Hot Hot Day on Lake Como

Lake Como—June 25-26th
We left Lake Maggiore on Wednesday afternoon and drove to Lezzeno. I had printed out driving directions from each hotel to the next on Google. These were useless. It’s so American to want to know the name of the road and when to turn left. Instead we learned to navigate the Italian way: find the name of the town and follow the signs.

Lake Como is an inverted Y; I always think it looks like someone running. Como, on the toes of the extended leg and the city where George Clooney, the movie star, has his villa, has Big City feel: traffic, noise, chaos, but it’s where a glimpse of the stunning vistas begin.

The road up to Lezzeno from Como is a Thrill Ride, particularly if you’re the passenger keeping track of how close the side mirror is to the buildings/cliff wall, as Dave will attest. Lots of gasps from his seat and a few from mine as a large city bus nearly took out the driver’s side mirror. I came to a dead stop, kind of winced waiting for the impact of the bright blue bumper into our tiny car, but the bus swerved past us–the passenger side mirror was about 2” from the cement pillar of the building next to us.

I learned to pull over to the let the local, crazier drivers past me and tried to enjoy the scenery. I also tried to convince Dave to not white-knuckle the door handle and enjoy the scenery as well.

Where Lago Maggiore’s hills (where we stayed) rise gradually from the shore to their heights, Lago Como’s mountains are more sheer in their slope, much taller. It’s stunning in the contrast between the flat lake and soaring mountains.

View from our hotel window. The white roofs are the dining pavilion where we had our dinner.

Hotel Aurora, with the owner out front directing parking. I also saw him again early the next morning, picking up the milk bottles from the front door in his jammies. Our balcony window is on the right, first floor.
We could also hear the cheers and groans from the bar (underneath our window in the front corner of the hotel) as the football game progressed. They take their soccer seriously in Europe. We heard it all because we had no air conditioning, only a ceiling fan, and Italy’s been very hot and humid, “calda tropica” as one older woman put it to me.

On our walk after dinner, we saw this house with decorative painting under the eaves. This was one of the better-kept homes in this lakeside town. Lezzeno is kind of like those beach resort towns in New Jersey. A sneaker, wear-your-swimsuit kind of place, with enough regulars to keep the place going and things interesting.

On the first floor balcony, the divider between the two apartments in painted with a scene from the lake.

Bellagio. This town is further up the coast from Lezzeno, and with Dave’s Parking Karma we found a parking place speedily. We walked into town, and maybe because we were tired from the lack of sleep (a hazard of travel), the heat and humidity, we didn’t stay here long. It was very touristy–lots of shops–but with the exchange rate of 1.50 euros to 1 dollar, it cools the shopping passion very quickly. I think if we had stayed in town, and could discover more about it without the legions of tourists (like ourselves), it might have been more charming.

The side streets moving upwards reflect the steep gradient of the terrain.

 


We said good-bye to Bellagio and took the car ferry to Varenna, about a 15 minute trip.

I had originally wanted to stay here, but it wasn’t possible as we were so late in booking, and the only hotel rooms left were the ones that cost sacks and sacks of money.

 

The view from the car ferry.

 

Along the water is this walkway connecting the two parts of the town. (They are more connected up top.) We walked over to find some lunch.

 

After our melon and prosciutto lunch, we toured the gardens of the Villa Cipressi. Apparently touring gardens on Lake Como is a big deal. So we did our part–melting, drip by drip into the languid landscape.

 

Dave took this photo of a magnolia in bloom.

 

And of a radiant cactus.

 

Nocciola–a hazelnut tree.

 

Garden Gate
Villa Cipressi Gardens
Varenna Italy
taken by David Eastmond

 

Camera harmonies–this one’s mine.

 

St. George and That Dragon
Varenna Italy
taken by David Eastmond

 

The above window is from this church in the town square of Varenna.

 

Looking down Varenna’s streets to the lake. I think it’s gelato time. This time I had raspberry and melon and Dave and I shared it.

 

Melon and Raspberry
Varenna Italy

June 2008

 

Happy Holidays!

Menu I

One of the challenges of ordering food in a foreign country is our preconceived ideas about what that food should like—in other words, when we order we are thinking of our American version of this food. Sometimes what you imagine agrees with what is put before you.

