07 July 2012

So Long, Italia!

Woke up today to say farewell to Italia. We checked out of the villa in Civenna and hopped a shuttle into Milano. Once we got into Milano, we discovered that the auto shop that has our old rental van (and hence the missing things - including my ipad) was not in Milano as previously thought, but was actually back closer to where we had been staying. As it turns out, the shuttle almost drove right past the location. So, we visited the concierge desk at the hotel. The concierge told us that there was no train to the town where my stuff was, but that if we went up to a town close to there, the shop would send a driver with our stuff. So, C & I hopped a subway to the train station, a commuter train to Inverigo, where we met the driver, got the GPS power supply and my ipad back (but no GPS windshield mount), tipped him handsomely, and then hopped back the return train to Milano (total time in Inverigo was approximately 10 minutes), then back on the subway, and then to a bar for some campari & sodas. I'm glad to have the ipad back, even if it turned into a huge hassle.

Once back at the hotel, I got a few minutes to myself before it was time to gather for dinner. Time enough to load up the ipad with movies & tv shows for the flight, check/sort/filter email, make a to-do list for work for the flight, and catch my breath before dinner

Dinner was amazing - a terrific end to this trip. We went to a restaurant called Alba D'Oro and feasted on an exceptional selection of Tuscan foods: salumi, lardo, cheese, ravioli, tomato & bread soup (note for later: 1.5k tomato, 200g bread sans crust, garlic, salt, pepper, squeeze, no seeds, process), risotto with octopus, rabbit, steak, swordfish, breads… yum! I ordered the wine, and C loved it - turns out it was a 15E bottle of house red! We all ate supremely well, and the chef invited B & I into the kitchen for a look and a talk. Awesome.

And so ends our European trip. Tomorrow we catch a 7am shuttle to the airport, then to Frankfort, and then to LAX. S and I had a blast on this trip - thanks to our friends and family who traveled with us, including Eli, C & E, and A, B, C, & D. Thanks to all of the new friends we made, particularly in Romania! Thanks to the people who recommended things we did and the people who will patronize the places we recommend. Thanks for UCI & National Theatre of Romania for getting me to Yurp early, and to S's family for keeping us in Yurp late. S & I are looking forward to going home and sleeping in our bed, but we'll bring great memories with us.

Couples Day

Friday was earmarked as a couples day, so B & A did their thing (a quick shopping trip to Lenno), C & D did their thing (a walk in Menaggio), and S & I went back to Como. We got into town at about noon from the high-speed ferry and wandered town a bit. We had a small agenda: find three shops (Olivetum for foodstuffs, Cioccolaria for chocolate yumminess, and Tesitura for discount silk products), get lunch, and hit the Volta Temple.

First, lunch! We wandered town looking for a good place to eat (criteria: no english menu, reasonable prices, preferable outdoor seating), but got caught in a summer squall that stranded us in a shop that offered lunch. We ended up eating a meal that was unmemorable. If we hadn't gotten caught in the squall, we would have kept walking, but sometimes the universe forces a decision. S had lame gnocchi, and I had an uneventful salad with tuna and corn.

Second, shopping. It was moderately successful.  We bought a few vinegars (honey, orange) at Olivetum. Cioccolaria was less chocolate emporium and more coffeeshop, so we kept moving. Tesitura was shut down and gutted, so that was a bust.

Third, Volta Temple. Como is the hometown of Alessandro Volta, the scientist who made remarkable discoveries about electricity. The city is very proud of this, and along the waterfront, they've built a lovely memorial/museum to him and his work. We went inside and got to see some of his original custom-built equipment (some of the pieces were recreations of pieces that were lost in an 1899 fire). There were gas measurement devices, electricity measurement devices, dead frogs, batteries, medals, metals, plaques, and at least five portraits of Volta demonstrating an experiment for Napoleon. 

After the Volta Temple, we discovered a WWII memorial in the same park. The memorial was divided into three sections, which I think must represent the three prime countries of the Axis powers. Inscribed in many languages throughout the memorial were portions of letters written by civilian victims. Each European country was represented in the quotations, from Holland to Bulgaria, and one specific quotation to represent the jews in the holocaust. It was very moving.

Five hours after arriving in Como, we had to hop our highspeed boat back to Bellagio, where we met up with the others and had dinner at a local restaurant. C & I drank all the wine, and then we returned to the villa to pack up.

05 July 2012

What's the difference between a food stand and a market?

