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By caplanco from Colorado, Fall 2007
September 21 - October 28, 2006 Opening "i"s along the way from the Dolomites to Rome. Caplanco and her husband travel from the North of Italy down to Rome over the course of five weeks, visiting as many "i"s (aka tourist information offices) as they can along the way.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.com.


On our first extended trip to Italy in 1999 I was in awe of the “i” – the tourist information office in almost every town. Most of them were so helpful in providing information about the town and the surrounding area. Some even helped us to find suitable lodging as we traveled without advance reservations. When we returned home I was acutely aware of the lack of similar tourist help in many US locations. Yes, some larger tourist-bound cities have information booths at airports or train stations, but if I was a tourist there I wouldn’t know where to find them or even that they existed.

On our second and third extended trips we did have advance reservations. Once settled in a location, our first stop was always at the “i.” We have found some of the personnel to be extraordinarily helpful, and others that made us feel like we were intruding. We learned about local festas, cultural events, special events and other opportunities that we did not find in any of our advance research.

Being intrepid “i” users, we were sometimes frustrated at not being able to locate the office upon arrival in a new place. We always have a car and try to follow the signs to the “i.” If you’ve ever driven into towns in Italy – let alone bigger cities – you know that signage tends to disappear just as you think you are on the right track. And, of course, street names are not always visible. A couple of times, such as in Parma, we were ready to give up when, lo and behold, the “i” office appeared just as we turned a corner.

In 2006 we spent six weeks in the Dolomites, Friuli-Giulia, Veneto, Bay of Poets, Maremma and Rome. As I describe our adventures, I will be sure to mention any experience with local “i” offices. At the end of this report I’ve included a list of the location of “i” offices we’ve visited on this and other trips to Italy.

September 15-21 Ortisei, Sud Tirol​

We had done our homework. After getting information from Slow Travelers, guidebooks, and the web we chose to use Ortisei as our base. This proved to be a good choice as it is just the right size to have nice restaurants and shops, and still be walkable and pleasant.

We flew into Malpensa, stayed in Tremezzo overnight and then drove to Ortisei. The road became narrow and winding, going up and then coming back into the valley. Part of it was covered with fog. Just when I was getting a bit nervous because we'd seen no signs for Ortisei, there it was.

We rented a two bedroom apartment at Residence Ciastel (Via Minertstr. 2 I-39046 Ortisei/St.Ulrich), as our son and his wife were joining us. The apartment is located just across the river and about a three-block walk from the village center.

Ortisei is a lovely little town in the northern part of Italy, near the Austrian border. There are lots of men in lederhosen. German is the predominant language and signs are in three languages: German, Italian and Ladin. The latter is an old language, which is still spoken, unique to this part of Italy.

Buses stops every morning to load hikers and take them to one of the many mountain hiking trails. There are some lovely restaurants and bars. We found So Vi So on an off-main street piazza and had our café and croissant there almost every morning, sitting in the sun and watching moms and their children visiting. There are some interesting shops to explore and several local hikes. One pleasant walk takes you to a nearby town, Santa Cristina, along a paved path. We were fortunate to discover there was a Ladin festa in Santa Cristina so we walked there and back. Near the end of our stay we drove through what would have been our second choice, Castelrotto, and were glad we’d chosen Ortisei instead.

The “i” in Ortisei had no information on hikes in the area. The girl seemed preoccupied and was not very helpful. She gave us the general map of hiking paths but that map had no specifics. There was no information about activities in the area, restaurants, etc.


In the Dolomites

September 21 – 29 Friuli-Giulia: Cividale​

On a previous trip to Italy, on a very rainy day in Venice, we had a conversation with a shop owner while waiting for the rain to stop. He told us that Venetians go to Friuli-Giulia (the northeastern part of Italy) for vacation, because it is beautiful and has wonderful food. That peaked our interest, so Friuli was built into our plans for this trip. Bobby Stuckey, the owner of Frasca Ristorante in Boulder, takes his staff to Friuli for two weeks every summer and serves only food from that area. He was kind enough to give us notes on not-to-be-missed restaurants in the area. We decided to base in Cividale and take day trips to other areas of interest.

The drive from Ortisei to Cividale was one of the most beautiful we have ever taken. SS242 to Pordoi Pass, up 27 hairpin tornates and down 33 of them. We practiced our Italian numbers as every tornate is numbered.

The road went to Arraba ... Pieve de Cadore ... National Park of Friuli Giulia ... Gemona ... Civedale. The color palette went from the deep green of the thick stands of evergreens to the emerald green of the meadow grasses to the gray and white of the Dolomites. There were absolutely spectacular views all along the way.

I only had about 20 stomach churning “ohs” on the five hour drive. It is amazing to me that we did not die every time a bus came down and around a curve that we were going up. They obviously know what they are doing. After awhile I just closed my eyes in that situation and hoped for the best. The motorcycles going around the curves at high seed and 45 degree angles are also scary. There are large black and white signs in several places along the road showing where a cyclist was/could be killed.

As it became the lunch hour there was much less traffic - not that there had been a lot to begin with. Every town we passed through was shut tight with not a person in site. We stopped for picnic lunch along the way.

