Music and food. Two things that don’t require sunny skies and thus a recipe for a perfect overcast day in Charleston. There was actually a little sun first thing this morning before the clouds won out. I took advantage of the clear skies and went for a long walk before brunch. Speaking of brunch… Poogan’s Porch is a true southern experience, set in an 1880s Victorian home with porches overlooking Queen Street. While the porch was tempting, it was much too humid to dine al fresco today. I had a table on the first floor of the main house where I feasted on a homemade biscuit with honey butter, pulled pork eggs Benedict, and a mimosa. Another A+ meal!
After that, it was a music-filled afternoon. I enjoyed music from the Charleston Symphony Youth Orchestra, the Charleston Children’s Chorus, and the Chattanooga Boys Choir, all excellent (and free!) concerts. By the time the third concert was over, it had started raining. I took the free DASH shuttle back to my hotel and got ready for dinner. Dinner tonight was at McCrady’s Tavern, a historic tavern where George Washington once dined. The food was okay, not great, and paled in comparison to last night’s amazing meal. I had thoughts of heading someplace else for dessert, but the fact that my dress was already soaked from being out in the rain and my raincoat was doing little to help, I decided to just head back to my room and call it a night. Luckily, I have a few shows saved on my DVR that I can stream from home. 🙂
First things first: I love Charleston. As in, if I didn’t love New England so much I would move here in a heartbeat. Also, it’s hot here. And not just regular old hot (it was actually hotter temperature-wise at home yesterday), but “walk out the door and you’re already drenched in sweat” hot. So I suppose humid is the better word for it.
I had a semi-decent sleep last night and was up, as usual, with the birds. Blue skies were a treat and a quick check of the weather showed the rain holding off until at least tomorrow afternoon. I walked over to the waterfront park and snagged a wooden swing on the pier to soak in the sun for a few minutes. Then I spent about an hour wandering around the neighborhoods of the Historic District before setting off for breakfast. Seriously, I wanted to take a picture of every house I passed. Boston may have Beacon Hill, but Charleston has, well…. the whole city.
Breakfast/brunch was at Hominy Grill, which is about a mile and a half from my hotel, but I considered my walk a preemptive strike against the calories I was about to consume in the form of Bread Pudding French Toast. If you don’t know me very well, it’s safe to say I have a major sweet tooth for breakfast. And this did not disappoint. I even indulged in a mimosa to go along with it. Because why not? After breakfast, I headed to Marion Square where the regular Saturday Farmers Market was going on, along with a Spoleto Festival outdoor art exhibition. I wandered around the booths, sampled kombucha, and finally set off back to the Historic District.
After a short rest at the hotel, I hopped on a carriage tour of historic Charleston. The horse and carriage tour has four possible routes, and the city randomly assigns a route to each carriage when it’s ready to head out. I’ve done carriage tours before in Charleston, and the route we took today didn’t really seem as intriguing as others I’ve been on. I took my time walking by the waterfront after the tour and through some of the streets before finally walking up and down the city market checking out all the stalls. North and South Market Streets are lined with shops, and in between them is the old City Market, established in the 1700s and filled with local artisans and craftspeople. I didn’t buy anything today, but I’m sure I’ll be back before I head home!
Tonight’s dinner was at Indaco, a relatively new Italian restaurant that gets rave reviews, and deservedly so. I had an unbelievable focaccia with pesto and prosciutto vinaigrette along with black pepper tagliatelle with pork tesa and an egg yolk on top. The entire meal was incredible. I know it’s hard to believe, but I actually found a little room in my dessert stomach for a stop at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams for a small dish of Gooey Butter Cake ice cream after dinner.
I first fell in love with Charleston, South Carolina about 16 years ago when I took a road trip to visit my family at their new home in Florida. I spent a couple of days in Charleston on the way home, and it immediately captured my heart. The laid-back lifestyle, the quaint Charleston single homes with gas lamps beside the front door, and the genuine southern charm have brought me back several times since that first visit. It has been about 5 or 6 years since I was last here, and as soon as I stepped off the plane I wondered why I didn’t make it back sooner. It’s hard to believe that just a short 2 hour flight can transport you to such a completely different part of the country.
I was racing to the airport for a 3:30 flight this afternoon, but was fortunate that it was delayed and I had time to grab a sandwich for “dinner” before hopping on the plane. Less than 2 hours later, I was on my way to the Charleston Historic District. I quickly checked into my hotel next to the City Market, dropped off my things, and was back out the door. The weather is calling for rain all weekend long so I wanted to take advantage of the blue sky while it lasts! My first stop was at the Sunset Serenade, an outdoor concert to kickoff the 2018 Piccolo Spoleto Festival, a 17 day arts festival featuring local artists in conjunction with Spoleto Festival USA. I stayed for a couple of songs, enjoyed a glass of wine, and then walked to the Waterfront Park along the Cooper River. From there, I slowly weaved my way along the streets and alleys of the Historic District, peeking in gardens and homes along the way. Several of the homes in the Historic District feature the iconic Charleston gas lamps and many also have hidden gardens with fountains tucked away behind arches and fences. I walked for about an hour before deciding it was time to call it a night.
