The beginning of September saw us travel through Austria and to the north of Italy. We had been a little worried about the mountains but were on a motorway all the way so it was a fairly easy drive, if not very scenic.
We arrived in Tyrolean Italy, the German-speaking part of Italy that has changed hands many times over the centuries. It’s a very pretty area with ‘small mountains’, which is a bit of a contradiction. They grow millions if not billions of apples in this area, as well as the grape that the area is famous for, the Gewurztraminer. The white wine made from this grape is very fruity and aromatic.
We were in Tyrolean Italy to meet up with our friends from Stuttgart, Waldemar and Moni at Lake Caldora. This is a small pebble-bottomed lake and is amazingly clear. We stayed at a campsite right on the lake and enjoyed a week of sunshine and warmth.
We did bike rides to the surrounding attractions in the morning and then spent the afternoon swimming in the lake and lying on the grass before eating dinner at ‘German time’ i.e. six o’clock. The first night Moni cooked spaghetti and we then returned the favour another night, cooking a steak on the BBQ because we found a fantastic butcher shop in the nearby village of Kaltern. On other nights we tried the local restaurants. Michael had a lesson on the merits of schnapps versus grappa and found some very nice grappa to drink.
The area around Lake Caldora was very beautiful and we got the bikes out, forgetting that it was so hilly. Thank goodness for electric-assisted bikes! As we had approached Kaltern when we were driving from Bolzano we travelled along the Weinstrasse and Michael started to get excited about winetasting. So of course we needed to ride through the apple orchards and vineyards to do some tastings and talk to winemakers. The harvest of both apples and grapes was just starting and the orchards and vineyards were busy places.
The first day we rode (very uphill!) to the town of Kaltern and did some tastings. The second day we did a much easier ride, to Tramine for two more tastings. The first was at a wine cellar where we could taste the product from a variety of wineries. The second was at the Tramin Keller. This modular green building, slightly reminiscent of The Cube but nowhere near as extensive, had a wonderful view over the valley toward the lake. They also had very nice wines that were affordable – unlike some of the others we had tried.
Our next stop was in Menaggio on Lake Como to meet our friends from Adelaide, Bruce and Nina. On the advice of Waldemar we travelled the direct route across the mountains, rather than going the longer way on the motorway. “No problem!” said Waldemar, “Just a couple of winding parts and a very good road”. There began two days of terror for Michael, who is very afraid of heights. The roads were well sealed it is true, but they were very narrow in parts and very winding – switchbacks for miles. There were also lots of steep climbs and big drop-offs as we crossed the Passo Del Tonale. We averaged just under 50kph and after 4 hours were exhausted so stayed the night in the mountain village of Edolo. The scenery was beautiful and the local villages were ski season hubs so there were lots of ski lifts and ski runs, as well as pretty villages full of restaurants.
The next morning after a sleepless night for Michael, we left by 8:30am to tackle the last few hours of mountain roads across the Passo Dell Aprica, which was very winding. At last we hit the motorway for a few straight miles before driving down the western side of Como to Menaggio. This was also very narrow, with the road through one village being so narrow it needed lights to let traffic take turns to drive through. To top it off, the access to our camping ground was so tight it needed a special person like a harbor pilot to guide us in, with an inch to spare on either side! But it was right on the lake and only a short walk into the town. On the first 2 days of our stay there were thundershowers and it was incredibly windy, so we didn’t do a great deal except rest and recover from the harrowing driving.
But Lake Como was well worth the drive! A long lake 469M deep and surrounded by mountains, it is shaped like an inverted Y. It is so beautiful and Michael even had a swim.
We were excited to see our friends from Adelaide, meeting them for lunch the first day and then having them to our camping car for lunch the second day, as well as spending time looking around the pretty town of Menaggio. Friends have commented that the backdrop scenery in our photos is so pretty it looks fake!
