Our incredible luck with the weather throughout our Europe jaunt reached an end the next morning. We had purposely chosen a hotel close to the airport and on the bus line, but we still ended up absolutely worked in attempts to get to our rental car. The series of events unfolded like this:
For starters, it was positively pissing down rain. Next, we saw our bus go by just as we stepped out of the hotel meaning the longest possible wait. Third, we waited at what we thought was our bus stop, a bus stop with no cover from the rain. Fourth, after 20 minutes exposed to the elements we had the horrific realization that we were at the wrong stop. Fifth, the realization of our folly occurred when we saw another of our buses go down the street - ditto previous sentiment regarding longest possible wait. Sixth, we walked for 10 minutes looking for the 'next' bus stop but couldn't find it. Finally, we arrived at the correct bus stop- which incidentally was covered from the rain and was only a 2 minute walk from the hotel. Soaked. Apparently the bus takes a different route sometimes...of course it does, why wouldn't it. It was certainly one of 'those' moments...
Finally we got on a bus and made it to the rental car desk where a couple of signatures and a good ol' swipe of the plastic left us with the keys to a white Fiat 500. A mean set of wheels, let me tell ya. A quick stop back at the hotel to grab our bags (we may have been too stupid to find the correct bus stop on our first try, but at least we had the good sense to leave our bags at the hotel where they remained nice and dry) and we were on the road headed west towards Milan.
First stop was Verona. Yes, that Verona...the one we all read about in 9th grade in "Romeo and Juliet". We pulled into town and found parking even in spite of the nearby shop keepers snide reluctance to break a €5 note so we could pay for parking.
After a quick lunch we wandered the town using only the ridiculously unhelpful (I'm convinced purposefully so) map in our guidebook and our own good sense, the former working hard to get and us lost, the latter working hard to keep us found. We managed to see the sights in quick time: Castlevecchio, the Duomo and the main square. Of course, no visit to Verona is complete without a visit to "Juliet's House" - which actually has virtually no historical significance, and in fact didn't even exist until the 1970's when the tourist authorities added a balcony to a building that once belonged to the real-life Capulet family in a nice courtyard near the city center in order to pacify the tourists who apparently were hankering for a special place to complete their Verona pilgrimage. There is a little tunnel that is completely covered in wads of used chewing gum (charming) and graffiti (more of the 'AM + G 2011' in a heart - type then the normal street art sort). In the courtyard there is a bronze statue of Juliet, again from the 1970's which has, judging from the sheen of her right breast, been accosted by tourists about a billion times since it's creation. Apparently, rubbing the statue in this particular special place will bring the visitor a new lover. We politely posed for a few pictures with Juliet but gave the statue molestation a miss. The last notable feature of this spot is the aforementioed balcony which you could visit for €8 per person. After about a nanosecond of deliberation we decided to give this a miss as well; opting instead for a swing through the obligatory souvenir shop that is there in the courtyard to peruse the countless cheesy t-shirts, love cards, magnets, postcards and just about any other piece of crap you could write "Romeo + Juliet" on. Don't get me wrong, if I was a 13 year old girl I would gladly have spent my life savings on some of this stuff...I am not, so I didn't...and we retreated quickly to a safe distance.
Back in the car we headed north towards our real destination: Lake Garda, one of the lakes that make up Italy's famous Lakes Region. We didn't have a hotel or anything booked but, on a hunch (and a bit of advice from my old colleague Aussie Dave) we headed along the east coast of the lake to the very north end. In the quaint town of Riva Del Garda we secured accommodation for the night at the modest, but acceptable, Hotel Gardesana which, for €60, gave us a room with WI-FI, breakfast in the morning and a scalding hot shower. I will say this about the Hotel Gardesana: it is a nice enough place, particularly for our standards, and we had an amazing view of the Dolomites right from our own balcony... BUT, it is perhaps the loudest hotel I have ever stayed in- when we switched on the light upon arrival the flourescent light hummed like an A380 preparing for take off for a good 15 minutes until it 'warmed up', we could hear the neighbor's TV over our own, there were random bangs at odd hours and random intervals throughout the night, and lest we forget the wooshes of water running through the pipes, an apparent millimeter from our heads. In spite of all this, we managed to get a descent night of sleep, although just barely.
For dinner we had (surprise-surprise) Italian. A little burned out on pizza (sacrilegious to say, I know) Gina got a bowl of vegetable soup and salad while I got a caprece salad and an antipasto plate. Now, the soup was tasty, even though it came to the table at precisely 211 degrees fahrenheit and promptly singed Gina's taste buds. The real problem was that it tasted suspiciously like it had a chicken stock base. Now, it could have been the singed taste buds or it could have been that she was unable to bear the thought of another goddamn pizza, but, in any case, she ate the whole bowl and promptly (and I mean before we left the restaurant) started to feel like s***. We made it back to the Gardesana and Gina curled up in bed, where she remained until the next morning. Poor little lamb's vegetarian stomach just couldn't hack the poultry juice! For the evening's entertainment we switched between BBC World and Sky News (quite literally the only 2 channels the Gardesana receives, or our room anyway) where they covered, non- stop, the death of Cnl. Gaddafi and the subsequent Libyan celebration.
