A Reluctant Tourist on the Napali Coast

I’m a terrible traveller. Well, I love to travel but I hate being a tourist.

Yes, I agree there is no logic in that statement, but I never said I was logical!

My reluctance to be branded a ‘tourist’ stems from all those ‘typical’ tourists you see being herded from pillar to post, blindly following a flag-waving guide, holding their iPhones aloft to ensure they don’t miss the next great vista.

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A Volunteer Vietnam Adventure – Working – Part 2

Living in a foreign country is one thing, but working there is a completely different story!

Giving me a couple of days to acclimatise, if that is possible in a bustling Asian city, Miss Mai, my local contact, arrived at the apartment to introduce me to my placement at VietHealth. My role was to ‘Anglicise’ project proposals and other funding documents. As my background is in professional grant writing, I was confident that I could add some value. In my naivety, what I didn’t understand was the whole range of other cultural and personal dynamics that would colour the experience.

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A Volunteer Vietnam Adventure – Living – Part 1

What makes us, all of a sudden, decide to step away from the comfort of our ordinary lives, and into the Great Unknown?

One day I am a plain-Jane, sensible-type. The next day I have locked myself into an adventure that is guaranteed to take me well out of my comfort zone.

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Bananas, anyone?

In 2010, I was hankering to travel, but as my ‘better half’ couldn’t take time off work, I was looking for an adventure that would give me some sort of context or framework to travel in. After much searching and comparing, I decided to volunteer for a month in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Unbeknown to me, international volunteering is big business and some companies charge substantial fees to place a person in a volunteer role. Part of me still can’t understand the logic of paying for the privilege of working for free, but it was a good introduction to the contradictory nature of my time in Vietnam.

The company I chose to travel with is called IVHQ, based out of New Zealand. They seemed to have the largest range of volunteer opportunities at the most reasonable price, and they were happy to accept ‘older’ volunteers like myself. My teenage-gap-year days are far behind me, and I wanted to feel comfortable that my skills were going to be appreciated and useful, as well as providing me with a genuine opportunity to contribute.

The fees they charged covered the sourcing of a placement, my accommodation, meals and some local transport. I would also have local contacts in Hanoi to provide support and information. Not that I am a chicken or anything, but an Asian city with no local language or knowledge can be a tad intimidating.

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A street butcher and a picky customer!

Following multiple clarification emails, it was confirmed that I would be living in an apartment, not the organisation’s volunteer hostel. While more power to them, the thought of living with 40 squealing and partying 18-year-olds, made my blood run cold. Give me a bit of peace and privacy any day.

After the usual chaos and stress of packing and shutting down my business for a month, I was on the plane. Vietnam Airlines was a good introduction to my ultimate destination. The lights didn’t work, the video/entertainment didn’t work, the food was questionable, and there were various other broken and worn out parts of the plane’s interior. But, the staff were friendly, we took off and landed on time, and in one piece, and I knew I just had to go with the flow.

Hanoi airport was the typical chaos and cacophony of an Asian airport, with their hawkers and hasslers. Thankfully I was greeted by my local contact and transported to my hotel, only to find that the hotel had transferred my booking to a different hotel around the corner. I was quickly learning that things worked differently in Vietnam.

In the heart of the Old City, I played tourist for a couple of days, and then I was moved to my apartment in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi. During our trip through the suburbs, the taxi driver knocked over a lady on a motorbike, but he didn’t blink, slow down or stop. ‘OK’, I said to myself, ‘we obviously do things differently in Vietnam’.

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Chaotic electricity supply.

There was some initial confusion, as my local contact tried to drive me to the volunteer hostel, until I gently, but firmly, confirmed that I was to live in an apartment. The taxi changed direction, and my new home became one those non-descript, high-rise apartment blocks that you see crammed closely together in rabbit warren streets, clustered on the fringes of countless Asian cities.

The apartment was quite spacious and the living areas were simply furnished. There were a few things lacking like beds, linen and the remotest hint of cleanliness or hygiene! Yes, it was filthy! I quietly inquired about the housekeeping arrangements and was told that a cook came daily and a cleaner once per week. Perhaps that week was in 1984!

