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Trip Report A Couple Weeks in Northern Italy

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I flew in and out of MIlan in mid-October. Flights over and back were on time and sometimes early. What a relief especially since American was having major delays and cancelations just prior to it. And flying first/business class both ways certainly makes a difference. Flying economy again may be difficult. I can't complain. The flights over on AA only cost me $5. Coming back on British Air cost a whopping $270. I love frequent flyer miles.

I took trains between the cities: Varenna, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice, Verona and Milan...not very far between each. There was supposedly a strike the day I was leaving Lake Como to connect in Milan. I was told I had to take a 7:30 train rather than the one I'd booked at 10:30. So I got to Milan way too early. I wasn't going to wait until after noon for the train to Bologna I'd prepaid for....and wasn't sure it was going anyway. So I bought a ticket for the next scheduled fast train. All trains left on time. It wasn't always that way in Italy. Even though it's the only logical way to get around, it can still be a bit of a hassle. But then travel can be that anyway. Many people just don't acknowledge it...or maybe the European experience somehow makes you forget it all. I tend to.

Lake Como is beautiful. But admittedly, I'm getting a bit jaded and wasn't completely blown away. Varenna is a small hillside town on the shore and was a good place to recover for a couple days from the trip over. I did a short day trip to Bellagio by ferry...probably nothing like the Vegas one, but stillI a good thing to do. The weather ranged from sunny to gray and even a bit of rain. But having dinner and drinks at George Clooney's house made it all quite nice...such a gracious host. ;-) It was still gray when I got to Bologna, but then it cleared up the next day and was beautiful the rest of the trip...sunny warm days, cool mornings and at night.

Bologna is a big interesting city where I met up with my friend Barb. Its claim to fame is the food and Barb knew the places to go. I ate well, but did most everywhere. I'd usually get a quarter liter of house wine and even in the classiest restaurant, it was usually no more than 3€, often less. A Coke would be as much. I never had any bad wine. The historical part of Bologna is fairly compact and easy to cover on foot. It's filled with "red" buildings and porticos that are somewhat unique to the city and are impressive historic architecture. Interestingly enough, it was hard not to notice the fashion sense the locals have. Milan is supposed to be the fashion capital, but really, I think it's Bologna. It may be skinny jeans and Nikes in Paris, but in Bologna it's skinny jeans with just the right shoes...casual, cool, stylish...often quite dressy for the women. Then there's a scarf for both men and women...not worn tied with it hanging down the front, but wrapped almost totally around the neck with a stray end hanging down. I saw the same thing but to a lesser degree in Verona. What I noticed in Verona is that there aren't as many cell phones and saw few smart phones. And, their cell phones are really basic. I don't think they have a lot of money, so what they do have goes to cool jeans and shoes...and beautiful leather jackets.

I took a short day trip to Ferrara...a wonderful smaller town with historic castle, cathedral and city hall. I could have spent longer. It was just a half hour train ride from Bologna. From Bologna I went to Venice for two nights where I was to meet up with Barb. She went the day before to get together with her sister. We had major communication problems on where to meet. So we both spent hours looking for each other. We weren't that far from each other, but the mass of tourists around Piazza San Marco kept us lost in the crowd. It wasn't a good way to start Venice. We finally talked again by phone late in the day and decided to just eat on our own. Our hotels weren't close together and hers was annoyingly difficult, nearly impossible, to find.

Venice, in spite of it's reputation for being charming, romantic and just plain largely just the opposite. The hordes of tourists especially near the major tourist sights, is overwhelming. Two and three cruise ships with 3,000 tourists plus each as well as the huge tour groups, don't help. No wonder it’s sinking. It's difficult to find your way around, especially if you're trying to meet someone or get somewhere on time. The vaporettos (water buses) are numerous, crowded and it's confusing to find the right one. They're also expensive. I'm so glad I saw Venice many, many years ago. It was a different place. Not that it can't be charming and special when you stray from the major tourist areas, but that's not always easy to do.

Barb and I did meet up the next day for a day trip to Burano...a small island about a half hour boat ride from Venice proper. What a delightful place! Brightly colored buildings, a few canals and even fewer tourists. We had a nice lunch by a canal and then headed back to Venice. Barb had to find her way back to her hotel through the maze of madness and then catch her train back to Bologna late that afternoon. She was there two weeks minus the couple days in Venice. She'd spent her first week in Lisbon. The next day before heading to Verona, I went to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small museum that overlooks the Grand Canal complete with sculpture garden. It has to be my favorite smaller museum...anywhere. It's filled mainly with mid twentieth century contemporary art by artists we've all heard of. It was a wonderful way to leave Venice...and I was happy to.

