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Trip Report 40 days, north to south--off (and on) the well-trod path in Italy

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For our fourth trip to Italy, in May/June 2009, my husband and I wanted to focus on places that were on our “must do” list but we hadn't yet visited. We figured that 6 weeks would allow us to travel from the bottom of Italy to the top at a fairly leisurely pace. Advice from people we've met during our travels and from contributors to this forum helped us narrow our choices. We ended up focusing on 8 different places, so this trip report is in 8 parts:

--The Aeolian Islands
--Vietri sul Mare and the Amalfi Coast
--Rome
--An interlude in rural Tuscany
--Santa Margherita de Ligure and surroundings
--The Piedmont
--The Dolomites
--Lake Como

My pictures are posted at http://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com.

PART 1 -- LIPARI AND THE AEOLIAN ISLANDS

May 8-9
It was the end of the week, and the end of my full-time job of 22 years (by choice, to enable us to travel more, in longer chunks). We both finished work at 4:00, grabbed our carry-on bags, and were driven by a friend to Philadelphia Airport for our night flight to Heathrow on British Airways. From Heathrow we bused to Gatwick, had lunch and a couple of good brews at the airport, then headed out on another BA flight to Catania, Sicily, arriving about 8:00 pm on May 9.

Glad to be back in lively Sicily, we took a taxi (25 euros) to our hotel, Villa Romeo, which was clean and conveniently located right near the train station, where we would need to be the following morning. We took a short walk around the area, wandering around the mobile instant cafes that had sprung up in the big parking lot across from the station, where locals were eating and drinking and enjoying the evening. Since we were still kind of mentally in-transit to our real destination, the Aeolian Islands, we didn't join in but collapsed into bed for a well-deserved sleep.

May 10
In the morning we checked out of the hotel (and inexplicably received a nice little gift on checkout, marzipan and a wallet!) and made our way to the train station down the street. To get to Lipari we were advised to take the train to Milazzo and catch the boat there. (The other choice was going to Messina, an easier train ride but longer boat ride, with more limited boat departures.) My husband, J, was a little anxious that we might not be able to find the Messina boat dock in time to make the 1:30 boat, so we took the train guy’s advice and bought tickets to Milazzo, changing trains in Messina. Milazzo station was pretty much deserted, but there was a taxi waiting out front so we took it the 4 km to the boat dock. I suspect we were overcharged, and I know that a bus would have been much cheaper, but it was still early in the trip and we hadn't got ourselves mentally in gear for taking the cheapest way--taking a taxi was so much easier!

The taxi driver dropped us at the ticket office across the road from the boat. There was a little group of people waiting for the office to open after the lunch break, and the group expanded to 15-20 people by the time the office opened. No worries--plenty of seats for everyone. Standing in line, we had a quick lunch of tasty Sicilian arancini, then bought our tickets and headed across the street to board the hydrofoil.

Once on, we really enjoyed the 1-hour trip to Lipari across the calm waters. Finally, the Aeolis! We disembarked at Lipari harbor and looked around for the owner of our B&B (Diana Brown B&B), but she wasn’t obvious so we headed off in search of the place ourselves. We found it easily, on a side street just back of the main street (it’s all relative), but no one answered the door. There was a note to call Diana's cell phone if she wasn't in, but we hadn't bought a SIM card for our cell phone yet and didn't know where to find phone. We were hungry and knew that someone would show up eventually, so we went back to the main street and looked for someplace to get a bite to eat.

Right around the corner from Diana’s place was a cute little “rusticcheria” where we figured we could get some wine and cheese, if nothing else. Since it was well past lunchtime nobody was eating there, but that didn’t stop us--we went in with our bags and were about to sit down at the first wooden booth when the waitress beckoned us to go back to the patio (who knew?) and sit in the open air. The patio was cute and informal--the back of someone’s house, with a few tables to sit around. An older woman was pulling weeds but stopped her work when we put in our order for bruschetta and wine--she was the cook, it seems. Meanwhile, we tried to explain to the waitress that we had reservations at Diana’s place but nobody was there...could someone call Diana on her cell phone to tell her we had arrived? Our basic Italian had escaped us --I had even forgotten how to say good morning! But the point got across with lots of hand signals, and sooner rather than later Diana’s husband arrived and directed J to bring our bags to the B&B and pick up the key to our room. I stayed at the trattoria and took in the friendly, low-key surroundings (the first of many laundry lines we would see, hanging over warm-weather garden plantings) and waited for the bruschetta. By the time it arrived J was back and we devoured it. Perfection! In fact, that was the best bruschetta we had on the entire trip--at the quiet corner rusticcheria.

Our room at the B&B was simple and nicely equipped. It had a decent bathroom and a small balcony that overlooked the back alley and gave us a great view of the neighboring business’s workroom. (Fortunately they were almost never there when we were in our room, so we didn’t feel constrained to keep our shutters closed.) The highlight of Diana’s place, besides the great price (45 euros per night if you pay in cash) is the beautiful rooftop terrace, one short flight of steps up from our floor and next to the lovely breakfast room. We enjoyed several afternoons/evenings on the flowered terrace, getting to know other guests and partaking of our self-provided drinks and snacks. We were very happy at Diana Brown’s and would definitely stay there again.

May 11
Boats and water are what the Aeolian Islands are all about, and there are plenty of storefronts offering trips to the neighboring islands. We found a place we liked and booked a boat trip to Panarea and Stromboli. These two islands are very different--Panarea has lovely white stucco buildings with blue shutters, shaded by lush green plantings, with the blue sea in the background--my ideal decor. Stromboli is a little more informal, dominated by an active volcano. Panarea was very quiet this early in the season and simply gorgeous. Though we had only about an hour there before the boat took off again, we enjoyed walking along the alleys and roads and peeking at the views each place offered. We will definitely return to Panarea for a longer stay very soon. (Next May?)

As the boat approached Stromboli we watched the volcano that constitutes the island throw up its intermittent puffs of smoke--every 10 minutes or so another one would rise out of the top of the mountain. Lots of people hike up the volcano but though J was game I wasn't so inclined (too much incline!), so we did some more exploring and then found a nice outdoor restaurant, La Lampana, where we had an early dinner of excellent pizza and grilled vegetables. (All meals on this trip were of course accompanied by wine by the liter or half-liter--we love wine and found the house wines to be generally good and very inexpensive.) The ambiance was oh-so-perfect as the sun began to set and relaxation set in. Eventually we made it back to the boat for the advertised “Stromboli by night” portion of the trip--viewing the periodic eruptions in the dark of night. We never quite got to the darkest dark (it was like waiting and waiting for darkness to fall so the fireworks can go off on the 4th of July, but then the fireworks people get impatient and set them off 20 minutes early), but it was impressive nonetheless. After the boatmen finally struck up the motor headed for Lipari, the eruptions got even better--we all wanted to stay and watch! I expended a lot of my camera battery trying to catch the eruptions--but the results weren't so great. On the hourlong ride back to Lipari we fell into conversation with a friendly Czech couple who invited us to sail with them in the Adriatic in August. (I think they were a little drunk.) We pulled in to Lipari harbor about 10:30 p.m.--a nice long day!

May 12
Today was Salina day--another boat trip, to another great island. The trip took us all the way around the island so we could see the small villages and blue-green coves, and we even were joined by dolphins as we headed into the harbor. We ate an excellent lunch at A Cannata (squid, shrimp, macaroni), scouted out the area, then it was back on the boat to the west and south coast of Lipari. The scenery--steep, rocky cliffs, water-carved arches and caves, and up-close views of the island of Vulcano--was awesome. We spent the evening on Diana Brown’s terrace eating things we had picked up from the nearby market, drinking wine and limoncello, and having good conversations with a young couple from Spain, an Australian woman, and a well-traveled English couple. Diana's guests are quite an international group--there was only one other American staying while we were there, and very few Americans in Lipari, for that matter.

May 13
The legendary Gran Cratere called to us, so off we went on yet another boat trip, to climb the eponymous Vulcano. (I knew J, a geologist, would get me up a volcano sometime or another on this trip.) The climb of the Gran Cratere was well worth the effort because the views--both into the smoking crater and out to the town and the sea below--were stunning. After all that exertion we needed something cold to drink, and we found just what we needed at an open-air restaurant back in the town. After we perked up we headed for the black sand beach (just beyond the incredibly stinky mudbaths where quite a few people wallowed) and spent some time at the beachside bar, where I painted a watercolor and J read (the first of 7 books he would read on this trip). More cold drinks, of course. Very relaxing! Eventually we walked back to the harbor to catch our boat for the short trip back to Lipari. The harbor was crowded with daytrippers waiting to board their boats to leave the island. Vulcano wasn't my favorite island--it was too crowded and the town was kind of tacky--and I wouldn't really want to base there, but it was fun to visit for the day.

I really loved returning to Lipari after all these boat trips--it’s such a sweet place, with plenty of options for dinner, shopping, and strolling, and a lively local scene that is fun to watch. This night we actually went to a restaurant! We ate at La Cambusa (squid, spaghetti), which was quite nice. As usual we were at the early end of the dinner hours (hadn’t yet got used to dining after 8) so there weren’t many other diners. But that was OK--eating early meant we never needed a reservation.

May 14
The day before, when we bought boat tickets to Vulcano, we also reserved a place for today on a boat that was scheduled to go to Filicudi and Alicudi (why not do them all?), more distant islands that don’t get as much tourism. Sadly, when we got down to the harbor to meet up with the boat the guy who had sold us the tickets said it wasn’t running today after all--I think they got a better offer from a larger group to go somewhere else. We were briefly disappointed, but it gives us another excuse to return to the Aeolis! Since we hadn't spent much time on Lipari itself , we decided to forgo boat rides for the day and explore the island we were actually staying on. First stop--after cappucini at the harbor--was the well-regarded museum of antiquities on the hill above the harbor. We had climbed the hill one evening a few days earlier for the view, so we figured we should see what the museum itself had to offer. But this was not our lucky day. The entrance fee was 12 euros for the two of us, but the ticket seller had no change for our 20-euro bill and thus wouldn't let us in to the museum. ("Sorry, no change" seems to be a common occurrence in southern Italy.) She didn’t provide any other options and we didn’t feel like trekking down the hill to find change and then trekking back up again, so we nixed the museum. (Next time!)

So now what to do? We decided to hop on a local bus to the nearby town of Canneto, where we hoped we could find a nice restaurant for lunch. Not much was open in Canneto, though, so we bought some provisions at the local market and plopped down among the boats resting on the stony beach and had a picnic. It was hot but we managed to find shade on the side of a colorful boat. After lunch I painted a watercolor of the boats and we had refreshing drinks at an outdoor cafe before busing back to Lipari town. It wasn’t the most exciting way to spend our last afternoon in the Aeolis, but it was definitely local!

Back in Lipari we soaked in more of the atmosphere at the second harbor, Marina Corta. There were lots of families getting together in the early evening, and we especially enjoyed seeing the grandparents and children together. Refreshed, we decided to go to the Kasbah restaurant, which had been highly recommended as one of the best places to eat in Lipari. Since, per usual, we were the first people to arrive for dinner, we were seated in a prime position on the large patio at the back of the restaurant, under fruit-laden orange trees. As darkness fell the restaurant filled with people, and twinkling lights among the trees created a beautiful scene. Our meals were excellent--ravioli, risotto, and what we like to call “priceless fish.” That’s the fresh fish that is given pride of place in the restaurant and priced by the kilo--well, you buy the whole fish and guess what it might weigh, and what you might have to pay for it. We expected it would be about 40 euros a kilo, and the fish weighed over a kilo. Expensive but a delicious splurge. The Kasbah was a nice ending to our stay in Lipari.

May 15
We wanted to stay longer in the Aeolian Islands but had tickets on the Messina-Salerno train that left around 11 a.m. on the 15th, so we had to tear ourselves away, pay for our amazingly inexpensive room, and get on the morning boat to Messina. When we landed we walked the half-mile or so from the boat dock to the train station, happy again that we had just a small rollerbag each to carry along with us. The route to the station wasn’t well marked but we eventually found it.

The train ride to Salerno was comfortable, if long--much time was spent loading the train onto the boat to cross the Straits, then unloading it on the mainland and getting the cars on the right track to go north. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to have the train end in Messina, have the passengers take the boat across, and then have a new train start on the mainland? Just a thought.

We had rented a villa in Vietri sul Mare starting on the 16th but had built in an extra day between leaving Lipari and arriving in Vietri as insurance in case bad weather made it necessary to stay in Lipari an extra day. Since the weather was perfect and we weren’t delayed, we had arranged for an inexpensive accommodation in Salerno for the night of the 15th. “My Salerno Apartment,” which I found on the Internet, is a tiny B&B with one guest bedroom, a shared bathroom, and access to the kitchen, located in a lively neighborhood a few miles south of the Salerno train station. Diane and her friend Giuseppe were delightful hosts and very helpful, all for just 40 euros a night (plus an additional 8 euros since we were only staying one night). Giuseppe helped us navigate the purchase and registration of a SIM card for our phone, which we wanted to make sure worked for the next part of the trip. We loved the bustling southern Salerno neighborhood, which was filled with bars, restaurants, and shops, and even had a live puppet show going on in the little piazza to entertain the neighborhood kids. A fun slice of local Salerno life, off the beaten track.

