My Life as a Traveler

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At Home in Milano

Made it to Milan!

Made it to Milan!

Milan Duomo

Milan Duomo

Today I’m in Milan and I’m on my own. After two weeks of intensive sightseeing, I’m taking a down day and just going to see one thing, the Duomo, which is the main cathedral in Milan, and have a nice lunch.

Some of the statuary on the Duomo

Some of the statuary on the Duomo

The Duomo is the third largest church in Europe and took six centuries to build. It’s incredibly ornate, with 52 pillars and over 2000 statues on the sides, on the roof, and even on the tops of each pillar. The place can seat 10,000 people, but today is not that busy. There’s a security line to get in and another line inside to purchase the opportunity to take photos inside. No photos are allowed unless you are wearing the 2euro wristband. I’m not here for the photos, though, I’m here just to rest and meditate in this huge space.

Lunch is at the mozzarella bar (check out this menu link: More statuary

More statuary
Statues on the pillars

Statues on the pillars

My view at lunch

My view at lunch

Mozzarella with artichokes for lunch

Mozzarella with artichokes for lunch

http://obika.com/upload/assets/files/IT,32,-1,5187/14259-att.pdf  – four different types of mozzarella served with different meat or veggies. Take the elevator to the top of the Rinascente Department Store and the restaurant is on the terrace with a view of the statues on the roof of the Duomo. It’s almost just as fun to watch the other diners as it is to contemplate the statues. One couple in business suits each pull out a tablet and ignore each other, two Italian girls with shopping bags from designer stores draped on their arms are wearing too much makeup. The German girls next to me are frustrated at the service. I just sip my wine, nibble on my mozzarella and artichokes, and smile.

The duomo is awe-inspiring and the lunch was lovely, but the best part of Milan is my Home Away from Home. I found Nic and Ale’s apartment through my now favorite accommodations website Airbnb.com. Check out the link and do some travel window-shopping. Airbnb is sort of a cross between my former favorite, VRBO.com and newcomer Couchsurfing.com. VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) still is a good place to find apartments and other types of accommodations with more space and costing less than the price of a hotel room. Once we rented a houseboat in Amsterdam using this site. With VRBO, you usually never meet the owner, you meet a representative of the organization that the owner uses to check people in and out. Couchsurfing, for the uninitiated, is a site where you can find a place to stay with a host (or hosts, depending on how many people are living there) for free in their home, whether on their couch, floor, or in a separate bedroom. When you couchsurf, you are fully expected to interact with your hosts and often they will show you around, which is a great way to tour the town, but privacy and alone-time may be an issue.

Chocolate shoes!!

Chocolate shoes!!

When you use Airbnb, you almost always meet the owner of the apartment, or a designated family member. Sometimes they live there and sometimes they do not. Sometimes when they live there they stay there and sometimes they do not. For instance, in Mainz, both hosts lived in the apartments that I rented through Airbnb, but they would vacate the apartment and stay with a friend or be out of town when they rented it, so I had it all to myself. In Rome, we were greeted by the owner’s sister. In Florence, the owners did not live there at all, but used the apartment only for renting to Airbnb customers. In Cinque Terre, we shared the apartment with Beppe, the host’s father.

The beauty of this program is that when you are using Airbnb, you have a local person who can help you with anything that you need, like restaurant recommendations, stores where you can buy this or that, fantastic places to go that are not in the guidebooks. It’s not expected that you necessarily hang out socially, but sometimes there are special offers, like the ride we got to the Frankfurt airport from Mainz in Stefan’s Mercedes, or his offer to show Morgan and Dominic where the best clubs were.

Another really great thing about Airbnb rentals is that most of the time you are in someone’s home with a fully furnished kitchen. When you don’t want to go out to eat, but want to stay in and cook, often you will find your kitchen staples there: coffee, olive oil, salt, pepper. You can go out and buy the main components of a meal without having to buy say, an entire bag of sugar when you just need a few tablespoons. If the host lives there, often they will include breakfast.

Ale, Ari, and Nic, my Milan family

Ale, Ari, and Nic, my Milan family

One thing about Airbnb you need to know, though, is that you need to be fairly accurate about your arrival time. The hosts usually are not hanging around all day or night to wait for you to show up. You need to keep in close contact with them and be sure to show up when you say you’re going to. It’s pretty easy, though, in these days of texting and cheap phone calls. You do this, as well as leave the place as clean as you found it, to garner a good review. Of course, as you are shopping for accommodations, you can see the reviews for the place (as well as the host) which will help you make a decision. However, the hosts are also making reviews of you. Most hosts will review your profile and check out your reviews before they confirm your reservation. Your good online Airbnb reputation is extremely valuable. Another great thing is that you can make a request and be confirmed for a same day arrival, if necessary.

My home away from home - a comfy bed and a desk facing the window with fresh flowers.

My home away from home – a comfy bed and a desk facing the window with fresh flowers.

In Milan, I’m staying in the third bedroom (office?) in Nic and Ale’s three bedroom apartment. They have also converted their living room into a place for Airbnb’ers as well. They have a dedicated bathroom just for guests, but you have to walk through the kitchen to get to it. The cost? $52/night plus $6 fee to Airbnb. Way cheaper than any hotel room. And the details! A set of towels wrapped up in a luxurious ribbon at the foot of the bed, a vase of fresh flowers, and good coffee in the morning. I was exhausted when I got there and was offered tea and cake (they always had tea and cake – what’s not to love about that!) and lots of love from their two little dogs. Just what the doctor ordered!

