Three days in Venice and the Carnivale

When we decided to go to the Dolomites to ski, we also decided to spend a few days in Venice. After all, the last time either of us had visited was more than a decade ago! My enduring memory of my trip there almost two decades ago was the floods – half a foot of water blanketed San Marco’s, shutting down the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica. I remember waiters alternately bailing water out of the ground level restaurants and serving meals to patrons.

Happily, we enjoyed beautiful weather the 3 days we were there. Our first afternoon, we did the touristy thing and braved the crowds in San Marco’s to visit the Campinale for the breathtaking views of the city. We also spent a fun 2 hours wandering the halls of the Doge’s Palace.

The Carnivale parade along the boulevard and San Marco’s had just ended when we finally exited the Doge’s Palace, and, as the crowds dispersed, we got to join in the throngs of photographers to take pictures of the dozens dressed up in elaborate costumes and masks. It was quite surreal – but festive and entertaining! The Carnivale runs for 2 weeks, and we went smack in the middle, which meant there were masqueraders wandering all over town in their getups the entire weekend – when we tried to catch the sunrise one foggy morning along the water’s edge, they were milling around and posing for photographers too!

We briefly toyed with the idea of getting some capes and masks ourselves, especially since we were going to the opera, but we got sticker shock when we saw some of the prices of the warm capes we saw on sale!

We also spent an afternoon at the historic Teatro La Fenice, the famed Opera house that hosted the premieres of Rigoletto etc. Caught the Elisir d’amore, a 2.5 hour Donizetti comedy in a gallery box, which was fun!

Mostly, we tried to stay away from the main touristy areas, and instead explored the different neighborhoods – the Jewish ghetto one night, and the Castello district another morning, where, upon the advice of our host at the hotel, we stopped by the Scuola Grande di San Marco, an old church that is now part of the city’s hospital. It boasts a quiet little garden where many fat cats lounged in the winter sun.

Venice is a charming city to explore, for its many waterways and winding tight alleys. It’s impossible to know, when you turn a corner, if you’d wind up in an open piazza with many alfresco bars, or run smack into a waterway. At dusk though, the city becomes truly magical. The warm orange street lamps light up the blue waterways, and with the absence of motor vehicles of any kind, we felt like we could have really stepped back into another era.

We ate really well this trip. After the heavy meat dishes in the alps, we sought out – and found – lots of fresh seafood in Venice. At least we made sure to walk upwards of 25,000 steps a day to account for our feasts and scoops of gelato daily!

We also managed to spend a day in the outer islands of Venice, first visiting Burano for its colorful rows of houses, then Murano where we gawked at the beautiful glass works on sale.

A day in Verona, Italy

Coming down from the mountains, we spent a day in Verona, a quiet (relative to Venice) town just an hour and a half from the coast.

View of the Adige River

We arrived on Valentine’s Day, and we were initially dismayed at the realisation, because we hadn’t thought to make restaurant reservations in advance. But the upside, we found out, was that all attractions were going for the price of 2-for-1! Which meant discounted entries to Castelvecchio and the Arena that we visited.

The Verona Arena, where operatic performances are still held

Otherwise, we were happy to roam about the city, losing ourselves in the warren maze of medieval streets.

The campanile shines red for Valentines day

Exploring Copenhagen on foot, on bike, and by kayak

The requisite and immediately recognizable view of Copenhagen

We flew to and from Greenland via Copenhagen, and so took advantage of the journey by spending a few days there to explore the city, and let’s be honest, check another new country off our list. Haha.

Crazy high standards of living aside, we love this city, and how green and ecological the Danes are. They rely extensively on wind and solar energy, and burn their trash to generate heat. The city has a goal to become carbon neutral by 2025.

It’s also compact, and easy enough for us to explore over our 4.5 days there. We kept our schedules light, and luxuriated in long sleeps in cosy beds after camping for a week. Still, we managed to cover most of the city, on foot, on a bike tour with Mike, a gregarious old man with his personal bike tour and who came highly recommended by our Greenland mate Ally. We also wandered around it from the water, with Kirstin, with whom we spent many happy and boisterous hours playing kayak netball with back in Sydney a couple of years ago when she guided for Laura’s Sydney by Kayak.

