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Trip Report A month in northern Italy: Mountains, Lakes and Castles

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Val d’Aosta, the Dolomites, Lake Garda, Torino, San Marino and Le Marche

Background – how I chose this itinerary. The last time I was in Switzerland, a few years ago, I went to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn, which is technically also in Italy. I love Switzerland but not the prices. I thought to myself, next time you want to spend some time in the Alps, do it on the Italian side (where the food is also better). So that was my focus. DH can only get away from work for 2-3 weeks at a time, while I, having chosen my professional carefully, have all summer off. So for many years now I’ve done a couple weeks solo before my husband joins me for another few weeks. Since I don’t like to rent a car solo I decided to do the things that were easily done by public transportation for my solo portion. I also knew I ‘needed’ some sea coast time which wasn’t going to happen in the mountains and I like to try to add somewhere new to most trips, so I added a week in Malta (separate report). Since San Marino and Urbino are two places I’ve wanted to see, and they are best done with a car, and not that far from the rest of the trip we decided to add them on as well. So my five week itinerary became:

1 night Milano, train to Torino 3 nights, fly to Malta 7 nights, fly to Bergamo 1 night, train/boat Malcesine (Lake Garda) 3 nights, train to Milano 2 nights – pu husband and car at Linate airport – 4 nights Aosta, 5 nights Bolzano, 1 Bassano del Grappa, 2 nights San Marino, 3 nights Urbino, 1 night Roma. (we ended up canceling the last night in Urbino and adding it to Rome once we got to Urbino).

Several of the shorter stops were repeats, and/or done for logistical reasons. Travel takes time and it’s much more pleasant if you can break it up a bit. It looks (even to me) like I was hopping around a lot, but if you take out Milano, Bergamo and Roma which were done for logistical purposes to coincide with flight arrival/departures (and all of which I’d previously been to) then it works out to about 4 days in each location which felt just about right.

While I hope the info in my report is useful to people researching trips to the same areas, I think my photos offer a better ‘view’ of what there is to see.
The Dolomites - www.pbase.com/annforcier/dolomiti_trentino_alto_adige
Valle d’Aosta - www.pbase.com/annforcier/valle_daosta
Lake Garda - www.pbase.com/annforcier/italian_lakes (there are also pic in here of previous trips to the Italian lakes, but it’s mostly this trip)
San Marino and Le Marche - www.pbase.com/annforcier/san_marino_and_le_marche
Todi - www.pbase.com/annforcier/umbria&page=all (they are in the middle of the Umbria gallery)
Rome - www.pbase.com/annforcier/rome (only a small portion of the Rome photos are from this trip)

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    Days 1-4
    Once nice thing about going to places you’ve already been is there is no worrying about finding the hotel, what it will be like, etc. I had stayed at Hotel Berna in Milan for several days the last time I was there and loved it. I was only half kidding when I said I was going back to Milan just for the breakfast in that hotel. I only spent one night there at the start of the trip, spent my jet lagged 95 degree afternoon just wandering around the city and took off for Torino the following morning.

    Hotel Berna, Less than a five minute walk from Milano Centrale ( and the metro – or can walk to the Duomo area in 20 minutes or so). Hotel itself is lovely, the staff is always friendly and helpful (they sell metro tickets at the desk, also got my Milano Expo tickets from them). The AC and wi-fi are flawless, the TV gets a zillion stations in many languages. The mini-fridge has free sodas and water (and you can tell them when you ‘check in on line’ what type you want – as well as what temp you want the AC set at!). The breakfast is incredible, the best of any hotel I’ve stayed at – just imagine every kind of fruit, bakery product, cheese, yogurt, meat, etc. And – they give you a free rubber duck – what more could you want in a hotel.

    TORINO AND SACRA SAN MICHELE – Three nights in Torino was just about right. One day I did a day trip to Sacra San Michele (THAT was an experience) and the other days just explored the city. Since I was going to the general region I felt I wanted to see the main city, and since there are flights from Torino to Malta on Ryan Air it seemed like it really made sense to spend a few days there. I enjoyed myself and am glad I went but I certainly wouldn’t say it was on a par with the Italian ‘biggies’ like Rome, etc.

    Hotel Roma e Rocca - Nice old building on a nice porticoed street (full of lovely looking chocolate shops). The ‘piazza’ across the street is actually a park. You can see the hotel from the front of the train station. The room was large and clean with tons of space to lay things out, nice newly tiled large bathroom, great AC, mini fridge, free wifi (a little slow), lift. There is a ‘Brek’s Cafeteria’ two minutes down the street, a decent self service chain restaurant (several in northern Italy) that prepares the food as you order it.

    Torino is roughly in the center of Piedmont–Valle d'Aosta (90 minutes west of Milan by frequent train); it's on the Po River, which stretches east all the way to the Adriatic. Torino's flatness and wide, angular, tree-lined and porticoed boulevards (supposedly 16km of them) and huge airy piazzas are very different from Italian metropoli to the south; the region's decidedly northern European bent is quite evident. Mostly an industrial city (numerous people asked me why I went there) but the center is pleasant and there was certainly enough there to keep me interested for a few days. I felt if I wanted to experience the real north of Italy I should see it’s major city. The guidebooks say it’s French looking, which I guess compared to Rome it is. This entire area has been part of France historically.

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    Always love your photos, have revisited many of your albums... just salivating over the Dolomiti now (we have a week in Ortisei next July). Thank you, thank you, thank you! :)

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    And – they give you a free rubber duck – what more could you want in a hotel.>>

    lol, i wondered if that was a euphemism for a nanosecond.

    nice report isabel, and great pics.

    keep it coming.

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    adelaidean - you will have a great time in the Dolomites. I hope that part of my trip report will be helpful, and if you any specific questions I'd be happy to try and answer them.


    cornishannie - lol - no it was an actual rubber duck, but kind of a fun/nice touch

    bob - thanks for liking the photos - and thanks for all the help you always are when planning trips

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    Torino continued Here's my take on Torino:

    Via Roma from Piazza Carlo Felice (more a park than a piazza) across from the train station is porticoed but ‘newish’ and kind boring. Lots of high priced stores. Piazza San Carlo is a very elegant large square – with two Baroque churches at one end and large statue in the center, but no benches or fountains. Via Roma after that is more interesting (architecturally speaking, still has mostly designer level chain stores) and pedestrianized. Piazza Castello is really large with four modern ‘pavement level’ fountains in the center. Palazzo Madoama on one side of the piazza is an interesting building. The back is a 15th century castle with a very Baroque front half added in the 17th century. It was named for the Savoy queen Maria Cristina, who lived there in the 17th century. The entrance is a grand double staircase. Really nice. Really Baroque. Really fancy. Free. Didn’t go into the museum. On the next side of the piazza is Palazzo Reale – even more white and more baroque and larger. These buildings on Piazza Castello are part of the Unesco World Heritage site : “The Residences of the Royal House of Savoy” (along with the hunting lodge outside of town).

    Through a covered walkway is the Duomo (also under construction). Didn’t see an obvious entrance and had not read great things about the interior, and since I’m not that interested in seeing the shroud (which is only a replica anyway) I didn’t bother trying to go in. But next to it and across the street are some interesting Roman ruins and a huge city gate – the Porte Palatine - that looks like one side of a castle. And just past that is Piazza Repubblica and the Mercato – a gigantic fruit and veggie market (I think the largest in Europe). The scents of the fruit and veggies and especially the freshly cut herbs was incredibly intense. There is also a metal and glass market building – a tad run down but looks like if it were renovated it would be on a scale with Barcelona or Budapest.

    From there I tried to get into the gardens behind the Palace but couldn’t find an entrance. And the streets around there were pretty run down and dirty. So back to Piazza Castello and from there I finally found an entrance. Trees and grass and benches, but it didn’t interest me in looking further to see if there were gardens or fountains. I didn’t see any.

    Just past there is the Mole Anteonellia – very interesting, pretty building. It has an unusual square dome and thin, elaborate spire and is the symbol of the city. Built in the mid 1800s it was initially intended to be a synagogue was taken over by the city and now houses a huge cinema museum. The museum includes the history of photography which I found very interesting. The museum has a kind of Disney-like quality but was fun for an hour or so. I didn’t bother going up the lift as I didn’t think the view would be that great, as it was very hazy so no mountains would be visible. There was no line though. It was 10€ for the museum, another 4 for the lift (lift alone €7).

    Via Po which runs from Piazza Catello down to the river has the prettiest porticos in the city. It ends at Piazza Vittorio Veneto – the biggest square yet. Gigantic. But with a busy street running through it, it doesn’t actually feel much like a piazza. The roman bridge across the Po at the end of it is beautiful, lined with petunias. The church, Grand Madre de Dio, at the end of it, makes for the most picturesque scene in Torino. The river is faster and fresher looking up here near the mountains than further south.

    I walked along the river to Parco Valentino, a large lovely park that stretches a long way along the river. It has numerous kiosks selling drinks and ice cream with umbrella covered seating. A few playgrounds. A garden with fountains. All quite nice.

    The Borgo Medioevale is really interesting. The complex was built for a General Exhibition in 1884 and is a faithful reproduction of a typical Piedmont village in the Middle Ages with a few craft shops, houses, a church, and a couple stores, clustered in a couple narrow lanes, and in the center of the village is the Rocca Medioevale, a medieval castle. Village free. I didn’t see any entrance to an interior but walking through the ‘village’ was interesting (and free).

    In addition to the piazzas and porticoed streets, Torino has several impressive gallerias, not quite on the scale of Milano’s, but pretty. Just off Piazza San Carlo is Galleria San Federico which houses the Cinema Lux, an art deco movie theatre. Galleria Subalpina, built in 1874 connects Piazza Castello with Piazza Carlo Alberto and is one of the most elegant areas of the city. Slightly more run down is Galleria Umberto I, near the Porta Pallazo area, connecting to the mercato. It was apparently the site of the first hospital in Turin.

    The Basilica di Superga is visible from miles around and is quite a beautiful church. Thoroughly Baroque, early 18th century and since 1731 has been the burial place of kings: at least 58 members of the Savoy family down in the crypt. Basilica free, crypt €4 It’s very pretty from the outside, just OK from inside. I imagine the view might be nice on a clear day but tit was so hazy the week I was in Torino that you really couldn’t even make out the buildings in Torino, much less an Alps. Seeing the church took all of ten minutes. It was “OK” but it took quite a while to get there and back - boring bus ride, plus nice but not exactly thrilling old fashioned train ride up the hill, then waiting to get back down - so not worth the total 3 hours or more and 9€ for the train and bus rides.

    All in all I felt Turino has a ‘nice’ feel. The porticos keep the sun off and are easy to walk in. There are several large piazzas, some with small fountains, a few benches. A lot of the architecture definitely feels more northern European than Italian – more like Luxembourg or Strasbourg France or Trier, Germany, etc. Looks like a livable city, but I don’t feel any great need to return like I do with Rome.

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    I have just 'wandered' through your Malta photos, totally WOW!!
    Obviously a scenic country, but I love how you compose your photos, and I am always fascinated by street scenes (which lead me to your Sicily photo album... and those fabulous crazy streets of Palermo).
    Anyway, we are planning our first trip to Italy, and figured a week in the mountains would be relaxing after a few weeks of cities/ towns. Your photos of Bolzano made me think it might be a good option should we get a rainy day in Ortisei.

