Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Northern Italy from Milano to sunny Venezia

We left Lake Maggiore this morning and headed for Trentino via the towns of Salo (lunch stop: spaghetti vongole) and Limone (afternoon stop: nocciolo e fragola gelati) on the picturesque Lake Garda. It was a beautiful drive through hills, vineyards and lakeside towns before we settled at Trentino higher in the hills close to the Austrian Border.  Here is a town of about 160,000 inhabitants and the highest standard of living in all Italy.
Trentino looks like a typical Italian town - a beautiful medieval Old City with cathedral (Duomo) and a castle once inhabited by cardinals, nobles and popes. See me dutifully posing in front of it above. The shops, restaurants and businesses within the Old City are all chic, and high mountain peaks surround it all.  Some of the restaurants offer pork knuckle and beer, which suggests the influence of other cultures and customs, but I opted for a very light, early dinner of parma ham and melon for a change because I am tired of eating. It was a refreshingly light and simple repast.
So, as our holiday starts to draw to a close, I am very grateful that we holidayed with Zenga and Michael because they added so much to our enjoyment. The boys were always there, and yet I think we all felt we had plenty of 'space'. We never disagreed or argued - those boys are incredibly chilled, but I think Steve and I were too. The secret, though, is that we tend to agree and want to do the same things. Steve and Zenga love eating and drinking, and everyone lets me be when I need "time out".  Zenga is great at taking photographs, Steve is good at sourcing good eateries and wine, and Michael and I are always confused and don't know where we are. The holiday has been an orgy of Grand Bouffes, plenty of laughs, and many, many beautiful sights. We are continually delighted and grateful to have had a truly memorable respite from our everyday lives (which aren't too shabby either, I confess).  Above a photograph of Zenga in Verona where he was able to see an exhibition of his Diva inspiration, Maria Callas. The weather was torrential, but the following days in Venice, fortunately, were brilliant blue. A great end to a wonderful month abroad!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Today was possibly the best day of the entire Italian holiday. If the Lake District of Italy is good enough for Princess Caroline of Monaco and George Clooney, unsurprisingly it's good enough for me. We are even staying in the same hotel that Princess Caroline stayed at recently when visiting her younger son's in-laws. They are the noble Borromeo family whose ancestors go back to medieval times when the Borromeos were related to not one but four popes and one of the Borromeo family was a very powerful Archbishop of Milan. In recent times a young Borromea heiress caught the eye of Pierre Casiraghi, Princess Caroline's youngest, and a match was made in noble heaven, gilt with pearls and rubies.
  This morning, our boat launch picked up our group after breakfast on the hotel terrace overlooking beautiful Lake Maggiore, the second biggest and deepest of the pre-Alpine lakes, and gently carried us over sparkling sun-dappled water to visit the three islands once owned by the Borromeo family.  Today the Borromeos still own two of the islands, but have donated each of the houses on the isles  to Italy as museums... while the third island was sold in its entirety.
   We visited first Isola Madre ( the Mother's Isle) and were overwhelmed by the exquisite Italianate beauty of the house and gardens... until we visited the jewel of the three islands formerly owned by the Borromeo family, Isola Bella (see below).
   You approach the island by boat and the outline of the homestead is awe-inspiring with a theatrical garden centrepiece dominating the approach with its sculptures, fountains and manicured gardens. Inside the rooms are exquisite: dusty pink walls, blue-veined marble, frescoes, giant tapestries, sculptures, balconies overlooking vistas of blue and gardens fragrant with a world of flowers. It took my breath away... and now my words. I cannot describe perfection, and this was it.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


This post is a bit of a catch-up as days have gone by in a blur and it's impossible to remember it all, we do so much! The photo is taken in Pisa showing the baptistry and  part of Pisa's Duomo. Duomo is Italian for 'cathedral' and that means there's an archbishop in charge. So, after leaving Rome we spent our first day in Umbria and slept at Hotel Fortuna in Perugia. Day two and day three of our Back Roads tour was in Tuscany with two nights at our glamorous villa about 80 minutes' drive from Siena. I had a bad cold so I was a bit under par, but I still managed to thoroughly enjoy our cooking class where we learned to make focaccia bread and pasta. It's much easier than I thought!!! I spent one entire afternoon and evening in bed, and that did the trick, because I never looked back after that. I shopped like a madwoman in Florence and did nothing cultural (sorry folks, I've seen the David, the Uffizi Palace, etc. on previous visits) so this time I sipped espressos on rooftop balconies, people watched and drank in all the fashion.
After Florence, we went to Lucca and stayed at a wonderful hotel for two nights in the old city with frescoes all over our walls and ceilings. Steve and I had the Camellia room, and it was lovely to 'hang' there in between visits to Pisa and a Puccini concert in a local church. After that, we went to a degustation dinner at a local haunt, all paired with organic Italian wines, and another night of carousing elapsed.  I woke the next morning, surprisingly bouncy, and thoroughly enjoyed our day at Monterosso, Cinqueterre, before heading northwest to the Italian Riviera.


We are now in Sestri Levante at Grande Hotel dei Castelli on the hills overlooking Fairytale Bay and Bay of Silence on the Italian Riviera, and this is the view from our breakfast terrace. And this is our breakfast!

