A trip to Italy, May - June 2002
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Travel to Italy, May - June, 2002. Lake Orta, the town of Orta San Guilio, the island, Isola San Guilio, Sacro Monte, Tuscany, Vineyards, San Gimignano, Siena, Impruneta, Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare and a castle in Umbria overlooking Lago Trasimeno and Tuscany.
The first pictures on the left are photos we took of some of the people we met. With some we shared a drink, some a taxi, some a meal and some a table. Some we just met and talked to. To all of you, thanks for including us in your holiday.
All of the photos on this trip were taken with an Olympus C-700 Digital Camera. In 17 days we took over 700 photos and uploaded 164 to Wal-Mart to have prints made. The digital photos were 1600x1200 and saved in the Olympus HQ Mode resulting in a file size of about 400-500 kilobytes. I used Photoshop to reduce the size and resolution of the photos on these web pages to about 10% of the original size. We carried an Olympus 35mm camera with us but did not use it and will probably not carry it on future trips. I had about 456 megabytes of SmartMedia with me and have now increased it to 712 megabytes for our next trip. I had an international voltage charger for the 2 sets of 4 NiMH AA batteries and never had a problem even after days of shooting with the same set. The C-700 seems to be easy on the batteries. I carried the C-700 in a small "fanny pack". Because the size was small we carried it everywhere.
We wanted to start our trip at Lake Orta, northwest of Milan. We had stopped here in late 2000 on a day trip from Stresa and it looked good so we made our minds up to come back. The photo on the left if you "Click here") is the island of San Guilio situated in Lake Orta. If you read this travelogue, click on the underlined words to see pictures which will be displayed on the left.
We got a good airfare through Alitalia Airlines with a direct flight from Chicago to Milan's Malpensa airport. We joined Alitalia's frequent flyer club in case we fly with them again. The flight left early in the day and we arrived around 0700 and we really didn't get much sleep but the flight was not bad, about 9 hours. Arriving at Malpensa airport early, we had to wait a little while for our luggage. Understandable since the flight was early. I had decided to take the Malpensa Shuttle bus to Milan's Centrale Station and then on to Novaro and then to the lakeside town of Orta San Guilio. The train actually stops at Orta Miasino, less than 2 kms away. It was a downhill walk and we couldn't find a taxi but we decided not to walk back up to the station on the day we left.
Orta is only about 25 miles from Malpensa Airport and we had considered renting a car but we had no need for a car in Orta and cars are not really allowed in the town anyway. You have to park in a parking lot up on the hill and leave your car unattended. There are also limousine services from Orta but they are expensive. Since we had plenty of time (all day) and we didn't want to sleep until at least 9PM, we took the bus to Milan and then two trains. This also gave us time to buy our tickets for the next leg of our journey, Orta to Monterosso al Mare in the Cinque Terre. The Malpensa Shuttle bus cost 4.50 Euro to Milan Centrale Train Station. We bought our tickets in the airport but we could have paid on the bus. We wrote down on paper what we wanted (Milan-Orta Miasino and Orta-Milan-Monterosso al Mare) with the date in the European Style (DD/MM/YYYY) and gave it to the ticket agent at the Milan train station. We splurged and got first class tickets Milan to Monterosso as the train was the "Andria Doria" and a through train, no changes. We should have asked for reserved seats. We went second class round trip Milan to Orta Miasino. Total was 9.30 Euro each, round trip, Milan to Orta Miasino, and 23.75 Euro each Milan to Monterosso, total 66.10 Euro. By the way, the Euro is great. Using it is much easier than using the Lira.
The train ticket agent had been very nice and we had time to kill so we went to the Grand bar for coffee. The trip to Milan and then Novaro and on to Orta Miasino took less than 4 hours. We neglected to ask the conductor when she checked our tickets if our car stopped at Orta Miasino and when the train stopped our car was not at the platform so we had to climb down with our luggage and walk along the tracks and rocks... but we made it. Actually, she knew where we were getting off and she could have told us. Don't forget to stamp your tickets in the yellow box before boarding the train at your first station, there is a fine if your ticket is not stamped. By the way, when you change trains at a station, look for the yellow Partenze sign on the platform. It's usually in the center of the platform if there are two tracks and on the side if the platform only services one track. AThe Arrivo sign is either on the other sigh of next to the Partenze. They mean Arrival and Departing Trains and the trains are listed by order of their arrival or departure. The columns will tell you where the train is going and a list of stops it will make and, most important, the track (binario) it will stop on. Italy has also started to install overhead signs on each platform that will tell you the destination of the next train. Inside the station there is usually a large changing sign with trains leaving or arriving within the next few minutes. Watch for the word "retardo" meaning it's late!