The next day things returned to their normal blissful state: blue skies, sun shine and the strong bite of cold air on a Fall day in the Alps. We had our comp breakfast, took our obligatory extra yogurt and boiled egg each and about then decided, in spite of it's animated noise patterns, that the Gardesana wasn't so bad after all and that we should perhaps stay another night. Read: (euphemism for) too lazy to pack and try to figure out new accomodation. It was the right decision. We were out and exploring early which allowed us to cover some serious ground. We started with a hike up to Monte Baldo, the mountain behind our hotel, where we hiked through olive groves up to the ruins of an old WWI fortress which had some stunning views back down to the lake. Up a bit further and around the summit there are crazy abandoned tunnels from the same era as the fortress. The views off the non lake side were of autumn baked trees with multi-colored leaves and acre after acre of vineyard, ripe with the last of the season's harvest. All this along the backdrop of the Dolomite mountains on a crisp, sunny morning...not bad at all.
Next we pointed our trusty Fiat around the west side of the lake where we gave it a real workout. The road along the west side of the lake is chiseled into the side of the mountains, meaning it is steep, windy, often tunneled and always beautiful. As we climbed west we passed countless spandex-clad clans of road-biking Euros and many, many extremely expensive European sportscars. Now, I'm not one get vehicle envy, but I am a man... and I would be lying if I said that I didn't push the Fiat just a bit after seeing a procession of Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches speed past me in the opposite direction. (I got passed by one or two as well, which would have been a blow to my manhood, except that I was driving a white Fiat 500 (with a moon roof) and thus had already relinquished it).
Yes, the drive up and over the mountain to Lake Idro was a bit of fun. Of course, the scenery was spectacular but...I know, you're sick of hearing me say that! So... just imagine, a quaint and very old mountain village in a small valley between two mountains. On the hills surrounding the village are vineyards and autumn toned deciduous and pine forests. Now imagine about 8 of these in about an hour and a half's drive. Nuff said...
Lake Idro is much smaller and way less visited then Garda. We wanted another hike and we found one. Here's one difference we noticed between our time hiking in Germany and our time hiking in Italy...In Germany all the trails we encountered were well marked with names, distances, and approximate walking times. In addition, more often then not, every few miles there is a beer garden where you can rest and hydrate. In Italy... well, they have trails, anyway. I won't say that one is better then the other, I'm merely pointing out a subtle cultural difference...
Our hike at Lake Idro was very steep and very strenuous and, I must say, this would have been the case even if we weren't both suffering the burden of carrying a few extra pounds of pasta, pizza and mozzarella cheese up the hill. In the end we turned around after about 75 minutes of solid uphill, unsure of how far we had climbed or how much further it was to the top.
Before hopping back in the car, we spent a few minutes at the lakes edge watching the ducks and listening to the wind blow up the lake valley as well as the sound of the small waves it created crash onto the shore. Very serene.
The ride back was shorter as we took the main highway instead of the side roads. As we descended back to the West shore of Lake Garda we realized that we were coming down the extreme southern edge of the Alps and just a few weeks ago we were hiking on the very northern edge of the Alps in Germany with our friends Max and Katrin. Pretty crazy!
We got back to the Gardesana and showered up before heading back into town for dinner. Trip Advisor recommended a spot, so we headed there only to realize it was the same spot we ate at the night before. We couldn't do it, on principle alone, but especially after G's encounter with the chicken-laced vegetable soup. We opted for the place across the street instead.
The plan for Saturday was to rent mountain bikes and get extreme for a few hours. This plan fell apart when both the bike rental shop and the gondola were closed. In spite of this: the perils of traveling in the off-season are still outweighed HEAVILY by it's benefits!! Instead, we took it easy and cruised to the Southern end of the lake to Sirmione where we sat on the wall of the old town legs dangling down towards the water in the sun and did a whole lot of nothing. (Catching up on this blog and reading, to be honest.) A couple hours later and it was time to hit the road to get the rental car back to Venice airport. We did so, and even managed to get gas without incident, although we did have to stop about 5 times before we could find an ATM in order to get cash to pay for the toll road. We emptied the Fiat of our stuff, chucked the rental guy the keys and boarded a bus for Venice proper where we checked our bags at the train station and headed out for one last Italian meal. Our train for Munich departs at 10:51pm... an overnighter getting in at 6:15am... Oh Joy! Stay tuned to see how we faired...