Venice – Is it overrated?

Wolfsberg to Venice

Distance: 216 miles

Duration: 3 hrs and 30 mins.

We left Wolfsberg mid-morning to drive to Italy. Normally, we would avoid paid toll roads but this time we chose the quickest way to Venice and that is through the Autostrada. We paid €18.00 for the use of the Italian motorway but unlike the smooth road surface of France or the sturdy bridges of Germany, the road in Italy is bumpy and poorly maintained. We would never understand the spaces in between the slabs of their bridges that made our car jump a little every time we pass by. Also, many drivers are ill-disciplined that they would cut you off with little regards to their safety or yours. This is something that occurs everywhere and sure enough they happen in the UK too but it seems more pronounce in Italy. When we reached Mestre we were waived at by an unmarked police car and asked to pull over and so we did. The police showed us his badge and asked to check my hand bag. We weren’t sure what was happening at this point so we foolishly handed him my bag. He refused to take it but instead asked my husband to open it for him. He then proceeded to sniffing it which I found quiete funny and asked if we were carrying drugs. Of course we said no! And well whatever he was sniffing, he didn’t find it and so we were cleared to drive off.

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We passed many tunnels that cut through these mountains.
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The road from Austria to Italy.

Venice is in everyone’s bucket list of places to visit and it’s price tag definitely reflects that. We didn’t think we would afford staying there with our limited budget so we looked for an accommodation just outside of the historic centre. We stayed in an apartment in Mestre, 5 and a half miles from Venice. Many people visit Venice this way and there are a lot of hotels in the area. Don’t expect Mestre to accommodate to tourist as much as other places in Italy do though.. it doesn’t. There are many restaurants around but by large, they serve Italian dish. It will be hard to find roast dinner or sausagees in Mestre and breakfast mainly consist of croissant and espresso. This doesn’t bother me as I love Italian food to begin with but if you’re not a fan of Italian food this might be a problem. There is a McDonalds in the town centre, so this can be an option. And if you look hard enough, you might even find an Irish pub (we did). Also, expect restaurants to be closed around lunch time to early afternoon. This is a practice that is common in towns than in the cities of Italy. It is called riposo (rest) or the Italian siesta. They typically close around lunch time so catch your lunch early and opens at about 4 or 5 in the afternoon. This is also the time when Italians are out and about until late in the evening.

You can drive from Mestre to Venice by crossing a bridge over the sea and it will only take 12 minutes but the car park is ridiculously expensive. Venice is navigable by foot and by boat so if you bring a car, you will have to park until you are ready to leave. Meanwhile, the bus fare from Mestre to Venice only costs € 1.50 each way. You can also go there by tram but the bus stop is closer to us and it only takes 15 minutes.

Town square of Mestre.

When it comes to views, Venice does not disappoint. You can see it in pictures but seeing it up close and walking its street is mind boggling. It is certainly breath-taking and history abounds every corner. We were there from early in the morning and at some point you need to draw the line on when to stop taking pictures and experience the moment. The first thing that we wanted to see is the Piazza de San Marco. This is the city’s main square and was described by Napoleon as “the most beautiful drawing room of Europe”. Indeed it is beautiful but also heavily crowded. The main attraction of the piazza is the Basilica de San Marco. There are many churches in Venice but this is the most popular and probably the most spectacular.  Its Italo-Byzantine architecture and opulent façade is a symbol of the Venetian’s wealth and power. Also located in the square is the 15th century clock tower or Torre dell’Orologio and the basilica’s bell tower (Campanile) both can be explored if you have the time. There are websites that will allow you to book tickets to enter these buildings which will probably be advisable as the que is quiete long.

Piazza de San Marco
Piazza de San Marco
Basilica de San Marco
Basilica de San Marco
The Campanile.
The Campanile.
The clock tower.
The clock tower.

You will get lost in Venice, literally and we did. You can always find your way around and we definitely did…with the help of Google Maps. We got lost looking for the Rialto. We didn’t mind though, anywhere you look are spectacular buildings and you would want to stop and take pictures. Rialto is the commercial and financial hub of the city and its famous monument is the Rialto bridge (Ponte di Rialto). It is the oldest  bridge located in the Grand Canal. As most things in Venice, it is best to come in the early morning before swathes of tourists come out or in the evening when the crowd begin to disperse. If you find a spot to take a picture, take advantage of it, it’s hard to come by.

