Saturday 23 August 2014

European Adventure: Day Twenty-Five - Travelling Home

Since our flight was at 10:30am we arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 7:00am from the hotel. Because of the waterways we had about a 5 minute walk and had to cross a bridge to get to where the car was parked – this was a bit of a struggle with my bags but we managed. Something I had heard about Venice is that many residents are opting to move out of the area because of the hassles with getting around, the upkeep of the buildings and the high costs of goods/services in town.

The airport was about 30 minutes away and the check in process was quick and easy. Because we had upgraded with dad’s points we had access to the lounge so we headed straight for that. It was a nice lounge serving drinks and pastries with free wifi. It also had an observation deck that you could walk out on and see the planes taking off. I left a bit earlier to head to the gate so that I could pop into a few shops and buy some final souvenirs. Since there were no direct flights to Toronto we had to fly to Frankfurt and take another flight. Our flight was a little over an hour and wasn’t that bad – it was very quick and not turbulent.

Upon landing in Frankfurt we had to walk through the airport and cross into another terminal. Then we had to go through a passport control area as well as re-do security. We had about two hours between flights but we cut it close, arriving at the lounge just as they were starting to board the plane. It was unfortunate as this lounge was awesome! You could actually board the plane from it which was convenient and a cool feature. It saved us from having to rush downstairs and wait in line giving us a few minutes to grab a drink from the lounge.

Our plane tickets confused us at first as we had a row in the high 80’s. When I went onto SeatGuru I learned that the plane had two levels and that we were on the top level. That was an awesome experience! It was strange to climb up stairs and to even be on a plane that large. We had the same seats as we did going to Europe – the ones that reclined into a bed.

The flight was okay – it was long and often turbulent – but it wasn’t terrible.
Lufthansa was just as amazing as it had been every other time! The service was friendly, the food/drinks were awesome and the seats very comfortable. It definitely made a difference in travelling and helped calm my nerves.

We arrived in Toronto just before 5:00pm and quickly went through customs and baggage. By 6:30 we were back at home where Mom, Nanny and Pappy were all waiting. We had a quick dinner and it was great to be home. I had a wonderful, unforgettable and fun European adventure but there truly is no place like home!

Final Trip Wrap-Up

Best Hotels: Budapest Marriott & Hotel Papadopoli Venezia were both great in terms of luxury and location. The Marriott had an incredible view, amazing amenities, a fantastic breakfast and awesome room. The Papadopoli was close to the train station, had a great room that was very pretty! The service wasn’t the most friendly and one of the guys behind the desk was actually quite rude but it was still a great hotel. Clarion Hotel Old Town Prague was excellent for location and service – the rooms were older and not the greatest but the location and staff made up for that.

Worst Hotel: Club Dobogomajor was awful. The staff were rude (this includes housekeeping, guest services, maintenance and wait staff – pretty much everyone I had contact with) the room was disgusting (remember I had to re-make the bed as there were hairs on the sheets) and the amenities were laughable.  Austria Trend Hotel Astoria Wien was also one I wouldn’t return to. While the location was excellent the service was rude/unfriendly and the rooms very small and uncomfortable.

Best Restaurants:
  • Zagreb – Didov San
  • Maria Alm - Almer Bauernkastn
  • Venice – Al Bacco Felice 

Worst Restaurant:
  • Venice – Kori Grill

Best Tourist Attractions:
  • Prague – Toy Museum
  • Budapest – Parliament Building
  • Heviz – Thermal Lake
  • Vienna - Schönbrunn Palace

Strangest Attractions:
  • Zagreb – Museum of Broken Relationships
  • Innsbruck – Swarovski Crystal Worlds

Best Tours:

Worst Tour:
  • Viator – Best of Florence

Favorite City

Prague was a place that I loved – beautiful buildings, a lot to see and do, friendly people and the best Starbucks ever!  I also loved the Mountains of Austria (Maria Alm, Innsbruck, Salzburg) and would go back in a heartbeat! Florence and Tuscany were also great and an area I would also revisit. Budapest was another city I loved and would recommend visiting.

