Final day: Lake Como

Fast lane on Lake Como
We leisurely made our way to Lake Como region via train from the airport, located across the street from our hotel, and transferred in Saronno to town of Como.
Como was a lot different from Lazise in Lake Garda. The entire stretch of lake we saw was cradled by rich, green tree-covered mountainside. Lake Garda area was mountainous in some areas especially in Riva del Garda, but not as consistently lush backdrop
The town of Como was larger than we expected. We strolled the passeggiata along the lake. We then spotted a funicula and rode to the alta where there was a beautiful church but not much else.

Beautiful Church atop Como
We descended and looked for the ristorante the young woman at the hotel front desk recommended highly. La Vita e Bellla was quite a find, and the only restaurant in town with a line to get in.

Great Greek salad at lunch
We had wonderful, colorful Greek salads . The ristorante was known for a lavish insalata menu, but everything coming out of the small kitchen looked and smelled very appetizing.
After lunch we walked over the boat landing and just made passage to Bellagio on the fast boat. Evidently, you could take a slower craft that would take maybe two hours.
The fast boat made a couple of stops and dropped us off at a busy landing in Bellagio.

Lake Como from Bellagio

Landing at Bellagio
There was heavy tourist traffic on the lakeside street called Lungolaria Mazzini. There are beautiful hotels on the outskirts and many small hotels higher on the small narrow vias that filter down to the main lakeside drive. The narrow streets have many shops, but we couldn’t find a decent price for a quality man bag or dress shirts.

A shop display of hand-painted wine bottles
We took an early-evening fast ferry back to Como and made easy train connections back to the hotel. It was time to go home and leave Italia for another time.


After goodbyes, it was off to Milano

Teresa captured the Duomo at night
We said our goodbyes at the Villa after dinner last night because we had to leave by 8 a.m. to get the Audi back to the Hertz dropoff at Malpensa Airport by 1 p.m. In addition to loving being a part of Lisa’s 60th birthday in Tuscany, we made some great acquaintances here and wish to reunite with them in the coming years. Bill and Lindsay may take our travel recommendation and tour Lake Garda and Venice on the way to visit friends in Switzerland.

Ultimo Cena…mmm
After a quick cup of coffee with early-riser Callum, we hit the road. Traffic was heavy on the A1 autostrada with a lot of trucks. The Audi kept flashing messages that it needed blue fuel in the next 500 kilometers or there would be no restart. The GPS indicated the driving distance to Malpensa Airport was 390 kilometers. Not much room for error, but the GPS was functioning and road signs were clear to Milan once we passed around Bologna.
The toll was 22.50 Euro, quite a bit I thought.
We had one missed exit but quickly re-routed and arrived at airport 25 minutes before the car had to be dropped off.

Always a relief to drop the rental unscathed
Of course, there was poor signage for the Hertz return. We circled the well-separated Terminals 1 and 2 and finally spotted a tiny sign and parked the Audi on time, barely. There was the customary sigh of relief that we returned the car with no scratches or lost sideview mirrors.
Our hotel for two nights is the Moxy, a Marriott property that I was able to use points for a free stay. It is right across from Terminal 2.
The young woman at the front desk was extremely helpful and recognized my surname as Italian. She was from Lake Como. When we told her we were planning to go there tomorrow, she filled us in on taking the train from the airport to Saronno and transfer to Como. She recommended a restaurant, too.
Laura had done this itinerary before, so we had a good idea anyway . This should be a relaxing finish to our Italian viaggio viewing the beautiful lago and towns of Como and Bellagio.
We freshened up, then took a train to Milano Central station and subway to the Duomo area in heart of Milan.

The Galleria shopping area


Teresa did some window shopping and photographing of Duomo at night after we had pizza and insalata.

