Dreaming of Venice

It’s summertime 2003, these Aussie expats were keen to escape the English definition of Summer (18°C and raining) to the more familiar version (32°C and crystal clear, blue skies). A 15-Italian-cities-in-10-days itinerary was planned, a cheap and cheerful airline booked and we were soon stepping out of the crisp air-conditioning of Marco Polo Airport near Venice, into a wall of heat. Welcome to Italy!

Growing up on a farm, in a small country town, in rural New South Wales, in a country at the bottom of the World, always made places like Venice feel slightly out of reach. Like a tantalising jewel on the edge of my imagination. Now, at last, it was a reality.

The delivery boat chugs along the canals

The delivery boat chugs along the canals

Hot, confusing and equal parts mesmerising, Venice turned all my previous concepts of a ‘city’ upside down. I know I am a simple soul, but I was transfixed by the garbage boat (not truck), the delivery boat (not van) and the various traghettos, gondolas and ferries that moved the population around the liquid streets. On foot, I was not struggling with stop lights and pedestrian crossings, no road rage or exhaust fumes. If this was an alternative to traditional city-living, then more power to it!

With ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide in hand, we had three days to tick off all the big name sites. We must have looked like your typical stunned tourists as we strolled alongside the canals. Just when we thought we had seen the most amazing canal/street/church, we would turn another corner and be astounded all over again. A particular highlight of the first day was the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. In hindsight, I am not sure whether it was a church or a Harry Potter spell! At the time I was equally impressed by its elongated name as I was by its Titian paintings. Little did I know how ‘common’ the Great Masters were in Italy. Ho hum, yet another priceless work of art.

St Mark's Basilica, Venice

St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

We had been given a tip to visit St Mark’s Basilica as early as possible in the day and tag onto the guided tour in English. While the tour didn’t cover the entire Basilica – that would take days and more information than we could ever possibly retain – it did cover a few select mosaic murals providing insight into some of the people and events that graced this floating city. Left to our own devices, we explored the rest of the building, climbing up to the Galleria for a birds-eye view of the Piazza. It confirmed our decision to start early in the day, as the square was now full-to-overflowing with both people and pigeons.

St Mark's Square, with pigeons

St Mark’s Square, with pigeons

Trying to orient ourselves around the Main Canal, we wandered the cobbled streets, absorbing the atmosphere of this unique city. A gondola poling along a quiet narrow canal, an elaborate iron balcony, or a quaint, arched bridge all combined to make us believe we were experiencing something extra special.

Before leaving England, some locals had warned us, rather inelegantly, that Venice stinks in Summer. However, we did not find that at all and spent the majority of our visit walking happily alongside the canals or floating about out on the sea proper, completely oblivious to any sickening odours.

Sorry to be so predictable but, it's a gondola!

Sorry to be so predictable but, it’s a gondola!

Taking a ferry ride out to the various islands surrounding Venice was a good way to understand the architectural feat that is Venice, as well as its relationship to the sea. There was a real vibrancy to the waterfront as buildings were progressively being restored and the hundreds of different water craft shuttled to and fro.

On our way out to the island of Lido, I was befriended by an aged Italian gentleman who graciously offered to spend the day with me, showing me around. When I said I would need to check that with my husband he cooled noticeably but, undeterred, he continued to enthusiastically promote the merits of his island home. After a brief stroll along the crowded beach, without my Italian escort, we cruised on to Burano – home of Burano lace – and the island of Murano, the centre of a spectacular glass industry.

The riot of colour on Burano.

The riot of colour on Burano.

I think the lace industry on Burano has seen better days and has mostly gone the way of Asian imports and knock-offs. I have never been a fan of the lace doily but the trip wasn’t wasted. Many of the homes and buildings in Burano are painted in a kaleidoscope of colours. It creates a happy and friendly atmosphere and an amusing shake-up for we residents of beige, bone and brown countries.

From Burano, we hopped on the next commuter ferry for the short trip to Murano. Another fascinating island and craft centre, but this time focusing on glass. We were lucky to stumble across a fornacé, or furnace, and were spellbound by the glass blowers in action. I truly admire the skill involved in working with such a fluid and fickle material, yet being able turn out such works of beauty and delicacy. I can only wonder how many times they burned themselves as they learned their trade! Sorry, it is just how my mind works!

