A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: margofiala

Cooling down in the Pyranees

Taull and Ainsa, Spain

Time to move on, we headed inland past Barcelona and north to the Spanish Pyrenees. The Pyrenees is a range of mountains in southwest Europe that forms a natural border between Spain and France. Reaching a height of 3,404m/11,168ft altitude at the peak of Aneto, the range separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe and extends for about 491km/305miles from the Bay of Biscay (Atlantic Ocean) to the Mediterranean Sea.


What a change in the weather! By the time we got to the Pyrenees it was 14C\57F and we were wearing our t-shirts, shorts and flip flops! Big change from the temperatures we had been experiencing on Costa Brava, France and Italy!

What a special place the Pyrenees turned out to be. Not that we didn't think it would be great, we just didn't know what quite to expect. Firstly, the Spanish Pyrenees mountains remind us a bunch of the Canadian Rockies. Very dramatic and rugged looking with beautiful aqua-blue lakes full of ice-cold water from the snow melt run off.

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We drove by these wonderful lakes and ended up a major dam that was suppling water to all of them. The Presa de Escales was built in 1955 and holds water back from the Noguera Ribagorzana River. The dam is quite impressive with a height of 125m/410ft and 200m/656ft long. It is one of the larger dams in Spain and is at an altitude of 823m/2700ft.

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Our first stay in the Pyrenees was in the village of Taull which has a population of 262 people, easily five times that number if you count all the cows! Taull was about a 4-hour drive from Palafrugell, (not including stops at the famous Auto-grill truck stops) and we gained about 2000m/6627ft of elevation along the way. It had a great Bavarian feeling with amazing views of the valley that it occupied. It borders one of Spain's National Parks (Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici or roughly translated, park of crooked rivers, as It had over 200 lakes and countless streams). Margo booked a perfect boutique hotel (Hotel Santa Maria Relax), recently renovated old stone building with exposed rustic beams and a slate roof. It had a very homey feel and awesome food! Paco and Sonja have poured their hearts into this oasis in the mountains!

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Taull is also home to two outstanding UNESCO-listed Catalan Romanesque churches, Santa Maria de Taull and Sant Climent de Taull which has a 7-story bell towered that we climbed to the top for amazing views.

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The area was filled with amazing hike trails. We studied the hiking map, got some expert advice from the National Park rangers and decided on trail along the river of Sant Nicolau. It was a beautiful 4.5-hour round trip hike that took us to two picturesque lakes, a wonderful waterfall and of course cows with big bells around their necks! We also enjoyed lunch in one of Spain's Refugee cabins. These cabins are like the back-country cabins that the Alpine Club manages in Canada or the 10th Mountain Division cabins in Colorado. Spain does an amazing job of protecting its National Parks. One of the most significant ways they protect them is not allowing any private vehicles to drive into the parks, so we had to bus up to the trail head. It was all well worth it!

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We of course had to check out the local ski area called Boi Taull. It has 15 lifts and 52 pistes (runs). I am sure it looks much different in the winter. We had a chance to wonder around the ski area and saw the summer interns mowing the lawn!

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I needed a wake-up break on the way to our next destination, so we stopped for a short hike up to a little old church and back.

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Our next stop was the medieval hilltop town of Ainsa, a couple of hours west of Taull. From the top, we had commanding panoramas of the Pyrenees mountains, particularly the rock bastion of La Pena Montanese. The hotel we chose was in the middle of Ainsa's ancient square, right in the thick of the action! After getting to know the manager of the hotel, she gave us a tour of the property and explained that many of the of restaurants and hotels on the square were private residences in early 1900s. This included the hotel we were staying at. She then gave us a tour of the basement which is a bodega (wine cellar). In the bodega there is a large vessel made of stone (the size of a small car) where grapes were dumped (through the ceiling, from upstairs outside) and then the owners would stomp on the grapes to start of making wine. This was a very common practice for families to make large quantities of wine in their basement, nothing like that going on in my basement when we were kids!

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With the Pyrenees at our doorstep we had to seek out an adventure to burn off some of the calories from the amazing food we had been indulging in! We had an hour drive to the trail head, which we both thought was the highlight of the day! Check out the narrow single lane road pictures below. The Anisclo canyon hike was nice as well. It was 6 hours round trip and ran along the Anisclo canyon with great views of waterfalls, creeks and sheer mountain cliff walls all around you. The entire hike was also in a National Park, specifically Parque National de Ordesa Y Mont Perdido. Mont Perdido (Lost Mountain) is the 3rd tallest mountain in the Pyrenees standing at 3,355m/11,007ft.

The drive to the trailhead:
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The hike:
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On the way home from the hike we stopped at Fanlo, an ancient hilltop village with a magnificent view, with very interesting rock formations on the way:

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Unfortunately, we had no views of Mont Perdido on our canyon hike, so we needed to set our next day’s hike to an area that would give us views of this beast of mountain here in Spain. We set out on a 3-hour round trip to hike of the Llamos La Larri to enjoy views of Perdido. We hiked up next to streams and raging waterfalls and then took a different route down through shaded meadows. The views of Mont Perdido did not disappoint, it was a giant from where we stood!

