Remembering our Holidays

This morning at breakfast many families were excitedly talking about their sightseeing plans in Milan, but for us, sadly it was time to head home. Thinking back on our holiday, there have been so many wonderful highlights at every destination. I’d like to share my favorite ones below.

Walking in the footsteps of history on Hadrian’s Wall where we could see the wide expanse of the Northumberland countryside the ancient Romans saw long ago.

Visiting The World of James Herriot in the Yorkshire town of Thirsk and seeing how the area where the stories took place including the Yorkshire Moors are exactly how I imagined it to be all these years.

Seeing magnificent dinosaur skeletons at the Museum of Natural History, beautiful artwork at the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museums, and viewing ancient artifacts at the British Museum.

Hearing the cicadas sing as we looked down into the valley from the hilltop towns of the Dordogne region of France.

Touring the replica cave of Lascaux as well as Grotte du Peche Merle where we saw cave paintings including hand prints and footprints  from 25,000 years ago.

Sailing down the river in Lyon on a warm summer’s evening to see the Notre Dame Basilica fully illuminated high on the hill above the city.

Strolling through the cobblestone streets of Bellagio watching ferries arrive to the call of the captain, “Bellagio, Bellagio!”

Standing in awe of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

It has been a memorable holiday. I hope you have enjoyed following our journey with us.

Spiritual Milano

It’s very hot here in Milano. We’ve been so lucky this summer to have experienced cool sunny weather for most of our trip until we reached Milano. Down by the Duomo is a funny sight. Attached to real palm trees are cold water misters. You would think people would gravitate to them, but they don’t seem to even have noticed them.

The church bells were tolling when we arrived at Sant’ Ambrogio. The original church dates back to the 4th century. Above the altar are precious mosaics in gold, but sadly they are not original. This church suffered damage during WWII. A 12th century canopy from it were fortunately taken to the Vatican for safe keeping during the war.  This church is very old. The wooden doors had iron bolts in them. The pulpit dates back to the 12th century and a Christian sarcophagus under it dates to the 4th century. 

To many pilgrims, this is a very spiritual place. The remains of St. Ambrose dressed in elegant robes lie in a beautiful glass case. A woman who felt very close to this saint, wiped her eyes as she sat before him. 

Down the street is San Mauizio, a 15th century church. It was once attached to the most important convent of the Benedictines in Milan. It was sweltering hot inside, but it was covered almost entirely with frescos in brilliant colors which helped us forget about the heat. My favorite were three paintings showing the story of Noah’s Arc. The artist painted beautiful animals such as elephants, dogs, and birds boarding the arc. There was also a precious painting of The Annunciation. As we left, a man working for the church stopped us and spoke about how he was touched by David’s enthusiasm taking photos. “I feel happy you are happy,” he said. 

The highlight of the day was viewing Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. We booked our tickets two months in advance which was lucky because the sign said there are no more tickets available until September. I always thought the painting was in a church but it is beside the church in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria Della Grazie. 

Leonardo was hired to paint the picture there which took him 6 years. He painted directly on the wall in layers. During WWII, the church was damaged but miraculously the painting survived. The last restoration in 1991 peeled away 500 years of restoration and took it back to the original painting.

Only 30 people at a time may view the painting for 15 minutes. Our guide created quite a dramatic entrance. We went through three air conditioned rooms where doors closed behind us and then suddenly the doors opened to the refectory where there it was in all its glory, The Last Supper. As I entered the room, everyone was standing in awe with cameras held high. Our guide let everyone savor this moment before telling the story of the painting. I was very moved by the whole experience.

Tonight we went to Naviglio Grande which is a canal here in Milan. In recent years this area has become revitalized and is very popular with tourists. On either side of the canal are outside cafes where tonight it seemed everyone had come to enjoy them.

We had dinner at a pizzeria and dined on pizza with Parma ham and mushrooms. Beside us a couple ordered a seafood pizza. It had clams in their shells on top of it along with some sort of large prawn in its shell. I thought it was quite unusual. 

During our meal a man appeared lit up with tiny lights. He tried to entice us with giant sunglasses with lights in them, cigarettes which said “smoking kills,” and a fan that said I Love Italy when he turned it on. Unfortunately he saw me looking at some cute animal keychains. They lit up and made animal sounds. For some reason I got talked into buying a cute donkey for 3 euro. “You may have 2 for 5 euro,” he said making a cute rooster crow. I offered him 4 euro and the deal was closed. “Enjoy your pets,” said the Canadians beside us. We all had a good laugh.

Walking back to the hotel we passed the Duomo all lit up. Crowds gathered to cheer on a violinist and dancers. It was amusing to watch  because I suspected the violin music was actually prerecorded and he was only pretending to play,  It was hard to leave the ambience of this amazing place and come back to the hotel. Tomorrow we fly home.

Art and History of Milano

The breakfast this morning at our hotel, NH Collection Presidente was incredible. There were omelette topping bars, a fruit station, cakes, tarts, and cookies, watermelon slices presented popcicle style, meats, cheeses, and those little strawberry shaped candies I saw yesterday, I took a bite and the American was right. They’re basically Italian Peeps!
We had hoped to tour the Duomo but the line for tickets in the hot sun was intense. We took a walk through the Vittorio Emmanuel Mall and while I looked in a bookshop, David enjoyed taking photos of people, many who were taking photos themselves,

At the bull, people spin three times on their heel to get good luck for life. Everyone was having fun doing it until one tourist wanted all sorts of still shots taken of herself on the bull, People were getting very agitated and she didn’t seem to care.

The Museo Poldi Pezzoli is named after a 19th century nobleman who lived there until he died in 1879. He was a man who enjoyed traveling and collecting great works of art. When he died, he left in his will for his estate to become a museum. 

The collections included exquisite religious paintings from the 1400’s, beautiful treasure cabinets, china, miniature compasses, and a miniature clock collection. We saw several rvideos of how the clocks looked in action, One made a candle appear and another had animals with moving eyeballs and feet.

La Triennale di Milano is a design museum. We visited their special exhibit Design For Children. The entrance to the exhibit was a bridge through a happy smiling pink face with google eyes. In the description of the exhibit it explained we were all children of a culture at one time, but don’t always remember it. I didn’t think this would be true of myself because I have fond memories of my childhood and my toys, but I saw several things I had forgotten.

The first display featured children’s furniture, It was Italian and from the 20’s and 30’s. There was an adorable merry go round with wooden ducks. We also saw a child’s barber chair shaped like a horse. 

Rocking horses filled an entire wall. I had forgotten I owned one. Games and mechanical toys were also featured, One was a robot attached to a tube and bulb you squeeze to make it move. I had forgotten I used to buy one shaped like a lobster when we stayed on Cape Cod.

Outside in the courtyard were giant plastic animals such as gorillas and horses. In front of it was a 1970’s display of kid’s street art. A video showed kids making things out of recycled materials.

Pinocchio was featured prominently. They had him represented as almost any toy you can think of,   He is huge in Italian culture. Today I see him featured in the Washington Post when they are fact checking government officials who can receive 1-5 Pinocchios for their statements.

Walking back to our hotel we passed Sforza Castle. Today it houses several museums. It looked dark and gloomy at dusk until suddenly it lit up making it almost seem to come alive.

We ended the evening at our favorite restaurant Bistro Duomo. It’s an inexpensive restaurant where you can order a small plate of pasta for $8. Outside the Duomo was all lit up and crowds were gathered all over the piazza listening to musicians. I could have sat in the square for hours listening to the music and looking at the lights. It truly is a magical place.

Encountering Interesting People in Milan

You know it’s going to be a hot day in Italy when the cicadas are singing by 10:00 am. By the time we started our journey to Milan from Lake Como on the ferry, people were already headed to the beaches with their mats and bags bulging with towels. I have to admit it was hard to leave such a beautiful peaceful place.

After taking a one hour train from Varenna to Milano Centrale, the main railway station, David went to the ticket machine to buy two metro tickets to our hotel. I noticed a woman in a long skirt standing beside him who appeared to be helping, but  I was immediately suspicious of her intentions, It turns out she had aggressively taken over the three euro transaction and tried to grab two euro coins in change for herself, but he took them from her. As David approached me with the tickets she angrily charged up behind him yelling in Italian, 

“Dejame pas!” (Leave me in peace) I yelled at her.  It’s Spanish not Italian so I’m not sure she understood, but she kept screaming about wanting two euros for “helping.”