For dinner Diane recommended Trattoria Aurileo, a few blocks from the apartment. Great recommendation--I had the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life, a margherita di buffa. It’s become the Mystic Pizza--maybe the Mythic Pizza--because every time I’ve ordered pizza since, I’ve been disappointed. Diane had told us that we should never pay more than 4 euros for a margherita pizza in southern Italy, but Aurileo’s buffalo margherita was 6 euros, and it wasmore than worth it. Thin, crisp crust, the freshest tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella straight from the buffalos just down the highway toward Paestum, a few sprigs of basil...to die for. I want some now.

Next stop: Vietri sul Mare and the Amalfi Coast

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    Great info. Paradise on the cheap -- with volcanic explosions too! I'm planning a trip to Vietri sul Mare so I look forward to more. But I guess the villa wasn't cheap -- or was it?

    Sorry you'll never find another pizza like that. But it's just as well.

    I can't believe people pushed for fireworks when they had a volcano right there. Funny!

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    Thanks, zeppole. No--there weren't any fireworks on the boat--the volcano was definitely enough!

    The Vietri villa was 1,600 U.S. dollars for 7 nights (2 bedrooms, 2 baths, gigantic terrace overlooking the town and the sea beyond). Expensive but definitely worth it. I'll try to post part 2 of the trip soon.

    By the way, I see that I mistitled my report--it should say "south to north" rather than "north to south." Oops! I'm really not that geographically challenged.

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    Aprillilacs,

    Your other budget accommodations definitely made up for the splurge -- although just about any hotel room on that stretch of the Med gets to two hundred a night, without that kind of privacy, so it's not extravagantly priced.

    So more please. Needless to say, as a resident of Liguria, I look forward to that leg of the trip as well.

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    PART 2: VIETRI SUL MARE, THE AMALFI COAST, AND THOSE FAMOUS RUINS

    May 16
    We enjoyed a really nice breakfast and conversation with Diane at My Salerno Apartment, then set off for downtown Salerno where we were scheduled to pick up a rental car at Hertz, meet our son (O) and his partner (R) at the train station at some as yet unknown time that afternoon, and make our way a few miles north to the town of Vietri sul Mare, the ceramics town at the bottom end of the Amalfi coast. First off: walking into town.

    With just a little bag each and some time to spare in the morning, we decided to forgo a taxi or bus ride into downtown Salerno and instead walk the couple of miles along the lungomare into town. It was an easy route along a wide seaside walkway, with one stop for a cappuccino and a latte macchiato (my first Italian venture into something other than espresso and cappuccino), and another one to check our email at an Internet cafe along the way. Salerno’s beachfront isn’t anything to write home about, but it has its share of umbrella/loungechair clubs with cute little changing rooms that I’m sure are well used in high season. May was definitely not high season, so the beach was mostly deserted.

    The Hertz office is across from the train station so we hoped to be able to take possession of the car about 1:30 (the office closes at 2:00 on Saturdays) and leave it parked in the Hertz parking area until O&R arrived on the train. No such luck! The cars are stored off-site and brought to the office when the rental starts, with only temporary parking in front of the office. OK, plan B: find a pay lot nearby and hope O&R would arrive sooner rather than later. So we picked up the car--a 4-door stick shift like we drive at home, $317 for 7+ days--and scooted over to the very convenient underground city parking lot under the Hotel Grand Salerno, which we would end up using a couple more times over the course of the week when we took boat trips out of Salerno to the coastal towns.

    My efforts to get our cell phone working had been undertaken solely for this day. When we rented the villa in Vietri we decided to get a place that would be large enough for us to host some guests (who would have to pay their own air fare, however). We extended the invitation to both of our children and their significant others. Our oldest son and his wife regretfully declined because they were saving their vacation time and money for a trip to Japan this fall, but our younger son (26) was eager to jump on the opportunity--he loves to travel with us. (Free trip planning? Free food? Scintillating conversation? He loves us?) O&R were flying overnight to Rome from New York and planned to take the train from there to Salerno as soon as they could make a connection, but none of us knew exactly what train that would be. Thus the cell phone. O has a global-access Blackberry so he was all set, and fortunately, after a couple of visits to Salerno phone stores, my old phone was reactivated as well. (I had used it on our last trip to Italy two years ago, but the SIM card had expired so I needed a new one.) What a nice thing to hear the phone ringing--and, better yet, being picked up--on the other end. Sure enough O&R were on the train and would be arriving about 6 p.m. Yay! The cell phone had done its job, and it went back into my bag and was never used again.

    With a few free hours on our hands, we set off to get a bite to eat along the extensive pedestrian-only streets of downtown Salerno and then to visit the Salerno duomo, probably the main tourist attraction in the city. Our lunch at an outdoor cafe was pleasant, but the duomo was not to be since we ended up there during afternoon closing hours. We planned to return later in the week, but of course other things got in the way and we never did make it back. Next time?

    We finally connected with O&R, retrieved our car from the lot, and drove off in search of our villa. The directions we had from Cuendet, our rental agency, weren’t all that precise (or maybe they were too precise?), but within about 20 minutes we got to Vietri and found the gate to the villa. We were buzzed in and blown away. What a great place it was! The name was “Casa Sorvillo,” and it was separate from but next to Villa Sorvillo, a large private home just up the hill from Vietri, walking distance into the town. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully equipped tiled kitchen, tiled floors, a large living room with a huge tree growing through the roof, a lovely big terrace, a gorgeous garden with lemons and berries galore, and a view of the sea and coast that kept me staring, it was well worth the $1600 we paid for the week. The gracious owner of the villa, Aurieta, and her 90-year-old father and their German shepherd Buck were wonderful neighbors with whom we had several interesting conversations over the course of the week. What a great place to relax, make ourselves at home, and pretend that we lived on the Amalfi coast! With plenty of room in the house we didn’t get in each other’s way, but inevitably we all ended up on the terrace either soaking in the sun or watching the lights of Vietri and the Amalfi coast twinkle away below us. Idyllic.

    With a house comes the need to shop, for one of the ways to amortize the cost of the rental is to cook at home rather than eat out every night. And of course, shopping for food in the small stores in town is an adventure in itself. During our first foray down the hill into town we stopped at a little grocery and bought the things we thought we would need immediately and took them up to the house. Then decided we were too tired to cook after all and would eat out instead. We could cook another time! So the four of us trooped back into town and wandered around the streets until we came to an outdoor dining area in the middle of the town, Ristorante 34 de Lucia. There’s something about outdoor dining that really calls to us. We were enjoying our antipasti di mare, gnocchi, and assorted other tasty dishes when we were greeted warmly by two women walking by--they were the shopkeepers from the grocery we had shopped in earlier. It was like we were long-lost friends--we were being welcomed in the community because, at least for the week, we were part of it. A very nice experience!

    May 17
    One of the best parts about staying at Casa Sorvillo was its central location vis-a-vis the region’s tourist attractions. With our car it was really easy to get to Paestum, Vesuvius, Pompeii, and Herculaneum. The Amalfi coast road basically starts at Vietri, making the coastal towns very accessible as well. So though we definitely could have spent the day on the terrace, we knew there were places we needed to go--Paestum being today’s goal.

    Within about 45 minutes we arrived at the amazing ruins of Paestum. The weather was beautiful, the red poppies were in full bloom, and the site was not crowded with tourists, so we enjoyed walking the grounds for several hours before heading into the museum to look at the frescoes and other relics from the site that were housed inside. The “diver” fresco was especially interesting. I kept wishing that the frescoes were still in place in the temples, but at least they are easily accessible nearby. We loved Segesta, Selinunte, and Agrigento in Sicily, but Paestum definitely rivals, if not surpasses, all of them.

    After lunch at a restaurant not too far from the ruins we passed many places selling buffalo mozzarella, but we had already purchased some in Vietri and knew that it doesn’t really keep, so we passed them up and instead stopped at a fruit stand to stock up on fruit for the house. This night we had no excuse to eat out so J, the cook in the family, inaugurated the kitchen and we had a lovely meal on the terrace--papardelle, caprese salad, grilled eggplant and zucchini, and watermelon. All washed down with red (and white!) wine, followed by limoncello, of course. Who needs to eat out when you have a cook as good as that?

    May 18
    We were itching to get deeper into the Amalfi coast, so after a morning shopping spree for supplies in Vietri we piled into the car and headed off along the famed coastal road toward Ravello. (We didn’t want to rush things and go to Amalfi and Portofino straight off.) In our family J is the navigator and I’m the driver, and I was up to the challenge of the narrow road and hairpin turns. In fact, I loved that road. Even though I had to keep my eyes on the road (most of the time), I found the scenery around every bend jaw-dropping. I just kept repeating, “Guys, this is amazing!”

    Our first stop was Cetara, where we found parking at the base of town right near the water. It was a cute, active little town, and our plan was to search out one of Fodor poster ekscrunchy’s recommendations, Al Convento, and make a reservation for dinner that evening. We easily found the restaurant, but the waiter there told us there was no need to reserve--apparently we were early enough in the season that he knew it wouldn’t be full. So after some exploration we got back in the car and headed in the direction of Maiori, then up the hill to Ravello. That’s when we noticed the road-watchers--official traffic people with walkie-talkie radios to communicate to each other about when to stop traffic and when to let it go. If a bus was coming down the hill, traffic was stopped at a place where it could pass, and so on. It seemed to be a good system, handled elsewhere in Italy with automatic traffic lights, but here using the ample human resources of the area. It certainly helped keep the traffic flowing.

    Ravello was almost too good to be true. We parked down the hill from town and walked up through narrow lanes to the piazza, which took my breath away. What a view! It was like the backdrop of a play, appearing almost painted on. The pictures I took just don’t do it justice, but I have a good picture in my mind in any case. We found a table under an umbrella in the piazza and ordered drinks and something light for lunch, ending up with a pretty hefty bill for what we got, but then what we were really getting was the lovely view so who can complain? After lunch we wandered up more lanes (past a limoncello maker who also sold bright yellow t-shirts that read “Save water, drink limoncello”) to the Villa Cimbrone, where we spent quite a bit of time soaking in yet more amazing views and the lovely gardens. I really liked Villa Cimbrone--it may be the nicest villa we’ve been to in Italy.

    Eventually we drove back to our own little villa in Vietri (also nice, if not quite in Cimbrone’s league!) where we relaxed until dinnertime. Back we went to Cetara (not that far away) for our much anticipated dinner at Al Convento. The setting was great--the former convent that houses the restaurant is perched up some steps above the center of town and looks across the lively piazza to houses and apartments with lots of early evening activities going on in them. It was fun to watch the windows light up as the sun went down. Most of our dinner lived up to ekscrunchy’s description--antipasto di mare, pasta with clams and mussels, mussels, zuppa de fagiole, wonderful breadsticks, grilled shrimp and calamari. Not so good was the braised tuna on greens with a balsamic reduction sauce that was disappointingly fishy-tasting--I think it was frozen. And the coffee machine was broken, so no espresso to finish off the evening. The tuna actually ended up being the worst dish of the whole trip, quite disappointing. On the whole, though, Al Convento was a good choice and easily reached from Vietri.

    May 19
    Having had a day at the coast it was now time to delve into more antiquities. We had planned to climb Vesuvius today but were lulled by a lovely morning on the terrace, so we put that plan off until another day. Instead we spent some time investigating Vietri’s beachfront (the typical Italian bring-your-own-towel public beach on one side and the private beach lined with lounge chairs and umbrellas on the other), then followed Aurieta’s advice and drove a short way back along the coast to the tiny village of Erchie, not far from Cetara, where she said local Italian families love to go in the summer. It was a delightful little beach (also with public and private sections) with a ruined fortress at one end, a great place to spend some hours if we had them. But no! We had a plan. After a nice lunch in the village we were off to Pompeii for the afternoon.

    I really loved our central location that enabled us to go wherever we wanted to whenever we felt like it. The A-3 took us quickly to Pompeii so we could devote the afternoon to exploring the ruins. O&R went one way and we went another, and we eventually met up in one of the streets, took some pictures together in the House of the Faun, and told each other about all the other neat places we had seen. They hadn’t made it to the Villa dei Misteri, which I found fascinating, or seen the amazing poppy fields on the way there, so we sent them on their way and arranged to meet up again at the exit. I thought that Pompeii was interesting and had some outstanding features, but it didn’t grab me the way Paestum did. Perhaps I didn’t do my homework and prepare well enough for the visit--for one, I was expecting to see more mosaics, and I wished that they were housed on site rather than in a museum in Naples. There were a lot of people (but I wouldn’t call it overcrowded), and it was hot. In retrospect, we should have hired a guide, which would have provided more focus to our visit. Next time!

    Back home at Casa Sorvillo, we were drinking wine in preparation for dinner on the terrace when we had a visit from Aurieta. We shared some wine and exchanged some stories, and then she invited us to tour her villa, the main house on the property. The villa was twice as big as our casa, full of family heirlooms yet very comfortable. And though we thought our view of the coast was nice, from her villa--especially from her bedroom--the views were super nice. Enchanting, really. It was a real treat to be invited into Aurieta’s home and to learn more about her and her family. This rental was turning out to be one of the best we’ve ever experienced.

    May 20
    O&R wanted to sleep in and spend the day poking around Vietri, but J and I had Positano on our minds. Rather than drive the coast road again, and to avoid the Positano parking nightmares we had read about in the guidebooks, we decided to take the early boat out of Salerno and enter Positano via the water. We parked easily at the underground lot in Salerno and walked the few blocks to the harbor, in time to catch the 8:40 boat. Which today wasn’t running. Oh well--how about the 9:40?

