Monday, May 28, 2012


Varenna to Milan – Day 55 – Wednesday

I had contemplated spending part of the day in Varenna if the weather had been fine, but the day dawned overcast and gloomy.  I lingered until checkout time at 10:30 and then trundled off to the train station.  My suitcase was on its last legs and I lost part of the undercarriage on the cobblestones along the way.  I arrived shortly after the 10:37 train left, so had nearly two hours to wait for the next one.

The Varenna train station is small and unmanned.  There is nowhere to buy tickets or even a coffee.  I sat there with my Eurail pass and watched everyone else worry about how to buy a ticket.  The pass turned out to be a waste of money, since I had based my calculations on first class tickets, which were seldom available and cost additional amounts to reserve when they were.  Trenitalia was running a promotion that made it possible to go almost anywhere for 9 Euros in second class.  It was, however, occasionally convenient not to have to buy a ticket.

When the train finally did arrive, it was a small regional train and I couldn’t even get my bag through the door into the seating area, much less find a place to stow it.  I sat on a jump seat by the door for an hour until we arrived in Milan.  There wasn’t much to look at and a large part of the trip was through tunnels where I couldn’t see anything at all.  The countryside was still lush and green.  The area surrounding Milan consists of suburban apartment blocks, factories and industrial parks.

When we arrived at Milano Centrale, I expected to find a familiar layout.  Unfortunately, they had opened a third subway line since I had been there in March and the subway station, which had been a maze of barricades earlier, had completely changed.  It took me some time to sort out how to find the necessary line.  I had to change trains to get to my hotel, but I got to the right subway station without incident.  It took me somewhat longer to determine which of the seven streets emptying into the Piazza Piedmonte was Via Giorgio Washington, since Italians put their street signs on the sides of buildings where you can’t see them unless you are already in the street.  I had to drag my bag around two thirds of the plaza before I found the right street and then another long block down to my hotel.  Fortunately, the hotel was near the corner and I recognized it from the picture on the Internet.  I arrived a bout 3:00.

Room at Piedmonte
Usual 25" Square Shower

The Hotel Piedmonte was a nice place.  My single room was small, but it was newly decorated and had all the modern conveniences.  It was a deal for 45 Euros a night.  I did have to pay an extra 5 Euros for Internet, but at least it wasn’t 6 Euros an hour like many places.  It was very hot outside and I was not inspired to go back outside for any reason.  I needed to organize my luggage for the trip home and I had hundreds of photos to email from my phone to my computer.  I went through my luggage and disposed of anything I no longer needed and moved anything I had bought to my carry on bag so that I could be secure that my bag would not be overweight.  Then I hung out in the hotel and worked my way through the photos from Bolzano.

By 7:00, I was hungry and went in search of food.  The desk clerk had recommended a nearby restaurant, but the menu didn’t appeal to me, so I walked a few more blocks back to a cluster of restaurants near the subway station.  I chose a pizza and pasta place that looked welcoming.  For some reason, I was ravenous.  I ordered a calzone with two kinds of cheese and salami.  For the first time since I arrived in Italy, I saw Moretti Red on the menu, so I ordered one of those.  Moretti is located in Milan, so that makes sense.  The beer definitely gets better as you travel north, but the wine declines in quality.

I enjoyed my meal.  I struck up a conversation with the waiter once I convinced him not to speak English to me.  He had a brother in New York.  I told him that it was my last night in Italy and ordered a limoncello to mark the occasion.  When the bill came, they comped the limoncello and wished me a safe journey.  Speaking Italian, being polite, patient and going with the Italian flow has served me well with restaurant people in Italy.  Even I cringe when I hear Americans whining (usually loudly) that things aren’t the same as at home.  I want to shake them and say, “You’re in Italy!  Realize you are blessed, shut up, and enjoy yourself for goodness sake.”

For two months, I have had the sense that I am living in a state of grace.  Everything is beautiful, the air smells of orange blossoms, flowers bloom everywhere and the food and wine are heavenly.  I look at all of this and I know that it is not so very different from my own home in California.  Italians shrug and say, “piano, piano,”  which means, “take your time,” or, “little by little.”  I hope that I can bring this attitude home with me, along with my sense of wonder at the beauty of art and nature.  Life is beautiful.  I’m ready to go home, but I don’t want to lose this peace that Italy has given me.

