Venice and its doors

It isn’t unusual for me to dream of travel and wish that I was in Paris or Venice but lately it has been happening more thanks to my growing collection of travel related DVDs and surprisingly, home decor magazines. The magazines heavily feature designs from Italy and French inspired homewares and the most gorgeous gardens imaginable.  Both the hubby and I like to flick through the pages, marking the designs and ideas we love the most, there are a few things about our house and garden that we’d like to change, some more practical (and affordable) than others. My husband would like to change our front gate, he wants a big timber number, a bit like the doors and gates we saw in Italy, he also wouldn’t mind a front door like some of those we saw in Venice. I think the doors of Venice were magnificent and as you can see, we have plenty of photos for inspiration however they’re probably a little large and not quite suitable for our one-storey, brick and tile home.

I also fell in love with the architecture in Amsterdam and the formal gardens at Versailles and the Boboli Gardens in Florence but trying to replicate that at home seems a little strange and those formal gardens require hard work and commitment to establish and maintain. I guess that in the absence of extensive time and a mountain of money, we’ll have to be happy for the little touches of Europe we have in our home such as artwork from Amsterdam, an old map of Italy, Christmas decorations from Germany and of course, lots of photos of Venetian doors.

Just out of curiosity, how has your favourite destination inspired your home and lifestyle or have you gone all the way and made your home look as though it belongs in another country?


Wordless Wednesday: Cheers! À votre santé! Prost! Salute!

Our Europe top ten

Place de la Concorde, Paris
The illuminated La Madeleine, Paris

Since arriving home we’ve been asked about our favourite destinations and experiences and it is really hard to narrow it down to one or two things, so much of what we have experienced has been incredible and we loved (almost) every minute of our trip. Marty and I also differ when it comes to selecting our special moments, Marty likes to sit and watch the world go by, meet new people and enjoy the moment whereas I like to get moving and explore each destination and what it has to offer. For those of you who are interested, here are my top ten favourite experiences and my top ten less-than favourite experiences, some of them you may already have read about in previous posts.

Top ten favourites:

  1. Walking through the doors of the Musee d’Orsay and making my way through the Impressionist collection. Degas, Renoir, Monet, Manet and Seurat were the artists who inspired me when I was in High School and changed the way I looked at my surroundings.
  2. A perfect day in Bavaria (a very small part of Bavaria anyway) starting with a scenic train ride through the countryside where we met two lovely German ladies and spoke about The Thorn Birds, Brisbane’s floods and the beautiful region we were travelling through. Joe, dressed in traditional clothing met us at the Füssen train station, we took a horse and carriage ride up to Neuschwanstein, drank beer on a snow covered mountain and that evening we had dinner with Joe’s family at his mother’s house.
  3. Waking up in Paris, the realisation that we were finally in Europe hit and it was bliss! Paris is an amazing and fascinating city and 5 nights was just not enough, we can’t wait to go back there and spend more time exploring the streets, gardens and museums.
  4. Eating piping hot frites (chips) covered with a huge dollop of mayonnaise from the Mannekin Pis frites shopfront in Amsterdam, it was cold and miserable and these were the most delicious things to eat on such a day.
  5. Staying in the medieval towns of Bacharach and Rothenburg in Germany. These towns are straight from a fairytale and they were in the most picturesque places, Bacharach on the Rhine River and Rothenburg ob de Tauber surrounded by medieval walls overlooking the valley.
  6. Wandering the streets of Venice and watching the colours of the buildings change as the sun was setting. Truly a magical place and more so in the evening when the crowds have thinned out and the souvenir stalls have closed.
  7. The hilltop town of Orvieto was a wonderful destination, we enjoyed the local wine: Orvieto Classico accompanied by snacks of marinated olives, foccacia and peanuts. From Orvieto we visited the dying town of Civita de Bagnoregio, a hilltop town with few residents thanks to ongoing erosion of the volcanic stone that the town sits upon, here we had a most delectable meal grilled over an open fire and served on plastic plates.
  8. Participating in a cooking class in Florence. This was loads of fun and not only did we learn a little about Tuscan cooking, but we were able to enjoy the fruits of our labour accompanied by a few glasses of wine and all of our classmates.
  9. Rome, everywhere we walked history smacked us in the face from the ancient roman ruins, influential architecture and Egyptian obelisks to Baroque sculptures on display in piazzas, fountains and churches. The traffic was crazy, the crowds overwhelming and the food served at Cantina Kantarini delicious, an amazing city.
  10. Driving through the countryside in Tuscany and Umbria, being in the middle of a scene that I had only ever seen on postcards or calendars. When driving between Siena and Pienza we must have stopped at least 20 times to take photos and absorb what we were seeing, rows of cypress pines and olive trees, red poppies and Tuscan villas.

