Monday, April 30, 2018

Incredible India (or so they say...)

"You'll either love it or hate it!"
"India is so amazing, I'm in love with it!"
"Be careful of the Delhi belly"
"Don't eat anything off the street!"
"It's so spiritual"
"Oh I'm so jealous you're going to India"

Just some of the phrases people say when you mention India. I must say I'm one of those people who had India on my hit list just by pure hearsay and the "I need to see it for myself" attitude and strive. Well I kinda did, but a work trip to Bangalore doesn't really count (if anything, that was not a great experience and I would have dismissed India based on that). Anyway, after our 2 weeks trip to India, I'm one of the few who don't really have much to say about India - neither love it nor hate it, just "shrug the shoulders" kinda of feeling. Unsatiated. Slightly disappointed. Not overwhelmed. It could be due to the locations we went to, or just that we couldn't take a "no adventure" vacation, but that was the feeling we both got after the trip. There were still bright spots along the way and good experiences to share!

So as we were planning for our Xmas getaway, the criteria was "Warm" "Sunny" "Tropical" "New place" "Interesting" "Experience" and ultimately the boyfriend convinced us to head to India primarily because he wanted to "ride on the train roof" (only after we booked our trip did we discover this is now a myth and not doable unless you're in some remote village, so he did not get his wish).

We kind of prepared ourselves that this trip to India will not be an active one because there's really no diving where we will be heading to and also not much hiking as we went to the South and not the North. And why South? Because the North was cold at that time of the year! He was much more excited than I was but I was just glad we're going somewhere warm and hey India is not such a bad place??

Our preparation started with him posting a "hello...tips...india..." message on couchsurfing, lo and behold, Indians are so super friendly and welcoming! Some of them were obviously preaching their tour guide services, but there were loads of geunine CS who gave us lots of tips and offered to host us! Seriously, he got like 10 messages a day from these people and more and more as the days went by! We were pleasantly surprised by how helpful they all were and there were some good tips and information in there! So for anyone planning a trip to India, I highly recommend looking into CS! We ended up meeting with one guy (Ahkil) in Mumbai and staying with another couple for a night! More on them later but both were great experiences I highly recommend!

And so started our Journey to Incredible India.

We landed in Mumbai International Airport and took an Uber to our guesthouse. Tip #1: Uber is awesome in India! Especially from the airport. Don't wait for taxis, use Uber!

We booked ourselves into Traveller's Inn Hotel - Fort for a night. For a double bed with private bathroom it was 2,240 rupee per night (not exactly cheap but Mumbai is not cheap either). The guesthouse is average, nothing fancy, location is pretty central and close to the central train station. There are many more around with the same price range, so I wouldn't be too worried about pre-booking. After a short nap, we went out to meet Ahkil for a walk and some snack! He's a smart guy and a good conversationalist. If you're heading that way, highly recommend hooking up with him to show you around for a bit. He introduced us to the best street food snack you can ONLY GET IN MUMBAI - VADA PAV!! Tip #2: Never leave Mumbai without trying Vada Pav! We met him in the Dadar area and after some convoluted walk around that area, we arrived in this nondescript shop along the street that looks like mama shop - but behind those packaged snacks, there is a small assembly line to make the best vada pav ever!!! Cheese Vada Pav! They make the Pav in their house just opposite the shop and assemble it. Apparently they only sell the cheese variety on Sundays so we were damn lucky! And the most interesting condiment is adding potato chips in the Pav. If you happen to be in that area Rajesh Provision Shop is the place to go (google the shop and you'll find the address).
Ahkil and I with our Cheese Vada Pav

Next day we made our way to find our CS Host Prem! He lives near the Dharavi slums. We took the train up - the trains are really cheap (10 rupee each person) and frequent, so it's the most convenient and cheap means of getting around areas which are serviced by the train. Beats getting stuck in traffic. One thing we found strange was that taxi drivers do not always want to pick you up! We had that in Fort area where tons of taxis were parked waiting, but none of them wanted to take us to our hotel (which was maybe a 15mins drive!) No reasons given, they rather not have customers. We asked Prem later, and he too can't figure out why sometimes - apparently some taxi drivers rather wait for long routes than take short routes (even if it means no route at all??) Tuk Tuk is a little different - apparently they only service a specific area and cannot run outside of that area, so you might get rejected. That's why Uber is so popular!
 
