Italian Flag"Quattro Americani in Italia"
Four Americans in Italy
May/June, 2008

By Jack Welsch

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This trip was actually born in 1997 in Vienna. Linda and I had tacked some vacation time onto a business trip involving a distributor sales meeting in Vienna. At the meeting, my very good friend Vittorio, knowing I had only a loose itinerary for the following week, suggested I drive down to Venice for a couple of days. I replied that I’d delay that trip until I had the chance to learn the fundamentals of Italian so I would not be at a total loss. We proceeded to spend that week wandering around Austria but the seed to visit Italy had been planted. The years fell away and, after a very enjoyable barge trip in France with our friends Helen and Earl on 2005, the four of us got the idea that a villa in Tuscany might be fun as well. Other friends, Hank and Sue, were also interested, especially after they got reports of a villa vacation from friends of theirs.

Once we had a rough idea of what we wanted to do, I called Vittorio who provided a phenomenal amount of help in making suggestions and arrangements. Vittorio even went as far as traveling from his home in Milan to check out (and reject) one villa we were considering and then sending an agent to check out (and recommend) another that was recommended by Hank and Sue’s friends. Unfortunately in the meantime, the demands of Hank and Sue’s business prevented them from leaving it so they had to reluctantly withdraw from the plan. That was a disappointment to all of us but business is business. By the time the trip rolled around, the exchange rate was so bad the rest of us started to think we’d have been better off delaying the trip as well but by that time, it was too late. Oh well; that’s life.

The overview of the trip is that we flew from JFK via Madrid to Rome where we spent a few days before renting a car and driving to our villa in the small village of Pozzuollo, Umbria. After a week there, we drove to the Venice airport where we dropped the car, took a water taxi to our hotel in Venice and spent a few days there before heading back to JFK, again via Madrid.

Tuesday, May 27

Flying out of JFK is a real pain as is making a connection but that’s what we had to do to get anything like a reasonable ticket price. Earl agreed to drive and picked us up at 10:00. We’d made arrangements for a “Park and Stay” deal at the Ramada near JFK so we had lunch there before taking their van to the airport. The hotel shuttle took us to a central drop-off where we got on a train for the terminal. Pushing back precisely on time at 6:00, we thought we were in good shape and even when we learned we were #14 for takeoff, we weren’t concerned. However, when a t-storm hit, then moved eastward, blocking all traffic to Europe, we knew we were in trouble and were an hour and a half late for takeoff. Given a short scheduled connection time in a major international airport, we spent the night convinced we’d have a rough next day.

Wednesday, May 28

Though we had a good tailwind, we were still quite late into Madrid and had less than an hour for the connection. That seemed damned tight since we had to clear immigration and, as usual in large European airports, there was a LOT of walking. We also had to pass through security but in the end, we were at the gate just at the scheduled check-in time.

Spanish StepsWe'd arranged with the hotel in Rome for a driver from the airport and he was waiting with a zillion others as we exited customs. As everyone knows, Rome is damned confusing and traffic there is nuts. Vittorio had recommenced the Hotel Scalinata di Spagna, which is right at the top of the Spanish Steps. It's a typical small European hotel; the kind we prefer. Linda had been writing to the hotel and had been getting e-mails from “Fabio”. It turns out there are two Fabios so we tagged them Fabio Uno and Fabio Due. Both were great and we were made very much at home.

Our terraceWe had two excellent but very different rooms. Number 10 is large with a balcony from which there is an oblique view of the steps. Number 15 is much smaller but has both a balcony (no view of the steps) and a terrace with a small table and 2 chairs. Helen and Earl preferred #10 and that was fine with us. Our room was of more typical European size (read: "small") but the terrace is great. Also thrown in is a view of the dome of Saint Peter’s in the middle distance. The only small problem was that the terrace adjoins the hotel’s rooftop garden and there is only a lattice between them so, with our door open, there is a perfect view of our bed from the rooftop garden! So much for privacy when the terrace doors are open! The hotel itself is quite nice. Typical of small hotels in Europe, the air conditioning was not capable of getting the room as cool as we Americans like it but let's face it, we're not the most energy-responsible people in the world. Before our stay was over, we pretty much gave up on it and relied on the excellent cross-ventilation. The hotel has free wireless Internet and, since I had my laptop along, that was a blessing. I believe they said there was also a shared computer somewhere but I'm not sure of that so if it's important to you, you should check. I'd be happy to stay at this hotel again.

Having checked in, we walked to the bottom of the Steps to check out lunch options and changed money at the Amex office but in the end we had lunch of pizza at the sidewalk café of “Novecento”, next to the hotel. Lin and I shared a Pizza Quattro Formaggio and it was fantastic. My rule upon arrival in Europe is that I must take a nap after lunch but that I can’t sleep for over 3 hours. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the exhaustion, I normally have trouble falling asleep on these occasions but I was out when my head hit the pillow and, without an alarm, I awoke at exactly that.

