Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Diana's Book List from Italy Spring 2011

Rome: Wednesday, May 25, 2011

For those who've wondered, these are the books I've read this trip, and no - James G - I still don't have a Kindle. :)

1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. A first novel about an International Herald Tribune-type paper, set in Rome. The story is told via chapters about writer, editor, publisher, etc. I found the characters very unsympathetic - a very unhappy, unfulfilled lot. I wanted to like this book more than I did.

2. Cellophane by Marie Arana. A luscious novel about a fantastic family in the jungles of Peru. The patriarch, Don Victor, is a paper maker and then moves to cellophane which seemingly triggers a truth telling epidemic and revolution. I loved it!

3. La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales. The author loves Italy, Italian culture and the language, which is her entry to it all. Full of interesting history about the language, authors, poets, slang, etc. However even for me, she's a bit over the top - is there really no other language in the whole world with the nuance, beauty, etc. of Italian? Forse

4. Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder. The amazing true story of Deo from Burundi and his nightmare flight from the massacres there (why does one know about Rawanda and not Burundi?), his quite terrible life in NYC, the benefactors who took him in, and how he ultimately graduates from Columbia, begins medical school and goes back to Burundi to build the clinic he'd wanted to years before when he'd been a medical student there. He finds a "home" with Partners in Health – people who see the effects of poverty the way he does and believe they can make a difference. Inspiring.

5. Foreign Tongues by Vanina Marsot. The first of my "France" books, to get me in the mood. A sexy Paris novel about a bilingual LA woman, dumped by her boyfriend, who comes to Paris to recover, make a new life and find love. Great descriptions of Paris, neighborhoods, cafes, food, the French language, etc. but pretty lightweight

6. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. A big best seller, translated from the French, set in Paris, featuring a concierge, a young girl and a Japanese man. Pretty compelling characters but it got tedious with a bit too much reflecting on how superior they all were and also too much philosophizing.

7. French Lessons by Alice Kaplan. Great! A personal and professional memoir about learning French, the death of her father, using immersion into another culture as a way both of hiding from her own and dealing with her past. Fascinating about her study of Celine and French intellectual fascists, and her teaching experiences. Beautifully written and great to read in Paris.

8. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco. A memoir by a Canadian who was in Paris in 1927-29. A perfect compliment to the Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris

9. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. A great novel. Winner of this year's Mann Booker Prize. About being Jewish (including anti-Semitism and being critical of Israel), friendship and death. I laughed out loud every other page (though it probably should be noted that Jim never found what I found clever, witty or downright hysterical to be so.) But really – witty, moving, provocative. And maybe you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: Day 25: Saturday, May 21, 2011: Lerici

Another beautiful day in paradise……After breakfast and some time on the terrace reading and admiring the view, we get in the car and drive to Arcola in search of the laundromat.

It is right there on the main street and there are no laundry issues–all goes smoothly. We have a nice interchange with the woman who takes cares of the laundromat–she comes in with her two sons, to clean up, collect the money and restock the machines. She admires Diana's piecing and also the pictures of our grandchildren. The six year old practices a little English with us and the two year old grabs a rag and wipes down the table.

