L is for Lost (in Paradise)

The question I get asked every time I catch up with someone since we have returned from our trip is “What was your favourite bit” and it is so indescribably hard to choose a favourite place after two months where I saw and experienced so many amazing cities. I have loved 90% of the places we have been to, and people regret asking once I start thinking out loud about what an amazing place Europe is. But, long story slightly less long, if I had to choose one city that really blew me away, one city that I fell head over heels for, it would be Venice. Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting to love Venice, after so much hype around this little city located on a lagoon I wasn’t that excited. Italy itself I knew would deliver in terms of food, but in general I kind of thought the highlights of our trip were done.

How wrong I was.

We arrived in Venice after a ridiculously long but beautiful train ride and walked in the burning hot Italian sunshine to our little basic room in a suburb just outside of the city of Venice called Mestre. We were exhausted, and without much excitement for Venice we decided to just use the afternoon to look around Mestre and do a much needed laundromat run, whilst drowning ourselves in ridiculously cheap sparkling water to fend off heat stroke (and to think it wasn’t even the middle of summer). We grabbed dinner at a little “Snack Bar” which turned out to be common throughout Italy and are an amazing, cheap way to grab food and drink in Italy.

This little snack bar kind of became our second home in Mestre, mainly because Venice itself is ridiculously expensive and this place did pizza, pasta and beer (aka everything we needed to survive, at a ridiculously cheap price). Plus the people were friendly and it was always stocked with enthusiastic, noisy, gesturing Italians. The people didn’t speak a word of English, and I was struggling to adjust to speaking Italian but somehow, in Italy not knowing the language wasn’t really an issue. Who knew hands were so great for communicating.

Our second day, after spending a restless night in a relentlessly hot room, we caught a morning bus into Venice itself (after a cappuccino with the locals at our new local). We stepped off the bus and immediately headed in the opposite direction to the main street that our hotel had recommended as an easy way to hit the sights. Best decision ever. Who would choose one large street, crammed with tourists and tourist shops over small walkways winding alongside canals, empty of tourists and with little hidden shops and restaurants full of locals. We got lost within five minutes and that was the best part of the day. Every turn, every little path held a new surprise, from peaceful canals, magnificent churches somehow hidden behind a corner, tiny little pizzerias and gondoliers suddenly appearing around corners.

It was breathtaking. I have never been so quickly taken with a city but there is something so utterly unique and characteristic of Venice that we had smiles on our face the entire time. I was drawn into a little shop, almost empty apart from the owner and stocked from floor to ceiling of handmade venetian masks. We ooohed and ahhed at the beautiful masks and the owner who was so wonderfully Italian couldn’t resist telling us all about Venice’s Carnivale where the city packs full of masked Venetians. He donned a cape and a mask and then dressed me up to so that Edd could snap some photos. It would have been creepy if it was anywhere else, but in Italy this enthusiastic attitude just made so much sense. He wasn’t trying to push a sale (my immediate fear) but was so incredibly proud of his city, his traditions and his talent that he wanted to tell us all about it. He was just one countless Italians who made them one of my favourite nationalities to interact with.

We stopped in at the Scuolo Grande di San Rocco where we admired the huge number of works by Tintoretto, concentrated in one beautiful building. They had basic wooden mirrors to walk around and see every artwork on the ceiling without hurting your neck, a detail that was kind of genius. It was quiet, peaceful and full of incredibly religious imagery but it held nothing to the city itself so it wasn’t long before we were back on the streets of Venice, exploring (read- getting lost again).

We ate deliciously hot calzone, stuffed full of fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella whilst sitting canal side as the gondoliers went past, occasionally with a song proudly belted out. We made our way through winding streets in the general direction of Piazza San Marco, but we were drunk on Venice’s charm and a short walk took much longer as  we lapped up the views that only Venice can offer, couples celebrating a surprise engagement over a glass of prosecco, Gondoliers waiting for eager explorers, melting gelato in the hand of every second tourist and those beautiful emerald canals that play host to it all. With no cars, bikes or scooters everyone is on foot, which is great after a month of nearly being run over countless times.

We eventually met up with the many tourists at Piazza San Marco, staying long enough to gaze adoringly at the pink marble of the gothic Ducale palace and laugh along with many others at the pigeons who were more than a little daring. It was busy but the piazza is so grand and spacious that it doesn’t feel crowded until you try to leave, back into the narrow streets. We attempted to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour, and kind of succeeded, catching the main sights such as the Rialto bridge and the ancient seafood market. But no where did we enjoy Venice more than when we took a wrong turn, ended up in some little courtyard and decided to break for either gelato, a spritz (venetian cocktail/wine mixer) or both.