Trevi FountainFabio Due made a dinner reservation for us at “Hosteria da Pietro” where, he said, they eat several times a week. The walk there (down the Steps again) was about 10 minutes and the place is on a very narrow street where we’d have been highly unlikely to find it accidentally. A hosteria is what the Italians call a “family restaurant” but their standards are obviously much higher than ours; this place was quite nice. I had a carbonara as first course and meatballs for second. The carbonara was excellent and very different from what we get here in the States. The meatballs were, unfortunately, unexciting. Lin had ravioli in a cream and nut sauce for first course and saltimbocca for second. Both were superb. After dinner we decided to walk it off a bit so headed for the Trevi Fountain which is not far away. It was, of course, crowded but I got some excellent pictures.

Thursday, May 29

Vatican MuseumLinda, Helen and I had breakfact in the breakfast room, immediately adjacent to ours; Earl was still in bed. Fabio had booked for us a private tour for today and, since it was raining, we considered delaying it for a day. Considering the possibility that the next day might not be any better, though, we stuck with the original plan. As agreed, we met in the lobby at noon for lunch once again at “Novecento” next to the hotel. At 1:00 we met Giorgio, the private guide and with him we went by taxi to the Vatican. By the time we got there it was absolutely pouring and, while we had been told a private tour would eliminate standing in line, that was not the case. Fortunately, the line was short and, in any case, Georgio more or less wedged us in somewhere far from the end and then kept pushing past people. We were all surprised that no one seemed to mind or even notice; if that happened in the states, we’d get a fat lip! I’m still unsure why they did not protest but I envy them the fact they are so much more laid back! We all agreed that we were not interested in a detailed visit to the Vatican museum though one must pass through it to get to the Sistine Chapel. Along the way, Georgio paused often to explain the exhibits. The Sistine Chapel, while not as stunning as St. Chappelle in Paris, is absolutely amazing given how it was painted and the quality of the workmanship.

St. Peter'sFortunately, by the time we exited the chapel, the rain had stopped and the sun was out. From the Sistine Chapel we exited to a courtyard from which we accessed the front door of St. Peter’s Basilica. Though we’ve seen countless churches, nothing could have prepared us for the size and grandeur of St. Peter’s! St. Peter’s Square is also of a scale that is hard to grasp and I was unable to get a single picture that captured anything of the scale or magnificence of this place.

ColiseumFrom in front of St. Peter’s Square, we grabbed a taxi to the entrance to the Palatine Hill to buy 2-day tickets for there, the Forum and the Coliseum. Actually, we were starting with the Coliseum but I’d heard and Giorgio obviously would know that the lines at the Palatine Hill are much smaller than those at the Coliseum so it’s worth the short walk to buy them there even when you’re visiting the Coliseum. Once in the Coliseum, Giorgio took us first to the highest accessible level to give us that perspective before taking us to floor level to get that of a gladiator. Here, again, pictures just don’t do the place justice though I took many.

ForumThe walk from the Coliseum to the Forum was a long one and, by this time, Linda was having a lot of problems walking but she stiffed it out and carried on bravely. The Forum, of course, is mostly ruins but they give a hint of the glory of the temples built to the various Roman deities and some portions are in rather good shape. According to Giorgio, those buildings that are best preserved are that way because they were converted early-on to use as Christian churches so they were not scavenged for building materials as were the others. As with the Coliseum, the Forum is more impressive for what it WAS than for what it now IS. To actually stand in the Curia or Roman Senate building is a moving experience!

After 5 hard but fascinating hours, we left Giorgio at the Piazza Venezia and took a cab to the hotel for a little rest before dinner. Fabio Due booked us a table at “Il Giardino di Albino” in a tiny street not for from the hotel. The place was great and the waiter was both efficient and entertaining. This guy appeared to truly enjoy his job. For only the second time in my life, I had to reject a bottle of wine but he’d already anticipated it based on the quality of the cork and there was no trouble at all. Lin and I shared a nice Penne Arrabiata. She had veal in white wine that she liked and I had a great Veal Marsala. For desert we shared a cheesecake much as you’d get in NY. After returning to the Piazza Trinita dei Monti near the hotel, we looked at the work of the street artists and Earl bought an acrylic. After a quick look at the basilica of Trinita dei Monti itself, we met on our terrace to scope out the next day’s plans.

Friday, May 30

Palatine HillHelen was already on the terrace for breakfast when we arrived and Earl was still in the sack so, again, the three of us ate together. Earl joined us just before 10:00 and we set out via some small steps that descend in front of our rooms for Piazza di Spagna where we grabbed a taxi to the Palatine Hill, entering where we bought the tickets yesterday. Going there was a great idea; the weather was clear and cooler and the place is very restful. This hill, recognized as the legendary birthplace of Rome, was the location, in later years, of its largest palaces and is, in fact, the origin of the word “palace.” We spent hours just wandering slowly and I took countless pictures. From Palatine Hill are great views of the Coliseum, the Forum and the Circus Maximus, though that is now just an empty area where once the great chariot races were held.