For lunch, we drive into the hills above Lerici to the village of Montemarcello

to find the bar that Megan had told us about that sells excellent foccaccia sandwiches. After a false start–the road from Ameglia to Montemarcello is blocked by a landslide–we get there, find the bar, order two of the few remaining sandwiches and eat them outside at their fake "wooden" rustic furniture (actually made of concrete).
In any case, the sandwiches are very good and the garden extremely pleasant.
Returning to Lerici, we venture down the hill to town for gelato and a stroll along the waterfront. There is a lot of activity connected to a big police celebration being held in one of the piazzas–a stage is set up, hundreds of chairs arranged in front and many policeman are milling about. While I make a quick shopping trip to look for my favorite olive oil soap (the store where we had always bought it has closed), Diana waits on the promenade and people watches. When I return (soapless), I find that she is talking to a woman named Marie Lamberti who is a real estate agent in Lerici. She was born in Liguria (during the war) but lived for much of her life in Pittsburgh where her parents had moved. Almost thirty years ago, she, her mother and her daughter moved back to Italy and have been there ever since.
So Diana has been talking to all three generations of the family…..
We decide not to wait for the ceremony to begin and head back up the hill. I am able to hook up my computer to the television set and we watch an Israeli movie (The Lemon Tree) streamed from Netflix. When it is over (we enjoy it very much), we decide just to go downstairs for dinner. Eating on the terrace again is very pleasant and the food is very good again…..a carpaccio of lightly marinated sea bass for me followed by a great pasta with seafood–shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari. Diana has the pasta with anchovies and pine nuts that I had two nights previously which she enjoys and then a whole fish baked in a salt crust (she makes a special request since it is not on the menu) which is perfectly done. We have a bottle of the same Vermintino as two nights ago and it is still good. And we get another nice sunset….
Very relaxing and very delicious……tomorrow we check out and drive to Rome.
Jim and Diana

Friday, May 20, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: Day 24: Friday, May 20, 2011: Lerici

A beautiful day and lazy morning…we eat breakfast on the terrace with the beautiful view in morning light.  We walk down to the harbor to take the boat across the Gulf to Portovenere, the old town located on the narrow mouth of the Gulf where it meets the Mediterranean.  The twenty minute trip is a perfect sea voyage for me–just long enough.  There are a lot of small sailboats out as well large container ships steaming out of La Spezia and a medium size cruise ship anchored off Portovenere.  

IMG01151-20110520-1142.jpg   IMG01152-20110520-1144.jpg

We can see the small boats shuttling cruise passengers to and from the town.

We have been to Portovenere before but it’s always nice to make return visits.  There is an old castle dominating the town and the harbor.  the town’s architecture–high buildings facing the sea–was conceived as part of the defense of Portovenere from attack during its heyday as Genoa’s ally in the 15th and 16th century. 


 I walk out to the point where the 13th century church of San Giorgio seems to rise straight out the rock. (Diana chooses to sit and enjoy the view from the wall to the left in the picture.)


 Alongside is the grotto where the poet, Lord Byron, used to start his marathon swims across the Gulf when he and Shelley lived here.


We do a little shopping for the grandchildren on the main commercial street…a narrow alleyway that is completely cut off from the water…again part of the defensive plan of the town.

IMG01172-20110520-1259.jpg    IMG01171-20110520-1258.jpg

We find a trattoria with an outdoor terrace, a short distance from the center and have a pleasant, relaxed lunch of salads, grilled branzino for Diana and mussels in marinara sauce for me.  

Back in Lerici, we sit okn our terrace enjoying the warm sunshine.  Before dinner, we have a drink on the hotel terrace with Megan McCafferty–an American who lives in Lerici who is also in the travel planning business–and her Italian husband Luigi Guerrera.  Then Luigi (from the hotel) picks us up and we (along with his wife Shona) drive up into the hills to have one of our favorite meals–the local speciality of Podenzana–panigacci.

The panigacci specialties from around the town of Podenzana, has a round shape with a diameter of about 15 cm and white. It has a fragrant aroma, similar to that of bread.  It is prepared by mixing wheat flour with salt and water until a thick paste, which is then placed in terracotta heads, stacked on each other and made red hot. It is eaten hot, accompanied by ham and cheese, pesto, mushroom sauce, jam, chocolate or flavored with extra virgin olive oil and grated cheese.

panigaccio.jpg    images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTKhR1WA2BDGIssOjZ66XcgecFY1w61riarAaWyPwKl9YusqSzBmg

A nice time is had by all….lots of wine is drunk and when we get back to the hotel, we are asleep in no time.

Tomorrow….laundry and maybe a visit to La Spezia.

Jim and Diana

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: Day 23: Thursday, May 19, 2011: Sesto Calende-Lerici

We say our goodbyes to the sisters (Sylvia and Raffaela) who run the Tre Re, after having some discussions about our week in Paris.

