“What we did on our Italian Vacation!”
We’ve been lucky to be able to go to Italy more than once, so this trip we did not have the “must do’s” – Rome, Florence, Tuscany, etc. Also, being retired we were free from the constraints of a public education career and could go after Labor Day and enjoy a, if not tourist free, at least a tourist light experience.
We decided to fly into Milan and wander across northern Italy with a rather loose agenda. That meant taking the train from Milan to Verona, then Vicenza and while we were there, Venice. Then we would rent a car at the Venice airport and make our way back to Milan through the Dolomites, Lago Garda and Lago Maggorie. (Note – there was no drop off penalty! It would be nice to be able do this in the US A!)
Verona – We walked to our hotel from the train station and found ourselves in a beautiful walled city with a 2000 year old Roman Amphitheater at its heart. While we visited Juliet’s Balcony (Casa di Giulietta) it was far from the most interesting thing in town. The Museo Castelvecchio and Teatro Romano gave us a much greater appreciation of the history of Verona and its surroundings. But don’t jump to the conclusion that culture can only be found in museums. We walked through narrow winding streets full of small cafes, gelateria , enotecca (wine bars) and restaurants. The wine is very inexpensive - €8 for a liter of excellent house wine at a restaurant and the food was, well Italian!
Vicenza – a town that is not part of the Italy tourist top 10 but nonetheless a mecca for architects. Home of Andrea Palladio and a number of his works, it’s an opportunity to visit 500 year old buildings that have influenced Thomas Jefferson’s design of Monticello and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. One must see is his final design, the Teatro Olimpico. Finished in 1585 it was the first covered theater anywhere in Europe and still hosts productions today.
Venice – What can I say about Venice? It’s crowded! Even in the off season there are people everywhere speaking every language under the sun. But, if you work your way off the beaten path to someplace like Misericordia or La Giudecca you can escape the crowds. In La Guidecca we found a great restaurant (Ristorante al Storico da Crea) that is right in the middle of a working boatyard where gondolas and working boats are being repaired, scraped, engines overhauled and painted. It’s almost like getting the behind the scenes tour of Disney World! If I had to guess I would say not only were we the only non-Italians in the restaurant, we were the only non-Venetians. That’s a claim I didn’t think was possible in Venice in the 21st century.
Cortina – The site of the 1956 winter Olympics, Cortina d’Ampezzo is an international ski resort in the Dolomite Mountains just underneath Austria. While you are legally in Italy, this land has changed hands many times over the last few hundred years and the population has such a Germanic heritage that all the signs are in Italian and German. The hiking in the Dolomites is some of the best in the world with well-marked paths covering many miles and connecting a large network of Rifugios (mountain huts). Rifugios can range from a real hut (cold water, simple food and a dormitory) to exquisite mountain lodges with private rooms and hot showers and food that borders on the gourmet. The large number of huts allow you to create hiking itineraries that can last weeks while avoiding almost all contact with “civilization”. We hiked around the “Tre Cime” or three towers, an imposing set of towering bare rock that rise to almost 10,000 feet and hiked up to a deep aqua glacial lake that was stunning in the intensity of the blue water. A lunch on the lakeshore of wine, sausage and bread made it quite the European experience.
Lago Garda – At 30 miles long and up to 9 miles wide it is the largest lake in Italy. Stretching up into the Alps and down to the rolling hills of the Valpolicella wine region Garda encompasses all the best of Europe. As we randomly rode through miles of vineyards and olive groves we came upon a small vineyard open for tours. Having been on many vineyard tours I didn’t expect to be surprised – but I was! As we entered, the right side of the room was lined with bottles, the left, however, was lined with a number of gasoline pump hoses that instead of gas pumped VINO! Bring your own container and buy wine at €2 a liter. That’s less than $2 for s 750 ml bottle. Now if it had been, let’s say, less than palatable wine but it was not. We brought back 2 liters (in bottles) and savored them. I am blessed with 4 breweries in walking distance of my house, but I am greedy enough to want that vineyard in my neighborhood too!
Lago Magorrie – a small family reunion had us staying in Sesto Calende, a town of 10,000 on the shore of the Ticino River as it exits from Lago Maggiorie. Staying in a B&B just outside of town, we were able to experience 21st century Italian life – to include a landlady who spoke not a word of English. A highlight was walking through the church graveyard and finding a dozen ancestors going back to the mid 1800’s.
All in all it was a wonderful time. An experience of Italy that definitely went beyond the tourist hot spots and had us falling in love.
Written by John Twomey and Jean Sculati