Venice for the crowd-adverse

As we flew into Venice in September 2013, crowds of protestors gathered.   Thankfully they were not there for us.  The angry rally was directed towards the record-breaking 12 cruise ships expected to pass through the lagoon that day.  Italian passions extended to some individuals donning wetsuits and jumping into the Giudecca canal in an attempt to block the passage of the enormous liners.  It was a shocking spectacle, but during our time in the city I could see the logic behind their concerns.  Not only are the giant ships causing environmental and cultural damage, but more generally Venice is chock-a-block with tourists which has pushed prices up for those who live there.  To put a number on it – according to the press – 35,000 tourists arrived by ship that day.  That’s the equivalent to half the city’s regular population.

Boat number 5 dwarfing the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore

I had longed to visit Venice.  I’d seen it in films and on TV, oozing glamour and romance.  I wanted to see how an entire city can just float.  But not overly comfortable in crowds I found myself a little disheartened.  Was this one big – and INCREDIBLY expensive – mistake?  For a place that relies on tourism, the numbers seemed excessive and I could barely move without inadvertently photobombing randoms.  I can’t imagine how crazy numbers swell during the summer months.  So with this in mind here are some of the things we got up to whilst trying our best to avoid the crowds.

Looking onto the crowds near St Marks square from a water taxi

Private speed boat lagoon tour

Through Trip Advisor I found Il Bragozzo, a small local company who offer an alternative way to visit the lagoon – aboard a classic wooden speedboat.  Our 3-hour tour covered a handful of the more than 100 small islands that make up Venice’s lagoon, including our first stop, the old convent of San Francesco del Deserto still inhabited by the Friars Minori, and not accessible by public transport.


Our guide Tommaso with his 1950s motorboat

The further north we pass, the more the landscape changes into narrow channels, salt marsh and swamp, providing an area of what Venice would have looked like hundreds of years ago.  Our next stop is a delight for the eyes – the picturesque fisherman’s island of Burano.  Lined with colourful fishermen’s houses, the place is recommended for casual seafood eateries (shame we can’t stick around for lunch), and is celebrated for lace making.

Entering a quiet channel into Burano

Next up is the island of Murano, world-renowned for it’s historic glass factories.  Every other shop displays ornate (some may say OTT) glasswork and locally-crafted souvenirs.  Some workshops provide live glass-blowing demonstrations so you can watch artisans at work.  It is mesmerising.  This is the place to come if you want to buy a chandelier to rival Tiffany… and to break the bank!

Vaporetto to San Michele

The cemetery island of San Michele is a short ride north-east of Venice by public water taxi (Vaporetto).  It is a tranquil place, both somber and celebratory, honouring those passed through colourful, well-manicured displays and moving effigies.  We take a quiet stroll and find the graves of 7 British casualties from WW1 in the Protestant section of the east corner.

Photo Tour

On my birthday we take a private tour with photo journalist Marco Secchi.  At this point neither one of us had ever used anything but a point-and-shoot camera (probably obvious from our photos here), so I looked forward to learning some technical stuff whilst seeing some quieter areas.  Marco was very patient, and the resulting pictures made an improvement on our usual snaps.  He took us along the west-side of the Grand Canal, ending at the world-famous Rialto Bridge just before sunset.  He also took us to possibly the best gelato shop: Gelateria il Doge on Calle Traghetto Vecchio.

Using the walls to navigate narrow waterways!
Looking down the Grand Canal towards Rialto Bridge
Ponte di Rialto

Saint Marks Square

OK, so i’ll concede that no trip to Venice is complete without seeing the central piazza San Marco.  Home to the iconic basilica, Doge’s Palace, mechanical clocktower, and a host of over-priced eateries, it is a central-hub that draws HUGE crowds.  The below picture was taken at around 8am, before many of the restaurants had opened in an attempt to see it before the place became mobbed.  I recommend visiting early or late – basically whenever the cruisers are back on their ships..


The columns of the city’s patron saints: San Marco – symbolised by the winged lion – and San Todaro – the Byzantine Saint Theodore of Amasea, the city’s first protector

Alternatively, you can get a great view into the square from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore across the bay.

San Giorgio Maggiore

I would have loved to have seen inside the clocktower.  There are some limited tours that need to be booked well in advance that allow a glimpse of the intricate workings of this historic technology.

St Mark’s clocktower dates back to 1499. The gold and blue watch face indicate the time, day, moon phases and the zodiac. Each hour the two bronze figures move to ring the very loud bell.

Doge’s Palace secret itineraries tour

Part of the reason we made it to Saint Mark’s square so early – I’m really not a morning person – was a reservation we held for the first tour of the day of the Doge’s Palace.  Hailed as a gothic masterpiece, the structure is regarded as a symbol of the city.  It was formerly home not only to the Doge (the ruler of Venice) but also to the entire state administration.  The ‘secret’ tour promised a glimpse of areas usually inaccessable to the public, which included the prison cell where Casanova was held, as well as a few extra passageways and the Inquisitor’s room.  In total it lasted around 75 minutes.  I found it interesting, but honestly, I think it would have been much better if our guide had been more engaging and if the group was smaller.

