Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Stresa, on Lago Maggiore

Lago Maggiore 
Spending six days in Stresa, on the western coast of Lago Maggiore, was a real delight. I landed there on the 14th of August, the eve of Ferragosto, the biggest Italian holiday of the summer, if not the year. On Ferragosto, everything in Italy grinds to a halt, and Italians go on vacation,  which often lasts the entire week.

A view from the balcony of my hotel room in Stresa
I had never been around for Ferragosto before, but I'd been warned: Stresa would be crowded with Italians that Thursday, and most of the following weekend. Fortunately, the worst crowds only lasted a day, and I did my best to avoid them. But the accompanying musical entertainment in nearby Piazza Cadorna was fun.

A tourist couple doing the tango in Piazza Cadorna.
The next day, I headed over to the Lido, where a funivia takes you up Monte Motterone, where there is a 360° panoramic view of the lakes.

View from Monte Motterone
 There are three stages to the ride: two separate sections on the funivia (a hanging cable car), then a ride on a seggiovia (chair lift). It was a fun ride, both up and down the 1500 meter mountain.

Coming down on the funivia.
Riding the seggiovia.
The main attraction in Stresa was visiting the Borromeo Islands,  which I'll cover in a separate post. However, there was more to do in Stresa.  Several resort hotels boast large, beautiful gardens, and the long stretch of lungolago (walking path by the lake) is a lovely way to spend an hour.

Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees: made famous by Hemingway. The hotel was used as a hospital for recovering war veterans like Hemingway, following WWII. He returned later to visit the hotel,
and the room can still be reserved, for a hefty price.
 Another fun adventure from Stresa is the Lago Maggiore Express, which includes a three-hour relaxing boat ride on the lake to Locarno, Switzerland. Lago Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy, and the largest in southern Switzerland, so the lake and its shoreline are divided between Italy and Switzerland. After an hour stay in Locarno, there's a panoramic train ride through mountain passes to Domodossola, Italy, then a regional train back to Stresa.  It was a lovely way to spend the day, with wonderful views of the lake and nearby mountains.

On the Lago Maggiore Express
Of course, the Borromeo Islands are the main attraction in Stresa, and they'll be featured in the next post.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Dozza, The Festival of Painted Walls

I recently went with friends to the small village of Dozza, about 30km east of Bologna. Every two years the village hosts a unique festival, inviting national and international artists to create permanent paintings on the walls of the houses. The Biennale will happen this year from Sept. 9 - 14, but one can go there any time to view the art works.

Entitled "The Angel of Dozza."

Doors and windows are often cleverly incorporated into the paintings.

The festival began in 1960, and there are still some paintings from that time period. Some of the older paintings have been refurbished in recent years to restore design and color.

We spent several hours perusing the art along the winding cobblestone streets of the village, which led uphill to a castle.

Rocca di Dozza dates back to the 15th century, when Caterina Sforza rebuilt areas of former Bolognese fortresses, dating back to 1250. We didn't take time to go in and visit the museum, which charges a 5 euro fee to enter. What was once the dungeon of the castle is now a Regional Enoteca, or wine cellar.

The Rocca di Dozza

A local ristorante is highlighted in this painting.
Perusing the art in Dozza.
The short drive from Bologna was well worth the journey to visit this unique village.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


We spent a rainy day in Bergamo on our way from Milan to Florence last year. We'd arrived in Milan by train from Paris and were eager to get settled in a smaller town, so headed 25 miles northeast to Bergamo. The quaint old town, nestled in the surrounding hills, is characterized by its cobblestone streets and the Venetian walls, once part of a defensive system, that encircle it. If you arrive by train in Bergamo, you need to take a bus from the train station to the funicular on the other side of town in order to get from the lower modern city to the old town, or Città Alta, a UNESCO heritage site.

In the line for the funicular that takes you up to the old town. 

We stayed in a BandB run by two brothers on the top floor of this tower.
It was furnished like a museum, and had been in the family for 500 years. 

This is a sundial on the side of the tower where we stayed. 

Piazza Vecchia

Capella Colleoni next to the larger Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Where women once gathered to wash clothes. Set in a lovely square, untouched by time.

Two clock towers that generate a lot of interest in Bergamo. 

Some local ravioli-like specialties, including  Casoncelli and Scarpinotti, shaped like tiny handmade shoes.
I had Scarpinotti di Parre, a famous local dish. The pasta was filled with cheese and herbs, in a sage butter sauce. 

A local famous pastry that we meant to try, but never got around to.  This bird nest cake is made with a light sponge cake filled with hazelnut cream, then rolled in yellow fondant. It's topped with a cluster of baby birds, made of marzipan and chocolate. Looks pretty rich!

I've heard that Bergamo has more to offer, but we were there for a short time, and it was rainy, so we didn't have much time to explore. 

Monday, July 29, 2019


The beach at Sperlonga
Here are some scenes from Sperlonga, a small seaside town, halfway between Rome and Naples, that I visited last year. To get there, I took the train from Rome to Fondi, then a bus to Sperlonga, about 10 miles west of Fondi. Sperlonga is favored by Italians in the area, but unknown to most Americans.