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    Yeah, the Dolomites were certainly a highlight of the trip (though the entire thing was great, I'd do it again in a heartbeat). And we were very happy staying in Bolzano, which I know is not what most people seem to prefer. We just felt it had a much more interesting feeling than any of the smaller towns, which were basically just ski resort towns. It meant slightly more driving each day, but not by much and it was pleasant.

    But before I get to the Dolomites - I 'had' to climb up to Sacra San Michele. OMG! Neither the photos or the description of it can catch how hard that was.

    Sacra San Michele – A UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you have a car getting there is a piece of cake cause you can drive right up there, but I had read that you could get there with a half hour train ride from Torino and then either get off at the Avigliana train station and take a taxi or continue onto the S.Ambrogio station and hike up the path. I did read that it was ‘strenuous’ but only about an hour and a half. Usually I go faster than the stated times in guide books and reviews so I though it would be a decent workout but perfectly doable. OMG!!!

    It’s a 10 minute, less than ½ mile, flat walk through a relatively cute village to a relatively cute church. Go right behind the church, turn right almost immediately and come to another church, go right behind that and start going up. Directions so far were perfect. Well marked as the walking trail to Sacre San Michele. It’s a mule trail, paved with large boulders/rocks, mostly shaded, birds signing. That’s the good news. It was the steepest, most grueling hike I’ve ever done. It’s a 600 meter (1800 feet) ascent. Fitbit said it was 153 flights (to the bottom of the basilica) – the Empire State Building is 102 flights! Plus there is another 20 flights up to and in the church itself. Perhaps on a less hot/humid day it wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was truly awful. It took me 2 hours. I met a guy coming down, and from the point where we met he said it was another hour and it was, so he must have been going the same speed. Another guy passed me early on and then almost at the top he was coming back down so he obviously was going faster. They were both about my age. A few other, younger people looked pretty beat too.

    Fortunately there are two fountains mid way up the trail where you could cool down. Other than that (and the 14 stations of the cross) and one or two benches it’s just trail. Coming down was much easier cardiovascularly speaking but probably more dangerous. The rocks are slippery, and there’s also tree/leaf debris so it would have been pretty easy to twist an ankle or slip and fall and break something. I had to sidestep a lot. There was a narrow path in the dirt to the side of the ‘paved’ part so obviously other people had trouble with the boulders as well.

    Once you get up there, there’s a bar selling sandwiches and drinks where I got an ice tea that took less than 30 seconds to drink. The abbey itself is of course beautiful, very Romanesque and built right into the rock. Nice church plus lots of terraces and ruins and other bits. Great view of the valley and the towns below (though a bit hazy, would probably be better on a clearer day – it was sunny but the air was very thick). At least now I have bragging rights. But no, I would not do it again if I knew then what I know now.
    Here's the guidebook description of it:
    “The abbey is a religious complex on Mount Pirchiriano, situated on the south side of the Val di Susa overlooking the villages of Avigliana and Sant Ambrogio in the foothills of the Alps. It may have begun as early as 966 but most of it was built in the 11-12th century. It is located atop a rocky crag base and towers above the valley. The church façade leads to a staircase, the Scalone del Morti ("Stairway of the Dead"), flanked by arches, niches and tombs in which, until recent times, skeletons of dead monks where visible (hence the name). At the top of the 243 steps is the marble Porta dello Zodiaco, a masterwork of 12th century sculpture. The church itself is accessed by a Romanesque portal in grey and green stone, built in the early 11th century. The church has a nave and two aisles, and features elements of both Gothic and Romanesque architecture and really is very beautiful. There are some wonderful frescoes as well. There are some ruins of other buildings, the Torre della Bell'Alda ("Tower of the Beautiful Alda"), and a terrace with breathtaking views of the village and valley below” (especially if you know you WALKED up there).

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    After Torino I did a ‘side trip’ to Malta for a week – for ease of people looking for info on Malta I posted that as a separate trip report – here’s the link to that and the photos that go with it. http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/malta-in-july.cfm

    Returning to Italy, I landed in Bergamo, a town I had visited as a day trip from Milano a few years ago. I loved it and was happy to have the evening there, although I only had a few hours. Early the next morning I took the train to my next destination: three days on Lake Garda.

    Sunday, July 12, 2015 – Sunny and hot – 90s – The train to Desenzano (6.70€) was on time, but two other trains were seriously delayed (40 min +). The walk down to the harbor is pleasant in the (relatively) cool morning and it’s downhill, about 15 minutes. Plenty of time to buy the ticket (18.50€) for the boat to Malcesine and look around a bit. The ‘fast’ boats are just barely noticeably faster than the ‘regular’ boats. There is inside and outside seating, they are larger. But not like some hydrofoils I’ve been on (Greece, Naples) that are like being in a bus with dirty windows. The top open deck was all shaded and not easy to move around, but it was outside. It stopped at Sirmione, Garda, Salo, Gardone and Maderno before Malcesine. Malcesine looks more interesting than the others (well except Sirmione). The lower half of the lake really is just a large lake with slight hills around. But a bit before Malcesine the actual mountains start and are very impressive. Definitely ‘fjord’ like.

    Hotel Erika is quite nice. Immaculately clean, room is very large with good AC, wi-fi, TV. Erika is very pleasant and helpful. Breakfast has the usual assortment (no croissants but muffins, nice change actually although I do prefer croissants). Unfortunately no mini-fridge. And as there are only 14 rooms (and it was not full) she locks up pretty early (before 10) and you have to use a key to get in which is not a problem as long as you pay attention to her instructions as to how the key works (which I admit I didn’t really do, it didn’t seem that complicated and I didn’t think 10 was ‘late’, so I had a bit of a scare when it took me forever to figure it out the first night). And actually the other nights the lobby was open later. It was a fine location for someone arriving by boat, but it would be perfect if you were driving (there is a garage).

    After lunch I took the 2pm boat heading north. It was going to be 18.50€ to go to Riva del Garda and return, and only 20.50€ for an upper lake day pass so I got that and stopped in Limone. Limone was packed (more so than Malcesine or Riva). So I decided to put further exploration off and got the boat 20 minutes later to Riva del Garda.

    The mountains get really good as you go north from Malcesine and Limone. There is one area where the lake becomes very narrow and becomes some what of a wind tunnel and is thus the windsurfing capital of Europe. There were hundreds of them. Plus a few sail boats, but mostly windsurfers.

    Riva del Garda is the largest town on the north part of the lake, it’s a proper town, not just a tourist town as Limone and Malcesine have become. It has a lovely waterfront with plenty of shops and restaurants, and a nice small castle (with a photography exhibit) but it also has many more side streets and then even further back a more modern town. The 5:15 boat back was a ‘fast’ one so my day pass required a supplement so I just waited for the 6pm (the last one). Because of the tall mountains, the west side of the lake becomes shaded quite early so it was actually pretty cool.

    But Malcesine was still beautifully lit (and hot) when we got back at 7:15. By 8pm Malcesine was hopping, practically every restaurant was full. Later there was a free concert at the harbor with a jazz band playing on the “Siora Veronica”, an old sailing ship that moors in the harbor and goes out a few times a week for cruises. It pulls into the middle of the very tiny harbor and they put chairs all around the very tiny promenade for the concert. A lovely introduction to Lake Garda.

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    @isabel - quite a few years ago we tok our kids who were then 10 & 13 to Garda for a week in August - it was pretty hot but we had a terrific week. Garda is not the prettiest of the towns round the lake by any means but it's ideally situated for getting round the lake as both the slow and the "fast" boats stop there, and you can easily get to either end of the lake; if you stay at one end or the other, it's much more difficult to get to the other end and back in a day.

    we loved everything we saw and could easily have spend at least another week there.

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    Just noticed this Isabel and really enjoying it.

    We were lucky enough to have 6 nights in Ortisei and 5 in Malcesine in late July and loved the whole experience.

    I haven't even had time to take a proper look through our photos or write anything as just after we arrived home our young adult daughter became ill so we have been kept busy.

    So double thank you for sharing this and bringing back wonderful memories - we cannot wait until we go for a longer visit to both places!

    And Malta is also on our list and I have not been there and my husband keep telling me it is a must.

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    Have enjoyed the report.

    We spent a weekend in Torino and really enjoyed ourselves (not fun to drive in though because of ZTL). We don't usually do the hop-on-hop-off bus, but found it very useful there.

    Just an FYI,The car did come in handy to get out into the surrounding wine country however. Particularly well done is the wine museum in Barolo, if anyone is interested in that sort of thing. However, we found the wine tasting set up in the lower level of the castle (run by the cooperative?) not worth the extra money...I've never been to a tasting where the majority of wine they have you "tasting" isn't available for sale and you're expected to buy (usually much more expensive) bottles un-tasted! Quite bizarre! But we like Barolo very much.

    Also to add for anyone considering Riva del Garda in August who would be traveling with children, checkout the dates of their annual children's Notte di Fiaba...each year it's a different theme derived from famous children's fables (the year we were there it was Robin Hood and his Merry Men)and it is truly all about kids, big and little, having a great weekend and the whole town comes out and participates. Heck, we didn't have kids, and we had a fabulous time!

    Thx for the reporting Isabel!

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    I agree with all you who enjoyed Malcesine. On a previous trip I visited Sirmione as a day trip but felt it was a bit too crowded (at least during the daytime). I was really happy that the northern part of the lake was more quiet.

    Monday, July 13, 2015 Sunny and hot – 90s, but with a lot of haze and some clouds especially on top of Mount Baldo. I took the cable car up to Mount Baldo. It’s 20€ round trip all the way to the top. (15€ if you buy your tickets before 9 am). First you take a 45 person car to the half way point. Great views of the town and the castle during the first minute or so of that ride, then you’re too high.

    Unfortunately the big glass windows are totally smudged and it was hot as hell in there. At the half way point you get out and get in another cable car, that looks exactly the same except it’s bigger, holds about 70 people and that one rotates 360. But just as hot and smudgy windows. At 9:45 there were enough people to just about fill the cars but no line other than waiting for the car (about every 15 minutes one goes in each direction).

    At the top there were fabulous views down to the lake and over to the other mountains and valleys. Unfortunately, while it was sunny and hot down at lake level, with a bit of clouds but you could still see the top station perfectly fine, once up at the top it was so hazy you could barely tell there was a lake down there and really couldn’t see the impressive mountains on the other side at all. I walked the ‘flat-ish’ walk – about ¾ mile to a great look out point.

    There are tons of walks you can do. Despite the lack of views there were some critters to shoot. First there was a pack of alpacas that some guys were moving from one place to another (you can apparently ‘rent’ an alpaca that they will put on a leash and you can take it for a walk for 40€). There was also a large herd of cows, all wearing bells, it was so beautiful to hear the ‘music’ they were making. There are at least three restaurants in the area that I was in (one at the cable car station, one about half way to the point I walked to, and another just past the cable car station in the other direction.

