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Italy

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Abruzzo

Pescocostanzo, Sulmona, and the Apennines

By the time we left Vieste, restaurants were already opening for lunch but we hadn't any appetite yet after our self-catered breakfast. Getting out of the Gargano Peninsula was slow going and we wasted a lot of time in a city called Lucera trying to find a castle that stubbornly refused to appear on Google Maps. We gave up on the castle and tried to find lunch in the center of town, but once again were frustrated by the tendency of restaurants to have very limited opening hours for lunch in the offseason. Eventually we abandoned Lucera and set off for Pescocostanzo in the Apennine mountain range of central Italy. At this point I wasn't expecting great things from the last two days of the trip and just wanted to enjoy a little more Italian countryside before the long flight back. I had tried finding an Airbnb in Pescocostanzo but the few options listed didn't respond so I chose a Booking.com hotel in Sulmona a few miles further north, and reduced Pescocostanzo to a stopover. This ended up being a very fortuitous decision.

Dusk was already falling when we reached the hilltop town of Pescocostanzo so we parked close to the center and made a beeline for the old town. The buildings were picturesque but the streets were strangely empty of pedestrians, although cars regularly barreled down the main avenue at surprising speed. Still smarting from our missed lunch, we found a pastry shop where we were able to take the edge off our hunger with apple strudel and cappucino. There seemed little to do in the quiet town and I was relieved that we weren't sticking around all night.
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Naturally, when we arrived in Sulmona a little while later we were eager to get a real dinner. It didn't help anybody's mood that our B&B was in a restricted zone and I had to leave the family in the car and walk several blocks to the place to find out where we could park and get a pass. We had to squeeze into a very tight spot so that our wide car didn't block the street, and extracting the gondola and bags was like delivering triplets. Our suite in Il Marchese del Grillo was nice but both beds were in one room, a little more of a cramped situation than we were used to. The hostess at the B&B recommended the Lonely Planet's top choice, Hosteria Dell'Arco. After our usual difficulties locating the restaurant deeper in the old town, we had a very disappointing dinner of lifeless antipasti and greasy overgrilled meat. As usual, it was hard to understand why it was so difficult to get a decent meal even when we were so careful in making our choices. We ate enough to ward off hunger for the night and made our way back to the B&B. Sulmona was a much larger and livelier town than Pescostanzo, so despite the difficulties of the day I felt like we were staying in the right place.

We had a restful night and woke up in much better spirits. Mei Ling took the kids upstairs for the rooftop breakfast and I followed soon after. What I saw when I came out onto the terrace was absolutely breathtaking. The B&B was apparently one of the tallest buildings in the area with the exception of the nearby bell tower and dome of the Church of the Santissima Annunziata. We had wonderful views over the entire old town and we were completely surrounded by the Apennines, which looked as though they had been painted on a set in the background. The breakfast spread was simply the best I have ever encountered at a B&B, and was high on the list of the top ten meals we had on our journey. There were fresh fruits and tomatoes, a wide selection of salamis and cheeses, freshly squeezed juices, and a delicious olive/truffle tapenade that we couldn't get enough of. Our hostess told us that almost everything there came from her family farm nearby, and it was obvious from the taste that everything had just been picked or prepared. Between the setting and the meal, the effect was overwhelming and gave us a wonderful start to the last day of our journey.
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We spent a couple of hours strolling in Sulmona, and eventually found ourselves in the main square. We found a new backpack and duffelbag at a dollar store in the square, which interestingly enough had a Chinese proprietor. The proprietor told Mei Ling he had come to Italy twenty years earlier and opened a Chinese restaurant, but at the time of the SARS epidemic rumors swept through the area that one could contract the virus by eating at Asian restaurants and he was forced to close.
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After the shopping and another lengthy episode where we stocked up on dumplings for Cleo at a Chinese restaurant, we had a very late start getting out of Sulmona. Our destination was Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a small town perched atop an Apennine hill that had a reputation for not having changed in centuries. Driving through the isolated mountainous area, it was hard to believe we were only an hour east of Rome. Picturesque villages dotted the hillsides and hilltops while the valleys seemed bereft of human inhabitants.
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Once we got close to our destination and had to leave the main road, Google Maps started to get hinky as usual and led us down some back roads. A couple of times we got caught behind slow-moving farm equipment and once had to stop for a herd of sheep that were crossing the road. Eventually we rolled into Santo Stefano and parked in a small lot just outside the center. At first, it seemed like the town was only populated with stray dogs. In order to get to the entrance to the old town I had to practically step over a group of sleeping dogs and I wondered what kind of mood they would be in if they woke up. I needn't have worried, because as we were packing up the kids they got up and ambled around the lot, completely ignoring us. Once we got inside the old town, we found one art shop that was open and otherwise the streets were eerily quiet and empty. Nevertheless, we could sense that the ancient and crumbly walls hid a living community that preferred to exist in peace and quiet during the eight months of the year they weren't overrun with tourists.
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We hunted in vain for a restaurant, reaching our last hope just half an hour after they had closed their kitchen. I hadn't planned anything after Santa Stefano, but I didn't feel quite ready to end our trip. We had a late morning flight the next day and we had decided there was no point in dealing with Rome traffic, so we had booked a basic motel in the airport suburb of Fiumicino. Once we arrived there, our trip was essentially over. I thumbed through my Lonely Planet on the iPad and realized we were close to a ruined mountaintop fort called Rocca Calascio that was briefly mentioned in passing. We decided we would make that our last stop and then head back towards Rome and Fiumicino.

