Catching Up With The Hanley Clan In Sydney


Carolyn and I spent most of January lolling on the beach in  Australia and visiting the Hanley clan at their digs in the Pyrmont section of Sydney. Mostly, we got to spend time with the two grandkids, Helena, age 6, and Ava, age 4.

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Our funnest day was at Luna Park, an amusement park located in North Sydney near the Harbor Bridge. We had a great day riding all the rides and visiting the fun house.

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Here’s a shot of Helena, who is fearless, getting ready to ascend the super scary Waterfall of Death ride. That’s not its real name but it’s a pretty good description.

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There was other cool stuff, too, like those funny mirrors amusement parks have and a whirly thing that kids love because it spins until everyone else falls off.

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There were two gals in pink polka dot costumes so naturally we had to get pictures of them with the kids.

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And finally, here’s a photo of the girls in the yard at the condo where we stayed. What a great trip. We need to do this again real soon!

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Discovering Cinque Terre, The Italian Riviera


We ended our Italian holiday with a 5 day visit to Cinque Terre — 5 historic villages clinging to the hillsides that rise up from the Mediterranean Sea on Italy’s west coast between Genoa and Rome. These ancient villages are colorful and charming, but they are also a testament to the indomitable spirit of mankind. The setting is truly a place where you would expect to find mountain goats, not people.

The beach at Monterosso

In the days before Italy was unified into one country, these five towns were independent territories. In French, Cinque Terre means “5 lands.” The French name stuck but the local pronunciation is most un-Gallic. In Italian, they are known collectively as CHINK wa TEAR uh. They are mostly inaccessible by car. In past centuries, communication with the outside world was mostly limited to walking paths cut into the steep sides of the mountains. Today, the towns are served by trains and coastal ships.

From south to north, the five villages are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. All share a similar architectural history and are especially scenic with their brightly colored buildings, narrow streets, and fleets of fishing boats nestled in quiet harbors. Monterosso is further divided into two sections — the Old Town and the more modern new section. We chose to stay in the newer part of Monterosso because that’s where the train station and the best beaches were located.

Monterosso Part I

The newer section of Monterosso is all about beaches. The seashore is lined with private clubs where visitors can rent an umbrella and a cabana for the day. At the northern end of town is a public beach. Above the beach is Il Gigante, a concrete sculpture set high atop a rocky outcropping. 80 years ago, the giant supported a dance floor that hung out over the water where revelers could dance under the stars. The dance floor is long gone, but Il Gigante still maintains his lonely vigil over the town below.

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Monterosso Part II

The old town of Monterosso is accessed by a tunnel. During WW II, the inhabitants took shelter in that tunnel during air raids. Our first visit occurred during a torrential rain storm that forced us to seek shelter in a local cafe where tourists and locals congregated to wait out the storm with a Caffe Americaine and a biscotti or two. The storm soon passed and we set off to explore the old part of town.

We returned to old Monterosso a few days later and climbed all the way to the top where there is an ancient monastery and burial vault. In more dangerous times, the people would hide in the monastery to avoid capture by Turkish pirates who roamed the Mediterranean. It was more than a 1,000 steps to the top and worth every huff and puff on the way up.

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Riomaggiore

One of the most photographed of all the 5 villages, Riomaggiore is a typical town in the area. It rises steeply from the shore to the hills above. It’s tiny harbor offers little protection to fishing boats, so they are hauled out and parked along the streets of town when stormy weather is expected.

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Manarola 

Just a mile north of Riomaggiore is the fishing village of Manarola. The casual visitor would have difficulty telling one from the other. Manarola has a picturesque harbor with many colorful small boats waiting to take those who make their living from the sea out onto the waters of the Mediterranean.

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Vernazza

We bypassed Corniglia, which sits high above the local railway station, to spend a day in Vernazza. We loved staying in Monterosso, but Vernazza was our favorite day trip while in Cinque Terre.

In 2011, severe storms caused major flooding that sent a wall of mud 12 feet deep cascading through the town. The ferocity of the storm dislodged homes in the valley above the town that had stood for centuries. The flood waters blasted a hole through the granite foundation of the town near the harbor.

Today, Vernazza has largely recovered but the damage is still there to be seen if you know where to look.

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We were sad to leave Cinque Terre, but our excursion had come to an end. We took the train back to Milan then a bus to the airport where we stayed overnight so we would be on time for our early morning flight home.

As we were leaving the hotel in the morning, we happened to glance out our window  to find that Italy had given us a goodbye gift. It was still dark where we were, but to the north, the tops of the Alps were bathed in sunlight from the coming dawn. It was a magnificent ending to our Italian holiday.

Thank you, Italy. Our journey was very special. We’ll see you again soon.

