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Postcards from Italy: The Val Gardena

13 Sep
13 September 2018.
We are wrapping up two weeks in Italy’s Dolomites and what a two weeks it has been! While hiking on the Alpe di Siusi one day we stopped to help a couple who were confused by the trail map they held. “You look familiar!” exclaimed the wife. “Don’t we know you? You wrote a book!” Our first celebrity moment. Thanks Judy and Andy! You made our day!

Ric on the deck at Rasciesa before our hike.

Our hosts now for three years, Justine and Siegfried at Residence Astoria seem like old friends. Their cat, Minno, was newly adopted during our visit in 2016 and now he is a strapping lad. As luck would have it, another couple who have our book is staying at Residence Astoria! Cathy and Gene from Auburn, AL are here and hiking using our guide. Turns out we share an affinity for the Berner Oberland as well.

The red cable cars emerge from the fog as we ascend to the Alpe di Siusi. We decided to go on a foggy day and found tranquility but no rain.

Blissful foggy day on the Alpe di Siusi. Very few people bothered to ascend but we enjoyed the fog.

We’ve explored some easy hikes to add to the book and we have taken some ridiculously difficult trails that we will not include. One night we splurged and stayed on the Alpe di Siusi in a lovely old hotel (we are not the rifugio types) so we could hike more easily there for two days.

Below the cable car at Seceda in the Puez-Odle Park there is a madness of marmots.

New to us, a short and scenic hike at Passo Gardena. It will be featured in the next edition of our book.

I am grateful my Italian comes back to me when we are in Italy but here in the Val Gardena — it was part of Austria until WWI — my high school German floods back and I find myself substituting German words when I forget the Italian. The locals often switch between the two languages in casual conversation so I fit right in.

We enjoyed watching these goats play while eating lunch at Malga Laranzer in the Alpe di Siusi.

The Sciliar and Punto Santner stand guard over the west end of the Alpe di Siusi. Our view over a cappuccino.

On the trail to Col Raiser, above Santa Cristina. It was a lot of work to get here!

There’s been pizza (3 times), apple strudel (also 3 times), and canederli (once is enough) along the way, and lots of good Lagrein, the local red wine. Luckily all offset by our average of 19,000 steps per day!

Pizza with anchovies and mozzarella di bufala at La Tambra, Santa Cristina.

Next stop, Innsbruck.
A dopo!
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Postcards from Italy: Milan

5 Sep
5 September 2018.
We are back in Europe and almost recovered from jet lag. It seems to take longer each trip and we are happy doing very little for a few days. Not like the days when we crammed sight-seeing into every moment. That’s why we like the long trips. We can spend a couple of days getting adjusted and reveling in little accomplishments like getting Italian SIMs for our phones and changing clothes after wearing them for 48 hours.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele so empty on a Saturday morning! Never seen it like this.

One of Milan’s charming but kidney pounding 1930s trolleys.

Exotic brand in the gourmet foods section of La Rinascente. Good product placement, Rogue Brewing!

We landed in Milan and spent two nights at our favorite hotel there, the Hotel Berna. At the Berna, there is a spirit of generosity. Free non-alcoholic drinks in your mini bar, for example. An outlandish breakfast spread and over-the-top apericena in the evening, if you are so inclined.
There was a special Harry Potter Exhibition in Milano so we managed to fight the throngs and see some fun props from the movies.

Life-size Dobby.

Ric gets up close and personal with a Mandrake.

The Harry Potter Exhibition was in a former industrial site. It is called “Fabbrica del Vapore” or “Steam Factory.” Not sure it had anything to do with ham.

We had a couple of exceptional dinners, two fine afternoon naps, and walked 14 miles in two days. Not a bad start to our trip.

At the Crazy Cat Cafe, this little one reminded us of our Janie.

Resting comfortably at the Crazy Cat Cafe.

Wining in Walla Walla

27 Jul
27 July 2018.
It has been a very long time since we have driven through the Columbia River Gorge. The last time for me was a trip to Pendleton in early 2012 to oversee an office remodeling for my employer. My head was filled with thoughts of our impending move to Rome and not with an appreciation for the landscape I had passed through many times over the years.
As we drove east, magnificent evergreens gave way to evidence of last year’s tragic forest fire, then dry land farms and ranches became interspersed with lush green vineyards.

