We've been back a couple of weeks now, but finally here's the story about our trip to Italy. We visited two places: Bellagio on Lake Como in the north, and then Florence, which both O and I have both been to, but not together, and the last time he went was like 10 years ago with a school group.
Bellagio and Lake Como were amazing. The entire lake is surrounded by mountains that come straight down to the water, with little towns perched along the waterfront. It reminded me in a way of the Columbia River Gorge, but with even less flat area next to the water. The lake, which is huge - Italy's 3rd largest - is shaped like an upside-down Y. At the bottom of the left (western) arm is Como, at the bottom of the right (eastern) arm is Lecco, and Bellagio sits right where the lake splits into the two arms. There are two main towns across the lake from Bellagio: Menaggio to the west and Varenna to the east, and ferries run frequently between the 3 towns, carrying either only passengers, or passengers and cars.
It took us 5 hours to get from the airport to our hotel. I've never had such a long trip after a flight. I think the Netherlands has raised my expectations of public transport too high, since it never takes that
long to get anywhere here and trains and buses run so frequently, in general anyway. But we soon found out that it's another story in Italy when we got to the train station in a town called Bergamo and found out that our train wasn't leaving for another hour and a half. And that was just to get us to Lecco, where we had to change trains to get to Varenna, and then take a ferry to Bellagio. Oy. But we didn't mind so much. It was a gorgeous day, perfect blue sky and warm; we hadn't seen the sun in ages in Amsterdam. We sat on the platform and ate some food we had with us and just waited for the train. O then decided to take some photos of the station and this older guy came out of the station office and said something to O. We both assumed he was telling O to stop taking photos. But no, he was just saying hi (Italians can often sound like they're being argumentative when they're not) and then, after figuring out what language O spoke, he took O on a behind-the-scenes tour of the station. I was just left out on the platform wondering what was happening with my boyfriend. But I saw from the photos later that O was taken into the rather outdated signal room and then to another room where they can see which train is on what track. The station guy in the meantime explained it all as best he could in English. It was awesome. He definitely had a pride about his work and just wanted to tell someone about it.
A couple of hours and two trains later, we'd made it to Varenna where we hauled our suitcase downhill to catch the ferry to Bellagio. And what a ride, taking in our new surroundings from the center of the lake, all the little towns, and the hills nearest us, which aren't so high to really have any snow anymore. But my favourite view, the one I never got sick of:
The mountains to the north of the lake, the edge of the Alps. I was so happy to see mountains again, and then they were such beautiful mountains.
We finally got to Bellagio and walked along the waterfront looking for the street with our hotel. It was hard to find though, as most of the shops and restaurants along the water were shielded against the afternoon sun not just with awnings, but with full-on curtains. Silly Italians who don't fully appreciate the sun. Behind the curtains was a covered walkway in front of the shops and restaurants and then the curtains gave you full shade. We almost missed our street though because even the end of our little street was blocked with a curtain.
And it's not so much a street as a steep alley made of steps.
In pretty much every town on the lake this is what the streets running uphill look like because it is always this steep.
Bellagio itself was very beautiful, we got our legs in shape wandering around the little streets which were filled with shops and restaurants. It is rather touristy, but at least most of the tourists are actually Italian, so it's not as noticable. It also is a bit rich and posh in ways, lost of people in expensive cars and shops selling expensive clothes, and I felt intimidated by it at first, but then I saw more people who seemed normal and I relaxed about it.
One of my favourite things about Bellagio was this huge run-down deserted old hotel at one end of town. At the other end of town is an equally large hotel which is still in use (though I hear it is horribly overpriced and overrated), but this other one, after being used as a hotel and restaurant school, was just left to rot. O took some photos, but none come close to capturing what it was like to see in real life, the size of it, being able to pick out its old grandeur, but now the paint is faded, windows and doors are missing or broken, some balconies had no railings... It was a bit creepy. I wanted so badly to be able to go inside and see what you might find in there.
The day after getting there we unfortunately lost our sun, but it was still rather warm. We took a ferry back across to Varenna and puttered about town for a bit, but it's even smaller than Bellagio, so there wasn't a whole lot to see. We decided then to walk to Fiumelatte (Milk River), which is called the shortest river in Italy, but it's more of a long waterfall than a river. It gets its name from the milkiness of the water as it tumbles down on its way to the lake. We took some photos on a little bridge over the river, and then saw a sign which we figured said "To source of Fiumelatte". Despite O's slight "I don't wanna climb a hill" protests, we headed up the path, which was first made of steps winding between some houses and then turned into little dirt path going through grass. We passed under the train tracks and went up and up, going parallel to the river. We got to a point called "the source" but it couldn't have been because the water came from further up the hill. But we decided that was high enough. There was a little picnic area up there though with some picnic tables and even a barbeque area built against a rocky area.