Roman LunchLunch was on the sidewalk at “La Pace del Cervello” only a couple of blocks from the Coliseum after which we took a cab to the foot of Via Veneto and walked up its length and then back to Piazza di Spagna. Helen and Earl wanted to find some gelato and we were more inclined towards wine so at this point we split up, agreeing to talk at 6:00 to plan dinner. Lin’s feet were bothering her so we stopped at one of the first places we came to, the Hosteria Giggi, near the Piazza di Spagna. At first, they seemed hesitant to allow us to just have wine but they relented and we ordered a bottle of Fontana Candita. As we drank, we decided to have another bite to eat so we shared some Rigatoni Putenesca and, eventually, some excellent chocolate gelato. In the end, it was a damned expensive snack but what the hell. Back at the top of the Spanish Steps once more we found lots of artists so, after some shopping, we bought three small watercolors in a single mat. As is typical, Lin took a nap while I did the finances and wrote my diary.

At 6:00, Lin was still sleeping so Fabio Due, Helen and I made the dinner plans. Dinner was at Chinappi on Via Barbarini, just near the bottom of Via Veneto. It was very good but, as Fabio had warned us, a bit more expensive than on previous nights.

Saturday, May 31

What a perfect day! Today's mission was to get to the train station, rent a car, and drive to the villa in Pozzuolo. We’d agreed to leave the hotel at 9:30 but all of us were running ahead of schedule so we were in the cab around 9. One cab was sufficient for all 4 of us plus 4 large and 4 small bags. We had information on exactly where in the train station we were to go for the Europcar rental and the whole process came off without a hitch. The car was a full-sized van, a Fiat Ulysse and, unlike the trip of a few years ago, we had more then enough room. I got my portable GPS hooked up and, with Earl driving and me navigating, we headed north.

Orvietto DuomoWe had booked through Parker Villas the villa “Camaleone-Ghibellino” in Pozzuolo, Umbria. Most of the trip was on the A1 toll road and, unchecked, we’d arrive at the villa far earlier than the 4:00 check-in time so we agreed to stop in Orvietto, which was right on the way. Orvieto, very close to the Tuscany/Umbria border is one of the fortified “hill towns” and is absolutely charming. We followed a winding road to the top of the hill and, unwisely, passed the large parking lot just outside the walls thus ending up driving through much of the town, winding though the streets and dodging people. After looping through town and back to the lot, we walked through the streets, checking out the stores and restaurants and taking pictures. Like some of the towns in Alsace, there were good possibilities for pictures everywhere. The front of the Duomo is unbelievable in the complexity of its decorations. Heading back towards the parking lot, we selected “Locanda del Lupo” for lunch. Lin and I shared a 5-cheese pizza and it was wonderful; the cheese combination was great and the crust was thin and crispy. We’d passed a wine store a few doors back so, while I settled the bill, Earl and Linda bought 4 bottles of wine to get us started at the villa

Heading onward to Pozzuolo, we decided against the Autostrada since we’d been seeing warnings of construction ahead. It’s interesting to note that my Garmin Nuvi was warning me of traffic in Italy though it does NOT do so at home! At home, I have to pay XM for the same functionality on my Acura that I get here for free. Hmmm.... Anyway, the road the GPS chose as an alternative was a mountain road so we did a lot of twisting and turning but also got a good appreciation for the beauty of Umbria.

Our Villa - OutsideSince we were renting a villa rather than staying in a hotel, we’d been instructed that we MUST arrive at the appointed time. The literature said that if we were late, we might find the “keyholder” gone and be on our own for lodging at least for the first night.As a consequence, we got there at 3:30. As instructed, we went to the Camilloni clothing store across the street from the villa where we were met by Gabrielle Camilloni. He and his wife, Ivana, own both the store and the villa. They could not possibly have been nicer and the villa itself is just about perfect. What we rented is half of a duplex with three bedrooms though we needed only two. The third bedroom has only a single bed though it’s wider than what would pass as a single in the States so it might be adequate for two kids. There is also a single in addition to the king in one of the other bedrooms. Our Villa - InsideThere is also a nice living room/dining room and a full eat-in kitchen, a large porch with a table and chairs and a pool. In the basement is a laundry room with a tiny washer. Because no one was renting the other apartment, we had the pool to ourselves. The place appears to be relatively new, is well built, in very good repair, and spotlessly clean. The only negative is that it's on a relatively busy road and is rather near a few other houses, and some dogs that I wish were quieter. To put my comments into perspective, you need to know that I live in a very quiet suburban neighborhood so my tolerance for noise is abnormally low. On balance, I highly recommend this villa and was sorry to leave it..

Before leaving, Gabriella and Ivana invited us to go with them in the AM to an exhibit of many antique and classic cars and motorcycles owned by one of their fiends.

I ChiariOnce settled in, off we went for a brief exploratory trip to the lake and then stopped for groceries. Buying groceries was a real treat since none of us has a particularly good grasp of Italian. I took a bit of a swim while everyone relaxed for a bit. The water was quite cold but I actually like it that way so I was in clover.

