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Venice, Murano & Burano - (Italy Part I)

sunny 15 °C

Day 1

Sam and I are fast becoming pretty used to the main train/bus station scene in Europe. They don't differ all that much in what to expect from place to place. Grubby concrete stations, overpriced food, fake goods peddlers, "hoods" trying to help you buy tickets for a fee and begging Gypsies. And all this inconveniently located 30 mins from where you need to be in some dodgy unattractive neighbourhood. Well the main train station at Venice blew this stereotype out the door. As you emerge from the platforms, fully prepared to tell the next idiot who attaches themselves to you to head off, you're hit with the most magnificent landscape. The Grand Canal... and we're definitely not in Kansas anymore Toto.


We paid 5 euros each to board a "water bus" to our accommodation. This seems excessive, but you instantly forget about the $20 combined you just spent on public transport once you start floating down the Grand Canal. The weather was gorgeous and the sights equally so. So many places rarely live up to your expectations, but Venice was exactly how stunning I imagined it to be. Boldly striped Gondoliers skirt the edges of the canal and skillfully navigate through impossibly narrow canals. All the photographs you've seen of the Palazzo Ducale, of the Basilica di San Marco, of the pastel palaces along the chalky green Grand Canal have simply been recording the extraordinary truth.




Our accommodation was very nicely located between the Rialto Bridge and San Marco square and after check in we proceeded to stroll around Venice and enjoy the gorgeous weather. Maps are basically useless in Venice, but unlike most places getting lost is a pleasure and half the fun. Under stone archways, down cobbled alleys, over bridges, across another picturesque piazza. Every corner brought more surprises, for which we couldn't walk for a minute without coming across something that was worth a stop. We concluded the day with a walk along the Grand Canal and found a good position to sit and watch the sun drop, and later for me to take some night shots of the Rialto Bridge.





Day 2

We spent much of day two simply strolling around. With not so much as a plan, other then we wondered North for a few hours, then looped back south, stopping only occasionally for an espresso or two. It was a magical day ... best explained in pictures ...

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Day 3

We decided to head off the main Venetian islands towards the near by Murano and Burano. We made a quick detour to the Venice's main Cemetery (San Michele aka 'Island of the Dead') - quite fascinating with its above ground tombs all self contained on its own little island. The imposing high brick wall around the cemetery island complements well the elegant white facade of San Michele in Isola. After strolling the cemetery we jumped back on the ferry to Murano.



Murano was like a mini Venice, except more spread out with wider canals and alot less tourists. It was quite relaxing. Pint size little shops and houses lined the waters edge. We sensed locals actually "live" here unlike Venice with its transient tourist population. Murano is famous for its glass and glass makers, with shops scattered throughout the island. We managed to get a few sneak peaks of traditional glass blowers hard at work, before jumping on another ferry to Burano.



Burano was a lot further out, but definitely worth the ferry trip. The main route into Burano was a narrow street full of fake goods peddlers and tacky trinket shops which just in time opened out to reveal the brightly painted houses of the village itself. Everywhere you look, you see houses clad in blue, green, pink, rose, lavender, purple, yellow, and other colors, lending to the islands cheerful coziness. The tradition goes that fisherman would paint their houses the same bright colours as their boats, making it easy to identify them as they approached from sea. Sam and I found it too hard to pick which colour we'd choose if we owned a our own house on Burano!




Since Venice was fast proving to be a foodies wasteland we decided to try a recommended restaurant on Burano, still predominantly frequented by locals and serving traditional Venetian fare at a reasonable price (well reasonable for Venice!). We'd read the local dish to try was either pasta (or more traditionally a Risotto) served in a black Cuttlefish Ink sauce (Nero di Seppia). So we gave it a go ...

Sam's local cuisine review

After an exhausting full day we headed back to the mainland for a Gelati and an early night, thus concluding our Venetian adventure. Although it's true that the city can be unbearably crowded, sometimes pushy and expensive, things aren't so bad beyond the magnetic draw of San Marco Square and the kitsch carnival mask sellers. We found heading out into the yonder coupled with visiting in the shoulder season, afforded us a wonderful experience we won't soon forget.