Top ten not-so favourite

  1. Feeling stressed about the driving in Italy, even though I was the passenger and GPS/map reader. We didn’t know how the tolls worked or how much it would cost, the limited traffic zones made me nervous after reading about the cost of the fines we could get and driving through Sorrento was a little chaotic, narrow streets with bikes, scooter, horse and carriages and women with prams all vying for road space.
  2. Finding our room not ready in Florence and having to spend potential ‘tourist’ time checking out of one hotel, storing luggage and then checking into the hotel we were originally booked into. Not only that, both hotels were extremely popular with school groups.
  3. Eating crappy, expensive pasta at a tavola calda near the Vatican City, we knew better than to make a rash decision however we were hungry and running late for our tour of the Vatican Museums. Honestly, Hungry Jacks would have been better and cheaper. The pane (bread) charge of 3 euros for the bread we never ordered was also annoying.
  4. The crowds in the Vatican Museum made it really difficult to spend time absorbing our location and the marvellous things we wer looking at. Next time we’ll book a private tour either early in the morning or later in the day, the money spent would be well worth it.
  5. Missing out on the Borghese Gallery because I didn’t try to reserve a ticket far enough in advance made me furious, I knew better but wasn’t sure what our plans were for Rome because a friend of ours was joining us for a few days. I should have just booked the ticket regardless.
  6. Accidentally deleting all my photos from my computer and having to download them all again from the memory cards, sadly we had deleted some of the images from the memory cards resulting in some happy snaps never being seen again. After that I backed up photos online, on my laptop and on usb sticks.
  7. Not making use of the metro and buses more in Paris, we walked everywhere unless the hop-on, hop-off buses could get us there (and only for a period of two days) and we were exhausted and short tempered. We walked because we wanted to ‘see’ Paris and instead it ate up valuable time that could have been spent in the Luxembourg gardens, Rodin Museum or people watching at a cafe.
  8. Rude tour guides in museums and galleries who think it is okay to stand right next to you and start spouting their knowledge to their tour group regardless of the fact that you’re trying to listen to an audioguide.
  9. Paying 22 (for 2) euros to enter Pompeii, 10 euros for the audioguides and map and finding that the majority of the villas and more interesting places to see are closed for restoration or repairs. No mention of this on the map or the guides and certainly not explained to us when we bought the tickets. Although a great place to visit, it was extremely disappointing.
  10. Getting ripped off by those International phone companies that ‘help’ you with calling family back home and charge you almost $80 for the privilege. To make matters worse we could have avoided the exorbitant fee had we been better prepared and made a note of the dialling out code for Italy and bought a phone card in Venice.

It was much harder to come up with the less than favourite list, we really were lucky on our trip and avoided all the major hassles some travellers are unfortunate enough to experience and the problems we did experience could have been avoided with a little preparation.

People we’ve met while travelling

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We’ve been travelling in Europe for about 5 weeks now and have loved every minute of it, only very minor glitches in our plans and nothing drastic enough to make me wish I was at home. In addition to the amazing sights, fascinating history and delicious food we have had the pleasure of meet and/or interacting with some really wonderful people. It is true that if you make the effort to be pleasant and polite, try to say hello, please and thank you in the local language and keep the “it isn’t like this at home” attitude to yourself then people will respond positively.

In Paris it took a day or two before the staff on the front desk said more than bonjour to us and wouldn’t admit to speaking more than ‘a little english’. Eventually we were engaging in conversation with them, we learned alot about the area we were staying in and they were extremely forthcoming with information and general chatter about their lives, other destinations and what they thought of them. Marty met the manager of the bar across the road and got chatting about food, she spoke English very well and invited us to try their authentic french fries and the best burger in Paris, we did and had an enjoyable evening in the company of locals.