Me flanked by Ric (L) and Rick (R). Cocktails on the porch at Green Gables Inn.

We were on our way to Walla Walla to join my oenophile brother and my sister-in-law for a wine tour. My brother is truly a wine lover at an expert level. Ric and I appreciate wine and to be able to tag along on this adventure with Rick and Jane was a treat. Rick’s research and planning led us to wineries my Ric and I would never have found. (Yes, two Richards when we travel. A constant source of confusion.)
Our timing was excellent: Walla Walla was declared “Best Wine Town” by Sunset Magazine the very day we arrived. Can the crowds be far behind?

Barnaby Jones and brother Rick share a moment on the porch.

We settled in at the elegant yet cozy Green Gables Inn, housed in a historic home dating to 1909 and meticulously restored to its glory. To our delight, the property is overseen by the delightful Barnaby Jones.
One of the wonders of the Walla Walla region is its farming history. The waving wheat fields, golden in their ripeness with a backdrop of vineyards and the Blue Mountains, are a stunning sight and evidence of the state’s importance as a producer of grain. The presence of the wineries is a testament to the fertility of the Palouse. In 1972 there were six wineries in Washington State. Now there are over 800! The same climate that is ideal for wheat is also perfect for growing grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay. The two American Viticultural Areas (AVA) within the Palouse have the same latitude as the Bordeaux. Yeah, there is some excellent wine here.

Duck parade on the Whitman College campus.

We set out to find some.
My brother planned an outstanding tour. We visited a dozen cellars over the course of four days. One more day and my next stop would have been Betty Ford.
Actually, it was nicely paced. On two of the four days, we visited only two wineries. Key to keeping our heads on straight (and able to stay awake for dinner) was sharing tastings at almost every winery. Cuts down on the buzz and minimizes the need to waste wine by spitting. If you buy some wine the tasting is free. My brother is a collector so purchases were no problem. (Thanks, Rick!)
Tastings reminded me of the old days in Oregon, back in the late 80s when we first cruised through wine country during an open-house weekend. Per person tastings in Walla Walla are usually $5 or $10 with an occasional spike to $20 when tasting reserve wines or doing a vertical tasting.
Four of the wineries really stood out for Ric and me.

I’ve never seen a tasting room as peaceful as Spring Valley’s.

Spring Valley Vineyard is a family operation that goes back five generations of farming in the Corkrum family who first homesteaded and grew wheat here. Grapes were first planted in 1993, fairly early in the storyline of Walla Walla wineries. The wines are amazing (French-style, with estate-grown Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot) but I think I was most impressed by the story of family farming, keeping the operation in the family and staying true to their roots in wheat farming while moving into upscale wines. About 900 acres of the thousand-acre farm are still planted in wheat. We enjoyed a tour of the ranch where the tasting room was in a grove of trees by a spring-fed pond. Delightful!

The tasting room in the copse, Spring Valley Vineyards.

Memorial to winemaker Devin Corkrum Derby with wheat fields in the background. Almost 900 acres of the 1000 acre ranch are still planted in wheat.

Always good to see butterflies on a farm. Buddleia near the spring attracted this large one.

Gino pours for Jane, Rick, and Ric at G. Cuneo Cellars.

G. Cuneo Cellars tagline is “Italian Style American Soil.” We are so pleased to have found Gino once again. Many years ago (mid-90s to early 00s) we used to buy wine futures from Cuneo Cellars in Carlton. In fact, before he moved to Carlton we used to visit Gino Cuneo at a small almost-impossible-to-find winery in the Eola Hills where we would do barrel tastings, buy futures, and feast on Italian meats and cheeses. We had wondered over our years in Italy whatever became of Gino. We knew he had left the Carlton operation (now known as Cana’s Feast Winery), but we had no idea where he had gone until my brother tripped over his tasting room in downtown Walla Walla. We made it a point to visit and were thrilled to find Gino making Italian Style wines right there in Walla Walla. He is the only winemaker in the Pacific Northwest to produce wines from Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Barbera. We are not Rosé lovers, but one sip of Gino’s Rosato and we were hooked. We do miss Italian wines and are looking forward to receiving a wine club shipment this fall. Look him up at G. Cuneo Cellars right across from the Marcus Whitman Hotel.

