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Trip Report Italy trip report: Lakes district, Dolomites, Venice, and Milan

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This is a report on our recent trip to Italy, visiting Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, Lake Garda, the Dolomites, Venice, and, briefly, Milan. We are a couple in our early sixties, Larry and Margie, and we both post on Fodor's using the name 'justretired' (Larry retired from an engineering career in October, 2003, while Margie still works part-time as an artist and art teacher). Larry has been taking adult education courses in Italian for a few years, and speaks Italian reasonably well for tourist purposes.

This was our third trip to Italy, and as usual, we consulted the Fodor's Forum frequently before the trip. We'd like to thank everyone who helped in our planning, particularly Bob the Navigator, Steve James, Nessundorma, Franco, and Cicerone. Help from the Forum improves our trips immeasurably.

This report starts with some general comments, and then follows our trip chronologically. It ended up getting so long that I fear that nobody will read it in its entirety. You may want to skip sections you're not interested in. If you don't like this sort of rambling chronology, hey, just skip it altogether. Because it's so long, I've broken it up into five different threads, each one covering a particular area.

In this report, we'll mention various hotels, restaurants and shops that we liked. These are just personal opinions, based on our experiences during this trip. We have no commercial interest in any of the places we might mention. We were happy with all our hotel choices.

The weather we encountered was generally overcast and cool. The sun did break through from time to time, but not much. We only had one day of actual rain, though, and we preferred this weather to excessive heat.

The sections of this report are:

1. This thread: Italy trip report: Lakes district, Dolomites, Venice, and Milan
Our itinerary
The flight and the car
The telephone
The Europa card

2. Italy trip report: The Lakes District
Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, and Lake Garda

3. Italy trip report: The Dolomites

4. Italy trip report: Venice

5. Italy trip report: Milan, and some final thoughts
Milan
Final thoughts: The region
The food
The people
The languages

Our itinerary

We left Boston on May 18, and returned on June 6. The itinerary was:

- Fly Boston ' Zurich ' Milan on Swiss International, pick up a rental car, and drive to Stresa on Lake Maggiore to get a boat to our hotel.

- Lake Maggiore: 3 nights at the Hotel Verbano, on the Isola dei Pescatori (Fisherman's Island)

- Lake Como: 3 nights at the Hotel Eremo Gaudio in Varenna

- Lake Garda: 3 nights at the Hotel Gardesana, Torri di Benaco

- The Dolomites: 3 nights at the Hotel Uhrerhof, Ortisei (St. Ulrich)

- Drive to Venice, and drop the car. 4 nights at the Ca' Amadi in Venice

- Train to Milan, 2 nights at the Antica Locanda Leonardo

- Return to Boston via Zurich

The flight and the car

We liked flying Swiss International through Zurich, which is a manageable transfer point run with Swiss efficiency. Boston has a shortage of direct flights, except to the really major cities like Paris, Rome, and London, so we often end up having to transfer somewhere. In the past we've transferred in London and Paris. But London's Heathrow is so huge that you have to allow almost an extra hour to make a transfer, so we now generally avoid it. Air France through Paris has worked for us a couple of times, but Air France makes us nervous with their ultra-short connection times (although we've never missed a connection).

We flew Business Class on this trip, for the first time ever (the trip was on frequent flier miles). That could spoil us forever ' it will be hard to go back to tourist. The seats were so comfortable, and reclined so far, that I actually slept well on the trip over, which I've never managed to do before.

We rented our car on the web through Nova Rent-a-car (http://www.novacarhire.com). They quoted a substantially better rate that that offered by Auto Europe (http://www.autoeurope.com/), which we had used in the past. Nova arranged the rental through Auto Europa (note: 'Auto Europa' is NOT the same as 'Auto Europe', nor is it the same as 'EuropeCar' or 'EuropeAuto'). We were happy with the car, a diesel Alpha Romeo 159 with a standard shift. It was big enough to hide all our (possibly excessive) luggage in the trunk, had plenty of power for dealing with the hilly terrain we were driving through, and was large enough to fare well in any accident. It's substantially more costly to rent a car in Italy than in other European countries, because Italy requires you to buy mandatory insurance that you can decline in other countries, in which you can depend on the insurance coverage provided by a gold or platinum credit card.

