Scribbled during travel to remember clearly the events and interesting people I met. 4th day of European Tour
On Jan 8, 2011. I decided to post some pictures of my travel before I get caught up with the hassle of city living. So I am loading the following article of my travel written on the next morning after the visit to Venice and Verona for my readers.
Dec 17, 2010
My tour group of 49 tourists from Singapore left the impressive modern Novotel Hotel, a 15-minute drive outside Venice island at 9.390 a.m. It would be 3x more expensive to live on Venice island and so we were housed in this excellent hotel.
This new furnishing concept Novotel, a 4-star, is very impressive to the mass-tour-package tourist as all furnishings are modern. The bathroom has custom-made semi-circular shower tub which is a fake long bath. Too shallow as a long bath tub. The wash basin was of grey plastic material while there were branded taps and shower heads. Stainless steel handles. Small things like a kettle made this hotel stay a pleasure as the tourist can boil water to make tea or coffee as almost all the European hotels do not provide kettles. The TV clock was inaccurate and English programming malfunctioned in one room. One of the group said it was a pleasure to take a shower in this hotel as the previous hotel had cold water.
After Venice Island, the tour manager announced that the factory outlet in the shopping mall for leather goods was closed for lunch and so the Singaporean ladies were greatly disappointed. He made some phone alls and the shop was opened.
But the memorable visit for me was Verona (Juliet’s balcony visit in the evening with new snow flakes falling was a great experience for the group – snow ball fights and romance revisited).
Milan’s big Chinese Restaurant for dinner (corn soup again 2nd time in another Chinese restaurant). Venice island visit. Gloomy skies with few snow flakes. Snow fell as we left Venice by coach to see the Coliseum at Verona (substitute for not seeing the real thing at Rome – student strike over university pay and research cuts by PM Berlusconi - burnt cars and injured policemen). The Tour Manager said we could claim some money back from travel insurance on proof of no show but I doubt he would follow up as we did not get any letter. In any case, the Coliseum at Verona was closed when we arrived. But it was more fun outside as I re-experienced the gentle snow flakes falling from the skies as I had not seen natural snow falling for over 30 years in tropical Singapore and I dislike winter travels.
1. Jet lag still hit me even though I slept on and off in the coach. A young man had to carry the 20-kg 3-year-old whom I could see could not walk more. My own leg muscles felt cramped and so this little girl must be very tired and jet lagged.
A 65-year-old woman with a weak knee and other tourists advised the 2nd trimester (looks like heavily pregnant) wife to sit in the front half of the coach with the 3-year-old daughter as the back end seat was not said to be good for her, being bumpy.
I had a good chat with the 65-year-old woman whose 3 daughters cared for her very well. “Where did you go?” I asked the grandson as the grandma was calling out to the tour leader to help her alight the coach to get to the factory outlet selling leather goods.
The tour leader was further away and everyone (except me) seemed to rush to the leather factory outlet, being given 30 minutes to look and buy. The grandma had a stick for her weak left knee and so she needed help alighting. I was behind and helped her. She had been “warned” by her 3 specialists about her bad knee and advised her to carry a shiny pink walking stick during her European tour.
“You don’t need the walking stick,” I said to her. “The dependence on this tongkat gives you negative thoughts, making you a disabled person when you are not.” Her daughters had sent her to 3 specialists (must have cost a bomb but the daughters would not allow her to pay).
This was an independent intelligent woman whose marriage was till death parts us type unlike the younger generation and whose mother-in-law (during that period) was domineering and a fierce dragon. Daughters-in-law were not well educated and would not talk back, but her husband did not enforce her stay with his mum. “It could be due to the eating of salted fish,” I said, regarding the husband’s stomach cancer. “I read about it in some books in the National Library when I was in Secondary School. I do love salted fish and century eggs but they may cause cancer as they are full of preservative.” I ate minimal amount. She also love century egg porridge.