The drive to Lerici takes us southeast towards Parma and then southwest to La Spezia…the Parma-La Spezia stretch of autostrada is especially scenic as the road climbs up and over the heavily forested mountains of the Lunigiana region of Tuscany. 


 Our friend Luigi, the desk clerk at the Doria Park (one of our favorite hotels in Italy) in Lerici (one of our favorite places in Italy) is on duty and gives us a nice welcome. Our room is on the top floor and has a terrace that provides a wonderful vantage point to see the town and Gulf of the Poets.


We take our customary walk on the waterfront…along the fishing port and marina to the rock jetty which is full of people sunbathing on this warm sunny afternoon. 


We retrace our steps and continue along the water stopping for a gelato at the other end of the promenade.

It’s a very quiet afternoon on the terrace. We relax, only going downstairs for a prosecco before having dinner in the Doria Park restaurant. Dinner is served on the outside terrace as the sun goes down over the water.


 Diana starts with a spinach and raisin filled cannoli which was really sort of a phyllo dough and then has red mullet fillets with a light tomato sauce. I have a fancy version of the local chickpea crepe (farinata) topped with wonderful shrimp and crispy onions–very good and different–and then a very good plate of spaghetti with a sauce of chopped fresh anchovies and pine nuts. The local Vermintino white wine is very refreshing. A very, very nice dinner that we finish as the lights begin to go on in the towns and the hills across the water.

Tomorrow, we think we will take the boat to Portovenere, the gateway to the Cinque Terre.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: Day 22: Wednesday, May 18, 2011: Paris-Sesto Calende

The plane flight from Paris to Milan was uneventful but notable for being half empty.

We got the car quickly but got caught in rush hour traffic on the way back to Sesto Calende. After checking back in (our room this time was amazing–spacious, bright and comfortable), we went out to one of the bars overlooking the river for a “welcome back to Italy” prosecco. 


I then went out for a walk along the combination bike path/walking trail/car road that hugs the Ticino river for many miles. The weather is perfect and there are a lot of walkers, joggers and bikers out enjoying the afternoon.


We have dinner at the hotel although I walked past several interesting places to eat on my way back. Perhaps on our next visit to Sesto, we will venture out of the hotel for dinner. Dinner is quite nice…Diana has a plate of excellent melon and prosciutto followed by a pasta dish with shrimp. I try the bresaola made from deer which is a bit richer than the beef version and a pasta dish called sedanini vicario…short tubes of pasta with a bacon and onion sauce–unusual and good. We drink a dolcetto from Piemonte which is very pleasant. After dinner, I go out for gelato….cinnamon and fior di latte.

We are really very happy to be back in Italy. Tomorrow…off to Lerici for another “vacation”.

Jim and Diana

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: May 19: Impressions of Paris [May 11-18]

While we were in Paris, we went to see Woody Allen's very enjoyable new movie "Midnight in Paris".   The film presents several fantasy verson of Paris....both contemporary and historical.  The fantasy images of contemporary Paris  (empty museums, people-less streets and fast movie-magic movements to different parts of the city) were in sharp contrast  to the Paris that we visited and I think had a lot to do with our feelings about our week there.  We realize that Paris is a very big city (more like New York than I could have ever imagined) and that reality clashed with the Paris of our mind's eye or of the movies.    It's not that we don't like big cities (we actually do) but I guess we weren't expecting Paris to be quite so huge, so bustling, so crowded and so difficult.

As I wrote, Paris didn't steal our hearts.   Partly, we found a lot of it to be challenging and frustrating and some of that can be attributed to it being my first visit (Diana had been there for a few days when she was sixteen) meaning we had to learn the ropes in a place where we didn't have the language.  But I am sure that this was also true when we made our first visit to Rome in 1993 and Rome did steal our hearts.

The geographic size of the city was challenging....things are very far apart and what looked like a short distance on  a map turned out to be a much longer trek.   And having to try and learn the bus system on the fly was daunting.  The train part of the system worked pretty well but the long passages to make connections and the prevalence of stairs were complicating factors.  We ended up taking taxis frequently which worked well for the most part.

