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Umbria, Tuscany and Lake Como

#1
By Jabez from United States, Spring 2003
Two week adventure covering Umbria, Southern Tuscany and Bellagio on Lake Como.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Background

Before I begin my travel report, let me give some background.

My wife (Judy) and I (Jim) traveled with another couple (Duane and Carla). We have traveled With them often before and “lived” through some wild travel experiences. We started planning this trip more than a year ago.

Duane and I are both heavy business travelers and had enough Delta frequent flyer miles to plan on two first/business tickets to Italy. We knew that we needed to request our dates 331 days out. So we had our first dilemma. When to go? So I did what I often do, search the web.

First I searched and asked at FlyerTalk.com (mostly business travel related), then Fodor’s travel forum and then Slow Traveler (learning about it on Fodor’s). The consensus was either spring or fall. I think we chose spring because we wanted to go sooner rather than later.

Since we decided that part of the trip should be in the Lake Como area, we thought that late May early June might be best for little rain and mild weather. More about this choice later.

The process of finding 4 first class reward seats on Delta is quite a chore. While there are many seats available, most would have cost us twice as many points. After much trial and error, we found that the only way to get to Italy for our timeframe was Atlanta to Paris (CDG) connecting to Florence and then returning via JFK. Realizing that Delta allows one of the stops as a layover, we elected to add a few days in France on the return trip. We were booked AF business to CDG, connecting to CityJet (an AF company) Florence (only a 40 minute window!).

Now the process of choosing the itinerary. Not as easy at it sounds. We all agreed that we wanted this trip to be mostly devoted to country and rural settings. So, only one night in Florence and one in Paris. We wanted to see it all and our itinerary reflects it. We HAD to see the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany, the Lake area, maybe Switzerland, rural Normandy, Omaha Beach, as well as a little of Florence, Siena and Paris! All of this in just 15 days!! Much more about this later.

The planning was quite a process. We decided to mostly stay in B&B’s and agriturismo’s and try and keep our room budget to a minimum. We felt that we could enjoy the areas without having to spend too much for rooming. My wife (Judy) did hours and hours of research. Library, book stores, printouts from Fodor’s and Slow Traveler were our primary sources. She enjoys the planning process almost as much as traveling.

Much thanks to all who helped by posting on Fodor’s and Slow Travel. Special thanks to Helen Donegan for your kind willingness to help.

The report you read is primarily my opinion. I, however, will also try and relay the opinions of my fellow travelers. Thankfully, my wife made a daily travel journal to make this process easier.

If you don’t like long reports with lots of personal experiences, this one won’t be for you. I will also have to report in sections because of time restraints.

So now the adventure begins…
 
#2
Day 1 (May 27) - Departure

We were thankful to just be going! France’s air controllers were on strike (for one day) the day before we left. One day different and no telling how our plans would have changed.

Because of schedule changes Delta replaced Air France from Atlanta to Paris (CDG).The good news is that we had more time to connect. The bad news is that I didn’t get to sample some of Air France’s food. Because we were afraid of losing our bags at CDG (a common occurrence according to many) we decided to not check any bags. A challege,but one we all passed.

We went early to the business elite lounge in Atlanta for our 5 pm flight. It’s a bit nicer than Delta’s crown rooms because they had a nice spread of finger foods and chips and dip.

The flight to CDG went smooth. The 777 seats were nice and lay almost all the way down. I watched a movie and had a pretty good meal. Judy had a terrible vegetarian meal. It was almost inedible. Delta has an okay blue pouch with eye masks, ear plugs, footies (ugly green), toothpaste, etc. We all attempted to sleep some to help fight jet lag. I generally have a hard time sleeping on planes and I probably only got a few minutes of shuteye. There was an adequate breakfast served before landing.
 
#3
Day 2 (May 28) - Arrival, Cortona

The process at CDG went fast and smooth. CityJet is situated in the “armpit” area of CDG. It’s a small dirty room with little seating (especially since many of the seats were broken). They would not allow as much as Delta to be brought on the plane, so we checked our bags. This is the only leg that we had to be in coach. The flight was completely full. You can not reserve your seat ahead of time, if you are connecting . So, Duane ended up with a middle seat (he’s a big guy) and Judy and I were given seats apart from each other.

In our attempt to sit together we asked an African person if he would switch. He smiled and took another seat, but it wasn’t mine. He was part of a group of 3 men who just took any seats (including the one he so nicely offered) and no one could communicate with them about assigned seats. It was almost comical to see the flight attendant try and straighten the seating mess in the back. Somehow I ended up sitting with my wife in better than Delta coach seats. It was a flight of less than two hours, but they served a very decent lunch.