I’m determined to make the best of a wet weekend, though tomorrow looks to be the most promising of the days weather-wise. A perk of being here during Spoleto/Piccolo Spoleto Festival is that there is no shortage of indoor music, dance, and theater events to keep me entertained despite any rain.
The last day in Italy. If you had told me when I woke up this morning that by this afternoon I would be ready to head home, I wouldn’t have believed it. But after my “farewell tour” of Varenna this morning, and a trip across the lake to Menaggio, I’m ready for home.
I literally didn’t have a plan for the day when I woke up this morning and sort of decided what to do minute by minute. I started with the usual hotel breakfast (I like pastries and cold cuts as much as the next person, but it’s getting a little old for breakfast every day) and hot chocolate before venturing out into the streets of Varenna. I wandered up and down all the little alleyways, discovered a little church I didn’t realize was open before, and took pictures of all the stairways around town.
Just before 11AM, I took the ferry across the lake to Menaggio. Other than passing through to get the bus yesterday, I hadn’t explored this town yet. Menaggio has less character than Varenna and Bellagio, but still manages to turn on some of the Italian charm. Centered around the lakefront and Piazza Garibaldi, the town is a little more spread out that the others, and does not have many of the stepped alleys I was hoping to find again. In the end, I spent a little over an hour in Menaggio before taking the boat back to Varenna. None of the restaurants in Menaggio appealed to me, so I decided I’d rather go back to one of the lakefront restaurants in Varenna for a mid-afternoon lunch (I bet you can already guess what I’m planning for “dinner”…). I’m sure one reason I’m ready for home is that my allergies kicked into high gear the last couple of days and I’m feeling rather congested and tired. The weather has been beautiful; 75 to 80 degrees and sunny skies every day this week. But that also means all of the flowers and trees are in bloom, which I thankfully haven’t had to deal with at home yet. I have a decongestant with me because I need it for the plane, but I hate taking it if I can get by without it.
Lunch ended up being prosciutto pizza at Bar Nilus (of Day 2’s enormous crepe fame). I had a table in the shade by the lake and I took my time enjoying the meal. Nobody seems to rush you here like they sometimes do at home. When you’re ready to leave, you just flag someone down for the check. Afterwards, I was ready for a nap. I have a love-hate relationship with naps because typically I have a hard time sleeping at night if I take one during the day, but they feel so darn good at the time that they can be awfully hard to resist. The nap won out today, and I actually felt a lot better when I woke up. I managed to repack my suitcase in relatively short order and then sat on the patio reading my book in the sun for a while. Then it was one last aperitivo on the terrace and a gelato from my favorite gelateria before a final walk around Varenna.
I will say it over and over again: the people at this hotel – Hotel du Lac in Varenna – are the nicest people you can hope to meet. They all speak near perfect English and have gone out of their way to be helpful and welcoming the entire week. Tonight when I checked out, they arranged a taxi to pick me up in the morning, and someone will meet me at 6AM to make sure the taxi is here and get me a breakfast to take with me on the train. I would stay here again in a heartbeat, though I don’t know that I will ever return to Varenna. It’s one of those places where I feel like I have seen and done everything there is to do and there are so many other places I want to see in the world… Alas, the fairy tale week must come to an end. The taxi will take me to the train station at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning, and if all goes as planned, I should be home around 8PM tomorrow night (if you’re keeping track, that’s about 20 hours of travel time!).
“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” ~Anna Akhmatova
Switzerland. Not Zermatt or Lucerne, but Italian-influenced Lugano, on the shores of Lake Lugano. This was my 12th country, which doesn’t seem all that impressive given how much I love to travel. I’ll have to work on that. 😉 When I started planning this trip, and realized how close Lake Como is to Switzerland, I knew I would have to spend a day there. From Varenna, you can take the ferry across the lake to Menaggio, where you catch a bus to Lugano, a little less than an hour away. I had to set out early to catch a ferry to Menaggio that would get me there in time to make the 8:30AM bus to Lugano. No ten hours of sleep for me last night, but that’s okay.
For a trip that’s very easy on paper, there are a surprising number of logistics involved. Some places have ticket counters, such as ferry terminals and major train stations, but for other things like buses and local trains, you have to find a ticket agent like a tabacchi or a newsagent. I knew there were a few places to buy a bus ticket in Menaggio, but copied some pretty clear directions to a newsagent that was also close to a bus stop. The reality was I’m glad I got there with plenty of time to spare because it’s not easy to navigate a completely new place when you’re on a schedule. I was afraid to leave the bus stop to find food once I got there because I didn’t want to miss the next bus.