Back at the Hotel Piedmonte, I dashed off a blog post and finished off my last night in Italy by watching *Hangover* in Italian.  The movie is over the top comedy.  I have never seen it in English, but I bet it is better in Italian.  The language lends itself to hysterical humor.

Milan to San Francisco – Day 56 – Thursday

Six o’ clock came too soon since, as usual, I had stayed up too late the night before.  I hurried to wash and dress and attend to the last of my packing.  I checked out at 7:00 am and set off to drag my bag to the station.  At this point, I was counting down the number of staircases I would have to negotiate with my luggage before I finally arrived home.  Two flights down to the station, through the turnstile, another flight down to the train.  Bump, bump, bump.  They don’t really believe in escalators or elevators in Italy.  I had hoped the subway would be empty at that hour, but it was packed.  I guess the Italians go to work earlier than the English.  I could barely wedge myself onto the train.  Fortunately, I only had to travel three stops.

For some reason, I had elected to leave from the Cadorna Station, rather than Milano Centrale.  This might have been because trains from Como arrive there and I mistakenly thought that meant all trains from Lake Como.  The train from Varenna arrived at Milano Centrale, which had necessitated yesterday’s hot trek across Milan.  Cadorna was, however, easier to negotiate than Milano Centrale.  There was even a lift from the subway up to the train platform.  They accepted my rather battered and water stained ticket that I had printed back in March and dragged all over Italy and I hauled my bag through the gate and onto the platform.  A train arrived shortly thereafter and I got a seat next to the luggage rack.

The train ride to Malpensa Airport took about 45 minutes and then I had to find the appropriate check in area.  European airports don’t have designated counters lined up in a row like American airports.  They have huge halls full of stalls that are assigned to flights as needed.  The lines move more quickly, since more windows are available and everyone in the line is going the same place, but I had to haul my possessions to the far end of the airport to check in.  It was, however, nice to rid myself of my suitcase, although I had packed all the heavy items into my carry on bag and it weighed at least 25 pounds.  Despite having left at 7:00 to catch a 10:30 flight, it was nearly time to board by the time I got to my gate.  I didn’t have time to get coffee or breakfast, although I did have time to stop at the duty free store and buy some limoncello to bring home.  I couldn’t think of a better way to get rid of my Euros.  If you believe the news in Italy, they could become obsolete very soon.

For some reason, American Airlines decided to give me priority access on this trip.  I used to get this treatment when I flew a lot, but it has been a decade since my platinum status expired.  I really lucked out on the flight from Milan to New York.  They put the priority folks in a small section between business class and coach.  I had a center aisle seat on a 767 and got the entire center section to myself.  There was even more legroom than usual.  I was actually quite comfortable.  Fortunately, they served lunch almost right away.  Airplane food catered from Italy is definitely an improvement over that from America.  I had tasty cheese pasta with spinach and fried onions and watched Robert Downey, Jr. play Sherlock Holmes.

I started to suspect that things were not as they should be at JFK when there were no free luggage carts in the international baggage area.  I waited and waited for my bag, only to find out that some airport employee had removed the bags from the carousel and stacked them on the opposite side where no one could see them.  When I finally did collect my bag, the line to clear customs was long.  I got through customs OK, only to be told that I would have to put my limoncello in my suitcase before rechecking it to San Francisco because I had to leave the secure area and go through security again to get to my gate.

The disorganization of the luggage handling was only the beginning of the mess at JFK, however.  When I checked the monitor for my gate, I discovered that the flight was delayed an hour.  It was later delayed another half an hour and then the gate was changed.  Once we boarded the aircraft, there were 45 planes ahead of us in line for takeoff and we crept slowly across the tarmac for another hour.  We were two and a half hours late taking off.  The flight to San Francisco was much more crowded than the flight from Milan and there was a lot less legroom.