Rocca Calascio was just a few kilometers back on the mountain road we had taken to San Stefano, a turnoff just after the small town of Calascio. I had actually passed the fork earlier without taking note of the sign for the fort. We made our way up a steep winding road and past a few hairpin turns until the road eventually terminated in a small parking lot. From here, a pedestrian street led up into another deserted-looking medieval town. We stepped up onto a grassy platform just above the parking lot which was only occupied by a short segment of crumbling stone wall, and could see rolling valleys for miles around. In the distance were peaks and ridges of the Apennines. Behind us was a steep hill on top of which we could see more ruins.
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A cobblestone path led into the remains of a town that clearly had no permanent inhabitants. Grass and trees were growing over the buildings and paths. After a couple of turns, the path turned into a dirt road and the walk up the hill started to feel more like a climb.
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A little further up we encountered the abandoned 17th century church of Santa Maria della Pietà. Although beautiful, its forsaken appearance on that desolate mountainside made it an intimidating sight. I don't think you could have paid me enough to spend a night in that place.
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At this point, there was no path left at all and rocky outcroppings impeded our view of the top. After a couple of false starts we eventually rediscovered the upward route and proceeded to the fort, which was absolutely spectacular. At the lower level of the ruin, we had the best views yet of the Apennine mountains and valleys extending for miles in every direction. The wind was forceful and would have chilled us to the bone in a cooler climate. As it was, I was grateful that Ian was kept snug by the carrier and my own body heat. We picked our way up the rocky slope to the main fort which was better preserved, with continuous walls and corner turrets. Cleo insisted on walking across the short wooden bridge into the fort by herself, although I was afraid the wind would blow her off her feet.
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Rocca Calascio was one of the best experiences of the entire journey, and it came right at the end when we were practically ready to pack it in and head to our airport motel. It's very hard to find the words to describe the isolated beauty of the mountain fort, which felt like walking on the surface of another planet despite being only an hour away from Rome. As we descended the winding roads towards the highway, I wistfully looked at all the other hilltop towns and wondered what other Apennine secrets would remain hidden from us forever.

In our zeal to avoid being caught in Rome traffic, we wasted much more time getting lost in search of a TripAdvisor recommended restaurant in the suburb of Frascati that turned out to be average, and then becoming hopelessly disoriented when our phone signal disappeared on the way to Fiumicino. Eventually we found the motel and the rather surly proprietor and spent a couple of hours reorganizing our belongings for the flight home. It seemed like we'd only just closed our eyes when the alarms went off and we were piling into the car for the drive to the airport. We had one last panicky episode where we couldn't figure out where the dropoff was for the car, and then we were ready for the gate agent, security, and the eleven hour flight to Miami.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:24 Archived in Italy Tagged santo sulmona pescocostanzo rocca calascio stefano Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Puglia

Alberobello, Locorotondo, and Vieste

The sound of voices outside the cabin window ripped us awake at seven in the morning. We looked through the curtain and saw that the ferry was slowly settling into the port and passengers were making their way down to the lower deck. I quickly jumped in the shower while Mei Ling changed the kids and then we grabbed our bags and squeezed out of the narrow cabin doorway. We crammed everything into the tiny elevator and tried to remember what floor the car deck was on. We got out on what I thought was the right floor but the car deck on that level was completely empty. I ran up and down the staircase a couple of times trying to find the right car deck but couldn't find another one. After a few more attempts to find the Iceberg in different areas, we returned to the level we had tried first and saw that there was exactly one car still on the deck. It was ours. Everyone else had driven off the ferry before we had even left our cabin. We were THAT family. We sheepishly loaded the kids and the bags and drove off the boat into Bari.

