Italia … I want to go back! Sweetie and I just returned from a 3 week exploratory journey around Italy. Three weeks journeying was just about right … we were beginning the last day … however, we are already talking about next time. This time was ‘almost’ perfect … almost, because I forgot to download the Italian map into the TomTom before we left. It was still programmed for our friend Jill’s trip to Germany. Like any traveler I had a backup … an international calling and data plan for our phones … which worked wonderfully in Big Cities but once we were in the countryside, well, it was only by sharp eyes and memory that we ever found our way back to our villas. The trip itself was perfect because every village, town, or city we spent time in was unique, enchanting, and … old … really, really old.
One thing we learned rather quickly is that in Italy time spent eating does not count. There is never a rush, or a quick bite. It wasn’t until we were in Rome that we even saw a to-go cup (labeled ‘American Caffe”). We learned that a meal lasts as long as it lasts. (…at least 2 hours).
Food is ordered by courses (there’s that look … if you don’t order an item from each section), Oh! and dinner checks do not arrive automatically (you know that American signal that the restaurant wants their table back). The most important lesson? Enjoy! Relax! Mangia, Mangia (eat, eat). Eat we did. Antipastos, pasta, fish or meat, fruit & cheese, dessert … and then, caffe’ ? aperitif? Even with a polite decline of these additions the cheque may or may not appear. Sit down for lunch at 1 or 2 and finish about 3 or 4 … take your time … shop doors closed, window curtains drawn and there is a pause in the air (except for silly Americans wandering or hordes of Chinese tour groups).
I renamed our Italian Journey our Italian Food Tour … I can (but won’t) describe each village, town, or city by its food, restaurants, espresso / cappuccino, bakeries, and gelato shops.
Wandering Italy … Week 1. On arrival we blasted out of the Fiumicino Airport in our rented Fiat 500L (for Large (think room for 2 suitcases)) on to Orbetello, a popular seaside community 2 hours northwest of Rome and which in late September was quiet and the perfect spot to aclimate.
Pesce! Fresh fish every night from the Pesca Trattoria next door to our apartment. Ahhhhh …
A few days later it was on to Parma, the home of Pruscuto (Parma Ham), Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese, and authentic Balsamic (aged a minimum of 12 years in wooden casks) no wine vinegar base here just grape must and time. (and yes, I brought home an expensive, minuscule bottle of 20 year aged balsamic … it’s a dream flavor on a bit of cheese or a few drops on vanilla ice cream … it’s definitely not for drenching a salad.)
We stood in a room with 6 million dollars worth of cheese after watching the twice daily ritual of starting a cheese wheel. Fresh parmigiana-reggiano cheese is creamy (who knew?) how heavenly … I have put on my list to find FRESH parmigiana-reggiano cheese here…no more dried and crumbling wedges for me again.
Parma is also home to Emilia … the BEST gelato in Italy … at least of the 20+ shops we visited across the country. Emilia’s gelato was so addictingly delicious that we ate it twice a day while we were there … ahhhhhh ….
Next stop … Cortina d’Ampezzo … in the midst of the Italian Alps; less than an inch from Austria on the map and two hours north of Venice. It’s a classic alpine ski and hiking spot.
Getting there was almost more exciting than actually arriving. Remember the unusable GPS? Well, between that, the Italian racetrack called the autostrade (no pull-offs or rest stops here my friends only pedal to the metal and hang on to the willow trees hoping you don’t miss an exit) and my need a ‘break’ … Greg’s patience slipped a bit and he turned off the autostrade, think (no wait, no time to think) with wheels whining, car rocking, and breaks screeching he took a fast right turn, whipped up a switchback mini-two lane and slid off the side of the road while being chased by Italians who blew past us at 60 KPH. Uh, is it ok to breathe again?
I believe in serendipity, and that there are NO coincidences; we were meant to take the longer time, shorter mileage, more scenic road to Cortina, the road we realized we were on when we pulled out the map to figure out just where we were after the hair whitening exit from the autostrade. The tiny two-lane switchback road was narrow (often what I would think was one lane) obviously not to the Italian bus drivers which passed us routinely on these stretches … often my eyes closed in amazement and fear since the edge of the road led to what would be a high dive of epicness … about a gazillion double back and forward flips before reaching the bottom. Along the way were tiny houses in tiny villages tucked onto emerald green hillsides dotted with small herds of cattle (very happy cows), vineyards, apple orchards, and gardens. I can only describe the drive as a combination of Disneyland’s Space Mountain and an ultra-extreme wild-mouse amidst the pastoral setting of ‘Heidi’. I thought I should see Heidi’s Grandfather and Peter with his goats coming down the mountain.
Cortina d’Ampezzo … Remember Roger Moore aka James Bond’s ski chase in For Your Eyes Only? It was filmed in Cortina d’Ampezzo. All across these mountains were ski hills everywhere! From the city of Bolzano (South Tyrol) where the Italian Iceman Otzi is on exhibit and from where we started our alpine journey. The town of Cortina itself is very Tyrolean … a mixture of small local shops and Patagonia and North Face type stores. Oh! and lots of restaurants.
It’s also a perfect place to hit the hiking trails. It is the Italian Alps … the Dolomites. There are so many trails throughout the area that you can pull off the road anywhere and Hey Look! A trail head! Back in the Fiat we headed up the mountainous road out-of-town, decided not to take a gondola to a WWI battle site and drove further up the mountain to a Refugio right on the highway. Of the many trails that branched from this area we took 441, which appeared a bit challenging and headed up into the peaks.
About 1/2 an hour into our hike we met a young couple from Israel, Chen and Amid Zarfati, who shared their hiking map and conversation. After a bit of a chat we began the climb to Refugio Averau through clouds and light rain. The Refugios are a series of mountain ‘huts’ , think hostels with an alpine flair. I pictured ‘yurt’ on a hillside but when when turned the blind corner of the trail we found Refugio Averau was a lovely Tyrolean hostel with a restaurant and bar. (http://www.reidsitaly.com/planning/lodging/mountain_huts.html)
After a hot chocolate (think melted rich chocolate bar with a bit of cream) and more conversation with Chen and Amid we all headed back down another trail just for a different view. At the base of the trails we bid our new friends farewell with a promise to share photos … tomorrow … Venice.
Hey Everyone … Here’s an Italian Lesson
Time Spent Eating Doesn’t Count …
Slow down, Breathe, Smell, Taste, Laugh, and Laugh More.