Murano Glass

I am not a Murano glass expert. I’ve only been on the island once, for 3 hours; and I’ve spent half the day today going around Canaregio, looking glass wares with claims that they have been created in the island of Murano. There’s a difference – easily recognizable – between a glass product created in Murano by virtuoso Murano artists and a glass product created by copycats. A glass product created in Murano has the stamp “Murano Glass”. Going further, a glass product created in Murano by virtuoso Murano artists has a “Vetro Artistico Murano” sticker on it.

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A “Vetro Artistico Murano” sticker on a wine stopper purchased on Murano

“Vetro Artistico Murano” is a Murano trademark and certifies that a product has been made on the island of Murano using traditional artistic methods born and developed over a thousand years in the island of Murano. It is a proof of origin provided by the Veneto Region in compliance with the law 70, passed on December 1994.

The second identifiable difference is the quality and design of the product. The more cliché and gaudy-looking a product is, the less the probability that is created by a virtuoso Murano artist. Take for example these wine bottle covers that we bought. One is certified “Vetro Artistico Murano” while the other was just created in Murano. Both we bought on the island of Murano. The one created by a virtuoso artist cost 3 EURs more than the one that isn’t. Before putting your mouse over the photos below, can you identify which is which?

Notice that the design on the left is something you see everywhere. This Murano glass was not created by a certified Murano glass artist. The design is common and one you would probably find in a mall outside Italy. Nevertheless, my eyes are drawn to it. I liked it so I bought it. I knew though, when I bought it, that it may have not been made using traditional Murano glass techniques. And that is fine.

So, let me leave you with this. Just because something is cheap(er) does not mean it is worth the buy, especially if you’re particular with handiwork, design and quality. Choose well! Not everything that glitters is gold. But just because something isn’t certified, does not mean it’s not worth the buy either. Buy what makes you happy, it’s yours anyways. 😉

April 05, 2017 | Venice, Italy

Un-Confusing Rome and Vatican City

If, like me, you have tried DIY-ing your trip to Rome and Vatican City, you will have discovered how utterly confusing everything is, not because of language (Google Translate!) or of unavailability of information (there is, in fact, too much online!), but because of this overwhelming feeling that there is not enough time to sort through everything – opening hours, skip-the-line, best times to visit, sunsets, sunrises (I spent 2 weeks planning Rome!). Not only are there so many things to see and do, there are also so many different (and not-so-different) tour packages to choose from.  My advice? If you don’t want to wade through the mess and you have the money to spare, book a tour and get it over and done with. Lots to choose from. Pick one. With a booked tour, you won’t need to bother with individuals marketing their tours to you (before and during your visit!). When you see the LONG, LONG lines, you will feel justified spending 25 – 40 EUR for a tour. If this is your choice of a Roman vacation, you’re good to go and this blog ends here. 😉 BUT – major BUT – if, like me, you don’t want to break the bank and end up spending 200 EUR in 2 days just for tours, then read on.

Tour packages (also known as third-party skip-the-line tickets) are usually relatively quite expensive (relative to buying the ticket from the source). An admission ticket to the Vatican Museum, for example, costs 16 EUR (+4 EUR online sales fee). But if you book it through a skip-the-line tour company, you’ll end up paying 26 – 30 EUR (+4 EUR online sales fee) for the exact same thing! So, why don’t people just buy directly from the source, i.e. online from the Vatican Museum? Because it’s confusing! And the source is usually not the first thing that appears when you do a Google search! Below are some tips for saving $$$ and making the most out of your Rome and Vatican City trip.

 

Commuting

If you have international roaming mobile phone data and Google Maps, you won’t have trouble finding your way in Rome and Vatican City. Public transportation tickets can be bought from kiosks near train stations and these tickets can be used for metros, trams, and busses. You can buy a one-way ticket (1.50 EUR), a 24-hour ticket (7.00 EUR), a 48-hour ticket (12.00 EUR) , a 72-hour ticket (18.00 EUR), a weekly ticket (24.00 EUR) or a monthly ticket (35.00 EUR). A one-way ticket is valid for 75 minutes, unlimited transfers. The first time you use your ticket, the machine stamps a date and a time on it, so you will know exactly when your ticket expires.

