15 April 2012

My Brother's Venetian Experience or Not

A humorous account of a day in Venice by my brother, Alex. Actually I wonder if it was more about him wrapping his head around what his 3 years old niece is all about. No matter, let him peel back his eyelids and away with his story.

I peeled back the eyelids this morning to the insufferable sound of an engine that was not going to start and realised that darkness was still about. I lustily sucked in a big breath of Venetian air as I looked out the incomprehensibly askew window of our not so exotic hotel room at that contraption that was making all that noise and at its sight I relented to the idea that not all was going to go according to plan today. The rain was the first sign.

To add to that, I briefly caught a glimpse of myself in a well-positioned mirror and I can’t say that I liked what I saw. I stepped back a little to ascertain the fault and after 10 minutes of careful study, I found it. A pimple was forming within the follicles of the left eyebrow ruining the perfect picture. To this you might say, that vanity in all its diabolical splendour has taken a hold.

No matter, fast forward the morning through a shower that wasn’t to my liking due to the less than average state of the bathroom, further fast forward through a breakfast during which I should have left the cheese at the buffet table and there I was listening intently to a group of Americans giving a discourse on all things Venice, with the enthusiasm of a child who has taken its first step. All smiles, laughter, happiness and achievement. The problem was, and I now realise, that Yanks tie their words together in a most non-English of ways and I did not understand a thing. It was a terrible start to the day. Even the double espresso, Italian style, did not seem to be able to kick-start the cerebellum.

I concluded that not all was good in the world and I was struggling to bring myself up to speed with all that needed to be done that day.

The second double espresso jolted the heart and the inevitable surge rushed to the grey matter kicking it into action. It did the trick. The words flowed poetically towards my sister. The plan was being perfected. All of Venice was mapped out and vocalised and only when she pulled me up on it did I stop for a well deserved breath. I was away: do a tour, that is... an all day walking tour of Venice.

To those in the know, the two of us have left many a footprint on the streets of Rome and Singapore. So in my most able mind an all dayer on the streets of Venice at a most reasonable 20 degrees was a no brainer. Easy. Considering that we did Rome and Singapore at 35 degrees heat and 80% humidity. The stats are important at this juncture as we had a 2.5 years old rug rat in tow. Trinity put up a brave fight in the relentless sun of Rome on our lazy 9 hours amble and I now realise that Trinity’s lack of expression was largely due to limited words in her dictionary. Looking back on it now, those calm sorry eyes that were telling me one thing were turbulently telling me something else.

The coffee kicked in, the sugar was flowing in the blood stream, my sister was ready and all the jovial mood and energy was all of a sudden sapped away as Trinity asked to go to Costa Del Sol (her place of residence). In my mind, with all the American influence around, a sentence formed in the nether regions directed at Trinity: “Not today sista” with all the Harlem attitude a female of that species could muster. Costa Del Sol is in Singapore, 12,000 kms away and today we are doing Venice.

We hit the asphalt and in view of the fact that I was told to make this piece of writing short, here is a summary that brought us to the moment that Trinity pulled us up and made a stand for all the humanity that lay within her and most of all to what it cost my pocket.

Firstly, I wish I knew the person responsible for the street lay out of this most unworking of cities. I mean we got lost countless times and found ourselves in a loop that got us back to this most interesting of coffee shops and when we were finally ready for a well-earned rest we couldn’t find it. We must have gotten into a different loop. I asked a local for direction but his 3 days growth and the stained look on his face told me he was lost as well. As we left him to his own devices the hammer blow that I envisaged in the darkest alcoves of my mind when I sucked in that Venetian air this morning came thundering down. It was brutal, it was relentless, faultless, innocent and true all rolled into one. Trinity rolled this off the tongue – verbatim: “We have been here before and I can’t do this anymore.” The rug rat speaks. I stood there silently, losing weight.

This was around the corner from St Marco’s square. The place where coffee shop owners, believe that everywhere else in the world, dollar bills are cultivated, grow on trees and we mere mortals pick them at random and just come to Venice. Nevertheless, the order was placed and I had to find a place of rest and coffee.

I did what any man in my position would and found a reasonable coffee shop with a view in the square, as you would. So as the girls evaporated to the inevitable powder room check-up, I got to the bargaining table with this waiter that belonged in one of those spaghetti westerns that Clint Eastwood made famous. As the bad guy of course.