The street-performing trio
I was well entertained by the many street performers. A trio of two violinists and accordionist were especially fun to listen to, switching up their repertoire from classical to pop. I chuckled to myself when they broke into a swinging version of “New York, New York.” In less than 48 hours we will be landing there and making connections to home in Portland.
The area around the Duomo was lively at 8 p.m. Apparently, a current singing-sensation Fabrizio had been singing in the street, and crowds and Paparazzi were following him as he made his way to a restaurant. We had never heard of him.

Wine-tasting tour to savor

Unforgettable day learning about wine.
Lisa and Dan treated us royally to a unforgettable tour of the Chianti Classico region today,  complete with bus and driver and enlightening and entertaining wine expert.

Fillippo passionately teaching about Chianti Classico wine
I confess to not knowing much about wine.  Nevertheless, our wine coach for this memorable day,  Fillippo Bartolotta, spoke  about the history, culture  and business of wines of this region. It was fascinating, because Filippo shared knowledge and love of wine with such great passion.  The Firenze native is a wine journalist, writing for Decanter Magazine,  and wine coach for people who want to know more about vino . He will be featured on CNN and has been a personal wine coach for Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson and Stephen Colbert. He has worked with the White House chef and travels the world tasting  5,000 wines a year,  a dream job most would think. But I am sure it involves work. People used to always say the same thing about being a sports journalist, too.
On coaching Dustin Hoffman, Fillippo commented: Dustin says there are two things in this world that he loves — wine and women, and he doesn’t know enough about either one. He can get by on his own with women, but I need to help him with the wine.”
One of the main themes of this wine tasting adventure was the contrasting businesses of wine — the small boutique artisan wine maker and the mass  industrial wine producers.
We made two stops on the Black Rooster wine trail for each type of business .The Black Rooster legend dates back to the centuries’ rivalry between Florence and Siena and the Chianti region that lies in between.  It remains today, Filipo explained, telling how someone from Siena challenged his wine expertise as a Florentine, after a recent wine presentation in London. He told us London is the wine capital of the world.

Irene was our host Vignamaggio
First, we visited the Vignamaggio winery, which Teresa and I had seen on our drive through the Chianti region two days before.  We stopped at the  accompanying hotel looking for the vineyard but then mistakenly drove by the wine production venue and kept going. So we were  fortunate to see the 15th century Villa and winery. The family that built the Villa was exiled to the area by Florentine Medici rulers. (Dan quipped wow, what a terrible place to be exiled).
The Villa vast vineyards,  are just now ripe for harvest, for during our wine tasting,  Vignamaggio bells peeled announcing to the countryside the first grapes had been harvested. It was exciting. We raised our glasses as our host Irene (pronounced E-rene-a) presented the inaugural grapes.

Bells rang signaling the first grapes harvested
We tasted three wines here. Fillipo and Irene explained the character and taste of each. Chianti Classico wine must follow strict rules of the region to earn its name — 80 % Sanovese grape and the remainder a choice of the winemaker. There is a category called Super Tuscan, and I told Fillippo in addition to a children’s book on wine he has authored, he should do a Marvel Super Hero comic book heralding the Super Tuscan. The winemaker is totally free to craft the Super Tuscan wine.

Fillippo’s latest wine pupils enjoying Vignamaggio Villa and vineyard
Our wine professor — he loves teaching  at the university level – stressed that wine is like life. It makes itself, and anyone and everyone can make wine. Wine, like beer, was produced for health reasons since water was not always sanitary from mankind’s early existence. The Romans always brought vines to the lands of conquest. Maybe Caesar really declared vino, vidi, vici!
We were shown oak barrels holding the potential 5,000 bottles each. The quality of wood has a lot to do with quality of wines as well as the interior breathing space for fermentation.

Vignamaggio oak barrels hold wine for 5,000 bottles
The Vignamaggio (means vines of May) Villa has a beautiful garden. We were told that several scenes of the recent motion picture “Much Ado About Nothing” were filmed here. And legend here has it that the lady of the Villa named Lisa captured the attention of Leonardo da Vinci and was the inspiration for the Mona Lisa paintings of that name. The hills in the background of the  famous portrait is the very same backdrop we were gazing upon throughout our tour, according to legend here. How appropriate, our Lisa was the reason we were here.
We moved on to the town of Greve for a tasty lunch. The majority had grilled beef which was to bring out the best in Chianti Classico varieties at the table. Carly and I had pasta, and Teresa had a thick bean and panne soup.

