Monthly Archives: August 2013

Falling in love

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We decided to split our time in northern Italy.  Two weeks in the tower (nervous as we were – rightly it seemed – about August heat), and two weeks over in the north-east.  This was an area we drove through 22 years ago.  Essentially, we went to Italy for a picnic, trying to avoid changing currency (impossibly, as it turned out, when we had to cross into Austria on a toll-way), and drove from Innsbruck to Villach, via the northern part of Italy.  We had been enchanted by the views then, so when we knew there was an apartment available in the region, we decided to take it for the rest of August.

Our new home is at the base of the Dolomite foothills, in Vittorio Veneto.  Driving into the town, down long leafy green avenues, we were encouraged.  It was promising to find a lovely, spacious and modern apartment, with an  efficient and helpful apartment owner,  and everything we needed within easy walking distance, including parking next door at the back of the owner’s parents’ pasticceria (bakery).  At last we were in an apartment without narrow staircases, low ceilings, dodgy internet, and which had sufficient air-conditioning.  The view from our balcony – across the roof of a large building next to us – was one of hills, small farmhouses, the occasional vine, and trees.  Lots and lots of green trees.  A small church at the edge of the view made us smile.

We smiled some more when we ventured out.  A bar, set in gardens overlooking the town’s main piazza and municipal buildings, served delicious prosecco and antipasto, as we watched families meet in the gardens, elderly men eat gelato and chat with friends, children play, and lovers love.  This was our kind of town.

Elegant shops and banks and restaurants and gelaterias (lots of gelaterias) line the leafy streets.  A walk later discovered a walking and cycle path along the river, past houses and apartments, a restaurant on an island in the river, sadly derelict factories, the local swimming pool, playgrounds; a busy, sunny, happy path filled with people on bicycles with places to go, or those strolling, walking off the prosecco from lunch (us), or walking their dogs.  This town was getting better and better.

But all this was only a precursor to falling in love.  We walked along the tree-lined street as directed by Arianna.  Venetian mansions lined the street – who needs to go to Venice?  (Even though it is only an hour away by train).  And then we saw the entrance to the old part of town.  A narrow cobbled street, with ancient houses and an open-sided walkway or loggia underneath.  We arrived at Piazza Flaminio.  Beautiful medieval buildings, a road through an archway, a gelateria with the  best gelato so far in Italy, a trattoria (with mouthwatering roast pork in milk and an entertaining chef), a river/canal, a church and bell tower, and a retreat on the hill behind.

It’s official.  I’m in love.

Note:  Photos to come.
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Toast

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Since we left Rome, we’ve been travelling so much that keeping up with the blog has essentially been a business of recording where we’ve been. And that was not the kind of blog I had anticipated keeping. The writing is easy. But the visuals – loudly clammered for in the first weeks – delay publication, and any thought of moving on to shorter, interest (frivolous?) pieces.

But this week, the weather has packed up, and we’ve caught up on sleeping, cooking, organising (and backing up) photographs.  So that brings me to a very important topic.  Food. More specifically, bread.  More specifically, toasted bread.  The Italians like bread.  There is always bread on your table in a restaurant – usually charged for in a coperto (cover charge) – and this is of varying quality to be frank.   And we’ve found some bread we like for sandwiches, and for toast.  Except that there’s the problem.  Italians don’t toast.  They advertise “toast” in bars and cafes, but I think that is similar to our more familiar cheese on toast, or grilled sandwich.  (We had a memorable cheese toast at the top of the Simplon Pass – the amount of cheese on the plate would have fed a family of four.)  Our first apartment had a toaster, but finding the right bread was an issue.  Anyway, we’re realising that that was probably the exception.  The journalist in the tower clearly doesn’t eat toast.  There was no toaster in sight.  And the apartment we’re in now has a sandwich griller, which the owner called a “toaster.”  (Poor innocent Italian that doesn’t understand Toast).

So the husband, who is addicted to toast and considers it a perfectly acceptable dinner, has had to resort to the ready-made toast we find in the supermarkets.   Each piece is identical, crisp throughout, evenly tanned on both sides.   And yes, it comes in a convenient, resealable pack.  But it’s not the same.  The texture is all wrong and crumbly, the spreads don’t melt on the toast, and most disappointing of all, we don’t get that delicious, toasted bread smell.  It didn’t matter so much when the temperatures were raging outside, and the idea  of hot food was often repugnant.  But now, with colder, rainy days, we miss the comfort of toast.

