Running, Walking & Getting Lost to Find Venice

22 07 2012

This is the first in a series of articles about my recent trip to Italy. Enjoy!

My favourite photo from Venice: Hierarchy?

Venice: supposedly the most romantic city in the world.

I’m not much of a romantic, but I can sure tell you another thing about Venice: it’s an absolute nightmare to navigate! Forget the tourist maps – they won’t help you much. You’ll spend so long squinting at those darned blindingly miniscule alley names that by the time you’ve figured out where you are, it’s probably time to go home. And those yellow street signs, forever pointing you to San Marco and the Rialto? Sometimes they work, but I’m convinced that more often than not, they’re conspiring against all of us tourists, pointing us around in endless circles, laughing at us while we wander around like headless chickens, hopelessly lost.

Ditch the map. Go for a run.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Venice. But to really get a taste of this lagoon city, I decided to ditch the map, un-bury my face from all guidebooks, and just go wherever my running shoes took me. After all, what is it really that we want to take from our travels? Memories, sure, but what are memories? The view of Venice from the lagoon, the tourist-filled Piazza San Marco, the gondolas and their oarsmen (which, perhaps a little harshly, AA Gill describe as “unsmiling…a cross between a pork butcher and a French mime”) – all these are fine memorable views, but also views that every other tourist will see, whether personally or on postcards. What I want to take from my travels are more than just memories of these mass-produced views. I want to make make these memories mine, to attach to the views my own emotions.

This is what I will remember.

I will remember the endless winding narrow alleyways and the ubiquitious presence of calm waters; I will remember the way one emerges from a claustrophobic alley, hemmed in by buildings on both sides, out into a majestic square, and likewise retreat from the buzz of San Marco into one of the many quiet streets. I will also remember the soothing sun rays at dawn and at dusk, caressing the brick walls and cobblestones with its slanting, casting walls a vivid red, leaving a slither of gold here and there.

Beware the tourist traps!  

There is also, of course, the less beautiful side of Venice: the hordes of tourists everywhere. It’s ironic that I should say this, because as a tourist myself I’m part of the very horde that I so despise. The main tourist traps are Venice at its worst: tacky restaurants with menu turistico‘s in seven different languages, displayed together with unflattering photos of their food taken with harsh and direct flash; store after store selling you I Love Venice baseball caps, t-shirts with cliched memes, ‘Not-Made-In-China’ masks and other crappy touristy paraphernalia.

Don’t just ‘do’ Venice. Make it yours.

How was I to go about touring Venice, avoiding the tourist traps and unearthing the city’s inner beauty? Ditch the maps, chuck out the guidebooks, avoid the crowds. In short, eschew the conventional Venetian tourist checklist for something more spontaneous, self-directed and self-created. I would walk wherever my walking shoes escorted me, run wherever my running shoes took me, and explore wherever the geocaches pointed me! I had my qualms about this at first; after all, how can you say you have ‘done’ Venice until all the big name, ‘must-see’ attractions have been ticked off? This was a little quandary in which I found myself, but I also quickly found reconciliation in thinking that this was the real way to journey, the real way to create lasting, personal, emotionally rich memories.

So, here are a few of my favourite photos from Venice, taken during my map-free runs and walks. You can also view them on my Flickr page here.

Also, some questions to consider – I would love to hear your responses!

Have you been to Venice? Some say that you either hate it or love it. What did you think of it?

What are your thoughts about travel? Why do we travel?  What is the purpose of travel?

Venetian Archways

A Narrow Lane in Venice

Peekaboo! Hide and Seek in Venice?

Made in Venice…not China!

A Venetian Street

View From A Hidden Street

Venice at Dusk

A Street Cleaner in Venice

Along the Venetian Shore

Piazza San Marco, Venice…early in the morning, without the tourists!

Ponte dell’ Accademia, Venice

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Summer Beach Training

16 07 2011

It’s drizzling with rain. The sky is dim, grey and gloomy. Hardly a fresh summer day. What do you do?