To my surprise, there are huge shopping areas on the outskirts of Cividale. I couldn’t tell if they are big outlets or mixed shops. We stopped at one called Buonaquisto and managed to buy a new expensive trimmer for Michael’s beard even though we had to use language/gesture mix.

We arrived in Cividale, parked, and Michael went to find the apartment we had booked online, Al Monastero. It looked nothing like portrayed on the web and was totally unacceptable; fortunately no deposit had been required. We moved into a room at Albergo Pomo d'Oro (Saint Piazzetta Giovanni, 20) until we could find an apartment. The 3am rooster confirmed our decision to move.

So, off to the “i” we went. Cividale has a wonderful “i” – the way an “i” should be - with free Internet access on six computers, when you can get one. There is a very helpful staff, and tons of literature about the Natisone Valley. They have lists of B&Bs and agritourismos, as well as job postings, train and bus schedules and local event listings. We wanted to take several day trips, and to enjoy some of the restaurants that had been recommended to us. We were there almost every day. It is conveniently located right on the main piazza.


The "i" piazza in Cividale

September 21 – 29 Friuli-Giulia: Cividale, Piccolo Fattoria B&B​

The next day, after many phone calls, we were lucky enough to find Piccolo Fattoria B&B owned by the delightful Claudia and Georgio. It was lacking a kitchen, but Claudia furnished a small table top frigo at our request. The “ranchette” is a five-minute drive or 20 minute walk from the town center. Georgio’s horse, their two dogs, and a cat all live happily in and out of the barn. Breakfast is served in their dining room, and although Claudia speaks no English and Georgio speaks a little, we had some good conversations.


Marsha, Michael and Cisco at La Piccolo Fattoria B&B

September 21 – 29 Friuli-Giulia: La Subida​

We’d made a lunch reservation at La Subida near Cormons. If you are not a foodie, you can skip this section as I’m about to describe an incredible meal in beautiful surroundings.

These are the wines, different with every course:
  • Spumanti w/frico
  • Doro Princio Collio tocai Mlecnia chardonay 2001
  • Carlo di Pradis Collio merlot 2000
  • Dorigo verdezzo 2004
  • dessert wine
And the tastings (full antipasti, half portions of everything else):
  • Amuse bouche: polenta w/herbed ricotta and arugula
  • Antipasti: Pumpkin flowers with red pepper strips over shredded cheese w/horseradish garnish; Prosciutto cut from the leg at the table, a huge portion.
  • Lagniappe: jota – traditional soup of beans, corn, smoked bacon, lentils
  • Pasta: Gemelli w/zucchini, mushrooms, and montagio cheese. Traditional fried noodle "cup" filled with noodles and finely cut goulash
  • Secondi: Stinko of veal cut from the shank bone at the table with sides of pureed zucchini, and potatoes fried with onions. Traditional deer in raspberry sauce w/apple and red cabbage sides.
(At this point we took a walk in the garden.)
  • Lagniappe: Platter of three different kind of petit cookies
  • Dessert: Zuppa de pesche (peach) with fior de latte gelato floating in it along w/small bits of berries and sugar cookie sticks. Rhubarb crostina w/fior de latte gelato and creme anglaise.
We planned to go to Udine the next day. I wanted to take the 15 minute train ride from Cividale to Udine, but Michael said it was such a short drive it would be easy. Well, it happened to be the Maratinino Udine (a running marathon) and many streets were closed off. We finally found a place to park near the Galleria d'Arte Moderna which I wanted to visit. It took us awhile to find the entrance and we were the only folks there. The man at the desk turned the lights on for us. The paintings began in the 1800's through the present. I did not know any of the artists but enjoyed seeing the depiction of life as it had been.

The race was over when we exited the museum so we drove into centro. We found Piazza de Liberta which is very Venetian looking, and walked to Piazza Maggiore which is where the runners were ending the race, and it was packed. It was Sunday, so shops were closed. Udine seems quite sophisticated but lacking of any significant cultural sights.

When we got back, Georgio told us that there was an antiques fair in Cividale so we went there. It happens on the last Sunday of every month and is huge. It got us to see the other side of the city, over the bridge of the Natisone. It was just the kind of market scene we enjoy with everything from crystal chandeliers to war mementos to hand crocheted doilies.


Welcome to La Subida

September 21 – 29 Friuli-Giulia: Aquileia and Grado​

Aquileia was next on our day trip itinerary. There is a huge collection of Roman artifacts in the museum. Aquileia had been a major trading port and the museum also has a very impressive collection of amber and gems. The basilica has an incredible floor of mosaics depicting different biblical stories. It is very well preserved, with some parts covered in Lucite that you can walk on. We did a quick tour of the remaining floors which also had mosaics left from the ruins of some Roman houses, and we were off to Grado for lunch at another of Bobby’s recommendations, Tavernetta Alla Androna.

The restaurant is tucked away in a small street behind a little church. We were seated at an outside table on an awning covered patio. Michael had been unsure whether or not we’d parked in a legitimate place so the waitress went with him to show him a safe place to park. I had a prosecco while I waited, and looked at the very interesting seafood menu.

