Two Days in Milan

Day One

I’ll be honest.  The first day of every overseas trip is always a wipe out, which is exactly why we  try to arrive before a tour begins.  So, not too many photos from day one, but a couple of tips.

The train from the airport to Milan’s central station is an easy and inexpensive option.  Just be sure to buy your ticket in advance.  We were feeling pretty smug when we walked by the long line at the ticket window.  Although you select a particular time, fortunately you don’t have to get it right.  You can take any train within a three hour window of the time on your ticket.  Our flight arrived early (how often does THAT happen?), so we were able to board an earlier train than the one we were ticketed for.

We stayed at the Hotel Sanpi, which is within walking distance of the train station, although we opted to take a taxi.  Those €6 were well spent!  We were TIRED.  The Hotel Sanpi was recommended by one of the posters on the OAT Forum (thank you, Ted).  It was a great choice.

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After a quick nap and lunch, we headed to the nearby public gardens.  We walked past an art museum,  a planetarium, and the Museum of Natural History, whose exterior reminded me of a Muslim mosque we’d seen in Spain.  We didn’t have the energy to go inside ANY of those places.  In fact, a good part of the afternoon was spent on a park bench, staring glassy eyed at I can’t remember what.  

There are lots of restaurants close to Hotel Sanpi.  We didn’t like Il Carpaccio, where we had our first bad meal in Italy  (I make better risotto), but the Azzurra Grill more than made up for our lousy lunch.  The veal chop with white wine and artichoke sauce was amazing, as were the profiteroles.

Day Two

Mike was up and out early, headed to Cremona to spend the next three days hanging out with his violin buddies.  As for me, I planned on going wild in Milano.

Step 1: purchase the €4.50 24 hour metro pass, and head for Milan’s hot spot—the Duomo.  Hey, you go wild YOUR way, and I’ll go wild mine.

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My Destination

With my iPhone in hand, eyes fixed on my downloaded google map, I was able to find my way to the metro station a few blocks away.  For a normal person, it would have been an easy task, but I have always been directionally challenged. 

As I was headed toward the Duomo’s ticket window, a young woman representing Gladiator Tours, wearing killer palazzo pants (I really should have gotten a photo of them) sold me a package tour, including  “skip the line” for the terraces, the cathedral and the museum, all for €30.  E1D4D8B3-8E8B-42D7-A247-4166AF23807CWas that a good deal?  Initially I didn’t think so, after I saw the prices at the ticket window, AND learned that my ticket didn’t include the elevator.  (180 steps to the top).  BUT, I was mistakenly sent to the wrong door, so as an apology, Gladiator Tours gave me the elevator ride for free.  All good, so far.

But wait, there’s more.  “Skip the line”doesn’t mean that you actually don’t wait in ANY line.  You still have to go through security, being wanded, one by one, AND then you wait for the elevator, which fits ten people at a time (one of the ten being a staff member).  THAT took almost 20 minutes.

Here’s what I saw when I exited the elevator.  

Yep, lots of repairs.  After walking as far as I could, I encountered yet ANOTHER line.  This one was for the elevator down.  Well, I backtracked, and when I did, I discovered you could walk through a passage to get to the Duomo’s OTHER side, which was FAR more interesting. If you took the stairs up, that is the side you would have initially encountered.  

If you are so inclined, you can climb 80 more steps to get to the rooftop.  (Yes, I have a thing about counting steps.  I can’t help it.  It’s what I do.)  

Ready for the GOOD photos?

I decided to REALLY skip the line, and walk down the steps to meet the Gladiator guide for the tour of the interior of the Duomo.  She was FANTASTIC, even though she wasn’t wearing gorgeous palazzo pants. Of course, our OAT trip will include a Duomo tour, (but not the roof), so I can do an instant replay.  I’ll wait till then to share my interior photo, even if I decide to skip the tour and go to the mall for gelato and people watching.  It never gets old.

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Wonder if they do your “make over” while still on skates? I wasn’t curious enough to find out.

Anyway, after the interior tour (with “whisperers”, so we could easily hear the guide), I figured that the €30 was not such a bad deal.  I skipped the Duomo museum, opting instead to take advantage of my metro pass to cruise around Milan on the tram and underground.  

I THOUGHT I’d prefer the tram.  Nope.  You can’t really see THAT much.  It is impossible to understand what the conductor is saying, plus there are no maps on the trams, AND the stops are not clearly marked.  So yes, I got lost.  But no big deal. I hopped off, crossed the tracks, and kept walking till I found another stop.  I had MUCH better luck with the subway, which WAS clearly marked AND had maps.  

Rick Steves suggested visiting  Naviglio Grande, which he described as “Milan’s old canal port — once a working-class zone, now an atmospheric nightspot for dinner or drinks”.   Who am I to ignore a recommendation from Rick?  So, off I went.  

