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EuroTour Italy

We began our trip on March 20, 2001 flying from Boston’s Logan thru London’s Heathrow airport and then onto Munich, Germany. The flights were uneventful except we arrived at Heathrow an hour late so making the Terminal-4 to Terminal-1 Munich connection became a challenge. We made it, but only one of our four bags did. However, by the time we picked up our rental car the next British Air flight came in with the remainder of our luggage and we were off without much of a delay. This year our first nite was in Castelrotto, a charming medieval town in the Dolomite Mountain Range about 25 km South of Bressanone and 10 km into the foothills of these stunning mountains. The Hotel Cavallino d’Oro was wonderfully cozy and decorated with typical Tyrolean wood throughout and served us well as a base to explore these magnificent mountains for the next two days despite our language inadequacies. German is spoken widely in this area as it was not formally part of Italy until after the “Great War” in 1918.

Unlike the Alps, the Dolomites were raised from the sea and therefore have pinkish hue from the coral. Many world-class ski resorts abound in the area and the World Cup downhill ski championships will be held in nearby Corvara in the winter of 2001. We chose to do the “tour of the passes” and see all sides of the Gruppo di Sella range (3,152 meters) and drove through the Sella, Pordi, and Camolongo until the last section of the Gardenal pass was closed because of snow and we had to backtrack. During the non-winter months hiking is a well-rewarded activity as there are plenty of trails to view the wildlife and flowering trees. Market day in Castelrotto woke us the first morning and after a hearty breakfast we ventured out to see what was offered. These markets are held in small towns on various days of the week throughout the region and are great places to mingle with the locals and shop for unique gifts not found in typical souvenir stores. This year, I couldn’t resist a leather blazer which I managed to negotiate down 50,000 Lira and they even took Visa!

Our next stop was Milano which was to be our base for day trips to the Lakes Region. We were given a weeks stay at the Marriott there for purchasing a time-share in Boston and couldn’t resist the “bargain”. Milano is a bustling city but we found that outside the shopping, the unusual Duomo, and La Scala, it wasn’t a particularly interesting or attractive city and were happy to leave after six nights.

Be warned, even the most avid Italian opera fans rarely attend performances at the constantly sold-out La Scala. We were fortunate enough to buy tickets to the Philharmonia del La Scala but that was extraordinarily complex as well. What season ticket holders hadn’t already bought went on sale the day of the performance at 7am at the box office around the corner from the hallowed hall.

After that, any remaining tickets would be made available on a first come basis at noon. Opting not to get up and hassle with pre-rush hour traffic we decided to take our chances and see if there would be any seats available at 6pm when we were told any unsold tickets would then be made public. Day tripping to Lake Como, an hour’s drive from the hotel via the AutoStrada, was a great choice in case we wanted to come back for the concert. Brilliantly warm for that part of the year, the stunning, white-capped Alps clung to the lake as we drove leisurely around in our black Lexus IS shooting photo after photo after photo.

Stopping for lunch in Bellagio, which is midway up the Eastern side and a quaint, not overly touristy town was a good choice. There, lake running ferries dock and a series of hotels and eateries offer the local fish which of course we couldn’t resist. When it started to become overcast, then rain, our evening plan was set and we hurried back to Milano, arriving at La Scala right at 6pm. There were no tickets left but we did manage to buy two on the street at a slightly marked-up rate, we were set! Appetizers at a nearby bar were delicious and the performance and acoustics marvelous. We discovered that in Milano, beginning around 5pm, the bars in the area of the Duomo and La Scala serve a delicious assortment of crackers, cheese, olives, potato chips and nuts with drinks. We couldn’t determine what this was called and every bar varied it slightly, but what a treat for just the price of a glass of wine and crodino!

Another of our day trips was to Verona, a 2-hour drive, to meet some friends whom we met at a wedding in Slovakia last year. They gave us the Grand tour starting with their lovely apartment overlooking the Vento hills. We met their poodle Vikki, for the first time, and she politely accompanied us the entire day. After a wonderful Napoli pizza in the square (one must enjoy the strong anchovy flavor combined with capers to appreciate it) we toured the ancient amphitheatre.

