(Click on the photos to enlarge them and read the captions, then use the forward arrow to scroll through the others in each series).
The rise of the dollar against the euro has made travel to Europe somewhat reasonable again. And who doesn’t love Italy? I had traveled extensively there a dozen times including leading eight tour groups to different regions. I sat in on a first-semester Italian class at Brockport college and two weeks at a private school in Sienna, but most of my Italian I picked up conversing during my many visits. But I had not been back in six years and I found I was losing my ability to converse easily. I spent 30 to 40 minutes daily in August reviewing my text books. I wouldn’t be able to speak much traveling with an American tour group so I decided to go back independently during my annual September escape from Mexico. (September is the rainiest month in Mexico and there is an abominably noisy church fair behind my house then). While I had spent a few days in Milan long ago, I had never been to Genoa or Lake Maggiore, both a short train ride from Milan, so I planned three nights in each place.
I had hoped to use airline miles for my flight but I was astonished to find how many miles are now required for an international business class flight. So I searched for the best dates and airlines that had non-stop flights JFK-MXP (Malpensa, Milan). It pays to keep searching over several days. I was amazed to find one evening that the Delta flight I liked was reduced by over a thousand dollars for some dates, but only from JFK, not fIrom Rochester so I had to buy separate tickets.
The next chore was finding decent hotel rates. I used Booking.comt as the main search engine, though I also looked at Tripadvisor and Expedia. When I found four-star hotels at prices I liked, I checked the hotels’ web sites to compare prices. For Genoa, the hotel I liked offered a three-night package price significantly better than the search engines.
SEPT. 11/12, JFK-MILAN:
The overnight flight from JFK to MXP took eight hours on an airbus with flat-bed reclining seats in business class.The food was surprisingly mediocre in both directions however. There was an ATM in the baggage claim area on arrival with a maximum withdrawal of 250 euros. The exchange rate hovered at about 12.8 dollars .per euro I had booked a car service online and the driver was waiting with a sign with my name. The hotel had told me to expect to pay 95 euros for a taxi, and the car service charged only 76 euros. The driver was bilingual but I asked him to speak in slow Italian and I enjoyed an educational conversation during the one-hour drive to Milan. My first hours in Italy and already I was euphoric. It’s hard to explain to those who have never studied a foreign language how empowering it is to navigate a foreign country speaking almost entirely in its language.
The problem with 8 am arrivals in Europe is that hotel check-ins are usually 2 or 3 pm, as the clerk at Hotel Napoleon in Milan reminded me. I told him I had traveled all night and asked if there wasn’t something ready sooner. He took pity on me and called housekeeping and I had a room within fifteen minutes. The room was very small but the bath was decent sized. There was about a meter of space on each side of the bed, and I could barely spread my arms for my morning push-ups. (I find that if I do three sets of push-ups every other day while traveling I can go back to my weight lifting at the gym with little loss of strength. I matched my personal record of 50 push-ups in Portugal last June, but I never got past 40 on this shorter trip).
After a brief nap and shower, I set out to learn the metro system. The hotel is a half-block from a metro stop and just four stops from the Duomo. The man who sold me a 48-hour pass explained in clear Italian which line to take. It was a delightfully nostalgic experience to be back in the heart of Milan’s beautiful centro storico. The Duomo (Cathedral) is one of the most majestic in Europe, and adjacent to it is the impressive Galleria, lined with prestigious stores I never shop in but like to look at: Versace, Gucci, and the like. Many people book excursions to factory outlets that sell the high-fashion items Milan is famed for at discount prices. Or one can walk down Via Montenapoleone, lined with the shops of famed designers. I didn’t need a thing, and the way Americans dress these days I’d have trouble finding a place to wear a 300-dollar shirt. So I just wandered around the city center and found my way back to a restaurant I had discovered by accident my previous visit here, Don Lisander. Partly indoor and partly on a covered terrace with a view of the garden, it’s menu was far pricier than I remembered even with the improved dollar value. The Cotoletta Milanese (breaded veal cutlet) covered the whole plate. The huge late lunch with wine eliminated the need for dinner and I was tired enough to retire to the hotel without any nightlife.