I had their millefeuille confection at dinner the evening before (one of the best I have tasted, and I know my millefeuilles), but resisted another for breakfast while Steve did not, and others shared one between them. I had forgotten that this Back Roads Tour is called an 'Indulgent' experience and they're not kidding. No wonder I am giving the Wine Bank visit at dusk today a miss - more wine and nibbles, and then MORE dinner????? Yikes!!!! Michael and I are struggling a little with all this indulgence, while Zenga and Steve are lapping it all up... typically with extra virgin olive oil.
So today we farewelled the Mediterranean coast and headed northwards into the Piedmont region. We had such spectacular weather today that we could see the Alps clearly, and all its peaks!
En route to Trente (also called Trentino) we stopped for mid-morning espresso in Millessimmo where there was an antiques car convention and we saw one of three remaining fortress bridges from medieval times (12th century) before driving to Barolo for lunch (panini and caramelised hazelnuts for dessert), then visiting a truffle farm where we met Lucca and his pooch, Willy, and went hunting for black and white truffles. Willy and his truffle-tuned snout found five examples of this gastronomic gold in the spectacular vineyard hills and secluded convents where we went hiking as a group.  At the conclusion, naturally, we partook of truffles, cheeses, bread and wine. Like I said before, haven't been hungry.... since about 20 minutes ago! I'm sorry I haven't got pictures here of Lucca and Willy, but I forgot my camera on the coach in all my excitement...
We are now staying overnight at Pollenzo, a UNESCO heritage town of 850 inhabitants, and the hotel feels like a convent. It's part of the Gastronomic University, the first of its kind in the world, and the centre of the global SLOW FOOD movement. We get to sleep in a little tomorrow as we depart only at 9.45am. We are all so excited, as this can be a marathon of packing, unpacking, showering, eating, and seeing and doing... so a little time up our sleeves is welcome. That said, I think we are spending the next two days in Lake Maggiore where I suspect we will be able to chill a bit, as we did for two days in our Tuscan villa.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


After departing our Hotel Neptune (above) in Dubrovnik,  we are now in the heart of Italy having traversed three of the four papal states. Specifically, we are an hour away from Siena after lunching there today. I have become obsessed with food. Last night we went to a restaurant in Perugia that no tourist would ever find and ate with the locals - risotto for primi, veal artichoke for second piatti, and custard and chocolate for dessert. Fantastico! Today all I could think of was more pasta, and gelato, and when we arrived in Siena all I cared about was lunch. I ordered a papardelle porcini washed down with chianti classico, accompanied by bread and olive oil, insalata miste (the tomatoes, people!) and then a cup of gelato with four different flavours - hazelnut, pistachio, vanilla and strawberry. Heaven on a stick!
I have thrown all caution to the wind and barely glance at the cathedrals and sightseeing highlights, instead preferring to drink in the vineyard scenery as we tour in our beautiful Mercedes bus, so new you can still smell the leather! The four of us are getting on exceedingly well - you'd have to be crazy to be churlish in these conditions - and our 12 other fellow voyagers on Back Roads are easy on the nerves. Of course, the Italian guide, Augustino, is charm personified, jolly, good fun, and married to an Aussie so he knows we like "yummy" places! Buon appetito, everyone, think of me having MORE fresh pasta tonight under the stars! Below a photograph of the view from  our villa suite...

Saturday, May 7, 2016


Once upon a time it was the Cote d'Azur.  In 2016, it's Dubrovnik. If you are Europe-based and sun-hungry, I would book and visit for five days immediately, tourist trap though this place be. But for Australians, who are not short of beaches and sunshine, two days is enough. Thankfully we had a great hotel with 180 degree views of the Adriatic as far as the eye could see, and a seaside spot for lounge lizards (with margaritas and pina coladas on tap) that provided the ideal location to do nothing but relax. Aaaaaaah! The old city is breathtaking, but packed with people from all over the world; aside from a leisurely stroll around this world heritage site, I would recommend the cable car ride to the top of the citadel's mountain. Two thousand metres above sea level you can see the beautiful natural scenery on the OTHER side of the shore-hugging metropolis, and enjoy another perspective of a breathtaking coastline and a glamorous holiday lifestyle that includes sailing to other islands, kayaking, quad biking, and more. Tomorrow: back to Rome and the next leg of this European idyll.

Friday, May 6, 2016


Very happily for us the weather improved as we hit the Dalmatian coast and sailed over two consecutive days into the harbours of two Croatian islands, Hvar and Korcula. On Hvar we went for a walk through the hinterland and had lunch at a local farmer's hamlet high up in the hills overlooking the surrounding bays, the fragrant bouquet of olive tree blossoms wafting through the air as we sipped a Croatian white. Verdict: excellent. At Korcula, we abandoned our guides and walked and laughed with our fellow passengers, tired of the endless history lessons and church visits.  That evening we had the final Classic concert and it was beautiful - from Ravel's Bolero to Russian jazz to Debussy's Claire de Lune, each piece exquisitely interpreted by a United Nations of celebrated pianists. After the 90 minutes, the hairs on my arms were standing on end and I felt completely alive. Bravo! Bellissimo! Encore!
The holiday has not been without its glitches - I mislaid my passport at a critical moment and gave everyone, including myself, heart palpitations for a ghastly half hour until le passport was recovered somewhere not entirely expected. (I am very forgetful, it worries me). We've had two horrible days of drizzly grey, but the forecast is definitely on the up, and now I am holed up in probably the worst room in a dazzling four-star hotel. No sea view, and no chance of one, as the hotel is full.
I am glad however that the hotel is away from the old city which is far too busy - tourists swarm everywhere, and it's not even high summer yet.
Enough chatter for now. I am going for a cocktail. The challenge on this holiday is to restrain one's eating and drinking and so far, I have surprised myself, managing to eat only two meals a day and foregoing wine at meals for the majority of time in favour of occasional cocktails.
Alas, even on holiday, one does need to keep a beady eye on data usage, waistline, laundry... and, of course, passports!
Until ze next time, I send you love, mi amigos, and home remains firmly in my thoughts.