Monday, November 29, 2010

Prague, our new favourite city.

Milan Villach via Venice 21 Oct 2010
The trip to Milan was smooth. After a perfect landing at Malpensa at about 6.45 am, we breezed through the immigration etc and were out of the airport in less than ten minutes. Found the bus going to the city outside Terminal 1-exit 6-stop 3, paid 15 euros for two tickets and got in, it was still early. The driver said it would take about an hour to to reach milano centrale station, there are no trains from the airport so you have to take the bus if you are going to centrale. It took an hour and twenty minutes to reach. Once inside, went to the ticketing office to activate the euro rail pass, then decided to go up to the platform as we already tickets. There was a red booth from which we were directed to an office at the end of the station where we had the pass activated. She said we have ti make reservation on the train to Venice at the red booth, but they said they don't do that and sent us back to the corner office who sent us back to the red booth who sent us down to the ticket office, saying we need to take the train from another station, lamb rate or something . Irritated at having missed two trains in half an hour, and impatient for the next train, stood in the queue. After about ten minutes, the counter lady helped make reservation and said the next train leaves from centrale at 1120. When we asked about going to Villach from Venice, she said we need to reserve on the bus as well, which she did. On the train, we paid fifty euro fine for not filling in the date on the pass. Add that to the surly woman at the tabachi shop who, when we asked to change from a twenties pack to a ten one, made it look like we asked her to climb the alps. All in all an annoying experience at Milan, must be the big city thing.
Reached Venice in about three hours, found sector D at piazza le roma, and after a half hour wait, took the OBB bus to Villach. The driver who also places your luggage in the compartment, was pleasant, as were the people at holiday inn, villach. A really small, cleantown with a church, bell tower, supermarkets, drug stores, some restaurants, and pharmacies, Villach is good for a short break in the journey. Took the train to Vienna in the morning. Both the girls at the counter, at night and in the morning were helpful and pleasant.

The hotel intercontinental is all right, is within walking distance to many attractions, went to a Mozart concert at the golden room of Musikverien performed by the Vienna group. Excellent performance. Turned out it was the last performance of the season at the golden room, we just happened to ask the concierge about concerts and he said this was on, and could get tickets in a minute!
It was a good thing we asked at the concierge because the young boy at the reception who checked us in had non clue, he said everything will be closed on weekends and actually said we could only visit the zoo. I'll informed he was, as it turned out everything was open, except the shops were closed on Sunday. The Imperial Palace was quite interesting, the empress, wife of Franz Josef, was an unhappy woman. Obviously all the money and comforts and luxuries in the world are enough to make you happy.
Among the shops closed are supermarkets and mini marts that sell water and other essentials, so had to buy a half a litre bottle for over 2 euros.
Now on the way to Salzburg.
Remembered to write the date of journey on the ticket, the ticket guy said we should write our passport numbered as well, which we did. And he was polite, unlike the Italian conductor, Mr.Play-by-the-rules.
Half-way through to Salzburg (btw, Rail Jet is a superb train where first class feels like first class), it started snowing. Apparently, but not unsurprisingly, it wasn't supposed to be snowing now. The soon-to-turn-into-disgusting-slush was on the first leg of its journey, covering the whole of the town in powdery white flakes. The weather seemed to have gotten to the Tourist Info people right outside the station, as they brusquely let us (and others in the queue) know that they don't know anything, no train info, no city info, nothing. Wondering what they were getting paid for other than being rude to strangers, we went to the other tourist info office next to it, and met with a similar experience. The woman at the counter had no idea about anything the town had to offer. There was a guy there who seemed to know but was busy. Anyway, got a map from the ignorant one and set out. Asked for directions at a cafe where we had coffee. It seems people in small shops are quite all right, it's the rest of the supposedly helpful that aren't.
The walk to Mozart's house where he was born and lived the early years of his life, took about 20 minutes and was pleasant (as we've never walked in the falling snow). This was the primary reason that woke us up and made us walk through the snow and endure the non-existent Austrian hospitality. It was worth it as I've always wanted to see it. Took snaps of some of his manuscripts and the organ he composed some of his famous pieces on. Had lunch at a touristy place but was quite decent though (the waiter said he had been to Goa, found it nice). Once we were back, changed and ordered room service.

The next day was Belevedere palace I think. Was ok, personally, didn't find it all that exciting. Walked over to the Imperial Palace side and had coffee and apple pie at the famed Central Cafe. Quite nice I must admit. Checked out the Royal Crown collection which also had the sword that pierced Jesus's side.

Went to the Testarossa cafe we visited the first day we came to Vienna, had coffee and used the wireless to call Savic Hotel in Prague to arrange for pick up from the train station, the lasy told us to write all the train details etc to her which we did. All shops were closed again for the national day so we just hung around discovering places like Stephansplatz and the main square. (One of these days was karma chaut and Apu skipped meals and water during till sunset, as did I.) And had dinner at Cafe Mozart.
Must admit, they are milking his name to the last drop here.

About Vienna: Found it a bit boring, really. Catching a concert is worth it. The hotel (as most hotels, apparently) we stayed in (Intercontinental) were technologically challenged, in that they were charging 18 euros for net access, while some cafes were giving it free. People are machine-like, unsmiling, brusque and cold. Not unfriendly but just brusque.

Prague, on the other hand, was fantastic. Met an elderly gentleman on the train who shared our couchette, who was from Prague but been living in Canada for over 40 years. He pointed to a hotel near a station on the way where he and his folks used to stop over every time they travelled out of the capital. And it was still there.

The taxi guy from the hotel wasn't there as we went out, so had to call the hotel, and went to the platform where he was waiting. 16 euros. Or 400 kroners.
The hotel was just beautiful. Close to all the attractions, tucked away in a corner in the Old Town Square, it was a convent (much like Morandi in Florence) before which has been converted into lovely boutique hotel with elegant, well-appointed rooms (bathroom had MoltonBrown shampoo and body wash). There was free wireless but worked better when you stepped out of the room into the foyer, said Lenka who checked us in.
Went to the main piazza near by through narrow, cobble-stoned streets lined with souvenir shops, hole-in-the-wall shops selling local sweetmeat and coffee, bigger ones selling branded goods.
The Astronomical Clock is just 2 minutes away, and it's a great experience to be there among the crowd of people. The crowds gather much before the clock strikes, because on the hour, every hour, 12 apostles go by in the recesses of the long clock, and a rooster next to them crows, after which a bugler blows a particular tune that he doesn't change, at all, on any day!

As luck would have it, there was a weekend spice and cheese market open in the square selling all kinds of local foodstuff. The atmosphere was was festive and lively, with families and tourists alike milling around, eating and drinking at makeshift tables, and the food, although not very cheap, was worth it.

There are cheaper alternatives besides the weekend market, you'll find them around the main square, in the narrow gulleys and street corners, selling everything from pizza slices to hot dogs to the local sweetmeat and beer. Upscale restaurants are there too, obviously. Food is pretty good no matter where you eat.

We spent our time strolling along the beautiful cobblestoned streets, ducking into cafes and souvenir shops and a couple of times, into Swarovski even. They have a local shop chain that supports local handicraft items called Manufaktura. They stock some very interesting stuff.

There a quite a few day places you can see cover on a day trip like Kutna Hora, which is an hour or so from Prague. Hotels usually have a guided tour which is hassle- free, so we took one and went to the erstwhile silver centre of Czech republic. The city has a grand past owing to the discovery of silver mines, but with the decline of the precious metal, and Prague took over from its neighbor. It's a small city with a few churches and restaurants, the most interesting in a macabre way is the bone church. Apparently an abbot long time back got some soil from the holy and and sprinkled it all over this place and everybody wanted to be buried here, which resulted in a heavy bone mass, so to speak. So an artist was commissioned to find a creative way out for the ossified remains, which he did. The whole interior looks like a grateful dead cover album, in 3D.
There is a mint factory where the dollar had its birth, said the guide, apparently the Spanish took the silver called Tallar and took it to America where it became the dollar.
Returned after a decent lunch.
A visit to the castle is a must, and is easily walkable from the old town square, it takes about half an hour. On the way, you can stop and marvel at the karlova most aka charles bridge. The castle is impressive, as is the politeness of the staff working there, down to the old ladies who take your coat and umbrellas. I guess after Vienna (and Milan), these human qualities tend to take on a great deal of importance. On the whole, as an aside, we found the czechs very affable, agreeable and friendly and easy to communicate to as they all speak English.

Two days before we werre to check out of Savic, we were just checking about airport transfer and what time the car will come to pick us up when the receptionist said we are checking out the next day as the extra night has been cancelled! Unbelievable, but luckily the girls managed to get a reservation at a hotel right behind Savic and which was equally classy and good as we found out later and the GTA people had upgraded us to junior suite to make amends. All is well that ends in an upgrade.
Prague also has numerous concerts every day which are usually held at churches to generate money for the church we were told. Mozart wrote Don Giovanni and staged it here first and there is a puppet version of it as well.
We took a flight back to Milan after the helpful guy at the tourist office booked and oriented our boarding pass on easy jet. Took the bus again to centrale and walked to the hotel which was about five minutes by foot. The street was lined with hotels and seemed safe. When the reception guy asked how we were I answered 'wet' as it was raining when we reached. Berna had received rave reviews on trip advisor but we felt it didn't live up to the reviews, it wasn't bad, mind you, it was no Savic. The hotel has been revamped in jts transformation to a smoke free environment, but there is an old smell about it. The positive aspect was that everything in the room fridge is free. The location was another plus. The staff were just ok except for the ones who hailed from the neighboring countries.
Next day we went to Bologna for lunch, where it was raining also but less. Took a train to Florence just for fun as it was just less than half an hour from there. It wasn't all that fun when we discovered that there were no seats on the train back. But the counter clerk was very patient and explored a couple of options and we took the most reasonable one which involved going to Pisa central and taking a connecting train which reached Milan past midnight. We have never gone back that late anywhere in all our trips. With that worry niggling us, we went into the rainy night and discovered that the cafe we sued to have our morning coffee on earlier trips was closed. It was easy to find our way to santa croce area, the restaurant we had papa pomedero was closed, so retraced our steps, bought some pasta and sauce mixes at a friendly store where they recommended us a place for dinner down the road, and it was nice food (il gustino I tank the name was).
When we reached the station, we found that the train was delayed by 20 minutes. Which meant we had about ten minutes to find the platform, carriage and catch the connecting train. The AV train, the new super fast trains between many cities, was delayed too by hours. A bit nervous and with prayers, we boarded the train which came 25 minutes late. When we got off at Pisa, we met a group of three college girls who had to get to Milan and go to Sevilla. We raced to the platform and luckily the train was 20 minutes late as well. The only issue was getting to the hotel so late. The ride seemed to take really long, and when we reached Milan, it was past one in the morning. We walked confidently across the empty square in front of the station, saw one African looking chap who went into another street, and another traveller who turned into a street before our hotel. Thanking God profusely, we hit the sack. In hindsight, staying near the station seems a good idea, as we always avoid hotels near train stations. This was an exception.
We were planning to go to Parma the next day, but decided against it after standing in the queue at the station for a few minutes, and went to explore the city instead. Bought a few things, had lunch near the Duomo, ice cream on the way back to the hotel.
Took the 8.15 Malpensa bus And headed to the airport, checked in early and saw the same couple we met on the way to Venice. We managed to use our points to upgrade to Business on the way back to Singapore, so that was fantastic. Again, all is well that ends in an upgrade.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Our trip
Emirates had a fantastic deal for 2 at an unbelievable $1554 (on the way to Dubai, a stopover, the aircraft dropped a few hundred feet suddenly, which has never happened on any of our flights, hope this is the last as it tends to be disturbing, to say the least, the rest of the trip was peaceful, thank God). We booked hotels at Athens, Mykonos and Santorini and the ferry tickets through an agent here, as we didn’t want to go there and start figuring out how to get to the islands. The agent gives you a few options on hotels which you can check against in Tripadvisor and based on the reviews, you can either say yes or no. All our hotels were nice, especially Porto Mykonos in Mykonos and El Greco in Santorini (we had earlier booked the Aegean Plaza, which was by the Kamari beach and we found it a bit run down, spacious, huge actually but like one of those Goan hotels, so we had it changed to El Greco, which, despite some of the negative reviews, was excellent with lovely views of the sea and the Ancient Thera). In Athens we stayed in Classical Imperial, which is in Omonia Square, which kind of could restrict your late night activities apparently. The breakfast was good as was the spread in all these places. The staff were mostly friendly and helpful (except at Classical where the first time around they forgot the art of smiling, but it was a business hotel, so we let it be). Porto Mykonos stands out as the best followed by El Greco.

Athens, pronounced Aathens by the locals, reminds you more of Cairo or Luxor than of a European city, probably because of its antiquity, it is over 4,500 years old after all, and it shows. An ancient dust seems to have settled on the city, The birthplace of democracy, of western civilization, of great minds such as Socrates and Pericles, seems to wear a neglected air, unlike the other ancient city next door, Rome, which bustles with modern fashion and life and keeps its 2000 years of history well-preserved. Then again, it’s only over 2,000 years old so that makes a difference I guess. The air of neglect, however, reminds you of an Indian city, along with the traffic and the honking.
Our first impression, after arriving in the afternoon was that of disappointment, but that could be because we were in Omonia Square, the oldest square in Athens once a famous square, which looks run down, especially in the late evenings and seems a bit shady. But, honestly, we didn’t see any druggies or unsavoury characters when we were there (maybe because we got back by 7 and our late outings were restricted to dinner at this lovely restaurant right across the hotel, which was a nice, decent 5 star affair). Crime, and drugs are attributed to immigration from Albania and other places when you talk to people.
But you get to like Athens soon enough as you walk around its old streets in Plaka and Monsitiraki, visit its treasured Archealogical Museum, its Poet Sandalmaker in Psiri (just off the Flea Market in Monastiraki). Like most cities, you can cover Athens on foot but they do have an efficient and clean metro we were told but didn’t feel the need to take.