For dinner we went only a few kilometers away to the “I Chiari”. They were setting up for a large private party inside but had room for us on the terrace and the night was beautiful if a bit cool. The waitress, Nicolete, is from Romania and she was really sweet. Though her native language is, of course, Romanian and she’s living in Italy, her English was quite good. One time, however, she started rattling on in Italian and then stopped herself saying, “Oh, I’m speaking Italian, aren’t I?” Lin and I shared what was by far the best penne with vodka sauce I’ve ever had. She had veal in lemon and I veal in wine sauce. Both were excellent.

Sunday, June 1

Fiat 850I’dpromised to make omelets but the omelet pan was scratched so I couldn’t flip them properly so, after fighting with the first one, I made scrambled eggs with pancetta, peppers and Parmegiano. While I was cutting up the peppers, Ivana explained on a map a number of opportunities for touring around and suggested that we meet them at 10:30 to go see the cars. In that Earl is our (Episcopal) priest, we'd planned on having mass immediately after breakfast. The 10:30 commitment put a dent in that timing but , hey, we're on vacation so flexibility is important.

PorkettaThe car show was in a wooded area and the vehicles, everything from motor scooters to large construction machinery, were amazing. They are all owned by the same man who just likes to show them off periodically. He even was serving wine and snacks, including a whole pig they had made into a porketta. I tried to pay for our food and wine and was told it’s all gratis!

Castiglione del LagoLeaving there, we drove to Castiglione del Lago, a fortified town on the shores of Lake Trasimeno and only 8 kilometers from the villa and walked around for a bit, buying some additional food and wine and generally enjoying the town. Castiglione del Lago is both small and charming. It's built in a promontory on the lake. While some of the town is outside the walls, the most interesting is, of course, inside the walls built centuries ago for protection against invaders. There are several gates into the city, each of them interesting. The streets are cobbled and vehicles very limited. There are lots of shops and restaurants and there was a lot of activity with people outside of many of the shops giving samples of whatever they were selling. We took the opportunity to bolster the wine collection. There is a very impressive fortress and we'd planned on visiting it but it was terribly hot so I suggested we just go back the house and chill out.

Since we had not had time for mass earlier, we had it on the porch and then just loafed. I did some swimming and reading by the pool. Earl took a nap and the girls just hung out, then prepared dinner. With Helen as head chef, we had spaghetti and meatballs along with salad and a lot of wine.

Monday, June 2 – Republic Day

SienaBy the time we got on the road, it was pushing 11:00. I drove to Siena with Earl navigating. Siena is a fairly large town and, it being Republic Day, was pretty crowded. I really had no idea where I was going once I got into the city and lucked into a free parking lot that was just a couple of blocks from the Piazza del Campo, the main square.Unfortunately, it started to rain shortly after we arrived but we’d bought jackets and umbrellas based on the forecast. Rain from that point was on and off all day. Siena is not what I’d call beautiful (well, at least on a rainy day it isn't) but it does have a certain charm and we walked around quite a bit. Linda saw a sign for Santuario di Santa Caterina and, since the Roman Catholic church in our town of Moscow, PA is the church of St. Catherine of Siena, we headed that way for a look. After that, we threaded our way through the narrow streets to the Duomo and took pictures of it from the square. However, there was a long line to get in and none of us wanted to see the interior that badly so we set off on a search for lunch - pizza at Ristorante alla Speranza. Lin and I had Quattro Formaggio and it was very good. SienaWhile we were there, we saw a very funny man working the crowd. We’d seen him earlier but this time we got to watch him in earnest for quite a while. He had a red beret and a grey suit. Inside his suit jacket, he had a seemingly limitless supply of props that he used to prank unsuspecting passers by. Every time he really got someone, the whole crowd would go wild. For example… He’d come up behind someone and lightly touch their ear with a brush then look sharply away before they’d turn around. He had a police whistle and he’d start directing pedestrian traffic with great authority... and people would comply. He had a spritz bottle that he’d use to spray water over someone’s head from behind so they’d think the rain had resumed. When one lady put her umbrella back up, the crowd roared. He did all of this with a deadpan face except that his eyes really sparkled. He had many different "routines" and I could have watched him all day. He seemed to be having fun, too; his expression was deadpan but his eyes were sparkling.

MontepulcianoLeaving Siena, we took some twisting back roads to Montepulciano, a well-known hill town but the rain had started again by that time. We walked around for a bit and took a bunch of pictures but the rain was a downer and we really didn't give Montepulciano the time it deserved..

After a bit of a rest at the villa (I was the one who took a nap this time!) we drove to Castiglione del Lago to find a place for dinner. After exploring a bit, we settled on Ristorante l’Acquario. Linda had pork skewered with plums and found it excellent. I ordered veal in a gorgonzola sauce and was disappointed when the waiter returned to say that had no more gorgonzola. He suggested a green peppercorn sauce and, it was absolutely fantastic!

Tuesday, June 3

Today was the day for a visit to Florence. I had heard and read so much about Florence that for years I said if there was one place in Italy I wanted to visit, Florence was it. As it turned out, we didn't give it the time it deserved and the weather conspired against us. We agreed to go by train and had checked out the station and schedule on the way to dinner the night before. After breakfast we were running ahead of schedule so Helen and I ran to the store to fill in on missing items. The train departure from Castiglione del Lago was at about 10:30 and we were at the station quite early. As per standard procedure, we bought the tickets at a bar across the street from the station and then waited on the platform.