On our way we decided to get a SIM and that was a nightmare. Tip #3: It is near impossible to get a SIM in India. You can't just buy it off any shop. You have to register to get a SIM, and the process is a headache. You need a local contact person (that's impossible if you're a tourist, the Airtel guy eventually relented and used his contact), you need a passport size photo for registration, and wait in line forever to get registered. It took us more than an hour to get the SIM. Even then, they offered us so many options that we just went for the cheapest (apparently 2GB data per day is insufficient for them - crazy!). Then you need to wait 24H to activate it and make sure you switch your phone to LTE (3G doesn't work). On the other hand, it is very cheap! We paid less than 300rupee for a 28day SIM with 2GB data per day, free incoming calls and text messages. On another note Tip #4: Get Vodafone if possible because AirTel sucks! Tip #5: Though near impossible, having a local SIM is very useful for contacting guesthouses, making reservations, Ubering, and getting around. It is so cheap that even if you're there for 2 weeks, it's worth it (not the trouble of getting it but the benefits are aplenty)
Us with Prem, his wife and friends

Sweet Betel leaves - never again
 
When we finally got to Prem's house, it was just a day of relaxing at his place, chatting and sharing experiences with him and his friends and wife and eating Indian food! It was a really nice experience just hanging out with the locals. They took us to this amazing place where you order food from the shop and eat standing. After, we took a drive along the coast and tried betel nut leaf for the first time (and the last time because not my cup of tea).

Next morning we visited Dharavi slum where slumdog millionaire was shot! We were given tips on shops to visit to buy real leather stuff (they manufacture them there and sell them to branded shops like Mulberry, Gucci etc). We didn't think we would get anything until we got there! There are many leather shops selling the same stuff but some are fake while some are real. Tip #6 recommended shops are Zaraa, hide shop and Leather Corner. We ended up buying a couple leather bags, couple leather jacket, and Ian got himself a pair of leather shoes. Really cheap and real leather (jackets were around EUR50, the bags were like 10-20 EUR). We did a quick tour of the slums - as a lot of tours advertised, they are not as depressing as you might think. The place is cramped but the people looked happy, they have electricity and as you walk around, you really do not feel like the world is falling.

Soon it was time for us to say goodbye to our lovely host and head downtown. We went to the train station to check on the status of our train to Goa. Tip #7: Book your train ticket WAY IN ADVANCE. They usually open 120 days before so book it asap otherwise you'll end up in our situation. We were waitlisted since the very first day we booked it (2 months ahead), and on the day of the train itself, we were waitlisted 1 and 2. A lot of people were saying you'll get it eventually but no luck. Until the last second (you have to go to the train station and ask for the final status after 630/7pm). Disheartened, we decided to book flights next day to Goa. Unlucky for us, after we booked the flights and walked out the station, we got approached by agents selling bus tickets to Goa!! The buses are cheaper than the trains and they offer sleeper buses. But we were too late. Tip #8: Stay around the train station if you can't find a train because they are there selling buses. We were too invested in the train that we did not really look into buses. The bus was leaving Mumbai at close to 10pm and will get you to Goa around 10am (about 12hours). Make sure to ask if it's a full sleeper or half sleeper. Apparently the guy was offering half sleeper as the full ones were sold out. I think we wouldn't have had a good night's sleep on a half sleeper.
 

We flew JetAir next morning. Unfortunately the flights we booked via Cheapticket.in were not confirmed (only knew it when we got to the airport and tried to check in) so JetAir gave us compensation and bumped us to the next flight out (which was 1 hour later). Tip #9: Don't trust cheapticket.in. They didn't acknowledge the issue even after we complained about paying for a flight we did not get. It took forever to try to reach them via their customer service (we tried no less than 10 times to call but couldn't get through). They do not allow cancellation within 24hours even though JetAir allows for that. Anyway, we were happy to get the compensation (it was 9,000 rupee each).

On landing (flight was pleasant), we headed straight out of the airport to negotiate for a taxi. Tip #10: Don't bother queuing inside for the official taxi, it'll take you ages to get to the front of the line. Look at the printed rates, walk out to the front and negotiate. You'll get a taxi with either the same rate or slight more (100rupees more for avoiding the queue - which is reasonable). We got one (air-con) for 1,500 rupee (advertised rate was 1,400rupee). Took us about 1 hour to get to Anjuna beach.

We booked ourselves with Funky Monkey hostel on recommendation by Prem (the hostel is abit hard to get to with the car especially when the flea market is on (Wednesday only) so we walked. Funky Monkey is a nice hostel in Goa not far from the Anjuna beach. Nice people there as well. However, it is expensive for a hostel! We paid 1,900 rupee each for a bed per night!!! Money NOT WELL SPENT! After 2 nights, we found ourselves another place (closeby) for 2,000 rupee for a double room with shower included! Chill Inn - recommend! The owner is wayyy chill and WIFI works great!
Beer by the beach and being Indian already!