From there we took a different path heading across the hill, which two women we had passed told us lead to the castle in Varenna which is up on a high hill. Though the sun wasn't shining and we could still hear cars from the highway at the bottom of the hill, I was so happy walking out in nature, on this unplanned walk, not knowing where we'd end up.
We only passed one other person the whole time til we were back in town. We never made it to the castle, I think we took the wrong fork at some point and ended up heading back down to Varenna instead of up to the castle, but we were starving by this point anyway. One last sight on the walk was ending up at the Varenna cemetary and Italian cemetaries are very different from American ones. In one section were family tombs, little houses with sometimes a dozen people, or places for that many, inside. There were some simple graves, but most were quite fancy, usually meant for a couple, with photos of the dead, flowers, a little electric lamp, and often a cross or statue of Jesus or Mary - or both, in this case.
The next morning it started out overcast, but some blue started poking through. We walked out to the very tip of Bellagio (called “Punta Spartivento” - "the point where the wind divides") where the whole vista of the center of the lake and all the hills and mountains speads right in front of you. It wasn't so much overcast as foggy and we stayed there for a good half hour watching the fog begin to lift and then shift around the tops of the mountains and stick to the water and play peek-a-boo with the towns across the lake. Often you could hear a ferry for quite some time before it finally puttered out from the fog.
The sun eventually won out and it was another warm day. We went for a walk following a map we'd picked up at the tourist office which took you around to various suburbs of Bellagio. We first walked up and over the hill behind the town (it wasn't that high, but it was all steps) and then along the lake, seeing a couple of little villages, a few villas, olive trees (apparently it's the most northerly point where olive trees grow), and a plant nursery before heading back into Bellagio. That night we had a long chat with the owner of our hotel, a very nice man named Giacomo, who told us all sorts of stories about the town and about his family running the hotel. He told us about John F. Kennedy coming to the town only months before he was killed and Giacomo caught a glimpse of Jackie, but said she was very far away and could have been any woman, but he knew it was her. Nowadays, they talk about who is the latest star, like George Clooney, to buy a villa on the lake. As he talked with us, he often paused to plonk behind his computer to show us a photo of something. We talked with him for at least half an hour. It reminded us of the guy at the Bergamo train station, so open and eager to share his stories with others.
The next morning it was time to leave Bellagio and head south to Florence. The plan was to ferry back over to Varenna, take a train to Milan, and then change trains to Florence. We'd checked the times of what ferry and train to get so we wouldn't be waiting for hours, and also because it was Easter Monday, so likely things would be running less often than normal.
But things did not go according to plan... We got the ferry ok, it was actually really early, or maybe really late, so we had plenty of time to head uphill to the train station in Varenna. We got there and there was a British couple checking out the train times as we looked to get a ticket (the train station is so small they don't have a person selling tickets, only a ticket machine). But then this guy came in and babbled to us in Italian and the gist of it was was that no trains were going, you had to go south to Lecco to get a train. After considering our options, we thought the best bet was to get a ferry to Lecco and then the train from there to Milan. So we all head back down to the ferry landing and ask about how to get to Lecco. Sure, there's a ferry to Lecco, but it leaves from Bellagio. Where all 4 of us had just come from. Gah. We waited 20 mins for the ferry back to Bellagio, then we had to wait about 50 mins there for the ferry to Lecco which was an hour-long ride. We didn't get into Lecco until 2 in the afternoon and we weren't even away from the lake by then. It all worked a bit more smoothly after that. We had time in Lecco to grab some lunch, the ride to Milan wasn't too long, and then we just had to cross the platform to get our train to Florence, which was a zippy Eurostar train that only stopped in Bologna before Florence. Getting the tickets for the train though... The train to Varenna when we arrived was so cheap, 8 euros for the two of us and it was a hour away. So I thought even to go all the way down to Florence it'd cost no more than 25 euros. But since it was the Eurostar, and since only 1st class seats were available, it ended up being 90
euros. I nearly choked when the guy told me the price. But we had no choice. And at least it was fast, because as it was we didn't get to Florence until 7 pm, after leaving our hotel in Bellagio at 10:30 that morning. A very, very long day.
