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My Summer 2019 Vacation in Italy – Part V

Come – experience Italy!

While waiting for a tour of the lake district to start, I spent a few days in Florence. It was still as hot as Hades but I walked through the city to experience the architecture and vibe of the city. Nothing can prepare you for the sheet size and vastness of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, translated as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower and more commonly known as the Cathedral of Florence or the Duomo di Firenze. (This is going to be a long post so if you want to know more about the Duomo di Firenze, please click here.

The Ponte Vecchio, or the Old Bridge, is stunning, crowded, overwhelming, and breathtaking all at once. This medieval stone bridge spans the Arno River and is lined with shops as bridges were in the past. Formerly butcher and baker shops, now shops catering to tourists, it is the oldest bridge in Florence and was the only bridge over the Arno until 1218. I doubt anything built today would last for 800+ years! To add some intrigue, the Vasari Corridor runs along the top of the bridge. This secret passageway connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti (if you’ve read Dan Brown’s “Inferno,” you are in on the secret).

Have I mentioned how hot it was in Florence? I escaped to the Boboli Gardens and wandered around to enjoy the vistas of Florence. I also enjoyed some culture at the Uffizi Galery. I was hoping for some AC but at least the thick walls kept out a lot of the heat. The building was constructed between 1560 and 1580 and, once again, the architecture is nearly as stunning as the artwork. The Uffizi has one of the largest collections of Old Masters in the world. I saw Michelangelo, DaVinci, Titian, Rembrandt, Reubens, Van Dyck and too many more to mention.

I continued my day of culture at a performance of the Three Tenors of Florence. It was held at the Auditorium de Santo Stefano, a converted church, and was absolutely lovely. The music was accompanied by ballet dancers and the acoustics were phenomenal. Walking back to my hotel, it was a little creepy to see the streets so empty after having been so packed earlier in the day.

I joined a Trafalgar – Cost Savers tour as I was starting to feel a little lonely after four weeks alone. It was an 8-day tour of the lake region in the Lombardo region. I was very reluctant to try a tour. When I was in high school, my parents took my sister and me on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” tours. I was afraid that this tour would also be filled with complaining, elderly Americans who wanted everything just like they had it in the USA. I was very pleasantly surprised, however. I met people from all over including the UK, South Africa, and Australia. There were a few elderly people but there was a good age range from 30’s and up. I wasn’t the youngest – but I certainly wasn’t the oldest either so that made it better.

On the first day, we took a boat trip on Lake Como. I saw some beautiful scenery from the lake tour and then we wandered around Bellagio, commonly referred to as the pearl of the lake. I climbed to the top of the little town and then back down where I met up with a new friend from the tour and we each enjoyed a glass of wine at a cute little wine bar. After climbing down the second set of stairs, we thought we should try an Aperol Spritz which was made with Aperol liqueur and sparkling rosé wine. It was both delicious and refreshing!

We next traveled to Switzerland and Lake Lugano. The lake was refreshing and relaxing and I loved these paddle boats with a slide attached that were for rent to tourists.

 

In the town of Lugano, we took a funicular to the top of Mont San Salvatore. We enjoyed breathtaking views. Take a trip with me down the funicular in the following video – if you dare!

Our next adventure brought up back to Italy and Lake Stresa. I had visited Stresa two years previously on our way back from Zermatt to Milan and fell in love with it then. It is extremely picturesque but we were only there briefly so I didn’t get a chance to explore the islands in the lake or the Palazzo Borromee.

The Palazzo Borromee is still partially a private residence. The grottoes beneath the palace were so that the owners could walk around and cool off there on hot days. I was awe-struck by the gardens and I got my first glimpse of a white peacock – I never even knew they existed before!

The tour stopped in Orta which is a charming town with narrow, winding streets – and yes, more stairs!. It was the perfect place to relax with an Aperol Spritz – after all, you need to taste quite a few to determine who makes the best one! On the way out of town to our next stop, I tried a Caffé Shakerado which was adventurous for me because I don’t like, or ever drink, coffee. This was sweetened and shaken up with ice until it was extremely chilled. The best way I can explain it is that it tasted almost like a coffee milkshake. There was a lot more caffeine, however, and I felt the effects when we arrived in Verona.

The first photo above is “Juliet’s Balcony” – not really because “Romeo & Juliet” is a work of fiction. It’s in a tiny courtyard that you access through a passage that people have attached written notes with used chewing gum. It was rather revolting to see, despite the sentiment. The second photo is what I really thought the good people of Verona had erected as the “actual” balcony as it was much prettier. Verona had its own coliseum, however, most of the town seemed dedicated to shopping and tourism. I definitely could have skipped this portion of the tour.