Probably the most significant thing that frustrated us was the crowds....we have somehow been able to avoid them for much of the time in Italy.  We haven't been to the Vatican Museums in the daytime for years and have avoided Florence for the last few years.  We were unprepared for the long lines (we did have a museum pass that let us avoid the ticket lines) but the lines to pass through security were the killers.  And once inside the Louvre and the Musee' d'Orsay, the sheer number of people in the galleries competing for views of the art wore us down quickly.  I admit that we are spoiled....we had just come from Genoa where we were just about the only people in the two top art museums of the city...but the experience was just very frustrating.

We were also struck by the crowds in our neighborhood.....the streets near our hotel are filled with bars and cafes (like the very famous Le Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore) but on a nice Spring day, they were jammed.  Even if you could find a table, you would be cheek by jowl with your neighbors....which seemed very unpleasant to us even though the people in the cafes seemed to be enjoying themselves.

So here's what we no particular order.

1.   A walking tour of "our neighborhood" Saint-Germain-des-Pres, with Paris Walks.  It was an informative and enjoyable tour which included some history, some architecture and some anecdotes about the famous people who had lived in the area.  In retrospect, we should have done more of this kind of tour.

2.  The Rodin Museum....Rodin's sculpture, much of which is so well known to us, is incredibly striking and to see many of his other works in the place he lived was stunning (and some were quite sexy).  The English audio tour was excellent. The gardens are lovely and we went on a bright sunny day which added to the charm.

3. Our hotel--the Millesime on Rue Jacob in the 6th--was terrific...comfortable and friendly with great breakfasts.

4. A walk on our last morning in the quieter streets south of Boulevard St. Germain (between St. Sulpice Church and the Jardin du Luxembourg)....stylish shops, small hotels, a row of Italian restaurants.  Our destination was Poilane, one of the top French boulangeries, where we bought some great rolls and croissants for our lunch at the airport.

5.  The bread and croissants in Paris were fantastic....every bit as good as their reputation.  And I could happily eat those ubiquitous baguette sandwiches for lunch every day. 

6. The stained glass windows at Sainte-Chappelle lived up to their billing.....absolutely stunning with the late afternoon light streaming though. 

7. Our short visit to Galeries Lafayette, one of the "grand magasins" (department stores) on Boulevard Haussman in the center of Paris....the colored glass domed roof that covers the open five story atrium is worth the price of admission (of course it's free) and the range of goods that are sold is astonishing.  We had a pleasant lunch in the seventh floor self-service restaurant that appeared to be as big as a football field, had good food and a dynamite view over Paris.

8. The Monet "Water Lilies" installation at Musee L'Orangerie is both delicate and overwhelming and the collection of impressionist paintings in the basement gallery has some stunning paintings...we especially liked the Cezannes and the paintings of an artist we didn't know at all, Andre Derain.

9. Sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg on a warm sunny afternoon watching Parisians rest, talk, jog, etc. in an elegantly manicured garden much of a contrast to similar public spaces in Italy which are usually much less organized or well kept.

10. The small Musee' Nissim de Comando--the art-filled mansion of a Jewish family of bankers who collected pieces from all over the world--that has been beautifully restored to recreate the look and feel of the house in its heyday--the late 19th century.  There was a very well done audio tour that really gave life to what is on display.
11. A very good tour of Notre Dame Cathedral given by a volunteer who knows the cathedral and was able to give a refreshing and non-doctrinaire explanation of the history and architecture of Notre Dame.

12.  A walk on the Champs-Elysee (which is not the Champs-Elysee of former years--lots of tourist places and fast food restaurants mixed in with Cartier and Louis Vuitton) and a visit to the Arc de Triomphe (I walked to the top for a great view of Paris).

13.  Diana liked looking at the Parisians (their style, clothes and shoes), the windows of the galleries, antique shops and upholstery shops in "our" neighborhood, and the beautiful, varied wrought iron balconies.  She liked seeing the Eiffel Tower from the boat ride on the Seine.

