Venice, Italy – Part One

Faced with the wonderful dilemma of where to spend my birthday, I tossed around a few ideas. Amsterdam? Prague? An exotic island in Greece?

The possibilities being practically endless and not knowing when else in my life I would be spending my birthday anywhere I wanted in Europe – I really debated this dilemma for some time.

I asked friends who had traveled in Europe before for advice.

If you could spend your birthday anywhere, where would it be?

Celest recommended Vienna, Austria and “not just for the amazing ice cream”. She also recommended the Czech Republic and Paris of course, but she knew we’d already been there.

Teena thought I would enjoy both Amsterdam and Prague, in entirely different ways.

When I asked a group of fellow diners in the UK where they would go, Nestor very authoritatively yelled out, “Venice!” He then went on to rave about what a wonderfully magical place it is. (I didn’t find out until much later that he hadn’t actually been there – claiming he hadn’t found a boyfriend special enough to go with.)

Venice at night

His enthusiasm got me thinking though and the more I checked out the discount airlines flights, the more sense Venice made. We were able to fly to Venice from London on Easyjet and then from Venice to Frankfurt on Ryanair. The flight dates matched up perfectly, the price was right and I was all set to book it until I realized how difficult it is finding accommodations in Venice. Especially reasonably priced accommodations!

I found a lovely looking B&B on Lido (a short ferry ride away from Venice) called Casa Delle Rose that was “only” 90 euros a night. (Which was a lot more than we’ve been spending on accommodations but is actually a very good price for Venice.) They only had a room available for 3 of the 6 nights though. Further seeking yielded the small and extremely well located Hotel Falier, right in the heart of Venice. We really splashed out on this place at 120 euros per night (including breakfast and wifi) but it was my birthday.

Our room at Hotel Falier

There are two airports in Venice – Marco Polo airport is about 20 minutes from the city and Treviso is approximately 90 minutes away. Easyjet flies into Marco Polo while Ryanair uses the Terviso airport.

We arrived in Venice without any kind of guidebook whatsoever – our plan was to wing it – with a little help from the ‘net of course.

Arriving at Marco Polo, I awoke from my slumber just in time to see the scattering of islands that comprise Venezia with the waterway road network that snakes between them. There were dozens of motorboats following each other like ants, their path clearly marked.

There are two bus companies that provide transportation to the Piazzale Roma. A.T.V.O. (blue coach) costs 3.00 euros and has luggage facilities and seats for passengers (this is the one we took) and the A.C.T.C. (orange coach) without luggage facilities (okay if you don’t have a backpack the size of a small elephant) and sitting/standing room, which is half the price at 1.50 euros.

Or, if you have buckets of money, you can take a private water taxi from the airport straight to your hotel for about 100 euros (for 2 people with luggage).

But then you would miss out on all the fun of navigating your way over the bridges, along the canals and through the “streets” (alleyways!) of Venice – carrying the weight of a small hippo on your back – for the very first time. And I’m not being facetious!

Venice is an absolute maze of bridges, alleys, old buildings and canals – that’s the fun of it!

Canal in Venice

A reasonably short walk from the bus station, we managed to find our hotel without getting lost (which is a miracle in Venice!) When I saw our room, it was so pretty I had a hard time believing that this was only a 2 star hotel.

Feeling famished, we set off to find lunch and experience our first meal in Italy. Which was very exciting – since Italian food had been my absolute favorite since I was a kid.

We found a quaint pizzeria in a quiet courtyard and ordered our first pizza in Italy. Along with a tomato and bococcini salad and some house red – our meal was delicious.

When our bill arrived, we noticed there was a “cover charge” or “il coperto” and a service charge. The latter having been crossed out, we assumed it meant that it was up to us how much we wanted to tip. But paying a cover charge was a bit of a surprise until I did some reading up on it and discovered that this was simply how things are done in Italy. The cover charge ranges from 1.50 – 3.00 euros per person and is meant to cover the cost of bread and a glass of tap water (although no self respecting Italian would ever deign to drink tap water!) Some restaurants will state “no cover charge”, but overall, it just comes with the territory when in Italy and we got used to it.

