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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?

In transito: Genova

27 May
27 May 2016. In transito means passing through, and that is what we did in Genova (Genoa to Americans, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus). We made a one-night stop on our way to the French Riviera. As we are traveling by train (as usual), breaking the trip from Roma to Antibes, France, had some appeal.
Fritto misto chock full of fried anchovies.

Fritto misto chock full of fried anchovies.

We are very fond of the food in this part of Italy, the region of Liguria, having visited the famous and famously overcrowded Cinque Terre four times, but we had never stopped much outside the five lands. Genova seems to be a city few Americans visit. While old Chris Columbo was born here, there are no “must see” sights to draw the tourist.
What we found, surprised us and we passed an incredibly pleasant half day.
The hotel was near the port, only a few minutes walk from the Aquarium of Genoa. The 20-minute walk from the train station was fine, although the last 50 meters was through an area of “working girls” even at 13:00 on a weekday. But that was the only seediness we encountered. It is an old city, with tiny alleys and ancient palazzi, and while it resembled its much rougher cousin to the south, Napoli, it was far less chaotic.
Cavour 21 - Pesto World Champ!

Cavour 21 – Pesto World Champ!

Le Nuvole Residenza d’Epoca is a gem. Created from a centuries-old palazzo that had been abandoned for decades, today it is a charming blend of old and modern, employing green building practices and old-fashioned customer service at an amazing price. 
Hotel staff led us to two fabulous restaurant experiences and the aquarium, the largest in Italy, is one of the best we’ve seen anywhere.
Trofie Pesto at Cavour 21.Yum!

Trofie Pesto at Cavour 21.Yum!

The advice to go to Cavour 21 for lunch was spot-on. We would NEVER have chosen this place on our own. In fact,  we would never have seen it. But a short walk from the hotel, we happened upon a happy crowd on an elevated sidewalk waiting for a chance to eat here. Mamma Mia! Che stupendo! We waited 25 minutes to get in, ate in about 40 minutes, and walked out for €21.00 which included a half-liter of wine. The owner is a gent who enjoys his work and the beautiful food he brings to the table. Cavour 21 won the Pesto World Championship in 2014. As you can imagine, the pesto is mighty tasty. Pesto, thin green beans, and chunks of potato are mixed into perfectly al dente trofie pasta. A shared dish of pesto, tasty seafood fritto misto with lots of acciughe, and a healthy serving of bietola (boiled beet greens and yes, they are delicious) made for a substantial lunch even though we shared everything.
A customer contribution at Cavour 21. The walls are lined with customers' sketches.

A customer contribution at Cavour 21. The walls are lined with customers’ sketches.

Osteria di Vico Palla

Osteria di Vico Palla

Down a dark alley for dinner to Osteria di Vico Palla was another winner. Low-key, popular with locals, moderately price, great food; what’s not to love? I think our dinner, with a small Italian-style tip, came to €50.00, including a wine. We ate lunch and dinner for less than we pay for most dinners out in Roma.
Cozze (mussels) marinara at Vico Palla.

Cozze (mussels) marinara at Vico Palla.

Between the meals, we managed to walk about 7 km and to see the fine aquarium, which is complete with dolphins. Well-curated in Italian and English, it was busy but not crowded on this fine, late-May day. The tanks are immaculate, the animals seem healthy and stimulated, and the displays stunning. If you get to Genova, it’s a fine way to pass a couple of hours.
We are happy we passed through Genoa. Since we’ll be in Liguria again in October, we just might have to stop in at Cavour 21 for lunch one more time.
Schoolkids on a filed trip enjoy the dolphins at play.

School kids on a field trip enjoy the dolphins at play.

Tartaruga, Aquario di Genova.

Tartaruga, Aquario di Genova.

Jellyfish at Aquario di Genova. There were at least half a dozen different species.

Jellyfish at Aquario di Genova. There were at least half a dozen different species.

Year in Review

1 Jan

The older we get the faster time seems to move. (It’s an actual phenomenon that has been scientifically proven: the older you are the faster time seems to pass.) Only yesterday it seems we were dying of the heat in Rome, taking refuge in the mighty Dolomites enjoying brisk mountain air and alpine meadows. But that was July. Looking back over our time in Rome – now 19 months and counting – we have experienced so much, and yet my list of to-dos in Rome (not to mention all of Italy)  has more things on it that we have not accomplished than ones we have managed to check off. There’s a wonder around every corner and we shall never get to all of them. Roma: Una vita non basta!