I told him I wanted a table close to the action and he replied with that tone of “anything you like” as long as you read the script (aka the menu) and agree to the fine print: 5.70 euro each for the musicians (I told him I had my own on my iPhone – to no avail), 8.50 euro each for coffee (1kg costs that much I said – he did not flinch), then I tried the next obvious thing, I tried to talk Trinity out of eating so we can save some of the hard earned currency but to no avail again. So there went 12 euros for a sandwich that had no substance and I firmly believe it shrank on the way from the kitchen to our table to the size of a 50 cent coin. Needless to say the mineral water weighed in at 5.50 euros. So if you ask about the experience, well it is quite simple. In Rome where Trinity was silent all was well in the world as far as I was concerned. Now that her voice box and all the rest of those tiny little muscles that make words fly out with reckless abandon, have come to party, I am resigned to postpone all future trips with the said female. As what is in it for me (1 – that is one – coffee) versus total cost for the experience (5.7 + 5.7 + 8.5 +8.5 + 12 + 5.5, you do the math) is financially not viable and fundamentally unsound.  (For those who don't want to do the math it was 46 euros, aka AUD$58, SGD$75)

It may not be her fault (but I am questioning it) for her exuberant and extravagant taste but I decided to nip that little rug rat in the bud, I mean – and this is the crux – where does she get off in chirping “we’ve been here before and I can’t do this anymore” precisely when you come across the best seat in the house, where all the action is and the price of one cup of average coffee leaves my pockets empty.

I knew it this morning. That one gulp of air had traces of arsenic through it and now at the end of the day I am forced to admit that I’ve been taken for a ride by an Italian waiter with his exorbitant prices and a 3 years old blondie. At least the waiter was a professional.

12 April 2012

Vienna, Austria - Days 19-21

This is the final post for our Austrian holiday. 

We spent our 19th day journeying from Graz to Vienna by train again.  This time round we finally got a clue.  Prior to arriving at the station we searched for the right departure time that would get us on the RailJet train instead of the Inter-City.  Once we got to the station we bought first class tickets and checked exactly which end of the platform was going to be the first class carriage.  With ample time to spare we hopped on the train and thought we were doing real good till we found our seats and just couldn't figure why we would be seated separated (2 x 1 seating arrangement) as opposed to located at the four seater plus table.  Well we didn't think about it too much and just took the four seater.  An absolutely awesome ride ensued all the way into Vienna.

We shared this first class carriage with 3 other people
all the way to Vienna.  How cool is that?
Here we promptly returned to the Marriott Hotel.  Why go anywhere else when this was such good value for a 4 star hotel and the breakfast spread was yummo.  From here we also knew our way around and was easy access to the Belvedere Palace; the last major tourist site for us to visit.

Belvedere Palace

The Belvedere consists of two palaces, aptly named the Lower and Upper Belvedere.  Commissioned by Prince Eugene of Savoy the palaces were built early 18th century.  Built in Baroque style, the palaces are joined by Baroque park landscape, tiered fountains and numerous sculptures.

Lower Belvedere

Upper Belvedere
Today the Belvedere is an art museum housing arts such as Gustav Klimt's famous painting "The Kiss".  The three floors of art is neatly segregated into different styles.  Here you will find Romanticism, Medieval, Biedermeier, Historicism, Impressionism, Viennese Secession, Expressionism, Contemporary and Baroque Art.  Photography was not permitted inside.

A walk in the park even on a dreary winter's day is a must.  Whilst the water was turned off on the tiered fountains, you could just imagine how lovely it would look on a summer's day amongst the perfectly manicured gardens. 

Palace Sculptures

Fountain Sculptures

Garden Sculptures

Trini found playing hide and seek with her dad a blast and lots of running and hiding was taking place.  The cold wintry weather did not phase her.

Playing hide and seek and finding daddy.
Trini's version of hide and seek.
We returned to the hotel for that scrumptious steak with bernaise sauce we had earlier on in our trip.  We certainly weren't disappointed.

On our last day we had the foresight to enquire about taxis as I noticed a 12 euro surcharge for a cab to return from the airport.  The hotel offered their chauffeur driven car for a mere 5 euros more.  A uniform dressed driver assisted us into a brand spanking new Mercedes.  Now this form of travel I do like.  I am not much for budget, have never done backpacking but slot me into anything stylish and I will happily and gratefully lap it up.

Our return flight was uneventful.  What was eventful was the two weeks of jetlag I was dealing with.  Up at 3am, out like a light during the day.  It wasn't much fun but the holiday was immensely satisfying. 