Must-see in Athens
The guided tour (which came with the hotel/ferry package) that took us to the ruins of Acropolis was pretty good. We stopped off first at the Ancient (I should stop saying that when am referring to things in Greece I think, seems kind of redundant) Olympics Stadium, which is where a soldier from Marathon, 42 kilometres north of the city, came and announced that they had won the war before collapsing, dead. Hence the name of the race which is run in recognition of the soldier, and the distance. Next stop was at the Temple of Zeus. All you see are 12 columns or so.

Acropolis, the next stop, was a bit crowded, with school children, other tourists, locals but it was worth the trip. Acropolis means city above, or city at a height with acro meaning height (acrobat comes from that word), and polis meaning city.
(Aside: Interestingly, comparing all old civilizations, only India seems to have preserved the gods, and not just the cuisine, the language and the rest of an ancient past, whereas others like Greece and Egypt, the ruins merely serve to reflect a glorious past whose gods are no more than legends now. Like Tom Robbins says, gods cease to exist once people stop believing in them. Which seems to be the case with over 80% of Greeks professing orthodox Christian beliefs. Arogara☺)

The Archeology museum
It was a 20 minute walk from our hotel, so we walked. It is a must see when you are in Athens. If you thought Athens was old, you ought to see some of the treasures and artifacts they have from 6000 BC. Apparently the Neolithic people lived in Greece way back then, and their household items (including wheat!) are on display. In perfectly preserved condition. Awesome, to borrow a modern term.
The funeral rituals of the ancestors seem to involve a lot of gold. In fact, some of the designs Apu saw in shops earlier had their ‘original inspirations’ were on display.

Ancient Agora
The road from the museum takes you straight to the Ancient Agora, which has a museum too. This one has an ancient ballot machine, a child’s potty, a water clock that measured the speakers’ time (agora means a place of assembly, agoraphobia comes from this word). Expert orators timed their speeches to the last drop it seems. To me, the highlight was going to the Stoa of Zeus where Sokrates (that’s how they spell it) used to frequent and talk to his students.

The Poet Sandalmaker of Athens
Fascinating guy. While his son runs the business now, the father is known as a poet among sandalmakers and as a sandalmaker among poets. Celebrities from Jackie O to the Beatles and everyone in between have come here to get sandals crafted for them. When I picked up a design that said John Lennon, I asked him why the name, to which he said,’because he bought them’. Which was good enough. Despite the celebrity endorsement he sells his sandals for an un-celebrity-esque 20 – 25 euros. First you choose the design, then you try it on, then he or his assistant will make sure you feel totally comfortable, by tweaking the fit, snipping off bits, adding more holes on the strap, whatever it takes. Amazing. It’s not hard to find, Melissinos has his shop a few minutes walk from the Monistiraki square, which has an interesting flea market, where we bought delicious and the largest strawberries ever seen by man or woman.

The juice that didn’t make it
When we left Athens early in the morning for the ferry to go to Mykonos, we had asked the hotel guys to give us ‘box-breakfast’ which comes in a paper bag. It’s more than substantial, it had a muffin, big baguette sandwich, and an orange juice bottle. The juice would travel with all us all over the islands, back to Athens, and get discarded at the Athens airport.

This is the Greek version of needle in a haystack. Tell someone you live in a blue and white house, if you don’t wan them to find you for a while. Apparently, it’s a rule, all houses have to be painted blue and white. White reflects the sunlight and the heat and blue just looks right. A few houses are in maroon and white though.
You don’t need much time in this blue and white island if you are island hopping, maybe 3 nights? Which is how long we spent, though it seems tempting to laze around here longer
We were staying at this wonderful hotel, Porto Mykonos, where (we were picked up from the ferry station and brought to the hotel in under 7 minutes) Kelly was waiting at the door, greeted us with a huge, warm smile, told us to relax with our champagne, on the house, while we filled the necessary papers. Sitting in the verandah, overlooking the gorgeous island, we spent a bit too long filling the form and emptying the glass with more guests arriving as a result, which kept Kelly busy. But Theodore took care of us, gave us his mobile number saying if there is anything we need, at any time, please don’t hesitate to call. If the service was out of the world, the view from the room was even more so. Stunning view of the sea and the downtown below.
Took up Theodore’s invite and joined him and his colleague, Spyros, who were playing Blackgammon at a pub next door (Blu) to watch the Arsenal ManU Champions League match. Disappointing performance. Met an interesting couple from the US who won the fight to pay for the drinks which scared the hell out of the dainty waiter. We bought the next round. The Ouzo made Apu woozy that night.
You get good breakfast at Porto Mykonos.

The other two days saw us exploring the little alleys and roads of the downtown where cars are not allowed. There are motorized 3 wheelers the supply guys use to deliver goods to the stores. We picked up a fair amount of stuff, olive soaps, the distinct white shirts made of Greek cotton, candy from an elderly man who’s been making these sweets since 1950. His store has black and white pictures of him baking and hand-making the candies and sweets from way back when. We bought honey as well from him.

We saw Petros the Pelican, the mascot of Mykonos. He was sitting on the parapet wall near the sea, and next to him was his master if pelicans have one. The guy had a stick with which he was directing Petros to look at the crowd waiting for him so they could take a good shot. Late we saw him doing the rounds near the Niko restaurant as well.

Each trip would have us finding alleys and places we hadn’t seen the day before. One evening, we walked our usual route, down the gate that separates the pedestrian only area from the paved roads and place where hotels are, along the beach (we did see a couple of people trying to sunbathe), through the many alleys, past some regular shops (by now), and we saw the windmills set against the dipping sun. Walking further, we came upon a car park, past which was another part of Mykonos. There was a narrow road leading to the island but we gave it a miss and walked back from another part of the island that was connected to Mykonos downtown by broad steps.

The morning routine usually involved walking down to the town area, having a cup of coffee or mountain tea or sage tea at a café facing the sea, near the blue mosque/church, and shopping for various things, lunch, then back to the hotel. After a couple of hours of rest, we’d set off again, sometimes walking down from the hotel and along the sea. There was always a stop for water, at a mini market near the gate or one by the hotel. Really cheap, about 65 cents for 1.5L.

We took the fast ferry Flying Cat 4 to Santorini, the one saw every day, a speed boat covered in Vodafone logo.


We reached Santorini in the afternoon, and as usual, a guy with our names was there, we shared the car with another couple who were heading to the same hotel. It took more than 45 minutes to reach our hotel, Aegean Plaza, from the outside it didn’t look very encouraging. And the inside of the room, which was past the pool, up a flight of stairs, was less impressive. It was big no doubt, but felt more like one of the middle-range sea side places in India. We decided to change back to El Greco once we stepped out.
We took a walk by the sea with its black sand beach, came back on the pathway lined with restaurants, and to the town square where you are supposed to take the bus to Fira, which comes every half hour. For some reason, the square, with its small town shops, families with children eating at a restaurant, the evening sun, reminded us of a US town. That was the end of the town actually, so we walked back to the restaurant where we promised a man who was outside asking if we would come back to his restaurant for dinner.

We sat by the beach, and ordered Ouzo for myself(which made the waiter happy), and wine for Apu, when we saw a match on TV inside. Arsenal won a meaningless match 3-0, and they were going to show Barcelona vs Real Madrid later. Before that there was a local derby happening, with AEK playing Olympiakos, which had a solitary supporter in this family run restaurant, the guy was in his teens, the rest of the family were AEK. It was fairly empty but they didn’t seem worried, this was still off season. AEK were 3 up by half time, we finished our dinner, and they brought the on the house dessert, and we left.

We went to the pub a few buildings down, and watched Barcelonal trash Real Madrid (a couple next to us were Real supporters but were outnumbered). We walked back, it was pretty late, and as we were walking there was a dog that walked in front of us, and it kept looking at us as it walked, as we walked behind, we reached our hotel, as if the dog was there to guide us! We had some biscuits in the bag which we gave the dog, it ate up the whole thing hungrily and left.

Earlier we had called Julia the agent to move us back to El Greco, she said it can be arranged immediately but we decided to spend the evening there.

Next morning, after a decent breakfast, our pick up service was there by 10 and we left for El Greco. A short ride later we reached El Greco which looked more than reasonable from outside, and it had stunning view of the sea and the volcano. Once inside, we checked in, left our bags in the store room as the room wasn’t ready, (I’m giving you a sea view room, said the clerk).

We walked into Fira, the downtown of Santorini. Pretty little place. We were glad we came to El Greco and for extending our stay by two more days here. After a while, we came back to the hotel, the room was ready, but nothing prepared us for the breathtaking views it had. It had sea views on either side and overlooked the Athira from the door. Stunning.

Went out again, had dinner at a place the guide book highly recommended, Salena, but the food was just ok, not bad, but not worth all the ‘if there’s one place you must eat’ sell. And it wasn’t cheap. The view was lovely but the view is stunning from just about any window in Santorini we think.

Next day was rainy. It was drizzling, so we took a bus to Oia (pronounced Ia), and it was pretty much washed out. We walked the wrong way from the bus stop, and the shop we bought some stuff from (including a pack of local cigarettes, Karelia, which was quite strong, recommended by a fellow shopper) said we have to go the other way. It led us to a cliff side walk, stopped off for coffee at a café with a view of course, walked further looking at some local paintings at some of the shops still open, had a very nice lunch at a small restaurant, then walked back to the bus stop. After a half hour wait, (bumped into a couple that was at the lunch place, they were from the US), the bus came, and we boarded. Soon it was stuck in a jam on the narrow road, and the driver earned a round of applause for expertly maneuvering us out of it.

It was still raining when we reached Fira. We went to the same small café for coffee we went to yesterday, drawn in by a fat boy helping out his family which was sweet we thought. The fat boy came back form school later. Went back to the hotel, and spent the rest of the day in the room as the rain didn’t seem to let up.

The prayers of the locals for sunlight seem to have been answered as the day had remnants of last night’s downpour and the sky was clearing up. We went to the museum of Santorini. It’s a cute little museum just at the beginning of Fira, it houses some interesting artefacts though, some from way back when, there are earthenware from Neolithic period, some date back to the Ancient Thira days. It should take about half an hour, the day we went was free admission day.

After a quick bite, took the bus to Pyrgos, a little town up in the mountains. The journey takes about 45 minutes if I remember right. There is a big board with the town’s map, there’s not much to see here but it’s worth a trip. Went up to Franco’s café, a few steps away from the skies (the climb is a bit steep, which explained the ‘donkey transport’ we saw, the donkey was covered in a colourful cloth on which sat the driver, asking us if we wanted a ride or for him to take a photo of us, but we snapped a picture of him instead). The café, run by a couple, had Singapore Sling on the menu, the guy said he went there and picked up the recipe. Had spiced tea which was pretty good. The lady was cooking something delicious for lunch. Went up through the back door to a museum situated a few steep steps further, it’s a small room that has a few things. After buying some cookies (which we had at the café) at a bakery down near the bus stop, we went back to Fira. After lunch, we walked around a bit, and went to a pub to ask if they were showing the Arsenal Man U match, but even before I could ask, the lady at the bar said, ‘Yes, 7.45’.

After resting for a while, stepped out to the pub, but this was a different one, the waitress was a Gunner unlike the other one, so we sat at watched the disappointing match, and stopped off at a souvlaki place (Lucky Souvlaki) on the way back, it was past midnight, but there were still a few people there. When I asked Lucky for a draft, he said it was over but gave me a can of beer on the house! You encounter generosity in the most unlikey places. I told him I’d still pay, but he put the money in the tip jar. Had an interesting conversation with him on life, women, mainly his wife, a Peruvian Chinese, and his boy.

Next day, went again to the nice little crepe place run by two women, the girl serving was from Russia. That’s another thing we discovered in Europe, most of the little cafes are run by two people, and they are never rude or show the stress of serving a full house.

We took the Nea Camini cruise which was worth the money. A bus picked us up outside the hotel, and took us to the dock, where the cruise, with a guide who spoke English, French, Spanish and Greek, took us to the volcano. We walked up the volcano (our second, the first was Vesuvio in 2006), and at one point the guide dug into the earth and took out a stone and asked everyone to touch to see how hot it was. He said they cook eggs in there. The whole climb lasts about an hour or so. Next stop was at the hot springs, but we skipped it, as the temperature of the hot springs was 10 degrees C and you had to swim about 5 minutes to it from where the boat had stopped, and that was desperately cold, judging from the few who dived in. After that the boat stops at another place, you can climb up and see how people live there, but we just had lunch at a restaurant there. The cruise takes you to Oia after that, but we stayed in the boat as we had already gone there earlier. Back by evening around 5.