By the third day the weather had warmed up and the wind had died down so we took a ferry to Varenna, on the eastern side of the lake. The town was incredibly steep! If you wanted to see the village it was a matter of deciding which beautiful stone staircase to ascend. We walked right to the top of the town and appreciated the gorgeous views of the lake. There was also a lovely lakeside walk with stone bridges and lovely gardens to get from the ferry into the town. After a wander around we ‘menu-read’ our way past lots of interesting restaurants. We managed to pick a good one and enjoyed fresh spaghetti, moules and northern Italian cuisine, along with a stunning view.
The next day we travelled to the village of Gravedonna, on the western side of the lake and a lot further north. The ferry stopped at many little lakeside towns on the way. Gravedonna was quite a different experience to Varenna and Menaggio because there were few tourists and the town was very quiet. We walked around the point to the Church of Santa Maria del Tiglio, set overlooking the lake. It was built in the 12th century on a pre-existing Christian baptistery and is characterised by the elegance of its decorations as well as for the walls, which are made with two stones of different colors in horizontal bands. Parts of the frescoes that once totally covered the walls still remain. Next to it was a newer church, very extravagantly decorated and built on top of the old crypt.
We wandered up and up and then down and down the quaint and sleepy town.
The ferry trip was an important part of the experience and the number of kite surfers we saw on the way back astounded us.
On our final day at Lake Como we took a ferry to Bellagio for a look around before hiring a Riviera boat to go for a spin around the lake. Bellagio was very busy with tourists and a most up-market town with lots of gorgeous hotels and expensive shops. It is located at the joint of the ‘Y’ that is Lake Como and is known as ‘the place where the winds part’.
Our trip on the lake in a Riviera boat was lots of fun. Riviera boats are those quintessential wooden speedboats that you see ferrying the rich and famous around the lakes. We went down the right-hand ‘prong’ of the lake towards George’s house in Laglio, but didn’t go that far. We got to view the beautiful villas of the rich and famous with their stunning gardens and private docks. While in Lake Como the ‘Woolly’s Bar & Grill’ brand kept popping up everywhere! It’s often hard to explain to the locals that it isn’t a real bar.
Saturday saw us up early to squeeze out of the camping ground and travel to Lake Garda. Our friends Nina and Bruce travelled in the van with us so they could get a taste of the adventures we experience. We certainly gave them that as the first 25km along the shores of Como took and hour and a half to drive!! The roads are so narrow that no one (except motorcyclists with a death wish) ever goes any faster than 35kph. Once we hit the motorway it improved but our adventures weren’t over yet because when we arrived in Desenzano we decided to drop Nina and Bruce at their hotel, which turned out to be in the old town. We ended up in a small pedestrian-only square with all the people in the restaurants looking at us like we were mad!! We wish we had a photo but at the time were too stressed to think of it.
Desenzano on the southeastern side of Lake Garda is a gorgeous town, with a long promenade and both a new and old marina. The old marina was in the centre of town and full of classic fishing boats. We were staying at a lovely campsite 3 km from the centre of town and right on the lake. Most days we walked or rode into the town to meet up with Nina and Bruce and take off for some ‘touristing’.
On Sunday we had an epic tourism day, travelling by ferry to three towns on the lake – Sirmione, Garda and Bardolino. All three were very beautiful and just packed with weekend tourists. Sirmione was fascinating, with a very beautiful castle/fort and Garda and Bardolino looked so laid back that Sue & Michael resolved to visit there again.
Grubie has been allowed on all the ferries in Italy and really enjoys a good day out on the lake, often sticking her head out through the rails to look at the boats and feel the wind in her fur. Sunday was the funniest because the lady sitting behind us was wearing black fluffy shoes and Grubie thought they were a cat and kept growling at them! She also loves a good lunch or dinner and a good sniff through the towns.
Eventually we had to say goodbye to Bruce and Nina as they continued on their travels but we stayed put to enjoy the town of Desenzano a little longer. We had our bikes serviced and saw the biggest market ever. It went for miles!