Next we came to my favorite lake – Lake Garda. It is the largest lake in Italy and it felt so incredibly calming and awesome. From watching the paragliders to the boat ride around the lake, it was absolutely stupendous. Lake Garda is surrounded by mountains and enjoys a micro-climate in the north that allows them to grow both lemons and olives. I thoroughly enjoyed the town of Limone, the colorful flowers, and the ingenious way that there are two roads around one portion of the lake – one for pedestrians/cyclists and the other for automotive traffic. This is the second place (Perugia was the first) where I felt I could live.

If you are going to experience the Dolomites, take the cable cars in Bolzano, Italy. The area used to be part of Austria so there is still a lot of German spoken in these parts. We hiked in the 100+ degree heat and viewed some intriguing rock formations. One of the local restaurants provided some delicious – and free – apfel strudel and local wine. I had a brief Sound of Music moment which was wonderful.

Nearing the end of the tour, we stopped in Bergamo. We took another funicular up the mountain through the town. We had a few hours to wander around and I delighted in the charming town that had fantastic pizza.

The last day of the tour took us to Milan. When I went when I was younger, I did not like Milan at all. I have grown to really appreciate the thriving city. From the unassuming Teatro all Scala – I vow to see an opera there someday – through the famous galleries and to the Duomo, Milan is a marvel and I feel myself becoming more and more comfortable there every time I visit.

I’m nearing the end of my six-week journey. Next week will be the last installment in this photographic journey through Italy from the summer of 2019. I packed a lot in, driving myself (Yikes!) from Milan to Modena to Siena and finishing in Rome. I will be back and I wish everyone in Italy – and around the world – a safe and speedy recovery from this global pandemic. It’s scary out there but there is a lot of beauty to enjoy and adventure to experience. Arrivaderci, Italia!

My Summer 2019 Vacation in Italy – Part IV

I really enjoyed the eastern and southeastern portions of Italy last summer. The views were gorgeous everywhere you looked (see Part I, Part II, and Part III of this series). However, I fell in love with Umbria. Perugia is one of my top three favorite towns in Italy now. I was absolutely stunned by the beauty lushness, and magnificence around every bend in the road.

Follow in my footsteps and experience virtually what I discovered.

Perugia – An Amazing Walled City

From the first moment when I stepped off the train, I was enchanted by Perugia. It was a little overcast so I decided to take a taxi to my hotel. Good thing as the taxi immediately started to drive on the street that went straight up. Apparently, the train station is at the bottom of the mountain. I mentioned to the taxi driver that it was good I didn’t walk with my luggage and he heartily agreed.

There is a funicular to take you partway up and then a series of escalators built into the mountain to make navigating the city so much easier (with fewer steps to climb though those are available should you so desire). I stayed at the Hotel Sangallo Palace about halfway up the mountain. It was perfectly situated with the escalator a short walk away and I was able to hear the jazz music wafting down from the top of the mountain and up from below. Truly spectacular.

The walkway and stairs were part of a former Roman aqueduct. Walking down a narrow, medieval street, you would turn a corner and be presented with the most breathtaking view. The escalators were built into the mountain and you emerged in Etruscan ruins.

Umbria Jazz Surrounds Your Soul

I was there coincidentally during Umbria Jazz. The sounds of music filled the streets and there were free concerts and performances everywhere. It was like having a classy soundtrack of my life.

The concerts were all sold out by the time I wandered into Perugia, so book ahead. Umbria Jazz is usually held in July, though I’m not sure what will happen this year. They get some pretty top-notch jazz musicians, too.

History and an Etruscan Well

The Etruscans were there before the Romans and provided clean, public water to their citizens. Below are remnants of an Etruscan well which is thought to have been dug in the second half of the third century BC (yes, that’s right. Before year 0!). It was later used by Romans and other inhabitants of the town.

Phenomenal Cooking School in Umbria

I took a cooking class outside of Perugia. The cooking school is located in a farmhouse and we used many ingredients grown right on the farm, including their delicious wine and olive oil. It was absolutely amazing and I met and cooked with people from all over the world. The school is called Let’s Cook in Umbria and I highly recommend you sign up for a multi-day class I took the 5-day class and could have stayed longer. I left with recipes and memories that will last a lifetime.

After our cooking class and lunch – where we dined like royalty and drank wine made at the farm – we took some daytrips. Our first activity was to participate in a truffle hunt with a trained dog – and one in training. After, we attended a truffle tasting. I never thought I liked truffles before. I do now.