Did the usual routine the next day, tea at a café, a bite at the crepe place, and took the boat back to Athens.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Tokyo Post

The city of Godzilla and gizmos, samurai and sake, hot springs and haute couture, sumos and Sony playstations, sushi and school girl knicker-vending machines, neon lights and naughty lifestyles, manga mania and the manic metro … the alliterative descriptions can go on but you get the drift. All of it is true, though, apparently there was a crackdown on undie-vending some time back. The city, which is a reflection of how far the country has come, amazes you from the moment you land at Narita (although I wondered how, a country that can produce technological marvels on an every day basis can still want a sole-proprietor’s visa letter be signed by somebody else … maybe next time I should go in person instead of doing the visa through the travel agent but that’s another matter).
Discipline and organization, very evident in every thing you see here. For instance, trolleys are not allowed near the baggage carousel. Which makes sense. And the Narita Express (you have to buy the Japan Railway pass before you go to Japan, which allows you access on all of JR lines which includes the shinkansen aka bullet train routes as well and is much cheaper than buying it in Japan), has a swiveling seat system, we were waiting for the train to be cleaned, and the seats swiveled around to face the direction of the train!
Interesting: you can’t use your cell phone in the train, subway or long distance, or in restaurants. And you can’t smoke on the streets, there are designated spots with haiku type messages (Not everything around the trees were petals, read one). Dust bins are not many but the roads are clean.
Met a very helpful Japanese girl who was sitting in the seat next to us, who marked on the TimeOut guide the places we should go to, what to buy where etc., and she came with us to help us exchange our JR vouchers for the pass, told us we should book for Kyoto (we said wanted to go there) right away as this is the holiday season and it’s very difficult getting tickets, so we booked for next week. And in time too, apparently not many seats were left. On her recommendation we booked the return ticket to the airport as well. Reached Shinjiku in an hour and twenty minutes. The December wind was whipping up the chill as we stepped out and asked for directions at the police box outside (this side, 300 metres, 2 minutes), so we reached the Shinjiku Prince in about that time. We still had about half hour to spend before check in, so ducked into the basement café for a coffee. Later, checked in, and found the room quite all right, and not too ‘boxy’ as some readers had described on Trip Advisor. The toilet seat legend is true, they are from Starship Enterprise (they have a section in a museum where they display the latest technological advancements on the throne it seems).
Went for a stroll around the area, bought some food at the Takashimaya basement (we bought a wonderful ‘point and speak’ Japanese phrasebook which has pictures, both Japanese and English phrases underneath so both you and the other person know what you want). Pointing to a picture I asked the girl at the counter and she told the chef who dropped what he was doing and took us to the counter that was selling what we wanted. But to eat it, we had to ride the elevator to the 12th floor ‘park’. Checked out a few things at Tokyu Hands and went out to Isetan, it was too big and sprawled over some 8 buildings, so left that for tomorrow, returned for some warm sake at the hotel’s 25th floor bar, and came to the room. That’s Day 1. (Btw, the hotel is in the red light district but it’s safe.)

Day 2.
Coffee at the basement café with a croissant. Had to crack the metro system. By the looks of it, it seemed an impossible task but it wasn’t that difficult. Don’t let the map confuse you, just focus on where you want to go, and that’s confusing enough☺ Thing is, like Apu said, if you’re colour blind, figuring out the subway system could get more difficult, because, while it is colour coded, for they have all the colours you can think of, and then some. There are shades of oranges and greens for different lines, some have two colous, and some have coloured circles like the Ginza line. But it is easy (despite the numerous exits they have, and if you take the wrong one, you could get far away from where your destination). But we cracked it, baby.
We had to go to Asakusa temple, one of the important shrines in Tokyo. So we asked at the reception and he said a couple of lines we should take and change, then we said we have JR pass, which resulted in an alternative route. Take the Yanamote line to Ueno and change to Ginza line all the way to Asakusa, and that was quite easy, to be honest. (since the JR doesn’t cover these subway lines, we had to buy tickets at the machine, which is not difficult).

From the station, just followed the signs and the temple is about a ten minute walk. Shops line the street that leads to the shrine, where you buy a packet of incense sticks, and light them, and stick them in a big cauldron type thing, which is already filled with several lit incense sticks, the smoke from which is supposedly healing. There is a small water-well type thing, with a wooden ladle, and you cleanse your hands and mouth before you enter the temple. Oh wait, there is a series of small boxes (like in a chest of draws in an antique Chinese furniture) with numbers in Japanese characters, in front of which is a cylinder with a hole. This contains a bunch of chopstick like sticks with corresponding numbers on them. What you do is drop a 100 yen in a box, take one of these cylinders, shake them, and pull out a stick. Look at the number on it, match it to the corresponding box, pull out the draw, and take out a sheet (each draw has a bunch of sheets). I got Bad Fortune the first time, then apu tried it and got Regular Fortune. I tried again at the place next to it, and got Best Fortune.

There is a long wooden box in front of the deities, and you throw coins in to the slats, and pray. You can light candles too. Did all that and walked around the festive looking streets around the temple. There are tons of food places, souvenir shops, stalls selling freshly made sweetmeats and rice crackers (bought some). Found an authentic looking noodle place, which had a glass cabin inside which was a Japanese guy making soba noodles, which stopped a lot of passers-by, who later went in to eat. We did too after waiting for 5 minutes. Just as I tried to take out my Point and speak Japanese book, the lady serving us said, ‘What can I get you?’ I ordered sake which came in a wooden box with a small opening at one edge, and a small wooden cup. We got hot noodles soup and a soba set, both of which were very nice.
Took the train back, to Shibuya with its world famous, world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Became part of the busiest crossing-people, went to a Starbucks at the Q Front building, watched people cross a few times, went out to Central Gai. Found a Krispy Kreme across the street, picked up half a dozen doughnuts, and went to Ginza to look for a Tempura place recommended by Time Out. Wound up at the Sony building, went around the area a hundred times before we realised it was the wrong exit, so went back to the station, took C9, and still couldn’t find it,walked some more and finally found it, and found it expensive. Crossed the street to where there were a lot of restaurants at the basement and very good pasta and wine.
Coming back to the station, we saw a young Japanese guy singing ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ at the top of his voice. Well, I hope he found whatever he was looking for as he sure would have lost his voice before the night was through. Took the train back to Shinjiku, walked around a bit and came back.

Day 3
After a couple of Krispy Kremes and a coffee downstairs, took the train to Harajuku, where the young and trendy come out to parade the latest and sometimes the weirdest. Went to the Meiji Emperor’s shrine which is set in a sprawling wooded area (where the crows caw the way humans would). Rituals are pretty much similar, cleanse hands, throw money, pray. Did that, browsed the souvenir shop, figured we’d come back after comparing prices at Harajuku. On the way out, the kids were getting into their gear, posing for photographs, some were giving hugs for free. Walked around Aoyoma street, went to the Oriental bazaar, bought a few things, went back to Meiji souvenir (some were better priced here), bought a few things and headed back to Harajuku, with its unending throng of people. Managed to find place to stand and eat an excellent crepe at a stall. Picked up a bag, went looking for a place called Crayons (an organic food place), found it with some difficulty, but the food was lovely. Picked up some interesting tee shirts on the way back to the station, came back. The hotel doesn’t have wireless in rooms, so took the mac down, looked for information on Kyoto (where we are going tomorrow) and Nikko, which we booked for the day after.

Day 4
Early start. Were at the Shinjiku station by 8, took the subway (Chuo line) to Tokyo station where the shinkansen aka bullet train, (the Hikari as JR pass doesn’t cover Nozomi, super fast, but Hikari fast enough at 285 kmph while Nozomi makes fewer stops and hits 300 kmph) goes from. Mikiko, the super friendly Japanese girl we me on the plane, had helped us book the tickets to Kyoto immediately after we exchanged our JR voucher for the JR pass. But we could only get seats in the smoking section on the date we wanted to travel, so instead of having to suffer second-hand smoke for two and a half hours it took to reach Kyoto, so lit up a couple myself, better first hand than second I reasoned.
Once we reached Kyoto station, and had coffee at a station café, we went out to look for the tourist office (how to find the ‘i’ the signs said, philosophically), and it seems the one in Isetan was closed, so had to make do with the small office near the entrance.
Armed with the handy Point and Speak book, managed to get a map showing the walks you can take, and what bus to take etc. Got on the bus, showed the driver the ‘point and speak’ book for tickets to Sanjusangendo shrine, and was about to put change money in the slot when he said no, and crossed his hands over, so waited, and when we got off, he said now you can put in the change. So did that and got off and walked to the temple across. It’s a Buddhist temple (take your shoes off please), the Buddha statue in the centre is flanked on wither side by hundreds of statues of other gods and goddesses whose roots go back to the Vedic. You start from the left of the Buddha and walk around and exit. The Buddha statue was beautiful. Like all temples, this was constructed of wood too.
Went out and found the way (not the middle path, ha!) to the next temple/walk to the Higashimaya area. It was a long walk but not difficult, there are many shrines along the way you can visit if you have more than one day.
Geishas! We saw them on the way. One of the was on a shoot, and we managed a few shots ourselves.
Found the Kiyomizudera temple which is sprawled over several acres of land, since we had to go to a couple of more places we visited only the major parts of the temple (the endless steps were a bit of a deterrent too).
Took the way out (which is different from the way in), and headed for the third and final shrine on our agenda. Stopped off for some Udon at a cosy, small food place. ‘Oiishi’ you tell them, when the food is good and it makes them happy (it means ‘tasty or delicious). After asking for directions at a couple of more places where we bought some stuff from, we reached the Zen temple which has a huge Buddha statue towering over one of the sections, which, when we reached was closed. But that wasn’t the main temple, we overheard someone saying it to their companions, so went and bought tickets to the shrine. It is also known as the Zen temple, with zen rock garden in the complex. Suddenly we found ourselves in Kodaiji temple, which we didn’t remember seeing on the map. This is also the place you see in the Kyoto postcard, with the pagoda against the sunset.
Next stop was the local Nishiki market. It was getting too late to find our way walking to the place so hopped into a taxi (which had a paper lamp on top for its taxi sign). Asked the driver ikura deska and asked him to write down the amount, he said 880 yen, so we got in. Along the way he did ask a few questions (as taxi drivers do) like where are you from, IT? like that), and when we came upon a traffic jam, mild one, the metre was past 880, so he said, ‘many cars, many people’ pointing to the metre, and when we got off it was a bit over 880 yen. Paid up and walked the crowded street, lined with stalls selling a variety of stuff, fish, crackers, grocery, vegetables … found a hole in the wall place selling sake and fresh oysters (which was next door) so got a seat, (the book inspired interested looks and conversations from the people), had atsukan (warm) sake, and half a dozen steamed oysters (they don’t sell them raw). Picked up rice crackers, a box of sushi rolls from another shop and walked at least 45 minutes back to the station. Reached the hotel around 12.

Day 5
Nikko, Toshogo temple, shogun place
Another early start. At the station by 9, subway to Tokyo station, JR line to Utsunomiya station, from where you change to a local train to Nikko. Three loquacious Europeans were sitting in the same car and they were the only ones doing all the talking. Nonstop. Unlike the train. (We saw the talkative trio on the way back, and wisely too the car next to theirs).
Again, another huge shrine spread over many acres. Called Toshogu, it is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, whose tomb is way up in the hills. There are other places in Nikko to visit, but we skipped them and headed back to Tokyo.
Got off at Harajuku, walked a bit, found a small little place Ometosando Stand with an open kitchen. Three young kids were running the place, two chefs, the guy teaching the girl how to cook. Interesting. Had sake and sunaku (snacks), and tried to find out if they were open the next day, but didn’t happen, decided to call tomorrow and see.
Train back to Shinjiku. Found the tempura place mentioned in TimeOut and it was everything the book said. Warm sake and fantastic food. I even had eel (insert your electric, shocking jokes here) which tasted quite all right.
They even have a menu card that illustrates, in a step by step fashion, how to go about enjoying your tempura. Met a Japanese couple from Kobe, and were telling them how much we loved their country, countrymen and the fact that cell-phoned are not allowed on trains. And the guy said, sometimes they see people using cell on trains, and they say, they must be Chinese. (Which got us thinking. In Japan, if people are told not to do a thing, they don’t. N campaigns, no advertising, nothing. Whereas in Singapore, people need to be fined. And in incredible India! Of course, neither approach will work, as we are ‘like that only’. Interesting, in a shameful way.)

Day 6
Thought about going to Kamakura which is about an hour away, then decided to just hang around Tokyo. Went to Tokyo station, exited to the Imperial Palace site. The area was absolutely quiet as it was a holiday. Later met Srikants friend, walked by Tokyo tower, took a totally new subway line, changed at Hibiya, and went back to hotel to rest before heading out for the evening.
Started out around 7.30, went to Roppongi Hills, which, despite its crowd of wha looked like people dressed for some costume party, didn’t impress. Took the subway to Harajuku again, but the place, Ometosando stand, was not open (someone picked up the phone when we called so we assumed it was open), but the street was alive with side walk stalls, bought a bunch of stuff to munch, and saw a place selling hot sake, so bought 2 first, finished it, then bought two more, took the train to Shinjiku (almost went to the Meiji shrine as there was a crowd, some new year ritual), went to the takashimaya side, found that empty, walked around to our hotel side, and opened the still warm sake as the crowds shouted at the stroke of 2009. Walked around the hotel area, supposedly a red light district but showed no signs of it, and Tokyo is safe anyway, at any time, so that was good. Went back to the room around 1.