Once I was safely on the bus it was easy to relax and enjoy the twisting, winding road over the border to Switzerland. Crossing the border into Switzerland is little more than a formality. Two guards got on the bus, walked through, then got off. And just like that, I was in Switzerland. Once in Lugano, I realized it is a little bigger than I was expecting. First stop: food. I had asked the very nice woman who works at the hotel about the ferry/bus schedule ahead of time and she had offered to prepare me a breakfast to take with me since I would be gone before breakfast started today. But I felt like something different and ended up waiting until Lugano to find a little cafe where I ordered a chocolate croissant and hot chocolate. No language barriers with “chocolate”! And holy cow!! I thought the hot chocolate at the hotel was decadent. It doesn’t even hold a candle to what I had this morning. It’s basically like drinking a rich chocolate pudding. YUM!
Then it was off to the tourist information office. I had only a couple of must sees on my list, so it was a matter of finding where those were and figuring out what else there was to see. I ended up wandering the streets of Lugano, window shopping and picture taking for about an hour. Lugano is definitely a shopping mecca… think Gucci and Prada. One of my must-dos was a ride up the funicular to the top of Monte Brè. The top provides stunning views of Lake Lugano, albeit a bit hazy today. While waiting for the funicular to take off, I had about a 15 minute conversation with the gentleman riding up with his delivery of wine for the restaurant at the top. He knew a couple of words of English, and I could make out a little of what he was saying, but we made do with hand gestures and simple words. We managed to cover everything from his trip to New York City in January to the weather and languages spoken in Switzerland without really understanding each other’s language.
After a quick visit to the top of Monte Brè, I was faced with the decision of how to spend the rest of my time in Lugano. I had planned to spend the afternoon walking to the village of Gandria along the lakefront, but I threw that idea out the window. Instead, I stopped at the supermarket I had passed and picked up the makings of a picnic lunch/snack to enjoy at the park on the waterfront. I had walked through Parco Ciani this morning, and the most beautiful tulips you can imagine are all in bloom in every color of the rainbow. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon. After I ate my crackers and yogurt, I walked around the park, wandered the streets of Lugano, and generally took in the city until it was time to return to the bus stop.
I can’t really explain why I liked Lugano so much more than Bergamo. They’re both cities, but Lugano is much cleaner and it has the lake and beautiful parks. Even the money here is beautiful. European money is much more colorful than American money, but this is incredible. I was forced to take out CHF50 (Swiss francs) from the ATM because it was the smallest amount allowed and the funicular only takes cash. I didn’t even want to break the 50 because it was so pretty. But the CHF20 is even more colorful. I keep currency from all of my travels as souvenirs, and I was able to hold onto the CHF20 to bring home.
Back in Menaggio, I stopped at the market by the ferry and bought a container of hot chocolate mix (Did I mention I also bought some at the supermarket in Lugano?) And some candy. I read online that the hot chocolate here has some type of thickener in the mix which makes it much richer and thicker than what we’re used to. I can’t wait to try it at home! Dinner tonight was at Borgovino, a tiny restaurant (think no more than 10 tables) on a tiny alley a couple of streets up from the lake. The restaurant itself is cute, but I chose to sit at one of two tables outside along the alley to enjoy my gnocchi Gorgonzola and tiramisu.
I am already feeling that familiar struggle that comes near the end of every vacation: I love it here and want to stay longer (arriving in Varenna on the ferry feels like coming home) but I also want to be home in my own bed and comfortable surroundings. Tomorrow is my last day here, followed by a full day of travel to get home on Saturday. I purposely left tomorrow open to decide what I want to do as I go along. I have a couple of ideas, but mostly I just want to soak up every last second of my time in Italy.
I’m just going to put it out there that today was not my favorite day of vacation. I mean, it was still Italy, so how bad could it be, but cities are not my thing and that’s where I spent the majority of my day. But let’s rewind to this morning, when I still had high hopes for the day. It must be the fresh Italian air… last night was the second night in a row that I slept for almost 10 hours. Or maybe I’m still recovering from jet lag. Either way, the sleep has been glorious. I’m not an alarm clock person at all; I can’t even remember the last time I woke up to my alarm. So when my phone alarm went off this morning, I nearly screamed as I bolted out of bed to turn it off! But it was all good because I was about to embark on my journey to Bergamo.
