Tom picked us up at 9:30 with the unbelievable news that the Twin Cities may get a few inches of snow later this week! Jim has arranged for Matt to take care of spring yard cleanup, and possible first lawn mow but I don't think there was any discussion of snow removal ! All went smoothly at MSP airport with an on-time departure and amazingly, no need for plane de-icing. Flight to JFK was uneventful - the best kind of flight!
I have never been at JFK and am awed by the size of this airport and all of the frenetic activity. So many people rushing about and so many languages overhead and all around. In my intense over - preparation for this trip I read many scary things about Alitalia airlines but I have to say, our initial experience has been positive. The ticket counter agent was very friendly and when I inquired about upgrading our seats to Delta's equivalent of "economy plus" she lowered her voice and said she would see what she could do on this totally full flight to reassign us to roomier seats - at no cost! Wow! (Suppose I should withhold any cheering until I see the seats AND collect the bags we were required to check...)
Now that we have cleared security we are relaxed but excited about finally being on our way to Italy.
Update: seats are ok - in the bulkhead so more leg room. But the latrines are right in front of us so we'll see if we made a good move.
Wednesday, May 1 Midnight - Doubletree Airport Hotel, NYC
Well, we 're not in Kansas, Dorothy - and it ain't Milan either
All was going as we'd planned until about an hour out of New York. There was a small screen in front of us with a plane showing our progress and I noticed suddenly that it had turned around and was headed back to New York! I pointed it out to Jim (who told me not to worry -probably just a glitch in the tracking program...) and then the pilot came on (in Italian) to say that a problem with a wing flap has been detected and we could not cross the ocean with this stability problem. He assured us it would not effect our landing but I have to say it was a little rocky and tippy at landing. Fortunately I didn't see all the fire engines and ambulances lined up along the runway. I prefer my fire engine experiences to be cakes, like the one I recently made for Benjamin's 3rd birthday.
After a long wait on the tarmac, an even longer wait at baggage claim and an even longer wait to be bussed to a hotel, we jumped out of the line with another couple (Sally and Ernie, from Phoenix) and took a taxi to the hotel. We didn't get any dinner, arriving here at midnight, after the restaurant closed but we did snag some tasty treats from the vending machine (think chef boyardee for the microwave...) and we aren't in line downstairs where one night hotel clerk is trying to check in 200+ people. I take full credit for the taxi idea!
I have no idea when we will learn our fate - still hoping to get to Italy by the time our tour starts on Friday. All we have now is an 800 number and instructions to call in the morning. Right now I am holding with Delta whose recording just said wait time was 40 minutes.
No wonder people go to Disneyland.
Thursday, May 2, still in NYC
Let's try again!
After a night and early morning of uncertainty, Alitalia notified us that our flight has been rescheduled to 3:30, with a 6 am arrival Friday in Milan. We spent today repeating yesterday - back at JFK, checking our bags, getting seat assignments, going through security. We are learning to hurry up - and wait. I think Jim and I are handling this minor setback well. We are losing our day in Milan but are thankful that the mechanical problem was discovered, possibly avoiding loss of all our days!
Friday, May 3
Italy at last! We flew and landed without incident and made our way quickly through the quietest airport I have ever seen. We were relieved to see our red and green banded luggage come down the shute and after some reorganization we caught a bus to Milan's central station. We flirted briefly with the idea of trying to see some of Milan, but after 2 nights with little or no sleep we decided to make a better choice and catch the next train to Varenna. We only had a few minutes to figure out how to buy a ticket from the machine, find the correct departure platform and get the ticket validated, but we made it.
We were thrilled to see the sun on Lake Como as we rounded a bend before pulling in to Varenna . It was a 15 minute walk ( up the first of many hills in this trip) to Villa Cipressi where we were ushered to a most charming room overlooking the garden and the lake. Some of what I had pictured for this trip is beginning to materialize.
We settled in, took a walk around the town and had lunch at Hotel Olivedo by the ferry dock. The dining room of this old hotel was once a ballroom and the ornate architecture and decoration are remarkable. We enjoyed a healthy looking salad with tuna, olives and capers and washed it down with our first Italian beers. A leisurely stroll back to the hotel on the passerella took us past the first Gelateria of the the trip. At 5:00 we gathered in the hotel foyer where we met Rainer, our tour leader and our 22 travel companions, and proceeded to Hotel du Lac for wine and hors d'oeuvres and an introduction to our Italy tour. After 2 nights of very little sleep, we had a quick bite to eat at Bar il Molo on the shores of Lake Como, and wandered dreamily back to our hotel. A long, but very satisfying first day of our trip.
