10 December 2010

Italians and Nutella

How much do Italians love Nutella?

You can travel with it

spread it on pizza and focaccia

and even decorate your Christmas tree with special festive mini-jars

15 October 2010

Next strikes in Italy

STOP PRESS - The transport strikes scheduled for Thursday 21st and Friday 22nd October have now been called off. According to the Ministry of Transport, trains and local transport should be running normally.

A transport strike is scheduled to take place in a week's time in Italy. A strike will affect railway services from 9pm on 21st October until 9pm on 22nd October. Other forms of transport, such as local buses, will strike on 22nd October - the timing and severity of disruption will vary from place to place.

If you're due to be in Italy next Friday, it would be preferable to organise your plans so you can stay in one place that day, and explore on foot. Some trains may run - there is usually a minimum 'guaranteed' service - but it may be risky to rely on these. Check on the websites of local transport firms for how Friday's strike will affect their services.

This strike was postponed from a previous date, and may still be postponed or cancelled, so travellers should check the latest updates on the websites below.

There is a general transport strike scheduled for 29th October, which will affect air travel and could cause serious disruption to international travellers.

Alitalia staff, as normal, are planning repeated strikes - details via the Ministry of Transport link below. And another railway strike is threatened for 6th November.

> Italian Ministry of Transport strike calendar
> 'Guaranteed' trains during railway strikes (click on the link provided to see an Italian page with lists of long-distance and local trains which should, in theory, operate)

14 October 2010

Why I hate body-scanners

The news from the BBC is that soon ALL travellers departing through Manchester Airport will have to go through body scanners. These are the devices which will display your entire body on a screen, along with any intimate items you are wearing. Why do I hate the idea?
[NOTE: since I wrote this article the BBC report has been amended; not all passengers will be forced through the scanners... but there is still the threat that this is next step]

Intelligent travellers are already aware that much airport security is just window-dressing. It will deter a half-hearted attacker, and make terrorism a bit more of a challenge, but security scanning on its own won't prevent any determined attempts. Its main function is to reassure passengers that something is being done.

Since Christmas, in a knee-jerk response to the 'underpants bomber,' authorities have decided that something more must be seen to be done. So your naked body will be open for inspection. (Some reports, in fact, observe that the body-scanners would actually not have detected the underpants explosives.)

So how will it work? Men in a small room will examine your x-ray. They will view your genitalia, breasts, underwear, any medical support items you are wearing, perhaps any implants you have. Some will come from cultures where the sight of mere female hair is taboo - yet they will be viewing your entire naked body. Some will probably laugh, point and maybe make prints of the image. No-one can believe assurances that this won't happen. We all know that shop security guards make compilations of CCTV shots down women's tops and so on.

The embarrassment of airports over whether children should go through them (knee-jerk paedophile alert) hardly allays fears over whether body scans can be recorded, or used for titillation.

Any 'padding' or bulk will presumably cause an alarm - this is, after all, the supposed purpose of the scanning. So, seriously, are the security guards going to pull aside all little old ladies wearing incontinence pads, or menstruating women wearing sanitary pads? Are they going to strip all these passengers and rip up the sanitary pad to check it doesn't contain anything untoward? Do airport staff have the stomach, or the manpower, or the cruelty to do this? Very unlikely - and it would be outrageous were they to try. They will simply resort, as now, to unofficial profiling. They'll look at the women and will generally make the assumption that these women are innocent and choose to let them through. Which has made the body scanning completely pointless; it has merely humiliated passengers to no purpose.

It is obvious to everyone that there are still ways to smuggle small amounts of explosives through these scanners. They only scan clothing, and don't penetrate inside the body.

So the machines don't make us safer, they just take away our modesty and humiliate us, in the name of PR. In order to travel by air, you will be offering your naked body and most intimate secrets up to strangers. I have accepted the lack of rights awarded to travellers up to now. Metal detectors, liquid limits, passport scanning to record my movements, bag searches. Even pat-downs - at least these are carried out in your presence, by same-sex staff, with discretion. But universal 'naked scanning' really seems an intrusive step too far.

Profiling of passengers would be much more effective, and it certainly already happens, up to point. A braver and more consistent approach to the policy, combined with selective 'deep scanning' would be more logical than the current emphasis on equality and universal mistrust. At the end of the day, flying, like other activities, means taking a risk. However much the airlines and airports try to inconvenience us, we will still be taking a risk. As travellers we should support rational and realistic attempts to protect us, without having our journeys made unbearable by largely pointless security measures.

Articles from the last time this issue featured in the press:
Why we must profile airline passengers by the editor of Aviation Security International

A couple more points: do we actually know of any terrorism attempts which have been prevented by airport security scanning? And despite human rights organisations' insistence on 'equal treatment', could profiling have helped in spotting past bombers?

26 September 2010

Today in Venice - some photos

Sunshine and high water in Venice today, and a man pretending to be a shop-window mannequin.

I was out and about experimenting with my new camera (a Panasonic Lumix G2).

