14 July 2016

Milan, April 29-May1: Slogging through rain in the fashion capitol + Como

We arrived in Milan late in the afternoon, after a 7 hour train ride from Paris. The ride was smooth and uneventful. The train from Paris arrives at the Milano Porto Garibaldi station, not Milano Centrale. That shouldn't have been confusing. But when we arrived, I hadn't yet learned the lesson to always get directions for where we wanted to go. So while I thought the 25-minute walk seemed straightforward and foolproof, it wasn't. We pulled our luggage for about 45 minutes before I used Google Maps on my iPhone and got the correct directions. 

So by the time we got checked in to our hotel, it was already early evening. We set out to explore our surroundings and find a place for dinner. We were almost ideally located, only a few blocks from the opera house La Scala and the fashion shops of central Milan. 

View of Bellagio as the ferry crosses Lake Como
Since the train ride from Paris took basically a whole day, we only had two full days to explore Milan. We had two goals. First we wanted to see the sights of the city. Second we wanted to take a day trip to Lake Como. The weather forecast was for rain to move in. So we decided to do Como on our first full day in hopes that the weather would hold. 

When we told the concierge at our hotel that we wanted to take a day trip by train to Lake Como, he gave us some advice. Rather than take the train to the town of Como, he advised taking the train to  Varenna and then take a ferry to Bellagio. He said that we probably would enjoy that town more than Como. 

Good advice. It was a one hour train ride to Varenna from the Centrale station. We sat with a group of Scots who were in Milan for a long weekend, for shopping and to see a soccer (football) match. They very good natured, talkative, and funny. When we started talking about Scottish accents, then they really hammed it up, putting on a brogue that was almost impossible to understand.

We had a mice scenic ride with views of Lake Como. Varenna is a small quiet town. It was a short walk from train station to the ferry docks. The ferry ride to Bellagio was smooth and calm, about 15 minutes. Bellagio was quaint and picturesque and packed with tourists. We spent about an hour and a half walking around, taking pictures and doing a little shopping. Then we did the reverse trip back to Milan. 

After we got back, we walked to the Galleria and had a cocktail with complimentary snacks at Camparino in Galleria. We sat for an hour and watched the parade of people go by. From our table at the bar we had a nice view of Milan's Duomo. After our drink, we took a walk around the square outside the Duomo to admire it. I think it's one of the prettiest 'Duomos' (Duomi, I guess, is the actual plural) that we saw in Italy. 

Milan's beautiful Duomo
That evening, while we were at dinner, it started to rain. 

The rain continued into the next day, which we intended to be our day for sightseeing in Milan. But we opened our umbrellas and set. We walked throughout the city despite a steady rain. First we went to the Castello Sforzesco, Parco Sempione, and the 'Arch of Peace' (or Arco della Pace). I like how the Milanese named their arch 'Peace' rather than 'Victory' or 'Triumph' or some other name with more military connotations. 

After the Castle and the park, we walked to the Brera District. We had read that it's an artistic area with good restaurants and nightlife. We were excited to find a restaurant with live music for dinner. Then we walked back over to the Duomo and the Galleria and spent most of the afternoon shopping.

Hotel: We stayed at the Hotel Cavour and liked it very much. It was a classy, modern business hotel. It's conveniently located to the two major train stations (Garibaldi and Centrale) and to all the major attractions of Milan's center city. We found the staff there to be very accommodating and helpful. As you might expect for Milan as a fashion capitol, the hotel is very cosmopolitan and all the staff was comfortable communicating in English. The rooms are clean, modern, and comfortable, and the WiFi was quick and reliable. 

Day 1 - Il Salumaio di Montenapoleone. This was the most elegant restaurant meal that we had on our whole trip to Italy. (The wine dinners that we had at the two agriturismi later in the trip were equally impressive.) It was also the most expensive meal of our trip. We saw several things on the menu that looked appealing, and we asked if we could order several things and split them. They very accommodating and even split the items for us, serving us on our own individual plates. We started with a salad of fresh mozzarella on a plate with roasted vegetables. I lightly dressed it with a drizzle of olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Next course was ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. Finished with an entree of grilled sirloin with roasted potatoes. The steak was excellently done, exactly to our liking. The potatoes were good but not remarkable. 