Stuffed full of pizza, we sleepily sauntered back to our room for a much needed afternoon nap…and awoke a few hours later to the salient sound of opera drifting in through our window.

The Arab Baths of Granada

My blog posts aren’t happening in real time – I’m months behind in telling the tales of all the cool countries we’ve been to.

Since London we’ve been to Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and are now resting our heads in Portugal.

I want to keep my posts in sequence – telling you the tales from our journey exactly as they happened.

But a recent visit to the Arab Baths in Granada was such a great experience that I wanted to write about it now and not wait until after all the other stories. So I did a guest post on another travel blog.

Check it out at 3 Troopin’ Travelers.

Stay tuned for tales of Venice – the perfect place to spend my birthday!

Uncle Where Art Thou?

Back in Nottingham, I had mentioned to Libby that I was thinking about looking up my uncle, whom I believed to be living in Sheffield, and giving him a ring. I didn’t know where to start looking for the number (I assumed the phone book) – but she told me she was visiting the library the next day and would check there. Apparently the librarian just looked up the phone numbers online for all of the B. Tomlinson’s in the Sheffield area. There were six of them.

I took that folded up piece of paper from her but didn’t work up the courage to actually call – until we reached London. (Sheffield is quite close to Nottingham – much closer than London – so that would have made more sense for arranging a visit).

But well, when you are calling a long lost relative out of the blue, sometimes it takes a week to work up to.

I haven’t seen my uncle Brian since I was two. Of course, I don’t actually remember meeting him, but I do have the photos to prove it.

Brian is my uncle on my father’s side (that’s how I was able to obtain my British passport) – but my parents got divorced when I was six. I didn’t see my dad much after that, even though we lived in the same town, never mind an uncle who lived across an ocean.

My parents had a pretty messy divorce, what with the adultery, the abuse and the alcoholism (all on the part of my father) so when I ran into my dad at the local mall four years later, I wasn’t too communicative when he approached and tried to talk to me. I saw him in the toy store and immediately left, only to have him follow and find me in the big grocery store engrossed in the ingredients on a box of cereal (not a very convincing way to hide for a 10 year old). He stood behind me for several moments, clutching his shopping bags. I could feel his eyes on me but I refused to turn around.

He finally worked up the courage to say hello and my automatic response to reply with my own hello followed. Then I turned back to the cereal section.

He continued to stand there for awhile before he spoke again.

“Aren’t you even going to say hello?” he asked.

“I said hello,” I uttered, in the hardest tone I could muster.

He gave me a defeated look as he shrugged his shoulders and turned to leave.

I never saw him again.

My dad died two years later of a heart attack.

It’s not the greatest last memory to have of someone. But more than that, all of my memories of him are of the first six years of my life. Some are good. Others are not.

So I think that my uncle, his older brother, may be able to shed some light on who my father was. As a child, as a teen, as a twenty-something, before he became my dad, before he became an alcoholic, before he died.

I had worked up the courage to dial the digits on the paper in front of me and as the first B. Tomlinson on the list answered the phone, I took a deep breath and asked for Brian.

“This is Brian,” came the response.

“Did you have a brother named Donald?” I asked.

Turns out he didn’t. It was the wrong Brian Tomlinson. The other five weren’t the correct numbers either.

Brian Tomlinson formerly of Sheffield, England might be too old to be web-savvy. But I know he has two daughters, and probably grandkids, who may stumble across this.

If so, please drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.



Our Easyjet flight from Edinburgh to London Gatwick was in fact, easy. Catching the tube from the airport to Plaistow station went equally as smoothly.

Flashpacking Wife at the London Bridge Tube Station

It was dark when we exited the tube station with our packs, armed with the directions to our flat (which promised a short walk) – and we thought we had it made. Friends of Curtis’s mother had offered us a free flat to stay in for our week in London. They happened to be visiting Vancouver and Powell River while we were there and all info (such as directions and key pick up) had been emailed to Curtis.

