Photos

I finished taking a scan through the 1,100 pictures I took on this trip. I have uploaded four albums into my Picasa account and they are now linked on my Selected Photos tab.

If you are interested, take a look. All thumbnails can be expanded.

Como

Lake Como is much different than any of the places we have visited in Italy. It defies easy or simple definition. The surrounding area reminds me a bit of upstate New York with its deep lakes, steep inclines and dense vegetation. However, there are a number of differences.

A few include:

  • The Swiss Alps aren’t 30 miles away from upstate NY
  • Lake Placid isn’t 400M deep (the bottom of Lake Como is 200M BELOW sea level)
  • You don’t see palm trees in Lake Placid
  • There aren’t four hundred fifty year old villas lining the lake shores
  • Communities didn’t expand “up the hillside”

We stayed two days in Como. Monday, we just wandered the city. Like many old cities in Italy, the Duomo is almost always fantastic. Como is not an exception. Here are a couple of shots. The inside is breath taking.


Yesterday we took a ferry ride up the lake to the town of Bellagio. I don’t know that there is anything specific that led us there other than the fact that it is quaint and allows for a very pleasant two-hour boat ride with lots of great scenery.

The villas are outstanding. One of the noteworthy is Villa del Balbianello. It is where the wedding between Anakin and Padme (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones) was filmed, along with other planet Naboo location shots.

We are now heading home. We left Como early this AM, and encountered a couple of traffic jams on the Autostrade that made us a little nervous. It was also challenging to find the car return facility at Malpensa (since we picked the car up in Milan at the Centro Train Station). We ended up driving within 200 yards of the main terminal before we saw a 8”x8” sign that said Car Hire. Once behind a ticketed gate, we finally saw signage for EuropCar. Crisis averted!
I was planning on posting this at the KLM Lounge in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam (Wifi is free). For the last couple of days Internet Access has been dicey (or expensive). In Como and Portovenere is was $8.00 for 30 minutes. That got old fast. It sure is easier to unplug, when plugging in is expensive.
As it turns out, our Milan flight was delayed and we didn’t have time to stop at the lounge. So I posted this when we get home.
As it noted in the last post, we’ll have a couple more updates and I’ll post all the photos on the “Photos” tab of the blog.

Ciao.


Cinque Terre

Le Cinque Terre is made up of five ancient towns within a 5 kilometer stretch of coast along the Ligurian Sea. These towns retain their original charm and authenticity due, in large part, to the designation of the entire area as a world habitat site by UNESCO. The surrounding lands are a national park and provide a challenge to those who choose to hike the often steep and primitive footpaths between the five towns rather than take the train or ferry between them.  There are so many elements of visual eye candy, it is hard to figure out how to show them all. As a comparison, it is not as if our three pictures of Siena and our words totally captured its essence, or that our reported experiences in any other city really gave you an accurate impression. It is just that today we visited five very old and established towns in one day. How do we convey an experience of that significance in a few short paragraphs and a few photos? These are very small towns – hamlets really – but they have a lot more character than their size would suggest.
They are each unique and engaging in their own right. When combined, they are fantastic. I am posting what I think are five of my best attempts to capture each town. So, in order from north to south:

Montorosso al Mare – the beach town. Everything revolves around the beach (and the tourists).

Vernazza – the prettiest town with amazing views from the Cinque Terre walking path in the Italian National Park.


Corniglia – so small and vertical that when the train stops in town, part of it remains in each end of the tunnel. This town is not reachable by car.


Manarola – sunbathers on the boat ramp. Actually, everything is on the boat ramp. I don’t know how they fit it all in.

Riomaggiore – diving and boating. There are a couple of dive shops and the premium parking on the “street” is filled with boats, not cars – which are not allowed in town.


I’ve seen lots of places and sites hyping these five towns. I had high expectations, and I am surprised that they have been exceeded. I would encourage anyone who is interested in northern Italy to visit Le Cinque Terre. I noticed that most of the towns have quite a few rooms to let. I never saw one on the inside but I imagine (based on the lobbies) that many of these are not quite two-star level. I would check into it carefully before making a reservation.

Tomorrow (Monday) we leave for Lake Como. We’ll be there Monday afternoon and Tuesday before we leave for home on Wednesday morning. I expect we’ll make one more post from Como before we leave.

After we return, I’ll be adding a number of photo libraries to the photos tab of this blog. In addition, I expect that we’ll add some additional posts, make some clarifications to earlier notes, fix some of the images that were limited by poor internet bandwidth, and after reflection, recap some of our journeys.