Posted by redmozzy 23:03 Archived in Italy Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Where the beer is cheaper than water

Prague, Czech Republic

overcast 4 °C

We regretfully had to leave Krakow a day early in order to avoid missing our connecting transport in Prague. Krakow was a intreging city and for the first time on our trip we left feeling like we'd missed out on so much. Definitley a place which is back on our "must see AGAIN" list. It was hard to tear ourselves away from our hostel (the best so far) but reluctantly we did and headed to the train station to catch our overnight train. The previous day Sam and I had attempted to purchase 2 person sleeper tickets, but they were unfortunately all sold out. So we decided to brave the 4 person sleeper instead. We thought we'd try our luck at the ticket counter to see if perhaps someone had cancelled and a 2 bed sleeper was available. Arrrr ... no ... and you're in a 6 person sleeper, not a 4 person. So it went from bad to worse.

So we boarded the train at a near empty platform thinking "Hmmm, not so bad, maybe it won't be full". The sleeper itself was the stuff of nightmares ... 3 bunks (or slabs of wood with a thin mattress on each) lined a room no bigger them a small long bathroom. Sam was reserved in a top buck and myself on the middle bunk, disaster. You couldn't even sit up, it was either lie down or stand upright torture style in the narrow section between the bunks. After 10mins we assumed we'd struck gold as we were still the only ones in our compartment. Then, Jurrassic Park style the ground began to shake and all went quiet. A feeling of impending doom suddenly came over us. Next thing we knew the train was surrounded by 200 confused Japanese tourists. 2 minutes later 4 young Japanese girls frighteningly peered into our compartment. It was clear ... they were equally as disappointed. Yet we knew we needed each other to get through these trying times ... and the next 10 hours.

So picture a tiny 5 foot nothing Japanese girl struggling to get into her top bunk, not so hard right? There was head bumping, plenty of "Oooww's", tugging at sheets, untangling of clothes, until she finally was able to sit up with her head tilted strongly to the side. Now picture Sam, a solid 6 foot something struggling to get into his top bunk. It was like watching a Cat trying to escape a bathtub. There were limbs flying, concussions, plenty of "ARRRRRRGH's" and a few close calls with Sam's swinging size 12's and a Japanese girl's head. Yet with his knees up around his chin, he was in. Notice how I didn't address how I got into my bed ... we won't go there as I may need to seek councilling on my return to Australia. Lets just say, one doesn't get too much sleep when they keep envisioning newspaper headlines along the lines of "Large Australian girl crushes tiny Japanese girl in sleeper train bunk bed collapse".

Day 1


After a night of much unpleasentness, we finally got into Prague. Our Japanese friends didn't speak any English, but this didn't stop Sam trying to have a conversation with them. He'd say something and they'd just laugh, it was very cute. After posed for 20,000 photographs with our new best friends (and even their friends who didn't know us, hahaha), it was time to disembark. If you ever had to be stuck in 6 person sleeper, four quiet Japanese girls is probabably the best case senario. Our hostel was no more then 5 mins from the train station and the wonderful hostess let us check in at 8 in the morning. Despite the amazing view from our terrace and we went straight to sleep!


We awoke feeling refreshed around 12pm and on a tip from our hostess we headed to a restaurant at the end of the street. We'd heard tales of the cheap beer in Prague but nothing can really prepare you for that moment a waiter plonks a 1ltr of beer down in front of you and you then proceed to do exchange rate sums in your head over and over, not quite believing this cold golden nector is only $1.50 Australian. Two hours later we left pleasently numb and warm despite the 3 degrees outside. We spent a few hours enjoying sights of Prague before heading in for the night.


Day 2

Prague wasn't looking after us weather wise, but despite this we headed to the famed Charles Bridge and then onto the Prague Castle. They say Prague is a fairytail city, and the Prague castle really doesn't let you down, with its mix of pristine and varied Architectural styles. Excited by the sight of my first Gargoyles since Notre Dame, I whipped out the 'stalker' lense and snapped away. If its to wash away storm water from the roof or to scare away evil spirits, their elaborate facial features and protruding tongues do a fine job at both.


It was late afternoon so we decided to see if the restaurant we enjoyed yesterday was still serving food. After a walk around the touristy part of Prague we'd discovered cheap food and beer needed to be hunted down, and when you we onto a good thing stick to it. Luckily it was open for business and we had one of the best meals so far and I think the bill totalled $25 (including about 6 beers, hahaha).

