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Trip Report Northern Italy, October 2011

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I've found these forums so helpful, I wanted to share our recent experiences in Northern Italy. We've been to Italy a number of times recently, and each time we try to see a different part of the country. This time we traveled with another couple, and we are all late 50's/early 60's. We went the first 2 weeks of October, and the weather was just perfect: clear, bright skies every day, temps ran from high 60's to low 80's - not too hot, not too cold.

If you want the Cliff Notes: we found the scenery in the North to be breathtakingly beautiful, and yes, Venice is magical. After seeing Lake Garda & Lake Como, we're already planning a trip to see Lake Maggiore! As we had heard, folks in the North were not quite so warm & friendly as in the South. We thought the food/wine was terrific, of course, but in general, not AS terrific as Central/Southern Italy. We were surprised to find so many places where folks did not speak English, so knowing at least some Italian came in really helpful.

So, here goes:

Part 1 - Venice - 3 nights
Arrived in Milan (airfare was cheaper), and took the train to Venice. (Lessons Learned: doing all this travel after an overnight flight was just too much. We all agreed that next time we spend at least the first night wherever we land). We had rented an apartment in the Castello sestiere, about a 10 - 15 minute walk from St. Mark's. Our apartment looked out over a small canal, which was very romantic, except - all night long it was a freeway of very loud motor boats! So much for "La Serenissima"! Still, we had a terrific time, and especially loved "our" piazza (San Giovanni e Paolo) - all locals, no tourists at all, full of kids & dogs & Mamas chatting with their friends.
We took the obligatory gondola ride, but saw much better sights just going round on a vaporetto. Did the Ponte Rialto, the fish market, St. Mark's, etc., but as we had read previously, our best experiences were just walking around, & getting lost in, the back canals.
Food was terrific, my favorite was a traditional Venetian dish of liver with polenta in fig sauce - yum! Another favorite of the guys' was cuttlefish in squid ink.

Part 2 - Lake Garda - 3 nights
We picked up a rental car at Piazzale Roma (very convenient), & drove just a couple hours to go up the east coast of Lake Garda - wow! Just breathtaking sights of crystal blue water with majestic snow-topped mountains all around, felt very Alpine. We stopped for lunch in Torri del Benaco - one of the prettiest places ever. Then continued to Riva del Garda, at the very northern tip of the lake, where we were staying in an agriturismo. One day we drove north, up (& I mean UP!) Monte Bordone, where we stopped & chatted w/local shepherds, through Trento, to Bolzano. Stopped along the way at a roadside ristorante (da Silvio) where we had terrific rabbit pate, homemade pasta w/duck ragu, osso buco, etc. FYI - we found very few folks around Garda that speak English - everyone speaks either Italian or German, which was odd to hear. I speak just enough Italian to get us by, otherwise it might be an issue. By the time we got to Bolzano, it was almost entirely in German, so I'm glad we didn't stay there, which we originally had considered.
Another day we walked around Riva, which is just stunning, then drove along the west coast to Limone sul Garda - wow again! Reminded us of the Amalfi coast, with colorful buildings perched on the mountain sides, but actually prettier and much less touristy. Broad promenades along the water, beautiful gardens to rest in - we all agreed we would definitely like to come back to the Garda area. Drove up (& UP) to Tignale, a little village built on a mountain top - the views were just indescribable.

Part 3 - Sirmione & Verona - 3 nights
On leaving Riva we cdrove along the west coast, & stopped a couple hours in Sirmione, at the very southern end of Lake Garda. It's actually a little peninsula that juts into the Lake, you park outside and walk in through the castle walls. Sirmione is "adorable", w/lots of shops & restaurants, but as you might expect, a little too touristy. It reminded us of Mont St. Michel in France - terrific to see once, not sure I'd go back. They apparently have terrific Roman ruins there, unfortunately closed the day we were there. We saw what looked like a terrific spa w/natural thermal baths, would be worth trying.

We then continued maybe an hour to Verona, where we stayed in a fabulous B&B (Corte delle Pigne) in the center of the historic area; we LOVED Verona, & would definitely go back! It had the feel of Rome, but smaller, cleaner, & not nearly as hectic. Spacious Piazza Erbe where we had aperitivi & people watched every night. Beautiful river walk, feels like walking along the Tiber in Trastevere. Great Roman ruins, including the largest colliseum outside Rome. We definitely could have spent more time there.

