Day 1

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

So we went to the trouble of booking a flight later in the day (1 pm!) with the expectation that we would be able to not have to get up so early. Sadly, as we are leaving from Luton Airport, about an hour's coach trip from London where we live, it ended up being an early day for us. It did not help that to even catch the coach we had to first travel about thirty minutes on a local city bus that, and compounded with our desire to be early, meant the alarm went off at 6 am. A long day. It does not make it any better that a short distance down the road from us is Heathrow Airport but, sadly, the cheaper flights do not leave from there.

The city bus runs 24 hours for us and the most you have to wait for it is 15 minutes so we made our way with our minimal luggage the short distance to the stop. We are flying EasyJet and to avoid having to pay for luggage we have only carry-ons this trip - A small, wheeled, suitcase suitable for carry on (yes, I checked the size) and my wife Mel's rucksack. This is probably the least amount I have ever taken on a trip…and it does make things easier.

Have you ever wondered whether your luggage wheels are going to last as you walk along the street? Something that does nag at me occasionally. They are only stubby little things and I can't figure out how they can survive the punishment of being dragged along for mile after mile. Ok, in the airport with the polished floors the wheels are fine but bumping about on the pavement is another thing altogether.

In any case, the bus trip to Marble Arch was uneventful and we were, of course, about 45 minutes early for our bus so we sat at the stop to wait. The weather is miserable. Damp and cold. Trouble is, I don't think it is much better in Venice. Looking at the forecast it seems we are not going to have any good weather except on Tuesday when the sun is supposed to make an appearance. I guess going off season has it's benefits but also it's drawbacks.

We watched one of the buses to Luton go by as we waited for ours. We were not the only ones there as several other groups of tourists headed off on various bus services as they came and went.

Eventually the coach arrived and I made the mistake of going to put our luggage into the automatically-opening hold under the bus before the bus driver saw our ticket that I left with Mel. Shame on me. The trip was quick and painless as we wound our way up to the airport. I like this bus because it goes along the back roads parallel to the motorway only resorting to that after the last stop at Golders Green in the north of the city. No WI-FI on board but it did have foot rests which we used as we got ourselves comfortable for the trip.

One of the reasons why we chose to take the bus to the airport is because it actually goes directly to the airport. The train might be quicker but you have to take a bus when you arrive at Luton station at the bottom of the hill to the airport at the top of the hill. So, all in all, not any quicker at all.

Of course, we had several hours before our flight but the airport is being renovated right now so it is a bit of a mess. Before security there only a few shops to visit so after we walked through WH Smith we had pretty much seen it all. I do like travel as it does give us an excuse to have fast food so the option here was Burger King. I don't mind their breakfasts but they were serving their dinner menu anyway so I went for a Whopper with Cheese as we found ourselves a place to eat in the rather messy dining area. I think they are not really trying to keep it up what with the construction all around - It will all be demolished at some point anyway.

Having completed our dining (!), not having any bags to check and with our pre-printed boarding passes (I even paid, yes PAID, for reserved seats on the flight) we headed through security which was quick and easy. They picked out our luggage to look at but only asked us a few questions before we were able to move on.

On the secure side of Luton is the normal selection of shops - Starbuck's, WH Smith (yes, another one), Boots, Pret, etc., etc. We grabbed a drink at Starbuck's and sat to wait for our gate to be announced. I picked up a coke for the trip as I know that EasyJet charge for everything and even at £1.80 it is likely a lot less expensive than on the plane.

Our plane was not attached to a walkway so we had to walk across the concrete to get to it meaning that we were all queued up as one big group to get onto the plane. We opted to check our carry on (for free) and were “accelerated” past the big queue waiting to be checked to the back of the other queue snaking down the stairs waiting to walk out to the plane. Given the option I generally check my luggage even if it might be possible to take it as carry-on because I can't stand the hassle of finding a space in the overhead bins so not having it meant we quickly boarded for the just-under 2 hour flight.

The view out the window during the flight was boring - Just clouds so I spent the time using one of my Christmas gifts: Wireless headphones with noise-cancellation. I had them hooked up to my phone that I stowed in the pocket in front of me. Great! Mel spent the time reading the Kindle and dozing…

As with the rest of the flight the arrival in Venice was somewhat anti-climactic as it was cold, cloudy and, unlike London, rainy. We stopped way out on the concrete and had to catch a bus to the terminal. Not a great first impression then.

