Lago d’Orta – Our Final Three Days

Thursday, September 24: A drove back to Ancona, returning the rental car (a nightmare!), a stop at the post office to mail two fat envelopes of no-longer-needed maps and guide books, before boarding our first of two trains for the day. From Ancona to Milano, we were comfortable in a EuroStar express, with wide seats and places to put our luggage without having to lift them up to overhead racks. The Milano-Stresa regional was a bit more choppy, but still . . . train travel is certainly efficient. When we arrived at the Stresa station, we saw our driver holding a sign with my name on it, and we lugged our very heavy suitcases down the stairs, under the tracks, and up again on the street side. Our driver loaded the bags in his trunk and we began the hour-long ride from Lago Maggiore to our final destination, Lago d’Orta.

Dropped off in the little village of San Giulio d’Orta, we checked into the Albergo Leon d’Oro, settled into our beautiful rooms overlooking the lake, and headed out for espresso, cappuccino, and some light dinner. For the next 2-1/2 days, this familiar setting did more to relax me than anything else on our trip . . . and that’s exactly why I always make sure we have three nights here before we arrive back in the U.S. It’s good to settle down, ease back into our normal lives and gather that last taste of Italy by wandering serenely up and down these cobblestone streets.

Friday, September 25: I realize I have friends in San Giulio, people who recognize me, give me great huge hugs, and are happy I have returned again to their town. Elio, the owner of Cerri, a small gift shop. Luca, proprietor of Il Buon Gustiaio, a delicious shop full of cheeses, salami, exquisite specialty breads, and other delights such as 15-year old balsamic vinegars and special bottles of amaretto, fig jams and sauces. Georgia, the American owner of the small herbal soap shop in the piazza, was delightful and in bits and pieces told me her story, from being a designer for Mattel, running an office in Milan, through her decision to buy two little businesses in Orta, marry an Italian man, become an Italian citizen, and settle here for the past 16 years.

My group and I wandered these streets, sometimes together, sometimes separately, and I am always amazed at the displays and varieties of pasta and porcini mushrooms, in the shops here.

My favorite hotel, Albergo Orta, has been sold after five generations of family ownership, and is closed for renovations for the next two or three years, but Elena, who was a 30-year employee of the Orta hotel, met me for a bit of conversation one morning, and was a great help in arranging our transportation while we were in the area.

We made time to take a boat over to the Isola San Giulio, the island in the middle of the lake, which houses a monastery/abby for 70+ nuns, one beautiful church, a meditation walkway around the island, and one restaurant which served delicious lunches at the edge of the water.

Saturday, September 26: And when I wanted a break from
walking through the cobblestone pathways, I always headed for the main piazza to sit at one of the outside tables belonging to the three little restaurants nestled next to one another, with beautiful “front porch” views of the lake. I ordered cappuccino or a glass of wine, and on this particular evening I was especially delighted as I watched as at least thirty friends and family members gathered after one of the many weddings that took place in the town that weekend. These wedding guests pulled nearly all the tables together, and each ordered the same thing, an aperitif whose color rivaled that of the sunset that evening. For two hours, I read, sipped my wine, and watched the wedding celebrants come and go, while the waitress filled her tray with more of these beautiful drinks.

Our group dinner in this serene lake village was an especially delicious one, at the Ristorante Olina, which doesn’t have a water view, but everything else about a dining experience here is exquisite. From the very attentive wait staff to the aperitif delivered immediately to your table, followed by a delicious palate-cleanser. And that is before you even begin to order from the menu! I took one last opportunity for the freshest fish around, and ordered a grilled branzini, accompanied by delicious potatoes and a small salad. The dessert case settled just behind our table meant we couldn’t avoid tempting glances toward the homemade dolci, and we each had “just a small one, per favore” before we paid our bill and walked slowly back to the hotel.

Sunday, September 27: Well, we know this drill well enough. Pack up, check to make sure we didn’t leave a precious journal or souvenir in a corner or under the bed, and head down to the lobby to wait for our driver again, this time headed for Malpensa airport for our departure to the U.S. again. Needless to say today was filled with travel, and we arrived in Denver at 10:00 p.m., though our bodies were still operating on Italian time, 6:00 A.M. the following day.