We started with mixed "razor clams" (capelungho), scallops and crayfish. The capelungho are wonderful and addictive, like eating peanuts. We then shared large rigatoni-type pasta with anchovies in fresh tomato sauce. The bread of the north is excellent. The bread basket contained pane con pepe and other nice breads. Michael had mixed grilled fish: branzino, soligo, robato, baby shark and I had spada ala Sciciliana w/ capers, olives, and fresh pomodori.

After lunch we went for a walk along the boardwalk at the beach on the Adriatic.

Michael had read about a fabulous gelateria - Gran Gelato in Cervignano, which was on the way home. We found it but it was closed. Disappoinamento!


Grado off season

September 21 – 29 Firuli-Giulia: Cividale and Trieste​

The next day trip was a train ride to Trieste. The “i” in Trieste gave us some helpful info.

We walked up to the San Guisto basillica and Roman ruins, which had some nice views overlooking the city and harbor. Then we walked down Via Capitoline and noticed the stones along the way which commemorate those soldiers who fell in WWII. Trieste was also the location of the only extermination camp in Italy, which is on the outskirts of town. We stopped at Cremecaffe on Piazza Goldoni for a fabulous gianduia frappe. I could easily become addicted and would like to try the fruit ones next. These frappes would bring me back to Trieste.

I had wanted to visit the synagogue but it was a holiday period so no visitors were allowed inside. We admired this large edifice from outside, though.

Trieste is an interesting blend of Slavic and Italian with Hapsburg Austrian buildings thrown in. I liked the many walking areas such as XX Settembre. I am glad that we explored it and glad that we chose to stay in Cividale rather than stay in Trieste for a couple of days.

We decided to explore Cividale on our last day there. We enjoyed the Tempiletto Lombardo and the Museo Civico. The Museo is a very nice museum with a large collection of Bronze Age and Lombard materials, including beautiful mosaics. There were no English explanations, but some drawings in some of the cases helped me to understand the displays. It reminded us that women have been adorning themselves and men have been arming themselves for many centuries. And finally, a lovely “down home” dinner at Osteria alla Contadina, (Via San Paolino 24, 33040 Premariacco).


Trieste harbor

September 28 – 29 Vicenza​

We were off to Vicenza to meet Lia and Dario Del Corno, our friends from Milan with whom we’d done a home exchange several years ago. Michael chose to take a back road to go through Asolo. There was much traffic and road construction on a very uninteresting drive. The road passed through highly commercial and industrialized towns like Pordenone. We finally got to Vicenza at 2:30 (we'd left at 9:30).

It took us awhile to find the hotel because it is in a pedestrian area. Lia was waiting for us and said, “The most beautiful towns are Italy are the ones that are the most difficult to get in and out of.” I liked the rhythm of Vicenza and the somewhat wider streets. Our plan was to meet the Del Corno’s at 7:45. Michael and I went to the “i” and discovered that, while we could have all the information we wanted about the Veneto area, we could not get any information about hotels in Bassano, our next stop, because, even though it is nearby, it is in a different province: Tuscany rather than Veneto.

We had an incredible once-in-a-lifetime evening. Dario, Classics professor emeritus at the University of Milan, had done the Italian translation of Medea from the Greek. This was the opening night performance at Teatro Olympico which is the oldest indoor theater in the world. Designed by Palladio, it has a permanent stage set that is a model of Thebes. The theater is gorgeous with many statues in the lobby and that incredible permanent set.

Lia insisted that we take their center seats. Though we didn't understand a word, we'd read a synopsis so we knew the story, and the acting was so good that it was an enjoyable two hour experience.

Before the play we had a snack on the patio at a bar next to the theater where everyone knew the Del Cornos. After the performance we waited while Dario, the actors, and the director were interviewed for TV. Then we went to Ristorante Zi’ Therese and had a great midnight "supper" with all the cast, producers, friends – about 20 people in all - taking over the back room of the restaurant. We asked Lia to order for us and she did: seafood antipasti w/calamari, mussels, clams. Bacala and polenta. Gambi (huge shrimp like crayfish, with eyes). Lemon sorbetto, sort of like a mini frappe. Two bottles of sauvignon blanc, and water. It was all fabulous. We had some conversation with a film distributor at the adjacent table about films and why, to his horror and ours, Italians must dub everything. It was 3am when we arrived back at the hotel, quite exhilarated.


Marsha learning about Vicenza outside the "i"

September 29-30 Bassano and Venice​

It was an easy drive to Bassano. There were lots of bicyclists on the road. They all seem to have an easy attitude, oblivious to traffic, as if they understand that motorists are used to seeing them and won't hurt them. This is as true of the older folks on their old cruisers as it is of the flash dressed racers.

We had reserved a room at the Bonotte Hotel Palladio on the internet and were pleased to find a lovely large room on a quiet street (2, Via Gramsci; Tel. +39 / 0424 523.777). Bassano is so lovely that we decided to stay there for lunch and skip Asolo. (The bit of Asolo we had seen on our drive the day before was lovely but, as Time Out says, “Asolo is to luxuriate in, not to sight-see.”) We walked around Bassano and to and through the beautiful Palladio covered wooden bridge.