So we took a walk along Anjuna beach, had drinks by the beach and watched the sun set. First impression - this is no Tofo, Mozambique. A little disappointed. The flea market has some really cheap clothes! I bought a summer beach dress for 200 rupee!!

One of our primary purpose to India was to do some yoga. A lot of people (on CS) told us "You'll find yoga anywhere", "everyone teaches yoga". To be honest, I didn't believe in any of these because I know the fact that anyone can teach yoga as long as they've done the 200H TT but that doesn't mean they know how to teach. And in India, everyone does yoga but not everyone teaches them correctly. I'm a bit anal with my yoga practice and I want to know that the teacher knows what he/she is doing and that he/she can do what he/she teaches. Ian, on the other hand, knows nothing and he believed that we can just find anyone to do yoga with. And at the end of the day, I was right. We had a hard time trying to find a good yoga studio/teacher. We did one class in Goa (for 300 rupee each) at Goa's Ark. They offer daily Yoga at 10am in the morning. Honest option, I think it'll suit beginners well, but to me, the class is too basic and too spiritual for my liking. It was just a couple of sun salutations after 10mins of spiritual stretching and then we started to cool down. We did some stretches but they were never deep enough to feel the benefits.
Start of our bike trip!
In the afternoon, we rode to Arambol beach after we got our motobikes (500rupee per day). It took us almost 1 hour to get there from Anjuna. Arambol beach is the place to be. It has a nice wide sandy beach with a lot more going on here (lots of yoga classes, lots of shops, people as well). The vibe is more vibrant and more like Tofo. Tip #11: Would recommend staying a few days in Arambol to experience it. We didn't have time for that.

 Tip #12: You have to make time for the Gelato shop in Anjuna! I mean seriously good gelato outside of Italy and cheap too!!! We went twice! Ian swears by their hazelnut gelato.
Happy face

What's better than good quality gelato under the hot sun!

Random cows sunbathing by the beach in Arambol
 

On the way back, we stopped at Goan Spice for dinner - the Indian food here is tasty though portions a bit small. Recommended for a meal stop!

Next day, we went for cooking class at Mukti Kitchen. She offers veg and non-veg options at her house! For 2,000 rupee each, we cooked a 4-course meal. I highly recommend doing a cooking class with her if you have the time. On that day it was just the 2 of us so we had a private class! Of course, you can't control that so we were lucky! Our menu for the day was Paneer Masala, Dal fry, Aloo Jeera and Lemon rice. You really get hands on experience as you prepare your food and cook it! After a couple hours of hard work, we get to taste our fruit of labour!
Mukti herself

Cooking is serious business

Fruits of our labour! Delicious Thali!

We went to Mapusa Market after. It's an electic place selling all kinda stuff - from spices to food/fruits to clothes and bags. We bought our spices from there!

Next day we just wandered around and spent the day by the beach before we headed down to the train station for our ride to Kerala. To get to the Goa train station, you could spend hours travelling by public transport (cheapest way but takes longest time) or taxi (expensive but quick). We decided to go with taxi (1,800 rupee) as we wanted to spend the day by the beach. It took us 2 hours to get to the train station because of the terrible traffic. Still when we got there, we found out our train was delayed. Apparently train delays are very common in India! We ended up waiting 4 hours for our train. Another couple we met was supposed to be on the earlier train but they were still waiting after we boarded ours! And finally we got our first class cabin experience! You have to check your allocated seats/cabin on the day of travel at the station. Our first class cabin was 5,700 rupees and luckily we got a 2 bed cabin for ourselves! The first class cabins are either 2 or 4 beds. Must say we were glad we got a first class cabin. After a long day of travelling and waiting, it was nice to be able to have a cabin to ourselves and rest. Wouldn't say it's exactly very clean and hygienic (people were on it before we got on and the beds are not cleaned after) but better than nothing. Tip #13: If you can, go for first class. Otherwise 2nd class AC sleeper for a comfortable ride.
Grumpy faces after waiting hours

First class cabin! How excited!