Why, you go for a great training session at the beach of course!

As part of my training in preparation for the 2XTRI triathlon, I decided to do a run/swim session at the beach today with my friend Nathan. The workout consisted of:

  • running to the beach
  • swimming out to the platforms, across the water, back towards the beach, then running on sand back to the starting point – and repeating this circuit four times
  • running to the next beach, then running back to the sports center

Now that has just made my day a whole lot sunnier!





A Taste of Norway

10 07 2011

This blog has been a little quiet lately, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been moving! In fact, I’ve been busy having a great time in Norway with my family – moving, relaxing, exploring. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been up to.

Oslo
We arrived by plane from Amsterdam, and the first thing that hit me was how different the two cities were! Amsterdam has a rustic feel to it – cobble stoned streets, quiet little side alleys. It was vintage. Oslo? Physically it felt a lot more open – a wide main street thronging with activity. Street performers like this drummer here filled the city with life.

A drummer performing on the streets of Oslo - electrifying!

Vigeland Park was of course a must see. It was full of sculptures that each told a different story. Men sitting back to back. Children wrestling. Women huddling together. If I remember correctly, the sculptures attempt to express us humans’ relation to the world. Oh, and all these happy Oslo-ians picnicking and chatting away on the vast lawns!

Vigeland Park

This hot tourist attraction we complemented very nicely with something more obscure – the island of Høvedoya in the Oslofjord. There were little kids setting up their easels, painting watercolours admist monastery ruins. The trails around the island, which is a nature reserve, made for a good leisurely hike. I even found a geocache near the guns!

Monastery ruins dating from 1147. The little kids painting just adds to the romanticism of the scene...

Gotcha!

And who can forget Edward Munch? His expressionist paintings left me puzzled, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

'The Kiss': What I liked wasn't so much the sketch but the description that came with it.

“She pulled him towards her – kissed him on the neck and head – on the eyes – She huddled up to him threw her naked white body over him- squeezed him in a vicelike grip She had never stayed so log with him  – he begged her not to go – he had never been so aroused – he wanted to be able to embrace her again feel her kiss again…” E. Munch

'The Seducer': Just who is seducing who here anyway? My hunch is the man, but perhaps it's the lady?

Food. Ah yes, food. The Akerbrygge, an area by the sea side bustling with diners, was like a bigger and better version of SoHo, offering wonderful views of the seaside. We tried out the Lofoten Restaurant, ranked #1 on TripAdvisor, and weren’t disappointed!

The Akerbyrgge in the evening

Bergen
“The Gateway to the Fjords” – it’s a good description. The tagline fits this city, the second biggest in Norway. Despite being the second biggest city in the country, Bergen felt homey. There was a certain comfort that it brought, a certain intimacy. What’s more, we added to this by finding ourselves a cosy apartment on a quiet, cobble stoned side street. In here we spent mornings having good Norwegian bread while enjoying the warm sunlight, and also cooked a few scrumptious dinners from the sea food bought at the famous Fish Market.

Our cosy apartment for the week - Alvehuset City

One of the dinners we cooked while in Bergen. Loved it!

What did we get up to in Bergen? A lot, really. I went running on most mornings up the hill and along the popular Fjellveien (The Mountain Road), a flat trail breathtakingly overlooking Bergen and its coastline. I had also hoped to run up Stoltzekleiven – an 800-step stair climb of 315.5m elevation, home to the world’s steepest running race, and see how close (or far) I could get to the record of 8 minutes and 30 seconds – but unfortunately, found it closed until September.

Surrounded by its famous ‘Seven Mountains’, how could we not hike in Bergen? We took the Fløybannen up to Mount Fløyen, then slowly hiked over to Mount Ulriken, stopping countless of times for photos and snacks. The plateau towards Ulriken seemed to stretch on forever but it was a delight (for me anyway, my family were absolutely exhausted) to hop around and between the rocks while taking in the views.

