Saturday, April 08, 2017

3/23/17- A fitting end in Venice

That'll cost you 100 Euros

I guess it makes sense to spend the last chapter of our Italian journey in the town most commonly associated with this great nation.  Ah...Venice, the floating city that has become somewhat of a themepark.  I wonder what the  Doge would think of what his town has become.

I have admit that I've always been biased against this Venice.  Something about the contrived romance of this place and the thousands of cruise-ship day trippers have always tarnished the  incredible history and architectural beauty that is available for those patient enough to wade through the insane crowds.

The interior of the Basilica
My complacency towards the floating city, our exhausting pace, the potential crowds, and the fact that we had an early morning flight home had me thinking that we should just bypass the hassle of Venice all together. Fortunately my dad was insistent that we at least log half a day exploring its canals and sites.

We checked into the Courtyard at around 8am and dropped off the car around 9.  Both actions were handled with surprising ease. I was glad to be free the car and I was very glad for the US customer service that comes with the Marriott.  With those two tasks complete we set out on the vaporetto and headed to Saint Marks, our first stop.

Our plan was to start far out and make our way back.  We also figured that Saint Marks would be the busiest area and it made the most sense to hit that earlier rather than later. The crowds were bad when we arrived but they would be so much worse as the day progressed.  The big attraction for me?  The Basilica at Saint Marks.

Check out the details on these beauties
Since we didn't visit Ravenna this would be my only real chance to take in some Byzantine art and architecture that is captured within the Church.  Also inside were some of the finest treasures won/stolen during the various crusades.  A personal highlight was the famed Horses of Saint Marks.  These date back to Rome and were pilfered by Venice from Constantinople.  Napoleon also managed to steal these for a brief time for France.

The Church visit took us into lunch. We didn't have high expectations regarding dining so we just located the first trattoria off the square.  It didn't really matter because most of the places are the same.  They all offer moderately well executed menu containing the highlights of Italy.  They are smart and know that this is what the demands of tourism dictate.  The restaurant also featured a rare and very much in demand commodity, a clean bathroom.

                                                                                                    Refreshed and full we embarked on one of those Rick Steve's walking tours.  It promised to take us by some hidden gems and off the beaten path.  I was game so long as it offered the prospect of avoiding some of the crowds.  The walk took us through a few notable places like the Opera House, original Church, and ultimately the Rialto Bridge.

At this point of the day I had seen enough.  I was worried about making sure we could get things wrapped up for our departure and I felt like we had seen the best landmarks.  I wouldn't have minded to stay longer after the crowds had left but it would put my little plan in jeopardy.

We made our way back to Roma plaza but the closer we got the slower we walked.  We still had some afternoon moments left and we didn't want to prematurely leave just to assuage my anxiousness to keep my arbitrary plan.

We got back to the hotel around 5pm thankful that I gave the city a somewhat honest try.  Unlike many other places in Italy I think one visit to Venice was enough for my lifetime.  I enjoyed what I saw but not enough to tolerate what it has become.

As we finished packing it dawned on me that this trip really was coming to an end.  For the first time in several days I was able to replace feelings of Italian related travel stress and longing for my family with a true sense of gratitude for the opportunity to come back to Italy as well as a sense of regret and longing for not seeing more.  Dad and I had been planning this trip for over a year and it was astonishing at how quickly it passed by.  This trip be remembered for years to come with fondness and a sense of wonder for how amazing our little world really is.

Goodbye Venice and farewell Italyl

Thursday, April 06, 2017

3/22/17- A day of repose

Sorry Andrea, we'll hit this up next time

Our initial plan today was to head over to Vicenza and Verona to see notable landmarks like Andrea Palladio's Villa la Rotonda, the Teatro Olimpico, and the Arena di Verona.  A month ago if you would have asked me what day I was most anticipating it would have been this one.   But the rigors of the last several days had worn on us and we decided to bypass these sites for a more local option.

We did have a nice and more convenient consolation prize.  After a nice and long breakfast we hopped in the car and decided to take the scenic drive around Lake Garda.  A hazy fog was still our constant companion but we figured that we could still uncover some scenic views.

Our drive took us up the east shore. Most of the road hugs the shoreline with the notable exception being when you drive through the handful of towns like Garda, Bardolino, Pai, and Castelletto.

The view we would have liked to see
While the visibility didn't allow us to see much of anything what we did see was still worth the drive.  I could only imagine what this would be like on a clear summer day.  We drove by numerous hotels, restaurants, and other destinations that were quietly waiting to fill up during the summer months.