Rialto bridge
Rialto bridge
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View from the Rialto bridge.

The city is overrun by tourists and in peak season, the number of tourists more than double the number of locals. It is said that after 9 am, most people that you will come across in Venice are tourists. A big volume of tourists that come to Venice are from the cruise ships that made the city its attraction for a holiday package. In some way, it has become a victim of its notoriety.

Venice is popular for many reasons and one of those is its Venetian mask. Wearing a mask is a centuries old tradition worn during the Carnival of Venice. The designs are intricate and colourful and there are plenty of shops around the city.

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This mask cost 70 euros and though it is beautiful, is just too expensive for me.

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Medico Della Peste. The Plague Doctor’s mask.

The iconic way of touring Venice is through the Gondola but it will set you back € 80 for a 45 minute ride. We opted to use the water bus for € 20 unlimited hop on hop off ride for the whole day and we didn’t regret it. Even the views of Venice from the water is spectacular. Water buses ferry people to the whole island as well as the surrounding islands of Venice like Murano where Murano glass originates from. I did my research and went straight to the back of the boat for the best photo opportunities.

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Beautiful Gondolas.
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View of Venice from the water bus.

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The water bus will drop you off in different spots in Venice.
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The only way to photograph the whole Rialto bridge is from the water.

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The streets of Venice is a pedestrian only zone. The ground is covered by cobbled stones and trees are very few. I think it’s what made it even hotter. Gelatos, cafes, shops and restaurants are everywhere so you can always get refreshments. It is expensive though, expect to pay double the price of what you would pay outside the city. There are a lot of horror stories of tourists paying extortionate prices. Just this year, four Japanese tourists paid €1,000 for four steaks, a plate of mixed seafoods and water. I read that the food in Venice doesn’t represent Italian food as locals would have it. The restaurants cater mainly to tourists and have adapted their way of cooking. We thought about bringing sandwich and water but we didn’t really want to eat soggy sandwich on our holiday so we opted to buy slices of pizza in one of the street stalls and looked for a shaded spot to eat. We did buy cold drinks in the shop but we also brought a bottle of water which we re-filled in the many water-refilling taps. It was really hot when we went to Venice so it was important that we kept ourselves hydrated.

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Start early when visiting Venice.
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The streets become busy later in the day.
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Part of the canal system in Venice.

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Visiting Venice is expensive but there are cheaper ways of exploring it. As spontaneous as we would like us to be, it saved us a lot of money by researching before we went. If I go back to Venice I would definitely go in spring or autumn when the crowds are smaller and the weather more agreeable.

Wolfsberg -An unexpected find.

Vienna to Wolfsberg

Distance: 166 miles

Duration: 2 hrs 30 minutes

I must admit, I have never heard of Wolfsberg until the night we planned on going there. We were only looking for a place to spend the night until we continue on to Venice, Italy. While looking for a place to stay in Wolfsberg, I came across many nice accomodations in Airbnb but they are in Slovenia. Wolfsberg is very close to Austria’s border to Slovenia. We then settled for a hilltop hotel from Booking.com with free breakfast. Sometimes, you may find a cheaper accomodation in Airbnb but if you consider that you will get free breakfast for a slightly more expensive hotel, then you may end up with a cheaper deal. This three star hotel or gasthof in german seems to be popular to bikers. We were greeted by an old German-speaking lady and eventhough she didn’t speak a word in english and we could not speak in German, we were able to get by and check- in with ease. After spending two nights putting up with the noise of the busy streets in Vienna, it was nice to be outside of hearing distance of passing cars.

There aren’t many information online about Wolfsberg apart from a few lines in Wikipedia that says that it is the capital of Carinthia and is located in the Lavanttal Alps. One of the things I love about road trip is discovering little towns that are not widely known to foreign travellers. In this trip, Wolfsberg is one of those amazing places that we discovered while traveling. What I found more surprising is that it seems to be well built for holiday makers with many shops and restaurants in town. We arrived late in the afternoon so if there were a lot of tourists during the day they must have left at that time. I thought maybe this place is popular to the local travellers.

