Palazzo Barbarigo – Luxury on Venice’s Grand Canal

If you can afford the overpriced fare of a water taxi to the Palazzo Barbarigo hotel in Venice, you’ll want to take it. It’s a very romantic way to arrive at the front door of your hotel. The reward is a quality art deco boutique hotel on the Grand Canal.

Front door hotel on water in Venice

It is relatively small double-story hotel. Plush and luxurious, its art deco décor evokes the best of a bygone era, and as Conde Nast Traveller said it is ‘an alternative to the usual grand dame hotel’.

It is a great hotel for couples looking for a romantic place to stay in Venice. The 18 rooms and junior suites are large and very comfortable with four poster beds, flat screen TV, chaise lounge, rain showers and mood lighting. Although there are no balconies, the windows are big and they open out wide so you never feel claustrophobic.

Luxury Hotel Bedroom Venice

The reception and front door that opens directly onto the canal are downstairs with a couple of rooms, whilst the bar, breakfast room and lounge are upstairs with the rest of the rooms leading off the lounge. (You would think this might make the rooms noisy, but ours wasn’t at all). Aside from a couple of rooms at the front, most rooms face onto a quieter side canal that still gets a fair share of traffic, and you can see the grand canal if you look out.

Luxury Lounge Hotel Venice

The hotel doesn’t have a full restaurant, so we stepped out to a recommended local eatery, Trattoria Da Ignazio, for a quick dinner.

A real old school place, with lopsided, low ceilings and cheerful yellow walls. The service and the homely, traditional Italian food was superb. We went with our waiter’s recommendations and every one was delicious. The only other waiter looked at least 100 years old and he we were fascinated all night as he shuffled about serving his tables without skipping a beat.

Restaurant in side street Venice

Back at the hotel we had a nightcap at the bar, which makes you feel like you’re in a 1940’s movie set, with a tiny terrace overlooking the canal, that’s almost deserted later at night. Looking out, it reminded me of those typical western towns in movies, but in this case with a watery main street.

Luxurious bar in boutique hotel Venice

We slept deeply, thanks to the double-glazing on the windows and when I opened them to look out, traffic was in full flow. Three gondolas went by below packed with tourists followed by a rubbish barge and police patrol.

Breakfast was the best I’ve had just about anywhere. There’s no generic buffet or stodgy, stale food here. A mountain of fruit, pastries, cheese and meat is served individually to your table, along with coffee or tea and a list for you to order additional items, most at no extra cost. You would have to be ravenous to finish all that food.

Hotel Grand canal views Venice

The hotel doesn’t have any facilities like a spa, gym or garden, but it is perfectly situated to explore Venice, either by vaporetto or on foot through the alleyways that take you to the famous Rialto Bridge, which offers great views over the Grand Canal.

We spent the day wandering, and getting ridiculously lost, as we tried to criss-cross a couple of districts. Along the way we took in famous sights like St Mark’s Square, partially under water because of the high tide, and the Rialto Market, where locals were shopping for their daily fresh fish and vegetables. A few hours later, having come full circle, we gave our weary legs a break with a long lunch on the Grand Canal. Surprisingly, the area where we sat had been knee deep in water a couple of hours earlier. We filled up happily on pizza and wine, and enjoyed the busy waterway before returning to the comfort of our room for a well deserved afternoon nap.

Slow Day Grand Canal Venice

Gondola Venice side Canal

We were pretty tired the second night, so we spent the evening relaxing in the hotel lounge, researching the next part of our trip. It was comfortable and quiet, and we felt like we were in our own living room. We only saw the other guests as they filtered back to their rooms after their evening out. The barman was very attentive, but never intrusive and we were grateful for the complimentary snacks.

When we left the following morning (after another incredible breakfast), we hopped on the vaporetto (water bus), for a last tour of Venice and climbed off at the train station. With the cold wind and the rain setting in, we had thoughts about heading back to the comfort and warmth of our hotel, but our train was waiting.

The Oktoberfest

Day One

I arrived at the Munich train station excited, but weary about the Oktoberfest. The station was packed with people dressed in traditional clothes and eager to party, and it was already very festive early in the morning. So I got into the spirit fast and I have to say, after two full-on days of craziness at the festival, I’m pleased to report that with a bit of planning, there’s nothing to worry about.

Oktoberfest View Munich

The Oktoberfest village itself isn’t very big. It has 14 tents (including a wine tent) all side by side on either side of a pedestrian road, within stumbling distance of one another and surrounded by about 20 smaller food tents. Strangely, most of the grounds are actually taken up by a funfair with themed rides, including wait for it, a roller coaster. Who’s bright idea was that?

Oktoberfest tent Munich

Beer tent Oktoberfest Berlin

Funfair Oktoberfest Munich

Pretzel stand Oktoberfest Munich

Although I was surprised, it does make for a great atmosphere, ‘cause the place is filled with families any time of the day, bobbing and weaving to avoid legless revelers. Stay out amongst the rides, the lights, the smell of food and the kids, and you could almost forget there were thousands of people in tents nearby, singing Bavarian folk songs and drowning in beer.