The Lonely Planet had very little nice to say about Bari and we didn't see anything through the car windows to make us think otherwise, so we wasted little time in getting to the highway headed south. Due to the ferry schedule, we only had the option of spending the last three days in Italy rather than the five I would have preferred. I had reluctantly decided not to attempt to make it to Lecce in the heel of the Italy boot. It was simply too far and would have meant too much of our last three days would have been spent in the car. However, it seemed like there were plenty of interesting towns not as far down south to occupy our first day back in Italy.

It was an exhilarating feeling to be out on the open road at 8 AM. Being two hours ahead of our normal schedule made the day seem like it had unlimited possibilities. Our first stop was Alberobello, famous for its hundreds of trulli. These 18th century stone huts with conical roofs look better suited for housing elves or hobbits than humans, and no one seems to be quite sure why they were built rather than more conventional dwellings of the period. I couldn't figure out where the tourist parking lot was so we drove through the narrow streets of town until we eventually found a illegal-looking parking spot near the central Piazza del Popolo. At one end of the square was a vantage point from which we could look out over the trulli neighborhood of Rione Monti.
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We descended a staircase to the lower level of town where I naturally found the large tourist parking area. From there, the trulli of Rione Monti are clustered on a gently sloping hill. Few of the trulli in this area are private residences. Most have been converted into shops that cater to the numerous tourists that the town attracts, although in mid-October the streets were blissfully uncrowded. We did explore one little trulli bakery where the owner had a living quarters in the small upper chamber of the hut.
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There wasn't much to see in Alberobello besides trulli so we drove to our next town, Locorotondo. This was another one of those cities which looks very drab and ordinary until you find your way to the right area and suddenly turns into a beautiful old neighborhood of smoothly paved streets, whitewashed buildings, wooden doors, and colorful planters.
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After strolling around the old town for a while, we found the road that curved around the edge of Locorotondo and provided wonderful views of the fields and farms on the outskirts.
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We had already seen two towns and were still on track for an early lunch. We made one attempt at a recommended restaurant in the town of Cisternino, but they weren't open for lunch. We decided to try Martina Franca instead, where there were at least two restaurants that sounded promising. Martina Franca was somewhat larger than the last two towns, but I kept losing my phone signal amidst the tall buildings and narrow streets of the old town. We found one of our target restaurants which was closed, and were unable to find the second. Eventually, we decided to eat in a small restaurant we came across that had an inventive menu and a wide selection of craft beers. It wasn't close to one of the best meals we had, but we considered it a success after our struggle to find an open restaurant.
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Once our hunger issue was solved, we explored the narrow streets with sunnier dispositions. Martina Franca's old town was similar to Locorotondo in some ways, but seemed to have more ornate doorways and windows.
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On the way back to the car we did find one impressive open square called Piazza Plebiscito with a beautiful curved building with an arched portico. Close by was the baroque Basilica di San Martino.
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Castel del Monte was another place that I learned of for the first time when planning our trip, and was surprised that it wasn't more well known. This bizarre 13th century octagonal citadel looks almost as though it was carved from styrofoam a few days earlier. It stands on a solitary hilltop in a rural area, and no one knows for what purpose it was built. Spiral staircases lead upward to a second floor with barren, intimidating rooms.
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From the castle, the windy path spiraling down to the parking lot is lined with umbrella pine trees and provides vistas over the surrounding countryside.
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I had decided we would spend the night in a rather unusual location: the town of Vieste at the tip of the Gargano peninsula. This isolated promontory is far from the touristic areas of Italy and I thought this might be our only convenient opportunity to see the area. Most of the peninsula is forested and Vieste was the only city that seemed to be of interest to us. We made good time on the highway all the way to the peninsula, but we were aware of a developing problem. We were running out of milk. I had forgotten our prime directive of always making sure we were well ahead of the curve when it came to milk and diapers, and hadn't focused on restocking in Martina Franca. Now that we were on the highway, all the gas stations seemed to have the limited stores that carried beer and water and snack foods, but no milk. We stopped at four or five of them but it soon became apparent that we would have to get milk in Vieste, and darkness was falling. We went through a series of tunnels and then came to a fork in the road where a road sign pointed to Vieste on one side and Google Maps directed me to the other. After some deliberation, I followed Google Maps since signs sometimes don't point to the shortest route. We drove in darkness on a looping road when I realized we were no longer following the blue line on the map. We drove back slowly and I found the turn off Google Maps was requesting that I take: a steep dirt road going up the hillside. Fool me ten times, Google Maps. We retraced our steps back to the fork and followed the sign to Vieste.