I had driven down to DIA, so my car was waiting in the parking lot, and by the time I started the engine, it was midnight. I listened to loud radio so I wouldn’t fall asleep on the highway going toward Fort Collins. Returning home is bittersweet, because my familiar bed always greets me, as do my loving partner and four pets. However, Italy is already calling to me again, and perhaps some of you might join me in May 2010 for the next Italy Adventure!

Scroll along the left menu for my post about the details of that trip, and dream of bella Italia.

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LeMarche Catch-Up #4

Wednesday, September 23: Today we prepare to pack our belongings and return our car to the Ancona train station, but first, we want to taste a bit of LeMarche’s wine firsthand, at a highly recommended vineyard outside the town of Staffolo. The winery is Zaccagnini, a small family owned piece of grape heaven outside the village itself. When we arrived, Davide greeted us, gave us a short tour in the midst of his busy day, and set up some tastings for us. They have a wide array of delicious wines, both white and red, as well as some Bruts. The bottles, the labels, the taste and the vineyard vistas all made for a delightful way to spend our last afternoon in this region. I purchased two bottles to bring home to Neil, and we made our way back to the villa.

In the early evening, we drove back into our little villa village, Avenale, where we ate at the highly recommended little pizza restaurant, The Belmont, before returning to our last night in our own little house to finish gathering all our stuff for the voyage north tomorrow.

LeMarche Catch-up #3

Okay, at this rate, I’ll never be finished writing this for your perusal! Let’s see . . . where were we?
Oh yes, completing our trip to Serra de Conti, to the Rooms of Suspended Time. And then I guess I suspended the time for awhile . . .

So – Monday, September 21: A rainy day at the villa, where we slept late, shuffled to the kitchen in relaxed fashion, munching on bread, fruit, cheese and prosciutto, sipping coffee, writing and reading and planning the rest of our time here in Avenale at Casa Frances. If I remember correctly, we did go back to Cingoli, found a bigger “supermercato” and collected some fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese and very fresh fettucini in preparation for a dinner I promised to prepare for our little group that evening. We had plenty of wine, and I bought another two bottles, which should last us the rest of the week.

Tuesday, September 22: Our plan today is to visit the southwest part of LeMarche, beginning with the Grotte di Frasassi, an enormous, incredible complex of caves with a collection of stalactites and stalagmites the likes of which I’ve never seen. Discovered by a group of climber/spelunkers in the late 1970’s, Grotte di Frasassi is one of the most well-visited natural phenomena and I can understand why. I’m told the Grotte could house the Milan Cathedrale!

We weren’t allowed any photos there, but here are two from an on-line site. if you’d like to know more about this attraction, you might visit one of the websites you will find when googling Grotte di Frasassi. You can request that it come up in English, rather than Italian, which should be immensely helpful!

We wore our coats inside and listened to our English version of the tour guide’s information, though I think next time I will wait for the English speaking tour guide, so we can ask questions and understand the responses of others’ questions.

Our next stop was to the city of Fabriano, home of the famous watercolor paper manufacturer. Fabriano was one of the first cities in Europe to manufacture paper, beginning at the end of the 12th century. The biggest mill, Miliani, produces an amazing 600 miles of paper a day, and the watermark (filigrana), along with other papermaking techniques, were invented here. Fabriano paper supplies the Italian treasury with the paper for its banknotes, and is sent from Kashmir to the Congo. We visited the Museo della Carta e della Filigrana (paper and watermarks museum), watched a demonstration of hand-making paper, marveled at the intricacies of watermarks bearing the faces of famous world leaders, and purchased one or two beautiful hand-made journals, of course.

Tomorrow . . . a local vineyard and winery, and preparations to leave this lovely area, heading toward our final destination in Italia . . .

LeMarche: Catch-up Post #2

Saturday, September 19, 2009 – A visit to a tiny country

LeMarche is an Italian province, similar to Tuscany, but wilder, less traveled, more varied in terrain. It is just south of Veneto, the province in which Venice and Ravenna are situated. LeMarche runs long, along the northeast coast of Italy and the Adriatic Sea.

