18 December 2009

Travel disruption... and Italy Heaven on Twitter

The BA strike is now off (for the moment anyway) but the weather has stepped in to disrupt travel.

I'm stuck in Venice for another 24 hours after my Easyjet flight to Gatwick was cancelled due to snow (the outbound flight didn't take off). So hoping the weather is better tomorrow.

Anyone else stranded by Easyjet cancellations: you can rebook on their website by clicking 'Manage bookings'. The Easyjet 'travel disruption' links and lists of cancelled flights weren't updated or working well - the first confirmation of flight cancellation came via the Venice airport website, the second on the Gatwick website, with still no Easyjet announcement. However, in the 'manage bookings' section of www.easyjet.com my flight was already displayed as 'disrupted' and it was actually very quick and easy to change my flight (and free).

There'll be high water in Venice tomorrow morning so I'll be off to the airport early to avoid the need to drag my suitcase through floods.

The sun's shining in cold Venice, so I'll make the most of another day here.

New from Italy Heaven: trialling the use of Twitter: http://twitter.com/italyheaven - do 'follow' if you're interested in updates on Italy, new additions to the Italy Heaven website, or random reports from Venice and my travels around Italy.

8 December 2009

Christmas shopping in Venice

If you are visiting Venice in December and are looking for Christmas presents, here are some shops where you can find good gifts and stocking-fillers.

  • The Guggenheim shop (on the canalside outside the gallery) has a good range of art gifts, cool novelty items and books. I liked the souvenir Venice mugs (more stylish than you'll find in a tourist shop), a black-cat-shaped neck pillow, and groovy accessories.
  • Signor Blum - stocks brightly-coloured wooden building-block models of Venice landmarks, magnets, mobiles and other gifts for children. (in Campo San Barnaba, vaporetto stop Ca' Rezzonico).
  • Viziovirtù - good for posh chocolates; and they have a chocolate nativity scene in their window (vaporetto stop San Tomà)
  • Murano glass - on the island of Murano you can purchase some of the costly glasssware produced on the island - if you're confident about packing fragile items, a set of elegant wine glasses would make a very special present. Not all local glass products are bulky: a few years ago I bought glass beads on Murano and made necklaces for my friends.
  • 18th-20th December - a small antiques and handicrafts market in Campo San Maurizio, good for unusual or one-off gifts.
  • Gondolier calendar - available from news-stands and tourist stalls, this photographic collection of Venetian gondoliers could make a good present for a female friend.
  • Caffe Florian is Venice's most famous cafe, and -at a price - you can take a piece of it home for friends and relatives. Inside the entrance is a desk where you can buy coffees, teas, chocolates and china.

Sadly, the Christmas markets and events organised in previous years are not taking place in 2009. However, the shops above make a good starting point for Christmas presents. If you run out of space in your suitcase or forget anyone, both Venice airports (Marco Polo and Treviso) have shops selling souvenirs and a good choice of food gifts like wine, chocolates from Caffe Florian and olive oils.

30 November 2009

High water in Venice

We had a very high tide in Venice this morning, though not as dramatic - or unexpected - as the big acqua alta one year ago. This time there were plenty of advance warnings over the weekend, culminating in the sirens which sounded at 5am with three rising notes to warn that the waters would reach 130cm. It was an accurate prediction: the peak was 131cm at 9am.

When the water is this high it isn't possible to get far around the city without wellington boots. Those who'd arrived in town unprepared had to splash in shoes, go barefoot, clamber along walls, or hope to pay over the odds for wellies or plastic shoe-protectors. Rather than sit it out for a few hours, I waded off to see the sights and take photographs.

The scene wasn't as dramatic as last year, when even residents were taken by surprise and I saw marooned tourists perched on the top of benches, waiting for the water levels to fall. Still, there were interesting sights, including the many Venetians who went about their everyday Monday morning business in boots or waders. The binmen wheeled their rubbish carts through the floods; policemen and women supervised the duckboards by St. Mark's; a grandmother carried a child to school on her back through the water; a group of Jewish men posed on chairs in the middle of St. Mark's Square.