We only had 20 kilometers left to go but they were some very slow and harrowing kilometers. We were now in the "Forest of Shadows", a dense collection of trees that forms the Gargano National Park which occupies most of the interior of the peninsula. At night, there was no light except the stars and my high beams. Meanwhile, stomach-wrenching hairpin turns slowed us to a crawl every few hundred meters. Thankfully, we had the presence of mind to text our Airbnb hosts about the milk situation and they offered to buy some for us, which we gratefully accepted. This last stretch of our drive took about forty-five minutes but we ultimately found ourselves in a surprisingly pleasant and modern-appearing town. After a relatively minor directional struggle we located our Airbnb hosts who led us into what seemed like a mostly empty apartment complex in the new part of town. As was usual for Airbnb's in Europe, the apartment was true to its description and even more importantly, two liter bottles of whole milk were waiting in the refrigerator.

At this point, our only goal was to get a filling meal before bed so we took the car to the gate of the old town and squeezed it into a narrow spot. I scouted out the restaurant Osteria al Duomo, which I found halfway down a steep staircase that led away from the cathedral. The proprietors were especially friendly and very accommodating to the kids. The thick walls were constructed of large irregular stones set into mortar, giving the restaurant a grotto-like atmosphere. The food was good but not on the level with the best we had on the journey.
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In the morning it was time to get the kids good and clean ahead of our flight back to Miami in just two days. For breakfast, we finally ate the salami that had been rattling around in the back of the car since Bagnoregio as well as tomatoes and cheese from the market in Kotor and the last few oranges from Croatia. It's not often one gets to eat a meal whose components were purchased in three different countries.
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Vieste's gate to the old town was a portal between two worlds. On the outside were cars, convenience stores, hardware, and street signs but once through that archway there was only antiquated architecture and an eerie stillness. Virtually no one from the outside came to Vieste in the offseason.
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We found a lookout from which we could see the beach far below and on the other side a narrow peninsula extending into the Adriatic.
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We made our way down to the low part of town and walked down the narrow streets at the base of the peninsula until we found a road that led to an enchanting little church.
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We reversed direction on that road and followed it back to the pedestrian zone, where we encountered a colorful cafe with a giant loaf of freshly-baked bread cooling on an outdoor table. We decided we weren't hungry enough for an early lunch and would find a place in the next town.
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On the way back out of the Gargano Peninsula, we found the Forest of Shadows a much more welcoming and scenic place in the daylight. We couldn't resist one selfie with the foggy hills in the background.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 07:21 Archived in Italy Tagged castel del monte martina frança alberobello vieste locorotondo Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Venice and Trieste

Naturally, we were as excited about Venice as any other part of the trip before we left. Few cities in the world have a reputation of being as beautiful or unique. I had been there before with my parents when I was eight, but naturally my memories were scant and fuzzy. I was looking forward to renewing my experience with the city, and of course to introducing Mei Ling to this extraordinary place in the world.

Venice isn't difficult to find. A long causeway extends across the Laguna Veneta from Mestre on the mainland, affording expansive views over the blue water dotted with islands. At the end of the causeway, well-marked signs direct traffic to the Tronchetto car park. Once parked, we made sure we had all necessities for two days in our two small rolling suitcases and backpack. Ironically, Venice was the first city where we left the gondola in the car. We strapped the kids into the carriers and made our way to the Vaporetto. We chose to buy unlimited 48 hour passes for the Vaporetto, figuring that we had to use it at least twice and the pass would pay for itself after four trips. The vaporetto was crowded and smelled of diesel, so it turned out not to be the most pleasant mode of travel although Cleo found herself a friend.
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We had chosen an Airbnb in Dorsoduro, the belly of fish-shaped Venice, not far from the Academia Bridge. We had saved enormous amounts of money by using Airbnb instead of staying at a hotel. Even though the apartment was more expensive than any of our previous accommodations, it was far below the $400-500/night that seemed to be required at even the least expensive hotels. We lugged our bags and the kids through a couple of narrow alleys, over a small bridge, and into a quiet street where we found our apartment.
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The apartment was on three one-room levels with the kitchen and toilet on the bottom and the shower at the top level. Mei Ling and Ian took the second floor bedroom and Cleo and I took the top floor. We unpacked and baby-proofed the bedroom areas, and then set off over the Academia Bridge to explore and find dinner. With respect to visuals and atmosphere, Venice was everything we had imagined it to be. I don't think my photographs can do justice to the otherworldly beauty of the Renaissance era palaces and residences lining the bluish-green canals, illuminated at night by the lamps of the ubiquitous waterside cafes.
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When researching Venice before the trip, I noted there seemed to be a debate among families between carriers or strollers in Venice. Having a twin stroller, of course, carriers were the only option for us. I did see plenty of families pushing strollers and carrying them up and down the bridges. Ultimately I think it's an individual decision based on whether one finds walking with a baby on one's back or lifting a stroller more onerous. I much prefer the carrier since I can carry a baby for hours without much discomfort, although after the four hour mark I start to feel the wear on my neck and upper back. Also, we covered a lot of ground which meant a lot of bridges. Having to carry a stroller up and down so many stairs would have been a serious buzzkill. So I'm firmly in the carrier camp for Venice.