Day 7
Hung around Shinjiku, explored the only two malls open, and bought some really nice tee shirts. A curious feature was that every store in these malls had the store people shouting out, hawking their wares, so to speak. Which happens on the street as well, most stalls have someone shouting at the top of their voice through a megaphone their offerings, and they go non-stop. Went back to the hotel, checked out, asked the staff to keep our bags and went to the Tsukiji Sushiki (the Tsukiji fish market is famous for its fresh sea food but since we couldn’t go there, in Ginza, we decided to try their food here, as they have many outlets around Tokyo), and had some ‘oishii’ sushi. Went back, picked up our luggage, and headed to the Shinjiku station and took the Narita express back to the airport.
From the friendly Mikiko who helped us on the plane (which was an Airbus 380, looks big and smells different, but the seats are pretty much the same as any other plane), to all the helpful people we came across despite the language barrier, to the smiling people who greeted us at every shop, to the drunk bunch of revelers on the new year’s eve who posed no threat to anyone, to the girl at the airport who got off her seat, came to take us to the counter, Japan was one great polite, friendly experience. Tokyo. It’s abuzz, alive, friendy, safe, and fascinating.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


They say that you have to throw a coin with your back to the Trevi fountain to guarantee a revisit. Well, they lied. We threw the coin facing it two years ago and we still managed another visit to the Eternal City. Flew SQ this time, seemed the most reasonable of the lot, supplying another item to the Ripley’s ‘Believe it or not’ pages. (It was a 13 hour flight, direct, but didn’t feel like it).

Reached Fumicino at 6 am. The place has changed a lot from our last visit. After checking out, (the immigration guy suggested that we should come in summer when we told him we’ll be going to Sorrento), we took a shuttle to the baggage claim area, and we were out of the airport. Bought ticket at the counter for the Leonardo Express (11 euros), had coffee at the station café, and boarded an almost empty train to the Termini, which hadn’t changed much. It was cold. Came straight out (unlike the last time), took a taxi from the stand (there was no queue), to our hotel Gea Di Vulcano. The ride cost us 8 euros, when I pointed the meter reading which was 5 euros, the driver pointed to the luggage. I had forgotten that they charged for the baggage here.

Francesca, at the reception, checked us in. (Had to lug the bags up a flight of stairs though.) The room was by far the biggest we’ve had anywhere in Italy so far with a good sized toilet. Went to a restaurant next door for breakfast, then went walking around town. Past the ever-present Piaza Venezia (photo!), ambled onto a place mentioned in TimeOut for wine, then to Zozzone for pizza. Ended up at Tre Scalini for tartuffo,(the Bernini statue was under renovation), looked like the friendly people had left the place. Went back and turned in early, as it gets dark early in December.


Up early. After a decent breakfast, went to Termini to book tickets to Naples (from where you go to Sorrento), took the Metro to Laurentina for outlet shopping. The friendly people at the hotel couldn’t find out the details but we managed to find out from a tourist booth along the way. It was more like far-outlet shopping. After getting off at the last stop, asked for info at the counter, where we were directed to the Cotral bus stop across the road. We bought tickets, didn’t know which bus to take, went back to the station but they said they don’t know. So back to the bus station counter where they seemed to speak English. Managed to take the right bus, and find out that some woman on the bus was getting off at the same stop. At least that’s she said in Italian which we didn’t understand much. The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere (the bus stop that doesn’t exist even has a name on it!). We followed the kind woman who was walking too fast, across the highway, over some bushes, through the desert, past the Pyramids and then to Castel Romano (it’s just after Alexandria, take a left from the Nile).

The place was full of locals, there was not a single tourist except us. Which is a good sign, it means good deals. There may have been but we didn’t buy any, save for some chocolates at a Lindt shop. Since it started to drizzle we took a taxi (at the information office they can book you one) to Pomezzio, from where we took a bus to Laurentina. (The taxi driver told us there was a free shuttle bus to Piazza Republica but that was at 6 pm said the counter girl adding that it would be crowded.) After reaching the city, went to a closed TimeOut recommended place, came back to the hotel, where the night shift guy Agron, directed us to a place down Via Napoli (the side entrance road), which was not open yet for food but was for vino. Good food. Walked back to Gea and was talking to Agron while getting the key, when he mentioned they have rooms vacant for 3-5 Jan. Seemed like a good idea.


After breakfast, (gave two chocolates each to Francesca and another girl who gave extra cappucnio), cancelled our reservation at Rafaello which was charging more (about 140 euros), confirmed with out hotel for the 3rd and 4th Jan, went to Termini, waited in the lounge meant for Eurostar lounge for ‘Veloce’ treno. Took the train and reached Napoli in the afternoon. Followed the arrows to Circumvesuviana, where a helpful man at the counter told us how to get to Sorrento (the 12.11 not the one coming now but 12.11), bought tickets at the shop next to the booth, walked down to the station, and boarded the train.

It was a bit like the Regionale trains, or a local train. Got off at St.Agnello, took two wrong turns, called the guy at Il Rosetto who said to take the other road we haven’t, and walk down. In about ten minutes or more we reached the place. (Incidentally, the instructions on the Net say it’s a few steps away. Unless you are Yeti, it’s more than that.) Lovely little place with the room window opening onto a little orchard of orange and lemon trees and the mountains in the distance.

Went to the city centre which was about a ten-minute walk from the hotel. Beautiful place, typical hill station feel. Except this has views of Mt.Vesuvius, the sea and other hills. Found a place that was open for food, had good pizza and wine and a not so good cappuccino. Ours was the last order for they were closing for the holidays. The festive cheers of the waiter seemed to double as he went around telling everyone his wife left him. Went walking around for a while, came back to the Piazza Tasso, the main square. Sat at Bar Ercolana, and watched people and life walk by over Grappa and wine. Went back.


After saying Buon Natale! Merry Christmas! to people at breakfast (which was ok), went to Ercolano for coffee. Was greeted Italian style by the waiter who served us yesterday, hug, kiss on the right and left (no contact though). Decided to stick to Sorrento as we were not sure if anything would be open. Explored its winding gulleys and alleys and went plodding down to Marine Grande. One restaurant owner came out bleary eyed (Gattusso – Mermaid Today’s Special) to open. Sat out for a while sipping vino then went inside as the temperature dipped. The radio was playing Nights in White Satin Italian version. SMSd Bharath. Digested whatever we had on our walk back up to the hotel.

Went to P.Tasso in the evening, the town was showing signs of life. Sat at Bar Ercolano for some grappa, when a fat dog trundled in, wagged its tail at Apu, came around to my side, waited for me to pat its head, sat down for a while, waited for us to take a picture and as if on cue, went and followed some other guests to their table. The Italians like their dogs, they seem very gentle with animals.

Observation #2: A big man, with mustache and all, sipping a manly beer in the freezing weather, crossed his legs to reveal a pair of pink socks.

Went to Zintonio, bumped into a Bangla waiter and a right wing American lady. Was friendly with one and no so with the other. Not many people were there at the restaurant, hence no menu. So they prepared whatever we asked them to. Decent food.


Took SITA bus to Positano, supposedly the most beautiful place on earth. After a couple of customary wrong turns, took the road opposite Bar Internazionale and found an internet point to ask for directions. There was a friendly English guy who gave us directions. Followed his advice and overshot and found us at the other end of the island. Walked back, found ‘Centro Storico” or the centre , the place we mistook for a car park was the road to the Duomo and the beach. Had an aperole Spritz at a café there, some small pizzas, profiteroles and bought a bottle of Aperole. Walked down, picked up some ceramic souvenirs, went to the beach, the sand is black here.

Trudged our long way back to the bus stop, and waited two hours for the bus to Amalfi, it didn’t come, decided to take the one back to Sorrento, as it was 4.30 by then and it gets dark early, so it’s pointless going sightseeing. Back in Sorrento, discovered a decent place for dinner. The plump waiter (not the one we found the first day) at Bar Ercolano, tried to short change us with a bigger bill, when we pointed it out, was apologetic.


Took train to Pompeii Scavi station, bought tickets and an audio guide. Ruins. Ruins and remnants of a culture that existed, breathed, bought vegetables and meat, prayed, baked bread, engaged in commercial activities, planned streets and city life, dispensed justice, indulged in the oldest profession (there’s proof – the brothels called Lupariums or what’s left of them are still there),buried their dead, plaster-casted their earlier victims of Mt.Vesuvuis before themselves becoming targets for the mountain’s wrath.

They had sun dials, weights and measurements system, but no defence against volcanic ash. Amazing! Sometimes when we look back or see the remains of an earlier civilization, what strikes us most is that they were so much like us. We look for caveman like lifestyle but are awed and surprised that they had wheels and a superb system of governance among other things. We think just because we are here now with our computers and jetplanes, we are the only ones who can lay claim to “civilization”. I think that’s what we find hard to come to terms with, that there was intelligent life way before and they achieved fabulous, monumental things with not a tiny fraction of gadgets we have now. It’s almost how the developed world looks at the third world “ My God. They have radio, wait a minute that’s a satellite dish !”

While returning the audio guides, discovered that there was no bus to Mt.Vesuvius now. So we thought we’d go the church that had attained some fame through some miracle that happened there. Asked at the bookshop at the station, the guy pointed to the bus outside, from which a driver was just getting out, we paid him and got in. In ten minutes he came back, and took us to the church (no one else on the bus) and said to wait there for the return trip. Kids come and ask for money here but we are used to that back home, so no problem there. Went inside a really beautiful church, couldn’t take photographs as service was in progress. Hung around for a while and went back to the bus stop, and as we were looking at the bus timing chart, an elderly man (we had a lot of help from elderly gentlemen this trip), came from behind a minibus, asked us if we were going to the stations, and started the bus. Paid a euro each and got back.

Back to Sorrento. Dinner at a place recommended by an elderly from whom we bought ceramic stuff. We were talking about Italy and how it’s blessed with such beautiful places, and she said she used to go to Florence with her husband for thirty years till a couple of years ago when he passed away. She was wondering if she should go again with her family. We said she should as parents live in their children.

The waiter at the restaurant was from Punjab. Said he was studying in Rome and was here for winter break. Back in India we wouldn’t do that. We have no dignity of labour. No pride in our land or its history. No urge to save what we have for the future generations. Italy is apparently rife with corruption as well but the way they keep their past intact, the pride they have in their country is admirable.


Mt.Vesuvius and Naples
Got up early to catch the train to Ercolano station from where it’s easier to get to Mt.Vesuvius. The Lonely Planet (we couldn’t get TimeOut this time for any of the places we visited, so had to use the LP we bought long time back on W.Europe) as usual warned about illegal operators ripping people off and an elderly couple who hand out sticks for people climbing the mountain. We exited the station and went to what looked like an authentic tourist office, where the guy said it could cost us 16 euros each to climb the mountain, including a minibus ride to the top and back, and entrance fees. It made sense even though we were paying slightly more than we would if we went by regular bus service. Anyway these guys had a bus leaving in under ten minutes. And it did after a family joined us and a bunch of desis talking loudly in Telugu. A friend of mine told me about how obnoxious they get in the US, talking in their language loudly, earning every other desi a bad name. Seems they are studying in Germany, (I initiated the conversation because desis never smile at each other let alone talk), couple of them from Andhra, others from TN and Kerala.

The bus dropped us after a 10-15 minute ride. There are people living on the slopes of the volcanic mountain, defying it to spew its lava-ridden wrath. Tempting fate, if anything. An elderly man was handing out walking sticks to every climber, we declined, not wanting to pay any money later. The climb was manageable, the road winds around a fairly gentle incline, not very steep. There were people working along the sides, sitting in precarious positions, making the trip safe for people like us, God bless them. Along the ascent, you get fantastic views of the city below.

A 30 odd minute walk takes you to the crater. Walked around the rim, looked at the mouth that devoured thousands of lives years ago. Unbelievable! The crater itself is no bigger than a large room but the destruction it unleashed on the city so far below makes you wonder about the intensity of the eruption. Truly awesome, not the American teenager awesome, but in the real sense of the word.

Another 30 plus minute walk and we were back at the minibus stop (didn’t see anyone paying the old man so lonely planet is wrong again), which took us back to the station. From where we took the train onwards to Napoli. It’s hard to go to Naples without preconceived notions says the guide and it’s true. Most people we asked about said it was ‘pericolos’ meaning dangerous. The guy at the hotel said don’t wear jewellery and don’t carry bags. We had to carry a bag, so we did, Apu wasn’t wearing much jewellery so it was ok. The city has a definite energy. The streets were thronging with people, the air bursting with raw, chaotic energy. You can cross the road anywhere, drive as recklessly as you can, in fact I thought even I could rent a car and start driving (I can’t drive, if you know what I mean). So the traffic is pretty much like in Indian cities.

The main motivating factor for the visit was pizza of course. It was born here and there are a couple of places vying for the most authentic title. The first one mentioned in the guide was Da Michele had so many people outside its doors, we didn’t have a clue what was going on, whether there was a queue system, were there tickets issued, or did one just wait endlessly? No idea. After ten minutes we decided to seek out the next one on the list: Sorbillo. Walking through the alleys with houses on both sides connected by arches, we found Sorbillo. We also found more crowd. But we decided to wait it out as that’s what the crowd seemed to be doing. After an hour, we went in to the small place with just about four tables which explained the crowd outside and the long wait, and had three pizzas. Absolutely delicious.

