London and Venice Trip Report

Mar 26th, 2004, 02:06 AM
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London and Venice Trip Report

London and Venice Trip Report


My daughter and I recently returned from our spring break trip to London and Venice. We have traveled to Europe each year at this time since she entered college, and it has been a wonderful experience for both of us.

We arranged this trip with a package from Gotoday.com, since they offered two-city combinations. Last year we went to Paris and Rome, enjoying the difference between the two destinations, so this year we selected London and Venice. The basic packages were for six nights, but we extended the trip so we had three nights in London and five in Venice. I selected a pairing of hotels based mainly on the Venice hotel because of location. We stayed at the Thistle Kensington Gardens in London and the Hotel Kette in Venice.

Gotoday selected flights for the trip that were slightly inconvenient, and for this reason I might not choose to use them again. Last year we got a very good nonstop flight to Paris from Boston, but this year we were routed to London through Frankfurt on a United codeshare flying Lufthansa. I would have preferred not to spend two hours in Germany at six A.M., but at least it did afford us the somewhat surreal cultural experience of watching a couple of dozen Chassidic men saying their morning prayers at an airport gate in Frankfurt where they too were changing planes.

We did encounter some confusion upon arriving at Heathrow in London. I had called United to ask at which terminal we would be arriving, and I was told it would be terminal 1. I arranged for a driver to meet us at terminal 1. We walked from the plane to the nearest terminal, which was terminal 1. When we went through passport control, we were told that our luggage was probably at terminal 2, because Lufthansa usually lands at terminal 2. We could not get to terminal 2 without leaving the secure area, going to the terminal and back through security. We went out and found our driver, who took us to terminal 2, and then spent almost an hour trying to find a mysterious "door number 3" to which people kept directing us. Eventually we located the unsigned door number 3 next to the men's room behind the staircase, where there was a security check for airport employees and a telephone to call the baggage claim area. Someone from Lufthansa eventually came out to get us and our bags were waiting in the area just the other side of the door. A helpful guy at the security desk explained to us that our plane had probably landed between terminals 1 and 2, and that we had taken the wrong turn. I'm still pretty confused about it, but if this ever happens again, at least I'll know where to look for door number 3.

The flight from London to Venice was on BMI and went smoothly. The flight from Venice back to Boston, on Lufthansa again, was routed through Frankfurt, and the Venice to Frankfurt segment left at 6:30 A.M. I contacted Gotoday when I saw the flight arrangements to ask if there was a later flight and they told me there was not. I checked on my own, and found that for that airline and route that was the only available flight, so we just lived with it.
LONDON

I had arranged with justairports.com for a driver to pick us up at Heathrow, and even with an hour of extra waiting time while we retrieved our bags, the cost ended up being about the same as the car service that the hotel was going to get for us when I inquired upon leaving London. So I called justairports.com again when we were leaving and paid a very reasonable 19 pounds for the trip back to the airport. Both times the drivers were prompt and pleasant, and the price seemed the lowest I could find.

The Thistle Kensington Gardens was a fine place to stay. The room was large and had a view over Kensington Gardens. There is a bus stop right around the corner on Bayswater Road, and there is also a stop for one of the hop-on/hop-off buses just in front of the hotel, although we did not use that. The underground has two stops on different lines within a five minute walk from the hotel. It might have been more convenient to stay nearer the center of London, especially for returning from the theater, but we splurged on taxis at night.

The highlight of our weekend in London was the theater. Friday night we saw Judi Dench in All's Well That Ends Well, for which I had purchased tickets in advance. Saturday night we got tickets from the TKTS booth in Leicester Square for Pirates of Penzance, which was wonderful. The TKTS booth had only a ten minute wait on Saturday morning and tickets were available for many shows. This was a much easier experience than I have had in recent years at the TKTS booth in New York.

Prices in London are very high. I just kept trying to remember that things cost in London about the same in pounds as they do here in dollars. If I converted pounds to dollars each time we took a cab or ate in a restaurant, it was too depressing. So I just was grateful we were spending only a weekend and that our hotel had been pre-paid in dollars. Treated the prices we did have to pay as though they were in dollars. We ate mostly in modest ethnic restaurants near the hotel, a Chinese place that was quite good, a nice Greek place, and a somewhat less satisfying Moroccan place.