    With more than an hour to kill we walked into town in search of caffeine. We found the perfect place! It was like the center of the coffee universe--people of all sorts were coming in and out of the place, downing their coffee and croissants and busily starting their morning. Watching the barristas was a show in itself--I managed to take a 45-second video on my digital camera that captures the action. I’ve realized that this is one of the reasons we travel--to enjoy a slice of daily life in another culture.

    Back at the harbor, we boarded the boat to Positano, with a brief stop at Amalfi where we remained onboard--we would save Amalfi for another day. The day was a little overcast and misty, but by the time we pulled into Positano the sun was shining brightly. It was gorgeous! No wonder Positano gets all the accolades. We spent quite a bit of time going up and down the streets, admiring the beautiful colors (shades of purple seemed to be the color of choice), the pretty sidewalk art shows, and stunning views. But it was way too crowded! For every 10 people we would have seen in Vietri, there were 100 in Positano. As they say, it was crawling with tourists--and ten times more Americans than we had seen on the entire trip so far.

    Fortunately, by climbing high up the steep staircases to the top of town we were able to get above the crowds and ferret out a fun, reasonably priced place for lunch--with a nice view--at Trattoria C’era una Volta (?), across the street from the Brikette Hostel. A caprese salad, pizza margherita (no, not as good as Salerno’s), and two draft beers set us back only 16 euros--a bargain! Down in the center of Positano a margherita pizza cost 11 euros; up the hill it was only 4.50. After lunch we wound our way back down the steeply staired lanes to the port, stopping every few yards to take photos, and caught the 3:30 boat back to Salerno. We did enjoy our trip to Positano but were happy to return to Vietri, our lovely base camp.

    May 21
    Another day, another volcano calling to be climbed. This time the fabled Vesuvius was definitely on the agenda for the day, so we were out the door by 10 and on the A-3 again, heading for the mountain. Once off the highway we wound our way up to the parking area at the base of the climb, joining quite a crowd of hikers of all kinds heading up the steadily sloping path to the crater. I wasn’t expecting all those people! But everybody seemed happy, even the woman in high heels who was herding a couple of kids up the mountain. Vesuvius is an icon of southern Italy, and it seemed like much of Italy was on the climb with us.

    The crater of Vesuvius is impressive, especially for J the geologist. There was some haze, but the grand views out onto the Naples and the bay were wonderful--we saw all the way to Ischia and Capri (next time!). We tried to find Pompeii below us but couldn’t quite pick it out. O&R bought the requisite trinkets made out of lava, we basked in the sunshine, and then it was time to descend. Lunch was on the terrace of a deceptively large restaurant at the base of Via Vesuvio--La Rotunda Ristorante. Tasty pizzas and a round of beers helped us recover our energy and get ready for the afternoon we planned at nearby Herculaneum.

    We parked in a small lot near the entrance to the ruins, bought our tickets, and strolled to the entrance. The site is small enough that we were able to get a complete view of it from above before we entered. As I’ve read elsewhere, it’s much more manageable than Pompeii, and we enjoyed it a lot. There are some stunningly fresh-looking frescoes in bright colors, and still in-place mosaics in some of the houses. A few of the buildings we wanted to enter were closed off for some unexplained reason, but we were very satisfied with what we were able to see. I highly recommend Herculaneum as a compact site for a morning or afternoon visit.

    Sated with tourism for the day, we had a light dinner back at Casa Sorvillo and went to bed early.

    May 22
    Continuing our pattern of ruins one day and charming coastal towns the next, we spent our final day on the Amalfi coast visiting the town that shares its name. O joined J and me on the 9:40 boat from Salerno, which we shared with a visiting school group on an adventure from Rome. They were really cute and well behaved, and the shy boy sitting next to us took the opportunity to practice his English. He started out slowly but gained confidence during the ride, and by the time we landed we had decided that with his English and our Italian we would make out fairly nicely.

    Landing in Amalfi, we walked up the main street and stopped at a cafe for 3 euro cappuccini (sitting at an outside table) and a delicious flaky pastry filled with orange/lemon cream. Mmmm. We visited the impressive church with its cloisters, basilicata, ornately decorated crypt, and cathedral and then explored the rest of what was really quite a small town. For lunch we decided to take on another of ekscrunchy’s favorites, A Partenza in the neighboring town to Atrani. The walk there was easy, high on the cliff overlooking the sea, with gorgeous views down to Amalfi. We found the restaurant with no trouble--for once there was no outside option so we ate inside--and had what ended up being the best meal of the trip. Thanks for the recommendation, ekscrunchy! We split an order of fried zucchini flowers stuffed with anchovy ricotta and an order of grilled scarmoza in lemon leaves. Wow! I had scialatiella a la Siciliana, and the guys had fabulous risolle di crema scampi. We shared the house white wine--Falanghina, at 8 euros--and were totally satisfied with both the meal and its reasonable price (75 euros for the three of us).

    After lunch we walked back into Amalfi and decided to take the bus back to Vietri rather than wait an hour for the next boat. We had some shopping to do in the ceramics shops of Vietri, so O got off near our house and we went on to Salerno to pick up the car. I met up with O&R back in Vietri and we hit the shops--J didn’t have any interest in shopping and didn’t want to slow us down, so he relaxed on the terrace. We loaded up on ceramics, trying to be as judicious as possible since we knew we would have to carry everything back by hand. There are certainly lots of shops to choose from! And we visited almost all of them before finally settling on a few nice things.

    Our last meal in Vietri was another one on the terrace--pasta alla Norma and assorted meats, cheeses, olives, and mushrooms that R had picked up in the local shops while we were in Amalfi. What fun this week had been! It was hard to say good-bye to our little piece of paradise. But there’s still more to see, including Sorrento, Capri, and Ischia, so there will definitely be a next time.

    Next stop: A brief detour into Isernia, then on to Rome.

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    I think if I go to Vietri sul Mare, I'm going to be doing just the opposite, which is spending all my time in the ceramics shops. I especially like the very modern Vietri styles. Of course I've already seen the tourist destinations on the Amalfi, so I'm not surprised they were a priority for you. If Paestum surpassses Pompeii, which I found fascinating, I really need to get there fast.

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    Thanks, Julia--it's nice to know somebody is reading this. Writing it helps me relive the trip myself.

    Zeppole--I know what you mean. The ceramics shops could keep you busy for a couple of days at least. I also gravitated toward the more modern styles--I especially liked the volcano reds of Artek Vietri, and I'm drinking out of one of their cups right now. We did pick up some more traditional pieces, too--I was drawn to the sunny lemon patterns. Lots of places had virtually the same designs, so we just picked one with the friendliest atmosphere and did many of our purchases there. If I had had more money, I would have sprung for some bigger purchases that we could have shipped home, like some of the other travelers we talked to did. Since you life in Italy you aren't constrained that way, luck you!

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    Hi April -

    Just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying your report. The destinations, B&Bs, vacation rentals etc are all somewhat different from most other reports, and your writing style is so engaging. Am having a very nice vicarious vacation, please do keep going.

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    hi aprillilacs,

    i do't know which is better - your trip or your report.

    I'm loving reading about it; i really wish that the posters who are of the "if it's tuesday it must be Venice" persuasion could just slow down and realise what they are missing!

    regards, ann

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    What an excellent report... I especially love that you mention what places you visited and liked the most; and also what places are really nice to eat at including how much they cost, thank you!

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    aprililacs - your report is wonderful, thank you so much. You are writing about places in Italy (my favorite vacation spot as well!!) where I have yet to visit and I am drinking it all in very very slowly and enjoyably. I am going to take notes and hope to be able to visit some or all of those places soon. More please, more !!!

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    Thanks to everyone for the encouragement! This was a very special trip, so I'm glad it is showing through in my report. Ann--your comment about "if it's Tuesday..." is quite apropos. Before we left on our trip I rented a bunch of old movies that feature travels in Italy, and "If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium," which I thought was hilarious when I first saw it in the '70s, was one of them. It still is funny--very campy. It also calls to mind another current posting that I'm enjoying reading here on the Forum, about the poster's plans to see something like 15 cities in 21 days. That's how we traveled on our first-ever trip (doing "all" of the British Isles in just 6 weeks), but since then we've really enjoyed the turtle approach (slow-but-steady), seeing a country or an area in more depth over a longer period of time. Anyway, here's the next installment!

    ROME, WITH A DETOUR TO PETTORANELLO DI MOLISE

    May 23
    The original plan for this trip was to return the rental car in Salerno and take the train from there to Rome, but an opportunity came up right before we left the U.S. that led us to decide to keep the car for the day and make a detour to the tiny town of Pettoranello di Molise, in the mountains about an hour southeast of Rome. We had been invited to visit the hometown of someone who does occasional work for us--she and her husband would be in Italy the same time we were, staying at some property they owned, and we couldn’t pass up the chance to see a bit of the virtually untouristed countryside of Isernia and Molise. So we arranged to meet up with them in their picturesque village in the early afternoon for a quick glimpse into their Italian roots. O&R would still be with us through Rome, so this was a nice opportunity for them as well.

    Thus we waved good-bye to Casa Sorvillo and the Mediterranean Sea (I missed it immediately) and headed inland, following directions we found on Googlemaps. Not surprisingly, they led us astray once we got into the mountains, and we wandered the back lanes for a while before finally mounting the hill into town. (We stopped at a farmhouse at one point and asked in broken Italian where Pettoranello was, getting a friendly response and a point in the right direction, up the distant hill.) We finally met up with our friends, who were very happy to see that we had (1) made the effort to get there and (2) actually found the place! They proceeded to honor us with a huge, multicourse traditional Italian meal that we couldn’t possibly do justice to, and regale us with stories of their lives in the town and the surrounding countryside. After lunch it was on to the only action in the dead-quiet town--the local bar for espresso--and then tours of their three houses and many acres of land, the underfunded local church, and the huge, elaborate regional church nearby that appeared to have plenty of funding.

    This detour was quite an eye-opener. I’ve often thought, “Why don’t we just go off to some little town no one’s ever heard of and stay there for a week?” Our afternoon in Pettoranello, just such a town, gave me one answer: nobody is there, and there’s nothing doing! So while it might be relaxing, it also might be pretty darn dull. An afternoon was probably enough for us.

    We needed to return our car to Ciampino airport and get into Rome at a reasonable hour, so we said our good-byes to Pettoranello and our friends and made our way to the airport--easy enough, except for the last few miles where the twists and turns and confusing signage get a little hard to follow. We had chosen to drop the car at Ciampino because it was on the way to Rome and we wanted to avoid driving in the city (done that before--not fun). We took the shuttle bus (4 euros each) to Termini station and found a taxi there to take us to our apartment near the Pantheon, figuring that would be the cheapest way to get the 4 of us into town. But we outsmarted ourselves--a taxi from the airport directly to our apartment would have been 30 euros fixed rate, and the cab from Termini to the Pantheon was about 25 euros. We would learn from that mistake and take a taxi directly from the apartment to the airport when we left Rome four days later.

    We had reserved the apartment on Via Pastini for 4 nights through Sleep in Italy (440 euros + 35 euros final cleaning) and were excited to be in the historic center of Rome for four nights. (Though this was our third trip to Rome, we had never been as centrally located on our other visits.) We found the apartment and rang the bell for the owner, who lived on the floor above. A few negotiations ensued because we had only reserved for two people, not knowing at the time that O&R would be joining us. We willingly paid the surcharge for two extras and looked around to see what we had gotten ourselves into.

    We knew that the apartment was located on a pedestrian-only street just off the Pantheon, but we didn’t realize that it was on THE major pedestrian thoroughfare between the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. So although that made it convenient to visit my two favorite places in Rome as many times as I wanted to (and that was many), it also meant that we had to accept that in our second-floor apartment we would hear the happy (but loud!) sounds of hordes of tourists in transit from one highlight of Rome to another. Oh well! We stuck O&R on the sleeper sofa in the front room, overlooking the sidewalk cafes of Via Pastini, and we took the much quieter middle bedroom. (That’s what they got for accepting free lodgings!) There was also a small kitchen and a bathroom in the back of the apartment, and a very pleasant interior terrace with a table and chairs surrounded by greenery, where we spent most of the time we were in the apartment. The contrast between the raucous babble in the front of the apartment and the more down-to-earth sounds of daily apartment living in the back was quite interesting (children cry and mothers yell in Italian apartments just as much as they do in American apartments). Aside from the noise, we were happy with the good space and very convenient location that the apartment provided for 4 people at such a reasonable price.

    We were all tired from our day in the hills and all the logistics, and still stuffed from lunch, but we managed to get up enough energy to go out for a while, hitting our favorite gelato shop in Piazza Navona, before heading back to the apartment to try to get some sleep. Not so easy on Saturday night on Via Pastini--hundreds of diners and strollers make lots of noise, in addition to entertainment provided by a very loud opera singer singing Italian classics and a competing accordionist. The musicians were quite good, but it was like having a concert live in our living room that didn’t wind down until the wee hours of the morning. Thank goodness Saturday night was an aberration and the rest of the week was a little quieter!

    May 24
    Today was my birthday (a significant round number), so it was my day to choose what we would do. We were up early and out the door--lo and behold, the street was EMPTY, no tables, no pedestrians, no nothing. What a difference from 7 hours ago! If you walked along the quiet Via Pastini in the morning you would never guess that it transforms itself in the afternoon and evening into a lively dining venue.