In Amsterdam and Germany, most of our positive interactions were based around food, either over breakfast, dinner or while buying produce for a picnic. We met the owners of a brasserie and doner kebab shop in Amsterdam and got travel tips from a shop assistant near the red light district, they were all quite happy to tell us more about themselves and the business they were in as well as provide good service. In Germany we met a terribly non politically correct waiter who told us jokes about Barack Obama, being married and whatever else he had read on his email that day. We ate there twice, the food was really good but the conversation and entertainment he provided was more valuable and had we stayed there another night we would have eaten there again. At the Hofbrauhaus we drank with an elderly gentleman who looked as though he had finished a couple of steins before we arrived, he didn’t speak much English, enough to give us his name, Patrick, and date of birth (when Hitler came to power) and a few short phrases that helped us with dinner table etiquette in Germany. Marty shouted him a beer, the concept foreign to him, when the beer appeared in front of him and told Marty that money wasn’t a problem and he could afford beer, it was hard to explain that buying someone a drink was a tradition in Australia. It was a fun evening after a long, cold day at Dachau and we were glad to have met Patrick, even though the conversation was a little hard to understand at times.

One of our favourite days ever was spent with a mate of Marty’s, Joe, he met us at the train wearing traditional Bavarian clothing and he drove us around the countryside and to Neuschwanstein for a tour through King Ludwig’s fairytale castle. The weather was perfect for being outdoors, we went for a ride on a horse and carriage and got a lift in a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain where we drank nice, cold beer at a bar surrounded by snow and mountain tops. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get better, Joe took us to meet his family, his Mum had prepared a special dinner of roast pork, crackling, potato dumplings and salad. Joe’s family were the most wonderful people, his Mum and sister had also dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing and we kicked ourselves for not getting a decent photo of them all together, so overwhelmed were we by their hospitality and generosity. It was very hard to hop on the train back to Munich that night and it is a day we will never forget.

In Italy we have been on the end of some truly excellent customer service and met really friendly, engaging people but we have also been on the end of some of the worst and most indifferent service ever experienced. Shop assistants prefer to maintain telephone conversations or conversations with other people rather than help you out or even take your money. Prepared to greet them with ‘buongiorno’, they always start with ‘prego’ or you’re welcome and it throws you, there is often no eye contact unless you don’t have the right change and then you get the glare and the rolling of eyes. Milan was one of the worst for service, we got bumped from place to place just trying to buy a ticket for the tram. Our accommodation in Varenna, Vernazza, Siena, Orvieto and Assisi obviously cared about their guests, helping us with the language, giving us directions and helping us find good places to eat – all with a smile and no rolling of eyes. The Sicilian brothers at the Il Pirata cafe in Vernazza were a hoot, they flatter the women, make lots of jokes, have fun with the work and their customers and the food and coffee was terrific. We went there for breakfast each morning and for dessert one evening, when you meet such good people and get treated well how can you resist going back. In Orvieto we were well looked after by the family that owned the B&B, had excellent waiters at the restaurants we went to and had a fun time drinking wine and eating nibbles with a couple of ladies from Brazil.

There are so many more instances of meeting people that I could write thousands of words, but all my descriptions would sound much the same: interesting, wonderful, engaging, helpful and funny. The people we’ve met have made our trip more enjoyable for us and it has opened our eyes to the way other people think and act, overall we’re really not that different.

Food, glorious food…part one

Plane food, Emirates
Plane food, Emirates

You get fed well when flying Emirates, the meals are pretty good in comparison to many airline meals I’ve eaten but it is important that you don’t eat all the food on offer otherwise you will feel extremely uncomfortable and besides delicious treats awake once you reach your destination. When travelling around Europe you expect to eat good food and drink lots of wine because its usually cheaper than soft drink and mineral water and generally tastes good as well. We’ve had some great, inexpensive meals and also a couple of ordinary expensive ones, most of the time we’re dining on baguettes, paninis or crackers with cheese and cold meat but after a while the craving for vegetables and a different taste can’t be ignored.