At the beginning of this trip, 8 hours of walking felt like murder. In Venice I could have kept walking forever (well I would like to think so) but eventually we took a rest and sat beside the canal with half a bottle of Prosecco, the Venetian answer to champagne. I tried and failed to blog, too distracted by the beauty of this unique and wonderful city, and its local characters who come along as part of the deal.

I have never fallen so hard and fast for a city. With Venice, I was head over heels from the moment I took a wrong turn.

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My first photo in Venice.

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In our new favourite mask shop

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I won’t caption all of these…because they will all be the same. Take me back

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The Grand Canal, which was a whole other type of beautiful

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Waiting

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Waiting

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Piazza San Marco

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The guy who sang for all of us who watched. It was one of those moments that was so perfect you kind of expected a flaming meteor to come down and kill everyone…just me? Oh.

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I took photos of the canals mainly, but the architecture and churches were also beutiful

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Attack of the pigeons.

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This little girl was braver than most of the adults, just sayin’

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Piazza San Marco

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The Ducale Palace

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Looking out over to some islands

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Walking tour begins

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But soon we were lost and crossing over more unknown but charming canals

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My kind of mask

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From the Rialto bridge

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The Rialto Bridge, prettier to look at, a little too busy to try and walk over

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A Spritz. Prosecco, soda water, some kind of italian liqueur and an olive? I wasn’t paying much attention, but everyone else had one.

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Saying good bye was hard, even though we were returning the next day.

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D is for Ducklings

So you probably thought I forgot about you… Not really, I have just being procrastinating blogging like it was the hardest thing in the world. We have been home for a week and a half and in that time I have shamefully avoided blogging like the plague. Partly because it was so time and energy consuming adjusting back to normal, crazy, chaotic life but more so because thinking back to our trip makes life at the moment seem that much more unexciting. And i miss our travels like a hole in the heart at the moment. But I can’t just leave us hanging in the middle of Europe, and worse, I can’t leave this blog without telling you all about my FAVOURITE bit so far. So please accept my apologies for abandoning this blog for so long. Today we return to Europe, on the day that we left Prague on a morning train to Vienna where we were giving the city one meagre day to impress. 

Leaving Prague was hard, but at this point I had learnt that it was hard to leave most of these amazing cities. Each one deserved far more time than I had to give, and each one left me wanting more. Vienna had the worst deal of all, with only an afternoon to get to know the old centre of the city. The train ride was spectacular. With a combination of amazing Czech rugged landscape and incredible huge Austrian mountains I could hardly draw my eyes away from the window. We arrived in the city and caught the metro to our accommodation which was located a handy 5 minute walk from the old imperial city centre. With no time to waste we headed straight into the world heritage central streets. We wandered the long way in, through a beautiful large park that was home to numerous sculptures, groups of people enjoying the afternoon sunshine and a clan of 15 ducklings that almost made me jump into the dubious looking pond just to get a cuddle. It was nice, but we have seen a lot of parks and it wasn’t quite as pristine and beautiful as some of the others. 

The central, pedestrian street led us through a busy thoroughfare of historic buildings housing expensive shops and street performers smiling at the huge number of tourists milling by. It was not as impressive as Prague, too busy and too expensive for my cheap, slightly anti-social socks. But it was still good, I think we were just getting more judgemental as we added to our experience of amazing cities. We stopped in at a large church or two, both impressive and a welcome relief from the busy streets and bright sunshine. We wandered down side streets, tried to avoid accidentally walking into all of the horse carriages and people dressed up like Mozart, saw children running after giant bubbles with big smiles on their faces and watched a street artist create amazing things with spray paint. It was fun and entertaining but my overall thought after leaving Vienna was that the city has so much more to offer that we didn’t get to see. 

We found a late dinner at a cool new Italian place (‘cause Vienese sausages weren’t quite the right meal for us and I was too tired to try and search for anything else that was authentic) where you went up and ordered directly from the chef, who then proceeded to cook your pasta and make your spicy arrabiata sauce as you watch. It was fun, but more importantly it was delicious. We made our home, back through the park which had become my favourite part of the city centre, and settled in for an early night, drunk randoms and all. An 8 hour train at 6 am awaited us…but our next destination was quite possibly our favourite city of all so I think it was worth it.