One highlight was to drive through the lakeside road tunnels that served as the setting for the opening sequence in the very underrated James Bond film Quantum of Solace. My favorite Bond flicks always seem to have a scene or two set in Italy.  (For Your Eyes Only- Cortina, Spectre- Rome, Quantum of Solace- Here, Casino Royale- Lake Garda/Venice).

We decided to stop at Riva del Garda for lunch.   It has all of the glamour, beauty, and sophistication as anything on Como.  We took a pleasant stroll around town, contemplated spending 10 euros at the local museum, and got a pretty average lunch at a local cafe.

Instead circling the rest of the lake we opted to turn around and revisit the Olive Oil museum back on the east side.  Unfortunately they were closed for a long lunch or something.  I was really looking forward to getting some good oil pressed from the Pendolino tree.  Disappointed but undaunted we pressed forward to our afternoon destination, Villa dei Cedri.

The healing waters at Cedri

The place is kind of a hotel resort slash thermal spa.  The grounds cover several acres, features multiple pools, and it is very popular with the locals. The waters are naturally warm and have a unique mineral composition that includes silicon, potassium, and magnesium.  Evidently this packs quite the healthy punch.  Good for your skin and good to drink.  We spent a few hours here simply relaxing in the various pools and quietly contemplating the amazing sites that we had seen on this trip.

Sirmione and Catullus at dusk
We eventually roused ourselves and headed back to Sirmione for some more of dad's interviews and our last sunset walk in this magical little town.  The skies finally started to clear and we were able to see a little more of our surroundings. I really love this area and would like to experience it in a future visit, preferably in the summer.

We capped off the day with a nice dinner back at the hotel.  We had an early day tomorrow in Venice and we had a tight schedule to keep if we were both going to wrap up everything logistically speaking and have some time to spend along the Grand Canal.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

3/21/17- The majesty of the Dolomites

How's that for rugged beauty?

We've come a long way humanity
We have covered a lot of incredible ground on this trip but for some reason both of us were extra excited for the opportunity to drive up into the rugged Dolomites.  For me it was the chance to explore an underappreciated part of Italy that is often overlooked by Americans.  For my dad it was the thrill of clean mountain air and a scenic drive.

Our journey first took us through Bolzano.  We wanted to soak in the essence of a town that is more closely aligned with Austria/Germany and visit Otzi, the world's most famous ice man.

Here's a few thoughts from the area.

Wait, is this Austria or Italy

  • There was a general sense of order here that doesn't necessarily exist in the rest of Italy.  
  • It is a thrill to drive on the Autobahn, or at least the Italian/Austrian equivalent.  The speeds are relatively intense but the system works.  Didn't catch any major traffic and saw no major accidents. 
  • For an 'alpine' town the city is at a surprisingly low altitude at approximately 800 feet above sea level.  As a result is a very mild climate.
  • It seems like there is more German spoken here than Italian.  Also the architecture seems very Bavarian.
  • The museum was fine but I'm not sure Otzi is a big enough draw to merit a visit.  As an alternative go find an old issue of National Geographic with the story of his discovery and consider yourself educated.

After a quick schnitzel we were on the road to Pordoi Pass.  The drive would only cover around 40 miles each way but we would be ascending to about 7,300 feet.  The switchbacks and climb would test the engineering prowess of our little Audi wagon.  We picked up some snacks, polished off the camera lenses, and braced ourselves for some scenery that would as magnificent as anywhere else in the alps.

We drove through a number of verdant and rugged villages as we made our ascent up the mountain.  We had to get to about 5,000 feet before we saw any snow.  These like towns with their bucolic beauty and quaint chalets were as charming as anything we saw in Tuscany.

We encountered our first ski resort once we started to see consistent snow. In fact for the next hour we would consistently drive by upwards of 20 ski resorts.  They were all located pretty conveniently off the road and many seemed to be closely integrated with whatever town we were driving through.  The towns became more sparse, terrain more rugged, and resorts more intense as we continued to climb.

At about 5,500 feet we were finally able to shake the incessant fog/overcast skies that had been dogging our last couple of days.  We were loving what we were seeing and wanted more.

We reached Pordoi in the late afternoon.  We were tempted to drive on to Cortina but we didn't feel comfortable with the weather or the possibility of driving on these roads after dark.  Instead we decided to make the most of the stay and walk around the area.  It was still pretty mild at this altitude.  These seemed like ideal conditions and an excellent location for a long ski trip.  You could literally spend two weeks up here conveniently bouncing between resorts.