My room was a bare mattress (none too clean) on the floor and a few scraggly wire coat hangers dangling precariously from electrical wiring protruding from the walls and ceiling. Before leaving Australia I had confirmed that all linen would be supplied, but obviously that had been lost in translation too. Luckily I had packed a silk sleeping sheet and brought along an old beach towel. That became my linen for the next month.

But again, the local staff were warm, friendly and welcoming and I was determined to make the most of the experience. After finding the local supermarket, I purchased the complete suite of cleaning materials and scrubbed my room and shared bathroom from top to bottom. Believe me, I am no neat freak, but even I could not live in someone else’s scum and grunge.

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The view from my apartment. I only saw the distant mountains once in 30 days due to air pollution

The apartment turned out to be a comfortable and enjoyable location with enough interesting flat mates over the month for me not to feel lonely. A trio of Irish girls had me in stitches with their aversion to bugs and anything else that crawled. There would be squealing and shrieking, and they would all be standing on their beds or chairs as I rushed in to remove the offending creepy crawly.

Like many Asian cities, electricity was sometimes an optional extra. Huge lightning storms would take out the whole suburb or maybe it was just our turn to lose power. Not a drama except for the lack of cooling and light. One day I returned to the apartment block and had to walk up 27 flights of stairs in the pitch dark! Phew! My work out for the day.

I enjoyed living amongst the local Vietnamese people and I suspect I would have been one of only a handful of Westerners in the whole suburb. Being tall, white and female, I attracted a fair bit of attention as I walked to the supermarket or to catch the bus. Once I said hello, good morning or how are you in my best Vietnamese, people would break into beaming smiles and return my greetings in their best English. Never underestimate the power of a genuine smile.

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My view from the bus on my daily commute

The daily commute to VietHealth was equal parts interesting and entertaining. As other commuters entered the bus there would be a stampede to sit next to me as I was a source of free English lessons for the next hour. Rarely have I felt so popular or so useful.

When I wasn’t conversing in English it was a joy to stare out the window at the overloaded bicycles, motorbikes and small trucks. One day we passed an old man on a bicycle carrying a four metre long ladder through peak hour traffic. Yet, it seemed effortless to him and no inconvenience for the surrounding traffic.

If I wanted to step out of my comfort zone on every level, then I got that in spades just by living in Hanoi.

Have you ever step right out of your comfort zone?

May 2010

The Basics

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The mixture of old and new in the suburbs

What: Volunteering with IVHQ starts from $180 per week, with over 33 countries to choose from.

Where: Living in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi and working in the north-eastern suburbs.

When: I visited in May. Like Goldilocks, not too hot and not to cold but a bit of everything weather-wise.

Why: Volunteering ticks all the boxes of culture, contribution, challenge and friendship.

How: I flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines. I am not sure they would be my airline of choice but at least I lived to tell the tale.

Who: Myself, four Irish girls, one American girl, and sundry bugs and bities.

Related Posts: For a walking perspective of the high mountains of Vietnam, have a peek at my post about walking at Sapa.

Related Blogs: For another expat perspective of living in Hanoi, have a look at, https://petersbigadventure.com/2015/07/29/peters-guide-to-living-in-hanoi/

 

Bringing History to Life…

When visiting England, it is easy to be overwhelmed by wall-to-wall history, castles, museums and cathedrals. It is also easy to get caught on the typical tourism treadmill just focusing on the ‘big’ sites like Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace and Madame Tussaud’s.

Getting slightly off the beaten track, if such a thing is possible in England, definitely has its rewards, as we found out in the small town of Battle. I am not sure how we stumbled across this destination but it turned out to be equal parts fascinating and hilarious.

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The remains of the Abbey at Battle. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

Battle is located around 90km south east of London. As the name indicates, its origins are inextricably linked to the famous Battle of Hastings. The battle, fought between Harold the Saxon king and William the Conqueror (from Normandy) in 1066, changed the course of English history. It is believed that after he was victorious, William promised to build an abbey in memory of the people who died in the conflict. The town then grew out and around the Abbey.