My gracious host Nic holding sweet Tiffany and Sheela.

My gracious host Nic holding sweet Tiffany and Sheela.

In the morning, I had more energy to talk to Nic and Ale – they were fascinating! Nic works at the university nearby and Ale is a marketing exec for some Italian cable tv channels. Their teenage daughter is Italian gorgeous (too bad Morgan’s not here!) I tell them about my self-defense program and Ale believes that she could connect me to the right organizations who would sponsor classes to help women live safer lives. Hmmm…. I’d have to improve my Italian, learn what specific issues are most important to cover, and adjust my program to be viable for Italian culture. A couple of days ago, while watching the news on tv, there was a funeral for a woman who was killed by her boyfriend. According to Ale, this was not an isolated incident and there is a great need for women’s self-defense training in Italy.

It’s my last night in Italy, and I’m so happy to have shared it with my new Milano family! Thanks, guys!

Arrivederci and Grazie!

Signora Giulia in Castello di Malpaga

Signora Giulia in Castello di Malpaga

Castle Malpaga, front with drawbridge

Castle Malpaga, front with drawbridge

Today is a day of goodbyes. Susie is getting on the plane to go back home, and I am heading back to Bergamo, grab the rest of my luggage, and head down to Milan, where I’ll catch a plane to Dublin to meet the kids for the second half of my journey. Arrivederci Venezia, arrivederci Susie, arrivederci Amedeo.

The three of us walk back to the bus that takes us back across the causeway to the car parked next to the train station and drive toward the airport to drop Susie off. Venice airport is not very big, so we can park the car close and go in to make sure she checks in without any problem. Everything’s fine, and after a quick coffee (paid for by Amedeo while we were not paying attention – thank you!), I say goodbye to my best girlfriend travel partner. We both wish that she could continue on with me to Ireland, but I guess that’s for another time.

Those apartments need some work

Those apartments need some work

It’s about a two hour drive back to Bergamo, and Amedeo and I chat along the way, reliving the past few days. Before we get back to his house to get my things, however, there’s one more stop to make. Lunch! But not just lunch, it’s lunch and a castle.

Remember our friend Bartolomeo Colleoni, soldier of the three balls? Well, it turns out that when he finally settled down, he settled down not far from Amedeo’s house. In 1456, he bought Castle Malpaga, originally built in the 1300’s. In 1456 it was in ruins (must have got it for a song!) and proceeded to fix it up and made it the seat of his lordship. The squarish castle, his home, is surrounded by an empty moat, then a yard area, then an outside wall lined on the inside, facing the castle, with small apartments for his soldiers, staff, and animals.

Detail of the walls

Detail of the walls

Today, we walk through the outside gate from the road past some workers who seem to be again fixing the place up. They’ve got a lot of work to do, however, because the yard is a mess and the apartments are ramshackle. The castle is holding up pretty well, though. We walk around to the front and I catch a glimpse of a woman in medieval garb leading a group of elementary aged children from the castle over the drawbridge and then through the outside gate. A ghost?

We go over the drawbridge ourselves and enter the castle. It’s not really open for visitors, but Amedeo works his magic and before I know it, I am Signora Giulia, dressed like the lady of the castle (because they had these amazing medieval dresses, adult-sized, available to wear!) and we are exploring the rooms. From the outside, the castle doesn’t look like much, but on the inside the walls are rich with 15th century frescoes, the colors still vibrant. As Signora Giulia, I have to remember to hold up the hem of my gown so I don’t trip going up and down the stairs. Somehow, wearing this silly costume has made it easier to imagine the banquets, the fine furnishings, the lords and ladies as well as the servants and staff that were here before me. It’s one of the most evocative castles I have ever visited and I am fascinated by the details and the stories of these walls. For a while, we are the only ones here and the castle belongs just to us.

But on the inside...

But on the inside…

Alas, like Cinderella at the ball, Signora Giulia must relinquish the dress (no glass slippers, though!) and cross back over the drawbridge to the real world. Fortunately, the real world has lunch, so it’s a smooth transition. I am the only woman diner in the restaurant across the street, one reason being that we are late, and the other is that the men there are all on their lunch break from work, so you know the food has to be good. And it is. Veal scaloppine, polenta, salad with onion, wine and a yummy dessert, plus a little local moonshine in my coffee made for a fantastic meal.

Welcome to my castle!

Welcome to my castle!

However, all good things must come to an end and I must move on to Milan. After retrieving my bags from Amedeo’s, it’s time for me to go. My Camino friend really went all out to create some fantastic experiences for us, and I’m afraid my meager thanks are not enough to express what a wonderful time we had and how much we appreciate everything he did. But life goes on, and I’m off. The adventure continues!

Find the three balls?

Find the three balls?

Even the ceiling is painted.

Even the ceiling is painted.

An excellent lunch across the street from the castle

An excellent lunch across the street from the castle

Thank you for a fantastic experience!

Thank you for a fantastic experience!

