Sunday, May 08, 2005

Last days and home

It is Sunday, May 8, and we are back in Vermont.

We left Solferino on Wednesday. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm with clear skies. We drove to Orta San Giulo, which is on Lake Orta just about an hour’s drive north of Milan, and checked into the Villa Crespi. The hotel was built in 1879 by a Sig. Crespi who made his fortune in trading cotton and during his travels to the middle east had fallen in love with the “Persian” style of architecture and the home he built clearly reflects this passion.

We wandered around town for a bit and got caught in a rainstorm but waited it out in a little café overlooking the lake.

On Thursday we drove to Stresa, just about 15 kms over the mountains to the east and on the shore of Lake Maggiore. We took the cable car (“funivia”) up to the top of Mt. Mottarone (we had tried to do that in September of 2001 when we were in Stresa but it wasn’t working then) and then had lunch in Stresa. Afterwards we paid a visit to our friend Rosaria, who runs La Cambusa wine shop, and spent a wonderful afternoon talking about wine, food and sipping a bit of wine and eating cheese and bread in the back of their shop.

The next morning we checked out after having breakfast and drove to Milan’s Malpensa airport. We had called on Monday to arrange our car drop-off and that went very smoothly, taking all of about 5 minutes and we were on our way inside the terminal. We checked in and then had some lunch while we waited to board a 12:20 flight to JFK. Our good fortune continued with us: we were given two exit row seats and could not believe how much room we had – rather like our own tiny compartment. Time went by quickly as they showed 4 movies. We touched down in NYC a couple of minutes late, grabbed a cab and went to Penn Station where we bought a couple of tickets on Amtrak for Providence, RI. When we arrived in Providence it was about 9:30 and Susan’s brother Dick was waiting on the station platform for us – and drove us to their house where we soon crashed to get ready for our last leg of the return home, the drive to Vermont Saturday morning.

We are fortunate indeed to be able to do something like this. Was it a vacation or was it something not quite as easily categorized?

Whatever it was the real challenge now is for us to try and hold on to the opportunities given us by this experience.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Northern Italy - Lombardia

Our trip from Puglia to northern Italy on Tuesday was non-stop on the autostrada for a cost of 36 euros and took less than 8 hours. We found it most curious that the weather proved much warmer in the north than anywhere in the south, Sicily included, but even with the constant haze we were averse to complaining. We had found sun and heat at last.

The land around Solferino is nearly flat with a mix of agricultural enterprises with industrial (mostly agricultural). For example, just a few kms away from where stayed there was a huge Barilla pasta plant and a large Friskies plant, both within a half km or so of each other. (We thought the connection a bit coincidental.)

Our apartment at Le Sorgive, a large agriturismo complex near Solferino, about 40 minutes west of Verona, is spacious but lacked many kitchen amenities and in fact the cooktop (no oven) itself was finicky to get the burners to work and the overhead lights failed to work. Since we left most of our kitchen implements behind in Siena – those that we purchased locally – we tried eating a couple of meals in our apartment but since we are going to be on the go most of the time have decided to eat out. In addition there were few creature comforts in the space itself: a very small futon-like divan with what appeared to be a torture device built into the seat, some sort of iron bar which when sat upon made a distinct impression (no pun intended) on one’s backside.

Of course two other dynamics also went to work on us: our trip was coming to an end and our time for departing was fast approaching.

We were tired and in no condition to cook so our host suggested a little trattoria in Solferino just a couple of kms away but our first night of dining in northern Italy proved less than exciting: we were greatly disappointed by the poor food and even poorer service.

WEDNESDAY. We had a leisurely morning and after breakfast drove to the nearest train station in nearby Desenzano and took the train into Verona. We strolled, visited the arena and of course stopped by “Casa di Giuletta”, Juliet’s house, which was packed with young kids living out the fiction but even more remarkable were the love notes tacked up on every bit of available wall space and tacked up using gum. Which meant of course that long after the paper had disappeared the gum chunk remained providing future archeologists with a great curiosity I’m sure. We strolled some more and then had lunch before heading back to the train station and home for the evening. We ate at home relying on some of the food which Rosa Tampone had sent with us.

THURSDAY. It was back into Desenzano for a boat excursion around the lake and at 11:00 am we boarded a ferryboat for a leisurely trip around the southern end of Lake Garda. We were back on dry land at 4:30 and Susan went to get her haircut (she had made an appointment before we boarded the ferry). We had another mediocre dinner at another trattoria in Solferino and urge anyone coming to this area to stay away from the food in Solferino!

FRIDAY. Today was a low-key day of sorts. We located a Mail Boxes Etc. in Verona where we plan to ship some things back Monday next. Afterwards we decided to explore nearby Valpolicella. Just north of Verona this is among the best-organized wine-producing areas for marketing their wines to tourists. We went to Masi/Serego Alighieri and tasted an amarone (1999) as well as a recioto (which we bought). We looked for the Quintarelli winery which was listed on the wine-guide map provide by the local enoteca but after an hour or so of searching without results decided to head back to Le Sorgive after first picking up our laundry from a nearby cleaners. That evening we ate at home, a simple tuna and white beans salad.

