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Summer changes

If you have been following my blog for a while, you will know that the dates of the Eid al Fitr holidays which follow Ramadan are as erratic as an egg rolling on a billiard table. See my last blog for the uncertainty over the actual date Eid started, and then add the fact that the public holidays we are granted as employees of the Public Transport Authority differ in length every year. The statutory minimum length seems to be three days but this can be extended to employees of the Crown, or to citizens in general by a random number of days by His Majesty. As and when this is done, it is announced at the last minute, usually during the initial days of the holiday. This might be fine for the native Saudis who can have a few more days at home with kith and kin and enjoy the anticipated but not guaranteed time, but for ex-pats such as myself who value every minute we can escape the blazing summer heat this proves a logistical challenge. So we booked ourselves a week in Italy, but bought the flights with more expensive flexible tickets. Likewise we booked the hotels at our destinations in two tranches and the second one with a late cancellation option. But, fortune smiled upon us and we were able to take the full week off and enjoy our holiday as planned.

We flew overnight to Venice via Dubai (there are no direct flights from Riyadh to Italy), and took the waterbus from the airport to St Mark’s Square. The journey took about an hour, but surely on a calm day it must be one of the most relaxing airport transfers anywhere. We had booked three nights in a ‘character’ hotel set five minutes’ walk from the square. We have visited Venice a few times before, but on every occasion as day-tourists arriving by train in the morning and departing in the evening, which had made the visits a mad dash around the major sights and little time to enjoy some of the lesser known but equally interesting areas or venues. So on day one we checked in and went out for a leisurely walk around the area, browsing all sorts of interesting but expensive shops and eventually having a relaxed dinner on a backstreet restaurant away from the madding crowds. On the way back to the hotel we decided to splash out and have a cup of coffee in St Mark’s Square. This was no ordinary coffee, sitting at an outdoors café in the piazza listening to the café’s own five-piece orchestra. There were perhaps four such cafes scattered around the square, each with their own musicians, all of which comprised of piano, violin, double bass, accordion and clarinet. Venetian quintets? The music was all popular classics and easy listening. I hope they were paid well, and with the coffees being Eu15.00 each they should be.

On day two, we took the vaporetto to Murano, the island in the lagoon famed for its glass making. This time with hours to browse and choose, (and importantly, barter – a skill honed in the middle east) we bought ourselves a nice souvenir glass ornament. Next, onto the further distant island of Burano, known for its colourful houses and lace-making, but visited only by 10% of the tourists who come to Venice. Amongst the unbelievably photogenic canal-side houses stands a leaning church tower that has a tilt of 1.8m and this - according to an unscientific website - means it is at the same angle off true as the better known tower in Pisa. After a good wander about Burano we hopped over to nearby Torcello, an island given over to agriculture and with plenty of rural walks, the epicentre of interest being the ancient church with parts dating back to the 7th century when this island was the centre of the Byzantine-Venetian power in pre-Renaissance times. Returning towards the main city, we stopped off for dinner at an inviting-looking restaurant we had seen at Mazzorbo, near to Burano. A lovely day out.DSC_0132JPG



The next day was a visit to the old Jewish ghetto of Venice, and the fascinating museum dedicated to Jewish life in the Veneto province. Not to be confused with the infamous ghetti of Berlin or Warsaw, this was not a second world war hell-hole, but was a place where Jewish people in the 16th to 18th centuries were required to live. The word ‘ghetto’ originated here in Venice we heard, being the old Italian word for foundry and this was the previous use of that particular parcel of land. Next up was a journey on the latest addition to Venice’s transport network, a peculiar ‘people-mover’ operating between the Piazzale Roma and the park-and-ride car park via the cruise terminal port. This is in fact a funicular railway, with two rubber-tyred trains (with horizonal guide wheels) connected to a cable loop, passing at the midway station. It was built by the Austrian Doppelmayer company, best known for their cable cars and other aerial ropeways and here in Venice on a predominantly level route it is a strange transport solution indeed.