We left very satisfied with the drive and grateful to experience this region.  Our only regret was that we didn't start the drive at an earlier hour so that we could have made it to Cortina.  I would love to return to this region some day with a set of skies, some hiking boots, and a mountain bike.

We made it back to Garda for dinner.  We logged a lot of miles in the car today so I was grateful for a chance to meander down the side streets of Sirmione.  We dined at the Trattoria La Fiasca.  The meal was good but the service kind of stiff.  Between the service and the looks we were getting from the locals it felt like we were witnessing the Italian dynamic of the 'bella figura' (them) and the 'bruta figura'(us) being played out.  I'll have to devote a whole separate entry on my thoughts regarding the Italian need to always maintain the bella figura.

We spent the evening with a cup of gelato and the opportunity to take in some more of the town.  I also was able to gawk at some more Italian men's clothes store windows.  Half the the stuff seemed down right offensive, the other half were works of beautiful art.  Don't even ask about the prices.

Other notes and highlights:
  • Italian Tip of the Day-  Do you really want to understand Italian culture?  Read Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini. Think of it as a more accessible version of Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude but with Italians instead of Mexicans as the subject matter.
  • Interesting tidbit- The city of Bolzano and state of South Tyrol is given a huge amount of autonomy and freedom from Italy. It was annexed by Italy after WWI and its inhabitants have never really felt part of the country.
One more photo from the mountains
Bookmark this for a ski trip down the road

Monday, April 03, 2017

3/20/17- On the road to Garda

So many tunnels!

Moving forward to the third stop on our journey.  Up to this point we had been operating at a pretty aggressive pace.  Today we were both looking forward to sleeping in, hopping on the autostrada, and enjoying a leisurely few hours driving through the Po River Valley and Emilia-Romagna.

Before we left we spent some quality time at the Piazza Michelangelo filming some of dad's life history.  I truly enjoyed this segment of the trip and, like the last visit, came to really savor the magic of this city.

The drive, like every drive we've taken, was scenic.  The terrain between Florence and Bologna was more mountainous.  No big deal, I was raised along the Wasatch front.  What was very surprising and pretty cool was the sheer amount of tunnels we encountered.  We like to drive along mountains in the US, they like to drive through them.  I guess I now realize why they are so serious about collecting revenue through their toll roads over here.

We arrived in Emilia- Romagna around noon.  This is both the breadbasket and industrial heartland of the country.  I was originally planning a sidetrip in Bologna (Culatello, Balsamico Tradicionale, Mortadella, Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, etc...) to take in this culinary mecca but the last few days had exhausted our sense of adventure.  We opted to avoid stops in Bologna, Modena, and Mantua in favor of an earlier arrival at our hotel in Peschiera del Garda.
The gold standard of cured meats

We arrived at the Hotel Ziba around 1pm.  The place is nice, spacious, and more on par with the boutique hotels we might find back home.  This was our first hotel with an adjoining restaurant, pool, and spa.  Our room wasn't ready when we arrived so we went the the Trattoria bell’italia for a late lunch.

The restaurant had a comfortable and rustic setting and the owners served both Italian and German dishes. It wound up being one of our best meals to date.  It also gave me a chance to try culatello.  It was cut thin and had the sweet musky flavor that it is known for.  I don't know if it was the best cured meat I've had but it was certainly unique.  We also had a very tasty veal shank.

There was a pretty intense fog that greeted us once we reached the Po River Valley. It would follow us all the way up to Garda.  We were originally planning to use our afternoon to drive around the lake and catch some of the scenic roads that were carved into the sides of the mountains that surround the northern portion.  The weather dampened our spirits and kept us closer to home.

This thing dates back to the 13th Century
Instead we drove to Sirmione. It is a small resort town located on a narrow peninsula on the southern end of the lake.    The highlight was the castle and the grotto of Catullus.  The town had a great vibe about it, part historical Italy and part beachside resort.

After leaving Sirmione we drove along some of the southern coast.  This place is built to be the summer family playground for Europe.  There's GardaLand, Hollywood Land, countless hotels, and a bevvy of fast food choices.  In fact, this was as close as we've felt to being in the States.  We were so caught up in the American nostalgia that we opted for a burger at the Steak 'n Shake.