2. Her brother-in-law died of the same type of cancer although he was not related to the husband. I did not bother watching the glass-blowing in the factory above after the tour of the town square of Venice and she was downstairs. So we talked. “He never ate salted fish,” the widow said. “I don’t like it.” I said: “Out of love for you, he ate when he was overseas doing business,” I said. “The person who knows would be your sister who cooks salt fish for your brother-in-law”. But it was 10 years ago and it took her 10 years to be able to talk about her husband. This was the true love as in Romeo and Juliet.
She was a generous woman as she offered to me the walking stick when I said: “I need the tongkat as I am an old man.” She did not know I was just joking as I had walked well over the earlier 3 days.
I thanked her and said: “I am trying to get you to think positively by not relying on a walking stick. The 3 specialists had advised you to take a walking stick for this travel but Europe is not a undeveloped country. When there are hilly alleys as in the town of Senia, you don't venture there, aggravating the hip injury. She does not believe in taking pain killer medication and this walking stick was her saviour. Many Singaporeans trust doctors but some of their advices like the use of the walking stick make this widow take up a clutch mentality. She did not have osteoporosis, the eldest daughter had declared. So, what’s the worry?
“We may be old but are not dead,” I used to tell my receptionist James who recently walks with a hunchback and very slowly. He is 75 years old and sometimes I wonder why he still wants to work in my surgery. His mind is alert but my Surgery's impressions on the new clientele must be poor since other competitors have young pretty receptionists. Pretty young things sell and that is a fact of commercial life.
I hope this 65-year-old widow would be independent and just throw away the walking stick for the next few days. She listened to the doctors' advice and did not give up the stick. "In Singapore, I don't walk around with a walking stick," she assured me.
3. Snow flakes fell in millions of cotton pieces from the sky as we were leaving the leather factory outlet which was closed till 3 pm but the proprietors opened for us at 1 pm. There were a few sales. I was looking for good leather hand bags but I was disappointed. Where's the Prada? Italy is supposed to be famous for handbags.
The whole shopping mall looked dead. The tour guide asked: “Anybody want to see the Coliseum at Verona?” Sounds of silence. “Hands up if you want to go to the see Juliet’s balcony.” I was in the front 6th seat and saw no hands up. I put up my hand and so the tour guide was disappointed. He had said: “At half the speed for 300 miles, it takes twice as long to reach Milan due to the falling snow. There may be traffic jam along the way...” meaning that we better skipped the Verona coliseum and Juliet’s balcony. He said another tour from Singapore from Milan to Rome had got stuck in the snowed roads and the tourists were sleeping inside the coach instead of the hotel. It was just as well that we did not listen to his advice as Verona was such a beautiful evening visit with snow flakes falling down on us as we journeyed to see where Juliet declared her love for Romeo from the balcony.
As for the gondola ride, around 6 out of 49 of us wanted to ride the gondola as this was an optional tour and excluded in the tour package which I think is poor planning by the tour operator who probably wanted to provide the least cost tour for the masses. Venice is gondolas and the experience should be given as part of the tour package.
The guide had arranged for a big boat cruise on the river and strongly advised against gondola rides as he said: "You only see underpants hanging from the balcony." I did not see any underwear hanging out that day.
It was freezing cold but so what? I wished to do it but did not get to ride the gondola as Julia was against it. Venice is gondolas in postcards and movies (e.g The Tourist). And masks. Apparently there is a festival in Spring where everybody wears mask, a young lady lawyer told me as she was present as a backpacker.
“Are you a Singaporean backpacker?” I asked her about the dangers of backpacking in Milan and Paris. “No danger if you are careful. I am not Singaporean.” The trim lady was accompanying her mother who insisted on going to Venice. She said: “I am a Malaysian. Singaporean ladies are known as brat-packers.” I was astonished. I had never heard of this term. "What do you mean?" I asked as I know Singaporeans in general have gone soft due to the paternalistic government. A nanny state.