    Getting out early allowed us to visit the Trevi Fountain without the crowds. Lovely! After coffee and croissants at a cafe we headed back to the Pantheon for a quick look before everyone was herded out for the Sunday religious service, then walked across the bridge to Trastevere, which we had never visited before. In fact, these three days in Rome would be all about visiting places we had never been before, centering on the historic center. We weren’t pressed to pack a lot in, having done that on our two previous visits to the city. We walked everywhere, forgoing public transportation, which allowed us to see a lot of interesting neighborhoods and take our time doing it. I hadn’t loved Rome on our first two visits, but it appears that third time’s a charm, for I truly was charmed by it all this time.

    In Trastevere we decided to scout out a restaurant for dinner that night. After two weeks I had hit the pasta wall--pushed over the edge by the traditional Italian feast we had been served in Pettoranello--and wanted something completely different (sacrilege, I know!). We hit upon an interesting looking Japanese/Vietnamese restaurant in Trastevere, Miyabi 2, and decided we would return there that night for my birthday dinner. Suddenly I was missing all that ethnic Asian food we eat so often in the U.S., so this would be perfect. We wandered some more in the neighborhood, visited Chiesa Santa Maria where we stood in the back for part of a service, then stopped at a local trattoria for a delicious light lunch at a pleasant outdoor table. What could be better?

    Back at the apartment we met up with O&R, who had done their own exploring, and we all headed to the Fondazione Roma Museo, not far from the apartment, which was presenting a superb exhibition of woodblock prints by the Japanese ukiyo-e master Hiroshige. He is one of my favorite artists, so this was a real birthday treat, with a large amount of famous and less well-known prints, grouped in themes. We felt very lucky to have come upon the signs for this lovely exhibit while walking in the area, and we spent more than an hour there.

    Next up was the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina. I had read about the good work the animal rescue volunteers were doing here, taking in stray cats and providing them shots, neutering, and adoption when possible. The shelter is right next to the ancient ruins, and the dozens of cats who live there at any one time are free to come and go among the stones of the sunken plaza. We watched the cats lounge around the fallen stones, toured the shelter, and admired the work of the dedicated volunteers. We were happy to donate to their cause.

    Then it was back across the Tiber to Trastevere for our evening of Japanese/Vietnamese food, a welcome break for our palates. My lovely birthday was topped off with a limoncello toast late at night on the patio of our apartment.

    May 25
    This day in Rome was devoted to more exploring in and around the historic center, including (you guessed it) my daily required visit to the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps (why are they such a tourist attraction?), the Capitoline Hill and a view of the Forum, which we had enjoyed on a previous trip. Following in the not-so-standard mode, we had all decided to take in the movie “Angels and Demons,” which had opened in Rome a week or so earlier and was still playing in English, with Italian subtitles. R had just finished the book and raved about it, so even though we normally wouldn’t spend valuable sightseeing time at the movie theater, we thought it would be fun to see it in its actual setting. First we headed up to the Piazza de Popolo and visited the Chiesa Santa Maria del Popolo since the theater was right down the street from the piazza. Little did we know that that church and so many other places we had visited would play central roles in the movie! It was really fun to be in Rome to see that movie, and it turned out to be a great way to spend a hot afternoon. Via Pastini even had a cameo role!

    For dinner we again headed to friendly Trastevere, where we dined at the Ristorante La Scala around corner from Chiesa Santa Maria. After two weeks we had finally adjusted to the later Italian dinner hour, which meant that we were no longer early birds going to empty restaurants before all the action started. In Trastevere at 8:00 all the restaurants were packed, and we were lucky to get into La Scala without a reservation, after just a short wait. The highlight of our excellent meal was the gnocchi with smoked provola and truffles. Another great day in Rome!

    May 26
    For our last day in Rome, and our last day with O&R, who were heading off to Amsterdam for a few days on their own before returning to New York, we had reserved 1:00 tickets to see the masterpieces at the Borghese Gallery. Although we had enjoyed spending time in the Borghese park on a previous visit to Rome, we hadn’t made the effort to reserve tickets to the museum. Would it live up to its reputation? A resounding yes!

    First off, though, we strolled from our apartment over to the open-air market at the Campo dei Fiore where we picked up great-looking fruit and vegetables for the evening meal we would be cooking at the apartment. Then we headed off on foot to the Borghese Gallery, hoping that we had left enough time to get there before our designated ticket pickup time 1/2 hour before the entry time. The walk was longer than we had anticipated but took us through neighborhoods we had never been--including the classy hotel district off Via Veneto where a small crowd waited to greet the Barcelona football team, which was arriving for the UEFA Champions League playoffs on the weekend. Lots of excitement! But we couldn’t stop--the Borghese called.

    O&R had spent the morning shopping and promised to meet us at the gallery prior to 1:00. We were a little dubious, given the long walk from the apartment, and hoped that they would spring for a taxi so they would make it on time, but despite walking they arrived in plenty of time for us all to enter together. What a delight! A dozen or more superbly decorated rooms full of marvelous paintings, mosaic floors, elaborate ceilings, Roman stauary, furniture, and those incredible Bernini sculptures. The Borghese Gallery definitely gets 5 stars!

    Out time ran out at the gallery so we set off through the surrounding park in search of someplace to eat. We followed signs to the cafes but they never materialized, so we eventually ducked out of the park at the Piazza del Popolo and found an outdoor restaurant a few blocks away. The lunch rush was over so it was easy to find a seat, and we were just in time to get our order in before the restaurant closed for the rest of the afternoon. The food was average, so no recommendation here.

    J was worn out and ready for some quiet time back at the apartment, but O&R wanted to visit Castel Sant’Angelo so I decided to join them. J and I had spent time there on a previous trip to Rome, but I was happy to make a return trip, if only for the stunning view from the top (and the closeups of the sword-bearing angel that figured so prominently in Angels and Demons). The view was just as nice as I had remembered! Eventually we all made our way back to Via Pastini for a nice dinner on the patio, cooked by Chef J, followed by a last visit to my favorite fountain. It had been taken over by raucous football fans, mostly sporting red and blue Barcelona shirts. Not exactly the romantic spot we had hoped for, but fun nonetheless. Our brief Rome sojourn was coming to a close and we had to be up early the next morning so O&R could catch their early RyanAir flight from Ciampino to Amsterdam, and we could pick up another car for the remainder of the trip. I’m sure we’ll be back to Rome again in the coming years.

    Next stop: A few days in rural Tuscany.

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    Aprillilacs,

    I am really enjoying your trip report and can't wait to hear about Tuscanny,the Dolomites and Lake Como because we are going to all three (plus Cinque Terre) in September. Thanks for the detailed information and the beautiful pictures!

    By the way - we share the same birthday!

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    Aprillilacs:

    I am loving your report! Good for you for getting a bit off the usual tourist path.

    It sounds like a dream trip and I am eager to read more. You really kindled my desire to visit the Aeolians. Did you happen to notice if anyone was swimming in mid May?

    Thanks ever so much for taking the time to write.

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    I hope to get stops 4 and 5 posted tomorrow, but in the meantime I wanted to reply to your posts. Bon--happy belated birthday! May 24 is a great date for a birthday--we love to travel in May so it seems I'm always celebrating someplace nice. How about you?

    LAwoman--what did you think of the Pastini apartment? Was it as noisy as I describe? Without the din from the street it was actually quite pleasant, I thought. Great location in the center of things. And it would have been nicer if there had just been 2 of us, since you had to walk through the bedroom from the front room to get to the bathroom. If I didn't mention it in my report, by the way, I found dealing with Sleep in Italy to be quite smooth and would definitely rent from them again.

    ekscrunchy--you probably gleaned from my report that we read your report(s) closely and appreciated the restaurant recommendations. (Too bad about that tuna at Al Convento, but everything else was great!) And I agreed with your assessment of Amalfi as preferable to Positano if you're choosing between the two as a base. You should surely go to the Aeolian Islands--they are wonderful. In early May we did see some people swimming--mostly younger people who stand the cold better than I do, I guess. I dipped my feet into the water a few times but was never tempted to go in--I'm a warm-water swimmer (I'm talking Hawaii temps!). The most swimmers we saw were on Vulcano, but there were some on Lipari as well.

    This trip report is almost taking longer than the trip! I guess that's a good argument for shorter trips? Not really!

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    Hi Aprillilacs - we loved the Pastini apt. Just myself & husband, yes it would be tight for 4. The rental rate was incredible, for a place just a few steps away from the Pantheon, and we loved walking past it (and so many other beautiful bldgs) on our way home each night.

    The street noise was not a problem for us, it was lighter than you describe (we were there in Oct) plus it was early in our trip so we were gone a lot anyway. I was more bothered by the night noise from the bakery (or pizza place?) below. Still, not that big a deal. Enjoyed having 2 of the best coffee joints in Rome so close to us (Tazza d'Oro & Cafe Sant Eustachio) plus the gelato (Giolitti & della Palma)...

    Also agree that Sleep in Italy is a good agency, we just used them again last August for a place in Campo dei Fiori (needed something bigger, had the teens with us). They are very easy to work with and offer great apt deals.

    Looking forward to more of your report! It's my dream trip.

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    Aprillilacs - Thanks for the birthday wishes! We have done some great trips around my birthday (Hawaii for one). We also have taken trips around our anniversary which is February. Since we've retired we like to travel in September (particularly if we are going to Europe). The weather is still nice and their are fewer crowds.

    I'm looking forward to the rest of your trip report. Thank you for taking the time to share it with us!

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    Aprillilacs: I feel terrible about that tuna. I am glad you liked the rest of the meal at Al Convento and that you had a good dinner A Paranza in Atrani.

    I am also a warm water swimmer, so May might not be a good time for me, but I will certainly move up the Aeolians toward the top of the list! I guess September would be a great time to visit....

    Can't wait to read more!

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    PART 4: A RURAL TUSCAN INTERLUDE

    May 27
    We were up at the (for me) ridiculous hour of 6 a.m. and out the door by 6:45, crossing our fingers that there would be a taxi at the taxi stand next to the Pantheon. Surprisingly, wee had no plan B in case there wasn’t--but not to worry, even that early there were four cabs parked in line, with the first being a roomy station wagon that would easily fit all four of us and our luggage. The driver was thrilled to get a fare to Ciampino so early in the morning, waving to his colleagues in the line with a happy smile on his face. And we were happy we had read the sign that said 30 euros was the flat rate to Ciampino, so there would be no haggling with the price. The driver took us on a lovely route and helpfully pointed out some of the highlights along the way.

    The drive was so quick that O&R were first in line for check-in on their Ryanair flight. True to its reputation, the budget airline offered a rock-bottom fare but piled on charges for checking in (which they had to do at the airport rather than online because they had bags to check) and checked baggage. But the plane was on time and we left them having coffees at the airport, waiting for the gate to open. Our time with O&R had been so fun--though honestly it was nice to be back on our own, without the complications created by the need to consider others in planning our day.

    We had gone to the airport with them because it would allow us to share a cab and pick up our rental car from EuropeCar there, without hassling with Rome’s traffic--not my favorite driving conditions. Because we were going to keep the car for the next 3 weeks, we wanted something that was small and fuel-efficient. We ended up with a cute little Fiat 500 ($696 for 3 weeks, all inclusive, except gas), which was really fun to drive, easy to handle even on mountain roads, got great gas mileage, and drew appreciative looks and comments from many Italians who fondly remember (and often still have) their original Fiat 500s that this little one, introduced in 2007, was modeled after. My only objection was that the sunroof didn’t open (or were we too dumb to figure out how?).

    With the car keys in my hands and our luggage safely stowed in the little space behind the back seat, we headed north on the autostrada. Our next stop (besides a short cappuccino break at the AutoGrille on the A1) was the small town of Loro Ciuffenna, where we would meet up for 3 nights with my college roommate and her husband, who were also vacationing in Italy. They were staying at La Ferreira, a quiet resort hotel on the outskirts of town, and had invited us to take advantage of the sleeper sofa in their apartment. Free rent! Who could decline an offer like that?

    Loro Ciuffenna turned out to be a colorful little town, straddling a small river about 20 kilometers northwest of Arezzo. It has several nice restaurants, small markets, and several shops, and its hillside setting is charming. It is well located for visiting other villages and towns in the area, as well as the lovely city of Arezzo. Definitely off the beaten path, but convenient enough to Florence (50 km) for an easy daytrip if we had wanted to make a return visit there. And an added bonus was the absolutely gorgeous weather, with crystal clear air that gave us great views of the scenic, vine-laden hills surrounding us as we visited the sites in the area.

    We spent the first afternoon relaxing and exploring the town, where we settled on dinner at the wonderful Vino al Vino, the restaurant associated with the hotel Dimora Casa Eugenia. We had one of the best meals of the trip on their terrace overlooking the river below--an eggplant appetizer, followed by delicious wild boar for me and rabbit for J, with an array of interesting vegetable dishes included. True to its name, the restaurant offered a great selection of wines of the area. The meal was so good that we would return a couple nights later for another excellent dinner.

    May 28
    The apartment included a pleasant terrace and a nicely equipped kitchen area, so we enjoyed having breakfast on the terrace the three mornings we spent at La Ferreira. A couple of years ago the four of us had spent a week together in Umbria and had done a bit too much time driving to far-flung towns on daytrips, so this time we all agreed to stay fairly local and enjoy what there was to see in the immediate surrounding area. Thus we spent a nice day making our way slowly down the Valdarno wine route to Arezzo. One stop was the village of Il Borro, which had been purchased as a whole by the Ferragamo family and made into luxury accommodations for rent to tourists, with small shops selling crafts and other expensive things. The buildings have been beautifully restored, but the placed seemed deserted. I think it will take a big marketing effort to get this on the tourist map.