    There was hardly anyone going down when I did (just before noon) but by then the lines to go up looked pretty serious and the area you wait in is very hot and stuffy. I did notice that it was substantially cooler at the top. It’s 1765 meters.

    I spent the afternoon in Malcesine, wandering around the town and lakefront and visiting the castle which is small (but the largest one on the lake other than Sirmione I think) with decent views of the roof tops of Maclesine and the mountains around the lake. There are several museum exhibits but it was pretty hot and stuffy in those rooms so I just poked around and of course climbed to the top of the tower. There’s a bell up there, cast in 1442.

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    Tuesday, July 14, 2005 - and HOT 96. Much sunnier than day before – also even hotter. But still a bit of haze around. Briefy considered another trip up to Mount Baldo to see it without the clouds but decided not to. Better to take a boat ride to Limone. Since the ‘private’ boats (at 9€ round trip, cheaper and more frequent than the ferries) supposedly didn’t start till 10, I sat by the beach to the north of the Castle. Turns out that’s not only the best view but early morning is the best light. Photographed a family of ducks in the morning sun. It was beautiful and peaceful, one or two people taking an early swim. The gentle sound of the lake’s waves lapping the shore. A really wonderful way to spend an hour. The boat ride from Malcesine to Limone is a pleasant 15 minute crossing.

    Limone has a much larger lakeside promenade but otherwise is much steeper and the back ‘streets’ are not as charming as Malcesine. Even more clothing, shoe and jewelry stores than Malcesine, more crowded with tourists. There was a market going on at the far end of the promenade, mostly clothes, one or two stalls with veggies. No castle, no cable car, less charm – I’m glad I picked Malcesine. Very hot in the sun, but not too bad in the shade with a tiny bit of lake breeze. Got the BEST granite and sat on a bench, even in the sun I was cool enough while eating it. One of those “this is why I travel moments” (along with the duck family in the morning sun that morning and the cows/alpacas on Mt Baldo the day before). Virtually all the tourists in Limone and Malcesine are German. No American English heard at all, and not that much British English or even Italian (except the locals speaking to each other).

    The only problem with the private boats is that when I got to the boarding dock there were few people there (1:30) but by 2:00 when the boat left, there were so many that half didn’t get on. That would be a bummer to have to wait an hour in the hot sun, and I’ll bet half of those people won’t get on the following one either.

    Wednesday I took the 'slow boat' down the lake (takes almost four hours but is very enjoyable) and then the train back to Milano for two nights. Thursday I went to the Milano Expo which I did a little mini trip report on at the time (knowing it would take a long time to get around to this and I figured someone might be debating whether or not to attend and could use the info then).

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    It was, I really liked Lake Garda. It will be one of those places I keep returning to. Especially as it's so close to the Dolimites.

    But first - we did the Valle D'Aosta

    Friday, July 17, 2015 Sun and hot in Milan in am, cloudy and thunderstorms in pm in Aosta. I took the bus to Linante and picked up my husband, a rental car, and a SIM card with data for the phone so we could use GPS, and then drove to Aosta, our base for the next four days.

    Following my maps (downloaded and printed before leaving for the trip, plus a purchased Italy atlas) we easily got around Milan and to Aosta (posted road numbers didn’t always jive with what was on the map [had the same issue in Puglia last year] but it was clear where we were going). Got to right near where we were to turn for the hotel and then couldn’t find it. So turned on google maps on the phone and it worked like a charm. The ‘street’ to the hotel is essentially a narrow long driveway but we got there and our hotel host, Jean-Marie, told us where to park. It had clouded over as we were approaching Aosta and even rained for about a minute. Once we got into the hotel a thunderstorm roared in and it poured. So at least the timing was good. And it cooled things off.

    Hotel Cecchin is an old building, very cute, right on top of the old Roman Bridge so quite scenic and only steps away from the pedestrianized part of town. Inside it’s dated but clean and room is spacious, bed comfy, wi-fi works. No AC but the thunderstorms brought quite a breeze so it wasn’t bad. But on hot nights you need to leave the windows open and then street noise is fairly loud, though not terribly late. No mini-fridge but tap water is cold and good. There’s a parking lot with a lot of space about a block away but it’s 50 cents an hour from 8-12 and 15-18 and some days of the week you can’t leave your car there over night as they do street cleaning early in the morning. But here is free parking also close by, just slightly more complicated to get to. Breakfast is good, cappuccino and croissant, yogurt, ham and cheese, juice, cake, cookies, etc. – just wish there was some fresh fruit.

    Aosta is a medium sized ‘proper’ town (population 120,000), special due to two things: some pretty impressive Roman ruins and being surrounded by some pretty impressive mountains. Tall ragged peaks all around, many with visible snow/glaciers even in mid July. Besides the setting and the Roman ruins, it just has a nice vibe to it and makes a great base to see the Valle d’Aosta. The town and the region have been French for much of it’s history and the area is officially bilingual.

    Ponte Romano – Perfectly preserved, 6 meters wide with a single arch of 17 meters, built at the end of the 1st Century BC across a river which changed it course a few centuries later due to flooding, so now the bridge doesn’t cross anything. Under the bridge today is the dining room of Hotel Cecchin, we had breakfast out there every day.

    Just a few steps away is the Arch of Augustus which was erected when the town was founded in 25 BC to commemorate the victory over the local tribes and to honour Emperor Augustus. Here begins the pedestrianized part of town, with a main street that runs almost a mile and a half, changing names several times. It’s lined with stores and restaurants including all the requisite Italian and International stores such as Sephora, Tommy Hilfiger and Benetton, plus lots of local stuff.

    The first side street is Via Sant Orso, which leads only a few meters away to the Collegiate Church of Sant’Orso. The church was built in the 11th century on the remains of an early Christian building. The remains of the Romanesque church are the crypt, the bell tower, the cloister and the frescoes. The cloister was built before 1133. The cloister was mildly interesting, as European cloisters go, certainly not one of the best. Just across the street is the Early Christian Basilica and church of San Lorenzo.

    Back on the main street you come to the Praetorian Gate, which was the main access to the city. There are two parallel rows of three archways, two on the sides for pedestrians and the larger, central one for carriages. On either side you can still see the remains of the Roman walls dating as far back as 25 BC, these are still almost perfectly preserved. Abutting the gate is the Tower of Signori Sancti Ursi, a rectangular tower that was transformed in the Middle Ages into a dwelling place for a noble family.

    Turning right here you come to the Roman Theatre – there are lots of Roman theatres scattered around Italy, but few have a 22m tall façade with three rows of overlooking windows in various shapes and sizes– and through several of the arches a view of the Alps. I thought this was the highlight of Aosta.

    The main street continues to the large Piazza Chanoux, the largest in Aosta, with one whole side occupied by the Hotel de Ville and the adjacent smaller Hotel des Etats. The town hall is a neo-classical arcaded building from 1839. The two statues in front of it represent the two rivers that flow through Aosta, the Dora and the Buthier.
    The main intersecting street is Via Croce di Citta. The City Cross is here, it was erected to commemorate the expulsion of Lutherans from Aosta in the 16th century. Today there is also a fountain.

    The Cathedral is just off Via Croce, built on foundations from a 4th century church. Surviving from the Romanesque period are some frescoes and two bell towers. The current façade consists of two separate parts, an atrium with terracotta statues and frescoes and a neo-classical front section from 1848. The tera cotta statues are different and colorful, the rest of the cathedral is pretty unremarkable.

    From the garden in Piazza Giovanni XXIII to the left of the cathedral is the entrance to the Roman Forum and Cryptoporticus. This was the center of town in medieval times. The Cryptoportius is a partially underground passageway that was developed in a horseshoe shape with a double corridor: sturdy tuff pillars support the solid arcades surmounted by vaults. This was the bottom level of the forum market. Different and definitely worth seeing.

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    I don't know what constitutes for some tourists the "best" cloisters in Europe, but the cloisters and church complex of Sant'Orso in Aosta is of tremendous artistic importance to the development of church architecture and art in Italy and France. Most people judge the fine detail of the cloister columns and their capitals "certainly" magnificent and illuminating, as European cloisters go. Some would say "to each his own," but objectively, in reality, these are incomparable historic artworks.

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    Saturday, July 18 Clouds in am, party sunny pm, thunderstorms evening –Spent the day looking at castles. There are around 80 castles in the Aosta valley, you can see many of them just driving along the SS26 (which parallels the autostrada, E5). The ‘best’ is Castello di Fenis, one of the most important medieval fortresses in the whole of Italy. It’s not a huge castle but it looks like your fairytale image of a castle: turrets and towers and portcullises and defensive walls. The 15th century courtyard surrounded by wooden balconies is elegantly decorated with well preserved frescos. Inside, you can tour several rooms including the kitchen with an enormous fireplace. The castle was started in the mid-14th century, but was added to well into the 15th century. The best part is the courtyard, which has a twin staircase that leads to the upper storeys above which is a great fresco of St George rescuing a damsel in distress from the clutches of a tremendous dragon, overlooked by a tribe of protective saints brandishing moral maxims on curling scrolls.

    Fenis Castle is well sign posted on the SS26 near the town of Nus. There’s a large free parking lot just below it (you can see the castle from the road) and picnic and toilet facilities just before an easy path up to the castle. You can only visit on a guided tour which is only given in Italian but there are pamphlets and some signs describing things in English and French. Tours go every few minutes. Photos without flash are allowed. 5€

    Next we drove on to Issogne Castle. From the exterior, the Castle looks like a fortified residence more than a castle, although there are some angular turrets a little higher than the rest of the building. The Castle is situated right at the centre of the inhabited area of the little village of Issogne which is just off the SS26 and is signposted. Except the actual sign once you get to the castle is tiny, and it doesn’t really look like a castle from the street. We parked right next to it and asked directions in a shop – the guy looks at us funny and points across the street. Duh. The Castle was built to a quadrangular plan, three sides of which are occupied by the building and the fourth, oriented towards the south, comprises an Italian garden, enclosed within a surrounding wall. The main courtyard has a fountain in the form of a pomegranate tree and a highly decorated portico, a rare example of medieval Alpine painting, with a frescoed cycle of scenes of daily life from the late Middle Ages (some quite humorous). There is also graffiti found throughout the castle, but particularly in the portico of the courtyard, in the corridors and surrounding doors and windows. The graffiti is in French, Latin and Italian and was done by the people who lived in the castle and tells of romantic love, sadness of leaving the castle, money issues, etc. There are about 50 rooms in the castle although only about 10 of them are on the guided tour (5€, in Italian only but there are pamphlets and signs in English and French) including kitchens, bedroom, chapel, and grand hall.

