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Northern Italy Road Trip Part I

Author: Jim and Donna C.
Date of Trip: October 2010

This is a travel journal of Jim and Donna Cox touring Northern Italy in October of 2010.  Most of the journal was written by Donna with Jim filling in some spots and taking over on those days when Donna was too busy to the log.

We live in the United States, between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.  Jim is 64, having just retired from the Boeing Company as an IT architect.  Donna is quite a bit younger, and was a special education teacher and professional portrait photographer.  Our hobbies include travel, motorcycle touring and photography.  We just gave up scuba diving last year.

Our European trip consisted of two parts.  The first part covered by this journal, was a road tour of Northern Italy outlined by Jim’s colleague who was raised in Verona and now lives and works in Rome.  Many town names in this journal are Italian spellings, such as Genova instead of Genoa.  Sorry we were not consistent.

The second part of the trip was a transatlantic cruise from Civitavecchia, the cruise port for Rome, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The cruise was on board the m/s Westerdam, of the Holland America Line.  The cruise stopped in Italy, Monaco; three ports in Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and Funchal, Madeira.  The cruise trip will be covered in a separate journal.

Jim did a lot of preparation for this trip via the Internet.  At the end of this journal, we have included a list of companies and services we used along with some web sites and general information you may find helpful.

By the way, there are several references to “Lola” in the journal.  Lola is our Gamin Nuvi 660 GPS system loaded with European maps.  We found this a “MUST HAVE” for driving in Europe.  There are also references to “Donna Days”.  A Donna Day is a beautiful warm sunny day.  Donna seems to have a knack for getting these days on our vacations.

For luggage we limited ourselves to one 21″ soft side suitcase each for clothes.  Donna’s bag weighed 35 pounds; Jim’s bag weighed 36 pounds.  In addition we allowed ourselves a 21″ roll aboard each.  Donna’s was mostly empty except for camera gear.  Jim’s contained his CPAP machine, camera and Lola.  Donna’s would be used for souvenirs and mementos as the trip progressed.   BTW we found we over packed — again.   We both use Canon Rebel digital SLR camera systems.  Jim also uses a JVC hard disk video camera to record sound and movement.

Travel Journal:

Wednesday October 6, 2010 — Federal Way, WA.   Clear and cool.

Everything has been packed and we are ready to go on our five-week trip.  It all started by taking the birds over to the bird sitter in Seattle on Sunday.   Interesting experience as it felt like leaving the kids with grandma.  Monday we finished getting the house ready for us to go.  Watered the flowers, covered the patio furniture, mowed the lawn and put the snow tires on Jim’s car.  DHL came by and picked up our formal clothes for the ship.  They will be waiting for us in Rome — hopefully.

Tuesday was house-cleaning day, finishing that up to a tee. Now we just have bed laundry on Wednesday, trash pickup and getting ourselves to the airport.

Shuttle express picked us up around 1600.  We were the only ones on the van.  Got to the airport in plenty of time.  Checked in with British Airways, and had time to run over to Ex-Officio in the airport concourse to check out the latest.  Bought a couple of rain / sun hats just in case — or just because.

Headed over to the gate and were able to use the business class lounge on my BA executive status.  Won’t have that next year so take advantage while we can.  Boarded the flight – all the way back in coach this time.  Days of business class are over with my retirement from Boeing.

We were able to get into the last three rows of coach where they have the double seat arrangements.  This gives a little extra room on the window side where the plane curves in.

Flight for the most part was uneventful but a little bumpy at times, but the tail always wags the most.  Donna was able to get a little sleep on the plane, Jim still can’t.

Thursday October 7, 2010 — London, Clear and Cool

Arrived in London on time, perhaps a little early. Taxied around the airport about 10 minutes until we could deplane to catch the bus for the terminal.  Immigration was no problem.  Picked up luggage and breezed through customs — no one there as usual.