This is the third largest Roman amphitheatre in existence and is marvelously kept. The opera (without amplification) and even rock concerts are performed there in the summer. The Roman acoustics are that great. Being a surveyor I noticed some settlement monitoring points; the structure is being studied for it’s movement, or lack thereof hopefully, and there is quite a network of points established. Walking the streets of Verona, one wonders why anyone would shop in Milano. All the exquisite shops, clothes and prices are here but with a much calmer air and in a beautiful setting. Remnants of Roman roads, the portal to the city, the Jewish ghetto and many other historical and beautiful sights meet you at every turn of the old city.

Each square yielded another beautiful public sculpture and finally we arrived at the romantic house of Julliet. The bronzed sculpture of her shone in the afternoon sun, especially on the place where legend has it your luck or love is best, her right breast. Overlooking this idyllic courtyard is the famous balcony, “wherefore art thou…..” Our friends didn’t stop the tour with a close-up view of the wonderful city, but took us also to the Castelvecchio and to the hills overlooking the Adige River to see it’s splendid vista. No wonder they want to become naturalized and purchase a home here. They moved for work, but have fallen in love with the culture and of course the food and wine.

Dinner on Lake Garda at a family-run restaurant they knew was next on the agenda. Lazise becomes overcrowded in the summer with tourists and locals alike but this evening it was simply charming. “One of each” became our motto for the evening meal as our fluent friends were able to select pieces from several of the menu’s appetizers and courses to provide us with a selection of the lake’s fish and local grilled vegetables. Ah, to speak the language so people understand you. Maybe to control our appetites, we’d better not learn so well. Bidding farewell, to go our separate ways, us to the AutoStrada and them to Verona, we hugged, double kissed, and wondered when we would ever be able to return the graciousness they so easily extended.

The following morning we awoke to COLD water. This was a Marriott, but it was still not without surprises. There was no air conditioning in the rooms and my laptop’s modem was rendered obsolete with their phone line. I had used this and other laptops in Italy and on the continent before and had never had that happen. Their “internet” service was also very confusing (and unreliable) so I resigned myself to three weeks without email and depended on my European cell phone alone to stay in touch with my office back in Boston.

Another easy day trip from Milano is to Lake Maggiori.

We drove to Stressa, then around to the West this time. We caught a boat to Isola Pescatori and Isola Bella at one of the many docks and enjoyed a delightful day there. These are lovely settings and on Bella there is a museum and gardens which are tourable. At this time of year we didn’t think they would be in bloom, so we ate, shopped and shot photos on the beach instead. Marcia found a stunning wool cape, and we picked up a few souvenirs for family and friends back home.

Our last day trip out of Milano was the most disappointing. Ever grateful for the sunny weather we had been enjoying, we finally came upon more traditional Spring. It rained, kept raining, and then rained some more. We drove to Lodi in search of the medieval town, which eluded us, then on to Pavia to see the Ponte Coperto, a Renaissance covered bridge with a consecrated church in the middle re-built after WW-II. There we did some more shopping, and of course eating, and stumbled on the restoration of the Duomo in progress. O

ur limited Italian and, as Marcia calls them, my “puppy eyes” got us inside the Leonardo da Vinci edifice where Charlemagne was coronated to see the work in progress! Stopping at Certosa di Pavia only to find it closed despite the guidebooks advise on open times, capped the rather dreary day. We decided that if it were still raining the next day we’d stop again to tour it and hope that the weather for the drive to the coast after that would clear.

The incredibly ornate Renaissance (14th to 17th century) Carthusian monastery has been run by Cistercians monks since 1947. What an enjoyable display of serenity it was despite the noisy school groups clamoring about. The choir stalls are intricately detailed inlaid wood and one can almost hear the monks chanting from the cells that surround the cloister.

Then off to the Riviera we drove. Looking at the map we assumed it was a 3-hour drive by AutoStrada. Making our usual pit stop for espresso and to use the tip-required bathrooms we were approached by vendors selling cell phones, gems, and gold, a usual practice we would soon learn. The road soon turned from six lanes into four. Then the terrain became mountainous and the design speeds of about 100km amazingly slowed down even the most aggressive Italian drivers. The last 75km took almost 2-hours alone. When we reached the coast we decided on lunch first (smile), then Portofino.

The town was not too crowded on this overcast and early Spring day. What a CUTE village, but in the Summer you need to take a bus from remote parking and even now we had to use a rather high-priced garage since there was such limited parking space available.