Our Venetian experience was drawing to a golden close as we rode the twilight ferry back into Venice. The city appeared mystical as it materialised out of the dusky Summer haze – all ancient towers and lace-like balconies.

The Marguerita Pizza tour of Italy.

The Marguerita Pizza tour of Italy.

The last evening was spent walking the cool and shadowy footpaths beside serpentine canals, and jostling with the ever-present tourists. I doubt that we got even half-way through our Venice bucket list, but the places we experienced left a lasting and loving impression. We did not see all the churches, museums or canals but maybe that was on purpose.

The longing for Venice continues today.

 

The Basics

What: First stop on a 10 day trip to Italy. In Venice, we stayed in the tiny but centrally located – Antica Casa Carrettoni

Where: Venice, Italy.

When: Late July 2003, hence the non-digital photography. Apologies!

Why: A good opportunity to escape the English version of Summer and yet another opportunity to absorb European history and culture.

How: We flew from Gatwick airport aboard budget airline Volare. We caught the shuttle bus into Venice and left Venice on the train bound for La Spezia.

Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and two bored children.

Related Blogs: For some fantastic photos and background information have a look at the Venice Travel Blog – http://venicetravelblog.com

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

Camino Via de la Plata – the Nuts and Bolts

This has to be my favourite Camino so far. The Via de la Plata makes the most of Spain’s wide open spaces as you walk through large expanses of farm land, wheat fields, grape vines and forests. All that space is sprinkled with magical cities like Merida and Salamanca, and each day you walk in the footsteps of Romans, Moors and generations of Spaniards.

Yes, it was also probably the most difficult of the three caminos I have completed, but it was the most rewarding. The difficulty relates to the large distances that must be covered some days, just to get from village to town.

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I can taste the cold beer from here. A town on the Via de la Plata at the end of a long day.

The Via de la Plata is definitely more remote than other caminos and that was what I enjoyed. It simply meant that I had to plan ahead, load up with snacks and carry plenty of water.

It is interesting how your perspective changes from camino to camino. On the Francés, 25km was considered a tough day, but on the Via that was ‘normal’ and 35km-days fell into the ‘tough’ category. Of course, there was always the option to catch a bus or taxi to minimise the long stretches but I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other.

So here are the basic logistics of this camino:

Start Day: Thursday 4 September 2014, from Seville, Spain

Finish Day: Tuesday 14 October 2014, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Route:

  • Via de la Plata: Seville (due north) to Granja de Moreruela (approx. 700km)
  • Sanabrés: Granja de Moreruela (north westerly) to Santiago de Compostela (approx. 300km)
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The blokes have left me behind, but that is OK

Distances:

  • Total: 1000km – give or take a few kilometres
  • Daily Average: 26.3km
  • Longest Day: 42km (by bad luck and poor management! A comedy of errors except I wasn’t laughing anymore!)
  • Shortest Day: 15.7km

Days:

  • Walking: 38
  • Rest: 3 (Merida, Salamanca, Ourense)

Times: Southern Spain can be hot! Even in Autumn, I did my best to avoid the heat of the day by starting early, often in the pre-dawn dark.

Terrain: Very mixed. This camino matches the Camino Frances for variety. There is everything from quaint villages and towns, to Roman roads, farm tracks and a bit of scary roadside walking. There were days and days of walking through the wide open countryside, but also a number of tough days slogging uphill for the best part of the day. It felt good to reach the top!

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Good Morning Spain. These sunrises make the early starts all worthwhile.

Weather: Glorious most days. Cool crisp mornings to start out (I did wear a beanie and gloves some mornings) but it would heat up from about 10a.m. onwards. Some days are very hot, so make sure you stay hydrated and wear sunscreen. A good hat is compulsory.

Maps & Guides: This was a real challenge.

