Milano and Lake Como.

After our haircuts yesterday, Mike & I rode the train into Milano to meet P&L who were seeing the Last Supper, the Duomo, etc. all places we had visited last Spring. We arrived earlier than we had to and took the opportunity to visit the Sforza Castle seen at the top of this post. This castle built by Duke Sforza in the 15th century (on 14th century foundations) was enlarged in the 16th and 17th centuries to become one of Europe’s largest forts. Despite being heavily damaged during bombing in WWII it now serves as a museum and a great outdoor space. We arrived just as the exterior lighting was coming on which added to it’s impressiveness.

Our original plan had been to meet P&L and go to I navigl (Milan’s canal district) for apertivo as our supper. However, they both decided that they had “hit the wall” which given they had been going not stop (well except for a couple of hours of napping on their short flight from JFK) for 28 or more hours was not unreasonable. So we decided to pick up some salad and wine to go with the pasta and sauce Cinzia, our Airbnb host had left for us and eat dinner at home.

This morning we left the apartment about 8 and drove towards Lake Como for our circumnavigation of the lake (shown in red on the map). I had hoped we would avoid rush hour traffic but it appears that like all major cities, that’s not possible. We left the blue dot following the red line to Lecco. We made one stop quick there for the first siting of the lake and then continued on to Varenna.

After parking (easy peasy in the fall! We can only imagine what it’s like in the summer) we had coffee and hot chocolate to warm us up on this dreary and chilly day-thankfully no rain but we could see clouds and what we presumed was snow falling on the Alps in the Swiss distance. (And you know what snow becomes when it’s not in the mountains 😢 but I’m getting ahead of myself).

After our coffee we walked from the ferry station along a lakeside walkway to the real Varenna-fishing boats and restaurants and stairs of course. It is a lovely town and in our opinion just as picturesque as Bellagio and not as touristy.

From Varrena we confined north towards Switzerland but came short of it by 21 miles by road and less than 10 as a bird flies. We crossed over the River Mera which joins Lake Mezzola (off the top of the map above) and then started down the western side of Como.

We left the lake road at Gravedona and started climbing up incredible narrow and winding streets (mirrors at all the switchbacks) to reach a restaurant that I found on Trip Advisor.

On the way up Peggy said I sure hope this meal is worth you having to drive these streets. Thankfully on the way down she said it was…to which Mike replied, “wait till we get down with the car undamaged before you say that!”

We entered the restaurant as the only guests as they were decorating for their special Halloween dinner.

Halloween is relatively new in Italy and appears to mostly be about having a special dinner out or perhaps a small party. From what I can gather kids don’t Trick or Treat house to house. We did see a few shops and restaurants that had what appeared to be bags prepared and we saw a group of simply costumed kids going into one of the stores.

I had selected this restaurant because they serve Pizzocheri-the buckwheat pasta, potato, cabbage and cheese dish of this region.

Cinizia had made it for us in the Spring (she is from the mountains). Hers was better but I still enjoyed this.

In addition to this and numerous other pasta dishes, meat entrees and sides they also offered two set menus-one meat focused and the other based on fish. Peggy got tagliatelle with mushrooms (yummy!-probably the best dish of the day).

Mike and I halfed and halfed bresaola (dried beef-here served like capacio with Parmesan and arugula), insalda caprese, gnocchi with Gorgonzola and the pizzocheri pictures earlier.

Lowell ordered the set fish menu and had fried smelts, followed by trout with rice (really tasty) and then trout with butter and lemon and vegetables described as in pastry but in fact were the best fried veggies ever!

He ended up being so full after his first two courses (who knew they would all be so huge) that he took the last one home which along with Peggy’s leftover pasta became their dinner tonight-Mike and I didn’t have leftovers (no surprise there) so we had the pasta leftover from last night.

We all shared Lowell’s lemon sorbet dessert and then we were gifted with Lemoncello all around!

The views of the lake and the Alps from the restaurant in this little village were beautiful. It would be great to eat on their terrace.

