Sunday, 22 May 2016

How to cheat at Venice

Bridges, canals, and a cheeky ride on a gondola. Throw in a slice of pizza and a scoop of ice cream and that's about the size of most people's weekend breaks in Venice. But what many don't realise is just how much that oh-so-coveted gondola ride costs. They start at 80Euros -- extra if you want the gondola man (gondolier, I believe is the correct term, but please don't make me say it out loud) to sing. Naturally, longer rides cost more money. Having your eyes actually open incurs an extra charge, and if you want access to oxygen whilst you ride, take out a second mortgage right now.

A gondola ride is something that's been on my to-do-list forever (did I mention how much I'd always wanted to go to Venice?), but other things are also important to me. Things like not having to swim back to the airport because I can't afford the waterbus ticket, and being able to afford food for the fortnight between now and payday. Little things like that.

Long story short, the gondola ride was out of my budget, and so my dreams of being serenaded by an Italian sunk to the bottom of the canal like a dropped oar heading to a watery grave.

But alas! What's this on the horizon? A Traghetto? But it looks exactly like a gondola. That, my friend, is what it is, but without the hefty price tag.

Traghettos are effectively river buses, designed to ferry people across the Grand Canal. The Canal itself only has three bridges crossing it, which are pretty spread out, so for two euros, it's often easier to hop on  a Traghetto. Fair enough, the crossing only lasts for 30 seconds or so, and you'll be sharing it with a few strangers (it is a form of public transport after all), but it may well be the best two euros you spend in Venice.

People boarding the Traghetto

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Venice: expectations vs. reality

Venice has been "my place" since I was 8 years old, by which I mean that if anyone asked me where I wanted to go more than anywhere in the world, the answer was always Venice (if anyone reading this is thinking of whisking me away anywhere, Cuba, Marrakech and Namibia are next on the list, thanks very much).

I don't know where my fascination with the watery city came from - probably a TV programme or film, but the romance of the place has always intrigued me. Whatever it was, after 16 years of hankering after the colourful buildings and winding waterways of Venice, it's safe to say I had a few firm ideas in my head of what I expected the city to be like. But how true did they turn out to be?

1. Beautiful architecture. That goes without saying (in all your hours of scrolling through Pinterest and double-tapping on Instagram, have you ever seen a bad photo of Venice?). Palatial style buildings sitting alongside historic clock towers and sweeping domes.

The truth: Venice is beautiful, in many ways. Some buildings ooze regal splendour, while the quieter parts of town absolutely rock the shabby chic vibe. A Venetian we met on the plane (that's another story for another day) had told us of a few "modern" buildings around the city. Turns out "modern" is a subjective term -- if you're looking for 21st century glass and metal boxes, Venice isn't the place for you, my friend.

2. Lots of independent shops, cafes and bars. Realistically I know that this is the 21st century, Venice is a European tourist hotspot, and therefore there's probably a MacDonald's or Burger King on every corner, but can't a girl dream of cute little cafes and family-run pizzerias?

The truth: You can wander miles down the back streets of Venice without coming across a single recognisable shop: just tiny, individual shops selling Murano glass, Venetian masks, macarons and, er, yacht paint (yes, really). But seek and ye shall find - the central area to the east of the Rialto Bridge has Mac, Sephora, Pandora, Disney Store, Intimissi and other chains, while the area around St Mark's Square addresses the higher end of the market with Gucci, Dior and friends. Strata Nova in the north of the island is home to the likes of Lush. Oh, and this recogisable chap:
To be fair though, Venice seems a lot less commercialised than most other European cities.

3. It's expensive. It's the first thing anyone tells you when they hear you're going to Venice - usually while pursing their lips and whistling through their teeth. That's regardless of whether they've even visited Venice themselves - they all know someone who knows someone who's been ripped off by astronomical service charges in a restaurant or a gondola man whose price was just that bit too steep.

The truth: Venice *can* be expensive, but no more so than any other city. If you're going to chow down on oysters and sup champagne in St Mark's Square, you probably will spit it all back out in shock when the bill arrives. But by wandering away from the main tourist centres, you can easily get dinner and a drink for 12-14Euros. Two things to watch out for in restaurants are service charges and cover charges - if they're not clear up front, check before you order.

