals takes around 70 minutes to reach Piazzale Roma. Make sure that you’re on the ATVO bus and not the Barzi bus as the latter calls at Mestre station rather than Santa Lucia (requiring a second train journey to get to the city) and also Tronchetto Island which is again inconvenient for Venice’s top attractions.
The links you’ll need (including timetables, fares and maps):
ACTV bus and city boats: http://actv.avmspa.it/en
Ailaguna boat: http://www.alilaguna.it/en
Venice is time-consuming to get around, which is why I refer to this as my most ambitious day trip to date. Because of the lack of roads, you either have to walk or take to the city’s canals. It’s a pleasure to wander on foot, but the downside is that many alleyways are dead ends leading to canals or courtyards. Without a good map (or even with one) you’re likely to get lost. I relied on a combination of paper map, Google map navigation on my phone and a general sense of direction.
Those of you who know me will realise the latter is pretty much non-existent. Narrow streets and a maze of densely packed buildings mean that sometimes Google maps don’t quite have your location right. I also struggled with night mode, as the canals and alleys have almost no contrast – the waterways are such an essential aid to navigation that I switched it back to day mode. Fortunately even with very limited Italian, people were helpful to my pitiful “Scusi, dove Rialto Bridge?” attempts at conversation and pointed me in the right direction with a smile.
There has been a lot in the press about how residents are fed up with the city being overrun by tourists; the historic centre’s residential population numbers only 55,000 now, compared to an estimated 28 million visitors annually. Do the maths: that’s more tourists per day than the number who actually live there. Whether it was because I visited in the quieter shoulder season or whether such irritation has been exaggerated in the press, I didn’t see any indication of frustration with tourists invading locals’ space. But it’s certainly not an issue to brush under the carpet.
Due to the unhappy marriage of being time-poor and totally incompetent at map reading, I decided to splurge on a day pass for the city’s ACTV boats. This cost 20 euros and can be purchased at the many ticket booths near the jetties. (The jetties themselves are easy to spot being a) near the bigger canals and b) on account of their bright yellow livery as in the photo below.) You do have to validate the pass before you step onto a floating jetty, or risk a hefty fine. Look for a white oval terminal as you step off dry land and tap the card against it. I got my money’s worth hopping on and off, but you’ll need to make several journeys to cover your outlay.
Things to do
With so many sights to choose from, whittling down what’s easily a month’s worth of sightseeing into the nine hours I had in central Venice was tricky to say the least. It helped that this was my third trip to Venice, so I’d already seen the main attractions and (fortunately for me) years ago, well before selfie sticks had been invented. I was also keen to test out the new policy of the Venice authorities which is to encourage people to explore off the beaten track. You’ll find a wide choice of suggestions here (when they first pop up, you might think they’re written only in Italian but they’re actually dual language with English too):
I began my day by alighting at the Rialto Bridge boat jetty and crossing the bridge itself to the adjacent market. Originally the market moved to this location in 1097, but a 16th century fire destroyed almost everything in the vicinity. The market was rebuilt and depsite being a stone’s throw from the tourist crap which lines the bridge and its environs, manages to retain more than a little of its charm. There’s plenty to see, including more varieties of mushrooms than you could ever expect to see back home, capsicums done up like posies of flowers plus of course a pungent but vibrant fish market.
There’s a treat tucked around the back of the market in a hard to find alley (even with the address, Sestiere San Polo 429, it was concealed so well it took me a while to find either of its two doors) What I’m referring to is Cantina do Mori, the bacaro which claims to be the oldest in Venice. This tiny bar whose ceiling is hung with dozens of copper pots still retains a customer base who are happy to share their local with tourists like me. It’s been around since 1462 and once counted the infamous lothario Casanova among its clientele. Today, it’s still a popular place to go and have an ombra (Venetian slang for glass of wine) and soak up the alcohol with some cicheti (or in English, cicchetti), the Venetian equivalent to Spanish tapas.