In the courtyard overlooking the Vignamaggio Villa garden
We were all very satisfied with the food and wine at lunch in addition to the elaborate wine tasting. But we still had the boutique vineyard Solatione to tour.
Francesca Giachi was also very charming in telling the tale of her winery started by their father and continued by her and her brother .

Francesca describes her Chianti Classico
I learned something surprising. It is not the largest vineyard that produces the highest quality wine. It is the artisan winemaker’s hand-crafting the vines and hand-picking the grapes that will produce great wine. Only 6 hectares (larger than acre) are planted with vines here as compared to many times more  hectares at Vignamaggio.
Of course, supply and demand dictates the price of anything, including wine.

Solatione winery utilizes smaller oak barrels
The group thoroughly enjoyed the two  types of Chianti Classico wine here and a dessert wine that got great reviews from the budding wine critics. A bottle was purchased by Bill to top off dessert that evening. The group bought a number of  bottles at both wineries.
Solatione winery only produces 15,000 bottles of wine a year, too few to crack the U.S. market and the wines prices would be double or more what you can pay here. A Nappa, Calif. wine executive sampled  the small-market Chianti Classico, 34 Euro here, and estimated  U.S. price at $100 a bottle.
As we filed off the bus, Sandy complimented our coach on being an excellent educator. She also asked how did he rate this new order of the Black Rooster?
Fillipo smiled and said 100 proof!


Lisa’s Birthday at La Casa Gialla e dintorni

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Birthday cake fireworks!

Lisa celebrating her 60th Birthday in style
Everyone slept in after a Saturday late-night celebration of Lisa’s birthday which continues today.
What a glorious place to celebrate a birthday milestone for Lisa here at La Casa Gialla e dintorni, a large holiday house compound, overlooking hills with Florence in the distance, surrounding vineyards under the Tuscan sun with her family and friends from two continents.
After we finally were rescued last night, we had appetizers, wine and Prosecco and a delicious buffet of Italian dishes including pasta, lasagna, salads and dessert. There is a chef on hand for lunch and dinner. Maurizio was very entertaining while producing great meals.
Introductions were made since there were friends of Lisa’s we didn’t know or had met briefly years ago.

Our great friends and hosts Lisa and Dan
Lisa and husband Dan Rapaport own a successful girls and boys summer camp called Kohut and several attendees celebrating at the Villa were fellow camp counselors for many seasons well before Lisa and Dan bought the camp, 45 minutes west of Portland, Maine, 23 seasons ago.
Bill and Lindsay Dorris traveled from Atlanta, Sue and Keith Crudgington,Callum and Sandy Kennedy and Julie and Jeff Archer-Clowes came from England. Lindsay, Sue, and Callum were longtime counselors at Kohut and neighboring camp Fernwood.
Everyone was very understanding of our late arrival and wonderful companions during our stay, sharing stories of their camp experiences, their lives in their locales and tales of travel in Italy.
Lisa and Dan’s daughters Carly and Julie were birthday party organizers along with Julie’s boyfriend Alex. Carly presented a photo video of Lisa, her family and friends through the years that generated a lot of laughter and a few tears. Everyone agreed Lisa never looked better than this evening.
The Villa sleeps at least 12. There are also two bungalows.
We were given the bungalow near the pool which was well in use since temperatures continued to be hot with fair skies.
Sunday was truly a relaxing day sitting around the pool, making acquaintances or catching up.
Teresa and I see Lisa often during hair appointments. Dan and Lisa were neighbors of mine in Cape Elizabeth when I was a sports writer and later sports editor at the Portland Newspapers, before I met Teresa. Dan actually attended our wedding almost 29 years ago in St. Louis. We talked sports as we always did when he was a young lawyer with great knowledge of sports and I was covering sports for a living.