Heading toward our next stop we found paradise in Sestri Levante from a Karen Brown guide recommendation. The Hotel Helvita overlooks the sea with a private balcony, had free parking, and a wonderful buffet breakfast with unlimited espresso. Not only that, we could also walk to the train station for our next day’s adventure, the fabled Cinque Terre (Five Lands/Towns). Dinner that evening was delightful and solitary. How romantic to be seated facing the sea with the love of your life, candles and delicious fresh seafood.

The train proved an excellent choice over a boat trip to the five towns as it is quite efficient, runs frequently, and allows stopovers each way. All for a mere 9,000L each, about $4 US. One can also hike between the villages and we tried to check out which trail we would take. Disappointed in the most southeastern town, Riomaggiore which barely has a place to get coffee, we shot a few pics and hopped back on a train to what we thought would be the next town. Surprise! The train didn’t stop until the furthest northwest town, Monterosso al Mare where we then boarded another train to get back to Vernazza where we wanted to be. Finding it MUCH more attractive, we shot more film and found a delightful restaurant inside the tower of the town fort and VERY high on the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Refreshed, we hopped on the next train which took us to the middle town, Corniglia. From the train station it’s an UPHILL hike to the town where there were lovely views. There we even found a suitable bathroom for Marcia for the price of one limone filled glass shoe. This delicious digestive was typical throughout or trip, but never again did we find it bottled in such an adorable container. From there we decided to hike to Manarola which we were told was “about an hour’s walk.” When we were two-thirds of the way we came to a gate which was locked and we had to crawl under it. There had been hikers coming toward us and a few passing us, so how were we to know the trail was closed!?! There were many stunning views along the way to reward us for this infraction. We had made it to all five towns, hiked between two of the loveliest, had a wonderful lunch, bought a few souvenirs and of course shot LOTS of photos. What a great day despite the grey overcast and periodic drizzle.

Dinner that night was at a funky pizzeria and my “puppy eyes” came in handy again. The name of the place was “Le Croc” and they even had crocodile stoneware. The Grever family knows all about this tradition so Annetta has a surprise in store for her soon. Another wonderful day, nite, and breakfast and we reluctantly head Southeast for Tuscany. Along the road to the Northeast was the stunning Alpi Apvane mountain range and to the Southwest, the fertile plains abutting the Mediterranean. We stopped in Lucca, a completely walled city for you guessed it, lunch and photos. Lucca is one of many historic pedestrian-only towns, so be advised and park easily, cheaply, and safely a kilometer away and walk thru one of the several gates under the circular ramparts.

The St. Michel church is an incredible example of “pagan architecture” as it is referred to in many of the guidebooks with carvings of animals and non-religious figures all about it. The crucifix in the Duomo was believed in medieval times to have been carved at the time of Jesus’ death but is actually 13th century. The campanile (tower) next to the Duomo was begun in 1060 as part of the defense system for the town. Leaving Lucca, we set off for our Fattoria (farm) logging in the heart of Tuscany. Mistaking a recently refurbished farmhouse for our destination, as well as being tired and wanting to be “home,” we literally stumbled into a glass wall while leaving embarrassed that we had tried to check-in to the wrong place. “Three kilometers further,” they said and we finally found our home for the next four nights. They had upgraded us, THANK-goodness, and given us a unit with a kitchen. We had known it wasn’t a typical inn when we made our reservations but didn’t realize that they wouldn’t serve or have any arrangements for breakfast, not even espresso, without the kitchen!

It turned out to be a delightful place, more suitable however for weeklong stays with families in the late spring thru autumn in their full-sized apartments. It is an operating winery and some of the old stone farm buildings have been recently refurbished for these accommodations. Struggling to figure out the miniature gas stove and hot water faucets, we managed to dine on espresso, fruit, bread and cheese each morning prior to exploring Tuscany. Florence on Sunday was our next adventure. It seemed like a good idea since we would get into town without the normal workday traffic. What we didn’t plan on was a festival in the town between us and “Firenze” so we detoured around, sort of, to get there. Parking along the river, we were sun-drenched again. Marcia however had a flare up of an existing stomach problem that curtailed her enthusiasm for the public art which attacks you in Florence almost as aggressively as the crunch of tourists. We decided to try the Galleria dell’Accademia museum to get glimpse at the real David, but it was only open until 2pm and a brisk walk found us in a VERY long line at 1:45pm. With the warm sun and our growling tummies we convinced ourselves to forego the original and looked for a cafĂ© to enjoy a light lunch and spend the day outdoors. Be advised, the famous Uffizi museum is also an extremely difficult ticket to get and the tourist crunch in more popular months makes even walking the streets here a contact sport.