    Just south of Issogne is Bard. The Forte di Bard is located just north of Pont St Martin, at the entrance to the Valle d'Aosta. The strategic setting originally served as a control point of the Alpine routes leading from France to Italy. There have been fortresses there since the 4th century. The current fortifications were built by Charles Albert of Savoy between 1830 and 1838. The Fortress is extremely impressive from a distance – it’s visible from both the E5 and SS26. It is well signposted. There are free parking lots on the SS26 in both directions from the fort, as well as a paid parking garage right at the entrance. From the parking lot to the north of the fortress it’s a really pleasant 10 minute walk along the river with fabulous views (so I would park there even if the parking garage were free). The little village of Bard, which runs sort of along side and below the fortress, is listed as one of the most beautiful in Italy. It’s just one street long. At the bottom of the fortress is the Information Office and from there you can take a series of 4 lifts/funiculars up to the top – for FREE (so don’t walk up!). At the top is a ticket booth but walking around and down the fort is free, admission is only charged to the various museums that the Fort is home to (which includes a museum of the Alps, and several art museums). We just got a drink at the café at the top and then walked down along the switchback walkway. All along are placards with information about the fort and the area, very interesting, not to mention the wonderful views of the valley stretching ahead of you and the little town of Bard just below. In the far distance you can just make out the Matterhorn. Definitely best to take the lifts up and walk down.

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    We're a bit short on Castles in the US too. The castles in the Aosta Valley weren't on a scale with the 'biggies' in places like the UK and Germany that I've visited, but they all had some interesting features and were fun to see.

    Sunday, July 19, 2015 Another 90 degree day. Woke to blue sky! So right after breakfast we headed out for Monte Cervino/ Matterhorn to try to beat the clouds. And we did!!!! It was so beautiful, another of those ‘why I travel’ moments, right up there with the Matterhorn from the Swiss side, Santorini and that first sight of Venice with experiences that completely wow me whenever I look at the photos of them, no matter how many times I do it.

    SS46 heads north off of SS26 at Chatillon and then it’s about a 45 minute (29km) twisting, switchback road up into the mountains, through the Valtournenche valley, past a few villages and, off and on, peaks of the peak of Monte Cervino/Matterhorn. Just before we got to Breuil-Cervina we saw the tiny sign for Lago Blu and lots of cars pulled off the road – in a few little turn-offs and parallel parked where there was room. We found a spot and you can just barely see the tiny lake from the road. Quite a lot of people around, but not mobbed. Well worn paths lead around the lake (it’s really just a small pond, takes five minutes to walk from the road to the far side of the pond. It was an absolutely a gorgeous sight, Monte Cervino/ Matterhorn, reflected in the turquoise water, with blue sky and a few white puffy clouds. The ‘banner clouds’ that the Matterhorn is famous for were just starting to form (it was about 10am). I know I’m kind of compulsive in that I use two cameras most of the time, my main camera and my ‘back-up’ or ‘the derringer’ as Geo calls it. Just trying to make sure I get the best shot. But in this case I also pulled out my iphone and my ipad. A four camera sight! Geo even pulled out his iphone and he never photographs anything. I was so happy to be able to see the Matterhorn from the Italian side, as the image of it from the Swiss side, which I visited in 2013, is one of my all time favorites.

    After about a hundred shots we hiked up the hill behind the lake where there are some trails along the side of the hill heading towards the Matterhorn. It was pretty open with some fantastic views of all the mountains in the area, the glaciers, the numerous waterfalls coming off the mountains. It was beautiful.

    Then we headed back to the car and continued on to Breuil-Cervina which was, as I expected, a Zermatt type town of hotels and restaurants geared to hikers and skiers. Not even as pretty as Zermatt, which wasn’t all that pretty. But it did have even more up close views of the mountain. The town was especially crowded as this was the 150th anniversary of the first ascent (July 14, 1865 by Edward Whymper from the Swiss side and July 17th by Jean Antoine Carrell from the Italian side) so there were lots of special events going on. These first ascents are closely linked to the birth of mountain climbing and alpinism and the resultant rise of tourism in the Alps.

    We stopped a few places to take pictures but it looked like parking would be crazy and we decided to save our cable car riding/hiking for the Dolomites. I mean, you couldn’t get any better views than we already had. Which is unlike Zermatt where the view of the mountain is not that great unless you go up to the Gornergrat. It was about 11:30 by the time we were ready to leave and the banner clouds had really picked up so the top of the mountain was pretty much covered, despite bright sunshine all around. Banner clouds are found in the lee of isolated mountains, especially sharp mountain peaks. They get the name ‘banner’ cloud because it can look like the mountain is carrying a banner or flag even though most of the time they encircle the peak. They are believed to form when air flows around a mountain (rather than over it). They tend to form by mid-day, even on mostly sunny days. The Matterhorn is the most famous mountain to have Banner clouds.

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    Really nice TR and great photos - I think you deserve more 'hits' than you are getting.

    I loved Lake Garda and have Turin on my bucket list - do you have any pictures of the latter?

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    Thanks RM. I agree that it's nice to know people are reading and getting something out of a trip report. But I don't see that 'replies' correspond to a 'like' button. I write the reports for myself and family/friends and just cut and past it to post here, so I'm writing it anyway. I know a lot of people search when planning their trips and it's then, maybe years later, that they really benefit from a trip report. For example, when I signed on just now someone had found a report I wrote in 2009 and replied to it to thank me cause it was so helpful. And I'm guilty as well of really enjoying and benefiting from some posts that I don't bother to thank the person for, or indicate that I read it. But yeah, it's nice when people thank you at the time as well (though a lot of trip reports with tons of 'replies'/'hits' are actually two or three people off on a tangent having an argument about something that came up in the report and aren't actually responding to the report at all.

    To answer your question - the Turin pic are at the end of this gallery - www.pbase.com/annforcier/valle_daosta

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    Monday, July 20, 2015 - 37C / 98.6F This day we did the top end of the Valle d’Aosta, from Aosta towards Mt Bianco. Driving towards the Mt Blanc tunnel is very pretty, tall rugged peaks on all sides. Mt Bianco is aptly named as it is much whiter than all the surrounding peaks. It may be the tallest mountain in the Alps (and in Europe) and it may be covered in snow/glaciers year round, but it’s not a particularly striking mountain, certainly not on the scale of the Matterhorn. We had driven through the Mt Blanc tunnel on a trip years ago and I remember being disappointed with the approach and the town on the Italian side (Courmayer) so we didn’t go all the way but stopped at Saint-Pierre where there are a couple of castles.

    Castello di Saint-Pierre (signs said ‘Chateau de Saint-Pierre’) is a small but fairy-tale looking castle picturesquely perched on a rock outcropping just off the SS26. The castle was built in the 12th century and was apparently far more grand than it is today. Today it is also closed, but there were great views from its terrace.

    A few kilometers away, also right on the SS26 is the Sarriod de la Tour, also built in the 12th century but massively renovated so that today it is basically a manor house/hunting lodge of the 19th century, full of ‘nice’ furnishings and paintings. The tour, 5€, only in Italian, takes you to several rooms. The only one that was at all interesting, unless you are into fussy 19th century furniture, was a room, all of the walls and the ceiling covered with skulls and antlers of wild ibex and similar critters – whatever they hunted back then in those parts. They did have a collection of photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s which were mildly interesting, and the guide, while she did the tour in Italian, realized we weren’t understanding and so told us a few highlights in English.

    In the nearby town of Aymavilles is the Amymaville Castelo – visible from the previous two castles and from the road (there’s also a castle ruin on an outcropping in the area that can be seen from all the others). The castle is recognizable for its position – visible from all around - and architecture characterized by four cylindrical towers that enclose a central body with a square base. This castle is closed for renovation and from the looks of it, is getting a massive makeover.

    The Amymaville Castelo is actually on the SS47 which turns of the SS26, though visible from it. A few kilometers up the SS47 is the Pont D’Ael, a well preserved Roman aqueduct bridge from the year 3AD. This is a huge structure in masonry and carved stone blocks, 56 m above the level of the fast flowing, narrow river below in the gorge of the Grand Eyvia. It’s not much more than a meter wide, but over 50 meters long. Among the 32 aqueducts of the Roman Empire distributed throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East, this one is unique because of the type of bridge with the double function of pedestrian passageway and aqueduct placed on two different levels and the legal term PRIVATUM engraved on the central stone slab, an indication of private property that distinguishes it from the other 32 aqueducts, which were great public works built to bring water to cities, characterizing the expansion of the Roman empire. You can walk across the top of the bridge for free but if you want to walk through the inside passageway there is a fee.

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    Hi Isabel,

    You were most helpful when I recently posted a question regarding where to stay in the Veneto. So, I am pleased to find your trip report + great photos!

    Enjoyed reading about your time on Lake Garda. Hoping that it will be a little cooler for us in September! And looking forward to your impressions of Bassano de Grappa where my husband & I have decided to stay.

    Thanks for posting! Waiting for more!

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    Re : people reading TR's...

    I admit to only 'signing on' to Fodors this year, having read lots of TR's previously and then realised it was nice to get a response, given the effort taken and benefit received.

    I collect great ideas, for example never heard of Bassano Del Grappa and now checking it online and that it has a train station, I have 'filed' it for a future visit.

    It's my first trip to Italy next year, so I'm following the beaten path this time, but all these great TR's lead me to build a different kind of itinerary another time.

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    2010 and Adelaidean - I really liked Bassano. It's not huge and doesn't have lots of 'sites' but a couple days there would be good if you did day trips to Asolo, etc. Or - if you are just passing through the area with a car, then it could be 'seen' in an afternoon. We thought one night (so most of a day) was perfect.

    But first - The Dolomites

    Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - 40C / 104F Hot! Like an oven. Drove to Bolzano. Highway all the way, well marked, didn’t even need the GPS until we were in the city of Bolzano and about a block from the hotel, at which point it did a great job of getting us there.

    Hotel Stiegl Scala is in a beautiful old building that is completely renovated inside and quite modern. Room is huge as is bathroom with full tub. Lots of space to spread out, free wi-fi, TV with several English channels, mini-fridge, lift, AC, pool, garden. Parking is in an enclosed lot/yard behind the hotel and is free. Apparently there is also a garage that charges (didn't see it). Not sure what you would do if more guests have cars than there are spaces, it was pretty full each day when we got there but there were at least a few spaces left. About a ten minute or less walk to the pedestrianized part of the old town, about the same to the train station. Only a couple minutes off the SS12 and quite easy to drive to. Breakfast was excellent with lots of choices including lots of fresh fruit and the best bread we had the whole trip. Lovely enclosed garden with pool.

    Despite it being close to 40C/101F we went out an hour or so later, around 4:30 and explored a bit. Bolzano is very Austrian looking, really does not look at all Italian. Looks more Austrian than Aosta did French. Kind of interesting to go from France to Austria in one day and not leave Italy. All the signs are in German first and Italian second with virtually no English. But the buildings are very pretty, half a dozen or so streets and some piazzas. One street is a market street with tons of good looking fruit, veggies, breads, etc. for sale from permanent stalls. This ‘street’ is technically Piazza dell Erbe but it’s really more of a street than a piazza. The duomo is very pretty from the outside (a lot like a mini version of Vienna’s) but boring inside, the main square, Piazza Walther, is attractive and full of outside café tables. Most of the streets are arcaded and full of colorful buildings filled with all your standard issue European city chain stores – H&M, Zara, Sephora, etc. Each day after our day trips to the mountains we really enjoyed coming back to Bolzano for dinner and an evening stroll. I know lots of people prefer staying in one of the Val Gardena towns but I am very glad we chose Bolzano and would do it again.