Again time seemed to slip by to quickly in Prague and again we left wishing we'd scheduled more time for Prague and beyond. Regardless we headed to the airport to begin our Italian leg of our trip.


Posted by redmozzy 08:48 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Krackin' It in Krakow (Sam's perspective)

Krakow, Poland

snow 0 °C

As I get more and more behind with these travel blogs, like a naughty school child, I've began avoiding them all together. In an attempt to help me catch up Sam is helping me out a bit! Now for someone who has only ever written "Happy Bday, Love Sam" in cards and has probably not even sent me more then 3 text messages in our 6 years together, getting him to write stuff is pretty exciting! So ... Poland ...

Sam's Blog ...

We rocked into Poland's Katowice airport at around 1.30 in the morning on the budget carrier 'Wizz Air'. When we got off the plane it was around 5 below with quite a bit of snow around. Krakow (and our hostel) was about 2 hours from the airport and we got straight onto a Wizz air transit van. The driver spoke really basic English but was really friendly and helpful. We arrived at the Krakow's main bus/train station at 3.30 in the morning, not knowing what to expect. Seems as though all the "hoods" ([Charlotte] "Hoods" in Sam's lingo for people who are up to no good, hahaha - hoods as in he thinks they all wear Hoodies) had tucked in for the night as it was well below freezing. It wasn't a drama finding the hostel and they had our room sorted with the heater cranked. We later came to discover out this particular hostel was probably one of the best hostels we've stayed in so far.

The next day we had a bit of a sleep in due to our late arrival, and headed to the hostel breakfast around 10am. The bread was fresh and there was a large assortment of exotic spreads and meats. After our third cuppa we rugged up and headed out. It was around midday and outside was like ice wind but we went and checked out Krakow's old castles and the Jewish quarter. It was only a small city but you could easily spend a week or two there.



We wanted to go do a "Crazy" communist tour of the old communist built suburb but missed out, due to the fact we'd had a late start, then realised we could only get to Prague on a night train (which meant we lost half a day). They drive you around in a restored Communist car and you get off the beaten track with a crazy local (according to an American guy I spoke to in the hostel who had been). We had an afternoon feed at a "Milk Bar" ([Charlotte] Bar Mleczny or Milk Bars (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_mleczny) in English are former communist cafeterias, selling Polish staples for next to nothing due to continued state subsidies) which was just great.

They spoke absolutely no English at all but were genuine people who serve hearty fair. Both meals cost us under 4 dollars and when we got out of the heated cafe the weather turned so we headed back to the hostel, stopping only to get a couple of honey vodkas for our friends back home. However I cracked the first one as soon as we got in the door. I cant usually drink spirits on their own but honey vodka goes down well, but it is still quite firey. I spent the rest of the day next to the heater with my bottle in hand watching the snow settle fall. Later the hostel owner cooked us all a free feed of Polish sausage casserole, it was awesome winter food and we sat around the table with the other guests. We were really enjoying ourselves now.


The next morning after some toast and a coffee trio we got ready to get the bus to Auschwitz. We'd decided to save ourselves the trouble and just book a basic tour. It took about an hour and a half to get there, during which they showed a video of when the Red Army liberated the main camps. It was actually the first video footage taken of the camp liberation and didn't hold anything back. We went to Auschwitz I first with a guide to escort us who was really knowledgeable and did a great job. He took us through the main buildings and talked us through the displays. I was quite shocked at the size and mechanics of the operation. Auschwitz I now houses all the museum displays and also has an original execution wall where relatives still leaves flowers for their loved ones. They then showed us the one remaining gas chamber (auschwitz I had four of them by 1945 but the Nazis destroyed three of them) which I found really disturbing. It isn't much more than a room with two holes in the roof. The crematorium is in the same building.

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Next we went to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) which was mostly destroyed by the Nazi's because of the numbers of people they killed there daily, but you can still see the iconic guard tower, fencing and railway lines. It was on a quiet snowy plain and the wind was ripping right through us. We think it would have been around 5 below and everyone in the tour group was feeling it, but of course no one complained. We couldn't even imagine how people survived the elements, let alone everything else. Our guide took us through some preserved wooden buildings that were used as sleeping quarters, which you wouldn't even keep cattle in. The tour ended with a few minutes to look out over the giant camp before heading back to Krakow, and our overnight train to Prague.

