Travel Tales and Tips – the tribulations of train travel

In January this year my husband and I traveled through Italy-Switzerland-Austria-Prague by train, something neither of us has ever done before. It was both enjoyable and an exhausting experience, so here are some tips (which we learned through trial and error) to help any novice train travelers:

  1. Do not pack large suitcases because most of the trains we used had at least 2 steep steps to climb up into the carriage. The trains do not stop long enough for you to calmly load and unload your suitcases into the train carriage so you may find yourself frantically trying to throw your luggage up the steps and then down the stops when you arrive at your destination
  2. Always be ready at the platform at least 15 minutes early to check the information board for the correct platform and departure time. In some stations, like Milano Centrale and Prague, they like to wait until 10 minutes before departure before putting up the information. In that case, get ready to grab your over packed suitcases and run like mad towards the right platform which seems to grow longer as you run. In Switzerland, they thoughtfully provide the departure information well in advance so you not only have time to get to your platform but they also mark the platforms with signs indicating where each train carriage will stop! That means you don’t have to wait for the train to pull in and check the carriage number as it whizzes past you then run to the correct one…if you can make it. In Italy and Austria we had throw our luggage on, jump on board and try and make our way to the correct carriage and seats through the teeny weeny corridors…much to the annoyance of other passengers.
  3. Do not miss your train! We missed one train going from Madrid to Toledo and had to buy new tickets for 25 euros. Train tickets can be as expensive as 70 euros for second class for two adults going from Venice to Milan. So, better to get to the train station early and wait.
  4. Before you arrive at your destination stop, have your luggage ready and be standing near the exit because the trains in Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Prague don’t give you more than a minute to get your luggage and yourself off before taking off again! I saw one poor grandma help her daughter raise the pram with the baby up the three steep steps, put the carriage down and make her way to the door…but the door wouldn’t open…so she ran to tell the conductor she needed to get off…but the train had started moving….and she had to get off at the next town. After that, we made sure we always had our luggage ready to go before we reached our final stop.
  5. Some train stations (like Salzburg, Prague and Zurich) have a supermarket or a mini market and on certain days they even have a fresh food and cooked food market like Madrid and Zurich. If you are on a budget it is a great way to eat fresh and save money instead of going to a fast food place or over priced cafe`.
  6. Keep some coins in your pocket to use the bathrooms at train stations. In Europe, you pay to use bathrooms. And don’t think you can sneak in because they have glass doors that won’t open until you put a coin in. You could try and hold your bladder until you are on the train but not all train carriage bathrooms are clean…especially the ones of the Italian regional trains where the entire carriage smells like a urinal…
  7. Trains going from city to city and across countries have a restaurant cart where you can go and have a sit down meal as well as someone who comes past with a little trolley of hot and cold drinks and sandwiches and snacks. The Swiss run trains have a wonderful menu that shows you with symbols what is vegan friendly and gluten free for those with special dietary needs. Talk about Swiss organization and efficiency!
  8. Pack some dry crackers and anti-nausea tablets if you get motion sickness. Oh and do not eat greasy take away food before hopping onto a train, as I stupidly did, because then you will definitely get motion sickness.
  9. Finally, book the hotel as close as possible to the train station because if you are travelling in winter like we did, you may find yourself walking to your hotel on ice and snow (as we did in Salzburg) in order to try and save money on taxi fares.
Example of Swiss organization and efficiency - train menu indicating vegan friendly and gluten free food

Example of Swiss organization and efficiency – train menu indicating vegan friendly and gluten free food

Happy travels!

Travel Tales and Tips – Ancient woodcarving and artisan Fair in Donnas, Aosta (the Italian Alps near the French-Swiss border)

I have been lucky enough to go to a centuries old annual woodcarving and local artisan craftsmanship fair in Donnas twice in my life. The festival in the ancient town of Donnas, founded in the year 1000 (according to wikipedia and the stories I was told by the locals), is part of the bigger Sant’ Orso Fair held every year on the 30 and 31st of January.

The one held in Donnas is usually organised for the Sunday during the period 15-20 January to avoid overlapping with the one in Aosta. It is smaller in terms of the number of craftsmen as well as crowd because you can only fit so many hundreds of people in the tiny medieval cobbled town streets. I have been to both fairs in Donnas and Sant’ Orso and if it is your first time I would recommend Donnas because it gives you a better opportunity to have a closer and more leisurely look at the stunning work on display and for sale. Sant’Orso is so crowded that it feels a bit like body surfing through a crowd. You cannot control the movement of your body, the crowd simply pushes you along and you have to go with it.

Apart from the incredible skill of the craftsmen, the fair has many wonderful things like the local band playing, food stalls with cheese, honey, nougat, local specialties and a black bread they bake especially which is stuffed full of fig, nuts, spices…delicious!!!! The black bread is usually eaten with a bit of honey and a slice of lard spread on top. You can also eat a local dish made of a thin polenta cake stuffed full of sausage or cheese. Yum.

It is not easy to get to Aosta and I would recommend booking in advance. There is a train station, and it might be possible to organise a shuttle service with the bnb you book with. Hidden in the very north west of Italy, nestled among the alps near the French and Swiss border, the town and festival are well worth the effort and challenges you may face to get there. I will include a link to the official tourism site in case you are curious to go and see for yourself. Good wine, good food and stunning views. Aosta is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life. It’s natural beauty rivals any magnificent architecture of the most beautiful cities of the world.

http://www.lovevda.it/en/database/2/craft-fairs-markets/donnas/sant-orso-fair-in-donnas/34313

In this post, I will let the photos speak to you so you can see for yourself.

If you have been to this festival, or have heard of it or end up going, please do share your experiences, I would love to hear about them 🙂

grolla - cup of friendship each person drinks from one spout, sharing the drink and their friendship

grolla – cup of friendship
each person drinks from one spout, sharing the drink and their friendship

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

traditional thin polenta cake stuffed with either cheese or sausage, or both :)

traditional thin polenta cake stuffed with either cheese or sausage, or both 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Travel Tales and Tips – Carnival of Venice

The main square Piazza San Marco fills up very quickly with tourists trying to get the best viewing spot for the opening of the Carnival with the historical costume parade and the flight of the angel. If you get there early enough, you won’t need to buy expensive front row seats but can enjoy it as one of the large crowd.

To be able to afford to spend the Carnival in Venice, it i a good idea to book as early as 6 months in advance, and the further away you book from the main square Piazza San Marco the more affordable everything becomes: hotels, apartments, bed and breakfasts as well as food places. Booking in a residential area also gives you a wonderful opportunity to see how the locals live their daily lives and celebrate Carnival.

Tip – don’t buy anything from Piazza San Marco. I have been told horror tales by other travelers and Italians of being charged 50 euros for a coffee! I was too scared to find out if this was true and carried my own water bottle.

If you know of any stories that confirm the tales I have been told, do share!

2015 Venice Carnival historical costume parade

2015 Venice Carnival historical costume parade

2015 Venice Carnival historical costume parade

2015 Venice Carnival historical costume parade

2015 opening of the Venice Carnival - the flight of the angel

2015 opening of the Venice Carnival – the flight of the angel

2015 opening of the Venice Carnival - the flight of the angel

2015 opening of the Venice Carnival – the flight of the angel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Casually enjoying a coffee in Piazza San Marco in a very expensive looking cafe`, 2015 Carnival of Venice

Casually enjoying a coffee in Piazza San Marco in a very expensive looking cafe`, 2015 Carnival of Venice

2015 historical costume parade at the Carnival of Venice

2015 historical costume parade at the Carnival of Venice

%d bloggers like this: