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Trip Report Trip report - Lakes Region

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We just returned from 12 wonderful days in the Lakes Region. We were meeting up with friends there and I wasn't sure I would enjoy the North as much as I did Tuscany and Sicily, but it was fanatastic.
Day 1: Arrived in Milan, took the Malpensa Express from the airport to Stazione Cadorna in the heart of Milan. It was a short cab ride to our hotel, the Antica Locanda dei Mercanti, Via San Tomaso, 6. The hotel was nice, but not spectacular. It was on the third floor of an undistinguished building, above a gym. The room was small but comfortable, and commensurate with the moderate price. The location is right off Via Dante, and within easy walking distance to most of the Centro Storico.
We had reservation to see The Last Supper, which was a humbling experience. Since I was not familiar with history, I thought it was a a simple painting (on canvas) rather than a room-sized mural. We booked the ticket through SelectItaly, which I think was a mistake. They charged about three times the actual admission price.
We had a disappointing dinner at Trattoria Milanese. The food was okay (but not memorable) and the prices were out of line. It seemed like a bit of a tourist trap.
Day 2: Off to Desenzano. We walked around Milan in the rain for breakfast and then headed to Stazione Centrale for the train ride to Desenzano on Lago di Garda. The station itself, is a thing of beauty and I wished we had more time to walk around it. We bought out tickets at an automated ticket kiosk and were spared at least a 40 minute wait on line.
We met our friends at the station in Desenzano and were led to our villa, Monte Pico, just outside Desenzano in the town of Lonato. The villa was fabulous. It was located high above Lago di Garda, with a view of both the lake and a huge castle in Lonato. The owners, Ennio and Grazia, live in a separate part of the villa. They could not have been more gracious hosts.
Day 2-8: Exploring Garda. We first did a driving tour of the lower west side of the lake and stopped at some beautiful towns, such as Manerba, Salo' and Gardone. The following day we took the ferry from Sirmione and criss-crossed the middle part of the lake. The highlight was Limone, a beautiful town cut into a sheer cliff. We had lunch at Ristorante Gemma, Piazza Garibaldi 12, which overlooks the lake and specializes in lake fish dishes. Growing up on the East Coast, I was never a fan of fresh-water fish, but the tortellini and ravioli with fish stuffing were fantastic.
On another day we drove up the east side of the lake. You have to get past Gardaland and all of the funpark and campimg areas before you can enjoy the lake. Bardolino was nice but a bit crowded. Just north of Bardolino and the town of Garda was the town Torri del Benaco which was one of the prettiest towns I've ever seen. We had lunch at a lakeside cafe (can't recall the name) and wandered through the town.
Later in the week drove to Verona (about 40 minutes away.) The town itself was very hot, and very crowded, but worth a walking tour. We were going to the opera at the Arena, so we made a day of it. It was too hot to eat a full dinner so we ate an enoteca called Enoteca Cangrande, Via detro Listone, 19d. We had two bottles of wine and a plate of local cured meats (listed as 13 Euro) and another plate of local cheeses (listed as 12 Euro.) Granted, there were four of us, but I was floored when the check came to 160 Euro. Apparently the prices listed were per person (although that was not stated anywhere on the menu.) The platters were a good size but certainly not worth $60 or $70 apiece.
The opera was fabulous. You don't have to an opera buff to appreciate the spectacle of opera in an open air Roman arena built in 30 A.D. The staging, by Franco Zeffirelli, is extravagant beyond reason. There were at least 150 performers on the stage at a time. Down in the poltroni (the expensive seats) people were dressed in gowns and tuxedos. While in the cheap seats (on the original Roman stone bleachers) people were wearing shorts and T-shirts. I knew that this was an event, but I had no idea that opera fans Germany and England come and stay a week so that they can attend a different production every night. One word to the wise: you cannot bring any bottles into the Arena, so no drinking wine to go along with Verdi.
The highlight of our stay on Lago di Garda was a sailboat tour of the lake, courtesy of Ennio, our host at Monte Pico. We had asked him if he could recommend a place where we could charter a sailboat for the day. When he heard that we were sailors, he said he'd take us out on his boat (for free.) We sailed the lower portion of the lake with Ennio describing the history of each place we saw.
After our sailboat trip we decided to return the favor by taking Ennio and Grazia out for dinner, at a place of their choosing. They took us to a place in a tiny town called Castello Lagusello, south of Sirmione. This town has a walled castle, a clock tower, no stores to speak of, and three or four restaurants which were jammed with people from the countryside. Antipasti (including a delicious pumpkin ravioli) were no more than 3.50E. Secondi (I had duck) were all under 10E. Dinner for the six of us, including antipasti, primi, secondi, caffe' and four litres of the house Chiaretto, came to less than 160E with tip. I was in heaven.
Later in the week we drove all the way to the north end of the lake, to Torbole, Riva del Garda and back down to Malcesine. The north end of the lake is physically beautiful (very high mountains crash straight down into the lake) but the towns left me a bit cold. They cater to German and Austrian tourists and are very Swiss to my way of thinking. Menus are in German and Italian (and a faux English.) The food is generally forgettable. Malcesine, which has a cable car to the top of Mount Baldo, is nice. We took the trip to the top of the mountain, but unfortunately, it was a little too hazy to appreciate the view of the lake.
Days 9-11: Lago D'Orta. A small but beautiful lake to the west of Milan, Lago D'Orta is a little off the tourist map. We stayed at Hotel La Bussola in Orta San Giulio. During the summer they require half board (breakfast, and either lunch or dinner) with the price of the room. The room (large enough and with a "side-view" of the lake) was about $200 a night with half-board for two. Unfortunately, Lago D'Orta, and indeed, lower Lago Maggiore, were inundated with "zanzari" (mosquitoes), the likes of which I've not seen in a while. It made walking after dark, or in the early morning, very difficult for my wife who is a mosquito landing field. This was complicated by the fact that Hotel La Bussola did not have air conditioning (they are in the process of retro-fitting it), so we were left with the choice of sleeping with the windows closed and broiling, or with the windows open and being eaten alive. I can say that this was the first time in Italy (including Sicily in July) that I truly missed A/C.
The town of Orta San Giulio is beautiful. There are walks along the edge of the lake and up to the top of the hill (Sacro Monte) celebrating the life of St. Francis of Assissi.
From Orta we took a drive to Stresa (on Lago Maggiore)and a ferry to the Borromean Islands. The following day we drove up the west side of Lago Maggiore into Switzerland. We stopped in the town of Cannobio, a hidden treasure. It has one of the nicest waterfronts in the area. We had lunch in a small trattoria and continued on to Locarno, in Switzerland.
Day 12: Back to Milano. We checked in to our hotel (Ristorante Hotel Cervo, Via de Pinedo, 1, Somma Lombardia - less than 10 minutes from Malpensa Terminal 1), got rid of our car, and took the Malpensa Exprees back into Milan. We went to the terraces on the Duomo (usually I hate paying to go to the "tower" of some tourist site, but this was definitely worth it.You get to walk around on the roof of the Duomo and see the increduble detail of the design up close.)
We had dinner at a place recommended by Slowfood,called Al Puccini. It was probably the best meal of our trip, but I may be prejudiced by the fact that we got there early (it opens at 7:00 p.m.), and had our waiter all to ourselves. He was charming, put on an incredible show with our bottle of wine (I had never before seen a sommeliere light a candle to inspect the color of the wine as he decanted it), and he was very surprised and delighted that we were able to order our meal in our rudimentary Italian.
Hotel Cervo provides an inexpensive shuttle to Malpensa.
All to soon we were on our way home.

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