Friday, September 25, 2015

Italian mosquitoes!

Our stay at the Hotel Garda in Milan was memorable in a not so nice way. At midnight, we are awakened by mosquitoes buzzing in our ears and bites on our legs. We find the window had been left slightly open and there were no fewer than a dozen mosquitoes in our room. In the morning, the desk clerk told us they must open windows in order to air out the rooms. European windows have no screens and they cannot do anything about the mosquitoes! Chalk it up to the Italian cultural experience. 
     Milan Marepensa airport is very new, voted best in Europe 2015, reachable by express train.  The train runs every 30 min. and the ride is 50 min.  It takes quite a bit of walking to get to the gate and it feels a bit like walking in circles past many designer clothing stores.  
     We reflect on our two weeks- so much beautiful scenery, great food, friendly Italians and many interesting conversations with tourists from all over the US, UK, Australia and Canada. It is hard to believe we have only been away for two weeks! The drought and fires seem to universally be what people know of California today as we were asked about them constantly. I am always reminded of the fact that no matter where people are from, we are all pretty much the same, with a curiosity and eagerness to explore cultures and lands beyond our homes. 
     Arrivederci Italy!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Last town

It is departure day and I realize in our rush to find cash, we skipped visiting the town of Corniglia! The apartment owner wants us out by 10am, so we decide to take our luggage and make a short stop. Little did we realize that because the town sits high up on a flat rock, reaching it involves a very long climb. No wonder people give us quizzical looks as we get off the train. Most people are taken to their hotels by car. Unlike the other towns, Corniglia has drivable roads. After walking half a mile uphill, Ray decides he has had enough, and offers to stay with our luggage. I huff and puff my way up hundreds of brick steps over more than a dozen switchbacks. I marvel at the number of tourists who make it to the top, most have no idea what they are getting into! I find a town with many winding alleys and gift shops. The sea view at the top is pretty but I decide my favorite is still Manarola. 
     We leave on the train to Milan, sharing a compartment with 4 hearty women from Washington who spent five days hiking in the Dolomites. We pass the city of Portofino with its villas and yachts. We talk travel and hiking. Sharing tales and tips helps to pass the time. Milan's train station is impressive, 3 floors with stores, and in a huge stone building that feels like an airport. This is our first time in Milan and we are impressed at this modern and clean city. We end our day with a final shared gelato. 

Winding down

Sunday is my birthday, a laid back day. The church bells call to me and it feels fitting to attend mass at the small church a few steps from our apartment. The congregation numbers 30, mostly people in their 70's and 80's. The young priest is so animated in giving his sermon that everyone is completely captivated and I wish I could understand what he is saying. I am captivated by the beauty of the language. The old church has old wood beams, frescoes and well worn pews. Outside the church bells toll and inside, the organ and choir voices echoe through the church, though I see no evidence of a choir. The elderly organist serves multiple roles. A few men accompany their wives, open folding chairs on the side, and nap or read their newspaper. The only children in attendance, two young boys, take the collection. 
     We relax on our balcony for the remainder of the morning, then go in search of an atm to collect cash for the apartment. Who knew how difficult this might be! The only atm in Manarola is out of cash, as is the one in Riomaggiore! Finally, to our relief at the end of the afternoon, we make a successful withdrawal in Monterossa. 
     After taking sunset photos, we get to Dal Billy in time for our 9:15 reservation at their second seating. Dal Billy comes highly rated and we are seated on the balcony, down two flights of steep stone steps; there are no flat streets here! As recommended, we start with 12 tiny plates of seafood antipasti-octopus, cuttlefish, tuna, sashimi, razor clams, etc , then have seafood pasta and end with stuffed mussels and grilled sea breen. It is all fabulous. We develop a camaraderie with the group of 3 other couples, from Michigan, Italy, and Quebec, staying until midnight and chatting; the waiter brings out gigantic bottles of groppa, limoncelo and wine. What a great ending to our stay in the Cinque Terre and what a memorable birthday it is.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Hundreds of steps

