27 October 2010

In praise of the vaporetto

For regular visitors to Venice, vaporetti are old hat. They're the large water buses that lumber up and down the Grand Canal and back and forth to the various islands in the Venetian lagoon.They're as ubiquitous as the old London Routemaster bus used to be, and just as convenient. What I found odd, though, was the number of people I've spoken to who had visited Venice but never bothered to use this basic and important form of transportation.

Some people confuse vaporetti with water taxis, which are plush and comfortable but very expensive – about €30 for a journey in the centre. And far too many visitors still think that the gondola is the only way to travel on the water. (It would be if you fancy squandering €70-80 for an hour's ride and feeling a bit silly when other tourists gawp at you.) I had one gondolier badgering me and refusing to believe me when I said they were too expensive and that I had no intention of going in one. He then dropped his price to €60, which I'd rather spend on dinner, frankly.

Vaporetti, on the other hand, are big, functional and not very attractive, but they get you around the city and beyond in a scenic yet practical way. Some have an open section at the front, where you can get views of both sides of the canal. Others have the same in the rear. Then there's a central part that's under cover with seats and an open-sided covered bit. Once you've had a few journeys on these, you'll head inside for the comfort of a seat rather than be exposed to the elements. Having said that, my first view of Venice was from the open section in the middle, where even the relentless rain couldn't obliterate the beauty of the city.

Unless you're in Venice for only a few hours, it's definitely worth getting a transport pass which will give you unlimited journeys within a set period. As a single journey on a vaporetto costs €6.50, regardless of distance, this makes sense. Venice Connected is the city's transport site where you can book tickets in advance (and it's in English).

I had a 72-hour pass that cost me €28. It paid for itself in five journeys, two of which I had to take anyway to get to and from the bus station at Piazzale Roma to catch the Treviso airport bus. I ended up taking about 14 journeys in total, as it became much more
fun to walk out to the further reaches of the city, such as Cannaregio, and then relax on a vaporetto for the journey back. It was so easy to pop over to the cemetery island of San Michele, or the church and bell tower on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Even the Lido was only 20 minutes from Piazza San Marco.

The final vaporetto journey back to the bus station was on a fine evening, when the sun was just beginning to set. The open section at the rear was empty, allowing us to enjoy the golden views in peace. Now that's the way to take your leave of this glorious city.

03 October 2010

Guidebooks vs the web

Guidebooks – past their use-by date or still an important part of travelling? We never tire of debating this, especially as more apps arrive that promise to take the place of physical (and heavy) books.

I was intrigued by an article in the Observer celebrating all the wonderful apps you can use if you happen to pitch up in a place without a guidebook. The writer makes some very good points, but misses a few others. The most important is, of course, access to the web. While he mentions the fact that roaming costs are coming down in Europe, they're still terrible for European users visiting North America. And not everywhere has 3G, as I recently discovered in Montenegro. (Luckily I had my trusty guidebook to read when the hotel's dodgy internet access conked out again and again.)

If you're travelling throughout the UK and you have an iPhone, it can be enlightening and entertaining to explore a new place using only your phone (not so much on a BlackBerry, though). But when I'm walking through a continental city and I want to stop for a coffee, out comes the guidebook for a relaxing read – and one I can share with the people I'm with. I have turned up in places unexpectedly and tried to find decent maps and info on my BlackBerry, but found it a frustrating experience.

There are arguments against guidebooks, of course, one obvious one being that they go out of date in seconds. But I take great pleasure at looking at my shelves of books that remind me where I've been and where I'm off to next. As far as I know, there isn't an app for that.