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In Which We Stumble Upon Lake Maggiore


From Lake Orta, we intended to go to Maranello to visit the home of Ferrari. The day before leaving, we sat down with Wanderio — a fabulous app that instantly reveals how to get from anywhere to somewhere else anywhere it the world — and discovered, much to our chagrin, that it was going to be a 9½ hour journey.

That didn’t sound very appealing, so we switched gears and decided to visit Lake Maggiore instead. Maggiore means “major” in Italian and it is all of that. Some 40 miles long, the northernmost part crosses the border into Switzerland. The best part is it was only 1½ hours by train from Orta.

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Our tag along tour guide — Rick Steves — suggested we take the funicular from the shore of the lake to the top of the nearby Alps. Rick had never steered us wrong, so we followed his advice. What a ride! A combination of two cable cars whisked us 8,000 feet up into the sky, affording us a spectacular view of the lake below. Pay attention to those islands just offshore. We are going to visit them next.

Carolyn found us a room in a lake front hotel with a spectacular view. It was loaded with Old World charm. Here’s a photo of sunrise over the lake from our balcony the next morning. Stunning!
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Remember those islands we saw from the cable car? There are three of them. Each is owned by the Borromeo family, one of Italy’s wealthiest and most powerful families. They built a palace on each one and surrounded it with magnificent gardens. Today, a fleet of boats shuttles tourists out to the islands from the town of Stresa. Here are some photos. Be prepared to be amazed.

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Inside one of the castles is a room where Napoleon stayed when he visited. He arrived unannounced and demanded his hosts immediately serve a meal for himself and the 30 people in his entourage.

A sign posted outside the room said Napoleon smelled like a wild bear, never bathed, and left the room in need of fumigation when he departed.

Stresa was proof that sometimes less planning can lead to delightful surprises. We didn’t know we were going there until the day before and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. You can see Ferraris any time but Stresa and Lake Maggiore have to be seen to be believed.

Here is one of the many hotels arrayed along the waterfront of Stresa. (No, this is not where we stayed, although ours was very nice and quite comfortable.)

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Is there any end to the scenic delights of Italy? Our experience suggests there is not. Next, it’s on to the Italian Riviera between Genoa and Pisa and a magical place called Cinque Terre — the five territories. It will prove to be one of the most spectacular places of all.

Ciao!

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Isola San Giulio


Just a few hundred yards offshore from Orta stands Isola San Giulio. Built as a monastery, it was once controlled by the diocese of Sardinia, back in the days before the unification of Italy. Today, it still houses an order of nuns but has also sprouted dozens of private homes owned by the wealthy.

Getting to the island involves a short boat ride from the waterfront of Orta. On average, a fleet of about 8 boats shuttle visitor to the island and back from sunrise to sunset. A walking tour of San Guilio takes about an hour or two, depending on how long you feel like spending in the magnificent cathedral and strolling between buildings that date back many centuries.

Let’s start with what the island looks like from the water.

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Now let’s go ashore. We will begin with the cathedral with its magnificent altars and painted ceilings, then continue on around and back to the boat landing.

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Finally,  a view of the town of Orta as seen from the water on the way back from Isola San Guilio. img_0561

Beneath that red awning on the left is a waterfront restaurant that has been in operation for hundreds of years. We dined there on our last evening in Orta with a full moon above and Isola San Giulio shimmering in the distance. It was one of the best meals we had on our journey, as much for the setting as the food.

Later, back home in Chepachet, we found our time in Orta was one of our most treasured memories. Up next, the mysterious case of the train station that wasn’t there!

 

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Magical Orta Steals Our Hearts Away


Isola San Guilio

We spent 10 days of our Italian idyll exploring the country’s Lakes Region. Much like the Finger Lakes in New York, the northwest corner of Italy near the Swiss border has a number of deep gashes in the landscape carved by the glaciers. Once the ice retreated, the lakes formed and remain today like jeweled slippers scattered at the feet of the Alps.

After sampling the tourist hot spots of Veranna and Bellagio on Lake Como, we headed to Lake Orta about 40 miles west. To get there, we needed to take the train south to Navarro and then take another train north to Orta. The station is about 2 miles from the old town, so a taxi ride was in order.

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Orta dates back to the 1500’s. Cars are excluded from its center, which is composed of many small passageways more suited to pedestrians and goats. We stayed at the Hotel Olina, which really isn’t a hotel at all. Instead, it is a collection of rooms scattered throughout the town. It has a dining room adjacent to the town square — the Piazza Motta — where a sumptuous breakfast is served every morning. It is also where guests can go to access the internet.

Like most Italian villages in this area, Orta is carved into the hillside above the lake. By local tradition, all the buildings have slate roofs, but not like the ones we are used to. Here, the slate is 2 to 3 inches thick and black as coal. Coming down from the train station above, the roofs are the first architectural feature a traveler notices.