We enjoyed the Beefeaters Tour at the Tower of London, although we went on a cold, rainy, windy day that made the tower look appropriately bleak and unpleasant. We went to the British Museum for a few hours, walked through Westminster Abbey, and at my daughter's request after seeing it mentioned in many books, we went to Madame Tussaud's. Yes, OK, it's pretty cheesy, but it wasn't quite what I expected and we had a good time. And now I have a picture of myself with Hugh Grant. OK, he's looking a little waxy and I'm looking a little wet and raggedy (this was after spending a couple of hours in the rain at the Tower of London), but hey...

On the nicer of the two weekend days, we walked through St. James Park, saw someone feeding the pelicans, walked by Buckingham Palace, enjoyed the springlike greenery. Here in Massachusetts it wasn't looking too green when we left, and two weeks later it still isn't too green.








Nikki is offline  
Mar 26th, 2004, 02:14 AM
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Next installment, on to Venice.
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Mar 26th, 2004, 06:40 AM
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The last time I had been to London was in 1990. This time I had the feeling that it was much less "foreign" feeling. The people on the street, the stores, the general atmosphere all seemed very familiar, much more like New York or Boston than I remembered from past visits. I don't know whether London itself has changed so much or whether I have. A combination of the two, I suppose.

VENICE

I had never been to Venice before and had read all the posts from people who love it, people who hate it, people who say it's just a more authentic type of Disney World, so I wasn't sure which reaction I would have. I suppose I have to say a little of each. Yes, it is full of tourists, although in March it wasn't all that crowded. And there are a LOT of stores. But the feeling in the streets, the narrow alleyways opening onto hidden piazzas, the bridges over the canals, the sun fighting its way through the mist, all combine to make a very beautiful city. It's an odd place where men hang out on bridges accosting you every time you cross one to get you to take a boat ride. Sort of like Central Park in my youth, only less threatening.

We stayed at the Hotel Kette, which was a wonderful location. Very near Piazza San Marco, but on a quiet street away from the intense commercial area. It backs up to a canal, but our room faced onto the street. The street was so narrow that we could not tell by looking out the window whether it was sunny outside. Fortunately for us, it was sunny our whole time there and very springlike.

The room was small but comfortable and there was a good-sized marble bathroom with a good shower. I had read the review in Fodor's which said there were lots of tour groups at the Hotel Kette, but that was not the case last week. The hotel seemed very quiet and peaceful. While the review also suggests that the breakfasts should be avoided, we thought the buffet breakfast was fine.

I was very impressed by the mosaics at the San Marco Basilica. Unfortunately there was no place to sit and look up at the ceiling, so the experience was somewhat dizzying. We took the secret itineraries tour at the Palazzo Ducale. I never would have thought of this without all the recommendations on Fodor's, and it was terrifically interesting. We just walked up to the information desk at the entrance and got reservations for a tour starting in an hour. My favorite fact nugget was that much of the carpentry work was done by shipbuilders from the Venice Arsenale, so that many of the rooms resemble ships. We got to stand in the attic and admire the oak beams soaked in salt water that have lasted hundreds of years. Made me wonder why we don't do this at home.

Saw lots of art. The Accademia had excellent English language gallery guides you could read in each room. This was also true at the Ca d'Oro, which had a nice collection as well as a good view of the Grand Canal. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was extremely crowded with school groups. The rooms are not big enough to handle large crowds, so we did not spend as much time as I would have liked in the permanent collection. There was a temporary exhibit of Renaissance drawings on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, however, and these galleries were much less crowded. I really enjoy looking at drawings, they feel more like chamber music (my first love) and less like symphonies (a lesser love, but still). Favorite fact nugget from looking at this exhibit was that in a Raphael drawing for a larger work featuring a wedding, all the figures were nude. In the final work, they would have been clothed, but Raphael preferred to work out the figures in their more anatomical version before clothing them.

We attended a chamber music concert at the San Vidal Church one night. These concerts are held almost every night of the week with an alternating program. I was afraid that since they were a tourist production they might not be very good, but I enjoyed the concert thoroughly. The program we saw featured two Vivaldi flute concertos (or rather one for flute and one for piccolo) and some other works for strings and harpsichord. As I spend much of my time playing the flute recreationally in various ensembles, this was great fun for me. I play in a chamber group with similar instrumentation to the group we saw, and I was busy taking mental notes for us. It's cold in those old stone churches though, and I wish I had dressed more warmly.