The thing I really loved about our year in England was that all the fabulous history was digestible and easily accessible. England ‘does’ history well. A staid castle or cathedral is transformed into a ‘living and breathing’ snapshot of an ancient time, place and people.

We found Battle Abbey to be the perfect example of making history interesting and understandable, regardless of age or education level. Rather than being yet another pile of mouldy stone and religious artefacts, the handheld audio guides took us back to its very origins and the daily life of its inhabitants.

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Part of the Cloisters. Photo courtesy: historvius.com

The original Abbey was populated by the Benedictine Order, and was a tangible symbol of the power of the new Norman rulers. Despite its awkward location on top of a narrow, waterless ridge, William insisted that the high altar of the abbey church be located where Harold had been killed. Unfortunately, Battle Abbey could not escape the destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII, and the remaining monks of Battle surrendered in May 1538. Sadly, the church and parts of the cloister were then demolished.

What really appealed to my quirky sense of humour though was the fact that our visit was timed to coincide with the annual celebration and recreation of the Battle of Hastings. Returning the audio guides to the museum attendant, we ventured out of the Abbey and into the grounds and, at the same time, stepped 950 years back in time.

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Here come the Normans!

There is something highly amusing and satisfying about seeing grown men and women dressed up in ‘silly’ clothes and pretending to be something they are not. Maybe it is a combination of them not taking themselves too seriously, plus a passion for a specific slice of history and their willingness to preserve it.

It became immediately obvious to us that this historical occasion had struck a seriously strong chord with a whole bunch of modern-day men and women who had literally invaded Battle for the day. We were surprised to find that participants had travelled from all over Europe and even the USA for the opportunity to dress up, dance or die!

A lush, rolling paddock was turned into a Saxon village with women and children supporting their men before going into ‘battle’. Apparently this was how it worked in times past, with whole families going on tour with their warring men folk rather than waiting at home. The camp was made up of traditional tents and lean-to camping structures, forges to make and repair their weapons (and various tourist trinkets), and smoky fires to prepare their food.

There was falconry, cavalry, piping music, dancing and ancient craft, but the highlight of the day had to be the re-enactment of the actual battle. The audience stood behind a temporary barrier and the announcer explained what was happening on the field. The Normans advanced menacingly towards us from the river while the Saxons attempted to slow their progress by bringing in their archery team.

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The archers soften up the other side.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of ‘angry’ shouting and heckling between the warring sides which balanced out the laughter from the audience. Eventually the two sides met in a flurry of swords and clashing of shields, and a fair dose of good-natured pushing and shoving. I suspect many of the warriors struggled to keep a straight face and some opted to be killed or wounded simply to have the chance to lie down and catch their breath!

The classic absurdity came at the very end of the conflict when the Normans were victorious. Picture the field, littered with the dead and dying, and bloodied soldiers leant exhaustedly on their swords. Over the loud speaker, the announcer called ‘Would the dead please arise?” and all the bodies came to life again, sat up, looked around, sprang to their feet, and dusted themselves off. There was much cheerful banter, back-slaps and handshakes between the opposing sides. If only all wars could end this way.

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The ‘dead’ and ‘dying’ and the survivors chat among themselves.

In a nice nod to serendipity, a trip to France a little later in the same year took us to Bayeaux. After our happy day in Battle, we made a beeline for the museum housing the Bayeaux tapestry. It depicts the events preceding the Battle of Hastings including Harold’s deception and seizure of the English throne, as well as the battle itself. It is remarkable that such a fragile piece of handicraft has survived all this time.

After 13 years, this day trip still brings a smile to my face. History does not have to be all dry, dusty and fact-riddled. This experience, and the crazy people involved, brought history to life and made it more than worthwhile to ignore the big name tourist sites, even if just for a day.

Have you ever experienced history coming to life?

October 2003

 

The Basics

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Another section of the Bayeux Tapestry

What: Battle Abbey includes a museum, café and shop and children’s play area. It is open daily, 10a.m.-5p.m. Entry to the Abbey and Re-enactment costs £15.60 (£9.00 for children). If you intend to visit a number of English Heritage sites when you are in the UK, consider joining English Heritage for discounted entry. For a sneak peak of the day, have a look at this YouTube clip.

