Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bergamo and Verona, with daytrips to Lago di Garda and Bolzano...

Bergamo was chill, and we'd have probably been more suitably impressed if we'd've gone there before any visiting other cities in Italy. But after all the amazing shit we've seen, I guess we're bound to be less than impressed sometimes by way of comparison. That said, we still really enjoyed Bergamo, walking up to the citta alta (high city) historical district, seeing a crazy cool cathedral with a really interesting sun calendar (figuring the date by where the shadow lands), and walking through another beautiful medieval city now filled with shopping, cafes, and bars.

We ended up at an amazing restaurant that had a huge olive oil and balsamic vinegar selection from which to choose so we did some taste testing with various ones. They had high quality plain olive oils, along with oils infused with chili pepper, mushroom, sage, and white truffle individually. The chili pepper one ROCKED and finally our tongues were feeling that familiar spicy tickle that we miss so much from food we eat at home in the U.S. The polenta dinner was tasty with the cheese and porcini mushrooms, as was the ravioli with bacon and the fresh tagliatelle pasta with prawns, squid, and zucchini. Again, as is common throughout Italy, there were small portion sizes and somewhat bland food, but the food was tasty nonetheless. We walked the 4 miles back to our hostel in the citta basso (lower city) because we couldn't find any buses running at about 10:30 p.m. (this is highly unusual in our experience, but Bergamo is a bit sleepy) and hit the sack.

The next morning, I got Trip to try a caffe macchiato (an espresso shot with a tiny dollop of milk served with a packet of sugar...very common) and he actually LIKED it. AND he now likes balsamic vinegar. See, traveling does broaden one's horizons sometimes. Even I like coffee now.

While Trip changed money inside a bank (a very archaic thing in the age of ATMs and credit cards...but Trip forgot his ATM card and brought a lot of U.S. dollars so he is now paying the price, literally, in both hassle AND conversion fees), I waited outside on a busy street. A super old Italian woman hobbling by all stooped over with a rickety wooden cane suddenly began speaking to me. I listened, understood NOTHING, and said "mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano" ("I am sorry, I do not speak Italian"). She then asked, in English, if I spoke English and I said yes. Then she clobbered me hard on the shoulder with her free hand and said "Well why didn't you answer me then?!?!" We shared a laugh over that one because I had no idea that what I had been hearing was English. We then had a quick chat about us heading to Verona and Lago (lake) di Garda, both of which she said were beautiful.

An hour and a half later we landed at the Verona train station. We both immediately liked Verona as it was quiet, pretty, serene, historical, yet buzzing with a positive vibe and activity. We took a bus and then walked to our B&B and the owner Laura met us to show us our room. She took a lot of time to explain the town's attractions and good restaurant/gelato locations (turned out she was spot-on, more than many other people have been). We did what we always do...hit the pavement, take some photos, look for interesting places/people/architecture, look for a tasty treat to fill our bellies, and just experience the city overall.

Verona did not disappoint. We stayed 3 nights at Laura's bed and breakfast (which actually had REAL, FRESH milk and yogurt available instead of just dry white bread and various jellies). We had a delicious polenta/mushroom/gorgonzola/spicy salame dinner at Romeo's house (we both are still trying to figure out how both Romeo's and Juliet's houses are tourist attractions, given that they, to the best of our knowledge, are FICTIONAL CHARACTERS). We both tried horsemeat, which is sold all over Verona. We didn't like just tasted like cow meat in bad brown gravy. Oh, and it's amazing what they can do with polenta - we had it in savory dinners as described, and we had it in super sweet desserts infused with some kind of alcoholic frosting layers and topped with dark chocolate BIRDS (Trip liked it, I was kind of grossed out). Odd, eh?