I continued on to Verona for three nights...a manageable city where most things you'd want to see or do are in the same general area. I really liked it. There's the major Piazza Bra with a small park and huge amphitheater...lots of places to eat and lots of people just milling around. LIke most Italian cities, there's a main pedestrian shopping street that's filled with people just out walking...not to be confused with the tourist masses of Venice. Not sure that anyone is really going anywhere special or even buying anything. They're just out and about. Many people seemed to know each other. I was there on the weekend, so there probably were more strollers than usual. Then there are other piazzas, churches (like everywhere it Italy), a castle and a major river. Speaking of hordes, the courtyard at Juliet's house, makes Venice look untouristy.

My first night I ate a highly recommended restaurant. I assumed it would be like most places I'd eaten where jeans and a pullover were the usual garb. Fortunately, my jeans...not so skinny...were laundry ready and I decided to wear a real shirt and Dockers. Otherwise, I would have really felt out of place. It was fairly high end with great food and service, but with reasonable prices. I heard no English and not much more from the waiter. I made a conscious effort to wear everything I took on this trip, so it was time. I take next to nothing and still end up coming home with something I'd hardly worn...or worn at all.

My cultural event was a classical concert in a smaller renovated theater in Verona. It was a really wonderful evening ending with Beethoven's 4th. The program started with a soprano that was probably enough opera for the trip. I'd planned to see La Boheme at La Scala in Milan, but tickets were sold out within minutes of going on sale months ago. Besides, this was under 20€ while La Scala would have been well over 200€. The singer had an outstanding voice, but what was equally outstanding was her dress. It was covered with sparkly stuff on the top while the bottom half looked like an oversized, overfluffed feather duster. She definitely wasn't a candidate for skinny jeans. Was I the only one that snickered?

I spent my last two nights in Milan...a huge city with subway, buses and trams. It's not a particularly gorgeous city, nothing like Rome or Paris. I mainly wanted to see the cathedral, galleria, castle and it's adjacent park as well as the "Last Supper." The cathedral and galleria are world famous. I saw them at night in the rain last fall when I spent the night before my flight home after Sicily. So seeing them on a sunny day was a treat. 

I bought a ticket to see the "Last Supper" some time ago online. Only 25 people at a time are allowed in every 15 minutes. You go through two different dehumidifying "isolation booths" before getting in. I'm not terribly religious, but have to say that Leonardo knew what he was doing. It's an amazing piece of art. The railing in front of it pointed out who was who...a big help to me. Without sounding completely disrespectful, there were some things I found interesting. Judas looked absolutely evil while Jesus was quite handsome, almost beautiful. And John was young and attractive, too. That night, I found a neighborhood restaurant not far from my hotel. Outside of a bit from the waiters for my benefit, I heard no English. It was good, casual and inexpensive. They had the best homemade tiramisu ever. I ate there both nights.

All my lodging was good. Research paid off. In my Varenna hotel, recommended by Barb, I had a large corner room with windows overlooking Lake Como. It was right at the ferry landing. In Bologna, I stayed at the same hotel as Barb. But I got a double room for single use that was much larger than her single. It was quite nice as were the staff. In Venice, I opted for a small hotel behind the chaos of San Marco in a very affordable single room. To my surprise, they upgraded me to an apartment with full eat in kitchen and separate bedroom. This has never happened to me in Europe. I don't know of a situation where I got other than the room I paid for. After the hassles early that day, I decided on pizza to go. And with an apartment, it made sense. I wandered away from the tourist area where I saw locals carrying pizza boxes. So, I followed the trail and found the best little pizza-to-go place. The staff spoke some English, but I didn't hear it from anyone else. I did that both nights. The hotel in Verona was very nice. It had been completely redone and was near the main piazza on a quiet street. I'd stayed at the same hotel in Milan last fall. I asked for the same room overlooking a quiet parklike courtyard and got it. It's close to the train station and the airport bus, so it was nice as well as convenient

All my trip photos are here. If you decide to check them out, it's easy to click on the gallery, say "Venice," and click "Slideshow." Or, you can just click on any photo you're interested in.

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