Day 2 - New Art Cafe, located in the Brera District. I wish I had brought either a camera or my phone. The decor of this restaurant was very interesting and engaging. We were seated in a little enclave decorated in a nautical theme. The main dining room was adorned with different images of Marilyn Monroe. Our meal was not as elegant as Day 1. It was more casual but flavorful, colorful, and equally delicious. I started with a tomato salad, a bowl of tomato pieces that I dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. My entree was green gnoccetti (little green gnocchi) drenched in a rich Gorgonzola sauce with pieces of walnuts. Linda had tagliatelle with squid and artichokes dressed in olive oil. I really wish I could have taken a photo. We had a half bottle of Chianti with the food.
Fantastic serving of seared tuna at Hosteria della Musica

Day 3 - Hosteria della Musica, also located in the Brera District. When we walked by, I saw a sign or poster that said they have live music at this restaurant. So we took a look at the menu. When I saw that they had ossobuco on the menu I was sold. We made a reservation, though I don't think it was necessary. It was a new restaurant, only open for a month when we were there. They really bent over backwards to please us. They brought us a free glass of prosecco and a plate of focaccia bread, plus a regular bread basket. We started by splitting a salad of squid and salmon mixed with fennel and greens. For her entree Linda had tuna. It was a large piece just seared rare and seasoned with black pepper. It was amazing. I had the ossobuco with Milanese risotto. It was very good, but not as amazing as hers. The musician was a very good entertainer. He played an electric keyboard with recorded electronic accompaniment. So it wasn't very sophisticated music, but he was very entertaining. There was a group of women from England celebrating a 60th birthday, and they were quite rowdy.

The next day, we picked up a rental car near the Centrale train station. Within 10 minutes, I was lost and couldn't find the route out of town. Once again, Google Maps came through for us and we wended our way toward the next part of our Italian adventure. 

Click here to see more of our photos from Milan and Bellagio. 

10 July 2016

Orta San Giulio, May 2-4: Shhh. Don't tell anyone!

During our trip to Italy in May, we'd often be asked: Where else are you visiting while you're here? And when we'd tell them that Lago d'Orta was on our itinerary, we'd get this quizzical look.

"How do you know about Orta?" they'd ask. Then they'd usually tell us that the town of Orta San Giulio was sort of a quiet little resort town usually only visited by other Italians. I couldn't tell if they were impressed that we were such savvy travelers, or worried that their little, secret gem might get overrun by Americans. 

Lago d'Orta - Photo taken by a very nice French tourist
We got the travel tip from a friend (an American friend) who was a former travel agent and had stayed there. When we were planning our trip, we mentioned to her that we wanted to spend some time in the Italian Lakes region, probably Lake Como. She told us about Orta and the wonderful hotel where she and her husband has stayed. We looked into it and decided to stay there as well.

This was definitely the most relaxing part of our trip. Our stay in Orta followed a pretty busy week that included Paris and Milan. After those two busy cities, we were ready for some quiet relaxation. 

When we arrived in Orta (about a 90 minute drive from Milan depending on traffic), the sky was bright and sunny and the temperature was pleasantly cool. From our hotel window, we could see the Alps in the distance with snow-covered peaks. We later learned that they had had a week of cold rain in Orta before we arrived and lots of fresh snow at the higher elevations. Over the course of our 3-day stay, we saw the snow-line gradually recede and eventually disappear as the more typical May temperatures melted it. 

After we got checked in to our hotel, we took a walk around town to get acclimated. We followed a road up the hill above the town, Sacro Monte di Orta, one of a series of 'sacred mountains' in Italy. The devotional complex at the top of the hill includes 20 chapels and a church. The whole complex overlooks the town and the lake and the island (Isola San Giulio) with its basilica and monastery. At the top of the hill, we wanted a photo taken. We asked another couple to take the photo. Trouble was, they didn't speak English. But somehow, 'foto' seems to be universally recognizable, and they took a photo that's one of my favorites from our trip.

When we got done with our hike, the weather was just so gorgeous and inviting that we stopped into a little shop and bought a bottle of prosecco. We brought wine glasses from our room down to the lawn by the lake and drank it in the late afternoon sun. It was such a fun experience that we did it again each of the remaining two nights we spent at Orta. 
Our daily ritual, prosecco by the Lake

We did have our car, and we considered driving to other nearby villages. But Orta San Giulio was just so quaint and inviting that in the end, we just stayed there. Both days we hiked on the paths along the lake and into the hills above it. One day was market day in town. We enjoyed browsing thru the market and shopping. 

Our stay in Orta was ahead of the main tourist season. Still, during the day there were a lot of day-trippers in town. But they were gone by dinner time, and we mostly had the town to ourselves. 

Hotel: The hotel recommended by our friends was the Hotel San Rocco. It was gorgeous. Now, despite the fact that English-speaking tourists are not common in Orta, we were able to communicate with the staff at the San Rocco just fine. There are two buildings in the hotel complex. We chose a room in the villa rather than the main building. Our room was spacious and comfortable. We didn't have a balcony and our window overlooked the town rather than the lake. But the rooms in the villa are slightly less expensive, and definitely nice and quiet. The hotel has a very elegant restaurant and bar. We probably should have eaten there at least one night, but we didn't. It also has extensive banquet facilities, and we read that it's a common wedding venue. But during our stay, there were no events. 