She explained: “Singaporean ladies don't like discomfort. They take out their credit cards when they travel. However I do have Singaporean lady friends who backpack.” I said: “Probably those are the physical type, you know. Those who are into sports.” She nodded her head.
4. No traffic jam for this group. Slow but flowing traffic as our coach ploughed on freshly fallen snow to Milan. The Chinese food was slightly better than the other Chinese restaurant as there was more meat (one small fish for 10 people, pork with vegetables, cauliflowers alone, sweet fried chicken, the corn soup and mandarin oranges. 5 tables of 10. Everybody froze in the cold outside the restaurant as the coach took around 5-10 minutes to arrive, picked us up (as the nearest parking lot was 10 minute walk away in slippery ice-melted pavements) and we went back to Ata Hotels.
5. TRAVELLER’S TIPS
This Ata Hotel in Milan or Milan has poor roaming connections. I had to use the public phone as it has no business centre. My handphone could not work to call Singapore. “You need a phone card,” the duty officer whose eyes were tired, told me. You got to dial “0065” on the public phone. I put in 1 euro coin and the other party in Singapore, being long-winded, made me impatient. Overseas call must be to the point.
Free internet access. You need to pay. However, emails can be checked at a desktop on the table in the hotel lobby.
“Venice is more expensive than New York and London,” one proprietor of a souvenir shop told me. He was a Bangladeshi, now operating his souvenir shop at the ferry terminal. A 9-year-old Singapore girl said: "How much?” and paid 9 euros for a small porcelain model of Venice town square for her mummy. The mother had a son 18 years old and this daughter 9 years old. Migrated from China some 17 years ago. The older adult ladies bargained to buy the masks and T-shirts. Daniel bought a mask.
Lunch in Venice Square was at a Kiro Restaurant which had a variety of sea food. The male waiter saw us and came out with a name card saying: “The fish soup is good.” My family wanted to wander more to find out other eating places. Three locals scattered white salt on the pavement. I asked the family to patronize this place as we were short of time. Lunch for 4 of us cost 71 euros compared to half the price in Siena, but this was Venice Town Square. Venice is a lagoon of 500 sq km with 3 sea inlets. Ballasts are being constructed to prevent flooding. “Much more flooding incidents since last November,” the Italian tour guide said to me. “Could it be global warning and climate change?” She did not know what I was talking about and did not reply. “The Square used to have flood 2-3X per year but now, there are so many.” So is Venice sinking? “You can’t completely wall up the 3 inlets as the sea water is needed to flush out the debris and smells of the inhabitants. Many canals are man-made but some are natural.
Did my laptop function after being stored inside the coach at -3 degrees C for the whole day? Well, it does work as I am typing this.
Charge your camera battery daily if you have no spare. Coldness drain batteries. Download pic daily as this is good advice. I kept my camera dry from the snow flakes by covering it with a plastic bag and making a hole at the lens end. I got this tip from the photographers’ magazine but had not prepared for snow flakes or rain. Fortunately, I found a plastic bag and it was an extremely pleasant and fun experience walking in the fresh snowflakes in Verona which has a high city wall preserved.
As for Juliet’s balcony, some skeptics said it could not be real. Just a tourist attraction. There was a statue of Juliet in gold. Walls of graffiti or love messages at the entrance.
Verona is for those who had read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as it brings literature alive. Since I took my A level literature examination studying Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as an impressionable young man of 18 years of age, Juliet's house and courtyard brought literature alive to me during the visit. And this was some 40 years ago but I can still remember Shakespeare's most famous work.
Romantics don't care that this Juliet's house is not the real McCoy (if you research the internet to read the comments) as thousands of young lovers come to this place. On this snowy drizzling evening, the group walked several minutes to visit Juliet's house, see her gold statute. The young ones threw snow balls, the older ones tried to avoid the slippery road as cottony snow flakes glided down from the heavens. There were many visitors to Juliet's house that evening. The surrounding houses were boutiques and shops. For me, English literature came alive that evening. For the others, it was just one tourist attraction.
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