Palazzo Ducale from Saint Mark’s Square
Palazzo Ducale overlooking the lagoon


As the tour didn’t cover any of the main rooms of the palace – which is enormous – we sprung for an audio guide and spent perhaps another 2 hours wandering through rich interiors.  Ornate architecture and elaborate decoration adorn every corner, with works by artists such as Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto.  We also got to walk across the Bridge of Sighs, which I [shamefully] first heard about from Dan Brown’s novel Inferno!

Via Garibaldi neighbourhood

To the east of Saint Marco is the relatively quiet neighbourhood of Via Garibaldi.  Less than a mile from Saint Mark’s square, it is a great place to stroll away a few hours and feel as though you have seen a more residential/ ‘real’ side of the city.  We enjoyed simple but tasty cichetti (Italian tapas) and drunk Campari outside one of the many small street bars filled with locals.

The nearby Maritime Museum – Padiglione delle Navi – leading to the city Arsenal

Beyond Venice

Despite Venice being car-free, it was relatively straight-forward to pick up a rental car from Marco Polo airport (across the lagoon), and embark on a road-trip.  We drove north via the pretty city of Verona, into the mountainous lake region.  In less than 3 hours we arrived at Lake Garda, where for 5 days we enjoyed some off-season R&R.  Oh and more than a few gelatos!

Limone Sul Garda on a very hazy day

Riva del Garda


Why the Havana you see on Instagram is not real

Havana is not the place your Instagram feed would suggest.  When I returned from Cuba last year, I kept getting asked what the place was like.  People seemed genuinely curious.  Looking at the pictures that I had snapped, I realised they didn’t follow the narrative I was sharing or convey a true picture of what Havana was actually like.  I had shamefully fallen victim to the ‘filtered perception’ trap that plagues social media.  My images focused on the glamor.  They paid way too much attention to classic cars in every shade of pastel, the best examples of palatial buildings, and the odd mojito.  But the stories I told, and the images that stick in my mind tell a very different story.


What I witnessed was an obviously once-illustrious capital crumbling in decay.  Physically I mean.  Ornate edifices that symbolise the era of Spanish colonialism still dominate the cityscape.  If you don’t look too hard, you could almost be in Valencia, with large shaded plazas, grand churches, and the odd churro vendor.  But the condition of the buildings signifies a telling change in circumstance.  Constructions that would be condemned in most cities, are instead full of families who have fashioned units through crude sub-divisions.  The structural integrity of many of these buildings look highly questionable, with some leveraging wooden planks for support.  A British Health and Safety Inspector would have a field day!

Some of the most dilapidated structures that I assume are empty, have washing hanging off iron-ballastrads.  I want to be able to close my eyes and time-hop back to the metropolis in it’s heyday.  Surely, life for the people of Havana must have been very different back then.  Of course there are some buildings that have been saved, mostly government ones, or those of touristic significance.  The Museo de la Revolución, Gran Teatro, El Capitolio, and Hotel Nacional de Cuba, to name just a few are all impressive examples of more affluent times.

Architecture aside, the next thing that strikes me as I wandered around the Central and Old Town was the unique world of commerce.  Shops, and the physical effort of shopping are both stuck in a time-warp.  Locals buy their groceries mostly from government-owned establishments that are little more than small, dark shells with a counter-top and scales.  Each one often contains specific produce – locals go to the egg place for an open tray of eggs, and the butcher for meat, using food rations for certain staples.  Inside a larger exchange, individual counters sell dry produce, but there are no aisles for selecting different brands of goods from the shelf.  Products are generic.  I watch with fascination as an employee scoops rice from a large sack into scales whilst the shopper looks on patiently.  The air inside has a warm aroma of grease wafting over from a small snack counter.  I can’t decide if it’s an enticing smell or not.  In this stark, fluorescent space, the ambience certainly isn’t urging me to eat.

In the absence of big, luminous shop signs or windows full of advertisements, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what you’re looking at.  In four days of walking around the city I only noticed one shoe shop.  It wasn’t like any I had ever seen before either.  Inside, functional-looking footwear sat encased within walls of antique wooden cabinets.  I wonder if this is what shopping was like for my grandparents in post-war Britain, with limited supplies and continued food rationing?  On the plus-side, living in a country virtually devoid of consumerism, must make life somewhat simpler.

The empty shoe shop

Almost all shopping is cash-based in Cuba.  Although, confusingly there are two versions of Cuban currency.  Local people spend the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is much cheaper than the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) reserved for visitors.  Unsurprisingly, as not all shops accept both currencies, this can result in diverging prices for a bottle of the same local rum.

Looking west from Central Havana towards Vedado

Outside another non-descript building a long queue has formed.  I ask our local guide Isbel about it when we take a tour with him the next day.   He explains that the people were waiting for the Cubacel branch – the national mobile phone network – to re-open after siesta, so they could purchase SIM cards, or top up mobile phone credit.  Although many people now own mobile phones, popular culture hasn’t fully embraced the internet in the same way it has elsewhere.  Internet has been spreading fast over recent years, with some wi-fi zones now dotted around city parks, but the web remains heavily censored and is not free.  The internet system seems to work much like the dual currency system.  On one-side sits a global internet, which we dial into using a [limited] access card for our hotel’s wi-fi.  This service is largely cost-prohibitive for most Cubans.  Then there is the local Cuban internet, which sounds more like an intranet.  It’s cheaper, but people pay the price through restrictions imposed by the government-owned communications companies.

