Friday, July 31, 2009

Boat Rental on Lake Como, Italy

Today was one of those days that could have ended in disaster...however, once again, we were pretty lucky.

Just over a month ago, I rented the Gran Turismo 510 boat online from Como Lake Boats in Domaso, and paid the full amount for the rental. I printed off my confirmation, directions, and the details about the payment transaction and filed it in my accordian file for the big trip.

Imagine my surprise when we show up early and find out that yes, they got my reservation and yes they charged my credit card for it, but sorry, we don't have a boat for you. Are you free on Saturday? Uh no. Do you have a boater's license and will you pay more for the 620 boat? Uh no. I want the boat that I reserved and paid for.

At this point, I walked away. I was ready to choke the jerk. And to top it off, a family from the Netherlands was also in line. They booked online and had everything reserved for Monday, only to find out that there were no boats available until Wednesday. So...the Netherlands family got my boat. Pissed is an understatement.

My, run far away from Como Lake Boats.

We get in the car and Chuck could tell that we were going to need some sort of miracle to turn this day around (not to mention that on our way to Menaggio on a 1.5 lane road...what the heck...and in a tunnel we had to slam on the brakes...then put the car in reverse and back out of the we were face to face with a freakin' huge semi!!!).

So, we pulled into another boat rental place Rent a boat in Dongo. I stayed in the car, but listened to the conversation.

Staff: Do you have a reservation?

Chuck: Well, I had a reservation at Como Lake Boat. They reserved it, took my money, and then said, no boat. (Note: we did get our money back)

Staff: Ohhhh no.

Chuck: Any chance you have a boat available for today or tomorrow for 6 or 8 hours?

Staff: You're in luck. There's someone on the phone right now trying to cancel their reservation and the only way they won't be charged is if we rent the boat they reserved.

Chuck: Tell them, two Americans are here ready to help them out.

Fastforward about 15 minutes....

We're on the boat and heading south toward search of George Clooney.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

European Vacation 2009 - Lugano, Switzerland (Days 19-22)

After 15 days of heat and humidity, I was really looking forward to heading north to Lugano, Switzerland and the Lake Como, Italy area.

Cinque Terre was beautiful and this region is just as breathtaking.

Home base was Lugano, Switzerland at the Hotel Lugano Dante Center (more on that later). After leaving Cinque Terre, perhaps my expectations were high, but Lugano, the city, is not that interesting. It is located on Lake Lugano and has very pretty views of the surrounding mountains. The 'shopping mile' is a pure disappointment. My shopping adventure last summer in Lucerne, Switzerland was a thousand times better!

However, the Lake Como region in Italy is fabulous. We rented a boat and motored around the lake for 8 hours. It turned out to be a wonderful day!

A little preview...

The view on the north side of the lake

Chuck braving the chilly and very clear water

Bellagio, Italy

Can you see the funicular from the garage down to the house?

My future home...just a few doors down from Clooney

Cinque Terre hotel - La Torretta

In January, I started planning our summer holiday. If I had my druthers, I would have shifted our holiday dates forward a few weeks so we weren't traveling at the peak time; however we were told the summer holiday dates and we had to stick to them. That being said, finding hotels that weren't already booked and didn't cost a fortune was going to be a bit of a challenge...but who ever said I didn't like a good challenge?!?!?!

After some searching, I stumbled upon La Torretta in Manarola (Cinque Terre, Italy). It received wonderful reviews and after spending 4 days there, I know why!

Upon arrival, Gabriele (the owner) welcomed us with prosecco and melon on the terrace. While we were enjoying the amazing view, he brought our luggage up to our room (the design suite, room #2). Each evening from 5-7 he hosts a little cocktail party with wine, prosecco, juices, and water...and some very yummy appetizers. In the morning, he greets you with juice, then coffee, tea, cappucino, and a light breakfast. In between, you can find a minibar filled with nonalcoholic beverages for your enjoyment.

La Torretta has 15 rooms of varying sizes and decor. I don't think any two rooms are the same. Our room was really 3 rooms (bedroom, bathroom, sitting room) and had a small oceanview balcony. We had flat panel tvs in all three rooms, a large jacuzzi tub, ipod docking station, cd player, coffee maker, air conditioner, etc.

I can't say enough about La Torretta and Gabriele. He really cares about his guests and is quite helpful. He'll make restaurant reservations for you, give suggestions on things to do or routes to take, look to see if a dress shop is open, and ask you if you are enjoy Cinque Terre or what you did today....all while bringing you a glass of red wine and snacks that look too good to eat.

