Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Visit to Portofino

It's bank holiday weekend in Santa Margherita in Liguria. The weather is hot and sunny, a perfect recipe for an Italian seaside holiday. 

We spent a large part of the day exploring the cobblestone streets and arcaded shops on the waterfront. To just relax and take in the ambiance, we decided to stop at a cafe just above the beach to people watch. Most people brought their own umbrellas and many had a picnic too. One extended family all huddled under an umbrella to escape the summer sun and then lathered up with suntan lotion to take a cool dip.

While people lounged on the beach, several merchants appeared. One was selling cool slices of coconut and another was holding large  cotton cloths with colorful designs. "From Kashmir!" he called out proudly. I am not sure if they were really from there but they did look nice.

In the evening we took the public bus to Portofino. It's a 15 minute ride up the narrow coastal road that has such sharp twists and turns that the bus driver had to constantly toot a musical horn. We noticed that here buses rule and everyone else needs to pull over. 

I have always wanted to visit Portofino, a resort for the rich and famous. On Skyline webcams I have watched the live streaming webcam and noticed the luxurious yachts. The village is accessed down a step cobblestone lane and the waterfront is lined with colorful houses and cafes all tucked into a tiny cove where the yachts are docked. We walked along the waterfront and found a table on a floating dock right outside a cafe.  We ordered bellinis where the peach puree was so fresh, it tasted like it came right off the tree.  The drinks were served with a tapa type platter of olives, cheese, prosciutto, potato chips, and carrot sticks and dip.

Determined to find the picture postcard view always featured in photos, we hiked up the stone path on the other side of the harbor to a small church overlooking Portofino on one side and the ocean on the other, We discovered that a music festival was taking place and a swing band was about to perform outside the church. We stayed for one song and they were excellent.

Back in town, the lights on the buildings were just coming on. We walked out on a pier to look back at the town. It was a lively place with people at outside cafes and musicians serenading tables. Many of the buildings including the church are outlined in white lights. Looking back at the town, we truly felt like we were in a magical place.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Adventures on an Italian Train

Traveling by train in Italy can be an interesting experience. We have experienced everything from cars so old they have rusted through to sleek modern high speed trains that swiftly take you from one destinationto the next. The biggest problem we find is if you have luggage. If there is no room in the luggage area in the car, you are often left standing between cars just to stay with your bags. It was with all these possibilities in mind that we were not exactly looking forward to a two hour train ride to Santa Margharita on the Ligurian coast, but we were in for a pleasant surprise.

After rushing to get on our assigned car at Milan Centrale we discovered the train had compartments, each holding six people with room for luggage up above the seats. We have had experience with these where everyone sat in silence plugged into the iPads, but today there were four interesting passengers: a young mother originally from Slovakia  and her three year old son Alex, and an older well dressed couple. David and I sat facing each other by the window, the mother and child in the middle, and the couple facing each other by the door. David and the man started talking about Italian films and they immediately developed a nice rapport. We learned the couple was married on Lake Maggiorie and that he had been a chemical engineer. "Has Italy changed much since you were a boy?" Dave asked. "My story is a long one," he said. "I was born in 1929."

Throughout the rest of the train ride this man who looked like a little college professor told story after story. As his English improved as he spoke, we realized we were in the presence of a brilliant mind with interesting stories about history. We sat fascinated listening to stories ranging from how the Vespa Italian motorbike was invented to his life under Mussolini as a child. "I remember it all," he said.

While all these stories were being told, there was some entertainment from Alex. Desperate for attention he touched his lollipop  to each of our legs and the man's shoes before popping it in his own mouth. His mother had brought an activity bag with coloring pages, puzzles, and plastic figurines to entertain him, but with his short attention span, he was in and out of the compartment with his mother close behind, showing us his toys, or offering us milk out of his bottle. At one point he was siting on my feet. His mother had some parenting skills to learn. Right as the man was saying, "When the Allies invaded Sicily..." Alex and his mother got into a power struggle with an empty soda bottle. I have to admit, though, keeping a child that age entertained for two hours would be a challenge, Our journey ended with handshakes and we felt very enriched from this cultural experience.

Exiting the train station in Santa Margharita we were a little concerned, When we called our accommodation from the train to alert them we would be late, they told us they had never heard of us even though we made the reservation in April. Thinking there must be a mistake, we headed over anyway and received the same message. "This is bank holiday weekend in Italy. There are no hotel rooms anywhere. The whole town is booked." The man at the desk finally agreed to look for a room on his computer for us. "Well ok.There is a room at the Park Hotel Suiss. It's a 4'star, but I think it's really a 3 star," he said with a look of disdain on his face. What could we do? We had to take it. While waiting for the taxi I got online and looked it up on Trip Advisor. It ranked 21/21 hotels- the lowest ranked hotel in the city.

