I was careful not to step on a scale while we were traveling in Italy recently, but my very tight pants mid journey, indicated that I was enjoying the food and drink way too much. This was not my first time in this beautiful country. I studied in Rome many years ago with a brilliant voice coach, then biked with Charles about 25 years ago from Milan to Venice, helped celebrate my sister’s birthday in Venice one May, and cycled in Puglia a few years ago. So Italy is not new to me, but the country is always a revelation.
I think what I like most, aside from the wonderful cuisine, is the light. There is always a slight tinge of ochre to the buildings; the sky is a subtle blue, and the mountains green grey. There is just a hint of pink everywhere.
Colours of Italy
Our trip was planned in April and our dear friends, Stewart and Barbara from Lancashire, joined us. This is not the first trip that we have shared and I am sure won’t be the last. It is always a tricky proposition travelling with another couple, but the four of us just flow well together. Stewart and I do all the planning and everyone is always ready to laugh. There is never a question about money; we just split everything. We all love our food and drink and often separate during the day and meet in the bar before dinner. It all works well and we are still friends after our holidays together.
I like to travel light, but a 10-day trip requires more that a weekend bag. Both Charles and I took only our mid-size Tumi suitcases. For years I have used cleaner plastic bags over my clothes on hangers, and then fold them in my case. My clothes just never get creased and it is so easy to just open the suitcase, take out the two bags and hang them up. I can usually get about 4 pairs of pants in one, and six or seven tops in another. If I need formal wear on a cruise I put all the dresses together on hangers and cover with the plastic cleaner bags. This has been working perfectly for me since my opera travel days.
Tops in cleaner bags
In the bottom of the case I place a nightie, bathing suit, a synthetic towel to wrap my hair after I wash it, and I take a small towel wrap for my body. I like to do my makeup covered up. A bath towel would almost work as well, but this has a Velcro top and doesn’t fall down. I have been known to use it as a cover-up in a motel when there isn’t a bathrobe supplied and I want to go for a swim.
For this trip I packed a pair of walking shoes, two pairs of loafers, and one pair of high wedges in black for a slightly dressier feel. My panties and bras fit in a pocket of the case, and my cosmetics that I can’t carry on the plane fit in another with a small Brookstone travel dual voltage hair dryer. I throw in a raincoat and fold up umbrella, and small knapsack in an outside pocket. My ipad and kindle go in a small carry on with my meds, cosmetics, jewelry, passport and trip plans, just in case my suitcase is lost. I don’t pack Charles’ bag, but I oversee it after I have done my own, just to be sure he takes appropriate clothes. He also uses the cleaner bags on hangers for his shirts. He takes a knapsack on the plane with his meds and travel computer. This knapsack has a big problem staying with Charles. It seems to like airport shuttle rides and it often remains on the bus after we have departed. Fortunately, we always manage to remember it and find it. Hmm.
Charles with knapsack
I have been travelling for most of my life. When I was performing in Europe or studying there, I got very comfortable with the vagaries of air travel, and comfortable with it. In those days I flew economy and I still do for short hauls, but now that I am older and can thankfully afford it, I go Business Class, and look for the lowest business class fares or multi city fares. (See blog – Lists: Bucket or Otherwise). The trips overseas are pleasant and I usually manage to get about 5 hours of sleep in the pod beds. Air Canada is good, with acceptable food, but Air New Zealand, doesn’t have to worry about the competition.
On this trip we were arriving about 7 hours earlier than our friends so I booked a day room in the hotel in Malpensa airport in Milan. That proved to be a terrific idea. We walked with our bags, checked into our room, went to sleep, and I woke up to go for a swim in the lovely indoor pool. We showered, had a bite of pizza and a glass of prosecco and were ready to meet our friends at the car rental. We did not feel like zombies and were ready for our adventure.
The first of many pizzas
The car rental was a ridiculously lengthy process, although it was pre-booked with Budget, it just took an inordinate amount of time for everyone in front of us, and as well for us. After deciding against the first vehicle that we were offered, not the one booked of course, we found a larger Ford that could carry all our combined gear, including Barbara’s large pink suitcase. We were able to get this car because the attendant thought Charles was some old American movie star.