We biked past the super tiny Little Mermaid sculpture, one of the must-see sights on many tourists’ itinerary in Copenhagen. It’s not that remarkable, really, but the walk to the fortress along the waterfront is a lovely one
Mike giving us a history lesson. We had signed up for his group tours, but because of the forecasted rains, we ended up getting a private tour. Score! Lol, a little thunderstorm can’t stop us from having fun.
Kirstin took us on a happy two hour paddle down the super clean canals of Copenhagen, so clean, we could see all the way to the bottom, and the locals pretty much jump in wherever for a dip in the summer.

Physical activities aside, our focus was to hit up the the famed food scene of Copenhagen. We didn’t manage to get reservations to Noma – not that we tried really hard, seeing that the cost for the degustation menu started at $700 a person! But we did eat at Palægade, Iluka, 108 (the sister restaurant to Noma) and Høst, the latter being our favorite and highlight. The food at these restaurants all featured fresh vegetables, and seafood, quite a change from our usual meat heavy fare. Really delicious, though hard on the wallet.

I bumped into Bel, an excoworker from Sydney who had moved to Copenhagen with her Danish partner three years ago. It’s a small world!!!

Our last day in the city, we wondered around the Christianhavn neighborhood before making our way to the Copenhagen Royal Opera House, where we were absolutely delighted to see the chorus master leading the public in a masterclass singalong of the Opera Carmen. We went in to take a look, and were thrust the scores so we could follow along and join in if we wanted. Well I can’t read scores, but we spent the next hour and a half listening in. So much fun, and it was a most lovely way to end our trip (that, and a delicious lunch of pork snitchzel washed down with homemade snaps at Restaurant Barr!

Happy coincidence – joining a Carmen singalong led by the Copenhagen Royal Opera chorus master Steven Moore. It was so fun!

Week back in Sydney

We’d the opportunity to spend a week in Sydney. Work during the day, catch ups with friends over meals in the evening. And on the weekends, we did what we loved best in Sydney – exploring the outdoors.

Our original plan to kayak the first Sunday we were back was scuttled due to gusty winds of up to 45km/h. And our attempt to go again the following Saturday was stymied by the strong winds again, as was the SUP ball game our friend had planned for us in Manly.

Oh well. But Lisa had another idea up her sleeve happily for Saturday – hiking in Lane Cove National Park. It’s a beautiful little area of land, so serene and quiet amongst the trees, and so close to downtown! We spent an enjoyable 4 hours just meandering around, stopping for a warm cuppa tea (ginseng gin tea anyone!?).

The winds finally did die down Sunday morning though, before our 3pm flight. Garry, Jeff, and I managed to squeeze in a two hour paddle from Spit Bridge to Bantry Bay and back, one of my favorite training routes back when I was training for the Massive Murray Paddle. Good times.

Spied a seal rubbing itself against a moored boat

Long weekend in Hoian

Over Easter, we visited Hoian. This was my first trip to Vietnam, and I’d only heard good things about Hoian. Everyone gushed about how beautiful it was, and I couldn’t wait.

It was indeed charming. Hoian used to be a trading port in the 15th – 19th centuries, and the buildings in the UNESCO-designated Ancient Town reflects the infusion of Chinese, Japanese and European designs.

The temperatures were already in the mid-thirties when we arrived early morning from Danang, and the humidity only climbed till we had to hide back in air conditioned hotel room after lunch until late afternoon for the soft golden light.

Hoian is also the town with the largest concentration of tailors, offering bespoke creations anywhere from wedding gowns to cocktail attire down to hiking pants. You can custom make your own shoes, which we did quite spontaneously – a pair of sandals each
I love how the locals just roll up to the vendors in their scooters, and select their veggies without ever getting off the bikes

And if the narrow streets were crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, trishaws, and scooters during the day, they were positively packed at night. Everyone came out at dusk to enjoy the colorful lanterns strung overhead, and the atmosphere was festive.