We arrived in Florence on time. It’s a very small airport and we were in our rental car in no time. This is a good time to pause and address the issue of rental cars. We elected on Avis. A lot of people use Autoeurope, but they wouldn’t match the rate I got from Avis (a special discount code found on FlerTalk.com). We rented a VW Passat. It was roomy, had good trunk space AND was automatic. It was to be an important member of our adventure.

Another important point is THE map. If driving in Italy (especially all over), you don’t need a map. You need THE map. That is, one that gives much detail. I spent the extra money (before I left) on an excellent Michelin 1/200,000 multi page map. It, too, was an important member of our adventure. Since Duane rented the car and another driver adds $20 per day to rental, he became our driver and I handled directions.

We were off on one of Italy’s main roads A-1. Our first experience as travelers who read almost no Italian was our entrance on this road. Outside Florence we get to a toll gate and we were prepared to put a credit card in as payment, but we don’t know where. We start trying to jam it into every slot on the machine. We then tried some of our new Euro’s, but no slot would accept them as well. “It must be broke”, I said. We then started pressing buttons and a card comes out! “It’s given us a receipt without taking our money. Wow, this Italy sure is a great country!” We take it and the gate opens! We theorized that traffic was backing up behind us, so an attendant must have given us a “free ride”. After some careful examination of our almost discarded “receipt”, we realized that this was a card that showed the time and where we came onto the toll road. We weren’t suppose to pay at the booth, but simply take the card and use it later when we got off (to determine how much we paid). This would not be the only time we embarrassed ourselves at a toll both.

A word here about driving in Italy. Italy has surprisingly good roads, especially the main thoroughfares. The drivers, however, all seem to have a couple things in common. Although, Italy is a laid-back country where everyone moves on Italian time (read SLOW) it’s drivers move at a different pace (read FAST). As an Atlanta driver Duane was experienced in traveling with the traffic flow. He especially loved not knowing how to convert meters into miles. It made it easier to not know how much over the speed limit he was.

The unique traffic habit of Italian drivers was ased on the seeming belief that a middle line in the road is not to separate, but to drive down the middle on. This didn’t seem to matter if you are in a four lane or two lane. It’s an interesting phenomena when driving on a large toll road. It’s down right scary when traveling on a small two lane in the hill country. But I digress…

Taking with our “get as much in as possible” theme, we elected to go to Cortona for a late lunch on our way to Umbria. Since we left the airport at 12:30pm, we figured we would arrive around 1:30-2:00 and we did. The only problem was that all the advice about retail stores closing in the pm was true. This includes restaurants. Armed with a great Slow Traveler recommendation for a restaurant we walked into it, only to be gently escourtaded out with a “Troppo i tardi noi siamo chiusi.”. Both wives knew that chiusi meant closed (I thought it was a kind of Spanish sausage), so we started looking for an opened one.

Croce Del Travaglio at Via Dardano, was what we found. A simple place where we all had pizza. Since the price was only 5.40 Eu, we assumed that we would get a couple slices. Instead we all got an entire pizza ourselves. We men thought ours was one of the best pizza’s we ever had and the girls thought theirs was good, but not all that great. We had a spicier kind (not sure which one) than the ladies.

Cortona is a beautiful town, but the shops were still closed. It was getting a bit hot out (26)…(okay I’m showing off my new ability to convert Fahrenheit to Centigrade), that is 78-79 F, but that didn’t stop the girls from wanting to try and find Frances Mayes house. We started down the street from Plaza della Garibaldi (shops started to open and my wife bought some hand towels at one)to a lovely park with Nymphs riding Dolphins and the down a white road.

It seemed like we would never get there. I complained that we walked at least 25 miles, but the girls assured me that it was more like two. Neither Duane nor I understand this strange desire our wives have for seeing someone else’s house. On a trip to Blowing Rock, NC we did a search for Jan Karon’s (author of Midford series books) house. This must be something unique to females, but we continued on with them until we spotted it. The girls ooed and aahed and took pictures. We men just rolled our eyes and asked, “Aren’t you going to knock?”

“Of course not”, was their reply. “That would be rude, plus she’s selling it”.

“She’s selling it?”, I said. “I suppose next you’ll want to go searching for her new home”.

They just looked at each other and smiled. As we trudged back up the hill towards the car I couldn’t but overhear them speculating on where the new home would be.

We continued on to Agriturisma Malvarina in the Assisi area. We had good directions to their area. The last part of their directions said “…and just follow the signs”. We really tried, honest we did. A sign pointed left, then another right. After 30 minutes of driving in circles we realized that one sign was turned around and that we didn’t know how to read Italian signs.