After lunch on the piazza, it was shopping time! We hit the road for Crespano because a Slow Traveler entry had talked about a good place to buy jewelry there called SMART. It was, and I did. Then it was on to Nove for ceramics. Ceramiche VBC had tons of stuff, including things they make for Vietri. We did buy some cute "vegetable" dishes and a salt and pepper set.

It was Friday night and Bassano was jumping - lots of young people in the bars. We had dinner at Ottorino, which was lively and has a nice looking set of rooms, then strolled until we were ready for gelati to end the evening. And then began the challenge of repacking for Venice.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then went to find the famous food shop, Venzo. What a shop! Gorgeous prepared foods, salumi, formaggio, baked goods, canned goods, etc. Watching the men slice the various salumi and wrap them was an art form. We did buy some sopressa which is like salami and one of Venzo’s specialties made from chestnut fed pigs, and some prosciutto St. Daniele and asiago fresca.

The market was going on all over town, mainly clothes and flowers. We found a wonderful jewelry shop with really great looking things at reasonable prices. If we'd had more time, I probably would have bought more, so maybe it's good that we didn't have more time!

We managed to get all the baggage into the car and it was an easy drive to Venezia. Piazzale Roma was a mad house with all the day trippers trying to park. After some asking around and walking to make sure I had the directions right we found the Sixt car rental office and returned the car.

I’d been told by the apartment rental agent that someone would meet us at the Zattere vaporetto stop. We managed to get on the vaporetto with all of our stuff and even got off without loosing anything. Aurora was there to meet us. Fortunately our beautiful garden apartment was only a short walk and we had no bridges or stairs to cross.


Venzo, the fabulous food shop in Bassano

October 1 – 10 Venice​

Michael went to the “i” and came back with loads of booklets and information about events. We decided to go to the Festa de Mosto on San Erasmo island, about a 40 minute vaporetto ride. When we got to the island there were lots of folks. You could see the smoke and smell the meats being grilled. We bought our food tickets and then got into the Italian no system system “line.” We got a completo which had ribs and sausage, polenta and finocchio slaw, and a sopressa grilled with mushrooms and polenta. It was a fun scene.

The island is famous for its vegetables and there was one vendor, but it seemed he was only selling boxes rather than pieces. However, the pomegranates were sold by the piece so I bought two. There was a DJ playing dance music and then there was a raffle that seemed to go on forever. As the people claimed their prizes, I could see that they were little things, like cheese graters and bread baskets. We’d seen the brass band members assembling and it looked like they were getting ready to play and impatiently waiting for the raffle to be over. The vaporetto arrived about then and, since it only ran about every half hour, we decided it was time to leave. Before we left, we did try a glass of mosto bianco, which is the leftover grape skin made into a kind of strong wine. (We thought it was juice and when we asked for “the white juice,” people laughed.)

Back in Venice proper we decided to walk to the Ghetto. We are Jewish and it was the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur. We’d not made advance arrangements to attend services, but it felt good to be in the Jewish community anyway.

A wonderful thing about most of the places we’ve traveled in Italy is "the buzz." People are talking, talking, constantly. This is certainly true of Venice because, without cars, you can actually hear people. Today I saw a nun in full habit chatting away on a cell phone as she walked along.


Festa on San Erasmo

October 1 – 10 Venice: La Fenice​

The next day, after caffe at Da Gino, we went to Ca' Pesaro, the modern art museum, which was a treat. It is much more to my liking than the Accademia, special in its own way. It was so nice to hear sounds like a sax, a clarinet, a guitar or violin in the piazza, etc. or emanating from various windows as we passed by. It is pretty funny, especially in the more trafficked places, to see and hear people dealing with maps and directions. It is like the city of the damned with everyone believing they are lost. Common overheard phrases include: "It must be to right because I know we passed a glove store." "Where are we?" "I think it's this way" "Let's just follow the signs to ..." "I know it's not done, but let's ask ..." "If we go this way ..." I read that you can't get too lost in Venice as it’s only a mile wide and two miles long. This does not, however, account for going around in circles, etc.

We joined the lost the next day, as we tried to get to La Fenice for our tour reservation. Fortunately we left early enough and got there in time. Michael was so frustrated that asking for directions would be okay, so we went seeking direction from shop to shop until we got to La Fenice. The tour is nicely done, limited to 20 or so, with a good guide. The theater is beautiful and much smaller than I'd expected. There is a rosy glow and lots of gilt. We were told interesting facts such as about the pure water that's kept in the basement in case of another fire. The interior is all wood, "just like the inside of a violin," for the acoustic quality. The section for the orchestra is an elevator which can hold 70 extra seats when not needed, or become an extension of the stage. There are air conditioning vents under each seat to maintain constant temp without disturbing sound.

We’d read that travelers are welcome at the Shabbat table at the kosher restaurant, Gam Gam, at 7:00 every Friday, and we decided to go. The Shabbat table is run by the Lubavitchers and is supposed to welcome all the Jews in Venice who want to come, meet each other, etc. I also made a reservation at Antiche Carampane for 8:30 as I remembered the food at Gam Gam as not being great, so I wanted an insurance policy.