We are advised to hike early or late in the day as the midday sun is quite hot and sweating is guaranteed. We start out at 8am but our efforts are thwarted in many ways. On the path, we find a gate blocking the coastal trail from Manarola to Ćorniglia due to dangerous trail conditions; then we find people turning around because the trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore is not scheduled to reopen until 2017. The heavy flooding in 2011 destroyed many of the trails of the Cinque Terre and devastated the towns of Vernazza and Monterossa. Although the towns have been cleaned up and restored, the trails have not. In addition, trail maintenance is often unscheduled and unannounced, typical of Italy, so the trail from Monterosso to Levante is also closed. By now, it is getting quite warm so our Plan B is to ride the "milk train" to Riomaggiore and have coffee, then explore all five towns by train. Figuring out the train system is an education in itself.  They run about every hour but not all trains stop in each town; the information booth has printed schedules that change every few months. We learn that tickets are sold at machines and are good for a few months so fines are high if you don't validate them before boarding. The most crazy sight is the crowd of people trying to get on and off the trains at mid day, mostly due to all the tour groups that descend from La Spezia and cruise liners around 10am. We later learn that October is a better time to visit. As we watched one train arriving, some got on board but a tour guide was frantically waving the other half of his group to run and get on another car. People were yelling at family members to hurry up and get on. One tourist said she saw people's faces pressed against the doors. Is that insane or what? Fortunately, most tour groups had already bypassed Riomaggiore, the first town so our train was fairly empty. 
      That said, the Cinque Terre is absolutely gorgeous. The towns sit on cliffsides and look down on the Mediterranean; the water is blue and warm. Once you get above the train stations, the crowds are nonexistent. These used to be anchovy fishing towns and we see photos that remind us of the canneries in Monterey.  Riomaggiore and Manarola have single pedestrian streets that winds upward with shops and restaurants lining them. A few smaller cobblestone alleys branch off or run along the top of the hillside. In Manarola, the sunny side of the cliff is terraced and families have individual plots of gardens or vineyards. Along the edge of the top terrace runs a single track on which we see gardeners riding motorized carts. As families move away, it is the disappearing vineyards that leads to erosion, causing massive damage like the floods of 2011. Our apartment is at the top of the hill by the church square. Colorful houses and apartments are stacked up on the shadier side of the cliffs; there are no modern structures. I think this is one of the few places in the world that we have not seen Starbucks or McDonalds. A single river which used to run down the ravine through the town, is now paved over and used as a sewer.  We hear rushing water as we walk. The towns are romantic and magical here.  Evening shots of these cliff towns are the photos you see at art fairs and what draws people to come.
     Next, we ride the train to Monterossa and enjoy a fish ravioli lunch at Via Vente where we chat with a solo traveling woman from Santa Barbara. We learn that most of the flood damage in 2011 was in Monterossa and Vernazza. Water rushing down the cliffs exploded and burst open the streets in Vernazza, leaving a sea of mud 22 inches deep. These two towns have been rebuilt with the exact same style and character as they were before.  Monterrosso is known for its long beach with brightly colored striped umbrellas which remind us of Malibu and Venice Beach minus the roller bladers and volleyball players. Gelato stands are everywhere and we feel no guilt or shame in frequenting several times during the day. 
     Fully nourished, we are ready to try the hike from Monterossa to Vernazza, a 3 mile trail, which starts with a climb of what seems like 100 tall stone steps before leveling off to a rocky and very narrow dirt path that hugs the cliff. Although the cliff is terraced and you can't fall far, the lack of railings and edges are a bit disconcerting, especially seeing people hiking in flip flops; one Chinese girl has on a long white chiffon skirt and chiffon slippers with silk flowers! The view is wonderful and we stop before the end to wait for the sunset over Vernazza with several other photographers. We have a fun time sharing stories about our travels in Italy. 