Throughout our trip we struggled with getting comfortable with Italian direction signs. In the US, if a sign points left, you are suppose to go left. In Italy the signs “sort of” point left or right, but mean go straight. It’s like they are saying “continue on THIS road”. It’s hard to explain, but it seems to be related to the angle of the sign.

When you arrive at Malvarina you see the main house covered in ivy. There are groves of olive trees and rooms are above the house and kitchen/dining area (separate building).

Our dinner reservations were for 8:30 where we joined a long table with others who were staying there. They also have about 10 other tables for other dinners. This was one of the better meals of our trip and a great bargain. Five course (including wine) for 25Eu. I had a fantastic duck dish as one of my courses.

I’ll review Malvarina in day three's report.
 
#4
Day 3 (May 29) - Spoleto, Assissi

To do a fair review of any of the properties we stayed at I need remember it’s “relativity”. How is the property relative to its price, other properties we stayed at, expectations, etc.?

I had high expectations for Malvarina because of some nice reviews. None of us had anything (yet) to compare it to. And it’s price ($100/night) was inexpensive. The property was beautiful with a nice pool area. Overall, however, it did not reach up to its reputation. The rooms were nothing special. It had the thinnest towels of the trip, no table or space in the bathroom, and if you showered the entire bathroom “flooded”. My wife and I seemed to like it more than the others, but it could use a little work. Breakfasts we’re okay (great honey), but in a very nice outside area. We met a nice couple from NY. She posts on Fodor's and lurks on ST.

After breakfast we headed to Spoleto. We actually planned on seeing many towns (many close by), but we were to learn from this point on that our plans were WAY too ambitious. We walked up to the fortress (La Rocca) and over an aqueduct over a gorge. Because of our self-imposed schedule we didn’t see too much of the town, but I would return. We at lunch at Taverna del Pescatore in Pigge. It’s very attractively located on the banks of a river and had exceptional food. If you don’t like liver, however, stay away from their appetizer assortment. There’s a traditional spread that they put on bread that only I was willing to eat (and I loved it).

We stopped at Trevi, but everything was closed (count on no shopping in early afternoons everywhere). It was a small very cute town.

Our next stop was Assisi. It’s easy to love Assisi. Right before we left we all saw a movie about St. Francis of Assisi and it really wet our appetites. It didn’t hurt than I went to a Franciscan Seminary as a youth. It’s a beautiful town with much to see.

It’s time for one of my asides. In Assisi and some other cities our trip would have been greatly enhanced if not only spent more time there, but also hired a guide. I highly recommend this, especially for history buffs. Visiting Assisi like any hill town means you walk, and walk, and walk … A LOT. The good news was the walking helped me work off some of the calories. The bad news was that it was hot (26-30).

There is so much to enjoy at Assisi and I recommend it all, except the food. We didn’t have dinner reservations (STOP: If you want to eat well get reservations! This was true everywhere) and ended up eating bad pizza at some pizza joint. We left Assisi around 11 (after gelato) and were back in our room in 20 minutes or so.

The nights were cool enough to sleep just fine and I sleeped great this whole trip! Tomorrow, Deruta, Orvieto, Civita Di Bagnoregio and more Assisi!
 
#5
Day 4 (May 30) - Deruta, Orvieto, Civita Di Bagnoregio

Deruta was our stop after breakfast. It’s not a very dramatic or large town, but virtually every shop had ceramics. The girls did some purchasing and the men watched. Note: In many stores in the hill towns you CAN bargain for a lower price. It’s not Mexico, but I was surprised to see most stores willing to discount if asked. Based on prices and some other towns where we found similar ceramics, we would not recommend Deruta.

We then headed to Orvieto. While it was the longest (planned) drive, it was highly recommended by someone staying at our agriturismo. I, we all, loved Orvieto. We arrived at lunch time and ate at a recommended restaurant Maurizio (just opposite the cathedral). Very good food. My wife had a wonderful lasagna type dish and my pillow soft spinach, mushroom, tomatoes and cheese crepe was to die for.

Shops were opening and the girls started in on their favorite thing SHOPPING! They concluded that the ceramics there were prettier and better priced. We then took a tour of the underground Etruscan caves. The tour was in Italian (they have an English one later around 4), but a nice bi-lingual young man helped interpret for us. Even in Italian, it’s worth taking the time (45 minutes?) for the tour. You get a ticket at the tourism office.

Note: I found that every tourism shop is closed a lot. Always in afternoon “lunch/siesta” time, Saturday afternoons and usually by 5. Overall, when opened, I felt that they weren’t as helpful as I thought they would be. Just an opinion, but it seemed every time I came into one the employee was on the phone and didn’t look like they wanted to get off.