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The famous Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) runs across the top of Spain from France, ending in Santiago de Compostela (northwestern Spain, just above Portugal), where the tomb of St. James the Apostle lies. We have crossed the trail several times in our visit to the Spanish Pyrenees. For believers it’s a pilgrimage equal to visiting Jerusalem. The trek is 775 km/482 miles from Roncesvalles on the border with France, so is a physical challenge as well as a spiritual goal. If you haven’t seen it, check our Martin Sheen’s movie “The Way”, where he travels to France to retrieve the body of his estranged son, who died on the pilgrimage. Martin ends up doing the journey himself, to understand both himself and his son. It’s a good show and has spectacular scenery of northern Spain. We plan to hike one part of the Camino while in San Sebastián (next stop) and visit Santiago in September (by car!)

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Foodie Alert! Our “last supper” in the Pyrenees was described as a “gastronomic theatre” at a restaurant right on our square called Callizo. 22 courses, give or take! Yes, really. Some were just a mouthful but each one was amazing!

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The show started with us in the wine cellar with us joining two other couples, one from Barcelona and one from Toulouse, which is just over the border in France. We were gathered around a large table, which was like a big television screen showing illuminated images of local food, landscape and architecture on the tabletop, ending with a place setting when we were being served (not real dishes)! Who thinks of this stuff? I will describe some of the more interesting dishes or at least interesting in how they were presented. We started with cold garlic soup and smoked paprika paired with a delightful local Macavo white wine.

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This was followed by radiquero cheese, that was served in the shape of burnt candles on the candle labra, it looked just like burnt out candle, but tasted awesome!

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We then ventured to the kitchen where we enjoyed cava (Spanish champagne) with a unique presentation of gold "per se" sturgeon caviar and lemon perfumed, on our hand! It was served this way because the body has a perfect temperature to be serving the caviar and yes you could smell the lemon perfume! Margo said she didn't even think she liked caviar; this could become a very costly habit for her. Also, notice the chef’s name on his jacket "Magoo", yes, we trusted chef Magoo to prepare our special dinner!

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We then headed over to our dinner to feast on copious more courses. It included, the presentation of the "bread of Ainsa", felt a little like we were in church!

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Then we got down to business with glazed pork belly with oyster sauce, followed by sweet salad and bitter spice with turnips and beetroot, with a little dry ice for added drama!

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Had to have more veggie's and it came in the way of a soup, vigil vegetable soup with chickpeas from Lierta, long almonds and a Benabarre saffron followed by "Magras con Tomato" lean tomato served on a rather interesting plater!

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Where's the meat? Next it was wild rice with grilled squab and mushrooms and then juicy Valle de Chistau lacquered lamb! Delicious!

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Ok we are ready to explode but wait there is more! Down to the cellar for 4 courses of cheese! One of the cheeses was wrapped in cotton candy and was sitting in a pine tree.....that is how I always serve my cheese!

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It was time to waddle upstairs to our table and call it a night, or so we thought! We arrived back to our table that was covered with a piece of parchment type paper, I thought we might be heading for some doodling with crayons and our coffee, that was not the case. The presentation began of their version of "Crepillos" which is a local dish made of borage leaves, almonds, aniseed, coffee and of course chocolate! Judy, one of our servers started by applying different types of fruit sauce and honey in several abstract designs on the paper around the chocolate vase holding all the ingredients noted above. She had added some dry ice to the chocolate vase which froze the chocolate solid and added some effect with smoke rising out of the vase! With detailed instructions from Judy, Margo lifted the chocolate vase about a foot of the table and dropped so it would shatter on the paper and all the contents would explode all over the fruit sauces and honey! Then we had to go to work to devour all the contents on the paper. It was difficult work, but we knew what signed up for and did our best to clean things up!

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Patrice, the gentlemen from France asked us if we would join him and his wife and the couple from Barcelona for petit fours and coffee. What the heck, we had been there for 3 hours, let’s keep this party going! We enjoyed chatting all be it mainly through Google Translate as none of the couples spoke each other’s language (French, Spanish, English), it was a blast! Yes, that is cotton candy hanging from the light fixture!

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What an amazing experience with delicious food, great wines and wonderful company!

We caught a few hours of sleep before we packed up and headed to San Sebastián the next morning. It was a fast 5 days in the Spanish Pyrenees, but well worth the diversion, especially our “last supper”.

And finally, the pooches of the Pyrenees. We met Noosa in Aínsa, who was named after a town on the east coast of Australia in Queensland and had travelled from the Netherlands to Spain for vacation. We told her owners that Margo had been to Noosa many years ago when Suncor had operations in the area, and that “Noosa” was also a great yogurt made in Colorado! Vinny was the king of his corner, everyone walked around him. Good thing it was cool as he had quite a coat. Bamba was one cool pup and had his own van!

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Posted by margofiala 02:14 Archived in Spain Comments (2)

Paddling Costa Brava...and Sting!

Tossa de Mar and Palafrugell, Spain

We were excited to be back in Spain and to be heading to Costa Brava, which is the coastline between Barcelona and France. This area of Catalonia is very scenic with its dramatic coastline, pristine sandy coves, aqua blue Mediterranean water, quaint seaside towns and coastal hiking paths in between. Our good friends Lisa and John Reynolds had recommended it based on their last visit, and another friend Kim Dahlquist had sent us a TV travel show that featured the area, so we were excited to “Feel the Costa Brava”, as the marketing here says and get a break from the heat in the cool Mediterranean Sea.