“NO!” David shouted at her. She threatened to call the police and he told her go ahead, call them.  I looked around to see how everyone else including some train station employees were reacting. No response, This unfortunately may be a common occurrence there,

We love our hotel the NH Presidente, We are on the 8th floor and have a wonderful view of the duomo. Downstairs in the lobby, there were more interesting characters. Two American women were looking at the welcome treats which included All Sorts licorice, lemon water, and a jar of pink strawberry shaped treats. “What do you suppose those are?” said one American  woman to her friend,

“I think they’re Italian Peeps!” exclaimed her friend, 

I will have to try them myself tomorrow to find out. I suspect they may be marzipan.

The Milan Duomo is spectacular. We took a tour of the rooftop last summer and wanted to see the inside, but the line seemed a mile long. Vowing to go back early tomorrow morning we headed into the Civic Museum of Milan which is on the same piazza. It appears to be a small building with a winding ramp to the top, but it’s bigger than it looks and on each floor are beautifully organized art exhibits. We toured the special exhibit “New York New York” and it was so interesting to see how artists in the 1930s from Italy viewed New York. Many viewed it as a city of color, but tangled up full of taxis, people, buildings, subways, and lights.

One adorable moment was in a room with a painting by the Italian artist Carlo Carra titled “Summer.” It shows two bathers standing up with a sweet dog between them. We noticed a ten year old boy looking intently at the painting, Suddenly he took out his phone, but instead of photographing the painting, he took several photos of just the dog. It was vey sweet.

We ate dinner at a nice bistros beside Galleria Vittorio Emanuele which is a gorgeous inside passageway with all the most famous shops including Prada and Louis Vuitton. For us, just window shopping there was all we needed before heading back to our hotel at the end of another great day.

Dip into Switzerland 

It was a warm sunny day this morning and the little boutiques in Bellagio were so busy I had to wait in line just to see some reproductions of old posters of Lake Como. Down at the bank machine an American who had just arrived was quite distressed. “It said the transaction is not valid,” he told me. “It said the same thing at the other bank machine. How were you able to get cash?” he asked. As it turned out, he had never told his bank he was going abroad. For anyone traveling this is something you must do, we have learned from personal experience, or the bank will view your card as stolen.

We decided to visit Lake Lugano in Switzerland. To get there we took a ferry across Lake Como and a one hour bus ride to Lugano. The views from the bus were breathtaking. As he wove up and down steep hills on narrow roads, we could see the lakes below. Parts of the road were so narrow winding through tunnels our driver had to honk his horn as he approached every bend. 

When we arrived at the Swiss border, border patrol officers came aboard, looked at everyone, and waved us on through. 

Lake Lugano is very pretty. Surrounding the city are tall rugged mountain peaks accessed by gondolas or funiculars. At the water’s edge, people were renting the cutest retro 1950s paddle boats.  I was very surprised to learn this is an affluent town. All along the shaded shopping promenades were stores such as Gucci, Rolex, Prada, Cartier, Nespresso, and my favorite, Swatch. The difference between here and Boston is the stores seem a little more welcoming. We passed an old world cafe that looked right out of a movie set.

In the main square, two nicely dressed college age students approached us. “Do you speak English,” they asked. “We are in a contest with our scout troop where we have to travel from here to Lucerne. We have no money and we are hungry,” they said giving us a sad look. We didn’t believe them. David was very polite. He told them they looked pretty healthy so he was so sorry, but no. I, on the other hand, called them out on the scam and told them no scout troop would send people begging for money.

Switzerland is expensive. We followed the advice of our Rick Steves’ guide and ate in a wonderful market style cafe with fruit, cheese, pasta, sandwiches, and hot meals all served buffet style.

The Church of St Mary’s of the Angels looked similar to other churches in the area on the outside, but when we stepped inside, there was an enormous fresco which we learned is the most beautiful one in Switzerland.  It was created by a Milanese artist during the Renaissance and took him a decade to finish it.

On the way back to Lake Como our bus drove the same narrow winding roads with the horn tooting, but this time I was sitting on the outside toward the cliff. This driver was truly skilled taking one hairpin turn after another. “That was the most hair raising experience of my life. It was really scary,” said one of the passengers to a group of strangers back on the dock. 