New Year's Eve Vespers with Papa F! We were right on the aisle. Ric snapped this pic with his phone.

New Year’s Eve Vespers with Papa F! We were right on the aisle. Ric snapped this pic with his phone.

We managed to see a bit more of Italy this year, visiting some old favorites as well as new territory.

  • March saw us in Sicily for our 28th anniversary, where we were constantly cold, but where we ate magnificent food and saw our first-ever Greek ruins. Stunning! Must go back in warmer weather.
  • In May we ventured to the heel of the boot, Puglia, with my brother and sister-in-law. More great food, a fantastically different Italy, and lots of kilometers covered. Can’t count the bottles of wine consumed. Rick & Jane, we had so much fun with you those 10 days in Rome and Puglia! And we “discovered” Abruzzo on our way back to Rome. Wow!
  • In fact we were so enchanted with Abruzzo we went back for a weekend in July. Not many North Americans (or non-Italians) go to Abruzzo as it is not chock-a-block with must-sees, but it is an amazing place to escape the city, practice one’s Italian, and relax.
  • Later in July was our week in the Val Gardena. If only we could figure out a way to live there all summer.
  • Like most Italians, we got away for Ferragosto but only as far as Orvieto for a couple of nights.  It’s always nice to get on a train, and only an hour away is this charming Etruscan hill town.
  • Our youngest son came to visit in September and we made our 4th trip to Venice in less than three years. Three days there flew by and in wonderment Derek observed we still had not seen everything we intended to. Venice has a lot to offer and so many people try to “do” it in 2 nights and one day. We’re going back for the 5th time in April with friends who have never been.
  • The Cinque Terre calls to us each autumn and we made our third trip there in October. Hoping we can squeeze in a weekend there again in 2014.
  • After the Marine Corps 238th Birthday Ball in early November, we made a trek to Ravello just as the town was closing for the season. This is a must-go-back location sometime during the concert season.
Kids, don't try this at home. Our neighbor across the street shot off Roman Candles from his oh-so-tiny balcony on NYE. Note the Santa figure climbing a ladder hanging from the balcony. And this goes on all over the city!

Kids, don’t try this at home. Our neighbor across the street shot off Roman Candles from his oh-so-tiny balcony on NYE. Note the Santa figure climbing a ladder hanging from the balcony. And this goes on all over the city!

Other highlights in 2013:

  • I turned sixty. Can’t believe it, but my mother is there in the mirror every morning, so I guess it’s true.
  • We had a blind date with Nigel and Carol, new friends from England that we met through the Rick Steves’ Helpline and this blog. Hoping to see them again in February!
  • Made Thanksgiving dinner for 11 Italians. We had so much fun doing this! I only hope they will let us do it again next year.
  • Seeing our youngest son (not very young anymore, but still il mio bambino al cuore) after 16 months away.
  • Getting fit(ter) in the gym. I’ve lost about 45 pounds since moving to Rome and had to buy a whole new wardrobe last summer and again this winter.
  • Becoming more comfortable speaking Italian. I am “advanced intermediate” (B2/C1 for those that understand the scale) according to my teacher. I should be fluent by the time I am 85.
  • Seeing Tom and Karen, our in-laws, when they visited Rome after their cruise.
  • Visits by Michael Horne for gastronomic exploration of Rome. (Thanks for the intro to Vino Roma!)
  • New Years’ Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica with Papa Francesco. He was right there, not 2 meters from me during the processional and recessional. The energy in St. Peter’s was palpable, the love for this man overwhelming.

As I wrap up this post, we are aboard a train that departed at 07:20 New Year’s Day, leaving

St. Peter's, NYE 2013. I read today that shortly after we left Papa Francesco came out in his Popemobile to see the Nativity in the square. Purtroppo we had left the scene!

St. Peter’s, NYE 2013. I read today that shortly after we left Papa Francesco came out in his Popemobile to see the Nativity in the square. Purtroppo we had left the scene!