Dinner in Paris, Rue Mouffetard
Dinner in Paris, Rue Mouffetard
Frites and mayo, Amsterdam
Frites and mayo, Amsterdam
Dinner at the Blazer Brasserie, Amsterdam
Dinner at the Blazer Brasserie, Amsterdam

In Paris we tried escargots in herb and garlic butter at La Grange on Rue Mouffetard, nice except for the slight hint of dirt on one particular snail. The bread served with the meal soaked up the herb and garlic butter nicely, in France and Italy the bread comes free with the meal. The cheese we bought made our fridge smell, we threw one lot out (it may have been perfectly okay to eat however the smell made us heave) and ate the rest cruising on the train to Amsterdam. Wine was cheap and much lighter in flavour than Australian wines, we ordered the house wine on most occasions and it was served up to us in a carafe or jug.

My favourite meal in Amsterdam was frites and mayo, the dinner we had at the Blazer Brasserie was delicious and the cheap thai (9 euro) on our last night was the best value. No way was I trying the pickled fish that are sold at stalls, I’m fussy about fish and they look horrible and slimy.

I’ve tried to remember to take photos of all our meals eaten at restaurants and cafes, having started well I’m now failing dismally and usually half way through my meal before remembering that I have a camera on me. The most expensive meal we had was in Lucerne Switzerland, I forgot to photograph the main and should have scanned the bill because it is a meal we won’t forget and not because it was the best one we had. The meal was nice, local produce and wines followed by luscious creme caramel with cream and strawberries, for 120 swiss francs you might expect more, but hey, we’re in Switzerland and everything is expensive.

Fresh asparagus, Hotel des Alpes, Lucerne
Fresh asparagus with Hollandaise, Hotel des Alpes, Lucerne
Creme Caramel and Strawberries
Creme Caramel and Strawberries
Macaroons, Lucerne
Macaroons, Lucerne

In Germany, Marty ate Weiner Schnitzel four nights in a row, it is a dish that brings back wonderful memories of childhood meals with his Grandparents and I have to admit that it was quite tasty. I tried having different meals even though we ate at the same restaurant in Bacharach and Rothenburg ob de Tauber, we enjoyed the company of the host at each place and the food was good. Our most memorable meal and one of our favourite experiences was courtesy of a friend of Marty’s, he took us to Neuschwanstein and showed us some of the surrounding area and then we went to his family home for the most delicious meal of roast pork, crackling, potato dumplings and salad. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anymore Joe’s Mum brought out cherries and Bavarian cream and his Grandmother started cutting up cake. Their hospitality and friendliness really made our day, it was also nice to have freshly brewed coffee to finish the meal – we hadn’t had much success with coffee in Germany.

Salad for starters at Rusticana, Bacharach
Salad for starters at Rusticana, Bacharach
Venison stew with potato dumplings, Rusticana Bacharach
Venison stew with potato dumplings, Rusticana Bacharach
Wiener Schnitzel, Rusticana Bacharach
Wiener Schnitzel, Rusticana Bacharach
Roast Pork and dumplings, Rothenburg ob de Tauber
Roast Pork and dumplings, Rothenburg ob de Tauber
Roast pork knuckle and potato dumplings, Hofbrauhaus Munich
Roast pork knuckle and potato dumplings, Hofbrauhaus Munich

The food in Italy is so far, so good, breakfast was lacking initially (prepackaged croissants and toast) but our stay in Varenna on Lake Como has proven to be a ‘filling’ one. Seafood in Venice is a must, I even ate little fishes fried in batter, at first quite nice but after a while I couldn’t eat anymore and the whole prawns fried were nice (couldn’t bring myself to eat the heads) although I after consuming half the meal I was a little over eating whole fried creatures. Chocolate shops and sweet shops line the narrow streets, Lindt and Perugian chocolates of all kinds and you can pick and mix – we added to our stash of sweets for the Easter weekend. We couldn’t find crostoli anywhere, a small bakery over near the Rialto markets sold something very similar and we ate the sugary fried treat as a snack while walking back to the hotel, wish I could remember what it was called.