I woke this morning at 6.30 for a run, but the weather was so beautiful that I knew we'd be going out on our hike. I didn't want to wear myself out before the hike, so instead of running, I headed to the main piazza in Civenna to record the church bell sounding 7:00. Civenna is a tiny town, and he piazza is little more than a 30'x30' bricked-over square right next to the bus stop. There's a church on one side, a newsstand on one side, a parking lot/bus stop on one side, and mainstream on the other side (with the local cafe right across the street). It's lovely, but it isn't big, and if you had thoughts of a huge Piazza Navonna-style space, you'd be wrong.

Then, back to the villa for a little bit of work. Between the busy spring and the past few weeks of traveling, I've gotten behind on a number of projects, and I've got a lot on my plate next week.  I'm trying to get a jump start on it now by getting some emails sent out, organizing my to-do list, etc. I'm not looking forward to jumping back into work, but as Dad likes to say, 'there's a time to play, and a time to pay.'

Today was earmarked for a hiking day, but owing to a couple of out-of-commissions, we decided to forgo the hike. D, B, & I went into Bellagio and then to Tremezzo in search of a market. Unfortunately, the market in Tremezzo was even more anticlimactic than the market in Varenna - there were TWO trucks, one produce and one cheese. Neither useful for us. So, back to Bellagio for lunch (an awesome prix fixe fish meal!) and then back to Civenna.

After the storms, the skies were clear.

Tremezzo has more beautiful alleys. Lame.

Back in Civenna, people were in different states of slack. S was still in bed, C was swimming, and A was reading. We joined in and made an afternoon of sloth. Also, we went to the market for ingredients for tonight's dinner: roast pork, cannellini with prosciutto, salad, and cheeses. Yum! For dessert, some gelato… and some wine!

Tomorrow's our last day in Civenna, and it's been earmarked as a couple's day.  S & I have yet to make plans… thoughts?

04 July 2012

Varenna, Bellagio, and a swim

S & I cooked breakfast this morning - scrambled eggs with garden rosemary and local cheese - yum!  A prepped a fruit salad, and C got some pastries from the local shop. We ate and scooted out the door in order to make it down to Bellagio in time to catch our ferry across to Varenna, another freaking beautiful town with gardens and walks. 

On the ferry to Varenno.

Oh, how cute! A small harbor!

More pretty gardens. Le sigh.

C had read that there was an awesome market in Varenna on Wednesdays, but when we got there, the 'market' was two food trucks and four clothing trucks. Hardly a market made. Still, Varenna was beautiful - we wandered through town, checking out one of the formal gardens on the edge of the community. Then, back on the boat to Bellagio!

Our first stop in Bellagio was lunch. Since we're car-free here in Italia, the last bus to Civenna is at 6.35pm, and there's no reliable restaurant open in Civenna, we've taken to using lunch as our big meal, and snacking in the evening. On Monday, we tried to go to a restaurant in Bellagio called Bilacus (which came highly recommended), but it (and most restaurants) shut their doors in mid-afternoon, which is when we were trying to eat. So, today, we planned better and got to Bilacus during the lunch period. It was awesome. We started with prosciutto and melon, then we split a few pastas: a parmesan risotto and a panzarotti, which is like a crepe with ricotta and jam, rolled, coated in red sauce and then topped with mozzarella. The main courses were a little more confusing. C had sea bass, D had salmon, S & A ordered scallops, and B & I ordered perch (locally caught in Lake Como).  Except that for S & A, their dishes weren't scallops. They were 'escallops,' which apparently means scallops of veal. So, when the food arrived, there was a lot of shuffling and reshuffling to be done. Still, it was all very tasty.

After lunch, we walked to the northernmost tip of Bellagio, which is right at the tip of the triangle that separates the two lower branches of Lake Como. Then, the ladies went off to tour Villa Melzi (and its awesome gardens), while the guys went for a drink. Then, a quick trip to Nico's food shop, the gelateria, and then a bus home.

When we got off the bus in Civenna, we walked about ten steps before C realized he left his phone on the bus. He and I went to the ticket counter to try to intercept the driver at the next stop, but no one spoke English (and my 'tourist Italian' didn't cut it). So, C called our local contact for her help. Currently, he's still phone-free. The latest in technologic failures this trip.

After a relaxing sojourn by the pool, we cleaned up and started dinner - another potpourri of different foods - some meat, some veg, some starch (including a polenta dish). Wine, coffee, gelato (passion fruit, chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, lemon).  As we ate, we watched the clouds roll in, and by the time we were done with dinner, the lake was invisible below - we were in the midst of a storm. As dinner wrapped up, I pocketed my flashlight (in case we had a power outage), we looked for playing cards (no luck), and settled in for some nighttime stormwatching. B & I were hoping to take some lighting photos, but the clouds were too thick. So, there we were, stuck on a mountaintop villa in a summer storm. Awesome!