Florence was a bit of a shock after the relative quiet of the lake towns. So much traffic and noise and crowded sidewalks and it all seemed so dirty. I realized that Florence doesn't really have many parks or areas of green easily accessible to people just wanting to hang out. Nor are any streets lined with trees. In my mind when I think of walking around there, I just think of brown buildings and the smooth, worn-down stones of the sidewalks. All a bit monotonous and urban. Also there were so many tourists, many American. Bellagio was touristy, but Florence is just swamped by visitors. And I think the amount of tourists in Amsterdam is bad. Florence is much worse. But I got over it the next day and we wandered around town. We sort of put off really doing anything because it was rather gray and it drizzled the 2nd half of the day. We did go into the cathedral though in the afternoon because we wandered past and there was no line anymore to get in. Another thing that day which was really cool was that we were walking down a smaller side street and saw two girls crouched next to a couple of piles of yellowed newspapers. We walked over to have a look and found they were copies of La Nazione, a Florence-based newspaper, from about 1963-1965. Someone had just thrown them out next to a dumpster. Even though they were in Italian, we dug through the piles to see what important news we could find. I realized that the piles should have included news on Kennedy's assassination, but if that paper was in there, someone had already taken it. There was a paper though about the 2nd anniversary of his death, which we took, along with the paper showing Johnson winning over Goldwater and the news that America had developed a new antimissile. As we looked through the papers, others would stop to see what was going on, and then they'd get drawn into looking through them too. One guy just looked on and said a couple of times in amazement "La storia!" ("History!").
To be honest, we didn't really do much in Florence but wander a lot and sit in the piazzas (esp the Piazza della Signoria) and people watch. Which was fine. The wandering can wear you out. We'd get an afternoon gelato and enjoy the sun if there was some or sit in under the Loggia which houses a few statues if it was colder and drizzly. It's not so bad to take a more laid-back approach.
We did, however, climb the dome of the cathedral, which I didn't do the last time I was in Florence because it was a thousand degrees and my feet were blistered, so I had no interest in climbing a tons of stairs. We went one morning because, besides having some sun finally, we were walking past and saw that there was hardly a line, when usually at that time the line went on and on around the corner of the cathedral. O and I had both just read Brunelleschi's Dome
which told the entire story of the building of the dome, so it was awesome to be inside it and see close up some of the things talked about in the book. The climb was not as hard as I expected. Partly this was because the stairs aren't continuous once you are in the dome, there's lots of landings where you can stop to catch your breath. Also it wasn't as narrow and claustrophobic as I thought it might be, but this idea was influenced by the story of a friend of mine not being able to go all the way to the top because she got claustrophobic. It does get a bit narrow, but I felt worse when we climbed the towers of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The views from the top are amazing, and you have the red tiles of the dome falling away below you. I think what I enjoyed even more than the views though was getting an up-close look at the fresco covering the interior of the dome (on your way up and down, you walk on a platform around the inside edge of the area where the dome is and the fresco is above you). All around the bottom of the fresco are hellish scenes of people being tortured and flayed and being thrown in pits of fire. Above that are layers of saints and angels and whatnot leading to Jesus sitting on a gleaming throne. At the very top is a trompe d'oeil of men looking like they are sitting on a ledge in the top of the dome, each with a column between them, but it is all an optical illusion, it is all flat. I didn't pay much attention to the angels and heaven parts of the fresco because there was so much to look at in the hell part. Each time I looked at one section of it I seemed to notice something I hadn't noticed before, and they are quite gruesome scenes. Someone had a freaky imagination. Plus you get to be so close to the fresco that you could reach out and touch the bottom of it and you can see all of the paint strokes that go into making the figures. I found it all quite amazing.
The other main thing we saw in Florence was the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace, even though I couldn't believe they were charging 7 euros for entrance. We spent a good couple of hours there though, wandering uphill to see over into a green, hilly area, and then down to the other end of the gardens. That part was quite nice, less busy than at the entrance, and there was a wooded bit with all sorts of paths leading through the trees. We went on a path that was covered the whole way with an arch of plants.
The gardens were nice, but we wore ourselves out with the walking. In the end, I felt I could have done with half of the time that we spent in Florence, but it can't be helped. Instead I'll just keep those lovely mountains from the lake in mind...