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Posted by redmozzy 12:13 Archived in Poland Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Snowing one day ... Brilliant Blue Sky the next

Madrid, Barcelona - Spain

all seasons in one day 10 °C

So our Spainish adventure began with our first overnight train journey from Porto (via Lisbon) to the Spanish capital of Madrid. We booked a basic 2 person sleeper, which was squeezy but comfortable no less ... that was until the train started moving. Not being a fan of the top bunk I snagged the bottom sleeper. Turns out bottom sleepers are the worst as you get all the noise and bumps. I slept terribly, while Sam (who'd polished off a snack sized box of wine before bed) stated to of had the best night sleep of his life. I woke up grumpy and irritable, so Sam smartly left me to go and get the included continental breakfast. I shortly joined him, and was surprised with the quality of breakfast spread. Unfortunately a night of jerking around on the bottom bunk had left me a bit woozy and without much of an appetite.

Day One

We arrived none the less and made our way to our hotel. We had a lot of trouble locating the hotel, due to the lack of directions provided by them, and the language barrier. We noticed there were alot less English speakers, then anywhere we'd been so far, but that was ok, and we eventually found where we needed to be. The weather was constantly rainy, making it very hard to get out and doing anything on our first day in Madrid. We've also become quite dependent on having a WiFi connection available to be able to "google" what to do and see in each location, and of course the WiFi was down in our hotel. The rain really set in, so we decided to write off day one and try again tomorrow.

Day Two

... was probably worse weather wise, then day one! Despite this we headed out regardless, as Madrid's Museo Del Prado happened to be No. 2 on my 'European Art Gallery Must Sees' list. I hate to be an art snob, but the main reason of the Prado visit was to see Velazquez's most infamous picture the 'Les Meninas' (Ladies in Waiting). 'Les Meninas' being a personal favourite of mine since studying it at university, was visually impressive in person. It is as domineering and mammoth as I imagined. And as fascinating and confusing as I remembered! A painting, of a painter, painting. Painting what though? The same old questions, is that the king and queen reflected in the mirror? Who is the man in the door. Who is the Princess looking at. Who was Velazquez to paint himself into this accidental royal family portrait? And to include servants, little people and dogs! What was he trying to say? Who is the "viewer" intended to be? Myself, the painter or the king and queen looking on? I could of pondered these questions all day ... along with the 200 other people trying to get a peek at such a priceless wonder.

After a few hours we decided to find some genuine Spanish food. Sam's written & video review ...

On our second day in Madrid we were keen for some local Spanish eats. We settled on a back alley restaurant which was tourist free. There was a banquet lunch special for 10 euros each for 3 courses and a bottle of wine. We don't speak Spanish, and our waiter didn't speak any English, so we whipped out the old pointer (finger) and hoped for the best. We thought if we just pointed to something on the menu we'd be sweet because everyone else's food looked great. I started with a soup that was worth the trip over and Charlotte had an awesome Paella dish (which was like a spicy seafood rice combo) and they brought out a house red which was a real delight and we polished the bottle off smartly as we waited for the second course. Charlotte joked we might get a fish head or something.

Well for the second course all hell broke loose as a big old Amazonian piranha turned up on our table for Charlotte with skin, teeth, head and all. The fish wasn't very flavoursome and was definitely a fresh water specimen. When the waiter turned up to take away our plates he looked a bit disappointed we didn't eat the Piranhas eye, but we had a bit of a poke at it instead. I fared a bit better with a piece of Pork (no head) and Potatoes. We were really looking forward to dessert as there were some real Spanish delights coming out for other people. 'The Pointer' failed us again, as I ended up with a stinking old plain banana and Charlotte had a single piece of Pineapple that tasted like water compared to the Queensland ones we'd been used to. Despite this misstep it was a great place to try your luck for a feed.

And that was basically how our Madrid adventure ended, I didn't even take any photos (can you believe it!). The weather was shocking and we were unable to get out much. Madrid didn't reflect he Spain i'd imagined. It reminded me a little of Paris (minus all the sights, haha). I definitely appreciated the Prado visit, and was glad for that, but I think Madrid has perhaps seen the last of us!

