Sunday, September 28, 2008

Buon giorno from Bellagio (Italy report, part IV)

Tuesday, September 23

This morning we awoke to light rain. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and then took a brisk walk around town. I spent the day writing postcards, uploading pictures and working on my trip journal and reading. Robert read for a while then left to have a panini sandwich at Caffé Vecchio Borga.

In the afternoon we wandered over to the Internet Point for a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres. We ended up staying there for a while, enjoying a nice visit with the owner and other travelers in the bar area, and we ate enough of their delicious antipasto spread to count it as dinner.


Stopping back at our favorite gelato shop, we bought scoops of cinnamon and pistachio gelato. Robert took me on a long walk to the Lago di Lecco side of Bellagio, where he had been yesterday. The night was very dark, but the cobbled and walled path was well lit. This little area was very quiet and charming with a much more local feel and a lovely harbor.

Today was a very uneventful but much-needed ‘down day.’

Wednesday, September 24

Our last full day in Italy!

We ate another wonderful breakfast in the Hotel Central sunroom. My standard by now was a croissant with strawberry jam, yogurt and either tea or caffé latte (espresso with a LOT of steamed milk). Boy, do I love the yogurt in Europe; it seems so much tangier than what I can buy in the States. Robert usually had granola with milk, some meat or cheese and a caffé latte. We always enjoyed comparing touring notes over breakfast with other guests staying at the Hotel Centrale, usually our friends from Maryland and the three other couples traveling with them.

We took some extra rolls from breakfast and stopped at Gilardoni Alimentari for some more of their delicious fresh pesto, a Coke and a bottle of water.


Then we boarded the 10:30 ferry to Cadenabbia, just across the lake from Bellagio, near Villa Carlotta. We had seen a church perched high above the lake and had learned from a couple we met at dinner that there was a nice walking trail that led to it.

Town of Cadenabbia on the left with the church of San Martino high above on the right

After disembarking in Cadenabbia, we saw signs pointing the way to Chiesa di San Martino.


We followed the arrows up little alleyways, and just a few blocks from the lake, we began to have a sense of being far away from the bustling crowds of tourists. Wandering down the little cobbled walkways of the town of Griante, we passed very few others until we came upon a truck selling cheeses, where some locals were crowded around its counter purchasing their selections.


Church in the distance

Soon we entered a more rural area with some cows grazing in a fenced hillside meadow, and we encountered a wizened Italian woman fussing and gesturing with her cane at a herd of goats and a dog she was leading down the path (only the dog seemed to be remotely listening to her).


I wish this picture had sound! The dog (right) is heading the right way; the goats are not


Our trail continued up and up and we began to mark our progress by the increasingly distant view of the lake as well as the Stations of the Cross that were set at intervals along the trail. (I’m not sure I would be motivated to hike an hour to church every Sunday, but I could appreciate how the isolated walk, with its beautiful views and these Stations of the Cross with their mosaic pictures and scripture verses could be a wonderful preparation for worship.)


I began to get warm and was wishing I’d brought something to pull my hair back. Robert stopped and pulled off several pieces of vine and braided them together into something for me to use as a ponytail holder. I was so impressed! The Eagle Scout skills came in handy yet again.



About two-thirds of the way up, we came to a small chapel that seemed to be a memorial to area soldiers who had died in World War I and II. This was a nice place to stop for a minute and admire the view.



We were fascinated by this beautiful villa and its impeccable grounds

This fellow was running down the path wearing a Speedo and hiking boots - the picture does not nearly do justice to his *style!* To the right is a Station of the Cross, with another in the distance behind our Iowa friends

After we'd been on the trail for slightly more than an hour, the Chiesa di San Martino came into view. We opened a small iron gate to the church grounds and then climbed up to the church itself. The building was much smaller than it appeared from the lake. We were disappointed that we were not able to go inside, but we could look through a tiny window and see that the interior was rustic but pretty.


We staked out a spot on the hill for our picnic and sat down to enjoy our pesto and bread. The view was spectacular!




Another couple offered to take our picture, and we ended up hiking back down with them. They were from Des Moines, but he was born, raised and educated in Texas. We had a lovely visit with them, and the walk back to the lake passed very quickly.

Arriving back in Cadenabbia, we decided to walk to the neighboring town of Tremezzo and catch the hydrofoil (“rapido”) to the town of Como at the far south end of the lake. At the dock we ran into the three couples traveling with our Maryland friends and had a nice conversation with them while we all awaited our boats.

Waiting for the hydrofoil

The ride down to Como was beautiful. I especially liked seeing Villa Balbianello from the lake.


Lake Como became more populated and congested as we approached the town of Como.

We got off the boat and walked around Como for just about a half an hour. Como was much larger than any of the other towns on the lake and had a definite urban feel. There was a nice pedestrian-only area with some upscale shops and a large duomo (church), but I much preferred the smaller, quainter towns.



