Wednesday, December 31, 2014

INTREPIDLY, FROM BERLIN TO VENICE (Part 6): Second Time's Still the Charm in Venezia

(This is the final post of my Berlin to Venice trip series via Intrepid Travel. Do send me an email at for any questions or requests for travel tips - i'm perfectly willing to help)

So, we come to the final stop of our trip, Venice. This was the only city in our tour that i had previously visited (two years ago); but i was still giddy with excitement as we boarded the train from Bled, bound for Venice. 

Yes, Venice is crowded, expensive, easy to get lost in, very touristy; and depending on the time of the year, flooding at Piazza San Marco is a very real concern. Yet, it has so much charm, and is unlike anywhere else on earth. 

Throngs of tourists at Piazza San Marco

Feed the pigeons at your own risk (in front of Doge Palace)

Unfortunately, our stay in Venice this time around was very short (it was the last night of the tour, and we all went off our separate ways the morning after) So, total stay was less than 24 hours. Tsk tsk. 

Unlike my event-filled first time in Venice, wherein i rode the gondola (a must-try for first-timers, in my humble opinion), visited the outer islands of San Giorgio Maggiore (best to go on a weekend and join the tour inside the monastery), Murano and Burano (colourful houses and general lazing around), and joined the Secret Itineraries tour of Doge Palace (worth the money), this time i opted to just walk around and take in the sights and ride the vaporetto (i.e. public water bus with fixed routes and time schedules) and get down on the stops that seemed interesting. I did have a list of establishments that i wanted to try, too.

The (in)famous Bridge of Sighs

Entrance of Hotel Danieli - where Angie and Johnny stayed in the movie "The Tourist"

Gondoliers waiting for tourists like YOU!
I had mentioned that taking a gondola ride is a must for first-timers to Venice, not that it is the greatest thing on earth. Far from it, actually. It is expensive and unromantic (the gondolier does not warble 'O Sole Mio' unprompted), and one is probably better off walking. But one cannot really form a definitive opinion about it, unless one actually tries it. So, try it!

5 Gondolas in a row

Empty gondolas with the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the background

Speaking of gondoliers, these guys sure do know how to have fun. :D Check out this photo taken by my tour mate Maia: 

The timing of our stop in Venice was rather auspicious, as the Venice Art Biennale (a biannual celebration of art, architecture, music, theatre, dance and cinema) was ongoing. Here is one art installation in front of the San Giorgio Maggiore Church:

(Our stay was also a week after the lavish wedding in Venice of that actor who appeared in 'Batman', 'Oceans Eleven' and 'Monuments Men', Clooney whats-his-name)

Venice is perfect for taking long, aimless strolls - you will definitely get lost. But not to worry, just check out the brown signages on the streets to orient yourself and know which direction you should be headed. 

To Piazza San Marco

To Piazzale Roma (square where the bus station is) and Alla Ferrovia (railway station)

To the over-rated tourist spot, Rialto Bridge
As for buying souvenirs, caveat emptor! i'd guesstimate that most of the trinkets, accessories and leather goods being sold in stores along the main tourist strip probably come from China. And if you see African-American men peddling designer bags on the streets, these are definitely 100% fake and it is illegal to buy from them.

In fact, some shops have taken the step to put explicit signs regarding the provenance of their wares:


And eat as the Venetians do. Rather than a full sit-down meal, you can try as many cichetti bars (known as 'bacari') as you like. These are similar to Spanish tapas (small plates), and you eat standing up in a bar. Just point to whatever you fancy (the food is typically displayed on plates behind glass shelves), and move on to another one afterwards. There are many of these establishments in the small streets surrounding Rialto Bridge. 

Calamari on the go
One discovery (thank you very much, New York Times!) was Suso Gelatoteca, located at Calle Della Bissa. It is very hard to give exact directions on where it is, but it is quite near Rialto Bridge. 

As it was 11AM and there were no other customers, i was able to have a brief chat with the owner (the lady above), and she said this was their first and only branch in the world. 

They supply some other gelaterias with the regular flavors - fragola, tiramisu, vaniglia, limone, etc.; but some flavors are their exclusive creations, and only sold here.These are the more expensive ones priced at EURO2.00 per scoop - Manet (salted pistachio with chocolate-hazelnut gianduia), Opera, Napoleone, etc.