 

 

 

 

Probably the main attraction in Wolfsberg is the castle. Also called Schloss Henckel – Donnersmarck, it was already closed by the time we got there but the ground was still open. You can drive up to the castle but we also saw some people hiking up from the town.

 

 

 

We strolled around town with its quaint little street and architectures.

 

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One of the things I like to do when travelling is to check out the supermarket. Its a good way of discovering local produce and a cheaper way of finding fresh quality food instead of eating out in fast food restaurants. As expected, the supermarket is full of different kinds of sausages. We stockpiled on water and snacks to take on our drive to Italy.

 

 

It was a treat staying in Wolfsberg. We didn’t expect to see a built-up but quaint little town and there are probably more to see in there but for us, one day is enough as we left Austria to travel to Italy.

 

 

 

 

Vienna – Timeless and classic

Nuremberg to Vienna

Distance: 313 miles

Travel duration: 5 hours

After catching a breakfast at a local bakery in Nuremberg, we hit the road again to Vienna,  Austria. We drove the Autobahn most of our way to Vienna. We couldn’t help but be impressed by the roads in Germany, especially the Autobahn. We encountered only a few sections of this road that imposes speed limit. For the most part, you can drive up to the limit of your speedometer and your driving ability of course. How is this possible? Well, the construction of the road is so good that driving condition is a lot more pleasant. When a part of the road is damaged the Germans do not just repair it, they remove and replace the whole section keeping the high standard of road construction. Furthermore, lorries are not allowed to overtake in the Autobahn which limits disruption in the flow of traffic as well as improving safety. Not only was the road pleasurable to drive to but the views were equally as good. We drove past miles upon miles of dense forests cut through by wide, open roads.

Nuremberg
As we searched for somewhere to have breakfast in Nuremberg, these houses near where we stayed caught my attention.

 

We continued on the Autobahn until we reached Germany’s border with Austria. The motorway of Austria is also called Autobahn and you must be aware that when you drive these roads, you have to display a valid vignette. This is the equivalent of paying a toll except that there are no toll booths. In summary, you have to pay when you drive the motorway of Austria. There were no explicit signs at least in English as a caution to purchase this so you must do your research before you drive abroad. The vignette is readily available in petrol stations along the motorway and the minimum duration you can buy is 10 days which costs €9. This is a small price to pay compare to the fine which can be up to 120 Euros. The vignette sticker has to be visibly displayed onto the wind shield.

Speaking of borders, you may see physical borders as you drive in between most countries in Europe but they are unmanned. Citizens of the member states of the European Union can travel freely in between EU countries and so our passport was only checked before we crossed the channel to France. This is the same when you go back as your passport will only be checked when you leave France back to the UK. They do spot checks though as we were once pulled over just after we crossed the border in France from Germany to have our passports checked.  The reason for this is that that UK did not sign the Schengen agreement. The Schengen treaty abolished the borders in between member states. Your documents will be checked when you enter the Schengen zone and it won’t be checked as you move across each member countries. Switzerland is not a member of the EU but is in the Schengen zone so there are no checks when you enter it’s territory. This makes a lot of sense when this is a land locked state surrounded by five different countries, four of which are members of the EU. United Kingdom passport holders may not be interested about the Schengen agreement at present but who knows what will happen after Brexit, we might have to read more about this when we leave the EU.

As most drivers know, driving in big cities is stressful and complicated so as you can imagine, driving in a foreign country’s capital is a lot more challenging. We were pulled over for obstructing a tram as the back of our car stuck out onto the track. Tram lines criss-cross all over the city and traveling in one affords you not just a convenient way of travelling but also the wonderful views Vienna has in abundance. The police let us off after giving us a caution that our offence normally costs €50.

 

Road sign
Much of the places we originally planned to go are only a stone’s throw away from Vienna.

 

We arrived to our rented apartment in the affluent district of Währing. Währing is a really nice area with plenty of shops and restaurants around. I have been speaking to our Airbnb host prior to our arrival as when you drive especially in a city, parking is obviously a concern. The carpark closest to us charges € 28 per day while a park and ride just a train stop away from where we were only costs € 3.40  per day. The one in Spittelau is very secure and I can only imagine this to be the same throughout the city so this is probably the most cost effective way to park your car in Vienna.