    From some points in town you can see the Dolomite's ragged peaks in the distance, there's also a long green park, which only ten minutes or so from the center of town you are walking along vineyards, past a small castle. There are actually several gondolas you can take which start right in the city itself ( one just a block or so from our hotel).

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    Wednesday, July 22- sunny and hot in Bolzano – 94; sun, clouds and rain in mountains – between 62 and 80.
    We drove the Grande Strada delle Dolomiti from Bolzano to Cortina, with a detour to the Passo Giau. The Grand Strada Dolomiti is the scenic route between Bolzano (leaving Bolzano follow signs to Eggental/Val d'Ega) and Cortina d'Ampezzo going east, S241 and S48. It’s 110km (68 miles) of stunning views. The road was first laid out in 1909 to provide access to the mountain ski areas and has been on the ‘Grand Tour’ ever since. The road curves around some of the highest peaks in the Dolomites, including 3,000m-tall (9,840-ft.) Marmolda, and goes through a scattering of mountain villages (which are really more ski resorts than villages, although Canazi is kind of cute).

    The first stop was Carezza al Largo, a small, emerald green / turquoise mountain lake, in which the Catinaccio and Latemar peaks are reflected. Due to its impressive colours, in Ladin language it is called “Lec de Ergobando” (rainbow lake). According to legends, once upon a time there was a beautiful mermaid living in the lake, which wizard Masaré was in love with. In order to seduce her, the witch Lanwerda advises him to dress up as jewel merchant and throw a rainbow from Catinaccio to Latemar. So he did, but he forgot to dress up, so the mermaid detected him and forever disappeared in the lake. The wizard was angry and threw all the pieces of the rainbow as well as the jewels into the lake – thus its colours. It really is an astonishing color and the ragged peaks above it are impressive. So of course it’s very popular so there is a large parking lot across the street, a huge souvenir and snack shop, toilets, etc. and an underground passage so you don’t have to cross the road. Still, it was not overly crowded and worth a half hour or so stop. It’s really more a pond than a lake so it doesn’t take long to walk around it.

    From the lake the road continues to climb up to Passo di Costalunga (1745m/5725 feet) and then down into the Val di Fassa. About 1 mile past Vigo di Fassa turn left onto SS48 towards Canazei (clearly a tourist resort village, but nicely done and lots of Alpine architecture with tons of flower boxes) and then towards Passo Pordoi (2239m/7345 ft), the highest pass along the drive. There is a souvenir/snack shop there as well as a gondola. The next 7 mile stretch has 27 hairpin turns with dramatic views of soaring mountains all around and the green meadows of the Val di Fassa below. Arraba, is a small town that seems slightly less touristy, like it might be a ‘real’ town, in the heart of the central Dolomites. Then Passo Falzarego. There is another gondola there, and another souvenir/snack shop. Here we took a short hike up a path that looked like it lead to the ‘rock thing’ in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

    At Pocol we turned right and detoured 11km (each way) to the Passo Giau, just about the best scenery of the day. Unfortunately just as we got there it started to rain but we waited it out about 15 minutes and were rewarded with some blue sky. On the way back we stopped and began the walk to the lake until we realized it was around a 3 hour hike round trip and at that point it was getting too late in the day. So we pushed on to Cortina, which was a bit more picturesque and interesting looking than Bruiel, but not by much, and we had no desire to stay and explore it so we just headed back.

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    Thursday, July 23, 2015 36C in Bolzano, between 18-32 in mountain towns. Drove through the Val Gardena, over Sella Pass and stopped in the towns of Selva, St. Christina, and Castleroto.

    Having gone through the Val Gardena as well as the Grand Strada Dolomiti I can say the most spectacular scenery is the section of the Val Gardena between the town of Selva and the Sella Pass. This is the Dolomites you see on calendars, post cards and travel brochures. Not that there aren’t some gorgeous views elsewhere, but this is “it”.

    We drove from Bolzano north on the S12 about a half hour till we saw the signs for Val Gardena (SS242). In a few minutes we came to Ortisi/St. Ulrich which, from the road, did not look all that interesting so we continued on, about 4 minutes, to Santa Cristina. We parked (free 90 minute on street parking, plenty of it at 9am) and wandered around. The church is pretty. Most of the buildings are hotels, and most built to look Alpine, lots of nice flower boxes. But we were not that impressed. There are a few large peaks in the distance, but mostly it just looks ‘hilly’ from these towns (you need to take a lift to see most of the good stuff). It’s once we got to Selva (another 5 minutes) that things got really good. Between Selva and the Sella Pass: WOW. This is the stuff we came to see.

    At the top of the Sella Pass is the Sassolungo, the tallest of the three peaks that jut skyward from the Alpe di Siusi - Europe's largest high-alpine meadow — eight miles wide, 20 miles long, and soaring up to 6500 feet high. There are other peaks in all directions and trails all over. Numerous chair lifts go up (though most were not operating at this time), there are several paths/trails that can be accessed from the top of the pass, and the Passo Sella Lift departs from here and goes straight up the rock face of Sallolungo. These are the famous ‘flying phone booths’ – tall, tan and skinny cable cars that hold only a couple people. (16€ round trip). Around the lift there were a couple large pay parking lots, and then scattered around the top of the pass was free parking along the road and in a couple of small lots. We got the last spot we saw and hiked one of paths opposite the Sassolungo. Breathtaking views, lots of wildflowers, just beautiful.

    Then we drove over and down the other side to Canazi where we had been the day before. Canazi looks bigger than any of the three Val Gardena towns but is actually kind of cuter and more interesting looking. However, we couldn’t find a parking space so just returned up the Sella Pass. We stopped in Selva and walked around there for a while looking for food, there was some shopping but nothing very interesting.

    We intended to take the Ciampinoi lift when it suddenly clouded over and started to rain. Since we also hadn’t been successful at getting what we wanted in the way of snack food or a rest stop, and we had spent longer than we intended at the other stops, we decided to put off the gondola ride and the hiking till the following day.

    Back in the car and down to Castleroto. This town is a bit of a ways from the other towns, and in more of a meadow setting, but it’s really the cutest of them all. Nice alpine architecture, impressive tall bell tower (no church actually, just the bell tower with a small chapel in it). It’s Rick Steves favorite town in the region and I can see why. If I were going to stay in a small town I think this might be it (Selva would be my second choice) but actually I am very glad I chose Bolzano – going against the advice of most fodorites and Rick Steves but now that I’ve done it I like my choice.

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    Friday, July 24, 2015 – Bolzano and Trento – As we were leaving Bolzano we got pulled over for what we assume was a random traffic stop (we were not speeding and no mention was made of anything we were doing wrong) and they asked for driver’s license, international drivers permit and car documents, all of which we produced, they looked at them (questioned the date on the front of the international permit and Geo had to explain it was valid for a year from that date) and smiled and sent us on our way.

    We started to head to the Val Gardena for hiking, but by the time we got up to the turn off (20 minutes from the hotel) it was completely cloudy so we decided to wait and hope for better the next day. So we went back to Bolzano and drove up to the Castle Roncoco/Runkelstein. There is a free mini bus from Piazza Walther but we didn’t know the schedule and driving there and parking was easy and free. You can also walk there via the ‘greenbelt’/foot path along the Talvera River but it’s a ways north of the town center. We walked up to the vineyard above it for some very nice views of the hills around Bolzano (there are two other castle ruins visible from Castle Roncoco). The castle has a great setting – high on a hill above the river, with views down into the valley and to all the other hills around. It’s rather small but looks like a proper castle. Inside are numerous rooms with frescoes, but very little in the way of furnishings.

    Built in 1237, the castle has been extended and restored several times and houses well preserved frescoes depicting scenes of courtesan life, hunting scenes, chivalric competitions and episodes of everyday life. The best are in the ‘Summer House’ a type of addition to the back of the castle. There are also literary references, such as the representation of the story of Tristan and Iseult and the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It is supposedly the best kept collection of profane frescoes of the Middle Ages. http://www.runkelstein.info/runkelstein_en/Frescoes.asp

    Back in Bolzano we ditched the car at the hotel and then wandered around the town before heading to the train station. Bolzano has a nice busy feel mid day, combo of tourists and locals, lot of outside cafes, shopping and of course, pretty buildings that look far more Austrian than Italian.

    We took the 13:04 train to Trento. It was a brand new train even though it was a regional and only cost 6.40€ pp/each way. Really nice and well air conditioned (it was still around 90F). I hope Trenitalia is replacing the old blue and green trains with the blue curtains with these. Much nicer. Takes about 45 minutes. In Trento it’s an easy, well sign posted 10 minute walk from the station to the center.
    WOW – Trento is gorgeous, at least Piazza Duomo is one of the most stunning piazzas I have seen. The Duomo, the castle like extension, with a tall Italian looking campanile and a completely different looking Alpine onion topped tower; the Neptune Fountain in the center and the buildings surrounding the piazza are all gorgeous. Several are completely covered with very well preserved frescoes. In fact the street leading up to the Piazza, Via Rodolfo Belenzai, has numerous palazzos and two of them are completely covered with frescoes. The streets radiating out from there are not quite as gorgeous but they are certainly nice, a bit wider than some old Italian cities, and the center is, of course, pedestrianized.

    About a ten minute walk from Piazza Duomo is Castello del Buonconsiglio, another stunner. I give it an “A-“ (or 8.5 out of 10 ‘turrets’ – looses points only for lack of awesome setting and the rooms filled with un-related to a 13th century castle exhibits (like Egyptian stuff and nude sketches from the 20th century) instead of period furnishings). But it looks like a story book castle with round towers and square towers and crenellated defensive walls. It’s got a gorgeous loggia, lots of frescoes throughout, a beautiful Italianate garden with grapevine trellis and roses, etc. And in the Torre Aquila one of the best frescoes anywhere – a cycle of the months, beautifully done and wonderfully preserved. You can wander the castle on your own but must take a timed tour to see the frescoes in the Torre Aquila (every 45 minutes – they give you an audio guide that actually works and explains the frescoes very well). 8€ + 1€ for the tour of the Torre.

    The castle began as a fortified building in the 13th century next to the city's walls. This first building (and still the most dominant) was Castelvecchio (it was the seat of the Bishopric of Trent from the 13th to18th century). The castle is composed of a series of buildings of different eras, enclosed by a circle of walls in a slightly elevated position at the edge of the old town. The Magno Palazzo is the 16th Century expansion in the form of the Italian Renaissance. The third part, in the southern end of the complex is the Eagle tower (Torre Aquila), which houses the Cycle of the Months, one of the most fascinating pictorial cycles of life in the late Middle Ages.

    Didn’t get back to Bolzano till after 7 (would have been even later but we just made a train due to being able to use my chip credit card in a kiosk that only took credit cards and so had no line- both the kiosks that also took cash had a line, and the line to the manned booth would have made us probably miss even the following train). The train line between Trento and Bolzano runs parallel to the river and the autostrada, in a wide valley between pretty steep hills on both sides. Between the tracks, the road and the river are miles and miles of vineyards and orchards – the orchards mostly featuring the ‘new’ variety of apple trees that are tiny –both in height and diameter – but full of fruit.

