Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there

“Ah, Venice!”
11/07/2010, 12:39
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It’s my favourite line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and last week – 21 years since the film’s release (who feels old right now?) – I took Jane there for her birthday. I knew nothing about Venice until I arrived; unusually, I did no research or reading up, other than to pick a hotel away from the tourist spots, so the sinking city in the lagoon was something of an eye-opener.

First of all, Venice isn’t Amsterdam.

Of course it isn’t, so why would I ever think it was? Because I’ve visited Amsterdam before, and it’s another European city famous the world over for its canals, so it was my only point of reference before visiting Venice. I expected there to be similarities, but there were none whatsoever.

In Amsterdam, there are plenty of canals, but there’s also an established transport system on land – cars, buses, trams, bicycles and so on. In Venice, there’s a single land bridge stretching two miles across the Venetian lagoon that connects Venice to mainland Italy; there are four lanes for traffic and four railway lines. All of these terminate in the north east of the city.

Beyond this small pocket of roads and rails, you won’t see anything else with wheels in the city.

There are canals everywhere – there used to be more, though many were filled in and are now streets – and everything travels through Venice by boat; luggage bound for hotels, goods bound for shops. If you want to get about, there’s the vaporetti – water buses that serve the shoreline of the island and the Grand Canal through the heart of Venice – and private water taxis that dart about the smaller canals.

The alternative is that you walk – Venice is barely a mile across by two miles long. I spoke with several Venetians who still live on the island (many Venetians now live on the mainland because tourism has ramped up the cost of property), and they rarely use the vaporetti – they’ll walk everywhere.

Pedestrianised Venice is quite surreal; the lack of land traffic means it feels both futuristic and stuck in a distant century. It’s perfectly peaceful, too – get away from the disneyfied city centre of San Marco, and life is but a dream. We stayed in Cannaregio in the north of the city at the Hotel Ai Mori D’oriente – clean, quiet and affordable (£75 per room per night). Early morning sees a trickle of Venetians heading to work, but otherwise life is serene and still.

Immediately to the south of the hotel is Fondamenta de la Misericordia, a street with a handful of quality restaurants and bars – my favourite was Jimon, a cracking wine bar serving locals and visitors, snug and serving a very decent menu of wine from €2 a glass. Dining out is expensive in Venice but, as always, that doesn’t mean it’s an expensive place to visit. There are plenty of fresh bakeries and sandwich shops tucked away in the streets that’ll see you fed for under €5.

At the eastern end of this street, you’ll also find a bridge; not a huge surprise given that there are over 450 in Venice, but this particular bridge is the last in the city not to be walled or have any handrails. This is how most bridges were in the past, before Venetians no doubt realised they spent an awful lot of time falling off them:

Overall, Venice is brilliant for a three day city break. There are plenty to sights to see, plenty of places to visit and boats will take you to visit other islands in the lagoon. San Marco, the city centre, is rammed with tourists (most of North America seemed to be on vacation in Venice during the summer) and it’s very cramped, dirty and uncomfortable, but head north into the neighbourhood of Cannaregio or east into Castello, and there’s a wonderfully slow, melodic pace to life – as if Italians weren’t laid back enough.

All that said, Venice probably isn’t somewhere I’d go again – that’s not to say it isn’t worth visiting, not at all. For me, it falls into the same category as Prague – a great experience, but it didn’t feel like there was enough to pull me back a second time. By all means go and see it; soak up some Venetian sun, avoid all restaurants in San Marco (but do take a gondola if you’re going to visit once – at €80 per gondola it’s expensive, but you experience Venice from water level) and explore the canals and alleys of a city trapped somewhere between the between the past and the future.

There are a few more photos lurking over at Flickr if you’d like to see more.


Venice, Spain, Petaluma – wanderlust cured!
28/06/2010, 16:10
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Forget my earlier musings about how to cure wanderlust. Seems the best way is to, well, start wandering again. A month ago my calendar was looking decidedly parochial for the remainder of the year, now it’s rammed to the gills, especially over the next month.

First, there’s Venice – I’ve never been and it’ll no doubt be spilling over with tourists, but it’s Jane’s birthday (quite a significant anniversary that I won’t reveal for fear of a death blow to the kidneys), so we’re flying to Italy in the morning. Any hints or tips on what to do beyond the obvious, I’d love to hear them. Then it’s the family holiday, for which we’ll be flying out to Barcelona then onto Salou – I’ll be spending my 35th birthday in a theme park on rollercoasters and log flumes. Aces.

Meanwhile, a friend I made during Twitchhiker, Anastasia (@accessinspirati), has invited me back to Petaluma, California to be part of SocialBizWorld – a two day social media and web conference. It’s brilliant to be asked to participate – I’ll be presenting and putting some round table discussions together for the event – but it’s also an opportunity to indulge in the fine hospitality of Petaluma and Sonoma.

Since I’m on the West coast, I may travel back via one or two other places and catch up with other Twitter uaers. Wichita, maybe. We’ll see.

And in the future I promise not to mope when I’m not travelling; when I bought my currency for Venice this morning, the shop assistant exhaled in disappointment: “I’ve always wanted to go to Venice, I wish I could go.” My reply? “Then go.” What excuse do you have not to step beyond your front door? If you want to travel, don’t make excuses – do it.