Trains, trains and more trains

We leave Venice just as the crowds begin to stream into the city. Huge groups follow tour guides waving little flags. Our train from Venice to Florence is filled with tourists, many who have suitcases way too large to fit in the overhead racks and we watch with amusement as people desperately try to fit their bags somewhere, anywhere.  I wonder what is in their luggage and why they need to bring so much stuff! In Florence, we transfer to a regional train to La Spezia, which stops at many small towns. These towns are grittier than the ski towns up north, graffiti art decorates the concrete walls. Air conditioning is weak and occasionally a cool breeze blows through. Passengers on the train are a mix of local residents, students and tourists. I spend my time people watching- the young teen couple sitting across from us, she sharing photos on her cell phone with him; he looks totally disinterested.            
     Some if the scenery looks familiar and we recall that we drove this route many years back. We pass mountainsides sliced off and cleared for its marble and stone and realize that the stone on kitchens and bathroom countertops in the US, and the marble on floors and walls in China may have come from the Carrera area. Large blocks and slabs of stone sit waiting for transport in roadside lots. I feel slightly guilty about our granite countertops and am reminded of those who clear cut redwoods back in the 19th century. Mountains will not grow back like trees. I vow not to purchase any more slabs of rock.
     At 4pm, we arrive in La Spezia, the launch city for the Cinque Terre. Here we purchase inexpensive  tickets for the local train that runs to the Cinque Terre towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia,Vernazza, and Monterossa. We gasp at the enormous crowds of people getting off the train at La Spezia. Rick Steves, you have created a huge economy here and made this place famous to Americans. Everywhere we turn, there are Americans with your tour book in hand! Everyone talks about Rick Steves said to go here, eat here... We meet people from Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and more Californians than we can count. Someone comments that it is like Disneyland. 
     We get off at Manarola and pull our luggage up the very steep and winding main pedestrian street all the way to the top church square. The apartment we have rented is Casa Capellini, on the 4th floor of a family's walk up. We later learn that many residents have remodeled and rent apartments out on a cash basis and only about 400 people permanently live here; I think most of them are older. Like many small European villages, families have moved to the cities and local residents are those that work the hospitality industry. We manage to make it up the tall and narrow stairs without falling backward. Lucky all we have are backpacks and roll ons. The apartment is modern with a great balcony view of the town. I spend the evening photographing Manarola at sunset. The town walls come to life in the evening glow and Manarola is now quiet, free of tourists and utterly charming. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Arrivedercie Dolomiti

Our destination today is Venice where we will return our car. Patchy clouds turn to gusty winds as we make our way around the Alpse mountain plateau to Selva in the Val Gardena. One after another, we see small ski towns carved into sections of mountains and we think of Tahoe, - that this would never be acceptable. Though people tell us that Colorado, particularly Breckenridge, is similar.
     Selva is in a deep valley, the Val Gardena and the mountains are lower than in Siusi; chairlifts are everywhere.  Selva is tightly packed with hotels and ski businesses with a dense city center and lots of gift shops. I can picture what this place must be like during ski season. We continue through the passes Sella, Fassi and Pordoi as the weather becomes more gusty and grey and the rain begins to fall. Bicyclists work their way up the steep mountain roads; they certainly have more stamina and guts than us! Our journey takes us south through the Dolomites west of Belluno and we realize that this section of the park is residential and not as accessible for hiking. Sadly we leave the tranquility and beauty of the Dolomites and our wonderful adventures behind
     We reach Venice in about 5 hours, return our car and take the number 5 bus into Venice for a night at Hotel Belle Epoque. It is warm and very humid, and the crowds of tourists still walking the streets make us yearn for the mountains. But we wait and go for an evening walk to find the small trattoria near San Marco Square. The dark alleys are deserted and are a mysterious maze, some end abruptly, others lead to uncrossable waterways; many are unmarked and ooccasionally one opens to a public walkway.  Hours later, we sit down to a delicious pasta dinner with complimentary champagne, bruschetta and limoncelo at Tre Spiedi. The waiter is from Ćorsica and delights us with his hospitality.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