Gino Cuneo (& me) at the tasting room he shares with Cotes du Ciel.

The old trainstation serves as a tasting room. The Shiels’ saved it from destruction.

Also a family operation, Côte Bonneville is in the Yakima Valley AVA, about a 90-minute drive from Walla Walla. My brother has been a fan of theirs for years and a road trip was in order for a private tasting with winery owner Kathy Shiels. Kathy and Hugh have been growing grapes in the Yakima Valley for 26 years, and now daughter Kerry is the winemaker. It is a very closely controlled family operation: not too big and very exclusive. BTW, Bonneville does not refer to the famous Columbia River dam, but rather to the family home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fine wines? Oh yes! And the cute train station remodel is stunning.

The iconic schoolhouse at L’Ecole No. 41.

L’Ecole No. 41 is a long time Northwest award winner and given its presence one would think it was a corporate operation. But no, it is a 3rd generation family-run business. I admire lovingly restored old buildings and this old schoolhouse salvaged from destruction is a delight. By the end of Day Four of our Walla Walla tour my interest in trying more wines was waning, but L’Ecole No. 41’s special Friday Reserve Tour & Tasting was the perfect ending to our trip with great wines, camaraderie, and a walking tour of the property.

Our tasting at L’Ecole No. 41. It was hard to pick a favorite.

Not only were the wines great; In four nights we had four great meals in Walla Walla.  As a town about four times the size of Lincoln City, it had ten times the restaurant choices, especially at the high end.
Public House 124 is hard to classify. Maybe as one reviewer said on Trip Advisor, “a bar with a twist.” Inventive small plates, flat bread that should be called pizza, beer, wine, cocktails, sandwiches, and more. The truffle fries are swoon-worthy and I don’t even like truffles. Seamless service by a competent and pleasant staff. Efficient and professional but not stuffy.

This staircase at L’Ecole No. 41 was manufactured at Whitehouse-Crawford when it was a furniture factory.

Whitehouse-Crawford is a cavernous ex-planing mill and furniture company. (In fact, L’Ecole No. 41 features a staircase made there.) The ambiance is a bit noisy, service is professional if a bit distant, but the food is perfect and of course, there is wine…. Try the halibut. I have never had better halibut and considering I live by the ocean, that is high praise indeed.
That covers nights one and two. Each meal was better than the one prior and they were all excellent.
Night three found us at Brasserie Four, which seems to have been plucked out of France dropped into the Washington wheat fields. Perfectly roast chicken, moules-frites like one gets on the Riviera, a cheese-board worthy of a Parisian fromagerie. My only regret is that we were too satiated for dessert. And there was single malt waiting at the B&B.

The wrap aournd porch is perfect for summer breakfast, cocktails, and after dinner drinks.

The best for last! My favorite was Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. We don’t even get close to Middle-Eastern or Italian cuisine in Lincoln City. It is the only restaurant we have been in — since we were last in Europe — that had octopus on the menu. (It was delicious.) Paella with squid ink was popular with our group of four and the Moroccan Fried Chicken looked fabulous. I indulged in the Moroccan lamb sausage with chickpeas but I’d like to eat my way through the entire menu. This restaurant alone would have me back in Walla Walla sooner rather than later.
I can’t believe we lived in Portland for 25 years and never made it to Walla Walla. Now that we’ve been, I am certain we’ll be back. Save a place on the porch for us Barnaby.

Barnaby Jones keeping watch over the breakfast hour.