Terrific Truffle Hunt

Another excursion took us on a tour of Assisi. It’s all uphill but the views were incredible and the history contained in the cathedral was awe-inspiring. Even if you’re not religious, you need to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry that was put into these medieval churches and mountainous towns.

Amazing Assisi

The Craftsmanship of Orvieto

Our final excursion from the cooking school was to Orvieto. Another superbly designed and crafted cathedral. The scale and scope are incredible and it’s hard to believe that the cathedral could have been built at a time with no cranes or power tools.

Until We Meet Again, Arrivaderci Perugia

If you ever have a chance to visit Perugia, run, don’t walk. I will definitely return time and time again.

Join me in Part V of my summer vacation when I go to Florence and take a tour of the Lake Region. Spoiler alert: I find my favorite lake!

My Summer 2019 Vacation in Italy – Part III

I was somewhere in my third of six weeks of travel as I made my way down to the heel of the boot of Italy. The heatwave continued and it only seemed to get hotter the further south I went. I had considered taking a ferry over to Greece for a few days from Bari as this was the least expensive option but decided I didn’t want to waste two days to ferry travel.

Brindisi is a gorgeous town, even in the 95+F degrees. It’s on the water so you at least get a nice breeze. There is nothing I enjoy more than wandering through what feels like ancient towns while marveling at the architecture and history of a place. It kind of makes you feel a bit inconsequential in the whole scheme of the universe.

The Port of Brindisi is fantastic! Wide pedestrian promenades lead to the port which has restaurants, great views, and a Roman column with stairs which is said to be the historical end of the Appian Way from Rome. The current column is now a fake – the original is on display in a museum. There’s also cargo and cruise ships and a marina and a whole lot of activity.

Incredibly historic and charming photos from around Brindisi. From the 24th-century church, the Piazza Duomo, the Cathedral, and the random fountains and staircases, it’s all incredibly amazing!

What do people in Brindisi do on weekend evenings? They go out! There are four restaurants in the Piazza Mercato and they were all packed. There were THOUSANDS of people strolling, sitting, talking – everywhere in the city, young and old alike. Families, friends, locals, tourists – fantastico !

Because there’s nothing better to do in 90+ degree weather then walk through some rather sketchy – and deserted – areas of town for an hour to the Monumento al Marinaio to get to see this stunning view! Then there was the also slightly-frightening walk back, but I rewarded myself at the end with a small gelato. (See? More stairs!!)

Just arrived in Lecce. My lodgings are within sight of the Duomo and include a Juliet balcony. Lecce is literally oozing with historical buildings and monuments, each more stunning in scale than the previous. It’s more inland, so it was hot as Hades. You will also note that all the buildings are made of the same material and are the same color. It really was incredible to feel so connected to history.

Join me next week as I travel north to Perugia (my favorite town in Italy) and see the wonders I cooked at a cooking class located on a working farm. Delicioso!

Please let me know what your favorite parts of Italy are and whether you have visited any of the sites I’ve shown you. I feel so incredibly lucky to have been able to spend six weeks traveling through Italy and there are still places I have yet to explore! Tell me where to go next.

Alla vostra saluté! (To your health!)

My Summer 2019 Vacation in Italy (a little late) Part I

I traveled all over Italy last summer. I started in Rome. Crossed over to Pescara. I had never been to the heel of the boot of Italy so I decided to travel down the Adriatic Coast to Bari, Brindisi, and Lecce.

From Lecce, I thought I would try to escape the everlasting heat and journeyed north to Perugia – which has now become one of my favorite Italian towns. After Perugia, I stopped in Florence and picked up a tour of the Lake District in Milan.

After the tour, I rented a car – that was an experience – and visited Modena, Siena, and ended my vacation in the beautiful town of Pitigliano. A short drive down the Mediterranean Coast brought me back to Rome.

It was busy and beautiful and delicious and fun! I made some new friends and discovered parts of Italy I had never visited before. The next few posts will be a visual tribute to Italy and my tour. Most were posted on Instagram or Facebook so may look familiar.

Please follow me on those two sites if you don’t already. This summer’s trip is already being planned and it’s going to be AMAZING!

Enjoy my trip to Italy. I’d be happy to discuss any portion of the trip if you would like to leave a comment.

Rome

For a large city, Rome is incredible. It manages to be both modern and ancient at the same time. Every corner you turn, you have the opportunity to discover a ruin, a beautiful fountain, or even the Colisseum.