 The winds have been gusting all night long and the bedrooms feel like a frigid 45-50 degrees. I don't think anyone washed up last night.  The price of breakfast puzzles us- for 7.50 euros you get a basket of bread with jams, and coffee. A la carte we get coffee, eggs and speck for 7 euros, with a basket of bread but no jam. We linger in front of the space heater and listen to the howling wind. Everone is very quiet this morning, most likely contemplating the hike out! I decide against a 20 min walk up the nearby trail to the overlook of m. pez. 
      This place may be beautiful but certainly is not an ideal place to live! I can see why they shut down in October. After breakfast, instead of spending more time in the cold rifugio trying to stay warm, we head out. I have on every piece of clothing I brought, plus socks on my hands, and gingerly make my way down the mountain, trying to keep my balance in the wind; it now starts to drizzle.  Darn, I left the rain poncho in my suitcase thinking today was going to be sunny. I don a black plastic bag, tear holes for my head and arms and pull up my hood over my winter hat. Ray says I look like someone from outer space - no wonder I get odd looks from German women I pass on the trail!  Such an ending to our rifugio experience!

Paradise Found

This morning, we are just about to seat ourselves at a 2 person place setting, at a different table from yesterday when Michaela's mother very quickly stops us and says, " no, no,no!" motioning for us to sit in the exact same chairs as yesterday. We dare not argue and obediently take our appointed spots! What difference does it make, we wonder? The b&b only has 5 rooms and they are not even full!
     Today, we are excited to finally start our hike. The entire South Tyrol area is a skiers' mecca, with lifts that go from the towns below, up to the Alpse de Siusi, which is a huge plateau of rolling green hills and pastures. Ski runs form an intricate network that crisscross and cover every hillside and mountain.  We will take a gondola to the plateau and hike 6 miles across the pastures then zig zag 2 steep miles up the side of one of the mountains, a 2,100 ft elevation climb to Rifugio Bolzano, at the very top. 
     The gondola is a 5 min walk from our b&b; the ride takes 15 min. I was expecting wilderness and undeveloped open space and am incredulous at how commercialized it is at the top. This is the hub of the ski area and all around us are ski shops and cafes. Because only a limited number of cars are permitted. there is only a small parking lot and a couple of small hotels. The network of hiking trails passes herds of cattle and horses with signs that direct hikers to various rifugios. We set out on a paved road, which changes to a walking path across pastureland. As we walk, the crowds thin and the ski buildings are no longer visible. After about 3 miles, the path becomes increasingly more rugged and ascends steeply; we are thankful we did not do this trip in yesterday's rain.  The rocky and precarious switchbacks quickly climb higher, and we now have a spectacular view of the plateau's rolling hills, patchwork of green fields, and small wooden cow huts that dot the landscape. The jagged mountain peaks rise above. It is some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenery I have ever seen. I think we have found paradise. 
      The last mile, 5 hours later is a barren landscape and we feel the cold winds whip around us. These winds will not let up the entire time we are up here. Rifugio Bolzano, built 140 years ago is a 3 story stone structure with all wood interior. It consists of private and dorm style rooms, bathrooms and dining room. Much to our surprise, the dining room is the only heated room and the space hearer is turned off at 9.  We stay in this warm room until closing time. We meet 2 other couples from California and learn that the rest of the guests are hearty Germans. Many of them have been hiking hut to hut for several days, on their own, none are with tour groups. All the staff appear to be college students; our waiter is a physics student at the university in Innsbruck, who says there are no good universities in northern Italy. He has been working at the hut all season and leaves next week.
   The photography does not disappoint as evening brings misty clouds that float across the jagged peaks. I stay out until the last of the light is gone and feel satisfied by the images I have captured. 