After a couple of hours only the lowest-lying areas - like St. Mark's Square - were still underwater. We've more high tides forecast, but tonight's is only moderate and tomorrow's is expected to be 115cm - wellies still advisable, but much less drama.

> My article about acqua alta, debunking some of the dramatic news stories
> My journal of the historic flooding of December 2008

12 October 2009

Riace bronzes 'theft'

If you are planning a trip to Reggio Calabria over the winter, and hoping to see the famous Greek statues known as the Riace Bronzes, call ahead first. According to the Repubblica, a political storm is whipping up over mysterious 'restoration work' which is sending the statues to Rome at the beginning of November. The rest of Reggio's museum is closing for restoration work itself; the fear of locals is that their statues, the city's greatest pride, will never be returned to them.

Italy is prone to conspiracy theories - which often turn out to be justified by genuine conspiracies, as in the case of Serie A match-fixing - and the suspicion is that the Riace Bronzes will finish up in one of Rome's vast museum collections, with mere copies being sent back to Reggio.

I witnessed for myself this summer the pride of the people of Reggio Calabria in their archaeological museum; as several bus passengers contended to offer me directions. The bronze statues are the most important historic and artistic objects in the whole of the Calabria region. Although they may not receive as many visitors as they deserve, the area will lose an important tourist attraction, while Rome hardly needs additional exhibits.
> Reggio Calabria
> A travel itinerary down the coast through Calabria and Reggio

10 October 2009

Italy travel itineraries

I have just added a new feature to the website: suggested travel itineraries in Italy. These are ideas to help the independent traveller plan an interesting tour, and include maps. They are all based around public transport, meaning that a hire car is an option, not a necessity. So far I have created four itineraries:

> Classic tour: Rome ,Florence, Venice
> Art and Architecture of the Veneto
> South to Calabria - from temples to volcanoes
> Puglia and Matera

Italy has so many great destinations which are still under the radar for most travellers. I hope these itineraries will provide a starting point for explorations of the country, and will offer new and interesting suggestions to holiday-makers. More will follow.

Venice update
I'm writing this post from Venice, which is in the grip of huge thunderstorms. The last week has been really varied here.

The Good: Up until yesterday there was still warm afternoon sun to enjoy - I sat outdoors by canals twice, eating lunch in the sunshine (the best was pumpkin gnocchi with smoked cheese at the Osteria ai Artisti). Now Autumn has arrived and the temperatures and tourist numbers are dropping.

The Bad: Yesterday it was reported that there have been mosquito-borne cases of West Nile Virus in Venice and other north-eastern towns - so it becomes more important than ever to cover up and avoid bites. Visitors have been told not to donate blood for four weeks after a stay in Venice or the other towns concerned.

22 September 2009

Cheap Ryanair Flights

Ryanair's current special offer is worth checking out - it lasts until tomorrow night and includes some genuinely good offers without all the usual taxes and online check-in charges. If you're happy to travel without hold luggage and you fancy an impromptu city break, you could visit Italian destinations like Rimini, Genoa, Bologna or Parma for next to nothing. The main expense is the booking fee of £5 each way - and personally I always pay extra for priority boarding too, though this isn't an essential. I've booked a return weekend trip from London to Genoa for just £16.02 (it would have been £10.02 without the priority boarding charge). And you could fly from London to Venice for £15 each way. Or Bristol to Rimini for just a fiver.

The offer is a good chance to book a pre-Christmas break, or to investigate a new Italian destination. The deal also includes internal flights between Italian cities.