Day 1: We wandered down the street from our hotel to the town square to find a place to eat. This is when we discovered that the day-trippers who had filled the streets earlier were gone and many of the restaurants were closed or had very few customers. We ended up at Ristorante Venus, primarily because it had a few customers and we knew we wouldn't be eating alone. We had an adequate but not noteworthy dinner. Linda had mini ravioli stuffed with Guinea hen. Good but kind of rich. My meal was better - lamb chops with roasted potatoes and onions. The lamb was cooked perfectly and was tender and flavorful. For dessert, Linda had a chestnut mousse that she didn't really like very much. I had a pear Napoleon that was quite tasty. Probably the highlight of the dinner was the wine. Linda had a white that she'd tasted in Minneapolis and loved (Gabi). I had a glass of Prunotto Barolo for only €6! (A precursor to our stay in Barolo coming up next on our itinerary.)

Day 2: This night we 'discovered' La Motta which turned out to be a brand new restaurant, only about 2 weeks in business. They were very accommodating, and eager to make a good impression. The menu was all in Italian, but our server (who might have been the owner) very patiently translated for us. After we ordered, we were brought an amuse bouche of buratta cheese with flakes of dried horseradish. We started with a 'salmon trout' very lightly cured in orange juice (like a ceviche) with tiny dollops of caramelized red onions and a delicate yogurt sauce. Linda's entree was a fresh fish caught from Lake Orta served with thin shavings of vegetables. I had gnoccetti with fresh perch also caught in Orta. For dessert, we split a scoop of gelato in a chocolate shell with candied walnuts. When they served it, they poured a hot orange liqueur over it. Delicious. Our wine for the evening was a local white wine.
Dinner at Cafe des Artes

Day 3: We always like to try to find restaurants that also have live music, and we'd read about one in Orta called the Jazz Cafe, but we couldn't find it in town. Finally we realized that it had changed owners and changed names. So on our last night, we ate at Cafe des Artes. When we came into the cafe, there was only one table of diners. But as we sat, others trickled in and eventually it was almost full. We really enjoyed the meal. It was more like a neighborhood Italian cafe rather than a tourist cafe. We ordered a salad to start, but they brought our entrees almost immediately after. Later we realized it was because of the Italian tradition of eating salad after the main course. We had a nice dinner and enjoyed the ambiance. But alas, no music. 

Click here to view more pictures from our stay at Orta. 

06 July 2016

Piedmont, May 5-7: My favorite part of our trip

Don't get me wrong. Our whole 26-day European trip was great. But the 3 days we spent in the southern part of the Piedmont was the best for me. It had everything - great wine, great food, wonderful quarters in an agriturismo, shopping, art, and culture. I would have been happy to stay longer. 

Our reservation was in the town of Barolo. We drove there from the Lakes region in the northern Piedmont. The drive went smoothly, and we found our hotel pretty easily. (Click here for a review of the hotel, an agriturismo run by Angelo Germano and his family.) After we got checked in, we started exploring the town. It was very quaint. Also very small. We hadn't really intended to do any wine tasting, but we thought it would be fun to buy a bottle and drink it in our room. Our host suggested going to the Marchesi di Barola winery on the edge of town. It was a very enjoyable tour and tasting for €12. But we didn't like the wine well enough to buy any.
Daily breakfast at Cafe Antica

When we got back from the tasting, our host, Angelo, was giving a tasting to another couple, and we decided to try it as well. We liked the Nebbiolo Langhe so well (and so much better than the Marchesi wines) that we bought a bottle in our room; as you might suspect, the room comes stocked with bottles of Angelo Germano's wines. So before going to dinner, we opened the bottle and sat on our balcony, sipping the wine and watching the activity in the town square below.

Unlike the other hotels on this trip, Casa Svizzera doesn't have its own food. Rather, breakfast was served at a little cafe behind the hotel, Cafe Antica is run by a 'Mamma' with help from her daughter. They don't speak much English, but between the two of them and the small amount of Italian that I learned, we managed to communicate just fine. The coffee there is good (Linda liked this cappuccino better than any other we'd had so far). They have a nice selection of food, not just pastries but including more savory items. For example, they served a very tasty spinach tart and delicious marinated zucchini. Besides good food, the cafe draws a steady crowd of locals as well as tourists coming to town to taste wine. It was fun to sit there, enjoying our breakfast and coffee, and watching and listening to the people as they came and went. 

On Day 2, we took a day trip to Turin (Torino). It was about an hour drive, and we found street parking near Parco Valentino. We didn't have a very good idea of where things were in the center city, so we wandered over toward the train station. Not a good idea. It was pretty scruffy. But as we made our way into the city, we found all the piazzas and palazzos that we'd read about. We spent 4 hours just roaming thru the city and seeing the sights, which included ornate bridges over the River Po. We also spent some time in Parco Valentino; it was very pleasant. 
Piazza Vittorio Veneto in Torino

Turin actually was much nicer than I anticipated. I had expected the town to be more gritty, comparable to Bologna, where we stayed during our 2014 trip to Italy. (Click here to read my views of Bologna and the eastern Po Valley.) We found Turin to be very scenic with lots of fashionable shops and beautiful public art. I could envision staying there on some future trip to Italy.