Verona holds Italy's supposedly best-preserved Roman arena, even better than the colosseum, though it is only the 3rd largest. We paid to go in and were highly disappointed because there was orange plastic contstruction fencing throughout, so the photos were all crappy. Haven't they heard of other barriers that aren't orange?! We paid 8 Euros each to get into the place because it was supposed to be so grand and the photos were supposed to be wonderful. Grrrrr. Still, once past that, the place was pretty damn cool, especially with the pink marble construction and the setting right in the middle of town surrounded by Verona's deliciously earth-toned yellow, red, green, and rust-colored houses.

We walked around Verona's Piazza Erbe with it's many vendors and outdoor cafes, we drank the Sprizz Aperol drinks that EVERYONE else had (sparkling white wine, orange liqueur, and a slice of fresh orange...much like a mimosa...we were not huge fans), we ate mystery fried food at the outdoor markets, we tossed back a few too many gelatos, we basked in the glorious sunshine.

One day we daytripped it up to Lago di Garda. It was COLD there, and very windy. We ended up in a town called Torbole, which holds the world windsurfing championships. I can see why. What I cannot see is why people would want to get in that lake. Holy crap, it's glacial. People were surfing in head to toe wet and drysuits, with hoodies, gloves, and booties. Sailing vessels were everywhere, mostly little tiny ones that sailing schools were using to teach their students. If you want to learn any water sports...windsurfing, scuba, sailing, kiteboarding...come here, pay a shitload of money, freeze your ass off, and hope you get good quickly! Sorry to my windsurfing friends (yes you Karl, and you too Karen) that would be horrified to learn that I have been to both Torbole and Maui, Hawaii in the last 6 months and not windsurfed in either place. Torbole was gorgeous, and then we walked around the point to Riva del Garda, another small town about 20 minutes' walk away around the northern tip of the lake. We just walked and walked, past all the sailors and windsurfers, past all the expensive shops, just taking in all the gorgeous glacially-carved mountain scenery and the setting in general. It was super touristy, but also we could see why everyone would want to go there. We slept on a blanket on the grass next to the lake in the afternoon when some sun finally burned off the cold fog in a 2-hour nice weather window. And we then bused it back to Verona.

The next day, we daytripped up into the Sudtirol, which is Italian for South Tyrol, which also called the Alto Adige...basically, it is the northern part of Italy, in the Dolomite mountains, the part of the country that closely borders Switzerland and Austria, where German is spoken nearly as commonly as Italian. We just wanted to get up into the mountains and have something other than pizza and pasta. We found what we were looking for in Hopfen & Co. where we had several big and delicious Dunkel beers (brewed on site) along with a big, fat bratwurst (that was decent for me but Trip absolutely loved). Better than that was the broken communication with the cute Slovakian bartender who we were trying to speak broken Italian with. She understood almost no English and some Italian...but our Italian sucks. It, however, was good enough for us to get her to agree to meet us after she got off work at 5 p.m. for dinner and beers. We were all proud of ourselves for picking up the bartender (Jana) and getting some local flavor injected into our trip - however, I don't think either of us was as prepared for the awkwardness that ensued.

After wandering around the quiet mountain town and seeing Utzi the Iceman (the 5300 year old man whose remains were found in a nearby glacier 10 years ago or so) and other mummies of the world on display in a local museum, we headed back to the bar to meet Jana. She brought a friend, but the lady was like 50 years old and spoke even less Italian and not one lick of English. So we sat there, generation gapping, unable to talk, trying to force down some mediocre and expensive food with copious amounts of good beer. That said, they were really nice and we all did try hard to communicate. We drew diagrams, gestured with our hands and bodies, used the English to Italian dictionary (sadly we do not carry a Slovakian dictionary). Fortunately, we had to catch the 830 train back to Verona since it was the last one of the night, so there was an end to the awkwardness. They were so sweet though, walking us back to the train station and giving us kisses goodbye on the cheeks. We sailed home to Verona on the 2 hour train, both excited for the unique experience we'd just had, and relieved that it was finally over because 3.5 hours honestly seemed like 3.5 days...

After a lovely and relaxing time in Verona, along with associated aformentioned adventures, we headed the next day to the vibrant and amazing Venice!!!!