I ordered a scoop of the Manet. The flavors just explode in your mouth! Really rich and tasty! I would have brought home a gallon if it were only possible. 

Here's the link to their website - they don't seem to have Facebook, Instagram or other social media presence.

If all this proves to be too tiring, dear tourist, i would recommend riding the vaporetto (buy a day pass to save money!) and sitting back and let your mind adrift as you sail along the Grand Canal. Take in the chilly weather, historical buildings, general atmosphere, etc. 


You are in Venice, after all. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

INTREPIDLY, FROM BERLIN TO VENICE (Part 5): Kiraly Furdo and Gruffy Granddad

When in Budapest, a visit to the thermal baths is definitely in order. The hot mineral water is filled with calcium, magnesium, sodium and other minerals, all meant to provide therapeutic relief from aches and pains.

The one i had chosen to go to was the Kiraly Furdo, which was constructed way, way back in 1565 (yes, this is not a typo) during the Turkish occupation. Kiraly is one of the smaller thermal baths, and one of the more quiet ones as well. If one wants a festive atmosphere and a hot pool full of people, a visit to the Gellert Bath or Szechenyi Bath would be more appropriate - Szechenyi, in particular, if one fancies playing chess while bathing!

Finding the place was not difficult at all. I do remember when walking along the street and knowing i was quite near, i looked at this old, decrepit building on my left, and thinking "i hope it's not this place". . . .only to find out from the sign below that, yes, it was this place!

I duly entered, and paid HUF2,400 for a daytime ticket (valid for entry during 9AM to 12NN, and includes a refundable amount of HUF1,100). 

It is best to bring your own towel, since renting one costs HUF700; and you have to leave a deposit of HUF4,000!!!  Bring your own swim suit or trunks as well, in order to avoid having to rent one (although i must admit this may by impractical advice for a tourist, especially if you are going directly to other places after your trip to the bath). 

Aside from the pools, one can opt for a massage as well. I paid HUF4,100 for a 30-minute massage. 

I was given a waterproof plastic wristband (it looks like a watch without any numbers or hands on the dial), which will be used to open and close my changing cabin. I was led to the locker area by the bath attendant, an old, pot-bellied man with white hair and a gruff demeanor who spoke zero English (let's call him 'Gruffy Granddad'). Pointing with his hands, and grunting, he checked my watch-wristband and gave me my rented towel. 

So there i was was, in front of my changing cabin, but not quite sure how to open it.

I searched for Gruffy Granddad, but he was nowhere to be found. Good thing, an elderly local customer (he looked like he went to the baths every day!!) saw my predicament, and using sign language (he spoke no English too!), he showed me how it's done.

You just put your watch-wristband on the round thingie, shout "Open Sesame!" in your deepest voice (hahaha, i jest :-D), and wallah! ;-D

I must say that the facilities of Kiraly Furdo seem to be from a totally different time zone, and it reminded me actually of being in a hospital. 

Anyway, to the thermal pools. There are four of them here at Kiraly - one big circular main pool, and three smaller rectangular ones, all with varying degrees in temperature (ranging from 26 - 40 degrees Celsius). 

There was a sizeable number of customers, even at the early hour; but i wouldn't say it was crowded. Mostly elderly people, but there were some younger tourists as well (including two sexy ladies, hehe). 

It's really up to one's preference how to use the pools. Dip in a warm pool first, then steam room, then to the hottest pool, shower  (the pipes of the shower area were these narrow metal ones, which were really rusty and creaking, and looked like they came from the 1600s!!!!), cold pool, back to the warm pool, etc. 

My massage was at 11AM, so i got out of the pools, dried myself and went to the lounge area (which, again, faintly reminded me of a hospital). Then Gruffy Granddad appeared, pointed at me, led me to the massage table, and motioned for me to lie face down, before leaving. 

After a few minutes, the masseur/masseuse appeared. Guess who it was? GRUFFY GRANDDAD!!!  [shocked expression]

But in fairness, he proved to be adept in giving the massage and seemed happiest when karate-chopping my back using quick, short hand movements ;-D 

And as expected, when i discreetly slipped a tip to him as i exited the locker area, he grunted without a hint of a smile.