After a long ride, we finally got to Kerala! Checked ourselves into a hotel (used my points to get a free night) and wandered off to the Fort area. We took a tuk tuk (300 rupees) and got into Fort, wanting to celebrate NYE. Fort area is full of live and tourists (also lots of locals). You also get to see the Chinese Fishing Nets which were amazing. We also tried the Keralan prawn curry and Fish biryani (both amazing!). Tip #14: Kerala is a dry state - meaning it is very difficult to get beer and also expensive! Only selected restaurants sell them and hotels. I think it's a good thing as you don't get a lot of drunken people disturbing peace. Our plan to celebrate NYE went Kapuk when we (2 old souls) got tired and decided to go back to our hotel and have a quiet night! And going back is twice as difficult because no tuk tuks want to go out of the Fort area, or they don't know where we're going. But Uber to the rescue! For the same amount of money, you get a much more comfortable ride!
New Year's Eve at Kerala

Chinese fishing net

Next day, we decided to travel down to Chengganur to start our volunteer teaching. Ian got contacted by Jacob via CS to teach in his school for a couple of days. We decided to give it a go for the experience and thought it would be a nice thing to do. So 2 travellers with no experience with teaching and had no clue what to do went down south to the middle of nowhere. We should have checked the train schedule earlier. Getting down to Ullannur was quite a journey. First a train to Chengganur, then a tuk tuk ride to Ullannur. You really need a local's help to get you to the school location because there is no landmark and without the language or local knowledge, you can't get there! Jacob arranged a tuk tuk driver to drop us there and after a 45min ride, we arrived in our prison for the next 2 nights! Geetha, the caretaker, greeted us. Her family takes care of the school as Jacob is not living in the country (as we found out only the day before we got to the school). She and her family do not speak English so communication was limited. Airtel is shitty there (hence Vodafone recommended). And the house we stayed in looked like it hasn't had anyone in decades - wood is disintegrating, spiders and rust all around, and we had to lock ourselves in. Honestly, it felt quite depressing to be there, with no way to communicate because we had no signal.
Not so impressed with the living conditions

We were told to lock up both gates at night..


Next morning we thought we could explore around the area since the school is closed (only found out after we decided to travel down). But there is nothing around the school and getting somewhere is a hassle if you don't know where you want to go! So Jacob arranged the same driver and took us to the elephant sanctuary (waste of time) and a lake where you can take a bamboo ride (another waste of time). Went to the supermarket to get some food supplies for the kids next morning.
Kids playing before school


And the next day we braced ourselves to the onslaught of KIDS!!! We walked into the school way too early (we were told it stated at 9am when in fact it started at 10am). The teachers that came basically ignored us until we approached them and asked them what we have to do. It did appear that they had no idea we were coming, and they thought we were staying long term. Without much briefing, we were just told to talk to the class about where we are from and go from there. No structure, no plan. We had no clue what their level of English was and that made things difficult. At the end of an exhausting day, we managed to do 2 classes and distributed sandwiches to the kids.
School photo


It was a nice experience, the kids were fun and really appreciated us being there, but I thought more could be done to make the experience even smoother. There were other volunteers before us and maybe because they stayed longer, they were able to get more out of it. But we felt like we were thrown into the deep sea and it was either sink or swim. Communication was not perfect and we were not given any materials to work with. We were asked by Jacob to teach English but when we got there, the teachers did not really give us anything to work with in that respect. We also felt the isolation was quite hard to take - after school ended (4pm) you're left on your own in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go. Maybe we were being too picky, maybe the other volunteers had a good time. I'm just speaking based on how we felt. Anyway check out RRUP School, they have about 114 students there.

So at this point halfway through our journey, we were not really satisfied with the trip so far and felt like we hadn't done much but waste lots of time travelling from one place to another. We decided to head to Munnar, a hill resort, where we thought it'll give us a much better time! After spending 3,600 rupee to hire a taxi, which was driven by an Indian who did not know his way and was preaching Christianity to us, we arrived in Munnar after 3 hours. We booked ourselves into Namasthe Munnar for 2,000 rupee per night double room with bathroom. The location is just off the main road towards the center and with a view out to the greenery. A 10 rupee bus ride takes you to the city center, or a 150-200 rupee tuk tuk. Or if you're lucky, a shared jeep for 50 rupee. Namasthe offers dinner (pre-book) which is at a reasonable price and tasty.

The first night we booked ourselves to 2 shows - traditional dance (don't bother if you don't have the time) and the Kalarippayattu martial arts show (recommend!!!) Tickets can be purchased at the location or with your guesthouses (no difference).
The fighting was really good!

Next day we booked a trip to the tea plantation (full day hike for 1,200 rupee per pax) with a private guide Rajash arranged by our guesthouse. On hindsight, we should have bargainned the price down Tip #15: Bargain always! We managed to bargain down the price for our 2nd hike.

Tea plantation


It's always Acroyoga time!