    Soon we arrived in Arezzo, a real town with great churches from the 11th to 14th centuries that spills down a hill in classic Tuscan/Umbrian fashion. Since the churches are the main attraction of Arezzo, besides its nice piazzas, pretty streets, and good shopping, we decided to visit as many as we could. A couple featured beautiful stained-glass windows by a master of the craft. The Renaissance frescoes of Pierro della Francesca are housed in the church of San Francesco, and timed tickets are required to be admitted to the area with the best view of them. We dutifully purchased our tickets (6 euros each) for the first available time, a little later in the day. After we got into the church (for free) we realized that we could have had almost as good a view of the frescoes without stepping across into the pay-per-view zone.

    We broke up our church-viewing expedition with an excellent lunch at a small restaurant not far from San Francesco--unfortunately, I didn’t write down the name, but there were a lot of nice places to choose from in Arezzo. More exploring in the late afternoon, then it was back to Loro Ciuffenna for good conversation and a home-cooked meal on the terrace of the apartment. A very relaxing day, and a good reminder that you don’t have to drive hundreds of kilometers to top-rated sights to have a rewarding tourist day.

    May 29
    More exploring along the Valdarno wine route was in store for us today, after we first visited the 8th century Pieve di San Pietro in Gropina, a couple of km from Loro, with interesting prehistoric-looking figures carved in stone inside the church. Along the wine route we saw a sign advertising a flower festival that was scheduled to kick off in the town of Bucine that day, so we detoured over to that direction. It turned out that the “opening ceremonies” were indeed going to take place in the afternoon, but the main part of the festival would not begin until the weekend so there was nothing much of interest to hang around for. Instead we retired to a local outdoor restaurant and enjoyed another fine lunch. Eating in Tuscany turned out to be as good as we had remembered!

    After lunch we finished off the wine route, visiting a friendly winery for a tasting and the purchase of a few bottles of wine (how could we not, when the hostess willingly opened at least 8 different wines for us to taste?). A highlight: the local man who came in with two empty 4-liter bottles on which handwritten labels were pasted that simply read “Vino.” The hostess interrupted our wine tasting and led the man back to the wine vats, where they filled up the bottles with the local red. That made for a nice picture.

    Dinner was back at Vino al Vino, where one of the excellent dishes we sampled was procini mushroom timbal on a cheese/panna sauce. Delicious! While my rabbit was good, I regretted not having the wild boar again. A sudden rainstorm abruptly ended our dinner on the restaurant’s terrace, but it was time to head back to La Ferreira anyway, to pack up for the next day’s journey to base 5, Santa Margherita Ligure and the beautiful Riviera di Levante.

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    And here it is!

    PART 5: SANTA MARGHERITA LIGURE AND THE LEVANTE RIVIERA

    May 30
    Seeing old friends is always nice, but the Mediterranean Sea was calling to us. We’d been apart 7 days, after all! Our friends were on their way to Rome to fly back to the United States, so we said goodbye and drove up into Chianti, enjoying the lovely views, through Radda, Poggiobonsi, and Castellina, all places we had stopped on previous trips to Tuscany. We were headed for Santa Margherita, which we knew was about a 3-hour drive from Loro Ciuffenna. We initially planned to drive to Lucca and stop for lunch there at a restaurant we fondly remembered, but J spotted San Gimignano on the map and we made a sudden decision to go that way instead--uncharted territory (for us, anyway)! We had read that San Gimignano is overrun with tourists, which is not our cup of tea, so we hadn’t been eager to go there, but it seemed to be presenting itself in our way so we decided to go for it.

    At the end of May, San Gimignano was not overrun by tourists--not that it was empty of our fellow Americans, British, Italians, and so forth, but it certainly wasn’t crawling with visitors like Positano and central Rome had been. It’s obviously a well-cared-for town, with every stone in place, but it’s also beautiful and beautifully situated, on a hill with a spectacular 360-degree view of the gorgeous countryside around it. Parking just outside the walls was easy, and we made the obligatory visits to the guidebook sites, taking photos of the town’s towers against a gorgeous blue-and-white sky. We also enjoyed seeing a beautiful bride and groom and their wedding party posing for pictures in town--evidence that it’s not just for tourists. We were about to buy pork sandwiches from a vendor in the square when we noticed a sign for a “slow food” restaurant, Ristorante Dorando, leading to a side street off the Piazza Duomo. Though the restaurant was empty except for the attentive staff (why? the places in town that offered tourist-oriented food were full), the meal we ate was outstanding--chicken livers in a pastry basket with greens, leeks and ham, broad noodles in a duck ragu, ravioli stuffed with potato in an asparagus sauce--all delicious! One of the best meals of the trip, with the most impeccable service. I highly recommend the Dorando.

    We needed to get to Santa Margherita at a reasonable hour, especially since the B&B we would be staying at, Villa Gnocchi (105 euros per night, including breakfast), was in the hills above town and we didn’t want to try to find it in the dark. The drive was very pleasant. We reached the coast at Rapallo and I immediately felt the coastal vibe--I was excited to be back at the water. Lots of traffic, but my navigator J pointed me on the right route to Santa Margherita and we wound our way up the hill to the B&B, requiring a rather terrifying left turn off the main road and a steep, narrow driveway down to the B&B’s parking area. Seeing the traffic in the area and the lack of parking spots along the town roads, we determined to keep the car parked at the B&B for the next few days and depend on our feet, buses, and boats to get us around.

    We buzzed into the gated entrance and Roberto Gnocchi greeted us at the parking area. He led us to our room, which he said he assigned to us because we had reserved so far in advance (February maybe?). It was nice! Simple, clean, and airy, the best part being the awesome (I mean it) view from the small balcony overlooking the town and the sea below us. By now you know how enamored we are of rooms with great views, and this one was extra special, for we could see all the way to the Cinque Terre in the distance on the left and to the cliffs plunging down toward Portofino on the right. Wow!

    The B&B used to serve dinner, but Roberto told us he had made things easier for himself a couple of years ago and stopped that service, so we were on our own for our evening meal. He suggested that we walk up the footpath about 10 minutes to the little town of San Lorenzo, where we could buy provisions in the market or have a meal in one of the several restaurants in town. We did just that, enjoying the lovely walk and buying some things at the market for a light meal on the balcony, watching the day slowly turn to night, and the lights of the town below start to twinkle. What a gorgeous place.

    May 31
    Not everything is perfect, even on the Riviera: we woke up to the first rain of the trip. But with only four days in the area we didn’t want to waste one reading in our room, so after breakfast, with the rain momentarily stopped, we walked about 15 minutes down the trail from Villa Gnocchi, past some lovely hillside residences, into Santa Margherita to explore the town. The walk allowed us to see that, beyond its tourist-oriented seafront, the town is a real working town with real people going about their daily lives. We liked it!

    For some reason I wasn’t aware before visiting the area that the walls of many of the buildings are elaborately painted in lovely colors with detailed trompe l’oeil moldings, faux stonework, and painted shutters. I loved the decorative touches and wondered how long it would take the expert painters to finish their work on a building. It really added to the special ambience of the area.

    The rain continued off and on through much of the morning, but we used it as an excuse to duck into churches, a coffee bar, and shops, where we admired the merchandise but didn’t buy--for some reason I had little interest in buying anything on this trip. Maybe because I knew that I’d have to carry it around for weeks? We found a crowded trattoria in the center of town (away from the water) for lunch and managed to squeeze into one of the few open tables in the steamy room (it was wet everywhere!) where we had pizza and watched the wait staff handle the crowd. A break in the rain allowed us to walk in the gardens of the lovely Villa Durazzo, taking in the views down to the town below.

    The weather improved greatly as the afternoon progressed, so we walked out to the southern end of the lungomare, admiring all the boats in the harbor and sitting on the breakfront for a while to take in the view of the sea and coastline. On our return stroll we encountered an open-air market with many hand-made items (again, they didn’t tempt me) and then stationed ourselves along the wall of the beachfront to watch the rowboat races that were taking place in the harbor. We watched for more than an hour as teams of boats and their crews of 6 or 8 from local towns raced against each other, alternating women’s races and men’s races. A big crowd had gathered to watch, and it was fun to observe both the races and the crowd. Santa Margherita had plenty to keep us busy!

    It was time to head back to the Villa Gnocchi for the evening. I wasn’t eager to walk back up the hill (give me downhill any day), so we bought bus tickets from the well-placed bus information center along the waterfront and found the local bus (Sta Margherita-Camogli) that would take us up the hill to San Lorenzo, where we could walk down to the B&B. Before getting on, however, we returned to one of the gourmet food shops we had seen during our wanderings and bought an artichoke torte, a seafood salad, bread, and wine to have for dinner on our favorite balcony.

    June 1
    The skies were overcast again but no rain threatened, so we walked back down into town in time to catch the 10:15 a.m. boat to San Fruttuoso (via Portofino), a small stoney beach with steep cliffs and a monastery built right at the edge of the water. I assumed that San Fruttuoso is somewhat off the beaten track since you can get to it only by water or by a strenuous hike over the hills, but the frequent boats from Portofino and other ports dump scores of tourists onto the tiny beach. Fortunately they come and go pretty quickly--not much to see there! To let the place clear out a little after our boat disgorged its passengers, we climbed up some steps to a cliffside restaurant where we had a drink and enjoyed the scenery below. As with most of the beaches we visited on our trip, workers were setting up the stakes and ropes to separate the public from the pay area of the beach. When the crowds dissipated for a while we investigated the abbey and walked a ways on the trails behind it before getting a boat back to Portofino.

    The sun was out by the time our boat pulled into gorgeous Portofino harbor, where many of the yachts are bigger than the buildings. It’s a beautiful place, almost like a stage set in its charming layout, and it reeks of money. We walked along the harbor and through the little streets for a while, ignoring the 16 euro papardelle offered for lunch at the restaurants along the harbor, and found an informal cafe where our order of foccaccia and wine set us back just 20 euros total. We considered that a bargain lunch in pricey Portofino.

    After lunch we finished touring the (literal) high spots of town and then decided to get our exercise by forgoing the boat trip back to Santa Margherita and walking instead. It turned out to be a wonderful, scenic walk on a wooded path from Portofino to Paraggi, and then along a dedicated walkway that skirts the sea all the way back to Sta Margherita. I loved that walk! We had the trail pretty much to ourselves so it was very peaceful. We picked up the bus in Santa Margherita for the ride up the hill to the villa, and after a short rest we walked back up to San Lorenzo for dinner at Trattoria degli Amici. Good country food (stuffed mussels, penne with calamari, chicken with walnuts, washed down with a Gambero Rosso ’08 and limoncello) provided the perfect ending to a perfectly lovely day.

    June 2
    Where do you go to escape the crowds on an Italian national holiday? Don’t make the mistake we did and go to the Cinque Terre for the day--you’ll regret it!

    In May 2005 we had spent a delicious three days based in the quiet town of Corniglia, hiking the main CT trail and visiting all the colorful little seaside towns that make up the “5 lands.” It was so beautiful that we were eager to return and soak up some of the same atmosphere that had charmed us four years ago. Unfortunately, hundreds (thousands?) of others had the same idea, so when we alighted from our train at 11 a.m. in Vernazza, we were appalled to find that it was hard to even elbow our way through town to the harbor. Yikes! (Marigross, in another recent trip report on the forum, had much the same reaction to her stay in Vernazza on June 2. Maybe I brushed elbows with her?)

    We tried to enjoy what we could of Vernazza but soon lost interest and headed up the trail for the 2-3 km hike to Corniglia, hoping we would find some calm in that less frequently talked about village high above the coastline. The hike was as stunning as we had remembered, marred only by the scores of hikers with which we jockeyed for position as we passed each other. When we reached Corniglia we sat down to have lunch in the little piazza that forms the center of the town, where we had whiled away lovely, quiet afternoons in 2005 over beers and caperberries. No such luck this time--though Corniglia was indeed nowhere as busy as Vernazza had been, the charm was missing. I’ll blame our bad choice of days to visit--I hope that’s the case, anyway. I doubt we’ll ever go back to the Cinque Terre--we’ll just have to stick with the pictures and feelings we had from 2005 and try to block out the memory of June 2, 2009.

    On the train back from Corniglia to Santa Margherita we met an interesting mother/daughter pair from Australia and had a nice conversation with them about experiences we had had traveling in each other’s countries. The daughter was the first real-live couch surfer we had met--to her mother’s despair, she had spent the past several months of her trip around the world crashing on the couches of people she had contacted through a couch-surfing site on the Internet. And she had lived to tell about it! Sounded like a great way to do some inexpensive adventure travel--but somehow I don’t think we (or her mother) will be doing that ourselves anytime soon. They too had given up on the Cinque Terre after about 5 minutes in the train station at Vernazza and were headed for Rapallo to find some peace and quiet.

    We were happy to get back to friendly Santa Margherita, which is large enough to absorb the holiday crowds, and definitely regretted not doing something more local for the day. There was so much to see in and around Santa Margherita and its neighboring towns. Oh well--live and learn! At least we hadn’t tried to drive and been stuck in traffic for hours.