After the bridge, we made our way eastward through the irregular grid of canals and alleys to the Piazza San Marco, one of Venice's major tourist attractions. Aside from being home to the largest church in Venice, the Basilica di San Marco. as well as the Palazzo Ducale, the Piazza is ringed with overpriced tourist restaurants and the open spaces are filled with South Asian vendors selling sparkly crap for kids. In keeping with our philosophy, we refrained from entering any of the popular sights, stayed out of lines and crowds, and reveled in our anti-cultural ignorance.
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We knew it was going to be tough finding decent food in Venice on a Saturday night without a reservation and we weren't wrong. We found a mostly empty restaurant, ordered some drinks, and borrowed their wifi for a while. I made a few calls to the top-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor but no one was taking walk-ins. Mei Ling had the presence of mind to remind me to book a table for the following night, but things were not looking good for that evening. At one point we nearly decided to order at the place we were sitting in, but fortunately I remembered to check it as well and discovered it was fourth from last out of more than a thousand Venice restaurants. Even we're not that brave. We started moving away from Piazza San Marco as every restaurant we checked in the area seemed to be in the worst of the worst category. Finally we found a small place with a couple of open tables that was rated somewhere in the middle and squeezed everyone in there. As I expected, the food was edible but forgettable. At least we still had Sunday night. On the way back, I saw the waterside cafe just a few yards from our apartment had open tables and looked it up. Ranked 23. Damn it.

We dedicated the next day to an exploration of Venice. We took the vaporetto from Academia to Rialto, mainly because I wanted to use our passes. The crowds and the fumes made us wish we had walked instead. The Rialto Bridge area is probably the most crowded in Venice, probably because it's central and there isn't a lot of open space. The bridge itself was perpetually carpeted in tourists, even though it was nearly October. Of course, we stopped to take our own photos as we crossed the bridge.
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We explored central Venice for a while. My targeted restaurant for lunch turned out to be a tiny sandwich counter so I reluctantly agreed to eat at a Chinese restaurant. At least the food was familiar which meant Cleo ate more than her usual hummingbird lunch.
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We moved away from the crowds in the center and eventually came to a bridge where some of Venice's famed gondoliers were waiting for business. I hesitated to take the bait because it just seemed like such a touristy thing to do, but I've been married long enough to sense when Mei Ling wants to do something and doesn't want to say it. Fortunately, the prices of rides are set by the city so I didn't have to do any bargaining, which I hate. The gondolier helped Mei Ling into the boat and I handed down the two kids. I didn't want to ask for a hand so I jumped three feet down from the walkway onto the deck with an enormous bang. I was probably lucky I didn't go right through the bottom of the boat. Touristy or not, the gondola ride was well worth the 80 Euros (it's 100 in the evening/night). Being in the middle of the canal provides a completely different perspective than one gets from the shore, and the experience is overall very enjoyable. The kids seemed to love it as well.
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After the gondola ride, we walked back through the central San Polo area to Cannaregio, the back of the Venice fish. Eventually we reached the northern shoreline from which vaporettos leave to the island of Murano and the Marco Polo airport.
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We decided to take the vaporetto back to the San Marco area, thereby justifying our purchase of the unlimited ticket. Keeping an eye on the clock, we passed an hour in another attractive piazza while Cleo joined some little kids who were kicking around soccer balls. I know every dad thinks his daughter is the most wonderful little girl on Earth, but Cleo is the most wonderful little girl on Earth. She has an energy and zest for life that are boundless. Ever since she's been a few months old, she's been wanting to do everything that she's seen other kids doing, even if they're years older than her. Everywhere that she goes, she brings along a special radiance and people love her. One of the most fun things on our trips is to see her make new friends from other countries and join in their games, so I uploaded a video of her playing in that Venetian square whose name I cannot remember.
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According to Google maps, we were just a few minutes away from Ristorante Alle Corone, the top-rated restaurant I had made a reservation at the night before. We eventually dragged Cleo away from her soccer game and found the street Campo Fava, but were completely unable to locate the address or the restaurant. The street seemed to change names before arriving at the number we needed, and none of the locals had heard of the restaurant. Suddenly my heart sank. The restaurant was on Campo delle Fava. We were at Campo Fava. I must have somehow navigated to the wrong street and blown up our only chance to get a decent meal in Venice. But as the minutes to our reservation ticked down and all hope seemed lost we found someone who recognized the restaurant as belonging to the Ai Reali hotel and directed us around a tight corner to our destination.