It was a great change of pace to simply sit back, relax with no particular timetable or destination. We laughed about how the years have flown by and appreciated our lasting friendship. It is nice that Teresa and Lisa are close, too, forged by the strong client-stylist relationship.
It was fun seeing their grown, professional daughters. Carly, after a stint as an education Headhunter, may be succeeding her mother as director at the camp, a challenging position with many camp employees.
Julie has taken a new position in the motion-picture industry in Los Angeles. It was interesting hearing about her experiences with many big-names in the movie biz during her employment, working for film and studio executive Harvey Weinstein.
Callum shared photographing duties with Teresa in and around the villa.
Sue led an impromptu art lesson whuch Teresa enjoyed. Sue later presented Lisa with a true-to-life sketch of her daughters for the occasion.
While the ladies were doing water color paintings of the Tuscan countryside, I sat at the upright piano in the main dining area and played some Italian and American standards. The piano had a few bad keys, but everyone seemed to enjoy the background music. Sandy came over to say it was nice having music fill the house, and she could tell I took great pleasure in playing.
Lunch was delicious with pasta pomodoro and wine and Prosecco flowing.
Dinner followed with a spectacular four-course meal starting with appetizers on the veranda, followed by risotto with mushrooms and stuffed shells, roasted pork and vegetables (Teresa and I passed on the “carne”) and a flaming chocolate birthday cake.
Julie and Carly coaxed us elders into entertaining party games, including a hip Smart Phone App contest called Heads-Up, where downloaded subjects flash on the phone screen, which is placed at the forehead of the contestant. He or she must guess the answer from the clues given by the crowd. The more wine or Prosecco, the funnier the clues and answers.



More Chianti road, Impruneta

We got up early and packed up and departed the farmhouse in the hills of Caldine. We noticed Cleopatra was not at the doorstep. The resident feline empress must have known the cat lover Laura had gone home or that there was no more milk.
We drove back to the Chianti Road and took our time because we were not planning to meet the birthday gathering in Impruneta til early evening.

We also were on a mission. Greg Logan, a Missouri School of Journalism classmate, has been following the blog. He replied to the earlier post on the Chianti Road to say he and his family had stayed in the region and loved the spectacular vistas of vineyards in the small hilltop town of Lamole.
If you get the chance, he suggested, go to the ristorante at the top of the town because it is an outstanding place to eat and view the countryside.
Greg is one of the few J School grads still covering sports. He works for Newsday. And in his travels, like many longtime sportswriters traveling the globe, he can tell you about great restaurants. Years ago, he tipped us off to an outstanding authentic Southwestern eatery in the Albuquerque. N.M.
area, high in the hills, well off the beaten track.
Well, it was a gorgeous drive, ever higher to the small hamlet of Lamole. Teresa was in a camera-shooting frenzy, forcing me to stop often while she took photos of the vineyards.

I was relieved to find a church parking lot next to the ristorante when we reached the summit.
The Ristoro Di Lamole was open, no one was there at the noon hour.
I asked for an outside table. The waiter said they were all reserved and seated us at the edge of the restaurant main inside dining area and the veranda. It still had a tremendous view. Within minutes, diners filed in to fill all the prime tables.
Greg was spot on in his recommendation .

