Italy by Rail (Part 4: Venice)

IMG_1193I leap at any opportunity to share my love of Venice, one of my favourite places to be, so I’m excited to be writing this post and sharing some of my top picks!

Nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking sight that greets you as you leave the train station and find yourself on the edge of the Grand Canal. For me, this beats arriving by water-taxi or speedboat hands down. It is like entering another world – and one that you’ll be very reluctant to say goodbye to when the time comes.

Venice itself is pretty small, and if you like to tick off the sights, you’ll be able to do this easily, without much need for public transport. However, Venice is also the perfect place to just BE. So take a vaporetto (water bus) for no reason – if you’re under 29, the ‘Rolling Venice’ card and 3-day young persons’ travel card are a bargain! – island-hop with hoards of tourists, and find your own little piece of paradise. Enjoy navigating the intricate network of narrow streets, and the joy of leaving a busy tourist hot-spot and finding yourself in an isolated square within seconds.

I’ve been lucky to visit Venice 3 times in the past few years, but I still get a thrill from a ride in the gondola (made less romantic by the tourists snapping away at you as you go by, but with a charm of it’s own, and offering a unique perspective of Venice), and scoffing gelato in St Mark’s Square. However, my heart lies with the islands in the Venetian Lagoon, and the peace you find in the evenings when the vaporetto have stopped their regular trips, and the crowds  have returned to their cruise ships and tour buses. When you’re booking your Venetian adventure, consider staying on the island of Murano. While this might mean limiting your evening meal options, or splashing out for a water taxi or late vaporetto after dinner in Venice, it’s worth it for the tranquil feeling that you are the only people left on the island at night, and waking to watch the locals go about their daily business – this might sound obvious, but literally everything happens by boat; rubbish collection, fruit and veg sales, construction… it’s an awesome insight into island life! Last time I visited Venice, The Boy and I opted for pure luxury after 10 days of hostels, and booked 3 nights at La Gare Hotel Venezia – a stunning hotel on Murano, complete with prosecco breakfasts (and a spread to make your mouth water), comfortable luxurious rooms, and a smashing restaurant.

The small islands of Burano, famous for it’s lace-making, and Murano, of glass-making fame, are nicely geared up for tourism, with plenty of photo opportunities and locally-produced souvenirs to take home, but don’t dismiss the tiny island of Torcello, in the north of the Lagoon. With a full-time population of just 10 people, including the parish priest, Torcello offers breathing space after the crowds on Burano and Murano. There is a cathedral and church that are worth checking out, and the Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge), but the real attraction for me is Osteria Al Ponte del Diavolo. If you’re looking for a hearty but refined Italian meal, in a peaceful sunny garden, this is the perfect lunch stop. Oh and they also do wedding receptions, in case you are thinking about Italian nuptials!

Below: Pretty coloured houses in Burano, and a glass sculpture in Murano.

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I’m out of superlatives, so I guess it’s time for me to stop writing. I hope this post offers an insight into what makes Venice so special, and will encourage you to think outside the box just a little when you live your Venetian adventure.

Useful sites:

http://www.veneziaunica.it/en/content/rolling-venice

http://www.lagarehotelvenezia.com/en/

http://uk.osteriaalpontedeldiavolo.com/

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5* South Wales

When the post-festivities January blues kicked in, The Boy and I opted for flight not fight, and made the 30-ish minute journey to The Celtic Manor Resort. I’m not a golfer, neither is The Boy, so Celtic Manor might not seem the natural choice for a get-away, but ohhhh my goodness this place is about so much more than golf! It’s a gorgeous place to rejuvenate, with a stunning spa, and plenty of scrummy choice for foodies (and yes, apparently it has some golf courses – I saw a lot of grass, so I’ll believe it).

Despite its proximity to the doom and gloom of the M4, once you reach the grounds of the Celtic Manor, you pretty much forget the outside world. It’s a resort, so once you’re in, you can (metaphorically) emerse yourself in a little bubble of slightly smug contentment. From the moment the private taxi collects you from the car park, you know you’re going to be well looked after.

We opted for the dinner, bed and breakfast package, with an upgrade so that we could indulge at Rafters restaurant – There are several plush eateries to choose from. If you’ve an eye for a bargain, join Celtic Manor’s mailing list, so that you are notified about upcoming packages – The mid-week deals are particularly good, and it’s a brilliant gift for someone you want to spoil rotten.