Detour ahead

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We have long drooled over photos of the Swiss Alps, drooling in the manner that keen travellers do, when they see somewhere new, beautiful, interesting, quirky, or perhaps, just somewhere they’ve never been. About ten years ago we ventured into the Alps at Chamonix, for a quick look, but still there was a spot we had always wanted to go, a place where D, in particular, would sigh and say “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

And now, with an extended time away, and with relative proximity, we decided to escape the heat of the ancient tower and northern Italy, and head further inland, to a higher altitude, to lift up our eyes, and feel refreshed.

Less than three hours drive, with a stop for fuel (both of the diesel and caffeine variety) before leaving Italy, over the beautiful Simplon Pass with a pause at the top for lunch along with other travellers enjoying the summer, and soon we were at Tasch, Switzerland, the end of the road. The huge covered carpark at the station was easy to find, tickets even easier to buy, and soon we were on the train south. By now the valley had narrowed, the mountains steep on each side, the scenery beautiful, and we craned our heads to look up and out the windows. The trip wasn’t long though, but we arrived at the station, looking oddly familiar after an Amazing Race episode, and found our hotel’s electric taxi. But still we hadn’t seen it. Until the taxi turned a corner, narrowly avoiding taking out several tourists walking on the largely footpath-less streets, and there, in front of us, was the mountain we had come to see.

Better views though, were to be had from our hotel room balcony. We stayed two nights, enjoyed drinks out on the balcony each evening, serenaded by an alphorn player practising on the valley opposite our hotel, whilst we admired the view.  In the mornings we woke to a spectacular  sight, which we could see from our bed. We sighed in bliss.

But we couldn’t just sit about taking the same photographs all day, though taking the same photographs did seem to be unavoidable, simply because every time we looked at the mountain it took our breath away, and we wanted to capture these moments, scared that otherwise we might lose them.

So we headed off to Gornergrat, a high mountain plateau of sorts, with views of the Alps, and especially of the mountain. There were walks to do of varying intensities, so we chose an easy one, one that wouldn’t ruin my feet any worse than they already are, and saved a more energetic walk for later in the afternoon, back at Zermatt, when the temperatures were warmer, and the views just as lovely.
Our stay was of necessity a brief one. Switzerland is notoriously expensive, and shocked us after Italy’s more reasonable prices, and we still had plenty to see around the Italian lakes. But we could see how it would be pleasant to visit for several more days, and explore the trails around Zermatt, to some of the smaller villages, or – if we had the appropriate footwear – even up into the foothills. The trails were wide and well-used, and would have been easy for us to manage. Walking, with a capital W, was the reason many people were there. The resort village was teeming with Germanic and French families dressed for serious walking, every single member clutching at least one, sometimes two, walking sticks.

We could see too how awfully romantic the place would be in the ski season. Once again, I wished I was a skier – maybe sometime we’ll come back, just to experience it in winter, to enjoy hot chocolates and/or hot toddies in all those cosy bars with their roaring fires. This visit, though, was all about sitting outside and eating and watching the scenery, or the people who had, like us, come from all over the world to see the mountain. At times, both were equally interesting.

We decided to drive home from Italy via another pass, the Great St Bernard pass. At the top of this ancient pass, that has been used since the Bronze Age, that has a Roman road, and that Napoleon used to cross into Italy in 1800 with 40,000 men, is the St Bernard Hospice, home of the famed St Bernard rescue dogs. But on this mid-summer day, there was little sign of the snow that must blanket the landscape in winter, even though the temperature was appropriately chilly.

Grand St Bernard Pass - taken from Switzerland,  Italy at the opposite end of the lake

Grand St Bernard Pass – taken from Switzerland, Italy at the opposite end of the lake

We passed down into Italy, admiring the alpine scenery and wishing we had packed a picnic as lunchtime approached and then passed, until we saw a roadside sandwich stall (complete with draught beer, a barbecue, and a tent for shade over tables and chairs), with a cheerful Italian man swigging on his beer and a long-suffering wife handling the finances. The man easily swung from Italian to French, and laughed at our surprise at the ample size of our four euro sandwiches.

Roadside paninoteca

Roadside paninoteca

Eventually though we left the mountains, where we had passed picturesque village after village, vines clinging to the hills, and castles in varying states of ruin, back down into the plains and the extravagantly fast Italian autostradas that whisked us home tout suite.

Room with a view

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The beginning of August in Italy. This is the height of summer. Flowers bloom profusely in gardens, on roads, in meadows, and of course, hanging from window boxes at almost every window. The heat never goes, building and building, often reaching its height at 7 pm, well into the 30s, and giving little evening respite. The garden at our rental accommodation, with trees, bushes and a hammock, lies unused. We are lucky that the temperature doesn’t soar to 40, as is possible in Italy in August, because our new accommodation has air-conditioning in only one room – at the top of the tower.

