Posts Tagged 'Italy'


We left the house on Monday morning with everyone packed up except Axel and me.  For the others the 7 AM departure on Tuesday morning had suggested an overnight near the airport. The friendly United Airlines telephone artist sold them an overpriced sketchy hotel that would sleep three adults and a baby.

We had enough time for a morning, some coffee and a light lunch in Como, sitting across from the Duomo which was closed until the afternoon. Tessa stocked up on some last cheeses for friends in the US – which we get to carry – and then it was time for the difficult goodbye I had been dreading all morning.

Axel and I walked around some more in Como, eating one more gelato and looking for an ancient walk Axel had to see (we did, it looked mostly like all the other old walls in Europe) and contemplated which route to take back to Bellagio: the drive over the mountains through the middle of the Bellagio promontory, or the narrow zigzag road we had taken in the morning, along the eastern shore of the lake or the one on the western shore that the kids had taken on their way in and that required a ferry ride to Bellagio.  The best way would have been the slow (2 hour) ferry directly from Como to Bellagio but it didn’t take cars.

We decided on the west bank, partially because there was a supermarket on the way out of town we were told. As the last ones leaving our rental place, our job was to replace the supplies we had used. It took us an hour to find the one that was right next to the exit of our parking garage in Como.  Directions from non-English speaking Italians (we met very few who spoke more than a few words) have been rather sketchy throughout our trip. Actually, all directions, whether from maps, GPS or word of mouth were problematic as we discovered over and over again.

This was also true of advice about which wine to buy.  On the suggestion of a local shopper with whom he stood in line, Axel unwittingly bought a sweet bubbly red wine for our ‘cena ultima’ in Italy.  We only saw the word ‘frizzante’ printed on the bottom of the label after we had opened the bottle – buyer beware! I stuck with my white wine spritz(er) – the spritz part, we learned, is an Austrian invention.

The late afternoon ferry ride from Caddenabia was spectacular. We noticed that Bellagio was glowing gold in a Rembrandtesque sort of way– the only place on the shore catching the last two hours of direct sun rays because of a low ridge in the west. Anything left, right and across from Bellagio looked rather dull in comparison.

We joined the post vacation crowd on a terrace by the shore until the sun finally set, for our final vacation beer. We talked softly, trying not to reveal to the other, mostly mature, couples sitting around us that we were American. One hefty extraverted North Carolinian found us out. I think he was quite alert to find his own people (who would have imagined that I would count as ‘his people’).  After admitting that he had my silhouette on his sunset picture he struck up a conversation with Axel, who is always a good pal to chat with. Mrs. North Carolina, with her tightly bound up hair, did not seem to be much of a conversation partner, as she watched the sunset quietly sipping her prosecco.

We drove home to prepare our final odd meal that was entirely made of leftovers. It was a creative affair – what to do with two balls of fresh mozzarella, an end of salami, a chunk of aged parmesan cheese, one misshapen tomato, a droopy bunch of basil, half an onion, lots of garlic, cheap white wine in a carton, 7 raviolis, a container of pesto and another with spicy olives, two droopy bunches of lettuce, a pasta/arugula meal Axel cooked what seemed ages ago and half a container of tiramisu ice cream.

It turned out quite a feast. We made it a TV dinner, plugging the TV in for the first time.  We watched a detective in Italian – we didn’t quite get the conclusion – followed by a serial about fighting the mafia in Palermo – bad bearded Italian men killing each other. It was a variation on the familiar theme of bad bearded Afghan men killing each other, only a little more ingenious and with sexy bare-shouldered women involved. I didn’t get to see the end – Axel did stay on till the end, only to be told that next week’s installment would be the grand finale, without commercials.

Exactly at 9 AM the landlords stood on our doorstep, as we had requested while we still had an image of an early departure and a leisurely stroll through Milan. We hastily packed our breakfast and drove up the mountain to have our odd brunch on a panoramic lookout point that also appeared to be the site of some WWII atrocities. Being in Italy one gets confused about who did what to whom but the tributes to the land’s fallen ‘figlii’ (figlios) reminds you that war is not good for anyone on any side.