It wasn’t the most impressive or exciting city, but it was a good pitstop on our way south and now I know that I would definitely return to Austria (granted, I want to go back to 80% of where we have been so far).

I promise that my next post will not be in two weeks 😛

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Ducklings are cute in any country

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Park Life

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Pretty sure there are 15 ducklings there.

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1 candle per prayer

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A church that was so simple on the outside but completely ornate on the inside

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Creepy baby pews

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Train views

 

 

P is for Praha

It was a long but pleasant train ride to our next city, Prague (Praha), helped by the fact that we were booked in and not scrambling for seats and also because we were sitting in a Harry Potter-esque train carriage along with two pairs of travellers with whom we got along with really well. One pair were friends from Belfast and the other were cousins from Ecuador so we had plenty to talk about regarding our travels so far and the countries we all came from. When we arrived in Prague, after experiencing some beautiful Czech mountainsides, we all teamed up to go and buy our tickets for the next leg of our trip and also try and figure out the exchange system (this was the one country, other than the UK, that we were visiting that did not use Euros).

We sadly all split up after figuring out how to navigate the metro to our respective hotels, but it was fun to be in a team for a little while. Kind of like how forming an alliance on the Amazing Race gives you a little bit of extra security. Our hotel was in an amazing location, situated just underneath the Prague Castle on an old cobbled road lined with restaurants and bars. Unfortunately it was also up a rather steep hill, so what would normally only take a couple of minutes took us plus our suitcases at least half an hour, and nearly killed me. The beautiful room made up for the walk, the cheap prices in Prague compared to the other countries we had visited meant we could afford our only 3 star hotel. Living it up!

We soaked up the comfort briefly before eating some very delicious food at a little Czech pub where the only waiter present had the worst service I had every experienced. So much so that it was funny. I had read that people can be brusque in Prague, but this was a whole other level of hating ones job. He even sat and ate cereal whilst people sat waiting for service. It was pretty funny and luckily the food and beer was ridiculously cheap (about $1.60NZ for a pint of beer). I can’t say we left him a tip though.

The next day we started off with an exploration of the huge castle grounds (i still don’t know how to pronounce the name of the castle, Prazky Hrad?) . There was so much to see, from the amazing cathedral to the incredible lane of ridiculously tiny medieval houses. The gardens were also beautiful, and not just because of their incredible views over the city. After the castle we wandered down to the vegan restaurant near our hotel that I had been eagerly eyeing earlier. What followed was one of my favourite meals so far, the most incredible vegan burger and organic beer, with smoky bacon (made of something non balcony), vegan smoked cheese and a soy aioli that was to die for.

With bellies rather full we strolled down, across the Charles bridge to take a look at the old part of the city. We made a slight detour to visit the ginger bread museum, I don’t really like ginger bread but the notion was too cute to pass up. Charles bridge and the old medieval part of the city were beautiful but understandably busy and packed full of tourists. It was good to see but it was a welcome relief to grab a beer down beside the river at a little outdoor bar where a guy was doing a solo gig. I think that was my favourite part of the day, sitting in the shade and watching people in little boats on the river. Listening to a guy try to sing songs in a language he couldn’t really pronounce (but he had a damn fine voice!).

I am only partially ashamed to say that after an afternoon of wandering around Prague we eventually crawled up the hill towards the castle again, to return to the same vegan restaurant to eat dinner…well at least we didn’t order the same food! If we had been there for any longer than a day I am quite confident I would have tried every dish. We ended the evening up at the castle looking out over the castle as darkness crept over and the lights of Prague came on.

Prague is an exceptionally beautiful city, busy with tourists for a reason (not just because it is so cheap!). It was a taste of something different, and I loved it.

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1. Arriving in Prague and loving the view
2. But I wasn’t alone in this
3. Quite possibly the nicest location for a Starbucks
4. The cathedral at the castle
5. And it’s beautiful stained glass
6. Not so bad from the outside either
7. Can’t get enough
8. The golden lane at the castle
9. And yet another view
10. I don’t care of you eat meat or not but if in Prague make sure you eat here
11. Cause this burger may have changed my life. For a moment at least
12. Gingerbread museum was more of a giant gingerbread shop
13. Charles Bridge
14. Riverside beer
15. And the creepiest statues we came across in our trips