Green Salad. That’s it—ribbons of green lettuce that I doctor up with vinegar, oil, salt and a swoosh of the pepper grinder. Pretty straight forward except that I discovered that the olive oil is much milder tasting and not quite as heavy as ours. It also was a clear light amber, rather than the greener versions we have from our grocers. The vinegar is substantially stronger. So my first salad was like eating pickled greens. After that, I watched the server, noticing her proportions (lots of olive oil, one splash only of vinegar) and things went much smoother.

Our lake bass—all rolled up like a camp sleeping bag, decorated with orange rind and pink peppercorns, dressed in olive oil.

The table just over from us had a crowd and when the dessert came out for the woman’s 50th birthday, I couldn’t resist taking a picture. I wanted a slice, but settled for a bite of chocolate upstairs afterwards on our balcony, watching the sun set.

They set out a breakfast buffet in the dining room, and we ate it on table on the patio—overlooking the lake. I especially liked the fresh fruit salad and the fruit smoothie. This place is run by a family; the mother of Michelle and Filippo ran the kitchens and the smoothie was her creation.

A sign listing different shapes of pasta, found in a shop in Orta.

 

Gelato. I liked the funky little gelato cups for children.

Bread basket at Hotel/Ristorante Belvedere. The grissini, invented in Turin, were crisp and flavorful. Other places would give us pre-packaged grissini—more of what we get in the States.

This was branching out for us: fish pate. Three different kinds with different sauces, served with toast. Dave said “It was better than I’d feared.”

Then we had pasta: mine was homemade tagliatelli with shrimp, minced zucchini in a saffron sauce. Dave’s was the same noodle with a fish ragout.

The last night his conference had a dinner. The first course was “langostino in Catalan style, with tomato.”

The guests—all scientists at the conference, plus staff and two spouses (I’m one).

 

Second course: risotto with asparagus.

Third course: choice of strips of roast beef atop arugula (they call it rocket), or bass encased in potato. Usually Dave and I have a sort of contest of who has the winning entrée. Since I had the fish, I was the winner.

 

They were serving tiramasu, doused in amaretto for dessert. Since we’re non-drinkers, they brought us crème brulee with fruit.

We knew we had left Shangri-la on our first night away from Lake Maggiore. I ordered gnocchi. Dave asked how it was. I said Trader Joe’s was better. He had a calzone that was pretty good, and I love our blue bottle of water. We had always gotten tap water in Lake Maggiore, but when we asked for it here “Not potable,” was the answer. Yeah, right. Dave won this night.

The breakfast spread included rolls, sliced ham and cheese, croissants, pan au chocolate, yogurts, fruit juices, coffee, tea and chocolate milk powder to be added to cold milk at the cereal table.. We always think of Keagan when we see this, as she loves her “Bunny Milk.”

At the grocery store in the little town of Lezzeno, they sold panna cotta mix, and a whole host of potato chips.

Lunch that day was melon and prosciutto in Varenna, preceeded by “ensalata misto” – a salad with various vegetables adorning the greens. Not necessarily what we’re used to: I’ve seen corn, shredded carrots, tomatoes, curly lettuce (which is like trying to eat spaghetti).

Okay, I don’t know the name of this, but it’s a Bergamo specialty: like a type of ravioli with a cheese/mystery stuffing, slathered in butter and speck (hefty bacon). It was recommended to us. It was okay.

Grocery Stores and Broken Columns–Lake Maggiore area

Tuesday, June 24th–2008

Dave’s off to his conference today, so after a slow start, I decide to wander around the little towns around Lake Maggiore–well, inland of the lake. I head for another lake: Lago di Monte, a short drive from Ranco, where our hotel is. First stop is the grocery store.


I had a conversation with Michelle, who is part of the family that runs out little hotel (12 rooms only–they began with the restaurant 100+ years ago and only added the hotel in 2004) about gnocchi (pronounced nyah-ki, not nyo-ki). Their restaurant only does them on Fridays and sometimes on Sunday, but the Sunday we arrived they “hadn’t had time in the kitchen to prepare.” After talking for a moment about this particular little potato dumpling she said “Gnocchi are your passion, yes?”