    Next stop: a brief visit to Camogli and then on to Asti and the Piedmont.

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    Thanks, Irish--I want to go back too!

    Well, I spent the first third of my summer traveling in Italy, and it seems like I've spent the second third trying to finish this trip report. Here's the next installment--only two more after this!

    PART 6: THE PIEMONTE

    June 3
    The coastal weather had reached a state of perfection, but we had reservations in the Piemonte (Piedmont) region so we reluctantly tore ourselves away from Santa Margherita. Well, first we prolonged the pleasure of the Riviera a bit by driving over to Camogli, not far to the east of Santa Margherita, instead of getting directly onto the A12. What a delightful detour!

    Camogli surprised us with its colorful buildings rising high along the wide pedestrian way fronting the sea--they seemed to be several stories taller than most of the buildings we had seen in the other towns in the area. It was virtually deserted on this Wednesday morning after the national holiday, except for the crowd of locals who were shopping at the street market that spilled down the main street near where we parked. We had a glorious, carefree walk through town and along the seafront, stopping at the castle and church that stand on what was originally an island but is now connected the the mainland. We spent some time in the outdoor seating area of a small cafe, taking in the view. As we had seen at many beaches along the coast in May, workers were pounding stakes in the sand and stringing ropes to cordon off the private beach areas from the public ones, in time for the high season that was about to begin. A baby made its way over the large rounded stones, happily crawling between the two areas with no one about to disturb him. He looked so much like our oldest son did when he was the same age (with the same well-worn knees), which brought back fond memories of our travels with him and his brother in various parts of the world. (Start them young!)

    After our beautiful interlude at Camogli, we took the A12 and then the A26 toward Asti and the Piemonte. When I had posted a question on this forum several months before our trip asking for suggestions of what to do with 12 days in northern Italy, the recommendations flowed in. Bob the Navigator convinced us to spend at least part of the time in the Piemonte with this statement: “Stay at Villa Sampaguita and let Tim help you to find the best places to eat in the villages.” Villa Sampaguita is an agriturismo (or is it a B&B?)in the countryside not far from Asti, and it became our destination of choice for a base from which to explore the area.

    When we contacted Tim Brewer (who, with his wife Rina, owns and runs Villa Sampaguita and is an occasional poster on this forum) for the reservation, he helpfully asked what we were interested in doing while in the area so that he could send us information to help us plan our days. He also sent detailed driving instructions, including a good detour through the hilly vineyard country near Acqui Terme that we could take if we had some extra time on the way over from the coast. We followed the recommended route and found ourselves in the land of wall-to-wall vineyards. I’ve never seen so many! No wine shortage in the Piemonte, that's for sure.

    Acqui Terme turned out to be a lovely city with what looked like great shopping, though most of the shops were closed because we had arrived at the lunch break. We parked for free just outside the center of town and walked in toward the modern stepped fountain that graces the center, near the top of which was the restaurant Tim had recommended (called I Caffi). We were directed to it by two helpful local women we met on the street who miraculously understood our poor Italian (not much English in Acqui), but unfortunately it was closed on Wednesdays, so the envisioned fine lunch there was not to be. Instead we settled on yet another open-air restaurant, this one in Piazza Bollente, where we admired the ancient thermal water fountain that bubbles away at 74.5 degrees Centigrade. We had a tasty light lunch and watched the schoolchildren roam the piazza on their lunch break from school. Very fun! It looked like Acqui Terme would be a place to spend more time, if we had it. (This seems to be a theme. More time needed!)

    Further driving and good navigating brought us easily to the doors of Villa Sampaguita about 4 p.m. Rina greeted us and showed us the ins and outs of staying at the villa, which is set in a vineyard and surrounded by interesting trees, flowers, and other plantings, cared for almost solely by Tim and Rina themselves. Oh--and there's a bunny that plays ball. The villa is a large building with two wings and is nicely placed overlooking the hills beyond. Later in the week, on a very clear day, we even saw snow-covered mountains in the far distance. Tim and Rina live in one wing and their guests occupy large rooms and a couple of apartments in the other half. The ambience is relaxed, make-yourself-at-home, airy, and open. There were lots of places to explore on the property, and the place grew on us throughout the week. We would have liked to spend more than 4 days there, especially given the reasonable price (95 euros per night since we paid in cash, with breakfast included).

    The guest rooms were purpose-built when the villa was remodeled at the beginning of Tim and Rina’s tenure there, with comfort in mind: a terrace/balcony with a view, a spacious bedroom, good closet space (a large armoire), a large, firm bed, and a big bathroom. My favorite part was the view from the bathtub, through a large window whose panes could be flung open to let the glorious country air in.

    We were hungry for dinner so Rina gave us the low-down on restaurants in the area. From her extensive list of recommendations we picked out one of her favorites, Osteria della Barbera Tacabanda, near the theater in the center Asti, which was only a few miles away by car. We found good parking in town and walked through the busy pedestrian street to the restaurant. We had no reservation but were early enough that we were able to snag one of the outside tables. Highlights of the meal included the excellent house wine, an onion tart with zucchini sauce, and delicious pork with its own delicious sauce. We enjoyed this meal so much that we decided to return later in the week for another one.

    The view from our balcony that night of an almost full moon rising over the hills was gorgeous. What a nice, relaxing place we had found!

    June 4
    Rina served a super breakfast with fresh fruit, homemade bread, local cheese, and free-range eggs provided by her own chickens. We had to turn down other offerings because we were gaining too much weight--almost 4 weeks in Italy had definitely blown the diet!

    On tap for today, hopefully, was a visit to a winery to do some tasting. Tim sat down with us after breakfast and talked about the possibilities; he ended up calling a friend, Allesandro Rivetto, at the winery Rivetto dal 1902 in the Barolo valley not far from Serralunga. Armed with an appointment for 11 a.m., we wound our way along local roads to the lovely, well-kept winery, where we were met and escorted on a tour by Allesandro. He told us all about winery and the nebbiolo grape used in his family’s business, we shared stories about an expensive Philadelphia restaurant we had eaten in that carries his wines (he was wearing a Philadelphia shirt), and then he poured and discussed each wine (and shared a bowl of hazelnuts, which are also grown on the estate). We were joined by a German couple who had had one of the Rivetto wines at a restaurant the night before and had searched out the winery in order to buy a case or two to bring home with them. We also bought a few bottles, for drinking in the coming days.

    After so much wine we needed something solid, so we (carefully) drove over to Barolo, where we found a cute outdoor restaurant, Osteria La Cantinella, in the village. Another good meal! (I don't think there's ever a bad meal in the Piemonte.) Then it was on to La Morra, a town with spectacular views over the region even on a hazy day, and explored the town. At the tourist office I saw a post card showing the colorful little “Cappella di Barolo,” which was shown on the map as being on a back lane on Ceretto’s Brunate vineyard. It turned out that the cappello wasn't that interesting, but it was fun getting out on the backroads and close up among the vines.

    Back at Villa Sampaguita that evening, we decided to forgo another restaurant meal and instead went into Asti to do some shopping for delicacies in the local gourmet shop, which we could eat back on our balcony. The shopkeepers were very friendly and the prepared food was excellent, so it was a nice break from restaurant meals.

    June 5
    One of the nicest things about staying at the villa was meeting the other guests--breakfast around the big dining room table, in particular, was conducive to good conversations. We had a nice talk with a couple of teachers from England about standardized testing, national currciulum standards, and so on. (Sounds boring, but since J is a college professor and I worked for a nonprofit testing company, it was actually very interesting.) Then it was another sit-down with area expert Tim, who gave us plenty of information and routes for a daytrip we wanted to take to the Val d’Aosta and the Alps. This was kind of a stretch, since it was a little more than 2 hours of driving each way, but we figured it might be the only time we ever get to that part of the Alps, so why not.

    The drive took us across the flatlands of northern Italy, through the surprisingly extensive rice paddies that stretch far on either side of the road (who knew this was the rice belt? not me!). The weather looked a bit iffy, but miraculously, as we reached the Val d’Aosta, the clouds lifted and the spectacular mountains loomed right in front of us. Since we were right at the turnoff to Brieul-Cervina and the Matterhorn (Monte Cervino in Italian) when the clouds lifted, we took the bait and headed up the hill to see that famous mountain. Just before arriving in the ski town of Brieul, at the base of the mountain, we stopped to see the small Lago Blu, really just a pond ringed by a short trail, but with beautiful reflections of the mountains in the water and wildflowers galore. The weather was cool--we were glad we had our fleece jackets--but it was fun to walk around the town and take pictures of the Matterhorn.

    It was lunchtime and Breuil looked pretty closed up (too late for winter and too early for summer), so we headed back down the hill and stopped at a cafe in Valtournenche for a hearty mountain meal of salad, soup with huge dumplings, and polenta. Delicious local food. We did want to make it up the valley toward Mont Blanc if we could, so we drove on as the clouds were closing in. At the cable car entrance we ran into some people who had just come over the mountain--they said it was cold and snowing at the Italian-French border, so we knew we wouldn’t be going beyond the first stop (Pavillon), especially since it was pretty late in the afternoon already. We enjoyed the trip up to that first stop, though, where we walked along the trails and gazed at the valley below and Mont Blanc above, through the clouds. It was a quick trip, but we were glad to have seen those beautiful mountains so close up. We were itching to get into the mountains on foot, but since the Dolomites were next on the agenda we knew we would have plenty of opportunity to do that in the coming days.

    June 6
    We spent a relaxing start to the morning at the villa chatting over breakfast with Tim and Rina. All the other guests had departed, and they were going to spend the afternoon with a large group of friends at a wine tasting in Barolo. We were headed in the opposite direction, to Torino (Turin), for a day in that beautful city on the banks of the Po.

    The drive to Torino was relatively short. We parked on the street near the Piazza Vitello Venezio and walked to the fabulous Film Museum, which occupies the base of a unique landmark tower, the Mole Antonelliana. We started our visit by taking the interior elevator to the top of the tower for the view, which was good even though the morning was hazy. (If we had visited in the afternoon instead, after a dramatic thunderstorm passed through the city, the distant views would have been awesome.) Back at the base of the building, we spent a couple of hours in the fun and fascinating exhibits on the history of film making. We could easily have stayed longer.

    For lunch we ended up on one of the many arcaded shopping streets, where we came across a falafel cafe that provided a quick and tasty break from the cuisine we had been eating so much of the past month. Then it was on to the grand squares and grander buildings of the historic center, including the Palazzo Madama and the chapel that on occasion displays the famous Shroud of Turin (not showing!). The skies opened while we were walking the length of the Via Garibaldi, so we ducked into some stores to wait out the rain. The city is vibrant and beautiful, and it deserves more time than we had. When the rain stopped we decided to cross the Po and drive up to the Basilica di Superga to view the city from the hill, and hopefully the Alps in the distance. The basilica is imposing from the outside, less interesting inside. We did get glimpses of the city spread out below, but a good trimming of the many bushes and trees would make the view more accessible.

    We returned to the villa by the back roads, arriving a little before 6 p.m. to find 3 New Zealanders sitting on the patio. They were planning to stay for a week in the apartment attached to the villa, but their reservation had apparently fallen through the cracks so they were not expected. With Tim and Rina still away at the wine tasting we played host for drinks on the patio and then we all headed in to Asti for dinner at Tacabanda. We had a great time! By the time we returned to the villa Tim and Rina were back and eagerly welcomed the New Zealanders--and thanked us for helping out in their absence. We were only too happy to share the "make-yourself-at-home" vibe with the newest guests!

    Next stop: The Dolomites

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    PART 7: 5 NIGHTS IN THE DOLOMITES

    June 7
    When we planned this trip we knew that our time in the Piemonte would be an introduction only, and that it would open up new possibilities for further explorations of in years to come. With that in mind, after a final delicious breakfast of farm-fresh scrambled eggs and other tasty things, we said good-bye to Tim, Rina, and the ball-playing bunny and headed northeast for a long drive into the Dolomites, where we had booked a room at an inn in La Villa, in the Alta Badia, for five nights. According to our map it looked like it would be at least 450 kilometers, which we figured would take us much of the day.

    We stayed on the autostrada (A21) for quite a ways, stopping at an AutoGrill to get some snacks for lunch in the car. We did a brief drive-by of a portion of Lake Garda as we turned north, then continued on along excellent roads past Trento to Bolzano and then into the heart of the Dolomites. At last! J has longed to get to these mountains for many years, to hike and see the rugged peaks, and I was happy to come along for the ride (and walks). We ticked off the town names as we passed through--Ortisei, Santa Cristina, Selva--all magic places that we knew we would have time to explore in more depth over the next four days.

    We were planning to pick up maps and hiking information at a tourist offices along the way, but it was Sunday afternoon so nothing was open. Problem was, we weren’t exactly sure where La Villa and our inn, the Ciasa Montanara, was located. (So unlike us!) We kept going, up and over the magnificent pass as the road got narrower and the turns became true hairpins. Voila! After driving down through Colfosco and Corvara, we finally came upon La Villa, which sits in an unbelievably beautiful green valley dotted with chalets and surrounded by stunning mountains, many with snow still on their slopes. Somehow we figured out where Ciasa Montanara was--I think we found it on a map that was posted outside the tourist office--and forced our little Fiat (which had held its own in the mountains) up the steep village road to a safe landing in the hotel’s small parking lot. It had been a long drive and we were tired, but we were definitely in the Dolomites! The weather was cool and crisp, but the sky was clear and it looked like we were in for some beautiful days ahead.

