Sunday, April 28, 2013

Milan and Lake Como

We have had very few months here in which we've spent a whole month just in the country of Italy. April is one of those months. This long weekend trip took us to the Lombardy region of Italy, more specifically Milan and Lake Como. Milan is very different than other cities in Italy, and other Italians refer to the Milanese as workaholics, cold, and business-like. Top designers make their home in Milan while aspiring models from around the world hope to parade in their clothes on the runways. It is also home to Italy's stock exchange and drives a lot of the economy. It isn't powered by tourism; visitors don't usually spend much time in Milan as there aren't as many sites as the other cities, but they do flock to see the city's Duomo and the painting of "The Last Supper".

The Duomo in Milan
We spent a night in Milan and walked around some of the city. We had wanted to see "The Last Supper", but didn't realize that we needed to buy tickets way ahead of time, and thus we weren't able to see it. Instead, we went inside Milan's Duomo, which is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. We climbed to the roof and marveled at the Gothic architecture of this building. We were truly impressed by the design and detail of this cathedral!

Impressive statues lined the corners

After we climbed down we walked through the streets and headed to Sforza Castle. It's near the center of the city and unlike many of the castles we've been to, we didn't have to climb a hill to get to it! The courtyard serves as a local park and the castle itself holds many museums.

The next day we drove to Lake Como and stayed in a peaceful village called Varenna. Varenna is not as touristy as the more well-known Lake Como town of Bellagio, but is in a great position on the lake to take ferries to and from there if one so chooses. Varenna is full of steep staircases leading down to the water, with small and quaint alleyways in which one can find some hidden gems.

 A lot of staircases....

We had booked a one hour boat tour in order to get acquainted with the towns on the lake. Luca, our boat guy, was waiting for us at the bottom of a steep stone staircase with a bottle of Prosecco, pizza, and olives. As we clinked our glasses we left the town of Varenna and boated to many of the different towns on the lake. Each town seems to have its own charm, history, and different attractions, and thus providing many reasons why people choose certain towns on the lake. Unfortunately, it was a very hazy day and a storm was approaching so we didn't get to see the amazing views of the Alps that we were hoping for, but we could still appreciate everything that Lake Como had to offer. We didn't see the town of Laglio where George Clooney owns a villa, but Luca was very excited to show us on the map where he vacations.

Leaving Varenna


A nice villa!

This river is called Fiumelatte, Italian for "Milk River"

Varenna is overlooked by a castle in Perledo. We walked a little north of Varenna and picked up the "mule track" trail to Castello di Vezio. The trail was steep and rocky, and we climbed up and up until we arrived in a small piazza. We bought our tickets then headed to the path leading to the castle. The castle is supposed to boast incredible 360 degree views of the towns and across the lake, but it was so hazy that we couldn't see everything that we had seen in pictures - we haven't been having much luck in the weather department lately! Nevertheless, we enjoyed our hike and were happy that the thunderstorm didn't start until after we returned to Varenna.

The walk up


The guard tower

A serene path back
The rest of our weekend kept us inside most of the time as the area experienced a huge thunderstorm from Friday night to Sunday morning. We had hoped to see more of the towns and experience all that this beautiful part of the country has, but it wasn't in the cards for us. We have already vowed to come back to this area in the future, hopefully with some nicer weather! Nonetheless, we're happy to have had one rain free day in Varenna and we packed in as much as we could!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Region of Le Marche

Tucked away in a quiet position along the Adriatic Sea lies the region of Le Marche, Italy. Its serene setting is largely untouched by the hoards of tourists that flood Tuscany each summer, but it still sees its fair share of visitors (mainly German) each year. It boasts the rolling hills of other regions, the narrow winding roads of the countryside, and small medieval towns perched high on the hills. We hadn't heard of this area before moving here, and only just found out some information about it last fall - so it became part of the "list".

The countryside from San Marcello

Le Marche is full of tiny, quaint, walled-in villages. The towns are within close proximity to each other, reachable by long and narrow roads through vineyards and plains. They are some of the best preserved ancient towns in Italy and retain a quiet atmosphere that is void of shops, restaurants, and markets. Throughout the weekend we drove to towns such as Ostia, Ostia Vetere, Belvedere Ostrense, and Corinaldo. Each town boasted sweeping views of the region as we walked along their defensive walls and narrow alleyways.

Through the streets of Ostia.

In Belvedere Ostrense


We were fortunate to have our friends Evan and Melana fly in from the States and meet us at the agriturismo in San Marcello. Along with exploring the towns together, we snacked on breads, cheeses, prosciutto, tomatoes, and eggplant, as well as taking part in a wine tasting held by the owners of our agriturismo.

Prosciutto, salami, a variety of cheeses, and homemade jam at the wine tasting. 
The four of us in Corinaldo.

This is definitely a nice weekend getaway if you're looking to relax and not have a lot on the agenda. In the summer months one can sit by the pool while drinking a glass of wine and just gaze out onto the countryside. We found it to be perfect for what we were looking for that weekend - quiet relaxation.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Assisi & the Small Country of San Marino

Back in November we were supposed to visit Assisi with my parents since we were spending the night in Perugia with them. But Hurricane Sandy had other plans in store for us, and while my parents were able to fly into Rome the same day that they had intended, it was later than planned and we weren't able to fit in Assisi. Determined to visit, we stopped in Assisi for the night while on our way to Le Marche in order to explore this exquisite city.

View from Basilica di Francesca 
Assisi boasts many churches and is considered a very spiritual city, with people making pilgrimages each year to share in its tranquility. We went to the mother church of Assisi, Basilica di Francesca. The church is built into a hill and is comprised of the Upper Church and Lower Church. There is also a crypt where the remains of St. Francis are buried.

One thing we noticed about Assisi is that it is very hilly. It felt like every road we walked on directed us UP, whether it be on wider main roads or small and quaint alleyways. Every building is made of stone, with doorways and windows to houses peeking out.

Did we mention that there a lot of churches in Assisi?

Basilica della Santa Chiara

On our way to the region of Le Marche we decided to make a slight detour and visit the country of San Marino. San Marino is the third smallest country in Europe (Vatican City and Monaco are one & two) and is surrounded by Italy on all sides. It's located 2,100 feet into the sky and requires a steep walk uphill to get to the center.

San Marino looks like it has largely given over to tourism, with souvenir shops at every turn and restaurants advertising their menus in English, but it was nice to walk around this country. We had been looking forward to gorgeous views that we had read about, but unfortunately we were stuck in the middle of a huge cloud and could barely see the buildings in front of us!

Jon and the beautiful view down below.

On the drive down, out of the clouds. 
Our detours led us to some great sights and with only three months to go we're glad that we were able to squeeze in Assisi and San Marino. Next up, the region of Le Marche!