Following the directions to the letter, we found the landmark of the pub they had mentioned. Continuing to follow their directions, we continued down the road.

The next street we came upon was completely sealed off with yellow police tape and – I am not exaggerating here – there were at least 50 cops canvassing the area. I was really hoping that this wasn’t our street – thankfully it wasn’t – because whatever had happened here was obviously not good.

I asked a few of the policemen directions to the street we were looking for but none of them seemed to be familiar with the area. After walking around a little more and asking a shopkeeper, we realized the directions after the pub just didn’t make sense so we returned to it.

The barman said we were on the correct street (no sign of course), which led down the opposite way of what was written in our directions (very confusing – obviously). Around this time is when I started to notice the local youths milling about. Menacing would be the best way to describe them.

We quickly found our flat but after pressing the buzzer for Flat 5 – we realized that Joan had given us her buzzer number and not the neighbor’s buzzer number. You know, the one who was actually in London and had the key.

Not feeling safe at all, I just started pressing random buzzers until someone let us in. In the safety of the stairwell, we hatched a plan that I would stay there with our luggage while Curtis went to try and call the neighbor. While he was gone, I was approached by one neighbor who offered to rent me his flat for 75 pounds a night (obviously I refused his offer to inspect the flat) and was also approached by a lovely couple who offered me use of their phone and a cup of tea. I told them I would wait until my husband had returned.

Curtis in front of the National Gallery

Curtis returned with the frustrating news that the neighbors cell phone (mobile phone as they are called here) wasn’t being answered. He was able to leave her a voice mail but his other attempts left him with an endless unanswered ringing….

This is when I decided to just ring everyone’s buzzer until I found the correct neighbor. Which only took two tries (it’s a small complex). She was absolutely lovely, offering us tea (of course), lending us two Oyster cards (which saves heaps of money on the Metro), apologizing and pointing out that you can in fact buy crack two doors down (I knew this was a dodgy neighborhood!) and offering us a frozen pizza so we’d have something to eat without having to leave the safety of our apartment again.

We breathed a huge sigh of relief once in our free digs – the free flat was fabulous.

Until the next day when I attempted to take a shower. It took us about half an hour to figure out how to make the shower work. The water for the bath was easy to turn on but we couldn’t figure out how to make it come out of the showerhead. After trying everything we could think of, Curtis spotted a pull cord over by the window. More out of curiousity than anything else (he was actually saying, “I wonder what this is for” as he pulled it) – he gave it a tug and it voila – the shower box turned on!

Flashpacking Wife jumping in front of Big Ben

Our time in London was spent sight seeing, relaxing at home and running around the neighborhood. After our almost two week stint of way too much British pub food and beer, we were determined to make a concerted effort to get back in shape. We ate a lot of salads that week and packed healthy sandwiches and fruit to go that we could eat while sightseeing. Picnic lunches in small parks became our thing. And we banned the beer and wine completely (except for the one evening that we met up with The Cornholes – the couple we had met in Marseille).

All of our efforts paid off, I actually lost 2 pounds that week. Running in the streets of the Plaistow neighborhood however, was probably not the sanest thing to do. We often got mocked by the local youths who were drinking beer outside of shabby pubs. The rest of the people we passed just looked at us like we were crazy.

Besides our little health kick, we enjoyed walking around, taking in the famous sights.

Curtis in front of the London Eye and Big Ben

The London Eye

Big Ben

On our way to the Tate Modern (free admission!) museum, we passed the Globe Theatre. I went in to have a peek and saw a sign that read, “5 Pound Tickets available for every show”. When we enquired about it, the cashier told us she had two left for tonight’s performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sold!

We spent a couple of hours enjoying the Tate, ate our sandwiches, warmed up with a coffee and then lined up for our play.