Here's a picture of our bedroom and the view...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

European Vacation 2009 - Cinque Terre, Italy (Days 16-19)

In a word...breathtaking.

In a few words...hills, steps, more hills, oh my!

Cinque Terre (5 lands) is located on the west coast of Italy, just north of La Spezia and south of Genova. The 5 villages (from n. to s. Monterrosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are all part of the National Park and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Home base for us was Manarola at the La Torretta Charm & Relax (more to come on this topic). Manarola is a beautiful and charming town, that requires a bit of effort to explore. From the waterfront to our hotel room we had to climb 110 steps and go up 7 inclines...and it was hot...and humid.

Cinque Terre is a hiker's paradise (from the die hard hiker to the leisurely walker). There are trails of varying degrees and at various elevations. Aside from hiking / walking, there are a few (minor) museums about the local history and the sweet Sciacchetrà dessert wine, swimming / snorkeling / scuba diving, shops, and wonderful cafes and restaurants.

The Via dell'amore trail runs from Manarola south to Riomaggiore. It takes about 20-30 minutes to walk and is relatively flat. It runs along the coast, so the views are magnificent. You can walk from Riomaggiore in the south to Monterrosa al mare in the north in about 5 hours...but the terrain is quite steep and I think you'd be crazy to walk it all in one day!

A train connects all of the cities, as do water ferries, and some eco friendly green buses. We took the ferry from Riomaggiore to Monterrosa al mare and then took the train south stopping in the other cities along the way to Manarola. Once you buy your train ticket, you can use it all day as long as you continue in the same direction.

I liked all of the cities, with the exception of Monterossa al mare. It appeared to be nothing more than a big beach filled with umbrellas and chairs (which you have to pay to use).

A few pictures from Cinque Terre...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cinque Terre

A preview...

Via dell'amore between Riomaggiore and Manarola

Sunset around 8:45pm

Riomaggiore (check out the harbor)


Aren't all towers leaning...not just Pisa?

Yes, we went to Pisa. No, we did not do the stupid tourist photo of trying to hold the Tower up or push is back. But, we did see our fair share of people doing crazy positions and poses for the cameras. Silly tourists.

We arrived just before 8am, which, I might add was one of my finer moments for planning! Many of the monuments open at 8; the Tower at 8:30; the cathedral at 10am. They only allow 30 people to climb the Leaning Tower at a time, at 30 minute increments. So, imagine how many people could be disappointed if they didn't plan ahead...or they arrived at10am along with the hoards of people and folks off the cruise ships.

So my free tip...arrive at 8am, get your tickets and climb the tower (15Euro per person) at 8:30 or 9:00, then visit the other monuments and 2 museums (10 Euro per person for everything else) and you can be back on the road by noon.
And, for the record, there is no elevator in the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One kid was amazed that there was no elevator! There are, in fact, about 300 steps.
Here are pictures of the monuments (Cathedral, Tower, Cemetary, and Baptistery).

Enjoying Tuscany

We couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit some of the beautiful villages while in Tuscany.
After scouring TripAdvisor, message boards, and the travel guides, I settled on a few (and then added a few more along the way.) Yes, I'm a planner and just hopping in the car with no plan leaves me unsettled. So if I have a few things planned, then I can be a little more flexible and comfortable with just pulling into a parking lot and getting out to explore. I'm getting better, really, I am.

*Note: the links are to the wiki pages, so if you think wiki is 'fake' don't click on the link; however, I find wiki to be quite informative.

Siena - About an hour south of our villa is Siena, a walled-city. We took the south entrance (Porta Tufi) into the city and followed the covered parking signs to Il Campo. I was a little worried about parking and driving (illegally) in the pedestrian areas; however, the signage and parking at Il Campo was probably one of the easiest 'in and out' we've ever encountered.

It was hot. Did I mention how very hot it was in Tuscany? We walked along the pedestrian areas, shopped, went into the Duomo (cathedral), the opera museum, the crypt, the piazza del campo (where the palio horse races are held twice a year)

Volpaia - Volpaia (official website) is another walled-village. I scheduled a tour of the town and a wine tasting for us one afternoon. The town is very, very small and all the buildings are owned by a single family who also owns the Volpaia winery. Most of the residents that live in the town also work for the winery. Our tasting included 4 different wines (1 white and 3 reds) and various infused olive oils. The white, which is not a usual production for the chianti area was quite tasty and the reds (chianti classico and reserve) were also nice.

San Gimignano -San Gimignano is another walled city in Tuscany. Are you sensing a pattern here? Of all the towns, villages, and cities we visited in Tuscany, I think this one was my favorite. On our drive into town (from the north) we saw San Gimignano off in the distance, looking like a walled off ancient medieval city. We were able to find a parking spot just outside the town and then walk up a few flights of step and a small hill to the town. The main street is filled with stores featuring pottery, wines, gelato, spices, and touristy crap. The main square is flanked by a church and then as you look up you see several towers above. Lovely.
And, at Chuck's request, we went to the Torture Museum. In a word...interesting.

Greve in Chianti - We didn't spend much time in Greve in Chianti. It was basically a place to kill some time because we were early for our luncheon at Castello di Verrazzano. But, it was another great little town in Tuscany with shopping, a main square, a wine museum, and of course, wine tasting.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chuck (kind of) learns to cook

We spent a half day at Castello di Oliveto just outside Castelfiorentino. I always thought a cooking class in Tuscany would be a fun experience and the time at Castello di Oliveto did not disappoint. I even convinced Chuck that he should join me for the experience. I know…Chuck cooking something other than pancakes and popcorn would be a bit of a miracle.

Our class was held in a real castle (ancient manor) of the Pucci family, built in the 1400s, in which 3 Popes (Pope Clemente VII and Leone X, Pope Paolo III) actually spent the night. It is currently a working agriturism site that has rental apartments, is a location for weddings and parties, and produces several different wines, grappas, and olive oils.

Our menu included: liver pate canapes, mushroom canapes, zucchini and cheese canapes, fresh pici (noodles), ravioli and tortellini, ragout sauce, stuffed zucchini and tomatoes, and cantuccini cookies....and yes, I have the recipes, so be prepared to be wowed (or extremely disappointed in my lack of cooking abilities)!

Donatella, our master chef was such fun in the kitchen and trying to figure out what she was saying (my Italian is terrible, but my Spanish is pretty good) added to the fun. Valentina, our host for the day, also helped in the kitchen and with the translation.

A few pictures...

I think the stuffed tomatoes and zucchini (yes, they are round) were my favorites!

See, he can take direction :) Chuck is working on the pasta for the ravioli.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

European Vacation 2009 - Tuscany, Italy (Days 11-16)

I'm sure you've seen Under the Tuscan Sun, or maybe you read the book. Yes, that is what Tuscany is really all about....olive groves, lemon trees, grapevines, a little (or a lot) of vino, amazing pasta dishes and sauce, some biscotti, a little vino santo, some grappa and sitting back on the porch watching the landscape....ah la vida (the life).

The Tuscan part of our summer holiday was meant to be a time to relax, take in some sun, catch up on reading, meander through some small villages and partake in some wine tastings. We've managed to accomplish all of that, and then some.

We rented a villa just outside of Gambassi Terme, in a country resort called Borgo della Meliana. The property is located among the hills and vineyards. There are several buildings; some have 1 bedroom apartments, 2 bedroom apartments, free standing villas with plunge pools, and others are larger to accomodate a family.

Here are some pictures of Tuscany...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Tuscan Treat

Ok, now it's official. I'm never leaving Italy!

We spent the afternoon at Castello di Verrazzano having an amazing 3 hour luncheon, tasting wine and balsamico, and meeting some new friends along the way.

Before leaving Denmark, I searched online from some interesting places to do some wine tasting, castle tours, luncheons and cooking classes. I stumbled upon Castello di Verrazzano and checked out the reviews on TripAdvisor (my new-found friend) and SlowTraveler. After reading the rave reviews and spending the afternoon there, I can see why so many people enjoy the visit.

Wine tastings in Tuscany are quite different than they are in Napa, California. In Napa, we are accustomed to just driving along the main highway and stopping in at Beringer or V. Sattui or appointments, just pulling in the parking lot and making your way to the tasting room. It's not that easy in Tuscany. You have to do a little research and make appointments.

And, getting from one place to the next is not as easy as driving 5 minutes up the road. It's a series of hairpin turns, 1 - 1.5 lane country roads lined with olive trees and grapevines. Trust me...I was the designated driver after today's luncheon/tasting....and I spent about an hour zipping around in my 'Danish gocart' of a car. It's a good thing there weren't many cars on the road!