    Another thing I noticed is that the German stops just north of Trento. Until then all the signs, all the train announcements, the train station signs – all in Italian and German. Then the German just stops and the signs are just in Italian, the announcements as well. The ‘secondary’ signs are now back to English.

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    How lovely.

    In planning our train route I checked out all the towns along the way, so when I did the Verona to Ortisei leg, discovered Trento, thought how wonderful it looked and booked a night, despite it only being an hour from Verona. So glad you liked it (I do a google streetview most times if it's not somewhere on the beaten path and I nearly drooled). That piazza and the alleys leading off it, so gorgeous.

    And we are definitely doing those phone booth lifts...

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    Adelaidean - yes, both Bolzano and Trento were nice surprises. The mountains I expected to be wonderful and they were. The only things I was at all disappointed in were the small towns. I had thought they were have more 'atmosphere' I guess, but they were just nice ski towns.

    And now - what I expected to be, looked like it might not be, and in the end turned out to be the highlight - the trip up the Ciampinoi lift.

    Saturday, July 25 – 9am in Selva 22C/ Ciampinoi 13C; 3pm Bolzano 33C . Forecast was not terribly promising – lots of ‘showers around’ and ‘mostly cloudy’. But we headed up to Selva anyway (takes just under an hour from hotel to parking area for Ciampinoi lift and it’s a nice enough drive). The Ciampinoi lift is just east of the center area of Selva, right on the main street. It goes to 2250 meters, the top station right smack in front of the Sassolungo/Langkofel (Italian/German names) peak, which rises to 3181 meters, among the highest and most impressive in the dolomites.

    Despite the clouds we paid the €17.50 each round trip for the cute little red gondolas (they hold 12 people but most were going up virtually empty) up into the grey clouds, hoping we could see something. The top was pretty much fogged in, couldn’t see much. The signs for the various trails were not terribly clear as to what went where and of course they all went down (meaning you need to come back up if you are going to take the lift down, otherwise it looks like a 2½ to 3 hour hike down to either Selva or S. Christina.

    We started down one path towards a ‘restaurant’ hut, in plain site and on a not terribly interesting looking path, so after a while we went back up and tried another one. This one was more interesting and in the far distance we could see blue sky and the sun on a far peak. But now it was raining. People were hiking with umbrellas, rain ponchos and even people with strollers (3 wheeled kind) with plastic covering the entire thing. So we hiked for about another half hour in the rain and then headed back up to the top.

    And just as we got there the clouds started to lift and within a few minutes the sun was shinning and the sky was blue. Plenty of clouds around to add to the atmosphere, but it was definitely now a nice day. We hiked up to the little peak that is higher than the Ciampinoi station (but not by much) for even better views. Then we pretty much just hiked around the top. Got some wurstle and bread and beer for lunch and sat in the sun on the yellow lounge chairs. I was actually hot wearing jeans for an hour or so. (At least I finally wore the jeans I’d been carrying all over Europe for 5 weeks in the 100 degree temps). It was delightful for a couple hours, then the clouds returned so we went back down.

    So we really didn’t ‘go’ anywhere, just parts of some hikes but ‘fitbit’ still said we did close to 100 floors. So not too shabby (but not even close to the 173 floors I did the day I hiked up to Sacra di San Michele near Torino).
    We saw people from 8 months to 85 years (I’m guessing) hiking, although those extremes were in the minority. Point being, the paths, while fairly steep, are suitable to bikes and strollers and people of decent fitness levels (except that little peak with the crucifix, you sort of need to ‘climb’ that one).

    The station has what looks like three restaurants but only the first floor one was open. There are also three levels of terraces, with places to stand your skis, chairs to rent, etc. but this was all essentially empty in July. We saw lots of chair lifts going in all directions but none were operating. The only lifts operating that we saw were the main gondolas in each town.

    Back in Bolzano it was warm and sunny 32/90 but after 100 and humid, 90 and rather dry felt kind of nice. We rested a while then went to the Archeology Museum to see Otzi the Ice Man. Otzi is a well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived around 3,300 BC. He was found by some hikers in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, hence the nickname "Ötzi", near the border of Italy and Austria. The museum is three floors of nicely displayed information about Otzi; how he was found, how they figured out how old he was (45), how he died (someone murdered him with an arrow), and much more information about him. The actual mummy is there, in a special air/water/temperature controlled container with a glass front so you can view him. The corpse has been extensively examined, measured, X-rayed, and dated. Tissues and intestinal contents have been examined microscopically, as have the items found with the body. They know all sorts of interesting things about him like the fact that he had a space between his teeth, what he ate for his last meal (wild ibex), what illnesses he had (arthritis, atherosclerosis, whip worm and fleas), that the cause of death was hypovolemic shock, what he wore, etc. Also information on how he (and others) lived in that time period. There is nothing else in the museum except Otzi, the museum was created just for him after authorities decided he belonged to Italy since he was found 90 meters from the Austrian/Italian border (which is where the watershed line is). A better name would be the Otzi Museum, but it was still worthwhile. 9€ No photos allowed of him or his stuff, but there’s an artist/scientist’s rendering of how he would have looked that you can photograph. Wikipedia has pretty much all the same info that the museum displays, but the museum does do it in a nice way.

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    Sunday, July 26, 2015 . It was an easy drive to Bassano del Grappa, about 2 hours but just as we were almost to where we wanted to turn to the hotel the road was blocked (bike race) so we had to go a different way.Having the phone gps certainly helped in this case, otherwise we could have found the hotel without it. But the SIM card has clearly paid itself off now. By the time we found the hotel, got the host to show us how to back up a block down one way street to his garage, and check in, it was close to noon.

    Hotel Brennero, Bassano del Grappa. Older hotel, furnishings a bit dated but fine, actually has a bit of character, and it’s clean and has all the necessities – decent bathroom, comfy bed, AC, mini fridge, lift. The wi-fi was pretty spotty. The parking garage is about a half block behind the hotel down a one way street so we stopped outside and I ran in and the host came out with me and directed us to back down the one way street to the garage. But the garage is pretty roomy and looked safe (locked). The location is excellent, the gate to the old town is across the street (which is the main road through town).

    Bassano del Grappa is a really lovely town. Several old gates to the town still stand, there are two lovely piazzas with nice typical northern Italian architecture, a few arcaded streets, and of course the ‘main event’, the Pont Vecchico/ Ponte degli Alpino / Pont di Palladio. The bridge was designed by Palladio in 1569, and though it’s been severely damaged by wars and floods over the years it’s always been rebuilt following the original design. The bridge is wood which is more flexible than stone and therefore more resistant to the force of flood waters. There are grappa bars at both ends of the bridge with people spilling out onto the bridge having a drink. At one end is the Alpine Museum and the other the Grappa Museum (free). There are great views of the bridge from both sides of the Brenta River, on one side the best is from the terrace in front of the Ceramics Museum, which is in the Palazzo Strum. On the other side is a riverside walkway.

    The two main piazzas are Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Liberta, essentially adjoining each other in the center of town. Piazza Garibaldi features a nice fountain and the Torre Civica, built around 1312. The clock was added in the 18th century. Chiesa di San Francesco is on the other side of the piazza. Built in the 12th century it has a Romanesque-Gothic style, the façade enhanced with a porch with semi circular arches and a lunette with frescoes featuring a baby that appears to be diving. In Piazza Liberta is the Loggia dei Podesta, 15th century, with a huge clock with a giant blue face. On the western side of the piazza are two columns, one topped with the Saint Mark lion (who appears several other places in town, reminding you how close you are to Venice). Both of these piazzas have outdoor cafes and beautiful northern Italian/Veneto architecture.

    From a distance the 15th century Castello degli Ezzelini looked promising, rather ‘castle like’ but there didn’t seem to be much to it up close and didn’t appear to be any part of which that was open (apparently used as a venue for temporary exhibitions). Although there were three guys in medieval clothing standing inside a door way having a cigarette. There is an impressive Torre di Ser Ivano with two walls that serves as the entrance.

    The most interesting of the town gates is Porta Dieda, 1541. The fresco on the outside is well preserved and depicts a Roman hero throwing himself into an abyss. The upper part contains an imperial eagle and a Venetian lion, another symbol of loyalty to the Most Serene Republic of Venice. [And across the street is a shop with a huge display of Yankee Candles. There was also a shop in Aosta with Yankee Candles in the window. And interestingly, they seem to have different fragrances in Europe, and the prices are not bad.]

    The other gate is the Porta Delle Grazie, located at the end of the Viale delle Fosse, a tree lined avenue which starts near the castle. In the past it was protected by medieval walls but they were demolished in 1886 to give wealthy families living along the avenue a better view of the city.

    Hotel Brennero is right across the street from Porta Delle Grazie. We spent about 2 ½ hours wandering the town, eating gelato. Being a Sunday afternoon all the stores and many restaurants and even some gelato shops were closed. There were a good number of people at the outdoor cafes, on the bridge, but it was pretty quiet so we went back to the hotel for a siesta. Back out a little after 6pm and it was waaaaay more lively. Most stores were still closed (but not all) but all the bars and gelaterias were hopping. The bridge was jammed with people drinking grappa. At the numerous outside bars the tables were full of glasses of bright orange Spritz. All the outside tables anywhere near the bridge had waiting lists so we sat inside at “Bar Paninoteca Al Porton’ which features about 50 varieties of Bruschetta. We didn’t see any ‘pizzerias’, they are all ‘bruschetta’ here. But it was really good and a bit different from the pizza we’ve been having and the atmosphere inside was actually pretty interesting.

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    Monday, July 27, 2015 - 32C - Asolo and San Marino.

    We drove to Asolo from Bassano, about a half hour, easy, well signed drive. Obvious parking garage just before the ZTL sign. Very high tech – a camera snaps your license plate as you drive in and times it, then when you go to leave it tells you how much you owe, you pay the machine and get a receipt but all you do is drive out, the camera knows you paid.

    Five minute walk to the town gate. Nice town for sure, but not all that special. Certainly worth the hour round trip detour if you are already in Bassano and have a car, but I don’t think it would really be worth trying to get there by public transportation from say Padua. You can take a train from Padua to Bassano (about hourly, takes an hour – so Bassano would definitely worth it) but then you’d have to connect to a bus to Asolo, and then reverse for the return. Asolo isn’t that wonderful.

    But the town certainly is pretty, with a slightly different sort of run-down-yet-still-prosperous charm. You can walk the main streets in half an hour. The smaller castle just past the main piazza was closed. There is another castle much further up a hill that we didn’t attempt to get to. Spent a total of about 1½ hours there, but we walked up and down the same street a few times.

    From Asolo we drove to our next destination, San Marino. Since we didn’t WANT to get to San Marino until at least 5pm (when hopefully some of the day trippers would have left) we planned to stop in the little town of Brisighella. It certainly looked easy on the map, we took what I’m sure is the correct exit off the autostrada, but never found signs for it and eventually gave up. It was here that we discovered that we had apparently run out of data on our SIM card. Perhaps with GPS we might have found it. But it was getting late enough so we just pushed on to San Marino.

