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.


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!

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.)


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.


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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


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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Our Grand Tour Is About To Begin!

For the past twenty years, our travel plans have been constrained by the public school calendar. Next week, as students all across America go back to class, we will decamp for the sunny climes of northern Italy.

First, we will be in attendance at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 2 through 4. Monza is known worldwide as The Temple of Speed. With its long straights and few curves, it is one of the fastest tracks on the current Formula One calendar.

Situated just an hour outside Milan, Monza has been home to fast cars and great racing since the dawn of the automobile era. All the greatest drivers have raced there, lured by its iconic high banked 180° turn at one end that helped early cars with skinny tires achieve speeds unheard of elsewhere. The banked turns at Daytona International Raceway today were inspired by Monza.

Monza Italy

That old section of the track is abandoned now, but it still exists out beyond the current circuit, a reminder of when Monza was the ultimate test for those who sought to challenge the laws of physics in racing cars.

During the weekend, we will be staying in Milan, the financial and manufacturing capital of Italy with its famous opera house and cathedral. Milan was also the home of Leonardo Da Vinci and an important city during The Renaissance. The famous Duomo took more than 400 years to complete.


From their, we will stay three nights at Lake Como, alleged to be one of the most beautiful spots on earth. The lake sits at the foot of the Italian Alps and was dredged by glaciers many millenia ago. From their, we journey just a few miles away to the shores of Lake Maggiore.


People from that area claim their lake is the most beautiful place on earth. We are excited to be able to sample both and promise to share our verdict with you upon our return.



Next, in keeping with our Formula One themed journey, we will amble over to Maranello, home to the famous Ferrari factory and museum. There we will be enveloped in the history and mystique of these incredible automobiles that feature the famous cavallino rampante or prancing horse that Enzo Ferrari adopted as the symbol of his company generations ago.

Ferrrari Museum

After all that excitement, we will need to rest, so we will head over to Cinque Terre (pronounced CHINK weh TAY rah) on the Italian riviera to dip our toes in the Mediterranean for several days. This is a place where the villages have changed little since the Middle Ages. According to legend, pesto and focaccia bread originated in these five villages suspended on hillsides overlooking the ocean below.


We have been planning our trip for almost a year. Along the way, lots of places we could have gone had to be eliminated from our itinerary in order to keep our stay down to only three weeks. One could spend a lifetime in Italy and not see it all. The charms of nearby Monaco and Villafranche also beckoned, but they will have to wait for another time.

Carolyn says she is just beginning to feel like she is really retired. Ordinarily at this time, she would be doing class plans and making preparations for another school year. But from now on, we are vagabonds, sworn to enjoy as many places and days in the sun as we can manage.


We are looking forward to some amazing adventures before the next full moon rolls around. Let the journey begin!

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Eddie Cooney Comes For A Visit

A decade ago, Carolyn and I ran a bed and breakfast at our home here on the lake in Chepachet. One day, the Cooneys of Liverpool, England came to stay for several days. There are some people you take an instant liking to. The Cooneys fell into that category.

We have stayed friends on Facebook over the years, following the peripatetic Cooney clan as they sojourned here and there around the world. These people like to get around.

Eddie Cooney Guitar CaseA few months ago, Eddie, the patriarch of this talent crew, let us know he would be in our neighborhood in the middle of July. He had decided to see what the 4th of July was all about in  America, so he flew into Boston, rented a car, and drove to Seattle. After the fireworks and hoopla of the Fourth, he drove back. We were his last stop before heading back to the airport.

We were delighted to find Eddie sitting on our front porch one fine summer afternoon, guitar case in hand. There’s a story that goes with it. He and his son Kit are singer/songwriters of some renown. When they travel, they are only allowed to add a sticker to their respective guitar case if they have actually performed there. Just sitting and listening to others perform doesn’t count.

Eddie can now legitimately add a Rhode Island sticker to his well traveled case. In the morning after a good night’s rest, he serenaded us with two original compositions while we had breakfast on the front deck. The first was called At Land’s End. I recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube because I wanted to capture the moment and share it with Eddie and his friends.

Following that tune, Eddie did another recent creation called Free As The Wind. He says he sang it for a group of bikers in Idaho on his trip. He was surprised when one of the grizzled Harley riders said the song nearly moved him to tears. See if you agree.

Eddie Cooney — troubadour, thinker, traveler, and philosopher. Carolyn and I hope it will not be long before our paths cross once again.

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