Our driver was waiting for us as we had arranged.  Opted for a private car to Gatwick, as we weren’t sure of the connection times.  As it turned out we had plenty of time.  At Gatwick we checked in with BA, then through security and up to the business class lounge.  Have to take advantage of that elite status while it is still available.  We were both pretty tired and hungry.  BA had a nice spread of salad and cold cuts, coffee and water.

Headed down to the flight to Venice.  Checked in and — no one there.  Seems as if we had a head start on the gate announcement.  Boarded an old 737-400 for the two-hour flight to Venice.  Landed at dusk with a nice view of the city.

Picked up our luggage and headed to the taxi stand, where we were able to catch a cab to the hotel, Alle Torre in Mestre.  The hotel was pretty nice.   We have a ground floor room, king bed, en suite bath — small but very workable.  We checked for bed bugs, finding none — as this seems to be a U.S. problem centered around New York. Thankfully dropped our stuff and collapsed — for a while that is.  We have a 0700 appointment on Friday for a photography tour in Venice — and we have no idea how to get there, yet.  Got our stuff together and fell thankfully into bed.

Friday October 8, Clear, cool and sunny.

Woke at 0515 to the hotel wakeup call and Jim’s cell phone.  Hurriedly dressing we made it to the front desk by 0600.  The desk clerk directed us to a nice breakfast down stairs.  We grabbed a couple of cups of coffee, a croissant and headed out to the bus stop in front of the hotel.  We bought a couple of bus passes from the night clerk at the front desk.  He told us that when we saw the bus we wanted we were to wave at the driver.

Hey it worked, we boarded the bus after flagging it down at 0617.  Now the problem of what to do with the damned passes.  Jim tried to stick it into every slot on the IMOB machine.  Finally figured out that you wave it in front of the machine and it validates it.  Oh well — a mornings’ entertainment for the locals on board.

Arrived at the Plaza di Roma bus area in Venice.  Walked all around looking for Mike¸ our tour guide.  Found the stop at 0650.  Mike showed up at 0700 as scheduled.

Mike took us on a walking tour of the back streets of Venice.  We took lots of photos of Venice in the early morning.  Shopkeepers opening stores, sweeping the streets with their “Harry Potter” twig brooms, and unpacking vegetables from their boats. All in all we walked well over six miles, taking the Tragehtto twice across the Canal and ending around 1030 for an early lunch in Piazza de some-saint. Our lunch consisted of “toast” (hot ham & cheese sandwich) and a coke.

After lunch,  we bought two 48 hours passes for the land buses and Vaporetto (Venice water bus).  We walked around the city until we were exhausted.  We were trying to power through the 1400 jet lag drop off, but at 1600 we had enough.  We caught the bus back to the hotel.  All public transportation is crowded.  We stood most everywhere we went.    Our legs were really cramping by the time we hit the hotel about 1630.

Venice is just what you would think.  There are no cars, only boat traffic; canals instead of streets and pedestrian walkways.  All over the city are stacked platforms that are set out to walk on when the tide is high.  Many of the windows and verandas are still covered with bountiful, bright flowers.  Such a beautiful and picturesque city, we are taking lots and lots of pictures.  We were told that most people live on their second floors as the first floors often flood at high tide.  Talk about adaptation.

We rested for a couple of hours then decided we were hungry.  At the front desk we were told that there was no place local for dinner and recommended that we go back into Venice.

We got ourselves together and headed back into town.  We decided to go to a restaurant we had passed in the morning’s photo tour.  We took the Vaporetto to the Academia stop, crossed over to the restaurant arriving at 2130.  We were told we could be seated but the restaurant closes at 2200.  Wow, so much for eating late in Europe.

Had a reasonably good dinner and headed back to the Vaporetto and to Plaza di Roma bus station, eventually arriving at 2330.  We caught the last bus back to the hotel at midnight.  Dragged our poor bones into a welcoming bed.  We were tired and sore but enjoyed the day.

Saturday October 9, 2010 — Another beautiful day.

We woke up around 0700, got ready for the day and went down for breakfast.  We didn’t realize that breakfast was included here, nice surprise.  We were out the door by 0900 to finish touring Venice on our own.