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Our first destination was Tossa de Mar, a small town on a large bay guarded by an impressive medieval castle at one end. It has a beach area around most of the bay, and luckily for us, paddle board rentals. As with many old towns, you can't drive right to your hotel due to the narrow winding streets, but typically you can drop your luggage close by and then go park outside the old town. We knew that going in but getting to the luggage drop off point proved challenging, so we just parked and carried all our stuff through the town in approximately 35C/95F heat! Ugh! (The good news is that Margo doesn't hot flash anymore, she is just hot all the time now!) We finally arrived at our lovely hotel right on the beach. It had an incredible view over the bay and was right beside the castle. It is a family run hotel and the staff was very friendly and welcoming, we really enjoyed our stay (especially the AC).

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We lucked out on getting two amazing tickets to the sold-out Sting concert at the Cap Roig Festival in Calella de Palafrugell! The setting was amazing at Jardins de Cap Roig (botanical gardens with approximately 1000 floral species set around a castle/palace from the 1800s) which hangs on the jagged Costa Brava coastline. The festival is held on an open-air stage within the 17 hectares of garden facing the Mediterranean Sea and with only 2000 seats, it is quite the special place to see! For a guy who is 67 years old, Sting puts on an amazing concert! He did all his old Police hits, Roxanne, Message in a Bottle, Every Little thing She Does is Magic, Walking on the Moon to name a few, along with some of his own songs, new and old. Margo and I could not have asked for a better evening, within an incredible setting....well other than the time I saw the Police 35 years ago with Marc Perras and Don Rawson in Edmonton!

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Beating the heat on our paddle boards gave us some great views of the coves and beaches around Tossa de Mar. We enjoyed paddling through the coves along the coast, which at times was like paddling through tall canyons. One got so narrow we had to lift the boards over to get through. The cool blue water was pretty nice too!

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We moved on to Palafrugell next, a town further up the coast about 4 km inland. It is very central to all the beaches and things to visit in the area, but we did miss not being right on the water, especially given the heat. It was a very cool penthouse apartment with a large terrace, newly renovated in an old building in traditional Spanish style. Palafrugell is a cozy, fun little town, with a vibrant street market held every morning. We enjoyed the vibe of the town.

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We found an amazing enoteca (wine shop) full of fabulous food and of course tons of Spanish wines from every region of the country. I was expressing my excitement to Henry (who I found out after that he was the owner) over the selection of wines when he said what I believe would translate into "you ain't seen nothing"! He proceeded to call one of his assistants over to take us through the velvet ropes at the back of the store that lead to a set of stairs down to the real goods in the cellar. Wow, I was blown away by the amount of wine, not only from Spain but all around the world that he had collected in this massive cellar below the stairs. Some incredible wines and some excellent vintages. I asked him if we could open a few, he just laughed, I was serious! Need to spend a little more time getting to know Henry and then just maybe...

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The access to picturesque beaches in Costa Brava seemed to be endless. We headed out to Tamariu to see how the paddle boarding was in this region of the coast and it did not disappoint! Tamariu was 10km/6mile drive from Palafrugell tucked neatly into a postcard picture cove. The water was so translucent that it was like looking into an aquarium, crystal clear to see every sea creature and plant. We paddled along the coast which had a walking trail that ran about 5km/3.1miles in either direction. We never got a chance to walk it, but I can only imagine how wonderful the views would be. The paddling was outstanding in the coves, it was however a little challenging paddling through the rollingwaves in the open sea when we paddled to the next cove, but it was worth all the effort!

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Llafranc was another fabulous town on the sea, (minutes from Palafrugell) with a sandy beach and a beautiful promenade to stroll along in the evening.

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Very close by is Calella de Palafrugell, an easy 15 minute walk from Llafranc. This is where the Sting concert was held as well.

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Karin and Hans Peter (the Dutch couple we met in Montpellier) were vacationing with their daughters in Llafranc and invited us out for a wonderful dinner full of great stories and laughs. Thank you very much for treating us to dinner! Karin has a very interesting profession as a "Sub Judge" in the high court for social security cases in Holland. She reviews all the facts and details from cases that are appealed by Dutch citizens, determines the outcome and sends her findings to the Judge to review and give the final verdict. It was very interesting to learn about her role and the process. (I hope I explained this correctly Karin). Hans Peter in a plastic surgeon and gave me a great technical run down on all the parts that severed in my arm when I accidentally slit my wrist 18 years ago in Canmore. Their daughters Anne-Laure (first year med student) and Fleurine (in high school) were great to talk to and find out what life is like for teenagers/young adults in the Netherlands. Did I mention they spoke excellent English?! We had to talk pets and they have two rabbits at home named, Blue and Berry! Karin and Hans Peter have traveled extensively and were able to give us a “thumbs up” or “you might want to think about that idea” on places we will be traveling to during our yearlong adventure. It’s incredible to get firsthand information like that, it is so helpful, especially when they seem to enjoy similar things to us. They are a wonderful family and we hope to meet up with them again sometime, somewhere!

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You can't go to the beach every day, well you can but we thought we would have a day of culture. Based on a recommendation from Lisa and John Reynolds, we headed to the medieval town of Pals about 15 minutes from Palafrugell. Pals is a gorgeous walled city that we guided ourselves on a walking trip with 9 points of interest. The sites included a clock tower that was built between the 11th and 13th century, the towers of the town wall that date back to 4th century and of course a church dating back to the 12th century! There were many restaurants and dozens of shops that we had to look in! It was the epitome of a quaint medieval village. Karin and Hans Peter recommended an amazing restaurant nearby in the village of Palau-Sator. Very traditional Spanish restaurant from décor to the menu. Clearly, we were too busy eating and forgot to take pictures! If you are nearby, don't miss this little gem!