Mountaintop to sea level: Girovaga’s 2018 Euro-trip

4 May
4 May 2018.
When the weather is miserable travel planning can be a great escape. At any given time, I have three or four European itineraries rattling around in my head and usually one of them has moved beyond theoretical and into reality. This year our theme is Mountaintops, Lakes, and Seashore. We will visit 4 mountain areas, 2 lakes, and the Ligurian sea. Purtroppo, we won’t be going until late summer.
I’ve spent a fair amount of energy in planning, securing lodging, researching hikes, and just yesterday I started making train reservations so as to get the super economy fares where possible. (I love every minute of the pre-trip tasks.)
Here’s what we have planned.
Having learned our lessons last year during The Grand Tour, we are not going to hop all over the continent. Our modus operandi now is longer stays in fewer places. This trip we will confine ourselves to Northern Italy and Switzerland with a tiny stop in Austria.
In a nutshell, here is our route: Milano – Ortisei – Innsbruck – Pontresina – Lauterbrunnen – Stresa – Camogli – Lausanne over the course of seven weeks. No cars, no planes, just trains. 
Milano is a city we’ve visited many times and while there are not any major sites we plan to see, it will be a buffer between a long Transatlantic flight and our train-plus-taxi to Ortisei, a journey of about four hours. We like Milano and have a favorite hotel there, the Hotel Berna. Alas, the Berna’s prices are sky-high due to a Gran Prix event so we will be staying across the street at the oft-recommended-to-me Hotel Garda. Nothing fancy, but (I am told) comfortable. We’ll recover from jet lag, buy SIMs for our phones, enjoy browsing, and perhaps take in a special art installation. After Milan, there will be no large cities this trip.

The last time we spent the night in Milano was in December 2015. Expect it to be much warmer when we arrive end-of-August.

Ortisei is, of course, our favorite place in Italy. This will be our seventh year there and eighth visit overall. Can’t wait to see our hosts Justine & Siegfried, visit our favorite shops and restaurants, and hike to the rifugi all over the Val Gardena. We will stay in the apartment we occupied in 2016 and 2017 and use this opportunity to update and add to our book, “Walking in Italy’s Val Gardena.”  We are planning to add a couple hikes to the book as certainly we will try something new in addition to repeating the hikes and riding the lifts we love.

One of my favorite views in the Alpe di Siusi. We will surely hike here and update our book.

I was in Innsbruck in 1972 but Ric has never been. I remember it being quite lovely and it makes for a convenient break in the otherwise long journey by train to Pontresina in Switzerland. Just passing two nights here.
Pontresina is near St. Moritz and is purported to be a good base for easy-hiking so we will spend a week. We’ve found a darling apartment overlooking the route of the Glacier Express and a lively river. Can’t lose with lodging overlooking a train line in Switzerland.
From Pontresina, we head to Lauterbrunnen via the famous Glacier Express. The Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Jungfrau Region offers an incredible combination of transportation and easy-hiking. It is, so far, our favorite area in Switzerland. This will be our fifth visit. It vies with Ortisei for favorite mountain locale, but the food is better in Italy.

On the hike from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidigg, above the Lauterbrunnen Valley. There was snow at high elevation in October.

If Disney wanted to invent a new attraction, they could not accomplish anything more fantastic than the Swiss have already done in the Jungfrau Region. Train to 11,333 feet? Check! Thirty-minute gondola ride in complete silence through a stunning landscape? Check! Behind-the-scenes at a James Bond’s mountaintop location with a revolving restaurant? Check! Seventy-two waterfalls in 9 kilometers? Check! We have a favorite apartment here, too, and fall brings reasonable rates, pleasant weather, and fewer tourists.

This is the view from “our” apartment in Lauterbrunnen: Staubach Falls and  a small herd of cows as well.

Then we are back in Italy, stopping at Stresa on Lago Maggiore for three nights followed by Camogli, Italy, for six nights. Stresa makes a nice place to break up a long transfer (with several changes-of-trains) to Liguria. Stresa has been on my list for years and promises not only some light mountain hiking but lakeside strolls and island hopping.
Camogli is our seaside destination. We have not been to Liguria since 2014 and our previous four visits we always stayed in the Cinque Terre. I am hoping Camogli will be a little less frenetic and allow us to experience a different part of Liguria. I am so looking forward to Ligurian cuisine! Alici marinate (marinated anchovies) are the best in Liguria most likely because they are caught nearby and fresh as can be, marinated with local lemons. Then there is pesto pasta, focaccia, and almost anything they do with a fish.
Finally, we will wrap up with a week in Lausanne, Switzerland. Several trains are required for this transfer, which is a bit kludgy, but we like a train day. Since we pack light, it’s not too difficult. Lausanne is featured in so many books and movies — especially stories of intrigue — that it has been on my list for years. We look forward to exploring Lake Geneva, the vineyards, castles, etc. It should be a rather low-key end to a long trip. We will fly out of Geneva, a mere hour by train from Lausanne.
Have you been to any of these places? What are your insights? Favorite restaurants, sights, hikes, or tours?