Rain Day

It is cloudy and gray outside and we are in a quandary as to whether we should hike today or not. Michaela from our b&b helps us change our reservations at the rifugio and delay hiking until tomorrow. We learn that her mother has owned the b&b for 30 years and she has been there for 22. They formerly ran a hut up on the plateau where she grew up and would walk out and come down to Siusi to school.  In the winter they rode snowmobiles to get around. What a different childhood she had; reminds me of the story of Heidi in the Swiss alps. 
     We spend the day walking around the town of Casselrotto, a 5 min drive from Siusi Allo Sciliar where we are staying. It gives us a chance to relax and see the local culture.  Casselrotto, Siusi and Ortesei are towns at the base of the plateau, Alpse de Siusi. Each of the towns we visit has its own character but all the hotels have a Swiss chalet look with colorful flowers hanging off windowboxes. 
- Ortesei is known for its woodcarvings - large sculptures are on display in parks, in front of businesses and along the streets
- Casselrotto has winding roads and appears to cater to the high end shopper with its large pedestrian shopping  promenade
- Siusi is more our style with pretty scenery and a small local town feel. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Detours and winding roads

     Today is a driving day as we make our way west along the Dolomite range to Siusi Allo Sciliar in the Alpe di Siusi. The northern highway goes up the mountain out of Cortina then turns west toward Val Gardena, Ortisei and Bolzano. We go above treeline, passing many rifugios and hiking trails in sections of the Parc Nationale, before stopping at a gray and barren rocky area of a war museum. If you remember from the previous blog, long distance footpaths were created in WWI; there are several that descend from this road with rifugios along the way. We resume our drive and wind our way down through dense pine forests to a town that resembles a snake stretching out along the narrow valley. 
     It is bike race day and the road is closed at Covarin! At the detour sign, I spot a local shop and find fresh cheese and speck, a lightly smoked Italian ham for tomorrow's picnic. The detour is along the autostrada north of the Dolomites but getting there involves driving through a multitude of small towns, on narrow winding roads with Porsches, Ferraris, motorcycles and very fit bicyclists. This is backroads Italy - past fortresses, terraces of espaliered apples, bundles of hay, tall steeples and forested hills. We finally arrive in Siusi in the mid afternoon. Siusi Allo Sciliar is a small village at the base of the Alpe de Siusi, an alpine plateau or meadow of trails, reachable by cable car. 
     I open the window in our room at Garni Alpin and hear the oompahs of a German band just up the road. Eager to explore, we head across the street to find a church fair, complete with German band dressed in full costume! Booths sell bratwurst, chicken, beer and kapfen, a traditional pastry of the area, rolled pie dough brushed with a pear/brown sugar mixture, folded over, stretched thin and deep fried. It is a local Catholic church celebration of a their patron saint and a band is now playing under the covered stage. We gorge ourselves on bratwurst and kaiser roles, kapfen and Weisbier. It is a spontaneously fun filled afternoon spent with German families and soaking in local culture. 
     Light rain is falling and forecasted for the next two days. Since hiking in the rain doesn't excite us and since photography at such altitudes is only good when skies are clear, we are hoping that weather forecasters are wrong this time! Stayed tuned...

Saturday, September 12, 2015

German rules must be followed

     Today's lesson is the importance of German order and processes and the domino effect leading to chaos that occurs when a link is broken in the order of procedures. In the wood paneled dining room this morning, various groupings of placesettings are arranged on the 6 tables. Not particularly liking our seats from last night, we fill our plates from the buffet and seat ourselves at a different table where there is a setting for two, in the half empty room. Midway through our meal, the waitress comes over and tells us we must move and sit in our assigned seat from last night. Not seeing any logic to this, we voice our desire to remain.  She is not happy with us but accepts that we are difficult Americans or Chinese and in response, begins to completely rearrange place settings at these two tables, which we don't yet understand the importance of. She proceeds to remove four place settings at our assigned table, bringing dishes and bread baskets to our current table, which now is super crowded! We watch with amusement and curiosity. Soon after, more guests arrive, including the two women who last night were seated where we currently are. They sit at our so called assigned table, which now has only a few settings(?), but then, uh oh, the German couple arrives and also try to sit there. The two women get up and are now standing in the middle of the roon, coffee cups in hand, with nowhere to sit. If they take different place settings at another table, others will not have their seats and there will be mass disorder! We watch horrified and totally amused that we have created chaos in the breakfast room! We quickly gulp the rest of our cofee and duck our heads to slink away before we are spotted! As we make our way down to the shoe room to retrieve our boots, still giggling over German order, we are tempted to rearrange all the boots which sit so neatly in pairs on the wall. The thought of everyone trying to find their boot mates fills us with laughter. 
     Today we hike back out to Cortina. The reverse hike out is mostly downhill and easy, and we count our blessings as the weather couldn't be more perfect. We share the trail with large groups of mountain bikers who fly by at top speed. Our day ends with photography, high up on the hill below the chair lifts of Ćortina, just as the clouds hit the jagged peaks at sunset. This must be a skiers' paradise. Our last night in Cortina is spent at Ristorante El Zeco, a delicious meal of beet stuffed ravioli, fettucini with freshly picked mushrooms and assorted grilled meats, a delectable fusion of Germanic and Italian cuisine in a simple and charming old building. 