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Enough culture (and heat), back to the beach! We made three trips to Pladja de Roca which was a 25-minute drive from our apartment. (Pladja is beach in Catalan). The beach was different then the coved beaches we had been visiting. This beach stretched for 5km/3miles and had a very nice sandy beach. Both of our trips paddle boarding was wonderful. We enjoyed early morning paddles with the sea as calm as glass, it would have been great water skiing as well. The sea life was quite abundant, with a huge amount of Jellyfish in some area. Not the Manowar version of Jellyfish! Margo got some great pictures of them and it reminded us of the video she took at the aquarium in Monaco, which we included below. The local renter of paddle boards, Lewis had great local knowledge of where to paddle and not. He recommended an awesome paddle that was 2 hours return to wonderful coves and beaches. We set out given his advice and realized that we might not be as strong of paddle-boarders as we thought when the 2-hour trip took us 3.5 hours given the strong winds and waves we encountered; we were tired but enjoyed the paddle. We told Lewis about the strong winds we came into and he looked at us quite puzzled. We thought our trip was lost in translation until Lewis said slowly, "you didn't go around the Cape?" Aw, yes, we did, we overshot the directions hence the 3.5-hour paddle! If Lewis was Italian, he would have said, "Mama Mia!" as he explained how dangerous it was for us to have gone around the Cape....not that slow of paddleboarders after all!

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Close by are two other spectacular beach coves, Sa Tuna and Aiguafreda (~cold water):

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Seafood and meat paella from Restaurant Solimar (~sun and sea), right on the beach and highly recommended by Lewis. They specialize in rice, fish and Mediterranean cuisine using all local products from the sea and land. We had driven by fields that looked like rice paddies but didn’t know what they were until we ate at Solimer and learned that they used locally grown rice for their famous paella. Apparently people travel from Barcelona to have their paella, lucky for us we able to snag a table for two!

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Of course we met some wonderful Spanish dogs: Cooper, a Spanish Water Dog, really! Here I thought the only water dog breed was Portuguese! Enzo's owner was a very proud Italian who made sure that I knew Enzo was named after the famous car designer Enzo Ferrari! Enzo was quite a sharp looking dog, not quite as sleek as a Ferrari thought, a few too many treats!

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Posted by margofiala 13:19 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Wine, lavender and cars - can it get any better?!

Barolo, Italy; Gordes and Montpellier, France

We managed to get Leesa to the correct airport, on time and with all her possessions. We have not discovered anything missing, so I would say she didn't take anything extra! It was an awesome visit, lots of laughs, great food and only stories that a big sister can tell you about her little sister....I thought I had heard all of them, guess not!

Here is the map that shows where we have travelled so far, it’s hard to believe how much we have seen in our first 3 months. (We just discovered that if you zoom in to a specific location and click on the green dot, it should show the pictures we took there.)

Margo put in the GPS coordinates to take us to our next stop, a B&B in the Piedmont Region of Italy, specifically the community of Biglini which is a bedroom community of the town of Alba. The B&B was named Mammanella's and was highly recommended by Margo's sister Tara. Tara and her husband George were tandem cycling through the area in 2013, stayed here and gave it an outstanding rating, hence we booked 3 nights and were not disappointed. Mamma Nella remembered them and gave me a small gift for Tara.

Before we hit "Go" on the GPS, we realized that we would only be 30 minutes away from the city of Turin that hosted the XX Olympic Winter games in 2006 and as equally important was the home of Museo Nazionale dell' Automobile! As the historic birthplace of one of the world leading car manufactures (at least in Europe) the "T" in Fiat stands for Torino, hence Turin was an excellent place for a car museum! It was also ranked as one of the top 50 of all types museums in the world to visit, pretty impressive! Margo agreed that she would work on the blog in the coffee shop in the lobby and wait for me while I indulged in some automobile awesomeness! There was over 200 cars ranging from an 1892 Peugeot to 2014 F1 cars. I must also add that there was an impressive shrine to pay tribute to the late Canadian F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve. I would highly recommend a visit if you are ever in Turin. The museum housed everything from the cars of today, back to the 1890's and a very impressive showing of concept/futuristic cars of what we may see on the road next year. There are many interactive systems that allow you to build, test and imagine what a car might look like of perform if designed. One allowed you to see videos from car designers from major European car makers on what or who inspired them to create a specific automobile or what was their greatest success or biggest failure. I was interested to hear from the designer of the Cisitalia 202 on the video (the red 2 door below). He felt it was his biggest failure of his career as the car's sales never took off, most likely from its expensive price tag.

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Interesting to note, Margo was texting with her sister Tara when she was waiting for me in the coffee shop. Tara texted back saying she sat in the same shop a couple of years ago so her husband George could tour the museum!

We decided to hit one more highlight of Turin before we heading to Mammanella's which was going up the Mole Antonelliana. The Mole is an aluminum spire that has an elevator that takes you up 167m/548ft to a 360 degree viewing platform to see all the sites of Turin and beyond, very impressive! We also walked around the city center to see some of Turin's history. It was another scorcher, even the dogs had to find ways to cool off!