    Hotel Rosa, San Marino – Really nice little hotel in an excellent location, with parking, once you know where it is. Google maps and reviews on line were partly helpful. Here’s the drill. Drive up to San Marino center till you get to parking lot 6. This is smack outside the main town gate. Don’t plan to arrive till at least 3-4pm or it will be full and you really want to park in this lot. Once you get a space you need to pay at the meter for about an hour’s worth. Then walk through the gate and past a few stores and turn right at the first possible ‘street’ (via Lapicidi Marni), follow the sign to the Museo delle Cere (torture/wax museum) around the corner and you’ll see it. When you check in they will give you (for 4.50€, half the regular price) a card to stick in your windshield that will be good till the following day at noon. (You’ll need another one for each additional 24 hours you stay). The hotel has a few spaces to park right next to it but you can’t drive to the hotel until after 7pm and need to be back out before 10am, and there’s really no need to.

    The hotel itself is very nice, fairly large rooms, modern inside, nice bathroom, great wi-fi, lift, TV, breakfast was pretty dismal, there was some fresh fruit and the usual yogurt, juice, cereal, the cappuccino was quite good, but the bread/pastry selection was terrible.

    They hotel gave us a ‘discount’ card that is quite valuable. It gets you into both the Towers, the Pallazo Publica, and a couple museums for a total of 7.50€ where as they are individually €4.50. It saved us over €10 each and we didn’t even do the museums. It also gives you 10% or more discount in stores. Unfortunately the man at check in didn’t speak any English so while he gave us the cards and indicated they were for ‘discounts’ he really didn’t explain where or how much. Once we found out it was a great deal.

    San Marino – Fantastic! This is right up there with the Blue Grotto in Capri as places I loved but almost didn’t go to because people said they were just tourist traps. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s worth it. The fact that it’s an independent republic and has a lot of history is just icing on the cake, not the reason you go, but a fun bit of trivia. The reasons you go are: 1) It’s a beautiful little city with beautiful, historic buildings and very interesting tower/castles, and 2) it has a drop dead gorgeous setting with views out to the Adriatic (even across to Croatia on a clear day) and back into the Apennine mountains. 360 degree views, really breath taking. Yes, it has a busloads of tourists between about 11 am and 6 pm, so it’s not very pleasant then.

    The best way to do a trip to San Marino is to schedule two days at a hotel within the historic center, arrive after 4pm the first. See it then and the following morning till about 11. Then do a day trip (San Leo is great) and get back around 4pm. Leave the following morning before 11am. It’s much nicer in the evening and early morning.

    The streets are lined with shops, mostly selling jewelry, watches, sunglasses, handbags, perfume and guns. This is a two edged sword. On the one hand they certainly do detract from the ambiance there would be without them. On the other hand, if you are in the market for any of those things, the prices are great – at least 25% or more below elsewhere in Italy.

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    Isabel, we've just caught your report, as we're catching up our journal from our own recent trip to Central Europe.
    Your report is so descriptive, making it very interesting. We love the areas you visited. We need to re-visit the Valle d'Aosta, as we had very inclement weather there a few years back. But just last year we spent almost a month in the Alps, and loved the Dolomites. Your TR brings back such great memories. Thanks for posting!

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    Hi Isabel,

    Enjoyed reading about your day in Bassano del Grappa! Thanks for the detailed account. It sounds like my husband & I have chosen the right town as our home base in the Veneto.

    We are booked at the Hotel Brennero. Private parking and easy access in & out of town are pluses for us. As well, it is nice to have the option of taking the car or train out on day trips.

    We look forward to trying a few sips of grappa, too!

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    I think you will like Bassano, I'll probably go back and use it as a base. It just has a very nice 'feel' to it that's hard to describe. And while I didn't visit any of the Veneto on this trip, it is one of my favorite parts of Italy, I've done several trips to the region and will certainly do more.

    tom - I do love that Trip Reports help bring back good travel memories - for both the writer and the reader.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2015 - 35C San Marino continuted

    We went out right after breakfast. Virtually no tourists. At the Palazzo Publicia we discovered the San Marino pass and got it. The Palazzo has a beautiful entry area with an impressive stone staircase. Upstairs is a large room where the San Marino government meets, great wall fresco. I’m not sure it would be worth the individual fee of €4.5 since that is all there is, but as part of the pass it was worth the few minutes it takes to see it.

    The First Tower (La Rocca Guaita, or Rocca Maggiore) is the largest and the best. It’s not huge as castles go but it has a wall enclosing a large courtyard where costumed interpreters are going about their medieval business, grinding grain, making cooking fires, etc. A couple of guys were demonstrating sword fighting and other forms of medieval weaponry. There’s a small chapel in the courtyard, and then access to the main tower. Inside are prisons, upstairs are several rooms, again with costumed interpreters in both a dining room and a ‘ladies’ bed chamber. It was explained that all the things that medieval women did were on display – sewing/embroidery, make-up table, prayer area (they prayed several times a day), a cradle for the baby, and chests to hold clothing, and the bed. The bed is shorter than today’s beds, not just because people were smaller then, but because they slept partially sitting up since laying flat is the position of death and therefore you didn’t sleep that way. Then there’s the smaller, yet higher, tower.

    On the ground floor was a guy with chain mail and breast plates, etc. We had a nice discussion about how windy it was in San Marino. There was a ladder like staircase up to the tower. It started with fairly wide wood steps but the top three rungs were thin metal bars and were at least 18” apart. But what a view. And my god it was so windy I was almost scared I’d blow off. Overall, one of the ‘best’ castle experiences I’ve had (and I’ve had a lot). The Second Tower (La Cesta) is not quite as interesting but the views, especially of the first tower, are just fabulous. The interior is a museum of weaponry. The path between the two towers has incredible views of both towers and the countryside out to the Adriatic. There is a third tower, quite a bit further down a path, but it is not open to the public.

    We left San Marino around 11am, just as the hoards of day trippers were arriving, for our day trip to San Leo.

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    San Leo is an easy half hour drive, very well sign-posted all the way. A map or gps would just be confusing, just follow the signs. Slightly unusual for an Italian hill town is the fact that you do drive through the main gate and part of the historic center to the parking lot (all well signed). Parking meter, pay for as long as you think you’ll need. The setting of San Leo is almost as good as San Marino, high on a hilltop with views of San Marino and the countryside and distant mountains.

    There are a couple of nice old Romanesque churches, one little piazza with a dry fountain, and a couple of streets with just a smattering of restaurants, one gelateria, and a few shops. One of the shops, down near the picturesque town gate (that we drove through) is a ceramics shop. The proprietor, who is the potter, was working in his shop, painting intricate designs on a plate. He spoke very little English but Geo was able to ask him how long it took to paint a plate like that and he said five days. His stuff was gorgeous and incredibly inexpensive. So I left with three nice pieces. He doesn’t take credit cards but there’s a handy bank machine directly across the street. Love the fact that they have an old stone step to get you high enough to reach the modern ATM.

    The main event in San Leo is the Fortress. There does seem to be a car access road but it was gated off and we wanted to walk up anyway. Quite steep but it’s shaded and only takes 10-15 minutes. Huge fortress (€9). Just gigantic. More incredible views of San Marino and the countryside. And countless rooms, halls, chambers, dungeons, tower rooms. Some of it is slightly fixed up as it would have been when the dukes of Urbino lived there, most of it was empty, there was a torture exhibit. We spent a couple hours there, it just went on an on and there were terraces with even better views than the one before. Had a picnic lunch up there. Followed by ice cream at a little café.

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    Wednesday, July 29, - 35C We left San Marino and it was an easy 45 minute drive to Gradara, well sign posted including signs directing you to the parking lots. We drove through the town as high as we could go (past numerous empty parking lots -10am on a Wednesday in July, all the other lots were empty) and easily found space in the lot right outside the town wall (1.50€/hour). The walls are pretty impressive from the outside, crenelated with many large square towers.

    There is a really nice, tall clock tower which forms the main gate into the walled village (which is very tiny, just one really short street). Then there are more walls and a gate to the castle itself (€5 for both castle and walls). The castle is certainly nice but it’s not really outstanding. It was built in the 12th and 13th centuries but completely remodeled in recent times. It just doesn’t have that ‘something’ that many other medieval castles have. The main courtyard is somewhat picturesque but devoid of anything interesting and not very large. There are numerous rooms, most are furnished, primarily as bedrooms, a few frescoes. But no other areas – no kitchens, castle yards, etc. Many people find the castle interesting because of the legend and literature associated with it. Supposedly this was where, in the 13th century, Francesca da Rimini committed adultery with Paolo da Malatesta, her husband’s brother. The lovers were killed for their transgression and later consigned to hell by Dante – he meets their spirits in Canto V of the Inferno. Inside the castle is a room decked out as the scene of the crime, with a refurbished four poster bed, fake wall hangings and a book stand with two chairs – Francesca tells Dante in hell that it was while reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere that she and Paolo first succumbed to their passion. It is also here that Lucrezia Borgia bent to the wishes of her scheming father, Pope Alexander VI, only to see her unhappy marriages end in poisonous combinations. Other than this mildly interesting trivia, the castle itself I felt was just kind of ‘lackluster’.

    To access the walk along the walls you enter next to the clock tower. It’s not terribly high, has a wood railing, only goes half way around, and while there are nice views of the hills, the views to the Adriatic are of modern sprawl.
    I think it was worth the price and the hour or so we spent since we were driving right by it anyway. I’d say it was ‘average’. Maybe I’ve been to too many castles (ABC syndrome – ‘another bloody castle’).

    It was another easy 45 minute drive, well sign-posted to Urbino. Except we couldn’t find the hotel. This is where GPS would probably have been very helpful but unfortunately we ran out of data the other day and hadn’t found a TIM store to get more. We had to resort to the old fashioned way and stop at a gas station and ask. Having a pretty detailed google map that I had printed out to show the guy so he could point out where we were helped, and understanding a few Italian words like “keep right” and “follow the signs to the hospital” helped.

    Hotel Piero Della Francesca in Urbino was a pleasant surprise. Expectations matter and mine weren’t too high based on the price (€65 double in July) and the reviews. But it’s fine. No charm and it’s not IN the historic center but it’s perfectly functional, clean and spacious if a bit warn around the edges, good AC, good wi-fi, lift, little terrace with lovely view of the hills. Free parking along the street beside it. It is a bit of a walk to the center (2/3 mile, took about 10 minutes to the town gate) but it’s mainly flat and there’s a sidewalk, boring walk but perfectly safe, mostly shaded. Breakfast was just adequate, the croissants, yogurt and cappuccino were all good but that was about it.)

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    Urbino – have to say I’m a bit disappointed. Again, expectations matter and mine were high for this town, I’ve been wanting to go there for years but it never fit in an itinerary. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and the reviews of it are great. I had read it was the “jewel of Le Marche and one of the best-preserved and most beautiful hill towns in Italy, the ideal Renaissance city”. It may technically be an ideal Renaissance city, but while the view of the town/Ducal Palace from a distance is very striking, the town itself just didn’t do it for me. I’ve been in MANY Italian hill towns and LOTS of Italian cities; small, medium and large, and this is not one of my favorites. Not even in the top 30. For one thing the buildings are mostly brick – a kind of dirty greyish beige brick – and I prefer stone. For another, most of the center allows cars, it’s ZTL, but there are still plenty of cars you have to dodge and walk around as you wander the streets, which are kind of dirty. It certainly doesn’t have the beauty of Florence or Siena or Verona, or the charm of Tuscan and Umbrian hill towns. The main Piazza, “della Repubblica” has a few cafes but just didn’t make me want to sit and linger. Actually, we stopped for gelato at a bar opposite the parking lot/lift outside Porta Valbona at the base of via Mazzini, and it was not only great gelato but a wonderful view of the city and I though was a more pleasant place to spend a while (as long as you looked past the parking lot/bus station)than the main Piazza.