Dinner tonight was on an outside patio in Bellagio. It is now 11:00 pm and there’s entertainment outside just down the street and a small retro carnival for young children with a train that is shaped like a caterpillar. We will really miss this beautiful place which we both agree is our current favorite place. Tomorrow we head to Milan.

Dreamy Gardens and Villas on Lake Como

It’s Bank Holiday weekend in Italy.  With everyone off work through Wednesday, by 9:00 am this morning the streets of Bellagio were lined from one end of town to the other with cars and people were crowding the ferry docks ready to travel to spots all over Lake Como. 

This morning we walked along the waterfront in Bellagio to Villa Melzi. It was built by the Vice President of the Italian Republic founded by Napolean between 1801-1803. With its Neoclassical architecture it was used as a summer residence.

The villa was so pretty to walk through with fish ponds with lily pads, Cypress trees, palm trees, and gazebos that jutted out into the water. As we walked along the gravel paths, we could hear the cicadas sing in the early morning heat of the day while church bells from distant villages rang out across the lake. Motor boats sped by made of  wood polished like glass.

Back in Bellagio waiting for the ferry, I sat on some stone steps watching the waves lap ashore. It was mesmerizing and I could imagine myself wading into the clear water to swim. It seemed like such a perfect thing to do. I noticed that people all over the lake were enjoying the water. If we come here again, I’ll have to bring a bathing suit.

We took a ferry to Lenno to visit Villa del Balbianello which is out on a peninsula. There are three options to get there: a speed boat, a short 20 minute hike with some ups and downs, and a 45 minute huff and puff hike over the top of the peninsula. We chose the 20 minute hike. 

Villa del Balbianello’s most recent owner had no children and when he died in 1988, he left his villa to Italy. During his time at the villa he was a businessman and adventurer.  He attempted to climb Mt. Everest and  visited the North Pole as well as numerous other countries around the world.

 We took an English tour and learned the former owner was into organization and designed some rooms to look like a museum with artifacts from the Qin Dynasty, the Maya, and Incas in beautifully lit display cases. There were  several secret passages in the villa down to the lake because of kidnappings for ransom of wealthy people long ago. When our guide opened a door revealing a set of stairs leading to a secret passageway, there were oohs and ahs from our group. Our guide was very informative. At the end of the tour, she got a round of applause. The couple behind us rolled their eyes because they thought the tour was too long, but we liked it.  David praised the guide and she beamed with pride.

On our way out of the villa we passed a bride and groom posing for,photos. The reception was being set up in one of the buildings and had neatly set tables with beautiful linens, china, silver, and crystal, White roses were everywhere.

By the time we left, the villa was closing for the wedding.  Walking out the front gate we passed a small group attempting to get into the villa. “We drove 60 kilometers to get here,” said one man to the villa’s employee, but he was told no, the villa was closing.  Some heated words were exchanged in Italian, but in the end, no one else was allowed in.

Back in Lenno I saw a huge group lining up for ice cream. I tried to get in line, but it was an every man for himself mentality.  The girls scooping the ice cream were at their wit’s end because there were so many people. When I finally got ready to order I decided on raspberry ice cream. In Italian it’s lampone, but when I asked the young woman how to pronounce it (meaning in Italian) she appeared irritated with the idea of small talk and barked at me in English “Raspberry!” Oh well. it was a tasty treat on a hot day.

Dinner tonight was at a restaurant called La Punta. It is so popular we had to book it weeks ago. We dined outside on Mediterranean chicken and pesto pasta and it was delicious. 

Tonight back at our hotel the ferries are running late. We have many options for tomorrow including a boat ride into Switzerland for the day. But even if we decide to just stay here in Bellagio, spending another day on one of the prettiest lakes I have ever seen will be all I’ll need to have another perfect summer  day.

Off to Lake Como

Traveling by train in Europe can be an enjoyable way to move around. Because we booked our train tickets last month, our tickets for a five hour journey from Lyon to Milan on the TGV (high speed French rail) in first class only cost $50.