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Off to Mammanella's 45 minutes south in the prestigious area that produces Barolo and Barbaresco red wines and sparkling wine from Asti. Indigenous grape varieties include Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino and Brachetto that produce some killer wines! The B&B is centrally located with 3 comfortable rooms. The one we had included a balcony, was quite roomy and actually sparkled it was so clean!

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We spent the next two days exploring the rich wine country including a tour and tasting at the Marchesi Di Barolo vineyard and cellars. The building which we toured was a 200 year old location that overlooks the "Castle of the Marquis Falletti" in Barolo. The winery is running today by the fifth generation Abbona Family who are very involved in running the business today. Their two children plan to follow in their families’ footsteps and take over the running of the winery in the years to come. We tasted 6 different and amazing vintages of their Barolos. We were so impressed with their wines that we bought two bottles of their 2010, one was a Barolo Reserva and the other a Barolo Sarmassa. 2010 delivered an exceptional year for the Nebbiolo grape and the Barolo vintages. They cost a small fortune but will be well worth it when we decant them and drink them during our travel. Our guide for the tour was a young inspiring winemaker from Turkey. She had spent 3 years apprenticing at 3 different California wineries and came to Italy to buck the trend of the mainly male dominated winemakers in Italy. She had excellent wine knowledge and was very familiar with the history of the winery and their wines.

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The scenery in and around these amazing villages was stunning. Grape vines seemed to be growing everywhere and where there weren't grapes, there were hazelnut trees! Not a single wasted acre of fertile land was wasted.

Barolo:
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Only the finest for the dogs of France!
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Barbaresco:
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We enjoyed a 6km/3.75m hike through the vineyards and hazelnut orchards just outside the town of La Morra. Although it was 35C/95F we made it through the full distance. It was interesting as most vineyards and orchards in North America will not just let you wonder through their property without permission and a guided tour. The hike was well sign posted and easy to follow. Life is different in Italy!

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We got a little turned around in the hazelnut tree grove, but it was interesting!
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We saw lots of advertising for multiple different outdoor concert venues that had array of different types of bands and musicians. We settled on purchasing tickets to see an Italian pop artist by the name of Giorgia in an amphitheater about 20 minutes away from our B&B. She sang mostly Italian songs with a few English hits sprinkled in and had a great voice. We really enjoyed it. It was an interesting experience attending an Italian outdoor concert, a few key differences from concerts back home: no tailgating prior to the concert, no security check entering the facility, line ups for drinks were longest for espresso and shortest for beer, no one stood up through her concert (even though they were tapping their toes and getting into the music), there was a DJ playing during intermission that people did stand up for (really?), after she appeared to be done for the night the audience just sat quietly and waited, there was no applause for an encore … and she did come back and play! It was all very civilized we thought, much more than their driving!

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The next day we set out for Gordes in France, leaving behind great memories of Italy and the very happy automated recording of "Arrivederci!" at the highway toll booths after you pay your toll! We drove through the mountains between Italy and France which are very similar looking to the Canadian Rockies. Very high, dramatic and with very little built on them. We passed through Cesana and Claviere where some of the events from the 2006 Winter Olympics were held.

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We arrived in Gordes France at a great hotel that was surrounded by grape vines and lavender fields. The hotel was set in a perfect location with a beautiful pool to enjoy and escape the smoking hot weather.

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Gordes is a tiered medieval village that juts out over the Rivers Sorgue and Calavon, it’s quite spectacular hanging out over the white-rock face.

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We bought a large slice of delicious nougat, that you buy by the slice. It comes in many flavors, everything from fruit and nuts to caramel and chocolate.
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We also toured the Senanque Abbey nearby, founded in 1148 by Cistercian monks. It has been well maintained and is a huge tourist attraction due to its rich history and abundant lavender fields strategically placed to enhance the visit. Who knew the monks were so clever at marketing their Abbey! Margo was amazed at how strong the lavender smell was when we stopped - the aroma seemed to radiate from the flowers in the heat. It was also brave of her to stand in the lavender field given the number of bees on the flowers. I had the EpiPen close by just in case.

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We had two remarkable meals in Gordes, one at our hotel: cheese stuffed zucchini flowers (yes again!), roast of lamb with cheese gnocchi, sea bass with roasted artichokes.
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And one at a lovely terrace overlooking the valley below Gordes: seafood ravioli (one big ravioli), rosemary roasted thigh of chicken.
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From Gordes we headed towards Montpellier but scheduled an excellent diversion due to the 35C\95F weather with a 4 hour kayak float down the Gardon River which passes under the Pont du Gard (an ancient Roman aqueduct from the first century). It was a speculator site (minus all the tourists in the water and on the aqueduct), towering 48.8m\160ft and descends a mere 2.5cm\1in along the 360m\1,180ft length. Incredible innovation by the Roman engineers in 40 - 60 AD to achieve such a feat! It was a great way to see the site in the heat - even the local dogs were there to cool down!

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It was an uneventful drive to Montpellier where we checked into at a great centrally located hotel that was walking distance to everything, it even included parking which isn't always the case with these compact old cities. It is a very beautiful city. We toured all the sites, including yet another Arc De Triomphe, the first medical school in Europe and an amazing cathedral. You can refer back to our "Viva l’ltalia!" to see 3 other Arc De Triomphes, including the original in Paris.

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It’s interesting how the modern art fits into to an old city.

