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Not the usual travel photos

21 Apr
21 April 2016. We are once again traveling with stops in Milano, Paris, London, and Dijon. Rather than give you a rundown on the sights we’ve seen, I thought I’d share some of our more unusual photos. We have a lot of fun going to less-known neighborhoods and sights, taking walks where mostly locals walk, and looking at even famous sites with a fresh perspective.
Please click on any photo for a better view and complete caption. 

 

The wonder of Christmas lights

18 Dec
When we were kids, our parents used to take us out at least once every Christmas season to look at the lights in various neighborhoods of St. Paul, Minnesota. We so looked forward to those drives, wondering if the house on Snelling Avenue had the Santa, sleigh and reindeer up again this year (very special in the late 1950s/early 1960s) and marveling at the “rich people’s” houses where there were so many lights you knew they did not have any concerns about electrical bills. Our house always had a few strings of lights, but somehow the other neighborhoods seemed more exotic.
Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

When my son was small I’d do the same thing with him although eventually these viewings became what he called forced marches through neighborhoods in Omaha and Portland as we took to our feet instead of the car. Ric and I have continued the tradition everywhere we’ve lived and traveled, with fond memories of wandering down Peacock Lane & strolling through the Grotto in Portland. In Italy the private dwellings are not the focus, it is the public lighting.
Wednesday night we traveled through Milano, stopping for one night on our way to Paris, and made a point of taking a Christmas Lights Walk. Subtle, like Roma, nothing really garish, but people were out in droves enjoying a crisp-but-not-cold night, taking the kids to see Santa, shopping, and gawking at the tree in Piazza del Duomo.
Adding to the festiveness, a live orchestra was performing in a building overlooking the Piazza del Duomo. Christmas songs done in a swing style with a proper chanteuse singing in slightly accented English (‘Ave you-self a merrrrry little Chris-mas.…) blared out through open windows and over a magnificent sound system. People were paying rapt attention even though one could not see the musicians. It truly was festive!
Click on any photo for a slide show.
I am looking forward to the French experience in Paris where I understand the lighting is far less subtle.

But no cotton candy

23 Sep
On our way to EXPO Milano 2015 on Monday, Ric quipped that he thought it might be kind of like a state fair, “but without the cotton candy.” He was right on one count; however, it was not anything like a state fair. It was more like a trade show, but for countries instead of industry, although I guess countries are an industry of a sort.
At the entrance to EXPO, Ric thought these looked like invading hoards....
At the entrance to EXPO, Ric thought these looked like invading hoards….
The theme at EXPO is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” In other words, Food Glorious Food! Some to eat, some to look at, apparently educational and thought-provoking displays and programs about the problems of nutrition and the resources of our planet. Except we couldn’t get into very many of the pavilions and see for ourselves. The lines were beyond the patience of any sane person. They would have had to be giving away gold nuggets for me to stand in line for 2 or more hours to see what any country had to say about the topic. United Arab Emirates — 2 hours. Japan — 3 hours. France, Russia, China, Oman, Slovenia, Slovakia all overwhelmed with ridiculous lines and no Disneyworld attempts to entertain the queue. The Italian pavilion’s line must have been at least 100 meters long. Good thing it was shaded in the afternoon.
China the elegant...
China the elegant…
China the crowded.
China the crowded.
At the Hungarian pavilion we were able to go in as there were two lines: one slow one for those who wished to do a water tasting and the other a non-line for those who chose to skip the privilege. We skipped the water tasting, but as we walked past it seemed the “tasters” were getting a little cup of water out of a dispenser set in a pretty wall. Yummy. The building is supposed to reflect Noah’s Ark, but looked rather like a large water barrel. The main floor displayed Hungarian crafts and had a stage and seating. We decided not to shuffle through all three floors with the slow-moving throng. Yawn.
Kuwait looked like desert tents. Long entry line here, too.
Kuwait looked like desert tents. Long entry line here, too.
The small countries are in clusters such as Rice, Arid Zones, Coffee, Chocolate & Cocoa, Islands, Sea and Food, and so on. This allowed smaller nations (like Palestine, San Marino, Senegal, Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, and dozens more) to have a presence without spending the capital the larger nations did. These were uncrowded when we visited late in the afternoon on a weekday. They amounted to little displays about food technology and traditions in the country with some regional cuisine served in a few of them. Palestine showed lots of religious items (Christian) for sale that were carved from olive wood, and sold hummus and other Middle Eastern specialties.  In the African pavilions one would see people in colorful costumes, some playing instruments. No one seemed to want to engage visitors. I suspect by now, near the end of the fifth month of EXPO, the employees/hosts/volunteers are weary of the crowds.
The Arid Zones cluster. Inside were small rooms for each country.
The Arid Zones cluster. Inside were small rooms for each country.
We have seldom been to something so crowded. Disneyland was a piece of cake. The worst line at Disneyworld never took more than 45 minutes when we were there, and that was rare long wait. The Minnesota State Fair I used to attend was highly accessible by comparison, and they had a cow made out of butter. No butter cows at EXPO, but there were displays in the main street of plastic produce, cheeses, fish and meat. Why? Just to fill the space I think. They did nothing to create atmosphere nor inform. I found the giant pigs (plastic or resin?) rather grotesque.
Plastice meat displays. WTF?
Plastic meat displays. WTF?
Most of the restaurants sponsored by the countries were tough to get into. In many cases you had to enter the pavilion in the long line if you wanted to try to eat in that country. There were some cafès outside as well, but much of the food offered by concessionaires was Italian. Sure, we’re in Italy, but the USA pavilion cafe served insalata caprese inside?
American cafe menu. I kid you not!
American cafe menu. I kid you not!
Outside, the USA pavilion had a water wall that changed pattern efvery few seconds.
Outside, the USA pavilion had a water wall that changed pattern every few seconds.
The USA pavilion had a number of interactive displays about food production.
The USA pavilion had a number of interactive displays about food production. They looked a little like pinball machines with screens.
Food Truck Nation. Yup, American food sold from trucks. Pretty good idea, we thought!
Food Truck Nation. Yup, American food sold from trucks. Pretty good idea, we thought!
There were exceptions. The Czech Republic was in permanent happy hour and they had easy access to beer every time we passed by between 3:00pm and 5:00pm. The USA pavilion had no line and some hands-on stations that were engaging for young people. It was kind of like a science museum in that respect. The Tree of Life “show” is cute — music, dancing fountains, a tree that blooms before your eyes — and on a nice open space where the crowd can gather and not overwhelm.
Tree of Life in full bloom, after the show.
Tree of Life in full bloom, after the show.
EXPO worked from a logistical standpoint even if the lines were long. There are plenty of bathrooms, great rest areas for the weary, and well-planned shade for the main thoroughfare. There are plenty of workers/hosts/volunteers to provide info. Everyone seemed to speak English at a minimum, and lots of French as well.  Signage and way-finding are excellent. It is clean and there was almost no smoking. Security is top-notch and entry was easy, at least at 3:00pm.
The Slow Food pavilion featured a snack of organic cheeses, corn crackers, and an Abruzzese wine called Passerina, of which we are now fans.
The Slow Food pavilion featured a snack of organic cheeses, corn crackers, and an Abruzzese wine called Passerina, of which we are now fans.

 

Rest areas were plentiful. If you wanted to sit down, you could.
Rest areas were plentiful. If you wanted to sit down, you could.
Why the pavilion entrance times take so long, I cannot guess. What people found inside the Japanese pavilion I was unable to discover for myself, being unwilling to pay the price of a 3-hour wait. Maybe they were giving away gold nuggets. If you planned to spend 8 hours at EXPO, you could visit perhaps 3 or 4 of the big countries. That’s not a great return-on-investment of time.  It is an enormous property and we logged about 10km during our visit.
The Moroccan pavilion has a favorable spot alongside a canal and rest area. But the queue is long and slow-moving.
The Moroccan pavilion has a favorable spot alongside a canal and rest area. But the queue was long and slow-moving.
So I am not a fan. I an no doubt coming off as negative although I an trying to portray realism. I feel about EXPO the same way I felt about Croatia: I am glad we went, it was interesting, but I would not go back. The food was better in Croatia.
At least there was no cotton candy at EXPO. I hate the stuff.
The "invading hoard" turned out to be a clever set of sculptures called "Food People." Here is Mister Salami.

