Friday, May 30, 2014

Italy 2014: Day 25-29: Monday: May 26-30: Casale Monferrato-Gravedona (Lake Como)-Sesto Calende (near Milan Airport): THE END OF THE TRIP

In the interests of getting to the end of the trip, I will compress our last four days in Italy into one report.

Enroute to Gravedona

We left Casale Monferrato (where we had a terrific time) for the north end of Lake Como--the town of Gravedona.  We made a stop for coffee in Vigevano (near Milan), a city known for its very handsome Piazza Ducale.


Lake Como and our hotel

Gravedona is almost at the north end of the lake....this area is less crowded and developed than the southern and middle parts of the lake where Como, Bellagio, Cernobbio and the other famous towns are located (and where George Clooney is known to hang out)...but, if it is not quite as stunning as the lower part of the lake, it is still quite scenic and charming.  

We are staying at a new, modern hotel located right on the lake shore...there is a large swimming pool and broad grassy expanse for lounging and relaxing.  

The rooms are large and bright and the bathroom is as close to perfect as an Italian hotel bathroom gets.

The hotel Tullio is owned and managed by a travel colleague (Giovanni Gotti) whom I had "met" on an Italian message board and had actually rented some of his properties for clients.  We are happy to meet each other in person. I didn't realize it was his hotel when I wrote requesting availability and it was a pleasant surprise when he wrote back.

What we did while in Gravedona

Since the great weather continued for our stay on Lake Como (it had been overcast when we left Piedmont and rained some on our first afternoon but then took a turn for the much better), we spent some time relaxing in the sun on our balcony or near the pool admiring the view,

walking on the path along the lake with the bikers and other walkers and strolling around the very pretty lake front promenades of Gravedona and the next town to the north, Domaso.

We made a number of excursions from Gravedona into the hills and mountains that rise up from the lake.  We drove up to the small village of Peglio, up above Gravedona, on a curvy but not very challenging road, to visit the Church of Sant'Eusebio which has 16th century frescoes done by a student of Michelangelo.  The drive was scenic and the church was beautifully situated

but it was closed up tight and we were never able to get inside.  But the views from Peglio were pretty terrific

so it was worth the trip anyway.

We made another drive up north almost to to the Swiss border above the town of Chiavenna.  This was a much more challenging drive...the road was narrow and at one point, there were ten consecutive hairpin turns where there was no way to tell if there was a car or truck coming the other way.  A complicating factor was that many of the turns ended up in short tunnels that were dark and completely cut off our ability to see oncoming traffic. The second complicating factor was the fact that we were ascending continuously and the turns required constant downshifting to keep the car moving forward.  In any case, the mountain scenery was beautiful--pine forests, narrow valleys, lots of waterfalls dropping over the side of cliffs from the melting snow.  I didn't take any pictures while driving but here a couple that show the road we drove.


We decide not to continue on to the Swiss border and opt for the easier route back down to Lake Como.  There are some pretty lake towns on the way down and we stop for lunch at a small hotel restaurant in Campodolcino.

Our other excursion was a drive for lunch at an agriturismo recommended by Giovanni in the town of Ardenno located in the area called the Valtellina.  The main road to Ardenno is on the valley floor and is dominated on both sides by high peaks....but the road is wide and mostly straight, so we decide to take a scenic detour and take the parallel road that hugs the side of the mountain.  However, as we climb, the road gets narrower and narrower as it winds up and around the mountain side.  In addition, there is a lot of construction (these roads take a beating in the winter) and, at one point, traffic is stopped for fifteen minutes in each direction because of the road repairs.  (This got the Italian drivers really riled up and horns were honking steadily for the last few minutes before we were waved on.)

We admit defeat, find a place to make a u-turn, descend to the valley and go on the highway to the agriturismo for lunch.

On the way back to the hotel, we got the opportunity to explore the other (east) side of the lake when we took the wrong exit from a roundabout and ended up going ten miles in the wrong direction on a limited access highway (mostly in tunnels.)  When we finally could exit, we drove down to the lake and followed the shore road back north through the towns and villages on the that side.  The road gave us good views over to our side of lake and beyond, but seemed marginally less attractive.

Our other sightseeing was a visit to the churches in of them built in the 12th century over a 5th century baptistery.  Santa Maria del Tiglio is a handsome Romanesque church...very plain on the outside

and austere inside with well preserved 16th century frescoes on the wall.


Meals in the Gravedona area

We had one very spectacular meal while staying in Como when we drove to Ardenno in the Valtellina.  Le Case dei Baff is an agriturismo located right on the edge of the town and has rooms as well as a restaurant.   We got a very nice welcome from the family who runs the agriturismo; one of the sons spoke English and we discussed both our Italian experiences and his visits to the United States.  The meal was terrific....mainly local specialties from this mountain area.  We started with three of the appetizers--salume from their own production, soft cheeses from local producers served with sweet and sour onions, a delicious concoction called taozz made of mashed potatoes, fried onions, cheese and string beans, and sciatt--deep-fried buckwheat flour coated cheese balls.  In addition to the good bread, there was a bagel shaped roll made of the buckwheat flour that was addictive.

We skipped the local pasta specialty called pizzoccheri (wide noodles made of buckwheat flour served with cheese, onions and cabbage..very delicious but very heavy) because we had already had it in other restaurants, and enjoyed the tasty orzo soup instead.  If that wasn't enough, we wanted to try the costine--the baked ribs cooked in a special soapstone pot called a lavecc--that is another specialty of the restaurant.   They were meaty, tender and delicious and served with some excellent roast potatoes.  We drank red wine made from their own nebbiolo grapes which was light and tasty.   No dessert today and no plans for dinner either....

One of our best meals of the trip.....

Our other meals in the area were both fine....we ate one night in Domaso and had the local lake fish--laverello--sauteed in butter which was a highlight.  We also had pizzoccheri a couple of times and served with a vinegar based sauce and vegetables.  The breakfasts at the hotel were excellent....and being able to eat outside in the sun looking at the lake added to the enjoyment.

Sesto Calende

Our last night was spent near the Milan airport in Sesto Calende, a busy, pleasant town located at the bottom of Lake Maggiore.  We did spend an hour in Switzerland on our way driving, through the stunning city of Lugano and getting caught in a big traffic jam at the border re-entering Italy but we survived the experience.  We have been staying at the Hotel Tre Re--a comfortable family run hotel-- since our first trip to Italy in 1993 and have become friendly with the two sisters who run the hotel.  We usually arrive in the late afternoon, stroll along the riverfront promenade, have a gelato, eat dinner at the hotel restaurant and leave early the next morning for Malpensa.


The hotel is about 20 minutes from the airport and we got there in the morning with no problem.  Here is the view of the Alps from the airport entrance which is our last view of Italy for this trip. 

It has been an excellent trip....some great new discoveries (Noli, Casale Monferrato, Gravedona) and some wonderful revisits--Milan and Mantova.   And the weather has been fantastic...

We are happy to be home after our month away..but we soon need to start thinking about our next Italian adventure.

Jim and Diana

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