I had no idea when we bought our tickets that we were buying standing room only. No wonder they were so cheap! Not only were we expected to stand for the duration of the play but the theatre was actually open air – there was no ceiling in the middle of the building. Did we get cold? Did our legs or feet get sore from standing all those hours? No! The Merry Wives of Windsor was the absolute best Shakespeare play I have ever seen. It was so high energy – so hilarious and fun – that I would have felt a little sad when it was over if I hadn’t been grinning so enthusiastically!

Inside the Globe Theatre in London

There was a catwalk that came out from one side of the stage and circled around to create a mini stage in the middle of the room, which was also used creatively in set changes. Part of the floor flipped around to create a “garden”, then magically disappeared to a regular floor, depending on the scene.

We were standing between the main stage and the catwalk so that the actors were often sweeping past us in their amazing costumes. It really felt like we were part of the play, being that close, I was able to smell the dust and perspiration clinging to the ends of their petticoats.

Another highlight from London was going to see the Changing of the Guard. It may be a cheesy tourist thing to do, but I felt a surge of excitement at my first glimpse of the procession.

Changing of the Guard

London is a very expensive city – everybody knows that. But we managed to get by on 20 pounds for a weeks worth of groceries. We spent more than that taking the tube! So the free stuff is very appealing – which includes most of the museums, the Changing of the Guard, walking around Camden Town (market neighborhood full of punks), seeing the sights like Big Ben, the London Eye (to actually ride the thing costs 15 pounds – so we skipped that), London and Tower Bridges (the Tower Bridge is the nice looking one, the London Bridge is actually plain and boring).

Store in Camden Town

Even spotting the double decker buses and the phone booths is neat!

Flashpacking Wife in a London phone booth

Curtis really wanted to visit Abbey Road – the sight of the Beatles album cover by the same name – and recreate walking across the road just like they did. There were a few other tourists who had the same idea – so we took turns taking pictures of each other walking back and forth across the street. We were giggling with our new Japanese friends in no time!

Flashpackers walking across Abbey Road

There is a recording studio on Abbey Road and we saw a real life paparazzi waiting outside with his giant camera. He wouldn’t tell us who was inside when we asked, and actually had the nerve to scoff at us for being tourists. I took his picture just as he was getting off his cell phone – I figured fair is fair. So here’s a picture of an actual paparazzi in action. Unfortunately, I don’t have his name, but I can tell you he spent an awful lot of time on his phone and pacing around waiting. Boring!

The paparazzi in London

We were told that one thing we should see while in London was a football match. We splurged on the 40 Pound tickets (that’s $80 each!) to witness our first footy game. (Which is called soccer where we’re from.)

Football game - Queens Park Rangers vs. Derby

It was a blast! They have to keep the fans separated on opposite sides of the stadium and no one is allowed to have the tops of their water or pop bottles (obviously in case you try to hurl a full bottle at someone or out onto the field). We didn’t witness any violence though – just some good old fashioned singing and stomping with each side’s fans shouting down the other. It was the Queens Park Rangers vs. Derby. Footy is actually quite a good game to watch!

Flashpacking Wife at the Footy Game

With our week in London coming to a close and a very early morning plane to catch, we opted to take the last tube to Gatwick at midnight instead of catching a 4:00 am bus to the airport. That is how scary our neighborhood was! We didn’t want to be walking with our stuff in the wee hours of the night, only to get rolled for all of our earthly possessions. Or worse, stabbed! Every day in the paper we read about several stabbings – the most “famous” of which they dubbed the Phantom of the Opera murder. This was the one that had taken place in our neighborhood on the night we had arrived! I will spare you the details….

Gatwick airport is a haven for the sleepy traveler. By that I mean, everywhere, literally everywhere you looked, people were sleeping on benches, in chairs and on the floor.

Travelers sleeping at Gatwick

I managed to stay awake until 4:00 am and then joined in the sleepy masses, finding myself a bench for a 90 minute nap – until Curtis woke me up to wander in a zombie like state through check in and onto our flight – where I slept like a baby from before take off until just before landing at our next destination.