The “invading hoard” turned out to be a clever set of sculptures called “Food People.” Here is Mister Salami.

Carmen Miranda (Mrs. Fruit)
Carmen Miranda (Mrs. Fruit)
Signor Vino
Signor Vino

Lago di Como

15 Jun
It has been a long time since we heard the lapping of waves on a lakeshore. I grew up in the “Land O’Lakes” (Minnesota), but in the past 25 years, we have mostly spent time by the sea, whether the Oregon Coast or many locations along Italy’s magnificent shore. When we ventured to Lago di Como a couple of weeks ago and were struck by how different a lake sounds. The last time we were by a lake was 2008 and the body of water was Lake Superior. Lago di Como was an entirely different experience.
Evening in Varenna

Evening in Varenna

Varenna, on the shores of Lago di Como, has been on my list for 4 years, but as we often say, “So many places, so little time.” We took advantage of an Italian holiday weekend, La Festa della Republica. So what does one do at Lago di Como? Hike…eat…ride ferries…eat…visit beautiful villas…eat. Repeat.
Funny aside: In my hometown of Saint Paul, MN, we have Como Lake and Como Park. The lake was named by Charles Perry, a farmer who was a native of the Swiss-Italian Alps. (Switzerland is only a stone’s throw from the Italian lake.) It is funny for a lake in Scandinavian-settled Minnesota to be named for an Italian lake, but there you have it.
We devoted one day to a hike. The Sentiero del Viandante, or Wayfarer’s Path runs for 45 km along the eastern shore of the lake. There’s a manageable bit from Varenna to Bellano that Rick Steves mentions in his guide, saying it would take about 1 ½ hours, and advising us to ask the travel agency about it. I found an online brochure about the hike that made it seem straightforward, but to be sure we stopped at the travel agency, which serves as the Tourist Information office. Their words would ring in our ears and spew from our lips with laughter many times that day: Non si pùo sbagliare!  “You can’t miss it! Go up to the castle, and then follow the signs.”  Actually they were rather dismissive as if my inquiry were an interruption to their business. [Here’s a hint: Don’t advertise yourselves as a Tourist Info Center if you don’t like tourists asking questions.]
It was quite a climb to the castle, which unfortunately was not yet open for the day, so we moved on, happy to find some level ground. The day was cool and the views spectacular. I will let the pictures tell of the beauty.
Above Varenna there is a castle in Castello di Vezio. It was closed when we arrived at 9:30AM. Ric provided a spot of color in the otherwise gray stone town.

Above Varenna there is a castle in Castello di Vezio. It was closed when we arrived at 9:30AM. Ric provided a spot of color in the otherwise gray stone town.

I could live here....

I could live here….

The trail changed surface many times: occasionally on a road, but mostly gravel, dirt, rocks, flagstone-like.

The trail changed surface many times: occasionally on a road, but mostly gravel, dirt, rocks, flagstone-like.

View to Varenna from the trail.

View to Varenna from the trail.

This tiny falls reminded us of PunchBowl Falls in Oregon.

This tiny falls reminded us of PunchBowl Falls in Oregon.

The way-finding was not quite so straightforward. There were many signs but they did not always include our actual destination, and there were several branches of the Sentiero del Viandante, so we constantly had to check and recheck the limited-info brochure from the internet. Twice we were helped by locals that only spoke Italian. Once, emerging from a forest onto a road, we turned in absolutely the wrong direction. Luckily a man nearby responded to my query and was able to turn us around before we backtracked too far. Non si pùo sbagliare! In another instance, in the middle of a tiny town, the sign disappeared. We tromped around for a while looking for the right street name to rejoin the proper path. Non si pùo sbagliare! Finally, in descent into Bellano, which we could see for a very long time, we had to walk around the town from above to find a place to descend and then, of course, the Viandante signs disappeared (Non si pùo sbagliare!) and we had to do some basic orientation to find the train station, for our ride back to Varenna. 
Lots of signs, not always helpful.