    The three-story inn, with the name Garni Montanara painted on its side wall, was warm and inviting. As we were led up the stairs to our room on the top floor by the friendly owner, we learned that although German and Italian are spoken there, English is not. Since we don’t speak German, our baby Italian would have to suffice. We managed to get by just fine, though, with hand gestures and smiles and the simple words and phrases we had picked up over the past month. By the way, we didn’t encounter any other Americans in the town or, for that matter, during our time in the Dolomites. The bulk of the tourists we saw and heard seemed to be German or Austrian.

    The room was very comfortable, with two pristine down quilts on the bed (one for each of us--a perfect solution to the nighttime grab for covers), a roomy bathroom with a large jetted bathtub, and balconies on two sides, with incredible views onto the valley and mountains. With the down quilts from the bed wrapped around us, we would spend quite a bit of time in the evening sitting on the balcony watching the daylight fade and the mountains warm with the glow of the setting sun. Gorgeous! Special thanks Paul from this forum, whose recommendation and beautiful pictures of Ciasa Montanara and its views spurred us to select it as our Dolomite base. And it was a bargain that we hadn’t seen since Lipari, at 60 euros per night, including breakfast. Great choice!

    We hadn’t eaten much since breakfast, aside from our autostrada snacks, so we drove down the hill into town to try to find an open restaurant. We knew that our choices were going to be limited because we were in that no-man’s land of post-ski season, pre-summer hiking season, but we found La Tor, which was open for its last night before a two-week holiday break. Our meals were good--much different from the Italian food we had been enjoying over the last month--but the portions were too large, and we were just too tired from the long drive to really enjoy them. After dinner we headed straight back to the inn and those enticing down quilts.

    June 8
    Uh-oh. Bad news. I spent the night throwing up, and J was feeling bad as well. It must have been something we ate--the breakfast eggs? the peanuts from the AutoGrill? something at La Tor? Who knows--all I could tell was that I was miserable.

    I almost never get sick--never before on a trip--and when I do it is always short-lived. So I thought this would be a momentary aberration from which I would quickly recover. I had no interest in breakfast, of course, so J, who was feeling a little better, ate alone--he reported on an excellent a buffet with lots of good choices. I was starting to feel a little better myself, and I figured I would continue to improve over the course of the day but wouldn’t be up too much hiking, so we set off for the Olympic village of Cortina d’Ampezzo via the Passo Falzarego, through lovely countryside. We drove around the town a bit and finally found parking at the old train station. When we got out of the car to do some investigating of the town, I realized that I wasn’t feeling as well as I had thought. I was fine sitting down, but walking was out of the question--I was really weak, and I just wanted to go back to bed. Rotten luck! So it was back to La Villa where I climbed the three floors to our room and went straight under my down quilt, where I spent much of the afternoon.

    I won’t prolong the agony with more discussion of my health--suffice it to say I didn’t fully recover until we left the Dolomites, four days later. Each day I got a little better, but I didn’t feel like eating and was just too weak and uncomfortable to do any uphill walking, so that didn’t leave many options. I felt bad for J, who had been so looking forward to our time in the mountains, but he didn’t want to go off by himself and hike, leaving me behind (even though I insisted that he do soon our last day in the area). So the rest of this report about our time in the Dolomites isn’t what it could have been--though we did make the best of it, it became more of a driving trip than a walking trip. Because we were there between seasons only a few lifts were open, but we took them when they were available. We’ll just have to go back again to do our walking.

    June 9
    The clouds were threatening, but we were off first thing in the morning, up the valley toward Arabba and then on to the Passo Pordoi, where we took a cable car steeply up to the top of Sass Pordoi and the precipitously perched Refugio Maria. The views were nice for the first ten minutes, then the clouds closed in and nothing was to be seen! We had a nonalcoholic drink at the refugio (we were the only visitors there), walked around as much as the snow allowed, and headed back down on the cable car.

    We then returned to Ortisei to get a closer look at that town, which is much bigger than La Villa, with lots of activity. The weather had started to clear so we took our chances on another cable car, a cute pod-shaped red one up Mont Seuc to the beautiful valley at the base of the Alpe di Suisse. The restaurant there seemed like just the right place for a light lunch of soup (neither of us was eating much at that point), after which we took a lovely walk down into the valley. The meadows were incredibly green, some of them swathed with the bright yellow of masses of wildflowers. There were quite a few more people in this area (no one speaking English), doing various walks across the valley.

    We made our way back up the hill and down to Ortisei on the cable car. It had been a nice day, low key but beautiful despite the clouds.

    June 10
    We decided to give Cortina another try, since the drive from La Villa was lovely and our previous visit to the town had been unexpectedly aborted. The day was overcast, so spending some time in town was appealing. Cortina seemed like it would be a lively place, with its pedestrian-only main shopping street, but most of the shops were closed up, again a drawback of traveling in this area between seasons. Instead of shopping, which we didn’t really want to do anyway, we stuck our heads into a couple of churches and stopped at the tourist agency for a good map that would help us on our future excursions.

    One of the most famous mountain groups in the Dolomites is the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, so that’s where we headed next. J spent his youth reading mountain-climbing books and dreaming of climbing those mountains himself, so he was eager to see these icons of the Alps. When we got to the turnoff up to the mountains, however, we were presented with a sign that stated the charge to go further up the road: 20 euros! Since we weren’t going to be able to hike (thanks to me), we made the decision to give up on the Tre Cime and go on toward Lago di Braies, about an hour’s drive away (I told you this would become a driving trip!). In retrospect, we should have paid the money and taken the opportunity to see those peaks up close. What’s 20 euros when you’ve come so far and already spent so much? They will definitely be on our list for next time. We did find a nice viewing area across a meadow a little further on, so we pulled in and stopped for a nice little picnic of crackers and drinks. No dining highlights to describe in this section, that’s for sure!

    When we hit the main east-west road that would take us toward the lake, the E66, we realized that we were just about 12 km from the Austrian border. Another country to add to our list! So we made a brief detour to cross the border, where we saw one person and, perfectly, he was wearing a Tyrolean hat, complete with feather. We took a quick picture of the “Austria” sign to prove that we had been there, and then turned around and back into Italy to find Lago di Braies.

    The lake is reputedly “the most beautiful lake in Italy,” and indeed it is lovely. Green/blue water, steep, snowy mountainsides plunging to the lake, and forest-green trees combined with beautiful sunshine to create a special place. The only drawback was the number of visitors--it was a popular place, even early in the season. We took a nice walk part way around the lake.

    At the end of this long day we drove back past Brunico and again into the mountains, via an incredibly beautiful route. This area is just stunning. We were pretty tired but found a nice local pizzerizia/ristorante in Corvara for our first substantial meal in several days.

    June 11
    What else could we do that didn’t involve hiking uphill? We spent the first part of our morning planning out some things, then, because it finally was a sparkling sunny day, decided to make a return to Passo Pordoi for another cable car trip up to Sass Pordoi, this time in the sunshine. First we stopped at the Passo Falzarego, hoping that the highly recommended Lagazuoi cable car there would be open (not to be). The sunshine and the few days really made a difference in the amount of people going up to Sass Pordoi--there were maybe 100 people scattered about at the refugio, and we shared great views all around. Wow!

    All this driving was not without its challenges--the roads are very good, but in many places they are incredibly curvy, and everywhere they are loaded with zillions of motorcyclists and many bicyclists as well. (How do they manage to get in good enough shape to make it up those steep roads?) It was necessary to keep all the variables in mind as we went up and down the mountains. Mentally, it was kind of exhausting!

    On the way back to La Villa we went over Passo Campolongo. It was still early in the afternoon, so we parked at Blanac (lift not open), and I read (almost a whole book) in the sunshine while J hiked for a few hours up the steep but varied and beautiful (he reports) route to Utna Paralorgia, about 3.5 km each way and 450 m vertical. Each stage opened up new vistas, culminating in a 360-degree panorama at the top. As everywhere in these mountains in early June, the meadows were full of stunning wildflowers.

    We made it back to our inn at La Villa to watch the mountains light up from our balcony, wrapped in our down quilts. We ended the day with a nice dinner at Pizzeria Caterina in Corvara. Our time in the Dolomites may not have been what we planned, but it did have a silver lining: we saved a lot of money on restaurant meals, and I lost all the weight I had gained over the course of the previous four weeks!

    Next, the final part, at last: an overnight in Verona, and three gorgeous days on Lake Como.

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    Thanks, packed. I am glad to be of help. I was wondering if anybody was still reading this!

    OK, it's time to wrap it up--this has gone on too long.

    PART 8: LAKE COMO, WITH A STOP IN VERONA

    June 12
    Another gorgeous day dawned in the Dolomites, and finally I felt just fine. Of course it was moving day--over the pass and down the Val Gardena to the Alto Adige valley, mapping our route to an overnight stop in Verona for a quick taste of that town.

    Seeing all the signs to Venice, I suddenly wanted to forget Verona and head straight to the city on the water--I had a hard time knowing it was so close and not going back there, since it’s one of our favorite places in the world. But no, this was Verona’s time, so I had to give it a fair chance. Navigator J had an excellent plan for getting us to our next accommodation, B&B Residenza Carducci, which we knew was just across the river from the center of Verona. Unfortunately, our map wasn’t quite as detailed as we needed it to be, for just as we thought were within spitting distance of the B&B we ran into a street that blocked our way and we were forced to turn. No! Now we had to dead reckon to get back to where we wanted to be, and just as I uttered the words “The one thing I don’t want to do is be driving in central Verona,” we were across the river and smack in the middle of town and unsure how to get out of the center and back across the river to the B&B.

    OK, plan B. The road we were on was one-way, so we followed it gingerly through town. (Last time something like this happened we were in Florence and ended up almost on the steps of the Duomo. Not a pretty sight.) As I drove slowly and carefully around corners and through the narrow streets we passed Verona’s own Duomo (it's a pattern), which at least allowed J to spot where we were on the map and thus figure out how to get us out of the center. About to breathe a sigh of relief, I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw a police car following us. Even more careful driving ensued as I searched for a place to pull over and let the car pass, to no avail. When I looked up again I was being waved over by the police inside the car. I managed to squeeze into a parking area on the side of the street and got out to face the two policewomen who emerged from the car. One asked me to produce my documents, nodded knowingly at her partner and mumbled something like “Americano,” and then asked if I knew what a red light was. Well, yes, it means that one should stop. Hmm, she said, I had failed to stop at a light a couple of turns ago. Honestly, that’s the only thing I dislike about driving in European cities--the hidden stoplights. I really didn’t see it! I apologized profusely and waited for the other shoe to drop. Fortunately, she let me off with a little lecture about how important it is to obey the driving rules, and how “next time” it would be a 140-euro fine. She also helpfully confirmed that we just needed to make one turn and go across the bridge and we would find the street we were looking for. Breath sigh of relief, get back in car, wait for police to leave, and drive off. Check.

    Once we got to the right street we parked and looked for the residence. It wasn’t readily apparent (numbers weren’t consecutive), but a kind pharmacist came out from behind his counter and led us to the right door. We were buzzed in and met in the foyer by the charming owners, who led us upstairs to the gigantic apartment that was ours for the night. It was bright and charming, much nicer than it appeared on the web site we found it on, with a living room, nicely equipped kitchen area, big bedroom and bathroom. All at the bargain price of 95 euros a night, including breakfast. What a find! I highly recommend this B&B--we wished we could have spent more than one night here since it would be a great base for touring the area. And they even provide a parking pass so we you can park in the residential parking zone for free. Can’t beat that!

    We stashed our bags, grabbed a handful of the glorious cherries the owners had left for us, and headed out to explore Verona. What a surprising place! Though there were plenty of tourists at the guidebook sights, their (our) numbers were more than balanced by the fashionably dressed local residents and businesspeople. Our first stop after we crossed the Ponte Nuevo was to find lunch, which we did at a very nice, reasonably priced little outdoor cafe nearby, with no other tourists to be seen. After 5 days of crackers, applesauce, and the like, I was suddenly ready to eat. The food was delicious--or maybe I was just starved.

    What followed was a full afternoon of sightseeing as we packed in as many of Verona’s highlights as we could. We didn’t seek out Juliet’s balcony, but it presented itself along our route as we walked through town, so we had to join the throng of people in the courtyard to take a look. There was the famous balcony, not much, but I did enjoy the walls leading to the courtyard, on which were scrawled love notes from people around the world. The Piazza delle Erbe, the Basilica Sant’Anastasia with its photogenic hunchbacks, the Duomo (not that impressive, but certainly nicer on foot than in a tense drive-by), and the smaller churches nearby were all worth visiting. I think we were happy to be back in town after all those days in the mountains.

    More walking took us across the river Adige to see the Teatro Romano, which was unexpectedly closed. We were tired from all the walking so we recrossed the bridge to Residenza Carducci for a brief rest, then we were out again, this time to Piazza Bra and the huge expanse adjacent to the Roman arena. We paid the entrance fee and went inside to see lots of workers setting up the stage for the upcoming performance of Carmen. Sadly, though we had long before tried to get tickets for a performance, the season hadn't yet started so we had to settle for watching a little of the construction work on the sets. It kind of detracted from the aura of the arena, but it was interesting to see.