A view of the village from the beach: it's a good climb to reach the centro storico (old town).
I spent part of every day at a nearby beach. A section of it was free, and it was a great place to walk, swim, and sunbathe. The beach was a short walk from the B&B where I stayed, which was nice, but pricey.

Bougainvillea covered the walls of many buildings in the centro storico. 
I trekked up and down the various paths to the centro storico: some were easier than others. The old town was mostly geared to tourist trade, and was often empty during the day, but livened up in the evening. On the weekend there was a band playing in a small piazza, as more tourists came to town for shopping and dinner.

Another view of the village from below.
Since Sperlonga juts out into the sea, there are different views from the three sides of the village.

This beach is to the south of the old town.

A view of the north beach from the centro storico.

Torre Truglia.
Torre Truglia was built in 1532 to defend the area against attacks from the sea. Built on the foundation of a pre-existing Roman watchtower, it was then destroyed two years later by Ottoman pirates, rebuilt in 1611, then attacked again by the same pirates in 1623. Between 1879 and 1969 it was used by the Guardia di Finanza, but now belongs to a Marine Education Center. When I visited it, there was nothing to see inside but an old man serving as a caretaker, listening to a transistor radio.

I had some of the best meals I've ever eaten in Italy during my stay...fresh fish creations that were not only tasty, but beautifully presented. And the prices were surprisingly reasonable.  Like Ischia, I could easily return to Sperlonga, again and again.

From Ristorante Altro: Tortelloni asparagi con gamberi. (Asparagus tortelloni with shrimp.)
Scrumptious! I ate several times at this restaurant.

Calamaro stuffed with spinach in a blackberry cream, with black rice. The chef at Altro invented this dish and brought it to me himself. One of the best meals I've eaten in my life!

From Da Martini sul Ponte: Seared tuna encrusted with pistachio and sesame seeds. Yum!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Giverny, France: Monet's Gardens

On a recent stay in Paris, my son and I took a side trip to Giverny, where Monet's home and gardens are located. Like many others, I have often dreamed of visiting the gardens where Monet spent most of his later years, creating the water lily paintings that have become so well-known and loved around the world. Even though our excursion turned into a bit of a nightmare, I was able to capture some lovely photos of this popular tourist destination.

(Be sure to click on the photos for a larger image!)

One of the famous lily ponds at Giverny.
Getting to the gardens involves taking a train, then a bus, followed by a short walk. We chose a Monday for our excursion, hoping to avoid the weekend crowds, unaware that it was a French national holiday. We had envisioned a day spent leisurely walking amidst the gardens and lily ponds of Monet's home. Instead, we found ourselves among hundreds of other tourists, including numerous French people on holiday.

When we arrived at Gare St. Lazare in Paris at 9 a.m. to get the train to Vernon, we discovered that there were only a few trains running that day (due to the holiday and ongoing train strikes), and the earliest one wasn't until noon. Not only that, but the only return train from Vernon would be at 6 p.m., giving us a short time to enjoy the gardens. (It takes about an hour to get to Vernon, then another 20 minutes to get the bus from Vernon to travel time is at least 2 hours each way, considering wait times, etc.) Little did we know that other obstacles would intrude to shorten our time even more. Rather than stand around the train station for several hours, we walked over to Galleries Lafayette and Printemps, two Parisian malls that have magnificent stained glass domes at their center. I'll be sharing photos of them in another post.

First view of  Monet's garden.
Once on the train, we were elated that the weather was perfect that day, with temps in the 70's, accompanied by blue skies and plump white clouds skittering around. Arriving in Vernon near 1 p.m. we quickly realized that most of the people on the train were also headed for Giverny, and four huge buses were lined up to transport all of us from the train station to the gardens. We were still in high spirits, though it took precious time to load everyone onto the buses. It's also possible to rent bikes in Vernon and bike to Giverny, and we might have gone that route if we'd had the entire day, as we had hoped. But given the shortened time frame, we joined the masses traveling by bus.

Jesse walking towards the entrance to the gardens.
Upon arriving in Giverny, we had another 10-minute walk from the parking lot to the garden entrance, where we discovered a line with hundreds of people waiting to get in. Thinking that the line would shorten after everyone from the buses was admitted, we opted to walk down the road to have lunch. We found a lovely restaurant with an outdoor terrace and feasted on galettes, though we ate quickly and weren't able to fully enjoy the meal or the view. In fact, I left Jesse there and returned to the line, hoping to save some time.

Alas, the line was no shorter than when we had left it, and we ended up waiting nearly ninety minutes to gain admission to the gardens. People were admitted one at a time, as there was only one person selling admission tickets, so the going was very slow. We were getting anxious by then, considering that we had less than an hour to view the gardens and get back to the parking lot at 5:10 p.m. for the bus ride back to the train station. If we missed that bus, we would be stuck in the area overnight, with little chance of finding lodging in the already overbooked towns of Vernon and Giverny.