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The canal was interesting, for about five minutes.  I admired the “love locks” that European cities seem to fancy. 

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Not so sure about the nightlife.  Maybe I was too early.

Here’s the only other patron at my sidewalk cafe.   Looks like he is also drinking an aperol spritzer.  

Check out the buildings across the way.  Don’t you want to do unspeakable violence to the inventor of spray paint?  (And I’m a pacifist at heart.)  What possesses someone to mark up buildings and other random surfaces?  Makes me think of dogs,  trees, and fire hydrants.  But I digress.

Including my little jaunt to the canal, I ended up getting 5 trips out of my 24 hour pass.  That’s much better than paying  €1.5 per trip, wouldn’t you say?  Bet you didn’t expect math would be in this post.

I’ll leave you to ponder graffiti, sidewalk cafes and metro passes.  On to Tremezzo…

Northern Italy and the Dolomites

What could be better that Northern Italy in the fall?  Right now, nothing comes to mind, which is a good thing, because that’s where we will be for 19 glorious days.

We arrive in Milan 4 days before our OAT trip starts.  How in the world did it happen that one of the least fashion savvy women on this planet will be in Milan during fashion week?  I imagine the streets will be loaded with even more beautiful people than usual, wearing exquisite clothes.  Will that change my determination to travel with only a carry on and backpack?  The answer to that question is “not a chance”.   Initially the plan was for us to exit the plane and head for the train without a detour to baggage claim, but then we got a call from our trip leader.  She reminded us that although it will be warm in Milan and Tirano, temperatures will drop during our visits to the Swiss Alps and the Dolomites.  So, that means we will need bulkier items.  I was able to fit everything into my trusty Eagle Creek carry on, but Mike’s clothes are considerably larger than mine.  So, one of us will be checking luggage.  That’s okay.  I’ll get a chance to see whether international flights are as picky as domestic ones about carry on size.  On our last domestic flight, I discovered that United has changed the dimensions for allowable carry ons to 9″ x 15″ x 21″.  My trusty Eagle Creek bag is 10″ x 13″ x 22″,  or 2,860 cubic inches, versus an allowable 2,835 cubic inches.  Really?  Will the gate person play hard ball?  Because we will be waiting at baggage claim anyway, it doesn’t really matter.  I’m determined to pack light regardless, because after our first night in Milan, Mike and I will be going our separate ways, and I will be traveling solo by train, bus and boat.

Mike is heading off to Stradavari’s old stomping grounds –Cremona–to hang out with his violin making buddies.  While he’s there, I’ll be in Tremezzo, on Lake Como.  Wonder if George and Amal will need a baby sitter for the twins?  And will I have packed the proper outfit?

Ah yes, packing.  I did my usual clothes “auditioning”.  It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to amp up my quick drying wardrobe.
For my last “one bag” trip, I  used a laundry service midway, because I spent half of the trip in just one place–Beja, Portugal.  This trip, however, I will wash as I go, because over 19 days, we will be staying in 8 different hotels.    This also took some serious retooling of my laundry aids.  The expandable clothes line I packed last time was pretty worthless when I couldn’t find two suitable attachment points that would also allow me use of the bathroom (thus the need for laundry service).

Thanks to my travel buddy Sally, I now own “clothespins” that can be looped over shower bars, and foldable hangers.

What I had never done before is something that bloggers Terri and James of Gallivance recommend: try living out of the bag for a week.  Of course, they were preparing for an around the world trip lasting several months, while I’m just going to one country for less than three weeks, so I didn’t feel the need to literally live out of my bag.  Instead, what I HAVE been doing is limiting myself to the clothes that I plan on taking and washing them out in the sink.  So far so good.  My LL Bean travel pants have been drying in less than 8 hours!

IMG_7519Some travelers swear by packing cubes.  In the past, I relied on my jumbo zip lock bags instead and they have served me well, but this time I decided to give a packing cube a try.  This cube opens on both sides, and is divided into two compartments–perfect for stashing things that  I will be using on a daily basis.  To my surprise, I was able to fit pajamas, underwear, toiletry bag and laundry supplies, plus a few small items–jewelry and scarves.  So, I can pull this out in every hotel, and I have the equivalent of two bureau drawers.  Take a look.

Best of all, it fits nicely into my carry on, leaving just enough room for everything else.  If you are interested in what I was able to jam into my bag, here’s a link to the Google spreadsheet.

Of course, this list could come in handy in the event that my luggage is lost.  (Which it was, briefly, on my trip to Portugal and Spain earlier this year.)

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I suspect the reason I haven’t used packing cubes was my carry on is already divided into neat sections.  As for whether I folded or rolled, the answer is, I did both.