Transport on the other hand can be pricey, with a single ticket on the Vaporetto (waterbus) costing 7Euros. 

Gondola men - waiting to rip you off?
4. It's smelly and crowded. By this time you're probably wondering why I ever wanted to visit Venice at all, what with the pong of the canals in the height of summer, and the narrow alleyways so crowded there's barely a chance to whip out your selfie stick.

The truth: The occasional whiff of sewage wafted up our nostrils, but nothing too offensive. I can't speak for the situation in high summer though. As for the crowds, they tend to gather around St Mark's Square the Rialto Bridge so as long as you avoid those, you'll be fine. If you are heading to St Mark's Square, go early in the day - 10am is perfectly pleasant, 3pm is a heaving mess.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Is this the best landing view from any airport in the world?

I was kicking myself as we came into land at Venice Marco Polo Airport last week. Not because I'd forgotten anything, or because I'm a particularly nervous flyer, but because I didn't have my camera to hand when this corker of a view appeared in the tiny oval of the aeroplane window:

Photo by the lovely Emma Cleaver who was clever enough to whip her camera out in time.
Yes. that is the whole of the island of Venice, plus a few outlying islands, stretched out in front of you. Yes, it was stunning, and yes, it got me really, really excited to land and get down there exploring.

It also got me thinking -- is this one of the best airport landing views in the world? It's certainly got to be up there as one of the best city views -- by the very virtue of being a city, planes vary rarely fly in so close to them -- although I hear planes from London City Airport often get a little too close for comfort.

Luckily I was a little more prepared on the way back, camera hung round my neck, finger twitching minutes before we'd even reached the runway for take-off. The positioning of the airport means that after take off, planes have to double back on themselves and circle over Venice to get enough height to get over the Alps, creating a perfect photo opportunity. I didn't manage to capture the whole of Venice (thanks, wing), but this little beauty is the island of Burano, best known for its colourful houses:

Know of any better take-off or landing views? Let me know in the comments - I'd love to hear about them.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Fortnum & Mason's Alice in Wonderland themed windows

You're late, you're late, for a very important date! Ok, you're not really, but what you are missing is these lovely Alice in Wonderland themed windows at Fortnum & Mason.

I don't normally go for themed windows (the last one I actively sought out was Harrods' Gatsby-themed window display in 2013), but throw a shabby chic style teacup in and I'm anyone's.

Unfortunately, the reflection of the busy road and pavement didn't make for excellent photos, but the overall effect of the window was still enchanting. If any photographers reading this have any tips for eliminating such reflections, I'd be happy to hear them.

Large stopwatches, oversized hats and rotating picnic set-ups brought a touch of the magical to proceedings, while spinning mirrors and swinging pendulums add to the sense of confusion we've come to expect from Lewis Carroll's topsy-turvy world.

The windows are marking the release of new Disney film Alice Through The Looking Glass in a couple of weeks time.

Read more about the windows here. and more about Alice in Wonderland in London here.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A first look at Junkyard Golf Club

London's newest crazy golf course is rubbish. Literally. Washing machines, dog kennels, go karts, treadmills and car bonnets have been brought together to build the courses at Junkyard Golf Club at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane.

Myself and some colleagues were fortunate enough to be invited along to the press launch tonight. Unsure what to expect, we were confronted with a combination of Wonderland, and a really, really bad dream. In a good way.

This run is a lot narrower than it looks in the photo.

Players have the option of three courses, but all rules went out the window tonight and we ended up dabbling in all of them, all the while ducking missile-style balls launched by over-enthusiastic players from neighbouring holes (and to be fair, giving as good as we got).

Cute enough until the dogs' collars light up and it all gets a bit...weird.

No explanation needed...

At first glance, this hole looks like a cute beach house. Then you see the naked, mangled Barbie dolls, each one halfway to a sandy death.

Here's a closer look at those mangled dolls, in case the first photo didn't traumatise you enough.

This is Bertha. And yes, the sign does say "do not mount the cow!"

As it was press night, we were kept well fed and watered.
Junkyard Golf Club is at The Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane 12 May-7 August, 11am-11pm daily. Tickets are £8.50 per person Sunday-Thursday, or £9.50 per person Friday-Saturday.