Santa CroceAt over two hours, the ride from Castiglione del Lago to Florence was a long one, but it was better than driving. When we arrived in Florence it was still raining but not too hard. We had lunch almost immediately and by the time we finished, the rain had also. That meal was not especially bad but certainly the most disappointing that we’ve had since we arrived in Italy First stop was the Duomo but on the way, we stopped at the Piazza della Signoria to enjoy the many beautiful sculptures. The Duomo is made of white, green, and some pink marble. It is stunning and I’m sure it would have been more striking had the sun been shining. Next we visited the church of Santa Croce, where many famous people are buried, not in a crypt but in the nave itself. Among the graves we saw were those of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossini.

Ponte VecchioLeaving there, we headed to Ponte alle Grazie to get photos of the famous Ponte Vecchio, then along the other side of the river Arno to the Ponte Vecchio itself. The Ponte Vecchio is lined on both sides with jewelry shops and Linda took the opportunity to pick out a small trinket for her anniversary present. We took a 6:30 train which skipped a few of the stops we made on the way back so our time was slightly better than 2 hours. By the time we arrived in Castiglione del Lago, the rain had resumed with a vengeance. That, combined with our fatigue, prompted us to forgo the restaurants in Castiglione del Lago and head for I Chiari. Unfortunately, it was closed so we returned to the villa and the ladies prepared a delicious chicken dinner.

Wednesday, June 4

PerugiaWe agreed to sleep late and I forced myself not to get out of bed when I first awoke, finally getting up at 9:30. I was still the first up and, after showering and dressing, sat by the pool and read. It was right at noon when we pulled out with Earl driving and me navigating. Today’s highlight was Perugia, a rather large, but nonetheless charming hill town. Following the recommendations of a Thomas Cook tour book, we parked in a garage near the bus station and took a series of escalators through an underground city, the lowest reaches of which were Etruscan! As we ascended, we passed through roman and then medieval construction until we reached street level. We more or less followed the recommended walking route, stopping for lunch at a restaurant near the Duomo. Linda’s feet were bothering her once again so she sat by the fountain and had a Coke Light in a café while the three of us continued the tour, part of which was on what was once a Roman aqueduct. I got some fantastic pictures!

DerutaLeaving Perugia, we headed south to the small hilltop town of Deruta. The town is quaint but not remarkable except for the number of ceramic shops; they are everywhere. Eventually, we bough some plates as gifts from the delightful proprietor of Ceramiche El Frate.

For dinner we returned to I Chiari where we had eaten on Saturday. Again most of the place was taken up by a huge party but this time we were seated inside and once again Nicolete waited on us. She is so absolutely charming it’s amazing. She was running her legs off with the party yet she gave us excellent service. As I mentioned earlier, Nicolete is Romanian, and at some point I asked her about Romanian food. After explaining, she expressed regret that I had not asked on Sunday since she had yesterday off and would have been delighted to cook for us in her home! She asked when we were leaving the villa and when I said Saturday, she asked whether we could delay it so she could cook for us next Tuesday! When is the last time THAT happened to you? We all just wanted to take her home with us!

Thursday, June 5

Citta della PieveI was again the first up so I was showered and sat by the pool while the others shook themselves awake. It was well after 11:00 by the time we put a plan together. With Earl at the wheel once more, we took the winding country to Città della Pieve and spent a lot of time walking around this quaint hilltop town. Before leaving, we had some gelato and called it lunch. Continuing south, we went once again to Orvieto since we’d had to cut our initial visit short. This time we decided to ascend the mountain via the funicular but had a hell of a time finding it and actually drove up the mountain and back down before doing so. Unfortunately, it was raining by this time but we stiffed it out and walked to near the duomo to buy tickets for the underground city, then walked to the entrance, just in time for the tour. It was only the four of us and the guide, Aldo, for the one-hour tour. Aldo did an excellent job and the tour was fascinating. We’d hoped for an early dinner in Orvieto but restaurants had not yet opened for the evening so we headed north, planning to stop at a hilltop restaurant we’d seen on the way to Città della Pieve. Unfortunately, that was also still closed so we headed to Castiglione del Lago, parked the car and entered the city, this time through a tiny ancient gate in a side wall. We decided on dinner at “Monna Lisa Ristorante Tipico” and it was superb. Food, service and ambiance were perfect and prices were reasonable. To start, Earl and I had some wonderful mussels from the Adriatic, Linda had lasagna and Helen had ravioli. My main meal was a steak in a 5-pepper sauce. Linda had Robespierre that was very different from what we’d had in Milan many years ago.