  • I used Gerald Kelly’s – Walking Guide to the Via de la Plata and the Camino Sanabrés (Feb 2014). It was OK but I wouldn’t recommend it unless it has been comprehensively updated. Much of the content was out of date and many of the maps were seriously inaccurate – at times whole villages/towns were missing! (I have just checked and he has released a 2nd edition dated May 2016).
  • I used that book in conjunction with the website godesalco.com. This site is very handy as you can customise your route before leaving home, according to the distance you would prefer to walk each day. It will also let you know the types of accommodation available in each town and show the elevation of each leg of the walk.
  • Some walking companions had a copy of the guidebook printed by the Seville-based, Amigos del Camino de Santiago Via de la Plata. It was also not 100% accurate but, using our combined guides and maps, we seemed to muddle through OK. I would recommend using a couple of maps and/or guides just so you can cross-reference one with another.
  • Another useful website is the Spanish site – Gronze.com/via-plata. It is all in Spanish but the maps are useful, as are the accommodation lists.
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Into lush Galicia once more. My friend Lue sets a cracking pace.

Way-marking: varied from being fantastic to non-existent.

  • There were some serious road works going on when I walked and at times the path led me to the edge of a massive excavation/cutaway. One minute path, next minute nothing! That’s where logic and a good sense of direction were required as I navigated around and/or across these works to connect to the camino again.
  • Beware: leaving Zamora. We walked out in the early morning dark and mistakenly followed the arrows that took us north-west on the Camino de Santiago Portugués Via de la Plata! After about 5km of cross country walking we were back on track and heading due north again.

Accommodation: the locals on this camino really understand the economic potential of providing services and facilities for pilgrims.

  • Albergues are plentiful and mostly of excellent quality – both private and municipal.
  • There was some chatter about bed bugs along the route but luckily, I had no problems. If you are susceptible to these critters, I would go prepared.
  • Albergue costs varied from donativo (free) to €12, which included bedding, towels and breakfast.
  • Small, private hotels started at €20 (single).
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The coffee culture at Plaza de Espana, Merida, Spain.

Food: typical Spanish fare with lashings of ham, ham, and more ham.

  • Pilgrim’s menus or menu del dia were readily available.
  • If you are a caffeine addict then you need to plan carefully or bring your own makings as, on some days, there are NO cafes from sun-up to sun down. Yes, a true crisis I know!

This is not an easy camino but I would recommend it highly.

If I were to repeat a camino one day in the future, it would be this one. My mind and spirit opened up to match the wide open spaces and gave me the feeling that I was truly walking the world!

Buen camino.

Sept/Oct 2014

Read About It: For background information and guidebooks on the Via de la Plata, have a look at Book Depository

Washington, D.C. – History-buff Heaven

Have you heard about the terrible medical condition that sometimes afflicts European travellers? There are a couple of different strains of this dreadful disease known as ABC including, Another Bloody Church, Another Bloody Castle or Another Bloody Chateau for the Francophiles.

Not to be outdone in the USA, they have ABM (Another Bloody Monument) but in Washington DC, I bloody loved it!

A couple of years ago we made a flying trip to the USA for The Brave Man* to complete a research project and attend a huge national conference in Washington, D.C. I was chief bag carrier and got to ‘play’ tourist to my heart’s content while he had to be serious. That worked for me!

Our introduction to Washington was on check-in at our hotel, the Gaylord National Harbour. It was an eye-popping 2 000 rooms and had a full-sized village constructed in its atrium area. This should have given us some inkling of the other big things waiting for us in this city. Yes, I know I am showing my small-town roots when I marvel at these things but having worked in the 5-star hotel industry in a previous life, I have some understanding of what it takes to run a hotel efficiently and effectively, yet I am still boggled by the idea of 2000 rooms.

We tossed our bags into our hotel room and headed out to explore. While the Gaylord was an amazing hotel, it was quite a distance from the centre of the city so it gave us a good opportunity to try out the local public transport system. It was our first experience with the concept of travel cards (that you load with credit) rather than paper tickets, so no doubt, we looked like typical dopey tourists as we inserted our unloaded travel cards into the turnstiles, only to have them spat back out. Oh well, all part of the fun.