14.  She loved reading Alice Kaplan's memoir French Lessons and highly recommends it.

15.  We had nice visits with an American friend of ours--Lee Orloff--who lives in Paris.

16.  Walks in the Marais and Montmartre neighborhoods.....The Marais contains the old Jewish quarter and there is still a Jewish presence (delicatessens, Jewish bakeries, falafel shops) as well the very elegant Place des Vosges, which seems to be one of the few places that Parisians can sit on the grass.  In Montmartre, we walked down the back side of the hill from Sacre-Coeur after checking out the view from the front of the church.  This allowed us to escape the crowds and stroll down the hilly, winding lanes with beautiful houses, the first arts workshop of Picasso and the only remaining vineyard in Paris.

17.  Did I mention how fantastic the bread is?

In retrospect, we may not have stayed in the most optimum location (despite the excellence of the hotel).  The immediate neighborhood was more touristy than we prefer and we might have been happier in a quieter neighborhood.   We realize that Paris is a very big city (more like New York than I could have ever imagined) and that reality clashed with the Paris of our mind's eye or of the movies.  It's not that we don't like big cities (we actually do) but I guess we weren't expecting Paris to be quite so huge, so bustling, so crowded and so difficult.

In terms of the food, although some of our eating out experiences were disappointing, for the most part we ate reasonably well.   But we did find the whole process a struggle--from finding appropriate and affordable restaurants in our neighborhood (we like to walk to and from dinner most of the time) to deciphering menus with unfamiliar or in some cases many unappealing options, to being packed like sardines in most of the bistros, to being shocked at the price of wine.  But the tight quarters did lead to a couple of pleasant interactions with the people at the next table....the Canadian woman in one place welcomed us to her table and we had a nice evening talking to the two Italian engineers who replaced her.

Part of our reaction is undoubtedly a kind of culture shock which had a great impact on our feelings about Paris.    We faced the same "shock of the new" on our first visit to Rome when we were equally unprepared, language-challenged and green but, for some reason, we were able to work through the shock and embrace Rome.

Anyway, we are back in Italy now and feeling a lot more relaxed.....and looking forward to being in Rome next week. 

Jim and Diana

PS If you want pictures of Paris, I commend the Woody Allen movie to you. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011:Tuesday May 10: Sulzano- Sesto Calende

It's sunny this morning as we prepare to leave Lago d'Iseo…we pack up and say our goodbyes and sit by the lake for a few minutes before getting in the car.

On the way to Sesto Calende (near Milan's Malpensa Airport where we get our plane to Paris), we make a return visit to Bergamo, where we had stayed for a night on one of our first trips to Italy. Bergamo is a very attractive and sophisticated city…the lower "modern" town (citta' bassa) looks just as elegant as we remember it from 17 years ago with broad avenues and boulevards.
images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTeciRAQuubp5daX_r4PllejWgcyZd0mwdC216oV4wYA5XQG6sbzg bergamo-citta-bassa.jpg

We drive up the hill to the old city (citta' alta)

and easily find a parking lot just outside the walls. We both have clear memories of the town and the walk to the center feels very familiar. The streets are lined with elegant shops and there is a very lively atmosphere.

We reach the main piazza–(Piazza Vecchia)–which is one of the nicest in Italy…just the right scale; there are cafes and restaurants intermingled with the public buildings.


At one end, you walk through an archway to reach a smaller piazza dominated by three large churches–the Duomo, Santa Maria Maggiore and the Colleoni Chapel. The outside decorations on the Chapel (the burial place of Bartolomeo Colleoni, one of the important nobles of the city in the 15th century) are over the top, but Diana is particularly taken with the section of the facade that is just the same as the Tumbling Blocks quilt her friend Sue has just made.

Inside the chapel, the decorative splurge is continued and in the large church next door, Santa Maria Maggiore, it is redoubled.


We are most interested in the intarsia (inlaid wood) panels of Biblical scenes designed by Lorenzo Lotto that are in front of the choir in Santa Maria Maggiore. They are usually kept hidden under wooden panels (also intarsia) but there is a private tour going on and they are minutely examining the details of one of the panel. So we get a chance to see much of the detail and coloring which is remarkable……


There is also a notable intricately carved 17th century wood confessional


and a nice Last Supper fresco to add to my collection.