After successfully making it back down to the lake (the route line changes from red to blue on the map above) we continued towards Como. The original plan had been for us to drop P&L at one of the villages and they take the ferry to a village further south where we would pick them up. This was mostly so Peggy could wave at the George, Amal and the twins. However, that Swiss snow we had seen earlier had become Italian rain and she decided she would have to live with seeing the gate on the road to Villa Oleandra rather than it’s beautiful side that faces the lake.

The drive along the lake was lovely but scary as hell. The road is waaay to narrow for opposing lanes of traffic. In several places they have stops lights to stop traffic in one direction so that the cars from the other direction can drive-sorta like a signal person on a road under construction. In some places the road is so narrow you can see scrape marks on the stone buildings on one side or the other Thank goodness for electrically retractable side mirrors! But we made it back unscathed except for our nerves.

We saw several beautiful villas and wonderful little towns-I wish the weather had of been conducive to exploring some of them. Oh well, next trip!

We had planned on apertivo in Como but without the ferry portion (nor the alternate visit to Villa Carlotta’s beautiful gardens due to the rain) we arrived there right at rush hour.

After a stressful drive around the edges of the pedestrian only historic center of Como (including the dreaded “Clay you are going up a wrong way street” from Mike) unsuccessfully looking for a place to park in the rain, we headed back towards home after Peggy said, ” I can see the Church’s dome-that’s good enough”.

The ride home wasn’t much better than the drive down towards Como. The car has onboard navigation but it apparently hasn’t been updated in a while, so it didn’t tell me to bear left so we ended up accidentally getting onto a new toll road (all electronic -no toll booths) so who knows what that is going to cost when the bill gets to Hertz (hey Gregor can you help a brother out? 😢). We realized it when suddenly on the GPS map we were driving across a field while the road was “over there”.

Anyway, after quickly exiting the toll road at the first availability, we continued on home through heavy traffic and a couple of more oops from the GPS system…”turn left back there”, go straight through the now concrete barricaded entry onto the highway, etc.

But made it back safe and sound and everyone is asleep except me (it’s 9:45 pm). Tomorrow we are headed to Modena (vinegar anyone?) via Bergamo, Lake Iseo and hopefully Gorgonzola!

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They’re here!

Peggy and Lowell arrived (early!) in Milan after an awful day of delayed, canceled and changed connections (before they got to JFK). I met them at the airport, we picked up our rental minivan and went back to the hotel, picked up Mike and headed o our Airbnb in Paderno Dugnano.

This is our second time staying with Cinzia. It was great to see her smiling face again. After a short rest, we walked with Peggy & Lowell (hereafter P&L) to the train station (where the selfie above was taken) and they headed into downtown Milan for their Last Supper/Duomo/La Scala tour. We will meet them at 5:30 downtown for apertivo 🍷🍸🍹

Mike and I then had a delicious plate of carbonara and are now at our favorite Italian barber for a trim-Mike is getting head and beard, just beard for me, my head hair is almost long enough to tie back….finally!

Milano Week 2

Since our rainy day at the Duomo, we have had nothing but beautiful weather and we have tried to take advantage of it…..well at least until the last couple of days…we have had a lazy weekend!

As noted in my last post, we were on the train to Bergamo, a city about an hour from here.  There is the lower city which is more modern and then up a hill – we rode the bus up and the funiculare down (no shame, we still got in 5 miles of walking!) is the historic village. The hardline picture was taken looking up to it.

Some long time readers may recall that originally we were going to stay in a village outside Bergamo (we couldn’t find an Airbnb in our price range in Bergamo proper) but when we realized that our Ryan Air flights were flying in and out of Milano’s main airport (Malpensa) and not the secondary one near Bergamo, we changed our apartment.  After visiting Bergamo we wish we had of left well enough alone….trust me, we like the apartment here and Cinzia our host is the BEST – we are up to four dishes of pasta from her…but we both said we think Bergamo could be on the list if we decide to live in Europe long term and that Italy is where we want to live.  But that is getting the cart way in front of the horse.

After taking the bus from the lower city railway station to its end at the Citi Alta (upper city), we then took a funicular up to the very highest part of town.  Not much there, a couple of restaurants, a pretty park and what must be high end houses given the cars parked in their driveways – we saw a Tesla and an Audi 8 among others. But the views were incredible.