You gather for the tour a little beyond the Duomo in the tree area. When we walked over there we saw two dramatic things. First, one of the most beautiful views in the world! Do not miss this! The other was approaching storm clouds. While very impressive from our vantage point, we had left our umbrellas in the car. It stormed while we toured and rained most of that afternoon. It was the only rain (except a little during a night or two) we experienced in Italy.

The Duomo in Orvieto is striking (but had a large scaffold on it’s front side) and makes for some great picture taking. After the tour and seeing the church the guys decided to walk to the car and bring it to Duomo area to pick up our wives. This allowed them to stay dry and to get in one more shop.

Driving into these hill towns is interesting. Our first problem was that we really didn’t know all the signs. The one ways we had down, but that was about it. We, however, saw cars in these towns and we felt that there was no reason that ours shouldn’t be one of them (later we would learn that this was true folly).

We started to drive in (while raining) and found ourselves only a block from the Duomo on a side road. This road, however, kept getting narrower until I had to squeeze out of the car and see if we could make it. I figured we just had enough room (with perfect driving) to squeeze free to the other side. The problem was that someone had a metal 6 foot planter on the road by their door. I’m sure they never expected any sane person to try and drive this road, so they left it in the street. I carefully pushed back the planter so it and I were in the doorway and Duane carefully inched his way out. I doubt that he had more than an inch on either side. When he reached “freedom” we high-fived in celebration of our conquest. From that moment on we both “graduated” to the titles of THE Driver and THE Navigator.

Our next stop was Civita Di Bagnoregio. Civita was once connected to Bagnoregio. The saddle between the separate towns eroded away. Now, there is a bridge that connects the two. Today, only 15 residents live in Civita. The view along the walk (a relatively long uphill walk) is dazzling and unforgettable. Because of the rain we didn’t walk it, but I want to come back.

I’ll never forget the first sight of this ancient mountain town sitting alone on a high pinnacle. It’s like nothing I ever have seen.

After an espresso and potty break at a restaurant near the bridge (not much there) we headed back towards Assisi.

Note: Potty breaks come often when you consume lots of water-which we do. We had no problem stopping in restaurants and asking to use theirs. The proprietors were quite gracious.

In Assisi for dinner we decided to drive (THE Driver was really confident now) into the city to park. We parked about 2 blocks from the Duomo and walked down the streets of this ancient city. We ate at the restaurant at Hotel Umbra. Its name is Albergo Ristoranti Umbra. It was recommended as a good restaurant, but was average to bad on our visit. Although quite attractive and expensive, we all agreed that this choice was a mistake. Gelatos and cappuccino in the piazza was a winner though. Assisi is especially impressive at night. Walking back to our car (around 1am) along the lantern lit roads was a special way to finish the evening. There was even a fireworks display from a neighboring town on our way back. It was a great way to say good night to Umbria. Tomorrow we would be heading to Tuscany!
 
#6
Day 5 (May 31) - Buonconvento, Montepulciano, Siena

Headed to Buonconvento to stay at La Ripolina. We stopped at Montepulciano and had lunch at LaGrotta. It’s just outside the walls directly across San Biajio church. It’s a wonderful restaurant and we dined outside in a beautiful setting. We all liked our meals very much. This was one of our best meals. We liked Montepulciano a lot. The wives (I even joined in) shopped at a great leather shop. Top quality and well priced!

This area is a stunningly gorgeous. We stopped often for pictures. La Rippolina is a little outside of Buonconvento (a rather plain town). The building we stayed in was built in 1300. It’s a lovely place to stay at with fantastic views from our room’s large window. Our room was clean with a king size bed, stone floors and timbered ceiling.

After unpacking, we headed to Siena. The road from Buonconvento to Siena (not the main one, but the scenic route past the abbey) is one of the most beautifully picturesque in all of Italy. We parked many blocks from the old town (there was a soccer game that night) after searching for quite awhile.

Here is where our review will differ from others. None of us liked Siena very much. It’s a much larger town (city) than where we had traveled. We found it much dirtier and less agreeable than our other visits. The terrible parking, the loud crowds and the traffic I’m sure tainted our opinions.

We ate at a restaurant called Nello’s. The only thing worse than the food was the service (bordered on rude).
 
#7
Day 6 (June 1) - Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Pienza, Montalcino

We started with a very good breakfast of fruit, cereal, granola, yogurt, cheese, toast, sweet breads, ham, and various jams and jellies. We then headed to the abbey Abbazia Di Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Sunday’s a great day to stop. You can go to their mass and hear some of their glorious singing/chanting. We took a tour and actually probably spent a little too long there, but it was nice.