Flavoured cheese, Lucerne Markets
Flavoured cheese, Lucerne Markets
Gnocchi with prawns and zucchini, Venice
Gnocchi with prawns and zucchini, Venice

In Florence we’ll be attending a cooking class, maybe I’ll have something more interesting to write about, until then I’ll try to remember to take more photos.

Chilled in Amsterdam

Our last day in Amsterdam and our coldest, the temperature is a chilly 10 degrees and it is raining. There is nothing on our itinerary for the day, we walk to the flower market keeping close to the walls to stay out of the wind and rain. The Keukenhof Gardens would have been our choice had the weather been nicer, the flower market was a compromise and still gave me a chance to see and photograph the beautiful tulips that you see all over Amsterdam, Germany and Switzerland. There is a rainbow of colours, some tulips are in bloom and some are still buds, the market stalls sell bulbs, bouquets and pot plants, it is a shame we cannot take any home with us. Near the markets is a Christmas shop called the Christmas Palace, no photos are allowed to be taken and the shop is filled with trees, fairy lights and decorations. The bells over the door ring constantly, it is cute at first but then gets a little annoying. I buy a few decorations, not too many, we will be going to the famous Christmas shops in Rothenburg ob de Tauber when we are then and plan to buy more to ship home.

In the process of trying to find a post office we find lots of shoes and scarves and Marty pays 1 euro to use the toilet in a toilet shop call ‘2 the loo’, they offer a clean place to pee and a selection of amusing gifts to purchase. Finally we find a post office and can send the postcards we have written on, they may be of Paris but I’m sure our friends and family will understand.

Amsterdam frites with mayonnaise is a well known snack, not sure if they got the idea from Belgium or if they share it with them, we get our huge servings from a frites shop called Mannekin Pis, the serving has half a jar of mayo on it much to our surprise. We get out of the way of all the pedestrians and lean on a bridge while sucking down this tasty treat, near us is the Grasshopper coffeeshop and jetty for the canal cruises, it is a very Amsterdam location to have lunch. In comparison to lunch we eat Thai food in our room that night, for 9 euro we get spring rolls and a meal of noodles with vegetables, stir fry vegetables and a beef with broccoli dish. The ladies in the takeaway shop were happy to chat to us in English, they have family in Australia but have never been themselves, the rest of the customers spoke Dutch so we assume that they were locals popping in for an easy, cheap meal.

Van Gogh and chubby hotdogs

With our tummies full of yoghurt, cereal, ham and cheese we drop a bag of dirty washing off to be laundered nearby, only 8 euro to have our clothes washed and dried – well worth it I think. Museumplein is not far from the hotel according to the map and the rain is holding off, when crossing streets I have to be aware of buses, trams and bicycles as well as cars and they drive on the opposite side of the road so it really does my head in.

I have been to the Rijksmuseum before and Marty isn’t that keen to see it so the decision is made to go to the Van Gogh museum, entry is 14 euro, expensive I thought, but the museum is an excellent space and the collection extensive. In addition to seeing the progression of Van Gogh’s art there is a Montmartre exhibition of posters and Picasso in Paris. We follow the crowd slowly in some areas and impatiently walk past them in others, much of Van Gogh’s work, like the impressionists, is best viewed from a couple of metres away and some of the best views are looking back as we climb the stairs to the next level. As much as I love art, I’m not the type that can sit and look at a painting for any length of time so we were out of the museum in a couple of hours.

Lunch today is a chubby hotdog (I’m sensing a theme) by the water, it is tasty and cheap and we are able to sit in the sun for a little while. The trees in Amsterdam, especially in Museumplein remind me of the whomping willow in the Harry Potter movies, I’m sure that they’re quite appealing when covered in foliage. The many souvenir shops in Amsterdam confound us, we’re not sure what to buy and Marty is after a particular type of shirt, we leave it for another day and instead head to the supermarket for snack food and fruit. A bottle of Rose from the Lorie Valley is only 3,50 euro, Australian wines also feature. A beer and wine at the Cafe Hoppe near Singel is in order, we sit and watch the world go by as the temperature drops and we contemplate what to have for dinner that night, there won’t be anymore kebabs.