It didn't take long for the front to pass, and the ridge line of the mountains again came into view as the clouds moved south.  And so, as the storm abates and America is just getting its Independence Day celebrations under way, we're looking forward to a good night's sleep here in Civenna. Happy Fourth to you all! And if you get a chance to re-read the Declaration of Independence, please do so. I'm about to re-read it myself now.

03 July 2012

All things Como

Finally got a nice long run in today - about 6.75 miles through the hills of Civenna.  It was terrific to get out and pump up those hills after a few days of not running much.  When I got back to the house, C & I shared a pot of coffee on the terrace and watched the sun burn the fog off of the lake.

Showering in the villa is a complex matter.  There are four full bathrooms in the house, but the way the plumbing is set up, if more than one shower is going at a time, only one shower gets adequate hot water. B & A are using the bathroom at the bottom of the totem pole, so if anyone else is using hot water, B & A get an icy shower. Getting the six of us clean in a timely manner requires a lot of water-flow juggling. As soon as one person is done showering, they announce it to the house so the next person can jump in. When everyone is on board with it, it works well and efficiently, but if anyone isn't paying attention and jumps in out of order, cold showers result.

Anyway, we got out of the house in time to get down to town to meet Laura, who was our tour guide for the day. She led us on a tour of Lake Como, stopping at Villa del Balbianello, a beautiful site that was used in in Star Wars Episode II.  Many people owned the Villa, including a gay explorer who lied about reaching the peak of Everest (long story) and a cardinal who was afraid of kidnapping enough to build secret escape stairs.

After the villa, we grabbed a drink (beer, tea, campari/soda, coffee drinks) and hopped back onto the boat for more fun whooshing on down to Como, at the southern end of the left fork of Lake Como. Along the way, we passed George Clooney's house (Hi George!) and saw some stunning villas & gardens. 

B & A on a boat!
When we got to Como, we took a quick ride up the funicular to a town that looks out over Como. The views were beautiful, but it was a hazy. Laura told us that on a clear day, you can see Milano, Torino, and Switzerland. Como is actually only 4km from Switzerland by car, so we could add another country to our trip, if we wanted. And if we had car.

Then, back down the funicular and on to lunch at a lovely trattoria called Trattoria del Gallo (The Rooster Cafe). B had black rice and chicken, A & C had trout, D had ferro, and S & I had spinach/ricotta ravioli. We shared prosciutto & melon. After lunch, Laura took us to the main cathedral in Como:

Yet another awesome church.

… before taking her leave from us. Thanks Laura for a great tour!

We hopped a hydrofoil back to Bellagio, bought some food for dinner, and then took the bus up to Civenna. Once back at our villa, S, C, B, & I jumped in the pool to cool down before supper. Dinner was another potpourri of awesomeness: two brie cheeses, two mild local cheeses, a chevre, a stinky cheese, mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, coppa, prosciutto, tuna-stuffed red peppers, marinated artichokes, white anchovies, bread, olive oil, vinegar, salad, honey, gelato, and some chocolates. Also, red wine, white wine, coffee, water… Yum!

Tomorrow, C has picked out a town with a market on Wednesdays. S and I are going to make breakfast and then we're all going to hit the market! I have no idea what kind of market it is... food? silk? toys? black market jeans? Who knows?

02 July 2012


Last night it was damn hot, so we slept with the windows wide open. This morning, the light streaming in, the bells pealing in the distance, and the birds chirping manically outside our rooms woke some of us up early. I thought about taking a run, but instead I treated myself to a lazy morning. A, B, and I went up the road to buy some food for breakfast, and we took our time getting out of the house. 

When we finally departed, the weather had been off-and-on rainy, so we weren't sure what kind of weather we'd be in for. We took a bus down to Bellagio to grab lunch and wander the town.  Lunch was a bit disappointing - we had a number of recommendations, but because we had such a late start to the day, the restaurants we wanted to eat at were all closed for the afternoon by the time we got there. We ended up having a very serviceable meal at a local wine bar, but it wasn't the spectacular meal we were hoping for.

After lunch, we wandered town, shopping for stuff and exploring the streets. Bellagio is postcard-perfect, but it's almost TOO perfect - like the city sold its soul to American tourists. American English was by far the most common language I heard today, and the streets were filled with high-end clothing shops (silk, mostly). C & I both commented on how we were glad to be staying in Civenna, a town that has not sold out to rich America (fully aware of the irony of us having the conversation).