Lots of signs, not always helpful.

As to Rick Steves’ time estimate, allora, he must have been 30 years old, accompanied by a guide, and did not stop to take any photos if he made Varenna to Bellano in 1.5 hours! We are not the fastest hikers in our age group, but it took us more than double the time, and our stops were limited. We did not even get coffee along the way!  Che piccato! Still it was a lovely hike with drop dead views around each turn, wild flowers blooming, cherries ripening on the trees, the way dotted with tiny towns and shrines, and there were no other hikers. The only other person we saw “hiking” was an elderly man with a walking stick above Bellano, who kindly confirmed we were alla strada giusta (on the right path). Our 3-hour-15-minute out-bound hike ended with a 4 minute train ride back to Varenna. Imagine a time a couple of hundred years ago when there was no train and if you could not afford to pay someone to take you by boat, you walked or rode a mule.  That’s why these paths exist today: former transportation links, not simply constructed for recreational hiking.
The next day found us riding ferries and visiting a famous villa, Villa Balbianello. This is where the wedding scene at the end of “Star Wars Episode 2” was filmed. Che bella! It is absolutely dreamy! No longer privately owned, it was built by a Cardinal (of course!) in 1787, but last owned by Signor Guido Monzino, the wealthy son of a department store magnet, who spent his life adventuring: Mount Everest, the North Pole, and so on. Today it houses his personal collections and is preserved for posterity and the enjoyment of visitors. Well worth the trip.
Villa Balbianello loggia overlooking the lake.

Villa Balbianello loggia overlooking the lake.

View from inside the loggia. I believe this was featured in Episode II.

View from inside the loggia. I believe this was featured in Episode II.

The grounds are simply magnificent. Popular wedding location.

The grounds are simply magnificent. Popular wedding location.

Swan family near Lenno, Lago di Como

Swan family near Lenno, Lago di Como

Many paths meander through the villa. Guided tours take you through the 5 levels of the palazzo.

Many paths meander through the villa. Guided tours take you through the 5 levels of the palazzo.

Just another gorgeous view. The cardinal had an eye for a good location.

Just another gorgeous view. The cardinal had an eye for a good location.

Laurel at Villa Balbianello

Laurel at Villa Balbianello

 

Bellagio, on the other hand, we found repulsive: hoards of tourists flocking the designer shops. It was ferry-central with boats arriving constantly from all over the lake. Such a hubbub! We arrived by hydrofoil and jumped on the first available boat back to peaceful Varenna.
The gustatory aspect of visiting a lake is eating freshwater fish. I adore salmon, tuna, swordfish and the like, but nice, white, lakefish takes me back to land-locked Minnesota, where we didn’t have such exotic seafood when I was young. I enjoyed the local fish  prepared several different ways. Our favorite meal involved being picked up at the lakeshore and being whisked high above Lago di Como to the small community of Gittana, where Chef Moreno, and his wife Rosella run Il Caminetto. Their €25.00 menù degustazione was unbelievable!
Hotel Olivedo, right on the lake.  Fabulous!

Hotel Olivedo, right on the lake. Fabulous!

Outdoor dining very much in full swing with abundant spring sunshine.

Outdoor dining very much in full swing with abundant spring sunshine.

One of several types of ferries plying the waters of the lake. This one for vehicles and people.

One of several types of ferries plying the waters of the lake. This one for vehicles and people.

This is a great destination for a long weekend. Not a lot of “must sees’ but enough to do to fill 2 ½ days, and plenty of opportunity for relaxing. Rick Steves recommends the area for getting over jet lag upon arrival from the U.S. We would recommend it as a haven from the noisy city, a refreshing break before the tourist season is in full swing. 
This little guy seemed to be imitating one of the statues at Villa Balbianello.

This little guy seemed to be imitating one of the statues at Villa Balbianello.

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