We then went to Pienza for lunch. We tried to eat at Restaurante del Falco (no way without reservations). We took a long walk along a white road along their ridge and saw a cute little church. We decided to stop in and used that time to pray and meditate some.

We ate at Viale S. Caterina. It’s right near the park and has panoramic views. The restaurant was great with yummy gnocchi with truffle sauce, great salads, wonderful rabbit and boar.

The town of Pienza was beautiful with lots of flowers and cute shops (especially cheese and wine). It almost seemed “too perfect” a little “Disneyesque”. The town had a free concert of local singing groups in one of its churches. We took some time to just sit and enjoy their singing.

It was now time to head to Montalcino for our dinner reservation (we’re learning). We ate at Boccon Di Vino right outside the town. It was wonderful and the owner is a great host. By the time we got back to our rooms it was well after midnight.
 
#8
Day 7 (June 2) - Montalcino, Mt. Amiata, Greve, San Quirico d’Orca

After a good breakfast we headed to Montalcino and did some shopping and looking around. We liked Monalcino a lot and would come back. We then headed for a small nearby recommended vineyard, La Crociona E Croce Di Mezzo. After a little tasting, THE Driver bought some nice bottles and we started for another vineyard that we never reached.

Somehow, The Navigator (me) thought that he saw an interesting way to bypass the Siena route on our way to Chianti. However, I somehow got us going up to the top of Mt. Amiata. The top is actually quite impressive. Heavily wooded, it almost looked like a rainforest. The temperature dropped from 28 to 12 at the peak. There’s lots of picnic areas and it was a pleasant surprise.

The Navigator’s problems were multiplied when we found that the best alternative was to head back through Siena to reach our next home. It then took us 4 hours to reach our home (Podere Torre) in Greve.

Hungry, we decided to stop at the small hill town of San Quirico d’Orca . The small town was having a celebration (it was a holiday) and all the shops were closed. We drove into the city and found what looked like a nice parking place and headed for the celebration. The local towns people had prepared food for sale. We bought extremely good (and cheap)salad, beans, pasta and sausages and sat with them enjoying our find.

As we walked back down (for a gelato) we saw a piece of paper on our windshield. It looked like a parking ticket, but we couldn’t read it. We then saw a local constable with a small pouch of tickets and The Driver showed him our ticket. He smiled and waved for us to follow. We figured that we would pay the fine (what could it be? $10 Maybe $20?). When we figured out that we owed 100 Euros, we couldn’t understand how a parking ticket could be so expensive. It turned out that the ticket was primarily for us being in the city without a special city pass (usually for some locals). As it turned out, we probably could have been ticketed many times as we entered the ancient hill towns (including Montalcino that morning). We pouted and paid the fine.

As we got to Greve, we started following the directions to Podere Torre. We took a very tiny dirt and gravel road through vineyards for about a mile up a hill. When we reached the top, we were treated to a zillion roses and other flowers.

Podere Torre, quite simply, is so good that I hesitate mentioning it. Cecelia, the owner, greeted us, as she was doing some gardening as we arrived and she showed us our charming rooms.

Our room dated from the 11th century and was used by soldiers during the war between the Siennese and Floritines. It, however, was large, nicely furnished, charming ,and had a modern bathroom with fluffy towels and wash rags!! For some 80 Euros it was a steal.

We sat with our friends enjoying a great view and the smells of all the flowers. Cecelia then brought us carafes of her own wine and juice (blood orange). This was one of the highlights of the trip!

Because she had a laundry area we decided to do some washing before dinner. Italian washers,though, seem to work on Italian time. It would take all through our clean up time and dinner for all the washes to be finished. Duane and I used flash lights to hang up the wet clothes to dry during the night.

We headed into Greve to a popular pizza place called La Cantina. Good pizza and salads. The other food, though, was average. Later, we walked around the tiny town. Not much to it and went back to our rooms and wash. We loved Podere Torre and intend to come back for a week.
 
#9
Day 8 (June 3) - San Gimignano, Volterra

We had breakfast outside at a long wood table. EVERYTHING was great. We even had eggs to order! Most of our clothes were still wet, so we left them to head out to S. Gimignano. We stopped at Poggidonsi to hit the coop (mostly for more water) on the way.

S. Gimignano was too crowded to park, so we headed out to Volterra. We went to museo Etrusco there (lots of Etruscan urns) and found the town much better than expected. This town is great place to shop for alabaster with many nice shops.