The hotel rate included a small but ample breakfast buffet. The tempting selection of cold cuts, cheeses, and European breads led me to skip eggs and make a huge sandwich each morning. I enjoyed the free internet to check mail and headlines in the U.S. and Mexican press while waiting to complete the plumbing issues before heading for a lengthy hop-on/hop-off bus tour. I was told there was a bus stop just one metro station from the hotel at Metro Porta Venezia. I walked around the plaza for 20 minutes asking many people where the bus stops but with no success. Locals don’t take the tour bus. When the bus passed me by and wouldn’t stop I didn’t want to wait another 30 minutes so I took the metro to the Duomo where three different people pointed me in different directions until I found the tourist information office and got clear directions. Amazingly for such a popular tourist service, the signs for stops are small and not easily identified. By the time I boarded the bus it was nearly noon. There are three routes, A, B, and C, and the 22-euro ticket (Visa accepted) was good for 24 hours. The first bus to pass was for line B and I took it for two hours and got a great orientation to the city and its layout with respect to my hotel and the Duomo. The ear phones worked well, offering narration in eight languages.
Arriving back at the Duomo, I went hunting for a stunning restaurant I had loved on my previous visit. Bistrot was on the 7th floor of a building overlooking the Duomo. I knew from an online search that it was no longer there, but I assumed something had taken its place. Sure enough, the building is now a huge Rinascente department store a block from the Galleria. The sign at the entrance said there was a direct elevator to the 7th-floor restaurants, four or five now, not just one, but only one had the sensational outdoor terrace overlooking the Duomo. Despite its wonderful location and view, prices were quite moderate with a huge range of dishes from pizza and pasta to fancier plates. I ordered the melone con prosciutto, always a must in Italy. I have never tasted cantaloupe that sweet in the U.S. and the combination with the salty ham is a delight. Since the north of Italy is famous for pesto, I had a pasta called trofie with pesto and a chilled draft beer. After the late lunch, I took the metro back to the hotel for a siesta (though that is NOT an Italian custom I was told) and, while I rested, I began posting photos to facebook. By doing that daily with descriptions, I have all the material I need when it comes to writing the blog post. If I waited until the end of the trip, I would have a hard time identifying some of the photos.
Around the corner from the hotel was a family-style pizza place crowded with locals and that was fine for dinner. Alas, when I went into my wallet to get my Visa card, I discovered the American Express card I had used at lunch was gone. Back at the hotel I went online and made sure there were no new charges and found the address for an AmEx office nearby, then worried myself to sleep.
I lost a half day pursuing the lost AmEx card. After breakfast I returned to the Rinascente restaurant where I had charged lunch, but no one reported finding my card. Another metro stop to the AmEx office address was frustrating since there was no sign for AmEx in the lobby of the huge office building. After wasting a lot of time, I found a guard who told me AmEx had moved out long ago. So I had to return to the hotel where the receptionist kindly went through the phone menus and eventually got an English-speaking call center. I learned there is now only one AmEx office in all of Italy, in Rome, and I could not get a new card in less than four to five business days. So I had it mailed to Brockport and, luckily, had no problems with Visa during the rest of my trip.
Later I returned to the Duomo and took the tourist bus on routes A and C getting to see outlying areas of the city. Frankly, outside of the historic center, Milan is an unimpressive city with a hodge-podge of mediocre architecture. The 80-thousand capacity soccer stadium, claimed to be one of the most beautiful in Europe, certainly doesn’t look that way from the outside. And I know the names of approximately three soccer players so I had no interest in its soccer museum. I got off the bus at a metro stop and returned to the hotel for siesta and internet.
Walking to the small supermarket near the hotel for bottled water, I passed a nice trattoria, Alba d’Oro, with outdoor service so I went there for my final dinner in Milan. The owner had spent many years in the U.S. where he left a divorced wife and a grown daughter, and we had a nice chat. I enjoyed a huge plate of mussels and roast suckling pig with a bottle of excellent Vichiamaggio Chianti. It had been a good day despite the credit -card stress in the morning.