While in Desenzano Sue visited an exhibition called ‘The Caravaggio Experience”. It was held up in the old 13th Century castle, with ‘up’ being the operative word. Sue climbed up - and up - until she was looking down on the village, the church and the lake. The exhibition didn’t contain any real paintings, but images of 57 masterpieces along with an original score to match them. Images were projected across the 4 walls and the floor, with smaller images zeroing in on aspects of the one painting. It explored the themes of his work and particularly light, movement, violence and drama. Caravaggio himself was quite a violent man and ended up moving from Rome to Naples then Malta to escape punishment.
The weather and scenery were so lovely we decided to move the incredible distance of 45km across to the other side of the lake, the ‘sunny side’ and found a lovely campground between Garda and Bardolino. There is a busy promenade/bike path all the way from Garda to Lazise so the bikes came out and we settled in for a week of exploring. We arrived at lunchtime on Sunday and rode along the bike path toward Garda, where we discovered the local ‘October Fest’, a beer and music festival that happens not in October, but in late September. We remembered joining in one of these in Torre del Mar, Spain that was also held in September. We wandered around and particularly enjoyed the groups of traditional singers. On the way back we happened across a little bar on the promenade that had an amazingly talented act, sponsored by the Octoberfest. So we ordered an Aperol Spritz and a beer and settled in for an hour or two to enjoy really well played songs from our era- everything from Boz Scaggs to Bowie and lots in between. It was a lovely introduction to our stay in the area.
We had one day where it absolutely bucketed down with rain in the morning and we thought we’d be stuck inside all day but fortunately it cleared up in the afternoon. Really, it was just a good excuse for a long sleep-in! Once it dried out a bit we walked into Bardolino to explore the village and shops. It’s a really scenic little town with lots of interesting nooks and crannies. We were amazed at how many camping grounds there are on this side of the lake. Literally one after the other for perhaps 15 kms.
The next day we rode south along the shores of the lake through the little town of Cisano and to Lazise. This village had the most beautiful old 13th Century walls and towers/gates surrounding the old town. Homes and businesses abutted the walls so they were still a big part of the village life. While we were wandering around Lazise we spotted a little cantina through an archway. It was like stepping through Alice’s rabbit hole! Once through the archway a lovely villa with gardens resting against the old 13th Century walls was revealed and then we went down to a cellar to taste the wines. The winery is called zf4, representing the four Zanoni brothers and sisters who run the company. The family originally made their money from silkworms in the 19th century and then invested in wines, cattle and olives. Most of their wines are made from Corvina and Syrah grapes grown locally. They made a lovely ‘Custoza’ white wine which is synonymous with the area as well as some terrific reds. Michael did an extensive and lengthy tasting of all their offerings and really enjoyed the ‘Ettore’ a Corvina and Merlot blend. The Corvina grapes are dried for 20 days before being crushed. Michael liked the wines so much he went back a second time to buy some more.
We stopped in Cisano on the way home for lunch. This lakeside life is so easy to take!
On Thursday we caught the bus into Verona. While we did go and see the balcony that apparently inspired Shakespeare in setting Romeo and Juliet in Verona, the town is about a lot more than that. It was a major political and commercial hub in Roman times and the wonderful Arena, the Roman amphitheater is still used for performances. We would have loved to see an opera there but unfortunately the season had just finished.
The Piazza delle Erbe is framed by palaces and public buildings with all their wonderful statuary. Nearby is the church of Santa Maria Antica and the Scaligar Tombs, the final resting place of the Lords of Verona. Verona is full of interesting vistas and beautiful piazzas.
On Friday night we went to a performance of famous opera arias in a beautiful little church in Bardolino. There were only seats for about 100 people so we made sure to get our tickets early. Unfortunately the only singers were a tenor and a bass and even though they were very good the repertoire was necessarily limited. No soprano, so no famous duets. Sue enjoyed it but Michael didn’t so we left at intermission and had a slow ride home in the dark.
On our last day in northern Italy we did a long bike ride to Lazise and then to Garda and back. It was a beautiful sunny day so we stopped for lunch in Garda. We love the fresh, light pasta of this region and particularly the sauces of mushroom and all the varieties of seafood.
Early on Sunday morning we were off bright and early, travelling 460km across Italy to Nice.