All in all a pretty calm and low key day.  No stressful drives through narrow streets.  No crowded streets or medieval churches.  Just a pleasant day and some rest prior to launching the last legs of our trip.

Other notes and highlights:

  • Italian tip of the day- Take the time to stroll through a local grocery store.  It's exactly as you'd picture it and can help you understand why Italy has such a fresh and impressive food culture.
  • Food Highlight-  Naturally the cullatello. We also had a great Bolognese with fresh noodles and not dried.  I'm not an 'al dente' kind of guy.
  • Random Observation-  We didn't see much penetration of US culture in the cities we visited with the very notable exception of the south shore of Garda.  I wonder if it because this area is geared towards European families and it is just easier to peddle things like Disney, Burger King, and Southern California.  

Sunday, April 02, 2017

3/19/17- Assisi and more Tuscany

The narrow streets of Assisi

Decided to hit the road this morning.  We wanted to visit Assisi and we also had some unfinished business with  the Tuscan hills.

The weather was a little cooler and cloudier then previous days but nothing that could hinder our experience.  I was personally excited to drive by Umbria and Lake Trasimene.

Students of Roman history will recognize the lake as one of the key battles of the Second Punic War.  This was one of the early routs that Hannibal put on Rome.  We all know how the war turned out but at the moment of this battle Carthage really had Rome on her heels.

North shore of the lake, somewhere a battle took place
Just past the lake was Perugia.  This is yet another great town that gets overlooked by tourists facing limited time and an embarrassment of great Italian options.  All we managed to do was quickly drive through and briefly ponder the Amanda Knox story. A beautiful town and area that will have to be explored on a future visit.

Just as we were passing Perugia we could see the hilltop town of Assisi off in the distance. The hills of Umbria are every bit as magnificent as Tuscany and they even have some of the Apennine Mountains which bring a different kind of beauty.  

The view from the basilica
Our primary goal with this visit?  A chance to visit the region in which the great St. Francis preached as well as to catch a Sunday service at the basilica that honors his name and remains. If you have a moment you should spend time appreciating the life he led and the important reforms his example wrought upon the Catholic Church.  Experts posit that the reforms that resulted from Francis postponed the Reformation by a century.

We parked on the Northeast part of the town and walked through it to the basilica.  It was somewhat steep and difficult for dad but it offered the chance to see one of the most charming Italian towns in person.

The narrow streets and town were straight out of a postcard.  But the brown stone style of most of the homes and building seem to have set it apart from other towns we've visited.  A real highlight was seeing the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which was built out of the Roman remains of a temple built to honor the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Walking to the upper basilica
At the end of our brief pilgrimage was the grand basilica.  It has a prominent place at the end of the hill that the town is built.  The crowds were somewhat light and the entryway had been changed in light of the potential threat for terrorism.  We spent some time in the lower basilica where the remains of Francis are stored.  This is one of the best examples of Romanesque art and architecture.  The upper basilica, on the other hand, is larger, brighter, and Gothic.  Students of architecture must really appreciate the opportunity to savor these to styles side by side. Another highlight was conducting a
video interview with dad about his mission experience.

After a brief lunch we were back on the road returning to Tuscany.  Our hope was to visit Montepulciano and, time permitting Siena.  We felt physically and spiritually nourished with an appetite to get in a few more spots before our departure in the morning to Lake Garda.

View from Montepulciano
We had originally planned to just spend maybe 30 minutes at Montepulciano.  The real goal was Siena.  But our plans soon changed upon arrival.  We didn't expect to be as amazed by the views as we were and we didn't plan on stumbling upon a wonderful chocolate festival that was taking place at the town square.  This was too memorable to pass up.  We called an audible and decided to forgo the Piazza del Campo in favor of more time here.

The festival
We strolled the stalls and decided which chocolates to try.  I favored the pistachio crepes while my dad offered the old school options bathed in hazelnuts.  As we were savoring our treats we were greeted by the increasingly intense beat of drums.  Soon enough a group of young men and a few young women rounded a corner and began their rhythmic march to the rostra in the square.  They were dressed in some kind of traditional garb and were followed by flag bearers wearing something similar.   The event reached a crescendo with the drum beats signaling the ceremonial tossing and catching of the flags.  I don't know much about this ceremony.  I think something similar
was captured in the mediocre film, 'Under the Tuscan Sun'.