And nestled into the LeMarche hills, just south of Veneto province, is a tiny country, third only in size to the Vatican as the smallest country in Europe (Monaco is second) and the fifth smallest country in the world. From About.com: Geography: ” San Marino – 24 square miles – Located on Mt. Titano in north central Italy, San Marino has 29,000 residents. The country claims to be the oldest state in Europe, having been founded in the fourth century.”

Described as “shamelessly touristy” (and that is quite accurate!), the town of San Marino sits as a medieval hilltown at the top of the country of San Marino, and once we got going on the A-road (the super toll road), we made it from our villa to San Marino in less than two hours. We parked in a designated lot and walked to the entrance to the FuniVia, a funicular (sort of a cable-car/goldola ala ski areas) that took us to the town at the top.

Beautifully situated, with wall-to-wall shops, mostly horrid souvenir shops, and some lovely stores sprinkled in to encourage those of us who wanted to wander without being assaulted by tacky pinocchio dolls and soccer flags, medieval guns and plastic toys at almost every turn. I know, it sounds horrid, but it’s like going to the circus, and whenever we got a glimpse of what was beyond those medieval walls, we stopped to appreciate the decidedly lovely views.

One of the gimmicks is that since San Marino is its own country, it makes its own postage stamps and has its own passport office. We decided to play along (when might we ever get there again?) so we marched into the Ufficio Communale, paid our 5 Euro each, and had our passports stamped, not only with the typical rubber passport stamp, but also with an official San Marino postage-type stamp, though I don’t think I could have used it to send a card back to my family. We chatted with the woman behind the plexiglass window and asked her if she had fun doing her job. She smiled. Of course she would . . . collecting 5 Euro from all manner of people, just so they could collect a stamp of her country in their passports!

We had a lovely lunch at a restaurant whose card is in the pile of receipts I have waiting for me, found a wonderful Lladros ceramic statue for Rebecca, and after a few photos of the area and a sculpture garden we discovered on the way down to the FuniVia station, we headed back to the villa. An adventurous day in yet another “country”! (I know, the photo is sideways, but I can’t yet figure out how to switch it when it does this . . . I’m waiting for my daughter to return my call. She’s the blog-whiz!)

Sunday, September 20: A lazy day at the villa, at least until mid-afternoon, because we have carefully checked to see when some of our “wish list things-to-see” are open. One has to remember we are in Italy, one of those civilized countries that take a break in the middle of the day. Today we are headed to The Rooms of Suspended Time Museum of Monastic Arts. In Italian, that’s Le Stanze del Tempo Sospeso. They are rooms in the Convent of Santa Maria Maddalena, full of objects on display that were part of the manual activities of the Sisters, which have survived since the late 1500’s. The display is set up in rooms with themses such as the pharmacy, the pantry, and the “workroom”, with spinning embroidery, tinting equipment among other things.

This is a museum that sounded intriguing to all of us, but it is closed from noon-3:30 p.m., and is located in Serra de Conti, a town we estimate is an hour’s drive from our villa. So by about 2:30, we are on our way, we arrive in a sleepy town and find an approved parking spot, just outside another of Italy’s medieval walls, and begin our walk up to the “Centro”, the old center, where most of these historical museums and churches are located. The entrance sign for Museo Monastiche leads us to a quiet, tree-lined patio before we walk through the doors of the quietest museum setting I’ve ever experienced. Of course, it’s a monastic setting, and we are the only people in the place, which suits me just fine.

The rooms have simple displays, as though one had dropped into a Quaker or Shaker setting. The old implements – spools of thread, embroidery hoops, apothecary bottles, copper pans, etc. – are nested in their display cases or on tables, in what I can only describe as a spiritual setting. This is the kind of place to which one might like to bring a small suitcase, old and black leather in construction, sit with a candle or oil lamp and write in one’s journal for days. There is a quietude here I never find at home. Maybe I’m headed for a monastery myself! I wish I could point readers to a website, but of course there is no such thing. Here are a few photos for you, and I hope they help capture your imagination.

See what I mean? Lovely old representation of life 500 years ago. When we finished in the museum, we wandered the streets for awhile, found a bar (these aren’t just alcohol bars . . . more like a cafe, with coffee, drinks, and sandwiches) and sat outside with cappucchino, small sandwiches and dessert goodies. Next to us was a group of perhaps eight men, all speaking in some sort of Arabic tongue. Each time another man joined the group, several of the seated men rose up, kissed the newcomer on both cheeks, and they all sat down again.