Thursday 21 August 2014

European Adventure: Day Twenty-Four - Venice, Italy

Our last day of our European Adventure ended up being wonderful and relaxing. I opted to sleep in until 11:00am whereas Dad and Brian spent the morning off on their own. Brian stuck close to the hotel but Dad went back to the other side of the city and got lost coming back from San Marco Square. The streets get confusing and it took him over 10,000 steps to get back. By the time I was ready and Brian and I were heading out to explore the city, Dad had just gotten back and decided to stay at the hotel for the afternoon. Brian and I started off by walking over to the water taxi stand and buying tickets for the next one leaving. We only had about 2 minutes to decide so we took a chance that it was going where we wanted to go, and thankfully it was. The water taxi was much busier then I initially expected, until I realized it is pretty much the only local transportation in the main Venice area. With all the waterways and canals it’s the cheapest way to travel – so you had a few locals and tons of tourists hopping on and off it. I had wanted to do the touristy gondola ride but the cost was insane – to go just a few blocks from the hotel it would have been like $80.00! I am sure it would have been fun, but not likely worth it.

The hotel lobby 

We rode the water taxi for about 30 minutes or so and got off at the first San Marco Square stop. We walked along the waterway where there were a bunch of artist booths and market stands. We passed by Harry’s Bar which is where the Bellini was invented. I thought about going inside and ordering one but all the reviews and research said it was overpriced and not worth a stop especially with its key location right along the water.  We walked through the square stopping to take photos of the tower, cathedral and various sights. In the daytime it was much busier then the previous night and easy to be wowed by the amazing sights and sounds of the area.

Brian wasn't actually that red - it was a camera mode!

Since we had no place to be, Brian and I decided to just wander aimlessly around the streets. We ducked into a small restaurant off one of the main areas once we had checked to make sure there wasn’t any service charge – after the previous night we weren’t paying to be treated horribly! The restaurant was great. A little bit slow (likely due to it being packed) but the service was good and the food was delicious. I had one of the best seafood pastas I’ve ever tasted – especially considering that in Venice most seafood comes into the city frozen.

We took a longer route back to the hotel stopping to look in small shops and stores. I found some jewelry made from Murano glass that I bought for Mom, Nanny and Amanda in this great store where the owner handmade a few pieces while I waited. I also bought a bunch of Venetian masks from multiple stores. I had wanted to get myself one along with some for family members, but they were all so pretty and I couldn’t decide! I must have tried on dozens of them before I finally made a decision. Actually I first found one I loved a lot but I got indecisive and walked away from it and when I walked back to buy it, it was gone. The one I did end up buying I loved too but it still doesn’t compare to the first one. A lesson learned to buy something when you see it rather then taking a chance and waiting.

One of the many masks I tried on

There was a small both selling fresh fruits along with pieces of coconut. I love coconut but had never tried it fresh – I learned I wasn’t missing anything. It was hard to eat and actually pretty tasteless so I ended up throwing it away. Still I am glad that I got to try it!  Brian and I also stopped for gelato along the way and we found this cute little area to sit and watch the people walk along the street which was fun.  

We made it back to the hotel in the late afternoon and took some time to pack up our suitcases. Packing was made a little less simple due to all the breakables we had collected over the previous three weeks. There was a lot of wrapping and carefully placing everything along with hoping for the best! We met dad down in the lobby and walked a few minutes to a restaurant close to the hotel. We wanted something cheap and easy and this place had decent reviews. Initially service seemed a bit slow but it was still early and the place was really busy. We shared a bunch of dishes – some pizza, pastas, and antipasti. We also tried three of their deserts and everything was excellent. The place was called Al Bacco Felice and it was one of the nicest meals we had in Italy.

While it wasn’t a busy or largely eventful day in Venice, it was a wonderful way to spent our last night and celebrate the end of our Adventure!