I was seated behind Annoying Man.  I have long femurs, which means that my knees touch the seat in front of me when sitting in coach.  One of my knees was bruised.  The guy in front of me not only insisted on reclining as far as he could, which made it impossible for me to use even my little netbook, but constantly squirmed in his seat and pushed back against it, ramming it into my knee.  I was therefore required to push back to keep him from hurting me, which made it hard to relax.  It was a long flight. I was very glad to see Scott arrive in my Mini.  I had been up for 27 hours by the time I got home, but all was well.  My cat was still speaking to me and spent the night snuggled up to me on my pillow.


Bolzano to Varenna – Day 53 – Monday

It isn’t easy to get ready, pack your gear, and unmake your bed without awakening your three roommates, but I did my best.  At least one of them snored through the whole process.  Maybe they had earplugs.  Eventually, I just threw everything out into the hall and finished out there.  I caught the beginning of breakfast at 7:30, checked out and made it to my 8:37 train with plenty of time to spare.  Fortunately, the train was virtually empty, so it was easy to stow my luggage.  Bolzano is the most handicapped (and arthritic old lady with heavy luggage) accessible of all the places I have been in Italy.  There were even ramps into the station and lifts up to the platforms.  Unfortunately, there is still the matter of the three steep steps into the train to overcome.  The ADA has yet to reach Italy.

The ride to Verona took a couple of hours, stopping what seemed like every 50 yards along the track.  It was raining and the clouds were sitting on the ground, obscuring the view.  I sat like a lump and stared out the window, thinking about my garden and how profoundly the agriculture, and lately the food, in Northern California were influenced by the Italians who settled there.  Italy truly is a land of abundance.  Food sprouts everywhere and Italians nurture gardens and orchards in window boxes and on the sides of cliffs.  It was no wonder they knew exactly what to do with the fertile valleys of California.  Add a few more trains and motor scooters and even San Francisco would not seem out of place here.

I huddled with the other damp travelers in the station in Verona for an hour and then boarded my train to Milan.  Ah … first class coach.  My assigned seat was even free.  Big wide seats with plenty of legroom and even a tray table for my computer.  Too bad it’s only an hour or so to Milan.

It continued to rain while I waited for my train in Milan and rained all the way to Varenna.  Outside of Milan, we headed up another valley between steep mountains much like the one we had descended from Bolzano.  The clouds were still hanging low in the valley, so there wasn’t much to see.  At first we passed a number of industrial looking towns and then, after passing through a long tunnel, I could finally see the lake.  The towns at the bottom end of the lake weren’t very attractive but, after another tunnel, the apartment blocks thinned out and it got prettier.  I finally arrived in Varenna about 3:30.

Hotel Montecodeno

The hotel is a boring modern building a block or so in from the lake.  I dragged my bag over there from the station, which was only slightly life threatening.  I couldn’t use the sidewalk because there were motorbikes parked in the middle of it.  It was cold and wet and I wasn’t encouraged to go out and explore.  At least there is a strong Wi-Fi signal.  Unfortunately, I can’t connect my phone to it, so there will be no new pictures for the blog while I am here.

Varenna Harbor

I finally got so cold and hungry that I put on extra clothes and went out in search of food.  The town was pretty deserted.  I walked down to the ferry dock and along the shore of the lake to the old town.  There were a few sailboats moored in the harbor and lots of restaurants along the promenade.  I wasn’t in the mood to spend a lot to eat in an empty restaurant, so I ducked into a little pizzeria.  It seemed that everyone else in town had the same idea.  Maybe it was just that we were all using Rick Steves’ guidebook.  I had a provolone pizza and a small carafe of red wine.  Believe it or not, I was still hungry after that, so I had crepes stuffed with applesauce for desert.  The crepes were garnished with three different colors of apples, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.  They went nicely with the last of my wine.

The weather had warmed up a bit when I left the restaurant and I had a nice walk back to the hotel.  Varenna consists of one major street, one waterfront promenade and lots of stairways up the hill between the two.  Everything is paved with river rocks, making walking somewhat hazardous and hard on my poor bruised feet.  I was looking for a bank, but didn’t find one.  I may have to get on a ferry and go to Bellagio to get more cash.  Varenna is a small place.