Day 3

Began with our first high speed train of the trip to Barcelona. 600km was gobbled up and spat out in under a very pleasant 2 hours (amazing!) and before we knew it we were in Barcelona. As we emerged from the underground Metro Barcelona instantly felt more warm and inviting then Madrid, and even a little more "Spanish" (only just). One thing we definitely noticed was the chill in the air, within the short time of getting to our hostel and settling in it had begun to snow. We were told by a local it hadn't snowed in Barcelona for 10 years. Of course, it was obviously waiting for us to arrive! Since snow is a complete novelty and much more interesting then rain, we headed out for a walk in the winter wonderland that was Barcelona, thus completing day 3!


Day 4

We couldn't quite believe what we woke up to on day 4. It was warm, sunny and not a cloud in the bright blue sky. We wondered if we had somehow been teleported back home to Australia, but no ... our surroundings told us otherwise. We decided day four was going to be dedicated to the Modernist Architect Antoni Gaudi, who's wacky yet spectacular Art Nouveau sights pepper all of Barcelona with their spicy goodness. Our first Gaudi site of the day was the eternally under construction La Sagrada Familia, which was conveniently near our hostel. It was almost refreshing to stare upon a modern (by European standards) Roman Catholic church which was well outside the box. The giant spindle shaped towers are most domineering, held up by the tree like pillars. Most interesting are Gaudi's angular shaped religious statues, which adorn the churches facade. Unlike anything you'd expect on the side of a Catholic church. We continued on to our next Gaudi site, Park Güell.

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We're fast learning that it is very hard to distinguish flat surfaces from hilly ones on a 2D map (duh), and we were suitably punished for it on our trek to (or should I say UP) to Park Güell (it looked super close to the subway on the map!). 30 minutes later we arrived huffing and puffing, not at the park, but the scenic look out ABOVE THE PARK. The views over Barcelona were stunning and quite worth the hike in the end, and after regaining our breath we headed down to the main terrace. Gaudi's naturalistic architecture dances on your senses. Beautiful vibrant Mosaics accompany wavey wobbly bences. Nothing in nature is perfectly angular and neither is anything Gaudi, which I think makes his work so appealing. We headed down towards the entrance of the park to enjoy the famous technicolour "Lizard". On our journey back to the hostel concluded our Gaudi day with a trip past some of his famous residential houses.

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Day 5

For our final day in Barcelona we headed up another massive hill (this time on a chair lift thingy - much to Sam's horror) heading for an imposing looking Fort and towards Barcelona's 1992 Olympic park. We spent much of the day wondering around the hill Fort, and then walking down the hill through the Olympic Park area and down towards the stunning National Museum. We had a very 10pm flight out of Barcelona to Poland, and found ourselves at 5pm exhausted out of things to do. Despite having 5 hours to spare we decided to head to the airport anyways and wait it out.

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The Barcelona airport was a convenient 15 minute train journey, so by my calculation we would be there in no time. We boarded the train at the "airport" platform no problems. After half an our of staring out at Barcelona's pristine coastline, we began to realise (or I did, Sam was to busy looking at the Surf) we weren't going to the airport! Unlike Melbourne trains which stop every 3 minutes, once you're on a European train, it is generally for a long time. The train kept going, and going, and going ... A ticket conductor approached us and looked at our 2 euro tickets to the airport, and began shuffling in his pockets. He pulls out a card in English saying "You've gone the wrong way". Finally after an hour we stopped and headed for the station information point. The information man was pretty funny, directing us to go back to Barcelona and emphasizing to us to not get on a train unless it says "AEROPORT" ... hahaha.

So it was 7pm by now as we waited for the 7:10 train back to Barcelona. By 7:15 it hit that we have probably missed that train ... ugggggggggggh. Sam went back into the Train station and they guy starts shaking his head. Next train was a non direct train at 7:40, which stopped every 3 mins for a hour and a half. We nervously did the sums and realised we'd most likely get to check in 10 mins after closing, and being a budget airline, we were convinced we were done for. Since we were heading there now we decided to just try out luck. Of course being a budget carrier their check in terminal was 3kms away from the train terminal. We arrived as they were boarding our flight to the check in desk, just as the staff were packing up to finish for the night. Surprisingly he checked us in!! What the!! And that was the end of our Spanish leg.



Posted by redmozzy 12:14 Archived in Spain Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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