We climbed back aboard the “rapido” boat and returned to Bellagio.

"Rapido" (hydrofoil)

Upon returning to the Hotel Centrale, we stopped to talk to Giacomo, the owner, about our impending departure in the morning. He kindly looked up the hydrofoil and train schedules and made arrangements for his son, Marcelo, to bring breakfast to our room that night since we would be leaving before the appointed breakfast hour of 8:30.

View from our terrace

Terrace off our room

We had dinner at a restaurant called Baba Yaga that we had seen while walking to Punto Spartivento. We were pleasantly surprised to find two parties from our hotel sitting on either side of us: a young couple from Australia on a five-week holiday in Europe and two of the couples traveling with our Maryland friends. Our dinner was salad and pizzas and some local wine. It was delicious. We had wonderful conversations with those sitting around us, finding even more than a mutual love of travel to connect all of us. One of my favorite things about Bellagio was all of the nice people we met who were also visiting there.

Pizza at Baba Yaga

We returned to our room quite content with our meal and our time at Lake Como and turned our thoughts to packing for home. We found a wonderful tray of breakfast foods and a tiny coffee maker on our bed.


Thursday, September 25

We awoke early so that we could catch the 6:45 rapido to Como. There were a few other early bird travelers on our boat, but the majority of its passengers were high school students from around the lake heading to class (I learned that most of the towns on the lake had an elementary school, but the only high school was in the town of Como). They were a lively group, and it was fun to watch how they had different sections of the boat staked out; most of the kids headed straight for a particular area as soon as they boarded.

Arriving in Como around 7:30, we hurried to the train station (about a ten-minute walk) to catch a 7:47 train for Malpensa. We changed trains in Saronno and arrived at the airport at 9:07. Our flight was at 10:35, but fortunately we did not encounter any long lines at check-in or security and had plenty of time before our departure.

We flew from Milan to JFK, had a four-hour layover there where I had some of the worst nachos ever created (lesson learned: don’t satisfy cravings for Mexican food until back in Texas), and then arrived back in Dallas around 9:30. By the time we got home we’d been traveling 23 hours! All well worth it, though, for the privilege of visiting such beautiful places and the joy of seeing our children again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dots!

Today my *baby* turns 11.


This morning

Happy Birthday, Dots! You are such a delight and bring us lots of joy.

PS We got home from Italy last night (just in time for one last ten-year-old hug, Dots told me). In some moment of either questionable sanity or extreme jetlag, I agreed to a slumber party tonight. Final installment of my trip report coming soon, assuming I survive the evening.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Buon Giorno from Bellagio (Italy report, part III)

Saturday, September 20

Last night I learned that the Internet Point in Vernazza had 24 hour WiFi, so I purchased a login name and password. This morning I took my laptop bright and early and sat on a step outside the café and uploaded pictures and worked on my blog. It ended up being a very rewarding time as I was able to watch the town come to life. There were men hauling concrete up the steep steps next to me using a clever little hand-steered machine with bulldozer treads that could climb the stairs. Several cats lazed happily on a mat in the sun, and some locals chatted animatedly over morning cups of espresso at the café across the street.


We packed our bags, bade a sad goodbye to Albergo Barbara and Vernazza and caught the 10:27 train to Monterosso.


From Monterosso we took another train to Milan Centrale (pronounced “Chen-trolley” – I love that word!) then transferred to a train bound for Varenna, on Lake Como. This last leg only took about an hour, with the last 30 minutes running alongside Lake Como and affording stunningly beautiful scenery.

Arriving in Varenna, we pulled our suitcases down a hill to the ferry dock. We had about 15 minutes before the ferry was due, and as luck would have it, there was a gelato shop directly across from the ferry dock.


The ride across the lake to the town of Bellagio was beautiful. Lake Como was surrounded by mountains on all sides, and little villages were tucked into little coves and up hills.


Bellagio from the ferry

We disembarked in Bellagio around 3:00. The streets were bustling with tourists. We pulled our bags down the lakeside promenade past glitzy shops and sidewalk cafés to Salita Plinio. The *streets* off the main promenade were tiny alleys comprised of steep steps, and Hotel Centrale was situated about halfway up one of these.



The hotel had a beautiful quiet courtyard with a stone path leading to the entrance.


Giacomo, the owner, greeted us warmly on our arrival and showed us to our room. Our room was clean and spacious with pretty furnishings and a lovely terrace with a “between building” lake view.

We enjoyed strolling around Bellagio, exploring the little shops and alleyways, before stopping for a good dinner of salad, pizza margherita and red wine at Ristorante Antico Pozza.


Sunday, September 21

Hotel Centrale had a lovely sunroom where they served breakfast each morning.



After we ate a leisurely breakfast and visited with a couple from Maryland, we caught a batello (slow boat) across the lake to the town of Tremezzo.

Our first destination was Villa Carlotta, a spectacular lakeside house dating back to 1690.



