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My trip to Northern Italy (plus Croatia, Greece, Turkey)

Author: Barry S
Date of Trip: June 2009

My wife and I took off for a varied European vacation. We flew from TEL AVIV to MILAN. Our initial destination was VENICE where we had booked a hotel on the Grand Canal. You can fly from Milan to Venice but we decided to take the train. That involved taking the bus shuttle from Malpensa Airport to Milan’s central station. It is possible to take a train from the airport to the Central Station but let me assure you it is quicker, cheaper, and more convenient to take the bus shuttle for anyone going out of Central Station to other locations.

The train journey from MILAN to VENICE is comfortable and delightful. The cost was 50.50 Euros. They serve cheap snacks and drinks on the slightly more than two hour journey to the SANTA LUCIA train station in VENICE.

What a romantic station! You feel as if you are in a movie when you step outside this grand station onto the banks of the GRAND CANAL. You are immediately transported to another world. It is an experience not to be missed.

Our major problem was getting four heavy suitcases and an assortment of bags across the canal. I bravely volunteered to schlepp this baggage in a relay over the Ponte de Scalzi bridge to the other side where our modest hotel was located. Why do the authorities in Venice refuse to ramp part of their thousands of bridges so that wheelchairs, suitcases, and tarde products can, more easily negotiate the numerous canals in the city? We were part of the perenial tourist struggle of transporting body, soul, and luggage to hotels where wheeled vehicles cannot reach, and where the water bus is not a solution.

My wife refused my offer and immediately accepted the first offer of a boat across the canal. I must not have been concentrating because I silently accepted their 25 Euro charge. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that our hotel was directly across from the train station. It must have taken no more than three minutes to cross the canal and deliver us to the door of our hotel.

The Canal Hotel is an old, modest hotel pretending to be a three star. We had asked for a Canal view way in advance of our arrival but were told that they were all taken. Instead we received a small clean room with no view worth mentioning. Breakfast is served in a simple garden under the shade of dusty trees. Breakfast was straight forward continental with limited selection. The location of the Canal Hotel was its saving grace being right on the banks of the Grand Canal.

We would advise anyone staying in Venice for more than two days to take the 72 hour pass for the water buses.

It is possible to write pages about the splendour and character of Venice. On a personal level, we found the San Polo/Dorso Doro side of the canal far more appealing than the heaving passageways between San Marco and the rialto Bridge. There is something about the area of ACCADEMIA that attracts a different type of Venetian. It is also relatively free of tourists which allows one to wander without being jostled. The shops tend to be galleries with less tourist tatt than the well-trodden lanes on the other bank of the Grand Canal. The charm of Venice can be enjoyed in peace and calm, a feature we only found when we escaped into the Jewish Ghetto when manouvering clear of the heaving mass by the Rio San Marcuola. We enjoyed one of our finest non-Italian meals in the kosher Garden Restaurant on the square in the Ghetto. You do not have to be Jewish to enjoy good food here. Start with the goulash which is served as a meat and bean soup. Continue with the chicken, and finish off with the lochshen pudding – a type of bread pudding.

After several romantic days and nights in Venice we made our way to the cruise terminal as we had booked an Eastern Mediterranean sail aboard the Oosterdam, one of Holland America’s fine ships.

If you have not tried cruising try the Mediterranean itinerary. There is no finer way to deliver you and your luggage from country to country in style than experiencing one of the major cruiselines that know how to give service.

Try sailing out of Venice with a glass of champagne in your hand and your arm around the one you love on your balcony as you majestically cruise passed the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Square as you set out on a journey to foreign ports.

In our case we woke up the next morning in SPLIT, Croatia. This town is impressive in its harmonious combination of ancient and modern. The charm of the historic old town was enhanced by groups of excellent singers giving their interpretations of Croatian folk songs. The port promenade is new, wide, and inviting with its pleasant cafes and shops.