Lake Como – Day 54 – Tuesday

I let myself sleep until I woke up, this morning, so didn’t get to breakfast until 9:30.  The weather was much improved and the sky was mostly blue, although there were dark clouds hanging around the mountain peaks and I wasn’t sure how long it would last.  I decided to hop on a ferry and see how many towns I could visit before it started to rain again.

Bellagio From the Water
Punta Spartivento
I rode the ferry from Varenna to Bellagio.  Lake Como is shaped like a man (without arms) walking.  His head and body stretch up towards Switzerland.  His right foot is standing on Lecco and his left foot is stepping on Como.  Varenna is near his right hip.  Bellagio is his crotch.  It’s a lovely spot for a crotch.  There is a park on the point that divides the two legs of the lake.  It is called Punta Spartivento (the point that splits the wind.)  I walked out there and enjoyed the view for a little while, ducked into the church on my way back, and then took the ferry down the lake to Lenno.
Grand Hotel Tremezzo

Floating Pool

On the way to Lenno, we stopped at Villa Carlotta, an old villa that is now a museum and botanical garden.  We also stopped in Tremezzo where the Grand Hotel Tremezzo has a floating swimming pool.  Lenno may just be the prettiest spot on a very pretty lake.  There is a cute little harbor with a number of sailboats moored there and a lot of private houses on the lake front.  There was one cute wooden rowboat with an Asian looking parasol hanging amidships.  I later saw it in use and there was a yellow lab resting in the seat shaded by the parasol.  I had intended to take the ferry from stop to stop on the way back, exploring each town in turn, but I discovered that there was a path called the Greenway del Lago that connects the cities on the west side of the lake.  I decided to walk a few kilometers to better appreciate the architecture and gardens. 

During a more graceful age, the lake was lined with fabulous villas, each of which had beautiful gardens reaching down to the water and a private boat landing.  High taxes have resulted in most of these buildings being converted into hotels, restaurants or museums.  Gardens have been converted to parks and boat landings to private beaches and cafes.  When a road was built around the lake, many villas were separated from their gardens, furthering the process of degentrification.  It is still a beautiful place to walk. 

Church in Mezzegra

WWI Memorial

Fountain in Cadenabbia
Horses Above Lenno
The path follows the lake out of Lenno and then climbs a steep hill above Mezzegra to a church and World War One memorial.  It then descends to the town of Tremezzo.  Tremezzo is dominated by the Grand Hotel Tremezzo with its fountains and swimming pool floating in the lake.  North of Tremezzo is the Villa Carlotta whose gardens have been turned into a botanical garden.  Tremezzo runs into Cadenabbia.  I had intended to get back on the ferry at Cadenabbia, but ended up continuing my walk all the way to Menaggio because it was so pretty.

Menaggio Harbor
View from Cafe in Menaggio

Park in Menaggio
Menaggio is the largest of the towns I visited.  It has real businesses not connected to the tourist trade.  It also has a pretty little marina and its share of hotels and restaurants, including a youth hostel.  I was sweaty and in need of a restroom, so I stopped at a café near the marina and had a beer.  The weather was holding fine and had grown quite warm.  I walked out to the north end of Menaggio and then headed back and caught a ferry to Varenna.

Varenna from Menaggio Ferry

Not satisfied with having walked the west shore of the lake, I then set out to walk from Varenna to Fiume Latte (Milk River), the next town to the south on the east shore.  The Fiume Latte is the shortest river in Italy.  It gushes out of a cave a couple of hundred feet above lake level and plunges to the lake in just 800 feet of white water.  It is not quite a waterfall, but darn close.  The town is tiny and offers nothing to the traveler.  The grounds of the Villa Monastero stretch almost, but not quite, all the way from Varenna to Fiume Latte.  The gardens are beautiful and full of statues and fountains.  I enjoyed peering down on them from above.  I may visit tomorrow if I can find somewhere to stow my baggage for a few hours.
Fiume Latte

I was pooped when I got back to Varenna, so I rested for a couple of hours and then went in search of dinner.  I ate on the porch of the Hotel Olvedo, overlooking the ferry landing.  The hotel was run by a family who must be Swiss, since they speak Italian like they’d really rather be speaking German.  The food, however, was very good.  I had pumpkin gnocchi with butter, sage and parmesan cheese.  It was warm and filling and really hit the spot.  I sat there enjoying the view until the sun set about 9:00 and then headed back to my room.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Venice to Bolzano – Day 51 – Saturday