 

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Once in town, the view is dominated by Isola San Guilio, an island just a few hundred yards offshore in the middle of the lake that has served as a monastery for many centuries. The view from the village is beyond stunning. San Guilio floats like a mirage on the water. It reminded me of the Emerald City in The Wizard Of Oz. I will take you on a guided tour of San Guilio in a separate post soon.

We lazed around in Orta for four days under bright sunshine and cloudless skies. It seemed as though summer in Italy would never end. We walked all the pathways and alleys. We even found a footpath that goes around the peninsular where the old town is located and went swimming at a public beach we chanced upon.

Our hotel room was on the second floor directly above the Piazza Motta. I have included a video of the intriguing walkway we needed to follow to get to it. There was entertainment every night that we could watch right from our window.

On our last day, we took a boat ride to a small city at the head of the lake called Omegna. It’s mostly modern apartment buildings, but has a core of older buildings dating back centuries. On Thursdays, the steamship company reduces its fares so locals can shop at the farmers market.

We had a gelato at a restaurant near the town dock and let all our cares slip away while we basked in the sun. On the boat ride home, we saw a house on the side of the lake miles from anywhere that had a real Alpine waterfall cascading into its back yard. Spectacular!

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We thought Orta was delightful. Little did we know there were other Italian treasures  that would be revealed to us as our trip continued. I promise to share all the adventures that followed with you. In the meantime, enjoy these photos from our time in Orta.

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A Day Trip To Varenna


Varenna

Rick Steves is my guru. He has made himself into the go-to guy for travel information about most of the world’s top tourist destinations. Rick Steves is a brand. He has books, videos, a website, and a booking service. He also leads a few tours personally. I want to be Rick Steves when I grow up!

There’s a place on Lake Como that Steves says is the perfect place to sit and watch the world go round. It is the town of Varenna and it is about a 10 minute boat ride from Bellano where we have been staying while visiting the Lake Como area. Drenched in Italian sunlight, kissed by warm lake breezes, and nestled at the foot of the Alps, Varenna is dripping with Old World charm.

But you don’t want to hear me carry on about our day in Varenna. You want photographic evidence of its appeal. So let’s get right to it!

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As lovely as Varenna is, its crown jewel is the Villa Monastero a short walk outside of town. With gardens stocked with trees and flowers from around the world, it is a place of surpassing beauty.

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We agreed with Rick Steves that Varenna was a truly wonderful place. It was the highlight of our trip up until that point. Little did we know the wonders that awaited us later in our journey.

Don’t go away. It gets better!

 

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We’re Back! Tales Of Our Italian Adventure — Lake Como


Waterfront in Bellano

A sculpture on the shores of Lake Como captures the rays of the sun.

Three weeks in Italy. We must have seen it all, right? Not even close. In fact, we didn’t see a tenth of what Italy has to offer. This amazing country — so modern in some respects — still retains much of its Old World character and charm. We limited ourselves to two areas in the western part of northern Italy — the lakes region at the base of the Alps and the Cinque Terre region of the Italian riviera. Both were spectacular in their own way.

The whole thing started because we got a home exchange inquiry from a couple with a vacation home on the shores of Lake Como, widely recognized as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. They came and stayed with us last fall and that got us started thinking about when we wanted to visit Italy.

We both are Formula One fans. How cool would it be to attend the Italian grand prix at Monza the first week of September? That’s exactly what we did. After a hectic race weekend during which we stayed in Milan, we hopped a train to Bellano on the eastern shore of Lake Como. When we got there, this is what we saw from the balcony of our temporary home away from home. Oh, my!

View from our balcony in Bellano

We stayed three days in Bellano. On the last night, our hosts drove down from their regular home to take us sailing on the lake at sunset. Lots of travelers have been to Lake Como, but few have ever sailed there. Steve, our host, is from Yorkshire, England originally. His grandfather used to say whenever a challenge cropped up, “Be reet”. That’s a colloquialism among Yorkshiremen for “Everything will be all right.” In honor of his grandfather, his sailboat is called Be Reet. We had a lovely sail aboard her.

Be Reet

Bellano is like most towns in the area, a small community clinging to the steep hillside above the lake. Some of the houses were built centuries ago; some are as recent as last week. Our journey from the waterfront was a 10 minute walk along narrow pathways that have been in use for centuries. The scenery along the way was stunning.

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Wherever we walked in town, there was something extraordinary to see. We took a lot of pictures.

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Finally, here is a photo of me at the helm of Be Reet with the Union Jack flying proudly from the stern while we sailed over to Bellagio. We are extremely lucky that Steve and Cristina came to stay with us last year. Their home in the hillside above Lake Como was our first introduction to Italian living outside of its cities.

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Our Italian escapade just got better and better from there.There’s lots more coming, including how we got lost in the woods looking for a train station and had to run across the tracks to catch our next train. Stay tuned!

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