Yes, that’s what I said. Tower. We rented a stone tower that dates back almost a thousand years. Renovated about 12 years ago into a charming home, owned by a former travel journalist, it is now rented out periodically by the owner. How idyllic, I thought, sitting in our tree house in Wellington before we left. And in many ways it was. Stone walls three feet thick, an arrow slot in the bathroom, and a studio at the top floor, with views across the river to the forest, and villages beyond, their church bell towers stretching above the trees surrounding them.  (The studio also proved to be a great location to watch a thunder/lightning storm from). But the heat in our third-floor bedroom, the smell from the owners’ dog in the living area (and by the end of the week, the fleas we found), and the constant concern that we were in someone’s house and had to keep it spotless, didn’t help me feel entirely relaxed.

The tower was in a small village, with a tiny shop just a few doors down, one bar/restaurant over the road, and a trattoria next to the shop, and a church. Sounds perfect.  But the bar (in Italy, a bar is in fact a cafe) served the worst coffee I’ve had in Italy, so one visit was enough. The tiny shop was like a small expensive dairy, and the trattoria was only open a few days a week. So we didn’t frequent the local businesses as I would have liked. To add insult to injury, some local luminary – or perhaps the local priest – had decided that the church bells should ring multiple times a day, sounding services or simply the hour or half hour. Why they thought it was a good idea to ring the damn bells about 50 times at 7.30 on a Saturday morning, I don’t know!

The location was brilliant though – so close to the lakes, and very close to the airport (though virtually no noise). But as soon as we ventured out from the village, and before we got to the local town or the lakes, we found ourselves in a kind of no-man’s land. We were in airport services land. Airport hotels were scattered around – in fact, the Crowne Plaza, usually an excellent brand, was tucked away in a back street in a nowhere collection of buildings. (Though nearby, there was a very good pizzeria we visited several times, on the recommendation of the Easyjet guys.) And then there were the carparks. Everywhere, on the main road into the nearby town, tucked behind the Crowne Plaza, the pizzeria, everywhere, there were long-term low-cost airport parking lots (basically just fields crammed with tiny Italian cars), with a constant stream of vans taking their customers to and from the airport. It was all very odd.

Yet in Castelnovate, our little village, set on the edge of a national park, with the Ticino river just at the end of the road (maybe a km away), with our tower, and church bells, with the charming cemetery at the end of the road, the sports field, and the children’s play ground, and friendly neighbours and lots of dogs, it seemed hard to believe that a major international airport was practically next door.

Our ancient tower in Lombardy

Our ancient tower in Lombardy

Lazy lunches, winding roads, ferries, islands, and lakes

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Who would have thought that a mountain pass would have been closed in June?  Certainly not us, when we were planning our first trip to Europe back in 1991.  But sure enough, when we got to the entrance of the Grimselpass, the road from Interlaken towards the Italian lakes, the road was closed.  So we had to abandon our plans to visit the Italian lakes, these lakes that had such a reputation for glamour and beauty, long before Mr Clooney  was famous, let alone owned a villa there.

This year, we finally made it.  Our rental accommodation was nearby, an easy drive to the lakes,  and we managed to visit the different lakes about seven times in total.  Each time we hopefully packed our swimming togs, but we never found a swimming spot where there was room for even one more car.  And on the one day we had decided on a swim and a picnic – planning to head out early to a spot that had looked promising – the heavens opened, and thunder, lightning, and torrential downpours all day scuppered our plans.

Lake Maggiore was the closest lake to us, and the one we visited most frequently.  A long, zig-zagged lake that reaches into Switzerland, it is the second largest of the Italian lakes.  Our first visit was a quick “reccie” – just checking out what was available.  It ended badly, as our rental car’s air-conditioning died.  In fact, the fan died as well, just as the car thermometer was telling us it was hovering in the high 30s (it said 40+ but we don’t believe it).  So we had to drive home with the windows down, hot air blowing at us, and with the high temperatures, tempers were hot too, particularly when our GPS tried to kill us by sending us up a one-way street.  (Fortunately, our proximity to the airport meant we could go to the Hertz office, and swap our car without much fuss.  Panic over!)