On Day 3, after breakfast, we drove to the town of Alba. It was market day and the town was packed with people. One of our goals was to sample Gorgonzola or local blue cheese. We were told that local blue cheese can't be called Gorgonzola because it doesn't come from that region, which is farther north in Piedmont. Well, we found something labeled Gorgonzola and bought some. So it was either cheating on the label or it was authentic Gorgonzola brought to the market from up north. Either way, it was good. We also bought a bottle of Nebbiolo Langhe and a small loaf of bread, which we ate with the cheese and wine on our balcony back at the hotel. We did shop the market, and bought a few items. 

After our 'market' lunch, we took another short drive to Serralunga. There we climbed to the top of the hill town and into the castle, with beautiful panoramic views of the valley and the town of Barolo on the next hill over. 

Hotel: As I've noted above, we stayed at an agriturismo called Casa Svizzera. It was a great location, friendly and accommodating proprietors, comfortable, clean and modern rooms. One of the nights we had a wine dinner at the agriturismo's wine production and bottling facility outside of town. It was a fabulous experience. Click here to read about it.

Restaurants:Dinner our first night was at a small cafe down the hill from our hotel, Osteria la Cantinella. It was a mixed experience for me. We started with a bowl of pasta with sage and nuts. It was delicious. The pasta was very tender and tasty. For entrees, Linda got chicken, and I got beef braised in Barolo wine. Linda's chicken was excellent, but my brasato was disappointing. The meat was nice and tender and tasted good. But the sauce was heavy like thick gravy and not very enjoyable.

On our last night in Barolo, we ate at Osteria Rosso Barolo. It was one of the best meals we had on our trip. We started by splitting a salad (Insalatina con Robiola di capra e nocciole). It was shredded carrots on a bed of greens with 4 wedges of goat cheese and chopped hazelnuts, dressed lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Linda's entree was roasted octopus on white bean cream (Polpo arrostito con purè di fagioli Cannellini). It was excellent. I took a chance and ordered brasato again. This time it was great. The meat was tender and flavorful. The braising sauce was good without being too thick or overwhelming. 
A wonderful dinner at Rosso Barolo

For wine, Linda had a local white made from arneis grapes. I had two different barolos. The first was 2006 and it was good. When I ordered my second glass of wine, our server advised me that your second glass of barolo must always be older than the first. So the second was 2002 and it was excellent, all for only €9 per glass. (Linda's wine was only €4!) Great service too. Our server spoke good English. She was friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and had a sense of humor. 

Click here for more photos from Barolo and the Piedmont. 

02 July 2016

A tale of two 'agriturismi' in Italy

One of my goals for our trip to Italy in May was to deepen my knowledge of Italian wine. I had three strategies for achieving that goal:

1. Drink wine with meals during our trip;
2. Visit tasting rooms at different wineries;
3. Stay at an agriturismo where they make wine. 

We stayed at two 'agriturismi' during our trip, one in Piedmont and one on the border between Lazio and Umbria. Both were very enjoyable experiences. There were many similarities between the two places; also many differences. 

Our first agriturismo was Casa Svizzera in the town of Barolo in the Piedmont. It's owned by the Angelo Germano family and features their wines. The guest rooms are located above the winery tasting room in the heart of town. At the time of our stay, they had three rooms (though we were told by the owners that they are in the process of renovating additional rooms in the building for the future.) The rooms are clean, large, modern, and comfortably decorated. Our room had a narrow balcony overlooking the town square. We enjoyed sitting on the balcony before dinner, sipping wine and watching the activity in the square. 

When we arrived at Casa Svizzera, no one was there to greet us. That wasn't totally unexpected. We had been advised to provide an estimate of when we would arrive, and we were a half hour early. Since it is a family-operated business, family members often have multiple duties, so it's not always feasible to have someone at the reception desk when you arrive. However, after only a short wait, Angelo Germano arrived and checked us in, giving us a choice of any of the rooms we wanted. 

I suppose you could just stay in town and sample Angelo's wine in the tasting room. But the authentic agriturismo experience requires a trip to the winery's production and aging facility a few kilometers outside of town. There you can get a tour of the winery and arrange for either a lunch or dinner with wine pairings. 

With Viviana at Angelo Germano's winery in Barolo
My wife and I opted for a dinner with pairings on our second night in Barolo. At about 6:30, Angelo drove us up to the winery where we met his daughter, Viviana. (I say he drove us 'up' because the winery is located high on a hill overlooking the town and the vineyards below.) Most of our communication prior to arriving at Casa Svizzera was with Viviana. Her English is very proficient, having lived in San Francisco for a while earlier in her life. She was the tour guide for the winery and the chef for our tasting menu. 

Viviana takes great pride in the food she serves. Especially during the summer, many of the vegetables are grown in her garden at the winery. The food we tasted was excellent and nicely paired with the wine. There are a couple of meal variations available to guests. My wife wanted an option that included one sample of white wine. I preferred to have all red wine from the Nebbiolo grape. Viviana graciously accommodated that slight difference. 

Linda's first course was marinated vegetables with a garlic sauce and potato cream. The wine pairing was a chardonnay that Viviana told us was made in the style of an ice wine. It was good with the vegetables, but not a wine that either of us probably would drink very often. My first course was a carrot flan seasoned with cinnamon and topped with a white cream sauce. It was served with Langhe Nebbiolo Visette; this was one of the wines that we both liked so much that we bought some to drink there and to bring home. 
Pasta course served with Langhe Nebbiolo

The rest of our courses were the same.  Our second course was a 'plin' ravioli, plin meaning 'pinch' the technique of pinching off the dough to form the ravioli. They were served with Barolo Bussia. It was an excellent wine, but we preferred one of Angelo's other Barolos that we had tasted in town. The dessert was a shortbread tartlet with chocolate cream and apples cooked in Nebbiolo. The pairing with dessert was described as being a recipe like vermouth made with Nebbiolo grapes, but with many different spices.  I thought it tasted more similar to Campari. It was a fun experience and a beautiful setting above the valley, where we watched the shadows fall as the sun set and the lights came on.   

Our second agriturismo experience was later in the week after we left Piedmont. The guest house was La Tana dell'Istrice; it's a manor house that used to be the family home of the owner, Sergio Mottura. located in the town of Civitella D'Agliano. The town is located in Lazio but close to the border of Umbria. I mentioned the agriturismo in my post about our stay in Lazio-Umbria-Tuscany (click here). 

Like our experience at Casa Svizzera, when we arrived at La Tana it was locked and no one was at the reception desk. But we just walked around the town (which didn't take long because the town is so small) and pretty soon Sergio's wife arrived to let us in. The guest house has 8 rooms and two suites. When we checked in, we were offered an upgrade to a suite, which was very nice indeed! The room was very clean, comfortable and spacious. 

The guest house includes a wine cellar, a tasting room, and dining rooms. But like Casa Svizzera, the production facilities are located outside of town. Guests are welcome to visit the vineyard, and they have a swimming pool there for guests to use in the summer. This time we did not go out to the vineyard. 

We did, however, have a tasting meal featuring Sergio Mottura's wine. When we descended to the wine cellar for the reception, we discovered that we were the last of the group to arrive. We had a pleasant time sampling white wines and noshing on cheese and bruschetta and focaccia and chopped liver. After we arrived, the other guests, all Italians, wanted to talk about American diets and eating habits. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it was unexpected. 
Elegant menu at La Tana

After a tour of the cellar where the wines are aged, we were lead to a dining room for dinner. Dinner was elegant. It started with a tomato, bread, garlic, and basil 'soup' which really was more of a purée than a soup. Next was a delicious risotto with asparagus and served with Parmesan cheese, which we were advised to put on lots. I asked about the rice variety and was told it was baldo. I've heard of it, but I've never cooked with it. That was followed by saltimbucco. So far, all of the food was accompanied by white wines. But the saltimbucco was served with a Syrah. 

We had a lot of pleasant conversation over dinner. But remarkably, very little of the conversation was about wine. Sergio asked about my job, and when I explained that I was retired from a farmer co-op, he got very excited to tell me that he was a farmer. He talked about the same difficulties of trying to make a profit as a crop farmer. He said he raised corn and wheat and farro and canola and alfalfa, but no livestock, and ultimately, the only thing that was profitable was grapes. It was the kind of conversation I would expect to hear from any American farmer at his or her dinner table.

Dessert was strawberries with cream and a digestive wine. Then we adjourned to the living room for coffee and more conversation. It was an extraordinary and enjoyable evening.

So what did I learn from our two agriturismi experiences in Italy? First, it was a pretty good strategy for learning more about Italian wine, especially if you do a tasting meal. (We did buy some of Angelo Germano's wine, but not Sergio Mottura's.) Second, an agriturismo seems to offer pretty economical lodging. Casa Svizzera was the least expensive hotel of our whole trip, and while La Tana was somewhat more expensive, it was still quite reasonable. Third, staying at an agriturismo is a great way to meet and mingle with real, every-day Italians. And finally, for me at least, it was interesting to observe that indeed, farmers are pretty much the same everywhere. 
Sergio Mottura & family members

21 June 2016

Cinque Terra, May 8-9: Quaint villages, beaches, and lots of tourists

This was the shortest part of our trip to Italy in May, only two nights. We arrived in Cinque Terre after a very pleasant drive from Piedmont. Well, mostly pleasant. We took a slightly longer route, driving south to the coast then along the coast to Genoa. When we left the wine country, the landscape got increasingly mountainous and the scenery more dramatic. When we exited from the highway for the final few kilometers to Monterosso, the road was extraordinarily twisty. It was not a relaxing conclusion to the road trip.

We got checked in to our hotel and then walked around town getting our bearing and checking out restaurants. Of the five towns in Cinque Terre, Monterosso is the first one on the north. The guidebooks said it's the busiest of the towns. We were still a little ahead of the main tourist season, and besides, we were there on a Monday and Tuesday. So it wasn't too crowded. We picked Monterosso primarily because we needed a hotel accessible by car and a hotel that provided parking. (That really tends to limit your options in Cinque Terre.) 

The best way to visit Cinque Terre is by train. For travel between the towns, we found the train to be quick and easy, and it eliminates the hassle of driving and parking. In Monterosso, the train station is right in the middle of town and easily accessible to the hotels and guest houses. 
The beach in Monterosso

I suppose some people go to Cinque Terre to enjoy the beach. There was a very nice beach in Monterosso. We did sit on the beach each of the days during our stay. But we did not have swim suits along, so other than my wife wading on the edge of the sea, we didn't get wet. 

Our main reason for coming to Cinque Terre was to hike the trails along the coast that link the five towns. That's what we did on Day 2 of our stay, our only full day.

After breakfast, we set off on our hike. We had been forewarned that some of the trails were washed out. So our plan was to trek from Monterosso to Vernazza; that took about 2 hours, counting a short break in Vernazza and sightseeing. Then we continued on the trek to Corneglia; slightly shorter, but pretty close to 2 hours after resting in town and planning our next move. 

The trekking is quite arduous, but if you go slow and don't over-exert, it's not that bad. On the first leg to Vernazza, there were a lot of people on the trail. Often the groups would get bunched up at the steep ascents, and you'd find yourself head to tush behind the next person up the trail. But on the second leg, from Vernazza to Corneglia, there seemed to be fewer people, and there were many sections of the hike when we were quite alone. That was a lot more pleasant.

When we got to Corneglia, we had planned to take the train to the southern-most town, Riomaggiore, then either take the train back or the ferry. But our credit card wouldn't work at the train station. So we used the cash that we'd brought to buy train tickets back to Monterosso. After getting back, we took towels down to the beach and rested after our fairly strenuous hike. 

Hotel: We stayed Locanda a Ca du Gigante. As I've already noted, one of our main considerations was a hotel with parking. But this would be a very nice place to stay even if you didn't need parking. It's convenient to the beach. The room we were offered actually was an apartment a block away from the main part of the hotel. It was beautiful and spacious and had a balcony overlooking the town and the sea. The breakfast was very good, and the proprietor, Claudia, was very friendly and helpful. 

For dinner our first night, Claudia had made a reservation for us at Ristorante Miky. We got a 10% discount and the restaurant is highly rated on TripAdvisor. Our experience was superlative! The food was excellently prepared and attractively presented. We had a bottle of house wine, a local white that nicely complemented the fish and seafood. 

For a starter, we ordered a specialty plate of Parmesan flan, topped with purée of roasted red pepper, and a tower of eggplant caviar. Linda's entree was grilled squid. It was a generous plate with the squid and grilled veggies. I had local fish (which on this night was sea bass) roasted whole and served with very thin slices of potatoes. The fish was brought to the table whole on a platter and then expertly deboned and plated atop the potatoes. Great!

We didn't order dessert. But when we asked for the check, we were brought a complementary plate of little vanilla cookies and a shot of a locally produced fortified wine. Linda made an offhand remark about lemoncillo and voila, the server appeared with a bottle and another glass for her. It was an excellent dinner.

On our second night, we ate at Ristorante il Cosello. Beautiful setting overlooking the harbor. It was a little chilly, but they lit the heater and it warmed up nicely. We had the house white, a Ligurian wine that tasted similar to Chardonnay. For a starter, I had Ligurian style anchovies - roasted and served with olive oil, tomatoes, olives, and pine nuts. There was a small salad of tomatoes and lettuce on the side that Linda ate. For an entree she had roasted sea bass with potatoes. It was similar to mine from Miky the night before. But the potatoes were cubed rather than thin sliced, and the fish was not deboned table side, like mine was. Still at half the price, it was pretty good. I had fresh fish ravioli in olive oil and tomatoes with shrimp and zucchini. The ravioli were very unique, two-colored, green and white. The whole plate was visually appealing and the flavors were very good.
Little towns of Cinque Terre cling to the cliff

Concluding thought: There are a lot of Americans and other English speaking people in Cinque Terre. Also a lot of French. Well, actually just a lot of tourists. The scenery is beautiful. But it's hard to enjoy nature when you're surrounded by people, even pleasant good-natured people as most of them were. In my post about our stay on the Amalfi Coast, I commented that I liked that better than Cinque Terre. From my perspective, they offer similar experiences. So you probably don't need to go to both, unless you have lots of time (as we did). If I were going to do one or the other, I'd go back to Amalfi.

Click here to view an album of photos from our stay on Cinque Terre. 

19 June 2016

Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, May 10-12: In search of wine

I have to admit that this was the most poorly planned part of our trip to Italy in May. Not that we didn't have fun. We had lots of fun and saw some great sights. We ate delicious food and drank wonderful wine. It's just that it wasn't the experience we had planned when we set up our itinerary. 

Here's what I wanted - to stay in a small town in Umbria to use as a base for exploring the Umbrian wine region and sampling some new wines, especially white wines. The town I picked was Civitella d'Agliano. I picked it because it was close to Orvieto, which was appealing because I was familiar with the Orvieto white wine. However, I quickly discovered a few facts. The town is actually in Lazio. And except for Orvieto, we were quite far from the main wine producing part of Umbria. And most of the wine we drank was red wine. And we also concluded that it's possible for a town to be too small for a tourist destination. 

This part of the trip started with a long drive from Cinque Terra. It took about 4 hours, and despite using Google Maps, we did miss one turn after we got off the Autostrada in Orvieto. We ended up going out of our way a few kilometers before we realized our error. 

When we finally arrived in Civitalla d'Agliano, what we discovered was that except for the agriturismo where we were staying, there wasn't really much else to see or do in the town. That included restaurants. But that wasn't too disconcerting. After all, we did have a car and we had planned to take day trips during our stay. 

On Day 2 of our stay, we planned to visit Orvieto. We also got some recommendations from the proprietor of the agriturismo. We started the day by driving 15 km to Civita di Bagnoregio, the so-called dying town. It was founded more than 2000 years ago by the Etruscans. But since it's built on a highly erodible cliff, the town is gradually falling into the valley below. Still, for a dying town, it seemed pretty lively. There were a lot of restaurants and shops for tourists, and apparently there still are about 50 people living there.
Orvieto's Duomo

Next we went on to Orvieto. We followed Rick Steves advice and parked for free at the train station and took the funicular up to the town. It was a very nice hilltop walled city. Rick Steves raves about it, calling it "What an Italian hill town should be." But we felt it was too touristy and not as nice as Sienna, which we saw on our previous Italy vacation. And we didn't drink any white wine there. 

After we left Orvieto, we had time so we drove to Todi. Todi actually is in Perugia. We liked that town quite a lot. It was small and quaint, touristy for sure, but not obnoxiously. There apparently was some kind of youth concert going on because everywhere there were groups of kids hanging out and being rambunctious.

That evening, at the restaurant in Civitella d'Agliano, we had a bottle of Montepulciano wine. We really liked it. So the next day, since we were going to have to drive anyway, we drove north an hour to the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany. Linda always was disappointed that we didn't get there on our last trip, and I was happy to try their local wine.

The drive went smoothly; Google Maps did a good job getting us there. We drove thru some rain. But when we got there, it didn't look very threatening, so we left our umbrellas in the car. Bad decision. We were in the main plaza when it started to pour. We ducked into a cantina and sampled their wine while waiting for the rain to stop. We didn't particularly like the wine, so didn't buy any. When it quit raining, we went back to the car and got our umbrellas. Naturally, we carried them the rest of the day and didn't need them. The village turned out to be much smaller than we expected, and it didn't take us long to pretty much see it all.

By now, I was getting frustrated by our difficulty in finding wine to taste. I'd read about one winery, Gattavecchi, that had good reviews on TripAdvisor. We passed it while walking thru the town. But when we stopped in, we were greeted by an elderly woman who spoke no English. We finally figured out that there was no wine tasting there. 

Then I remembered that the winery had two addresses, one a business office and another a cantina. So we made our way across the village again and found the cantina. No one was in the room when we entered, but we followed some stairs up to what I thought was the 'sala degustation.' When we got up there, a very harried person told us they were in the middle of serving lunch, so no tasting. 

Disappointed and confused we turned to go. But as we reached the bottom of the stairs, another woman who spoke very good English swooped in and took charge. She turned out to be Daniela, one of the Gattavecchi family members. She showed us their cellar and offered us a tasting. We loved the wines and had a very pleasant conversation with her, during which we learned that their wine is carried by Total Wine in the U.S. We bought 2 bottles. Since returning home, I've had a chance to see how much the wine is at Total Wine. I was surprised to find it was not much more than what it cost in Italy. 

Hotel: We stayed at La Tana dell'Istrice (the porcupine's burrow). It is an agriturismo with the guest rooms located in family manor in the ancient square and watchtower of Civitella d'Agliano. Driving into the square is quite daunting. You have to steer thru a very narrow passage and up a steep hill. We were offered a beautiful room with a balcony overlooking the town and the valley below. We had dinner the first night with the family and one other guest. The food was delicious and was paired with various wines from the family's vineyard (Sergio Mottura). 
Dinner at La Quercia. Note the fried artichokes - delicious!