I checked out of the Hotel Napoleon after breakfast and took a taxi in a light rain to the Stazione Centrale (train station). There are frequent trains from Milan to Genoa but my ticket gave me an incorrect binario (track) and there were more than twenty. When I discovered the train I almost boarded was not going to Genoa, I had to run with my heavy luggage and made it aboard the correct train just minutes before departure. In less than 90 minutes I was at the Stazione Principe in Genoa and the sun was shining.
I had selected the Hotel Continental, 100 meters from the station, since it’s web site offered a three-night special significantly less expensive than Booking.com. Perhaps they had overbooked but for whatever reason, I was given an upgrade to the five-star Gran Hotel Savoia next door and the largest room of the trip.
I stopped next to the hotel for a light lunch outdoors and a gelato, then walked the streets of the old town, taking a travel writer’s advice to get lost. The article said when lost just take a street going downhill and you will end up at the port. Sure enough, I found the port, wandered a bit, and discovered a small tourist train that was leaving in a few minutes for a route around the city for just eight euros for 40 minutes. Between the clanking metal of the train and traffic noise assaulting my hearing aids, I could not hear the narration, but I did get an orientation. After 30 minutes the train passed my hotel and I jumped off. A taxi from the port would have cost me about the same.
After a nap and posting photos online, I walked 50 meters from the hotel to an outdoor trattoria where I indulged in a huge plate of mussels again, and gnocchi with pesto. Restaurant Trieste was excellent but they do not accept credit cards and I don’t like to carry a lot of cash so I didn’t go back there despite the convenience.
Gran Hotel Savoia’s breakfast buffet was excellent and included an egg station and a huge dessert table. I indulged in a large omelet and a small slice of cherry tort. Once again I could not find the sign for the hop-on/hop-off bus stop at the train station and it passed me by. The buses can only pick up at the signed stops, but finding the signs is not easy. I ended up walking a bit over a mile to the port where I toured the aquarium before looking again for the bus stop. Allegedly the largest in Europe, the aquarium admission was a steep 25 euros (over 28 dollars at 1.128 dollars per euro) with a four euro discount for the elderly.The sprawling building crowded and poorly lit, stuffy at times, and not as impressive as the one in Boston, for example. It would be great for families with children or a longer visit on a rainy day. But I had sun every day.
Next I boarded the tour bus nearby (just 12 euros for 24 hours) and got a good orientation to the city. The sound system was good and another balmy day made for an enjoyable ride on the upper deck. I got off at the train station where I bought my ticket for Stresa, Lake Maggiore, then crossed back to my nearby hotel for siesta and posting my photos. In the evening I enjoyed another outdoor café near the hotel, filled with locals and Italian tourists, noting only one obviously American couple. More mussels and more gnocchi with pesto, the local specialties.
After another great breakfast, I crossed the street to the train station and caught the tour bus again, having noted where the sign was when it dropped me off there the day before. We passed the cruise ship terminal and I saw at least two huge ships in port, which explained why there were lots more tourists in town. I got off at a stop near the elevator to the Belvedere, a perch above the city with a great view as far as the port and the mountains.
Back down, it was an easy walk to Via Garibaldi, a street boasting numerous ancient palaces, three of which are now museums open to the public. I toured the Palazzo Rosso and the Palazzo Bianco, after which I had no energy for the third palace included in the 9 euro ticket.
I wandered the old town for awhile and found a delightful outdoor trattoria, one of the oldest in the city, where I rested up with a nice lunch of veal cutlet. Next I walked back to the port and waited half an hour for the departure of a harbor cruise, highly recommended in the travel literature, but rather boring unless one gets excited by cargo ships. Now late afternoon, I took a taxi back to the hotel for a siesta and posting my photos online.
I had eaten only in local trattorias so far, but out of laziness I decided to try the hotel’s luxe dining room. The small number of diners should have been a warning but I had a great bottle of Nebbiolo with my trofie pasta with pesto while enduring an hour wait for the special “slow roasted veal.” Not surprisingly for a slow roast, it was overcooked and nothing special.
I was really glad I had included Genoa in my itinerary and would recommend it highly to anyone traveling in the north of Italy. Anyone seeing it only from a cruise-ship excursion would be cheated.