Venice by Boat

Classic Venetian gondolas and bridge

Classic Venetian gondolas and bridge

On the Grand Canal

On the Grand Canal

The city of Venice is built on 118 islands, and today we’re going to visit three of the most famous. Amedeo has scouted out a tour of the islands for about the same price as just the vaporetto tickets, so we walk to the train station to get the tickets. Turns out the tour leaves from the other side of town near Piazza San Marco, so we hop a vaporetto (water bus) for a tour of the Grand Canal. It’s hard to describe the variety of the buildings (most facades now plain, but handsomely decorated in their time), the watercraft, and the people in this busy place. I’m just going to leave it to the pictures to tell that story.

Rialto Bridge in the background

Rialto Bridge in the background

Palazzo Barbarigo - covered with Murano glass mosaics

Palazzo Barbarigo – covered with Murano glass mosaics

Under the Rialto Bridge

Under the Rialto Bridge

Blue and red boats are work boats

Blue and red boats are work boats

Coffee break

Coffee break

After a quick coffee break (girls had to pee and a coffee in the shop with a clean bathroom was the same price as the public loo), we boarded our waterbus for the tour. It takes about 45 minutes to get from Piazza San Marco to Murano, home of the Venetian glass makers. We are herded off the boat and into the glassblowing studio. After a quick demonstration, we are led through the gift shop. Since Susie and I bought our Murano glass in Rome (and it’s much more expensive here) we are just looking. The tour guide takes us upstairs for a look at some $10,000 glass figurines and chandeliers. No worries about breakage, they’re insured and can be shipped directly to our home! They’re beautiful, but , um, no. Murano is about a mile long and we walk along the street, window shopping in the many glass stores that line the canal. There’s a church at the end, but wait, there’s no time – have to catch the bus!

Murano glassblower

Murano glassblower

The next stop is Burano, home of the lacemakers. We are led into a store where a lonely woman in an apron is hand-making lace among the piles of doilies, table runners, and scarves. It’s too crowded in there for me, so I wait for the group to finish. We walk down the colorful streets and do more window shopping. It’s a beautiful place and I wish I could stay after the crowds leave. Next to our waterbus is another waterbus that has music coming out of it. I ask our crew to sing for us, since our boat has no music player. They decline and laugh.

Last is Torcello, the oldest continuously populated region in Venice, but there aren’t very many people living there now. One low-key hotel, an ancient church and sculptures, vineyards. It’s quiet, quiet, quiet after the hustle-bustle of Venice. It would be nice to stay here and take a nap along the canal under the trees. But the waterbus calls, and after a little more flirting with the crew, we board for our ride home.

Modeling for the lovely lace shops in Burano

Modeling for the lovely lace shops in Burano

A Burano "street"

A Burano “street”

Amedeo has the idea that he would like to make pasta con vongole (clams), so upon our return, we search for clams. However, because it is Monday, there are no fresh clams to be found. No fresh seafood of any kind, in fact. The fishermen are off on Sunday, so the fish market is closed on Monday. We search anyway, but to no avail. Susie’s a little tired, so I offer to take Amedeo out for our last Venice dinner to the restaurant from yesterday, which we liked. Walking back to the apartment through the narrow streets, it’s hard not to love the city, even in the dark.

Flirting with the boat boy

Flirting with the crew

Vineyards on Torcello

Vineyards on Torcello

Strawberries and Prosecco on the terrace

Strawberries and Prosecco on the terrace
The Three Amigos on Torcello Island

The Three Amigos on Torcello Island

Sunday in Venice

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Venice by Gondola!

San Marco Basilica from Piazza San Marco

San Marco Basilica from Piazza San Marco

It’s Sunday in Venice. What’s the first thing to do? Go to church, of course! After a bit of breakfast on the apartment terrace, we head out to catch the 10:30am mass at Saint Mark’s Cathedral. We wind our way through the Venetian streets and when we get to the cathedral, we find the service has started. I also find out that my small black fabric backpack is not allowed in, even though some woman with a huge purse went through ahead of us. Fortunately, the church as a bag-check right around the corner and I take out my valuables and leave it with the guy there. Back in line, we are escorted through one end of the transept, around the back of the church, then back to the front on the other side of the transept and are seated in the second row from the front. From here, we can see the altar quite clearly, but that’s not what is catching my eye. It’s the glowing gold ceiling of the domes above. Thousands of gold and brass tiles interspersed with jewels form a mosaic that covers the entire ceiling, telling bible stories and parables. I don’t understand much of the Italian service, but I do understand the magnificence of the scenes above me. Combined with the organ and choir and everyone else in there, it is magical and spiritual.

The gold mosaic of San Marco

The gold mosaic of San Marco

When it’s over, Susie and I hang out a bit just to enjoy being in the center of the church, and listen while the next choir is warming up. But, for us, church is over and we have other things to do.

Amedeo said he had a surprise for us and led us to the head of the Grand Canal. To the gondolas. And here, he arranged a ride in a gondola poled by a gondolier, across the Grand Canal. Fantastic! Susie and I are beside ourselves and try to sit back and relax in the Venetian splendor. We can’t believe Amedeo did this and thank him profusely. Wow. We wove through the ferries, motorboats, other gondolas, and just about any other type of watercraft you can think of, enjoying the view of the city along the canal. I was torn between wanting to take pictures to remember this amazing experience and just sitting back and enjoying it.