The high tide had gone down but St. Mark's Square was still mostly flooded - I cut across the dry 'causeway' in the middle of the square but access to the duckboards was blocked by a metre of shallow water... it took some patience and ingenuity to cross the gap dry-footed. Tourists were paddling bare-footed.

A man amusing himself in the Sisley shop window. No audience other than random passers-by.

17 September 2010

Dog in a gondola

You really need to carry a camera about the whole time in Venice. There is always something new to photograph. I was only popping out to collect a train ticket half an hour ago, and it was starting to rain, so after some thought I left my camera at home. And just around the corner I came upon a dog in a gondola. Sitting on the cushions in solitary state, being rowed along by a gondolier. He barked (the dog, not the gondolier) to make sure he was noticed. I did my best with my mobile phone camera, but it couldn't do justice to the spectacle.

23 July 2010

Things to do in Rome on a Monday

In Rome - and indeed across Italy - Monday is the traditional closing day for museums and tourist sights. This is very frustrating for tourists, as almost every museum and gallery in Rome is closed on the day when a lot of holidaymakers and long-weekenders might want to be sightseeing.

Here are some places which are open on a Monday in Rome, and some ideas for a fulfilling day:

- the Forum, the Palatine and the Colosseum are all open from 8.30am until an hour before sunset
- the Vatican Museums are open, though busy, on Mondays from 9am-6pm
- The Doria Pamphili Gallery (fine art in a rich palazzo) is open 10am-5pm
- Rome's Jewish Museum is open 10am-6.15pm
- the Keats - Shelley House is open 10am-1pm and 2pm-6pm
- the Protestant Cemetery is open 9am-4.30pm; the pyramid alongside can be viewed from the exterior
- churches are generally open every day, though they close for several hours in the early afternoon
- the Pantheon is open all day
- San Clemente, near the Colosseum, is a very interesting church with underground levels to visit
- the Mamertine Prison, on the Capitoline hill, is open
- the Baths of Caracalla are open 9am-2pm
- select one or two churches with great art and pay them a visit (generally closed lunchtimes/early afternoon) - try the Caravaggio paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi and Sant'Agostino
- walking around Rome is always interesting, free, and open to the public. Tour the Circo Massimo, the Mouth of Truth, the Tiber Island, Trastevere, the Centro Storico, the Trevi Fountain.

Note that on a public holiday, some of these opening times may no longer apply. Also bear in mind that many shops in Rome are closed on Monday mornings and lunchtimes.

16 July 2010

Caravaggio Night in Rome

Tomorrow night (Saturday 17th July) is the Notte di Caravaggio in Rome. From 7pm to 9am on the 18th, various sites holding Caravaggio masterpieces will stay open all night, with free entry. There are also events and entertainment - if you are an art lover, this is a must. It's also a good way to deal with the current heatwave in Italy - take a long daytime siesta, then head out into the cooler Roman night.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, is apparently the 'new Michelangelo' and it certainly seems he is taking that master's place in the public heart. The theory is that his darker works and 'anti-hero' character make him more appealing to the modern psyche (hopefully not quite the Raoul Moat of art, though he certainly seems to have been a bad lot) - read an article in the New York Times discussing this. The 18 July is the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio's death. There are new biographies of him, his bones have just been miraculously 'discovered' by the Catholic Church, and he is very much the man of the moment.

Saturday's Night of Caravaggio should be a great way to see Caravaggio in a new (or less) light and an interesting experience. The main site for events is the Galleria Borghese, which has works by the artist permanently on display, and some additional paintings for this exhibition. An all-night shuttle service will connect the gallery with the 'Caravaggio churches' containing other works; the open-top buses will leave the Galleria Borghese every 20 minutes, Roman organisation permitting.

> Official information in Italian - unfortunately I've not found any official programme in English, but even if you don't read Italian, clicking on the 'programma' link will give you an idea of the bus circuit.

8 July 2010

Transport strike tomorrow, 9th July

It's a summer weekend, so workers across Italy have decided to prolong their holiday by staging a strike on Friday 9th July. Transport is the sector most affected; if you are in Italy at the moment, the best advice is simply to stay put.

There is a railway strike from 9pm tonight until 9pm tomorrow. Meanwhile, local public transport firms are striking for 24 hours tomorrow. The times, schedules and availability of 'guaranteed' minimum services will vary from firm to firm. If you have to travel, look up the details of the transport services you want to use - most Italian firms are now sufficiently net-savvy to post up news items on their websites with details of how the strike is likely to affect their services.
> Venice boat and bus services tomorrow
> Rome details (in Italian, basically there should be public transport until 8.30am and between 5pm and 8pm)

The next strike likely to have a significant effect on travellers is the 20th July, when it looks as though there'll be disruption for air travel.

I don't always list strikes in this blog - for brief but more frequent updates on Italy, please follow italyheaven on Twitter.

> Strikes in Italy

9 May 2010

By train to Italy

After the now-legendary Ash Disruptions of April 2010, train travel across Europe seems an even more attractive prospect. The ongoing threat of flight cancellations (today several Italian airports are closed as a volcanic ash cloud drifts by), ever-increasing airport security hassles and environmental considerations are enough to make many travellers consider alternative options.