But the main effect of both churches is sensory overload, from the stuccoed ceiling to the luxurious tapestries to the carvings….it is hard to stay inside the church for too long.

We continue our walk through the back streets of Bergamo and stop for a bite to eat in a cafe on the main piazza….sandwich and salad. Then we return to car and continue the drive to Sesto Calende. We get to Sesto C. about 4 pm and get a nice welcome from the sisters who run the hotel. We stayed there on our first night in Italy 18 years ago and have been back a number of times. We decide to take a quick trip to Lago d'Orta, about 45 minutes away. We had stayed there for a few days about 10 years ago and I had liked it a lot more than Diana had…this trip was to see if our opinions were still the same.

The lake is still very pretty although not as picturesque as Iseo


….but I find that the town has changed a lot–all the streets are lined with tourist-oriented shops and the center has a somewhat run-down feeling. We sit on the main piazza overlooking the lake having a gelato while several bus loads of tourists mill about. So I don't think I will be suggesting Orta as a destination to future clients.

The way back to Sesto Calende takes us through the Italian equivalent of an American suburban strip mall….shopping centers, discount and outlet stores and lots of fast food. Traffic is backed up at the light where the road crosses the Ticino River……it doesn't make us nostaglic for home :)

We have dinner at the hotel…..Diana has a special very light gnocchi baked with a bechamel sauce and then a very nicely grilled spigola with roast potatoes, while I have some delicate ravioli stuffed with ricotta and artichoke, some okay fried perch and a plate of excellent cauliflower. We drink a very good Muller-Thurgau from Friuili….The waitress is lots of fun; her English is excellent and she remembers us from previous visits.

Tomorrow off to Paris….

Jim and Diana

Monday, May 9, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: Day 13: Monday, May 9: Sulzano

The sky is gray this morning and the outlook looks very unpromising.  This will be the first day since Prato where we didn’t see the sun in the morning.  So it is probably good that we plan to do our laundry in Iseo.  It is an easy operation….we are the only ones in the place and have no problems with the directions.  Before returning to Sulzano, we take a quick ride around the center of Iseo and find it quite attractive…another long promenade along the lake with numerous places to eat and drink.  

images?q=tbn:ANd9GcR4oXvG4F16GWAw27JHE5jjh6VjerHn5VDf54GDNff1FFajiCkv9g   PIAZZA.jpg

We plan to return tonight for dinner.

Since it is still cloudy, we decide to make it a work day and drive over to Lake Garda to check out my client’s other hotel this summer, the Villa Giulia in Gargnano.   I want to avoid the main highway but the route is not clear and the GPS is not in synch with us so we do a bit of wandering before we end up on the right road.  We had planned to stop for a sandwich enroute but all the appealing places were either on the wrong side of the road or we drove past before noticing them.  The approach to Garda is quite dramatic….the road climbs high into the very green hills and then descends to the lake—quite different from the commercial and industrial scenery we saw near the city of Brescia.

We have lunch–sandwiches–at a bar on the waterfront of the town Salo’….the bar is located on the very well kept promenade with great views of Lake Garda–a pleasant place to eat, look at the lake and enjoy the sun, which has reappeared during our drive.  