Packing the trunk note pink suitcase
We then set off for our first night’s stay in Lago Maggiore, one of the gorgeous Italian lakes. Stewart and I chose all the hotels about 6 months previously, and we were able to get great rates. It didn’t hurt that he has a travel agency and we enjoyed some terrific discounts.
The first hotel was stunning. Perhaps my favourite of the trip, called Villa Palazzo Aminta. It is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group and that is always an indication of quality. In beautiful condition this older property is lovingly restored and now owned by Roberto Zanetta, who was constantly walking around checking on our satisfaction. I love management that cares
Pretty balconies at Hotel Palazzo Aminta
The hotel is situated opposite the lake and about 10 minutes from Stresa. The view is incomparable. We arrived late, but I had reserved a table in the charming I Mori restaurant on the main floor of the hotel with its garden atmosphere and Belle Epoque style and it didn’t disappoint. Charles and Barb had a scrumptious seafood soup, while I had carpaccio, quite tasty, and then the same pasta as Stewart, gnocchi with shrimp.
Spectacular view from terrace restaurant
Our rooms were well decorated with antiques, although I changed mine to a full sea view with a little more space, rationalizing that I probably wouldn’t be back in this area and might as well enjoy it to the fullest. After a big lightning storm that lit up the room overnight, I overslept and was just waking up at the time we had scheduled to meet for breakfast. I did make it, albeit late, and was able to enjoy the exquisite buffet and the rendezvous with our tour guide for the day.
Micaela Lucini was our private guide for the day’s tour of the beautiful islands; Bella, Pescatori and Madre. It is worth it to book a private guide especially if you are part of a small group. She arrived with a boat driver who picked us up, dropped us off, and met up with us after we had toured the islands. It was a whole day’s tour and well worth it. The day started off chilly and rainy, but just after Barb purchased an umbrella, the sun came out and for the rest of our vacation it remained with us.
Micaela, our tour guide at lunch
The Barromeo family owns Isola Bella and it is possible to tour the castle. This is often done to help pay taxes on properties in Europe. They close off the private areas. The castle is immense with magical gardens and incredible art throughout. When the family is in residence they raise a flag. Micaela knew the history and the details of the art in every room and salon. We walked everywhere we could, and wandered among the peacocks and wild birds. The interior reminded me of Catherine’s Palace outside of St. Petersburg with its exquisite art and furnishings and grandiose halls.
Grand hall in castle
Our boatman arrived and we went to Isola Pescatori for a visit to its small town and lunch at a charming café for pizza, wine and prosecco for me. We were easily getting into the swing of eating and drinking. Note that it is often very nice to include the tour guide in lunch or coffee breaks and to treat them. After lunch we went by boat once again and toured Isola Madre, the largest of the three islands. There are botanical gardens and beautiful views of Stresa. Micaela was well versed in her botany. After an espresso we returned to our hotel.
Lush gardens on Isola Madre
Stewart and I decided we would go for a swim in the heated outdoor pool that sits among beautiful gardens overlooking the sea. Their idea of heated and ours was quite different. It was frigid, but we hung in there as we found ourselves trapped in the middle of an outdoor wedding reception. It was challenging to figure out how to get out of the water amidst the evening gowns in our very white shivery skin, but eventually we made it and found the grotto spa of the hotel that housed a steam room and beautiful hot tub.
Chilly but beautiful pool at hotel
Dinner was a guess of mine after researching google and seeing what seemed interesting. Il Clandestino turned out to be stellar. The hotel offered a shuttle there and back as it was in Stresa; not a good idea to consume wine and drive the winding road. The owner chose the meal for us after discussing any diet restrictions like low salt for me, and special dislikes. It was a grand menu with tuna crudo, truffles and a soft poached egg, amberjack, a local fish from the sea with spinach and fennel, ravioli with crustaceans, and samples of many tiny chocolate desserts. Wonderful wines, espresso. Best of all the entire bill was reasonable, under $100 US per couple. It was a great evening until I inadvertently closed the shuttle van door on Charles’ hand. Ouch! He forgave me though and after some loving care with Polisporin and Band-Aids he was fit for our next day’s travel to Verona.
I can’t wait to tell you about it.