Recreation of #followme male version

It was a nice hike and the most activity we have done in the 2 weeks! The hike itself is not difficult and the view is great! We had a little chill out time at the top before continuing down. It took us less than 5 hours for the whole trip including the many breaks in between. After the trip, we stopped in the city center to wander around and had some snacks and chai! It is pertinent to note that at this point in the trip, we still had not experienced the so-called delhi belly everyone was talking about!!!

Next day was unplanned as our supposed trip to hike up the mountain failed as we faced a road block since we travelled late in the morning (we have a suspicion that Rajash knew about it but didn't tell us and deliberately made us travel and in the end had to pay him for the ride). Anyway we ended up taking another cooking class with Nimis for 2,000 rupees each. She runs classes daily but do drop her a note before you go to check availability and time! You get a copy of her cook book after the class. To be honest, we didn't think the dishes were that great - compared to Mukti, we prefered Mukti's dishes. We made semolina rice (not a big fan of it), pineapple curry (really didn't taste like curry and too sweet), Kerala fish curry (the best dish, not spicy), stir fried beans (well, nothing special) and sweet dumpings for dessert (really did not like the stodgy dumplings).
Everyone is serious about cooking
Final product

Finally the next morning, waking up at 430am, we made our way to hike the mountain with another couple. The hike in itself is not difficult. Hell nothing is difficult in this part of India! Rajash took us halfway and left us to hike up to the top ourselves. The view from the very top wasn't amazing (cloud cover be damned!) but the view from halfway was pretty decent. In all, the hike took 3-4 hours up and down (like I said, easy peasy). After our bargain, we paid 800 rupees each.
Before dawn




 
We checked out of Namasthe and moved to another location down the road Blue Bells Valley. We booked it via Oyorooms and at 1,800 rupees, much cheaper and a much better room! The room is a lot bigger and the shower much better water pressure. It is a long way down from main road to walk but they have a jeep which can take up back up to the main road! WIFI is also decent in Blue Bells. I would recommend it.
The water which you can't get to apparently

We hiked to the nearby waterfall (which you can really get close it) but at least we got a little bit of walking down before we leave Munnar the next day. Found ourselves a taxi in the city center for 2,800 rupees who will bring us direct to the Kochi airport hotel where we spent our last night in India.
 
We also had good India food in Munnar! That one restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet (Rapsy)- forget it. We went there, but the menu is very small and not that interesting so we left without eating (suffice to say it was overly crowded). Head to other places - the night market is fantastic and really cheap, Saravana Bhuvan serves authentic Indian food on a banana leaf (and no cutlery!), Hotel Sri Nivas - had the most amazing Thosai there and Ian had a really good Thali set!
Saravan Bhuvan

Special Thali set at Sri Nivas

They print your name on the Thosai!!!!!

Night market
We ate street food and had no problems - deep fried peppers! Yum
 
 
Again an efficient flight with JetAir to Mumbai - and guess what we did? Straight on to our last Vada Pav in Mumbai before we leave the country!! Based on google review, we selected Ashok Vada Pav - a short Uber ride and we're there! The Vada Pav was good (Ian had 2!) but the Cheese Vada was still the best ever!.
He had 2! 20 rupees each - vada pav with deep fried fritters
Gateway of India
 
We then walked around Mumbai - to the gateway of India, to the Taj Hotel and Leopold's cafe and then took a taxi to the airport. Would recommend an Uber instead of a taxi but for some reason we just took the taxi. Made the mistake of entering the airport before we went to collect our bag from storage. Tip #16: Once you get into the airport you cannot get out unless signed out by airline officials. Tip #17: Trust your own instinct and not your boyfriend's. I knew we had to get to baggage storage from the outside (the guy said so to us) and not from the inside but Ian insisted we go from the inside since we should go via parking. And guess who was right. So we had to wait 3 hours for the BA counter to open and ask one of the staff to sign us out of the airport to collect our bags and come back in again.

And so ends our India trip. Tip #18: Always have toilet paper with  you. And hand sanitizer. Most public toilets do not have toilet paper (e.g. trains). And we did not have dehli belly even though we were eating street food. In fact, we were kinda constipated the first couple days (I got my rhythm back but Ian suffered longer). Sounded like we did a lot but in fact we didn't. Much time was spent travelling from place to place, and a lot of time was spent not doing much, or thinking about what to do! We were quite bored a lot of times (not of each other but of the trip). And so at the end of the trip, we concluded that India is overhyped. We spoke to another couple who had the same feeling as we did. So of the 6 quotations in the beginning of this chapter, we did not feel any of them. Maybe the North would have been a better option for us, what with the mountains and nature but we didn't want to be in the cold in December yet again. Food was overall a good experience - but after a few days, all the curries tasted and looked the same, even though you see 20 different names on the menu! To a certain extent we were glad no more curries after 2.5 weeks. We actually had pizza and salad at the airport on our last day! After so long, we craved for fresh vegetables - which in Indian cuisine is not really the case as they are all stewed in curries until you can't recognize them.
 
