Sunday, July 24, 2016

Honeymoon, Day 6, May 28th: Day trip to Switzerland.

It turned out that the Villa Aurora also had wonderful breakfasts - breads, yogurt with granola, fruits, eggs. Afterwards we took a second cappuccino outside to sit on the deck in morning sun.
Italy is the land of fashion and it seemed wrong not to do at least a little shopping while we were there. But good grief, the prices! I'd read about an Italian outlet mall just over the border (presumably for tax reasons) from Como, in Mendrisio, Switzerland. It was so strange to be waved through a border without needing a passport. Last time I was in Switzerland, it was pre-EU.
Four flights, 160 stores. The prices were lower than at little Italian shops, but it was still insanely expensive. Store windows carried signs with the prices of each item on the mannequin and we laughed out loud at three thousand dollar dresses and six hundred dollar shoes. No. But I am pretty good at finding bargains and I ended up with a cool dress and my husband bought a few shirts.
The one thing we really wanted to come home with, though, was a pair of good Italian leather shoes. I found a pair of shoes I really liked on a samples rack, in my size. I put them on and walked over to where my husband was. He said, "Nice! How much are they?" I told him, "$29." He said, "Sold!" 
I have wonderful memories from my time in boarding school in Switzerland and I was excited about going on into Lugano for the day. We parked in a garage and walked into the busy town center.
We had a glass of wine and complementary appetizers at an outdoor table, enjoying being back in the Alps.
Rain was again in the forecast, but our luck held as it had in Ireland, and we got yet another gorgeous, sunny day.
Lugano was hosting a three-day thrash/punk/jazz/hiphop/metal concert festival. My husband could not resist photobombing a band's photo shoot and I'm sure they looked at their pictures and wondered who the hell that obnoxious guy making faces was in all their pictures.
We spent some time walking around the beautiful city, people-watching. Of all the places we went to, Lugano had the most fashionable crowd. Nearly everyone we saw was dressed chicly and although this was a casual day for us, we still felt glad we'd dressed to fit in.
Down by Lake Lugano, we strolled past little kiosks and cafes. We made our way back into the town center because there was one thing I really wanted to do there in Switzerland.
While I was in boarding school, I often went to the patisserie in Villars for biscuits and chocolat chaud and I very much wanted to re-create that experience. We looked at a pasticceria but they did not carry the specific cookies I was searching for - fruit-filled and dusted with powdered sugar. Then I looked into the window of a chocolate shop and saw them. One apricot, one mixed berry. We ordered rich, creamy hot chocolate to go with it. I was in nostalgia heaven. As my husband paid the tab, he told the shopkeeper that I'd last enjoyed those cookies thirty-five years ago when I was in high school in Switzerland. She made my day by expressing disbelief to him that I was in school that long ago.
Walking again after the chocolate and pastries break, we passed this ornate door of the Chiesa di San Rocco, a Catholic church.
The altar inside of this 16th century church mimics the external door.
We went into a Coop, another boarding school memory for me, to buy chocolates to bring home. For the kids. Okay, I also bought some to bring home for us - the butter wafers topped with a slab of chocolate that I used to buy and a bar my beloved Cailler's chocolate. And, of course, a bottle of wine for the night. Near the entrance was a bull in Swiss undies. I have no comment on that.
You know you're in Switzerland when the shop employees speak an array of languages.
I liked the variety of stone and brick in this old building.
By now we were starting to feel ready for dinner as we hadn't had anything substantial since breakfast.
The restaurants on the square were starting to close early as they geared up for the concerts. We decided our best bet was to head up into the hilly part of the city away from the crowds.
We found Osteria Trani, a little restaurant and wine bar tucked into a side street. The tables were ranged along a staircase, with a passage down the middle for pedestrians.
We were expecting good food, but this place significantly exceeded our expectations. We ordered a bottle of white wine and then looked through the menu. The salmon tartare, with a lemon citrus dressing, was light and yummy. But the black squid ink pasta with prawns and langoustines in a tomato and cheese sauce was amazing. We kept passing our plates back and forth to share.
It was too nice to leave so we went back down to the lake for a last walk.
Two men were playing a game of chess, studying the pieces and then walking onto the board to move them. A younger guy sat on the bench and watched seriously.