Italy for the first time in 19+ months. The sun is just coming up, outlining the Apennine Mountains in gold. We are headed to Switzerland where, magari, we will do Winterwandern (alpine snow hiking) to wear off the cheese fondue we plan to eat. We have many trips planned this year including a return to Venice, the Dolomites, Florence, Lake Como, and Abruzzo. We have guests coming, too: Kim, John and Aubrey in April; John, Susan, William and Elizabeth (aka JSWE) in July; the Omaha Bartons in August; a return by Derek in September; Rick and Jane in November; and hopefully Helen, Eddie and Debbie will make it over too. Anyone else? Would love to see you!

Buon Anno 2014! 

On the sanctuary trail in the Cinque Terre

14 Oct


We arrived home Friday, and I am finally getting around to the last part of our trip report.

Our last full day, Thursday, we went back to the high trails, this time from Riomaggiore to the Santuario della Madonna di Montenero, one of five religious sanctuaries linked to the five villages. It is possible to hike between all five, although it is a very long hike.  We chose a hike to a magnificent vista that stretched from Monterosso al Mare to the north to Portovenere in the south. Breathtaking!

Also breathtaking was the  1,110 foot climb. Some people apparently had no idea what they were in for. On what planet is it OK for a woman of 60+ to open her shirt to cool off while hiking? Thank God she was wearing a bra. (That was a rhetorical question. The answer to “on what planet” is Germany.)

While the day was partly cloudy and rain threatened, it did not start to rain until we were done hiking for the day. Torrential rains in the afternoon must have made the locals fear a repeat of last October’s flood. Luckily, by nightfall it was  dry and we enjoyed another fabulous Ligurian meal overlooking the harbor at Manarola. We might have to come back next year….

The way up is far steeper than this looks. Many many stairs created and maintained by volunteers.

All along the trail, the “Via Grande,” were shrines to the Madonna, donated by various families. The “Via Grande” is described as “an ancient road.” These footpaths were essential transportation routes for centuries.

At the top, a church more than 119 years old. And few people.

View from the top looking south, all the way to Portovenere. Worth the climb!

The path is “paved” in many places, especially where it might wash out. But it is very rough and footing is tricky on the downhill portion. Sturdy hiking boots are in order.

As you can tell, we had a wonderful time in the Cinque Terre.  Walking and eating: What’s not to love?

There are so many daytrippers who do not have time to explore the  National Park. They merely get off the train, spend 37 minutes looking at the souvenir ships in a town, then move on and do the same thing in the next village. I actually overheard a woman telling her husband “We have 37 minutes here. That should be plenty of time.” Seriously?

More postcards from the Cinque Terre

11 Oct


Monday was a city walk (Lerici/San Terenzo) and Tuesday was a trail hike high above Manarola and Corniglia (see previous post), but our walks are always followed by lunch: sometimes substantial, sometimes a quick panino, and if possible there is wine. (Surprise! That’s how we know we are on vacation.)

Wednesday we took a journey to the north of the Cinque Terre – off the map according to Ric – to Portofino. But instead of arriving via yacht, as the glitterati would, we walked.   Well we took a train to Santa Margherita Ligure, then walked, about 1 ½ hours from the SML station, to lunch on the piazza in Portofino. Portofino is not far from Genoa, but it is a world away from the ruggedness of the Cinque Terre. It’s also crazily expensive.  Here are a few shots from our path and of our lunch.

Santa Margherita Ligure, as seen from across the bay, on our walk to Portofino. (Photo by Laurel Barton)

There are several small inlets along the path to Portofino, with beautiful houses, hotels, and beaches. (Photo by Laurel Barton)

The distinctive colors of Liguria are found here, too, along our path to lunch. Love the light! (Photo by Laurel Barton)

Wildlife in the bay enjoying the October sun. Oregon Zoo friends, please keep me honest: Are these cormorants? (Photo by Laurel Barton)

Almost there! Ric on the final leg of our walk, a paved path through the woods into Portofino. Very upscale! (Photo by Laurel Barton)

At last, 90 minutes later, we reached our objective and treated ourselves to a fine lunch in a fabulous location.


Ah, lunch! Beautiful mussels and cold Vermentino wine. On the harbor in Portofino. Una bella vista! (Photo by Laurel Barton)

Ric’s choice: a seafood salad, served warm. (Photo by Ric Barton)

Portofino harbor and piazza, on a sunny, warm, and quiet midweek day in October. I shudder to think of the crowds in summer. (Photo by Laurel Barton)

We took the easy way back: a ferry across the bay from Portifino to SML and a train back to Manarola.

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