Horizontal funicular

But the big treat of the day was a trip to the Gran Teatro de Fenice, the old opera house in the city. The show we had booked was a local brass ensemble playing a selection of John Williams’ film score music. All very enjoyable. The theatre name is very apposite, built in 1774 the Phoenix has burnt down and been rebuilt three times since then. 


La Fenice - interior

This was easy walking distance back to the San Marco Palace hotel. This establishment is certainly unusual. The front door is on one of the streets in the city near St Marks Square, but the dining rooms and bedrooms are scattered over a series of ancient town apartments tucked away behind it. Facilities vary from room to room, and ours was a very irregular shape, almost that of a letter J as the bathroom curved around the ancient creaky elevator. Random bits of furniture occupied nooks and crannies, and the windows looked out over a courtyard. There was no kettle in the room for making tea and coffee, and I was told that this was because they were “dangerous”, but was then offered an open jug of boiling water to take from the downstairs cafe up to the room. Hmmm. Next, when I wanted to iron a shirt, I was told that irons were also dangerous, but the hotel offered a laundry service and I could leave items and collect them the following afternoon - not much use for a freshen-up before the theatre then. But the staff were delightful and it was quite refreshing to find such building idiosyncrasies compared to the bland modern hotels found coast to coast in Saudi.

After three nights in Venice it was off to Lake Garda for four nights. We took the train from Venezia Santa Lucia station across the causeway and inland to Verona, changing there for Desenzano del Garda and thence (sharing a taxi with two delightful Icelandic grannies) to Sirmione. This is a fortified town on a peninsula at the southern end of the lake. Here we had a more relaxing time with some nice walks, and a couple of excursions up the lake on the ‘steamer’ services. We visited Riva del Garda at the north end of the lake, and on another day Garda to the large local weekly market. Sirmione is certainly a tourist town and although it is traffic free from the castle northwards, hundreds of day trippers arrive by the coach at the park-and-walk, or by lake steamer. Nowhere have I ever seen such a concentration of ice cream shops, there were six substantial ones on the short main street alone. So, after a relaxing time it was back on the train to Venice Mestre and thence to the airport and back to Riyadh via Istanbul.


View from hotel bedroom in Sirmione. Unlike the steam-powered 'Waverley' at home, the 'Italia' is now diesel engined.

After a week back at work, it was time for our more organized summer holiday, 12 days in the UK. We had a week at home in Biggar, bookended by some days in London. Our time at home was spent catching up with family and friends, and getting the 101 tasks that come with owning a house dealt with. The London nights were in a Travelodge near Euston, handily central and entirely predictable in its facilities, kettles provided and irons permitted. Also electrically-powered was the Post Office railway (Mail Rail) train trip from the Postal Museum at Mount Pleasant. There is a battery-operated tourist train that runs through a circular route on the disused system under the streets of theh city. 

Mail railjpg

Postal Museum tourist train

Overall in London we managed a huge amount of entertainment, attending three music concerts at Wembley Stadium, and two west-end shows. All were excellent. In Saudi the General Authority for Entertainment is pushing the boundaries back steadily, with cinemas and live events increasing, but I can’t see the extremely funny ‘Book of Mormon’ getting past the censor. So, at the end of all that excitement, back to Saudi and back to work.

One of the facts of life of living in Saudi is the churn of people coming and going. May to July always sees an exodus of ex-pats who have come to the end of their contracts, kids have finished schools, or people who have just had enough of the place. There are others who go home for a long summer break and just don’t reappear. So friendships with other ex-pats can be quite transient. That’s one of the things I quite like about living here, it is so easy to make new friendships as most people realise this situation, and the ex-pat community is a minority and we tend to look out for and support each other. So different from at home in the UK where new friends are rare commodities and people are more cautious of strangers. But here there is the regular series of minor losses with friends moving away. On the positive side, we now have a world-wide network of friends who we can (theoretically) call in and visit. But this time we have an American friend who was a teacher at one of the schools in Riyadh who has had enough of the Saudi system and has moved to teach in Iraq. Now that’s brave, and our best wishes to her. Don’t think we’ll be popping in there for a weekend visit anytime soon!

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212