Wednesday 20 August 2014

European Adventure: Day Twenty-Three - Florence and Travelling to Venice

Wednesday was another early morning and jam packed day as we had to check out of the hotel, store our bags and then meet the group for our tour. Since I really wanted to do the Best of Tuscany tour from the day before, I had to cram in sightseeing in Florence. Dad and I had both already seen many of the main Florence sights (and I even remembered some of them!) but Brian hadn't. We only had the morning and early afternoon in the city before having to catch the train to Venice so I found a tour that was another "Best of" and appeared to work well with our schedule. The tour I found combined two individual Florence tours - a morning walking tour of Florence, the Duomo and the Accademia Gallery with the Uffizi Gallery in the afternoon.

I was feeling really sick that morning and would have skipped the tour if we were staying at the same hotel that night. But because we weren't I didn't have much choice. We took a taxi to the square where we were meeting our group and there were many people waiting. The organizers split us up into various groups and handed out audio guides - which I couldn't use. The guide had ear bud headphones and my ear infection was still painful on its own, so when I tried putting the buds in it was agonizing. All I could do was hold the ear bud up to my ear which was annoying. However it didn't matter much as the tour guide was terrible and I couldn't stand listening to her anyway. No word of a lie, every five-ten words she spoke was followed by a "mmmm". Plus, she didn’t just give facts but also offered a lot of far fetched personal theories which seemed silly. It got so annoying I just gave up and took in the sights without any audio commentary. She was also very unapproachable and somewhat rude which helped in the overall experience being negative. 

Honestly this was by far the worse tour of the trip and a company I wouldn't use again. It was a walking tour but the group was too large and she was leading us through crowded areas at a fast pace making it easy to get lost. It would have made more sense if she had handed out maps with our route and gone over everything in case anyone got separated, or went a lot slower to ensure everyone was with her.  

The guide started the tour by leading us to the Academia Gallery where we were one of the first groups inside. Even at the early hour it was packed. Our tour guide led us to specific pieces around the gallery but I wandered around myself looking at the various artwork and sculptures. There was one room – The Museum of Musical Instruments - which was really cool. It had a display the “Grand Ducal” collection of 50 musical instruments which belonged to the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory. These instruments were used in everyday life and celebrations in the Medicean Court.  In the wing there were harpsichords, string and wind instruments like guitars, pianos, and violins.

One of the coolest things was an early piano created by Bartolomeo Cristofori. It was in wood and was interesting to see. They also had multimedia displays that allowed us to hear the sounds of the first piano which was really interesting.

The most famous piece in here was a one-of-a-kind tenor viola made by Antonio Stradivari in 1690. It was built of red spruce and maple and had the Medici crest adorned with beautiful inlays. It was built for the Grand Prince Ferdinand and the museum has it preserved in its original condition. Brian spent a lot of time in here and took a zillion photos. I took a few and probably would have taken more if I felt better.

We spent a big chunk of time in the room where Michelangelo’s David was. It is said to be one of the greatest masterpieces of all time and is the one of the most famous statues in the world. The David was created between 1501 and 1504 and is a 14ft marble statue of the biblical hero David.  It was commissioned for the Cathedral of Florence and Michelangelo was only 26 at the time but was already the most famous and highest paid artist of the time.

We had a bit of time afterward which was beneficial as the line up for the women’s washroom was crazy! After our free time was over we met outside the gallery and begin our walk of the city. We had spent an hour in the gallery so we had about 2.5 hours for the walking tour.  We walked through the small streets and to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore otherwise known as the Duomo. We walked around the inside of the Cathedral which was built between 1296-1436. There are a total of three buildings – the Cathedral, the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile but we only got to see inside the main cathedral.