Friday, June 6

Castiglione del LagoIt’s hard to believe our week here is about over; what a wonderful place this is! By the time I dragged myself out of bed at 10, Earl and Helen were already up and around. Helen played sous-chef to my breakfast chef while Linda washed out some clothes. Again, it was 11:45 when we got on the road. First priority was to stop at some bike shops for Earl to find a local bicycling club jersey. No luck. Next, we drove down by the lake to have a look around before going within the walls of Castiglione del Lago. Once in town, we visited the palace and the castle itself. What an experience! The frescos in the palace are absolutely superb and I’d taken a lot of pictures before we noticed the sign prohibiting photography. Oops! The castle itself was absolutely amazing. Linda's acrophobia inspired her to decline the visit to the walls. Helen, Earl and I climbed the walls and towers while Lin chilled out with a Coke light at the little café. I got some superb photos. Afterwards, we walked to a little gelateria on the main square and had some ice cream on their terrace overlooking the lake. For the first time in days, the weather was perfect!

Villa PoolLeaving the others back at the villa, I took the car to do some exploring and photo taking. I found a delightful little cemetery not far away and stopped there before exploring two dirt roads, both of which ran out at a house, one after I’d followed it for miles. I got some great pictures and headed back to sit by the pool. By this time it was quite hot so I had to keep jumping in to cool off.

It was agreed we’d return to Monna Lisa for dinner. Unfortunately, between the sun and the wine I’d drunk at the pool, my stomach was off and when my food arrived it got worse. For my first course, I’d ordered the cheese ravioli Helen had had the previous night but sadly I could eat less than half of it. Worse, I was able to eat only a single bite of my veal. In retrospect, the combination of sun and wine was pretty stupid! Back at the house, I went straight to bed but the others did, too.

Saturday – June 7

Arriving in VeniceMoving day already! The rules of engagement required us to be out by 10:00 so Earl set his alarm and had us up at 7:30. By shortly after 8:00 we were dressed and pretty much packed. We finished up the bread and cheese for breakfast and had the car packed and were ready to go by about 9:45. I walked across to the clothing store and told Gabrielle we were ready for his inspection of the house. We got back the security deposit with no questions and he and Ivana came over to wish all of us good-bye. We were on the road shortly after 10:00 with me driving and Earl navigating. The weather was intermittent rain. By the time we got to Arezzo the rain pretty much stopped but it remained cloudy until we neared Venice. Earl took over driving at a rest stop between Bologna and Venice so I could navigate. After getting gas, we dropped the car at the Venice airport and walked what seemed like miles to the water taxi but were quickly on our way for the high-speed trip to Venice itself. What a treat it was to fly across the bay, along the Grand Canal and then wander through the narrower side canals, eventually stopping at a set of steps just a few meters from a small, virtually unmarked gate that was the entrance to our hotel, Arriving at our hotelOltre di Giardino. We arrived at about 2:30 and were greeted by Elena, a charming young lady who showed us to our mini suites on the second (third to Americans) floor. This former house has only 6 guest rooms and is absolutely delightful. I didn't realize it until I started preparing this web page but it was actually the home of Alma Mahler, wife of the famous composer! The others wanted to rest but I could not wait to have a look around so I wandered off alone, hoping I’d be able to find myself back through the maze of tiny streets and canals. Actually, it was not as difficult to find my way back as I feared. Eventually I sought out Linda and together we went for a slice off pizza and some ice cream.

Vittorio and PatriziaAfter chilling for an hour or two, we showered and dressed for dinner with our very dear friends, Vittorio and Patrizia who had traveled from their home in Milan just to be with us. As previously arranged, they met the four of us in the hotel at 7:30. Dinner was at Harry’s Bar near Piazza St. Marco. To get there, we took the ferry or Vaporetto but to get to the Vaporetto stop, we had a nice walk together through the narrow streets with narrative by Vittorio. At Piazza St. Marco, we strolled first through this imposing square, one of the most famous and beautiful in the world, then circled back around to Harry’s which, interestingly enough, originated in Venice. Lin and I both started with tagliatelle with a white sauce and ham and, for the main course had veal picatta. Both were absolutely wonderful and Vittorio was, as always, a gracious and engaging host. Patrizia put in a special effort since she speaks little English but does understand it. In spite of this, she was an excellent hostess and we really appreciated the sacrifice she made to have dinner with us. While all of us enjoyed ourselves immensely, it was extra special for me as Vittorio and I have been friends for many years and, though our business relationship has changed, our friendship has not. After dinner, we took the vaporetto back to the dock at San Tomá and walked to the hotel. Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep well but I think it was due to the excitement; what a great time we had!

Sunday, June 8 – Our 40th Anniversary

Venice CanalVittorio and Patrizia had agreed to meet us at 10:00 for a short tour so we were up at 7:00, had breakfast in the garden at 8:30 and mass in Trygars’ room at about 9:15. Vittorio and Patrizia took us first to the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, a Franciscan church very near to the hotel. It’s a shame photography was prohibited but, on the other hand, photos would have not begin to capture the impressive architecture, paintings and sculpture. Next we visited La Scuola Grande di San Rocco. This started out as and still is an organization of merchants somewhat like an ancient version of Rotary but the walls and ceilings of their building, started in 1515, have been completely covered by canvases of the painter Tintoretto. Entering on the ground floor, one is overwhelmed by the art works. The staircase to the upper floor makes a left turn and when you make that turn and look upward to the great upper hall, it’s almost breathtaking. There is so much to see in the great upper hall that it’s got to be material for at least a semester course at an art college. However, the best part is in the third and smallest chamber where one entire wall is devoted to a depiction of the crucifixion. Absolutely amazing. Again, no photos were allowed but they’d have been of little use in any case since nothing could possibly capture the magnificence of this place.. Leaving St. Rocco, Vittorio and Patrizia walked with us for a while towards the Rialto Bridge but then had to say good-bye for their return to Milan.