We toured the house on our own, which was nice (I especially liked a sculpture of Cupid and Psyche displayed prominently in one of the salons), but the real star of Villa Carlotta was its extensive gardens. One of the villa’s owners had amassed a collection of plants and trees from all over the world, and we saw azaleas, rhododendron, bamboo, palms, even a very large Sequoia tree.



We spent at least an hour exploring the gardens before setting out on foot for the town of Lenno.

This walk was a mixture of beautiful lake views, lovely private villas, quaint towns, parks with groups of children playing and laughing, and harrowing stretches of road with absolutely no sidewalk or shoulder and scores of speeding Italian cars, buses and motorcycles that were heedless of foolish foreign pedestrians. We laughed about it later, but at the time that part of the experience did not seem too amusing.



We were intriqued by this track used to pull a boat from the water to covered storage


Shortly after we were almost run over by a passing bus, Robert made me laugh by pointing to this place and asking, "How about stopping for some nice refreshing toast?"

This stretch of road had a *decent* walking space, especially compared to the bridge ahead!

Upon arriving in Lenno (about four miles from Tremezzo), we ran across the Maryland couple from breakfast. We visited with them for a bit before heading up to Villa Balbianello.

The pedestrian access is only available a couple of days a week; other days visitors arrive by boat directly below the villa

The walk to Villa Balbianello was quite long and involved a lot of steep gravel roads.


Wow, was it worth it, though! I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.

This is part of the villa; there is more down below

Built in the late 18th century on the tip of the Lavedo promontory, the villa was a gorgeous yellow stucco structure with meticulously manicured grounds and vast elegant terraces with stunning views of Lake Como.


The interior of the house was accessible only by private tour, but we were able to peek into most rooms and admire their handsome furnishings.


A scene in Star Wars, Episode II was filmed here (it was Padua’s estate in the movie).

We boarded a 5:00 batello in Lenno and returned to Bellagio.


We ran into our friends from Maryland again while walking around Bellagio and also in the Internet café by our hotel.

The Internet café had a gorgeous dark-paneled bar on its ground level and served large plates of local antipasto (meats, cheese, roasted tomatoes, etc.) with the purchase of a glass of wine. Our Maryland friends pulled up some chairs at a table with us, and we shared stories and compared travel notes.



Dinner was simple but tasty bowls of pasta at Caffé Vecchio Borga.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in a church and caught the tail end of a lovely harpsichord and violin concert.

Monday, September 22

This morning Robert and I did some shopping in Bellagio. The town was amazingly quiet, a nice change from the crowds that clogged the streets over the weekend.


We stopped at Gilardoni Alimentari, a tiny grocery store and meat and cheese shop, and picked up some bread, fresh pesto, roast beef and cheese. We walked north of town to Punto Spartivento, which was situated at the end of a peninsula with dramatic views of the lake and mountains: the perfect spot for a picnic! We stayed here quite a while, soaking up the sunshine and admiring the scenery.



Returning to our hotel, I elected to sit by the lake and read while Robert set off on a hike above Bellagio and to some nearby towns. The weather was beautiful – clear and cool – and perfect for being outside.




I read 84, Charing Cross Road, a gem of a book that had me alternating between laughter and tears.

I had booked 7:30 dinner reservations in Varenna, and we took a 5:30 ferry over there. We explored the charming, sleepy “old town” area and then stopped for a drink by the lake.



Il Cavatappi was a tiny restaurant tucked back off the water on a quiet pedestrian street. It had been highly recommended by several sources who also indicated that tables were hard to come by, so I’d made our reservation several weeks ago. Sure enough, there were only four tables when we were there (three parties of two and one party of six), and at least twenty people must have stopped by after we were seated, only to be turned away and told the restaurant was booked for the rest of the week.



This was truly a dream meal. Only two people worked at Il Cavatappi, the chef, Mario, and a girl who served the tables. Mario frequently came out from the kitchen to make recommendations and to inquire about everyone’s experience. Our food was delicious. I had a fabulous ‘salad del Mario’ with lettuce, apple, bacon and a tasty mustard dressing.


Robert had the salad mista but wished he’d ordered my salad, I think! We shared an order of pasta with fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil, which was also wonderful. For our main courses, I had pork with a leek-anise sauce, which was fine but not nearly as succulent as the beef that Robert ordered. We were nowhere close to hungry for *dolce,* but I could not resist Mario’s crème caramel, my very favorite dessert. It didn’t disappoint.

We were surprised that it was after 10 when we paid our check; the meal had been delightfully paced. The last ferries back to Bellagio were at 10:35 and 12:55, so despite needing to WALK back to Bellagio in order to work off our delicious meal, we hurried back to the dock.

(The boats here are interesting. They are very prompt, pulling up to the dock, letting passengers off and on and then departing, all in less than about two minutes. If you aren’t there waiting to board, you will “miss the boat.”)