Probably my favorite day of the trip was the fulfillment of a long-time dream - we got up early one day & drove to Parma, hooked up with Parmagolosa tours (terrific!), and got private tours of the making of Parmigiano cheese & prosciutto. This was followed by lunch in a vineyard with all local foods & award winning wines. This was a real "defining moment" experience of a lifetime.

Warning! Animal lovers/vegetarians may want to stop reading here...
Overall we thought the food around Verona was the best of our trip, and also the most unusual. Being adventurous eaters, we tried the cavallo (horse), which is a staple around Verona, and on every menu. We took pictures of a butcher shop that sold nothing but "equine", in every possible cut, and the shop was packed with well dressed Veronese ladies. Really, really good: shredded, in a rich reduced wine sauce, over polenta. We also had donkey stew, rabbit, horse "balls" (not what you think; similar to arancini/suppli, but with dried shredded cavallo mixed in - I'm sorry, but yum again!), liver, wild boar - the food of Verona reminded us of Tuscany/Umbria, still our favorite area for food. And the local wines were to die for! Who knew we would love a sparkling rose'?

Part 4 - Lake Como - 4 nights
About a 2 hour drive to Lake Como. We stayed in an apartment in Fiumelatte, right next to Varenna, about halfway up the east coast. Wow - the full uninterrupted view of the Lake from our long balcony was unbelievable. We absolutely loved Varenna - "picturesque" doesn't do it justice. Charming little harbor, steep cobblestone steps up to shops & restaurants, again very few tourists. Probably our single best meal of the entire trip was in this tiny ristorante (Cavatappi), no more than 4 or 5 tables, where "Mario" was maitre d', waiter, sommelier, & chef! What a character he was, turning more paying guests away, saying he was "full" when clearly he wasn't. We had the best ever Carbonnara, followed by pork in a Parmigiano and licorice (!) sauce, to die for.
One day we took a quick ferry ride (20 minutes) to Bellagio, and we were actually glad we hadn't stayed there. Smaller than I had envisioned, much more crowded, everything more expensive, & more touristy, then Varenna. You hear a lot more English being spoken in Bellagio, while I needed my Italian in Varenna & definitely in Fiumelatte. Still, there's no question Bellagio is just gorgeous, & we had a great time shopping, sitting, & people watching. Looked for George Clooney, didn't see him. On the recommendation of a shop keeper we had another terrific lunch (San Giacomo), of deer stew, chicken cacciatore, home made ravioli, & fried lake perch. This was a really fun place, with flirty waiters, and Mama coming in & out of the kitchen to see how we liked our food.
Another day we took a ferry to the other side of the Lake, to Lenno. We walked to Villa Balbianello, which is easily the prettiest villa I've ever seen. It sits on a peninsula in the lake, with water views on all sides, and has the most beautiful gardens, statuary, etc., - well worth the trip.
Our last day on Lake Como was a Sunday. After making friends with the guy at the tiny salumeria in Fiumelatte, we learned we could order a roast chicken, and roast pork, to pick up in the afternoon. We added some great local cheese, bread, & wine, and had a terrific supper waiting for us after an exhausting day of sightseeing. Perfect!
We hated saying goodbye to Lake Como, and would definitely go back.

Part 5 - Milan - 2 nights
We had another short drive to Milan, where we got rid of the rental car & stayed at the Hotel Berna. Berna was very nice, and very convenient to the metro. We had our most expensive meal (hey, this is Milan) at Osteria Cavallini - wow. Fresh pesto over fresh pasta, perfect veal Milanese (of course), & truffle risotto that was incredible. It was also porcini season, so we got to have them made several different ways. Yum!

There were 3 main things we wanted to see in Milan, & conveniently they're all right next to each other. First, we toured the Duomo, then took the elevator to the roof (!), where folks were sunning themselves like it was a public park. Fascinating experience, and the views of Milan were incredible. Across the Duomo's piazza is the must-see shopping Galleria, & then...La Scala. We couldn't get tickets, but being opera buffs we were thrilled to take the museum tour, which lets you into the box seats (you can sit there all day if you want).
Our last full day we just walked around Milan', including the famous high-end shopping district, trying to see into the limousines that kept pulling up. We couldn't afford to buy even a scarf there, but it was fun to window shop.
And then we had to come home. Damn!

Hope this is helpful. Enjoy!

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