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

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

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

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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

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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

Travel Tales and Tips – feeling old,missed trains and breathtaking Toledo views

I’m getting old. I know this because instead of being excited by the journey, I now feel like a grumpy old woman. I used to love airports, the organized chaos, the people from all over the world going to all places In the world. I used to love watching them wondering where they were going and the idea of a 14 hour flight thrilled me as the opportunity to spend more time in an aeroplane watching movies and looking at the clouds. Well, I have just barely survived a 14 hour flight followed by a 6.5 hour and then a 2.5 hour flight. Unable to sleep from the lack of leg room and concrete hard chairs, I spent my hours feeling the aches and pains of backache, picking at my food wishing the babies on board would stop crying. Then there was the stress of running around airports trying to find the right transit terminal, lining up to board the last  connection flight from Rome to Madrid only to realise they didn’t print out our boarding passes in Melbourne (my husband and I are traveling parts of Europe). I left my husband in line  and ran off to find the transit desk which was conveniently hidden right at the back of terminal behind a large crowd of people. Boarding passes printed, crisis averted. Now if I could just use the bathroom on the plane (hadn’t had time before) and get some food, I would be happy. Well, unfortunately as we hadn’t taken flight yet the water pressure hadn’t been activated so I had to ask the stewardess to help me out by pouring water over my soapy hands. I should have known that it was an unlucky omen for the flight, and my suspicions were confirmed when they lost my luggage somewhere between Rome and Madrid. Note to self: don’t fly with Alitalia again.

Finally in Madrid after almost 30 hours of travel, changing 3 planes in 3 countries, I put my university learned Spanish to good use by trying to find us the most thrifty way of getting to the old city of Toledo in Spain. After modestly blushing at the compliments of how good my Spanish is from the girls at the information desk (wouldn’t my professors be proud), I found the yellow express bus to Atocha train station and paid 10 euro for two tickets instead of the 30 euro taxi fare. I’m glad we took the bus which drove us through the beautifully decorated city centre of Madrid and were treated to an authentic traffic jam car horn concert. It was the background music to the giant Christmas  trees made entirety of lights. We got off at the train station which was also the last stop, and after some trouble found the correct ticket office. Toledo is a medium length journey of 30 mins on the express train and costs 10 euro per person each way  (I cleverly remembered to buy Return tickets). Unfortunately I was not clever enough to keep an eye on the time and the 20 minutes before departure flew by quickly while I ran around the large train station buying bottles of water,  couple of sandwiches and using the very clean and nicest bathroom I’ve seen (with a cheerful bathroom attendant-btw this costs 0.60 euro).

We ran to catch the train and threw our luggage into the scanning machine for the train station guards to check and asked for the platform for the train to  Toledo.

‘You mean the one scheduled to leave now? Platform 12, run! Run! Faster!’

So there I was running madly towards platform 12 dragging my hand luggage and shouting at my husband over my shoulder to run faster while the poor man was dragging a heavy suitcase and hand luggage. While I shouted at him to run faster the security guard was still shouting to me in Spanish ‘Run! Run faster!’

Unfortunately we could not run fast enough because the express train to Toledo closes boarding two minutes before departure. This information is written on the ticket in Spanish but I did not stop to read it in my rush to get water and food. So, if you ever catch the train to Toledo make sure you give yourself enough time to get through the security screening and you can sit in the waiting area facing the train platforms. You will also find bathrooms (not as nice as the ones just outside the train platforms area) and an overpriced kiosk where you can get a coffee and sandwiches.

Due to my inability to estimate time accurately, I left my husband guarding our luggage and ran back to the ticket office to buy another ticket to Toledo. It was the last train for the evening and left  at 9.50pm. After waiting 1.5 hours for our train we had a speedy 30 min ride and arrived at the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen! Too dark to take pictures but I will take some on the way back to Madrid.

There are taxis stationed outside the station and it will cost almost 9 euros to get driven to the old city centre in front of the cathedral. I was following the Toledo train station guards advice to avoid getting ripped off by taxis trying to find your hotel. Depending on which hotel you stay in Toledo, look for the largest landmark near it and get dropped off there. With Google aps you can easily make your own way to the hotel and save some money.

If you have the good fortune to arrive in Toledo at night, you will be greeted by the breathtaking sight of the Cathedral’s illuminated spier reaching up into the heavens. It is also beautiful to look at during the day when there is fog and makes it look like the Cathedral reaches right up into the clouds of heaven.

Until the next blog- Merry Christmas!

Travel Tales and Tips – The Preparation

Now, if you are like me and have not travelled extensively and want to try some independent travel then here are some tips I learned through trial and error based on my own experiences. I like to be prepared so I love to research my destinations; the history, the current social and political situation (stable/war etc), and all kinds of things like how long it takes to get from one city to the next, what kind of souvenirs I should I look out for and nice places to stay at that won’t overwhelm my budget. No 5 star travel for me unfortunately, all the lotto tickets I keep buying haven’t yet made a return on my investment.