Lovely flowers in bloom.
We finally entered the gardens after 4 p.m. and made our way quickly through it, unable to stop and enjoy most of what we were seeing. Fortunately, many flowers were in bloom, and bursting with color and beauty all around us. The famous lily ponds were across a road, and we went through a tunnel under the road to reach them. With so many people, it created a bottleneck, slowing down the crowds to get everyone through.  But it was certainly worth the wait! White wisteria blossoms covered one of the bridges, and the majestic weeping willows swayed over the lily ponds. In addition, the lighting was good for taking photos at that time of day.

White wisteria covering a bridge.

Wisteria up close.
I have read numerous books about Monet's life at Giverny, and would have loved to have the chance to sit and savor the views of his gardens.  I had hoped for a serene experience among the flowers, trees and lily ponds, instead of the rushed, Disneyland-type tourist event that we experienced. But at least we made it there! I know of others who visited during the early spring or fall when there were no crowds, but also no flowers in bloom, so we also lucked out in that respect.

One of the lily ponds, with weeping willow. 
We didn't have time to see Monet's house or to peruse the goods in the gift shop. As it was, we got to the bus just in time to head back to the train station. And then the train was late...and since it was the last train to Paris that evening, the train station was quickly crowded with people hoping to take it. Since it was the end of a three-day weekend for the French, they added a considerable number to the crowds needing to return to Paris. We had to shove our way into the train, and Jesse and I ended up standing like sardines in the space between the train cars.

Love those colors!
But then, a miracle happened. After about 10 minutes, the glass door of the train car opened, and a woman motioned me in. Everyone was chattering in French, trying to tell me something. Me? I didn't understand why, but they were urging me to take a seat in the middle of the car, that a young man was giving up.  I have ridden standing up on numerous trains and buses on my travels, and could have managed this one for the 60 minutes to Paris, but I guess I was the oldest person standing in that group, and welcomed the chance to sit down. I was so touched by the consideration of the French people, who waved me in and had to squeeze together while I passed by, that it brought tears to my eyes. Needless to say, I had a comfortable, pleasant return to Paris.

I would definitely recommend this excursion to others, with the caveat that it's not wise to travel on a French national holiday or when there are train strikes. Plan to go when the flowers are blooming and make sure you will have at least 3-4 hours to enjoy the gardens and other areas of Monet's home.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Spello, Italy: L'Infiorata

A view of the Umbrian landscape from Spello.
I've been traveling again, finally, after a long spell. This time I didn't bring my computer along, so I'll be writing most of my posts once I return home, where I will also be able to access photos from my digital camera. It's a laborious process trying to create posts on my tablet, so most of them will come later. And photos taken on my phone will have to suffice.

I traveled with my son for 16 days: ten were spent in Paris, and six in Italy. Now Jesse has returned to the States, and I have ten days to explore some new sights on my own in Italy. I came to Spello for the annual celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi, L'infiorata, which takes place on the 9th Sunday after Easter.

Traveling with Jesse was a departure from my usual mode of going it alone. We were both eager to explore Paris in more detail than previous visits, and I had the chance to share Italy with him for the first time. The pace of traveling with him was a challenge for me, as we walked 8-10 hours (sometimes more!) almost every day, and we were out late many nights, which is not my usual travel habit. But we crammed in a lot of rich experiences during our time together. Staying in Spello will give me a chance to process the previous weeks, relax, recover, and write.

The first mention of the Infiorata was recorded in 1831, and paintings of the celebration started appearing in the early 1900's. Designs made with flower petals, leaves and herbs cover the village streets, creating a carpet of beauty along the winding, sometimes steep passages.

A design is laid down on the street, beneath a protective structure.
It was exciting to watch the Spellani at work on their flower creations. Groups of children and adults pulled or cut fresh flowers, separating the colors to fit the design. About 15 million flowers of nearly 65 different species are collected. Petals from different flowers are used either fresh or dried to obtain a wider palette.

More than 2,000 people of all ages are involved. During the "Night of Flowers", they might work 14 hours to complete the carpets.

Work on the designs began in the evening, and continued through the night on many of the more elaborate ones.

At sunrise, more than 60 floral creations ranging from 15 to 70 square meters cover the streets of the historical center of Spello. Soon after, a religious procession passes on the flower carpet, reminding the observers of the ephemeral beauty of the Infiorata.

The finished design.
On Sunday morning, crowds of tourists, mostly Italians, started arriving about 8.a.m. I had been warned to get out early, so I went out at 5:30 a.m., only to find that quite a few of the larger pieces were still being worked on. I went back out at 8:30, found the streets crowded and nearly all of the work complete. The designs are judged according to a variety of criteria, including age group, creativity and elaboration. A religious theme is always present.

The course of the Infiorata started at the bottom of the village, then wound around the steep streets to the highest point, and back down to a medium point. Though I walked most of the course, I found even more designs later in the day that I had missed earlier. My photos don't do justice to the designs, as it was difficult to get the right angle to capture the long or wide creations.

Misting the flower petals to keep them fresh.
By the afternoon, the carpets of flowers were drying out, and the crowds started to diminsh. By evening, street cleaning machines were whisking away all traces of the beauty and creativity that was evident only a few hours previously. I feel privileged to have had ths chance to witness Spello's Infiorata: it was well worth the journey to get here.