If you only have a limited time, the easiest way to see some of the grandest and most important buildings in Vienna is to tour the 6.5 km Ringstrasse. Some of the impressive buildings located along this ring road is the Opera house, the Austrian Parliament building and the Rathaus. It would have taken us the only day that we have to explore the city if we had stopped to all of the famous landmarks along this route and in the midst of the heatwave across Europe, it was just too much. So we sat mostly in the Tram, enjoyed the views and pick stops that stood up most for us. Tram 1 travel this route without having to change lines and is included in your travel pass if you purchase one.

 

 

 

We only have one full day to explore Vienna. As it is summer, we have the gift of daylight until the evening. We started by visiting the most important attraction in the city – The Stephansdom. This cathedral bore witness to the most important events in the Habsburg empire.  From the weddings to the funerals of some of the most notable figures in Austrian and European history. This is also the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna.

 

St. Stephen's cathedral
The distinctive roof of St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna consists of over 230, 000 tiles in different colours that form different mosaic patterns.

 

When you read about the history of Vienna, you would most likely come across the Habsburgs. The Habsburg is one of the most distinguished and influential royal houses in Europe. They occupied the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor from 1438 to 1740 and produced emperors for some of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe such as the Kingdom of England, Kingdom of Germany and the Kingdom of Hungary and Vienna was the seat of their power. While the time of emperors and queens are long gone, they left a legacy of glorious palaces and royal gardens.

 

Schloss Belvedere
Schloss Belvedere was the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

 

As the heatwave dominates the headline across Europe, we planned our day so that our tour of the Schönbrunn garden is done in the early evening.  The other advantage of coming here last is that tour buses were just leaving when we arrived. There would have been more people had we come earlier as it is probably the most famous tourist attraction in Vienna. The garden is free and open until 9 pm in summer. We didn’t go inside the palace but it would take you all day to explore the massive garden on it’s own.  It is comparable to other royal gardens in Europe and I was surprised to find that the entrance is free although there are some areas where you have to pay to enter. A hike up to the Gloriette is the perfect end to our wonderful day exploring the city of Vienna.

Schonbrunn Palace
One word comes to mind as you come close to Schloss Schonbrunn – it is immense!

 

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The back of Schloss Schonbrunn and part of it’s manicured garden.

 

Schonbrunn garden
A view of the Gloriette from below the garden. It is a gentle hike up to get there and there are plenty of trees along the way for shades.

 

Garden of Schonbrunn
A hike up the Gloriette is rewarded by a commanding view of the palace and the city.

 

Indeed, a whole day is not enough to explore Vienna with layers upon layers of history. I am one for learning about culture and people and if I ever go back, I would spend more time in the museums which Vienna has no short supply of. But road trip is about enjoying the journey and exploring the wonderful stops along the way. After dinner, we decided to drive to Wolfsberg to break our journey to Venice, Italy.

 

 

 

Beginning of a love affair.

For someone who is yet to have a driving license, I sure love road trips. My first experience of a planned road trip was a 13 hour drive from Bulacan, our hometown in the Philippines to Caramoan in Camarines province. Frequent stops and poor road conditions resulted in us taking 23 hours to reach our destination. If you know the TV series Survivor, you will be familiar with Caramoan as most countries shoot there for their location. It is untamed, raw, beautiful and most of all, not over run by tourists.

2A view of the Pacific Ocean dotted by the many islands of the Caramoan peninsula and choices of sandy beaches.

 

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Caramoan is not easily accessible and less developed so fewer tourist go there compare to Boracay or Palawan.

 

c2The only way to explore the islands of Caramoan is by renting a boat.

After our wedding last year, my husband and I decided to take a road trip to Lake Como in Italy. If you drive non-stop it should only take 15 hours from Derby to Lake Como but we decided to avoid the toll ways (especially in France), and make the most of our trip by driving through quaint French villages and stopped for two nights in Strasbourg and in the Alpine village of Sobrio in Switzerland to break-up the journey. This way, we weren’t driving more than 5 hours in an easy and relaxed pace.

 

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Cathedral of our lady of Strasbourg.

 

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The Alsace region for which Strasbourg is the capital borders north-eastern France with Germany. This traditional German meal of pork knuckle with sauerkraut and a pint of Kronenbourg is commonly served in Strasbourg.

