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A month in northern Italy: Mountains, Lakes and Castles

A month in northern Italy: Mountains, Lakes and Castles

Old Sep 24th, 2015, 02:43 AM
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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 <b>Valle D'Aosta</b>

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.

<b>Hotel Cecchin</b> 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.

<b>Aosta</b> 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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Old Sep 24th, 2015, 05:11 AM
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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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Old Sep 24th, 2015, 12:09 PM
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Saturday, July 18 Clouds in am, party sunny pm, thunderstorms evening –Spent the day looking at <b>castles</b>. 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 <b>Castello di Fenis</b>, 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 <b>Issogne Castle</b>. 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 <b>Forte di Bard</b> 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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Old Sep 24th, 2015, 02:51 PM
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We're a bit short on castles in Australia, Fenis castle looks like a great visit.
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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 03:25 AM
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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 <b>Monte Cervino/ Matterhorn</b> 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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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 09:31 AM
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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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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 12:19 PM
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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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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 12:21 PM
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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 <b>Mt Blanc</b> 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.

<b>Castello di Saint-Pierre</b> (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 <b>Sarriod de la Tour</b>, 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 <b>Amymaville Castelo</b> – 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 <b>Pont D’Ael</b>, 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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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 04:06 PM
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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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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 05:24 PM
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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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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 05:30 PM
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Bookmarking
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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 06:46 PM
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Just found this and looking forward to a good read.
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Old Sep 26th, 2015, 03:22 AM
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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 - <b>The Dolomites</b>

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.

<b>Hotel Stiegl Scala</b> 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. <b>Bolzano</b> 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 <b>Piazza dell Erbe</b> 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, <b>Piazza Walther</b>, 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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Old Sep 26th, 2015, 03:24 AM
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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 <b>Grande Strada delle Dolomiti</b> 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 <b>Carezza al Largo</b>, 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 <b>Passo Pordoi</b> (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 <b>Passo Falzarego</b>. 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 <b>Passo Giau</b>, 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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Old Sep 27th, 2015, 05:34 AM
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Thursday, July 23, 2015 36C in Bolzano, between 18-32 in mountain towns. Drove through the <b>Val Gardena</b>, over <b>Sella Pass</b> 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 <b>Sella Pass</b> 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 <b>Castleroto</b>. 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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Old Sep 28th, 2015, 02:54 AM
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Friday, July 24, 2015 – <b>Bolzano and Trento</b> – 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, <b>international drivers permit</b> 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 <b>Castle Roncoco/Runkelstein</b>. 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 <b>Castello del Buonconsiglio</b>, 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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Old Sep 28th, 2015, 03:11 AM
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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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Old Oct 2nd, 2015, 07:00 PM
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Great report! I am of course benefiting from Garda part but also taking notes about Bolzano for further on the trip.
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Old Oct 4th, 2015, 04:42 AM
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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 <b>Ciampinoi lift</b>.

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 <b>Otzi the Ice Man</b>. 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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Old Oct 9th, 2015, 05:24 AM
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Sunday, July 26, 2015 . It was an easy drive to <b>Bassano del Grappa</b>, 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.

<b>Hotel Brennero</b>, 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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