Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part Three)

When in Italy, you must eat! And that we did. We were gluttons and could not turn down all that homemade pasta, gelato, pastries, fresh lake fish and other seafood we gorged on. We’re paying dearly for it now that we’re back.

Real Italian food is simple and usually has no more than five ingredients in their dishes. Anything more than that makes it questionable if it’s truly authentic.  Things like Fettuccini Alfredo and “Italian” dressing are examples of American inventions. I honestly didn’t know any differently until I visited Europe for the first time in 2008. My taste palette has certainly changed since then!

The food at our B&B was fantastic; the breakfasts were so so good.  One evening they offered a home-cooked four course meal and it turned out to be the best meal during this trip to Italy. We were spoiled. Our typical breakfast spread had omelettes, fresh vegetables and fruits from their garden, homemade olive oil harvested from their olive groves, homemade pastries and jams, cheeses, Italian cured meats, and yogurt made fresh every morning. It was a feast that filled our happy tummies until it was time to eat again.

Now, let me get to our best and favorite meal of our stay. The innkeepers offered a four course meal for all of their guests for a nominal fee, which is normal for an agriturismo in Italy. The lake fish caught fresh that morning to the homemade lasagna made with fresh noodles and herbs from the garden were so incredibly delicious. And even after our return, we’re still dreaming about it. Do yourself a favor and eat your way through Italy- you won’t regret it!

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Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part Two)

Two weeks before our trip , Hubs searched for the best train routes in Europe and “BAM!”, there it was. The Bernina Express, only a 90 minute drive from Lake Como.  The complete line runs from Tirano, Italy to Chur, Switzerland.  To get it in as a day trip we could only do one third of the line – Tirano to St. Moritz, Switzerland.  The ride in one direction was 2.5 hours.  We started our journey from our B&B around 7:30am for Tirano, got there with plenty of time to buy our bottles of water and boarded the train for St. Moritz.  

Tirano is nestled in a valley, near the border of Switzerland, at 429m(1407ft) above sea level.  At the apex of the ride, the train would climb to 2253m(7392ft).  The Bernina Express features large panoramic windows to enable great views all around.  The only downside on that day was the light rain, which made it a little more difficult to see things and take pictures, but only at the beginning of the ride.  Towards the middle the skies cleared and it was partly sunny for the remainder of the journey.  During the climb into the Alps, the announcement (in Italian, German, and English) stated the train would climb 70m for every 1km of track (7% grade), pretty steep!  We jaw-dropped at beautiful greenish-white lakes, alpine valleys, and near the top there were glaciers!  Hubs was most excited about the Kreisviadukt Brusio, a circular part of track used to gently ascend or descend elevation. At the highest part of the ride was the station Ospizio Bernina in the Bernina Pass.  There was a glacier lake reservoir there called Lago Bianco.  It was breathtaking and the pictures surely don’t do it justice.  The runoff from this lake on one side runs to the Adriatic Sea, the other side ends up in the Black Sea – which we found interesting.   

After the Bernina Pass the train started descending for about another 45 minutes until we arrived in St. Moritz, Switzerland at 1775m (5823ft) elevation. St. Moritz is a posh ski town and is alive in the Winter.  In the summer time…not so much.  It seemed like a ghost town, but a perfectly clean, not one speck of dust, symmetrical, perpendicular, everything in its place type of ghost town.  The city is perched on a hill overlooking a gorgeous alpine lake with the snow capped Alps far in the background.  You could sit there for hours and just gaze.  But, since we were there for lunch we had to put our gaze on hold and look for food.  The other thing I know about Switzerland is that it’s crazy expensive. We found a nice little place in the middle of town, we each had a normal size entree and shared a 1.5L bottle of water.  €50 later we headed out for more gazing.  Of that €50, €10 was for the water – which Hubs saw them fill from what looked like a draught nozzle; Switzerland’s finest mountain tap water.  From there we went to a local hotel, an old castle or palace.  It had a perfect balcony and seating area for a coffee and a tea to relaxingly gaze at the beauty.  Perhaps that’s how Switzerland makes you forget that you just drank a €9 coffee and €14 tea.