The baptistery shouldn’t be missed as the carved brass doors are a marvel. It was Michelangelo himself that called these “the gates of Paradise.”

The endlessly elaborate cathedral and it’s Brunelleschi herringbone brick dome (the largest dome in it’s day, 1463) was built entirely without scaffolding. The Baroque marble detail of the exterior of the Duomo and it’s frescoed ceiling are truly sights to behold as the many tourists attest even at this slow time of the year. No visit to Florence would be complete without a picture of David, real or ersatz. We found two replicas, this one was overlooking the city in the beautiful Piazzale Michelangelo Park.

The Ponte Vechhio was disappointing from a shopping standpoint with too many of the same “inexpensive” items in each store and crowds beyond belief even on this “slow” tourist day. Florence did have a hilite when we found a stunning leather jacket for Marcia at a mere 450,000L, about $215 US. Enough for one day, we left thinking we may get back depending on the weather and try again for the Baptistery and possibly a museum. Basking in the sun and admiring the wisteria, we walked along the Arno River with the ever-present purse and poster salesmen displaying their wares on the sidewalk. We were almost out of gas now since we hadn’t stopped since Sestri and looked to fill-up despite knowing that few stations are open on Sundays. We did however find a some that took cash which you feed into the pump like a bank machine but in 10,000L increments only. Pretty sophisticated, but why don’t they accept credit cards? Not wanting to spend our limited Lira that way we got on the AutoStrada and found an open station, queued with cars, but taking Visa.

The following day was sunny and warm so we decided on San Gimignano and the Tuscan countryside instead of returning to crowded Firenza. This is where the movie “Tea with Mussolini” was shot and is on our “must watch” list as soon as we get back to the States. Here we stumbled upon a “concert” taking place in the square and couldn’t resist buying one of Andrea’s compact disc’s.

We also visited Cortona of “Under the Tuscan Sun” fame and must say the steps are as steep and plentiful as described. It turned out to be a charming village with most delicious pizza.

Next up was Siena, home to the famous Palio horserace. A brilliant day for sitting in the amphitheatre and enjoying a local delicacy, wild boar, or so the menu said. Again, park outside the town and walk in. Stopping briefly at the Basillica of St. Catherine Benincasa, the co-patron Saint of Italy who helped bring the papacy back to Rome from Avignon in 1569, was a surprise. Only one of us however decided to view her head which is now on display. The old town itself is quite dense and similar to Lucca but without the extensive ramparts. Foregoing the 505 steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia, we decided on touring the Duomo instead. Planned to be enlarged during the 14th century to become the largest in the world, only one wall of the final nave is complete where it was supposed to be constructed. It seemed that Siena kept spending too much “Lira” losing battles with Florence during the city states era instead, and work completely stopped when the plague of 1348 devastated the city’s population. There are four Michelangelo sculptures inside, a wonderful pulpit and, again to my curiosity, a settlement monitoring survey of the floor going on since recently discovered and excavated rooms are a source for possible movement of this ancient structure. The Baptistery is under the Duomo this time and is a sight to behold. There is an interesting church museum, the Museo dell’Opera as well, and for 10,000L one can see many original and restored works of art. The most intriguing aspect, however, is the ability to climb inside the wall of the nave to its top, overlook the amphitheatre, and view the countryside. Although not nearly as high as the tower it’s not nearly as crowded, and you get the same vista.

Time flies and we had to leave Tuscany too soon for our “tastes.” Told to take the S67, we followed the Arno and Sieve Rivers and the increasingly interesting hill-towns for about an hour before we climbed into the scenic Alpe di Bendetto mountains. After that, we “zoomed” the Lexus up the Adriatic coast

Arriving at Mira, our reservations were at a restored 17th century villa along the Brenta canal. We rested and then on a whim decided to “check-out” Venice, which is only 20km away. We had just enough time to catch the bus, then a Vaporetto to St. Mark’s Square, have dinner and then retreat to our villa. That is, if we catch the right bus and boat! Impulsively hopping on the first bus we see doesn’t start the trip off well, as stops before we get to Venice and we have to transfer in Mestra. We wanted to orient ourselves, and this really gives us the impression that trying to drive into Venice and park at its immense garage is not such a good idea. I’m now intent on asking our hotel in Mira to keep the car for the two nights that we are planning on spending there, which they kindly agree to do.