When I realized I had booked a meal in a luxurious hotel restaurant with the two babies I immediately had a mental image of the kids screaming and throwing spoons while other diners begged for their checks. Fortunately, I had made the reservation as early as possible so we were the only diners when they led us into a semi-secluded room with two high chairs already set up. They were obviously prepared. The staff was extremely pleasant and friendly as well, rather unusual for Italy. I wish I could say that the food lived up to the setting and the professionalism of the staff, but it was once again unmemorable. Cleo did enjoy conducting an imaginary orchestra with the breadsticks. We escaped just as other diners were beginning to filter into the restaurant, casting wary looks in our direction. After this undistinguished meal at a top TripAdvisor choice in an exclusive hotel, we concluded that it was virtually impossible to find excellent food in Venice.
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The next morning we found a decent panini breakfast at a cafe close by the apartment. With full stomachs, there was nothing left to do but make our way back to the vaporetto station and wave arrivederci to Venice.
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On the way from Venice to Slovenia, the obvious stop was Trieste. I was curious to see the intermingling of Latin and Slavic cultures that the city was famous for. While scenic, the city seemed strangely empty on a Monday around lunchtime. This did allow for some uninterrupted views of the central Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia.
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From the Piazza we moved to the water's edge, where rolling hills dotted with picturesque houses provided a backdrop to the deep blue Adriatic.
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We wandered back through the center and with growling bellies found ourselves in front of the famous Buffet da Pepi, where we partook of various porcine delicacies such as tongue and brisket.
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At Trieste we were on the threshold of Slovenia, and so it was only moments after our departure that we found ourselves in the third country of our journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:15 Archived in Italy Tagged venice trieste veneto Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: The Veneto

Verona and Padua

Mei Ling was at the wheel as we rolled into Verona an hour or so after leaving Ferrara. Like many of Italy's famously picturesque cities, Verona was pleasant but nondescript outside of the center. We decided to switch positions as we approached the chaos of Centro and Mei Ling pulled off the busy parkway onto a narrow driveway leading into a fenced parking lot. She stopped in the driveway just before the open gate. I looked up and saw the lot was nearly empty and told her to pull into the lot so we wouldn't block someone coming up behind us in the driveway. "Are you sure?" she asked. "Yeah, why not? The gate's open, " I answered. She pulled into the lot and five seconds later the metal gate slid closed behind us. This did not seem like a reason to panic. From the lot we could see cars whizzing by on the busy parkway we had just left. We changed positions and I drove back towards the gate, trying to activate a motion sensor or camera. Nothing happened. I reversed and pulled forward a couple more times. Nothing. I got out of the car and looked for any kind of button or sensor I could activate to get the gate to open. Nothing. I looked around for a phone or intercom and likewise saw nothing.

The lot was fairly small with just a few cars parked inside. The outer perimeter of the lot, facing the driveway and parkway, was ringed with an eight foot tall iron fence. The inner perimeter was blocked off by tall concrete walls that appeared to surround some kind of industrial complex. I found a double metal door in the wall that was chained closed. I could look through and see a rather decrepit courtyard and a large building behind it that had a few lights on, but otherwise appeared abandoned. I looked for an intercom and banged on the gate but no one showed up. I went back to the car, and called our Airbnb host and told her our situation. Of course, she had no idea where we were or what kind of place we were trapped in. I let her know we'd be later than expected and made a mental note that I might have to call her back to call the police for us. My next move was to climb over the gate at the driveway, which I accomplished with moderate difficulty. I set off down the sidewalk to try and find a way around to the front of the building. I had no luck in the first direction, where apartment buildings came right up to the edge of the gated complex, so I reversed tracks and went around the building from the other side. I had a little better luck here, as I was able to get to the more presentable facade of the building I had seen through the gate, but everything was locked tight and no one answered when I knocked on doors. There weren't even any stores or restaurants to inquire about the nature of the building. Some passers by hurried past with lowered heads, and it seemed highly unlikely any of them could have offered assistance. Eventually I decided to return to the car to attempt to contact the police.