Thank you to all who followed our journey through the blog.  Would love to hear your feedback either here or on Facebook if we are friends.  So long and see you on my next sojourn.

The Belvedere Cafe

10 April 2012

Graz, Austria - Days 17-18

Graz lies 210km south of Vienna and it is the second largest Austrian city. Like Salzburg, the city is divided by the River Mur with the old town and its narrow cobblestone streets to the south and the new town to the north.

We obtained a guide to exploring the sights of Graz which was divided into three separate walks, being:

1. Through the old town
2. Through the old town, across the river and back
3. From the rooftops

These spectacular walks completed in 2 days are best illustrated through the lens as a photo-journal.

Walk 1 - Through the old town

Landhaus Courtyard 

An arcaded inner courtyard of Italian Renaissance, the Landhaus is currently used for state parliamentary meetings.


Known as the "Painted House", the facade of this building was painted with frescoes in 1742 by Baroque artist Johann Mayer. The frescoes show the gods of Greco-Roman mythology.

Town Hall

Considered to be the heart of the city, the Town Hall with its dome, clock and corner towers has dominated Graz since the late 19th century.


The Luegghaus is a striking building with an elaborate stucco facade. It is well complimented by its surrounding buildings and vibrant colours.

Double Spiral Staircase

This double spiral staircase built in 1499 is renown as a stone masonry masterpiece from the Gothic era.

Edegger-Tax Bakery

Crowned with a gilded double-headed eagle, this splendid wooden shop-facade is a bakery.  Confectionery from the Imperial era such as the Sissibuserl or Kaiserzwieback biscuits are a specialty and may be sampled.


The oldest parish church, it is now known as a church for students which is evident in its simplicity and the modern paintings.


This enormous and imposing cathedral was commissioned by Emperor Frederick III and built as a court church over 26 years starting in 1438.


The final resting place for Emperor Ferdinand II, who commissioned this tomb for himself and his family, is today considered highly important in terms of art history.

Walk 2 - Across the Mur and Back Again

Kunsthaus Graz

It is a fantastic and somewhat awkward modern building in the midst of historical and traditional structures. Along with the Clock Tower on the opposite side of the river, the Kunsthaus is Graz’s trademark. The building is used to house temporary and photographic exhibitions.

Mariahilfer Square

A square dominated by the Mariahilfer church, the monastery and the cultural centre of the Minorites. The church was built early 17th century and double towers were added in 1742.


The Murinsel takes the form of a floating shell linking the two sides of the river by footbridges. It houses a café and amphitheatre.

Schlossberg Square

The 13th century Reinerhof situated in Schlossberg square is the oldest documented building in Graz. The Schlossbergstiege stairs were carved into the cliff by prisoners of WWI. Originally there were 260 steps.

Walk 3 - From the Rooftops

Schlossberg stands at 473 m high and it is accessible by the abovementioned stairs, a funicular, a glass lift or a walk via Karmeliter Square.

A large Renaissance fortress stood on this mountain until Napoleon invaded Vienna in 1809 and under threat Graz surrendered itself. This impenetrable fortress, which is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the strongest fortification ever, was subsequently razed to the ground. All that remain are the bell tower and clock tower.

Funicular Railway

Built over 100 years ago the funicular ascends from the lower station at an incline of 61%.

Bell Tower

Graz’s famous bell the Liesl housed in the Bell Tower weighs nearly 5 tonnes. The special ringing mechanism that allows the bell to sound was constructed by two blacksmiths working at full tilt. It now rings 101 strokes daily at three separate times.

Casemate Stage

Casemates were sleeping quarters for prisoners. Today it is a stage used for operas and concerts.

Hackher Lion

Erected in honour of Major Franz von Hackher, who in 1809 together with a handful of soldiers withstood months of siege laid by the French.

Clock Tower

Striking the hour precisely since 1712, the Clock  Tower is Graz's landmark. The aerial view of the city and River Mur is breathtaking.

Rooftop views

01 April 2012

Train journey, Salzburg to Graz - Day 16

If you have been following my trip then you will remember our stressful experience on catching a train from Vienna to Salzburg. Very swiftly we learned that for an extra 40 euros each, travelling in First Class would have alleviated all of our stress and we would have journeyed in style.

The train to Salzburg was via RailJet which is Austria's high-speed train. Where the route allows it, the train is capable of 230 km/h (143 mph). So there was no complaint with the train as it was brand new, travelled super-fast and regardless of what class you were in, the comfort was there. I just wish that we had caught the next one where boarding would have been relaxed and with plenty of time.