The gazing had to end and we made our way back to the train station, not before picking up a box of delicious Swiss chocolate to enjoy on our ride back to Tirano.  On the way back, we saw the same sights again, but this time we could just gaze at them (are you sensing a theme?), without the rush to take as many photos as possible.  It was a much more relaxing ride back.  After arriving in Tirano, the gazing ended and prices went back to normal.  We jumped in the car and headed back to our B&B.

If we ever do the Bernina Express again, it will be in the winter.  Supposedly, riding the line when everything is snow covered is another sight to behold.  Plus, it’s also been suggested to ride the Bernina Express outbound and then use the regular commuter train for inbound.  Commuter trains are cheaper, and you can lower the windows for all the unobstructed pictures your camera can handle.  There are other famous train routes in Europe we hope to get to sometime, but definitely put this one on your list!

 

Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part One)

I absolutely love Italy. I’ve been several times and have explored many areas of this beautiful country. Hubs and I just got back from eight nights on Lake Como. We flew into Milan Malpensa Airport, rented our adventure wagon and headed towards our destination – only about 60-90 minutes North. We stayed at the most incredible B&B, which happens to be in the same town that Mussolini and his mistress were executed when they tried to escape to Switzerland. We talked more with the innkeepers, and found out there are several unofficial stories of that fateful night. Apparently, Mussolini and his mistress were staying overnight at the same house where our inn is today, and were shot where we had breakfast every morning on the terrace.  The Italian partisans (resistance group) then moved their bodies down the street, to Villa Belmonte, and were shot again (by the right people this time…). Such a fascinating piece of WWII history!

In our eight days, we explored the famous towns of Bellagio, Varenna, Menaggio, Como and some little known ones such as Lenno, Tremezzo, Laglio and Mezzegra. Hubs and I had time to squeeze in two day trips – one on the Bernina Express from Tirano, Italy to St Moritz, Switzerland and a driving trip to Lugano, Switzerland. We also drove by George Clooney’s villa to see if we could visit the twins, but sadly, they weren’t home. Even with so much ground to cover, it was a very relaxing and low-key trip.

Bellagio was as charming as everyone has described it. The hotel in Las Vegas is based on the town. It’s definitely very touristy, but a must when visiting Lake Como. Como, the city, is known for its silk, so if you want a nice souvenir head over to the shop called Azalea (there’s two locations on the same street). It’s a family owned business that has an amazing collection of handmade and handprinted scarves and ties – all at reasonable prices. After all that silk shopping, hop on next door and have lunch at Bilacus or walk five minutes in the other direction for Barchetta. Beware of all the awful restaurants on the water. They’re tourist traps and the only thing you’ll remember is the view. 

Another popular lake town is Varenna. It’s not as popular as Bellagio, but I found that I loved it much more. Hubs and I loved getting lost in all the nooks and crannies. Our innkeepers told us to go to a restaurant called Al Prato and it didn’t disappoint! It was nice that it seemed there were more locals than tourists. There’s no waterview, but the service and food make up for it. While in Varenna, you must make a visit to Villa Monastero. Even if you’re not interested in the interior, just purchase the tickets for the garden. There’s an incredible amount of flora to walk through. Most importantly, the views across the lake are unsurpassed.

Moving further south, in the village of Lenno, there’s the well known Villa Balbianello. Built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1787, it was used for a while by Allied commanders toward the end of WWII. The villa has also been made famous as a filming location for Star Wars and James Bond – Casino Royale. Its dramatic landscape makes for, in my opinion, the best views of the lake – even better than Villa Monastero. It’s definitely a must and my favorite villa during our visit.  Here’s a tip – you can get to Villa Balbianello by taking a 10-20 minute walk over a hill, or use the water taxi from Lido di Lenno.  We took the water taxi there (€7/rt or €5/oneway), and walked back.  Arriving by boat makes it feel like a more “grand” entrance, plus the walk back has more downhills – easier on a hot day.

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A Moment of Spontaneity

When an old high school friend contacted me via Facebook on Thursday saying that she and her husband were in Europe, the conversation went on about their itinerary and so on. When I mentioned it to Hubs around 7PM the next day, he asked where they would be this weekend, “Venice”, I said. Since Hubs has never been to Venice and my friend was this close, we quickly contacted our dog’s sitter to see if she would take him in last minute. Then, we scrambled to book a car and hotel room.  All within an hour on a Friday night. I told my friend that we would be making the roadtrip to see her! It turned out that I booked us at the same hotel as they were staying! How crazy was that?