Back on task....Verrazzano....Phillipo was our tour guide and host for the 3.5 hour affair. We toured the grounds, cellars, and our table was overflowing with food and wine.

Our table of 8 included 2 couples from Copenhagen and a couple from Atlanta. We said we were from Chicago....but it was kind of funny to watch the Danes chat away in Danish rather than engaging in conversation with the rest of the table. Well, until I said in my best Danish... 'Hej. Jeg hedder Holly o kommer fra Chicago' (Hi, my name is Holly and I'm from Chicago.) You should have seen their mouths drop. Heeheee. Maybe this was a little mean of me, but after that our table of half in one language and half in another, went to some great conversations in a single language.

Our afternoon at Verrazzano was wonderful. Here are a few pictures of the grounds and the surrounding Tuscan landscape.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The view from our Tuscan villa

Sunset. pictures

Sharing the sights...

Florence museums

We've made our way through a few museums and galleries while in Florence. The Italians are very serious about art and churches. Unlike many of the other countries we've visited, you cannot take pictures is museums nor in the churches.

In the churches, shoulders must be covered and at San Marco in Venice, knees must also be covered. For those that have been hiding under a rock and don't know this rule, paper shawls/skirts are provided to cover up.

So, needless to say, we do not have pictures of Michelangelo's real David, which is located inside the Accademia in Florence. It is quite impressive. There are two replicas; one is located in the Piazza della Signoria outside the Uffizi and the other is located in the Piazzale Michelangelo. Below is a picture of the replica.

Uffizi has a very extensive collection of art. We had the concierge at the hotel reserve tickets for us, as we heard the queue to get in can be 2-3 hours long. We entered around 8:15, just as they were opening and had to wait about 5 minutes. The regular queue was probably about 30 minutes long. It appeared as though they limit the number of guests inside Uffizi. We rarely saw anyone once inside...yet there was still a rather large queue when we exited.

The Accademia also allows you to call and reserve tickets. If you stand in line and wait, tickets are 10 Euro each. If you have reserved tickets they are 14 Euro each. With reserved tickets, we probably waited 5 minutes and the queue for non-reserved tickets was probably about an hour. The David was definitely the most popular exhibit; however there was a special exhibit on the Perfection in form by Robert Mapplethorpe. This was the prefect prelude to seeing the David. His photographs were pretty impressive.
As a side note, you can go online and order tickets, however most of the websites charge about 20Euro per ticket (to either the Accademia or the Uffizi). I would recommend just using the concierge at the hotel when you arrive, rather than ordering online. You save a few bucks and the hotel staff can get you in earlier than the times available online.

The Modern art museum, was modern only by comparison to the other museums in Florence. It was a very nice setting on the third floor of Palazzo Pitti; however if you are expecting Warhol...that's a little too modern for this museum.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Updated--Places to See Before you Die

We officially hit the 100-mark (in Europe) on the Places to see before you die and we aren't even half-way through with our summer holiday.

European Vacation 2009 - Florence, Italy (Days 8-11)

During the tour of Italy, Florence has been my favorite Italian city so far. The only downfall is that the drive into the city center to find our hotel was a tad stressful as Garmin kept 'recalculating' and leading us down streets that were clearly only for pedestrians. We got more than one evil eye from our fellow Americans. Little did they know that the Danish license plates actually contained two Americans from the midwest!! You should have seen one guy's face when I said hello to him. Ha!

We stayed at the Hotel Calzaiuoli right on Calzaiuoli street, which runs between the Duomo and the Uffizi gallery. The hotel is one of the best (non-chain) hotels we've stayed at in Europe. The hotel has 45 rooms at varying luxury levels, ranging from a standard room, deluxe room, superior room, or a high end room. The rate includes breakfast, which is quite impressive. The desk staff have been extremely helpful in getting us tickets to the Uffizi gallery and the Accademia.

I think we've managed to 'do it all' in Florence. No, not really, but we did hit most of the main sights. We've...

Viewed art at Uffizi
Shopped at the various markets
Saw Michaelangelo's David at the Accademia
Walked through the Cappelle Medici
Galleria d'Arte Moderna
Piazza San Marco
Palazzo Vecchio
Il Duomo
Santa Croce
San Lorenzo
Santa Maria Novella
Palazzo Pitti
Giadrino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens)
Shopped on the Ponte Vecchio (bridge)
Galileo Museum
Saw some amazing street artwork
Sampled a few (well, maybe a little more than a few) flavors of gelato
Ate yummy bruchetta

Our next stop is Tuscany.