A typical old town street corner

Something else beyond the reach for most people: those pristine American classic cars that you see in all the photos.  These Maquinas are almost entirely reserved for the tourism industry.  Acting as a regular taxi, they carry foreigners who – like us – revel in being pictured in them.  For such novelty a premium rate is charged.  Most locals cannot afford to even own a car, and for the few who do, they have generally been inherited for grandparents, who have passed them down through the generations.  This is because, since the dawn of Soviet Cuba, Cubans were prohibited from buying new cars.  Only a select few who did work for the government were given car permits.  This promotes a real make-do-and-mend culture.  But look under the bonnet of most of these vintage cars, joked Isbel, and you will be lucky to find anything original.  Even in todays market, buying a car from a state-run dealership will be financially out of reach for the majority of Cubans.  Instead, some city workers use a Colectivo.  It works as a kind of semi-private bus/car-pooling service, where typically old rusty rides ferry people between pre-determined collection points.  We witnessed this in a popular plaza – a black Lada pulled up to the curb, strangers piled in with virtually no interaction, and within seconds everyone had left looking very snug.  For workers who don’t own their own transportation, and are unable or unwilling to get on buses, this is the next best option.

A non-touristy Cuban ride
Kalalua (1 of 4)
Spot the tourist taxi

My basic understanding of how the Cuban economy came to be like this all comes from the background provided by Isbel.  By the early twentieth century, hundreds of years of Spanish rule had given way to a Cuban Republic.  This was great for the middle classes, who feasted off increasing trade with North America, and the growth of tourism.  But not everyone was fairing so well.  Widespread unrest led to the 1959 Communist Revolution, which landed Fidel Castro in power.  Trade embargoes from the west and nationalisation of privately-owned property and industries followed, hitting the economy hard.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost billions of dollars in subsidies, bringing the economy virtually to it’s knees.  I appreciate this is an abridged and overly simplified version of events, but you hopefully get the general idea.  Cuba is a product of it’s politics.  Isbel himself is a fine illustration of the socialist economy at work.  He is a qualified air traffic controller, yet conducts tours on the side to make enough money to feed his family.  With wages regulated by the government, highly-qualified vocations that command high renumeration in the free market, are not rewarded as such in Cuba.  If I take Isbel at his word, the food stamps provided from his day-job at the airport, provides enough food for 3 days.  Apparently one of the most in-demand jobs in Havana is that of a hotel bartender, because their cash tips can pass through the regime unreported.

I came away with conflicted views of what life in Cuba must be like.  On the surface it looks tough, choices are limited, and freedoms that I personally take for granted are restricted.  Yet,  I also witnessed many examples of a warm and vibrant Cuban culture.  In the dusty streets kids happily kick footballs, whilst couples of all ages dance salsa, and people gather on steps outside their buildings to share cheap street food and catch up on gossip.  The cityscape is buzzing.  After dark live Cuban music echos through the streets, and many locals take advantage of the cooler temperatures to go for a wander in one of the many squares.  The Parque Centralis a popular spot for men of an older generation, who banter animatedly over games of chess played on folded tables or perched on walls.  Many further social pursuits – like the cinema – are subsidised by the government to promote wide-spread access.  I see great joy in these sociable interactions.  Such simple pleasures are being squeezed by the growth of the online social media age in many countries.  I know that I don’t see my friends as often as I used to.

Salsa dancing on the street

Havana – and Cuba on the whole – is set to change dramatically over the next few years.  I visited when I did because I felt an urgent need to see the city before too much changes.  I only wish I could have travelled more extensively throughout the country.  It’s an intriguing place, a fusion of cultures and beauty, suspended somewhere between a time-capsule and the modern age.  Hopefully predictions of increased openness and growth will led to improvements in local living conditions, and an easing of cultural restrictions.  But I also hope change doesn’t erase the very fabric that makes Havana so unique.  If anyone is interested in experiencing the effects of such isolated development, I would urge you to visit someday soon.

A lady dressed as a traditional flower seller takes a break from selling photos with tourists


A final side note

The pictures shared here are a small edit of my full, overly-touristy shots.  My choice was certainly limited when it came to trying to illustrate the above words.  I am clearly not a photographer.  One thing that I lack in particular – apart from in-depth technical knowledge of a camera – is the ability to be completely unabashed about taking strangers pictures.  I find it intrusive.  There were lots of times during this trip when I would have liked to click away – such as watching the men playing board games in the park, or workers climbing over each other in the car-pool, but I just couldn’t bring myself to invade their privacy.  The irony is that these are the very type of image that I find myself captivated by – those capturing a moment of real life.

OK some truly touristy shots: inside the famous Hemingway haunt, the Floridita bar
Pretending to smoke cigars in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba