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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.


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?

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

First and last

4 Apr
The other day, as I packed for a short work-related trip to Milano, I realized this would be my last business trip ever and I could not help recalling to my first, in 1978. That trip had not crossed my mind in years but it was remarkable and the memories now recalled are vivid even these 37 years later.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee. at
In 1978 I was working for the Bell System in Minneapolis as an instructor. Why at the age of 25 anyone thought I had anything to teach anyone I don’t know, but I was sent to Washington, D.C., to represent my company in meetings with AT&T and develop a new national training program for our accounts people. Needless to say I was very excited and thought I was a real hotshot. I flew on the now-long-defunct North Central Airlines (whose vestiges live deep inside Delta after many acquisitions) and rented a car at National Airport. (Reagan hadn’t even been elected yet so the airport was far from being renamed.) It was winter. I rented a car and proceeded through the dark city. The rental car broke down on Connecticut Avenue, in front of a church. On a Sunday night there was little traffic. Panic! No cell phones in those days. What to do? As I fretted a man approached the car. More panic! He motioned from the passenger side for me to roll down the window. I cracked it an inch. “I don’t expect you to trust me,” he said, “but it appears you are lost or…” he let the sentence dangle. “I am the pastor of that church. How can I help you?” I explained my situation. He went to the church, called the car rental company, and returned with instructions: leave the car and take a taxi. They would deliver a new car to me in the morning. The pastor even called me a taxi and waited with me until it arrived.
My first business trip was on an airline that no longer exists.
My first business trip was on an airline that no longer exists.
I never got his name, and I doubt I could even find the church any longer, but the kindness of this stranger has not been forgotten. The situation and his kindness made for a memorable experience.
I am hard-pressed to figure out how many business trips I have made over the years. In the 1978-1983 period I often traveled around the upper-Midwest for my employer. Later in the 80s Denver, Phoenix and Seattle figured prominently as the Bell System broke up and I worked for the “Baby Bell” called U.S. West. There were 14 states and 26 cities I had to visit on a regular basis as Vice President of Sales for a division of that large company. Ric and I courted while he flew west and I flew east meeting in Denver’s Red Carpet Club.
In the 90s I had a job in information technology consulting as a managing director requiring travel about 46 weeks a year, often hitting two cities in a week. I sometimes had to look at the phonebook in the middle of the night to remind myself where I was. I was gone so much that our dog quit sleeping on my side of the bed and switched her allegiance to Ric.
I logged over 100K miles each year on Delta for several years.
I logged over 100K miles each year on Delta for several years.
My final career business trip is memorable for other reasons: I am in Italy of all places, not something I would have even dreamed of back in 1978. I took a train, not a plane, and there was no rental car. (It would have cost Euro 40.00 a night to park it!) I will carry memories of terrific co-workers who aided in a difficult task, and of a hotel that tried to charge me extra for checking out early (that’s one I have not heard in 37 years of business travel), and it will be the last time I stay in a luxury hotel paid for by someone else.  No more frequent flyer/sleeper/driver points earned by my employers’ dollars.
How I travel now....
How I travel now….
I am a little nostalgic for those days when airline travel was something one looked forward to. We dressed up, we got reasonably palatable meals served at least some of the time on real china. You could check all of your bags for free! Ric and I were fortunate to take many first class flights on vacation trips, courtesy of those hard-earned miles. The real price of the trip was having to get back on a plane for “fun” after weeks of business trips.
Milano, the Duomo...far removed from D.C.

Milan, the Duomo…far removed from D.C.

Milan, the Duomo…far removed from D.C.
First and last: what a (pardon the pun) trip it has been!
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