Saturday, May 4
|Lake Como - Villa Carlotta Garden|
|Rainer and Hassan|
Sunday, May 5
We were up, packed and at breakfast by 7:30 and on the bus by 8:30. We savored our last views of Lake Como in the morning sunshine and headed toward Verona. Our bus is big enough for a group twice our size and it is nice to have 2 seats each to spread out and travel in complete comfort. And the bus has wifi! This is our longest travel day (6 hours) but Rainer assures us that we will stop every 2 hours for creature comfort breaks.
First stop - Verona.
|Juliet's Balcony - Verona|
|Note stair motif on gate|
|Roman Ruins - Verona|
|Bell Tower in Castelrotto|
After we settled in to our charming room we took a brief walk around the town and discovered a perfectly manicured cemetery behind the church, where the individual graves are all framed by wrought iron and lavishly decorated with picture, flowers and candles. It didn't seem respectful to take pictures but that peaceful little cemetary will always be in my mind. Later we had a delicious steak dinner with our entire group in the hotel dining room. The apple strudel and our dining companions (Debbie and Mike) made for a memorable evening.
Monday, May 6
I have heard about the Dolomites and this area is one I have been anxious to visit. I have seen the Alps on previous European trips but this area is different, characterized by light gray cliffs and spires due to the dolomite rock, similar to limestone. In the right light, the mountains almost appear pinkish. The Dolomites are a memorable mountain experience, although our visit comes at an "in between" season when winter and the skiers are gone but spring and summer have not yet arrived to produce the lush meadows characteristic of the area.
|Dolomites - from Alpe di Siusi|
We also visited Ortisei, a little down the mountain where we had lunch, our daily gelato and a bit of window shopping. After returning to Castelrotto we visited the church and a few local shops, and later walked up a hilly road in search of a German restaurant. We couldn't find it and settled for dinner at a pizzeria - which was at the top of the hill. No more walking today for me!
Tuesday, May 7
After breakfast at our hotel (not nearly as good as the breakfast at Villa Cipressi ) we boarded the bus for our trip down the mountain and a stop in Bolzano to see the Ice Man. Rainer helped us bid farewell to Castelrotto by playing a bit of the local music by Kastelruther Spatzen, a group formed in the 1970s that has achieved fame and is featured in an annual concert in Kastelruth that attracts huge crowds.
RS (Rick Steves, fondly referred to as "Uncle Rick" by Rainer) called Bolzano (Bozen in German) the Italian Innsbruck. I read about a famous Christmas market that is held here every year - what fun that would be!
Our main reason for stopping here is the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology where we traced the discovery of Otzi, the Ice Man and viewed his actual corpse. He was discovered in 1991 by hikers who believed they had found the corpse of a lost hiker. Scientists eventually found that Otzi was a man, perfectly preserved with his clothing and gear in the ice for over 5000 years.
|Jim and Jeff with the Ice Man|
Back on the road, we headed to Venice where we taxied to our hotel by boat called a Vaporetto . We settled in to Hotel Serenissima and took a brief orientation walk and were introduced to St. Marks Square. We had a group dinner in a courtyard - opened with a salmon carpaccio and ended with taramissu. The evening ended with a gondola ride on the canal, complete with musicians. The two couples married the longest (we were second, by 6 months!) got to ride with the musicians. It was a cheesy, but memorable evening - ok - even a bit romantic.
Wednesday, May 8
We met our local guide who took us on a walking tour of Venice, timed to end in the Basilica at 11:00am when all the lights are turned on, gradually illuminating the gold mosaics and colored marble. It was a breathtaking sight!
|St. Mark's Basilica - Venice|
We also stopped at a local mask maker who demonstrated his craft and had on display in his shop hundreds of masks suitable for wearing at Venice's most famous festival, Carnevale - the equivalent of our Mardi Gras. (I was tempted but resisted the urge to buy one.)
|Evening stroll on the Rialto Bridge|
|At the mask maker's shop|
Later we walked back to the Rialto Bridge area where we shopped and I purchased a Murano glass necklace and earrings. Later we had dinner along the Grand Canal with Debbie and Mike, and Barb and Jack and enjoyed a late night stroll back to our hotel. We have heard that the best way to remember Venice is to get lost there, walking at night when the crowds are gone and the true beauty is exposed. Unfortunately we are just too tired to even get lost!
Thursday, May 9
We left Hotel Serenissimo and travelled by Vaporetto back to the area where our bus was parked. It was early enough in the day for us to witness the many boats coming into Venice to deliver all the goods needed by the busy city. It was a clear reminder that EVERYTHING in Venice must be brought in by boat.
|Duomo - Florence|
We enjoyed a group dinner, probably my favorite - a Tuscan bread soup, pasta with a wild boar sauce, steak and a fabulous lemoncella dessert. It was guide Rainer's 36th birthday.