We waited an hour for the bus.  Two other buses passed by, full.  One actually stopped, but no one could fit in, so we waited for the next one.  We talked with a young couple from Delaware that were on their honeymoon.  They were catching the bus to get to the cruise port. We finally got to Venice and caught the Vaporetto to Plaza San Marco.  We had to stand in both the bus and the Vaporetto.  It’s Saturday and everybody under the sun is here.

Along the waterfront there are many vendors and small souvenir carts.  Jim bought himself a Venezia hat and t-shirt.  We found some inexpensive little carnival masks for our granddaughters for Christmas and found a couple of inexpensive carnival masks for ourselves for Halloween on the cruise ship back to the U.S.  We found a nice mask for about 35 Euros for our home.  We were looking at some paintings and decided to think about if we really wanted one or not.

We went into San Marco Plaza, which was crowded, and decided to go into the Basilica.  The line was long, but it moved pretty quickly.  We got almost to the front of the line when we saw a sign that said we had to check our backpacks.  I stayed in line while Jim went all the way across the plaza to an area down the alley where they were checking bags.

While I waited I got chased off the platforms that were set out for high tide.  This caused the line to move.  By the time Jim got back, we had lost our place in line…we just sort of blended into a part near the front.

The cathedral of St. Mark was beautiful!  I kept looking at the ceiling, which had “paintings” all over it.  I thought it had gold leaf galore, only to discover that it was all tiny mosaic.  Fantastic!  The floor was also mosaic marble.

Each section of the cathedral had a different design on the floor.  We paid four Euros and entered an area of St. Mark’s tomb.  It really hit me hard that the apostles were real people just like you and me.  Jim lit a candle for his father while we were there.

We stopped at the gift shop and picked up some post cards…we couldn’t take pictures inside.  A lot of people were taking pictures, even though there were signs everywhere that said we couldn’t.  I found that very disrespectful.

After visiting the cathedral we went back into the square and found a cafe where we had a cappuccino and listened to the orchestras play.  Two cappuccini cost us 30 Euros, but it was worth it.  Jim wanted to do this since his first visit to Venice for work a couple of years ago. After our rest we “played” with the pigeons.

We had some cookies that Donna was feeding to the pigeons.  They would fly up, land on her arms and shoulders and eat out of her hands.  Jim was having fun taking movies of this, as Donna would scatter the pigeons, only to have them come back for more.

Our next venture was to walk to the Rialto Bridge.  Before we left, we did decide to go back to one of the artists and buy a painting that we liked.  We always buy small things because they are easy to carry, only to regret not getting something larger when we get home.

This time we bought what we really wanted…a larger painting of Venice.  It cost us 70 Euros, but we both love it.  The guy put some cardboard around it with a handle.  Looks like we will need to mail a package home when we get to Florida.  Second day here and we already are loaded with souvenirs — over four weeks left.  We’re so bad.

We stopped at several shops on the way to the Rialto Bridge, one being a Murano glass shop.  Jim bought me a bracelet and a pendant.  We got lost a couple of times, but finally made our way to the bridge.  We took some pictures, checked out the shops that line the bridge and took some dusk photos of Venice from the bridge.  Hope they turn out.

About 1830, just about dusk, we took a gondola ride.  We went down part of the Grand Canal, took some smaller side canals and came back through part of the Grand Canal.  We passed by the homes of Marco Polo and Casanova.  These home are over 700 years old and are still being used today.  It was a beautiful and romantic ride.  After the gondola ride we had dinner on the Grand Canal.

Jim was looking forward to having a relaxing evening back at the hotel…until he realized that it was almost 2300 by the time we got back.  Tomorrow we pick up our car for the driving part of our trip.  We are going to spend an extra night here so we can take a day trip into Slovenia tomorrow.

Sunday October 10, 2010 — Clear — another Donna day

We woke up around 0700 and had breakfast at the hotel.  We then got a taxi that took us to the Marco Polo Airport where we picked up our car.  We both got our international driver’s license for this trip, but it would have cost us another eight Euros a day for me to be able to drive.  We opted for me not to drive.