STA Travel’s World Traveller Interns – first stop, Vietnam
09/06/2010, 15:24
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A couple of months ago I was asked to help judge the STA Travel’s 2010 World Traveller Internship. Hundreds of entries were whittled down to the final ten, and then two were chosen by the panel to travel the world and document it through social media.

I’m really pleased that the two winners were amongst the final four I put forward; their video entries were colourful and exciting, well crafted and engaging. They’re called Matt and Becky – you’ll find them on Twitter here and here, and they’ve just posted their first video from Ho Chi Minh City.

Have a look, follow their adventures, support them, be inspired and remember to try it for yourself before real life gets in the way:

Remember the Tyne
24/05/2010, 20:06
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A couple of iPhone snapshots from Saturday evening by the River Tyne, which divides Newcastle and Gateshead:

Is there a cure for wanderlust?
17/05/2010, 22:34
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At the weekend, I caught myself eyeing up the prices of apartments in Brooklyn. Again. I’ve been reading up on Norway after noticing a budget airline had launched a route from North East England to Oslo, a city and a country I’m yet to visit. My head is packed to the brim with dates and prices for visiting my mum in Ontario, to book a handful of days in Barcelona, while I wander whether I can return to New Zealand some day soon.

And then there’s the voice telling me to simply sling some clothes into a bag and disappear into the world.

In short, I have a severe case of wanderlust. It’s been building for the past few weeks, to the point where it’s now overwhelming. It’s excruciating. I don’t stress that for the sake of effect – there’s a considerable sense of panic, claustrophobia even, if I dwell the situation for too long.

Image by adamjackson1984 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

But of course, there’s the reality of the situation. Money. Work. A manic few months ahead. I might escape for a couple of days in June, otherwise it’s the end of September before I can seriously consider travelling. The wait feels as if it’s going to kill me.

Yawning spans of time between trips are par for the course, because we have to scrimp and save to afford them, or we need to commit to the mundane trivialities of what some laughingly refer to as real life. So how do you quench your thirst? How you stem the loss of hours to idle daydreaming? If you’re a serial traveller, how do you stop your feet itching when you can’t travel just yet? Let me know in the comments.

Closer to home, the Central bar in Gateshead
07/05/2010, 17:51
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Dear me. I’ve been a little slack around these parts recently. Sorry about that. Lots to tell you about, and I’ll endeavour to do so in the coming days. I’ve loads to share about my trip to NYC in March, and news of perhaps the most daunting challenge of my life to date. More soon.

Meanwhile, the Twitchhiker book is into its third draft – currently there’s 25 per cent off if you order from Amazon; I’m not sure whether a book being reduced before it’s finished is good or bad news, but you could always buy it and judge for yourself. It won’t be 25 per cent worse for it, I’m certain of that.

Closer to home in Gateshead, and at something of a tangent to anything else mentioned so far, one of my favourite buildings is undergoing a facelift. The Central bar dates back to the mid 19th Century, and while it might be a hostelry I rarely frequented until recently (the ash-stained, toothless pensioners preferred their own company), it’s an adorable structure.

Designed in 1854 (the year of the Great Fire of Gateshead) and known locally as the Coffin, it occupies a wedge of land at the south west corner of the iconic Tyne Bridge. At the time it was built, the surrounding streets were the bustling thoroughfares of the town; Gateshead East railway station stood on the bridge immediately behind the Central.

In the decade since I moved to Gateshead, I’ve watched this corner of the world slowly regenerate from a slag-blackened heap of rubble and industry, and I’m delighted that somebody had the foresight to preserve one of the town’s most charismatic buildings. The Central was recently bought by a local bar chain who have spent tens of thousands of pounds restoring the brickwork, and after several months the covers and scaffolding have been removed:

Compare it to how the Central looked before the renovations began, in a photo by Paul White. Now the exterior is finished, work will start on the interior; the Central has a rather dubious past if you listen to the scuttlebutt, with hotel rooms on the first floor rented by the hour.

Soon it’ll be a live music venue with a rooftop bar, and will surely be one of the finest night-time venues in the region. If you’re passing through the north east of England in the coming months, make the effort to drop by; it’s a wonderful building in a neighbourhood that will blossom in the next couple of years, and I’ll probably be propping up the bar once or twice in there a week.

The Shorty Awards – a very good night (and day) in NYC
04/03/2010, 19:27
Filed under: travel, twitchhiker project | Tags: , ,

So the Twitchhiker project won a Shorty Award! It’s very nice and shiny. Best of all, even though I stopped out til 4.30 this morning, which culminated in necking shots with a former Navy Seal who did three tours in Vietnam, the award is intact. No chips, no cracks, base still attached. Result.

I met plenty of brilliant people last night, the highlights being shaking hands with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and having a beer with Janis Krums, who helped push Twitter in the mainstream with a single photo. I also got to meet my fellow finalists, including @newyorkology – one of the finest Twitter users out there (and Amy’s website is pretty cool, too). The company was great, the bar was free. Perfect.

If you voted, thank you. If you supported the Twitchhiker project last year – whether you followed from afar, provided words of encouragement, offered to put me up on your sofa, shouted me a beer, drove me from here to there – then this really is your award, because it simply wouldn’t have happened without your involvement.

So to summarise: I’m in New York, I have no hangover, the award is in one piece and Stephen Fry has been in touch. Not the best day of my life, but a very good one.