Walked down a bit and found a café to have a nice espresso with peperencino (aphrodisiac, said the guy). Bought some chocolates there and on the way back found the Subterranean sign. Michael at the B&B told us about the subterranean (Sotterranea it’s called) Napoli. We went in time for the English tour to start. As we were talking to the lady there, she said they have an Indian working with them. Surprised, we were asking about him when he came unannounced and unprepared to meet fellow desis. Dinesh is from Kerala, he has been in Naples for 3 years. A trained electrical engineer he does whatever job he gets at the museum. He said he was lucky, unlike some of the other people who came with him, led by conmen agents, who still had no job and were living in cramped quarters. Happens in Singapore too, but the stick is more daunting than the lure of the carrot, so not many come illegally nowadays I think. Things people do for a living! When I asked him why he didn’t go back where at least he would have his family, he echoed Apu’s sentiment, that the family needs money just as much and he had lost a fair bit which he can’t recoup there.

The tour guide came around 7 pm and took us on a memorable journey back in time to when the Greeks came and built the underground city to how the Romans used it as an aqueduct to the WWII days when it served as a bomb shelter. At one time the city used it as a garbage dump. Fortunately it was all cleaned up and now part of the underground city is open to the public. After checking if any of us is claustrophobic, he took us through the tunnels, some of which you could walk through only sideways, and explained this is how ancient Romans cleaned the aqueducts. Of course they didn’t walk on the ground, they walked using the footholds carved into the sides of the walls, with a candle. As did we, in an effort to mimic their experience.

Met Dinesh on the way back as he asked us to and had a chat, he was explaining why he had to come. He even offered to put us up at his lodgings. Good man. Of course like any decent desi, he said he wished he could feed us something now that we had come to his place. We said it was quite all right and left him.

Came back with bags and us intact. Arohara!



Up earlyish. Took the winding path down from P.Tasso to reach the ferry point. A hydrofoil was leaving in five minutes. We bought tickets and boarded the large ferry with a fair amount of Oriental tourists. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the island of Capri. Once we were there, we found there was a smaller ferry leaving for the famed Grotto Azuro or the Blue Grotto. Quickly picked up tickets at the booth, and got in. The water is an incredible Royal blue Black ink colour, the sea is almost like black velvet, undulating sheet.

We reached the Blue Grotto entrance, and admired the houses etched into to the sides of the mountains rising from the sea, while waiting for the previous load of tourists to finish. Then it was our turn. Another smaller boat with an oarsman, came to pick us up, we were the first to get in as we were not in a group. The small boat takes about 4-6 people. The oarsman/guide, in decent English, told us to sit down with legs to one side (you don’t squat or stand), and said if we were happy with his services we can give him a token of a euro.

Bobbing up and down, we purchased one more pair of tickets from another boat where two guys were bobbing up and down and issuing tickets. Then it was off into the Grotto, (the oarsman enters the cave and hauls himself (and the passengers) in holding on to a cable type thing outside the cave). The rest defies description, even photographic ones. It was just absolutely beautifully. There’s some physics at function here, the sunlight that enters the cave gets refracted by the water inside and is thrown up to your retina, producing the marvellous blue effect. It’s an ethereal, luminous, pale beautiful blue, you’ve got to see it. We went around the cave for 5 minutes, the walls echoing with the loud songs of the oarsmen, the gasps of the tourists and the popping of flashbulbs. Came out, gave a euro for each of us and got back into the ferry (one at a time warned the friendly oarsman), waited for the rest of the boatload to finish their tour. We noticed our small boat guy was the best of the lot as the others hurried passengers, didn’t tell them how to sit, and demanded money.

Came back ashore and, after a quick café and a sandwich (caprese, of course), bought tickets for the cable car to go up to the island. It’s more like a cable train with 4 carrriages. The information office at the docks had told us not to miss the Giardini, so we went to the Gardens which offer mesmerizing views of the sea. We went walking around the small town before and after that, Apu bought shoes from a friendly Sarah J Parker look alike girl at a shop (who said she would phone her other shop and see if they have the size we wanted and keep it, and if it fits we can pick it up at 4 pm).

We took a small bus to Anacapri, about a ten minute ride away. After a quick look at a church, went to Il Saraceno (recommended by the guide book), for a good meal served with big smiles. Strangely there are cactus plants all over the place, so thinking they were a little out of place called Encyclopedia Bharat who said they grow wherever there’s rock and moisture and sunlight. Satisfied, finished the meal, asked for directions to the bus stop, and immediately got lost. An elderly gentleman out for his early walk, took us all the way to the bus stop. Don’t know which other bus ride between town offers stunning views of the sea and mountains but this one does.

Went back, picked up shoes, spent some time at the main square where some show was happening. Met a couple of desi boys taking pictures. Turns out one is from Madurai and the other from Bangalore. I took a picture of them and they returned the favour.

Took the cable train back, and after a 10-15 minute wait, took the hydrofoil back. The walk back up the steps to P.Tasso knocked the wind out almost. Met Vicky from Punjab working in Sorrento, chatted as much as anyone who has climbed all those steps could, and went to Bar Ercolano. Some concert was about to start, so went back, bought water at the usual place, had some drinks at Jenny’s Bar (we kept seeing it every day on our way to and from the square, so we thought we should try it at least once), where we were the only patrons. The friendly guys put up a gas stove on a pole which works as a heater. Some of their mates came, are hollered from their vehicles, one of them said the Italian equivalent of ‘how you doing?’, and after a while we left. The concert sure was going to be packed as we saw a huge line of vehicles waiting to go in that direction.


Sorrento – Taormina
Checked out after breakfast, as we wanted to take the early train out to Naples,from where we can go to Taormina. At Sorrento Circumvesuviana station, the ticket machine swallowed Apu’s ticket. Tried to explain it to the elderly man at the counter, he tried to explain something which I didn’t understand, finally he came out, extricated the ticket, and told us to go through the bigger turnstile as we had luggage but that didn’t have a validating machine, another staff said we could get it done on the train. But there was no conductor. We just hoped no one would check at the Napoli station as we had seen them do a couple of days ago. Unvalidated tickets cost you a hefty fine in Italy. Luckily, there was no one to check.

At the Napoli Centrale, found the same girl who issued us tickets at the counter, she said she didn’t know which platform we should go and that we should look at the board, and that there were no first class seats available today on out train. We, luckily again, had got the last two seats when we came and booked a couple of days ago, when we visited Naples.

Used to Eurostar style and not sure of what this IC (InterCity) train was like, we were waiting beneath the departure board when an elderly man who looked like a railway staff (he had anm on his shirt), approached us and asked us if we were going to Roma. We said no, then he asked us if we were going to Firenze, to which we said no, wondering why he wanted to know. You see, with all you read about Naples in guide books, you just don’t know who to trust (besides he wanted to see our ticket). Even noble intentions get distorted through the veil of perceptions you put on with the stuff you read in guide books. Then he asked where we were headed, we said Taormina. And he started rattling off in Italian and we guessed that he was trying to tell us the Taormina bound train doesn’t leave from there and that we have to go to another stazione Piazza Garibaldi. He guided us to the top of the staircase that led to the other station and was going to take us there, but genuinely we had to grab something to eat, so we told him we need to eat and thanked him for his help. If that wasn’t Divine intervention, we don’t know what is. He was chatting with someone, saw us and came and helped us for no reason! Amazing! Arohara! We double checked it at the information counter and had a bite to eat, had coffee. A lady asked money for the bambino, we said no and later saw her smoking. That’s what the money is for then.

Waited a while as we reached early. We asked a couple about the train and they said IC is ok, nothing to worry about, they were not sure where carozza 3 would come. Hoping the train would stop longer than Eurostar did at Venice, we made a dash for our coach when the train came to the other end of the platform. Lugged our bags in and luckily the seats were near the entrance. The cabin had 6 seats with a narrow walkway which also had foldable single seats at regular intervals. Only one man was there, As the train left, on time, we were treated to superb views of the sea! It runs along the coast offering fantastic views of the Tyrrhenian sea. Later we were joined by a lady and two noisy kids who luckily got off after 2 hours.

At Villa San Giovanni, the whole train (we had heard and read about it but had to experience it ourselves), goes into a ferry and gets carried across the straits to Messina! The locals were not all that surprised, they said it was like taking your car only this is a train. The train goes into a hold in the ferry’s bottom, and you can step out and go to the deck till it reaches the other side or sit inside the train, inside the moving ferry, and live the Galilean relativity experience. Are you moving if you are not moving? It is soon answered when the train rolls out of the ferry and is back on terra firma again after a 15 minute ride.

We reached Taormina (in the meantime got to know the other passenger in the cabin) at 8.15, , the station is quite pretty with paintings on the ceiling and a fairly brusque elderly man at the counter who said, ‘No English’ when I asked him about trains to Rome. Outside, the taxi we’d asked the hotel yesterday to book wasn’t there to pick us up. After calling the hotel (Pensione Svizzera) a couple of times and learning that they couldn’t contact the driver, we took a taxi from the rank outside the station. The hotel people said it was safe and that they normally charge 15 euros. Which was exactly how much Giovanni charged as he handed his card in case we wanted his services later. (It was a black Mercedes taxi without a taxi sign on top.) Lugged the bags down a flight of stairs to the reception area, where while checking in, we learnt that the pick-up driver had gone to the airport looking for us! Lugged bags again, 4 breathless flights of stairs this time, but the view from the balcony of the sea and the mountains was worth it. Room 22. Went to a hotel recommended place called Tiramisu round the corner for dinner. Good food.



After a decent breakfast, asked the reception to book a place at a nice restaurant to celebrate the new year (an elederly lady who earlier speaking German at the breakfast hall was telling the girl at the reception about the possibilities we have), explored Taormina, possibly the most picturesque and beautiful town so far.

You go through the arch and walk around its cobble-stoned alley with shops selling antiques, souvenirs, pastries, film rolls, and other assorted stuff on either side and you reach what the guide calls the obscenely beautiful piazza Aprile It is. The square offers fantastic views of the sea, the snow-capped Etna (no trips now as there it was too cold plus there was some lava-related issue as well), and the distant mountains.

We sat at one of the tables of Café Wunderbar which offers exhilarating views at slightly exorbitant prices. But it was worth it. The Fuji picked the most appropriate moment in the most beautiful place to inform us that the card was full. Went to a camera shop where they said they don’t have memory card for it as it’s an old model. Old? We just bought it 4 years ago! Went to one of the ‘Download photos to a disc for 5 euros’ places, did that, cleared the card, found out where to get the best cannola and headed for Niko bar. It was good.

Went back to the hotel, where we found a rolled-up note in the key cabinet informing us that a table has been booked at Ristorante L’orologio, near the piazza. We were sitting down and sipping a Grappa when the elderly lady who was offering suggestions earlier, stopped by and started talking to us. After telling her how we think Italy is the most beautiful country in Europe as no others seem to have been blessed like the shoe-shaped country has with natural beauty, good food, good wine and lovely people, and that not much is there to see in Germany, we realized she was from Fatherland but shared our view. Had studied chemistry she said when I told her what I did in college. She was recommending a few places outside to go to. After thanking her and another Grappa, went to the restaurant by 9. The square was teeming with people. Bright lights, the people and the moon all, to quote Sting.

The restaurant served mainly fish for the 7 course dinner assured the hotel people. Being on holiday and emboldened by the previous Grappas, I was ready as I reached for the sparkling wine that was on the house as a starter to the champagne that was waiting in the ice bucket. All guests were handed masks, and party hats and pipes to make ludicrous noise. Then came the oysters! I’ve never tried and was not about to say no considering we’d paid 80 euros a head. So I had everything from oysters to smoked salmon, something baked, to lobster and ended with a steak. Then there were fireworks and more champagne. When we left it was 12.30. Walked back shouting Buon Anno back to cheerful citizens.


Buon Anno! Went to the bus station about 3 minutes away to go to Messina. Not many buses at the stazione. Just as we wondering how odd that was, the German lady (Marga, who visits Taormina often), was there to post some cards. She saw us, walked over and told us there won’t be any buses today when she learnt of our plans. There is bus service on threee days a year, she informed us, on New Year’s day, Easter and Xmas. She offered then offered to show us the way to the Giardini Naxos station, where we can find out if the trains are working. Along the way she showed us a photopoint and took a photo of us. Further along just before the road road turns downwards, she pointed to holes in the wall which were in anorderly fashion and said the Arabs used to bury their dead there. Then she pointed to caper vines and said che aa che o three, Calcium carbonate,I answered. Apparently they wherever there’s calcium carbonate and moisture. Thanking her profusely (otherwise we’d have spent another hour), we began the long walk down.

After an hour we reached the station, where the same grumpy guy was there from two days ago, only he was grumpier to be working on a public holiday when even buses didn’t ply. We discovered to our shock that all trains to Rome on the 3rd were completo! There were two postis (seats) today then realized it was not the end of the world, stopped panicking, cancelled it, and called for a taxi back to the hotel. The day clerk is quite useless and unresourceful, like asking us if we have the number for the train station etc., Asked her to look for trains on the net and block seats on the plane.

Walked around the town some more. Went to a nice little café called 60/67 which we saw yesterday. A pretty lady came rattled out a lot of stuff in Italian about the menu, and continued to rattle on after we informed her we parlo non italiano. The lady next to us kindly translated what she meant. The gist is the wine is good and the food is vegetarian ( I’d had enough of non veg for a long time to come). It was indeed. The grilled vegetables tasted like a Porta Porta dish. Their young son came out with a remote controlled Ferrari, which soon changed hands to the grandfather and then the dad. After the food, we asked them where to get the best cassata (always ask the locals), and the guy said Minatauro, round the corner. Took the wrong t urn (again), but went to the Minatauro that sold wines etc, they pointed us to their dolci outlet near the taxi stand. Went there, had a sickeningly sweet but delicious casatta, bought some other dolci items.