    After the arena a circuitous route (i.e., we got a little lost) took us to the crenellated brick Ponte Scaligero, adjacent to the 14th-century Castelvecchio built in the same style. Good setting for pictures! Evening was falling, so we took another break on a park bench in the Piazza delle Erbe, watching the residents, tourists, and young children all doing their thing. It’s quite a vibrant place. Finally, we walked back into the historic center and found a classy little restaurant, Osteria Sgarzarie, off Corta Porta Bozai near the north end of Piazza delle Erbe. Actually, I’m thinking it’s hard to find a bad meal in Verona! We dined on vergetable flan, chicken with oranges and olives baked in parchment and magliata with zucchini blossoms, saffron, and shrimp, with a lovely white wine. Ah, it was good to be up to eating again!

    June 13
    Verona was well worth at least another day, but our final pitstop, the small town of Lezzeno on the shores of Lake Como, was next on the agenda. First, a delicious breakfast and good conversation with the B&B owners in their lovely living/dining room. The home has apparently had been owned by the family for quite a long time (dare I say centuries?). We would love to return Verona someday and would happily make our base at the Residenza Carducci.

    Back in the car, I had to fight the wheel to keep it from turning toward Venice. How could we not go back to Venice? But we love Lake Como, too, so I guess it wasn’t such a poor alternative. It didn’t take long on the autostrada and a few back roads to get to the city of Como, where we parked at an indoor lot within walking distance of the center and spent almost four hours entertaining ourselves with Como’s attractions.

    The walking route from the parking lot to the center took us directly past a great indoor market filled with fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, you name it. We bought filling arancini from one of the friendly vendors, cherries from another, drinks from another, and took them down to the shores of the lake for a picnic as we watched the boats and the people. After lunch we walked the streets, visited the duomo, took in an open-air sculpture exhibit, and stopped at the tourist office for maps and information.

    It was time to head uplake to find the village of Lezzeno and our hotel, the Aurora, which we had reserved for the next three nights. The drive was beautiful, as expected, and we arrived at the hotel by 4:00. We checked in to a nice, simple room with full-length doors opening to a small balcony overlooking the lakeside restaurant and the lake itself, with a stunning view up and down the lake and across to Lenno and its neighboring towns (110 euros per night, with breakfast). I was back on the water, and in heaven. (No, it wasn’t the sea, but almost water will make me happy.)

    The Hotel Aurora is not full of Americans (we were the only ones there at the time) but is frequented by Italians, who come for the delightful location on the water, the full-service restaurant, the large deck full of umbrellas and lounge chairs, the good swimming, and the great water sports (wave-boarding, water-skiing, boating) offered by the helpful staff. We absolutely loved this place. The hotel management was friendly and very accommodating, offering travel advice, bus tickets, ferry schedules--anything they could do for us they did. One of my favorite parts (besides the view from the balcony and the sun deck) was the free kayaks provided for guests to use. Whenever I wanted, I could ask the boat guys to put a kayak in the water for me (or do it myself) and paddle on the lake. What can be better than being out in the middle of gorgeous Lake Como in the morning or late afternoon, taking in the beauty of your surroundings? I have to get back there.

    After some relaxation on the deck and a predinner paddle, we went down to dinner at the open-air lakeside restaurant. The food was good, not great--lots of lake fish on the menu. But the setting was magic, and we were happy to be ending our trip in such a delightful place.

    June 14
    A drawback of Lezzeno is the infrequent boat service (it doesn’t compare to the options out of Menaggio, Bellagio, and Varenna). But we knew there was frequent bus service in case we missed the boat, so we left our car in the tiny hotel parking area and after breakfast caught the 10:37 boat that criss-crosses the lake on its way north. We were the only ones picked up (and later, dropped off) in Lezzeno. We were surprised to see it was a classic sidewheel paddle boat, which made the ride special. We disembarked at Lenno, across the lake, had a cappucino (horrors! after 11:00!) at a lakeside cafe, and walked along the shore over the hill through beautiful woods to the back entrance of the Villa Balbianello (the front entrance is accessed via a small boat from Lenno). The Villa has been featured in a couple of movies--episode 2 of “Star Wars,” and the 1990s’ movie with Vanessa Redgrave, “A Month by the Lake,” in which it's set as a hotel. Not a great movie, but it certainly has beautiful shots of the Balbianello and other parts of Lake Como.

    The gardens of the Villa are, no surprise here, “Italianate”--manicured bushes, walkways lined with statues, beautiful views through the stately plantings. It’s not my favorite style of garden, but it was lovely and a good destination to spend some relaxing time next to the lake. After our visit we walked back over the hill into Lenno, where we had one of the few gelati we indulged in on the trip. Not sure why we hadn’t sampled more of that refreshing Italian standard.

    We hung out in Lenno waiting for a boat to Bellagio, which, when we got there, was absolutely swarming with people--reminiscent of Positano and Portofino. These places seem to draw people to them like magnets. Yes, they are beautiful. No, they are not the highlight of a trip to Italy! We had been to Bellagio on a previous trip so we knew what to expect. We wanted to explore a little, so we walked up the steep streets and lost a few of the people. We found a little restaurant where we thought we had hit gold--off the beaten track, with a hidden back courtyard--but the food turned out to be less than stellar, one of our few unlucky choices on the whole trip.

    We put the unsatisfying meal behind us and walked over to a lakeside park where the three branches of Lake Como meet, and many people were enjoying the afternoon. After a respite there we caught the last boat back to Lezzeno and the delightful Aurora sun deck, where we watched darkness fall and then had a light meal at the hotel restaurant. The end of another beautiful day!

    June 15
    The kayaks called, so we spent the morning paddling across the lake. We paddled right up to the Villa Balbianello, which was closed for the day, and enjoyed our view from the water. The weather was threatening so we eventually paddled back to Lezzeno and traded the kayaks for our car. We drove the short way up the road to Bellagio again and caught a boat across to Varenna, where we had spent three lovely days on a previous trip. The weather had improved, so we enjoyed a nice meal of crepes at a lakeside cafe before boating back to Bellagio and the short return drive to the Aurora.

    I think we had had it with touring after almost six weeks on the road. How to spend our last afternoon on Lake Como? Lounging on the sun deck, of course! We hung out by the docks, sipped Prosecco from hotel bar, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, watching the boat guys teach a young Italian girl (maybe 5 years old?) and her slightly older brother (8?) the first lessons in how to wave board.

    Meanwhile, the restaurant was readying itself for an evening wedding reception, which was going to be held in half of the restaurant that had been sectioned off to create a little privacy. In the early evening the boat guys went off in their speed boats and soon were back with two boats full of the bride and groom and their small group of well-dressed guests. We stayed on the deck for a while, enjoyed another Prosecco, and then sat down for dinner, entertained by the great mix of songs coming from the speaker system--lots of 60’s and 70’s American tunes, some Polish folk songs (the couple were Polish film stars, I think), and a whole range of happy dance music coming from the reception side. (Little did we know that the party would go on until about 2:00 in the morning--right under our open window. No worries--we enjoyed listening to the happy event).

    We finally left the restaurant and made it up the steps to the hotel entrance when Chubby Checker’s “Twist again, like we did last summer...” came blasting out of the speakers. The Twist is actually one of the few dances I can do, so J and I started a spontaneous twist right in front of the hotel, leading the staff to pop out the doors to gawk and giggle at the spectacle we were making of ourselves. Who cares, it was a hoot! Actually, I think everybody enjoyed watching two wacky Americans contorting to the sounds of Chubby Checker.

    We finished off the evening sitting in front of a TV with the bar staff (those who weren’t on wedding duty, anyway), watching Italy vs. the United States in a Confederation Cup soccer match. Wisely, we left at halftime with the U.S. up 2-0, knowing full well that that score wouldn’t hold up (it didn’t). But it was a memorable end to our wonderful trip.

    June 16
    We still had to get to Milan to catch our plane, which was flying out of Linate to London very early on the morning of the 17th. We reluctantly left Lezzeno and the Hotel Aurora and drove south to Como. We rode the funicular up to the little town of Brunate and hiked most of the way up to the lighthouse at the top of the hill--the town is very quiet and peaceful. Before we took the funicular down again I had my first granita of the trip--why didn’t I have one sooner? I loved it!

    Back in Como, we walked along the shore through the park to the Volta memorial and then had an excellent lunch (orecchiette with shrimp and zucchini flowers, risotto with gamberoni and lime) at an osteria in Piazza Volta, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. That marked the perfect “final meal” before we drove on to Linate, dropped our rental car off at the airport (no thanks to the rude EuropeCar staff), and checked in to our serviceable hotel for the night, the Air Hotel Milano, which was walking distance from the airport. We had thought about going into Milan for the afternoon but were suddenly “tripped out,” so it was early to bed, with a wakeup call set for 5:45 a.m.

    June 17...and the trip in retrospect
    The trip home via Heathrow to Philadelphia was uneventful (the best kind!).

    Parting thoughts? Six weeks is a significant amount of time to be on the road, but it has real advantages. We had taken a trip of a similar length to Australia and New Zealand last year (refining my packing list!) and expect that this, or even longer periods, will now be our standard since we now have more flexibility to travel in longer chunks than we used to. The best part of a six-week trip is that you never have the sense of being rushed, even if you are covering a lot of ground.

    In retrospect, we thoroughly enjoyed every part of our fourth trip to Italy and have no regrets about choosing any of the destinations we visited. For our next long trip, however, I think we will limit ourselves to three bases, spending at least two weeks in each. The problem is, which three place would we have chosen? Food for thought. I do know that when we left Italy we figured it would be a while before we return, since there are so many other places in the world we want to get to. But as the weeks have passed since our return home, we have been feeling that tug to return to one special place--the Aeolian Islands. So on tap for next year are at least two weeks on Panarea and/or Salina, so we can soak up more of aura of those beautiful spots.

    Arrivederci!

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    Thank you for taking the time to share your lovely trip with us. What a dream to travel in Italy for an extended period like you did. I am going back in October for 10 days, based on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. Like you, I can't imagine not going to Venice this time, but there is so much else to see and so little time. Grazie mille.

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    I appreciate the compliments!

    I read for a living (as a book editor), so I actually don't have much time for reading for pleasure. Thus, aside from reading travel guides and lots of Fodors and Slowtrav postings, I sadly can't advise on that front. However, as we were planning our trip we did catch up on several films based in areas we visited (thanks to Netflix!)-- Il Gattopardo, Il Postino, Roman Holiday, The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Month by the Lake, and Under the Tuscan Sun, among others I can't remember.

    Do you have recommendations for Italy-related reading? I would love to hear them.

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    aprilliacs,

    I have so enjoyed your trip report. Lucky you to have a wonderful 6 week trip. Some of my favorites and some I plan to visit next trip!

    How did you find your time on Lipari? I'm think of 5-6 days in the Aeolians combined with Sicily for my next trip. I know Lipari is the most populated and has the best boat options to the other islands. Would you recommend 3 days there combined with a couple on Panarea? Or was there enough to stay on Lipari as a base for the whole time? This part of my trip will be the relaxing, boating, sun soaking part, so don't want to feel rushed at all!

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    Terrific report--thank you for the paragraphs I can actually read. Glad you liked Villa Sampaguita. We will be in the Dolomites in Sep and then a week at Bellgio in early Oct. Next year we are talking about including Salina in a southern adventure. We seem to enjoy the same places.

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    Dayle, Aeolis plus "mainland" Sicily would be a fantastic trip--we spent 2 great weeks in Sicily a couple years ago (without getting to the Aeolis, which we regretted!).

    I loved Lipari, and 5 days was certainly not too much. It has the most action and most options as a base--easy access to boats to the other islands, places to walk/hike, buses around the island, good restaurants, shopping, very friendly people. We were glad to base there the whole time. That said, however, when we return to the Aeolis for 2 weeks next May we plan on basing half the time in Panarea and half the time in Salina, which are both beautiful. That may be too long for Panarea, but we want to give it a try.

    Bob--yes, I've followed in your footsteps to Croatia and Sicily, as well as the Piedmont. I always appreciate the good advice in your helpful posts on a variety of topics. Maybe we'll see you in Salina!

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    aprillilacs - good reading recommendations (as usual) on Fodors threads -

    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/essential-reading-list---great-books-about-or-set-in-italy.cfm

    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/books-you-would-recommend-in-preparation-for-visiting-italy.cfm

    Another I've just come across and which may be of interest is Alan Ross's Reflections on Blue Water; Journeys in the Gulf of Naples and the Aeolian Islands (Ischia 1948 & 1998; Capri 1998; Aeolian Islands 1998 - 'a poet's perception' rather than a travelogue).

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    Aprillilacs you have made me stay up till 1:30 a.m. because I couldn't stop reading your journal. Thanks for the great recounting of your trip, I love your happy and positive style.

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    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it--we sure enjoyed the trip itself. BTW, I wrote a blog of our recent round-the-world trip, which included 3 weeks in the Aeolian Islands. You can read it if you're interested, at http://aprilaroundtheworld.blogspot.com

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  14. 14 Visiting Exciting Turkey in the Throes of Restoration
  15. 15 Portugal
  16. 16 Walking through Hyde park with luggage on a Sat morning?
  17. 17 Easyjet; Vueling; Ryanair "Carryon" Question
  18. 18 Piran to Venice via ferry
  19. 19 2 full days in Santorini, should we rent a car ?
  20. 20 4 days in lake region
  21. 21 The "Perfect week" in Sicily???
  22. 22 floods in Andalucia
  23. 23 Pisa and Lucca in one day
  24. 24 A day in Bordeaux - what to do?
  25. 25 Tram to Airport
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