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The National Mall – looking towards Capitol Hill

We eventually arrived at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in central Washington and strolled the block or two onto the Mall. It felt quite surreal to stand in that large open space with the Washington Monument at one end and Capitol Hill at the other. The Mall is like the glue that holds all the key sights together. It is an elongated, green expanse edged by all manner of monuments, museums and galleries. After seeing it on TV for so long, we were finally there.

As The Brave Man* only had the afternoon free before his conference commenced, we had to focus on what he would like to see and he chose the National Museum of American History. This museum was the ideal introduction to the entire country, both politically and socially. It had the most extensive coverage of USA military history which made The Brave Man* quip that it appears that the only countries the USA has not met in battle are Australia and New Zealand! (But perhaps if Donald Trump wins the Presidential race next month, that anomaly will be rectified!)

The next day dawned bright and clear and I prepared to play tourist while the other half prepared to play conference. I was rugged up to within an inch of my life as there were still patches of snow laying around, but the brilliant blue skies made the cold more than bearable.

Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, D.C

Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, D.C

With the day stretching out before me, I took a slightly different approach and jumped on the DC Old Town Trolley Company bus to help me to cover more territory. This was an effortless way to get an overview of the city and its history. First, I took the Green Line out to the north-west of Washington through historic suburbs, past all the embassies and then up and around the National Cathedral before returning back through Georgetown, Foggy Bottom (I love that name!!) and the White House. I jumped straight off that bus and onto the Orange Line, which travelled around the Mall – up to Capitol Hill, Union Station and the Jefferson Memorial. Both of these tours had comprehensive audio commentary and by the end of the day, my brain was fit to burst, it was so full of facts and figures. What it also achieved was to highlight all the places I wanted to visit on foot, and in depth, the next day.

With my running shoes on and firmly laced, I set out on my final day to cover a serious amount of territory. Stay out of the way of this tourist on a mission!

200First stop was the Lincoln Memorial which was as imposing as I had imagined. They really know how to revere their presidents in that town, although I was a tad disappointed that Lincoln didn’t come to life as he does in the Night at the Museum II movie. Now that would have been memorable!

To continue the Lincoln theme, I spent a fascinating couple of hours at the Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was fatally wounded by John Wilkes Booth. An absorbing snapshot of history, but far more American political shenanigans than this small Australian brain could ever process and retain. A tip for the unwary: get to the Theatre first thing in the day or be prepared for long queues.

The White House with resident snipers!

The White House with resident snipers!

The White House was high on the must-see list. Naturally, you couldn’t get close to the building, and who would want to with those crack snipers on the roof? Instead the official Visitor Centre provided useful videos and background on its construction, and many of its colourful residents. The next best thing to seeing inside the American seat of power.

The Korean War Memorial. Note: the mirrored images in the marble wall.

The Korean War Memorial. Note: the mirrored images in the marble wall.

The Korean War Memorial was powerful and sobering. Nineteen life size sculptures of men in army uniform make their way, in formation, through low shrubs as if on reconnaissance. At the same time, their images are mirrored in a marble wall, doubling the impact of the scene to 38 soldiers to reflect the geographic 38th parallel the War was fought on, and the 38 000 soldiers killed in the conflict.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Just around the corner, the Martin Luther King (MLK) Memorial was thought-provoking and ingenious at the same time. The massive stone statue of MLK links to one of his speeches that included ‘out of a mountain of despair, comes a stone of hope’. It is also surrounded by many of his iconic sayings – as if the sight of a nine metre tall man isn’t impactful enough, now it challenges me to have to think as well?? For once, my timing was good and I tacked myself onto a crowd standing around a National Parks ranger. You get so much more out of a visit when someone local, and passionate, shares their knowledge.

The day starts to wane at the Washington Monument.

The day starts to wane at the Washington Monument.

Time was running out as I jogged back up the Mall – with all the jogging locals – past the Washington Monument (closed to the public due to safety concerns after a recent earthquake), paying a quick visit to the Smithsonian Castle, and finally arriving at the National Museum of the American Indian. Thank goodness there were lots of interpretive videos and places to sit down in this facility, as that was all I was good for by that stage in the day – tired legs and overloaded brain.