Learning from our landlord that it is impossible for foreigners like us without the right paperwork to drive into Milan, and that we would have to park just about where the airport is we decided to drop the Milan idea and drive slowly south along, what we had fantasized, would be picturesque country lanes. The drive would take us through Gorgonzola – why not?

It turned out a miscalculation that I should have known about, from my geography lessons in elementary school. As soon as you leave the Alps you are in industrious northern Italy. Industrious means countless trucks jamming up the roads. Between the roadmap that didn’t have road numbers, our on and off smartphone GPS and the chaotic multi-colored signage at major intersections we got so tied up in knots that we finally gave up our fantasy and heeded the signs pointing us to the Milano autostrada.

We arrived in plenty of time to deliver our car without any scratches at the Auto-Europe/Sicily-by-car car rental place. The Trip Advisor horror testimonials about renting a car in Italy did not match our experience by a long shot. I will write a counter-review to encourage the fearful. Car renting in this country is just as automated and painless as anywhere else in Europe or, for that matter, the US.

Last call for villas and villages

The two days of Sita’s vacation and our last days went faster than the wind. We spent both across the lake, checking out the picturesque villages and villas that are still whispering ‘watercolor us,’ but we were too busy moving around. It’s the tension between doing and being on vacation. Always.

Our favorite place, we decided, was Lenno, which has a Beach Club that makes the best apero spritzes and has a sandy beach – a rare thing here. Lenno also has the Villa del Balbianello, a spectacular combination of living spaces and gardens, with views over various parts of the lake from every nook and cranny.

Before it was finally gifted to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, it belonged to an eccentric and ultra-rich Italian man. Aside from smoking a lot, which killed him when he was about my age, he also was into exploring: poles, mountain peaks, continents and whole civilizations, dead and alive. His villa was just the space to display all his acquisitions, including his 10 feet dogsled which took him to the North Pole, accompanied by a small army of men and dogs

His villa was adorned with 100s of prints from Lake Como as well as a unique and large painting-on-glass collection.  In the kitchen, which was originally a 11th century monastery, we recognized an original Brabantia broodtrommel (bread box) and a McCormick spice rack with 40 year old spices.

Getting to and from the villa required a steep hike up and down – this place was not for people with bad knees and hips, though for extra money one could get a water taxi to take you to the place. We opted for the walk at the hottest part of the day. Faro slept through the entire visit and was considered a good boy – quiet boys are good boys up to a certain age.

For dinner a friend of Sita’s from her ValueWeb network, invited us to his place further down the promontory, near Como.  A steep ride up and then down into the valley brought us, in two cars, to his place which was nearly as spectacular as the villa. The town of Erba is full of villas, though most appear uninhabitable, owned, according to our host, by the bankrupt state of Italy, waiting for better times.

Andrea and his Russian wife Irina and hairless dog Wicka (sp?) live on the top floor of what used to be a farm house. The rounded brick top of a cupola makes for the center of their living room – a place one should never get drunk in because a fall could be unpleasant. The couple are both artists/designers and have surrounded themselves which such interesting things that Faro couldn’t stop looking around event though he was beyond exhausted.

And now it is time for our farewell and I am in bit sad. The kids are leaving for Milan today because their flight leaves very early tomorrow morning – a long flight via Frankfurt and Newark to Boston.  We are following tomorrow on a late flight to Amsterdam, too late to catch our connecting flight to Boston. That was exactly the intent.


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Yesterday was Sita’s last day at work and our task was to complete our exploration so that we knew exactly where to take her during her two days of vacation. We explored the east side of the Bellagio promontory, right under the conference center. In fact, the small harbor where we hung out the entire day was what we saw from Sita’s window on our first visit to her temporary workplace.

Our exploration was of the relaxed variety. We walk a few feet, turn a corner, see another amazing view and sit down for a while. We had already noticed the Pergola restaurant by the water and filed it away under the rubric ‘lunch.’ And before we knew it lunch time had arrived.

Axel drove Jim home in time for his American workday to start while Tessa and I took the steep up and down foot path to the west side to make a reservation at another idyllic eating place that was filed under ‘dinner’ – a place for all of us to celebrate the completion of Sita’s assignment.