Portovenere

We are now in Liguria, on the Mediterranean coast in a small town called Portovenere. Our original plan was to stay in one of the towns of Cinque Terre but we could not find a room. We were lucky to find a place here (Thanks to Sandy from Travel Leaders)! In the end, I am very glad we stayed here instead. The town is bigger, parking is still bad but it still has more choices. More on that in coming posts.

The town is very quaint, there are plenty of good restaurants, and there is a vibrant night life (well, for us more “mature” travelers, two out of three ain’t bad).

The port has a mix of fishing and tourism. This is a shot of the main drag across the harbor.

It is a happening town – at least on the Saturday night we were there. To say that parking is tight would be an understatement. You do what you have to do…

Saturday night, we had a nice seafood dinner along the harbor and witnessed what we think was a festival honoring the patron saint of the town. There were even a Cardinal and a Monsignor on hand to accompany the local priests and townsfolk in their elaborate, hymn-filled procession up to the beautifully lit ruins of the old church. The path to the church was also lit with many luminaria. It was a breathtaking sight.

We have a great room with a view of the bay. This was dawn on Sunday morning. Wonderful.

Finally, even though we had a great view of the old church (the same one as in the festival picture) from town, it has a very different look from the sea.


Volterra

For our last day in Tuscany we debated between Cortona (e.g. Frances Mayes – Under the Tuscan Sun) and Volterra (another of the primary Etruscan cities). Volterra won. It was closer, it had fewer tourists.

We enjoyed it a lot. Not as much as Sienna, but more than Montepulciano. It was certainly classically Tuscan with its forbidding walls and gates.

Here is a shot of the city as you approach. It would seem forbidding if you were planning a raid.

Secondly, you’d have to make it through one of three gates (all over two thousand years old).

Once inside, you see a lot of more modern things, like a Roman theater from the first century,

Or a renaissance baptistery from the 1500’s.

And there are even newer additions, most not as good as the originals.


Montalcino

The second stop of the day on our wine excursion was Montalcino, Home of Brunello di Montalcino – one of our favorite Italian wines.

After having been to Siena, Monteriggioni, or even Certaldo Alto, if you came here for the architecture you were not going to get wowed. Here is the Duomo from the side.

The front view is almost forboding. I am not sure if these trees are dying or have just dropped their foliage prematurely. It was a bit creepy looking. The clouds didn’t help.

Fortunately I found a nice Tuscan Door at a nearby church – Saint Augustino. I liked this one a lot.

As always the sidewalks were nicely appointed with colorful flowers, making the town all the more inviting.

And last but not least, it was the wine. I didn’t mention much about the wine we had in Montepulciano because once we tried the Brunellos here, we forgot about them. These were out of this world. We got a bit of a wine lesson from a local oenophile (who was also a good salesman).

We purchased a small tasting (three labels, 30ml each). I think they charge for the tasting more as a way to determine their target audience because as we oohed and aahed, more wines were poured for no additional cost.

We fell in love with a small production (8000 bottles a year) grower called Conti Costanti 2003. It was outstanding. We bought two bottles that we’ll save for an anniversary or birthday. There was only one downer. We tasted these wines against our standby favorite Banfi Brunello di Montalcino. The Banfi lost, hands down. Turns out it is a very high production, very well-marketed wine. It just isn’t as good as some of the others we tasted. The Costanti vineyard has been in the family since 1550. Banfi was started by two Americans in the 1970s. Not that the Banfi isn’t good – it is. It just means that we’ll be more deliberate in our Brunello purchases in the future.


Montepulciano

There were really two reasons for us to visit this city. One was Rosso di Montalcino, the other Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Both are hearty Italian reds. We were interested in taking in the old Etruscan and Roman history and architecture along the way.

We enjoyed the city and had a glass of Vino di Nobile with a simple salad and Margherita Pizza at lunch at a small little shop in the Piazza Grande. It was a tasty, enjoyable lunch. Fortunately we were under an awning because we were treated to a brief cloud burst which cleaned the cobblestone. It also made it a bit slippery.

We were right next to Palazzo Communale shown here. It looks like others in Florence because Florence dominated the city (and the area) for a couple of hundred years. The crenellations on the roof facade are normally built to hide soldiers. In this case they were just to symbolize power.

From our table we looked at the Duomo (they ran out of money before they could finish the facade).

Here is another, really small non-descript church – Chiesa Gesu. It was as drab as this picture seems. We almost passed it by completely.

But then we walked inside. It was beautiful. It just reinforces – it is what is on the inside that counts. It was certainly darker inside than this photo suggests (ASA 6400) but quite glorious nonetheless.