I feel like a broken record saying it was beautiful, but I can't help it - it was beautiful.
We walked along the promenade of the Parco Municipale, with a view of Mount Bré through the gate.
We'd caught glimpses of swans on the lake so we kept walking for a while along the path that sprawled along the shoreline.
Finally we found the place where they'd come ashore.
And then left the swans behind to make our way back toward the parking garage.
Storm clouds were gathering and we wanted to get home before the rain. It was a long drive back along Lake Como and lightning was just beginning to flash as we got to the hotel. The skies opened up as we got to our room and we left the balcony doors open to let the breeze and sound of the rain come in as we slept.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Honeymoon, Day 5, May 27th: Up to Lake Como

We drove out the next morning through Castellina and other villages, past this little dog hoping for a visitor. But we were headed for parts north.
We decided to stop at one of the AutoGrills along the Autostrada, just to see what they were like. They carried things like gummy sushi, because why not? Also some very tasty looking pizzas and paninis and other foods unlike anything you'd see at truck stops or other interstate convenience places in the U.S. But we'd had yet another wonderful breakfast and were eager to get to our next destination.
The city of Como was congested and not very appealing, but as we drove along the western shore of Lake Como, traffic thinned and the roads became narrow. We finally reached our hotel, the Villa Aurora, in Lezzeno. That first balcony was ours.
It was a slightly cooler day, but still sunny and nice. The parking is so tight that you have to surrender your keys and wait for your car to be parked for you.
The hotel staff was very friendly and accommodating, and the helpful concierge on duty gave us instructions about breakfasts and what the hotel's restaurant offered.
Our room was plainer and more Swiss in style. but the view...
looking out over the planter filled with flowers on the balcony railing at the mountains on the other side of the lake made up for it.
It was starting to warm up so we decided we'd take a walk and find a place to grab lunch. The walk turned out to be a little treacherous as the roads were extremely narrow, there was no shoulder to speak of and cars slowed for no one. I'm not saying the graveyard was filled with traffic accident victims, but I'm not saying it wasn't.
It was so beautiful along the lake. Beautiful, but closed. There was not a single place open to eat that we could find.
Eventually, we turned and made our way back along the shoreline to the Aurora's restaurant, across the street from the hotel.
We ordered a couple of paninis and local beers. In contrast to our time in Ireland, these were the only beers we had on the whole trip. Because it was Italy, and we were there for the wine.
We made a reservation for dinner on Sunday, which would be our last night in Italy, using only the Italian we'd learned. Then back to our room to make a decision about how to spend the remainder of the day. It was still early, so we decided to drive on up the coast to Bellagio.
More winding narrow streets, more absurdly aggressive drivers. But no end of things to look at along the way.
The main drag of Bellagio was very touristy, but some of the back alleys were quieter. We did stop at the Albergo Firenze, down by the lake, for a glass of wine at an outdoor table. They threw in appetizers, which was nice.
Touristy places bring out the snark in both of us. I found this in one store window, for instance, and declared that I was deeply unhappy that I did not have a ring like this one. It almost seemed like a blingy weapon.
I get that this is a brand name, but how would you even have 120% linen? We giggled about the urban sombrero woman, the Sophia Loren wannabee, the guy with the bizarre bowl cut, and the couple who ordered mineral water for their dog.
We wanted a simpler dinner this night, and found a place with some light seafood items on the menu. Turns out it was a restaurant which catered to Brits (as evidenced by the Union Jacks on the wall), so the food was sort of bland. The name "Far Out" should have clued us in, but we were hungry. The restaurant played light jazz renditions of pop classics and the decor was kitschy, but the waiter was very friendly and we had fun. We ordered grilled lake fish with polenta and green beans, and tagliatelle with prawns and langoustines. Honestly, we might just have been spoiled by some of the outstanding meals we'd had recently. Our waiter had asked about our trip, and after dinner, he brought us complimentary dessert wafers and Francia Corta. We decided we should pretend every trip from here on out is our honeymoon.
We found a wine shop down a cobbled street and asked about the wine we'd had at dinner. The shop owner let us taste a Francia Corta there and we bought a bottle to bring home and also a bottle of local white wine for the hotel.
We arrived back at the Aurora at dusk and spent the rest of evening on balcony drinking wine and watching the bustling street below.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Honeymoon, Day 4, May 26th: Last day in Tuscany.