 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Dolomites and the Merchants of Venice

Italy, one of the gourmet countries in Europe and also home to the famous mountain ranges Dolomites. A last minute scramble to fill up our September holiday resulted in Dolomites as we wanted to do something adventurous and active. Isle of Scilly was our plan but our super last minute planning left us with NO reasonable accommodation in Scilly and therefore had to scrap that plan. The next best plan we came up with was Dolomites since we both love the mountains and September will still be great weather in Italy.

The planning was tough going since it was pretty last minute and we had to scramble to find reasonably priced accommodation. Even though it's the tail end of the holiday season, Dolomites was still pretty expensive (imagine during the ski season!) After scrambling and missing out on some good valued AirBnB, we finally found an accommodation for our 4 days in Dolomites - Nord Hotel.. It is a really really old styled hotel in Cortina and at €80/night not exactly a cheap place! If you're a backpacker, Cortina will be quite expensive in terms of accommodation - no hostels. The hotel is pretty basic - the beds are not that comfortable, they squeak and pretty flat mattress. Breakfast not included in the rate, but we don't need that fancy breakfast when you're in Italy!

We had 5 days in Dolomites, but the day we arrived, it rained like there's no tomorrow and I was still nursing a terrible cough which turned out to be pneumonia. We flew to Venice airport and rented a car for the 2 hour journey to Cortina d'Ampezzo. The drive is very smooth and easy, not much traffic. We had a little issue at car rental as Ian forgot his driver's license so I had to rent the car instead, with my Singapore license. The official information is that you need an International permit if you're Non-EU, but luckily we were able to rent with my license. So it was my first time driving a manual car in Europe! The roads are really good and you're driving through toll road (€7.80 each way) in our tiny Fiat 500.

Upon arrival we just walked from our hotel to town - it's a good 20mins walk each way. The town is quite nice and very typical European. Upon recommendation, we discovered La Perla, which would turn out to be one of our favourite restaurants in Cortina, and easily the best! Their pizzas and pasta are amazing and very flavourful, and reasonably priced!
Pizza @ La Perla

Pasta @ La Perla

Best Gnocchi!!

The next day started sunny but eventually rained crazy shit! It was kind of a good thing as we went for a little walk in the morning and then the hospital to get me cured. The first 2 days the weather was pretty cold for me - around 10-14 degrees C. Long story short, we spent close to 3H at the hospital where they did some really thorough checks on me and eventually prescribed antibiotics and some cough medicine and told me I had pneumonia. But Dolomites being Dolomites, I decided to still go ahead with our hiking plans.

We rented gear for via Ferrata at a shop in the city - 2 days rental for 2 people for €50. The next day we decided to do Cinque Torre and then off to Alpini for the via Ferrata. Little did we know we might have taken on a bit too much for a day.



Cinque Torre is amazingly beautiful. The day we drove there, the mountains were covered in snow and super cold! But the view was amazing! Follow the route which takes you to one of the Refuge camp and then walk around Cinque Torre. It is also a good place for some climbing if you have the gear. After Cinque Torre we drove to start Alpini. Park your car at Strobel restaurant and start the hike up right behind the restaurant towards Col dei Bos. The walk to the start of the via Ferrata is about 30 minutes.
Hospital ruins

When you walk past the hospital ruins above, you know you're close to the start of the via ferrata.

We started our climb at noon, and the first part is the toughest. It was kind of scary for me to tackle the first part but after about 10-15minutes, you will see the light as it gets easier.
The toughest start to the climb

By no means is this an easy via Ferrata. We had thought it would be kind of easy but ultimately it took us a good 3 hours to get to the top and another 2 hours or so to get back to the starting point. Would definitely recommend doing this latest by noon to make sure you have enough time to get down before the weather turns. During our hike, the weather went from cold to sunny to cold, so make sure you are dressed warmly! It is definitely a medium level via ferrata, for me was doable but made more difficult as I had pneumonia, but if you have experience you'll do absolutely fine. Would not recommend it for total beginners but if you have a reasonable fitness level, go ahead! It is a really great experience and the view is amazing.


Made it!