Finding one’s way

About fourteen years ago we visited northern Italy (Genoa, Pisa, Firenze) and southern France (Aix en Provence, Bonnieux, St. Paul de Vence, Chateauneuf du Pape). Finding your way through an old town like Aix with a spouse navigating with a map can be a real test of a marriage. I do not recommend it. The turn you needed is always the one you just passed. Worse, once you miss the turn, you really don’t know what to do next.

When you’re on the road, things happen pretty quickly. Especially as you prepare to get on to the autostrade via one of the roundabouts.

Our plan this morning was to visit Montepulciano and Montalcino – two towns that mean Vino to us. More about that later. Usually we’ve been taking the local roads but today we decided to take the autostrade down. It is a toll road. After collecting our time-stamped ticket (so they know how much to charge), we were off. Unfortunately the verbal instructions from the GPS came right before the ticketing station and now were a bit of a fog. Trying to read signage real time while avoiding fifty criss-crossing cars and trucks wasn’t in the cards. We ended up going north instead of south. Now what?

Fortunately, the GPS did get us turned around correctly. I wouldn’t have wanted to figure out that 15 step process without it. So far, that has been the only hiccup. I am very impressed, I trust it more than the signs.

TomTom GPS navigator from Best Buy: $119.00

Downloaded map of Italy from the web: $49.00

Saving 19 years of marriage: Priceless


Le Torri Dinner

Wednesday night was the night of the traditional Le Torri dinner.

The Cantini family (papa Paolo, mama Maria Pia and our host, son Gabriele) not only welcomed us with a beautiful buffet on Saturday when we arrived, but also offered a dinner mid-week that we happily did not pass up!



We don’t have photos of the welcome buffet, but here is a just sampling of a few of the dishes we enjoyed. There were many other dishes – almost too many to remember!

A quartet of crostini misti: fresh tomato, garlic and chili pepper, sauteed bell peppers and onions, chicken liver pate, and a cooked tomato topping – Penne with fresh pesto sauce – Beef cooked with potatoes – Beef cooked with carmelized onions – Fried tidbits of mozzarella, zucchini, tomatoes, and coniglio (rabbit) – Potato salad with tuna and green beans – Mixed arugula salad with pine nuts – Skewers of cherry tomato, fresh mozzarella (bocconcini) and black olives – Caprese salad (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil dressed with olive oil) – Two kinds of pizza (cheese and sausage) – Fresh fruit salad – and a torte with fresh plums and pears. All this was washed down with house wine, sparkling water and sodas and followed by Vin Santo – a sweet dessert wine. We also had a chance to taste the Cantini olive oil and of course, we HAD to purchase a small bottle, along with a bottle of the house Chianti we were served.

The Wednesday dinner was a more formal affair. Nineteen of us sat down to Maria Pia’s spectacular Tuscan dinner.



The menu looked great.


We started with antipasti, including crostini mista, similar to what we had at the welcome buffet, along with Maria’s home-pickled artichokes and a Tuscan olive assortment. In addition to the crostini, we enjoyed prosciutto-wrapped breadsticks and salume (salami). The first primi piatti (first course) was home-made Tagliatelle all’ Amatriciana – wide noodles with tomato-bacon sauce. The second primi piatti was Crespelle (crepes) stuffed with a fantastic ricotta e spinaci mixture with a white cream sauce. The secondi was mixed grill including steak, pork, chicken skewers (spedini), and sausages, all prepared by Paolo in his outdoor wood-burning oven.


The contorni (side dishes) were grilled eggplant and bell peppers, mixed vegetables and a combo of home-made onion rings, french fries (almost like hot potato chips) and deep-fried zucchini. Needless to say, there were multiple bottles of house Chianti, water and sodas to wash everything down. Yet to come was a fantastic tiramisu, accompanied by Vin Santo and Cantuccini (tiny almond biscotti). The traditional Tuscan way to eat the Cantuccini is to dip it into the Vin Santo until it almost dissolves and then spoon it out of the glass. We finished off dinner with Paolo’s special Limoncello, made from his home-grown lemons, and Grappa.


Siena

Wow!

We’ve heard so much about Siena for so many years that I was convinced that when we actually arrived it would be a let-down. So far, it is my favorite spot. It was amazing. You can see the Il Campo tower when you first arrive.

It looks great. But when you turn the corner into the Piazza, the whole scene takes your breath away.

The piazza is shaped like a giant clam shell where everything runs downhill to the City Hall (Palazzo Pubblico).

Even when you start to walk away, it calls you to take another look and does not disappoint.

The Duomo at the other end of the city center seems to want to challenge one for attention. It is also amazing. It is a 13th century Gothic cathedral with a six story striped bell tower. It has one of the most extravagant facades in all of Europe. Breathtaking.

Siena is high on our list of places to visit again when we return.