After some hesitation about whether to accept the free water taxi ride our hotel offered to arrange to Murano, we decided to go. I had read that people accepting such rides were subjected to intense high-pressure sales tactics in the glass factories, which almost convinced me to go by vaporetto instead. I'm really glad we took the water taxi. The ride was delightful, the weather beautiful. The boat pulled up to the dock at a factory away from the main drag. We went in and were given a private glassblowing demonstration which we found really entertaining. It lasted just a few minutes, during which "Master Giorgio" made a clear vase and a two-toned glass horse. Then the salesman showed us through the showrooms. There was no pressure to buy. It must have been clear we weren't big spenders just from our appearance and attitude. The showroom was interesting, had all types of items, all marked by price. All way too pricey. We ended up in the "bargain basement" area and just bought one of the demonstration horses for ten euros. When I was a child, my mother went to Venice and came back with a bird she had seen made at a demonstration in Murano, so I figured it was the thing to do. I still have the bird, and now the horse is next to it on the shelf.

We walked around Murano a bit and had a drink and snack at a cafe next to a church. The feeling of Murano was open and refreshing, more like a country town than Venice. If there was a crowded, touristy part of town, and I have read that there is, we didn't find it. We took the vaporetto back to San Marco after a very pleasant hour or two.

Some of the most pleasant times in Venice were spent hanging out in little piazzas or along the waterfront. My daughter and I had been talking about whether there were any children in Venice, as we hadn't come across many. We were sitting along the Zattere eating gelato from Nico's when suddenly there were many kids. There must be a school nearby, because they all appeared at once wearing backpacks. Lots of parents walking their kids to the boat to take the vaporetto home. Fun to watch.

We ate in several nice restaurants, most of which I learned about on the Fodor's board. Perhaps my favorite, however, was one we found by accident, Trattoria Ca d'Oro, alla Vedova. We had been in a Lush store buying soap for my daughter and we asked the young women in the shop where we could have lunch nearby. They first suggested McDonald's. The horror! I said no, we wanted some place Italian, and they pointed us to this place. It is a wonderful small restaurant off Strada Nova near the Ca d'Oro. If you were walking from Ca d'Oro you would cross Strada Nova and walk one short block to it. No menu, just whatever they tell you they've got. We had a great spaghetti with clams and lasagna with radicchio. If it had been closer to our hotel, I would have gone back one night for dinner.

At Cantinone Storico on Fondamente Bragadin in Dorsoduro we had a really good meal. We shared risotto with shrimp and artichokes and then I had an excellent fish (don't remember what kind) and roasted potatoes that the waiter had recommended. My daughter had chicken cacciatore that she really liked.

We went to Taverna San Trovaso in Dorsoduro after reading good reports on Fodor's and it was worthwhile for good food, large portions and reasonable prices. I loved the fish antipasto. My order of cuttlefish in its own ink with polenta was good, and so large that I probably only ate half of it. I also had grilled eggplant, and my daughter had vegetable soup and steak.

We ate one night at Da Raffaele because it was located between our hotel and the concert we were going to, and it was open early enough to have supper before the concert. It has a beautiful setting on a canal but we were too cold to eat outside. They did bring out heaters later, so people were sitting outside. The food was very good. I had fish antipasto, which I loved again, and it was different from the one at San Trovaso. Then I had fritto misto, a lovely combination of fried fish, seafood and zucchini. Tiramisu to finish. This was the most expensive place we went to.

One night we were walking through Dorsoduro looking for a restaurant we couldn't find (which someone on Fodor's had described as their secret restaurant; well, it's still a secret to us) and we ended up at a place we passed that looked inviting, La Bitta. This place is on C. Lunga San Barnaba. We're really lucky we got a table; after us they were turning people away. Less traditional, more creative menu, no fish. I had a smoked duck breast and goat cheese salad which was sensational, then gnocchi with rabbit and zucchini, and a very dense chocolate cake. My daughter had a wonderful marinated artichoke salad and pasta with pumpkin and prosciutto, ending with spice cake. Loved this place.

Our last night we went to Vino Vino, which was just across the small canal behind our hotel. They have a limited menu of food prepared at their more upscale restaurant around the corner. It is all visible and you go to the counter to order it. They then bring it to your table. Very good and reasonable, and good for a quick meal since everything is prepared. I had pasta with prosciutto and mushrooms, then cold octopus salad and eggplant on the side. My daughter had lasagna and quail.

Since our flight home left so early in the morning, we had to take a water taxi. There was fog in the lagoon, and our driver told us he couldn't go to the airport, it wasn't safe. So he took us to the Piazzale Roma, where we got a regular taxi to the airport. After five days with no cars, it was jarring to get in a taxi. There is a very relaxing and Brigadoon-like feel to Venice. The water, the mist, the lack of cars. Glad we went.