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We adventured out to the coast for a walk along a miles-long beach, a bike ride on the promenade and special siting of pink flamingos!

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Margo and I enjoyed having a couple of dinners with a Dutch couple, Karen and Hans-Peter who we met at our hotel. They were an awesome couple, about our age, that have done extensive traveling around Europe and gave us many useful suggestions and tips for sites and places to travel to over the months to come. Coincidently, there next stop was Costa Brava in Spain, as is ours! Their two teen-aged daughters were flying to Costa Brava to enjoy a vacation with their folks. We plan to meet up for dinner at their place in Llafranc. (Hans-Peter reminds us of Bill Dahlquist, a good friend of ours in Denver - the same dry sense of humor but in Dutch!)

One last stop in France on our way to Spain was at Carcassonne, famous for its well fortified castle due to its strategic location. La Cite that has a concentric design of two outer walls with 52 towers.

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Margo loves these lilies that seems to be blooming everywhere right now:

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The town also is known for the Canal di Midi which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea through a series of 64 locks. It was another hot day, so the canal boat ride sounded appealing and the story behind the canals lengthy construction in the 1600’s was quite interesting.

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Off to Spain! Margo and I are both excited to be returning, as its kind of feels like our European home. Although Margo was worried about the heat, it is actually cooler on Costa Brava than southern France and northern Italy, so that will be a nice break. By cooler, we mean high 20's C/low 80's F, which is noticeably cooler than Italy and France.

Some French cheins (dogs), and the famous Stella from Finland (vacationing in the south of France, of course! Her owners drove and ferried from Finland to the South of France instead of flying for Stella, their second “apricot standard poodle”.

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Posted by margofiala 13:44 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Leesa and the lakes! “Mama Mia!”

Lake Garda, Maggiore and Como, Italy

We were really excited for my sister Leesa to arrive and spend time with her in Italy’s “lake country”. Given the heat wave across Europe, it was great to be on the lakes, as it was 35 - 40C/95 - 104F most days. My other sister Tara and husband George were cycling on their tandem bike in Germany at the same time battling the heat everyday - we certainly had it easier than them! We visited 4 of the lakes: d’Orta, Maggiore, Como and Garda.

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We stayed on the east side of Lake Garda, in the town of Malcesine before we picked up Leesa in Milan. It is the largest of the lakes, almost as big as Lake Okanagan in BC, Canada. It is remarkably similar, surrounded by jagged rocky mountains, with small towns and wineries sprinkled along the shores. There are lots of boats and ferries on the lake, and we enjoyed paddle boarding and cycling here. There are more beaches here than the other lakes, so a bit more accessible for cooling off.

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We drove to the west side of the lake to check out some of the towns and the famous stretch of road from the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace”. It was not for the faint of heart!

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Once we found our way to the top of the nail-biting road, we enjoyed a cold beverage at Hotel Paradiso and the stunning views. My sister Tara and husband George rode their tandem bike up this road, which took a lot of horsepower, but they definitely had more space to maneuver!

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A town on the northern tip of the lake is Riva del Garda. It was fun to wander around and had an amazing waterfall.....

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The backdrop to Malcesine is Mount Baldo and we were able to ride a cable car to the top (1760m/5774ft above sea level) and hike down. At the top there are amazing 360-degree panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and Lake Garda. On the way down it reminded us of hiking in the Rockies in both Colorado and Alberta. One surprise was coming across a herd of lambs near the top.

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There was many paragliders flying down from Mount Baldo landing on a postage stamp size piece of grass right beside the lake. One of the pilots said it was a small space to land but was a soft landing if you missed as you would land in the lake!

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We picked up my sister Leesa at the Milan airport, and a note for anyone flying here, there are 3 Milan airports, so making sure you are at the right one is important! We were both at “Door 7 - Arrivals/Ground level” talking to each other on the phone but couldn’t see each other - how could that be? Yes, we went to the wrong one, my bad, and yes, I had her itinerary and it was correct, but you have to read it for that to be helpful (no need for planning comments Jon!) I just had it in my head she was coming into Malpensa. Anyways, we finally got her at Linate and off we went for Stresa, a town on Lake Maggiore.

Lake Maggiore is not as large as Garda and the mountains seem closer. It is beautiful but a little trickier to access the water, cliff diving anyone? This is also home to the fairytale like Borromean Islands, and has many palaces converted to fancy hotels along the border of the lake.

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One of the Borromean Islands just off the shores of Stresa is Isola Bella, an incredible private island, villa and garden that is open to visit. It was exceptional and we really enjoyed it despite the heat (36C/97F).

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This is for my Auntie Donna, who has spent a good part of her life caring for ponies. These ancient horse harnesses date back to the 1500’s at Isola Bella. Can you imagine the weight on the horses?

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‘‘Tis the season” for hydrangeas here - they are amazing!

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We have an awesome newly renovated apartment with great AC that overlooks the main piazza (square), right in the middle of everything (shopping, restaurants, etc.) and a few minutes walk to the lake and ferries.

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Out for a lovely dinner at Osteria Mercator, where we had buffalo mozzarella with prawns, pistachio risotto, pasta with tomatoes, chicken with truffles and hazelnuts, and pistachio crusted lamb on polenta.

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We celebrated Canada Day on July 1 and US Independence Day on the 4th!