Walked down further and wound up at the Teatro Greco, built in 3 BC. The horseshoe theater overlook the sea and hence offers stunning views of the sea from one side and of distant towns and mountains from another. The theatre brought out a lot of histrionics from a few of the visitors though. Picked up an Il Padre tee shirt (if not in Sicily, where else?) from a shop that was closing.

Went to Maffei’s restaurant a good one according to Lonely planet but needs reservation. We were just passing by when the door opened and we asked if that was Maffei as there was another restaurant next to it, he said it was, we asked if there was table for two, he said , and in we went (actually took my coat, one of those places never been to before). Opted for vegetarian fare even though they specialise in fish. Returned to hotel after picking up some souvenirs. They sell handmade faces of Mafioso, Judicio etc, well-crafted stuff.

Woke up to an annoying, persistent noise which turned to be the fire alarm. Opened the door and saw some people going down. We took our passports, money, (and Skanda kavacam) to go down when I saw people coming back saying it was a false alarm. Not many people took it seriously I think, I saw my neighbour waiting for his wife comeback with the news!


Catania & Messina
Buses were back on the road today. Went to Catania which takes about an hour and a half. The town looks like a mix between Florence, Milan and Rome. Beautiful, old buildings, a neat grid system. A passing woman told us that was the main street as if reading our mind. Wailing police cars weaved their way against the morning traffic, with the guy inside waving his hand from the window to indicate it was urgent perhaps. Asked a police woman where the Duomo was and followed her directions and reached a piazza which had a circular café stand with brass coffee machines. Bought two coffees and spilt them immediately as the sleeves of my jacket got in the way. Bought two more (Attenzione, advised the young shop keeper boy).

Walked on to the Duomo side after asking a few more people for directions. Very impressive architecture all along the way to Piazza Duomo, which is a UNESCO heritage site apparently. The Fontanelle dell Elefante is made of lava and lime stone, dates back to Roman time. Has an obelisk on top. The meat and vegetable market that inspired Reno Gatusso’s painting, was next to the café where we grabbed a bite but it was around noon so we thought we’d give it a miss.

Walked back to the autobus stazione and caught a bus to Messina that wasleaving in 5 minutes. After everyone was onboard, everyone got off after hearing a loud noise and smelling something burning. Turned out the engine had blown. ‘Nothing works in this country’, muttered a disgruntled passenger as we got off. The next bus came in ten minutes. It started raining in huge sheets as we reached Messina but stopped just as we alighted. Bought return tickets, went to an information office where we met a friendly man who told us where we can go in the time we had.

Messina is an ancient port town, dating back to Greco Roman times. We went around, walked along the harbour where the term Scylla and Charybdis comes from, as the currents there make swimming unadvisable. Went to a café at Piazza Cairoli, had canola and coffee and headed back to the bus station. The bus wasn’t there, and the guy at the counter said the six o clock bus will be in later or something. From what the people going in the same direction, we gathered it won’t go to the bus stop at Taormina but to the Funvia or the cable car station which was next to our hotel. But this won’t go up! A mid-fortyish lady said she was heading the same way, so follow her. We did just that and she asked if anyone on the bus spoke English to help us. When the driver came he was trying to tell us the same thing about Funvia. Then a French gentleman sitting in front told us he’d let us know when the stop came. As we reached Taormina, he was saying the place may not be open, and the bus may stop elsewhere further, at least that’s what we thought. Then we figured he was trying to tell us if the cable car services is closed the bus will go further. The lady got off, and then came our stop. We knew it was our stop because the French guy was shouting, ‘Yes, light! Light!, meaning the Funvia was open. We thanked them all profusely for their kindness and helpful attitude. Wonderful people! Everyone on the bus wanted to make sure we got off at the right place! Took the cable car back, still basking in the kindness of the strangers. Amazing, really.


Back to Rome
Took the early Aeroporto bus to Catania airport, the ride takes 40 minutes or so and costs 9 euros. Luckily we asked at the counter if we could carry wine in the handbag. The answer is no. Worse, she said we couldn’t carry it in the check-in baggage either! We told her the wines very expensive and that we don’t get them in Singapore and that we are not going to leave it behind. NOPE. We told her we’ll pack it properly when she said it might be a danger to other passenger’s luggage as if luggage pieces were ghoing to have a party in the hold and create a ruckus. Went out, packed the wine bottles in the check in luggage, had them plastic wrapped, and checked in.

After a quick coffee and panini at the café, joined the chaotic bunch of passengers to get in. There was no system, no queue, it was one big knot moving slowly. Someone yelled at the staff to expedite as some of us had the 12 o clock flight to catch and it was already past 11.30. Suddenly, a ‘gate’ was opened and we went through, finished the formalities when the boarding was announced. 90 minutes, an orange juice and a biscuit packet later, we were in Rome, where we waited 45 minutes for the baggage to arrive. Incredible! Spent some more time figuring out where the Leonordo terminal was, as there were no clear signs. 40 minutes later, were at the Termini. A cheerful cabby took us to the Gea and charged only 5 euros. Agron welcomed us with a big smile and a bigger room.

Stepped out to Piazza Spagna, walked back in time as we saw the familiar Palio hotel, Del Corso and the Camper store, where we picked up some nice pairs of shoes. Went to Il Marguta, the vegetarian restaurant which we had liked onour last trip, but they were not open.Made a reservation for later, and walked to the same place where we had our first pizza the last time we came to Rome, at Canova. Had a Grappa this time though. Walked back to Il Marguta where we served by the same waiter who served us in 2004. Sated, walked back and reached hotel by 10.30.


Today was supposed to be spent in Florence. But when we went to the Termini to buy tickets, changed our mind as it didn’t make sense to spend all that money just to have coffee there. Went to Trevi and threw the coin with our back to it, just to be on the right side of the legend. Went to Palazzo Berberini instead. It’s a lovely museum close to the hotel. Of course the whole city is a museum. Just on the way to the P.Spagna, at a street corner, there are 4 intricate statues carved into the sides of the columns. It’s just there to be admired as you wait for the light to turn green. Walked up the Bernini staircase and down the one designed by Borromi. It has some lovely paintings, this museum. Lunch at a café specializing in ice-creams and flavoured chocolate drinks opposite Rinascente. Walked around, had coffee at Newscafe with a must-check-out toilet but that was closed for repair.

Walked around shopping for assorted stuff, found a shop that sold little trinkets with a copper theme as the woman running it likes copper (Luissella Mariotti on Via de Gesu). Had dinner at a place called la buvette, nice food. A faint drizzle made us buy a 5 euro umbrella from a Bangladeshi guy. For some reason, the Linea A was not working on both days, today and yesterday. Fail to understand how a platform can be closed! Back by 10 plus, packed and hit the bed.


Up early, after a quick breakfast (didn’t see Francesca both days), paid the bill and checked out. Taxi to Termini, Leonardo express to Fumicino (you can buy tickets at the Termini where an office with a sign that says bigliette, Leonardo express etc). Reached the airport on time but spent a fair amount of time collecting the VAT. First, you check in your baggage, then you go to the place where they give you clearance, with your checked-in baggage, then you go back and check them in again, then clear immigration, then stand in another queue to get cash. If you are carrying VAT goods in your hand bag, then it you can just check your bag, and proceed to get the VAT. In the end, we just had enough time to buy a Grappa and start boarding. Rome airport is even bigger than Malpensa, Milan. It’s huge! So go there well in advance.

Reached home, everything intact, by Divine Grace.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Venice - A bridge too many.


A 12-hour journey with a three hour stop-over plus another two hour flight in addition to an hour long waterbus ride begins with a single step, as the saying goes.

Flew KLM. The counter staff seemed helpful and friendly. Once aboard, we noticed the unusual division of the regular 3-4-3 structure (it was a Boeing 747-300). This one was a 3-2- a wall- and perhaps 2-3 on the other side, which we didn’t get to see, on account of it being a night flight and us being sleepy.

But whatever stage of uncomfortable slumber we were in, we were rudely awakened by the assault on our olfactory system in the form of supper or dinner. NEVER ASK FOR ASIAN VEGETARIAN. Actually we had requested Indian vegetarian but they always give Asian variety. It’s horrible, am sure seat covers provided a better source of protein and minerals than the stuff that was dished out. Thankfully, mine went missing. Makes you wonder what kind of starving maniac would have done that. Either he or she was too hungry or had had taste-buds removed, owing to too much airline food. Or maybe someone who had had too many Asian vegetarian and couldn’t suffer another one was going about destroying it quietly, sitting inside the trolley. Whatever the case, I got a vegetarian meal from the business class. Wasn’t quite as bad. Curiously, even that was in a paper tray. Breakfast was bearable.

A 3-hour stop-over at Amsterdam. Familiar electronic woman-voice going ‘Mind your step’ at the end of walkalators. PA system routinely telling passengers who are late that they are delaying the flight and threatened to off-load their luggage. The 3 hours got extended to half hour more after boarding. Technical difficulty and heavy air traffic at Schipol.


Reached Venice, Marco Polo Airport sometime in the morning. The bags were wet from the rain. Picked up baggage, located the Ali Laguna booth, bought a waterbus ticket to Arsenale vaporetti stop for 10 euros each. Perish the thought about private taxis, they apparently are very expensive, about 85 euros.

We went out of the airport, turned right and found the stop for the free shuttle as the girl at the counter said we would. In 10 minutes the shuttle came and took us to the waterbus station, just in time for the Venetian skies to open up and pelt down furiously. After waiting an hour on the platform that was getting more and more unsteady from the sea that was getting increasingly choppy, we took the red line (the other is blue line) to Arsenale. By then the rain reduced to a trickle and stopped completely when we got off at our stop.

Walked right (a helpful suggestion from someone who had stayed at the B&B before), climbed up and down a flight of steps and we were at La Perla Di Venezia. It’s in between two doors, next to Il Pinguino geletaria. No big name boards, there’s a name card stuck next to the bell panel. We pressed that and the door opened (We’ had stumbled on to this B&B on the Net and it was highly recommended by everyone who had stayed here).

Mario, the care-taker, greeted us warmly and showed us how to use the three keys to get in for the next seven nights, and declared immediately we won’t get any breakfast tomorrow if we don’t start speaking Italian by then.
The suite was nice and cosy with a sizeable bathroom and a shower stall that was a bit too small. It had a vertical ‘Jacuzzi’ though.

The first thing that strikes you about Venice besides its beauty is the lack of pollution from automobile exhaust. No blaring horns, no unruly drivers, no rash driving, no traffic jam. There’s a very simple explanation for this. There are no automobiles in Venice because there are no roads in Venice. You only have waterbuses and walkways with countless bridges for people to wheeze up and puff down. Which teaches you a very valuable lesson: never bring more than necessary when coming here. Always pack light. Always. Lugging your heavy suitcase up and down these bridges is not funny (since when is hard work funny anyway?) neither is dragging it in and out of the waterbuses. Don’t say you’ve not been warned.

Mario recommended a couple of restaurants and gave us a map and circled a couple of places like San Marco and Rialto bridge. (He took an immediate liking to Apu.)

Strolled out to a beautiful Venetian evening. To the left was via Garibaldi, a fairly wide avenue with houses featuring varied facades of stunning bright colours on either side. Almost all of them have a potted plant on their wrought iron-grilled balcony. Among them were local grocers and restaurants. There were benches placed back to back along the middle of the road, with children doing somersaults, chasing dogs, families meeting each other on their evening stroll. Lovely.

After waiting for the Osteria Garanghelo to open at 6 from 5.50, we sat outside. I had a spritz, a local aperitif that’s a concoction of white wine, soda and aperole which is also a local liqueur. The other bitter version is made with Campari instead of Aperol.

Apu ordered a half a carafe of red. Just then I saw Mario standing behind her, signaling me to be quiet. Instead of going ‘Boo’, he said a mild ‘ Ciao’, which startled her anyway. He spoke to Marco, one of the waiters and a minute later, he brought us two glasses of good red wine, courtesy Mario.

He joined us at our insistence for a ‘piccolo’, doctor’s orders till his ankle became all right, he informed us. Just when we were wondering how kind this stranger was, he ducked into a nearby store and came out with a present for Apu. Turned out to be a teddy bear key chain. Now we understood why the previous guests at his place were raving so much about him being the best host.

Had a lovely dinner, walked back, had an ice cream, and returned to hotel. The B&B is about a few feet from the sea and offers a beautiful of the wide blue expanse. A huge cruise liner passed by the window.


Awoke fresh, had time for kriya and meditation. Had breakfast, with the ‘learn Italian’ deadline being pushed to tomorrow. It was a simple sweet croissant (with the most delicious butter ever) and cappuccino (or whatever you prefer) fare. We noticed an even bigger ship than the one we saw yesterday pass by, making us wonder just how deep the water 10 feet away was.

Headed down to San Marco, which was about a 5-minute walk. Unbelievable, not just the place, but the number of camera toting fellow gawkers gathered there. We were sure it has more tourists per square inch than any other place we’ve been to so far. Locals must be going insane dealing with the crowds thronging their city on their way to work. With over 7 million visitors every year, they must be outnumbered 100 to 1 on any given day, except perhaps in winter, when it is likely to be 100 to 20 is my guess.