 

S6We drove high up in the mountains to find a place to car camp and was rewarded by this view in Sobrio.

 

S4This beautiful church high up in an Alpine village.

 

Left. People actually live in this old stone house. Right. A traditional Swiss chalet.

 

S11Although we were still in Switzerland, the noticeable Italian influence comes as people greet us in Italian and this house that looked more Italian than Swiss.

 

8Me and my husband in front of Milan cathedral.

 

11San Siro. Home of Seri A giants A.C. Milan and Inter Milan.

 

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Lake Como sits at the foot of the Italian Alps near the border Italy and Switzerland.

 

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You are surrounded by the mountains of the Alps anywhere you look around the lake.

 

P1000286The shores of Lake Como is dotted by old villages and beautiful villas.

 

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The tranquil village of Dervio in Lake Como.

 

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A walk up a busy street of Bellagio with shops lining the way.

 

c5A quieter street in Dervio with old stone houses on the way to the Lake.

This year, my father in law tagged along. We planned to visit Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Ljubljana and Bratislava. Adam and I initially wanted to drive to Croatia but we were told from the beginning by the car rental company that we couldn’t go there. My father in law would also like to go to Venice and Switzerland though my husband and I knew that with the two weeks that we have, this will be a push as we do not want to be tired and stressed out by driving. This year, we rented an SUV and were given a 7-seater Peugeot 5008. For 14 days, with an added driver and European insurance cover, this cost us £1,000. Do shop around as some of the quotes that my husband were given was as high as £1,600 with cap on the driving mileage so this from Europcar is the best deal we could get.
When we picked up the car on the day that we leave, we were given an unwelcomed news – we cannot drive to Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Basically all of the destinations that we planned to go except for Vienna. I don’t know if this was explained to my husband when he paid for the booking on the phone, they definitely told him about Croatia but cannot remember that this was mentioned. We didn’t think that there will be restrictions to these countries as they are members of European Union so do check for driving restrictions if you plan to rent. But what I love about road trip is the spontaneity, freedom and flexibility of the travel. We basically had to scrap our plan on the day of our departure and make it up as we go along. Europe is vast, beautiful and well connected by roads so you can take your pick of destinations as you go along.
We started our trip on a 198 mile journey from Derby to Ashford in Kent where we stayed for a night. We crossed the 61 metres high Dartford crossing. This comes at a small fee of £2.50 which you will have to pay on line. As everyone seems to be leaving for France during summer, we did not want to take our chance with the traffic and so we booked a bed and breakfast half an hour’s drive from the Port of Dover. We headed early to the port the following day and embarked on a DFDS ferry to Dunkirk, France which took 2 hours. The ferry costs £69.

12The white cliffs of Dover as we leave England for France.

From Dunkirk, we drove for 8 hours, 482 miles to Nuremberg in Germany. This is the longest and most tiring part of our trip. We reached our rented apartment in Nuremberg at around 10 pm. The lady who owned the flat stayed up to welcome us. It was my father in-law’s first experience with Airbnb and he was pleasantly surprised. The flat was light, airy, clean and most of all cheap. When you are on a road trip, you need to take into consideration the prices of fuel, toll fee and the many accommodations that you have to book so this can end up to be more expensive than an all-inclusive beach holiday in Spain. This time, I worked on £1,500 budget to cover the costs of travel and accommodations for two weeks. This includes the ferry, fuel, car park and toll ways. We went over by £68 so I think we did pretty well. I used Airbnb and booking.com for all our accommodations. You can get cheaper hotel rates this way as well as flexibility as a lot of the rooms and apartments can be cancelled for free up to the day of your arrival. Another advantage of using Airbnb is meeting-up your host. Often, they are there to receive you and give you recommendations to the best places to go to and eat. I will never forget Ada, our lovely host in Dorio, Lake Como last year. Not only that we lived in a very traditional home in an old Italian village away from the crowds but Ada told us of the best places to eat in the area including Pasticceria Lorla in Bellano, frequented by the locals and they make the best gelato we have ever had in Italy.

We didn’t get to see the city centre of Nuremberg as we set off to Vienna, Austria the following morning. We only spent the night there to rest and it did helped that the apartment we rented is away from the city so therefore it was quiet.