The alarm went off much too early and I scurried around to get showered and dressed before anyone else monopolized the bathroom.  I was ready to leave by 7:30, but I couldn’t find my passport.  I feared that the innkeeper had not returned it to me.  He had left breakfast out for me the night before, but I reluctantly called him.  He did not have my passport, so I started to panic.  I found it eventually, stuffed in a place I normally don’t keep it.  Note to self: Always put your passport in the same spot to avoid early morning crises.  I wasted 20 minutes looking for my passport, but I had left enough extra time.

Morning Venice
I trundled my bag back through the fortunately empty streets to the Ca’ d’ Oro vaporetto stop.  Being Saturday, I had to wait a while for the vaporetto, but it came eventually.  I got to sit and watch the work boats go by, hauling loads of tour group luggage and produce for the restaurants.  It was a quick ride from Ca’ d’ Oro to the railway station and I was soon standing in front of the monitor, waiting for them to announce the track for my train.  They waited until the last possible minute to post the track and then I had to dash for it.  First class is usually the first coach but, in this case, it was the ninth.  It took me three stops to work my way down the train to the right car and, when I finally got there, someone was asleep in my seat.  I had to abandon my luggage and walk clear to the other end of the car to find an open spot.  Sometimes I think the reservation system is just a way to extort money from tourists, since no one ever seems to sit in the assigned seats.
Once I got to an unoccupied seat, it was only another half hour until we arrived in Verona where I needed to change trains.  I sat on the platform, feeding cookie crumbs to some sparrows, for an hour before boarding my train for Bolzano.  Unfortunately, there was no first class on this train.  At least I didn’t have to worry about finding the correct seat.  I just grabbed one near the door.  The tracks followed a river up a valley between increasingly taller mountains.  This area is famous for rock climbing and there are many exposed rock faces.  The bottom of the valley is planted with vineyards.  As we made our way up the valley, the architecture and town names became more and more German.  People speaking German on the train were not carrying big suitcases.  They are locals.  This area has only been Italian since 1919.  Before that, it was part of Austria.

I am staying in a youth hostel in Bolzano.  It was billed as the nicest youth hostel in Italy and is only costing me 20.50 Euros a night.  It is close to the train station and is nice enough.  I am sharing a room with three other women whose idea of how to maintain privacy in a difficult situation is to never speak a word.  I have the top bunk.  It was a bit of a challenge to make the bed, since the lower bunk is at a right angle to the top one and the top one is high.  I must have looked like a fish flopping around on a dock, but I managed and there was no one there to see.  There is a comfortable common room downstairs with free Wi-Fi, which is actually better than sitting in a hotel room without a decent chair.  I can get a cappuccino for 40 cents and a bottle of water for 35.  It’s a deal and makes up for (some of) my splurges along the way.  It’s an experience, anyway.


I was exhausted when I arrived.  I’m not sure if this was because I hadn’t slept much the night before or because I didn’t get any coffee but, whatever the reason, I took a four hour nap.  It was sixish when I woke up.  I went out for a walk to get the lay of the land.  Bolzano had a small old section and tons of new construction.  There are cranes everywhere.  The main square is pretty and the surrounding views are spectacular.  I wandered around for an hour or so and then went in search of that precious commodity – dark beer.  Bolzano is a place with that perfect blend of Italian food and German beer.  There were beer gardens in abundance.  I chose a brew pub.  They looked at me askance when I ordered a big dunkelsbier, but I wasn’t about to be discouraged.  I enjoyed my beer with a bowl of onion soup made with beer and tasty rye bread, accompanied by a lovely salad of endive, goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes.  I was served a basket of rolls flavored with anise, rye, sesame seeds and poppy seeds.

Back at the hostel, I settled down for an evening of working on my blog and chatting with Scott.  The curfew here is 4 am.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was the last one in bed when I returned to my room just after 11:00.  It was quiet as a tomb outside of some traffic noise.