Admissions

Most sites have extremely long lines, so you will need to book in advance (maybe a week in advance) for the sites that you want to visit. When booking online, you will usually be charged an online sales fee of 4 – 6 EUR per person. That’s normal, don’t worry about it. Be very careful, however, that you are actually booking your tickets from the official website. It’s tricky. Many websites claim to be “official”, but they are not. Here’s a list of official sites from the places I’ve visited:

  • St. Peter’s Basilica

Church admission is free but dome admission is 5-7 EUR. The church is open from 7.00 – 17.00 (April – September) and 7.00 – 18.00 (October – March) while the dome is open from 8.00 – 16.00. The line for the church is LONG, and you might be tempted to get a 3rd part skip-the-line ticket. But if you have time and patience, fall in line after lunch, anytime from 1pm – 3pm. The line won’t be as long as the morning lines. I lined up at around 3pm and got in within 30 minutes. Once you get past security, head directly to the dome. You can explore the church at leisure after the dome. There are paid audio guides available inside the church, if you’re interested in that . 🙂

There are two options for the dome. You can either climb 551 steps for 5 EUR or take the lift and then climb 320 steps for 7 EUR. If you book a 3rd party skip-the-line ticket, you might be paying somewhere between 30 – 40 EUR.

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St. Peter’s Basilica. The long line is to my right (in the photo).

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Michelangelo’s Pietà. Do not miss this at St. Peter’s Basilica. When you enter the church, it will be on your right.

The Vatican Museum ticket can be booked online for 16 EUR (+4 EUR online sales fee) using the Vatican Museum link I provided above. It’s huge, so be very conscious of how you are spending your time. You can spend an entire day in the museum and not run out of things to see. If, however, you’re mainly there see the Sistine Chapel, be aware that the Sistine Chapel is near the end of the museum tour route. And, if I were to be perfectly honest, the only interesting thing after the Sistine Chapel is the relic of the true cross.

The Vatican Museum has an audio guide for 7 EUR. They don’t provide earphones, so if you don’t want to hold the audio guide right next to your ear all the time, make sure to bring your own earphones. TIP: the audio guide has two earphone jack outlets, so if you have two sets of earphones, you can share the guide with a family member or friend. 🙂

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The famous spiral staircase. You’ll see this when you exit the museum.

  • Papal Audience

Getting an audience with the pope is free, but you will have to book a ticket in advance. To do so, you can call +39 06 6988 3114 and +39 06 6988 4631, or fax +39 06 6988 5863. The office of the Prefecture of the Papal Household, which is in charge of issuing tickets, is open from 9.00 – 13.00 on Mondays and 9.00 – 18.00 on Tuesdays. My advice: call. Load up your Skype account and call, because if you don’t a 3rd party skip-the-line ticket will cost you 25 – 30 EUR.

There is only one ticket for the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill. Tickets cost 12 EUR (+2 EUR online sales fee) and are valid for 2 days (but you can only enter each place once). You can book the tickets online using the link I provided above. Every first Sunday of the month, admission is free and is on a first come, first served basis.

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Roman Colosseum

  • Pantheon

The Pantheon admission is free, and is open from 9.00 – 18.30 from Monday to Saturday and from 9.00 – 13.00 on Sunday. DO NOT book a skip-the-line ticket. First, because it’s free. Second, because there really isn’t much of a line and the line moves fast. Third, because there’s really not much to see inside. Inside is a big dome and several chapels. If you’re looking to book something, maybe a guided tour of the Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, and Forum would be money better spent than a skip-the-line ticket.

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Entrance is free and is on the right (when facing building).

  • Basilica of St. John Lateran

Although this is the papal seat, it’s not as famous as St. Peter’s Basilica. There is no line. Do not buy a ticket whatsoever, unless you want a guided tour. Near the Basilica of St. John Lateran are the Holy Steps, the steps Jesus used when he was brought to face Pontius Pilate. Admission is also free. If you want to go up the stairs, you have to ascend it on your knees.

Basilica of St. John Lateran is open daily from 7.00 – 19.00 during the summer and 7.00 to 18.00 in the winter. The Holy Stairs is open daily from 6.30 – 19.00 during the summer and 6.30 to 18.30 during the winter. It’s good to visit it early though because sometimes they close early for one reason or the other.

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Facade of the Basilica of St. John Lateran

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Holy Steps

 Eating

It’s hard to go wrong with food in Italy. Eat as much as you can! And try out as many new things as possible. But be careful. My Italian friend warned me to never eat at trattorias and osterias in the city because they’re usually tourist traps. And many of them are! On my first day in Italy (not in Rome), I decided to not follow my friend’s advice and eat at a trattoria. I ended up paying a whopping 50 EUR for an antipasto, 2 primi and a 1/2 liter of wine. If I ate like this everyday for 10 days, I’d be broke before my Italian holiday finished!

A sandwich usually costs 5 – 8 EUR and would definitely fill you up for lunch. *yes, I know Asian friends, no rice for lunch* An entire pizza usually costs 6-10 EUR. You should definitely eat a pizza in Rome, at least once. Order the basic, traditional pizza – the Margherita – and you won’t regret it. Plus, since it’s basic, it’ll be the cheapest pizza on the menu. 😉 If you’re into the slow-food movement, drop by Eataly and learn where your food is from. For local food places that won’t break the bank, try Podere Rosa (outskirts of Rome), Franchi Gastronomia (walking distance from Vatican City), and Ristorante Colosseo Luzzi (near the Colosseum). A meal from these food places costs 5 – 8 EUR. Podere Rosa is a pizza place but also serves other Italian dishes. Franchi Gastronomia is a small corner shop that has food items you can point at and order. You can also have them make you a sandwich. Ristorante Coloseo Luzzi is a sit-down restaurant that serves all kinds of Italian food – pasta, pizza, etc.