A Hike to the top of Italy

   The Dolomites located in northeast Italy, are regarded as among the most attractive landscapes in the world with vertical limestone pinnacles, spires and towers in a diversity of colors. The highest peaks at 1500 meters are the tallest limestone walls in the world. They were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2009.  During WWI, they formed the line between the Italian and Austrian-Hungarian forces.  The  protected footpaths, numbered 1-8, are the long distance trails that are hiked today, most take a week to complete. The most comprehensive guide, recommended by hikers is the Cicerone Guide, Walking in the Dolomites. We are hiking only a segment of path number 5 in the Val de Fane. 
       Breakfast is typical European style, hearty muesli cereals and breads, fruit,cheeses and hard boiled eggs. The early morning showers clear and by the time we are ready to leave, it looks like we will have dry weather for hiking, though our daypacks are stuffed full with raingear. 15 min north of Cortina in Fiames is the car park and trailhead and I am delighted and grateful that we actually made it here, found the trail, and won't be the "couple from California lost while hiking in Dolomites"! We walk through pine forests and along the aqua colored glaciated river that meanders through the Parc Nationale Dolomiti, stopping at Ponte Outo which looks down into a very deep flume and the river below. From here the trail splits into a gradual incline - a wider packed gravel mule road or a shorter but much steeper hiking path. We opt for the path and huff and puff our way up a 6 mile, 3,000 elevation climb, not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, we start at a respectable elevation of 4,000 ft. It is a pleasant hike with very few people and the occasional mountain bikers. The skies have cleared, leaving the cliffs with a dusting of snow, yes snow in early Sept. We later learn that the rifugios had accumulations of 10 inches of snow overnight!  Misty clouds float across the mountains that surround us on 3 sides.  The scenery is spectacular- gray and ochre colored striated sheer cliffs, green hills and babbling brooks.  
     At the end of the steady climb, 6 hours later, we reach 7,000 ft, traverse the pass and look down over a small valley, where 2 rifugios and a few wood cabins sit.  We make our way down the hill. Rifugio Fanes is the larger of the two, 3 stories high, cozy with wood interior and furniture. Built in 1928 and remodeled in 1969, it is run by the second generation of the original family and is bustling with activity. This is one of the most well furnished and comfortable rifugios- some are very basic hostel style huts. Nearby is Rifugio La Varella. Car service is only available from Pederu, a few miles to the north, for those with luggage. No shoes are permitted inside and the boot room is on the lower level, where you hang your boots soles facing out on individual pegs; the entire wall is covered with boot soles. 
     We have reserved a small private room with 2 twin beds; bathrooms are shared. The hut is so cozy and clean, it puts Yosemite's High Sierra camp to shame. Dinner is served in the large dining hall and we are directed to sit at one of the 6 long tables; our table-mates are couples from Germany and England, all avid hikers doing multi-day hut to hut journeys and they recount their worries of having to hike out in the snow after last night's storm, but to their relief, the snow melted quickly this morning. Conditions in the Dolomites are unpredictable and snowstorms frequently make trails impassable even  in the summer. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mountain Air

