Friday, April 27, 2012

Towns and Villas

Our first day on Lake Como dawned grey and misty, but by the time we caught our ferry over to Menaggio, blue skies were appearing! Menaggio was a sleepy town with a lovely, waterfront walk, complete with restaurant filled piazza. My favorite meal of our entire trip was here with one of the most delicious pastas I've ever eaten, followed up with a stop at a different restaurant for warm chocolate cake and gelato. With some time to kill before our ferry out of town, we decided to take a walk up past the town. Menaggio seems to have the most complete description of hill walks, with a fancy little map and board posted right at the ferry landing. We went up narrow alleys and stairs, saw some beautiful views looking down the lake, then headed back down to the ferry landing to get over to Villa Carlotta.

Lake Como is lined with elegant villas and gardens, some public, most private. Villa Carlotta has some of the most beautiful gardens and has somehow managed to swing their very own ferry landing, despite their being one to the north in Cadenabbia and to the south in Tremezzo, both only a short walk away. (We were quite thankful for the immediate access though when our blue skies turned to heavy downpour just at the end of our visit). The villa itself was built in 1745, but is named and known for it's owner 100 years later, Duchess Carlotta (Charlotte), who was given the villa as a wedding present from her mother. Those were the good ole days. The gardens have become famous for it's profusion of rhododendron (not blooming during our visit) and azaleas (blooming strong), and pathways wind and dip between stands of flowering trees and shrubs to viewpoints of the lake. I was especially enchanted with the names found in the garden, such as the Rhododendron Forest, the Theatre of Greenery, and Fern Valley. Thankfully, the rain held off until we were past Fern Valley and nearing the exit. With rain showing no sign of letting up, we headed back to Bellagio for a little riposo (rest) before dinner and called it an early night.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Heaven on Earth

"The precise location of heaven on earth has never been established, but it may very well be right here."
Herb Caen, writing about Lake Como

I could not agree more. We just spent a long weekend in that beautiful place, and I could not believe just how quickly we relaxed. Our trip up there was more challenging than expected. While not far from the Milan airport in distance, the travel is a literal journey of planes, trains, and automobiles. Our flight landed in Milan just before 6pm. After a 25 minute wait for the "every 7 minute" shuttle bus to Terminal 1, we then caught an express train to the town of Saronno. There, we switched to another train to the town of Como. We reached the lake, but not our final destination of Bellagio, a lake town about halfway up. Our original plan involved a ferry from Como to the town of Bellagio, but upon arrival in Como, we discovered we'd missed the last ferry by about 20 minutes. We headed back to the bus station to see if there were any buses, and found the bus ticket counter closed. Actually, as we walked up to the counter, the ticket man closed his shades. We were that close to success. Upon asking a couple of locals, we were informed that we'd have to take a taxi (for the more than an hour drive!). But the bus schedule listed one final bus going to Bellagio. Problem was that we had no tickets. A quirk of Italy is that one cannot buy tickets on the transportation one is taking. Tickets are sold at transportation offices or sometimes at newsstands and tabacco shops. Don't get me started on the logic of having transportation running at times when all places to buy tickets for said transportation are closed. We threw ourselves on the mercy of the bus driver, and he waved us aboard. The night became dark and stormy as we wove our way along a lakeside drive that must surely be stunning by daylight. After about 40 minutes, with only one other passenger left on board, the driver pulled up to the side of the road in a dark town, flipped on all the bus lights, and told us to go into the bar to buy tickets. We were clearly not the first tourists to have messed up the ticketing process.

Bellagio, like most of the other lake towns, is built on a rather steep hill. I'd picked our hotel with one thought in mind: proximity to the ferry landing. We wanted to visit the other lake towns on the convenient (usually) ferry system, and I did not want to be huffing and puffing my way up and down cobblestone pathways several times a day just for hotel stops. Our hotel room itself left a great deal to be desired, but we were less than a five minute walk to the passenger ferry and had an incredible view of the lake. Our hotel was like much of Italy, full of faded grandeur and glory. But in super chic Bellagio, even faded glory comes with a hefty price tag. In the middle of the lake is a trio of the most visited (touristed) towns, Bellagio, Varenna, and Menaggio. Bellagio is probably the most touristy, teeming with jewelry and expensive clothing shops. The town also offers the widest variety of restaurants and seems to have the most going on it, while still remaining a small town. We spent our first morning walking around Bellagio, visiting those jewelry shops and scoring a handmade silver spoon made out of an antique hairpin coming from the traditional headdresses of Bellagio costumes. When my niece was born, my sister's mother-in-law gave her a gift of a silver spoon with a little note saying, "Every child should be born with a silver spoon." The idea has captivated me ever since because every child should be born with love and opportunity surrounding him or her, and I love this idea manifested into an actual silver we jumped at the chance of giving our Baby Girl a silver spoon with a story behind it.