As I mentioned, we walked into Orta San Guilio and checked in our hotel, the Hotel Contrada dei Monti. We had booked a mini-suite. It was on the top floor and they had a lift. Plenty of wooden beams and we both hit our heads at one time or another. Great shower! I took a shower and we were off as we always try and stay up the full day of our arrival. We also know you have to get out in the sun to help set your body clock. It was only 1:30PM!
We walked 5 minutes to the main Piazza Motti which was full of German and English tourists. Here are several pictures of this piazza: Picture 1, Picture 2, Picture 3, Picture 4, and Picture 5. We just walked around, stopped for coffee, shopped and pretty soon it was time for a glass of wine. By this time the tours had left and the Piazza was quiet. At one bar there was a group of Italian men behind us telling "dirty jokes" in English but we failed to get the point of any of them. They however, thought the jokes were very funny. Maybe we were more tired than we thought. The view across the Piazza towards the Island of San Guilio was nice, you could really relax here in the evening. These are some views towards the island from Piazza Motti:Picture 1, Picture 2, Picture 3. We crossed the piazza to the Venus Bar and had another drink. Both bars gave you snacks with the drinks, usually peanuts, potato chips or olives, or all three. You got fresh snacks with each order and two glasses of white wine (Vino Bianco) cost between 2.50 and 3.50 Euro. We couldn't eat until 7Pm but at 7PM we went right into the restaurant and sat by the water. They gave us the full menu and we asked for the menu with pizzas as we didn't want to eat much. We each had a pizza and watched the sun go down behind the mountains and the island. There were swans swimming by as we ate. The pizzas were big and good. Then, someone set up some speakers and we had live Italian music, not too loud and the mood was quite romantic in the Piazza Motti. The island of San Guilio was lit up after sunset.
Not having much sleep we turned in at 9PM and slept until 12:15 the next day, Tuesday. That's 15 hours! We were quite refreshed. We missed breakfast and so we stopped at the Cafe Albino and had "toast" and coffee. Toast was just like Greece, similar to a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. We got into the habit of ordering "Cafe Americano con Latte" which is strong Italian coffee with a little more hot water and some milk on the side. Sometimes they just bring the hot water, coffee and milk and let you mix it. The Cafe Albino was a good place to watch the people walking by.
We walked up to the Sacro Monte, a series of chapels built in the late 16th and 17th century with life sized statutes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The chapels were okay but the views were fantastic. View 1, and View 2. The walk up to Sacro Monte was beautiful and there is a cafe at the top of the hill, food and drink. We had already been out to the Isola San Guilio where Saint Julius did something a thousand years before and then built a monastery which is now a convent on our previous day trip so we walked back to Piazza Motti for lunch. I should mention that you could easily spend 5-7 nights at the town of Orta San Guilio. There are many restaurants and quiet cafes, it's a magical place in the evening and at night. Here are some pictures of Piazza Motti at night, Picture 1, Picture 2, Picture 3, and a view to the island at night. Unfortunately, you can see just about everything else in one day! If you just want to relax and recharge, this is the place. If you had a car and wanted to visit other areas and come back for the night it would also be good as a base.
At the Venus Bar we met three Australians (Peter, Peter and Don) who were on an organized walking tour of Italy. Their wives had gone back to the room at the Villa Crispi and they were relaxing by the lake. Christine had seen them up at the Scaro Monte having lunch at the cafe so you should note that Orta San Guilio is small, you will see the same people often.
A note about the Villa Crispi, you will see it on your left, across from the Tourist Information Office at the intersection just before you start down towards the parking lot above Lake Orta. There is a road just past Villa Crispi on the left which did not have any markings. If you take the road, it goes along the lake and into the Piazza Motti. People use it to enter the town to drop off luggage, locals use it too.
We did a lot of exploring around the town. Everywhere we turned we saw small streets with a shop or cafe. There is an Internet cafe but it is not open every day.