The very sleek and classy RailJet.

However, anyone would understand that the experience between First Class where you have space, generally your own cabin and are waited on is vastly different to Economy Class. With that in mind we obtain assistance from the hotel concierge to book our Salzburg to Graz train in First Class. Pleased with our cleverness we look forward to boarding the train and spending four hours admiring the scenery.

Again we arrived at the train station with ample time (with 2 suitcases, overhead luggage and a small child will do that to anyone), obtained our tickets and waited on the platform. Imagine our dismay though when the InterCity train arrived and all I could think of is "where is my RailJet?".

Yep, not too cool, neither was the interior.

But this disappointment was nothing to what was awaiting us on the train.  Again, incredibly clueless we had no idea where to get on for First Class so we found ourselves yet again, traipsing through the whole train because the First Class carriage was on the tail end of the train as opposed to the front like the RailJet train.  At this point I simply refused to move any further with all the luggage and child until I knew exactly where my seat was.  So John went searching and 10 minutes later he returned to inform me that we are actually in a six seater cabin. 

The train may not be modern but we have a cabin and space for our luggage.  As we enter the cabin we come across a 6'4" male who has taken one window seat and stretched himself and his luggage across to the other side of the window seat.  He promptly informs us that he is expecting four friends at the next station which caused my mathematical confusion.  Our seat numbers are reserved as opposed to taking whatever is available, although he tells me that there are no seat reservations - I'm confused but carry on.  It's a six seater cabin and there's four of us in there already but he's got four more friends to come.  I couldn't add it up but I live in the comfort that my seats are reserved because we intentionally purchased the tickets with a reservation and paid a reservation fee.  He and his friends will have to sort themselves out.

So I proceed to settle ourselves in and lifted Trini to put her on the spare window seat at which point this bloke tells me that the seat is reserved.  I said to him how is it possible for the seat to be reserved when he just told me that there are no reservations.  That means I can put Trini anywhere I like.  I got a little more feisty and promptly overruled him and dropped her on the spare window seat.  I sat down next to Trini fuming but thought we are going to be travelling together for 4 hours so perhaps we should at least aim for an amicable journey. 

I try to grab his attention whilst he was talking on the phone by touching his knee so that I could offer to move Trini when his friends boarded since I knew she would not be looking out the window.  He lost the plot at me.  "Don't touch me" and "You are so rude" and "You better move elsewhere" and "I will have you thrown off the train" are just some of the comments he was throwing our way.  Completely flabbergasted and unsure how to handle this, I started using my head and thought, first step just ensure that we are in the right cabin and discovered that the seat numbers were on the door and they were definitely reserved for us.  As a matter of fact he was sitting in one of our seats.  However, what to do, what to do....  I was raging inside and thought that I would burst a blood vessel but diplomacy is always my first step, avoiding confrontation with strangers was also a consideration.  I have a child in the cabin so can't get into an argument and the fact that he striked me as aggressive I was more concerned about our safety.

Well nothing like spending the next hour or so fuming and passing train stop after train stop and realising that these friends of his just aren't materialising.  Since it was a completely unacceptable way for me to journey, I went off looking for non-booked cabins that we could just move ourselves into.  I found a completely empty one, moved ourselves into it, pushed all our luggage in the way and made sure that no one else was going to try and accommodate themselves with us.

With this move, emotionally I settled down and we had a delightful journey all the way to Graz, with both Trini and I enjoying the window seats.  We had coffee and snacks delivered to us, an amazing scenery unfolded, did princess jigsaw puzzle bought in Salzburg with Trini and every so often found myself mentally replaying what transpired in the previous cabin.  We watched the bloke disembark in Graz with all his imaginary friends and I wonder what the hell just happened.  Was he that desperate to be on his own that rather than move himself with one small luggage he preferred to cross words with a family and create an unpleasant environment.  I have to pity this guy for his way of life.

What did I take away from this experience?  How I deal with a conflicting situation sets an example for my daughter and what I teach her, even if I was caught off-guard and actually didn't know how to handle it.  Blowing a gasket in public to push my own agenda was not going to resolve anything and could have created bigger problems.  That this world most certainly has a percentage of extremely unpleasant people and nothing I do or say will change that.  Thankfully, I rarely come across them.  Finally, it is my choice whether I let this event spoil it for me or find a way around it so the beauty of my trip remains intact.

At Salzburg train station.