Where: Battle Abbey and Battlefield, High Street, Battle, East Sussex, United Kingdom – here 

When: Re-enactments are held each October around the middle of the month.

Why: The perfect way to see history come alive! Literally! And a great way to engage children in history.

How: We drove from Byfleet, Surrey to Battle, East Sussex via the A21 and M25. Plenty of parking is available on site for £3.50 per vehicle.

Who: Two big kids and two little kids – all in love with history – even if only momentarily.

Related Posts: Watch this space…

Related Blogs: For two completely different perspectives on the Battle of Hastings and re-enacting history generally, have a look at: https://secretsofthenormaninvasion.wordpress.com/ and http://historicallyspeaking.driftingfocus.com/

Tell Me Where To Go!! The Travel Bucket List.

For those people who don’t know me well, I am a planner and an organiser. Yes, I would like to be more chilled and ‘go-with-the-flowish’, but after 50-odd years on this earth, I have found that approach just doesn’t work for me. I need goals and I need exciting things on my horizon to keep me motivated and interested.

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Aya Sofya, Istanbul, Turkey. Source: xpatnation.com

Many years ago I developed an aversion to birthdays. Not that I despised getting older, although who wouldn’t want to turn the clock back a tad, it was just that I would look back on the previous 12 months and wonder, ‘where did that go’ and ‘what did I achieve’?

Most times I felt like I had accomplished a big, fat nothing. This was inaccurate and no way to think about my life, so I decided to change. Each birthday I would sit down and set myself some small challenges for the next 12 months. Then, I would stick this list, big and bold, on my fridge door. This provided no end of amusement for visitors to my house, but more importantly it kept me honest and kept me focused. Subsequent birthdays were greeted with slightly less trepidation, and a degree of excitement, as I set myself even more ambitious goals.

Without wishing to be morbid, I am now at a stage in life with more years behind me than in front, and it is time to really ‘up the ante’ on the goal-setting front.

Yes, the list is back on the fridge door, and as a sign of the times, it is now termed a ‘Bucket List’. Perhaps this is a poor choice of words, and I do not plan on going anywhere soon, except to remarkable, exotic overseas and Australian destinations.

I am always open to suggestions and here, in no particular order, is the Bucket List so far:

  • mississippi-river-trail-map_655317

    Map of the Mississippi River Trail, USA

    The Mississippi River Trail: A cycle route that starts in Lake Itascain Minnesota, USA, and finishes near the mouth of the river in Venice, Louisiana. It covers 3 600miles (5 794km), using the Mississippi River as the common theme or motif. In the past, the USA was never really high on my travel wish list mainly because the cultural contrast was not significant enough. However, this trip has captured my imagination because of the many states we will pass through – their different climate, architecture, history, scenery and accents. Yes, it will take us around three months, but what a way to experience a country.

  • Trans-Siberian Railway: This adventure has been on The Brave Man’s* wish list for quite some time. Not as energetic as the first bucket list entry, but no less fascinating. I understand the best ways to tackle this one are to either book on a guided/organised tour or get some assistance with booking tickets and accommodation. Happy to take suggestions on the best ways to approach this adventure.
  • Flower market, Guwahati.

    The vibrant colours of India. Source: incredibleindia.org

    India: How do they cram so much chaos, colour and culture into one five-letter word? The thought of the scale of the population in India frightens the pants off me, but I am busting to get there to experience such their vibrant culture. I am not brave enough to do this solo or via independent touring so I am currently researching cost-effective and well-regarded tours that will give me a small insight into this country. Fingers crossed, I get to tick this one off the list in 2017.