Here are some photos we took as we walked around Orta San Guilio (the town) and Isola San Guilio (the island):
Back at the Cafe Albino I had a caprese sandwich (tomatoes and Mozzarella cheese on a bun) land some wine for lunch, it was a beautiful day in Lake Orta. We walked around some more and then back to the room to freshen up. We had asked Barbara, the woman at the hotel desk to call the Restaurant San Guilio on the island and book us a table for dinner and she did. It was still early so we went back to the piazza and sat at the Venus Bar for wine and snacks as we watched the activity in the piazza build up for the evening. The tour buses were gone and locals with their children came out for the nightly passiagiatta. Children on bikes and scooters moved around and the small boats came in and out. The lake ferry makes a circular route but only a few people get off and on. We weren't sure how we were going to get to the island but I had read that transportation was free. There were several other people waiting around and around 7:30 a boat from the island came over and the name on the side was Ristorante San Guilio. It is a short 5 minute ride to the island where we had a nice table looking back at the village of Orta San Guilio.
We just had salads and some pasta and then coffee Americano. Christine had gelato and I had some cheese, very strong but good. The people at the table next to us were Italian and the woman had a little dog in a carrier on the chair next to her, he sat there throughout the meal and the woman paid more attention to the dog than the man across from her. After dinner we explored the restaurant, it had several levels, and then walked out and around the island. We came back as the boat was leaving but they held it for us until we paid the bill.
Back in the piazza we sat on a bench and listened to a man at one of the cafes play a mandolin and sing Italian songs. It was peaceful and we were able to stay up until after 10PM!
Wednesday we got up in time for breakfast, which was worth getting up for, good coffee and rolls, cheese, etc. After breakfast we got on the Lake Ferry and went across the lake to Pella, nothing there so we took the ferry the next time it came around (about 35 minutes later) to the Island of San Guilio. We visited the church and walked around taking pictures of doors and walls, really! We caught the next ferry back to Orta San Guilio. We had purchased a day pass for 6 Euro each. The fare round trip to the island was 2.60 Euro. As I said before, there is not a lot to do in the daytime except explore the town, the island and the Sacro Monte.... but the nights at Lake Orta are magical.
We went back to the room to freshen up and turned on the TV. Italian shows make no sense even when you consider I don't understand what they are saying. One day there was a show where two men held a third man upside down. The third man was blindfolded and was playing an accordian and people danced around the trio. You figure! It was coffee time so we stopped at the Cafe Piazuta. The same people kept walking by and Christine was thinking we were on the Truman Show. We watched the people until it was time for Happy Hour and went to the Venus bar for wine and snacks and then later to the Cafe Piccolo on the left, both in the piazza. We were drinking white wine and Christine started callig it "sissy wine" as the glasses were only 100ml and it went down so easy. We watched the owners' little girl walking around the piazza dropping bread for the birds. One of the swans came up on the piazza and caused quite a stir. The staff from the Orta Hotel came out to see it. It is a simple relaxed life in Lake Orta, especially after the buses leave. Anyone who has read any of our prior trios knows how I feel about the tour buses. You may get a great deal and see a lot of sites but after you leave, the fun begins.
We went back to the Venus Bar and Restaurant for dinner and had some mixed salads and pizzas for dinner. The waiter gave us some balsamic vinegar for our salads and Christine thought this was a compliment as we had stopped here so much. I did notice that they did not give it to other tables unless they asked for it. The music started and the piazza was again magic. There were only a few people out.
Thursday was rainy and after breakfast Barbara got us a cab and asked if would share the cab with another couple going to the train, they had no luggage as they were going to Milan to meet some friends who had just arrived. The couple, Fenton and Margaret were from Ireland and many of their friends were coming to Lake Orta for a wedding the next day. Barbara said they had quite a few weddings and I can understand why, Orta is a magical place. The taxi driver pulled near the hotel and we went to the train station. The trip cost 15 Euro. It had cost 10 Euro for Fenton and Margaret on the way down so the extra charge was probably for the 4 of us. At the station a few people were waiting on the street side of the station and we soon learned that the train would not be coming but a bus would take us to Novaro. The taxi driver spoke no English but Christine told him the other couple were returning on the 7PM train and would he meet the train. He said yes and then went back to the taxi and gave them an umbrella as they had none. Fenton and Margaret also had no warm clothes as they thought it would be warm but the rain had also brought cooler weather. Then the taxi driver saw Christine stamp her tickets and asked about Fenton and Margaret's tickets, they didn't have any. It was now raining pretty hard so he asked Fenton for some money and Fenton gave him 20 Euro. The taxi driver jumper in his car and I told fenton he had seen the last of his 20 Euros. The taxi driver drove down the street and went into the tobacco shop. About this time the bus came and we slowly got on. The taxi returned and Fenton got his tickets and change. Then the bus driver said the tickets had not been stamped so the taxi driver grabbed them, ran around the station and stamped them. We meet some really nice people.