We jumped into the car in the early hours of Saturday morning, dropped off our dog, and were on our merry way to Venice. It took us seven hours, but it was worth it to reconnect with an old friend and meet her other half. We had a wonderful time with them. The following morning, we got an early start to take in all the typical sights of Venice for Hubs, some shopping for me, had lunch, gelato and headed back home from Venice around 2pm in the afternoon, for another 7 hour drive.

Yes, it was a whirlwind trip over the weekend, but it was so much fun! Hubs and I have never done anything this spontaneous before. We are big planners and this was something completely new and exciting for us. Maybe it should become a habit?

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Irresistible Italy: Emilia-Romagna Region

This region is not yet crowded with tourists, but it’s one worth checking out and putting on your next Italian itinerary. Many people affectionately call it the “land of motors” . Just to name a few: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ducati factories are all housed here. To all the foodies out there, it’s also the home of Parmesan Reggiano and Balsamic Vinegar. There’s also plenty of cool medieval towns all around.

As an early anniversary gift, I surprised Hubs with a visit to both Ferrari museums and a test drive of a Ferrari 458. I enjoyed it and was so happy to see such a huge grin on Hubs face after his drive. Priceless!

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Did you know that real Parmesan Reggiano is only produced in Italy? So the stuff you buy at the grocery store called “Parmesan” is not really it. It’s an imitation of the real thing.  Under Italian law, only cheese produced in this region may be labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano”. We got a chance to tour a factory and witness the process from beginning and the aging process. Of course, the tasting was our favorite parts. 

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This holds true with Balsamic Vinegar. It has to have “D.O.P” labeled and when you get the 25 year aged kind, it has to be in a specific shaped bottle.  European countries, especially Italy, take their sourced food specialties very seriously. Balsamic Vinegar production is passed down through generations here. Most households have at last five barrels, each corresponding to a different part of the aging process. We visited a family owned small factory and was fascinated with the process and passion that they take in their balsamic vinegar.

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During our stay in this region, we also explored the towns of Modena and Bologna. Both with medieval characteristics and tons of charm. It was a nice part of our Italian adventure.

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We were "checkmated".

We were “checkmated”.

Irresistible Italy: Florence

I fell in love with this city ever since the first time I visited in 2010 and vowed to come back one day. Never in my wildest dreams would I have known I’d be living in a bordering country four years later.  Florence is a city for art history lovers, foodies and a shopping mecca for fashionistas. We checked off all those things. Hubs and I had a visit with The David, did a foodie tour, quite a bit of shopping (for me :)), and we also took in all the important sites that this city has to offer. The weather was absolutely gorgeous.

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Tasty Tuesdays: Italian Edition (Part Three)

This is not only the last of the Tasty Tuesdays in Italy, it happens to have been my favorite part of the trip-food wise. We’ve been back for a couple of days now, and I’m still thinking of some of the best meals I’ve had so far in my life. When I was planning this trip back in August 2013 ( not so surprising if you know me), I stumbled upon a really awesome farmhouse in the outskirts of Modena. Not one for nature or being in the middle of nowhere,  I was still really drawn to it.  So, I booked Hubs and I a room for four nights. Fast forward to a couple days ago, as we were driving towards this farmhouse, even Hubs was like “why the heck did you put us in the middle of nowheresville?”. I had to agree with him, but when we arrived, all of those unsettling thoughts quickly disappeared. The setting was like out of a movie and the views were gorgeous. It was a quintessential Italian farmhouse that’s been perfectly restored with modern touches.

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Now, let me get to the food, because that’s what you’re here for. We opted to partake in our innkeeper’s dinners for three of the nights we were there. I wanted to take her home, so she could cook for us for the rest of our lives. All the meals we had in neighboring  towns were just “meh” compared to our innkeeper’s meals!

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Cured meats from the innkeeper’s neighbor, homemade Parmesan biscuits, cheese drizzled with her own balsamic vinegar, toast with a lovely onion concoction

Next up, lasagna made with fresh noodle sheets using chard from her garden, béchamel sauce, and Parmesan reggiano. Absolutely divine!