We got to the vaporetto at 6:30 and – true to Italian style - a sign was posted that there was a transportation strike: no boats. To get to Gam Gam was a long walk but we decided to try for it and got there without a problem. As I had sort of anticipated, there were women and children sitting outside and the men chanting prayers around the table. We probably would have been the only heathens, so after the 40 minute passagiata we’d taken to get there, we turned right around and headed for San Polo to find the restaurant.

Antiche Caranpane is difficult to find - it required several direction stops even though we'd accidentally stumbled across it the day before - but we did. And what a find it was! We were a half hour early for our reservation, but that was not a problem. Forget what Time Out says about attitude - these people were totally friendly and welcoming in what appears to be a family run operation. We were presented with a wine list and we asked for a suggestion and got a nice chardonnay from Friuli. We were given a small basket of lightly battered and fried zucchini and carrot shreds, and two fish balls. We each had an appetizer: grilled razor clams and scallops and little bitty somethings like mini scallops for Michael, and for me three gorgeous scallops baked with three different sauces: pumpkin, zucchini and carrot julienne, and I'm not sure of the third. Then we shared tagliatelli with a light spider crab sauce, followed by cuttlefish done three ways: grilled, fried, and sieppe (in their own black sauce), with polenta. The finish was a limone and vodka frappe. Perfecto.


La Fenice

October 1 – 10 Venice: Fish Market​

Finally, our fish market experience the next morning. It was fun as always, including just watching folks on the vaporetto.

Italian women of a certain age always look put together - usually with a suit or skirt/pants and jacket, good leather bag and heels, even if they're low, and usually gold jewelry of some kind.

At the fish market we bought capasate (scallops) and two St. Peter (John Dory) fillets for dinner. Also fresh mushrooms of an unknown variety, salad greens, baguette and a delicious olive focaccia, and tagliatelle.

Dinner that evening proceeded in stages. First, baguette with Parmesan and fresh figs a la Gia Shiavo, and what was left of the olive focaccia. Next came the capesante, which Chef Michael baked with some olive oil after we figured out how to turn on the oven. They were okay - a bit gritty - and not as elegant as those at Carampane. (They'd cost €10 for six, so Carampane was a better deal.) The next course was tagliatelli with the fresh wild mushrooms from the market. Finally, Michael fixed the John Dory fish, just sautéing it in butter and oil.


At the fish market

October 1 – 10 Venice: Giudecca​

Our last day in Venice was an absolutely gorgeous day with pure blue sky and a little breeze. We started the day by going to Tonolo for caffe, then bought a Herald and sat out in the sun on a bench on Zattere. How could it get any better than this?

At noon we headed for Giudecca and our lunch reservation at Mistra which is only a short ride across the wide canal. When we got off there was still some aqua alta to jump through. We thought we were going the right way - Giudecca is not that big - but we wound up at the local boat club where a hundred or so folks were having a picnic. We'd seen rowers out practicing in the morning. Rowing clubs seem to be a big thing here and I think it looks like fun. (Rowing is done standing up in the long boats with a crew of about six. They have to duck going under some of the canal bridges.) We could see the stairway going up to Mistra from the boat club, but had to go back and around to get there. We retraced our steps and followed signs, through a boatyard, up the outside staircase to Mistra.

Our table was overlooking the water, which sparkled in the sun. When we sat down, the first dishes of our antipasti was already on the table: smoked salmon, small balls of marinated mozzarella, sardines in lemon, anchovies on grilled fennel, lightly marinated mushrooms. The waiter brought spritzes (prosecco and campari) and explained what he would be bringing next. When I said “no” to stockfish and polenta, it was substituted with an omelet with sea bass shreds in it, which I thought was very nice of them to do. The waiter then brought a basket of lovely toast and thinly sliced bread, and a basket of lightly battered and fried zucchini.

We had a bottle of Ruggeri prosecco which I really liked, along with tagliatelle with mussels which was brought to the table and split for us to share. The secundo was a whole dorado baked with thinly sliced potatoes and zucchini, pieces of red pepper, and tiny Nicoise olives, all of which were almost caramelized and very delicious. The waiter boned and filleted the fish beautifully at the table - it was a pleasure to watch - and even better to eat. We finished with caffe (nice thing about having lunch out rather than dinner) and were brought a plate of cookies. Limoncello and kick-ass grappa were brought with the bill.

After our wonderful two hour lunch we took the vaporetto back just in time for the free organ concert at Salute. Because I had just finished reading a lot about organ playing/music in John Irving’s book "Until I Find You," I actually could follow where we were in the program. (e.g. I knew that a tocatta is loud.)