The next day, we decided to try another via Ferrata. Our initial idea was to do a nice half day one at Mt Cristallino but when we got to the cable car station, we were told the cable car connecting to the via ferrata is under repair therefore if we wanted to do it we had to hike which would take forever. It is supposed to be a really nice one which takes you across a long swing bridge. If you have a full day or time, you could potentially hike to the starting point, do the via ferrata and hike back but we didn't want to do that especially with me coughing my lungs out. Left with not much choice, we went for Astaldi. This is an extremely easy via ferrata - you can even walk it without gear.
Astaldi

Hike to Astaldi

Drive to Rifugio Dibona, you will drive through an unpaved road for a bit so don't panic. Take the route towards Rigufio Giussani (421) and you will see the start point of the via ferrata. This is a loop so you can start from either direction and eventually back to Rifugio Dibona. The whole journey will take about 3 hours including hiking up to the start and hiking back down. As mentioned, this is a very easy one, we even saw a dad taking his little girl along! If you had only 1 day for via ferrata, this is probably not the one you want to go for since it doesn't require gears to walk. But if you're left with nothing else to do, try it with your gear. Otherwise just come walk this Astaldi anytime you want without gear! Don't forget to enjoy the scenery as you walk!



At Cortina, spas are very common so we decided to try it at the hotel opposite Nord since it was also good for my condition. We paid €15 per person per entry. They open from 4-8pm and there is a Jacuzzi, steam bath and sauna in there. We were pretty much done after an hour of steaming and bathing.
Eggplant pasta @ El Bronsin

Beetroot ravioli @ El Bronsin

Take note when you're in Cortina on a Monday, quite a few restaurants are closed. We were running out of options but finally decided to go to El Bronsin and what a great choice we made! We were kind of the first batch of customers and were a little apprehensive when we didn't see anyone in the restaurant but it slowly filled up after we ordered. And the food was amazing! As usual we ordered pasta and were not disappointed. This is another must go restaurant, it is a little out of the city center but not too far off. If you're driving, you can actually park for free for 2 hours at the sports complex just outside the center (near to the cable car station). WE only found out about this on our last night. It is very difficult to find parking in the center so this is the best option you have! We went to another recommended restaurant Il Ponte but didn't think it was that great. Maybe their pizzas are better but the pasta was not as amazing as El Bronsin or La Perla.
Tre Cime

The next day we went for the most famous hike - Tre Cime! The drive there is expensive - you have to pay a toll of €20 each way. And it is the most crowded hike we did in our 4 days. Dolomites is a very popular place but the hikes we did so far were not crowded with people, sometimes it was only us along the trail. But Tre Cime is the bomb - The car park was huge and full and you walk with a stream of people. You don't have to be afraid of getting lost! The weather was not exactly great when we got there - very misty and cold so the Tre Cime was kind of shrouded. The hike is not difficult, the start is basically just walking on relatively flat terrain, and you only really go up after you hit the first Rifugio. The uphill at that point is not ridiculous, but for a sick person it was not the easiest for me. I would say this hike (which took 3 hours) is suitable for everyone even kids! And we did see children hiking! There is a tea house after you loop past Tre Cime and if you need to use the toilet, make sure you bring cash or buy something from them.
 
Tre Cime is for sure beautiful, we only hoped we had better weather when we were there to see it clearer! Easy to understand why it is so popular because it is really easily accessible and the hike itself is not difficult and everyone can do it! Cliché yes! But definitely walk this hike when you are at Dolomites!


WE played with the stones

After Tre Cime, the sky cleared and the sun came out again! WE decided to go for the cable car up the highest peak Tofana. The cable car to the highest peak is €30 per person return. The slope is used as a skiing area during the ski season and you can clearly see all the ski markers. The view is pretty amazing up above and I believe there are some hiking trails in the lower 2 peaks.
Heart shaped lake!

Top of Tofana


Our last night we stayed at Fiames Hotel, for €60/night with shared toilet. The downside is that it is beside the main road so can get noisy but you can close the windows to shut out the noise. Breakfast was included in the rate. As we had half a day the next day we went for a walk along Fiames and in search of the waterfall Cascate di Fanes. We walked to the start of the via Ferrata but didn't have time to continue the walk to the waterfall. The via ferrata looked awesome and probably will take you really close to the waterfall. We regretted not doing this instead of astaldi - but do consider doing this via ferrata. I believe it is an easy one. You should be able to also hike close to the waterfall but definitely need more than the 2 hours we had.
Fiames