Restaurant: As I noted earlier in this post, we didn't have too many options for dinner in town. The first night we ate at the agriturismo. The second night, we found a local restaurant called La Quercia. It was quite an experience. We were the only customers for the evening. We arrived at about 8 pm and when we left at 9:15, no one else came in. We started with an appetizer plate of cheese, several different kinds of sausage, two different bruschettas with tapenade, and fresh fava beans with honey. For her entree, Linda had grilled squid and shrimp. As a side she had fried artichokes. Excellent. I ordered ravioli, with hazelnuts and black truffles. I thought the ravioli was filled with meat. But it was some kind of fish. Very unusual and good.We liked it very much so we returned on our last night in town. On our second visit, our starter was tortelloni filled with wild boar and dressed with butter and sage and a bowl of grated Parmesan to top it off. Linda had a repeat of her squid and shrimp. I had 'filletto' of beef with porcini mushroom sauce. Another very good meal. 

Click here to view an album of photos from our stay in Lazio-Umbria-Tuscany. 

16 June 2016

Our worst travel day in Italy

I have to admit, I worried about the travel arrangements for Day 19 of our trip to Italy in May. Our goal was to leave the agriturismo where we stayed in Civitella D'agliano (a very small town near Orvieto) and arrive at our hotel in Praiano on the Amalfi Coast. The trip would involve starting out by car, 3 train rides, and then a local bus to our final destination. In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised that it turned out badly.

Step 1: 30 minute car ride to Orvieto
We left Civitella D'agliano right after breakfast and drove to the train station where we returned our car. That went smoothly. When we visited Orvieto a couple of days earlier, we had scoped out the train station and the rental car return site. Even though we'd driven the route before, we used Google Maps on my iPhone to make sure we didn't make a wrong turn at the beginning of our journey.

Step 2: 1 hour train ride to Rome
As we waited in the train station, we became worried when we received news that our train was 15 minutes late. We only had 20 minutes to make our connection for Naples. Our concern turned to real anxiety when the train made an unscheduled stop and just sat in the station for at least 15 minutes. When the train did finally start moving again, it seemed to be moving too slowly, and we kept getting later and later. 

Step 3: 1 hour train ride to Naples
Needless to say, when we arrived in Rome, more than an hour late, we had missed our connection. We had trouble finding out how to get re-booked. When we finally did get to the customer service desk, we got re-booked on a train that was scheduled to leave in 5 minutes. When I expressed concern, the answer I got was to the effect - no problem, that train is 20 minutes late. 

Now, other than being late, the ride to Naples was the best part of the trip. The train zipped along at 250 kph. We were served a complimentary glass of wine. I was able to plug in my phone to get it charged up. The seats were plush and comfortable. Nice ride.

Step 4: 1 hour train ride to Sorrento
When we got to Naples, we found the track for the local train to Sorrento. We got our ticket with only 5 minutes to spare. When the train pulled into the station, there was a jam packed crush to get aboard. We, of course were not only tired and frustrated, but we were handicapped because we were lugging two big suitcases. We got on, and eventually a few seats opened up. But the train was stuffy and rickety. Definitely not a nice ride. 

But wait. It gets worse. 

Step 5: 1 hour 20 minute bus ride to Praiano
When we arrived in Sorrento, we found the desk to buy bus tickets to Praiano. We had a 20 minute wait for the bus. Of course, when it arrived, there was a mad rush to get on. My wife got seats while I stowed the suitcases. Though I had a seat, the bus was jam packed. When it finally left Sorrento, we began an unimaginably gruesome ride around the hairpin corners of the Amalfi Coast. And at each stop, more people got on than got off, so the already crammed bus became even more overcrowded and stifling as we went along.

When we finally arrived in Praiano, we disembarked, but at the wrong bus stop (according to the instructions of the hotel staff). Fortunately, the correct bus stop was only 2 blocks away. Unfortunately, when we called the hotel to get the shuttle, we were informed that it was too late, the shuttle had stopped running, and besides, it had broken down. So the conclusion of our journey was a half mile walk pulling our suitcases up a steep hill. We finally arrived about 2 hours later than planned.

So what could I have done differently? 

Option 1: I considered driving directly to Naples. That would have cut out two train connections. (But it also would have cut out the one quick and easy train ride from Rome to Naples.) Also, it would not have eliminated the awful train ride to Sorrento or the awful bus ride to Praiano. Ultimately, I rejected this option because I worried about driving in Naples and finding the car return site and the train station.

Option 1a: I suppose we could have driven all the way to Praiano. But we'd heard horror stories about trying to drive on the Amalfi Coast, and we didn't even consider this option. 

Option 2: Hire a private car, either from Sorrento to Praiano, or from Naples to Praiano, or even from Rome to Praiano. This would be the most expensive option. But it may be worth considering for anyone who's wants to visit the Amalfi Coast and avoid the worst of public transportation.

Option 3: Rather than go to Sorrento, there is a high-speed train that serves Salerno from either Florence or Sienna. It's still a long bus ride from Salerno to Praiano, which you could avoid if you hired a driver. For our trip, it wasn't a practical option. It would have been too far to drive to either of those cities to catch the fast train. But it would be worth considering for some future trip. 

But you know, one bad travel day out of 26 days in Europe wasn't too bad. Just frustrating at the time.