We had a surprising wonderful (and quick) lunch at cafeteria. It was called Caffe Bei (up hill from parking lot and turn left at top). Great lasagna, potatoes, sautéed spinach and eggplant parmesan at a fraction of what we had been paying. We then headed back to S. Gimignano where the afternoon parking was greatly improved.

This is great town with excellent shopping. We hit some towers and toured the Duomo. Although hot, this was one of my favorite towns.

We then headed for a restaurant Cecelia recommended called Osteria Alla Piazza in Castellina. My wife chose the word “adorable” to describe it and it fits. The food, however, was even better! A great ensalada with fresh artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes and mixed greens. Soft dumplings of pureed veggies in a cheesy cream sauce melted in my mouth. Grilled fresh porcini mushrooms were selected by weight and cooked like steak. And great pastas and meat! All of this and great bread!!!

Aside: We did not like the bread in Italy. It seemed everyone had the same kind and it just did nothing for us, until this restaurant. Even the desserts here were wonderful. We HIGHLY recommend it.

After another leisurely dinner (around 3 hours) we headed back to our inn wearing contented smiles and wondering how the Italians are able to eat so late (and so much) without bloating up to the size of Macy’s floats. Tomorrow, Lake Como!
 
#10
Day 9 (June 4) - On to Bellagio

With all our clothes dry, it was now time to head out. Packing wasn’t the same as we started. We’ve all added two extra duffle bags for our purchases. Duane and I, though, became masters at getting every bag into our trunk. We had a total of 4 rolling carryon bags (my expandable bag “grew” to a size that no airline would permit as a carryon), four large duffle bags, a few small boxes of wine, four briefcase size bags, some miscellaneous bags of water and other items. Our rental car, fortunately, had a fairly good size trunk. I took a lot of the credit because I once (many-many years ago) worked for UPS fitting boxes in trucks. Of course, I only worked for them for one day (WAY to hard for me), but someone had to take the credit.

Our last breakfast at Podere Torre was a great one with eggs to order, meats, cheeses, breads, jams, fruit, etc. Cecelia sold us some of her wine ($5) and gave the girls each two large squares of some of her wonderful soap. We really hated to leave, but at 9:30 we were on her way.

We headed towards Como via 1-A. As we drove by Florence ,the views were great and we appreciated the fast and easy driving … until we reached the first of many tunnels. I’m not sure why, but Italians all seem to slow to almost a stop when they go into a tunnel. It’s almost like they’re afraid that there’s really not a through tunnel, but a faux-tunnel where the rock is painted black ala a Road Runner cartoon. There also seemed to be an amazing miracle that took place in every tunnel. More cars seemed to be coming out than in! At least the traffic was thicker with an exponential growth of trucks. While trucks never came into the far left lane, they were bumper to bumper (no matter the speed) in the other one or two lanes.

We stopped at an Autostrada at Bologna for lunch. There was an interesting discussion on Slow Traveler about Autostradas right before we left. They are amazing and this one was great! Thumbs up to a great idea! Fresh made pasta and meat, great sandwiches, salad bar, espresso, etc. I was impressed and had a nice salad of tomatoes (I just love the tomatoes in Italy!), onions, cheese and thin sliced beef. All of us were also impressed with their convenience store (especially the huge bolognas). I was, however, surprised to see wine and beer being sold right next to the soda fountains. We probably would not see this in the states.

Right after Bologna the scenery gets very boring. It looked like a drive from Atlanta to Cordele, GA, flat with few trees. There are a number of construction slow downs, but Duane was hitting 80 (miles per hour) most of the time. There’s a few tricky turns near Milan, but the signage was good and we had no problems. We arrived in Como at 2:45.

As we entered the city, the girls spied an outlet store for silk. STOP! They needed their shopping fix. They really didn’t buy much and Duane and I thought the ties were too “in” for our taste.

We then headed towards Bellagio. At least we tried to head there, but getting to the road to Bellagio proved to be a bit more difficult than thought. With no local map, we assumed that we could just head to the water and go right. Instead, we ended up circling Como (a seemingly “blah” type of town) a couple times before we worked our way out.

Once on the road to Bellagio we realized why so many people say to not drive there. It’s a white-knuckle 6 Disney-type ride, except you could get killed (as someone did the week before).

With a huge sigh of relief we arrived at our new home, La Pergola, at 3:45. The total trip took us 6 hr. 15 min., but the last 45 minutes were the most difficult. As we arrived there was an artist painting by the lake and a small truck selling cheeses.