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Main dish of chicken and greens followed by homemade cake using berries from her garden

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Tortellini made with fresh ricotta cheese that the innkeeper made that very morning! Oh my heavens!!!

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Next up, Osso Bucco with greens picked from the garden

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whipped ricotta dessert (crema) using fresh ricotta cheese that's made fresh the same morning!

whipped ricotta dessert (crema) using fresh ricotta cheese that’s made fresh the same morning! Drizzled with homemade aged balsamic vinegar.

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Irresistible Italy: Pompeii & Herculaneum

Pompeii and Herculaneum are towns that were obliterated by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Pompeii is a more well known, and famous site. However, Herculaneum is smaller and better preserved.  Pompeii was covered in ash, while Herculaneum covered by mud.  Both are incredibly impressive, well excavated, and musts when planning a trip to the Amalfi Coast. It’s also advisable to hire a private guide to take you around these sites. We saw many “lost” tourists fumbling with their maps and audio guides throughout the three hours we spent at Pompeii and the other two hours at Herculaneum. It was quite a somber day trying to imagine the tragic event that was unleashed by mother nature.

 

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The following pictures are of Herculaneum

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Irresistible Italy: Capri

Getting to Capri from the Amalfi Coast is fairly easy. You can hire a small boat that can hold up to 6 people or, commercial passenger ferry. We took the smaller one which took us around the island of Capri and then let us off at the marina to explore. Like I’ve mentioned earlier, I am very prone to motion sickness – on all forms of transportation. I took the necessary precautions of sea bands and Bonine, but in the end, none of that worked. For the first two hours of our Capri tour by boat, I was slumped over the edge of the boat ready to upchuck. Moving made things worse, so I had my eyes closed, and thought, “when the heck is this part going to be over?”. Once we were on land, things were fine and I was instructed not to eat for the rest of the day. Not like I would be in the mood to even think about food anyway.

We spent most of our time in Ana Capri. Although somewhat touristy, it was nothing like the crowds in Capri (city and Island share the same name) and we avoided that altogether. Hubs and I took the single chair lifts up to the tallest peak on the island and enjoyed the views of the famous three sister rock formations and did a bit of shopping. Little did I know that I stumbled upon one of the famous sandal makers situated in a little alley. I couldn’t resist, and picked from the plethora of designs. It was literally like a playground for any shoe lover. Antonio Viva is the sandal maker and he’s been featured on television and has made sandals for Sophie Loren and Jackie O. It took about twenty minutes to assemble and fit perfectly to my feet. All materials used are Italian made, too.  Now, whenever I wear those sandals, memories of Capri will come flooding back in.

***Pictures taken from the water were all courtesy of Hubs (I told him to take them and ignore me) 🙂

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Irresistible Italy: The Amalfi Coast

When I think of romance, incredible food, the arts, history and fashion- there’s one place that comes to mind – Italy. Hubs and I have been to Italy, both together and separately, but we’ve always wanted to explore more of it. After all, there is a ton to see, and do, in the famous ” boot”. We started off our two week trip on the Amalfi Coast. Hubs has raved about this area for years and after staying for a week, I can see why. It’s absolutely gorgeous and it’s most appreciated when the sun’s out. The colors of the water and buildings come to life. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. We used Sorrento as our jumping off point to explore the towns of Ravello, Amalfi, Positano and Capri. Even though it’s one of the scariest drives, it’s one that is a must when going to this part of the world. As someone who suffers from severe motion sickness, I took my seabands, Bonine and toughed it out. Unfortunately, those precautions didn’t work when we took a small boat over to Capri, but more on that later.

I couldn’t choose a favorite out of all the towns we visited. They all have their own charm and specialties. I can definitely see us coming back for getaways for the remainder of our time here. Stay tuned for more of our Italian adventures!

 

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Hubs behind the wheel for the first time since January 2013!!!  1 year and 3 1/2 months to be exact.

Hubs behind the wheel for the first time since January 2013!!! 1 year and 3 1/2 months to be exact.

The view from our room. That's Mt. Vesuvius in the background and the town of Sorrento below

The view from our room. That’s Mt. Vesuvius in the background and the town of Sorrento below

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