Our next visit was up the west side of the lake, to popular Stresa and beyond.  As usual, we set off late, and decided immediately to start looking out for some lunch spots.  At Lesa, before Stresa, we found a nice restaurant right over the lake, with a car park not too far away, and enjoyed some lake trout and a glass of wine.  Now, this was more like it.  Ferries criss-cross the lake, summer holidaymakers head out on motorboats, and the dark blue-green water is dotted with little white triangles from the sail-boats out enjoying the breeze.  Tree-covered hills – it seems wrong to say mountains when the Alps are so close – rise up steeply from much of the lake, giving it drama and beauty.  And lovely villas  – some now hotels – and gardens line the shore.  This was what we had hoped to see in 1991.

We returned to Lake Maggiore twice more.  Once to take a ferry across to one of the more northern towns.  We had plans to visit one of the garden islands, but frankly, we were tired from a long day driving the previous day, and we enjoyed pottering through the streets of Verbania, looking in some of the shops, and enjoying another delicious lunch on a terrace right by the lake.  Our other visit to the lake was back to Laveno-Mombello (isn’t that a great name?), to take the cable car recommended by some English guys who rent a flat near us and fly for Easyjet.  Cable car is, however, a rather grand name for what turned out to be a large bucket, just enough room for two, dangling from a cable, scaling a mountain (if I climbed it, in a bucket or not, it’s a mountain not a hill).  At the top however was a restaurant (of course) with a most spectacular view.  We decided a bottle of wine was appropriate here, after the journey up, and took our time over a pleasant lunch, in slightly cooler temperatures than at the lake below.  You can see a theme beginning to develop here, I’m sure.

Lake Maggiore from our lunch terrace

Lake Maggiore from our lunch terrace

Fish ravioli at Laveno-Mombello

Fish ravioli at Laveno-Mombello

Lake Como was, of course, a must visit during any stay in the Italian lakes region.  Como itself was a pleasant enough town, with piazzas, gardens, statues, and naturally, a duomo.  But the attraction of the area is of course the lake itself.  Here the lake is narrower than Maggiore, and the hills seemed steeper, the villages forced closer to the shores of the lake, making for much better picture-taking.  Rather than take a slow ferry ride, we opted to drive up to Bellagio for lunch – about half-way up the lake.  The road on the map looked a reasonable size, and was shaded green for “scenic” so that sounded promising.  We soon found though that the road was made for horses and buggies, or maybe a few tiny Italian cars.  So it was a slow drive, hair-raising at times, when passing trucks or large cars down from Germany for the summer. The road rose to give us beautiful views of the lakes, sneak peeks into large villas (was that George I saw?) with large gardens and grand entrances, through old villages where the streets narrowed even further, and finally to Bellagio, where some patience, and a slight argument with an Italian, scored us a park.

Bellagio is a beautiful little village right on the lake, a stop for the ferries, with a villa and gardens you can visit.  We thought about it, the gardens looked attractive, but there was a hotel with a terrace over the lake, and the perch risotto was calling to us (me).   Besides, after that drive, some wine was necessary.  (Don’t worry – a long lunch, and afterwards a walk and compulsory gelato, saw the driver sober enough to navigate the narrow windy roads to get us home).

As much as we liked Como, our favourite lake was the smallest and least well known, Lago d’Orta (Lake Orta).  To the west of Lake Maggiore, separated just by a mountain or two, Lake Orta’s main feature is the island of Isola di San Giulio  (Island of Saint Julius).  We visited the island, where Saint Julius supposedly built his last of 100 churches in the fourth century.  Now home to Benedictine nuns, there is a Walk of Silence, through the old buildings and with peeks out at the lake and back to the town.  However, the medieval town of Orta San Giulio, where you board the ferries to the island, was also a highlight.  A lakefront piazza, a Wednesday market (though disappointingly set up for tourists rather than locals), lots of little shops and restaurants and gelaterias, made for a very relaxing and pleasant atmosphere.  Lunch (yes, again – it saved us from cooking dinner in the evening in the heat) on a terrace overlooking the island was relaxing, and delicious.  I never expected to find great food in the touristy Lakes region, but this was the good quality Italian food we never found in Rome.    Before we headed home, we visited a park above the town, overlooking the lake.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sacro Monte (Sacred Mountain) is a park filled with about 20 chapels, built in the 16th-18th century.  The chapels were interesting, the temperature was cooler, and the views … well, the views were spectacular.

It may have taken 22 years to get here.  But the wait was worth it.

Relaxing on the Riviera

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After a month in Rome, we picked up a little Fiat (though not as little as most Fiats on the road here) and headed north. Five years ago a friend and I had explored the Italian Riviera (Liguria) for a few days, walking the Cinque Terre trails, sipping vermentino in a wine bar, exploring rainy Genova, and dodging wild boar in the hills behind Portofino (and wild bores elsewhere). I had fallen in love with the immaculate Santa Margherita Ligure, the coves and cliff-hugging villages of the Cinque Terre, blue sea and sky, and had always wanted to bring the husband back. So we planned a stop for a few days on our way north, between rental accommodations.