When we went to our rooms, we were pleasantly surprised on the huge size of our room. It was the view, however, that sold us. Great French doors leading to decks, antique dressing table, a nice bathroom with real towels and a nice sofa windows overlooking one of the most beautiful places in the world! I couldn’t understand why the rooms were so inexpensive (about $110 EU/night), but we were soon to find out.

We were ready to head to Bellagio. “Just a short walk over the hill” is how their brochure reads. The walk is short, but the hill isn’t. On an extremely hot day we were introduced to an attractive walk straight up a loooooong hill. We did a little looking around (many shops closed because of the time) and headed back (not as bad a walk).

Not wanting to tackle the stairs, we elected to eat at La Pergola’s restaurant that night. We each now did something we hadn’t tried the entire trip, we rested. I read overlooking the lake and the at lakeside with a nice glass (or two) of local wine. I was in heaven!

LaPergola’s restaurant is often recommended so we looked forward to our dinners. Overall, I think were disappointed. The fish was only okay, salads average and great tiramisu. It’s overly expensive, very good service, and has a beautiful setting on the lake. But, I’d stick to their pastas next time. They were the best of the dishes we sampled.
 
#11
Day 10 (June 5) - Bellagio, Cadonabbia, Varenna

I had been to Bellagio a number of years ago and was overwhelmed by its beauty, but that was in April. While still beautiful, the summer views aren’t as spectacular. There’s a haze that covers the area and only a good wind can clear it up. Our innkeeper told me that most of the summer days are hazy, but there was none the week before. Extremely hot weather and a hazy sky, bad timing I guess. But the good news, a hot hazy day on Lake Como beats almost any day somewhere else.

Breakfast was underneath the grape arbor on the terrace next to the lake (restaurants terrace). They had set out a bowl of cherries, other fruits, yogurts, different types of granola & museli, croissants/breads, jams/jellies, meat, cheese, juices and coffee. This our first taste of Americanized coffee. My wife and loved the strong (thick) coffee and latte that we had been drinking. Our companions were happier with the weaker type we had at our Inn.

Walking over the hill (working off breakfast), we took a ferry to Cadonabbia to the Villa Carlotta. Beautiful gardens (probably even more so a couple weeks earlier), but a so-so villa museum, but it’s definitely worth the visit.

We then ferried to Varenna. We were going to eat lunch at Vecchia Varenna, but they were not open yet. We searched for restaurant Cavateppi, but it was up the hill (not another hill!), so we ate panini and salad at a lakeside spot a little right of the ferry stop and along the walkway (right past Vecchia Varenna). We enjoyed our food, but the tables were too small.

After a pleasurable walk in this pretty town we ferried back to Bellagio. Our companions went shopping and Judy and I headed back to our room. She napped, which is not unusual. I napped as well, which is.

I spent the rest of that afternoon resting and reading. I did sit out on the side of the lake for a while with my feet in the water. It was a very pleasurable afternoon.

At dinner time we decided to drive the car into town. There was no way we wanted to walk that hill again. We ate at Bilacus on their beautiful terrace. The setting was lovely with Carolina jasmine all around us. I had a veal chop, pasta, salad. Judy had salad, ravioli, and grilled veggies. Carla and Duane tried the fish and pastas, salads ,etc. The food was great, but our companions decided that the Como style of preparing their fish was a little too bland for them. We were all tired and ready for bed.

Aside: Although it was hot during this trip, the evenings were very comfortable. We never had air conditioning and never needed it once in Italy (except Florence). Both Duane and I said that we never slept better.
 
#12
Day 11 (June 6) - Bellagio

Started off with a very good breakfast and then decided to take a walk up the HILL. We signed up for a tour of Villa Serbelloni. It’s a property of the Rockefeller Foundation. It was pretty and the views were great, but it was all uphill and it was hot.

We ate lunch at Hotel DuLac. We had very good salads and pastas (good ravioli).

We then did something unique. The guys took “the day off” and we went to our hotel for R&R. The girls went on a private tour of Villa Balbianello. They signed up for it the previous day near the ferry dock. My wife said it was “magical” and “perhaps the most beautiful spot I’ve ever been to”. She told me that she had nothing to compare it to. She mentioned the Hearst Castle, but remarked that the Villa was greener and plusher. A true indication of how much they loved it was by the amount of pictures they took there – 48! This truly sounded like I missed a real treat.

I read, put my feet in the water, read some more and enjoyed some nice wine. As much as I know I missed something great at the Villa, I wouldn’t have traded it for my afternoon.

We again ate dinner at Bilacus (driving in again). Judy had a great salad, spaghetti with pomodoro sauce and porcini risotto. I had veal, salad (wonderful tomatoes, onions and mozzarella), pannacotta (light and delicious crepes). I can’t remember our companion’s dinners, but all was great.

