10 December 2008

12 December 2008 - strike in Italy

There is a general strike due to take place this Friday, 12th December 2008, in Italy. Travellers should be prepared for delays and inconvenience. Try to avoid journeys within Italy on Friday if you can. The government may step in and ensure some services, but it will nonetheless be a difficult day for travel in particular.
> Our article about strikes in Italy, with further links for transport information

11th December: Italy has been hit by bad weather this week - including flooding around Rome - and in recognition of the problems caused, the unions are calling off some elements of the strike (including transport in Rome, and national railway services). This should make things a bit easier for travellers, although many Italians will be travelling into cities to demonstrations which could cause further chaos.

More floods in Venice

After the big flood in Venice last week - the highest level of water for a couple of decades - this week is due to see more abnormally high tides. Anxious not to be caught on the back foot, the local council has issued 'code red' warnings for the next few days. Tonight as I write this the high tide was measured at 116cm (lower than the predictions but still unusually high; you need wellies to get around some bits of town). Tomorrow morning there is an extremely high tide forecast at 140cm which is likely to flood large areas temporarily (though it hopefully won't rise to last week's measurement of 156cm). The next couple of tides will be almost as high, according to the tide-measurement centre.

As we've noted elsewhere, a high tide of 140cm doesn't mean that pavements are covered with that height of water - it's a measurement above a tidal average, not above ground level. But, provoked by rain, wind and an area of low pressure, it is higher than Venice is accustomed to seeing. If you have wellies - or ideally, waders - it is a good chance to get some unusual photographs and enjoy the drama. If you want to get around and keep dry, avoid the couple of hours around high tide. Walk carefully, look out for the white marble strip which marks where the pavement ends and canal begins, and if the water seems too high for your boots, take refuge in a bar or on higher land (or a bridge) until the tide recedes.

If you are unlucky enough to arrive in Venice at high tide and find your way blocked with water, sit it out at the bus or railway station. It's no fun dragging a suitcase through several inches of lagoon water; you're better off waiting for the water level to go down again. Similarly, if you are due to leave Venice and the tide is forecast to be higher than about 110cm, set off an hour or so in advance of high tide.

My advice, if you are arriving here in the next day or two, is to try to bring wellies, or obtain some on arrival (your hotel may help). Don't panic, as tidal floods are not uncommon and Venice recovered in hours from last week's well-publicised acqua alta (and just think how jealous others will be if you witness this famous phenomenon). But do take note of the tide times and heights published on the council's website to help with your planning:
> Comune di Venezia (look under 'previsione maree')
> Our page about acqua alta
> Journal of last week's flood

11th December: Either this morning's tide forecast was over-dramatic, or the weather did change significantly, since the high tide was just 105cm (water outside St. Mark's, but nothing unusual). The predictions are still quite high for this evening's high tide, and Friday morning, but reduced to 'code orange' i.e. less alarming. A bit of an anti-climax so far.

3 December 2008

Floods in Venice update - don't cancel!

> Read our eyewitness account of Monday's floods

Anxious travellers shouldn't believe the fearful warnings in the international press. Venice was flooded for a few hours on Monday but there is no need to avoid the town - and local businesses would much rather you didn't. The town was never 'under five foot of water' - a massive exaggeration caused by a misunderstanding of the city's tidal measurements. Venice frequently has shallow tidal floods and Venetians are used to them; Monday's was higher and caused far more damage than normal, but by Tuesday, tourists would barely have noticed the after-effects. If you didn't have a shop or goods stored at ground-floor level, it was actually quite a thrilling spectacle. Don't be put off travelling; such dramatic floods are extremely rare and would generally only represent a temporary inconvenience for tourists, anyway.
> Read more about high tides in Venice

1 December 2008

7 November 2008

Strike in Italy on Monday

On Monday 10th November 2008 there is a national transport strike in Italy. Railways will be on strike from 9pm on the evening of Sunday 9th for 24 hours. Most local transport will operate only limited hours on Monday.