Frascati

I took a 30-minute train ride to Frascati for a pizza making and wine tasting class. It was amazing! Slightly cooler (maybe only 90 degrees) and absolutely stunning. Sampled some local reds and whites, nibbled on delicious appetizers, learned how to make amazingly authentic pizza, tasted wine donuts that are made to dunk in your wine, and met some fun people. A fun and worthwhile experience if you’re ever in the area. Our guide Max was interesting, fun, knowledgeable, and very charming. I can’t say enough nice things about this tour!!!

Stay Tuned

Next week, I’ll continue my mostly-visual, Italian travelogue with photos from Pescara, Bari, Brindisi, and Lecce.

Please share your favorite cities in Italy and tell me what’s not to miss in those cities.

Travel is life!

A Visit to Il Rifugio degli Asinelli in Italy

A couple of years ago, a friend and I took a 10-day trip to Italy and Switzerland. When planning the trip and what we would see and experience in the Piedmont region of Italy, I began searching for an animal sanctuary to visit. The miracles of Google led me to Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli – The Donkey Refuge.

To say that The Donkey Refuge is in the middle of nowhere would be an understatement. We rented a car one morning in Stresa on Lake Maggiore and Google Maps informed us that the trip would take approximately 1.5 hours. We climbed out of Stresa on a winding, switchback-filled road that began to make me rethink the drive. We finally made it to the autostrade after a harrowing 20 minutes, and I relaxed into the drive. The car was a Fiat Panda, barely large enough to hold our two suitcases. It was also a manual transmission, and it had been awhile since I last drove a stick. I managed to do well, only stalling once in two days, so I felt successful.

We exited the autostrade after about 40 minutes and continued our journey on country roads through the Piedmont. As we turned onto one such road, with no town in sight, we noticed a strange occurrence. There were single women stationed along the road, spaced intermittently about every 100 feet. At first we pondered whether they could be waiting for a bus, but that didn’t seem likely as they were on opposing sides of the road. It finally occurred to us that the women were prostitutes, though we couldn’t imagine where they would actually ply their trade. They were literally surrounded by farmland. Stunned, we continued on, driving through picturesque towns with roads barely wide enough for one car, no less two. I became adept at pulling to the side for oncoming “traffic” and really began to enjoy the trip.

Finally, we pulled into The Donkey Refuge. It is located at Via per Zubiena 62, Sala Biellese, in the shadows of the Pre-Alps. I went into the gift shop and spoke with Hillaria (forgive me if it is misspelled). She was friendly and informative and I learned about the refuge and the donkeys. They do allow you to visit the donkeys, but you have to stay on your side of the fence!

Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli was founded in 2006 and is an offshoot of a U.K.-based charity that has been working on donkey welfare since 1969. The mission of the refuge is to provide care, protection, and permanent security for donkeys and mules which are in need of attention due to sickness, mistreatment, poor circumstances. They also strive to prevent cruelty and suffering among donkeys and mules in Italy.

The Donkey Refuge has five main activities to help them accomplish their mission:
• Provide care for donkeys and mules who are in need;
• A network of Welfare Officers who investigate public complaints of mistreatment or abuse;
• Education to promote donkey welfare practices;
• Donkey-assisted riding therapy program for children with special needs; and
• Fundraising to pay for the above.

Our self-guided tour of the refuge was wonderful. There are paths that lead up a hill toward the older donkeys and those with respiratory illnesses. There are also informational sheets near the donkeys’ paddocks, telling you a little about each donkey. The Donkey Refuge also houses mules, hinnies, ponies, and one horse, but they live together in harmony. I really liked that each animal had a loose collar with their name engraved, so you knew which donkey you were petting. The collars were color-coded so you would know which one were available for adoption or fostering. We concluded our tour with the younger donkeys who were free-ranging near the parking lot. All the donkeys we encountered appeared in good spirits and looked well-fed. Veterinarians were on hand, if necessary, and Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli would be a wonderful place at which any donkey would be happy to retire. I am grateful that sanctuaries and refuges exist to help care for the animals who suffer unnecessarily due to man’s inhumanity and cruelty.

How can you help Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli? Click on their name throughout this post. From their webpage, you can donate, adopt, sponsor, or foster one of the refuge’s residents. If you live locally, you might also want to consider volunteering. If you live anywhere in Italy and witness cruelty to donkeys or mules, you can report it on the site also and they will make sure the complaint gets investigated. There are a number of other actions with which you can get involved right from their home page.

My only complaint about The Donkey Refuge is that the gift shop did not accept credit cards. We were limited with our Euros, so only purchased a few small items. I will definitely add Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli to my end of year donation list though and hope you will, too!

Always remember, to use your voice to ensure that all animals are being treated humanely and without cruelty. Use your voice to speak for those who have none. I have a voice and I Speak for Paws (and feet and hooves and fins and…).

 

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