PIRAEUS is a bustling port town that in not inviting except as the entrance port to ATHENS. Take the train to ATHENS. Fast, efficient, and cheap. Our first port of call was the Olympic Stadium built to stage the first of the Modern Olympic Games. This was a nostalgic visit for me as I had run the marathon that celebrated the Centenary of the first Olympic marathon that had been won by Spiridon Louis, a Greek runner. The course followed the ancient route from the village of Marathon over the hills to finish in the historic stadium. Many fond memories of an amazing experience and a successful race came flooding back to me as I gazed into the splendid arena.

Most people go to the Parliament building to view the traditional Changing of the Greek Guard. A little hint to future visitors. Go to the Presidents Palace instead. This is located just three hundred meters across from the old Olympic Stadium. My wife and I were treated to a personal performance of the Changing of the Guards. No other tourists. No tour buses. Just the two of us for this daily spectacle.

If you are a sports person, or interest in antiquities, you cannot leave Greece without a visit to OLYMPIA. Our cruise ship docked in KATAKOLON. If there was ever a one street town this is it. With nothing to see in any of the shop windows. When cruising we hardly ever take the organised tours. The cost of being bussed to ancient Olympia was $68 from the ship. We hired a car with another couple for $40 and were not dependant on fifty other people lining up for the toilets..

We had a couple of stops in TURKEY. If you are one for bazaars I suppose that ISTANBUL is right for you but we went in and out of the GRAND BAZAAR in about half an hour. THE SPICE MARKET took us twenty minutes. This is enough to soak in the flavour and to be propositioned by every stallholder. The BLUE MOSQUE and ST.SOPHIA are impressive structures but the TOPKAPI PALACE is an amazing display of the splendours of past Islamic conquests.

Perhaps the main destinations in the GREEK ISLANDS are MYKONOS and SANTORINI. MYKONOS is that gorgeously white and blue vision that romantically epitomises the calm Greek islands. SANTORINI is a strange place if you coming in by ship. You can only negotiate the high cliffs to reach the town perched on the top by cablecar, by mule, or by walking up what seems like a thousand steps in a winding and, in the heat of summer, a tortuous test of stamina. Needless to say this was the first time I succeeded in encouraging my nervous wife to travel in a cable car. If visiting SANTORINI you must take the bus, or hire a beach buggy, to the neighbouring town of OIA. OIA is far more appealing than SANTORINI. It if a picture postcard little town that must be enjoyed. It is truly a gorgeous destination.

Back in VENICE after our cruise we hired a car and set out for PADUA AND VERONA. wWe intended to spend time in the historic parts of these towns. Echoes of Shakespeare had rolled around in my head when planning this trip. I can report that, in both cities, the municipalities have succeeded in hiding their treasures. Perhaps they don’t want tourists to come to their towns. After driving around, then walking for miles, we were not impressed by the ancient walls and few ruins that we saw. We had intended on staying the night in VERONA. Instead we continued to drive towards LAKE GARDA. Good decision. We arrived in PESCHIERA DEL GARDA and were immediately charmed by this gateway to the lovely Italian lake. We asked for a room at the BELLE ARRIVE on the southern shore of Garda and were given excellent smiling service by Clara. Our room overlooked the lake and we lost no time exploring this delightful place.

People talk about Italian drivers. I can tell you that, around Lake Garda, nobody attempted to drive faster than fifty kilometers an hour. The spectacular views slowed every road user in appreciation of the glory of the location. Highly recommended to spend time exploring the Italian lakes.

After an enjoyable stay in this region we headed to MILAN. We stayed there for five days. This was probably two days longer than necessary. The attractions are by the DUOMO with the Victor Emmanual Esplanade leading to the LA SCALA. But how many times do you need to return there to eat and to spend time? Yes, we strolled the MONTENAPOLEONE, we visited other recommended areas, such as the BRERA, but were not attracted to spend more than a couple of hours there. We stayed in hotels on the CORSO BUENOS AIRES. This street has been called the Oxford Street of Milan. That’s like comparing Bury Football Club to Manchester United! It’s long. Here the comparison ends. Best Western have a couple of reasonable hotels on this street. We stayed in two of them. Try HOTEL GALLES. Among the advantages is they offer free internet to guests.

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