Lanterns, lanterns everywhere
Tourists enjoying a leisurely ride along the Thu Bồn River, or else purchased paper boats lit with candles to float on the water
Full moon rises over Hoian
Enjoying a cold one at Mango Mango, overlooking the busy street scene below

We tacked on a sunrise visit to My Son, a cluster of Hindu temples built by the Champa dynasties from the 7th – 13th century, about an hour’s drive from Hoian. Pro tip – sunrise is the best time to visit, because of the (1) beautiful golden light; (2) cool temperatures; and (3) light crowds. We were the first to reach the temples, and enjoyed serene minutes just quietly taking in the brick architecture harking back to the 7th century.

At one time, the site contained over 70 temples, but a lot were destroyed by US carpet bombing during the Vietnam War.
Fisherman trying to catch an fish by hand
Respite from the heat at Reaching Out Tea House, a cafe run by people with hearing disabilities.
Hoi An Roastery, for their famous egg coffee. I was a bit skeptical until I took my first sip. The almost custardy coffee was utterly delicious.
We crossed the Dragon Bridge at Danang, having visited the Champa museum, to Seven Bridges Brewery, for a couple cold ones before our evening flight back home

Sunrise at Marina Barrage

We took our e-scooters down to Gardens by the Bay early morning for a bit of exploration. There was a half marathon, which unfortunately blocked the main paths we wanted to take. Still, we had a pleasant time weaving our way through the lush walkways, enjoying the cool morning breeze on our skin, and the serenity and beauty of the gardens.

There were others about – early morning joggers and cyclists. I felt just a tinge of guilt that we were whizzing by on scooters rather than exercising, but it was a lovely way to take in the sights.

Sunrise at Gardens by the Bay

Sunday – I had nothing on the schedule, so I thought, why not hit up Gardens by the Bay at sunrise, and bring my new Fujifilm X100F out for a spin?

I was surprised by the number of people up and about. Before the sun rose, there were already groups of cyclists and runners out. Even more as the sun struggled to get above the clouds. Then again, it’s a beautiful, serene spot for an early morning workout.

I’ll have to go back – perhaps with my electric scooter, to better explore the entire area. I’m looking forward already.

Ending the series with a night shot of the helix bridge – this one taken with my Canon 6D, and on a different day.

Weekend in Myanmar: scenes from the train edition

I’ve never been very comfortable with street photography. But since we’ve moved to Singapore, the opportunities for landscape photography has shrunk quite significantly. At the same time, our goal this year is to visit more of South East Asia, havens for urban photography.

With that in mind, one of my goals this trip was to get out of my comfort zone, and take more street shots.

Alas, for whatever reason, my camera battery was drained by the end of our first day in Myanmar. And this was the same battery that had served me so magnificently at high altitudes and in the cold up on Kilimanjaro! So all the shots taken from Weekend in Myanmar: street scenes edition are actually from my Pixel 2 phone. None too shabby, if I say so myself. Nonetheless, as decent as the quality those pictures may look on the small screen, they don’t hold up too well printed out.

In any case, I was able to get in plenty of practice on our train ride to nowhere that first day….

Yangon Central Train Station. The cost for our 3 hour circular train ride was just US$0.30. That said, given that the route was under construction, we didn’t actually manage to do the entire loop
Locals aboard the train. Note the open doorway. There aren’t actually doors, so people can jump on and off without waiting for the train to come to a complete stop.
Watermelon fruit seller who jumped on at one of the stations
Betel nut seller. He had no takers, and so wrapped a leaf for himself
Family cooking outside their house right along the train track
Children hanging out outside their house, right by the train track
Everyone wanders freely about the tracks
There are benches right behind, but since they were in the sun, everyone elected to just sit on the track
A lonely little set up
Walking around downtown Yangon

Weekend in Myanmar: Street scenes edition

Our trip to Yangon, Myanmar last weekend was somewhat spontaneous, suggested by our friend Jessie whose goal this year is to explore all the countries in South East Asia. We didn’t really know what to expect or do, beyond visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda and wander about the city. But we had a most wonderful time, and felt like we’d stepped back into the past, seen what Singapore could have been like in the 60s and 70s. Men still selling betel nuts and leaves by the roadside and hawking them on trains. Electric lines still criss-cross the streets, most of which still have no traffic lights, so everyone just brazenly jaywalks. Dozens of monks and nuns, dressed in their saffron or pink robes, walk around barefoot, carrying their aluminium tiffin carriers.