Yes. But only good gnocchi. And here’s a picture of all kinds of pasta, especially gnocchi, all lined up for some Italian to take home and cook up. We head to Trader Joe’s for ours.

I feel like a spy, or a voyeur, taking pictures but it’s all so different. Milks and butter, above.

Yogurts. Yogurt is a big, serious business here, if the facings (a grocery store term, meaning how many linear “faces” or spaces a product has on a shelf) are any indication. Dave’s been a yogurt fan for many years and any trip to the grocers invariably means a carton or two of yogurt in our shopping basket. It’s fun to try the different kinds.

I buy a bottle of water, a bag of chips, a loaf of bread and a container of Bel Paese cheese.

I drive to Cadrezzate, and try to find my way to their lake. It’s like a treasure hunt, always, in finding cities and towns and directions. Sometimes you win the prize, sometimes you lose. This church, at the center of town shows the interesting blend of renovation–needed to keep the church operational for the local parish–and the attempt to preserve some history. I wouldn’t necessarily call this successful.

I drove around the back, parked the car and gazed at the lake through a chain link fence while eating my lunch.

The chips have a surprise! Just like our old Cracker Jacks.

A little tiny monster man. He’s about a half-inch tall. Another kind of chip, Wacko’s, has as their prize a charm for the cellphone. I like this game. I can only imagine the pestering that Italian parents get from their children to buy bags of chips. Collect all 15 tiny monster men!

Still trying to find that elusive access to their lakefront, I wander into a cemetery–their gate was next to the gate for the park and I took a wrong turn. I like cemeteries, though, and it is interesting how different this one was from what I’m used to in the United States.

The broken column is a theme, perhaps a life not yet finished? I saw several of these.

The mother’s name on the right-hand picture is close to the children’s grandmother’s name: Benedetto. Perhaps their families are linked somehow? A gravesite seems to be a marble slab, sometimes engraved with the family name, that has a bit of statuary (sometimes a grand bit), an eternal light, an urn, and a vase for flowers. All these can vary.

A bronze rendition of Da Vinci’s Last Supper on this one.

I thought it was interesting that Enrico was noted as having died in the U.S.A. So far away and unable to be brought home to the family plot in this tiny town?

A double-wide gravesite, with a variation of the Christus statue.

Angel beside the broken column. Way over to the side, away from me, a man was pouring water all over the grave he was visiting–rinsing it off–and was removing dead flowers from the vase and replacing them with fresh ones. Some flowers are fresh, some are artificial. I was surprised at how many flowers were freshly laid.

If you are really important and have lots of money, you can have a little house for your relatives. No green grass, though.

I wound my way to another town: Besozzo. It rolls off your tongue nicely, in a sit-on-the-porch-swing kind of way. Besozzo.

Slightly lost, as usual, I look for the Center signs. Some guy was behind me on a motorbike, too close. I turn right to let him go left. He follows me. I go up a little hill and turn right again. He’s still with me. I turn right again and then again and not until I turn into a school parking lot does he turn left–into some institute building. Now to retrace my steps back down.

From below I notice this lighthouse-looking thing and work to find my way up to where it is, driving through several pedestrian only sections (no one was there–pedestrian only means for the visitors–lots of locals drive in the pedestrian only sections, I’ve noticed) by mistake until I see the signs for parking.

It’s in the school parking lot I had originally turned into while trying to evade the motorscooter.

I park, walk around several neighborhoods but can only look at this memorial (for World War I?), not go in. It’s behind a large yellow building, and I wonder what that building is.

Yes, it’s the school. I drive around to the back of the school and there’s the lighthouse memorial.


I’m done driving in cutesy little Italian towns from the moment and head to Gavirate–where Carrefours is located. This is sort of their version of Target crossed with Wal-Mart.

I’m enamoured with their pasta.

Disney Racketeers, er–Marketeers, have garnered product placement in Italy in the form of pasta.
Trader Joe’s stocks this brand.
Our local grocers carry this brand.
But check out these shapes! Snails, rectangular shapes–I want them all.

The Meduse–in the shape of a small pumpkin, or as Dave points out–a jellyfish, went home with me as a souvenir. It may be crumbles by the time we get it there. I also bought the extruded rectangular shape in the previous photo.