      A quick ride back to the airport in the morning, a stop at Europcar and we are off, equipped with a compact Nissan. The autostrada immediately takes us past farm fields of grapes and surprisingly, lots of corn. Has Italy joined the global market for corn syrup?  In less than an hour, we climb in elevation, passing charming towns that sit in valleys and cliffsides. Is it the uniformity of houses with their red tile roofs and stucco walls that give them their charm? Many of the small towns in the Sierra foothills feel out of place in the forested landscape and certainly do not add charm. What is it about Italy that gives these small towns such character? I am reminded that everything in Europe is a smaller scale than the US, from the size of cars, highways, tractors, houses, to cups, shower stalls, and even forks and spoons! Are we just used to excess or why are our things so big?
     We arrive at the Hotel Gaia in Cortina D'ampezza at mid day. The receptionist is not there and I make my best attempt, with gestures and drawings, to communicate with the friendly elderly gentleman, who is standing in and provides detailed directions in very animated Italian. It is amusing that people continue in animated dialogue even though we know that not a word is understood! At the same time, it is amazing how much can be conveyed with gestures, and how warmth is conveyed with just a smile? He calls me "Linda" with a lilt and a veryItalian rolled 'r' and my heart melts. 
    Cortina, home of the 1956 winter olympics, sits in a valley surrounded by verdant green grassy  slopes that rise above town; up winding roads are ski runs, chair lifts, Swiss looking chalets and apartments. In order to relieve our anxiety, we go in search of our trailhead and car park for tomorrow's hike to the rifugio. We are not sure of the exact location as self guided hiking information is sparse online, Rick Steves doesn't stay in rifugios, and foot trail maps of the area can be confusing. The information office is closed, to our dismay but thankfully we come across a ranger-like young man, who just happens to drive into the parking lot and gives us explicit directions. We learn that the information offices have closed for the season but that there are two carparks before and after Podestagno, with the trailhead off the highway on the road leading to Rifugio Ra Stua. 
    Feeling more confident, we embark on a driving tour of the Tres Cime area, taking advantage of this weather which is forecasted to change any minute. It is a beautiful day, with puffy clouds that shroud the mountain peaks. Tres Cime's jagged peaks, in the far eastern Dolomites are world famous and we stop often to gaze and photograph the 360 degree panorama of snow brushed granite spires which rise above green grassy valleys. The two lane mountain roads are easy to navigate and distances between valleys are close. The sound of cowbells echo from one valley to the next. At Lago San Antorno, a nondescript lake with a bar and cafe, we treat ourselves to German apple strudel with melted whipped cream and Italian tiramisu. This area of Italy straddles an interesting blend of Austrian, German and Italian cuisines. 
     The clouds turn gray as we make our circuit down through Misurina and back to Cortina. The rain is now a steady downpour. How quickly the scenery changes as low clouds obscure the mountains and hills, and the light fades to gray. The mountains disappear into the mist. We hope for clearer weather tomorrow as we hike out. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


We leave home before sunrise marveling at the peaceful and near empty highway. The hustle and bustle at the airport in these wee hours of the morning is reminder that as the city sleeps, the day has already begun for so many. There is a sense of excitement in the air, of the unknown adventures and new places to explore. We fly to Newark then on to Venice as the sun rises over the jagged peaks of the Dolomites and a colorful palette of polygon shaped farm fields. We are greeted by cool breezes, sunny skies and bonjournos; after 12 hours, like the blink of an eye, we walk out into early morning in Venice, this city too coming to life. 
       I am reminded of the simple joys in traveling - successfully figuring out how to use the Italian pay phone to locate the Best Western bus is a small accomplishment, which takes us to the airport hotel just minutes away. We take short naps then decide to explore Venice. Bus 5 is across the street and runs every 15 min to Venice via the causeway for 6 euros round trip, a 4 mi ride which takes a mere 15 min.
     Venice at night is magical. With the crowds thinning, the alleys are quiet, and the sounds of street musicians create a romantic ambience. Gelato, cafes, Venetian masks and the smell of leather purses intermingle with Italian, British and American voices. In the dark canal, I hear the swish of a gondola, lit by a single lantern; the gondolier in a red striped shirt serenades his guests, his beautiful voice echoing through the passageway. This is Italy.