Nikki is offline  
Mar 26th, 2004, 07:21 AM
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Thanks so much for posting Nikki. Very interesting. I know next to nothing about Venice. It seems as if you didn't enjoy the Peggy Guggenheim collection too much. I would love to see one of my favorite paintings there--"The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle" by Jackson Pollock. Did you see it? I have been looking for a re-print online and have been unsuccessful. I even checked the Peggy Guggenheim collection store.
Anyway, thanks again for your report.
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Mar 26th, 2004, 07:47 AM
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memejw, it was so crowded in the permanent galleries with tours and school groups that we didn't get a close look at anything. There was a whole room full of Jackson Pollocks, but we didn't get close enough to check out the titles. The temporary galleries were much less crowded. Could be we just entered at the wrong time.
Nikki is offline  
Mar 26th, 2004, 07:51 AM
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Thanks Nikki
Very enjoyable, particularly your Venice report and restaurant reviews.
Kavey
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Mar 26th, 2004, 01:02 PM
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Thanks Kavey, I have enjoyed many of your reports as well.
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Mar 26th, 2004, 03:54 PM
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Sounds like a wonderful trip! It is fun to focus on just two cities at a time. It's also fun to hang out with a "grown up" daughter!
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Mar 27th, 2004, 04:24 AM
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Yes, uhoh, the two city thing has worked out well. It gives us a real taste of the differences there are in Europe. You go a couple of hours away and you're in a whole different world: different language, food, architecture, people. At home we can fly for two hours and get to, say, Chicago, but it's not all that different from Boston. In Europe if you travel just a little way you feel as though you've gotten somewhere really exotic.

As for hanging out with a grown up daughter, I never imagined how wonderful that would be. A truly unintended benefit of parenting.
Nikki is offline  
Mar 27th, 2004, 04:33 AM
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ira
 
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Hi nikki,

Thanks for a very nice trip report.
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Mar 27th, 2004, 04:56 AM
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Hi Nikki, thanks for the report.

Your mention of the school groups in the Peggy Guggenheim made me realize due to the timing of our trip, we'll probably be too late for the spring breaks (although they are staggered in Europe, the way they are here). I don't know if I'm glad or sad about this. True, the groups add to congestion, but just as you enjoyed watching the kids returning home from school in Venice, we got a great kick last time watching a group of Italian students (about high school age) interacting with a Japanese school group on tour.

Glad you enjoyed your trip.
Sue_xx_yy is online now  
Mar 27th, 2004, 11:50 AM
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Sue, I got the impression that the school groups we saw were mostly Italian high school and middle school aged kids on day trips. So I imagine they'll be around whenever you go during the school year. We saw lots of them all over Venice, but they were especially thick in that museum. Bad timing on our part, I don't imagine it's always like that.
Nikki is offline  
Apr 4th, 2004, 01:56 PM
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How did you get from the airport to the Kette. I am thinking about staying there in September. If we take a private boat do they have their own dock?
janierad is offline  
Apr 4th, 2004, 04:25 PM
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We took the alilaguna boat from the airport to San Marco and then walked to the Kette, just about five minutes away. They do have their own dock for a water taxi, and we took one on the way home because we had to leave at 4:30 AM.
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Apr 4th, 2004, 09:51 PM
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Nikki,

I just checked out justairports.com as it sounded pretty good. It seems that you did like it, I'm considering it since I will be arriving in London early in the morning and by myself. It will be my first time in London, and though many people tell me to take the subway to my hotel, I just think that after flying for apx 14 hours, never having been in London, and frankly, having been on a subway only 4 times or so in my life, doing it as I arrive in London may not be the best time to start. Anyway, it seems that you would recommend justairports.com, would I be right? Do they wait for you with your name on a card type of situation?
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Apr 5th, 2004, 05:55 AM
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lyb, I was very happy with justairports.com. The driver does wait with your name on a card. Since we were held up getting out of the baggage claim area with some confusion, our driver was having us paged just as we entered the arrivals area. Then he took us to the other terminal and waited for us to hunt down our bags. Very pleasant guy.

On the way back to the airport, we also had a very nice driver. He showed up at the hotel right on time and the price beat the regular taxi, the private driver the hotel would have arranged and the Paddington Express train to the airport.

If you book through the web site, notice that the rate is higher if you are using a credit card. We paid cash.
Nikki is offline  
Apr 5th, 2004, 06:15 AM
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lyb
 
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Nikki,

Thank you, I definitely think I will use them. It's going to set my mind at ease, after flying for so long, I'd rather not have the apprehension of figuring my way through the subway. Though, of course, I certainly will once I'm settled in London. Thank you for your report overall, it was very informative for London and brought back great memories of Venice.
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