Teresa’s truffle pasta dish

I had stuffed shells
Teresa had pasta with truffles. I had stuffed shells with ricotta cheese. The waiter said the house rosse was light for the lunchtime. It was the best meal of the trip.
The waiter said there was over 300 vineyards in the area.
We were treated to a splash of limoncello and were off.
We stopped at a wine-tasting shop/ bar and bought a good bottle of red Chianti for the birthday bash to add to the Prosecco for toasting Lisa’s 60th.
Teresa had two more Chianti towns to see.
Monteriggioni was interesting but very touristy because it was basically a castle with shops tucked inside the courtyard . We bought another bottle of Chianti for good measure for the party.
The final stop before heading to Impruneta was Colle Di Val D’Elsa. Teresa had found it in a book of 50 most handsome towns in Italy.
It was a beautiful town, reminding us of San Gimiano, in the style of architecture but not overun by tourists. We would recommend a stop here. Like Orvieto to the south, this Medieval alta old town has a modern lift that takes you to the top from convenient parking.
The Duomo was more modern than the larger, well-known Duomos of Florence and Siena, I thought. I especially enjoyed the painting, Ultima Cena (Last Supper) by Octavio Vannini. It portrayed a more natural dining setting compared to the 1500s table setting that Da Vinci and others painted with Christ and the Apostles sitting, dias-like at a long table.

Ultima Cena by Octavio Vannini
We left Colle Di Val D’Elsa late afternoon, and the GPS indicated we had less than hour to Impruneta. Then, the trouble began. The GPS would not allow me to input the coordinates Lisa sent in an email. The address we put in kept sending us to another nearby town that was part of the name of the hideaway street we were in search of.
I let my travel ego get the best of me and insisted we find the Villa on our own. Big mistake. We drove back and forth on the main road. In a combination Italian-English, I asked store front owners, residents along the road and finally a group of teens in the town square for assistance. A nice young man read the address I showed him and said follow me. We trailed him on a motorcycle several kilometers. but he took us to the town of Pozzolatico that was part of the villa address. I gave him 5 Euro for his trouble, drove back to the town centro and text Lisa to send someone to meet us.
Her daughter Carly and boyfriend Alex cane to our rescue, and we followed them to the Villa where the group was waiting on us for dinner.



Minor setback –train strike

Statue of Garibaldi and Emmanuel in Fiesole
Laura was scheduled to take the 2 p.m train from Caldine to Florence and then on to Milan for her flight home.
So we stayed in the area and drove the hills of Fiesole where Teresa and Laura went a few nights earlier to shoot photos of Firenze at night.
There were still towns above Fiesole, and we cruised the narrow stratas and enjoyed the panoramic views.

This was one of the wider roads as we headed up to Fiesole
We had lunch and headed back to the farmhouse apartment where Laura packed up. She said goodbye to Cleopatra, the elder queen feline of the Villa. She was at the doorstep every morning looking for milk.
We also had a nice chat with Lorenzo, Andrea’s son who runs the olive farm and loves the outdoors and agriculture. Andrea had told us the two rental units on the farm help enable them to continue the olive farming business.
We asked Lorenzo if he too played piano. He took up the violin at age 4 because he fell in love with his violin-playing babysitter. He said playing music is good for the mind and hands and told me that I sounded good practicing in the studio.
By now, it was time to take Laura to the Caldine rail station.
Once again, as was the case last year in Camoglia, she could not print her ticket she had pre-paid. She decided to board the commuter train and hopefully print her ticket in Florence.
Well, there was an announcement in Italian, and we discerned the word retarde — the train was delayed. A local gentleman, going to work, spoke a little English, shaking his head stating that the train was 25 minutes late. Laura had a 45-minute cushion and the ride to Firenze was 20 minutes.
Ah, but then came another announcement, and the Italian gentleman shook his head even more. No train, canceled, he said. He more or less explained that there was a regional rail labor stoppage. “It is Friday, and they don’t want to work. ”

All smiles until train was canceled
With that news, we had to get Laura to the Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, the main station in Centro Florence on a naturally busy Friday afternoon.
Laura took the wheel, and we used the GPS. All went well until we reached Centro area, where there was expected heavy Friday afternoon gridlock. The last 3 blocks took about 20 minutes. We even thought about having Laura grab her roller bag and carry-on and make a run for the station because it was near 4 p.m. She had less than 15 minutes to board her train.
Laura stayed behind the wheel, and we crawled forward. Once at the station, she jumped out and said a quick goodbye and dashed for the platform.
I took the wheel with cars and buses honking at me. We dialed in Caldine on the GPS and hoped for a straight course home. We made one wrong turn and had to circle the same route by the station. Then, we were home free.
We spent a quiet evening plotting our final day in area, deciding to head back to the Chianti wine road. Lorenzo also opened the piano studio for me for another hour of practice.