When I was about 100 yards away from the gate, I heard Mei Ling calling and looked up so see her waving at me. The car was back in the driveway with another car beside it. Someone had finally arrived to get his car and had opened the gate. With enormous relief, we jumped back in the car and resumed our navigation towards the center. It had only been an hour and a half but it felt like an eternity. Moral of the story? Either "don't drive into private parking lots with open gates", or "listen to your wife." I'm pretty sure I know what Mei Ling would say. Fortunately, this was our closest brush with disaster for the duration of the trip.

The old town of Verona is packed into a small tongue of land created by a loop in the River Adige. The entire old town is a no go for the cars of non-residents. We lost a little more time searching for the underground garage in Piazza Isolo on the opposite bank of the river, and then set off for our Airbnb accommodation. It was a long walk with all our bags and the gondola but the location was perfect, a wide open square adjacent to the Piazza delle Erbe and the Torrei dei Lamberti. We checked in and then immediately set off to find dinner. It was a Friday night so the first couple of restaurants we tried weren't taking walk-ins, even though they looked half empty. We eventually found an attractive place with al fresco seating but unfortunately the meal was forgettable, except for a creme brulee with a live flame that impressed Cleo no end.
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The next morning we strolled around the small market in the Piazza delle Erbe and admired the tall Torrei dei Lamberti from the outside.
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Outside of our Airbnb
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We were a little pressed for time so we decided to walk around the tip of the "tongue". Verona has beautiful streets and great views from the numerous bridges that span the Adige.
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Our last stop was the ancient Roman gate of Porta Borsari, appearing somewhat incongruous yet majestic spanning the cobblestone street.
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When planning this leg of the trip, I had to make a decision between stopping in Padua or seeing the famous fish market in Venice. Since it was Saturday, missing the fish market that day meant missing it entirely as it was closed Sunday and Monday. In the end, I chose Padua because I knew we'd be going back to Venice one day when the kids were older but I couldn't be sure we'd make it back to Padua. It proved to be an excellent decision. The food markets at Padua were absolutely spectacular and one of the best culinary experiences of the entire journey. Aside from an enormous number of stalls selling produce, there were arcades around the piazzas containing dozens of specialty foods such as cheeses, meats, and dried goods.
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One of the specialties in Padua is horsemeat, which pleased Mei Ling no end. Along with some bread, parmesan, pasta, fruit, and olives we bought some strips of horsemeat in oil and settled down at an ice cream shop to eat lunch. Mei Ling took one bite of horse and determined that it was not carpaccio after all, but intended for cooking. Even without the horse piece de resistance, our self-catered lunch was outstanding. Cleo was the happiest of all since she got her favorite strawberry ice cream.
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After a pleasant hour strolling along the arcades and negotiating with vendors, we explored the surrounding piazzas and cobblestone streets. After Perugia, Padua was the second Italian city that I felt would make a great base for a return visit, especially since we were missing the city of Vicenza and surrounding countryside on this trip. I could have eaten in the Padua market every day for a week. We made sure to wash our hands in a street fountain before returning to the car to head to our much-anticipated exploration of Venice.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:14 Archived in Italy Tagged verona veneto padua Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Emilia-Romagna