Jim had all his documents, passport, driver’s license and insurance certificate, so the guy behind the counter couldn’t sell us anything else.  We were early in picking up the car and were told, “This is the only one I have for you”.  It is a Peugeot, 508.  Looks like a crossover, can seat five people, easily.

It will do nicely since the one we reserved was not the smallest, but next to it.  Our luggage fits nicely in the back and can be covered.  The back windows have screens so you don’t see in easily as well… very nice.

We plugged the Parjama Castle in Slovenia into Lola and off we go.  Slovenia is only a couple hours from Venice.  After crossing the border, we were stopped by the border police.  Apparently we need a Vignette (pass) in order to drive through the country.  We were told that the pass was 15 Euros and could be purchased at the next service station.  The fine for not buying the pass is 300 Euros.  Nice incentive to buy one.

We stopped at the next service station, bought our pass and a couple of sandwiches for lunch.  The sandwiches weren’t very good, but they ate.  The place was called the Hip Hop.  We did buy some Nutella-to-Go (Nutella with bread sticks) that was good.

The next stop was the Parjama Castle.  Cool castle.  This place is built into the side of a cliff / mountain – very easy place to defend.  This was a “Robber Barron’s” castle.  The owner was kind of like what we would know of Robin Hood.  He stole stuff.

The castle had ample living quarters, a dungeon with torture devices, fortress areas and when all else failed, miles and miles of caves within the mountain to build fortresses and/or escape.  We could see that there were easy areas through the caves where someone could get out and get food and water for the castle without anyone out front ever knowing.

There were staircases that led up and up into the castle and then up and up into the caves.  On the way back down we found another room that was full of spirits (the drinking kind).  Donna tried the traditional Slovenian drink — honey brandy.  Had to buy some, it was really good.  Outside the castle were a couple of gift shops where we picked up some Slovenia pins.   When we entered the castle we had our picture taken.  We bought the picture for six Euros.

On the way back to Venice, Donna spots a church steeple.  It was really cool – one of those with onion top steeples.  Jim found it.  Took our pictures and headed back down the road.  Seemed like a long drive back.   Driving so far, though, hasn’t been too bad.

After unloading the car for the day, Jim realizes that one of his three wallets is missing.  A bit of explanation on the three wallets is due here.  Jim carries a small wallet for day use with a few Euros and a credit card in a zippered pocket.  He carries a second wallet attached with a light chain to the inside of his travel vest for the majority of our travel money and a different credit card.  The third wallet is a dummy wallet carried in his back pocket.  It is empty except for blank paper and fake credit cards received as promotions in the mail.  We also have money pouches and belts we wear under our clothing when necessary.  Sounds silly but unfortunately Europe is famous for pickpockets.

We tore things apart, checked all coats and turned the car upside down.  It only had 60 Euros and one credit card in it.  If we can’t find it by morning, we’ll call the credit card to notify them.  Jim tried to call the castle to see if he left it there, but they were closed.

We wanted to do laundry before starting our road trip. Our hotel said that we could go to the Panorama Plaza down the street to do laundry.  We loaded up all the laundry and headed to the Panorama for dinner and washing.  It is Sunday…everything is closed.  Driving around we found a Chinese buffet that was opened.  We stopped there for dinner, not too bad.  Had no idea of how the place worked so we just followed a few folks through the line.

Back at the room Donna does some laundry in the sink and Jim catches up on the log.  Hopefully we can get somewhat of an early start tomorrow morning.

Monday, October 11, 2010 — Clear and sunny

This is what Jim would call another DD (Donna Day).  I’ve been very fortunate to have great weather during most of my travels.  This morning is no exception.  We were hoping to have good weather, as we will be driving through the Dolomites (Italy’s portion of the Alps) today.  Good news!  Jim found his slim wallet in the car!!  It had slid between the seats. Black wallet, black car interior, dusk…no wonder we couldn’t find it yesterday.  Must have dropped it when getting money out for tolls.