And the good news is that I made it back to our little hotel without getting lost at all. This stand of trees is about 5 minutes from the lakeside. Near the lake are towns, away from the lake, farmland. Lake Maggiore has lots of flatland with medium-tall mountains surrounding it.

Hermitage Santa Caterina

June 23
Santa Caterina
On the day we nearly croaked for heat exhaustion (Orta and its island) we got back in the car and recovered sufficiently to think about another place to go visit: Hermitage Santa Caterina.

A hermit built the original chapel on the side of the cliff—88 steps above lake level, but 288 below the top of the hill (yes, about as many steps as are in the Leaning Tower of Pisa). The buildings hug the cliff: a small chapel, and two other small dormitory-type places, which have now been turned in Visitor Reception and the Gift Shop.

As soon as we opened the car door in the parking lot letting all the air conditioning leak out, we almost lost our nerve, but we filled up our water bottles at the small bathrooms at the top of the cliff, noting that they are building an elevator for future guests—obviously a bunch of wimps like me.

I wondered aloud to Dave, as we descended the 288 steps, whether building an elevator would change the Hermitage Santa Caterina as the shuttle buses changed Zion National Parks. More crowds, less filtering.

The roof of the first small building appeared more quickly than we’d thought and it overlooked Lake Maggiore. The first building was a small patio shaded by an old wisteria vine.

Any good historical site has The Requisite Partial Fresco. Here’s Santa Caterina’s.

So how did a hermit, even aided by the church’s money, build something so elegant and perfectly tucked in? Obviously there’s been restoration, but the bones of the place are exquisite.


The buildings seem a part of the lakeside, even though they were slightly above the water level.

A view toward the altar in the chapel.

The chapel is small and I was amazed at how blue the light was—obviously the reflection off the lake water colors the light. Dave took this shot.

Christ calling the apostles to be Fishers of Men is an appropriate theme.

 

Blue light tints this portrait. I wonder if the artist went a little batty trying to adjust the colors to compensate for the cool hues.


At the very back of the chapel is a saint in a glass box with brown socks on his feet. Notice the broken ceiling. Apparently several large boulders tumbled down onto the roof of the chapel and there they stayed for many years, until finally falling through with the miracle that no one was injured. Maybe this is left open to show the damage, and the miracle? I’ve noticed that miracles are really big here in Italy. Virgin sightings are especially popular. The last one I read about was when the man was digging a well and his daughter noticed The Virgin’s face in the watery muck.

This is Dave’s shot of the columns outside the chapel. Mine is the next picture, as I went for the red flowers in the small window above.

If I were to equivocate taste to this wall, it would be a creamy milk gelato with a hint of melon.

Looking back from where we came.

Open Your Being

This is not a chant from the Sacro Monte (Sacred Mountain) chapels, but rather an admonishment from a sign on Orta’s island. More on that later.

We parked our car in the modern car park garage and strolled down to the town of Orta, as it is pedestrian only in the center.


Orange seems to be a popular color for churches around here, but it works well.

Dave shooting another photo. He took the one of the church, above.

Weathered doorways appeal to this middle-aged traveller.

This town had several cool-looking chimneys. Here’s one of them.

Luckily for this skater, there are two smooth paved sections down the center of each cobble-stone road.

Just another typical charming town square. . .

. . . except not too many have pictures of Christ above the souvenir shops.

We could hear the clapping from a wedding (my assumption, not Dave’s) when we walked by the City Hall. A few minutes later, the bridal couple (posing for a picture here on the steps of the ancient Administration Place) came down to the square, leading a posse of guests behind them.

The sculptor of the machine-ball appears to be the same one as Matthew’s favorite sculpture from the Vatican museum. His work is also at the Hirschorn. His pieces were all over Orta, everywhere and we passed what we think could have been his house on the way home. Each one reminded of us Matthew.

The reason why we look as if we had taken a dunk in the water is because it’s about 85 degrees and about 9000% humidity. I’m not exaggerating in the least.

About the snapshot-via-arm shot: maybe we are too old for selfies?