I love Venice and was sad to be leaving. Here are some of my miscellaneous thoughts about Venice:
  • Get into the rhythm of the city. Do one activity in the morning and either have your main meal or tremezzini or cicchetti, then go rest for a few hours. Do an afternoon activity.
  • If you are trying to get to specific locations, only go to a couple at one time, preferably in the same area, as finding specifics (other than the major sites) can be trying.
  • Wandering about in any area is fun.
  • If you need directions, get them in small bits by stopping several people along the way. Most of the shopkeepers speak English and were very helpful when I asked for directions. Do ask for directions before you get frustrated and totally disoriented.
  • Pay attention to the sestiere address numbers. While they might not be in a logical order, once you are in the area they are helpful. Also, if you are lost and need help, residents can often point you in the right number direction more easily than knowing the street name.
  • If you get lost, look for the large yellow signs pointing to the vaporetto stops and follow them.
  • Stay away from San Marco if you can unless you really like crowds and tourists. Of course there are major sites there (I especially like the Ducal Palace) but try to go very early or late in the day.
  • Tonolo is a wonderful patisserie and bar, a great way to start the day. Da Gino in S. Stefano is also nice because the folks are always smiling.
  • Gia Shiavo is still a favorite cicchetti bar and wine shop.
  • Walking across the Accademia bridge - those old wooden steps - is thrilling to me. Something about treading paths that people have been walking on for centuries...
  • Time Out Venice has the most detailed maps but it helps to have a magnifying glass to read them. It is a handy size to carry and seems to be the most up-to-date as far as restaurants.
  • The visitor's guide that you can get at certain hotels (e.g. Monaco) is published biweekly and has the listing of all cultural events.
  • Gelato is abundant and good. The chocolate mousse at Squero in Dorsoduro is terrific.
  • There are many dogs in Venice of the small to medium variety. Lots of Shih-Tzu and terrier types. Many of them seem to be loose but they do have collars.
  • You shall know them by their guidebooks. Along with overhearing the "lost" phrases I noted above, you can tell nationalities by the language the guidebook is in. There are quite a few Italian tourists in Venice, and lots of EU-ers.

A sunny day on the Zattere

October 9 – 14 Lucca​

After we picked up the car, it was an easy three hour drive to Lucca. It reinforced the reasons that so many people, including us, love Tuscany; it is beautiful, and a contrast to our previous landscapes.

Since we were not able to get into our apartment until the next day, we went to the “i” and got a hotel room outside of the walls for the night at Hotel Melecchi. The helpful person at "i" showed us photos of four hotels in our price range so we could choose. (Hotel Stupino, where we had stayed for a night on our first time in Lucca, was one of them. Melecchi is just down the street.) It seems there are a number of two-star hotels just outside the gates, all pretty much the same, and most with parking.

We knew from previous times in Lucca that there are two very helpful “i’s.” The one near Porto Santa Maria can help with lodging needs and is very well-organized. The other, near the wall, has information on the many cultural events in town. Unfortunately, our timing was off for many of them. However, there are Verdi concerts almost nightly.

We walked into the town center and wandered for a bit, went back for a rest, and then headed back to town about 8:15 for dinner. I was hungry and told Michael that the first place we saw that had decent pasta would be it. We found a lively Gli Orti and had to wait a bit for a table. We had a glass of nice red wine while we waited. We had a wonderful meal with good pasta, grilled rabbit, and a veal ribs. We got into a conversation with the couple at the next table and were about the last to leave. It was a lovely evening and we enjoyed our walk back to the hotel.


Lucca city wall at sunset

October 9 – 14 Lucca: Apartment Filungo​

After breakfast we walked into town, bought a Herald and sat up on the wall in the warm sunshine reading it. At 1:00 we walked to the apartment and met the owner, Valerio. Surprise: up four flights of stairs (52, but who was counting) and it is an open plan, which we didn’t expect. It does have high ceilings and is furnished nicely in Lucchese style, and is quiet, overlooking other people's yards. We’d had to get our baggage from the parking lot at Porto Santa Maria, about five blocks away, and then carry it all up the stairs. Valerio takes pride in his city and has extensive lists of information and lots of books in the apartment. He is a private “i.”

We read a NY Times article about restaurants in Lucca and decided to go to Trattoria Gigi for dinner. The temperature had dropped considerably and the only table was outside. We learned, quickly, that the problem with outside seating is that that's where all the smokers are, including people who are seated inside but come outside for frequent cigarette breaks. There were definitely more smokers in Lucca than there had been in Venice and, unfortunately, many of them are young.

Conversation is not a dying art in Italy. It is a pleasure to listen to the buzz and the chatter in restaurants. Another restaurant pleasure is the kind of pride most wait persons seem to have in their jobs. No "Hi, my name is..." Too bad the food at T. Gigi was not as pleasant.


Cozy apartment Filungo

October 9 – 14 Lucca: Wandering and San Michele​

We needed provisions for the apartment so did our shopping the next morning. Goodies included fresh pane Pugilese, foccacia with cipolle and foccacia with pomodoro at Forno Giusu. That was an experience as the shop had several cases of bread and you stand in line at the case which has the bread you want to buy. And it was three deep. Another Italian system-less system.

I am directionally disadvantaged so seldom go off wandering on my own. However, Lucca is pretty easy to get around as the city wall is always there and once you get to a part of it you can always figure it out. I decided to do "section A" on Valerio's map because that's where the good gelato place is. I wandered in the right direction, pausing to look in shop windows, and found myself at Piazza Napoleone. Then to Piazza San Michele which is still one of my favorite churches in Italy with its multi-colored columns.

I sat down to have a macchiato at a café on the piazza and enjoyed watching the passing parade while overhearing three American guys. They seemed to have traveled a lot and might have been professors, or here for a conference. It is rare to have the opportunity to overhear “guy talk.” It ranged from buying ties on airplanes to the temptation of calling an ex-wife. I think they might have been sharing an apartment (with wives) and were getting to know one another better. As I sat there I noticed “Ciao, ciao” etiquette: Multiple “ciaos” are given at the end of a conversation, much like “bye-bye.” I've heard as many as four, said in rapid succession. There are lots of joyful “ciaos” as people meet one another on the street.