Fenton and Margaret had a cell phone and talked to their friends several times. They just said they would meet at the Milan Central Train Station and when they got there, they called each other and arranged where to meet. We went to Novaro and then on to Milan. The Andria Doria was one hour late and we had trouble finding two seats together in first class but eventually we did. We shared a seat with a woman from Knoxville, Tennessee. She had been in a seminar in Venice and was taking a few days to rest. She got off in Santa Margherita and I had to help her as she was carrying everything she owned. I don't know how she made it down the platform.
We got to Monterosso and there were people everywhere. It had stopped raining, it only rained four days of our trip, three days when we were traveling on the train and one morning, some drizzle. The rest of the time was fantastic. At the La Spiaggia Hotel we were welcomed by Isabella and Hillary. Andrea Poggi (the owner) was napping but we were immedaitely given some wine at the bar. Here we met Jason and Suzanne who we had many drinks with over the next few days. Suzanne lives in the Scottsdale, Arizona, both were from Chicago and I think Jason still lives in Chicago. We hope to meet them for dinner in Chicago some day.
The La Spaiggia Hotel no longer does dinner or lunch, just bed and breakfast. There are many restaurants in Monterosso so it is easy to find someplace to eat. We had heard that Guiseppi, the former waiter at the La Spiaggia Restaurant, was now working at the bar at the train station so we went down to see him. Lucky for us, he bought us a drink. Here's Christine, Guiseppi and then Christine and Guiseppi. By this time, Andrea was back and was busy with customers. He always seems busy with customers so sometimes the converstation stops abuptly while he takes care of business only to resume when he returns. We've gotten used to his style over the years. We went for wine at the Enoteca Wine Bar, the give olives and capers for snacks, very good. The wine prices in Monterosso vary quite a bit, some places it was only 1.25 and it went up to 3-4 Euro in some places. Snacks were always included. Three very reasonable places to drink were the bar across from the La Spiaggia Hotel, on the beach side of the street, the Eden Bar, also on the beach side of the street south of the train station, and the Bar Centrale in the old town area. There were more bars than even we could visit.
Andrea invited us to have dinner with his family and his wife, Isabella made seafood risotto which was delicious. Then mussels marinara followed by some salami, cheese and some fava beans. An, of course, some wine. It was excellent.
On Friday, 24 May, we decided to walk to Vernazza. The path along the cliffs was packed with people walking in both directions. There are booths set up on the path between the towns and they charge you 3 Euro. Keep your pass as it gets you past the next "toll booth". At the train station you can buy a pass for around 6 Euro that allows you to walk the paths between the towns, ride the train between the towns and take a bus that also goes between the towns. On the walk I took this picture of the old part of Monterosso al Mare, scroll across if you view this picture. You can see the monastery on the hill and the train tunnel. The beach area and train station are behind the hill the monastery is on, there is a pedestrian tunnel through the hill. Here is another beach photo.
In Vernazza we walked up to the sea and had lunch on a balcony overlooking the sea at the Restaurant Belforte. We had a great view north looking at Monterosso. After lunch we decided to walk to Coniglia and John almost fell over the edge. I tripped over a tree root and fell head first over the side. There was nothing to grab onto and lucky for me that I'm bottom heavy. My foot and leg were bloody but I kept walking, actually had no choice. Within a few days my toes turned black but they did not fall off.
In Corniglia we found the Enoteca of Mario, who is the brother-in-law of Andrea, so we stopped for drink. He gave us free glass of his red wine and it was so good we asked to buy a bottle. He said sure and left the store only to come back a few minutes later with an unmarked bottle of red wine with a cork stuck in the top. It cost 6 Euro and we drank it while in Umbria, it was good.
We took the train back from Corniglia to Monterosso and went directly to the La Spiaggia bar for some wine. We were soon joined by Jason and Suzanne. Later, we walked down to the Eden Bar for more wine. Usually, in the Fall this is a good spot to watch the sunset but in May the sun set too far north so we had to watch it set over the mountain between Monterosso and Levanto. Dinner was at La Lampara in the old town area. We had spagetti with pesto and grilled prawns the size of your hand. I had seen this restaurant over the years and always wanted to eat there. It was fun watching Luigi, the cook, work. He handled everything, what a master chef. Christine had fresh strawberries for dessert, I had gelato. They only had espresso so we passed on coffee. We walked back to the hotel and met Andrea at a cafe so we had Capuccino with Andrea. From the cafe we went to the Enoteca bar for a glass of wine. Christine and I drank it but Andrea said it tasted like cork so they gave us fresh glasses. We had almost finished our first glass, what do we know?