The Grand CanalThe Rialto Bridge is absolutely amazing. Like the Ponte Vecchia in Florence, it is lined on both sides with shops but it arches high over the water so the surface is made up of steps rather than a roadway. In addition, there are steps behind the shops as well as between them so there are lots of great opportunities for pictures of the Grand Canal. Continuing further through the maze of streets, alleys and canals, we eventually reached Piazza di San Marco which was by now crowded with tourists. By this time, the earlier clouds had cleared and it was sunny and hot. While the others did some shopping in the gallery of shops surrounding the square, I ran around taking pictures and, that, I think was my downfall because, like a fool, I’d come out without a hat and ended up getting terribly sick from the heat.

Helen felt it was probably a relapse of my troubles on Friday. We stopped for pizza on the walk back to the hotel but I could not finish mine and, by the time we reached the room, I was so sick I went straight to bed and slept for several hours. Dinnertime came and we sent Trygars off on their own because I was in no shape for dinner. I encouraged Linda to go with them but she refused. She had to eat, however, and was reluctant to go out alone so we found a small restaurant, “de La Sandro”, near the hotel and I forced down a bit of spaghetti carbonara. By the time we got back to the room I was quite sick again so I only read for a few minutes, was in bed at 9:00 and put in an absolutely horrible night.

All this would not have been a disaster except that today was our 40th wedding anniversary and we’d planned on a gondola ride to celebrate it in style. To have to cancel out on that was a heartbreaker.

Monday – June 9

Venice CanalAfter a night from hell, I awoke no better then when I went to bed. I was hungry but the thought of food was nauseating. Linda went down and got me some tea and rolls and gave me strict instructions to try to get something down. I chased her down to have breakfast with Helen and Earl and I hung out trying to eat at least a bit. Eventually, I felt well enough to get showered and when Lin came up we went for a little exploratory walk. First priority was to stop at the Farmacia for some stomach meds and some electrolyte powder and then to buy some water to put it in. I tired quickly, though, and noticed that the sun bothered me a lot. Fortunately, the narrow streets make it easy to stay in the shade! We weren’t gone long before we came back for a little rest, then we went out for lunch. We’d noticed “Frary’s Cucina Mediorientale”, a Middle Eastern restaurant around the corner from the hotel and, given that we’re getting pretty tired of Italian food, gave that a try. I’d intended to get something light like cous cous but when I saw Shrimp Saganaki on the menu, I took a chance and, surprisingly, it went down easily! I’d hoped we could take the vaporetto to St. Mark’s after lunch but by the time we ate I was exhausted again so we came back for a long nap.

Gondola and Rialto BridgeBy the time I awoke, I was feeling downright well so we got dressed, collected Helen and Earl and set off in search of a gondola. We’d not gone far before we found and were found by two gondoliers making their pitch and the four of us set out with a gondolier on a trip of 45 minutes or so. It was expensive but worth every dime. About half the time was spent in small canals and half on the Grand Canal. Each element had its advantages, the tranquility of the small and the grandeur of the large. The gondolier pointed interesting sights out periodically but was not intrusive. Though I’d read you had to pay extra to hire a singer, this guy sang quietly for a lot of the time and that added a lot.

Rialto at NightDinner was at Caffé Saracento on the Grand Canal very near the Rialto Bridge. As they had in France, Trygars treated us to dinner for our anniversary. Lin and I shared ravioli to start and both of us had Veal Marsala as a main course. The meal, the service, and especially the ambiance were great. As we neared the hotel, we heard the sounds of a chorus from Verdi’s Aida coming from a magnificent palace just across the canal. This was the first time we’d seen lights in that building and from what we could see of the painted ceilings, it was magnificent. We learned that, while it is still a private palace, the ballroom is occasionally rented out for weddings and such.

Tuesday, June 10

MuranoHaving lost much of yesterday, we wanted to get going a bit early so we’d left the drapes open to get the effect of the early morning sun. As such, we were up at 6:30 and had plenty of time to be ready for breakfast that started at 8:00. We were out well before 9:00 and walked via the Rialto Bridge to the ferry pier at Fondamente Nove where we got round-trip tickets for the island of Murano, famous for its glass. As nice as Venice is, I think Murano is far nicer. It is much more tranquil and the shops are, for the most part, very nice. We hadn’t been there long before we stopped at a café for a Coke Light and to relax a bit. We visited one glass factory, allegedly the largest on the island. Wandering around, we bought any number of small trinkets and gifts, stopping at one point for lunch. During lunch we happened to sit at a table next to a couple from the Loire valley in France so I had a nice conversation with them.