On to Gelateria Santini, which was supposed to have the best cioccolate in town – and it does!

We planned to spend the evening in and, before doing so, went to a jewelry show in Villa Bollito and a photography exhibit. The jewelry show was interesting. It had contemporary jewelry from artisans around the world who were using it as an art form related to the body. Some was pretty far out. Downstairs local jewelers were exhibiting their wares. Nearby, the photography exhibit of Fernando Scianna was fabulous. What a treat to be exposed to a superb artist that we did not know about. He has an outstanding eye, is well traveled, and photographs a variety of subjects.


San Michele on the piazza in Lucca

October 9 – 14 Lucca: Garfagnana Hills​

It was time to explore some of Garfagnana hills. Our goal was the market in Castelnuovo. We saw lush green hills with villages tucked in them and more industrial areas along the road than I'd anticipated.

We found the Thursday market, which has been going on in Castelnuovo - the largest city in the Garfagnana - for hundreds of years. The market is spread throughout the city. There was nothing very exciting: the usual clothes, household goods, flowers and, at last, the trucks with roasted chickens and fried potatoes. There seems to be a difference between country and city markets. The people were not as well put together, and the merchandise was a bit less appealing.

Everyone who lives in the vicinity deems to take off Thursday morning except the shopkeepers, as the buzz was loud. There were lots of older folks chattering away in the piazzas and men having a nip in the bars. We walked the town, bought a chicken for supper, and sat outside at Cafe New York just enjoying the buzz from conversations all around us along with our caffe. After awhile folks at the table behind us struck up a conversation and we wound up giving them a ride back to their B&B in Barga, which is very pretty with great views of the Aupuian Alps.

We made it to La Mora for our 1:30 lunch reservation. There were only three other filled tables in the nice back garden room and it was very quiet. For antipasti: capesante con crema pisi and zaffron, zucchini flowers stuffed with risotto and caramelized red cabbage. We shared polenta stuffed ravioli with porcini. For our secondi: fried lamb chops and rabbit and zucchini flowers each with a different - and delicious- batter; pork loin and pork liver on spinach with grilled carciofi, all enjoyed with a bottle of good sangiovese and followed with caffe. Was it worth twice as much as our best meal in Lucca? We paid for the creative menu and the lovely presentation.

When we got back we really needed a walk. The wall was waiting; it about 2.5 miles around. It was getting toward sunset and very enjoyable. There were people of all ages walking, running, bicycling, playing chess and cards, and kids in the playground areas. It is one of my favorite places.

I noticed how some things had changed in the years we've been coming to Italy.
  • Cell phones are ubiquitous. Some of the best scenes include Lucca: a priest in strolling along animatedly chatting away; Venice: a boy of about 11 on the vaporetto with his scooter, making a call; Vicenza: an elegantly suited woman riding her bike with a cigarette in one hand and chatting on her phone in the other.
  • On our first trip we rented a bulky cell phone in the US, which we never quite got the hang off. Next time I had a Treo 180 but used T-Mobile instead of local service and it ate money. This time I bought TIM cards in advance – we each had an unlocked GSM phone - so we could give family our Italian numbers before we left. It came in very handy for each of us to have a phone.
  • Certainly Internet shops are all over now, easier to access in some areas than others.
  • This was the first time I brought jeans and I wore them a lot. Everyone wears them, both casually and dressed up with nice jackets. I noticed older men at the market in Castelnuovo wearing them.
  • More Italians, at least those who come in contact with tourists, speak at least some English, which wasn't so true on our first trip. At least they speak and understand enough for the basics, but you sometimes get a blank look if you try to go beyond that. Both Michael and I have become much more comfortable asking questions and more or less understanding answers, buying things and understanding how much to pay.
  • Some things never change. Italian TV is still terrible. Everything is dubbed and the quiz shows are juvenile.
  • I always enjoy looking at the Italian faces that are, today, as they were in the Tintorettos, Botticellis, etc.
On our last day in Lucca we decided to follow a walking tour in the Lucca guidebook. We saw the inside of Freddiano and Michele, the outside of Pflanner and the city hall. That evening Trattoria Da Leo was a lively scene. We’d made a reservation and there was a little piece of paper with our (misspelled) name on one table. We had really good filling zuppe (farinata Garfagnana and Minista Farinata Lucchese) to start, fried meatballs with verdure fritte, and grilled chicken breast. A table of about 12 young 30-somethings behind us was having a very happy time and we couldn’t help but laugh along with them as they took silly photos of one another. At one point the lights went out and a birthday dessert was brought in and given to a couple and their two kids and we all sang and applauded.


Castelnuovo market bargain

October 14 – 21 Montemarcello: Bay of Poets​

The drive from Lucca to Montemarcello was easy and took us through the beach resort area of Valeriso. There is one private beach after another on the water side of the road with one hotel after another on the other side. It must be quite a scene in the summer. One stretch looked like a beautiful residential area with a golf course. There were lots of bicyclists.