Fortunately I was invited to stay with friends which was a relief because hotels are full during Oktoberfest and prices double. Fortunately the same friends, had already booked a table in the Hippodrom tent, a favourite with locals. So I dropped my bags and headed straight into the tent in time for lunch, where the party was in full swing. That was a good thing because in the Hippodrom, you only get the table for three hours. Having booked months in advance, our allotted time was 12 – 3pm. I joined a table with eight other people and giant pretzels, tankards of beer and platters of local Bavarian meat and cheese dishes rained down on me. The band played on the elevated stage above us and by the time all the tables were re-set for the next crowd I was in a happy beer haze.

Hippodrom Tent Dubai

Hippodrom Inside Oktoberfest Munich

Crowds at Oktoberfest Munich

Many of the people on the table headed home to their kids and carry on their normal lives which was a surprise, but that’s when I realised that the Oktobefest is just as much fun for the locals. They are just smarter about what they do there. They look forward to the week and usually pop in to their favourite tent just for an hour or two every day, like they’re going down to their local (very large) pub.

Yes, there are loads of people falling over, vomiting and and passing out but it’s mostly on the grass bank out of sight behind the tents, so you can steer well clear of all that.

Day Two

My second day couldn’t have been any more different to the first. I had been eased into it with the fancier, smaller Hippodrom and the wine tent, but day two we headed straight to the Hofbrauhaus. It’s in the middle of all the action and it’s packed with thousands and thousands of crazy drinkers. I made the mistake of coming in the back way, past the infamous grass bank and through the outdoor beer garden at Hofbrauhaus. Making my way to the front I was given a couple of kidney blows by the waitresses who carry armfuls of heavy beer tankards and swing wildly to move people out the way. If I had fallen in front of one of them, they would’ve stomped on my head, just for better traction.

Crowds at Oktoberfest Munich

Beer Hall Oktoberfest Munich

Smaller tent Oktoberfest Munich

So I was thankful when my friends ushered me in through a side door into a VIP section where we had a table for 20, and then it started again: Pretzels, beer (and a couple of one litre tankards of wine and soda), food platters and another live band. After each tankard we would venture past the huge kitchen where hundreds of chickens were turning in ovens, and into the seething mass to dance on the tables. When we’d had enough we would, thankfully, stroll back past the bouncer back to our table.

Beautiful Beer Hall Oktoberfest Munich

 

Wine bar Oktoberfest Munich

Crepes stand Oktoberfest

So is it as crazy as everyone says? Yes. Is it really that much fun? Yes. Can you actually leave with your dignity intact? Yes, but only if you want to, and if you do, then follow some of these tips:

Make friends with a local.

Go in the week when it’s not unbearably packed.

Pick one of the fancier tents and try to get a table.

Eat more than you drink.

Don’t go for more than 2 or 3 days.

Kreuzberg Berlin – Where East & West Finally Met Again

Berlin is a fascinating city for 20th Century history buffs. Not only does it have serious World War 2 history but Berlin was literally split in half during the Cold War. And this is still most evident in the suburb of Kreuzberg.

If you want to get a good sense of what the Berlin Wall did to the city and its people, first visit Checkpoint Charlie and the museum. It’s a big museum, with lots of interesting displays, but there’s so much to see and much of it is very heavy on detailed copy explanations, so give yourself some time and focus on what interests you. I found all the displays on how people tried to escape from East Germany very interesting – everything from converted cars to tunnels to hot air balloons – they were industrious (and obviously desperate).

Checkpoint Charlie Area Berlin

Checkpoint Charlie Sign Berlin

When you’re up to speed on the history, take a short metro ride to Mehringdamm, and stroll around Kreuzberg. Very close to Mitte, the centre of Berlin, Kreuzberg has had an interesting history, and it’s a microcosm of East and West Berlin in one suburb (a very big suburb since it merged with Friedrichshain).

Kreuzberg Street Berlin

Buildings in Kreuzberg Berlin

Archways Kreuzberg Berlin

The Mehringdamm stop brings you out on the wealthier side of Kreuzberg. And as you walk out the station, you will find two of the city’s most popular eateries. Pick up a meal at Currywurst 36 or stand in line at Mustafas Gemüse Kebap, which is so popular there is always a queue (I counted more than 70 people one lunch time), so expect to wait 20-40 minutes for your meal. Then, kebab in hand, take a stroll up Kreuzberg Hill (Tempelhofer Berge) for a great view over the city.

Shopping street Kreuzberg Berlin

Curry Stall Kreuzberg Berlin

When you’re ready for the other side of Kreuzberg that best personifies Berlin’s motto – It’s poor but it’s sexy, hop back on the metro and find your way to Oranienstrasse. (You could walk, but Berlin is very big and spread out and the metro is cheap, clean and efficient). This is where you’ll find Berlin’s large Turkish community and it’s also the epicenter of the LGTB community. A colourful and interesting mix if ever there was one.