If this strike goes ahead (occasionally they don't) it will obviously make travel very hard for tourists as well as locals. Trains will attempt to operate a minimal guaranteed service, and some local transport will also provide some kind of service.

For tourists it is best to adapt your plans to stay put. This isn't particularly helped by the fact that Monday is the day when most museums are closed. Check with your hotel or local tourist information office how the strike will affect transport where you are. In Venice the strike lasts 24 hours, but boats will operate a minimum guaranteed service to islands which would otherwise be cut off, and there will be buses operating during the morning and evening rush hours. In Rome there will be some transport for the rush hours, but ATAC, the transport authority, warn that you will have problems travelling between 8:30am and 5pm, and again after 8pm. Nightbuses may not operate.

> Official strike calendar (in Italian)
> ATAC - transport in Rome
> ACTV - transport in Venice
> Railways strike timetables ('cancellato' means cancelled)
> Article about the strike (in Italian), including transport strike times for different cities
> Strikes in Italy (our article)

10 September 2008

Apology for gondola theft 34 years ago

There's rather a good story in today's Gazzettino, (for those who read Italian: Il pentimento di un marinaio inglese: torna a Venezia e dopo 34 anni si scusa per il furto di una gondola) about a British sailor's return to Venice. The repentant visitor, in Venice with his family, went to a gondola stand to make an apology 'to all the gondoliers of Venice' for an escapade in 1974. He was stationed on the HMS Fearless when, with four other sailors, he took a gondola from its mooring one night. The carabinieri turned up to reclaim it the next day. Now one of the culprits has taken advantage of a trip to Venice to make his apologies... and to take an official gondola ride. 'I wouldn't have believed it' the newspaper quotes a gondolier who remembers the incident.

6 September 2008

Around Venice & the Veneto

This weekend in Italy is a popular one for traditional events and festivals. In Venice the Regata Storica - a boat procession and races - takes place on Sunday 8th September - last year ended in controversy with angry rowers. Also this weekend, in the mainland Veneto, with the climax on Sunday evening, are palio events in Montagnana and Castelfranco Veneto, both historic walled towns. Like the famous palio in Siena, these are costumed re-enactment type events, centred around a contest between different districts of the towns.
> Montagnana palio programme (in Italian)
> Palio of Castelfranco Veneto

Visiting Treviso

Yesterday I took a trip to Treviso and visited the reopened Museo di Santa Caterina. It has a good archaeological section and some interesting paintings. Most of the written explanations are in Italian only - a shame given that the only visitors I saw yesterday afternoon were English and French speakers. As well as admiring the town in the sunshine, I also found my way into the hidden Sala del Capitolo, alongside the Church of San Nicolo. You actually have to be bold and enter the religious seminary next door - the frescoes by Tomaso da Modena are worth the effort. New updated information will be available very soon on our Treviso page.
> More about Treviso
Cat on the Giudecca, last week
And in Venice...
In Venice the film festival has seemed pretty unimpressive. The decoration of the main building - ripped white sheets with lions emerging - is underwhelming. The weather is still hot and sunny, though, so festival-goers can always choose the beach instead. (Read about the Lido).

Far more interesting has been my recent exploration of the Giudecca, a curious island with all sorts of hidden alleys and picturesque corners. If you have a few days in Venice it's worth catching the vaporetto over here for a panoramic drink or meal, and a wander around.

14 August 2008

Unusual places to stay in Italy

Cave bedroom, Locanda di San Martino
As travellers become more adventurous, hotels in Italy are diversifying and instead of traditional accommodation, you can now choose from some rather more interesting options. In the last few months we've stayed in a cave in Matera, in a trullo in Alberobello and, last week, on a yacht in Venice. We'll be looking for some more unusual places to stay, but in the meantime here are our reviews:
> Locanda di San Martino - a cave hotel in Matera
> Trulli Holiday - trulli apartments to rent in Alberobello
> Sarah Sun Island - a budget B&B on a yacht in Venice

25 April 2008

Travel writing: truth or fiction?