Our bartender is the chef and part owner of Blazers Brasserie and the other owner takes our order, tired of fast food Marty chooses the rib eye fillet with frites and grilled vegetables in a red wine jus, I order the duck with mashed parsnip and stewed pear. It is a feast that is a far cry from the meals of the last two days and a most welcome one, I washed it down with a glass of shiraz from Chile and all was good with the world.

From Paris to Amsterdam

We get up before the sun rises, today we go to Amsterdam for a few days of laid back travel in one of the most liberal cities in the world. It is dark outside, the weather is still gloomy and it is pouring down rain, the weather matches our mood. Paris has been an absolute joy for us to experience, I knew that there was something special about this city but I wasn’t expecting Marty to love it as well, we didn’t want to leave and during our time in the city we were looking at the price of real estate and discussing the types of work or lives we could lead here.

Rather than struggle with luggage, trains and buses on a wet day we caught a cab to Gare du Nord, it was only 15 euro and made our morning easy and painless. Today was our first day to try out our Eurail passes, we had to activate them at Gare du Nord, then write a date on them and start filling out the travel report. Paris is extremely dog friendly, everywhere we’ve gone there have been people with their dogs, it is another reason to love this city although the amount of dog poo is a little worrying. A girl sits down opposite us, she has a small dog, he is very excited and when she eats he sits in front and gives her the big eyes that dogs are famous for, she eventually shares her food and when it is time for her to catch the train she puts him in a little bag and carries him under her arm.

Our train trip to Amsterdam last for three and half hours, there is free wireless for 1st class passengers, however we’re not eligible, our reservation is for 2nd class and I spend most of the trip downloading images to my laptop and converting them to jpegs. The scenery is picture postcard perfect, the countryside cold and misty with bare trees and ploughed paddocks – sounds depressing I know yet it was actually quite beautiful.

Amsterdam Central Station is confusing, we are not sure which exit to take, only that tram 17 will get us to the hotel. We ask for help and find out that the trams are directly opposite the station, it is about a 5 minute ride to a street near our hotel and then we drag our bags across the cobblestones for 10 minutes, the noise is horrible. Trams are clean and comfortable, more expensive than Paris, it costs us 2,60 euro each to ride the tram, bikes are the most popular form of transport, they are chained to bridges, posts, trees and railings and range for shiny, near new bikes to ones with damaged wheels.

Our hotel is nice, the rooms remind me of a converted school or hospital and the gentleman at reception seems less than impressed that we’ve dropped by, our room is on the first floor and we have to hand the key into reception each time we leave the building. The room is stark and clean, the floors are noisy and creak with each step, we can hear the guests above us moving around, at times it sounds as though they are moving furniture. It is only a 10 minute walk to Dam Square, thousands of people mill around, Sunday is a good day for buskers and street performers, the smell of coffee shops permeates the air and our jaws drop when we see the clothes and shoes shops, they are fantastic! There is nothing you cannot get in Amsterdam.

My last time in Amsterdam was short and sweet, a visit to Anne Frank’s house and Dam Square and that was it, this time I got to see the red light district (in daylight) and what a seedy, grubby, smelly place it is. The girls in the windows are all shapes and sizes, they tap on the window to get attention from men passing by, the outdoor urinal stink up the street and if you’re not careful you’ll end up with someone’s urine splashing your shoes and pants. We call into the Baba shop, not a coffeeshop but obviously associated with one, they sell all types of products and the staff are friendly, one of them giving us the run down on the area, what to look out for and what to see.

I relax once the crowds have thinned out and it gets close to dinner time, the temperature has dropped and I consider buying gloves because the weather forecast is not going to get better. Dinner is a kebab in a turkish pizza shop, they’re not like our kebabs and the taste is divine, so different to pastries and baguettes and with full bellies we make our way back to our hotel. The walk between the tourist centre and our hotel is pleasant, we cross several bridges over the canals including Singel Canal and at night the bridges light up and the area looks pretty and interesting. We spot a cat sitting in a bakery window, he is munching on a croissant that is part of the window display, I have to take a photo, the cat is camera shy and bolts after the flash goes off.

That night we watch an English crime show, it makes a good change from only having access to CNN and BBC and within minutes I am asleep.