Bolzano – Day 52 – Sunday

About 4:15 am, I was awakened by a strong earthquake that seemed to go on and on.  There was another one at 5 something.  Despite having been the last one to bed, I was the first one up at 7:30.  I am always motivated to get up early when I have to compete for a shower in the morning.  Why is it that you always drop things when you are trying to be quiet?  I finally left them alone when I went down to breakfast at 8:00.  I guess I’m the bad roommate.

The museum didn’t open until 10:00, so I hung out and worked on my blog for a while after breakfast.  When I thought it would be open, I wandered over to the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology.  This is the museum that houses the corpse of the 5300 year old man that was discovered frozen in a glacier in 1991.  Unfortunately, when I got there the two floors with the interesting exhibits were closed because they were refreshing the displays.  This was a shame because the floors that were open were better done than most of the museums I have seen here.

After the museum fiasco, I walked back to the Funivia del Renon, a cable car that whisks you 4,000 feet up into the mountains to the village of Oberbozen.  Oberbozen looked dead and it was my plan to walk to the next village, Klobenstein, for lunch.  Sigmund Freud and his wife walked this path on their wedding anniversary and today it is referred to as the “Freudepromenade.”  Well, if you take the right path, that is.  I missed a turn somewhere and ended up tramping over hill and dale.  This wasn't entirely bad thing because I saw a lot of beautiful scenery that I would otherwise have missed.

  I finally made my way to Klobenstein.   The views were spectacular and all the wildflowers were blooming.  It looked like something straight out of the Sound of Music.  It was hard not to break out in song.  Once I climbed out of the gondola in Oberbozen, I might as well have been in Austria.  German is definitely the dominant language up there and things are organized in German fashion.  There are lots of walking paths with arrows pointing the way all over the place.  The entire area is filled with resort hotels where people can stay between hikes and they are building more at an alarming rate.  It was clearly not high season yet and most of the restaurants were closed.  I even saw an electric VW van.  Why don't we get those?  It says, "California," right on the side.

I finally got to Klobenstein.  It was a small place, although not as small as Lichtenstern, which I walked through without noticing.  I stopped at one of the few open restaurants and ordered some kind of unidentified dumplings for lunch.  Their only concessions to Italianness were their red, white and green colors.   They were warm and filling.  The weather deteriorated rapidly while I was eating lunch, so I skipped coffee and raced off back to Oberbozen, hoping to get there before it started to rain.

OMG!  This Is Where They Come From
On the way back, I made sure to take the Freude-promen-ade, which was much better for hurrying.  Hiking trails here have the annoying habit of being labeled with the number of minutes it takes to get somewhere, rather than the distance.  I find this rather useless because the number of minutes it takes to get somewhere depends so much on your pace and how often you get lost and stop to take pictures.  I believe that these estimates are made by maniacal Germans with walking sticks.  It usually takes me about twice as long.  I walk pretty fast, but I get lost and take a lot of pictures.  I scurried back to Oberbozen, however, without taking any wrong turns and managed to beat the estimate by 10 minutes.  Still, it had started to sprinkle before I got there.

It was only 4:00 and I was in no hurry to rush back to the hostel, so I ducked into a café near the cable car station to get out of the rain.  I had wanted to order a sgroppino (lemon gelato, proseco and vodka) at lunch, but passed because I needed to hurry.  With time to burn, I ordered one at the café.  My friend, Savannah, had advised me not to miss out on this treat and she was correct.  It was second only to the lemon gelato and limoncello parfait that I had in Rome.  Now, a sgroppino made with limoncello instead of vodka, hmmm….  When I master the art of making limoncello, I will have to try that.

When I couldn’t nurse my sgroppino any longer (a second one seemed like a bad idea), I was forced to pay my bill and dash through the (now pouring) rain to the cable car.  It was an exciting ride down the mountain through the rain.  I had to write off the pictures I had hoped to take.  It was hard to see anything through the raindrops on the glass and the clouds were low.  It wasn’t raining any less down in Bolzano, either.  Fortunately, it wasn’t very far to the hostel and I darted from awning to awning all the way back.  After making a brief stop in my room to shed my wet clothes and pack as much as possible, I settled into the common area with my computer and a coffee.