> Ryanair
> Venice
> Rimini
> Italian airport guide

31 August 2009

Padre Pio statue hides weapons

I noticed in the news today that the Carabinieri have uncovered a stash of 400kg of illegal drugs, money and weapons, the latter hidden under a statue of Padre Pio in a notorious district of Naples (Scampia, where scenes from the film Gomorra were shot). Early today, on the Venetian island of Burano I took another photograph of a statuette of Padre Pio. Recently made a saint, this south Italian hero priest was a pretty controversial figure and not always popular with the Catholic authorities. However, his overwhelming popular appeal with devout working-class Catholics, especially in the south of Italy, means that you'll see his image almost as often as the Virgin Mary, and certainly more than either the Pope or Jesus. Look out for the bearded brown-robed priest next time you're walking through an Italian village or passing a religious souvenir shop. Some would say that this tale of a Padre Pio shrine concealing a Camorra/Mafia stash embodies all the problems of Italy's South.
> My photo gallery of Padre Pio images
> Repubblica: Scampia, sequestratati 400 kg di droga
trovato arsenale sotto statua di Padre Pio

> Padre Pio (Wikipedia)

24 August 2009

Maratea and the South

The newest article on Italy Heaven is about Maratea, a lovely village in the Basilicata region. Maratea is on the coast, but is high above sea level and it makes an unusual holiday destination. You can walk up the hill above town (where there is a giant statue of Christ the Redeemer), sip an aperitivo in the elegant village piazza, explore historic alleys... or catch the bus down to the sea to potter around a port or splash about on a small beach.

I visited Maratea as part of a southern tour which will be fully online shortly. Destinations added so far, connected to each other by train, are: Paestum, Palinuro, Maratea. The website also contains a new section, Photo Galleries, which will feature collections of images of some of the places and themes featured on Italy Heaven.

> Maratea
> Maratea photo gallery

and a good article about Maratea from the Guardian, earlier this year: Absolutely Fabio's (apparently Cannavaro is a visitor)

29 July 2009

No food from BA

As usual, I was quite appreciative of the vegetarian sandwiches offered by BA on my flight from London to Venice last night. Now I learn that the nervous airline is to scrap food on flights after 10am lasting less than two and a half hours - in other words, many of their UK to Italy flights. It sounds as though drinks and tiny snacks are still on offer... although there have already been reports suggesting that free alcohol, too, is under threat.

Bizarrely, BA doesn't appear to be offering the option to buy food, either - so if you board without a stash of food in your hand luggage, you're doomed to two hours of hunger.

Although BA are obviously desperate to save money, this seems rather counter-productive to me. Those of us who choose BA over budget airlines do so because of the relative 'luxury' on offer. Flying Venice - London, BA flights generally cost slightly more than Ryanair. Factoring in the more convenient airports, the generous baggage allowance and the calm atmosphere make BA competitive. For those of us used to Easyjet and Ryanair, being brought free food and drink in our seats seems both convenient and decadent. Without that extra perk, the budget airlines might start to seem a better option again.

Flights affected are likely to include services from London to Venice, Milan and Rome (2 hours 25 minutes). On a recent flight from Catania (3 hours 25 mins), I was impressed by the mini-meal I received (photographed). Obviously this length journey rated above the simple sandwich option but below a hot meal. The simple 'wrap' sandwich, I noted, contained 40 different ingredients including 10 E-numbers.

BA's stinginess starts on Monday, so I'll have to remember to fill up on cheap pasta at Marco Polo Airport before boarding my return flight to London.

12 July 2009

The Dolomites are UNESCO listed

A couple of weeks ago UNESCO added another location to Italy's impressive tally of World Heritage Sites: the Dolomites. This mountain range in northern Italy is only the second listing for Italy in the 'natural' category, with 42 'cultural' entries. You can read more about the Dolomites on the main website. Two other UNESCO sites which I've recently added to Italy Heaven are Paestum (Greek temples) and the volcanic Aeolian Islands (Italy's other 'natural' listing)
> Full UNESCO list for Italy, with links to articles

25 June 2009

Dream islands

Where, just a plane, coach then ferry journey from the UK, could you see dolphins, climb an active volcano, swim in the sea, enjoy a fine meal of local products and relax by a harbour sipping sweet wine.. all in the space of a day? The answer is the Aeolian Islands, an archipelago off the northern coast of Sicily, close to the 'toe' of Italy. From thermal mud-baths to sophisticated hotels, from traffic-free solitude to lively bars, from flowery footpaths to barren lava-slopes, the seven inhabited islands offer a whole range of holiday options. The peak summer season is busy but outside July and August you'll find affordable prices and plenty of peace and charm.