People watching on a train is interesting. In front of us were two very articulate young men, one from Canada and one from Washington DC. They did not know each other, but carried on long informative discussions about the Great War, US politics, and travel. “I just love Rick Steves,” said the Canadian. “He is just so relaxed and has written about every country in Europe.” 

A college student across from us fell asleep. When the Italian border patrol came aboard, he awoke with a start when they tapped him on the shoulder and stood in front of him dangling his backpack. Security is tight here. In the Lyon train station, we saw eight armed soldiers carrying scary looking weapons. They walked in formation at a snail’s pace looking left and right as they moved. 

Out the window we passed through mountain villages with roaring fresh water streams. Two dogs bounded down into the water as we passed by,  There’s something so interesting about emerging from a tunnel from France to Italy. The houses are different, more of a rust color with tiled roofs. Even the landscape is different. It’s rockier and drier, but outside Torino, we saw mountains in the distance covered with snow.

As we journeyed on, the conversation in front of us turned to culinary arts. “My friend and I were at a Vietnamese restaurant and I wanted something spicy.  The waitress asked me if I wanted it mild, medium, or hot. My friend told me, you don’t understand, the hot is going to be suicidal.  So I ordered medium because mild is for cowards.  When I tasted it my lips went numb.  I’m not kidding, I could not feel my lips,” said the Canadian.

After arriving in Milano Centrale train station we took a local train to Varenna on Lake Como. Rick Steves describes Varenna as a back door type village because it’s not overrun with tourists. 


Lake Como on the way to Bellagio


Lake Como car ferry

From Varenna we took a short ferry ride here to Bellagio. Our hotel, Hotel Metropole, is very old world style, but with all the conveniences of the modern world such as air conditioning. Our room is on the second floor with stunning views overlooking the lake. 


Tonight as we sat outside watching the lights flicker on the opposite shore it felt as if summer holidays in Europe are in full swing. Suddenly the sky lit up across the lake with fireworks. What a warm welcome to Lake Como!


Lyon: The Triumph and Tragedy of History

A light rain was falling this morning as we left our hotel. With our umbrellas in hand, we headed out to explore the city with hopes it would soon turn sunny.

A sleek modern tram took us to our first stop, The History and Deportation Center.  The museum focuses on the resistance of Nazi occupation and the deportation of Jewish residents to concentration camps. Lyon was bombed on May 26, 1944. Over time, stories from personal experience are no longer passed down to the younger generation in families.  The collection of artifacts and audio visual recordings of people who lived through the war, many as children, were made so we can see their faces and hear their stories.

Artifacts included propaganda posters representing solidarity, hard work, and family, photographs, journals, stamps, and personal possessions. 

In the basement of the museum it was pitch black. As our eyes adjusted I noticed a display in a concrete bin along the wall. Was it a bin of coal or representative of the Holocaust, I wondered. As my eyes adjusted to the light I saw it was a model diorama of Lyon during the war when all the houses were in blackout mode. Continuing on we came to photographs, passports, and stories of the Jewish residents deported to Germany. A massive memory book contained all of their names. The tour ended with a powerful and moving video of Liberation Day and the happiness people felt, but the struggles they faced moving on.

We took the metro to the Museum of Fine Arts. It is housed in an old Abbey which was a very prestigious place for nuns during the 17th and 18th centuries. I was amazed by their collection: statues by Rodin, a wall from ancient Egypt given to one of the archaeologists from Lyon who found it, Egyptian shabtis, mummies, ancient pottery, and paintings by Pissarro and Monet, Degas, and Renoir as well as numerous other masters.

Back in town we went inside some of the shops. The weather turned warmer and the children were back playing in the misters down by the footbridge.

Tonight we took a one hour Lyon City Boat Tour. Lyon is beautifully illuminated at night. Down at the confluence of the Rhone and the Saone rivers, it has been completely revitalized with striking modern architecture. Euronews, for example, had a beautiful glass building with a green pattern on it that appeared to have two holes cut through it. A gorgeous new shopping complex looked almost space age and was lit with purple and blue lights. We will miss this vibrant city. Tomorrow we head to Lake Como in Italy.