A quick stop to take in the views

We did the famous Vidden hike from Fløyen to Ulriken

The beautiful plateau

Annnnd finally, the top of Ulriken, 643m up!

Edvard Grieg’s (the composer) home in Troldhaugen was definitely a highlight of our stay in Bergen. We enjoyed the daily lunch time piano recital where the pianist performed a few of Grieg’s famous pieces (including ‘The Petit Trolls’, which I was delighted to hear because I had played it before!). Walking along the trails by his villa, down to the waterside, onto the rocks, out on the pier, imagining Grieg there, composing – it was all infinitely enjoyable.

A little pier by Edward Grieg's villa

I personally didn’t find much to do in Bergen itself, so we made two outings. One was a ferry to the Hardangerfjord – the ‘Queen Fjord’. We were extremely lucky to have such beautiful weather. A background of blue skies coupled with glaciers on mountaintops, immaculately reflected on the smooth surface of the fjord; small bucolic villages with their fruit farms growing on the hills; the warm sunlight and the crisp fjord air…amazing .

We stopped at a small village called Kinsarvik and did a small hike to the first of four waterfalls,200m above sea level (the highest one is nestled 900m above sea level).

The first of four waterfalls in Kinsarvik

Another trip we made was to the Fjell Festning, or Fortress, a German military fortress built in 1942-5. The view from its vantage point was very different to those of the fjords – instead of lush green hillsides, we saw barren mountain tops stretching out to the coast.

A nice and different view from the vantage point at the Fjell Festning (Fortress).

Flåm
From Bergen we made our way to Flåm by express boat along the Sognefjord – the ‘King Fjord’. The weather wasn’t so great this time, but all the better. We got to see the fjord in a different light – glazed by a small drizzle, coated with low hanging clouds.

The Sognefjord on a cloudy day.

Reflections everywhere - even the window of our ferry!

There wasn’t much time to spend in Flåm so I made sure to make the best use of every single minute. As soon as we arrived, we grabbed a quick lunch of Norwegian meatballs, then made our way to the beach for our guided kayak trip. We kayaked out along the fjord to a place called Fronneset, bumping along the waves every time a cruise boat sped past, and docked on a small beach to hike up the ‘Old King’s Path’ to a waterfall – a path of fascinating historical importance. On the way back, our cheerful guide Eleanor called out a few goats from the hill side and fed them with some bread. Mmm…

Kayaking along the fjord and experiencing it up close

I decided that I wouldn’t leave Flåm without walking along the famous Naeroyfjord (the most narrow arm of the Sognefjord), and so we made a day trip out. We adapted the trip described here to better suit our preferences, making a quick 20 minute bus ride to Gudvangen, then walking 5km along a trail outside a tunnel to Bakka, one of the oldest villages in the area with only 20 inhabitants. From there, we hopped onto a small wooden boat rowed by a man I had phoned earlier, which took us across the narrow fjord to Bleiklindi.

On the row boat across the fjord from Bakka to Bleiklindi, ready to start our walk.

Here we started our 6km walk on the Royal Post Road  (Den Kongelige Postveg/Kongevegen) towards Styvvi, walking beside the Naeroyfjord the whole way. It’s one thing to enjoy the fjord’s majestic views while on an express ferry, and quite another to take it all in slowly while walking just meters away from the water. You feel connected to the elements. The plump and fertile earth sits snugly under your feet as you journey on dry land, yet at the same time the water is just to the side, and you can almost smell wisps of the fjord’s deep waters. It really is quite a paradise unlike any other.

Mooooo! We came across quite a few cows and sheeps along the Royal Post Road.

On the morning we were due to leave on the Flåm Railway, I managed to squeeze in about 100 minutes of quality biking. I’ve seen Norway’s natural wonders on feet, on ferries, on buses and on trains, and now I was going to top it all off by seeing it on a mountain bike! I made my way up from the Flam Railway Station (sea level) in the direction Myrdal (over 800m above sea level), then down again and towards Aurland with the fjord on my left.

Norway. Your beauty has simply left me quite amazed.