By the time we had returned back to the east side we needed a swim, including Faro who had been riding in his Baby Bjorn on Tessa’s belly leaving each of them soaking wet. For the first time the attention Tessa received was not for her 3 feet of copper dreadlocks but for the baby. People here go crazy over babies.

We settled on the gravely beach, less pebbly than the free beach we discovered the day before. Faro had his first swimming experience – kicking his legs in the water like a pollywog, maybe remembering his last days in utero.

When Sita made the daily ‘pick-me-up’ call it was too bad she couldn’t simply walk down the garden path, swing her suitcase with her markers and breast pump over the high wall and request a leg-up from one of the many estate gardeners.  Instead Tessa walked once again over the ridge with Faro to reunite with a relieved and happy Sita.

In the evening we had dinner at the waterfront, starting with apero spritzes and other colorful cocktails, shared five unusual dishes, and topped things off with desserts to die for (and espressos/cappuccinos of course).


Months ago I signed up for a course on Sita suggested I do so, and we both signed up for Model Thinking. I had forgotten about it until I received word that the course would start on the 3rd, my first vacation day.

Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company. Its founders are shooting for worldclass education for millions of students, of all ages who can access free courses given by top notch professors from top notch schools around the world using state of the art technology. All that the students need is a computer and internet access to download the lectures, readings and links.

Axel, Tessa and Jim had gone into town and I had offered to babysit. It seemed like a good opportunity to check out my first online class.

According to a thread in the discussion section of the online course, many other people had also signed up for the course; maybe thousands, ranging in age from 11 to 73, from all continents and countries that are worlds away from each other, both geographically and ideologically (Vietnam, Serbia, Peru, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, Portugal, France and South Africa).

I planted Faro on my lap and we took the first session of the Model Thinking course together, widening the age range by another 10 years and 9 months.

We listened to five lectures: Why Models? Intelligent Citizens of the World. Thinking More Clearly. Using and Understanding Data.  Using Models to Decide, Strategize and Design.

I think Faro liked the lectures, especially when the prof (Scott Page from University of Michigan) drew on the white board with his red pen, and illustrated then this then that model using squares, circles and arrows. According to the prof, after this course, Faro and I will be able to partake more intelligently in conversations about anything. You can’t start early enough with important stuff like that.

Around lunch time Axel called to suggest I join them for lunch at a nice restaurant on the lake, just when Faro had gone to sleep, exhausted from our two hours of top notch lectures. 

I had forgotten how much work it is to pack up an infant, especially one that is asleep and can’t help. It took me several trips to the car to get him and all his gear safely packed up.

We had a lovely lunch at the lakeside, fresh mozzarella, grilled eggplant, tomatoes and a pinot grigio followed by a quarter inch of espresso. For post-prandial entertainment we strolled through the giardini del villa Melzi, a two hundred year old garden bordering the lake and planted with trees from all over the world that had grown into beautifully proportioned giants: a Montezuma pine, Californian Sequoias, a Lebanese cedar and thick camellia hedges. If you were born into nobility, life was pretty nice here. Now it is nice even if you aren’t.

Stocking up

This morning Sita and I got up very early so she could prepare for her one and only prep day and we could have breakfast with the rest of her team, having nothing but water in our refrigerator. We had an overpriced breakfast at Hotel du Lac, with tasteless fruit and sweetened American cereal. Only the cappuccino reminded us of Italy.

I then served as chauffeur for the team, which wasn’t entirely selfless. Chauffeuring allowed me to enter the Rockefeller estate, see the inside of this famous conference center that only a handful of lucky people ever get to see.

We got to see the rooms. Jan called them ‘rustic beyond rustic,’ of a beautifully simplicity.  The conference room itself is intimate, and also of a simple but well-designed simplicity, with all the amenities of modern life.

I did two runs to get everyone and their luggage from the Lac hotel to the conference center and then returned to the house to pick up Tessa and Axel who had also been staring at an empty refrigerator.