We were told our room had a sea view so we headed over in a taxi expecting a back alley hotel with a tiny room with a small dusty window with a far off glimpse of the sea, but we could not have been in for a bigger surprise, The hotel is undergoing renovations and although our room decor is bland, it's big and clean with a huge balcony with expansive views of the harbor. This is the kind of view you get at a four star hotel. There's a new pool and the hotel is just down the street from all of the action. 

To save money we decided to stroll around and look for a cafe for a slice of pizza, salad, or toasted cheese. We ended up recognizing a restaurant Ristorante Michele that was featured in a Dennis Callan video on YouTube. Dennis Callan has hundreds of travel videos following European tours he leads from Hawaii. I tried telling the wife of the owner we had seen the restaurant on TV. She spoke no English, but was so curious what I was so excited to tell her that she brought her daughter over to translate. As it turned out they had seen the video and were so touched we mentioned it that they treated us to limoncello.

All around us in this outdoor cafe was an Italian holiday vibe. Although it was 10:30, children of all ages ran and played while the adults sat happily just enjoying their table which is yours for the evening. We struck up a conversation with the couple beside us from Genoa. They were as interested in us as we were them.

When we travel we travel on a budget. We do not stay in fancy hotels and we don't dine at fancy restaurants. This way we are closer to the people and in our minds, that's what good travel is all about.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Day Trip to Switzerland

Today we did something out of the ordinary. We took a round trip excursion to the Swiss side of Lake Maggiorie to the town of Locarno. 

Getting there was half the fun. We boarded a Swiss panoramic train that wound through the Italian countryside and up through the mountains for two hours. Looking down into the valleys we saw rushing rivers and at times, people rafting, Looking above were tiny villages, each with a stone church with a bell tower at the highest point, all with clock faces.  Several of these villages were stops for alpine hiking trips or mountain biking trips.

Stepping off the boat I spotted some para gliders floating high above the mountains. "They must have an amazing view," I thought to myself, but I think my fear of heights would prevent me from trying it. We ate lunch at a cafe on the waterfront. Food is expensive here. A slice of pizza costs over $10. My meal was interesting. It was a grilled cheese sandwich made with pancakes.  We had a nice chat with our waiter. He grew up in Macedonia when it was under Soviet rule. "Your menu is in English with an Italian accent," he joked. He must have thought we were friendly. When he brought the bill he announced, "Here in Locarno it's a tradition that the lady pays!"

My sister Jane and my friend Susan Erickson and I all love Swatch watches. Every year I buy one I think Susan will like. It's a tradition.  I sent Jane a link to the European Swatch collection and she said her favorite was a black one with a cow etched on it and a real cowbell attached. I told her I would try my best, but it was unlikely that in Paris they would sell that one because it seemed unique to the Alps.  Walking past a department store today I spotted a collection of Swatch watches and lost no time heading right inside and there on the wall was the exact watch she chose. I couldn't believe it. It was my best purchase of the day.

Since we only had a few hours in Locarno, we were only able to see a few sights. We visited a church which dates back to the 13th century and a museum of archaeology. I think we were the only ones in there. We were given a map, but ended up using our imagination in some of the rooms because nothing of course was in English. In the bell tower people had signed their names over the past 100 years. This week on CNN International they have an ad for the show where the announcer says, "Where some people see graffiti, I see art." While there weren't any drawings, looking at all the names in different handwriting was like looking at an art form.

Our trip back to Stresa was a two hour boat ride across the lake which stopped at many small towns to let people on and off.  The sun was out the entire way and everywhere people were out in small sailboats.

Late tonight we joined some of the others and strolled the lakeside promenade. There are a lot of old world grand hotels and we toured the lobbies. Many were elegant with crystal chandeliers and antique furniture. One would think it would cost a fortune to stay at these places, but many are under $150 a night including breakfast. There is such a pleasant holiday vibe here. I think we have found a new favorite place.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Spending a Day on Lake Maggiorie

This morning in Stresa we discovered a neighborhood of tiny cobblestone streets and piazzas behind our hotel. It's fun to watch a town waking up in the morning. Shop owners were putting up their umbrellas and awnings, arranging appealing displays outside, and cafes were busy selling coffee and cakes. Even though it wasn't yet 11:00 am, families were enjoying ice cream cones and many were posing with them too.

We took a boat to Isola Bella, an Italian villa on an island which is still in use today. Dating back to the early 17th century, the villa has been witness to some significant developments in world history, including a two night visit by Napoleon in1797, and in 1935 it was the setting for the failed Stresa Conference in which the Allies tried to encourage Mussolini to help them stop Hitler. When Napoleon and his entourage visited for two nights, the staff said they were appalled at the mess they left behind.