All in all, a great experience which set the tone for the rest of the day. Must-do when in Budapest!!!

For complete information on the various thermal baths, check out the Baths Budapest site. If you are not sure which Budapest bath is right for you, check out this helpful article:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Are you a Beatles fan? If so, a detour to the John Lennon Wall is a must during a trip to Prague. It is an otherwise non-descript wall, which has been filled with Lennon-inspired graffiti and short lyrics from the Beatles' songs, since the 1980s.  

Did the Beatles ever visit and perform in Prague? Nope. Was John Lennon a huge star in Prague? Not really. So what accounts for this tribute to him? 

Apparently, Western pop songs (including the Beatles') were banned during the Communist regime; and after his untimely death in 1980, he became a hero to the youth as well as a symbol of their fight for freedom against the totalitarian authorities. Click on what the website has to say about the Lennon Wall

A steady stream of tourists flock to the site, and there is usually at least a busker or two, singing (what else?) Lennon songs. 


A visit to the wall is sometimes included in local walking tour itineraries, but not always; so it is best to ask the guide first. Otherwise, it can be a bit difficult to find it on your own. From the Old Town, just cross the Charles Bridge (itself a unique sight), go down the flight of stairs at the end, and start asking for directions. 

 His widow, Yoko Ono, even visited the wall in 2003 ( Photo credit: The Atlantic)

Epilogue: In November 2014 (around one month after my visit),  a group of art students called "Prague Services" covered up all the graffiti with white paint, and put in the words "War is Over!" in bold black text. They wanted the wall to give way to new messages for artists of this generation.

What would John Lennon have had to say about this? No one knows for sure, but i reckon he would have shrugged and said, "Let it be."
But i am extremely glad to report there is a happy ending! Believe it or not, the wall has its own Facebook page: It is filled with current photos contributed by visitors, and mentions that just seven days after it was painted white, it is already full of color again. And yes, you can see new images of John Lennon. ;-D

Sunday, December 21, 2014

INTREPIDLY, FROM BERLIN TO VENICE (Part 3): Cafe Culture in Vienna and the elusive Sacher Torte

During the latter part of our trip, we had an informal survey amongst our group (we were 16 persons, in total), regarding which cities we liked the best and the ones we liked the least. Surprisingly, Krakow was the runaway winner - being the number one choice of half the group (apparently, the early favorite, Prague, was well-liked, but did not live up fully to its lofty billing). 

                                Facade of the Upper Belvedere

Also surprisingly, the place that was liked the least was. .  . Vienna. Given the amount of time we were here (1 1/2 days), it was deemed "too big" and full of imperial structures that seemed to take forever to see. 

                                The lovely gardens

I thought this insight was quite valid, as Vienna can be overwhelming even for dedicated culture vultures. Take your pick from the palaces - Schonbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Belvedere Palace (with the biggest collection of works by Gustav Klimt) - and more than 100 (!) museums, such as the ones in the MuseumsQuartier complex (Leopold, Museum of Modern Art, Architecture Centre, etc.), Albertina, etc. And we haven't even started yet on classical music and the various opera houses. 

In fact, i was too 'cultured-out' during our second day that i didn't bother showing up to the Schonbrunn Palace. So my pre-booked online ticket Classic Pass worth EURO18.50 was wasted. Drat!

Vienna is known for its traditional coffee houses, where you can have your hot or cold coffees in a multitude of ways; and choose from a staggering variety of cakes and pastries as well. These people really take their sweets seriously. 

In fact, the traditional coffee house is deeply ingrained into the fabric of locals' lives. Since October 2011,  the "Viennese Coffee House Culture" was listed as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by the UNESCO. It described the Viennese coffee house "as a place where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill." (Here's more about it from our source, Wikipedia)

In practice, it is accepted for a coffee house patron to sit for hours, reading newspapers (and given modern times, avail of the free Wi-Fi), etc. The waiter will typically serve a glass of cold tap water, along with the order of coffee and/or cake; and during a long stay, he will often "bring additional water unrequested, with the idea to serve the guest with an exemplary sense of attention."  [Ibid]

The most famous of these is Cafe Sacher, which bills itself as "a must for every visitor" to Vienna, being the inventor of the original Sacher Torte.  This was invented by Franz Sacher back in 1832, and the recipe is a closely-guarded secret. 