Bergamo is a medieval city divided into two parts: the lower city, or Città Bassa, and the walled upper city, Città Alta. Città Bassa is newer and the area around the train station was kind of gritty (not unlike the train itself), so after a quick stop at the tourist information office near the train station, I high-tailed it to Città Alta by bus. As we neared Città Alta, we passed through the enormous city gates, dating to the 16th century. Since my bus ticket was also good for the funicular, I took the funicular to Castello San Vigilio, even higher up than Città Alta and overlooking all of Bergamo. I was trying to rush a bit because my ticket expired 75 minutes after I first used it, but I climbed to the top of the castle tower and had an amazing view over Bergamo with the Alps rising in the background. I was all set to take the funicular back down when I saw a sign with a map showing what looked like a walking route back. It was a bit off the beaten path, and I only saw a few people, but the views couldn’t be beat. The “road” was cobblestone the whole way, with much of it stairs. By the time I got back to my starting point, I was tired.
I know you are probably bored reading all this and waiting for me to get to the most important part of the day: food. Well, since I had just done so much walking, I figured I deserved a gelato. I mixed some kind of mascarpone with caramel and stracciatella in a small cone. Not 10 minutes later, I passed this cute little cafe, Il Fornaio, with about a million pizzas/sandwiches lined up in the window. It was calling to me. The one with bacon, cheese, and balsamic. I don’t even know what it was… pizza? sandwich? pizzawich? Whatever it was, it was sooooo good. I finished that off and dug into the enormous meringue I bought for dessert. I know. Sometimes I amaze myself with how much I can manage to pack away in one sitting. I couldn’t finish the pizza thing, but made quick work of the meringue.
The streets of Città Alta are narrow and filled with all kinds of shops selling meats, cheeses, and the specialty of the city: polenta. I had to work off my lunch before I could rationalize any more food. Off to Piazza Vecchia. This is about the time I started to tire of the city and wanted to head back to Varenna. Both churches were closed and the streets were mobbed with people. The woman at the tourist office in Città Alta recommended a stop at the Remembrance Park so I took a look around and admired the view. Then I took one last walk down the main road, Via Bartolomeo Colleoni, and headed toward the city wall. I squished into the funicular going down to Città Bassa, hopped on a bus to the train station and managed to get on the 3:08 train to Lecco, connecting to Varenna. I basically spent 5 hours in the city and by the end of it, I couldn’t wait to leave. I should have just picked another village on the lake to visit.
The day turned around once I returned to Varenna and the lake. I took a break for a little while and then headed to Caffe Varenna for a snack. (I can hardly call it dinner after the food I already consumed today!) A table by the lake, a Hugo Spritz, and Gorgonzola, pear, honey, and nut bruschetta helped to put the city far behind me. Tomorrow I’m headed to another country for the day!
Today it was off to the western shore of Lake Como to explore Lenno and Tremezzo. Both are relatively small villages, but lack the character and charm of Varenna and Bellagio. The attraction to both villages is the villas. Just outside of Lenno is Villa Balbianello and located in Tremezzo is Villa Carlotta. I took the boat first to Lenno to visit Villa Balbianello. I was looking forward to walking through the town as Tuesday is market day in Lenno. Unfortunately, the market was a mishmash of everything from underwear to shoes to cleaning products. There were a couple of stands selling fruits and veggies, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.
To reach Villa Balbianello you walk along the lakefront part of the way and can either walk the rest of the way or take a boat. The villa is built in a rocky headland jutting out into Lake Como. I opted to walk, and it was a pretty steep walk (a half mile or so) over the hill before dropping down to the villa. Once there, it was about 15 minutes until the next tour in English. The villa was originally a monastery and then bought and converted into a villa in the 18th century. Most recently it was owned by Guido Monzino. When he died in 1988, he left the villa to the National Trust. There are 6 floors and the tour starts at the top and makes its way down. Monzino had a fascinating collection of artifacts from his many expeditions, most notably to the North Pole and Mt. Everest. The 6th floor is devoted to memorabilia from his expeditions. After the tour, I spent a little time wandering in the gardens and then returned to town.
Next up was a short ferry ride to Tremezzo and Villa Carlotta. I had read about a good pizza restaurant in Tremezzo, but of course did not write down the name or address. I asked a shopkeeper about pizza and she said she thinks the restaurant I was asking about closed and recommended Ristorante Azalea, with a small patio directly on the lake. I had prosciutto cotto pizza that was heads above the one I had in Varenna the other day. Yum! I topped it off with Catalan cream with orange scent. Sitting right on the lake enjoying the view only added to my enjoyment of the meal.
My final stop was at Villa Carlotta, a 17th century villa built overlooking the shores of Lake Como, surrounded by 20 acres of gardens. I spent about an hour wandering around the gardens. The highlight was a stop at the panoramic view in the Olive tree grove.
Then it was back to the boat and across the lake to Varenna. I stopped for a couple of Coca Cola Lights (Europe’s version of Diet Coke) at the bottega and then came back to the hotel. Aperitivo was on the agenda again tonight, along with a gelato by the water. (I am not really a wine drinker, but I am enjoying the Prosecco and tried a local rosé wine tonight.) Tomorrow I’m heading to the medieval city of Bergamo, about an hour away by train from Varenna.