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Kayaking:

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Close to Lake Maggiore, separated by Mount Mottarone, is Lake d’Orta where we went for supper one evening. Leesa had been there 15 years ago with her daughter Kyra and husband Guy. Kyra was a rebellious teenager then, so some of Leesa’s memories that she shared are “colorful” but also included a stressful drive through the narrow lanes to their hotel (I’m not the only one!). It is a very quiet village surrounded by thick, dark green woodlands, and has an island called Isola San Giulio right off the main piazza. It’s very magical.

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We took a ferry across Lake Maggiore to the Santa Catarina del Sasso Monastery. It dates back to the 13th century and clings to the high rocky face of the lake’s southeast shore. The views on the way there and back of the lake were magnificent.

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One of Europe’s finest botanical gardens is in Verbania, a town close to Stresa where we were staying. It is a villa and gardens, but the gardens are what is famous. A Scottish captain, Neil McEacharn bought the villa from the Savoy family in 1931 and planted 20,000 plant species from all over the world. It was amazing, even in 100F+ heat.

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Leesa and Dean liked the sprinklers best:

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This is the tree from Canada (Charlie Brown?)
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My favorite of the whole garden was the lotus pond, I’ve never seen anything like it!

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We drove to the northern end of the lake to paddle board, close to Cannobio. Paddle boarding has not caught on here yet, so you have to search for it to find it. It’s surprising as the lakes can be very calm and perfect for paddling. And there is so much to see!

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After paddling, we were just 5 km from Switzerland, so decided to take a spin through. We were surprised with the budget cuts as we did not to see a “Welcome to Switzerland sign” and on top of that, we asked several people, but no one knew our good Swiss friend Bernhard Schneider from Canada!

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We moved on to Lake Como next, where we booked a lakefront apartment in Lierna (near Varenna). We were looking forward to time on the beach relaxing - traveling can be stressful you know!

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Here is an “Amphicar” that pulled up on our beach. It’s a German built car from the 60’s, of which only 4000 were ever produced. I guess you don’t get out through the door in the water!
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A day in the original Bellagio...

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We celebrated all 3 of our birthdays with a day on the water, compliments of my Dad! Thank you dad from all of us for one of our best days in the lakes! Dean loved driving the boat, Leesa was our tour guide and I was the photographer. Lake Como has extravagant villas and is very developed yet has beautiful spots for a cool dip!

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George Clooney’s home, Villa Oleander:
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Leesa and I kayaking:

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Views around Varenna and fireworks:

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Missed from last blog, we had an amazing meal in Verona that we wanted to include, the combination of food and flowers at “Locanda 4 Cuochi” was so interesting and tasty, one of our top meals for sure. We had cheese stuffed zucchini flowers with chickpea waffles, pepperoni ravioli on gazpacho with cucumbers and peppers, yummy pasta, and marinated veal with potatoes and humus.

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The lake puppies, I almost took Agua home with me, she was SO sweet! Lucky is very young, only 5 months old.

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“Monitoring”, a painting at Isola Bella, as well as an old puppet - the lady of the house was fond of her pups!
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Posted by margofiala 03:15 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Viva l’ltalia!

Milan, Bergamo and Verona, Italy

Here is our route through Northern Italy:

It was 4 hours from Roquebrune-Cap-Martin to Milan, pretty much the whole way on big toll highways - cost about 30€ in tolls. The route is through the mountains, so lots of long tunnels and high bridges towering over towns, villages and countryside, so likely they need the money to pay for and maintain them. I am quite sure the Italians could solve our I-70 problem (up to the mountains from Denver)! Arriving in Milan was not too crazy from a driving perspective as we are staying in a perimeter community about 20 mins from the city center. Our Airbnb is in the Isola district and in addition to the large underground parking spot, we are appreciating the air conditioning as it was 33 C/92 F when we arrived. There was kind of a wild unkept garden around the apartment - the hydrangeas grow well here! The trip into the center was an easy tram ride so we didn't need to use the car in the city.

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Our first “aperitivo” (happy hour) at the new pad!
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We started our visit to Milan with with a bike tour of the city, to get the lay of the land and visit some major sites. I was very happy that I didn’t crash or get stuck in a tram rail, as the riding here is a bit challenging with the cobblestones, narrow streets and traffic. (My sister Tara told me that traffic signs are just a suggestion in Milan!)

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We got our first glimpses of some really cool stuff that we will spend the next few days visiting, but there was other ‘drivebys’ that are BW (blog worthy, an acronym from Carleen!) Here is the Vertical Forest, designed to have different colors through the seasons, complete with flying gardeners! (See the hoist on the top of the building). It’s expensive - just over $1M for a 1000 sq foot apartment.

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Modern and new is Milan!

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We also saw the famous La Scala Opera House, where I’m sure we will see Erika perform one day!

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And one of the worlds oldest shopping malls, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. You can see where West Edmonton Mall got ideas when it built in the 80’s - largest mall in the world at the time, complete with a “Europa Street” which has a similar ceiling to this. (The same family from Edmonton built the Mall of America in Minnesota.)

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The San Lorenzo Columns, one of the few relics in Milan from the Roman days:

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Leonardo Da Vinci:

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There is a lot of graffiti everywhere in Europe, so we always appreciate when it is artistically done!

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It seems several European cities have an “Arc de Triomphe”, which Arc do you like the best?