We also found the gourmet shop run by Nico, our chef from last night's dinner. We bought some cheese and meat from him for our light supper. He and his wife were working the counter, and we had a good visit with them.

After our afternoon in Bellagio, we came back to the villa to relax and prepare dinner. Dinner was an assortment of meats and cheeses, along with some honey, bread, vinegar, tomatoes, basil, etc. It was terrifically tasty - a nice snack at the end of a relaxing day.

As the full moon rose over the lake, we were thankful that the air had cooled down, the spirits were mellower, and that we all had a good day. After the intense drama of yesterday, we were glad for a mellow day. Tomorrow is another one, one to spend on the water and in Como!

Some other notes about today:
  • We're still not sure where we stand with the rental car company. C isn't sure he wants a car out here after seeing the roads.
  • After four trips to Italy, I'm finally getting comfortable with tourism Italian. I can order food, decipher text, buy bus tickets, ask directions. Hooray for me! I can even ask for the bathroom (hint: it's NOT the 'back-ous-a')
  • I found an amazing blazer for $450 today. I want it.

01 July 2012

well, we asked for an adventure...

When C & I got up for our run at 8am, it was already in the mid-80s outside in Milano - yech. It never got any cooler all day long..

We had breakfast as a group, checked out of the hotel, and headed over to the La Scala museum. We only had a few minutes to spend in there, but we did get to go inside the concert hall, which was a treat - so much great music was performed inside - the room reverberated with musical genius.

Shortly after noon, we picked up the rental car, loaded it up, and packed ourselves off to Civenna, our resort town on Lake Como. The drive should have taken about 90 minutes, but 60 minutes into the trip, as soon as we got off of level roads and into the hills, the car started smoking and we lost every gear except first. We pulled over to the side of the road and turned the car off to let it cool down. We weren't sure what happened - we knew it could be anything from a blown transmission to overheating. Once we got going again, it took us less than a mile to hit the exact same problem, but worse. C pulled the van over to the side of the road by a lake. By this point, the clutch pedal was stuck to the floorboard of the car. C called the rental car company and the woman who was supposed to meet us at the villa. The rental car company sent a tow truck for the car, and the woman who was supposed to meet us organized a shuttle service. Along the day, a few things of ours got left in the van as it got towed off. Including my iPad. Crap.

Waiting for the broken car...

The house here is lovely. A great living space, a pool, a marvelous view of the lake. It's beautiful, but we're going to have to strategize how to deal with the heat. Highs in the mid-80s, no a/c, and the air is super-still right now. The house, for all of its all-inclusive-ness, is missing a lot of things that one might expect. Like extra toilet paper. Or fans. Or condiments in the kitchen.

Dinner tonight was lovely. C & D hired a chef to come in and cook for us. We had a saffron risotto, veal scaloppini with truffles, fried summer veggies, wine, and sorbet with limoncello.  Excellent!  Then, we watched dusk hit the lake.

And now, we're watching Italy get its butt kicked in the European Football Final.  Spain is trouncing Italia. It ain't even funny.

The internet is super-slow here, so I'll be limited in how many photos I post...

Ciao, Bella!

Travel day today: up at 4.15, out the door in Istanbul by 5.30, pulling back from the gate at 8am, three hours to Milano (watched 'Good Hair' - a great documentary!), met more family at the airport (everyone AND their luggage arrived successfully - what are the odds of that?), and at the hotel in Milano shortly after 11am.

The hotel wasn't ready to check us in yet, so we dropped our bags and headed north a few blocks to check out the Duomo and La Scala.

La Scala. Can you hear the cats being strangled?

From the roof of the Duomo.

Along the way, we had lunch (I had an awesome salad with tuna & mozzarella). A and I climbed the Duomo, and S, B, C, & D took the elevator. Amazing views from above, but damn was it hot!

It's freaking hot.

We got back to the hotel at around 3pm and everyone went into their room for a siesta.  At 7.30, we met to go to dinner at a restaurant recommended by the front desk.  The food was excellent - a great meat plate, a Dory fish that we all shared, home-made pasta, wine, proseco, limoncello, and home-made gelato (including the best pistacchio gelato I've ever had). We ate outside at the restaurant, and by the time we were done, we were all sweaty and bug-picked, but it was still a tremendous meal.

Then, a walk home past La Scala and the Duomo.  And a good night's sleep.