We had our breakfast at the hotel.  Visited with a couple from the UK for a while.  We loaded up the car and hit the road about 0830.  We stopped at the Penny Mart (like our U.S. dollar store) and picked up some cheese, meat and we think crackers for lunch.  Funny, same type of people work at the Penny Mart as work at the Dollar stores at home…most not too friendly.  We topped off the gas in the car after Donna helped Jim open the gas cap, and we’re off. Never did figure out what that second key is for on the key fob.  Oh well a mystery in the making and another adventure to be had.

It didn’t take us long get to our first destination — Cortina, which is at the foot of the Dolomites.  Beautiful drive.  We originally were going to spend the night in Cortina, but we blew straight through it.  We’ve been stopping to take pictures when we can, but there aren’t many places to stop.  We usually hit a small village or ski resort town before we can stop.  It is such beautiful scenery!

The Dolomites are tall, jutting, ragged mountains.  The lower parts are covered in pines and firs and a tree that looks like a fir, but is changing colors for fall.  Most of the time we saw splotches of colors, however, the higher we drove, the more splendid the color.  Eventually the mountainsides were bright yellow with splotches of green.  Little towns were scattered along the mountainsides and nestled in most of the valleys.

We stopped at Valle di Cadore for lunch.  We found a little area with a bench on which to sit and have our lunch.  It overlooked the valley with some homes and a little church set up on a hill with the great Dolomites as a background.  After lunch I had to find a potty stop.  We found a place in the next “town” that had gelato store.  We’ve been getting our daily fix of gelato, so this worked well, and they had a WC.

Back on the road and heading for Bolzano.  We missed a couple of turns that our trusted Garmin GPS, Lola, was telling us about, but she kept us going.  I think we ended up driving through more of the Dolomites then we would have if we followed her original plan.  Jim hasn’t lost his touch for driving a stick shift; he was working it hard today.  We kept going up and up and would start back down only to go back up and up again.  We were over 2000 meters up when we stopped at Padero Pass.

We found a shop that had Passo di Padero pins.  We felt we deserved a couple pins after all the hair pin turns and being stuck behind a tour bus full of old folks that you could see were “white knuckling” it by grabbing the seat in front of them.  We had a good laugh at that.  Named it the “Bolzano Brace”.

After getting our pins we went next door and had a cappuccino and split a piece of apple strudel.  Everybody is getting ready for the winter season.  Snow markers are being set up along the road, shops are stocking up and chair lifts are being checked out.  Right now we have sunshine, cool weather and fall colors on the trees…absolutely gorgeous!!

At this point we are only about 45 minutes from Austria.  Got to pick and choose what we see.  Can’t do everything or go everywhere.  We are also only about one hour from Bolzano where we had planned to spend the night.

About 1630 we decided that any hotel that looked good and would be fun to stay; we didn’t have necessarily have to go to Bolzano.  We passed a few three star hotels (the number of stars are on their signs) that either didn’t look like they were open, were under some type of construction, or we couldn’t find the parking.  We ended up stopping at Hotel Savoy in Passo Carezza, about 15 miles from Bolzano.  It is a three star hotel, with HUGE rooms.

We have a room with a king bed, table & chairs, couch, balcony and a huge bathroom.  I’d guess it’s darn close to 500 sq feet in total.  For about 100 Euros we also get dinner and breakfast.  The place has a spa and pool and fitness area.  There’s a playground and BBQ outside.  Not too shabby.  We step out on the balcony and are surrounded by the Dolomites.  There’s a towel warmer in the bathroom, so we threw our still wet clothes from the Venice sink wash over it to dry.  May be an incentive to wash a couple more things if it helps them dry quickly.

1900 is dinner, so we’re catching up on the log and checking out where we might stop next…maybe Milan.

Dinner was good.  We both had a salad, a first plate of spaghetti carbonara, a second plate of grilled pork chop with fried potatoes and leeks and finally a dessert of blueberry torte.  This was what was included in the price of the room.  No complaints here.  We’re both so full we can hardly move.  Jim is doing a little more work on tomorrow’s agenda and then off to bed.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 — cold (2C) and clear another Donna Day!