As I stumbled back to the Metro, I felt a little guilty that I really hadn’t done Washington justice. This is a deeply fascinating city and you would need to commit at least a week to even scratch the surface…although, maybe short, targeted visits are just the ticket to avoid a bad dose of ABM!

Some wise words from Martin Luther King Jr

Some wise words from Martin Luther King Jr

 

March 2013

The Basics Box

What: Two and a half days in Washington DC to capture the essence of the city. Definitely not long enough!

Where: Washington DC, United States of America – mostly within a 1-2km radius of The Mall.

When: We were there in Spring – just after a few days of serious snow! Cold but beautiful.

Why: Visit Washington if you enjoy history of all kinds, politics, architecture, art, science and spacious parks and lakes. Yes, just about something for everyone.

How: We used the public transport buses and trains to get to/from our hotel. It was faultless once we worked out how the thing worked.

Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of patriotic Americans and international tourists.

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

How to Lace Walking Boots

Background:

We learned the hard way about the importance of correctly-fitted boots. When planning our first camino we received some bad advice about what socks to wear and we bought our walking boots off the shelf. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

As we limped our way across Spain, we listened to other walkers as they shared their pearls of wisdom about how to best care for blisters, and compared notes on thick socks vs thin, and boots vs shoes vs sandals vs sneakers. We quickly dispensed with the double socks we started out wearing, and rued the day that we had not thought (ignorance is bliss) to spend more money and have our boots professionally fitted. In some ways it was a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.

When lining up for my second (and much longer) camino, I was determined to be smarter about my footwear. Following a recommendation from a fellow pilgrim, I telephoned in advance (I live 4 hours west of Sydney) and made time to talk with Stephen Crowfoot at the Paddy Pallin, Kent Street store.

Needless to say, my boot buying experience the second time around was COMPLETELY different. I tried on about three different brands and styles, and still Stephen was not happy with the way they looked/sat on my foot. He recommended I come back in a month or so when they had some new stock in store. On my next trip to Sydney – BINGO – a perfect fit and I walked out with a pair of Scarpas. Not cheap of course, but worth every cent considering the kilometres I was planning to cover in them.

(As an aside, the boots were 1.5 sizes larger than my normal shoe size. All the better to allow my feet to swell/expand as they warm up and wear out! This extra space is critical and was one of major mistakes we made with our initial boot purchases.)

That ol’ saying, ‘You get what you pay for’, was even more relevant throughout this exercise as I learned a brilliant lacing technique that made such a difference to the way the boot fitted and moved (or in this case – didn’t move) on my foot, ankle and leg.

I realise that this will not be gripping reading for some of my blog followers but it made such a difference to my foot comfort, I feel compelled to share with any other novice walkers out there. Or maybe it is a case of small things amusing small minds!

I am not 100% sure but I think the steps below refer to the ‘heel lock’ method which minimises the up/down (vertical) movement of your foot in a boot i.e. the tightness of the lacing around the leg stops the leg sliding in and out of the boot.

I will do my best to explain it in a number of steps:

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Step 1.

Step 1:

  • Lace the toe box as normal. Be sure not to lace it too tightly so that your feet have room to expand (as mentioned previously).
  • Cross the laces over as if you are going to tie a bow.

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Step 2a.

Step 2:

  • Loop the laces straight up, behind the hooks.

 

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Step 2b.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Step 3a.

 

 

 

Step 3:

  • Take the end of each lace and thread them diagonally across the front of the boot and through the gap/space in between the hooks (on the opposing side).
  • Pull the lace all the way through, ensuring each lace stays caught behind its top hook.

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Step 3b.

 

 

 

 

 

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Step 4.

Step 4:

  • To tie the boot off, pull the lace out and away from the boot horizontally, not vertically.
  • Pull it tight.
  • This will snugly cinch the boot around the leg.
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Step 5.

Step 5:

  • Tie off the laces.
  • I use a double bow to ensure the whole thing doesn’t come undone and trip up my two left feet!

Happy walking!

N.B: I still got the odd blister on both my second and third caminos but nothing like when walking the Camino Frances. After 1 000km I think my feet have every right to blister and protest!

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