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A Margherita. 🙂

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Make your own sandwich at Franchi Gastronomia

When you eat at sit-down places, the waiter will keep asking you if you want to order natural water. Don’t order it. It’s expensive. Always bring with you a water bottle filled with water. Italian water from the tap is drinkable. When asked what to order, order wine instead. Wine is just as costly (sometimes even cheaper) than water, and oh boy, it is soooo good! 🙂 Ordering wine in Italy is a bit weird though. I’m used to ordering wine by the glass, but in Italy, you order by the volume: 1/4, 1/2, or 1 liter. A 1/4 liter of wine is enough for two people who are not used to drinking wine all the time with their meals. 1/2 makes for a more happier shared wine. Take note, restaurants usually levy a 3 – 5 EUR service charge per person. And of course, you are not obliged to tip. In fact, don’t tip at all.

I hope I’ve un-confused Rome and Vatican City. If you have any questions, feel free to write a note or comment below. Enjoy your vacation! 🙂

April 9, 2017 | Rome, Italy

Bergen Survival Tips

Late last month to early this month, I went on a trip to Bergen, Noway for a conference (you can check out my posts on Bergen here, here and here). And here are some of the things I learned from my recent trip to Bergen:

  1. It pays to do research before boarding a plane to a city you are not familiar with. A lot of people, myself included, put too much trust on Google Maps and smart phone data to help me find the way. Traveling from Bergen Airport to wherever your Bergen hotel is, however, one of the instances where the smart phone data/Google Maps fail. According to Google Maps, there are no public transportation available; so it recommends taking a renting a car, taking a cab, or walking. Online research, however, shows that an airport shuttle exists. And, if you flew SAS, an SAS shuttle for cheaper is also available. You can check out details for Flybussen here. If you download the Flybussen app, you can get your tickets for cheaper. Round trip tickets are also cheaper than one way tickets. If you have an international student card or a senior citizen card, you can get a discount.
  2. In fact, unless you’re driving or walking, skip Google Maps altogether. A guide to Bergen’s public transportation can be found here. When you click on “Timetables and Maps”, you can input your origin and destination and find the timetables for busses.
  3. IT RAINS IN BERGEN! 200 days in a year, according to rumors. And when it rains, it pours. So bring a sturdy rain jacket. Bring umbrellas too (even when Norwegians in Bergen do not use umbrellas!). And make sure you packed your rain boots. Bergen is pretty up north; wind-chill factor + getting rained on is definitely, definitely, definitely not ideal.
  4. According to Trip Advisor, there are only 5 cheap awesome places to eat in Bergen. I’ve checked out three of these places and two of the three I checked out were not cheap at all! So if you’re on a budget, I recommend going to Inside Burger Rock Café (@ Vaskerelvsmauet 7, 5014 Bergen). It’s average Scandinavian food price, at least for someone who has lived in Copenhagen for 11 months.
  5. If you’re from Scandinavia, this last tip will not work for you; but if you’re not, hooray! Non-Scandinavian citizens can get tax rebates. So if by any chance you buy yourself a Norwegian rain jacket or a woolen blanket, fear not and ask the the saleslady if you can get tax rebates. You’ll have to hand-carry your item (or have them checked before checking them in; the person checking in should make some sort of mark on your receipt that the item has been checked in) because they usually look for it before giving you the rebate. I got a $22.41 rebate from a woolen Norwegian blanket. It helps make the shopping spree less guilt-inducing.

September 25, 2016 | Copenhagen, Denmark

The Temptation of Cheap

I was searching for cheap flights to Morocco and Turkey to join a couple of friends who were vacationing in October. While doing so, I made the mistake of checking RyanAir, knowing fully well that RyanAir does not offer tickets as far into the future as October. I was in shopping mode, so what the heck. One of the reasons I took a job in Copenhagen was because I wanted to be in Europe for travel, so travel I must. If my wallet can afford it.

Not surprisingly, I saw a 36 DKK (6 USD) one-way ticket to Stockholm. Having never seen a flight this cheap before – well, ok, except for the 1 PHP flights that CebuPacific used to have, which did not last long enough for me to avail -, I decided to book a weekend trip from Copenhagen to Stockholm Skavsta and back. The catch? Stockholm Skavsta is not the nearest airport to Stockholm City!  Bromma Stockolm Airport and Arlanda Airport are closer. And it takes 159 SEK and 2 hours by bus – Flygbussarna Airport Coaches – to get from the airport to the city!!! But, I reasoned to myself, it was the weekend, my flight was early in the afternoon and I was not in a hurry. I can handle a 2-hour bus ride.