Gargnano is further up the west side of the lake and is a place we have never visited.  The Villa Giulia is a very elegant, refined hotel with beautifully manicured grounds right on the lake.  The swimming pool is gorgeous and there are rose bushes and other flowers in profusion.  One of the staff invites us to look around and I get to see one of the rooms, although my client’s room is occupied so it can’t be shown.  But I am happy to have had a chance to see the property first hand…..
images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRfq4mX_9Ktvx1fEzXqxu6nXEGrHL_1QcFwE845oAKNoMbCsQzl  images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQW1RLugTGleyA35Qdr3puWx5J6pvgpwHWzyt_YI_dPQOmP5im1
We take the fast road back to Sulzano and rest up a little before getting back in the car for the short ride to Iseo.  Before dinner, we walk around the main piazza and along the water.  Dinner is at the Ristorante San Martino, recommended to us by another guest at our hotel.  We are quite surprised to find that a good number of our fellow diners are Americans…..we didn’t think that there were that many American tourists staying on the lake.  Dinner is fine…the place is a bit quirky.  Most of the Italians are eating pizza and most of the foreigners are having more substantial meals.  I have a large portion of lardo on good toasted bread followed by a dish called rettangoli with clams and tomatoes.  The rettangoli were ravioli with a minced fish filling….a dish that I had never seen before, but which I enjoyed.  Diana’s grilled branzino was a bit overpowered by the taste of the grill.  We have a very local white wine from the Franciacorta region.  We end up talking to the Americans seated next to us who are in Italy for the start of the Mille Miglia in nearby Brescia…which used to be a very important car race in Italy but after a number of fatal crashes, was discontinued.  It has been revived as a long distance parade for pre-1957 cars.
We have a gelato on the way back to the car….tomorrow we leave the lake and will stop in Bergamo for a few hours.
 NOTE:  I intend to write to the publishers of the Rough Guides who, I feel, have given Lake Iseo short shrift in their reports about the lake and its towns.  I don’t have the exact passage from the book in front of me but their description talks about heavy industry and apartment blocks and there not being much point “in hanging around there”.  We found nothing could be further from the truth….the towns are very inviting and the lake is peaceful and beautiful.  There is some industry around Lovere but it doesn’t make the town unappealing and we never saw the apartment blocks that they mention.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: Day 12: Sunday, May 8: Sulzano

Beautiful morning…..but a bit cool to start out. After breakfast (coffee success continues) and some time sitting on the lawn enjoying the sun and the lake views, we get in the car to explore the rest of the lake.
We first drive up into the hills to see a local attraction…I Piramidi di Zone’ (The Pyramids of Zone’). The pyramids–rock formations caused by erosion–are located high above the lake just outside the pretty little town of Zone’.

There is a large tourist office with lots of explanations of the phenomenon and there are many hiking trails in the area. We are dismayed to learn that the shortest walk to see the pyramids will take at least an hour and we are told there is no way to drive closer. We take a quick look at the old church of San Giorgio (frescoes of the dragon being slain are painted on the outside)

and walk past the busy cafe that caters to visitors to the pyramids. As we drive back down–enjoying great views of the lake–we see an overlook where you can indeed see the formations (complete with picnic tables and places to park). So we stop, take some pictures of the rugged towers and scarred hillsides and continue back down to sea level.

The road around the top of the lake is mostly through tunnels and somehow we overshoot our next destination–the large town of Lovere that sits at the north end of the lake—so we have to double back. Lovere turns out to be full of activity on this Sunday morning (la festa della mamma). The “centro” is full of people strolling, shopping and sitting in outdoor cafes–the waterfront promenade is long and scenic–seems very inviting as we drive through. South of town, there is a fair amount of industry…steel is still an industry here…but it doesn’t appear to impinge on the appeal of the town.

The drive south along the west shore of the lake is quite attractive…the first part of the road is literally carved out of the rock and is very narrow. Cars and bikes (and a few walkers) have to share the narrow roadway but everyone seems to be cooperative. The views over the lake and to the other shore are striking and sometimes it is hard to keep your eyes on the road.

At the south end of the lake, we drive through the big town of Sarnico and we both realize simultaneously that it looks familiar….we finally realize that we had stopped here a few years ago when we were staying in Cremona. We want to explore the lakefront of the town of Iseo….but it is blocked off to car traffic for a market, so we head back to the hotel. On the way, we stumble on the laundromat that we were planning to go to tomorrow.
Back at the hotel, we have salads and sandwiches for lunch, served on the lake-front and then Diana goes out to sit in the sun. I take the ferry over to Monte Isola and walk the opposite direction from yesterday towards the village of Carzano on the eastern side of the island. This walk is a lot less scenic…it passes a boat building shop, the island dump, the docks where the car ferries (for island residents) tie up, the gas station and the “industrial” port where barges are moored. But it is a nice afternoon and I enjoy the expedition anyway.