The district has gentrified in recent years, with the music, design and fashion crowd moving in, but there are still more than enough kebab kiosks and bars and nightclubs around including SO 36, the 1970’s punk club and hangout of Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

Kreuzberg Old Side Berlin

BO 36 Club Kreuzberg Berlin

Gold shop Kreuzberg Berlin

You’ll also find the Berlin Wall Eastside Gallery nearby, which you can read about in my other post. And after dark, you’ll be in the right place for one of Berlin’s most famous clubs, Berghain and the Panorama Bar (inside an old power plant) where you can spend a long, long, night dancing to your heart’s content.

Did you know? The Doner kebab was invented by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin.

Visit Venice In The Low Season

Venice is sinking, but it’s not global warming that’s to blame, but rather the tidal wave of tourists that flood the city every day in season. In 2016 alone, more than 500 ships and and 1.5 million tourists poured into the city. Throw in stifling heat, crushing crowds and canals that smell worse as the heat rises and your trip might not be all you dreamed of. The solution? Head there out of season and you’ll have a far better time with as much space as you like to see the city in all its glory.

Venice Grand canal view

Speedboat on Venice Grand Canal

With less people crowding the city in late autumn, we decided it was safe to stay in a central area. We chose the luxury art deco Palazzo Barbarigo hotel on the Grand Canal, close to the main thoroughfare that would take us straight to the Rialto Bridge. You can of course stay in the outlying areas, but as charming as the side canals are, they can be very quiet, and it isn’t as necessary to escape the crowds out of season.

Click here for the story on Palazzo Barbarigo hotel.

Everyone heads to Venice for a different reason, whether it’s architecture, art or history. Whatever you plan to see on the way, the truth is Venice as a city on water is what’s fascinating. A surreal film set that’s best enjoyed by walking every inch of it. It is a fantastic walking city, with thousands of narrow alleys and paths linking the 6 districts, and not a car in sight. It isn’t as big as you might think and most sites are within easy walking distance of each other, but the alleys are often very narrow, and even in late Autumn there were bottlenecks as people tried to get the best photo opportunity or tour groups stopped to admire a building.

Quiet back alley waterways Venice

Gondola in side canal Venice

Sightseeing

Walking shoes on and map in hand we started early, heading up the narrow alleyway to our first stop at the famous Rialto Market. Since 1097, yes that’s right 1097, Venetians have depended on the Rialto markets for their daily fish, fruit and vegetables. It’s best to arrive early if you want to see the Erberia (vegetable market) and Pescheria (fish market) in full swing because the wholesalers and most of the retailers close up shop by midday.

The Erberia and Pescheria are only open Tuesday through Saturday, so locals suggest not ordering fish in restaurants on Mondays, because the fish is unlikely to be fresh.

There are also several stores selling gourmet goods around the market area and more stalls leading up to the bridge that sell non-food items (these are always open but mostly cheap Venetian masks and souvenirs).

Venetian Masks Rialto Bridge

Fruit and vegetable boat Venice canal

The Rialto Bridge also is filled with shops selling souvenirs and tourists congregate at the top trying to get the best photo they can without strangers in it. Stop at the top watch the watery freeway below. You feel like you’re in an alternate historical universe.

Rialto Bridge Grand Canal Venice

We crossed over to San Marco, the busiest district in Venice, thanks largely to St Mark’s Square, where you’ll find The Basilica of San Marco, the greatest symbol of Byzantine Venetian History. The square was partially flooded when we got there thanks to the high tide and waiters knee deep in water were setting up tables in anticipation of the receding tide as tourists crowded the dry areas around the basilica and queued to climb the campanile for a view of the city.

St Marks Square flooded in Venice

Campanile in St Marks Square Venice

We passed the Doge’s Palace, the residence of the former ruler of Venice, and the headquarters of the Venetian Republic, a city state that existed for more than 1,000 years. For centuries the Doge’s Palace had three fundamental roles: as the Doge residence, the seat of government and as the palace of justice, but since 1923 it’s been a museum. It is also where you’ll find the famous Bridge of sighs that connected a palace to a prison.

Side alley on Venice canal

Flooded pathway Venice streets

Tree lined square Venice islands

As we trawled the alleyways, getting lost more often than not, we saw countless churches, galleries, museums and antique stores each offering up a glimpse of Venetian history. So if that’s what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. Head to the home of Venetian 18th Century art at Carezzonico Museum or the Gallerie del Accademia for pre-19th century art. If modern art is more to your taste, you’ll find it at the Penny Guggenheim museum, which hosts a modern art collection collected by the famous lady herself.

Palace on canals in Venice

Church on canal in Venice

When you’ve done enough walking and seen enough, spend the afternoon sitting at a restaurant on the edge of the Grand Canal. They can be overpriced, but if you stick to pizza and a bottle or two of wine it makes a very worthwhile, romantic and entertaining interlude as you watch venetians go about their day.

Boats waterside on the Grand Canal Venice

Front of gondolas Venice

As the sun sets you might want to take a gondola ride. It is an expensive tourist trap, but if you’re feeling particularly romantic, book one through your concierge to prevent being ripped off.

With so much to see, there’s no doubt Venice is a fascinating city and it’s a place you should see once, if only for a day or two.