Thanks to Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel, you can travel all the way from the UK to Italy by train, changing trains and stations in Paris. It is actually possible to make the journey in one day, though if you're enamoured of the romance of rail travel, you may prefer more leisurely progress with an overnight in Paris, Switzerland or northern Italy.

It's not even that much more expensive than flights, if you book ahead. I found a €45 ticket on an overnight train from Venice to Paris, and a £45.50 single ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. So I could have left Venice in the evening and reached London by lunchtime, for a cost of around £85. You don't get a view from overnight trains, of course, and I was rather daunted at the default option for a shared couchette being 'promiscuo' (happily, the drop down menu did give the second option 'donne', women). So I chose a two-day journey with breaks in Milan (overnight) and Paris (several hours in the afternoon), for a combined cost of £160 including a hotel and first-class travel between Milan and Paris.

You can read more about the various options for travelling to Italy, with routes and timings for different Italian cities, on my new page Travel by train to Italy.

5 May 2010

Johnny Depp's yacht in Venice (and cement mixers)

Interesting sights in Venice today included a whole team of cement-mixing lorries on a barge on the Grand Canal, pumping cement along a tube to building works by the Salute church, while a workman with a red/green bat managed the pedestrian traffic.

In a sunny break between rain showers, I walked along the Zattere and photographed Johnny Depp's yacht. The actor has been here for some time filming 'The Tourist' with Angelina Jolie. Local newspapers are pretty interested in the event, and seem to approve of Depp, who apparently walks around Venice without a Jolie-Pitt style entourage and behaves generally like a normal person.

The Nuova Venezia newspaper reports that he spends the week in a suite at the Palazzina Grassi hotel, and the weekends with his family on the yacht, which has sailed here from the Caribbean. Charmingly, the name of the yacht, Vajoliroja, is made up of parts of the names of all the family members.

30 March 2010

An art trip to Conegliano

On Saturday I enjoyed a lovely day out in Conegliano, a small historic Veneto town. After my trip to see the Giorgione exhibition in his hometown on Castelfranco Veneto, this time the main motive (or excuse) for my trip was a major exhibition of the paintings of Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano.

Since encountering his paintings in Venice (one can be viewed for free in the Church of the Carmini, others are in the Accademia) I've had a fondness for his pretty backgrounds. If the Madonna has a charming green landscape behind her, with a medieval clustered citadel crowning a low hill, the chances are it's a Cima painting. Mostly he portrayed the Veneto landscape he knew and obviously loved. Conegliano can be identified in some of his works, and must have influenced others. So this was a great chance to see the artist's paintings in the hometown that inspired him. Since he worked chiefly in Venice, it may be the first time that some of these works - on loan from the National Gallery and Harewood House and other international galleries - have actually been to Conegliano.

It's an easy journey from Venice to Conegliano, catching a train just after 10am and arriving 50 minutes later. A comfortable trip, apart from the creepy man sitting opposite and constantly aiming his camera-phone at me.

Anyway, I forgot him once I arrived in Conegliano. A surprising number of people alighted; it's a significant-sized town although the historic centre feels small. From the railway station it was obvious which way to walk: the historic town lay directly ahead, over a street and up a flight of steps ceremonially clad in a blue carpet.

This is the kind of town where you know it will be a good day out as soon as you arrive. The processional steps led into an inviting piazza with cafe tables laid out; mellow-coloured arcaded buildings led off in either direction and a tourist information office - open! - lay just over the road. I know the pitfalls of day trips in small-town Italy. Rule no. 1: expect lunchtime closures. So I headed straight into the tourist office where a helpful assistant gave me a map and ran through the various attractions (more than I'd expected) and their opening times, even photocopying her information sheet for me.

Armed with some factual leaflets - as usual in Italy, much expenditure on lengthy tracts almost unreadable in their detail, however well-meaning - and the crucial opening times, I set off. The sky was blue and the sun was warm, but I now had a schedule: to zoom aroun as many sights as possible before they closed for 3 hours. I didn't know if I'd be still in town at 3.30 and I didn't want to run out of time in the afternoon. So in quick succession I visited the Duomo (a Cima altarpiece against rather forlorn green velvet drapes; two charming saints frescoed on pillars), Cima's birthplace (wouldn't mind moving to Conegliano and living in such a charming little house myself) and the cloister of San Francesco. With some time in hand before the castle closed at 12.30, I decided to get that done as well, so I ploughed up the pretty little walled footpath heading uphill. En route I found two more minor sights, opened by kindly and welcoming locals: a small sloping garden 'You can go right around the garden,' a lady invited me...but I had deadlines to meet - and then a little church where restoration had uncovered a fresco. I was impressed by the obviously civic-minded populace of Conegliano. Given that these were all enterprising volunteers, one can't really grumble at the limited opening hours and lunchtime closure.