Okay, so enough with the packing.  Full disclosure, although I sincerely hope that what I share is helpful to others, I REALLY have recorded it to help me, because I tend to forget what I took, what worked, what didn’t, if I have’t written it down.  Yes, a mind is a terrible thing to lose, or waste, or whatever is going on with that empty space atop my shoulders.

On to the other preparations.  I got tickets for the train from the airport to our first hotel, from this very helpful website.  There are others, but I found Trainline easy to use.  Who wants to deal with unfamiliar ticket machines, in another language, while jet lagged?  Not me.  Being a bit obsessive compulsive, I also got tickets for when I’m traveling solo to lower my anxiety level.   From the Como train station, I have a choice of taking either a ferry or a bus to my hotel in Tremezzo.  Thanks to the internet, I have the schedules for both, and can decide which option is most appealing once I get there.

What a difference from my travel days in my early 20’s, when I got on a plane to Colorado without any reservations, with very little money, and only a vague idea of where I was going and what I was going to do when I arrived.   With google maps, trip advisor and the internet’s search options, I can be somewhat spontaneous, while limiting the risk of bad decisions.  (The thought that a bad decision was possible never crossed my mind in my younger days!)

Hope you’ll follow along on this next adventure.

Catania, Taormina, Mt Etna–Oh My!

Okay, be honest.  Before the G7 meeting, had you ever heard of Taormina?  If I had, it didn’t register, until we booked this trip.

But before heading to Taormina, we still had lots to see and do in Catania.  I’ll tell ya, I was totally unprepared for how much I enjoyed Catania.  What a pleasant surprise.  It was easy to get around, with lots to see, and of course,  with an abundance of great restaurants.

The city was conquered by the Romans in 263 BC, and as with other areas in their empire, the Romans left their mark, which the city has wisely preserved.

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I love the way the old and modern structures coexist.  This amphitheater lies beneath the modern city

Yes,  Catania has the requisite number of churches, fountains and statues.  It also has lots of interesting streets,  like this one.  It isn’t immediately apparent, but as you climb all those stairs,   P1010550

you are rewarded with views like this.    P1180568

As one would expect of a city smack dab on the ocean, Catania’s fish market was HUGE, as were its products.  Check out that swordfish.  P1010572

Coming from coastal Massachusetts, however, this girl wasn’t all that impressed.

I DID get excited about the market’s fruit, though, especially those cherries.  I don’t know who was more excited about my purchase–him or me?  To show his appreciation,  he gave me a slice of the most delicious cantaloupe I’ve ever tasted.   Fresh, delicious fruit… aah, that’s what I call quality of life!P1180580

But I didn’t fill up on cherries.  Good thing because we had yet another incredible lunch at a little outdoor cafe off of the main square, across from the cathedral.  You’d think by now I would remember to write the cafe’s name down or take a picture of the menu, but I did neither.  Sorry, future visitors to Catania.  I believe it was on the corner, facing the elephant’s behind, where the tan umbrellas are.

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On to Taormina, where security was tight.  Good thing our group was in great shape, because we had to walk quite a distance.  Bus access into the town and to the amphitheater was limited, even though the leaders would not be arriving for another week.

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Notice the two different uniforms of the military/security people in this photo.  I think every country must have sent their own people.  There were LOTS more milling about!

The amphitheater was the perfect spot for a group photo.  And what a group we were! All seasoned travelers, everyone was considerate, friendly and easy to be with.  Of course I had my favorites (and they know who they are), but I would be thrilled to see any of them on a future trip.

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Great traveling companions!  Back row: Tom, Maxine, Jane, Sharon, Ann,  Carol. (Ann should have been in the front!)  Middle row: Sue, Sue, Lavonne, Al, Joel and Henry  Front row: Mike, me, Daniel (way in front), Shirley and Owen.

The Greek Amphitheater is still used for outdoor concerts, but those white plastic chairs are not normally in place.  People usually sit on the stone steps, bleachers or the grassy sections.  The plastic seats were set up for the following week’s G-7 conference.

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The view from the site is unforgettable.  See that cloud of smoke in the distance?  That’s Mount Etna.

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And that’s where we were headed on our last day in Catania.  But first, one last shot of Taormina.  Yes, the streets in the city are a bit steep, but none of our group needed a golf cart to get around.  (I’m just sayin’…)

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Okay, so I’ll admit it.  I was absolutely thrilled to be able to hike on an active volcano.  Of course, this being OAT, we were accompanied by Marco, our expert local guide who made sure we were safe at all times.  Marco came equipped wth visual aids, walking sticks and hard hats!P1010643

We learned our group was unique, in that EVERYONE made the hike and descended into the lava tubes.  Apparently this was a first for Marco.  He said on all his other tours a couple of people waited at the base and didn’t take part in all the activities.  Yay us!