The standard rooms at Celtic Manor are tastefully decorated (more corporate than boutique, but none-the-less delightful for that) and a decent size, with a mini bar, good-sized bathroom and huge comfortable beds. Inclusive breakfast is a buffet, with the option of cooked-to-order extras, and the attention to detail considering the number of guests is fab! There is a mouth-watering selection of continental and cooked food – I’m a big fan of blueberry muffins followed by Glamorgan sausages for breakfast, mmmm!

As for dinner… Rafters can be found in the Twenty Ten Clubhouse (golfing reference…) and our package included 3 courses. The chef kindly whipped up an off-menu tomato tagliatelle dish for me, and The Boy put two fingers up to his enforced anaemic vegetarian existence at home, and predictably chose a steak. The wine list is extensive, and I opted for a new world Sauvignon – I’m no wine expert, but wow this was good. We both went for the aptly-named Chocolate Heaven dessert, and the brownie was out of this world. I can remember every mouthful and I’d return for that alone! The lovely, attentive waiting team and charming ambience help you to forgive the slightly slow service, and the free taxi back to the comforts of the resort hotel all add to that feeling of luxury.

This won’t be our last visit to The Celtic Manor Resort, and although we’ve only experienced a tiny piece of the resort, I know we’ll be back for the food and drinks, and to ignore the golf once again…

Beijing

How can I follow Anita’s fantastic Japan post? Continuing with the Eastern theme, I’m going to share my experiences of Beijing. As a Communist country, I didn’t find the same magic Anita found in Japan, but China is captivating in its own right. So here are … Continue reading

Japan

When the lovely, unicorn-loving illustrator Anita Perry said she was heading to Japan with her equally lovely new husband, we all agreed there could be no better honeymoon destination for the quirkiest girl we know! I’ve persuaded her to write a guest … Continue reading

York

I spent a wet and windy weekend in York with The Boy this autumn, and it blew our expectations out of the water! York is unlike any other city I’ve visited, and is more than worthy of being the subject of a blog post, so here goes…

A friend of ours from Doncaster recommended The Star Inn The City pub, and its cosy lounge, in its riverside setting close to the city’s Museum Gardens, gave us some respite from the cold. The food looked incredible, however as we already had dinner plans based on a recommendation from another friend, we confined ourselves to wine and coffee (both fantastic), and gazing lustfully at everyone else’s food. We had dinner at the Mumbai Lounge, an Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant in the heart of York – I’m a vegetarian, so I never expect my restaurant reviews to be respected by carnivores, but WOW this place is amazing! The Boy says his curry was the best he’d ever eaten. Bold statement, I know.

We spent a great morning at the National Railway Museum, and I wholeheartedly recommend this! I confess I’m a total history geek, and lover of all things vintage, so wandering round original royal carriages and exploring the stories of 100-year-old restored steam trains, was a little piece of heaven for me. HOWEVER… The Boy does not share my enthusiasm, and still had a good time, there is so much to see, and if I still haven’t convinced you, there is some really good cake in the tea shop!!

If shopping is your thing, York has plenty to offer. I could have spent all day in Demijohn’s – This is a “liquid deli” where you can try stunning oils, vinegars and a huge selection of drinks from their ‘demi johns’, and take what you fancy home in attractive bottles with hand-scribed personal messages. At home our nearest Demijohns store is apparently in Oxford. We may have to relocate!!! A visit to “The Shambles” is a must. This narrow, cobbled street is over 900 years old, and the slanting higgledy-piggledy roofs of the buildings lining it almost meet above your head. It’s an eerie reminder of the past, and retains an element of mystery and intrigue, however nowadays it’s the home of shops, cafes and tourist attractions, and it gives its name to a brilliant market.

Now for a ‘marmite’ comment… I’m a big, unashamed fan of using Premier Inn for city breaks in Britain. OK so it might not be my top choice for a special occasion, but I honestly think you can’t beat it for a night or two on a tight budget, and if it helps you to experience more of this amazing country (and leaves more spending money!), that must be a good thing right?! We paid £70 for 2 nights in York, with free parking, just a few miles from the centre – Brilliant. So if random city breaks feel a bit out of reach, it’s worth looking at local budget accommodation.

York is a beautiful city, and a great place to visit. We hope next time to head up in summer, to picnic in the gardens, check out the museums, and refill our bottles at Demijohns of course!