Gondolas!

Gondolas!

A stroll through the streets and over bridges brought us to the Accedemia Bridge, one of the four that cross the Grand Canal, and right around the corner we found a very busy but not touristy (always a good sign!) restaurant and had some pasta for lunch. Next, time for some art. We stop at the huge Frari church and enjoy Titian’s Assumption, one of the largest altarpieces in Venice, and say a prayer of thanks when we pass the tomb of the artist, also located there.

On the other side

On the other side

Me and my amazing Venice guide!

Me and my amazing Venice guide!

After a large lunch, we are getting tired, and thinking that a stop at the supermarket is in order to pick up some antipasti ingredients and some wine to enjoy on our marvelous rooftop terrace. Amedeo goes out to check on tomorrow’s plans, in the meantime, Susie and I stretch out with a yoga session on the roof.

In Italy, everything has to be beautiful, and beautiful it is. Not content to just put out some bread, cheese, and olives, Amedeo creates a feast of antipasti and we enjoy it with our favorite Italian drink, prosecco. It’s local, from the vines that we passed through yesterday as we wound down from the Dolomiti. The sun sets.

But the day is not done! We go back into the city and wind again through the streets to enjoy the fabulous Piazza San Marco at night. A band in front of a restaurant at one end of the square draws a crowd, while a band from the other side of the square tries to compete for our ears. I wish I knew how to waltz. We walk down the waterfront, past the Bridge of Sighs, and take a peek into the Hotel Danieli, where I think I stayed on a fam trip as a travel agent 30 years ago. More sighs, then time to go back, crossing the Rialto bridge and seeing the lights reflected in the canal. Goodnight Venice!

Antipasti on the terrace

Antipasti on the terrace

Terrace treats

Terrace treats

Our magnificent sunset view

Our magnificent sunset view
Rialto Bridge at night

Rialto Bridge at night

Lights on the Grand Canal

Lights on the Grand Canal

The Dramatic Dolomiti

Dramatic Dolomite skyline

Dramatic Dolomite skyline

Up the mountain from the valley

Up the mountain from the valley

We’re up at 5am, having a bit of breakfast made by Amedeo at 530, and out of the house a bit after 6am. It’s light out, and we’re headed northeast toward the Dolomiti. It’s unclear what the weather will be, but the passes are open and the clouds are high.

Getting higher and higher

Getting higher and higher

After driving for about an hour, we head up a huge valley, snow-capped mountains on either side. It’s breathtaking, but Amedeo says we ain’t seen nothing yet! We turn right and head right up the side of one of the mountains, stopping for a quick coffee and strudel. This area used to belong to Austria and you can see it in the churches and houses we pass, as well as the food.

Looks Tyrolean, no?

Looks Tyrolean, no?

Over the top of the mountain and we continue through Alpine-like verdant green valleys surrounded by the dramatic rock cliffs toward the pass. We take the turn toward the pass and head up a series of s-curves. Before we know it, we’re surrounded by snow-covered trees. We stop at a pristine mountain lake. Since it’s between seasons (and just after a late-in-the-season snow) we have the place to ourselves. It’s beautiful.

Spring in the Dolomiti

Spring in the Dolomiti

We climb higher and higher, at every turn we see a different view of the tops of the various mountain groups. Marmolada, Cristallo, Sella, they weave in and out of the snow-laden clouds. Amedeo is a bit disappointed that it’s so cloudy – there are amazing views on a sunny day – but we are thrilled to be in the clean pine-scented air, chasing the ghosts of these stark mountain peaks. We reach the first pass and walk down to the little store/restaurant/gift shop/base of cable car that takes you to the top. It’s cold, though, so we walk back up the slushy street and move on.

Pristine mountain lake

Pristine mountain lake

Heading down, and then up again, we reach the second pass and it’s snowing. The temperature outside is minus 2 celsius, or 28 degrees fahrenheit. Leaning against the store/restaurant/gift shop are several bicycles, their riders huddling inside with a warm drink. Bravo to them for making it to the top – it’s all downhill for them now, as it is for us.

Passo Pordoi, 2239 m (7346 ft)

Passo Pordoi, 2239 m (7346 ft)

More views and more snow accompany the stories that Amedeo is sharing with us about his climbing experiences and some funny stories about how the Italian and Austrian soldiers interacted with each other here on the front line during World War II. Next stop is Cortina, home of the 1956 Winter Olympics, and playground of the rich and famous. Today, though, the rich and famous are absent and much of the town is closed in this off-season. Riders from the Giro d’Italia (the Italian Tour de France) are preparing to start a stage in the race, though, and we find one restaurant open that will serve us lunch. On the way back from the bathroom, I strike up a conversation with the cooks in the kitchen – two from Poland, one from Albania, and one from Italy! An international staff.

Passo Falzarego 2105 m

Passo Falzarego 2105 m

Well fed and ready to go, we dodge the racers and drive down the valley, heading to Venice. On the way, we stop to see the Vajont Dam, one of the tallest dams in the world. In October, 1963, a huge landslide from the adjacent mountain tumbled into the dam, creating a 650 foot wave overflowing the dam and destroying everything in the valley below, including several villages and causing 2000 deaths. The memorials to the drowned were moving and it was interesting to hear about the disaster from Amedeo, a civil engineer.