The church bells clanged loudly across the piazza, every fifteen minutes, in two tones. On the hour, the lower toned bell would ring the number of the hour (in our case, five, then six o’clock). Then every fifteen minutes, the deep bell would ring again, the five or six tolls, and then a higher pitched bell would come in for one ring (5:15), two (5:30), or three (5:45). Since we sat for more than 90 minutes, we had lots of time to learn the bell code of Serra de Conti. By 6:45, we were ready to wend our way down the cobblestoned streets, looking for our parked car beyond the old walls. Then it was back to the Casa Frances for another night of reading, writing, and eating before settling into bed.

Septembert 18-24, 2009 – LeMarche area – Part 1

Well, Day 1, Friday. We relaxed at the villa, enjoying a day of rest after the long day on trains, boats and automobiles. A short trip into Cingoli, twice, actually, to get provisions (we can’t seem to remember that everything is closed from noon or 1:00 p.m until 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. any day, no matter whether the store is filled with things we need or just things we want.) While we waited for the supermercato to open again, we walked down the street a block to watch a group of old Italian men playing bocce ball in the park. They seem to gather every weekday afternoon to throw those little Italian “bowling balls” down the course. Sort of a cross between bowling and pool.

At 5:00 p.m., the supermercato opened its doors, I wandered around with my list, trying to decipher the various commodities. Was this dishwasher soap or clothes washing soap? Was this really hot chocolate mix or chocolate pudding, as it seemed to appear on the box? Why is there milk on the shelves as well as milk in the cold cases? And which one is skim, which one is whole milk, which is cream? Often it’s a matter of making an intuitive choice and hoping for the best, but as an adventure, it’s worth any errors I make in my choices.

And the men and women behind the “deli” cases, where all meat, fish, and cheeses are selected and lovingly sliced and packaged . . . well, there are no errors there. I only have to point, say “Questo qui . . . ” (“this one here”), pantomime how big a cheese wedge, or say in my numero-Italian how many slices, and my wish is granted.

Home after a visit to the farmacia for triple-antibiotic cream, to make one of my traveler’s blisters heal more quickly, and I’m on the windy nearly-unpaved road back to Avenale and our villa, Casa Frances. For dinner . . . some of what I purchased today and some of the leftovers from our delicious dinner last night.

Until tomorrow . . . a visit to San Marino!

September 17, 2009 – On the train today


Actually two trains. We left Venice by vaporetto, our luggage in tow, after I helped Erin find the place to get her VAT Tax refund form stamped. We had plenty of time, and I will remember that leaving later than the morning train is a very good idea. The extra hour or two or three allowed us to avoid hurrying through the narrow streets, roller luggage in tow, and we could afford the time it took to stop at each dock, rather than make SURE we got the #2 or N vaporetti, which only stops intermittently.

I think (it’s been days, so everything melts into itself, of course) the Venice to Bologna train was the one that was 20 minutes late, and then came in quickly, ready to depart again. We practically ran to the far end of the track, looking for our first class coach, which is often farthest from the station, so when it arrives at the next large stop, the first class passengers (my travelers and I) won’t have to walk too far to the switching place. But we hurried and had to hoist very heavy bags (never again) up to the racks above the seats or stashed somewhere in the train car.

Venezia to Bologna, then another switch and Bologna to Ancona in LeMarche, where we picked up our car (I make it sound simple, but it never is in Italy), load the luggage, and head to our villa in Avenale, about 5 kilometres outside of Cingoli, an hour’s ride from the Ancona station. If you don’t make any wrong turns. In a strange place, even with maps, is that possible? Not typically. And generally it’s half the fun, though when it begins to get dark and my excellent navigators are still reading about “hairpin turns down rural roads”, we all begin to get nervous. But we arrived at Casa Frances at dusk, and were greeted by the smiling faces of Marcello and Rita, the parents of our Villa owners. Rita had prepared a delicious meal, fit for a dozen, though we were only three. And I apologized to both host/chefs and told them in my broken Italian that we would eat the rest of the TWENTY pieces of chicken for lunch tomorrow (and the next day and the next and the next). The antipasti (three kinds of meat, three kinds of cheese), the pasta con pomodoro, the twenty (really!) pieces of sautéed chicken pieces, and the cherry tart, along with appropriate wines . . . pro secco, vino bianco, vino rosso AND moscato for dessert, were so much more than plenty for us, and we graciously thanked Rita and Marcello before we tumbled off to bed.