This small travelling companion proves his presence in Florence

The recent furore over a Lonely Planet travel writer who confessed to various unethical escapades (as discussed by various writers and readers in the Guardian's travel blog) has provided a fascinating insight into the world of print travel writing. To be honest, although I do frequently find errors in travel guides, I hadn't realised how brief some writers' research really is.

I prefer to keep a low profile and focus the website on Italy, not on the writer, but to reassure readers: I've lived in Italy for several years, and currently spend around half my time in the country. I speak Italian and Italy Heaven is full of information and tips I couldn't have discovered any other way. All the text is original; as well as visiting sites, catching buses, asking questions and dutifully sampling ice creams, wine and food, I also research information using a variety of books and publications and cross-check where possible. As I hope is clear from my destination pages, I have visited and explored just about every place described on the website (there are still one or two exceptions), and I try to be as accurate as possible in describing a town as I found it. I've never pretended to have been anywhere I haven't set foot, nor invented restaurant or hotel reviews. All the photos are taken especially for the website.
He has genuinely visited Urbino, too
I suppose I could photograph myself by landmarks to prove my travelling credentials but that seems rather unnecessary and I prefer to be more anonymous. However, a little travelling companion has accompanied me on my most recent trip and I am including pictures of him to prove that he, at least, has visited Urbino, Florence and other towns. As readers have perhaps become more interested in personal reports and authenticity, I'm considering adding more travel journals onto the website to complement the factual reports.

I think that Italy Heaven is as reliable as we can practicably make it without hiring a team for constant updates. I always think you need a print guidebook in your hand as you explore, but I hope the website provides a good starting point for planning a trip and deciding where to go and what to see. For some smaller destinations our pages, although they are rapidly plagiarised by other websites, are often the most detailed account you'll find. In some cases, such as the Venice section, our pages will be as good as and more up-to-date than most guidebooks - we've certainly eaten at our recommended restaurants more recently than the guidebooks have been updated.

You should always check for updates to bus timetables etc. using the links we provide, and be prepared for some things to have changed. When researching online elsewhere, be wary in general: so much information out there is based on subjective reader contributions and out-of-context plagiarism. Some websites rely on text which is out of copyright, and therefore decades out of date. Others are simply poor translations of the local tourist board information (I've found quite a few of these about Italy recently) so don't provide any practical advice or judgement.

If you do have any comments or updates let us know - obviously things change and we always want to be as accurate as possible in our recommendations.

Recent articles:
Pesaro, which I thought could be a good holiday base by the sea (in Le Marche)
Ravenna - where there are even more fine mosaics than I'd expected; allow a couple of days to see everything properly
(and yes! we've really been there, and just a few days ago too).

9 March 2008

Italy gardens on the BBC

BBC's Around the World in 80 Gardens tonight featured some of central Italy's finest gardens. We've visited and written articles about some of these:
> Villa d'Este, Tivoli - fountain-filled hillside garden close to Rome
> Villa Adriana (Hadrian's Villa), outside Tivoli - the huge country palace of the Emperor Hadrian
> Villa Lante, Bagnaia - exquisite Renaissance garden in northern Lazio

Roman Forum & Palatine, Rome

An exciting new sight has opened on the warren-like Palatine hill in Rome: some frescoed rooms of the villa of the Emperor Augustus. But with the good news comes bad: visitors must now pay to enter the Roman Forum (Foro Romano). I used to enjoy the fantastic experience of walking through the ruins on my way home; such casual visits will now be a thing of the past. Hopefully the extra revenue will be used for preservation and archaeology.
> House of Augustus opens to public (BBC)

8 March 2008

Banks, cards and charges abroad

A useful article in today's Times gives UK travellers a good run-down of the pitfalls and problems of using plastic abroad. For several years now, overseas businesses have offered customers the chance to pay in sterling. It may seem that this is helpful but in fact they are almost certainly out to profit from you, by using an exchange rate which is in their favour. Meanwhile your bank are sneaking profits from every transaction you make: hidden ones in the case of credit cards, and visible charges in the case of debit cards. If you travel a lot, it makes sense to obtain one of the few cards with no charges or 'loading' on exchange rates. And getting your currency in advance is better than withdrawing money from overseas cash machines, where your bank is likely to charge you a fee each time.