The border was quick and painless though as we quickly found ourselves waiting for the bags. I had not given a lot of thought to how to get from the airport to the city as I knew roughly where the hotel was (near the train station) and I also knew there were a number of transport options available. We wanted to catch the boat as this is the ideal way to enter Venice for the first time. After picking up our bags we entered a heaving arrivals hall. I spotted a public transport desk and discussed the options with the attendant. She convinced us that taking the bus (yes road bus) was the best way in given the weather and at the same time we got three-day transport passes for use on the public water buses in the city, the “vaporetto” (€46 each including the bus transfer). The number 5 bus was waiting just outside the terminal building and was not all that busy as we sat down for the trip in. We had been told that the minute we touched in on the bus our 72 hours pass started. We are here for four days but as we are leaving on the forth day we will have to use something else to get to the airport anyway.

As most of you will know (!), Venice is what you might call a “floating city”. Venice was built on the shallow marshy water just off the coast of Italy and is criss-crossed with canals. Nowadays there are no motor vehicles allowed in the city, only boats. Venice is, however, connected to the mainland by a long causeway that terminates at a large car park and outdoor bus station, very close to the Venice train station.

The bus took about 30 minutes, stopping at various places along the way in the largely residential outskirts of the city. We could not really see much out of the windows as they were fogged up and coated with rain. Of course we also did not really know where we were going other than the bus stopped sometime after we crossed over the causeway. The causeway was easy to spot and, thankfully, there was only the one stop near Piazzale Roma. The bus station is basically just a big open space of tarmac so we were unceremoniously dropped here in the middle of the, by now, heavy rain. We quickly found an overhang from a building that gave us a small patch of dry space where I consulted Google Maps to figure out where we were and how to get to the hotel. It was just down the canal…the canal????!!!

The package for the trip had appealed not only because of the price but also the fact that the hotel, the “Hotel Carlton on the Grand Canal”, was actually on the Grand Canal and, as it turns out, it is also extremely convenient for public transport as it is only a short distance to the bus station (important in the rain) and across from the train station with a vaporetto stop just there as well.

After getting out our umbrellas we walked to the end of the car park to catch our first glimpse of the Grand Canal. It is only about 45 or so meters across with pavement only a few feet above the surface on either side. Here there is a modern footbridge leading from the bus station forecourt to the train station on the other side and is in constant use. To the right we were able to see down the canal towards our hotel. The buildings along the canal are all joined together, except where a canal interrupts the facade, and about the same height - 3 or 4 stories. There are no tall buildings (except for towers as we would see later) in the city. The canal was busy with all sorts of boat traffic with a vaporetto station to our left on our side of the water. Needless to say that despite the rain Mel was going nuts with the camera.

We knew the hotel was over two bridges to our right so as we covered the short distance we tried to dodge the puddles everywhere and attempted to keep the luggage dry. The small bridges were nothing to be concerned about though are all steps making things a bit awkward.

We almost passed by the hotel without noticing it. It is a building unremarkable and easily overlooked if it were not for the small strip of red carpet leading through the small doorway into the foyer. The place is a bit of a baroque paradise with fake rococo everywhere - Yuck. All of the lobby chairs appeared to be taken with sad looking tourists forlornly looking through the door at the falling rain. Part of the deal was that we were given a “suite”. We waited a few minutes for a bellhop to take our bags and escort us to our room on the third floor. He took us through the garish lobby past a disused grand piano to the tiny lift for the trip to the third floor. Our room, sadly, is not on the canal side of the hotel but rather looks out into a large boring atrium in the middle of the hotel (if the skylight was open we could throw things onto the sad tourists in the lobby). The room is yet more gold and red. A large double bed has a massive ornate headboard and there is an ornate chandelier made of what we assume is Venetian (Murano) glass. A wardrobe has a safe in the bottom that I used to put our English money and passports into - I never carry anything valuable if I don't have to. The washroom is tiny so that when you sit on the toilet your knees pretty much touch the wall with a small sink and shower stall on the right.

Having free WI-FI we quickly got ourselves connected, sorted and drying out. At last I can breathe a sigh of relief. When travelling I am always keen to actually “get there” and get everything sorted so I can get on with the holiday. All systems are go.