I got some practice with my lingua Italia, talking with Rita, who reported to her daughter that my Italian was “very good”. I told her daughter that my Italy was only “very good” because Rita’s English was limited to “hello” and “eggs”. But it was such fun to dig back into the recesses of my memory and have a decent conversation, very basic, but decent, with Rita and Marcello. I’m back in my heart country, dead center, with no English in sight tonight, but for my companions.

Buona Notte!

The trials of not having internet!

Well, with the Internet nearly nonexistent in most of the Italian towns, I have resorted to typing these entries on my laptop at a bar overlooking the beautiful Lago d’Orta on our final two days in Italy, trying to recap the last eight days of our adventure.

September 16 – Venezia – the day of the deluge on the streets of this water city. We wander on our own, looking for stores we had each marked on our Streetwise Venice maps. My goal is to get to a bead store called Anticheta in Dorsoduro, over the Accademia Bridge. It is raining, but nothing my umbrella can’t handle. However, I arrive at the store I’m looking for, only to find that it closed 30 minutes ago and won’t be open again for three more hours, at 16:00, 4:00 p.m.. This is a long break for a store in Venice, but since the shop is in Dorsoduro, rather than in San Marco or the Rialto district, it is calmer, this shop is probably more legitimate, rather than touristy, and the owner can close for as long as he chooses.

I look for a place to have lunch and find one just two or three doors down from Anticheta. I have an excellent sandwich, a delicious peach and apple tart, and a cappuccino. I eat slowly and stay in my seat, grateful for once that the bars and restaurants don’t slam down the bill (il conto) until you ask for it, even if that is three hours from the time you finish your meal.

Unfortunately, I have hope that the rain will abate, even slightly, so I finally pay for my meal and begin to walk, taking advantage of this “killing time” task, believing it will afford me a chance to see this part of Venice, even in the rain. However, “rain” isn’t really what continues. How about torrential rain? How about deluge? How about . . . the streets are ready to float into the canals!

However, I walk, my favorite, dependable Primo Breeze shoes sloshing, holding me without sliding on the wet stones, but never to recover from their afternoon and evening of Noah’s Ark weather. I have kept them on every windowsill (windows open) for the past 10 days, but still, they throw off the scent of Venetian canal water mixed with a rainstorm the likes of which they’ve never seen. A new pair from shoes.com is definitely in order as soon as I arrive at a dependable Internet point.

And the beads? I return to the store at 3:30, pace a bit, go two doors down to the little lunch place, ask for a cappuccino again, and sit, writing in my journal for 30 minutes. Then I pace outside the store. A young Pakistani man asks in a sort of Italian pantomime whether I am waiting for the shop to open (no, I’m just pacing in the deluge for my health!). He makes a quick phone call, speaking in rapid sort of Italian, and hangs up, telling me “Quindici minuti” Fifteen minutes. At 16:20, an older, graying man appears at my sisde to open the store. Three hours and twenty minutes’ wait, then ten minutes in the store, and Euro 200 worth of beads for Euro 150 in a little red bag . . . truly, there ware probably fifteen beads – very old Venetian, some sort of old, and some he says were “newer”. He’d throw those in for no charge. Wish I had known that! I would have gotten a few more. They are silver, and very nice. See the photo with the smaller beads. The second bead collection is one I purchased earlier that morning, before the deluge!

At any rate . . . my Venetian flood, from the heavens, not the walkways. And by the time I get back to the hotel and greet my travel mates, they have already changed their soaked clothing twice. We are all hungry and ready for some dinner. And the weather has cleared, so we walk the streets toward the Rialto Bridge until we find the Il Colombo Ristorante . . . very nice, lovely food, fresh fish, whole and waiting to be chosen, and the boast that Woody Allen has eaten here.