We then took the funiculare back down to the Citta Alta where we wandered to lunch at a TripAdvisor recommended restaurant. Our dishes were tasty and it was a lovely day in their garden-although we wished we had of gotten the table in the shade but we were beat to it.  Most of the other guests appeared to be workers and Italian so I think we weren’t in a tourist trap.

We half and halfed a penne pasta with ragu and ravioli with butter and sage for our first course and then we both had polenta (Italian grits) which is one of the traditional dishes here.  It was the side to pork cutlets.

We didn’t have dessert at the restaurant but instead bought the specialty pastry here, called..wait for it…Polenta!  It is actually a small cake covered with something to make it look like polenta and then has marizpan decorations supposedly representing the pork that is typically on top of the polenta.  The one we bought was chocolate and orange and was very tasty!

After lunch we headed generally downhill through the upper city’s main square, by both it’s cathedral and basicillca and wandered the narrow picturesque streets.

I was most intrigued by the many decorative tapestries. They were everywhere there wasn’t a painting or gold leaf!

We ended up at the Funiculare which we rode down to the lower city.  From there we walked down the main street back towards the train station where we caught our ride back home.

It was a lovely day and I certainly hope we get to revisit Bergamo and spend more than just a day there.

As mentioned previously, Cinzia our Airbnb hostess (and her helper Isabella) have been great.  Isabella is always available via WhatsApp to answer a question (she is half english and half italian so speaks both beautifully) and Cinzia has brought us dinner a total of four times (so far-fingers crossed).  In addition to the pasta pomodorro the arrival night, she has made us penne with ragu, risotto milanese (saffron) and our favorite, Pizzocheri.

This traditional dish of the mountains is made with buckwheat pasta, potatoes and cabbage.  After they are almost cooked, they are removed from the boiling water and layered in the serving dish with Valapaian cheese – Cessera is the one Cinzia used and placed over the still hot water pot to stay warm/melt the cheese.  While that is happening, you sautee’ a couple of smashed gloves of garlic in butter.  When the butter is almost brown, you take out the garlic and pour the butter over the pasta and serve. OMG, is it ever good….not necessarily pretty but so damn tasty!

Anyway, we talked about cooking dinner or lunch for Cinzia but after discussing with Isabella, elected to take her to lunch in a restaurant here in town.  We had a great meal and great conversation in English, Italian and even a little bit of french at one point! LOL.  The food was delicious.  Traditional with a twist.  Very fresh ingredients.  Mike and I hope to go back before we leave next week.

A salad of roasted root vegetables, asparagus on a smear of goat cheese

Clay’s Pork cheek tagliatelle

Mike’s risotto with chicken ah jus

Mike’s “bbq” sausages and roasted potatoes

Tiramisu

After this day of rest, if hosting a lunch out and if doing laundry is rest (actually it isn’t so bad, throw them in the machine, hang them on the drying rack on the balcony and within a few hours they are dry…..not sure why we have dryers in the US….I swear it doesn’t take that much longer…as long as it’s not raining!) we headed to Lake Como the next day for lunch with Amal and George (the twins were being fully nannied -as it should be, so we didn’t meet them).

It takes about an hour on the train to reach the City of Como which is at one end of the upside down Y shaped lake of the same name.  From there we took a slow ferry (not sure why George didn’t pick us up in his speedboat) to Bellagio the village that is located at the intersection of the two legs of the aforementioned Y.  The ferry stops at many villages along the way.  It wasn’t until we got to Bellagio and were buying our return tickets that we saw the sign (we both swear there wasn’t one in Como) for the day pass which allows you to get on and off.  Oh well, next time.

We arrived at Bellagio and death marched (uphill!) to another TripAdvisor recommended restaurant.  Mike and I split a salad, Mike had a delicious wood fired pizza with schmorza cheese and I had gnocci (tiny potato dumplings – should be cloudlike, these unfortunately weren’t) in a gorgonzola (blue cheese) sauce.  For dessert I had panna cotta…yummy.

We then walked back into Bellagio and wandered through town to La Punta (the very tip of the Y where the two legs of the lake come together.

The views everywhere  (on the ferry, in the village, on the shore) are incredible – The beautiful clear lake surrounded by steep hills leading up to the snow covered Alps.  It is amazing to be sitting having lunch and being warm in the sun and feeling like in just a few minutes you could be in the snow….you can’t, I know, but it feels like they are “right there”.

