Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lake Garda, Two days in Paradise;The Northern Italy diaries, Part III

This was our 3rd trip to the Italian Lake District; our previous trips to lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano were in the summer. The crowds were overwhelming, the narrow, winding streets clogged with traffic. In late September, the tourist season was almost over and the roads far less crowded.

This time we went to Lake Garda and happened to choose one of the most beautiful towns on the lake—-and one of the best hotels we've ever stayed in, Villa Giulia. The hotel is right on the shore of Lake Garda and our cottage opened up to a patio practically at the water’s edge. There were gorgeous flowers everywhere, especially purple bougainvillea that was growing all over Lake Garda.
And the hotel had its own parking lot! I think we were happier to see that parking lot than the spectacularly beautiful lake. (Driving in Italy does that to you.)

The first day we just chilled out by the lake.

On our second day we decided to drive around the entire lake. We didn’t realize how long it would take. Those narrow winding roads are a challenge and it was impossible to stop at all the little towns our guidebooks advised.

Although the west side of the lake is less developed than the east--and far more beautiful—there were towns on the east side like Bardolino that made the long drive around the lake definitely worth it. It’s famous for the red wine made there as well as for an 11th century Romanesque cathedral. Bardolino’s 11th century Romanesque church is one of the earliest examples of Romanesque architecture I’ve ever seen. And the church also has some astonishingly well-preserved 13th century frescoes—it was worth the long trek around the lake for this. We didn’t manage to fit in one of my must-see’s, Heller Garden in our circle of the lake but we did see it before we left town the next day. The Mediterranean Garden at Helller Garden

We’ve been to many Italian gardens—all very beautiful and well-designed, but usually a little bit unkempt. The Heller garden was weed free--no dead branches, no spent foliage and, like so many Italian gardens, there were fountains and waterfalls everywhere. We were very happy we made time for it.

We wished we had another day at Villa Giulia, but considering how expensive the wonderful hotel restaurant was, it was just as well we had to move on.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Verona’s Magical Old Town: The Northern Italy diaries, Part II

Piazza dei Signori
Gothic spires of the Scaliger Tombs

We now try to do no more than 2 hours driving per day, so we took several days to drive from Venice to Fiesole where we had rented an apartment. Our first stop was Verona.

We were there in the 1980’s and it was one of my all time favorite travel experiences. On a gorgeous summer night we heard La Gioconda in the open air theater in the old Roman amphitheater. It’s not my favorite opera but it was my all time favorite opera experience. The audience was so totally involved in the performance, shouting their approval when they liked what they heard and really shouting their disapproval when they did not. I had never seen such an engaged audience in my life.

This trip there was no time for the opera, but Verona was even more beautiful than I remembered. However, it has turned into a nightmare for drivers. Each time we have gone to Italy we’ve found that the traffic gets worse and worse. The number of cars on the road keeps increasing at a frightening pace and the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. The consequence is horrendous traffic gridlock and practically no parking spaces.

Also, GPS systems are not programmed for the narrow little lanes in the medieval warren of Verona’s old town. Finding our hotel literally took an entire afternoon. It was a charming small hotel but I wouldn’t recommend it as it is on a tiny, well-hidden street and there were no parking spaces within a ten block radius.

If we ever return to Verona, we now know how to do it--get a hotel that has parking on the periphery of old town, park the car for the duration of the stay and do everything on foot.

Verona has one of the most magical old towns in Italy and it was worth all the aggravation. I would love to go back and spend several days there just walking around the old town and hanging out on the many beautiful piazzas.

Friday, March 6, 2015

So happy to be back in Venice: The Northern Italy diaries, Part I

When we returned from our trip to Italy in October, I had so much garden work and election work to do that I decided to postpone posting my notes and photos, figuring that I’d really enjoy reliving this trip in the cold, miserable days of winter.

My husband and I both want to spend our last travel years in Europe; however, we're drawn to different parts of Europe. For Rick, it’s central and eastern Europe; for me it’s southern Europe. For his 70th birthday, we went to Krakow, Warsaw and Berlin. For mine this year, there was no question—it had to be Italy. This was our 8th trip to Italy together, including a six week trip during our magical, never to be forgotten 1999 sabbatical. But I’ll never get enough of Italy, never enough of Tuscany. This was our 4th trip to Tuscany and the plan initially was to fly into Milan, see some parts of Northern Italy we’ve never been to and then drive to Tuscany.

To our surprise we found out we could no longer get a direct flight from Philly to Milan. The only direct flight was to Venice. We had been to Venice 3 times before and I had reluctantly agreed that we had “done” Venice. I thought I was reconciled to never going to Venice again—after all we don’t have that many traveling years left and maybe 3 trips to Venice is enough.

But as soon as I learned the only way to fly direct to northern Italy was to go to Venice, I was ecstatically happy. I wasn’t as reconciled to never seeing Venice again as I had thought.

During our previous trips to Venice the weather was either hellishly hot and overcast or cold, gray and damp. This time in late September/ early October we had glorious weather. Venice has to be seen with brilliant sunshine—all those narrow dark streets opening up to sunlit squares, all that water reflecting dazzling bright blue skies.

We booked a hotel, Pensione Academia we had stayed in in the 90’s and really liked. Like the small once affordable—-but now crazily expensive-- hotels we used to book in Paris, the Academia was far more expensive than it had been in the 90’s--an increase way above the rate of inflation. But it was a birthday celebration, so we decided to splurge. Because we get tired more readily than we did in our early years traveling together, we make sure we get a hotel that‘s a good place for hanging out. The Academia with it’s lovely gardens is certainly a good hang-out place and both it and Venice is more magical than I remember.

Just like our first trip to Venice, my fondest memories are of having dinner at one of the cafes with outdoor tables along the Giudecca and taking an after dinner stroll on the banks of the canal.

Venice is an open air architectural museum and although I had some museums on my list, all I really wanted to do was walk around and take in the astonishing beauty.

I’m now hoping for one more trip to Venice.

photos by my friend Fran Gilmore who was also in Venice in October 2014