Eventually, I prised myself away from the bar and its surroundings. I decided first to take a stroll in search of Venice’s narrowest street. Calle Varisco is just 53cm at the little end, though mercifully for pedestrian flow, it widens as you walk down. If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed; several properties off the street were having work done and there was a fair bit of rubbish around as a result. Forget what you’ve read: it’s not the narrowest street in the world (that’s a German one) and it’s not even close to being the slimmest in Italy.
Moving on, I headed north and picked up a boat which looped around the Castello district to bring me to the San Zaccaria stop. I was hoping to see if the church’s flooded crypt was underwater, but it closes from 12 noon until 4pm each afternoon so was out of luck. Nearby though, I passed Banco-Lotto No. 10 which sells clothing made by inmates at the women’s penitentiary on Giudecca Island. Sadly, that too was closed, though it shouldn’t have been according to the sign on its doorway. The clothes looked fabulous, even for someone with my limited fashionista skills.
Next up was a bookstore, and one which proves that Amazon can’t provide everything. The Libreria Alta Acqua is a treasure. Books stacked in precarious piles fill every inch of available space. Balanced on shelves, filling redundant gondolas and bath tubs, they represent what a bookstore should be.
This is a place to be savoured, to potter and to forget the time or anything else on your mind. The store owner wandered about, leaving the rather scary looking cat to mind the till while he wheezed and tutted to himself looking for items unspecified but clearly important. I think I could have watched him all day too. Out back was the tinest of courtyards with a sign imploring people to climb up some wobbly stairs made of old books to see the view over the canal.
I couldn’t resist walking south via St Mark’s Square. This might sound odd as I really hate the crowds and the tourist paraphernalia but I think I wanted to see just how bad it was. On the way, in Calle del Mondo Novo, my nose caught the aroma of a cheese and ham store as my eye was drawn to a pig in the pizza shop window opposite. Incidentally, I read that you should never eat pizza in Venice as wood-fired ovens are banned with just a tiny handful of exceptions. The store, Prosciutto e Parmigiano, is known locally as Latteria Senigaglia (that was the name of the original family-run dairy produce store which was set up in 1940).
In St Mark’s Square, I navigated a sea of people who couldn’t have been more synchronised in pointing their mobile phones towards whatever their guide was pointing out had a musical soundtrack been in place. Pausing only to recreate the famous shot of the gondolas lined up facing out across the lagoon, I hopped on another vaporetto. This one was bound for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. From the top of its belltower, or campanile as they’re called, the views across the city are splendid and of course you look out over the campanile in St Mark’s Square rather than from it. It costs 6 euros to ascend, but for that they provide a lift, and free entertainment when the bells chime the hour, frightening unsuspecting visitors. Best of all – no queues.
It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to explore a little more before I left, so I took a boat a short way up Canale della Giudecca, jumping off at Spirito Santo church to cut back through to the Grand Canal near the Peggy Guggenheim art collection. Another vaporetto took me to Venice Casino from where I could cut through to the district of Cannaregio. This is on the Venice authorities’ recommendations list and is where you’ll find the Jewish Ghetto. It lacked the crowds of St Mark’s and it’s probably very uncharitable of me to hope that the city’s campaign is unsuccessful and it stays that way.
I had planned to have an early dinner in Osteria al Bacco, which is one of the area’s most highly rated restaurants, but got sidetracked by the wonderful Al Timon instead. You do need to book ahead for dinner reservations, though they don’t always serve what they display in the window. Get there right on the dot of six when they open to grab a table for cicheti and a Spritz – for something classically Venetian, swap the fashionable Aperol for Campari.
Time was ticking on so I took a last vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal and then bought a ticket for the boat back to the airport. I’d definitely recommend a visit outside of summer and most importantly, away from the crowd. Venice is never going to be one of my favourite cities, but it’s growing on me.
The other day trips by air:
Copenhagen Christmas markets