The street right in front of our hotel, Merchant Art Hotel, near the Shwedagon Pagoda
Lady chopping up frozen blocks of fish for cooking, right by the side of the road

Our first day wandering around the city, we found the bridge to the Bogyoke market closed. The bridge was across some train tracks, and to get around them, we had to take a long detour – another 30 minutes under the hot sun. Later, when we decided to take the train that circled Yangon to get a better feel for the local life, we realized how blasé people were with the tracks. People were leisurely strolling along the tracks, or had pulled up plastic stools to sit right alongside the tracks – their version of people watching perhaps? And they didn’t have any qualms jumping off or flinging themselves onto the cars even when the trains had started to pull away from the stations.

Training as the locals do – haha, we look like hardcore travelers here, but in actual fact, the train had stopped, and we hadn’t even realized at that point that they’d detached the locomotive!

We weren’t quite as brave. The “circular” train route we took turned out to be under construction, so the train was only running partway. We didn’t realize this of course, when we bought the tickets, not knowing any Burmese. An hour after we’d pulled away from the station, the train rolled to a stop at some random station near the airport, and most everyone jumped off, save a couple old men who sat unconcernedly on. After 10 minutes of waiting around, we got off to discover that the locomotive pulling the train had already been detached. Nobody we asked seemed to understand English either. Since we had time to spare, we decided to wait it out. Then a train came alongside ours into the station, heading back towards Yangon Central Station, where we’d gotten on. The conductor peered into our car at us, and motioned for us to climb onto his train. But it was already starting to pull away at the time!

Eventually though, the workers brought around another locomotive and reattached it to our train, in the direction of Yangon Central Station. So all’s well that ends well. Haha.

Locals aboard the train
Locals just strolling down the train track
Street vendor hawking her fresh produce one a random street side
Laborers at the Bogyoke Aung San Market
Monk on his way to collect his Sunday meal
We passed by a few such alters, but none as vividly painted as this old Banyan
We were quite fascinated with how these longyis are worn (and whether they are worn the way the Scots wear their kilts…), and how men go to the bathroom with them

We were quite taken with these little nuns going about their business, in search of their evening meal, and followed them down the street.

From what we’d read online, one of the bustling areas in Yangon is Chinatown, the area roughly bounded by streets 18th through 24th. In the evenings, the streets are lined with rows of plastic tables and chairs and hawkers grilling meats along the sidewalk. We went right before the peak period, around 4pm in the afternoon, so while there were some hawkers set up on the street corners, some of the streets we walked down were almost eerily quiet. We walked by shuttered store fronts, and gates with faded and peeling paint that had seen better years.

The architecture dredged up memories of Chinatown in Singapore about 30 years before, before the government had revitalized the area by tearing down some of the older structures and repainting the remaining in vivid bright hues. My grandmother had lived in one of those 3rd storey apartments with the dim naked bulbs, steeply sloping eaves, and wet kitchen with its ever-present inch of water that refused to drain away. Even then though, I remembered the streets as being cleaner. Still, it felt like we had walked back in time.

A shopfront in Chinatown

A short two days, but it felt just right. The next time, we want to hit up the countryside, especially Bagan, with its over 2000 pagodas and stupas and lush greenery.

Weekend in Myanmar: The Shwedagon Pagoda Edition

One of our goals for while we’re living in South East Asia is to explore the region, so quite spontaneously, we decided to join a friend this past weekend in Yangon, Myanmar.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the – if that the – highlights that the city has to offer. As it’s open from 4am to 10pm everyday, we decided to try to miss the crowds and visit right before sunrise.

The pagoda was already bustling with activity from the early morning devotees, some of whom prostrated their way around the main stupa. Others parked themselves in spots, and mediated.

Moon sets over the pagoda
We saw a large group of finely dressed devotees ceremoniously sweeping the grounds