We make a return trip to Al Cacciatore for dinner…this time we drive up the hill. Dinner is fine…..a plate of ham and salami for me followed by tagliolini with goose (a house specialty) which is delicious. .Diana has the antipasto of lake fish (which is not as good as the one we had the day before) and very tasty lamb chops. . We both have dessert….a mediocre panna cotta for me and an apple cake for Diana. We drink the house white which is fine.
Tomorrow we will do laundry and further explore the area.
Jim and Diana

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: Day 11: Saturday, May 7: Sulzano

The day starts out sunny but a bit cool…especially in the shade.  But the lake is gorgeous in the morning light.  The hotel has a spectacular breakfast spread….wonderful fruit, great pastries….and I have no problem getting my cafe doppio con acqua calda (except for a raised eyebrow from the waitress.)  The room is also lovely and light-filled and, in warmer weather, you can have breakfast outside.


In keeping with our leisurely “vacation” plans, we stroll over to the piazza in the middle of town where the ferry docks.  There is a school activity–a tree planting celebration–going on in the park…..scores of children, all of them holding helium-filled balloons in the colors of the Italian flag, as well as their parents and siblings. 


 After the planting of young olive trees and the children hanging name bands on the branches–all the balloons are released, making quite a show as they float up into the sky.  Then–once the signal is given–there is a mad rush to the refreshment table.

After sitting on the lawn in the sun looking at the lake, 


and the geese, ducks and swan that are constantly swimming by

   IMG00974-20110507-0923.jpg  IMG00983-20110507-1213.jpg

we decide to go to the island–Monte Isola–for a walk and lunch.  The ferry to the island runs continuously (like a shuttle)


and it is a big day trip destination for Italians.  The ride takes only five minutes and we take the mile walk recommended by the desk clerk at the hotel – from the main town, Peschiera Maraglio, to Sensole.  It is a wide paved path right on the water; it passes by olive groves and there are lots of benches along the way. 

07-Relax-all'ombra-degli-ulivi.jpg  04%20Passeggiata%20lungolago.jpg


The views of the lake and the mountains are beautiful.  We share the “road” with families walking, people riding bikes, a lot of motorcycles that roar past and even an occasional small bus.  

At Sensole, we choose one of the recommended restaurants–La Spiagetta–and have a semi-peaceful lunch…there are two small children at the next table who are pretty active but luckily we don’t mind.  We share an antipasto del lago….several dishes of marinated lake fish plus one whole air dried lake salmon…called “missoltino”–which has a very strong, salty taste but is quite delicious. 


Diana follows with a pasta dish with asparagus and smoked lake fish which she likes and I have a piece of grilled lake fish that is very well prepared.  We have no problem finishing a half liter of white wine (we are on vacation after all) and we are in no hurry to leave…just lingering to enjoy the views.


We stop for a gelato on the walk back and catch a boat back to Sulzano…..Nothing much happens during the rest of the afternoon–Diana is sitting on a lounge chair on the pool deck and I am doing some work and struggling with the hotel’s balky internet connection.  (Nothing can be perfect, after all.)

We have a prosecco and some nibbles as the sun begins to set over the island….it is actually pretty magical.  

  IMG00995-20110507-1814.jpg    IMG00996-20110507-1940.jpg

We walk over to the hotel next door for dinner…although we do have some ideas about skipping it…and we have a very pleasant meal on the terrace of the Hotel Aquila.  I have a big mixed salad to start followed by roast kid (very tasty but very messy) served with delicious grilled polenta (and superfluous potatoes) while Diana has prosciutto and melon followed by a dish of fried lake perch.  The apple strudel is very good and the house red wine is okay.

We are glad to just have a few steps to walk to get back to the hotel…we sit for a few minutes on the lawn looking at the lights on the lake before going to our room.

Tomorrow…who knows?  We are on vacation.

Jim and Diana