European Vacation 2009 - Bologna, Italy (Days 7-8)

We spent a few days in Bologna, Italy after our Venetian holiday. Bologna is a university town and not on the beat and path for American tourists. However, for these two Americans, it was definitely on the itinerary. Remember, we loved another European college town (Oxford).

It was a nice city with over 40 km of covered sidewalks (porticos) that littered the city. It was extremely hot and sunny while we were there, so the covered sidewalks were a welcomed surprise.

Some of the sights:
Churches, churches, and more churches
Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Del Nettuno
Palazzo di Re Enzo
Palazzo Communale
Basilica di San Petronio
the University
the huge flea market
quadrilateral foodie area
Le Due Torri (two towers)
A picture or two until the slideshow is posted...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Some bologna in Bologna, Florence

On the drive into Bologna...

Chuck: how do you spell Bologna?

Holly: B-o-l-o-g-n-a (did you sing the Oscar Mayer song?).

Chuck: lunch meat? Ohhh, do you think we'll have bologna in Bologna?

Holly: Ummm, no.

Fastforward a few hours...
We stumble upon this great little restaurant in the quadrilateral district called il saracino. We ordered a starter 'grilled pork with pinenuts and balsamic.' Sounds good, doesn't it. The picture below is what arrived (not the greatest picture, but Chuck took it, so....).
It was really just one HUGE piece of bologna on a bed of lettuce with some pine nuts, sesame seeds and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I guess we were going to have bologna in Bologna. Once we got over the shock of the translation from grilled pork to grilled bologna, it really wasn't that bad; although, I only had a few bites ;). We also had some fabulous tortellini with a rosemary sauce and gnocchi with a pomodoro sauce.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Glass making in Murano

Murano is a little island about a 20 minute water taxi ride from San Marco in Venice.

Our hotel (Hilton Molino Stucky) offered a 'free' taxi to Murano and a tour of a glass making facility. Yes, I know, nothing in this world is free, but it could be cheap, right?

The glass making facility was interesting and we learned a bit about the craft; however after about 30 minutes the full-court press was on. We were led through a series of show rooms (Signoretti) with glass chandeliers, vases, and various artwork by approximately 50+ local artists.

I know, you're now much did the 'free' tour set them back. Well, let's just say that in 4-6 weeks a pretty little parcel from Murano, Italy will be arriving in the US. It was either feed a small country for a year or buy a piece of artwork. No, not really, but damn, I could have picked out some pretty fancy diamonds :)

In all seriousness, the piece is lovely and it will always remind us of our summer holiday in Italy. And, it gets to double as Chuck's birthday present from me, so that's one less thing to think about!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Canals, gondolas, and tons of tourists

We successfully drove from Nuremberg, Germany to Venice, Italy. The drive to Nuremberg was horrific with a 6 hour drive taking just shy of 9 hours. I think every single owner of a pull-along camper was heading south on Friday night. Luckily, we left the traffic behind once we entered Austria.

It's hot in Venice. It's really hot. And, it's humid. I'm missing the lovely mild weather in Denmark with the nice breezes.

I arranged for a tour with Avventure Bellisimo tours on our 2nd day in Venice. It was a 2 hour walking tour, then a 3 hour break to explore on our own, followed by a 1 hour canal tour. The walking tour could have been great, but it fell far from my expectations. The only positive was that we were able to skip the queue at San Marco's bascilica. Our tour guide had a very thick Italian accent, which she over compensated by talking realllllly slowwwwwly. She also took us on some crazy paths that had no character nor provided for any interesting photographs. Maybe the other 2 groups (with different guides) had a better experience.

The canal tour portion, on the otherhand, was wonderful. Our tour guide knew so much about every single site, that she basically talked non-stop. I was on information overload, but that was a good thing!

We walked on the narrow pathways and on bridges over the canals (along with thousands of other tourists), ate gelato in some savory flavors, visited Murano and bought some art, visited lots of churches, piazzas, and several museums, and took many, many, many water taxis.

After the first night in Venice, my whole body had this little 'sway' to it. I think I was high on dramamine the entire time we were there. Perhaps, I should have rethought the visit...given my motion sickness!?!?!?!?

A few more pictures until the slideshow is posted.