SEPT.18, STRESA (LAKE MAGGIORE)
After another great breakfast I checked out of the Gran Hotel Savoia and crossed the street to the train station. I guess locals know their way around but I found signage very poor, and once again the binario on my ticket was incorrect and the delay in finding the right track made for a stressful run. I made it aboard only five minutes before departure. I had to change trains in Milan from a local to a regional train, and Stresa did not appear on the schedule board. One had to know it was a train to Switzerland. By the time I found an agent to help, I had to run once again to board on time. Thanks to my Italian I was able to get help from locals and wondered how English-only speakers would manage the train stations.
Arriving in Stresa, the small station appeared abandoned with no taxis in sight. But after about fifteen minutes a few taxis arrived and I hailed one for a 12-euro ride to the Gran Hotel Bristol, a four-star property facing Lake Maggiore. While a real bargain for four stars in Europe, the room was tiny and I was told all standard rooms are that small.
It was already early afternoon when I walked into town, just a ten-minute stroll from the hotel along a beautiful lake-view promenade.
What a lovely town center, with charming shops and scores of outdoor dining venues. Almost all the posted menus offered Pizza Margherita for just 5 euros. The thin-crusty pizza topped with tomato, cheese, and basil bears the colors of the Italian flag. It was named for Queen Margherita, the wife of King Umberto I of Savoy during her 1889 visit to the royal palace in Naples. While records show a pizza with these ingredients existed a few decades before the restaurant delivered it to the palace, the name became popularized by this royal take-out. I returned to the hotel for siesta and internet before going out again in the evening.
I had read good restaurant reviews online for Ristorante Pappagallo which I remembered passing on my stroll earlier in the day. I’m glad I was there right at the 6:30 opening because within half an hour every table was taken and people were waiting at the entrance. The reviews said the waiters could be snobbish, but I found them delightful and they even joked with me. When I told them my mussels in a rich broth of tomato, garlic, basil, and picante was the best dish I had eaten on the trip, the waiter said it was because he himself caught them, and the captain overheard and ran his finger around his head indicating that the waiter was pazzo (crazy). We joked so much in Italian that another diner came up to the table to ask where I was from and why a foreigner spoke Italian. A nice ego trip. On the walk back to the hotel I stopped for a gelato, discovering nocciolo for the first time, a rich chocolate with hazel nuts. Italian gelato is harder than U.S. soft-serve or custard but softer and richer than U.S. ice cream. Each shop had at least 16 flavors. No low-carb lifestyle on this trip: pizza, pasta, and gelato- irresistibile.
SEPT. 19, STRESA
After breakfast I walked into town and looked at the choices for a cruise on Lake Maggiore, all allowing stops at three islands noted for their gardens and palaces. I chose one that cost 15 euros which was leaving in 20 minutes. The boat held about 20 passengers, and dozens of competing boats kept the lake looking very busy. The first stop was Isola Madre. I hadn’t read thoroughly all the material I brought with me and I discovered later that I missed the best garden there. Pecatto! My priorities were culinary and I had looked forward to lunch at the next stop.
Isola Pescatore (Fisherman’s Island) is the delightful spot where most tourists stop for lunch, and there were more than a dozen places overlooking the lake. The online reviews rated Ristorante Belvedere highly so I settled in there for lunch enjoying a splendid view of the lake. I had a small pasta trofie with pesto and a delicious branzino, a Mediterranean bass, washed down with a half bottle of prosecco (sparkling wine). I had a senior moment and could not remember which of many piers my boat worked from and luckily recognized it coming to shore and ran to the right pier.
The third stop was Isola Bella, famous for a huge palazzo and garden. Frankly I had seen enough palaces but one had to go through the entire building and many staircases to get to the garden which was also multi-level with lots of stairs. Hundreds of people were in the palace and gardens but I was able to get a few good photos.
I got the 3 pm boat back to town and walked back to the hotel by 3:30 for a siesta and internet. I was not in a mood to walk into town again that evening and went to a lake-front restaurant, Daniel, 100 meters from the hotel. The tagliatelle scoglio could have used more seafood but I had a relaxing dinner with prosecco and a gelato to go before returning to the hotel to crash.