Cortina d'Ampezzo, home of the 1956 Winter Olympics

Cortina d’Ampezzo, home of the 1956 Winter Olympics

Finally, our last leg through the vineyards gets us to the train station going into Venice. This is the cheapest place to park, since there are no cars allowed in the city. From here, we take a bus across the causeway and are let out near the Venice train statin. Trying to decipher our way through the winding streets, eventually we find the square behind our apartment and meet our host. He leads us down the alley into a courtyard, up one flight of stairs to the outside door, then up three more floors to our apartment. We take a moment to get the intro information of the place, then drop our bags and find some dinner.

Giro d'Italia rider

Giro d’Italia rider

Lunch in Cortina

Lunch in Cortina

We are tired, but so incredibly thankful for Amedeo to drive us all over the mountains. It could not have been a more perfect day. These are places where we would never have gone without a car. The drive, the stories, the stops were all incredible, and we could not have done it without him. Amedeo, whatever you are doing right now, please allow us to say again: thank you, thank you, thank you!

Tomorrow, we explore Venice.

Vajont dam from the valley

Vajont dam from the valley

Reunion

Citta Alta from Citta Bassa

Beautiful Bergamo – Citta Alta from Citta Bassa

Dear Readers, As some of you know, I am back home in Virginia, busy with getting back into life here and catching up in the Yoga Teacher Training that I’ve started before I left. Somehow, only a week into this trip, I became so busy with planning the next day and trying to go out and enjoy the evenings (my usual time to write) that I had to stop posting. Till now (or rather, the last few posts). However, my mind and spirit are still in Europe, even though my body is not, and I do want to continue the story and I’m going to keep the tense present. I hope you enjoy the rest of the trip!

Our fearless driver!

Our fearless friend and driver!

It’s both a sad day and a happy day in the Cinque Terre. Sad because we’re leaving this wonderful place – even the Cinque Terre seems sad. The warm sun of yesterday has turned into spitting rain and the surf’s up. We have a last, early, breakfast with Beppe, say our goodbyes and catch the first bus down the hill to the train station.

First steak I've had in how long? Argentinian beef.

First steak I’ve had in how long? Argentinian beef.

It’s a happy day, though, because Susie and I will be reuniting with our Camino friend, Amedeo. If you have read the saga of my Camino journey in this blog last year, you will remember that I met Amedeo in Spain a couple of days after Uli, my German walking partner, had to leave. It was Amedeo who accompanied me on the climb to Mt. Irago to the Cruz de Ferro, where I left the stone that I had been carrying with me for 350 miles as a symbol of letting go of my spiritual burdens. We walked together and shared our life stories, some invented prehistoric tales, and cocino maragato. He kept me going when I wanted to stop, shared the agony of my broken camera, and celebrated with me in Santiago when I finally made it. Following the travel rule of “it’s always better to stay with someone who lives there,” I contacted him right away when I knew we were coming to his country. He then graciously offered to pick us up in La Spezia, close to our 5T base, and drive us the 2 1/2 hours to his home in Bergamo, just north of Milan. He also agreed to show us his beloved mountains, the Dolomiti, and accompany us to Venice. Fantastic!

Funiculi, Funicular!

Funiculi, Funicular!

So we meet in La Spezia. There are hugs all around and after a quick stop for coffee, we drive north over the pass through the rain. For most of the journey we regaled him with our travel stories of Popes and prosecco, and before we know it, we’re in Bergamo. A fabulous steak lunch precedes a tour of the town.

View from the ride up

View from the ride up

Bergamo was originally built on a hill at the foothills of the Alps. Originally settled by the Celts, it has always been an important town from ancient Roman times through medieval times and the Renaissance. On top of the hill is the walled medieval old town, the Citta Alta (upper city). Below is the more modern Citta Bassa. The most fun way to get to the top of the hill is to take the funicular – built before there were cars – and enjoy the views of the Citta Bassa and beyond. At the top, we strolled through the medieval streets, visiting the beautiful old squares, the Santa Maria Maggiore church, and the Colleoni Chapel.

Beautiful Bergamo square

Beautiful Bergamo square

I’m intrigued by the story of Bartholomeo Colleoni. He was a condottieri, a mercenary soldier from an important local family in the 1400’s, who was extremely successful at winning battles. He fought for his hometown of Venice, then for Milan, then for Venice, and ended up settling down just outside of Bergamo. Not only a soldier, he was also well known for his charitable works and helping the local villages with agricultural improvements. He wanted to be buried in the Santa Maria Basilica, but wasn’t allowed, so he tore down the church’s sacristy and built this ornate, pre-Renaissance, pink and white marble jewel for his remains. You might say it took balls to tear down the church’s sacristy, and Colleoni had them. Three of them, so they say. His coat of arms (and gate decoration) has sets of three fat commas. They are a play on his name (which in Italian sounds a lot like testicles) and he was proud of them, because they are everywhere!

Colleoni Chapel

Colleoni Chapel

After a stop at the cafe at the top of the funicular to admire the view, we walked down the hill back to the car. We weren’t really very hungry, but Amedeo stopped at the store for some cake for the evening. Tomorrow the plan is to drive through the Dolomite mountains, ending up in Venice. However, the rainy weather that we drove through to get to Bergamo made for snow in the passes. It was unclear if the passes were even open. Amedeo made some calls and, after some time, determined that we were to go through the mountains after all. BUT we have to leave at 6am, because more snow was forecast for that afternoon. I repack my bags because I’m coming back to Bergamo and call it an early night. Maybe we’ll see some snow tomorrow!