There was frost on the rooftops and it looked as if the tops of the mountains had a little snow last night.  We went outside and downstairs to the little restaurant where we had dinner last evening.  The same German couple from room the room down the hall was having their breakfast as well

Breakfast consisted of meats and cheeses, cereal, yogurt and rolls.  We both had a couple of cappuccino’s and water and we were ready to meet the day.  Donna got some nice sunrise pictures — of course.  The scenery here is very beautiful — breathtaking.

We briefly considered bypassing Milan and going up to Innsbruck but we decided to stay with our plan, heading to Verona and spending the night in Milano.  Tried to take a final shot at booking rooms in Milano but no luck.  Either everything was taken or the places were too far out of town.  I guess we will just try our luck at finding something around Milano.

We started down the mountains, passing Bolzano.  Glad we didn’t spend the night there.  Too busy, too crowded, too much – we kept going onto Verona, via the small towns on Lake Garda.

We drove into Riva Del Garda and around the town a bit.  Very crowded, much like a summer tourist town.  No place to park so we left the town and headed back up the hill to an overlook we passed on the way down.  We stopped at the overlook and found some nice benches where we decided to have our lunch.

We enjoyed the great scenery overlooking the town and the large lake.  What a way to have lunch.  We set up the tripod and took some pictures of us at the overlook.  Have to find that perfect shot for the Christmas card.  Checking Lola we decided to go back down the hill and continue our journey around Lake Garda on the way to Verona.

We stopped in Malcesine and checked out the castle.  The walk up to the castle, through the small streets was pretty nice.  Lots of little shops and enough people to realize you were in a tourist spot but not in August when it would have been unbearable.

The castle had nice views and a room set-aside for Goethe; guess he was a local celebrity.  After poking about the castle we went back through the town stopping at a lace shop.  Looked as some table runners but nothing grabbed our eye.  The shopkeeper started at thirty Euros, quickly down to twenty and as we walked away was willing to go lower.  Yes they do bargain in Italy.

Returning to the car we continued on our way through Bardolino.  From there Lola sent us up a narrow winding road to the main highway.  A comment here on some of the roads; 180 degree turns are not unusual, more the norm.  Twisty turns all over the place, narrow roads steep climbs, lots of shifting and turning, but I digress.

Reached Verona and laid in a course for the coliseum.   Found the place but ended up in the pedestrian plaza facing a cop.  He directed us to turn around which we did, and were able to find a parking lot nearby that was located under a market.  Ah the dumb touristas!

We walked around the coliseum, which was smaller, and less ornate, then the one in Rome, but still very large and well preserved.  They still use it for various shows.  We didn’t go in as it was eight Euros and there was a sign that said some areas were blocked off for the show.

We saw the devotion pole outside the coliseum, took some pictures of course.  We wandered back toward the car deciding to have dinner here in the plaza.  Donna had lasagna; Jim had Spaghetti Ragu, i.e. spaghetti with meat sauce. Both were really good!

Ok off to find a hotel for the night, but first, let’s see if we can find a castle!  What a mess finding the castle.  Traffic was horrible and when we got there no place to park. We gave up after a brief try to see the castle and the Roman bridge.  Plugged Milan into Lola and off we went.

We were leaving town around 1900 — very late indeed.  Our thought of finding a hotel soon proved to be a problem.  The Autostrada has limited exits and no information on where you can find hotels.  After a mistaken exit to Torino, we headed to a small town outside Milano.

We stopped at a three star hotel around 2045 but no luck.  We then used Lola to find other hotels.  We found the hotels but couldn’t find a way in or a place to park.  We finally gave up, consulted Lola and called a Holiday Inn at the Milano airport.  Relatively expensive but it is a known standard and they had room.

Off we went, arriving about 2230. We were up to the room by 2300 or so, and crashed into a nice warm bed.  While relatively expensive and father outside of town than we would have liked, out hotel turned out to be pretty convenient to Milan tourist via hotel shuttle to airport then public bus to town 73 Express and we were in town at the Duomo!

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