So we made it over to the island and the first tourist item is the church. As Dave noted, there are first-tier tourist attractions, like Venice, Rome, Florence, New York City. And then there are second-tier attractions like this church. Actually, it might even be a third-tier, but the depiction of the Lady of the Eyes on the pillar boosted it up a level.

A view out toward Lake Orta. Nice framing, Dave.

Okay, the walk/island are firmly in third-tier attraction. It was basically a circular walk around the Seminary. They didn’t want to hear all the tourists yackety-yak so they named it the Walk of Silence and had these signs posted every few yards to remind the visitors to Keep It Down. Only they had very weirdly Hallmark-ish phrases that just about made sense.

  • Open your being.
  • If you can be yourself, you are everything.
  • Silence is music and harmony.
  • Leave yourself and what is yours.

Except they didn’t really make sense. Something was lost in the translation, I think.

Another sculpture on the island.

We only had to wait 35 minutes for the boat that, according to the captain that dropped us off, comes promptly every 15 minutes.

More sculptures–flat, this time.

We did a 180 turn from the flat sculptures and went up about a 50-degree slope walk. Dave always thinks of fun things like this to do on our vacation. I reminded him that one sure sign of heat exhaustion is denial that you’re having heat exhaustion. He said we weren’t having heat exhaustion.

The road on the right came in from our mountain-goat climb to this church. We sat on the benches, drank our water bottles, and tried to recover.

I thought this was an interesting Mary, with candles askew.

We came down the hill to see the sculptor has branched out to cones. We clambered back up to the car park, and located a quick-stop on the road on the way home and drank cold drinks. Well, first I held the can to my head, trying in vain to get the red to fade and to cool down. I felt better after having the A/C blast on my face.

We passed this park on the way home. At first I thought the tractors were go carts and had a great time imaging children bashing into one another around the circular track. But Dave pointed out that they’re just stationary so kids can climb on them. Nobody was climbing today–too hot.

Sacro Monte–Orta, Italy


About 45 minutes from our hotel in Ranco on Lake Maggiore is the town of Orta, on Lake Orta. Built up in the hills above Orta is the Sacro Monte, a series of small chapels as part of a pilgrimage in homage to St. Francis of Assisi, who was really popular around this area. He was a regular guy who had a vision, eschewed fancy clothes in favor of a brown tunic with belt, and rode donkeys. He gave his all for his vision.

On the front of each small chapel was a number (#1, above, which had a diorama of St. Francis’ birth–very interesting, complete with wet nurse, midwife, and the laboring mother) and a hand directing the pilgrim to the next chapel.

Of course, we went out of order, not really reading Italian that well. It was only later that we caught on, and I’m sure it’s only because we both have advanced degrees. In all these chapels were carved wooden figures–life-sized mannequins in traditional, typical dress and posture. Some were humorous, like the children above, and some were amazingly realistic, blending well into the backdrops of the painted walls and ceilings.

Stanislao was here, 1987.

The small, mostly one-room chapels are placed throughout the woods on this hilltop, and became part of the scenery. This was begun in the 16th century, but some chapels were built as late as the 18th century.

Requisite cherubim painting on ceiling

We were prevented from touching, or entering the chapels by wrought iron gates; some of those were masterpieces in themselves.

One pilgrim that I know and love.

This chapel had lovely arches all around.

The chapels are close to each other. We read the sign outside this chapel and it talked about Francis being taken away in a fire cart. Okey dokey.

But we figured it out when we looked inside he was suspended from the ceiling with two stallions pulling a fiery chariot.

I like the way Dave framed this photo with the elegant hand just reaching into the scene. I was fascinated with the “clothing” as it seemed so vivid and so patterned and real.

Of course, not these men, but generally.

This is the scene to the side of the one above. I love the guy in red–and was trying to figure out how his stockings are held up.



The children played at the feet of the adults in the scene. We’ve noticed how often children are brought along to dinner here at the hotel, and they are expected to blend in and behave, unless of course, they’re an infant. Then all the wait staff comes over to see.

This chapel had two stories, but was closed.

It’s like he can see.


These women are mourning at Francis’ body.

This perfect little porch was added on later.

One of my favorite dioramas.


Couldn’t figure out why the man was climbing a pole, unless he wanted a better view. I think the man in the red bandanna and blue garb on the left looks like a cross-dressing pirate.