Feeling rather out of breath when I reached the castle, I nevertheless paid my entrance fee (half an hour till closing...) and climbed straight up the stairs to the battlements at the very top. From this vantage point you can see over the green landscape which stretches towards the Dolomites; far more inviting than the over-developed Veneto plains in the opposite direction. I toured the little museum, which contained various oddities. These included Toscanini's wedding certificate. I read afterwards that the conductor came to have his wedding reception at a friend's house locally, and wanted to avoid attention, so when he reached Conegliano and found local dignitaries at the station to meet him he went into a sulk and sat silently in a corner with his arms crossed all day. Another interesting sight in the castle-museum was a fresco by Il Pordenone which included St. Thomas Becket among the saints portrayed. I'm not sure of his iconography, though I'd like to think he was the saint displayed with a sword in his head and a bishop's mitre in his hand.

I was tempted to sit and relax at the cafe tables in the castle gardens, where I'd have joined a small family group dressed for a wedding (black is common wear at these joyous events), and an elegant elderly lady sharing treats with her little dog. But I had already been seduced by the cafe tables down in Piazza Cima, so I set off down the hill, passing a handful of Italians climbing breathlessly up the lane.

Taking my seat with a view over the square, I feasted on local produce: a glass of Prosecco, the wine most produced around here, and a plate of gnocchi with radicchio, a speciality of the Treviso area. It was still warm and sunny, though the two couples at the next table were discussing snowfall in the mountains. Then came the second of the day's two slightly low spots: a long queue of elderly ladies for the restaurant's one toilet cubicle (which turned out to be a squatter). Still, I learned interesting things about the dynamics of their tour group. I'd recommend the place I where I ate: the Caffe al Teatro. Outside it was like a traditional cafe-bar with drinks and a small selection of meals served at tables (reasonably-priced, glass of Prosecco or pot of tea for €1.90). Inside I was surprised to find an extensive and maze-like interior filled with jolly eating parties, and a bustling kitchen where two elderly ladies cooked.

The thinking behind my visiting the Cima exhibition at lunchtime was to avoid such groups; who always take long lunch breaks. I didn't do too badly; I was able to tour the exhibition with only a few individuals for company in each room. It was a good exhibition with a helpful English audioguide. As usual, I admired the pastoral backgrounds, but grouped together like this there were interesting style comparisons to be made between paintings, and I found some of his characters more compelling than I'd expected; their gazes coming to life in the palace rooms. It was good to see some non-religious themes; the painter had branched out on more imaginative works for private clients and here we saw scenes involving Theseus, Ariadne and Endymion.

When I left the palazzo housing the exhibition the weather had shifted to drizzle - unlucky for photography - but I wandered along the main street, which I found charming. It would be nice to see it on a warm evening at aperitivo time, when I suspect the wine bars and cafes near the square would be alive and atmospheric.

I visited the Sala dei Battuti, a hall lined with rather sweet frescoes, looked at the shops beginning to open for the afternoon, then continued my stroll. The weather improved. Then - excitement! - a group of teenagers and youngish adults passed by, dressed in splendidly 'folkloric' costumes and carrying flags and drums. I love traditional Italian flag-throwing, but I've only ever seen one practice session, in Siena.

So I followed the medieval posse along to Piazza Cima and watched as they put on a splendid show for whoever happened to be passing by. After the first spettacolo by two sbandieratori (flag-throwers) I sat with a cup of tea and waited until they resumed their show. This time two female flag-throwers performed, and then a man who I presumed was the group's leader. He did a flag-throwing routine with three, then four flags and I was hugely impressed. What could be more manly? Other bystanders applauded too, and a few random couples in Renaissance costume promenaded by. The drummers drummed feverishly and at one point chanted "CO-NE-GLI-A-NO!!!" I had no idea what the event was in aid of - more civic pride, perhaps - or if it was just a routine practice but I was very glad to have been there at the right time.

Anything else would have been an anti-climax after that, so I purchased some delicate little pastries for the train ride, and headed back to Venice.

> My article about Conegliano
> Conegliano photo gallery
> Youtube footage of the sbandieratori

Conegliano's a great place to visit, but if you can, do go while the Cima da Conegliano exhibition is on. It's a good show, and the town's other attractions have extended opening for the duration. It runs until 2 June.

25 March 2010

Spring in Venice

I arrived back in Venice yesterday and the cold weather has (hopefully) ended. Today was a glorious spring day with sunshine and a blue sky. The tourist numbers are increasing, bolstered by large school parties. I saw one large group in Piazza San Marco enacting a curious circle ritual, possibly a European equivalent of the Hokey Cokey (see photo below). I walked to my current favourite gelateria, Il Pinguino (along Riva degli Schiavoni - see it on my map of Venice) for a scoop of their special chocolate-and-caramel biscuity flavour. Then an unplanned boat trip to the Lido, where quite a few people were enjoying the out-of-season beach: playing football, walking, shell-collecting, reading. The closed beach huts are sheltered behind huge defences of heaped sand, and further down the beach there was some unpicturesque construction work going on to get the beach into shape for its summer season. The Lido is a benign place in the sunshine, with small children and the very elderly being taken out by their carers to promenade in the sunshine.