Saturday, today is the lemon festival and we walked into the old part of town where there were lemons everywhere. Suddenly, we heard accordian music. There were four men strolling around playing songs. They stopped in front of the church and played Ave Maria. There were samples of lemon cream liquor, lemonade and lemon tarts. We stopped at the Bar Centrale and watched the people. Here are some photos of the lemon festival and the Lemons: Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3, Photo 4, Photo 5 , Photo 6, and Photo 7. At 1 PM we were supposed to meet Andrea at the Belvedere Restaurant for lunch, he was late. After waiting awhile, I went in the restaurant to check if Andrea was there and the waiter pointed to a table with a man who was a stranger to me. The waiter said, "Andrea Poggi, yes." We sat down and Christine made conversation with the man, Gino, who was a retired professor from Genoa University. He spoke no English so I said nothing. After a few minutes Andrea showed up with Paul and Suzanne from Seattle. Paul and Suzanne were on a two month European Holiday celebrating 30 years of marriage. Christine and I were interested as we plan on doing just that later this year. I was sort of surprised to learn that Andrea had just met Paul and Suzanne but then again, nothing Andrea does really surprises me anymore. There were six of us for lunch at the Belvedere Restaurant. The photo shows Paul, Gino, Christine, Andrea and Suzanne; I took the photo.
Andrea ordered for everyone and we had seafood, little octopi, smoked tuna, swordfish, stuffed mussels, stuffed anchovies, huge grilled prawns, and then a seafood risoto with mussels, clams and other sea critters. At one point the waiter came up behind me and Andrea, who was sitting across from me said "say risoto". Both Paul and I said "risoto" and Andrea and Christine laughed as Andrea was talking to the waiter and that meant six orders risoto. Say in Italian is six.
After this big lunch, I went back to the room for a nap and Christine went for a walk. We started the afternoon out with a drink at the Enoteca bar with Andrea when Jason and Suzanne came by with their backpacks. They were on the way to the train station and just had time for a glass of wine. We said our goodbyes and they left for Florence. They were sad to be leaving but we all know, you can come back almost anytime. Later we went to the La Pirata restaurant behind the hotel for dinner where we had a salad and seafood ravioli. It was so good we decided to eat there again but it was not to be. After dinner we went back to the old town where a band was playing and people were dancing. Here are some of the dancing photos: Dancing 1 and Dancing 2. So we danced a waltz and a polka. Paul and Suzanne from Seattle were also dancing. It was a nice night. We stopped at the Bar Centrale for a late night drink only to later run into Andrea at the Enoteca bar and have another glass of Champagne.
Sunday we shopped and bought some lemon liquor and olive oil, the old town seemed so empty after the previous night's celebration. Again we met Andrea at the bar across from the hotel. He was with a friend and they were drinking a red drink called San Bitter, we tried it, it had ice and was refreshing. I don't think there was any alcohol in it and it was cheap. For lunch we went down to the local bakery and had some onion bread. Late in the afternoon Andrea found us and took us in his van up to a small church in the hills. There was a festival at the church honoring some ico that was very old. Andrea got us plates and glasses and we ate some beef with bread and wine. Unfortunately, in the hills it had started to rain but we ate anyway. We went in the church to see the icon and then back to Monterosso. We had eaten a lot of beef so it looked like dinner was out of the question.
Back in the old town we stopped at the Bar Centrale and then the Pizzaria Ely for a 4 cheese pizza. Just that 4 cheeses, no tomato sauce. I think the best pizza is the Margharita, it's tomato suace and cheese, remember that. Back at the hotel we sat outside with Andrea and then Paul and Suzanne stopped by. I owed them a drink but they said they already had already consumed two bottles so I bought them some coffee. Christine was tired so she went to bed and Andrea and I stayed up. First we stopped a restaurant that was hosting a late night wedding dinner and we went into the kitchen where the cook gave us samples to taste. Then on to the La Pirata restaurant where we had a glass of wine. Andrea and I then sat in his bar for awhile solving many of the world's problems. Giovanni, a regular at the La Spiaggia Bar stopped in. Giovanni takes a great picture. I took this picture of the moon over the sea as I went to bed.
Monday, we checked out of the hotel, Andrea gave us a liter of his famous pesto sauce to take home and we caught the train to Pisa and then Florence.
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