SEPT. 20, STRESA
The Gran Hotel Bristol is a bargain at under 150 dollars a night, and surely less for tour groups. At least three tour buses carried off guests while I dined in the formal dining room (16 euros, not included in the room rate). Then I set out walking about a mile to the teleferico or cablecar to the top of Mottorone mountain. While walking I looked at the lake and not the sidewalk and missed a half-inch high metal register in the sidewalk that sent me sprawling, luckily in push-up position. I was lucky not to break anything but I scraped the skin off the palm of my right hand and tore a large bloody hole in my cargo pants but I pressed on, not wanting to return to the hotel to dress the wound. I pressed a moist towlette into my hand and went on with the walk and twenty-minute cable-car ride. The view from the top is sensational and I settled into the only restaurant there to relax and enjoy the view. The lasagna was less than mediocre but the chef must know that almost no one will be returning anyway. Unfortunately, I didn’t stop off half way up the mountain for a botanical garden, assuming September would not be the best month for that, and anxious to get back to my room to tend to my wounds.
I decided to enjoy my last afternoon by the hotel’s huge swimming pool. Alas, the cold nights in the foothills of the Alps did not make for comfortable swimming and my aerobics lasted only the ten minutes it took for my skin to turn blue. But the warm sun was relaxing and I had my first chat in English with a couple from the Netherlands. Then back to the room to pack.
For my farewell dinner, I chose to return to Ristorante Pappagallo and made sure to be there by the 6:30 opening. Some of the staff remembered our joking two nights previous. I had a large spaghetti Bolognese and a frittura of tender and delicious calamari and shrimp in tempura. Another nocciolo gelato topped off the evening, and early to bed having scheduled a 5:30 am wakeup.
SEPT. 21, STRESA, MALPENSA, JFK, ROCHESTER
I had originally planned to spend the last night in Milan to be close to Malpensa airport but my driver on arrival told me Stresa was just as close. I tried to book a car the day before departure but the airport services wanted 48 hours notice. Luckily,the receptionist recommended a 12 passenger van that did hotel pickups for just 12 euros. I had to be at the hotel front gate at 6:25 am. The unfriendly driver had only two other stops and I was at Malpensa in 50 minutes, enjoying breakfast and the internet in the VIP lounge before my 8 ½ hour flight to JFK.
I was annoyed in changing from international to national gates in JFK that there was no TSA pre-check line. One has to go up two escalators and hunt for the priority check in. Delta’s JFK layout is pathetic. You may have to walk for almost 50 gates, or take a shuttle bus to another terminal. I was lucky and had to traipse only 20 gates. At least Delta’s Sky Club is a comfortable place with fast internet where I could wait for my delayed flight to Rochester. I was on the ground by 6:30, picked up my rental car, and was back in Brockport by 7:15, nearly 19 hours after wake-up in Stresa.
I had accomplished my two major goals, refreshing my Italian and experiencing destinations new to me. The misadventures were minor compared to the great joy of accomplishment. Of course, indulging in the toothsome tastes of Italy isn’t exactly burdensome. I love independent travel but I recommend a good tour package to those who would not enjoy the uncertainty and potential mishaps, and all the research one must do to travel alone. Good travel organizations provide more comfort, guidance, and security, and one’s only responsibility is getting on the bus at 9 am. I would have had a hard time doing Japan on my own. I get annoyed when some travel writers disparage group travel. After all, I arranged thousands of details for 150 groups in twenty destinations. There is a time and place for both independent and group travel. I hope to continue doing both.
Hotel Napoleon, Via Federico Ozanam 2, Milan (Metro Lima), Four star, doubles from about $150 US including breakfast & internet. *
Gran Hotel Savoia, Via Asenaledi Terra 5, Genoa. Five star. Doubles from about $150 US, breakfast 12 euros. Next door Hotel Continental, Four Star, Doubles from about $130 US.
Gran Hotel Bristol, Corso Umberto I # 73, Stresa. Four star. Doubles from about $150 US., breakfast 16 euros.
*Prices vary on various search engines and the hotel websites. Most hotels offer reduced-rate packages for multiple nights.
Note: All hotel receptions had adapters for U.S. electrical appliances. In Italy ask for an adattatore.