SATURDAY. We headed for Venice. Originally we had planned to take the train but with the city only an hour or so by autostrada we decided to drive. Moreover, we learned that there is a new multi-storey parking garage on the island now and one can park for 18 euros a day. It was a beautiful morning as we hit the highway about 7:30 and zipped right past our exit for Venice – very poor signage – and quickly realized we were heading toward Trieste. Anyway, we got off at the first exit and made our u-turn and were soon sliding into the parking garage at Tronchetto, just off the cruise ship docks in Venice. We no sooner pulled into the garage than a guy in a golf cart, looking rather official of course, asked us if we wanted a special, reserved VIP parking space for 25 euros. We said no thanks and soon had parked the car. On our way out of the garage we stopped at the “tabacchi” shop where we bought our all-day water (“vaporetto”) tickets. (They cost 10.50 euros each and are clearly worth the price since they allow unlimited on/off use of all the water buses for an entire day. Each ticket is otherwise 5 euros. One of the few really good deals in Venice.)

We got on the no. 82 water bus for San Marco and in about 30 minutes had disembarked and were plunged into crowds numbering in the tens of thousands (surely). Nevertheless, we soon found our way to San Marcos (St. Marks) piazza and had sat down at one of the numerous cafes for caffe and dolce.

We strolled away from the piazza and for the next couple of hours commenced to get lost in the backstreets and canals of Venice. It is an island after all and one cannot get lost for long – of course one could go around in circles until they perished from exhaustion and hunger. We tried not to dwell on that however.

In any case, we eventually found our way back to the tourist throngs and decided to stand in line to go inside St. Mark’s basilica (worth the wait). Just when you think you’ve seen about every church in Italy you step into something like St. Mark’s and realize you have so much yet to see and learn; a fantastic thing to see indeed.

We took a long boat ride to Murano and strolled past several thousand shops selling pretty much the same kinds of Murano glass objects – or at least a variation of the same things. Actually a few shops did show some originality in the artwork but they were few and far between.

We headed back to St. Mark’s, had an aperitivo and listened to a couple of dueling orchestras in the piazza before grabbing a boat back to parking garage. We decided to not go straight home but instead drove to nearby Desenzano, a pretty little town on the southern end of Lake Garda (where we had caught the boat on Wednesday) and had a wonderful late dinner at the Otium wine bar restaurant in town.

SUNDAY. May Day, a major holiday in Italy and Europe of course falls on a Sunday so things are, well, sort of normal for a Sunday. Anyway, we went into Mantova (Mantua), which is only about 40 kms from where we are staying. This is definitely one city worth stopping to see with a lovely historic center and a great lakeside location with plenty of paths along the lake for walking, etc. There is also a reputed bike path that runs from Mantova north to Lake Garda ending in Peschiera del Garda but we could not confirm this.

We strolled for a bit and then had lunch before heading back to Le Sorgive for an afternoon nap.

We decided to eat in Desenzano again but before heading to the lake we stopped in Solferino to the “rocca”, the large castle-like tower, which sits perched on one of the highest points in the entire area. It turns out that the rocca is not only one of the several major “museums” for the famous battle of Solferino (24 June 1859) where the Italians defeated the Austrians and set Italy on the road to unification and freedom but is also next to the monument for the founding of the international red cross, the idea actually came to Swiss-native Henry Dunant while attending to the wounded at the battle. The monument is quite moving and the view from the top of the rocca is certainly one of the little undiscovered treasures of this area. Since the rocca is closed Mondays my plan is to return for the some early morning photos Tuesday.

We took back roads from Solferino to Desenzano and after having an aperitivo sitting in a swing glider at one of the numerous lakeside cafés – indeed these gliders were everywhere along the lake in town – we went to dinner and had another delicious meal: grilled whitefish with a local white wine (Lugana).

MONDAY. We spent most of Monday getting prepared for leaving Italy. I called Renault and set up our appointment to drop the car off at Milan’s Malpensa airport. Afterwards, we (or rather Susan) finished packing up two boxes of stuff, clothes and household items, to send home and we headed into Verona to the MBE. With both of those chores out of the way we just sort of drove around the eastern shore of Lake Garda without any objective in mind. We ended up stopping for a couple of hours at Lasize, a wonderful and quaint little resort community (catering mostly it would seem to German tourists) strolling and having a cup of coffee and dolce.

We headed back to Solferino and before returning to the apartment we stopped at the ossuary chapel just outside of town. Inside the chapel, actually it is a small church, are some 1413 skulls and more than 7000 skeletons of (mainly) French and Austrian troops who fought and died during the battle of Solferino. It is truly a most unique way to remember those “honored dead”. The skulls – as well as the bones of the skeletons – are all arranged neatly behind mesh screens and present an imposing (and forbidding) sight to the casual passerby. This is clearly designed to make the point that “war is indeed hell” and indeed many of the skulls for example have large holes in them probably indications of the means of death. Yet the orderly arrangement, the plaques on the walls also indicate the point is also to honor these dead. Morbid perhaps but powerful nonetheless.

After leaving the chapel we spent the hazy warm afternoon in the apartment, packing up one of our suitcases before going into Desenzano for an aperitivo, enjoying the sunset and having dinner.

TUESDAY was our last full day at Le Sorgive. During breakfast our host Vittorio Serenelli gave a short history lesson on the battle of Solferino – most helpful since after breakfast we spent the morning at the “tower of San Martino” and battlefield museum just a few kms away. We then drove into Sirmione a sliver of land that juts up into Lake Garda and ate lunch at Il Grifione near the old castello before returning to our apartment for an afternoon siesta. We returned to Sirmione for dinner and since we enjoyed our lunch so much we decided to return to Il Grifione as well – another reason to return besides the great food was the waterside dining for spectacular views of the eastern side of the lake (one can see Bardolino and Garda as well as the Italian alps).