> Today's Venice photos
> All about Venice

If you're in Venice this weekend, check out the little antiques market in Campo San Maurizio, between the Accademia and St. Mark's.

2 March 2010

Castelfranco Veneto Giorgione Exhibition

Today I visited Castelfranco Veneto for the Giorgione 2010 exhibition. This marks the 500th year since the painter's death; which is one of the few known details of his life - a letter referring to it is included in the exhibition. The man's paintings are as mysterious as his life: there aren't many positive attributions to Giorgione and there's much debate over the images and symbolism in his works. His most famous painting is probably 'The Tempest', usually to be found in the Accademia Gallery in Venice but loaned to Castelfranco for this exhibition.

Castelfranco Veneto is a pleasant small town and today was a nice sunny day for walking around the high, brick town walls and past characteristic Veneto arcaded buildings. The exhibition is carefully presented, though as most of the labelling is in Italian, you may wish to hire an audio-guide. There are exhibits providing the context for Giorgione's life and work - unrest in the region, wealthy humanist patrons, commissions in Venice, his artistic contemporaries - and then a collection of paintings by Giorgione (18 of them), works possibly by, or partly by, Giorgione, and then art by his contemporaries to illuminate his artistic environment and influences. It's not a very large exhibition - you can see it in under an hour - but it is interesting and put together well. Giorgione's paintings are intriguing and haunting. I was particularly struck by a double portrait of a lovelorn young man in front of a more spirited face, and by an illustration of '3 ages of man'. The faces are compelling, and in many of the paintings there are strange and fascinating details.

I visited at lunchtime, which worked well as the rooms were fairly empty. I saw a tour group of Italian senior citizens arrive after lunch, so I was glad I'd timed my visit right. The rooms aren't large and you really need some time and space to consider the paintings.

After visiting the exhibition I paid a second visit to the Giorgione altarpiece in the cathedral (a side-entrance to the Giorgione chapel was kept open even during the church's lunchtime closure.) Then I headed to a bar on the corner which served meals and snacks, the Bistro San Giustino. It was very lively with locals perched on tables near the bar or eating in the internal dining room - from teenagers in a gaggle by the door eating sandwiches to lunchtime workers chatting with colleagues over pasta and wine. The friendly waitresses found me a table alongside a suit of armour and I enjoyed pasta with pumpkin, gorgonzola and walnuts, followed by fondi di carciofi. Along with a glass of local Prosecco and some water, the meal cost me €11, so it was a quick and cheap way to dine.

There's not much else to do in Castelfranco other than walk around the town walls. There's an interesting-sounding villa garden in town, but I haven't yet found it open.

Castelfranco makes a good day trip - or a half-day trip - from Venice at any time. However, while the only specific attraction normally is the altarpiece, at present the exhibition makes it a really appealing destination. The provincial tourist board are obviously very excited. They've instigated an 'Isola dei Musei' (Island of Museums) whereby your Giorgione ticket can get you discount admission into a number of other local sights, and there's a special bus service on Saturday afternoons and Sundays which will take you to these, including two villas designed by Palladio. With a bit of careful planning, it's possible to fit in a lot more tourism than would normally be possible without a car.

> Giorgione 2010 exhibition
> My guide to Castelfranco Veneto
> Article in the Times about the exhibition

I noticed from my old photos (taken two years ago) that Castelfranco Veneto has even cleaned up its statues for this big event. Here's a 'before' picture to compare with today's image (at the top of this article):

24 February 2010

Ancient Greece in Italy

Have you been deterred from visiting Greece by the repeated strikes, unrest and uncertainty over the country's economy? (Today's Times: Clashes as strike brings Greece to standstill over austerity measures).

Italy may have its own problems but you would probably be justified in thinking it a better holiday prospect at the moment. Greek colonies in Italy - grouped together under the name Magna Graecia - were an important part of the ancient world. Some of the most powerful and famous Ancient Greek cities were on what is now Italian soil. So if you want to postpone a trip to beleaguered Greece, you could experience Greek history, museums and superb ruins in southern Italy or Sicily instead.

Here are some suggested destinations for Greek ruins in Italy, or for museums containing important Greek exhibits

> Siracusa - Greek Syracuse was a rival to Athens. Siracusa, as it's now called, is in Sicily, and has an excellent museum, a large and interesting archaeological zone - including quarries where Athenian prisoners were incarcerated - and a Greek temple converted into a cathedral. The lively coastal town is a good all-round destination.
> Paestum - atmospheric Greek temples in the middle of the countryside in Campania, south of Naples and the Amalfi Coast
> Agrigento - on the southern coast of Sicily, Agrigento is famous for its 'Valley of the Temples'. Agrigento's UNESCO listing notes "Agrigento was one of the greatest cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, and it has been preserved in an exceptionally intact condition. Its great row of Doric temples is one of the most outstanding monuments of Greek art and culture."
> Segesta - an isolated temple in the Sicilian countryside, near Trapani
> Aeolian Islands - the Aeolian Islands, off the shore of Sicily, have been important trading posts for millennia and though there aren't imposing Greek ruins, there are many tombs and a museum (on Lipari) containing an important collection of model theatrical masks and pottery.
> Reggio Calabria - the archaeological museum in Reggio Calabria, southern Italy, contains some of the finest extant Greek sculptures, the Riace bronzes.
> Rome - many of greatest sculptures of Ancient Greece ended up in Rome and some, along with Roman copies of Greek works, can be seen the great museums of Rome.