We also had to spend the morning taking care of a little chore, and an embarrassing one at that. First, I would like to point out that while I am not some huge, adventure traveler, I've been traveling pretty regularly for about 20 years now. I haven't seen and done it all, and every trip still gets me excited, but traveling is no longer a novelty. I know what clothes to bring, what shoes are going to work for me, and I keep a stocked toiletry kit on hand. Over the years, I might have forgotten a sweater, a rain jacket, or a charging cord, but never something really important...until now. As I unpacked, I found, to my horror, that I'd not packed a single pair of underwear for this four night trip. Not a one. In small town Italy, one may not just run to the corner WalMart or even something like a CVS, so I had an important goal for our first morning. Thankfully, we quickly lucked onto a small shop of intimates - these stores are stocked with boxes behind a counter. You don't just flip through some racks of clothes and pick out what you need; instead, you ask for your desired item, color, style, and size. I looked up on google translate the word for "panty," and strode confidently into the store to ask the little old lady behind the counter for such a thing. Her little old husband came shuffling over and, after asking if I wanted naturale or nero (black), pulled out a pair of pantyhose. I said no, no, no and most likely began rolling my eyes around the store wildly before noticing a box behind the counter with a picture of underwear on it. I gave up on speaking and just began pointing. The little old lady asked my measurement while the little old man began pulling pair after pair out of boxes in a variety of natural, black, and white colors. In desperation, I grabbed the closest pair and tried to do a quick, yet discreet, hold up to the body measurement and just ended up buying those. They worked out, and thankfully, we found another store later in the day where I could supplement my initial purchase with a little less embarrassment. And for anyone else who finds themselves in the same predicament in Italy, what you want to buy are "slip." When the lady in the second store asked me if I wanted "slip" (pronounced "sleep"), I thought she was speaking English to me and asking if I wanted pajamas.

You should also know that Bellagio, the hotel of the same name in Las Vegas, does not resemble the town in the slightest. However, if you've seen the Chihuly glass ceiling sculpture in the hotel, and compare it to the actual gardens that grace the villas lining the lakefront, then the sculpture name, Fiori di Como - Flowers of Como, is absolutely perfect. That sculpture is a breathtaking translation of the actual beauty found on Lake Como, which we finally began to explore with sunny skies appearing and a successful hunt for undergarments behind us.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

New Year's Eve Flashback

There is nothing like posting a New Year's Eve video in April, right? I tried to do this way back in January. It was my first attempt at uploading a video to YouTube, and things did not go well. After hours of waiting for the upload to complete, I finally gave up and went to bed...and pretty much forgot I'd ever even tried to show you all our phenomenal New Year's Eve here in Naples! Four months later, I thought to check and found the video all waiting for me on my YouTube channel. The link is below. Last time I tried to link to a video (not my own), you Americans could not open it. So I don't know if this will work out for you either. If so, then great - you can see why Naples is one of THE BEST places to ever spend a New Year's Eve. If not, then imagine this: We are on top of a small mountain (created by a volcanic eruption in the 1500s) with a 200 degree or so view that includes Arco Felice, Pozzuoli, Naples, the Sorrentine Peninsula, Capri (but it's dark, so you can't really see it or make out their fireworks unless you know exactly where to look), Lucrino, Baia, Capo Miseno, Bacoli, Monte di Procida, the islands of Procida and Ischia, and Monterusciello. Fireworks bursting at every single point as the camera pans around. Quantity over quality, baby. These aren't the best shows in the world, but since every one and his brother are shooting them off their balconies, from their yards, and from piazzas, the sheer volume IS the show. You'll hear a friend's voice in the background, and through my clever cinematic skills (aka sheer, dumb luck) the video ends just as he says, "Only in Naples." True that.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Buona Pasqua a Tutti!

I love this photo of our kitchen during the food prep. How Italian does this look!

Happy Easter, Y'all! As you might imagine, Easter is a big deal in Italy. Good Friday is a day where many towns, especially in the south, have processions carrying religious figures or floats (we attended one, which I'll post about in a few days). Today, of course, is Easter, but Italians take the holiday one step further with La Pasquetta - Little Easter - the Monday after Easter. A long weekend of festas. We had prepared for no celebrations at all - no chocolate, no special food for dinner, no plans to visit friends, no Easter baskets. Just church and home. But the beauty of Italy is that sometimes, all you have to do is drive down a short road to come up with a feast.
With our church folks asking us what we had planned for Easter, and our one word response of "sofa" as the reply, I think we both started feeling a bit inferior in our planning. Nothing says "Christ is Risen" like a whole bunch of food, after all. Nathan decided to stop on the way home and pick up some mussels from a roadside stand. A few more yards down the road, we passed a stand selling bread. That was my cue to call for a stop, and when I hopped out to make our purchase, we hit jackpot with some beans and roasted artichokes as well. Thankfully, we had friends riding home from church with us because it's near impossible to get our roadside food purchase amounts down to fit a two person family. In this case, we'd ended up with 2 kilos of mussels, a kilo of beans, five roasted artichokes, and two loaves of bread. All for under 15euros. We were able to share the spoils with our friends and eliminate half the food going into our trash bin. Back at home, Nathan worked his kitchen magic, cooking the mussels in a sauce of butter, thyme, white wine, shallots, and fresh lemon juice, throwing some pasta in a pot and cooking up a quick sauce of sage from our recently planted herb garden in some melted butter, and sauteing the beans. Our planned lunch of soup out of can instead became a feast fit for an elaborate dinner. A Buona Pasqua indeed.