> Read our new feature on the Aeolian Islands

I visited the islands a couple of weeks ago on a long tour of southern Italy. More new destinations, travel tips and a journal will follow on Italy Heaven, as well as an extended section for the seven Aeolian Islands: Lipari, Stromboli, Vulcano, Panarea, Salina, Alicude and Filicudi.

20 February 2009

Venice Carnival 2009

I have just put online some of my photographs of this year's Carnival in Venice. There have been some great costumes - including a real hot-air balloon - and colourful characters. This weekend is the final of the 'best costume' award and should see entertaining parades of costumed revellers.
> Venice Carnival photos 2009
> About the Carnival

4 February 2009

Valentine's Day in Italy

If you are looking for romantic ideas for Valentine's Day, why not book a short-notice trip to Italy? It is Carnival time in Venice, and hotel prices are high... but the atmosphere should be very special. We've just published a new page, Romance in Venice, with insider tips for romantic places to stroll and share special moments. For more ideas on romantic breaks or honeymoons, try our Romance in Rome and Romantic Italy suggestions.

3 February 2009

Yet another Ryanair charge

For several months Ryanair have been emailing travellers with warnings that they should only take one piece of hand-luggage aboard their plane. Now their motivation is clear. The low-cost airline is planning a £30 charge for anyone attempting to take extra luggage aboard - including duty-free purchases, laptops and handbags. Those of us who dutifully carry one piece of hand-luggage through security, then remove a second bag from within to carry over one shoulder, before heading to the airport shops to acquire bags of shopping will have to reconsider our moves. I don't know how Ryanair plan to enforce the charge - the staff amid the chaos of the boarding gates would presumably have this added to their workload.
> Guardian: Ryanair: £30 charge if you can't fit duty free in your hand luggage
> Ryanair: Cabin baggage allowance
> Ryanair: news item including the threatened £30 charge

8 January 2009

Venice Carnival 2009

Venice Carnival time is rapidly approaching and if you are thinking of visiting you should book as soon as possible - this is a busy (and expensive) time for hotels in Venice. At the moment, though, there are still some decent prices to be had. Researching today, I've found a DIY 2-night trip for under £225 per person., with even cheaper options available. Weekdays are much less frantic and more economical. I looked for a trip from 16th - 18th February.

Ryanair flights for two people from London Stansted to Treviso (a 50-minute bus ride away; €20 for two return tickets) departing Monday morning and returning late Wednesday evening:
£171 for two (includes taxes but not hold baggage or credit card charges)

Superior double room for two nights in the good 3-star Hotel Antiche Figure on the Grand Canal (close to the Treviso Airport bus stop): €398 (at today's exchange rate, £358)

Total cost for flights, hotel & bus transfer: for 2 people: £547

Be romantic, have an adventure and beat the winter blues!

Want cheaper accommodation? Or something smarter? Other hotels with availability for those dates include:
Hotel Rigel (3-star on the Lido): €58 per night
Ca' Alexander B&B: €100
Hotel Campiello (really nice 3-star): €110
San Clemente Palace (5-star on its own island): €231
Palazzo Abadessa (one of Venice's best): €225
Hotel Luna Baglioni (5-star close to St. Mark's): €275
(price given is per night, for a double room)

> Search for more Venice hotels

For Venice lovers - here's a picture of snow on gondolas in Venice, today.