13 February 2010

Travel strikes in Italy

Venice bus station, Piazzale Roma, during a strike
There's an Alitalia strike on Tuesday (if you've followed Italy Heaven's advice, you won't be flying Alitalia anyway, though). On Tuesday afternoon there is also a 4-hour strike by staff of Meridiana and Eurofly.

On Friday 19th February there are public transport strikes which will affect more travellers - of local transport and trains, between 10am and 2pm. The manner, impact and timing will probably vary from place to place - try checking the public transport website for the places you are visiting for the most accurate information. Avoiding travel over those 4 hours would obviously be the ideal option.

In Venice, ACTV boats and buses will be on strike between 10am and 1pm (there is always a basic minimum boat service), while ATVO longer-distance buses have announced a strike between 9am and noon, though it isn't clear if their airport buses are included; previously these have operated anyway. In Rome the local company is ATAC; I haven't yet found an announcement, so you should check nearer the time. In Milan, ATM are striking from 6pm to 10pm.

And on the 5th March there is a 24-hour strike by ground staff at Milan Malpensa and Milan Linate. Like Alitalia, the Milan airports are particularly beset by strike action.

> Strikes in Italy

12 February 2010

The hell of Treviso Airport

Such a lovely sunny afternoon in Venice - Carnival costumes, mulled wine, lively atmosphere - but now I'm in the hell of Treviso Airport. I've complained before about how badly designed their terminal building is - someone told me the architect was in prison and I really hope that it's true. Designed by someone with no idea how an airport works, Treviso boasts a departures hall too small for passengers and 'departure gates' which are merely doorways off two stairwells with no space for queueing. I always pay for Ryanair's priority boarding, which helps with the queue/scrum situation (though you do still have to push your way through). But there's no disguising that the airport simply can't cope with passenger or flight numbers. Since it was only rebuilt about 3 years ago, that's pretty poor planning.

Tonight there are three flights due to board simultaneously from one stairwell. I already know that this won't be physically possible (I've experienced two flights boarding at the same time and it wasn't pretty). There have also been a couple of delayed Ryanair flights and the departures hall was so full there was barely space to sit on the floor. Lengthy queues for refreshments, nursing mothers having to stand in the shop entrance with nowhere to sit, passengers sitting on stairways, confusion over passport control...

Rant over. It's true that Ryanair are sometimes cheap... but there's still a price to pay. And since my flight has now been announced as 50 minutes late, I think I'll be switching back to British Airways or Easyjet.
> See my earlier article about which airline to choose for Venice flights.

Here are some photos of Treviso Airport departures hall half an hour ago.

> Something more jolly: Venice Carnival photos

7 February 2010

Venice Carnival

The 2010 Venice Carnival is underway; the weekends are the busiest times so today Venice was filled with tourists and day-trippers. The council estimates 75,000 people were in St. Mark's Square for the Volo dell'Angelo, a traditional event in which some bizarrely random 'personality' is winched down from the Campanile dressed as an angel.

It was a sunny day and despite the crowds on bridges and in lanes, the atmosphere was pleasant and jovial. It's the fourth Carnival I've seen in Venice, and I still enjoy seeing so many people dressed up in costumes and masks. It takes a very inventive costume to impress me now, and today my favourite was a man dressed as Noah... and his ark.

After a pleasant stroll and a few photos I bought a glass of vin brulé (mulled wine) from a stand near Campo Santa Margherita, along with a frittella, a kind of traditional Venetian festival doughnut (but nicer than a doughnut).

If the weather is good I'll be returning to San Marco for more Carnival photos during this week. In the meantime, here are some snapshots from this afternoon:

Gondoliers and maidens

28 January 2010

Which airline for UK - Venice flights?

Easyjet, British Airways or Ryanair? Cost or comfort?

I fly frequently between London and Venice, with both budget and convenience as priorities. Here's some advice based on my experience:

Obviously flying from a UK airport which is convenient for your home will be important, and your choice of airline may be limited accordingly. I'll discuss the big three airlines below, but it's worth checking your regional airport schedules e.g. BMI Baby fly from East Midlands Airport to Venice.

From the London area you can choose between British Airways, Ryanair and Easyjet. (Alternatively, a new option flies from London City Airport but stops in Geneva en route, operated by an outfit called Baboo - read more).

British Airways fly to Venice Marco Polo from London Gatwick with a few additional flights from Heathrow. Easyjet also fly from London Gatwick to Venice Marco Polo; their terminal at Gatwick is more convenient for trains. Ryanair fly from London Stansted to Treviso, a bit further from Venice.

