Travelling over Christmas – Here’s an Idea–Attend Christmas Mass

Berliner Dom

Christmas Mass at the Berliner Dom

Christmas is about food, friends, presents and just plan old excess living–right?

No? But that is how most people celebrating Christmas will structure their day while barely acknowledging the birth of an extraordinary man–Christians, Muslims and Jews can at least agree on this fact–over 2000 years ago.

Now you nay not be inclined to attend Christmas Mass at home but on the road it is an opportunity for a unique experience of the local culture.

Whether you sit with the faithful in the grandeur of Westminster Abbey or in a small local church, it will enrich your Christmas travel regardless of your own faith or beliefs. It is a great time to meet and interact with the locals who will be brimming with Christmas joy, and they may just invite you to a meal.


Improve your Travel Experience with a Personal Guide

Florentine Artisan

Florentine Artisan at work

Independent travellers create their own itinerary, choosing where to go and what to see with the freedom to make changes if something unexpected occurs or the weather is bad. This also means that we use guide books or recorded walking tours to provide most of the back story for everywhere we go across the earth travelscape. This often means we get a superficial experience, we know it was beautiful but not why they built it, what happened to them or how it relates to our modern world.

How can we enrich our travels?

Use a personal guide.

By choosing independent travel, we forsake the ever present tour group guide but that does not mean we never want or need a guide while we travel. For our adventures I am the guide, assembling the information that will inform most of our journey but I need help, and one effective way is to hire a personal guide. In Venice we learned that as the nouveau-riche started to build their grand houses, the established aristocracy felt they had to outstrip their splendour. These, and other grand gestures and excesses, led them to impoverishment and in many cases the families no longer exist. They bred themselves out of existence. It is an insight that I would not have found in the general history themes that I studied for our trip.

A personal guide is also a local who can give you insights or advice that get lead you to other experiences. We had two great meals in Venice at restaurants recommended by our local guide, and bought a beautiful etching whilst on a guided artisan workshop tour in Florence.

How to pick a guide.

Whether you want a general overview tour or to explore a specific aspect of your destination, these guidelines will help you select the right guide for you:

  • Establish how much to spend on guides in your travel budget.
  • Find a well-established individual guide or company. How long have they been in business, and what qualifications and affiliations do have in your destination.
  • Pick a guide who has specialist knowledge in your area of interest. Many academics act as guides to supplement their income but a passionate amateur historian or a local artist may also be the answer to your need.
  • Read and understand their payment and refund policies, and decide whether to book ahead or wait until you get to the destination.
  • Look for recommendations and positive reviews on sites like Trip Advisor and in your guide book. Check travel forums and friends for recommendations but always cross check in different sources.

How much will a guide cost?

We took several personal guided tours in Italy, costing as little as US$70 each (2-3 hours) to several hundred dollars for an extensive day tour in Venice. Each guide took us deeper into Italian culture and history than our previous visits. For $70+ each, we took part in small group (no more than six people) tours with docents (academics) from Context Travel. In Venice, we engaged Venicescapes to take us deep into the decadence of Venice’s decline and open doors to rarely seen spaces and little understood history. This cost over US$400 for two people, and proved intellectually challenging but we now see Venice as more than a beautiful photo opportunity. (Watch for my Venicescapes review in the future.)

Depending on the length of your stay, one or two tours is usually enough for any one city especially if you are seeking out intellectually challenging guides. Knowledge is great but it is a vacation, and sometimes you just want a coffee while you watch the daily interplay of people.

Final thoughts

There are numerous options to get a general feel for your latest destination; walking tours, hop-on hop-off buses and your guide book will provide the basics so spend your money to go beyond the usual. Millions of people visit Venice but very few have seen inside an 18th century Venetian casino where the wealthy entertained small select groups. It is a memory I will cherish and a part of Venetian history that is alive in my mind rather than a dreary fact in a book.

A guide will take you places you never new existed, give you new insights and for that they are worth considering for your next adventure.


How I got my Wife to a Doctor in Venice

Venice's Hospital (Ospedale) Photo by Currybet via Flickr (Some Rights Reserved.)

My wife had been fighting a urinary infection since we left home, and the antibiotics had run out and she needed to see a doctor for another prescription. So we were winding through the back alleys and canals of Venice towards the hospital, hoping that someone knew enough English to understand her problem.