Gardening tasks have occupied my time, but I do want to keep moving on this travelogue so that it doesn't stretch into winter. I'll be around catching up with blogs later this weekend.
On our last full day in Tuscany, we drove back into Castellina after another great breakfast to have walk around. It was a gorgeous day again, not a rain cloud in sight.
Down into the medieval tunnel and over to Le Volte Enoteca where the proprietor of the little wine shop had given us such a good recommendation on Il Cantuccio a couple of nights earlier. We told him we were looking for a nice, romantic dinner and he did not lead us astray. But more on that in a bit.
I imagine this cheerful looking statue greeting the sun in the window each day. It had become a familiar sight so I stopped for one last visit. We'd become old pals, she and I.
We stopped in this little market to get a couple of bottles of water and some food for a picnic lunch - an apricot, a pear, a plum and and unidentifiable small fruit that I'd tried at breakfast, couscous salad, and some local green olives.
The hotel had a pool at the far edge of the property, and we didn't want to leave without spending at least a little time there. We could hear birds singing, including the distinctive cuckoo's call. There were swallows flitting around, dipping down to take a sip of water from the glassy surface.
Huge banks of rosemary flanked the backside of the pool and their fragrance drifted over us as we lay in the dappled shade of the trees. We watched lizards skittering by on the warm paving stones until we drifted off.
After dozing for a while, we moved to chairs by the edge of the hill to have our picnic. We could see several castles from where we sat under an umbrella. My husband took a short swim but I found the water a little too cool. It was sunny and breezy that afternoon, and absolutely blissful.
Walking back to our room I noticed swallows flying into a doorway and went to investigate. I found several swallow nests made of mud, and had to duck as the alarmed parents dive-bombed me.
We found a chair to give us a view into the nests.  Grumpy looking baby swallows stared back at us, probably wondering why we weren't bringing them food.
We changed for dinner and then went over to the hotel's lounge to do another wine tasting. We wanted to have a case of wine shipped back from the Vèscine wineries owned by Il Borgo but weren't sure if we should do all Chiantis or add in some white wines. We had a lot of leftover white wine from our wedding and both generally prefer reds. As we vacillated, our host Mara offered us a sparkling red to try. It was surprisingly refreshing and we added five bottles of it to complete the dozen. In the case we also had two bottles of Prosecco, two of Chianti Reserva and three of the Chianti Classico.
Seriously, what's not to like about having a glass of local wine in a heavenly place like this? We felt positively Italian.
At last it was time for dinner so we headed to the place the wine shop owner had told us about. The Albergaccio was another Michelin Guide restaurant and it was also amazing. We started with a glass of Prosecco and then a bottle of a Gran Selezione Chianti Classico from Greve. The breads, homemade, were probably the best we had in Tuscany.
Our waiter, Claudio, told us he was studying to be a sommelier but was taking a break from his studies to work with an expert chef to better understand the food side of the dining experience. We choose the crispy bread, eggplant and salted anchovies from the Ligurian sea with a dry tomato sauce and tomato confit as our appetizer. And yes, as with La Botte the night before, I did take photos of the menu so I could remember exactly what we had.
Our primi course was "spaghetti cooked in the manner of risotto" with asparagus and parmigiano cheese fondue flavored with saffron.
The secondi was identified on the menu as "The Pigeon." It was too funny and intriguing to pass up. It was spiced and perfumed with Marsala wine with caramelized figs and spinach. You could order either a whole or half pigeon, although I'm not sure it would be enough to mess with if it were a half. See that teeny tiny drumstick leaning on a fig? Small as it was, it was actually delicious. But I did find myself apologizing to random pigeons for the rest of the trip.
The chef Sonia came out to congratulate us on our marriage and sent out complementary paper-thin chocolate cones with basil gelato.
We couldn't resist the candied figs with cinnamon ice cream on the dessert menu so we had that with a glass of Francia Corta as an aperitif. Both these were complimentary as well. I cannot get over how kind everyone was to us.
Back for our last night at Il Borgo in our beautiful mediaeval room, where we had the bottle of Tuscan bianco we'd picked up in Castellina chilled and waiting for us. I think we may have woken the neighbors. But it was our honeymoon!