This little boy was at the gift shop with his sister–I figure one of his parents ran the thing.

Many times when you enter chapels sacred music is playing to get you in the mood not to be a dumb tourist. “The Eye of the Tiger” from the Rocky Balboa soundtrack was playing here. I guess workers were around back doing some cleaning.

This was scene in front–lots of important dignitaries and the Vatican Guard (?). Although each sign had an English translation on it, some of it was garbled and didn’t often tell you what was going on. I think they were debating Francis’ ascension to sainthood here.


A lovely little scene Dave shot.

Out front of the big church was this patio overlooking the island of Orta San Giulio.

There are nine Sacro Monte in the Northern Italian region, but this is the one closest to us. They collectively are now a World Heritage site.

Travel is Planned Disruption

This is post #1 of our trip to Italy and England, June 2008.

Italy2008_1_13We work so hard at keeping the status quo, keeping up with things, staying on time and on schedule in our lives. Things like flat tires, sick children, headaches, funerals, births insert themselves into our carefully crafted schedule and pull us off center and we resent the fact that we can’t fight our usual 100 little battles everyday in our usual way.

Why then, do we choose to travel, to take on a new set of 100 little battles, and where everything is planned disruption?

The flight from LAX to Atlanta was smooth, and we were able to catch up on our too-short night’s sleep. The meals were not-so-hot (and we had to pay for this displeasure), so Qdoba’s guacamole and chips were a great snack while we waited for the Milan airship to carry us to points beyond.

And they did until about six in the morning, Greenwich time, when we diverted to London because the “lavatories were having issues,” or something like that. It took ten minutes to fix the lavatories which had been shut down for about 90 minutes, and another 45 minutes to file the paperwork for our flight plan and to leave. One hot breakfast from a swift moving crew (if you call a warmed croissant a hot breakfast) later and we were in Milan. I think we were all more than happy to get off the plane.

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Find your way through the tube to get the car. Check.
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Get the car checked out. Check. They told us we had three scratches. Here’s one of them.

Get out of the airport. Check.

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Get on the autostrade and buy a map at the most happening place I’ve ever seen on the side of the road. Check.

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Get almost all the way there and then get lost. Check.

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Hotel Belvedere is a family-run restaurant that decided to upgrade with some new rooms.

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We’re in room #4 , on the right (in this photo), with a small balcony (first floor, which is really the 2nd floor in Europe) and it overlooks Lake Maggiore.

We check in amidst a huge lunch crowd at the restaurant–yes, they’ll save us a table for 1 or 1:30 p.m. but not past 2. We go upstairs, try to sleep –bad idea–freshen up and at 1:30 we go down to eat.

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Great food. I took pictures (of course).

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This cake is not ours, but is for a party for someone else.

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After lunch and brief rest, we go out driving, heading up to Ispra, about 15 minutes north of Ranco. This multi-colored church caught our eye, and I loved the women sitting on the bench, chatting it up on their cellphones.

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Even the most plain exterior can have an ornate and fanciful interior.

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Wrought Iron Gate, Ispra, Italy  •  June 2008

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Jetlagged travelers heading down to the Lake. This was taken by a British couple who happily chatted to us about sights to see in the area. We changed our plans because of their advice. She has a job at JRC, a research center run by the European Commission, which is here in Ispra (Dave visited here when he worked for State). She got a three-year contract which required her to relocate to Italy, and asked her husband, who had just retired, if he’d like to retire in Italy. He said it took him about 3 nanoseconds to make up his mind.

They have to drive their car up to England once a year for licensing reasons and they said they have no problems with the drive until about the last 20 km on the drive home when they hit Italy. He said some maps are “artist’s impressions” of the roads–completely unrelated to the actual routes. (That explains some things for us.)

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We walked along the waterfront for a few minutes.

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Couldn’t resist this shot. Maybe it’s these kinds of sights that draw me into planned disruption (although some days I think I’m getting too old to do jet lag with any grace). The juxtaposition of the sacred against the profane, the mundane with the celestial, the trivial contrasted with the significant, all fell away as we enjoyed the peaceful evening’s sunset on the waters of a foreign lake.

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Map of Our Trip, Italy-England 2008