Three Balls for Bartholomeo Colleoni

Three Balls for Bartholomeo Colleoni

Coffee at the top!

Coffee at the top!

Our home in Bergamo

Our home in Bergamo

A Small Camino in the Cinque Terre

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(Note: I am trying a different app for this entry – sometimes the Blogsy app does not always keep the words and photos where I want them. Let me know what you think! Julie)

We have one full day to explore as fully as we can the Cinque Terre and it is my intention to visit each of the five villages, ideally by walking. First order of business is to purchase the pass that allows us to walk the trails in this National Park. The pass also includes train fare between the towns, which we will need since our home town, Corniglia, is in the middle of the five. After a good breakfast and a lunch recommendation from our host, Beppe, we are on our way. And our way is up. Unfortunately, the easy coastal trails are closed, so we must take the high road. This means walking straight up, across the hills through the vineyards, then back down to the village. We did this yesterday afternoon from Corniglia to Vernazza, and it was fun. Today, we have all day to do the rest!

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This walk is like a mini-Camino, but with a daypack instead of the full pack we used in Spain. The scenery was gorgeous, it was a good workout and a great meditation, and we saw mostly non-locals along the way (even a few with walking sticks!). Our first leg was 6 miles and took us about two and a half hours, all told. The photo above is where we started and in the one below you can see our first destination in the lower right hand corner. Cinque Terre wine (white, especially) is some of the best we’ve had, and it was a joy walking through the vineyards among the workers and the vines.

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We also passed through olive trees with their colorful nets tied around their trunks. In November, they handpick the olives they can reach, but spread these nets out to catch the olives shaken down from the top by machine.

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We drop down the thirteen hundred steps to the colorful village of Manarola. We think about continuing up the other side of the hill, but wind down through the village to the train station instead. The trail is closed from Manarola to the next town, Riomaggiore, but it’s a short distance and we hop the train and are there in 5 minutes. We climb through the center of Riomaggiore and around to the church, which has a spectacular view of the sea. Just over the hill, you can see the station where we will take the train to Vernazza, back toward and past where we started in Corniglia.

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We’re getting hungry now and are getting ready for a rest. Our host Beppe suggested that we go to Gianni’s (pronounced Johnny’s) on the Vernazza harbor and drop his name for some good service. Sure enough, when we got there and said we were sent by Beppe di Corniglia (no last name required) they went out of their way to seat us at the best harborfront table, shooing some other tourists away who wanted to sit there. We asked for “un buen pranzo” and got 5 different types of anchovies, gnocchi with pesto, octopus, dessert, and limoncello to seal the deal. The food was scrumptious, the wine delicious, and we had the best view of the little harbor, the fishermen, and the never-ending stream of tourists parading by.

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Happily full of food and drink, we walk down along the rocks, take our shoes off, and dangle our tired feet in the cool water. There is just no other place I would rather be in the world right now. We look back at the colorful town buildings.

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But we’re not done yet. There’s one more town to visit, and it’s only a ninety minute walk away. The day would not be complete if we missed this last town. However, we’re extremely relaxed and a little drunk still from the heady combination of lunch, wine, sun, and water. It’s hard to get going. I make a deal with Susie that we just climb halfway up the hill to get the quintessential view of Vernazza. After a false start, we head up. When we reach the viewpoint, it seems like a waste to turn back, so we keep going.

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It’s hard going, but totally worth it. The trail narrows as it starts to descend, and we get stuck behind a slow group of Germans. There’s a man selling limoncello right off the trail, but we’re afraid that if we stop, we will not be able to continue down and finish our quest. People who have traveled with me know that there will be one major and serious walk on every trip and they are bold enough to call this nice walk “the death march.” Looks like this is it for this trip! We’re so happy to get into Monterosso and have a drink while we wait to catch the train back to Corniglia. We are tired, but happy.

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We hobble back to Beppe’s house, but I can’t make a call here, so I walk back to the little town square. When I’m finished, I notice the sign that points through the town the other way to the church and a viewpoint. I walk the narrow street to the end of the point and find the most perfect sunset spot. I run back to Beppe’s, get Susie, and after a stop for some gelato, enjoy the moonrise on the left over Riomaggiore and the sunset over Monterosso. A spectacular way to end a truly memorable Camino day.

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Dreams Come True

Corniglia - Our Cinque Terre Home

I'm so excited for this day – I've been waiting for it for 30 years. I was in my early 20's working as a travel agent in the Seattle area when I attended a seminar given by local Europe expert, 25-year old Rick Steves, who had written his first book, Europe Through the Back Door. One of his “back door” destinations was the Cinque Terre, a set of 5 small towns located along the Mediterranean, south of Genoa, but north of Rome. The picture he painted was idyllic – classic Italian hill towns perched over the sea, painted in pastels instead of the rich ochres of Tuscany. Tourists can't drive into them – the only way to visit them is to take the train that runs along the coast or walk the trail that winds through the vineyards between them (and you all know how much I love walking trails). Sounded like a place I would love, and this afternoon I'll be there!