That’s Amal’s and George’s place on the left

After walking back uphill from La Punta into Bellagio, we caught the ferry back to Como (and the other 14 stops it made).  We arrived there and wandered the older part of the city.  It is lovely.

As it was getting late, we decided to have Apertivo.  This is the Italian version of Happy Hour – around 6 or so, the cafes and bars, offer either a buffet of  small dishes or in the case of the one in Como, bring them to your table.  This is included in the price of your cocktail…in the case of Como, each of our drinks were 5 euro.  So for less than $15 we each had a drink and all that food and got to people watch for as long as we could before we had to catch the train back!

On Saturday we took the train into Milan and explored the canal district – Navigli for a bit.  It has become the young and happening trendy part of Milan.  Lots of bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

My planning didn’t work out quite right so we got there a little too early for Apertivo so we ended up having two drinks a piece…..no harm no foul except to the budget!  Drinks here were 9 euros but the ambiance and people watching was probably better than in Como so it all evens out I guess.

One day…I forget when..oh wait, it was after our restaurant lunch, Mike and took the long (long) way home and discovered a lovely walk along the canal that runs east west through Palazzolo (the village where we are) that intersects another walk along the river that runs north south.  Amazingly, they cross, but do not combine.  Anyway, unlike Valencia where the parks are maintained like crazy, these here are a bit overgrown but still a nice respite from the hard concrete and tall buildings.

We had big plans on Sunday to go to the local Bieriera (beer hall) but low and behold, it isn’t open after 3 on Sunday….unlike the US where a Sunday afternoon if beer drinking is a great way to spend a beautiful day.  Anyway, we both have truly enjoyed relaxing, reading and NOT having to hate Sundays anymore because they are the day before Monday.

Tomorrow we are headed to Genova (1.5 hours by train) to have lunch at Clemson’s Villa where I spent the fall of 1981 (jeez I am old).  The now retired cook, Angela and housekeeper, Andriena are going to come back for lunch so it should be a fun time.  We also are planning a day trip to Firenze (Florence) on Thursday to have lunch at our favorite restaurant in Italy…hopefully it will live up to our memory from Mike’s 50th birthday trip five years ago.  Stay tuned to find out!

ps. Apparently hover-rounds have arrived here too!

Milano Week 1

We have settled into our usual routine-last Tuesday after our hectic travel day from Valencia, we slept late, stocked our larder from not one but both supermarkets nearby-never know who might be cheaper. We have decided the slightly smaller once that is 5 minutes away is no more expensive than the one that is 12 minutes walk. In Valencia we didn’t buy the basics (olive oil, coffee, etc. until later our first week which meant we didn’t use everything up, so here we got all those basics on day 1….probably means we will run out here 😢. The picture above is of our place-our apartment is the one in the upper right with the shutters closed-typically they are open but wanted to be able to point it out to you.

On Wednesday we headed into Milano proper-it is about a 25 minute train ride although due to our ineptitude with working the automated ticket machine it seems to take us longer. We aren’t sure what the issue is-sometimes it will take our credit card and sometimes it won’t and of course since we never seem to have small euros, it doesn’t have enough change. I’m sure by the time we leave here we will figure it all out.

In Milan, we explored the area around the duomo-the cathedral using Rick Steve’s audio guide available for free on his app. We have used it other places and been pleased as we were here.

Milan’s cathedral is a bit different than most Italian cathedrals in that is is wholly a gothic structure whereas most here are of multiple styles with a lot including renaissance architecture. In addition to the entry charge, there was an hour long wait which ended up being in the rain.

It is a huge church, third largest in Europe and the decorations are intense. Something like 123 steeples each decorated to within an inch of its life…including inside corners!

We then walked across the piazza to one of the world’s first shopping malls-the Galleria Victor Emanuel.

It is high end shopping at is finest-Armani, Versace, etc. but it has Dining too so we sat and had a delicious lunch of two traditional dishes from this region -saffron risotto (in a Parmesan shell and ravioli with beef and caramelized onions. Mighty tasty.