The telephone

We arrived in Italy with a GSM cell phone that we and others have used multiple times in various countries. GSM phones work only when a postage-stamp size 'SIM card' is inserted into them. The SIM card attaches the phone to a particular service, and gives it its telephone number (SIM = 'Subscriber Identification Module'). Our SIM card was from the service provider 'TIM' (http://www.tim.it), and had last been used in Italy by my sister in July of 2005. These cards are generally good for a year after their last use; after that, the provider assumes they have lapsed, and they can recycle the phone number.

But even before that happens, after nine months or so, any monetary credit on your account usually expires, and it has to be recharged. Hence one of the first things we did, in the town of Belgirate, on our drive from the airport to Stresa, was to go into a tabaccheria to buy a TIM recharge card. These are generally scratch cards, which come with a code number under the scratch-off covering. You call a telephone number on the scratch card, and upon being prompted, enter the code. This credits your account with the cost of the recharge card. The reason the card is a scratch card is that this guarantees that nobody else has been able to use the code number before you bought the card (since it is only good once).

In our case, the young woman behind the counter had an alternative way of doing it: her cash register connected to TIM, and she entered our phone number. This directly credited our account. The problem was that when we tried the phone, although it reported the credit, it didn't work, giving instead a long and rapid-fire error message in Italian. I asked the woman in the tabaccheria for help in understanding this.

At this point, the generally helpful nature of Italians came to the fore. She and another young woman working at the shop spent the next twenty minutes or so interpreting the error comments, phoning TIM customer support, and talking with the service people. It ultimately developed that when a TIM account is left unused for over nine months, it goes dormant, and it takes a bit of time to re-activate it. After I gave my name to a TIM representative, we were assured that the phone would start operating within ten to 24 hours. Indeed, about ten hours later, that's exactly what happened. That meant that the cell phone number I had given out before the trip was valid, and I didn't need to buy a new SIM card and convey a new phone number to everybody.

With the carrier TIM in Italy, you dial 4916 to get your balance. I generally just listened to the balance, in Italian (the numbers were slowly spoken, and easy to understand), and then hung up. But one day, I listened on, and the system launched into a menu of other things I could do. Lo and behold, one of them was 'cambiare la lingua' ' change the language! I selected that, and then selected 'inglese' ' English. From then on, my phone communicated with me in English, which made my life a bit easier. Of course, the odd 'catch-22' is that you can't change the prompts to English unless you can first understand the prompts in Italian, in which case you don't need to change the prompts to English.

Of course, real life isn't so black and white. It's not the case that one either speaks Italian or doesn't. I understand it well enough to have followed the prompts adequately to change the language, but there were many prompts and error notifications that I didn't understand, and changing the language to English made my life with the phone much easier.

If you don't understand Italian at all, find a native speaker to help you. He or she can follow the prompts in Italian and change the language to English, and then return your phone to you.

The Europa card

We had gotten advice, on the Fodor's Forum, that the cheapest way to phone home from Italy would be to use a calling card called the 'Europa' card. We tried to buy one of these at the same tabaccheria described above, but they didn't carry it. They did carry what was described as a similar card, called a 'Black & Yellow' card, so we bought one of those for five euros. With these cards, you call a number given on the card, and then, when prompted, enter a code number, also on the card (in a scratch-off section). We used the 'Black & Yellow' card to make a couple of fairly brief calls to the US, after which it was used up.

We then went into another tabaccheria, and this time, found a Europa card, also for five euros. We used it for numerous calls back to the US during the remaining two and a half weeks of our trip. It reports your balance each time you use it, and the balance went down very slowly. That five euros essentially covered all our calls back to the US, and in fact, it still had almost 1 euro balance on it when we returned. So based on my experience, the 'Europa' card is far superior in value to the 'Black & Yellow' card.

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