These three airlines all operate several flights a day, giving you a reasonable range of times to choose from.

British Airways - BA is still the most comfortable option, and it is my first choice. The atmosphere at the bag drop/check-in desks and at the departure gate is calm, with no tension or frantic queueing - and, it has to be said, frequently a quieter class of customer including business travellers and frequent flyers. BA's staff are helpful and polite, the seats are a bit more comfortable than the budget airlines and you get better treatment at the airports with better departure gates and easier aeroplane access. On board you will still receive a tiny snack and free drinks. There is often a fair bit of space on the plane.

BA's prices are actually very competitive on this route, especially considering that you can check in luggage free. Their website quotes you the full price with no sneaky extras, provided you pay with a debit card. Compare the difference between booking two single flights and a return, as the prices of the legs can vary. You can book a single from around £50. Keep an eye on the newspapers, as the threat of strikes is a disadvantage at present.

Easyjet - Like BA, Easyjet fly from Gatwick to Marco Polo, Venice's local airport. I would say they are the second most comfortable option. Sometimes their prices are good value, sometimes higher than BA. I only choose Easyjet when there is a significant saving to be made. Easyjet add on extras during the booking process, and you must pay for hold luggage. Their carry-on rules are slightly more generous than Ryanair, though you must still only bring one item. I pay for 'speedy boarding' if I have a flight case, as it means I can board first, choose a seat and stow my case in the overhead locker without fighting for space.

Ryanair - You can still sometimes pick up a true bargain with Ryanair, though you won't get an accurate price until you've progressed through all the extra charges they add on. The aeroplanes are cramped and the constant selling and their attitude to customers can be very irritating. However, I've found their flights quite reliable and if I find a very cheap offer, I will still fly with Ryanair. They fly from Stansted to Treviso, which is something to bear in mind (I'll discuss this below).

Which London Airport? This depends on your transport options. For me, Gatwick is cheaper to reach than Stansted, thanks to the First Capital Connect train service. Both the Gatwick Express and Stansted Express will add significantly to your journey cost, so consider the cost of reaching the airport as well as the price of the actual flight.

Which Venice airport? Venice Marco Polo is a 20-minute bus ride from Venice, with both express and regular city buses into Venice, costing €3 and €2 respectively. There are also ferries operating to different points in the historic centre. Venice Treviso is a 50-minute bus journey away, with ATVO buses meeting the flights at a cost of €9 return. Marco Polo is more convenient, and has a larger and better equipped terminal building. Treviso can get very uncomfortable, especially if there are several flights departing in a short space of time. I would suggest you book priority boarding for your return flight as Treviso's departure gates are cramped and queues are disorderly.

The biggest difference is in winter. Even if Ryanair flights to Treviso are cheap, I still have a preference for Easyjet/BA. The Venice area is prone to cold foggy weather, and in my experience Treviso flights are more likely to be cancelled (I believe this is because the airport has a short runway and less hi-tech equipment). If you're arriving, this could mean a diversion to somewhere miles away like Bergamo; if you're departing your flight will simply be cancelled. If - as happened to me before Christmas - you are struggling through the Veneto snow to reach the airport, Marco Polo is much more accessible.

I've had flights cancelled by each of these three airlines and wasn't particularly impressed by the customer service shown by any of them. British Airways are theoretically more contactable than cost-cutting Ryanair or Easyjet, but I've still had trouble getting through on the phone. All the airlines rebooked me on another flight free of charge; Easyjet were chaotic but finally sent some passengers to a hotel overnight (I recommend contacting them on Twitter in emergencies; BA were very charming when I did manage to get through on the phone.

To summarise: cost is the biggest factor and you should always compare their prices - sometimes BA is actually cheapest. Factor in associated travel costs and additional charges. And consider whether it is worth paying a bit more for perks like a more tranquil flight, or a better-equipped airport. Look at single as well as return flights. These are more flexible and you may find your cheapest option is - for example - to fly out to Venice with BA but back with Easyjet.

As a final comment, after years of low-cost flying, I try to avoid early morning flights (inconvenient travel to the airport, sleep disruption and - in the winter - more chance of bad weather delays). I also prefer not to take a late evening flight when onward travel is a problem (sometimes Ryanair flights deliver you to Stansted too late for the last train) or in the winter when there's a possibility ice or snow might cripple services. And of course it is much, much better to fly with hand luggage only. It's cheaper and saves you from lengthy queueing at check-in or bag-drop desks - you can just head straight through security with your online check-in printout. And if you wait till last, or pay for priority/speedy boarding, you won't have to queue at the departure gate either.

The good news is that Venice is wonderful all year round and that you can find return flights for £80 or less if you book in advance and shop around.

> Italy Heaven's guide to Venice
> Venice Marco Polo Airport
> Venice Treviso Airport
> British Airways
> Ryanair
> Easyjet
> UK - Italy flights

19 January 2010

Latest photos of Venice

It's cold and mostly grey in Venice, though there are bursts of sunshine and a pleasantly 'local' feel without all the tourists. The last few days have been atmospherically foggy.