    The Ducal Palace was also a disappointment. The view of it from below and afar is wonderful, but up close, from inside the town, it’s just a huge brick building. An “undistinguished face”. The courtyard is Renaissance perfection but the palace itself is just BIG. Massive. Huge. But that’s really the main thing it’s got going for it. There are some nice ceilings and fireplaces but otherwise it’s essentially empty except for room after room of religious art. No furnishings, no sense at all of what it would have been like back in the day. It’s an art gallery. So sure, if you are an Art Historian or love that type of art, it is an important collection. But if you are more interested in the visual aspects of the town/palace, and ambiance, then you’d find it lacking. The most interesting part we thought was the underground areas where there were kitchens (not that you could really tell), medieval laundry, stables, etc. There were bits of exposed plumbing, a huge cistern-like area (where snow was packed each winter), and a giant stable with a clever horse-poop disposal system. But since there was no sign or any indication it was down there, we would have missed it if not for Bvlenci’s advise so we went looking for it, (so thank you Bvlenci). The one other interesting thing was a room with a video showing how paintings are restored. It was in Italian but we were able to make out most of it.

    I liked Urbino better in the evening. As the sun was setting it turned the brick buildings a warmer shade of beige, as opposed to the greyish-beige they appeared in the mid day. And after dark it was a bit better. Though there seemed to be more restaurants open for lunch than dinner we picked what turned out to be a good one, Osteria Gula on Corso Garibaldi, about half a block off of Piazza Repubblica. The food was good, waitresses very helpful since we didn’t know what all the items were on the Italian menu even though she didn’t really speak English, there was a bit of a view of the bell tower and tower of Ducal Palace, nice jazz music, beautiful warm breeze. Only negative was a small bus that just barely squeezed by between the tables and the building on the other side of the street – and it came by (empty) three times while we were there!

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    Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 38C - Day trip to some Le Marche towns

    I want to thank fodorite Bvlechi for suggesting these towns. They were the highlight of our stay in Urbino.

    We drove to Mondavio, about an hour from Urbino. Pretty well marked roads except the 2nd half of the drive the roads were in bad shape and under a lot of construction, including one detour that wasn’t marked at all and Geo had to use his Italian to get the construction guys to tell us where to go. But the way to Mondavio from the highway at Fossombrone goes through delightful rolling Le Marche hills. Lots of hills and valleys of fields of sunflowers (just past prime at the end of July) and hay, some vineyards and olive groves, with some larger mountains in the distance.

    Once at Mondavio it was well signedto the centro and parking on the street right outside the castle was free and easy. VERY impressove ,edoeva; (1490s) castle for such a s mall town in the middle of nowhere. Not on a hill really so no atmospheric 'wow' setting but still really nice. The design is unusual and the castle is remarkable for the fact that it is largely intact in excellent condition.

    The ‘Della Rovere Fortress’ , considered a ‘master of Renaissance military architecture’ has a polygonal donjon with ten irregular sides connected to a small flanking tower and to another semi elliptical tower. There’s a bit of castle yard with some really huge medieval wooden weapons. The interior (6€) was way more extensive than it looked from the outside, several floors both up into the towers and down into the underground areas contain many rooms, narrow passageways, steep stairways, massive wooden doors and iron gates. Most of the rooms contain wax figures in period costume doing the things people would have been doing in the castle back in the day: eating a feast in dining room, cooking in a kitchen, working in a stable and a foundry, having a sword duel, being tortured, shooting people outside the castle, that sort of thing. But it was very well done and had nice lighting. The ‘purists’ might say that sort of display detracts from the ‘authenticity’ of the castle but I think it actually helps it come alive and explain things and is more interesting than just reading signs or listening to an audio guide. The views from the tower were wonderful.

    The town itself is tiny but nice, just one piazza with a municipo, a church (small cloister), and a bar and a few streets. Local Italians going about their day. There were just two other tourists in the castle when we were there. The town and the castle took no more than an hour (and we were not rushing).

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    On to Corinaldo, only a few kilometers further. Also well signed to a large parking lot right near the main town gate. One of the ‘100 most beautiful villages in Italy’, holder of the 6 Flags Orange Touring Club for environmental quality, chosen in 2008 by the European Commission as a tourist destination of the Eden Project for sustainable tourism. Surrounded by majestic 14th century defense walls acknowledged as being the best preserved, most impressive, best fortified and longest (912 m continuously ) in Le Marches region. The young woman in the TI gave us a town map and showed us where we could walk on the walls and other points of interest. There are several access points and it’s free. The heart of Corinaldo is the Piaggia, which is a stairway of 100 steps from the main piazza at the top of town down to another impressive gate and the walls, halfway down is an interesting old well. The whole town is well kept and very pleasing to wander around. Again, virtually no other tourists.

    It was still only a bit past noon at this point (we had gotten a pretty early start, leaving Urbino around 8:15) so we backtracked to Urbino, only taking one short wrong turn, and headed to Urbania. This was supposed to be a ‘lively’ medieval town with the Duke of Urbino’s summer palace and the Chiesa dei Morti as the two main attractions. Well, first, it was very poorly signed as to where to park and where the historic centro was (had to stop and ask directions while driving, then again once we were walking). Second, it was not at all lively (it was siesta/pausa but still you can tell when a town is napping versus when it’s just a quiet town). Third, it was quite run down and neglected, especially compared to the first two towns we’d visited that day. The Summer Ducal Palace was similar to Urbino’s in that from the town side it’s just an ugly rectangle with nothing of interest. Looks like an unused factory building. The ‘outside’ is somewhat more interesting and has a vaguely pleasant setting since a loop of a small river runs in front of it. The main courtyard was boring, there are hundreds of nicer ones all over Italy. The Chiesa dei Morti was of course closed for a four hour siesta (12-16:00) but as Geo said, we’ve seen plenty of Italian mummies, these couldn’t possibly be better than the ones in Sicily which we really liked.

    Back in Urbino, after a siesta we went to the fortress (only slightly uphill from the hotel, very uphill from the center of town) and there were the best views of the ‘face’ of the town. We walked down very steep Via Raphael and looked for a restaurant or an interesting area to wander but really didn’t find either. Went to the same place as yesterday, service even better, food not as good – actually tasted like the frozen ravioli and jarred sauce I get at S&S. But the waitress was incredibly sweet again and Geo got to practice his Italian.

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    Friday, July 31, 2015 - 38C - I had booked three nights in Urbino, planning the day trips to the towns we did yesterday would take about half a day for each direction (which they did) and we’d spend the rest of the time slowly exploring and enjoying a beautiful Italian hill town for the end of our trip. But we both just didn’t really like the ‘feel’ of Urbino. I’m not saying I’m not glad that I visited because I am. I’m glad I saw it. And the countryside in the area is very lovely (a lot like where we live actually – well this place puts our sunflowers to shame and we haven’t got any olive groves). But we felt we’d rather be in Rome for our last full day so were able to cancel the last night in Urbino and get an addition night in Rome.

    We left Urbino by 8:30 and it was an easy, mostly divided highway, well signed drive to Todi. We really like ,Todi. Just such a different feel from Urbino. About the same size (15,000) and built on very steep hills. But the buildings are mostly stone rather than brick, kind of grey colored but still felt warm. Mixed in are a few stucco buildings in the classic peach, pink, rust, yellow, etc. The main square is gorgeous. In the 1990s a professor of architecture at the University of Kentucky, chose Todi as the model sustainable city, because of its scale and its ability to reinvent itself over time. After that, the Italian press reported on Todi as the world's most livable city. You can really see how this might be true. It has Etruscan and Roman beginnings, but most of the city is medieval. There are still substantial parts of the walls and numerous city gates. The main square, Piazza del Popolo (built atop Roman cisterns and once the site of the Roman forum) is so pretty and medieval looking it has apparently been used numerous times as a movie set. Palazzo del Popolo is one of Italy's oldest public buildings. Tempio di San Fortunato, on piazza Umberto, was built in 1292 on the site of an older church. We climbed the bell tower (150 steps) for nice views of the town, though the view of the really pretty church (Santa Maria della Consolazione ) down below the town, is rather obscured by large trees. We also walked through a park looking for views of that church and while there is a little terrace that looks like it was specifically built to view the church, you still don’t get a great view. They need to do some pruning. We spent about three hours there and just really liked it. Got some gelato and ate it on a bench looking at the gorgeous buildings and people watching in Piazza del Pololo.

    The drive from Todi to Rome is all divided highway, well signposted and takes just under 2 hours to Ciampino airport (quite a bit of traffic at the end). Car return swift and painless (helps that we returned the car to the exact same place last year) and there was a TeraVision bus just boarding. The trip to Rome rush hour traffic took about 20 minutes to get to Termini and then another 20 to drive around it to the other side where you get off. Used my handy chip and pin credit card to buy tickets to FCO for Sunday and walked to the Floris.

    Floris Hotel, Roma. We stayed here last year and they remembered us!!!! And Veronica, remembered that Geo was trying to learn Italian. And upgraded us to a superior room (although honestly it doesn’t seem any better than the other rooms we’ve stayed in, but I like them all). I love this hotel. It’s a bit further to the ‘heart of Rome’ piazzas than other hotels I’ve stayed in in Rome, but it is handy to the train station for coming and going (less than 10 minutes walk). The hotel only has about 20 rooms, but is beautifully done, very modern, super clean, spacious, comfortable. Great wi-fi, mini bar, free juice and cappuccino all day, absolutely fabulous breakfast. Only negative is that it is on the 4th floor (equivalent of about 8 flights of stairs) of a building that houses several other hotels. There is a lift but it’s tiny and slow. And they need a much better sign outside. Once you know where it is it’s fine, but finding it the first time is not easy.

    I asked about the price difference between March and July (€100 in July, €175 in March) and they said that summer is the ‘medium’ season, the high season for Rome is March through May. So now two different hotels in Rome (and one in Venice – over a span of several years) have confirmed that, it’s not some fluke.

    And that’s the end of a wonderful 5 weeks. Our last day and two evenings in Rome were just spent wandering our favorite areas, just enjoying being there. I’ve been to Rome quite a bit recently, including several days just this past March, and last July plus several other longer trips in the past few years so there were no ‘destinations’ we really wanted to see. I could just wander around Rome forever it feels like.

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    Just finding this, Isabel, and it's a GREAT report And photos!
    We are planning a trip up near the Dolomites. Staying in Asolo, but maybe taking a day trip or an overnight to drive the Grande Strade delle Dolomiti, now that I've read your review.
    The rest of the trip is a stay in Venice, but your report is inspiring!

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