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Here’s one of our guide, Daniel’s, photos.  As you can see from our clothing (and my hat) It was cold and windy on the volcano.  I was glad I’d packed my fleece!

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That’s not OUR group in the distance.  I wasn’t that brave (foolhardy) to stay behind to get that shot!  In fact, WE were up higher than they, as you can see from the angle of my shot.

So why did we need hard hats?  Well, when you climbed down into a lava tube, it’s a good idea to protect your head and turn your head lamp on.

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Yet another one of Daniel’s photos–the group inside the lava tube.

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If you think this blog post was a whirlwind, you’d be right. And that’s how it felt to be on the trip.  A very nice, interesting, FUN whirlwind.  We definitely got a lot for our money!

We said good-bye to our new friends at that night’s farewell dinner.

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Once again, thank you Daniel!

 

Most were headed home, but very early the following morning (5 AM),  Mike, Owen, Shirley and I started our Malta adventure, which I’ll be posting about next.

Oh, To Be Rich in Ancient Sicily! 

No one knows for sure who lived in the Villa Romana del Casale.  Some think it might have been the country home of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius; others theorize a provincial governor lived and conducted administrative duties here.

It was constructed in the middle of the 4th century AD, and owes its remarkable preservation to the mudslide that covered the villa in the 12th century.  The building remained hidden until the 1950’s excavations.

Katya, our local expert, explained that we were going to view some of the finest examples of Roman mosaics in all of Europe, with scenes ranging from Homeric escapades to depictions of daily life, at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Katya was excellent, and that was true of all the local guides on our trip.  We learned that our main guide, Daniel, had a choice of 4 or 5 different local guides for each site, and I have to say, he chose very well. Katya was interesting and so informative, a delight to listen to.

We began our tour by the aqueduct, which was the source of water for the baths–starting with the hot bath, and ending with the frigidarium, the cold bath.

The slaves kept the fires going in these ovens so that the baths were at the proper temperature.
I wasn’t taking notes, so don’t hold me to it, but I THINK this was the frigidarium.  Or it was something else.  Whatever.  It was impressive.


The main attraction of the villa is the floor mosaics, and they are absolutely magnificent.

Probably the most famous room, the 10  maidens are exercising, wearing the ancient version of bikinis.  And look, someone appears to have won the swimsuit competition, earning her a crown and a palm leaf to wave around.


Not quite so famous, but certainly as intriguing were these: one  example  of the many scenes of a hunt.

This woman’s clothing indicates she was from the eastern empire, possibly Muslim.  There is another mosaic of a similarly attired woman, being carried off by soldiers.   It isn’t hard to imagine what that mosaic was illustrating.

No commentary necessary for this one.


I particularly liked the depiction of the theater.  Looks like the legend of the Cyclops was being featured.

Those white squares on the mosaic–I thought someone had been littering, but no.  They were placed there intentionally to absorb moisture.


Here’s a close up of Cyclops.  I really DID like that mosaic!  Isn’t it amazing what the craftsmen were able to do with little colored stones?

One last look at the countryside and we’ll be on our way.  Our timing was fantastic.  We were leaving, just as hoards of tourists were arriving!

Phoenicians, Salt and The Port of God

What an island!  Strategically placed between Africa and Europe, the east and the west, Sicily was home to successive waves of conquerors, and for our second day, we visited one of the conquering heroes’ settlements.  The Phoenicians, originally from the area that is now Lebanon, were among the first waves.

But first,  we took a close look at the commodity that gave us the word “salary”.  Sal (salt) was once used by the Romans as currency.  Unlike other parts of the world, where salt is mined, the salt here is extracted from the sea.  The water evaporates from shallow beds, leaving behind a substance that is low in sodium, high in potassium and magnesium.  The Trapani salt is practically a health food!  The sea, the wind, the sun all work together, with a little help from human workers, to create this miracle ingredient.  Doesn’t get more natural than that.



After learning more than I ever thought possible about salt, we boarded a boat for the little island of Mothya, where almost 3000 years ago,  Phoenicians built a fortress and a settlement.


There’s not much left on Mothya, just some walls, (header photo) and a museum that once was the home of Giuseppe Whittaker.  Whittaker, in fact, owned the entire island.  Fortunately, he was interested in archaeology and history, left his home and property to the public.

The salt museum contained this rendition of what the settlement was imagined to be.


It’s not a big island; we were able to walk from one end to the other, working up an appetite for this amazing feast!


Our last stop was at the place the Arabs called “Marsa Allah”, the Port of God, now known as Marsala, for wine tasting.   Check  out the size of those barrels.  That’s a whole lot of Chicken Marsala!


It is rare indeed that my wine glass is still full after a wine tasting.  In fact, I would say that this was a first.  To me, Marsala is way too sweet.  Okay for cooking, but definitely not my choice for drinking.

Next stop, the Valley of the Temples.