I have never ridden RyanAir before, and I have heard horror stories about how terrible the service is. A colleague told me that they don’t even serve water for free. Another colleague reasoned that if the flight was as cheap as this, chances were high for a rickety plane and a substandard pilot. I felt like a cold bucket of water was being poured over me, and I wanted to back out and get a refund for my 36 DKK. But then, I realized that I will never get anywhere if I let the fear of the unknown rule my life. I have not heard of RyanAir flights crashing or suddenly disappearing from tower radars. So I rallied every little drop of bravery and asked the opinion of yet another colleague. This colleague used to date a RyanAir pilot and used to frequently fly RyanAir from Copenhagen to London. According to her, RyanAir pilots are trained much better than other pilots in Europe; and because the airline is a cheap flight, no-frills airline, they follow regulations to the dot for fear of being completely shut down. This alleviated my fear of dying from a RyanAir flight a bit but also left me at a limbo. Do I still fly; and what on earth I am going to do there when I get there, if I get there?

Come March 05, I flew. I booked a cheap hotel near the city center, searched for ways to get from airport to city center, “starred” all places I wanted to visit in Stockholm, and printed my RyanAir boarding pass (I was told there was a huge fine at the airport for not printing it yourself). Come what may. This was going to be one great adventure!

So, off I went. Airport, security check, a long walk to my boarding gate, a long line to boarding, a boarding gate with hardly any seats, and then onboard a fairly nice looking plane. The RyanAir staff were all very professional; I did not bother asking for water. Everything was going great.

Until landing.

The skies were gray. The pilot tried landing the plane 3 times, the plane shook hard, and through the speakers, the pilot informed us that he could not land the plane because visual was difficult. We flew overhead the airport for an hour until the pilot decided that instead of landing at Stockholm Skavsta, we’ll land at the further Norrköping Airport instead. Crap! This was not something I foresaw. To make things worse, I did not exactly know how to get from Norrköping to Stockholm city center. My phone was also running low on batt, and there were no charging stations onboard! I toyed with the idea of making friends with fellow passengers, asking if they have portable cellphone chargers, and following them around — maybe secretly –, hoping they were going to the same place I was.

My paranoid musings of being left in the middle of nowhere without GPS access was cut short by an announcement from the flight stewardess. To make up for the inconvenience, the airline was providing everyone with a coach from Norrköpping to Skavsta. The 40-minute coach ride basically ruined my plans of a late afternoon walk at Gamla Stan and dinner at one of the quaint cafés there, but – what the hell -, it’s free and it’ll get me where I want to be without much worry. By the time I got to my hotel, the longer than expected flying time, a bus ride that totaled 3 hours, a couple of unexpected rushing and running, a migraine, and a forced withdrawal from cellphone use left me nothing but pure exhaustion. I was so tired that all I wanted to do was have a hot shower and a big mac burger from the closest McDonald’s store.

I stayed at Alexandra Hotel, one of the cheaper hotels that Expedia offered. I specifically chose it because, according to Expedia, the hotel rate included a breakfast buffet. And being the grumpy late morning riser that I am, not having to worry about my first meal of the day seemed like a good plan. Unfortunately, when I checked in, I was told that breakfast cost an additional 50 SEK. Thoroughly exhausted from my unexpected flight adventure, I decided to not make an issue of it even after the hotel staff told me that it was a fairly new hotel policy. Now, looking back, I should have argued and brought up the point that an additional payment for breakfast was not the package I signed up for. But I didn’t, I paid 50 SEK, rushed to my room for my well-deserved shower, and silently fumed.

Come morning. Breakfast was disappointing. The options at a nearby 7/11 store were so much better; so I did just that the morning after. At the very least, I learned my breakfast lesson. And more lessons: comfort comes at a price; and more often than not, you get what you paid for. True, I saved money; but I lost time — time I could have used to have more fun in Stockholm.

My flight back to Copenhagen was two days after, at 7am. It was the same far away airport.  I decided to miss it. The night before my flight back, I went online and bought a rail ticket to Copenhagen. This meant that I would not have to spend 2 hours on a bus ride to Stockholm Skavsta, which implied longer sleep hours. Yipee!!! I even got work done during the 6-hour train ride and arrived at Copenhagen feeling like I had a good vacation. The rail ticket was, of course, extremely costlier than my 6 USD flight, but I think it was money well spent.

There is a lesson here somewhere. I had a great time in Sweden’s capital and revisiting is definitely at the top of my list. But when I do revisit, I should do a better cost-benefit analysis and spend more time researching. I should also learn to resist the immediacy of a “today-only” flight sale.

Noted by self.

Until then.

August 20, 2016 | Copenhagen, Denmark