1 -Travel guides are your friend

I like to prepare by reading a travel guide that will let me know a little about the history of the country and each city I visit, as well as all sorts of useful things like must see sights, city maps and so on. I have read a few different kinds like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides but my personal favourite is the DK series. It has beautiful illustrations of the cities, city maps, and a great synopsis of the history of the country and each city. It is very well laid out which makes it easy to find information while you are travelling. The down side is that to be so thorough, they also tend to be quite bulky and a bit heavy but I am happy to carry it in my backpack while travelling. If weight and lack of space becomes an issue, remember that you can always ask hotels for a map of the city and they often include major tourist sites and information.

2 – How to avoid fungal infections and scabies

A good friend of mine returned from a wonderful tour of the major cities in Europe with a bag full of souvenirs and an unexpected free souvenir from one of the hotels she stayed in. I could hardly believe her when she came back from her doctor’s clinic to tell me she had caught scabies. She seemed to think it was from the bed-sheets of one of the last hotels she stayed in at the end of her trip. Feeling slightly paranoid about catching some weird skin disease from a shower floor that hasn’t been cleaned properly or scabies from bed sheets that haven’t been washed well, I have armed myself with a pair of thongs (flip-flops for the American readers) to wear in the shower and a cotton bed-sheet that I can wrap around myself in a sort of sleeping bag fashion to avoid touching sheets. I also learned to take a small towel with me to drape over pillows – I learned that in Jerusalem as the pillowcases of one hotel I stayed at were a bit stained looking and yellow…

3 – Laundry bills

If like me, you have a budget to stick to and can’t afford to fork out an extra 100 euro to get your socks and undies cleaned by the hotel laundry service, do it the good old fashioned way. All you need is a decent hair-dryer. When stopping somewhere for more than one night, you can easily wash your clothes in the shower or bathtub and hang them on the side to dry overnight. To speed things along, especially when travelling in winter, use your hair dryer. Just make sure you don’t accidentally shrink your thick wool socks like I did..I washed them, let them air dry then put them in the dryer to get rid of the dampness which means I now have to wrestle them to fit on my feet. I feel like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters when I try to put on those socks…The best way to avoid smelly socks when travelling in winter is to wear thin cotton socks under your wool socks. The cotton socks will absorb any sweat, they can be easily washed and dried and your wool socks will not become smelly!

For my next post, I want to look at the pros and cons of booking online with different service providers like Hotels.com and Booking.com, as well as the benefits and drawbacks on using travel agents or contacting the company directly.

I hope that by sharing these little tips with you, you will have a wonderful stress-free journey!

Happy Travels!

 

Travel Tales and Tips

I am currently preparing for a fairly extended trip to Europe over the European Christmas and winter season. This year I will not be celebrating Christmas with family in the Australian fashion – outdoor BBQ, cold beverages and beer happily chilling in a large plastic tub full of ice, fighting gigantic flies for the right to eat the Christmas feast, having ice-cream for dessert (or if you’re not quick enough, sadly watching it melt in your bowl from the heat while politely pretending to listen to your neighbour…) You get the idea.

This year, I will be celebrating Christmas in Toledo – Spain. Why Toledo? Well, my husband and I are doing a tour of Spain so we thought we would arrive a few days earlier and spend them in this fascinating ancient city. Reading about Toledo in my favourite travel guide (DK Spain), it struck me that Toledo is like the Jerusalem of Europe. An ancient walled city that has been to Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries. For those of you  who have read my other blog posts or my book ‘Not A Typical Tourist in Israel and Jordan’ know that I fell in love with Jerusalem, so it is not surprising that I should now be drawn to its sister city in Europe. I’m very curious to see what the similarities and differences between the two cities will be.

Preparing for my trip, I have been searching for and reading travel blogs about the destinations I am headed to. Most of them seem to be written by brave people who like to travel independently and stay in budget accommodations without knowing a word of the local language. I have found these blogs to be immensely useful but wanted to write a series of blogs that is also an honest review of the places I visit, the accommodation I stay at, the modes of transport I use, and of the tour companies I go with.

Personally, I like to make my travel as stress free as possible so I tend to combine organized tours with independent travel. For the first time ever, I have chosen to use the train system in Europe to get around as well as flying. I must confess that the idea of catching a train in a foreign country makes me hyperventilate with anxiety. I am so bad with directions, it is not at all unusual for me to catch the right number tram that is unfortunately going in the opposite direction, miss my train stop completely and end up at an unfamiliar and wrong station and generally lose my way…And this in a city I live in. One time I was asked by a lovely elderly couple visiting from Sydney how to get to a certain street in the city of Melbourne. I live in Melbourne. I had no idea what direction that street was even though I walked it often. I was so embarrassed I pretended I was also a visitor to Melbourne on a business trip…

So, in these blog posts you will find some hopefully helpful travel tips for the inexperienced traveler who likes the security and comfort of a travel group and some independent travel, some comfort on a budget (I don’t fancy cockroaches in hotel bathrooms or stained bed sheets or suspicious stains on carpets, and preferably a shower that works…) and some funny tales to amuse you.

Happy Reading!

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