It was still raining but we walked by L’Scala-since we aren’t opera buffs we didn’t go in or buy tickets before heading back to the station for the trip home.

On Wednesday we explored our village of Paderno Dugnano. It is spread out and doesn’t have the romantic village ambiance that one hopes to find but it does have everything else we need. It of course has a church and apparently some feel the need to protect their concrete yard art.

On Friday, our AirBnB hostess, Cinzia (that’s her I’m talking to) invited us to join her as she visited the market. It is literally at the end of our street! Beautiful vegetables-who knew that there were both spiny and smooth artichokes.

We bought delicious tomatoes, cheese and some pork chops…and olives, always olives and eggs so fresh they still had feathers on them!

And then Cinzia asked if we would like some of her ragu for lunch…you know us, we never turn down a free meal-and this one was big enough that we got two out of it! And delicious too….we at least made the salads!

Of course we’ve been cooking too.

Those are pastas cut like calamari we put in some fresh store made pesto. Yum.

While in Valencia and doing my research on Milan, I learned that getting tickets to The Last Supper should be done months in advance. Oops. I got lucky and we got two of the last four tickets available in April! So we headed into Milan after lunch at home (trying to watch the Budget!). We wandered the neighborhood around the monastery housing this masterpiece if Leonardo da Vinci and of course you never want to see art without a beer first!

We visited the church at the Monastery which was expanded by one of Milan’s kings during the Renaissance by Bramante- he added the dome and apse.

We then were ready for the big event. The king had intended for the refectory to be repurposed to serve as his family’s moseleum. For some reason which I can’t discover it wasn’t. Anyway he hired Leo to decorate one end with the beginning of Christ’s passion and another painter, Giovanni Donato da Montorfano to paint the end of The passion- Jesus’ crucifixion at the other.

Being the crazy guy he was, Leo didn’t want to paint the wall in the Monk’s dining hall using the proven technique of fresco (paint on plaster) as that led to relatively dull colors apparently. Instead he painted on a dry wall. Unfortunately within five years the paint had started to peel, so you can imagine what it would be like now over 500 years later. There were a number of “restorations” over the years some successful and some not so much. So nobody really knows what if any of Leonardo’s paint is left, but the genius of his composition and his idea of having the painting be of the moment when Jesus announced that someone at the table was going to betray him remain. His painting extends the room and even has its light coming from where the real windows are.

In order to protect the painting, groups of 25 visitors go through two dehumidification chambers and then are allowed 15 minutes in the space.

Unlike the small calendar versions I’ve seen over my years, the real thing is huge-15 feet or so long by 29 high. It showcases Leonardo’s expertise in creating depth using perspective drawing which was one of the new things during this period in the art world. Old Giovanni at the other end may have been smart enough to stick with using a fresco but compared to the Last Supper, his painting is pretty flat.

In addition to the restorations that changed Leo’s masterpiece, some fool decided that going around this wall to reach the kitchen was too much trouble and added the door just below Jesus. In copies made by other art students shortly after it was unveiled, Jesus’ feet were visible. If you want to learn more about this incredible work, just Google and you will find lots of information including discussion as to whether that is an effeminate John at Jesus’s right hand or if it’s Mary Magdalene. Where was TMZ when we needed them?

I’m writing this on Monday, April 16 on the train to Bergamo, a small town about an hour from Milan. It is Greenville, SC’s sister city and I’ve wanted to visit ever since I lived there….and ate in its namesake Italian restaurant there…which is also where I was introduced to a French 75 cocktail.

Anyway, have a good week….I’m sure we will!

Milano.

We made it. It wasn’t pretty (Ryan Airline’s lines, credit card that didn’t want to work for train ticket, user error with google maps, minor hangry breakdown in the rain at “our” station after I mistakenly thought we had gotten off at the wrong one) but we did make it.

Our AirBnB host is wonderful and prepared the delicious pasta pomodoro pictured above for our dinner after she rescued us from the aforementioned train station! Yummy!!

The apartment is nice too although the mini sofa is a bit small for two biguns and the shower even more so! But all in all, it is as we expected so we are very pleased. We are unpacked and headed to bed after a long and tiring day but looking forward to the next part of our adventure!

Our view….