The Sacher Torte is essentially a chocolate cake, with chocolate icing on top and a thin layer of apricot jam beneath the icing. Nowadays, all coffee houses serve their respective version/recipe of this.

Unfortunately, as the following photos attest, hordes of tourists were waiting in line in front of Cafe Sacher.

Its foremost rival is Demel, started way back in 1786 and (rather haughtily) officially known as "K.u.K. (‘Imperial and Royal’) Court Confectionery Bakery Demel". Why so? Apparently, there was a long-running legal battle between Sacher and Demel regarding who had the rights to use the phrase "Original Sacher Torte".

According to the Vienna Unwrapped website:

[Franz Sacher's son] Eduard later perfected the recipe at his work place at Cafe Patisserie Demel, which supplied its cakes and desserts to the Imperial Court and also sold them to the broader public. In 1876, Eduard Sacher founded the Hotel Sacher and started selling the Sacher Torte there. Its success spread quickly, in Austria and overseas. In 1934, the Hotel Sacher went bankrupt and Eduard Sacher’s son Eduard (junior) started working for Demel like his father. He transferred the single ownership of an Eduard Sacher Torte to Demel. In 1938, when Adolf Hitler annexed Austria to the Third Reich, the battle for the original Sacher cake started between Patisserie Demel and Hotel Sacher. It was sparked by the Hotel Sacher’s registration of the brand Original Sacher Torte and the street sale of the cake.

At the centre of almost 20 years of dispute was the rightful use of the brand, the question whether the original cake had a layer of apricot jam in the middle, and whether it was made with butter or margarine (I am not joking).

According to the jurisdiction of the High Court, only the Hotel Sacher is allowed to use the name Original Sacher Torte and the characteristic chocolate seal. Its cake has two layers of apricot jam. Patisserie Demel can use the name ‘Eduard Sacher Torte’. (It now sells it as Demel’s Sacher Torte). The Demel Sacher cake has one layer of apricot jam underneath the icing, and a triangular shaped seal. 

Pretty intense, huh? Denied by the long line at Sacher, i walked over to nearby Demel - only to be met by another long queue of would-be patrons. 

Undeterred, i walked a rather long distance to Cafe Central, which opened in 1876. You guessed it, there was yet another long queue!!!!!!! Argh!!!

Finally, after yet more walking, i ended up at the Cafe Griensteidl (founded 1847). It was, strangely, not very busy; and offered a fantastic location, right across one of the gates of the Hofburg Palace. If you sit at the outdoor veranda, it is the perfect place to take in the cool weather and people-watch. 

And here was my long-awaited Sacher Torte!

My first impression was that it looked kinda dry. After taking a bite or two, it was indeed dry. Taste was okay, so-so. I was very disappointed, and couldn't understand what the fuss about this cake was all about. Boo. 

On the other hand, maybe the versions of other coffee houses were better! And there is only one sure way to find out!!! ;-d

After spending an hour or so walking around the museum district, i dropped by Cafe Mozart, located right behind the Opera house, for a late afternoon snack. Look at the lovely building:

Here's their warm cream cheese strudel, with vanilla sauce. Looked lovely, and it tasted even lovelier!!

And i ordered the 'Mozart coffee' (double mocha topped with whipped cream), and it came with its own chocolate cream liquor (spelled as "liqueur") bottle, with Mozart's profile. Such a cute bottle!

 Here's a close-up of the liquor bottle: (I brought it home, hahaha!!)

I think there's so many Viennese cafes that one has to live here for a month to be able to check them all out. Here's another one, which i heartily DO NOT recommend: 

At the end of the day, all we need is love, actually. Here's the most famous kiss in the world for all readers of this blog! ;-D

Here's a list of the websites of some of the well-known coffee houses:
Cafe Sacher 
Cafe Central 
Cafe Hawelka 
Cafe Mozart