  • Turkey: Has always been lurking on the list since we had a short visit to the Marmaris region back in 2003. I loved the collision of Asian, European and Middle Eastern culture and history. We found the people incredibly friendly, and the architecture and arts fascinating. To be on the safe side, we will wait until the dust settles a bit in that region before venturing over. As an aside, there is a 509km walk called the Lycian Way that follows the Turkish coast line from Fethiye to Antalya. Perhaps we could incorporate that stroll into a visit?
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    Monks line up to collect alms. Source: Tourism Laos

    Trains Through Asia: I am not sure if you have come across The Man in Seat 61? He has to be world’s largest train nut, and what a wonderful resource he has created for rail-travel fans. The loose plan is to fly into Singapore and then train (and bus where necessary) north through Malaysia, Thailand and finishing in Luang Prabang, Laos. Again, a fantastic way to experience a variety of Asian cultures, move slowly through the changing countryside, and meet the locals.

  • Houseboat Trip on the Hawkesbury River: This one is much closer to home, and probably the shortest travel adventure. I have always thought a houseboat, a bit like the canal boats in England and France, would be a relaxing and different way to ‘play tourist’. The Hawkesbury River is one of the main rivers that forms a rough border on the northern side of the Sydney basin. Only three hours from home but a world away from the chaos of Sydney.
  • Camino del Norte: The Bucket List would not be complete without another camino
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    The route of the Camino del Norte in Spain.

    thrown into the mix. This walk starts at Irun, near the border of France, and follows the Spanish coastline until you cross into the province of Galicia, then turning south-west towards Santiago de Compostela. This is a tough walk apparently, due to the mountainous terrain, so we had better start training now!

  • Overseas Volunteering: We also plan to spend some time giving back. With The Brave Man’s* extensive education skills, and my bag of tricks, perhaps we can make a small positive difference to someone’s life.

That is just a small sample of what’s currently on the list. I think it’s a nice mix of active, overseas, cultural and the Aussie, but I am more than happy to print out a longer list or buy a larger fridge to display it!

So, now it’s your turn. What is missing from our list? What cracker destinations must we add?

The Basics

lp-trans-book-depositWhat: The Bucket List is open to all suggestions. I figure once the appeal of sitting on a long haul flight fades, our focus will change and we will travel much closer to home.

Where: Anywhere.

When: Anytime, and any length of time.

Why: Who needs a reason to travel?

How: Planes, trains, automobiles plus by boat, on foot, by bicycle.

Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and anyone else up for adventure.

Related Posts: Watch this space

Related Blogs:

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

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

I am going to apologise right up front for this blog post. It may turn out to be one long string of clichés or a saccharine wallow in childhood memories. Or it could identify for you a place you definitely do NOT want to visit. But for this 50-something year old big kid, it was a dream come true.

As a child growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the highlight of each week was the Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night at 6p.m. I would be glued to the black and white (and eventually colour) TV and transported to every far flung corner of the world or my imagination. I don’t remember regularly watching the Mickey Mouse Club but man, I lusted after a pair of those perfect ears.

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Here at last. The Magic Castle, Disneyland Paris

A year living in England in 2003 placed all of Europe on our doorstep including, within spitting distance, Disneyland Paris. Of course we explained this trip as a birthday treat for the two much younger members of the household but, I admit to being just as excited as they were.

It was a challenge to temper the excitement as we trundled through the wintry streets of Byfleet at 5a.m. dragging our wheelie bags. Needless to say, the thousands of bleary-eyed commuters who joined our train trip into London were less than excited about their day. They had no choice but to put up with our jollity and two children bouncing off the walls of the train.

There are two very passionate train lovers in this family so the excitement levels threatened to go off the scale when we arrived at Waterloo station to board the Eurostar train to Lille and then onwards to Disneyland Paris. In reply to quizzical, and somewhat exasperated, looks from our fellow travellers, I would flash the cover of our Disneyland Resort Paris guidebook and they would nod knowingly, and redouble their efforts to ignore us.

Our short-break package included train travel, two nights’ accommodation, breakfast, and unlimited 3-day entry into Disneyland and Disney Studios. Does life get much better than that? As soon as we arrived at the resort park – yes, there is more to Disneyland than just Disneyland – we checked into our hotel, collected our admission tickets and ran squealing with glee towards the entrance turnstiles. We were there at last.

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M-I-C-K-E-Y  M-O-U-S-E!!!