After a quick but enjoyable dinner we catch the Vaporetto again then find the right bus back, but of course it’s dark and raining by then and we don’t recognize where to get off! We miss our stop but gratefully it’s only drizzling now so a brisk 5-minute walk and we’re back in the comforts of the Villa. After another wonderful nite,s sleep, we’d been upgraded again to a suite, a fabulous breakfast (fresh, hot and plentiful espresso is always my major criteria) and we headed to Asolo in the foothills of the Dolomiti.

It was beyond belief, but Marcia forgot her camera so she had to use the digital one for the day. We found a restaurant in Asolo named Mori (along with some history we wanted to know and some we didn’t about the name) and the sun came out! The next stop was in the town of Marostica of human chess fame, and we discovered a Mori Albergo (Inn). We finished the nite in the canal town of Treviso. Traffic was horrible getting to it and we barely were able to find our way out of the circular maze surrounding the town. It is slightly reminiscent of Strasbourg says Marcia, but without nearly as many restaurants. We found ourselves hunting for a place to have dinner and just as in Tuscany one nite, we fortunately got the last unreserved table of a restaurant. Marcia, however, was unimpressed with the chicken entree although the appetizers were delicious. We then spent another lovely nite at the Hotel Villa Margerita. The next day was gorgeous and off we went to spend two nights in Venice. We had repacked “lightly” so all we had with us was a rolling carry-on bag, my camera bag, our overnight bag, and Marcia’s purse. Light is relative when you have four cameras. This time we got the right bus, which was 45 minutes late but we waited, and then on the right Vaporetto. We got off at the familiar San Marco stop thinking our Hotel would be easy to find in the daylite. Whew, Venice got complicated quickly and we were immediately disoriented. Asking directions got us closer, then we asked again and got still closer, and eventually after wandering for 30 minutes (it felt like an hour because of the anticipation) we found it. A quaint three-star Hotel near St Mark’s Square for a mere $200 US a nite including breakfast! Our room had the smallest shower/bathtub combo we’d ever seen making Parisienne bathrooms look palatial! The bedroom was comfortable, reasonably quiet for Venice, and we loved it. The breakfast again was sensational by my standards and Marcia had fully recovered from her stomach problems. Off we went for photos and lunch, and getting the spicy “inferno” pizza was a great choice. It’s amazing the variations of beauty all around the city, the buildings, the canals, and especially the people.

Our second day in Venice was filled with rain but we entertained ourselves by visiting the Palazzo Ducale (Doges’ Palace) seat of the rulers of Venezia since the 9th century. Even in the rain, Venice is a romantic place. There was a flood warning that nite and we saw why there were wooden, table-like structures situated around the city. These become walkways to traverse the low-lying areas like St. Mark’s square. That nite we were invited to dinner with Proffessora Zitelli a former guest at our Bed & Breakfast back in Boston. She insisted on cooking “Venetian” for us and invited a delightful couple to join us. We ate and drank, and drank and ate, until the very last moment to catch the regular run of the Vaporetto. She then threw her hat and coat on and escorted the four of us to the stop. Hugging and exchanging charming double-kisses around, we boarded shaking our heads in wonderment and pleasure at the evening’s meal and the graciousness of our hostess and her friends. The next day we headed back to Mira to get our car, then off to Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany for our last nite in a hotel that our friends, the Armstrong’s, had highly recommended. Shrouded in fog, we couldn’t see the mountains so we must return some day to be charmed by the majestic surroundings.

Twenty days, 19 nights, 3,850 km (2,390miles) and 3 countries and our “EuroTour 2001” was complete. The return flights were both on time and we were back in the good “‘ole US of A” again too soon. We’re already planning next year’s EuroTour when we hope our daughters and son-in-law can come visit France with us for two weeks in our exchanged timeshare. Until then, “Bon Journee.”

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