In Italy we've only been offered the 'chance' to pay in sterling a couple of times; so this trick isn't too common. Remember to say no, you prefer to pay in euros. And before you travel you should check your bank's charges, and consider shopping around: Nationwide currently have the best card to use overseas, and you could end up saving a fair bit of money.

> The holiday credit card swindle

It's always a good idea to monitor your spending on credit and debit cards, either while away or on your return. We've just been charged twice for a hotel stay, which may have been a genuine mistake but still required several phone calls and emails to our bank and the hotel concerned to resolve. Be alert.

Using cash

In Italy businesses usually prefer cash (as do Italians in general; they're not trusting of plastic or of banks) and some shops, small hotels, B&Bs and many restaurants won't even accept card payments. So travel with adequate cash supplies, and plenty of smaller denominations to satisfy the fussy Italian staff who hate giving change. And of course always check your change. Watch out particularly for the 'slow change' trick, where a shop assistant who owes you, say, €7.50 change will hand over €2.50, then pause to see if you will accept this before - if you stand your ground - slowly producing the €5 note. Shamefully, there is one employee of the Venice transport company ACTV who does this every time we buy tickets. Remember that Italians don't trust each other, and they will respect you for being suspicious! Being furbo - sly, devious, on the make - is seen as a good thing.

29 January 2008

Venice Carnival 2008

The 2008 Venice Carnival is under way - it's an early festival this year. Venice is full of revellers dressed in masks and cloaks. Saturday's opening events were all cancelled or postponed for what were basically political reasons (the city in mourning over two port-workers killed at work; a current media hot issue). But the city filled up anyway. We tend to avoid the huge crowds, but Carnival is actually a less stressful time than you would think. During the week the visitors are all tourists who are staying here, and the numbers are manageable. It's at the weekends, when thousands of extra people come in by train and car and bus, that Venice really feels the strain. Even if you don't fancy the organised events and DJ shows, you can admire the parade of costumes around town. The best place to go is to St. Mark's, to the waterfront, where lots of fancy-dressed masked figures promenade and pose for photographers. Little crowds gather around the best-dressed ones; it's a competition and you can only feel sorry for those left to pose in vain. Most of the costumes we've seen so far have been quite good - we've put a photo gallery on the main website: Carnival 2008 Photos. You may wonder who they are, and why they do it, but perhaps it's more fittingly mysterious not to know. Away from St. Mark's, Venice's main thoroughfares are busy but more fun than normal. You see corners of cloaks swishing around corners; and every tourist seems to be wearing a tricorne hat and perhaps a mask. It's all very good-natured and the weather has been smiling on the fun: sunny despite the cold.
> About Carnival

9 January 2008

Renaissance Siena at the National Gallery

It's the last chance for Londoners to see the Renaissance Siena exhibition at the National Gallery, which closes on the 13th January. It would be a great way to prepare for a visit to the lovely Tuscan town ...
> Renaissance Siena exhibition
> Our tourist guide to Siena

7 January 2008

UK strikes cancelled

Good news for UK travellers in January: the airport strikes scheduled to start today have been cancelled. The bad news is that although the one-bag hand-luggage rule has now been relaxed, this only applies to some airports and some airlines, so pessimistic onlookers are forecasting yet more delays due to the confusion. Ryanair and Easyjet, for the moment, are sticking to a 'one bag only' policy.
> Cabin bag rules 'could confuse' (BBC)
> Our budget flight info and tips for minimising airport delays