And so ends our Dolomites adventure. The Dolomites were amazing and definitely you could spend a week or more doing the different hikes. They are all free and give you amazing view and fresh air! We drove back to return the car in Venice and check in to our AirBnB in Mestre. Venice is an extremely expensive place in terms of accommodation. Even the hostels were more than €80 per person per night. So we decided to stay outside of Venice but still within close distance. Mestre is a good area - Venice Heaven was our guesthouse for €55 per night for a double room - they had the best bed we had the whole week! The owner of the guesthouse doesn't really bother you at all, he just handled our check in and left, never to be seen again! So we were left to our own. There is a kitchen with microwave and some utensils, good enough to cook small meals but no stove or anything. The location is pretty good as it is near supermarkets and bus stop to Venice, and also close to the eating area in Mestre.
Venice

Next day we started our Venice trip. Point to note: But the transport card/ticket beforehand as it costs twice as much to buy it from the bus driver! €3 onboard vs €1.50 with the transport ticket. And if you decide to island hop, but the 1 day transport card (include bus, vaporetto) for €20 per person. You can take unlimited bus and vaporetto rides which is the most worthwhile purchase. We took the bus into Venice and started walking. We joined a free walking tour which took us to the lesser known areas of Venice. That was a really nice 2 hour walk and I would highly recommend starting your trip with this tour. There are a lot of different free walking tours on offer, we went with Free Venice Walking Tour. We got introduced to one of the best gelato in Venice Il Doge! Gelato is so cheap in Venice, for €1.50 per scoop they taste so fresh and natural! We also partake in Venice Tapas and Spritz.
The €80-100 gondola boat

San Marco


Rialto bridge

Any canal is as beautiful

To be honest, Venice is extremely crowded with tourists but if you veer off the usual tourist spot, you will walk through alleys that are deserted but still beautiful. We had thought we would not really enjoy Venice since it is so touristy, especially Ian who was so skeptical at first, but he also relented and admitted that Venice is beautiful and he liked it!
Libreria Acqua Alta

A boat in a bookshop?!?!

I highly recommend visiting the very famous bookshop also known as the most beautiful bookshop in Venice Libreria Acqua Alta. It is no longer a secret and swamped with tourists but it is really quite amazing inside! The entire shop is stacked with books that seems so disorderly but really organized! And a stair made of books! Eating in Venice can be expensive and not necessary great tasting as it primarily caters to tourists but there could be some local gems along the way. We did not quite eat in Venice since walking around kind of distorted our eating times.

We went back to Mestre for dinner in the center and would really recommend Ai Veteranio. Note that when dining in Venice, and even in Cortina, there is a cover charge for each person. This is something I'm not used to but it is what it is.
 

Meal @ Ai Veteranio

Not to be missed is island hop to Murano and Burano. They can be done in a day! Catch the vaporetto at F'te Nove. You will arrive at Murano first, the island best known for their glass works. It is a pretty nice little island and we spent almost an hour walking around before hoping into another vaporetto to Burano. For me, Murano was a little boring and not as exciting.
 
Burano is famous for its coloured houses. You feel like you're in a painter's world! The colours are very vibrant and the houses are quaint and cute! Walk away from the canal into the heart of the island to be away from the crowd. Burano is a lot more lively and the colours bring a bit more life to the island. It is a small island, and there isn't much to do around other than walk along the canal, sit in a café and soak in the sun and scenery. We left our we walked almost all the island.
 
It takes more than an hour to get back to Venice from Burano. And once back in Venice, with the day transport card, take a vaporetto along the Grand Canal! This is a really pretty journey as you cruise along the nice buildings along the canal, and a much cheaper way to do a canal tour than the gondola. You pay €80-100 per gondola for a trip, and granted they take you through small picturesque canals, it is a high price to pay for a canal experience.
Murano

Colourful Burano

Leaning tower of Burano



Rialto market is best visited in the morning which we did, however we were slightly underwhelmed with the offerings at the market. It is quite a small market with similar stalls and not as lively as we had expected. I mean the farmer's market here in Utrecht every Saturday has more character!

And so ends our Italy trip. A bus back to the airport took about 20mins and you do not have to take the airport bus! What we will miss - food in Italy and the fruits. So amazing and so fresh! Even though we were not overwhelmed by Il Ponte, it is easily better than a lot of places here in Netherlands. Hot chocolate - that's for me, Italy has the best hot chocolate, so thick and flavourful! Amazing mountain ranges and people. In general the Italians are friendly and gregarious! But be careful in Venice - lots of pickpockets! We went light and only walked with a backpack filled with water and sweater and stuffed our cash and card in our pockets. We went to all the touristy places in Venice - San Marco etc, but we didn't go in the buildings or up the towers. Venice itself is actually really big and would take a day for you to walk the different sections! We did not complete all sections but we were pretty happy with ourselves for what we did. I must say, definitely visit Venice, it sounds very cliché but you wouldn't regret it! Because one day Venice might sink :)