Firenze finale

Great view at Piazzale Michelangelo
We ventured back into Florence today with a couple of destinations in mind. We wanted to see the Santa Croce Church and Piazzale Michelangelo on the northern edge of town. So in the train station, we went to purchase bus tickets. We knew it was too far to walk there and back.

A German tourist, speaking English, wanted to sell me two bus tickets at a discount because he did not have time to use them as he was headed to Venice I wasn’t sure if they were valid, so I turned away and went to the counter and bought two one-way tickets. We had planned to walk back to the heart of the old town. The train station is nearby.

Meanwhile, the German tourist was making a pitch to Teresa, but finally his wife said to give her the tickets, which she accepted.

Finding the No. 12 or No.13 bus to reach our points of interest was not very difficult. A bus driver, getting off duty and leaving his vehicle, politely said we were in the right area and to ” aspeta” (That is one of the few Italian words my parents used around us kids growing up)

It was enjoyable viewing the passing neighborhoods of Firenze we had never seen. The end of the line was the Piazzale Michelangelo. There was a large parking lot, naturally busting at the seams and white lines with parked cars, tour buses and a few limousines.

A young Japanese bride was helped out of a stretch limo by one of many bridesmaids, making sure her long dress didn’t get too soiled.

Ponte Vecchio

We weren't there very long. However, it was a spectacular vantage point overlooking the city. It was as if we were viewing a painted canvas with the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio to the left, the Duomo in the center and Santa Croce in the forefront. Laura took a photo for a couple from Toronto, and they did likewise for us A few seconds later another young man wearing a Toronto Blue Jays jersey began photographing the panoramic view. The two men from Toronto did not know each other. Small but not so small world, isn't it, I thought.
We nixed the plan to walk to the Santa Croce after viewing the distance in the panorama.
So the two bus tickets Teresa got sans gratis were going to come in handy. Laura still needed a ticket, so we thought. A bus came by,and she asked the woman bus driver about buying a ticket on board. This driver too was very polite and quickly looked at Laura's old ticket, announced it was good for an hour with a few minutes left and told us to get on.

I stayed up front by the driver to ask where to get off for the Santa Croce. She said she would let us know.

We opted not to transfer to the bus No. 23 as the driver instructed, and walked the rest of way to he church, first stopping in a neighborhood trattoria. I switched up on the pasta intake and had Aglio Olio, and Teresa and Laura had the house specialty pasta pomodoro. We had a good feeling about the restaurant because we saw local laborers at many of the tables.

Santa Croce Church
Well-fueled with pasta, we went a couple of blocks and found the Santa Croce Gothic-styled church where Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli are buried. The burial sites were unique in style, although the Machiavelli vault was more ornate. I had to agree with Laura that it was extemely odd and unsettling to see tourists taking "selfies" at the grave sites.

Michelangelo’s final resting place

From there we walked back toward the Palazzo Vecchio, the main piazza. Teresa and Laura went into the Uffizi Gallery gift shop. Had the line not been so long, we may have toured the palace, but we were feeling fatigued due to the warm temperature and the humanity everywhere around us. Teresa and Laura did say, if I had been with them in the gift shop, we might have backed right into the exhibit for free. Sounds like something I might do, but not Teresa and Laura.

We did want to see the Boboli Gardens at Pitti Palace, the home of the ruling Medici families from 1549. Of course, Napoleon put it to his use during his European conquest in the early 1800s. After the unification of Italy in 1871, it was the residence of the King of Italy, and Victor Emmanuel III gave it to the people of Italy in 1919. The gardens turned out to be a bust because there were very few flowers to see in the garden and it was very hot. The many fountains were not turned on and that might have made the walk through the gardens cooler and more enjoyable.

20150905-045419.jpgInside the Gothic-styled Santa Croce Church