Reading list

9 Jan
15 January 2018
My dear friend Jonnie Martin reads cerebral books. If she recommends a book to me I know it will be not only well-written but a lot of work to read. She calls then “chewy” reads.
Books are an escape for me and while I love to read, I do not read enough. There are too many distractions out there. When I do read, I do not like it to be too much work, so my reading list for 2017 is more pedestrian than Jonnie’s. I am not, however, a reader of graphic novels nor bodice-rippers. (Although the Outlander series remains one of my all-time favorites and I anxiously await Book #9).
I averaged 2.3 books per month in 2017 and a total of some 12,000 pages according to www.GoodReads.com. That number does not include the various travel books and guides I consumed for trip planning and execution, and I read hundreds if not thousands of pages in these books. Nor does it include books I disliked and did not read to completion. I have no tolerance for being bored by a book and will delete it from my Kindle if the first 50-to-100 pages do not satisfy me.
It is fun to look back and see what attracted my attention. My favorite genre is historical fiction and this was my year of WWII novels. I am drawn to books about WWII whether fiction or non-fiction. Something about that era entrances me and the “unknown” stories that have come to light in the past decade-or-so amaze me.
My favorite book of that period was a work of historical fiction, “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan. It is the story of an unsung civilian hero. Set in Italy under Nazi occupation one would almost believe this was the stuff of an over-active imagination, a story filled with betrayal, love, crime, death, family, faith, encounters with historical characters, and so much pure luck. I dislike calling it fiction as it is based on a true story corroborated by the protagonist and historical research done by Sullivan. Do yourself a favor and read it before the movie comes out.
Other WWII-era books I read:
“The Paris Architect” by Charles Belfoure– Malcolm Gladwell recommended this book which interested me. It is a good story, although some of the dialogue is a bit contrived. A wealthy industrialist hires an architect, who has little empathy for Jews, to construct foolproof hiding places where Jews can be safe during searches. It is a moving and dramatic tale of heroism during the occupation of Paris. 
“The Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly – Another story inspired by a real person, a woman this time. The Lilac Girls tells the intersecting stories of a New York socialite, a Nazi doctor, and a Polish teenager. It is a story of WWII horrors but also of altruism and justice.
“The Orphan’s Tale” by Pam Jenoff – A Dutch runaway, a traveling circus, high wire artists, and a boxcar full of infants. Jews were sometimes hidden as performers in circuses. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. While not specifically a true story, but is based on true elements cobbled together in a story that is ultimately about chances taken, bravery, and human bonds.
“The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck – This is another tale of intertwined lives and strong women in post-war Germany. The three protagonists come from different walks of life but have survived the war. Their efforts to find a way forward result in saving one another. This book comes from a very different viewpoint given its post-war setting in Germany and female perspective.
“The Girl from Venice” – I have not read a Martin Cruz Smith book in years. I am so happy I found this one. The story is set in the waning days of WWII. This thriller/mystery/romance/historical fiction work features vivid characters and a seldom-described culture of fisherman in the Venetian Lagoon. Gripping.
“In Farleigh Field” by Rhys Bowen – With a dead paratrooper, MI5, the aristocracy, spies, traitors, and Bletchley Park, this mystery moves along briskly demanding little from the reader but delivering a good read.
I am not sure where my reading will go in 2018. I am in love with downloading samples from Amazon, where I can read a few pages and see if I like the book rather than spending $11.99 only to discard the book after 50 pages. Right now I have eight samples to read so we’ll see how many make it to purchase.
What are you reading? What was your favorite book of 2017?
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