Friday, May 10
We had an early entrance to the Uffizi Gallery which holds the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere. Of special note is Michelangelo's only surviving easel painting, "The Holy Family."
Another memorable work is Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." After lunch we hiked high above Florence to the Piazzale Michelangelo which has great views, and even higher up to San Miniato Church where the views are even greater.
Our next adventure was a city bus ride up the hill to Fiazole to enjoy even more views of Florence. Unfortunately, garbled communication again foiled us and we failed to get off the bus before it started back down the hill. Oh well, it was raining anyway and we had seen enough of Florence from the top!
Later, we were standing in front of our hotel pondering dinner and who should walk by but Sally and Ernie from our Alitalia flight #1! What a strange coincidence that we should randomly run into them a second time.
Saturday, May 11
I left Florence somewhat reluctantly because I believe there are many more treasures to discover here. Perhaps I should have found a fountain, and a coin to toss over my right shoulder, to help insure a return trip?
Our route to Cinque Terra took us through Lucca a charming town surrounded by a remarkable wall that has stood for over 2000 years, through Roman, medieval and Renaissance times.
Sunday, May 12. Mother's Day
Today we are free to explore the 5 Cinque Terra villages on our own - by foot, train or boat. We decided to skip the hike between Monterossa and Vernazza due to warnings about the condition of the trail, not wanting to risk injury that might ruin our trip. We took the ferry to Riomaggiore and enjoyed a strenuous climb around this little village and the magnificent views around every turn.
We walked around (and up and down) for a few hours before catching the train back to Monterossa. Later we met our group for drinks on the upper terrace before going to a restaurant on the waterfront for their special fish stew - a tasty broth with every kind of seafood, including a whole octopus , served steaming from a big clay pot. We shared this memorable meal with Jack and Barb (from Waverly, Iowa)
|Yes! We ate it!|
Monday, May 13
We retraced our route by train back to our bus and started for Siena, stopping first in Pisa. The initial glimpse I had of the leaning tower was a flash back to a grade school textbook where I first saw it pictured so many years ago. Situated on the "Field of Miracles" along with the Cathedral and the Baptistry, the area is alive with tourists but one of the must see sights of Italy. We had lunch in Pisa, a focaccia sandwich with a farro salad. And gelato, of course!
|A bright and beautiful day|
A few hours later we pulled off the busy highway and entered the Florence American Cemetary and Memorial. It is a splendid field of green, as far as the eye can see, dotted with uniform white crosses. This cemetary site was liberated by the US Fifth Army on August 3, 1944. The wooded hills that frame its western perimeter rise several hundred feet. Between the two entrance buildings, a bridge leads to the burial area where the headstones of 4,402 of our military dead are arrayed in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39 percent of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennines Mountains shortly before the war's end. On May 2, 1945 the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered. It is a peaceful place and we took time on this bright and sunny day to walk among the headstones and reflect on the promise that "time will not dim the glory of their deeds."
Our next stop is Siena and the Hotel Chuisarelli which overlooks the soccer field. Fortunately no games are scheduled during our visit. Rainer led us on a walking tour after a welcome reception at the hotel. He led us to Il Campo, Siena's main square which is the heart - geographically and metaphorically of Siena. Later we met with a local guide who explained Siena's contrade system of competing neighborhoods, and especially their role in the Palio - world famous horse race held twice a year in the square. One of the contrade (the forest) hosted our group at a dinner where we saw a movie of a recent Palio and visited a museum with memorabilia from past Palios. I'm thinking we were actually a fund raiser for this neighborhood - they are always competing to raise money for the Palio. I smile now to remember how our guide kept repeating that she was a "sea shell" - a sign of the continual competition among the contrade.
|Fountain in one of the contrade|
Tuesday, May 14
Another local guide met us this morning and we toured the Duomo. I will remember this church for the Piccolomini Library with the most vivid frescoes I have ever seen - frescoes that have never been restored and are as brilliant as they were 550 years ago. After the tour we visited a grocery store where we picked up lunch and a bottle of wine, and returned to the hotel for a picnic on the deck. It was a welcome break from our intense touring.
Wednesday, May 15
Siena was a delight - I especially appreciated this pedestrian friendly city, rich with so much history and charm. But we are off again, destination an agriturismo outside Orvieto. Our route took us through Assisi where we spent half a day visiting this beautiful Umbrian town which was home to St. Francis. Jim and I left the group briefly and took a city bus to visit St. Mary of the Angels Basilica which is built on the site where Francis lived, worked and died. We rejoined the group for a tour of the Basilica of St. Francis, which holds his remains and other relics of the Saint. RS calls this Basilica one of the artistic and religious highlights of Europe - it is the 10th largest Christian church in the world. Rich in frescoes by the leading artists of the day, the art retells many legends from the life and times of St. Francis. There is visible damage from a 1997 earthquake and the guide explained the painstakingly slow process that was used to do some restoration of damaged art.
|There is a copy of this statue in Winona , MN|
|Countryside around Assisi|
We continued our ride to Agriturisimo La Rocca Orvieto, a spa like resort which has it's own vineyards and olive groves, producing wine and olive oil for sale and for use at the resort. The weather is decidedly unresort- like right now, chilly and damp and there is no heat in our small "apartment" which greatly diminishes the charm of this place! We settled in and gathered later for a presentation about the on-site wine and olive oil production.