Despite the rain it was now 5:30 and having checked out the astronomical prices in the hotel restaurant we decided to go for a bit of a walk to not only get something to eat but check out the area a bit. Passing the glum faces in the lobby we stepped out into the glorious…er…rain. The hotel entrance is right on the pavement beside the canal. To the left is the bus station where we just arrived, across the river in front of us is the rather modern-looking large train station with a bunch of vaporetto boat stops in front and to the right is a large bridge over the canal. Heading off to the right we passed by a church with a large dome that appeared to be closed. We did a double-take as we noticed a Burger King seemingly hidden inside what was otherwise a building exterior much like all the buildings along the canal. A short distance from that Mel keenly spotted a “Magnum” store so we had a look inside to find that you could make your own there! Definitely something to visit later.

Crossing over the bridge we turned right, away from the train station and along an alley. Either side of the busy alley were stalls selling all sorts of things but mostly masks and glass. One place we stepped into had a bakery/gelato counter on the left and a pizzeria/restaurant on the right with a few small tables in the middle. We were keen to our some “bagnettes” - Deep fried filled dumplings. We ordered one of each (with the Nutella one looking particularly tasty) then continued along the alley. It did not really follow a straight line as it calmly meandered around churches and small bridges passing over canals. We spent a lot of time looking in windows and popping into the occasional shop to get a closer look. We were not aware of it but the Venetian Carnival (where the masks, of course, feature) is only a week away so there is a bit of an emphasis on masks here right now.

I was keen to keep walking but we were getting wet so as we entered a small square we decided to turn around but out of the corner of my eye I spied a familiar sign: A Spar. It was housed in an old theatre complete with painted ceiling and stage behind the meat counter. We spent as much time looking at the surrounding building as we did the food on offer. Both were amazing. After a bit of indecision I picked up some cold “frito misto” from the meat counter but we also picked up a couple of bottles of soft drinks and a bag of some puff snack looking a lot like Cheetos. It was already close to 7 so we paid our €0.10 for a bag and headed back to the hotel with our purchases.

Of course, we hadn't actually picked up anything suitable to be called “dinner” so we ended up back at the bakery/gelato/pizzeria that we visited early to get some pizza. What attracted us to the place was the fact that when we bought the bagnettes earlier the guy was very friendly the prices were good and it seemed like it was liked by the locals. On our return we had a look at the pizza menu. Yeah, I know, pizza is Italian but not really Venetian but it was the best option we had seen on our walk - Given that it is a Sunday night many places were closed. The pizza guy was also very friendly. He convinced us that the individual sized pizza were pretty tiny so we decided to pay only a bit more than what two would have cost us for what turned out to be a gigantic LARGE pizza for €18 (plus, they apologised, €1 for the box). We did try for something a bit local and had the “Venetian” style.

The pizza was made fresh so we sat beside the bakery counter and chatted with the attendant for a while. From our stools we could see past the pizza oven into a back area where a lady was busy at work making gnocchi (a potato-based pasta) by hand. We were told that everything here is made on-site including the gelato. We watched as our large portion of pizza dough was thrown into the air then topped with only the barest of topping then slid, carefully, into the oven.

To our left sat a group of about 5 or 6 people who were sharing the same sized pizza we had just ordered for the two of us…Yeah, there will be leftovers!

Ten minutes later our pizza was ready and we made our way with the rather large and awkward box through the rain over the bridge back to the hotel. I was in a hurry - Did not want the pizza to get cold but we did stop to take pictures of the ridiculous situation…Back in our room I put the box on the bed and promptly got stuck in. It was delicious. The crust is wonderfully thin but with a great chewy/crunchy texture like a very good sour-dough bread. Of course, we could only eat a few pieces and put the rest into the bar fridge in the room. Something tells me we will be having cold pizza for at least one meal…perhaps breakfast?

It has been a long day. The television has a large number of channels but only two in English: CNN and BBC News. We watched for a few minutes but, bored, turned it off. I am having a look through the tourist material we have, the “Eyewitness Travel: Venice & The Veneto” and, of course, the Internet for some thoughts on tomorrow but from what we have seen it looks like simply walking might be interesting enough!

Day 2