Here's a selection of photos from this evening and the last few days.

Piazzetta di San Marco, nearly deserted at 7pm:

Three photos of a special blessing of animals outside the church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, on Sunday, the feast day of Sant'Antonio Abate, patron saint of domestic animals. Around 20 dogs and a handful of cats.

12 January 2010

Italy Heaven on Twitter

In the downtime after one of my recent snow-cancelled flights I signed up to Twitter and despite my doubts I've found it a useful tool for travellers. If you're already on Twitter you can follow Italy Heaven here: http://twitter.com/italyheaven. If you're not signed up, but you're curious, read on.

Twitter is a very basic means of communicating within a network of people. You can
1. Publish very short comments or status updates ('tweets') from your computer or mobile phone
2. 'Follow' other users - that is, read their tweets.

You don't need to contribute anything yourself in order to benefit from Twitter. Once you're signed up - it is free to use - you can search through the website finding people or businesses to 'follow'. You could find them through keyword or name searches, from their website or from lists created by other Twitter users.

When you log in to Twitter, your Twitter homepage will consist of a list of tweets from users you are following, in chronological order. By refreshing the page you can keep completely up-to-date with tweets.

Since joining Twitter I've found it very useful for keeping abreast of travel news, weather updates, airport closures and special events. Instead of visiting many different websites to find out the latest from BA, Gatwick, train companies etc, I simply need to check my Twitter page, which I can keep open on my computer. If you travel a lot, or are planning a holiday, this kind of service is very valuable. Italy isn't very well connected to Twitter yet, but you will still find some news websites and plenty of English-language Twitter users providing destination information.

My two big successes so far are:
1. getting through to Easyjet customer services from Venice Airport when all else failed (http://twitter.com/easyJetCare)
2. getting a bargain opera ticket in a special offer 'tweeted' by the Royal Opera House (http://twitter.com/RoyalOperaHouse)

Twitter is essentially very basic. Tweets are only up to 140 characters, and are public. There are conventions and techniques for more advanced use, if you wish to get more involved. You can offer or request information, make new contacts, chat with strangers, 'retweet' interesting posts... if you want to. Even if you don't want to interact, though, I'd still recommend it as a useful source of information. I wouldn't go so far as several newspapers, which have tried to plan holidays entirely on Twitter. But it is a good tool.

Italy Heaven tweets at the moment are mostly about new features on the website, to suggest off-the-beaten-track destinations, provide Italy travel updates, or simply comment on my own travels (lately mostly consisting of cancelled flights). Since I'm still trying out the feature, there may be more uses in the future. You can see my latest tweets in a feed at the foot of the Italy Heaven homepage, on this blog or at http://twitter.com/italyheaven. See my 'following' list for some useful Twitter profiles relevant to Italy / travel.

> Twitter
> Twitter can help you plan your holiday - Telegraph
> Twitter trip to Paris - Guardian
> Using Twitter for travel complaints - NYT

Seagull & pigeon armies of Venice

Venice is in a large lagoon with lots of interesting birdlife. But the birds we see most commonly in the town are the species with more irritating habits. Scrawny sparrows fly off with bits of your meal in their beaks. But the worst are the seagulls and pigeons. As I write this I am fighting a defensive battle with a combined squad of seagulls and pigeons who are attacking the rubbish (garbage) bag hanging on my front door.

In Venice the rubbish is collected by workers who are also responsible for installing high-tide walkways and distributing grit, so in adverse conditions the rubbish is the lowest priority. Rubbish collectors wheel handcarts around the streets, collecting rubbish bags put out by residents between 6am and 8am (a rule to keep the city tidy and deter rats and seagulls). Local people do their best to keep the rubbish out of reach of pests, but the birds are pesky and inventive. Around my doorway, the pigeons gather awaiting a seagull with long enough legs and a strong enough beak to peck at my rubbish bag. I hear the knocking noise, go to the door, chase the seagull and attendant pigeons away, try to tie the bag up a bit higher. A few minutes later they're back. If I'm not attentive my rubbish ends up strewn over the canalside; the seagulls pull the bags apart and the pigeons scavenge for leftovers.

One night, when I lived in a narrow lane, I was woken by the most bloodcurling screams I'd ever heard. It was a young seagull pulling a rubbish bag apart; I understood then why we're not supposed to put rubbish out overnight - the neighbour who was responsible emerged guiltily at dawn to sweep up their litter. The wider lanes and canalsides are worst - there is room for seagulls to fly down and manoeuvre.

For a while I tried remonstrating with a neighbour who blithely throws bread down to wheeling seagulls from her first floor window. This is, quite reasonably, against the local laws (which now even ban pigeon-feeding in St. Mark's Square) as it encourages the litter-strewing nuisance and is hardly good for the birds. I gave up; she obviously loves attracting the birds which are a nuisance for ground-floor dwellers. Now it's back to getting up early, putting out the rubbish, and listening out, at the ready to defend it from winged marauders. Venice is a lovely place to live but it does have its inconveniences.