Doge’s palace was on the side, gave it a miss. Didn’t want to do Patel points this time. Walked on to Rialto bridge, at one point this was the only connection between Venice and the rest of the islands, it seems. More tourists taking pictures. We did too, seeing as we were not locals. Yet. With its numerous calles, fondamentas and gulleys, Venice is designed to ensure you get lost. In fact that’s what the guidebook recommends. Get a good map and get lost. Don’t worry, Venice is a safe city. The very calles and gulleys make it hard for thieves to make a quick getaway it seems. Besides, helpful signs are plentiful and no matter where you are, you can follow the signs and reach San Marco or Rialto. And with thousands of tourists milling about at all times, well, there’s safety in numbers, especially when there’s 7 million involved, one would imagine.

Another curious feature of the city is the wailing children. Kids just don’t seem to like the place. We saw more cranky, crying kids here than anywhere else.

Went on to the tourist office which was located near Piazza le Roma. We actually crossed a road busy with traffic and other modern annoyances. Picked up a guidebook and a map for 2 euros. Quite friendly staff. You can buy bus tickets and waterbus tickets and concert tickets here if you want to.
Had two slices of tasty pizzas at Café 2000, a small pizzeria. Stopped for a cappuccino at café del doge. Nice.

Went to a TimeOut place for dinner. Very disappointing. Normally Time Out is good but, well, no one is perfect. Alla Rivetta was the name of the place. Sat next to an American couple from Jersey who’ve never been to SF. He was complaining how people are always rude to him. The service was very brusque and rushed, the food was just ok. Left one euro tip out of courtesy.


Got up a bit late, and after the usual breakfast, went to Dorsudoro siestre. Venice is divided into six sections or siestres. Just followed the road signs, past San Marco, past Ponte alla Academia and we were there. There was an English speaking local girl in 18th century costume with a colleague selling tickets to Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni opera where the actors will be in baroque costume. (I thought it was a pizza combination till I realized it was the four stages or four seasons.) Vivaldi was a son of the soil, or water as the case maybe.

Almost bought tickets but said we’d come back if we changed our mind. Good move, in hindsight, as we were too tired when we came back. On our way to another TimeOut place in Campo Margherita, stumbled onto a place that sold water cheap, which turned out to be the place for ice creams in Venice, called gelataria lo squaro. Absolutely delicious stuff with good, generous scoops.

[Here’s a tip. It’s something we’ve learned over our few trips to Europe. As a rule, places where you can find water cheap, say one euro for a litre or a litre and a half, is usually a safer bet to buy other stuff. If it’s double or more expensive, then you know you’ve arrived smack in the centre of a tourist attraction. It worked in Spain, in other parts of Italy, and now here.]

Went to Campo Margherita, sat in the square with the locals, sipped Spritz after Spritz (tried the campari version too, it was bitter as expected) and watched people while away their Sundays reading newspaper, playing with dogs, assuaging wailing kids (not just restricted tourists, this phenomenon).

Since they served an all meat menu, that too only sandwiches, we asked the waitress for a place to eat. She recommended a place next door. We shifted two feet, and had two large and lovely pizzas to reward our hard work. Picked up a phrasebook on the way back, didn’t turn out to be a very useful one though. Skipped dinner, as the pizza was still being digested despite the 2-hour walk back.


Started the day the way the locals apparently do, with a grappa. Seems it keeps the chill off. Apu had a Cinzano, finding grappa too strong (40% alcohol). Took the first local boat ride to Murano island, famous for its glass. It lies about 40 minutes from Venice, the ticket is 3.50 euros one way. It’s a small island filled mostly with shops selling glassware and of course factories that make glass. Visited one such, which was right opposite the ferry stop where we got off, for a glass blowing demo. Very interesting. Amazing what a blob of silica can become in the right pairs of hands. Left a 2 euro tip in the glass bowl placed for just that purpose. Bought a few glass trinkets for home.

An ok lunch at a TimeOut place. Returned to mainland, and back to Dorsudoro, and back to geletaria lo squero, had a fantastic pistachio ice cream. Went looking for an elusive terracotta pendant. Apu insisted to the shop owner that she saw it in the window a day before. The guy, knowing what he keeps in his shop, said it was impossible. But her insistence planted a seed of doubt in his mind which he cleared the only way a married man would: he called his wife who assured him he wasn’t lax and that he knew what he was selling and that they didn’t have the said pendant.

Despair led to a delicious chocolate mousse at a place called Gobetti. It was too early for dinner so we chilled off with a couple of Spritzes at an outdoor place round the corner from our dinner place. Sought out the waiter who served us and gave him a euro for his efforts (as his shift was over and had disappeared by the time I could fish out the change), ‘You are very kind sir’, he said. Probably a student, and like Grodin character says to Nero character in Midnight Run, these people depend on tips.

Had dinner at Al Bacareto , I had filing plate of delicious risotto. Chatted with a lone guy next table who said he was from SFO. It seems he was on a biking holiday, had gone to Vienna and cycled to Venice.

PS: The crowd had thinned a bit today, probably the weekend visitors left.


Sticking to coffee and denying Marios grappa, took vaperetto 42 to Ferrovia, bought tickets at 2.50 euros each, also booked our Florence tickets on the ticket machine. Took the 11.30 train (which looked a bit too comfortable for a 2.50 euro ride but the return train wasn’t, so it evened out. Which is not to say the return train wasn’t comfortable, it just wasn’t air-conditioned) to Padua (or Padova as the locals call it), which happens to be home to Italy’s second oldest university. After a half hour ride, reached the place which had traffic, automobiles and other contrasts with Venice. Walked about, and reached a couple of campos/squares soon. Even went to the university. Had lunch at PePin, the food was excellent, the service wasn’t.

A very disappointing place. For a university town it has no charm like Stanford or Berkeley. Wishing we had given it a miss instead wasting almost 3/4 of a day, we went back by 4. Sitting on the steps of the Santa Lucia station, we decided to go back to hotel via Canneregio, another sestieri. It was refreshingly bustling, lively and nice. An enjoyable contrast to the dry Padua. Made a mental note of all the places we wanted to visit tomorrow. The locals shop here which means you don’t pay the price for being a tourist. Bought a 1.5L water for 85 cents!

Went back to Garanghelo for dinner. A tourist was photographing an elderly lady standing in her balcony and talking to her friends on the street below. She seemed paparazzi-friendly, so to speak, perhaps the most photographed aunty. We found the whole spectacle warm and nice, people from balconies talking to each other, and to those on the street, families greeting each other as they went about their evening walks, but Manuela, the waitress, said all is nice when you’re on holiday. She is from Napoli, and when the other waiter said something about Naples, I sprang to her defence saying they had Maradona, which led her to give me a hug, Neapolitans and Diego are inseparable.


Woke up late, had breakfast late. The rest of the six suites seemed occupied.

Wove our way through the usual throng of tourists at San Marco, taking the same route we did on our first day, this time more confident and in search of the pendant. A different turn to the right brought us to the wet market and the meat market. Another curious thing about Venetians is their cuisine, which includes as an unusual specialty: horse. Talk about horsedoeuvres.

Walked on to Rialto and on the way, bought big Spanish olives from a local grocer who was selling meat and cheese. A few minutes further we found the elusive pendant sitting in the window of a shop run by Ferretti sisters. It had a lot of interesting stuff, they design and make most of it. That goes for almost all the shops here, the owners either design or make what they sell. Stopped for a Spritz before that where a tourist couple asked us for directions to P. le Roma, mistaking us for locals (actually they asked for Roma).

Walked further on and went into the San Giovanni church (we’d taken a photo outside on the first day). Very peaceful place, never seen a quieter church. Saw paintings of a Serbian painter called Zec, who lived in the Tuscan region and Venice, beautiful stuff. Donated 2 euros, and bought a painting, and the girl sitting and “woman-ing” the place didn’t have anything to wrap it with.

Crossed over to Cannaregio side. Some of the shops were closed for siesta. So whiled away our time looking at the crowd filing past us, sitting on the steps of the campo which had a church, and having gelato. A couple of Africans sitting on the far side of the steps were selling fake branded bags. The moment they saw their nemesis in uniform they’d scram, folding their wares.

The getaway, we noticed, was quick and clean. They first spread a sheet on the ground, put all their bags on it, and when they see police, the just bring the edges of the cloth together, which becomes a sack, and vamoose. Reminded us a lot of Del-boy from Only Fools and Horses, who posts Rodney to look out for “Old Bill”, which he never does.

The government has devised quite an effective way to stop the fake market by shifting the responsibility entirely onto the consumers. There are signs everywhere about ‘bad bags” and how much you will be fined if you are caught with one. Naturally, you’d think more than twice before buying a fake.

Went to a restaurant called Cavatappi near San Marco area after visiting a store that sold Campers and a new interesting brand called Kowalski. The first two glasses of Cabernet were tolerable but the subsequent ones were just vinegar. Left the second one unfinished, bought a couple of Hello Venezia bags from an elderly person selling it opposite the bar for 7 euros. Walked to another TimeOut restaurant in another part of town for dinner. Antica Trattoria Bandierette, very nice food. Wine was so-so. Next to it was a shop selling pizzas ranging from personal size to cycle-tyre size. Bought some mozzarella balls and fried olives but couldn’t finish them. Walked through a couple of unfamiliar alleys, and decided to retrace the steps and follow the familiar path back, but not before filling the bottle at a fountain.
San Marco was lively at 9 pm, with well, live bands playing outside restaurants. They take turns, when one band finishes his piece, the guys at the next restaurant pick up, thus avoiding cacophony.

Mario’s friendly gun at the head meant grappa down the throat. We saw where he lived, just next door to us. Chatted with another guest a while before hitting bed.

The water heater hasn’t been working for the last two days. So every day had to tell Mario first thing in the morning, then he’d curse under his breath, ask the tap be ‘averto’ meaning keep it open, then it would be ok after a while. He had to climb up a ladder in his room to the attic where the controls were, this would have been a cinch but for his strained ankle.


Pretty easy day. Started out by 10.30. Went to Santa Maria Miracula. When we reached there we discovered it was the other side of the church we were at yesterday evening. Well, you explore and learn. Didn’t go in all the way, just stood at the entrance and admired from a distance. Once you’ve been to the Sistine Chapel, everything else pales. Had a Spritz at the café outside. Picked up a small up from the fried mozzarella ball seller we saw yesterday. Decent stuff.

Walked back, taking the route we didn’t want to last night owing to unfamiliarity. Reached San Marco side, closer to our hotel. Thought might as well go and rest a while since we were almost there. Found the maids cleaning the rooms. Waited in the lobby. Went in after 10 minutes, learnt from the maid who spoke decent English that Mario doesn’t own the place but looks after it. Rested for a couple of hours, went to via Garibaldi, bought a few things like risotto etc from a local shop, the guy told us we could buy Aperol 150 yards up from a shop on the left, which we did. Also bought a bottle of red for Mario.

Walked through a park, emerged on the sea front, walked back to say hello Manuela as she had asked us to come and say goodbye before leaving. Had a Spritz, asked about Manuela, to which the waiter said she was always late and how Napoli people are always talking. This north south divide is everywhere. On the second Spritz, Manuela came asking how could we leave this beautiful stretch. Immediately picked up a fight with Marco. He started it though. No one is happy at work.

Mario had suggested another place called Carpacio for dinner, but we decided to abandon that in favour of dining at the place where we had our first dinner in Venice. A couple of Spritzes and a half carafe of red can do strange things to you.

It can also put you in touch with very interesting people. It was the colour of our Spritz that started a conversation with the people, an elderly, distinguished looking gentleman and a youngish lady, next table. Theirs was darker. So we told them the difference campari and aperol respectively make to Spritz. It seems they met in India, which is interesting because they both hail from Fatherland (he looked more like Da Vinci with his beard and mustache). When he asked me where in India we were from, I said I was from the south and apu was from Mumbai, working on the assumption that most people have no clue about the south. Not this one. He asked which part of south, I said you may not have heard but it’s Coimbatore. He said of course he knew the place and that he spent a day there on the way to the Nilgiris. Turns out he spent a year in India, been to Thiruvannamali, Madurai (took part in the Kallalagar festival), Hampi and the works. He wishes to organize a foundation for artists from Germany and India, in India. He left us with his email id and rushed off to catch a play or something.
Went back to hotel, after finishing the half carafe red and not getting the pasta we asked for, which was just as well as we were too full on the mixed grilled fish. Tipped Manuela 2 euros for just being nice. Gave the bottle to Mario who wasn’t looking too cheerful on account of his aching ankle (Venice is just not the place for these kind of ailments) and being forced to give his room up to a guest. He said he’d have the wine once his foot healed and gave me a grappa which I couldn’t finish.


Breakfast. Photo with Mario. Left. Took the waterbus to Ferrovia, hung around for an hour or so. Bought 2 focacia sandwiches from the station cafeteria for the journey. [NOTE: The platform number for trains are rarely displayed 10 minutes before the train arrives, so there is always a mad rush to get in especially for infrequent trains, such as the ones to Venice from Florence, as we would find out later.] But we still had time to take a photo in front of the train, always wanted one like that.

When we were about to get in, a ticket collector type guy told us the train needs be cleaned so we can’t get in, but we saw others boarding and went to the far side to board and the same guy was coming down that way too telling us to board later. We told him others are boarding and just got in, leaving him mumbling. Turned out the seats were one after the other and not facing each other as was displayed on the ticket machine when we booked. “That’s Italy,” said the couple next to us who had the same problem. Don’t know where they are from. Finished the sandwich. Reached Florence 10 minutes late.