Last time I was here, it was late October/early November, cool, and out of season. August in Santa Margherita Ligure is very different. The heat is obvious, the streets are packed with tourists from Italy, France, northern Europe, Russia and beyond, and every single restaurant and wine bar is open and touting for business. I managed to find my favourite wine bar from my trip with W, which had good, reasonably priced wine, and a complimentary antipasto platter. Unlike my previous visit, we sat outside as the sun fell, and enjoyed the summer buzz. Just up the street every night was a public jazz concert. Sitting there, sipping our vermentino and nibbling on prosciutto, listening to the jazz, I could see the appeal of a Mediterranean beach resort.

Evening in SML

Evening in SML

Having walked some of the Cinque Terre with W, I was keen to try some of the trails I hadn’t already done, and to see the other two beautiful villages that make up the 5 Terre. So we set off early, taking the 8 am train from Santa Margherita, arriving early to Riomaggiore, the furthest of the towns. It was a beautiful village crammed into a little cove and the steep hills around it, with fishing boats in the cove, and laundry hanging from the windows.

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

We planned on starting before the heat rose with an easy walk to Manarola, then deciding afterwards if we (and my feet) were up to the heat and the more difficult terrain between the other villages). I had read that the trails had been closed last year over winter after rains and landslides. I had then researched and saw that the trails were all open again for the summer. Perfect! Except they weren’t.

First trail, an easy one, was closed.

First trail, an easy one, was closed.

Both trails I was keen on doing were closed, it turned out, so we lost valuable walking time sorting out what we would do, and waiting for the next train to get to the other villages where the trails were open. Still, we were determined to do the climbs, to capture the views in and out of the gorgeous Vernazza in particular. And the husband was suitably impressed. How could you fail to be?

Beautiful Vernazza

Beautiful Vernazza

But Liguria is all about the sea. And we were surprised to see the constant stream of visitors arriving and departing form the Cinque Terre villages by sea. Surprised, and in the end rather envious. So the next day we took the ferry to Portofino for a little taste of summer on the Mediterranean.  We passed some magnificent private yachts, and we imagined how it would be to pull into a beautiful cove, or anchor out in the bay enjoying the view back to the hills, pour a glass of something cold and tall, and dive into the Med whenever you needed to cool off. We aren’t, and never will be, on that kind of budget unfortunately, so joined the swimmers of all ages, shapes and sizes down at one of the public beaches, teetered across the hot stony beach to the sea, and plunged in. And I’m sure it felt just as good to us, after a hot day sightseeing and walking, as it did to those on their superyachts. (Well, maybe …)

Our beach at SML

Our beach at SML

Santa Margherita from the Portofino ferry

Santa Margherita from the Portofino ferry

Enormous, expensive, not ours.

Enormous, expensive, not ours.

Keeping up appearances

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Rome can be a beautiful city. Walk through the streets around the Piazza Navona, or those in Trastevere, and it is picture-postcard perfect. Snap shots of ancient Roman ruins, medieval or renaissance buildings, and marvel that this is also a modern, 21st century city. Applaud the enthusiasm and vigour of the people, those who face the next few millennia whilst remembering the past few. Relish the markets, the small pastry shops and gelaterias, the ubiquitous pizzerias and bars (cafes), the motorcycles and tiny cars, and the bright summer flowers spilling from gardens and window boxes, and balconies.

Then pause. In disgust. We lived in a local neighbourhood. One where people knew each other, knew the shop and restaurant proprietors, met their friends and family when they stepped out the door. Yet in this, their local neighbourhood, there was no pride in the streets. Graffiti could be found everywhere – on all the metal roller-doors that closed over the stores, rustica pizza joints, hair-dressers and bars. On the walls of apartments and houses. In an area that could have been lovely, the graffiti gave it the look of a lost neighbourhood, of a community that didn’t care.  (Though I will admit, the romantic graffiti from a lovelorn amour was rather endearing.)

And this was compounded by the rubbish.  (To be fair, not just in our community but all over Rome).  Litter, litter, everywhere. It was extraordinary. Not just the occasional cigarette butt, or spillover from the municipal rubbish collection bins, but bottles, plastics, paper, pretty much anything you could name. It marred the feel of the neighbourhood, and quite sadly, it marred our opinion of the people who lived there. Rubbish and graffiti – how frustrating for those who live there, how depressing for their pride and spirits, how sad for those who live there and do their best for their community.