With dusk fast approaching we reluctantly decided to get in the car and leave this magical place.  We didn't want to navigate these roads after dark and we had hoped to visit one more site on our way back to Florence.  We didn't  get a chance to see Siena but we did get a nice consolation prize in the form of Monteriggioni.  Not much more than a small walled fortification it was once a strategic outpost in the centuries old struggle between Florence and Siena.

The day ended and our peaceful feelings were interrupted by some evening traffic outside of town.  Things got worse when our navigation system took us on an incorrect detour through some dark and narrow country and city roads somewhere on the outskirts of Florence.  That final 5 minute drive took about a half hour as we struggled to find a correct route home.  I will look on with great fondness many things from our time in Italy, driving these narrow streets will not be one of them.

  • Italian tip of the day-  Spend a few extra minutes planning your entry points into these cities and towns.  You will typically be prohibited to drive right up to the landmark so find a parking area that gets you access to your destination.
  • Food highlight-  Those pistachio crepes.  The white knuckle drive home kind of killed our appetite for dinner.
  • Italian point of frustration- No surprise here, it is regarding the Italian road system.  Things are fine on the autostrada but the moment you head off into town or on a country road things become unnecessarily complicated and confusing.  Many roads have multiple names and many navigation systems are confused by the many roads that can potentially get you to your destination.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

3/18/17- The streets of Florence

How's that for a view?

Dad has been sleeping in lately so I took advantage of his slumber and got an early start on Florence.  I loaded up on my Rick Steve's podcasts and headed down to the old city using the super scenic viale michelangelo.

Before I proceed any further let me drop a surprising tip.  If you're willing to make the minimal sacrifice of getting out the door before 7am in just about any Italian town you will literally have the streets to yourself.  This is amazing when you consider that three hours later you are literally drowning in a sea of humanity.

The lesser known and more effeminate David
After spending some good time savoring a peaceful view of the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo I was off to the Bargello museum.  This place doesn't have the volume of the Uffizi but it also doesn't have its crowds either.  It is a great place to quietly get up close to some amazing works from Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti.  My hour was spent in quiet solitude quietly contemplating their genius.  Another highlight was to see the bronze door entries from Brunelleschi & Ghiberti that were said to have launched the renaissance.

From the museum I headed west to the Piazza della Signoria the proverbial but much more cool 'Times Square' of Florence.  The place is much more magnificent and enchanting when you aren't shoulder to shoulder with tourists.  I had another hour to kill before meeting my dad so I decided to wander the nearby streets in search of some good pictures and a lampredotto sandwich.  I was about half way through my stroll when, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the crowds emerged.

Starting to lose track of these buildings
I met up with my dad at the Ponte Vecchio and we were soon being shuttled around on a little golf cart by a local guide.  This was a good opportunity for my dad to cover a lot of ground and for me to get some local insight into some areas that I hadn't explored before.  Of particular interest was learning about the devastation caused by the 1967 flood of the Arno and the historical burials at the Santa Croce.

The tour was followed by a pleasant and solid meal at Osteria de’ Peccatori.  Between the two of us we played it safe with pizza, ravoili, and  wild boar tagliatelle. My dad is programmed to require sweets after each meal so he had me hunt down some gelato at Vivoli. It was there that I stumbled upon my new favorite flavor, rice.  

We managed to have a pleasant afternoon as well, crowds not withstanding.  I took my dad over to visit the gallery of artists selling their work outside of the Uffizi.  We spent some more time wondering how Brunelleschi got all of those bricks to cooperate on the creation of the duomo.  We even had a few nice moments walking down the Arno.  A very fulfilling if not somewhat exhausting day in the city.

The better looking David
We didn't have a lot of energy going into the evening hours so we played it close for dinner.  After consecutive nights at Da Ruggero we opted for another alternative down the same street, Cotta a Putino.  It was known primarily as a pizza joint but I was in the mood for something else.  They were
playing some old school US jazz which brought a smile to my dad's facce. I let the waitress talk me into their 'hamburger' which was essentially a beef patty with some tomatoes laid over some lettuce.  I made a poor decision and spent the rest of the meal picking at my dad's seafood.

  • Italian tip of the day- Don't exchange money at the exchange houses in these towns, make due with the foreign transaction fees on your credit card.  I tried to change in $100 and was blown away that the rate was about 25% higher than the current exchange rate going.  
  • Food highlight-  The rice gelato at Vivoli or the Wild Boar ragout.  
  • Things we regretted not doing today- I wish we would have visited the Eataly marketplace and I wish we would have gotten a custom belt made down in the leather district.

More information on the doors in the Bargello