After we finished at the Duomo we went back in to the streets of Florence which were crowded. It was hard to stay together as a group and Brian and I almost got separated a few times. There were tons of groups and tourists stopped all over the place and because I am short, it was hard to see our group. Our tour took us through the San Lorenzo leather market and past Porcellino which is a piglet statue. You are supposed to rub its nose for good luck but we were rushed and didn’t have time which was unfortunate.  We visited a few main town squares including Piazza della Signoria and Piazza San Marco. We spent a bit of time outside the Uffizi Gallery which had a bunch of life-size sculptures including a replica of the David. This area was also crowded so I couldn’t wander around without losing the group. That was a shame as there were a lot of sculptures I would have loved to look at.

From there we walked to the Ponte Vecchio and walked across it. The crowds were insane, much different from what it was like the night we arrived in Florence. We decided to leave the tour at this point and took a few more photos in the daylight. We had to take extra care to stick together here and it was so busy I didn’t bother looking in any of the shops – plus they seemed insanely overpriced. We walked up a bit further along the side street near the bridge and grabbed a taxi to the outdoor market. Dad had bought a tapestry here a few years back and hoped to find something else. It started to rain so we ducked into a restaurant and had lunch of pizza and pasta. Dad tried the wild boar pasta which is a local specialty and I actually did try it… it was okay, but not a meat I would ever order.

We walked around the market looking at the various leather goods which were mostly shoes and purses. Dad found a few tapestries but there wasn’t anything we wanted. There was also a local indoor market which we went into but it was mostly produce and meats – nothing worth us buying as we were leaving that day. We did find a hot oil I had been looking for so that was great. Dad did found his liquor he wanted but the price was double what it had been it the smaller towns the day before so he didn’t bother getting a second bottle, instead he got Adam to get it when he was in Rome a few weeks later.

We were supposed to go on the second part of the tour which was of the Uffizi Gallery but we had decided to skip it. We weren’t impressed with the morning tour and didn’t want to spend the afternoon wandering around the gallery with the same tour company. Our train was scheduled for 6:30 and it was just before 2:00 at this time. Since we were close to the train station we walked there to see if we could get an earlier train. We had to wait in a long line and pay a fee, but we were able to switch it to the 3:30 train. While I got the tickets, Dad and Brian went back to the hotel to get our luggage. Brian inquired about my sweater which they were able to find – however they now wanted a fee to cover the “express” service. Brian argued with them and they finally relented. Seriously? They lose my sweater and then try and charge me for express cleaning? That’s insane.

We had no problem getting on the train – well, just maybe a little bit of trouble trying to get all four suitcases and six carry on bags on and stored, but we managed. We weren’t able to sit together but we were close enough. The train was quick, just under 2 hours and only made a few stops. We arrived in Venice before we had even been scheduled to depart so that was great. 

Venice was even more beautiful then I remembered with the beautiful canals and waterways all over the city. Luckily our hotel was near the train station so we only had two bridges to walk over. One of them was large with many stairs, so Dad hired a porter to help with the bags. The porter had a cart which was able to get the bags over the stairs with ease so that was helpful. There was no way I could have got my suitcase up them, and saw many people struggling to do so.

The hotel was beautiful – rich colors, luxurious bed and sheets and just gorgeous. It made for a great place to spend our last two nights in Italy. We took an hour to rest and get settled before heading out. I still wasn’t feeling well and hoped for a quick walk, but we ended up walking about an hour to get to the main square – Piazza San Marco because Dad wanted to see it. I will admit I was a bit grumpy at this point. We walked across the main bridges and through many narrow streets and in and out of small shops. We spent a few minutes seeing the square before finding a restaurant on one of the side roads. Venice tends to add service charges/tips into the bill automatically so the service is often horrible. Dad has found that a number of times and this was no different.  The restaurant we went to was terrible. The food was horrible and over priced and the service was the worst I had ever encountered. We made a note to never again eat in a restaurant with the automatic gratuity and made sure to write honest reviews on TripAdvisor to warn others away.

We got back to the hotel just as a massive thunderstorm was starting and made plans for a late start the next day. After 3.5 weeks, we finally had a morning that we had nothing planned and could spend sleeping in which I looked forward to!