The villa has a staggering collection of artifacts and artwork collected from around the world. Two interesting rooms in the palace included their massive collection of marionettes and several grottos which are covered floor to ceiling with black and white perfectly formed pebbles and shells. The purpose was to be a cool respite from the hot sun of Italy and it was very cool in there. I envy those who have lived here, There are striking views of the lakes, the islands, the mountains including snow capped ones in the distance, and tiny towns from every room.  Outside are immaculately maintained terraced Italian classical gardens with lily pools. There were so many families posing for photos it was hard to get to the top. With all this beauty a funny moment was when all cameras aimed at a tractor driving up two flights of stone steps pulling a wagon of bottled water and paper towels. I have to admit I have never seen this maneuver either.

Just 10 minutes away by boat is Isola Madre. Located on its own island, the villa has an interesting story, In August 2006 a tornado swept through the area uprooting an enormous cyprus tree which had been the pride and joy of the villa. The seeds for this tree had come from the Himalayas in a paper bag and were planted back in the 1800s. Almost immediately a rescue effort was launched and through the use of several cranes delivered by helicopter, it was pulled upright into a position where the roots were replanted. Today it is held upright by a series of cables which anchor it. It is thriving and while it may never return to its former glory, it is beautiful and as the sign says, it has seen the past and looks forward to the future. 

While walking through the villa which also has an amazing collection of marionettes, a young woman stopped us on the stairs. "Have you seen the exotic birds?" she asked and we said we had in the aviary, "Find a hidden path, listen for crunching, and then look under the bushes. The most beautiful birds are hidden there." She showed us some of the colorful birds she had photographed.  While we didn't discover any hidden birds, we did enjoy the gardens which are English and much less elaborate than the Italian ones at Isola Bella. 

Tonight we walked around town and checked out some of the older grand hotels. Tomorrow,we  have a busy day planned for tomorrow, we are taking a boat tour into the Swiss side of the lake for a day trip.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Lake Maggiorie

Today was a transition day. I usually don't like them because I am always happy where we are for the moment and of all cities, Paris is difficult to leave. Today was different, however. We were off to the Lake District of Italy and I am very excited.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Summer in Paris

It's summer in Paris and the city is alive with tourists. It was a bright sunny day when weheaded out for sightseeing today and thankfully the temperature is in the 70s.

Saint Sulpice is just around the corner from our hotel. Modeled after St. Paul's in London, this church has beautiful  stained glass windows inside. Hearing and seeing the organ there is a pilgrimage for church organ enthusiasts like me but unfortunately Daniel Roth, the greatest organist in Europe won't be performing until after we have left.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A City of Stunning Beauty

I have to admit it, I was a little nervous about the idea of coming to Paris. So much has happened in France in the past year, but this morning we found that Paris is alive and well and we are happy to be here.

Surrounding our hotel are small neighborhoods with cobblestone streets, Little parks are tucked into wherever there is a space and they are bursting with flowers. We saw a gardener working in one today and seeing these places, you forget you are in a large city.

The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, but in the front there is a large glass pyramid entrance and an enormous marble fountain. Small marble cubes were scattered about and people posed on top of them for photos with their hands extended to make them look like they were touching the top of the pyramid. It was entertaining to watch. Young and old alike joined in, some climbing on each other's back.  

We headed into the Royal Gardens behind the Louvre and this time, striped wooden pillars of varying sizes were featured, For some reason, people felt the need to pose like a ballerina on these. Walking behind the gardens we discovered an elegant arcade of shops, My favorite was a toy shop with beautifully made French toys, They had the equivalent French doll to the American Girl dolls.

Lunch was at La Palette. It looks much the same as it probably did in the 1920s. It was very old world with dark wood and artists palettes displayed. We see these retro style cafes everywhere and they look exactly like what you see in French paintings of Paris.

The Luxembourg Palace must be a child's dream place. The palace itself and the gardens are beautiful, but within the garden are some wonderful things to do. At one large circular fountain, children rent small wooden sailboats with flags from different countries and set them to sail in the pool, There are no motors on them. These boats are beautifully designed to sail on their own. Long wooden poles are given to the children to push the boat along if necessary. 

Our last stop was the Pantheon. Inside what was once an old church, it now houses the tombs of many famous people from France.A poster suggested a visit to the tower for a 360 degree view. I knew it was going to be 206 steps up, but I didn't know this meant a guided group march to the top. Thankfully there were two view points along the way to the top where the view over the city was amazing, We felt it was better than the view from the Eiffel Tower because here you had the tower in your view.

Tonight we took a cruise down the Seine right at dusk. Paris is so alive after dark. People sat along the river banks waving as we passed by and in one section, danced outside to live Latin music. The Eiffel Tower was all lit up and right on cue at 10:00, thousand of tiny lights on it came on sparkling like diamonds glistening in the sun. I could have watched it for hours. What a memorable way to end the day!