Before leaving England, the locals had tried to dampen our enthusiasm a little because (a) it was only Disneyland after all, and (b) it was Winter (usually preceded by ‘you idiot why are you going there now?’). Little did they understand the warped logic of we Disney-addicts and our assumption that the colder temperatures would reduce crowd numbers. Thankfully we lucked out on both points – cold but crystal clear blue sky days and a manageable number of other hardy souls running from ride to parade.

But our Disney passion was balanced by strategy and, before arriving in France, we had already identified our ‘must sees’ and importantly, how long we were prepared to wait for them. If the sign said ‘75 minutes to wait’ we would veer off and visit something else, and then circle back later optimistically hoping that the line would be shorter. Most times we were not disappointed.

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All aboard for the Disneyland Railroad…

The first part of the strategy (and see previous comments about the resident train nuts) was to get the lie of the land. The Disneyland Railroad chugs around the edge of the theme park, stopping at stations in each of the ‘lands’, and takes around 20 minutes to complete the full loop. Armed with this information, we were ready to immerse ourselves in all things Disney.

Main Street USA is a recreation of historic small-town America. It is the perfect welcome to the park and fires up the imagination for the rest of Disneyland. In reality it is just a string of over-priced cafes and souvenir shops, but the gauntlet must be run to get into the park proper.

I am a roller coaster fan from way back so I took to them with gusto. Big Thunder Mountain is a runaway mine train through forests, collapsing mine shafts and eventually into a ‘flooding’ river – equal parts corny and hilarious. How old did I say I was? The kids were lapping it all up too although the 9-year old refused to open his eyes from go to whoa! I think it would have been scarier than having them open.

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Adventureland, Disneyland Paris

We rode riverboat and Mad Hatter’s Teacups. We enjoyed robot-like animatronics in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and a reverse-ride through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril. Yes, more high-pitched squealing and tightly scrunched eyes.

Highlights included the ‘Honey, I shrunk the audience’ 3-D show. At last, an opportunity to sit and rest our tired legs. Based on the popular movies, the whole audience was ‘shrunk’ to matchbox-size and, crazily, it felt like it due to the highly convincing 3-D visual effects, surround sound and other sensations. The classic came at the end of the movie when a ‘giant’ dog on the screen turned towards the audience and sneezed all over us. Yes, we got sprayed with water at the same time. Gross but very funny!

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The Main Street Electrical Parade, Disneyland Paris

The Wonderful World of Disney Parade and the Main Street Electrical Parade at night were both worth plonking down on the street gutter and watching all the childhood favourites as they strolled or rolled by.

It was a truly fairy-tale experience and my only regret is that I came to my senses and did not buy my own set of mouse ears. I couldn’t quite justify the purchase in my adult-mind but I should have thrown caution to the wind and satisfied my every childhood whim.

We ran from joyride to roller coaster to parade for three days straight but soon it was all over, and it was a very happy but wearied family stumbling homewards from the Byfleet train station. It was 1130p.m., dark and cold, and I was mentally replaying the magic of the past days.

Imagine my surprise when the 9-year old called out, “Mel, what’s for dinner tomorrow night?” All the excitement and entertainment of this once in a lifetime experience, and he was thinking of his stomach?? Is youth wasted on the young?

February 2003

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Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland Paris

The Basics

What: Three day package tour from London to Disneyland Paris – train travel, two nights’ accommodation with breakfast at Sequoia Lodge, unlimited Park entry, a guide book and activity packs for both children.

Where: Disneyland Resort Paris – about 32 km east of Paris.

When: Late Winter 2003 – yes, it was cold and sometimes grey but that kept the crowds (and therefore our competition) under control.

Why: A birthday celebration for one of the children and a long-held dream for both of the adults.

How: Eurostar train from Waterloo Station, London with connections at Lille direct to Disneyland Paris.

Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and two out-of-control-with-excitement children.

Related Blogs: For more up-to-date information about a family day out at Disneyland Paris, then have a look at this great blog that specialises in traveling with children: http://www.wheressharon.com/europe-with-kids/disneyland-paris-review/

 

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

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!

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!