Train cancelled in Florence

But first, we have to get there. We have a reservation on a train from Florence to La Spezia, the largest town next to the 5T (shorthand – Cinque means five, Terre means lands). Then we take the small train that stops at each of the villages – it's just a 20 minute ride. Unfortunately, when we arrive at the Florence train station and look at the big board of departures, it says that our train is cancelled due to fires. We scramble to find an agent, who gives me a new schedule of three trains and a bus to get to Corniglia. The first train is ready to depart, so off we go.

Carrara marble comes from here

 

We're not the only ones whose schedules are messed up, though, and by the time we board the train, we are left with standing room only. We meet Americans, Brazilians, and Germans and share stories. First stop, everyone gets off and goes to look for the bus. As we wait outside, someone from the station comes out and tells us that there is in fact a train that will take us to Pisa instead of the bus. We pile in again, standing with a group of new friends, pile out at Pisa, then find our train to La Spezia. We wish we could stop for a bit to see the famous leaning tower, but the Cinque Terre calls, and we are late. This time we get a seat, and watch as the scenery speeds by. As we pass by Carrara, we can see the mountains and marble quarries in the distance and the big chunks of marble stored in lots just before and just past the train station.

Great spot for lunch - over the roofs view from the church courtyard

 

Finally, we board our fourth train of the day and arrive in Corniglia. The train is packed with hikers who have been walking all day and they spill out of the train and up the stairs where the bus is waiting to take us to the town at the top of the hill. We could drag our bags up 382 steps, but we wait for the third bus to take us up, a little miffed that none of the hikers took pity on our tired, trained-out bodies to let us board.

Homemade foccacia and beer

From the bus stop, up the hill, up more stairs, we find Beppe's house, where we will stay the next two nights. Beppe is in his 70's, a retired railroad engineer, and is happy to see us, but doesn't speak a word of English. He proudly shows us to one of the two rooms he remodeled on the first floor of his house (he lives above and we have breakfast in his kitchen) and we settle in. Right below our room is a fabulous foccia store and we take our bread with olives up to the courtyard of the church in front of our room and enjoy the view with the local cats.

The trail to Vernazza

It's 4pm, we've had lunch, and, after sitting all day, we're ready to walk. It's only an hour and a half to the next town, Vernazza, so we start up the hill, enjoying the ever-changing views of our little village and the Mediterranean below. I get a bit ahead of Susie and about halfway there meet a guy who lives right on the trail. He offers two rooms in his house for a reasonable price, and the view is spectacular. I wish I could stay there, but I need to catch Susie, who's gone ahead now, and move on.

I could stay here

We arrive at the most wonderful bar (ok, everywhere is the most wonderful bar when you've walked an hour and a half up and down the mountains) and stop for some 5T white wine. It's amazingly good and we float from lawn chairs to tables to find just the right view of Vernazza below.

Vernazza below

The best bar ever with the best wine ever

Eventually, and much happier but fairly tired, we descend into Vernazza and catch the train back to Corniglia. The foccacia lady sends us to a local restaurant with great food and a view to match. By the time we're done, we've made friends with everyone who works there and I've got an offer for some advanced Italian (language!!) lessons. I decline, gracefully, and we head back to Beppe's.

How do you not stop here?

You know when you have dreamed of a place and when you finally get there, it doesn't measure up? Well, that is NOT the case here. Dreams really can come true!

Our dinner view in Corniglia

 

 

Everyone is More Beautiful in Italy

Beautiful Women in Italy

 

The ceiling of the Uffizi, right before I saw the sign that said NO PHOTOGRAPHY

Today, we visit the Uffizi Gallery, one of the greatest art collections on the planet, and the Accedemia, home to Michelangelo's David, the Renaissance masterpiece that defines the age. Where Rome was about history, Florence is about art and beauty. And this beauty is not just in the museums, but is found everywhere, and in everyone.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus - from a gift shop calendar

 

 

 

In fact, everyone is more beautiful in Italy.

Here's the logic: I know I am more beautiful in Italy, therefore, everyone is more beautiful in Italy. How is it possible to be more beautiful in one place compared to another?

 

Michelangelo's David

 

 

 

 

 

Let me explain. First, the country provides a great frame for a pretty picture. It's sunny here. The rich colors and architecture of the buildings against the blue sea against the varying greens of the trees create the perfect backdrop for anything set against it. When the surroundings are beautiful, it's hard not to be in tune with that.

 

 

 

Second, it's not just the scenery, but the details are beautiful. The way a table is laid, the placement of vegetables in a market stall, the flowers everywhere. It's how the tomatoes are arranged with the mozzarella and basil, the crispness of the cotton shirts, the memorable photo on a simple museum ticket.

Our hosts for lunch

 

 

Third, you will find some of the greatest, most beautiful art in the world here: David – perfection in sculpture and painters likeTitian, Della Robbia, and so many others. It's not just a coincidence that some of the world's greatest collections are here. The collectors certainly had an eye for beautiful things. And how do you not feel beautiful when in the presence of these?

 

Last, it's the people. People look at you here. They look and they smile. Not in a creepy, stalking kind of way, but in a “hey, I notice your beauty” kind of way. In my self-defense classes, I teach that when walking down the street, it's a good idea to look people in the eye. This is one country where my glance is met and returned, often with a smile. I'm not just some faceless person in the crowd, I am present, I am noticed, I am beautiful.