Exploring Historic Lyon

Returning our rental car in Lyon this morning was quite a challenge. So many of the city streets were blocked for road repairs that our car’s GPS sent us in circles. Thank goodness for our mobile phone. We were able to call Enterprise and get directions to the 6th floor of a parking garage. This garage like all garages here required skill to maneuver around tightest corners. “You live in a place with wide open spaces,” said  Chris, the owner of our accommodation in Sarlat. ” If you had learned to drive here, you would find it easy to squeeze a car into the tightest of spaces.”

The metro system here in Lyon is very modern and from the metro we boarded an old world funicular to the top of the town. The Basilica Norte Dame is very ornate with mosaic tiled floors in a floral pattern and enormous mosaics on the wall showing bible stories and stories from French history. The stained glass windows in the front all have the most beautiful shade of blue like the sky on a clear blue day or water in the Caribbean. I cannot define this color, but have seen it everywhere in France this trip. I am hoping to find a simple bracelet or necklace to remind me how pretty it is here. 

Feeling hungry we hiked down the steep hill into the old town on what seemed like a thousand steps. People hiking up stopped every few steps for gulps of water out of bottles they carried. I did not envy them. It seemed like climbing Mt. Washington yet children dashed up the steps as if it was nothing.

The old town is so pretty. It was once financed by the silk industry in the 16-19th century. We followed an organ grinder down the street and were treated to a taste of life here long ago. 

Taking the funicular back up the steep hill, we visited the Roman Theaters and Gallo Roman Museum. Lyon was first settled in 43 CE. The museum features prehistoric and Roman artifacts all found in the area. At Thoreau we tell the fourth graders how many archaeological discoveries today are made by accident. Between 2002-2004 while excavating the land for an underground parking garage by the river they found statues, the remains of boats, and even part of a brass horse statue. 

Outside the museum are the remains of two Roman amphitheaters which once held 10,000 people. Today you can explore them and even attend concerts there.

Heading back into the old town there was almost a party atmosphere. People were trying limoncello in a small shop and children dashed through water misters that seemed to magically appear out of the sidewalk.

 It’s been a great day. The Fitbit reads 8 miles today.  I think it’s time to head off to bed.

From Sarlat to Lyon

After a very pleasant breakfast this morning at our accommodation Les Cordeliers in Sarlat, I took my unlocked mobile phone to Orange, a major carrier in France. For $39 they set my phone up with 10 GB of data and I can use the phone in Italy too. No one spoke English there so the salesman set up a conversation for us on Google translate. The funny part is the keyboard is not QWERTY so finding the keys was a challenge. I remember this from my days here about 10 years ago when internet cafes were everywhere and were the only way to get online.

The roadside stops on the motorways in France are really nice and in my opinion way better than what we have in Massachusetts. They have grocery stores selling salads and sandwiches, a take out with baguette sandwiches, and even a place with a little buffet featuring hot meals and chocolate mousse. The coffee vending machines grind the coffee so that each cup is freshly brewed. Outside are picnic areas and well maintained playgrounds for kids.

The drive to Lyon was about four hours. As we approached the city the road began to rise in elevation.  These are the foothills of the Alps.

 The roads are in excellent condition, but the tolls cost us $34. Our hotel, Hotel Des Celestines  is right in the city center. 

Lyon Theater

Fountains in Lyon

We used Google maps on the phone to guide us to the bistro where we had dinner. There are two major rivers in Lyon and we crossed over a pedestrian bridge to get to the old historic town. As we crossed the bridge, a sightseeing boat sailed by and we could see people dining inside. 

View of Basilica

It is so pleasant to sit outside at a cafe on a warm summer’s evening and just people watch.  One woman walked by pushing a small stroller but instead of a baby inside, it was a small white dog. Everyone smiled at the sight.  Other people walked by window shopping and we noticed some really pretty things for sale. In one window was a display of beautiful leather loafer style shoes all in beautiful colors. Another display had music boxes with retro designs.  The city is known for marionettes and we saw them for sale in several shops.

Lyon is beautifully illuminated in the evening,  At the top of the hill overlooking the city, the Norte Dame Basilica was one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen at night. We sat on some steps with other tourists to just admire it.

View of Basilica at Night

Back at the plaza across from our hotel, the fountain was all lit up even though it was close to midnight.  We are anxious to explore the city and learn more about this amazing place tomorrow.