Thursday, May 16
We are staying on a hill on one side of a valley and Orvieto sits majestically atop a hill, a thousand feet above the valley floor on the other side - very picturesque. We rode a funicular to the top of the hill, and walked uphill several minutes more to enter the old town. Rainer has told us that this Duomo is one of his favorite Italian churches and it was beautiful to see, especially the frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio to the right of the altar.
Orvieto was also my favorite shopping stop. A dress in a shop window caught my eye, as well as a locally made and painted ceramic pot which now graces my kitchen table.
We took a brief siesta on the cloudy and drizzly afternoon when we returned to our "resort." Dinner was a tasty orecchiette pasta with sausage and a rolled, stuffed chicken breast.
The tacky souvenir contest produced a winner - Cindy won with her entry of a snow globe with the leaning tower of Pisa, riding on a Vespa. Yes, tacky but also rather cute!
Friday, May 17
After breakfast we all gathered around the bus for our group photo and a chance to say goodbye to Hassan who will be leaving us when he drops us at our hotel in Rome. He has added much to our trip - always smiling, his entertaining banter with Rainer. Above all, he is a great driver and kept us safe on many roads.
After a long and exhausting day we a took the Metro back to the hotel.
Saturday, May 18
One of the things I had most looked forward to - visiting the Vatican and St. Peter's - turned out to be the most disappointing experience of the trip. We got an early start, taking the Metro and then a short walk to the Vatican but there were unusually large crowd due to the announcement that St. Peter's was closing at noon for a special event. As a result our tour of the Vatican museum was crowded and rushed (we even had to skip seeing the Raphael Rooms :(. One plus was the extensive information our guide provided about the Sistine Chapel before we entered. We had ample time to view Michelangelo' s work and be awed by the brilliantly restored masterpiece.
|Ceiling - Vatican Museum|
Tired out from our intense morning, we looked for a pizzeria for lunch, took the Metro back to our hotel and enjoyed a brief siesta. Later we walked around our neighborhood, visiting more beautiful churches. Of special note was the church of Santa Maria Maggiore which has some of Rome's best surviving mosaics. We happened to visit during a service which featured beautiful chanting in Latin.
We met our group for the short walk to a restaurant for our farewell group dinner. Jim and I agree that this was one of the best dinners of the trip, especially the parmesan cheese bowl which held the first of 2 pasta courses. Many of our group, including Rainer will be leaving early tomorrow. I will always remember these people and how well we travelled together and especially Rainer's leadership. He is the epitome of guides.
Sunday, May 19
It was wonderful to be able to sleep late this morning before we began our long walk to the Villa Borghese Garden and Gallery. It was a near perfect day, sunny but cool and it seemed as if all of Rome came out to enjoy the spring weather. Once we located the gallery we found a bench on which to enjoy our picnic lunch and the music of the nearby accordion player. Our gallery reservation was from 1-3 and we used every minute to enjoy the artistic treasures of the Borghese which RS calls one of Europe 's most sumptuous art experiences. There are world class sculptures as well a paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian and Rubens.
After our museum experience we set out on a long and confusing walk to find the old Jewish Ghetto, made more difficult because of map issues and Carol's shopping eye. Eventually we found it and stopped at a restaurant to sample the tradition of the Roman Jewish community, a deep fried artichoke which was served in the Roman ghetto to break the fast of Yom Kipper. The artichoke is trimmed but left whole with a stub of stem and fried upside down in oil. Our waiter instructed us to eat the whole thing! And we did. Of course it was good - it was deep fried!
We packed one last time and set a 5:30 am wake up call.
Monday, May 20
We took a cab on the 20 mile ride to the Rome airport with 4 of our travel group and checked in and cleared security with relative ease. After grabbing a bite to eat, including the best cup of coffee I have had since leaving home, we went to our gate to await boarding. Arrivederci, Italia!
Our flight was uneventful, which is what you would want a flight to be! We left about an hour late, arriving in Chicago around 2:00 but the time until we left for the Twin Cities at 7:00 passed quickly. We arrived home tired, but well satisfied by our Rick Steve's Italy tour. Steven picked us up at MSP and we dropped our suitcases at the door, and our bodies into bed.
|No place like home!|
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