Florence – Again. Santa Maria Novella. Again. Duomo. Again. Feels like a sequel. And almost thought it would be a disappointing one, as the taxi driver who took us to Martin Dago and the first couple of shopkeepers were uncharacteristically not warm. But things got better with time.

Gabriel at the B&B welcomed us with a big smile, said paper work can wait. (I tell my guests not to pay if they are not happy, he said. Not sure how far that was true, but we wanted to pay if that was the case.) We stayed at Reuben, a nice room with a spiral staircase that takes you to your sleeping quarters, so to speak. Down is a small room with the toilet, a TV that stands on a cabinet that houses the mini fridge. There’s a window that looks out onto some sort of garden.

Didn’t waste too much time at the hotel, went out to see if the rest of the city was the same since we left it last year. Almost. The fountain at Santa Croce piazza where I used to fill water was dry. We saw a couple of restaurants we went to there have extended into the open area across the road next to the church. Had an espresso at Café Rivoir, couldn’t find the pizzeria run by the elderly couple or McRae bookshop. Dinner at Il Francesca, different waitress, same delicious food, and good, inexpensive wine. Walked back to hotel.


Met an Aussie couple at breakfast (which was croissant, some pie Gabriel had made, coffee and juice). On learning we were in advertising, the guy said his whole family, generations after generations, were in advertising. Told us his family story in the half hour we spent. Nice people.

Went to the bus stop, took a SITA bus to San Gimignano, you change bus at Poggibonsi, cross over to the other side and wait for the bus going the other way, ask the driver just in case, and hop on. We got the connecting bus in about 10 minutes. The whole journey takes about 45 minutes, if I remember right. You travel on the same ticket though and don’t have to validate it again at Poggibonsi.

San Gimignano is a beautiful little town. You can see its towers, numbering 12 (used to be more), as you near the town. Took a walk around the cobbled-stoned city which doesn’t very long to cover, so in about half an hour of buying pasta condiments, pasta measuring tools (it’s a wooden spatula type thing with holes that say how many persons it’s for, so you stick that much spaghetti through that hole), sauce etc, you are ready for the world’s best ice-cream at geletaria di plazzi in the main square piazza della Cisterna. Excellent stuff. They have photographs of various celebrities enjoying their ice cream. It was way better than Vivoli both in terms of portion and price. It was just 1.50 euro, before that had some pizza at an empty pizzeria, good stuff.

Got to the bus stop 40 minutes early, By the time we made an acquaintance with a woman biker from SF, and learnt that she was a medical rep, married, separated, etc., a full blown crowd had gathered at the small bus stop, and it had started to pour. Something about us and Siena trips. It had rained the last year we went to Siena too. The bus dropped us at Poggibonsi, curiously we were asked to cross over to take the bus back to Florence. The same place we had taken the bus to San Gimignano from. The rain didn’t let up. After an hour, a Florence bound bus came on the other, logically correct side of the road, and we made a dash for it, got in just in time to see another Florence bound arrive at the stop we had just vacated, empty. Anyway, we continued, turned out the bus took a longer way around, reaching Florence 90 minutes later. Rain builds pressure on the bladder, luckily the train station (close to the bus stop) has very clean toilets that let you use them for 70 cents I think. Don’t fret if you don’t have change, there’s a machine changes your euros.

Walked back to the hotel, bought water for 45 cents (1.5L) at a super mercati which was just 3minutes from our place. (They don’t put the stuff in a bag for you, you have to do it yourself.) We went to a restaurant next door to the hotel called Cibero (TimeOut). Tables were few and guests were not, so we had to squeeze and share table with a Japanese couple with whom we struck a conversation later. One of those fancy, Anthony Bourdain type places where the dishes are decorated, look small and beautiful, and occupy about 10 cms of a huge plate. But belying their size, the food we ordered filled us up. Had a very different papa pomodoro, it was almost like a paste. Waiting for the second course, talked to the Japanese couple, he was taking photographs of the dishes with a small, flashlight/power drill looking camera, made by Sanyo. Told him to watch Kurasawa movies as he hadn’t watched many. He said he was an air-com maintenance guy. When I mentioned Muthu, he immediately recognized the name, and started doing a little dance jig. Small world indeed. Talking about Rajnikant to a Japanese couple in Florence.


Met a couple, both were guys, from Mexico, at breakfast, usual conversation. Went out, was drizzling, decided against going out of the city. Walked to piazzale Michelangelo on the other side of the Arno river. After a good hour’s (maybe more) walk, reached the the top of a small hill, where Michelangelo apparently a palace but never lived there. A copy of David looks out onto the town below. He couldn’t appreciate the view which was fantastic. Took an ATAF bus #13 back, at 1.50 euro each.

Walked back from the bus stop through parts of the city we didn’t visit on our last trip. There was a bustling marketplace where you could get jackets, shawls, watches and tee shirts. Bought a drape-type shawl there and a T-shirt round the corner at San Lorenzo square. Had lunch at a decent place near Piazza Republica, opposite the cinemas. Lido as a name for cinema halls seems to a favourite everywhere in the world. On the way back, found McRae and the pizzeria run by the elderly couple which was closed today on via de Neri. Bought another little big cookbook at McRae, returned to hotel, rested and went out by 7 for a nice dinner at Baldavino. Sat at the table behind the one we sat the last time we came here in 2004.

In most of these restaurants, as we would discover again and again, there is only one or two waiting staff who take care of guests, and even if the service charge is inclusive in the bill, they never frown, scowl or show impatience. The service is almost always warm and friendly.


Went to Greve, Chianti. A 40-minute bus ride takes you to Greve, the first stop in Chianti, there are a couple of other stops you can alight at if you are interested. Reminds you of any hill station back home, only these regions grow olives and grapes.

Got off, went looking for nothing in particular, found a closed information centre across the road and restrooms that weren’t. The coin-operated machine wasn’t working, so people were saving 50 cents, the manifolds of which they spent on wines. Crossed over to the main piazza with the customary man on horse statue. Picked up a recipe book, and had lunch at a nice place next door. Ambled further and into a wine cellar. In case you are not sure what is a good year for a particular wine, just look at their recommendation, which is stuck on the shelves. They are rated by star system, so it’s easy to pick. We picked up a case of 4 bottles. While we were browsing shelves and compartments that had wines from as early as 1960, we heard a noise that one shouldn’t in a cellar: that of a bottle breaking. A kid ran out, maybe it was his fault maybe it wasn’t as his mother was trying to explain, but the shopkeeper seemed not very worried. Probably the wine didn’t hail from a good year. He didn’t speak English much, so when we asked about a ’69 wine which was at a jaw-dropping 30 euros, he said, ’no guarantee’. The shop has some really old wines for reasonable euros.

Caught an empty bus back to Firenze. It’s a probably a European thing but it is really nice to see everyone greet everyone else. Whether you’re boarding a bus or entering a shop, you say Bon Giorno or Buena sera depending on the time of day, and Ciao, Grazie when you alight or leave. In India, it gets taken for granted, though we have other ways of greeting, a smile a gesture…

Had dinner at Osteria de Benci. Lovely food. While waiting for the restaurant to open we walked into a shop next door, run by an elderly lady. Bought a ‘good-luck’ grains basket, the story of which goes back to the days when the farmers saw a revival in their produce or something like that. Tried to by an old fashioned set of writing instruments, which has a nib, attached to a wooden stick, a bottle of ink and a set of nibs of varying widths. I couldn’t make her understand what happens when the ink gets over and if I could use any other ink.

When we came out de Benci was still not open for food, so we sat and had ‘uno carafe rosso’ and in about ten minutes we were shown a table on the restaurant’s side. Interestingly, some of these restaurants have a commendable policy of not making you walk away even if what you want is not there. For instance, restaurants have a bar/café that doesn’t close when when the restaurant does, thus ensuring the patrons remain on the premises till the food is served, at the same time getting them to spend on wine or snacks.


Up early, had time for kriya and meditation. Took a slow train to Lucca. The slow train was like our ‘passenger’ trains back home, stopping every time some one waved to the driver, and reached Lucca after an hour and forty minutes.

Found our way into the town which was pretty and small. In 15-20 minutes we had covered more than half the place, while directing a pair of tourist ladies to the amphitheatre, thinking how could get anyone get lost here. There was a horse carriage carrying a couple around the city with the driver pointing at various places saying, ‘ 15th century’ etc.,

After finding our TimeOut place closed, we took a chance at a place (La Triestina) near the amphitheatre that was almost closing down and found the food and the service very warm and nice. I ordered pasta maccherencino al pomedoro e basil. I was expecting macheroni but was pleasantly surprised to find pasta sheets cut at different lengths. Apparently that’s what maccherencino is: pasta sheets cut at random lengths. Apu had pizza siciliana, again very nice. Lot of students were hanging about, no mystery there as Lucca is a university town.

Took a walk around on ramparts surrounding the town. Beautiful. At some point, some soldiers must have demanded, ‘Halt, who goes there?’ Walked back to the station, took longer to find our way though. Made it just in time for the 5 pm train, which was five minutes late. After assuring other passengers that it was indeed going to Firenze, got in. This one was a plush type, air-conditioned with decent seats like the one we took to Padova. But it was just as slow, reaching Florence at 6.20.

Had dinner at Osteria de Macci, recommended by Gabriel. The restaurant was on the same street as MartinDago. Excellent food and wine. Again just two people serving with not a frown or sign of irritation.


Did some last minute shopping. Finally, had lunch at the pizzeria we had visited last year on via de neri. Came back, rested, asked Gabriel where we could buy some ham to take back for some friends in Singapore. He said to go to Grana market, a store run by his friend (he has friends everywhere in the city), that sells meat, cheese, sauces and pasta etc., on via tavolina off calizuoli. When we informed the store guy we were from Gabriel, the man beamed a smile and a lady stepped out from behind the counter to help us. Had been to Jaipur, she said, when she was really small, as part of work. She found it beautiful. Bought some proscuito, cheese. In the evening, went to il ritrova, a restaurant recommended by Gabriel, of course he had a friend there, who was a lady, a model, who had posed for a sculpture which is in Rome now. Lovely service, lovely food. And again, just two people serving the increasing crowd. (It’s on via de pucci, look carefully as it’s easily missable, you have to climb down a few steps to enter the restaurant). She didn’t speak English but made up for it with great service. On the way out, said ‘buon compliano’ which means happy birthday to a lady celebrating her birthday.

Went back, finished paperwork, paid up, and asked Gabriel to show us the secret balcony the Aussie couple had mentioned. It was on the terrace, overlooking the city. There was a fridge on the landing, which Gabriel stocks with beer etc at no cost. If you feel like returning the favour, stock it up.


Got up early, just had enough time to grab a nibble of the pie Gabriel had baked and say good-bye. The cab he had booked last night was downstairs. He helped us with the luggage, which had become a bit heavier with the 20-odd brochures of MartinDago which he had just received the previous day. ‘Give it to your friends in Singapore,’ he said.

Reached Santa Maria Novella early, bought a sandwich for the journey. Like mentioned elsewhere, the platform number of the train is given only about 10 minutes before it arrives. We didn’t feel it the last time we were in Italy probably because the trains to our destinations were more frequent than to the current one, namely, Venice.

So there was a mad rush when the train came, with people running all over the place. After a fair amount of pushing and shoving, got to our seats, which was facing each other this time.

Reached Santa Lucia, found out we had to cross the road and take a right to reach the bus station at Piazzale Roma, from where we can take a free shuttle service to Marco Polo airport. 5 minutes, the girl at the tourist information counter said. For superman maybe, for ordinary folk like us (even with light luggage), it took us about 10-15 minutes. Remember the bridges? Well, there were two of them to climb up and down before we reached the ACTV bus stop (there was a big woman offering to help with luggage for a price of course, which we declined). ACTV operates free bus service to the airport, which leaves every half hour. Bus no.5 leaves from stand (or bay, if you prefer) no.1A. No trouble finding the platform (or bay, if you prefer), the bus came almost immediately. After checking with the driver it was free, got in. Checked with another guy who asked us if it was going to the airport that it was free.

Reached Marco Polo in less than half an hour, well in advance. Had a bite at the café (very nice yoghurt), had our cloth bag wrapped in the plastic for 7 euros. They insure it against theft, damage etc.,
The flight was delayed by 30 plus minutes. Staff were friendly. Was talking to her about living in Venice with all the tourists. She said when the water level rose during her school days, they used to walk, as waterbuses wouldn’t operate.

Reached Amsterdam with enough time to catch our connecting flight. When we were almost boarding we were informed of a technical fault that would delay us by an hour. Luckily we had had something to eat. We were given free bottles of water. We saw a white guy (Caucasian is limiting in scope, he sounded like he was from place in England could have been from anywhere in Europe), stashing enough of these free bottles of water to last a month on the Sahara. He had at least 15, 20 bottles. These kinds of people are everywhere. In Singapore it is called the ‘kiasu’ mentality. Evidently, it transcends borders and class. You would think someone with enough money to afford a plane ticket and “culture”, from a “developed” country, would have more sense. But no.

The flight was delayed by another hour. This time we were given a voucher worth 5 euros, which we used to buy a cognac, a glass of red wine and something to eat. Was talking to an Australian guy who was trying to take photos of the stationary plane for his son. Finally, boarded the plane, after a two-hour wait, at midnight. The food was refreshingly tasty. Pasta! Reminding ourselves never to ask for Asian vegetarian, settled down for the long journey back to Singapore.


Reached home.