Ravenna, Bologna, and Ferrara


For the rest of the first leg of our trip in Italy, we settled into a pattern of using the morning and early afternoon to walk around the city in which we had spent the night, then stopping in another city for a couple of hours, and then arriving at the next overnight destination at about dinner time. I had originally planned to stay in Ravenna, but instead made it a stopover city once I decided we should visit Bologna. Ravenna is best known to travelers for a large collection of intricate Byzantine mosaics that can be seen in churches and museums around the city. Again, this wasn't exactly our thing but it was the largest city on the way to Bologna and also was supposed to have a fairly substantial market in the city center. I found my way to the center with some difficulty and eventually parked in an inexpensive lot, unsure if my car had crossed into the forbidden central zone. We spent the first half hour hunting for the market, only to learn that it had been discontinued two years earlier. However, Ravenna was a colorful and pleasant town and we walked through the wide streets and piazzas for about an hour.
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We eventually found ourselves following a stream of pedestrians towards a large structure which turned out to be the Basilica di San Vitale, home of some of the most famous mosaics. The church itself was an enormous and beautiful structure, and Cleo stretched her legs on the grassy lawn outside.
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Inside were the mosaics, of course. Even without knowing much about art, it was clear that assembling the tiny pieces into such intricate images must have been a Herculean task.
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Bologna wasn't on our original itinerary, as I had heard that it was more industrial and functional than its romantic neighbors. Stopping there turned out to be a great decision, as Bologna proved to be one of our favorite large cities in Italy. As usual, I had some difficulty navigating our arrival and once again entered a forbidden area with the car. I initially passed by our street because it seemed so narrow that I wasn't sure the car could turn into it. It took about half an hour to sort things out and chart a course back to that point via the maze of one way streets, and we had to race to unload the car before we became an obstruction to traffic. Our accommodation was very unique, a two-level apartment inside of a cavernous building with a central atrium. On the second floor of the apartment was a bedroom with a balcony that looked down into a large room that was a combined living room, dining room, and study. The ceiling was covered with a beautiful hand-painted fresco.
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By the time we had unpacked and cleaned up, it was dark and time to get dinner. We pushed the gondola through the rather grotty University Quarter to Osteria dell'Orsa, which seemed like a good choice from the Lonely Planet because it was casual and open late. The place turned out not to be a great choice for a family with two babies as it had a raucous atmosphere filled with students drinking liter-sized beers. They fit us in on the lower level, meaning we had to disassemble the gondola and lug the parts as well as the kids down the stairs and find space under the table to stash everything. Cleo got caught up in the energy of the place and wouldn't sit on the bench, but she learned her lesson when a waiter came galloping down the stairs and literally knocked her flying through the air. Fortunately, the only thing hurt was her dignity. We ate the Bolognese specialty of pasta with ragu (meat sauce) that was filling if not subtle.
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On the way back to the apartment we passed through many of Bologna's famed porticos. These covered walkways supported by long series of arches were originally built to allow homeowners to build out the upper stories over the sidewalks. Apparently this allowed the homeowners to generate more rental income from the university students flooding the city, although I am unsure if this is actually an urban myth. Regardless, it creates a beautiful effect in the streets and provided welcome protection from the occasional rain showers.
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The next day we set out to find the Mercato delle Erbe, a covered produce market not too far from our apartment. Par for the course we had some trouble locating it, but just when we were about to give up we found it somewhat recessed from the sidewalk on a block we had already crossed several times. Inside, the market was clean and pleasant with numerous stalls containing the usual fruit and vegetable standbys as well as a number of interesting specialty stores. A common sight was large, lobulated hunks of mozzarella in both fresh and smoked forms.
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For lunch, we found a Japanese store in the market and we combined some of their delicacies with mozzarella and other goodies we had bought elsewhere in the market.
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We next made our way to Piazza Maggiore, the center of the old town and home of its most famous landmarks including Fontana del Nettuno and the Basilica di San Petronio. The unique feature of this basilica is that the marble facade only extends halfway up the front of the building due to the sudden half in construction before the church was completed. When Cleo is on a roll, she doesn't feel like stopping for pictures.
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Adjacent to Piazza Maggiore is an area known as Il Quadrilatero for the four streets that define it. Besides being crammed with food markets, delicatessens, and cafes the neighborhood is also a center for craftsmen and jewelers. We found some snacks in a crowded food court but we were already too full from lunch to take full advantage of the area.
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On the way back to the apartment we stopped to admire Le Due Torri, two improbably rickety towers dating from the 12th century. Apparently well over a hundred towers were originally built and many of them survive to this day, but these two in central Bologna are the best known. The reasons for the construction of the towers are not well understood, but they may have had military uses or may simply have been status symbols. As can be seen in the pictures, they lean to such an extent that the shorter tower is closed to the public. The other can be climbed, but not with a squirming 30 pound child strapped to one's back.
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To many travelers, spending less than 24 hours in a city such as Bologna might seem a sacrilege. Keep in mind though that we are mostly unencumbered by the desire to see the insides of museums, churches, and palaces which allows us to cover much more ground in a short period of time. Twenty-four hours is actually quite a reasonable period of time to absorb the ambience of a city and the nature of its denizens, and to decide if it merits a return visit at some time in the future. In the case of Bologna, I have no doubt that one day we'll return.

Our last city in Emilia-Romagna was Ferrara, a mid-sized city best known for its attractive Duomo and an enormous medieval castle, Castello Estense. We dutifully admired these structures from the outside but probably our most memorable experience in Ferrara was buying walking shoes to replace my tattered sneakers.
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After Ferrara, we had plenty of time to get to Verona and check into our next accommodation in Verona. As it turned out, we were going to need it.

Posted by zzlangerhans 21:27 Archived in Italy Tagged bologna ravenna ferrara emilia-romagna Comments (0)

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