San Miniato Church

Not only am I beautiful here, but I am clever as well! I am hugely enjoying the patience of just about everybody that I meet to let me try to speak Italian and to correct me (kindly) as I stumble through. I've been studying Italian with Rosetta Stone since l got back from Camino last summer and can put together a few words, but sometimes get the verb conjugations wrong. I love being able to speak the little bit of Italian that I can muster and I am so appreciative of the Italians whom I've met who will allow me to do so. It's nice to be rewarded for all of that study!

I experience the complete opposite of this phenomena in France, and sometimes Spain. I'll start to speak in French, and they will finish my sentence in exasperated English. Or, they'll look at me funny, I'll repeat it again, and then they give me another funky look and say, “oh, you mean (whatever I said)”, repeating it as if I said it wrong, but it sounds just how I said it. Perhaps it's meant to be helpful, but it comes across as condescending.

Unfortunately, I was explaining this whole language thing to Susie while on the bus today and, only too late, noticed that there was a French couple sitting in the seats right in front of us. Arrgh! Fortunately, they got off before telling me how I insulted them and their country! I'm hoping they didn't hear me.

Florence and the River Arno

After visiting the museums and lunch (don't ever order papa di pomodoro – it sounds nice, but it's just bread soaked in tomato liquid, oh, and never put cheese on it!!) we took the bus up the hill to the medieval church of San Miniato to hear the Gregorian chants that are offered before sunset. The echoes of the seven long-robed monks played among the columns of the crypt. Beautiful!

Outside, the sun was setting and we had a glorious view of Florence on the Arno. One more stop at the Gelato Fest and we were back to the apartment, packing up for our trip to the Cinque Terre tomorrow.

And feeling beautiful!

 

Fascinating Florence

The view from our Florence apartment

I love the train station - so many possibilities!

This morning we're up and at 'em, packing our bags and leaving our sweet Rome apartment for Florence. We have a train reservation (in business class, no less!) from Rome Termini station at 10am, so that means leave the apartment at 8am, roll our luggage for 10 minutes over the cobblestones to the bus stop and ride for another 20 minutes to the train station.

 

Prosecco and blood orange juice in first class!

 

It was really easy to go to the Italian Rail website and reserve seats for our journey. Even though they offer a railpass, it turned out that the point-to-point tickets were less expensive, especially since I booked them a couple of months ago. However, when I looked at the Rome to Florence leg, all of the discount 2nd class tickets were sold out, but there were some discount tickets for business class seats that were exactly the same price as the 2nd class seats that were left. So, when Susie and I boarded the train in Rome, we were traveling in style!

Prosecco and our new friend, Ross

 

What's the difference between 2nd class and business class, you might ask? Well, frankly, not a lot. The seats are a bit wider (two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other side) and you get free drinks and snacks. But the best thing that these business class seats came with was a new friend!

The Duomo of Florence

 

 

 

As Susie and I found our seats and were trying to determine the best place to stow our luggage, we were greeted by an English speaking voice! Not American English, nor even British English, but Australian English. Music to our ears after so much Italian! Ross was a former vineyard owner from outside of Melbourne who was traveling to Tuscany to meet some friends. Over the next hour and a half of train ride, we shared stories over blood orange juice and prosecco. He was taking several months to travel around Europe and to me, was a kindred spirit. We promised to share emails about our respective adventures as we parted at the Florence station.

Gorgeous sculpture in an old Florence mansion

Since it was only noon and we couldn't check into the apartment yet, Susie and I dragged our bags over to the Bargello Museum of art. The museum had a place to store our luggage so we were able to enjoy this beautiful place unencumbered. Besides the porcelain, tapestries, and paintings, there was our first encounter with the Florentian idea of David. There were several sculptures of him there, all very feminine looking until you looked, uh, down.

David, you're so... pretty!

 

 

After a quick pizza lunch, we dragged the bags across the River Arno to meet Alessandro and check in to our apartment. It was four floors up (no elevator), but had a wonderful view of the rooftops. The apartment was a two-bedroom (we had one bedroom, another couple had the other) with a shared bathroom, kitchen, and living area. Alessandro had a great map (which he downloaded as a PDF file to my iPad and iPhone) and a list of recommendations of places to eat, things to do, and even places to go for fabulous views.

 

Our street - wish I had a Vespa!

So, after settling in for a bit, we head to Golden View Open Bar for dinner. On the River Arno with a view of the famous Ponte Vecchio, it's a perfect place to chill. We're not eating in the restaurant, however, we're in the bar. For an 8euro glass of wine (or a 10euro Campari spritzer) we have the run of the all-you-can-eat appetizers and an unobstructed view of the bridge and the Uffizi Gallery across the river. Beautiful!

 

Ponte Vecchio

 

We head back through the main square, where there's a Gelato Festival going on. Earlier today we got a free sample of a gelato mojito cocktail and we're looking for more. Unfortunately, the cocktail guy is gone, but we are still able to get some mighty fine gelato across the square. The sun sets as we head back to the apartment. Tomorrow, we have a date with David!

 

 

Sunset over Ponte Vecchio and the Arno River