Rialto BridgeEventually we took the ferry back but this time took it to Piazzo St. Marco, only to find the area absolutely mobbed with tourists. Reportedly, two cruise ships had disgorged their passengers and it was difficult even to move. Fortunately, while the line for the basilica of St. Marco was long, it was moving fairly well so we did get a chance to visit the nave. As Vittorio had told us, the ceiling is totally covered with golden mosaics; an effect that was amazing. We were eager to escape the crowds, though, so we fought our way across the Rialto Bridge and, rather than descend all the way to the mob on the north side, made a left turn to the river walk, stopping for a glass of wine at Caffé Saracento where we’d had dinner the previous night.

Venice CanalOn Saturday I’d talked to a painter near Frari but, since Linda wasn’t with me, I had bought nothing. I saw him again on Sunday but we were hustling off somewhere so we didn’t stop. After that, he disappeared for a while so I figured we’d swing around for one last chance to buy a picture. Fortunately he was there and we bought two small watercolors and talked to him for quite a while.

Back at the hotel, we checked in with Helen and Earl and made arrangements to meet for dinner at 7:30. Dinner was back by the Rialto bridge. Linda and I shared a delicious Gnocchi Quattro Formaggio to start. I had veal marsala again and Lin had Veal Milanese, which is essentially Wiener Schnitzel. I must admit that hers was better than mine. As we arrived at the hotel, there was another concert going on in the palace across the canal and there were a number of people, including some guests at our hotel, standing around listening as did we for a while. Eventually we gave up, finished the packing, and hit the rack.

Wednesday, June 11

Last Breakfast in VeniceThe trip home is always the worst part of any trip but this went pretty smoothly. The hotel had arranged a water taxi to the airport and the boat was there well before the 8:30 appointment. Water TaxiWeather was still good though humidity was high and visibility consequently low. Wanting to be conservative, we’d ignored advice that we need not be at the airport more than 2-1/2 hours before flight time and outsmarted ourselves; the registration desks don’t open until 2 hours before flight time. Consequently, we sat for an hour before being able to check in. As we passed through security, I asked a young lady working there where we had to go to get a VAT form stamped and she said it was OUTSIDE of security! The paperwork was on Linda’s passport so she had to go back outside but the girl arranged for her to come back through the express line so it was no big hassle.

The flight to Madrid was late but we had lots of connection time so that was no trouble. Lin and I had booked cross-aisle seats for this leg and, each had two empty seats next to us. We had a LONG way to go for the connection in Madrid but did so with time to grab a quick bite before boarding for the trip to JFK. As we sat at the gate, I was cautiously optimistic about the passenger loading and, as it turned out, there were LOTS of empty seats. Configuration was 2-4-2. Lin and I were on one side with Helen and Earl behind us but the adjacent 4 seats next to us and them were empty. When the flight attendant closed the overhead bins, I had Lin slide across the aisle to stake a claim. Unfortunately Trygars didn’t do the same and another couple slid into that set of 4. After takeoff, Lin wanted to be on the outside so she and I swapped places, giving her 2 seats and me 4. There were 2 empty seats behind Trygars so Earl moved back there. As a result, for the 4 of us, we had 10 seats. I was able to put up the arm rests and lie flat for some of the trip. Since I had 4 seats and they each had 2, I offered to swap with each of the others but they were all happy where they were so I was in clover.

We landed at about 7, got through the formalities with less than the normal aggravation and grabbed the train to hotel pickup point. On the train I called the hotel for the van but we still had to wait about an hour. We’d been feeling pretty exhausted but realized what a good day we were having when we learned that most of the people in the hotel were there because their flights had been interrupted. Some had been traveling for over 24 hours and were still not at their destination!

I will say that the staff at the Ramada at JFK are excellent; uncommonly friendly and helpful almost without exception. Having said that, the place is a DUMP. We’d booked it solely because it was the only place we could find that would allow us to park the car for 2 weeks. Our travel agent had warned that she’s had bad reports of it but that the hotel claimed it had been refurbished. As often happened, though, the refurbishment money went into the lobby rather than the rooms. This might have been an OK hotel eons ago but it is in deplorable condition now. A lousy way to end the trip but, what the heck, it’s only for a night. We met Helen and Earl in the restaurant for a last meal together and, if course, ate anything BUT Italian food.

Thursday, June 12

Since we wanted to leave after the morning rush hour traffic, we’d agreed that we would wake up and have breakfast on independent schedules and meet in the lobby, ready to go, at 10:00. Given the time change, of course, we were up at 5:50 and at breakfast by 7:30. After breakfast, we just read in the room and went down at 9:45. Helen and Earl were waiting and had already loaded their bags so we were off. The drive home was unremarkable other than that it was an absolutely stellar day. Once again I was reminded that, though I love to see other places, the hills of Northeastern Pennsylvania are perhaps the prettiest place on earth. By about 12:30, we were back to the center of our universe. We truly are blessed!! In closing, I want to say a special "thank you" to Vittorio who made so many arrangements and without whom this trip would probably not have even happened and to both Patrizia and him for a great time in Venice!