We then walked into town for gelato. We sat on a bench looking across the lake at the other towns and the outline of the mountains while listening to some singers at a cafe near by. It was perfect!
 
#13
Day 12 (June 7) - Florence

We started our way to Florence at 8:40. It took us almost an hour to reach Como and then another 5 hours to reach Florence. We made a quick cappuccino stop at another Autostrada and it was very packed with people. Saturdays have fewer trucks on the road, but many more cars. Driving into Florence was crazy. We made many wrong turns trying to find our hotel, but some nice residents (we had stopped to ask directions) actually got into their car and had us follow them to it.

We were staying at Residenza Guilia (Via Porte Nuova). When we drove up all we saw was an old (ala 1950’s) apartment building. There was nothing listed on the buzzers about this place, so we started ringing all of them. Someone buzzed us through the first set of gates. We were preparing for the worse. Duane stayed in the car with our bags. Then a very “modern” (lots of body piercings) young lady let us in saying that she didn’t think anything like our printout (we showed it to her) was in her building, but the room number on the receipt said that it was on the top floor.

I got on the lift. The ladies took one look at the very old and small machine and squeezed in with me. It was stuffy and hot and when we arrived on the 5th floor, we couldn’t get the door open. A black lady heard us and using a key let us out. We thought she was the owner Mariella. Later we learned that she was there to clean up. It was clean and someone had gone to great lengths to make it feel cozy, but it was clear that we were staying in someone’s apartment.

The rooms were average and ours had a small terrace (no view). I had asked for air conditioning, but our friends wasn’t and our unit didn’t work. It was very hot in both rooms. When Mariella returned we asked about breakfast in the morning and she showed us a tray with juice in little cartons, a croissant in wrapping (like from a machine), and a coffee pot to make some coffee. We figured that we would grab something on our way to the airport. We laughed off our rooming choice with a “well, it’s cheap (70 Eu) and only one night” and headed for the old town area.

It was about a 5-block walk and we noticed that the shops were closed (Saturday afternoon), so we figured it was a good time for lunch. Problem, the restaurants were closed! We eventually found a pizzaria where we had good pizza and salads. When we left the reaturant a parade was going by. It was huge with men marching in ancient clothes, some cows, horsemen, etc. In the midst of them were two different groups of men that looked like they came straight from the movie “The Godfather”. They were big and looked “mean and tough”. It was explained that they represented two different towns and were going to do “battle” later that day. Their form of battle was “football” (soccer).

We had a problem though, it was 4:45 and we were now about 20 minutes from the Academia where we had 5:00 reservations. We did a very fast walk, through and around the parade, until we got there just in time. I can’t describe how hot we all felt, but I was glad in was cooler inside. As expected, the museum (especially the statue of David) was great.

We then split up as couples and said that we would meet at the S. Croce church piazza (where the soccer match was to take place) at 7:30. Judy and I did hit some shops, but bought little. I think that we were too hot to enjoy ourselves and the prices didn’t seem to be the bargain we expected.

When we arrived at the piazza, it was a madhouse. There were stands set up in the middle and we weren’t allowed to walk in certain directions. There were police everywhere and lots of screaming. The match had just finished and apparently the police was trying to keep certain groups apart. We met an American young man who said that the game was “unbelievable”. He went on to say three men were taken out on stretchers the first 5 minutes of the match. He said that it was closer to rugby than soccer with fists flying everywhere. As the crowd dissipated, we saw a number of the “combatants” with their shirts torn and bloody all smiling and having beer with their opponents. Apparently the “war” was over.

Hot and tired we met our friends and found a close by restaurant, Baldovino Trattoria (via San Giuseppe near the piazza). It was a great meal of Mediterranean salads, crispelle (a ricotta filled crepe), pastas,etc. We highly recommend this casual, but good trattoria.

After dinner we walked along the river and walked to the Uffuzi. I would had loved to had more time to enjoy this area. We had one last gelato and taxied (white knuckle time again) back to our rooms.

This was our last night (VERY HOT rooms) in Italy. I think God gave us our last accommodations to make it easier to leave, because it sure is hard to. We are already talking about next year’s trip to Italy. Our trip to the airport was uneventful, except getting gas on Sunday mornings can be tough. We had lots of bags checked back to Paris and were about to begin the last part of our trip in Normandy and Paris.

But, I’ll leave that portion to a different trip report. I hope that this report helps some of you. If you have any questions, feel free to ask here or by e-mail.

Non dio Benedice (perché lei ha starnutito) e molti viaggi felici se rallenta o il digiuno.

Arrivederci - Jim and Judy
 

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