A good map is essential in Venice, and despite her misgivings I navigated through ‘seldom seen by tourists’ Venice to get my wife to the Emergency Room at the hospital.

We got our first break when the young nurse at reception spoke English well enough for us to clearly communicate her problem. We filled in a form, and took a seat in the waiting area.

A steady stream of injured and sick people, tourists and locals, arrived with the usual assortment of aliments and injuries and most more serious than a simple infection. So we waited patiently as those in need pushed us down the waiting list. Nothing unusual, and typical of any hospital emergency room at home or abroad.

When we got called into the see a doctor, he asked a few standard questions in stilted English and then said, ‘You see specialist?’

‘No’, my wife replied, and immediately a look of confusion appeared on the doctor’s face.

‘You see specialist?’ he repeated.

My wife tried to explain that she had only seen her GP, and not a specialist.

‘You need urinary specialist’, the doctor said frustrated by the language barrier and it finally clicked for me. He wanted to send my wife to their specialist, and her refusal understandably bewildered him. Having resolved that issue, he had us escorted to the specialist who thankfully spoke enough English to avoid further confusion. Thirty minutes latter we headed back to the emergency room to get a prescription and settle our bill.

The nurse gave us our bill, and directed us to a machine in the hall where we paid by credit card (it also took cash), and returned the receipt to collect the prescription. Total cost after filling the prescription, €57.00, extremely cheap by any standard. Latter I discovered that Italy and Australia are signatories to a reciprocal health care agreement which covers travellers for up to six months from their date of arrival in Italy. This helped to defray our costs but I should have known about it prior to departure to ensure we did not over pay in an emergency.

Italy’s health system worked fantastically for my wife, friendly and helpful despite our language difficulties and surprisingly inexpensive. We learnt two critical lessons:

  1. Be better prepared by checking all the information on the Smart Traveller website before a trip. (For US citizens, check the State Department Travel site. Other countries have similar information available.)
  2. Ensure your phrase book covers likely situations, ours failed to provide any useful words for this common aliment.

Share your health care experiences in the comments or our discussion forum on Facebook.


Travel as a Political Act

An interesting interview with Rick Steves during a recent visit to New York that introduces his new book Travel as a Political Act. It should be an interesting read for every traveller who likes to be challenged.


Australia’s Capital Treasures – Australian War Memorial

_MG_3801Each year on April 25th, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders head to the World War One battlefields of France, Belgium and most importantly Gallipoli (Turkey) to remember the sacrifice of our young soldiers during that horrific conflict. ANZAC Day is a poignant day of remembrance for all Aussies and Kiwis, the one day we step out of our self-indulgence to honour our past.

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) houses three great national treasures:

  1. Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier.
  2. Artifacts from all conflicts that Australians fought in.
  3. Historical records, both official and personal, of those conflicts.Roll of Honour

The entrance to the AWM leads you past the Roll of Honour where the names of those who fell during conflict are inscribed to the domed hall that protects the Unknown Soldier. It is a place to reflect and quietly remember. On the walls, small red flowers are placed next to names of the fallen. These are poppies that grow freely on the battlefields of Europe and are used to remember the blood and sacrifice of those who fought there.

The Collection galleries display the relics of Australian military action throughout the world from the Boer War to Afghanistan and Iraq. Kids tend to marvel at the technology, the Lancaster bomber (G for George) or the armoured vehicles but for me the most memorial items are more personal. The flying boot ripped open by a Viet Cong bullet that entered the floor of the pilot’s helicopter or a bayonet similar to ones used by the Light Horse to charge Beersheba. Visitors should also take time in the Hall of Valour to read the accounts of soldiers, sailors and airman awarded Australia’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross (each simply inscribed For Valour). Reading these accounts I am constantly amazed at what people will do to save their mates on the battlefield.

The Australian War Memorial is open daily from 10am to 5pm (except Christmas Day) and entry is free (Donations are requested to help maintain the exhibits). Plan to spend at least two hours to truly appreciate the collections and for first time visitors, the free guided tours are great starting point for your discovery of Australian military history. Photography is permitted but without flash or tripods.

Related Posts:

Travel Photographs-Australian War Memorial

Visiting the Somme Battlefields