Milan:
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Barcelona:
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Paris (5 years ago):
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A definite highlight of Milan is the Duomo, a very fancy cathedral dating back to the late 1300s but took centuries to complete. It reminded me of the Taj Mahal in India, as the white marble changes color with the light. It can appear starch white or very rosy pink. Anyways, it is super elaborate inside and out. I loved the gargoyle rain spouts. We climbed to the rooftop (260 stairs) at about 32 C/90 F, so wore off the pasta that day.

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The organ is the largest in Italy and the second largest in Europe with an amazing 15,800 pipes! Note there is two banks of pipes, it is still used occasionally.
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We sought out this gorgeous little church that was covered in frescoes everywhere you look. The San Maurizio Church dates back to the early 1500s and has survived earthquakes and multiple wars. I was standing there gawking at all the paintings when an older Italian man came up to me and started telling me about the church in very broken English. He was very passionate about the church and explained it used to be half church/half convent, and the nuns would stay in the convent side but listen to the service and receive communion, etc. through the screens between the 2 sections. He talked about the meaning behind a few of his favorite paintings and the artists. The paintings and ceilings were amazing, it was hard to believe it was 500 years old. It was so interesting to listen to him!

The church side:
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The convent side, see the screen between them:
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Where the nuns received communion:
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The Sforza Castle houses multiple museums, everything from art to instruments to porcelain to ancient ruins and artifacts. What we really liked about it was how they used technology to bring history to life. For example the restoration of paintings and rooms, they showed videos of before, during and after on a dimensional scale. It was very cool to see and air conditioned (which is valued at 32C/90F).

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This is the last work of Michelangelo, the “Rondanini Pietà”, which he died before completing in 1564. The funny story is that we had read there was a 60-90 minute wait to see it, so we rushed through everything else to get there early, only to find out it was not in the Ancient Art museum (I guess 1564 isn’t ancient). So we backtracked a bit to see more of the part we rushed through, but had to be very devious to get by the museum staff, they don’t like anyone going backwards! When we arrived at the right museum, (also in the castle) there was no wait and we were actually alone with the sculpture for some time. It certainly is impressive to see, the picture doesn’t do it justice. It is displayed prominently in its own building and almost seems to radiate an aura.

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And moats can be used for many things!

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We had a wonderful lunch in Sempione Park, Milan’s “Central Park”, right behind the castle (lobster pasta and beef salad). It has a beautiful garden with huge hydrangeas, can you see me?

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We stopped for a few hours in Bergamo on our way to Verona from Milan. Bergamo has a hilltop old town with an new town connected by funicular railway. On Google maps, the closest parking to the base of the funicular looked just a few blocks north of the station. As we weaved our way up the hill and the roads narrowed, I got a little worried. It appears that a few blocks from the funicular base was actually in the hilltop village! Ugh - cars are typically not allowed in hilltop towns or if allowed, extremely difficult. Dean did well, he maneuvered the steep hairpin narrow turns and sucked over to the side for oncoming traffic (bringing in the side mirrors required)...it certainly was a lesson - the satellite view on Google maps is there for a reason! The old town is very beautiful with it’s tangle of alleys and scenic squares, protected by 5 km of ancient walls. A couple getting married pulled up to the church as we left!

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There was also great views of the surrounding countryside from the tower, with mountains to the north.
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Yes, these are real hydrangeas!
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Great flowers and great food at Dai Gustosi: Polenta was the main feature (polenta with mushrooms and veal; polenta with sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes; cream caramel ice cream), although it was not as good as Bernhard’s when we were camping at Maligne Lake!
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We had a great start to our Verona visit by going to an opera at the Roman arena in the old town! This was something that had to be booked months in advance that we actually did! Both of my sisters and their husbands had been to it before and highly recommended the experience even if you were not an opera enthusiast. It has amazing ambience and wonderful acoustics in a 1st century, remarkably preserved Roman arena. It was a definite highlight for both of us!

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The highlight of our apartment in Verona was that the AC worked well and our neighbors have 3 mastiffs and one lab mix, 4 big dogs! The couch was not exactly Dean-sized!

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The Adige River meanders it’s way through Verona and circles the old town, so there are many bridges, some from Roman days and some mid 1500s.

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The Torre die Lamberti offers great views of Verona, 162 steps to the top!

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Verona is the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Given it was all fictional, here is the designated balcony:

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The “Giardino Giusti” dates back to 1591, just outside their family villa. I made it through the maze!

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We took a day trip to the Soave wine valley, about 30 mins east of Verona, well known for their dry white wine. It was excellent and the valley is very lush, complete with castles. We had a wonderful lunch at Locanda Lo Scudo, but ate it too fast for pics! The wine was a wonderful Soave Classico - as Gail Jordan would say “it’s cheap and cheerful” - which is not a bad thing!

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We had an amazing dinner our first night in Milan at Cantina Milano: crispy prawns with bacon on mashed potatoes, roasted octopus on fondue with cheese, pepper and crispy leek; Amatriciana pasta, gnocchi with crispy bacon and Parmesan waffle.

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Eataly is like Whole Foods on steroids, with multiple “farm to table”restaurants and incredible food, produce, meat wine and everything in between!
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Puppies! Lola is 18 - She is blind and just sat wherever you set her down! Other four footed furry loves, as well as turtles from Sempione Park (next to the Sforza Castle), Noah’s Ark from the San Maurizio Church in Milan, and a lion sculpture from Sforza Castle.

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Posted by margofiala 11:01 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

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