It was time for their breakfast and a big shopping trip to get the necessities and avoid having to take every meal in a pricey restaurant. We tried some local wine and decided the 2.25 Euro wine was great but the 3.70 wine smelled like diesel and did not pass the taste test.

Axel cooked us, what else, a pasta meal with Italian sausages – the American version on steroids. I don’t think we have to eat meat again for the entire week. We had real parmesan cheese, which was an entirely different sensation from the powdery stuff our Manchester supermarket sells.

Before Tessa and I took a road trip around the edges of the Bellagio peninsula, I took one, closer to home, with Faro – pushing the stroller up steep cobblestone hills and checking the brakes when we went down. It was quite a workout, exhausting the baby as well. He was sound asleep by the time we got home, in spite of the sound of roaring Vespas and trucks gearing up and down.

Tessa and I ended our road trip with gelato, and after Axel joined us, with a cocktail by the lake, watching the spectacular change of colors and the back and forth of ferries. We were pinching ourselves.

At the end of the day we picked Sita up, so Tessa and Axel also got to see the residence of the former Italian princess who gifted it to one of the Rockefellers.

We went straight home as Sita was starved for Faro, the first time since he was born that she had not seen him for 12 hours in a row. It was a jubilant reunion.


And so we boarded our planes and left for Italy, in two batches – one through Amsterdam to Milan’s Linate airport, the other through Newark to Milan’s Malpensa airport.

After a smooth tailwind ride from Boston to Amsterdam to Milan, it took us several hours to get from there to Bellagio. We had given the kids our Dutch navigation system – which got them to the right place even before we had left the airport.

For our direction we relied on my smart phone’s navigator which wasn’t all that smart and led us astray in very bad Italian English, away from Bellagio, up into the alps, higher and higher, though tunnel after tunnel, driving slowly behind groaning trucks.  When the signs for Bellagio had long since disappeared, and we started to get hungry, what with all those pizzerias every 100 yards, we decided to ask and were pointed back to where we came from with a compassionate smile.

After a harrowing ride over a road that should have been a one way street we arrived in Bellagio but our navigator lost its signal and with that we were lost.  Luckily Bellagio is small and we chanced upon the right street and found the kids had already made the place their own

It is a sleek duplex, furnished in sleek  IKEA-esque style – bright fabrics and light wood.  Like a chunk of clay, the street/small village that is our address for the next 10 days, seemed to be molded onto the mountain that rises out of the fork of Lake Como.  It is picturesque beyond description.

The entrance to our villa took us past the Asilo Infantile and then over ever narrowing cobblestoned alleyways into a small enclave of houses (a family compound?) with large inviting dining tables and doors and windows wide open. We met Rosa and Mario after meeting our landlords Antonella and Pino.

We are on the outskirts of Bellagio but since Bellagio is rather small, outskirts means you can walk to the shore and to the center and lakefront.

The walk takes you down a cobblestoned path, along houses that whisper ‘watercolor me.’  The steep walk goes along and through orchards and loaded fig trees.  We behaved and didn’t take what was not ours, our mouths watering. We have to find the fig market.

We walked down to the Sporting Club with its swimming pool, pool tables, great beer and pizza and melon with Parma ham.  Our landlord had called ahead to make sure we would be expected. A table set for five stood ready for us. After airplane meals we were craving something more substantive and tasty, something very Italian: a variety of pizzas, local beers and that Parma ham melon appetizer.

Too tired to walk back up the steep path we sent the men up to fetch the car and then drove to the waterfront, the center of town. It is the place where the ferries land and where the stately hotels welcome tourists and locals alike to their terraces. Most of the tourists seem to have gone now, which is fine by us.

From our living and bedrooms, we look out over Lake Como and its shores that are dotted with southern France style stucco houses with much iron work and cypresses, standing tall and straight, like guards in perpetual attention.

Because Sita’s work starts tomorrow we met for dinner with former colleagues of mine who are forming the facilitation team of which Sita is a part. Tired beyond belief, she trooped along and didn’t fall with her face in the ravioli while Faro obligingly slept through the entire meal. We left Tessa and Jim at home, figuring out the wifi hotspot gizmo we had rented and taking care of urgent business.

I think we are going to like it here.

May 2018
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