We drove through Ameglia on a narrow winding road. Ameglia is built into the hills, similar to one of the Cinque Terre towns, and didn't look very interesting. The road to Montemarcello, although also narrow and winding (it is a four "oh" as compared to the 20 "ohs" in the Dolomites), had some lovely views of the Bay of Poets on one side and the Aupian Alps on the other. The temperature dropped as we got higher.

The house was not ready, so we went into Lerici to have lunch and get groceries. Back in Montemarcello we settled in to yet another place and atmosphere. The house was "cozy." We knew when we rented it that the bathroom is downstairs and the bedroom up a fairly narrow spiral concrete stairway, but our choices in Montemarcello were limited. I feared it might be a long seven days.

At 7:30 we went to find a place for dinner. The only two places we knew of in town were empty so we kept on walking, figuring that the dinner hour must be at eight and we were a bit early, or that Montemarcellans didn’t go out to eat. Finally we went into one restaurant even though we were the only ones there, but a woman was setting up a large table with party things so we knew others would be coming. I had gnocchi with mussels and zucchini and a mixed salad - huge portions. Michael had kind of thick square pasta (tagliaroli, I think) with an excellent pesto and fried anchovies which were actually not fishy or salty. The place began filling up at 8:00 and when we walked by the other restaurant at 9:30 it was full, so we than knew to go to dinner at 8:30.

There is no “i” in Montemarcello. There is also no central piazza or gathering place of any kind that we could see. It was almost like being in a ghost town. I joked that there are 14 people who actually live here: Arnold and the woman who works at his caffe next door to our house, Il Giardino Bar’s owner and the two people I've seen there, six who run the two trattorias; the guy in the grocery; and the two women who live next door to our house. It is like a Stepford Wives or Jim Carry feeling, but not in a bad way. Michael said there were more residents: “What about the old woman we saw in her window?” I responded that she is a robot, programmed to smile and nod. While we were both ready for some rest and relaxation, this seemed to be a bit too quiet. We decided that the best thing to do would be to relax on our terrace in the morning, and then take day trips in the afternoon with a late lunch, getting back before dark for dinner at home.


Little stone home for a week

October 14 – 21 Montemarcello: Tellaro​

Our first “trip” was to explore Montemarcello a bit. Around 3:30 the next day we went for a walk to a panorama point. It has a gorgeous view of the water far down below (Ligurian Sea) and the Apuan Alps behind the sea, with hills of islands in between. Not quite as dramatic as looking out at Capri, but wider and higher. We took a wooded path leading down to the sea – which was pretty far away - and I quit when it felt too steep. Then we walked the road a bit to another park/overview, and took a wide dirt road. That road led to olive groves and other hiking trails as well as a gated park which looked very nice. At its gate there is a turquoise bicycle with a poem by Goethe stenciled on to the wheel cover - something about the solitude of the woods and the loveliness of his lover.

Our first day trip took us to Tellaro. I am glad we didn't stay there. It may be closer to the sea but, like the Cinque Terre, it is all stairs. We decided to try Lerici again, figuring that there had to be public parking somewhere. We were glad we did, as once we went through the forbidding looking tunnel there was a large - free except weekends - parking area and a nice pedestrian promenade down to and around the sea. The public beach had lots of people.

After we'd walked around the town for awhile we got our towel out of the car and sat on the beach. We’d arrived at the beach at 4:00 and at 4:45 the sun was still high and warm so Michael went into the water. It was a pleasure, and I could have been happy staying there if we'd had an apartment in the right location. The right location would be sea view, away from the noise of the main road, and not too far to walk to the promenade.


Goethe bike at the park in Montemarcello

October 14 – 21 Montemarcello: Luni and Sarzana​

The next adventure took us to Luni and Sarzana. Luni is a very important ancient Roman site in northern Italy. We had the place all to ourselves, which was nice. There is still a lot of restoration going on so you can only follow the paths around the ruins and go into the exhibits, but you can't really get close like you can at Pompeii. It is a large site. Unfortunately, although there is a simple guidebook in English, all of the exhibit explanations were in Italian. When Michael signed the guestbook we could see that we were the only non-Italians for several pages. As we got to the end of the field we wandered into a work area where – unbeknownst to us - we weren't supposed to be. But the "boss" came along at that time and when we showed an interest he took us to where the current restoration work was being done.

We went on to Sarzana and parked easily in a free lot outside the center. Michael had the names of two restaurants he wanted to find. After a bit of a search we found the first one, which was closed. We began to walk to the second one but could see that it was too far. So we headed for the central piazza figuring we'd find lots of places. We didn't. It was about 2:00 and a nice looking places closed at 2:00, which we thought a bit odd. We wandered to another piazza and found a restaurant with people at outside tables. After a very irritating 20 minutes we still hadn't received menus or the water we'd asked for. When the waitress finally came (after all the lunch specials had been erased from the board) she told us they were pretty much out of everything. It wasn't the lovely lunch we'd anticipated. I guess when you explore new places you never know what you will find and may be disappointed. Sarzana appeared to have some nice shops in its large pedestrian center but from what we could see, there was nothing special to bring us back.


Roman ruins at Luni

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