France and Italy Travel Planning – Highlights of Europe

Travel Planning France and Italy.

Motivation – France and Italy Travel Planning

A long-time friend of mine asked to join me for one of my immersive travel experiences. More clearly, he asked that he and his wife join my wife and I for one of our immersive travel experiences. I had to give the idea some thought before I agreed because these trips were intimate experiences for me, and I do them my way. I wasn’t sure others would find my approach to travel to be their cup of tea. So I went on to share my approach with my long-time friend, and he showed even more interest. And in fact, some of the inspiration to put together this web site came from the France and Italy Travel Planning experience we shared.

Why France and Italy? My friend and his wife had not previously traveled outside of the United States. I wanted to share with them what in my view were the highlights of Europe.  And along with the highlights, a good cross-section as well. For example, Simply spending time in Paris and Rome wouldn’t do, as they’re both large city experiences – very different from each other to be sure, but big city experiences nonetheless.

To truly experience Europe, and especially France and Italy, a visit to the countryside is a must. Smaller towns and villages need to be explored to get a proper sense of the culture and history of a country. A different pace of life can be found in smaller cities and towns. Even the food is different, as cuisine varies by by geography even within the same country.

It’s About the Contrast

France and Italy Travel Planning would be an exercise in comparing and contrasting two of the most interesting countries and cultures in Europe. Similar because both languages are Latin based. Similar because they’re both grand vintners, producing some of best wine in the world. They’re both similar with cuisine being a tremendous cultural focus, and chef being among the most respected profession in each country.

And yet, for each category of similarity, there are so many differences – some profound, but all very interesting. For example, cuisine – truly an art form in each country, but very different in delightful ways. Another example would be the world-class wines each produce. But even a novice wine palate could discern the differences between French and Italian wines.

Itinerary – France and Italy Travel Planning

The selection of destinations is important because I needed to highlight the similarities and differences, and expose them to be consumed as experiences by my traveling companions. Even the order of countries visited is important. Consider experiencing Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, then visiting Notre Dame de Paris, and Sainte Chappelle in that order. Both are memorable experiences, but Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle would be less impressive if visited after Saint Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel.

There was no doubt in my mind that France had to come first on this travel planning exercise to maximize impact – the “wow” factor. At the risk of insulting or demeaning the French, Italy just has more wow to it, as compared to France. They are both steeped in history, but Italy is made of history. They both have beautiful outdoors. Artists have made Provence in France a pilgrimage destination to seek its light. But Italy’s outdoors are sweeping, dramatic, and awe inspiring. The experience of this itinerary would indeed be diminished if visited in the incorrect order, with Italy first.

City and Countryside Contrast

So France and Italy travel planning needs both city and countryside destinations. My choice for the French city experience can be none other than Paris, the city of light, romance, culture, and some of the best food in the world. Paris should be at the top of the list of French cities for a first time visitor.

The Loire Valley, and its Chateaux were my choice for the French countryside destination. I selected the lovely little town of Amboise – right on the Loire River. From there, chateau visiting would be a lovely day trip experience. And the city promised some high caliber French cuisine, including a Michelin starred restaurant.

Rome had to be the logical choice for an Italian city experience. There is no other city like it in the world. Not only steeped in history, it is made of history, with 2,000+ year old monuments and buildings peppered throughout. In-progress archaeological digs may still be found in the city. And the city surrounds the tiny Vatican, with its treasures of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museum.

Sorrento, with its proximity to the Amalfi coast, and lovely little towns dotting the coastline, was my destination choice for the Italian countryside. A side trip to Ravelo, climbing the legendary twists and turns to get a view of the grand coastline, was definitely in the plan. And a ferry ride to Capri to tour the island and explore its wind swept heights was also a must do.

Paris – 4 Nights

Amboise – 2 Nights

Rome – 4 nights

Sorrento – 2 Nights

Logistics – France and Italy Travel Planning

The logistics here are fairly straight forward. A direct flight from my home base in Atlanta to Paris Charles de Gall airport is as convenient as it gets for air transportation. A connecting flight to Rome from Charles de Gall was necessary for the Italian portion of the itinerary. And finally, a direct flight from Rome Fiumicino airport to Atlanta at the end of trip completed all air transportation requirements, optimizing for time and convenience.

This is the first Immersive Travel Planning post that does not recommend an apartment to catalyze an immersive travel experience. Traveling as a foursome is different than traveling as a couple. There are complexities that need to be considered, as well as the need for individual space, and independent time apart. All can be better accomplished with individual hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms, yes – but not hotel rooms at a multi-national chain, or away from the city center. The objective is to go local, and enjoy an immersive travel experience. That is better achieved by staying in smaller, boutique hotels, in the city center, where all of the things we need to do are within walking distance from our hotel. All of the details related to the hotels selected are in the Immersive Travel Experience posts related to this France and Italy Travel Planning post, with the links at the bottom of this page.

Car rental was necessary. Getting to the countryside in both France and Italy was accomplished by vehicle.  And this was yet another wonderful contrast between France and Italy – driving the French roads versus driving the Italian roads, and Italian drivers contrasted with French drivers.

Resources – France and Italy Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lisbon.  

I relied on  booking.com for researching boutique hotels in France and Italy.  TripAdvisor was also very handy for hotel research, with lots of community ratings and commentary.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a larger Volvo V60 in France, and a VW Tiguan in Italy, to accommodate 4 adults and all of their luggage.

Epilogue – France and Italy Travel Planning

Reflections on France and Italy. This was truly a wonderfully memorable itinerary, made even more memorable with the company of great friends. Our companions thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and had an experience like no other in their lives. This trip opened their minds to other cultures, the further possibility of traveling on their own in the future. It was a spectacular introduction to the possibilities of Immersive Travel.

 

Related Topics – France and Italy Travel Planning

Como

This is the fourth and final destination in the Northern Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Northern Italy circuit are described in The Northern Italy Travel Planning post.

We departed Verona early on a Friday morning to make our way to Como. Nearly 3 hours of non-scenic Italian Autostrada were endured to get to Como. Some drives in Italy can be joyous, even on Autostrada – for example, the drive from San Remo near the French border to the Cinque Terre region was lovely, and interesting with scenery and road maneuverings to keep a driver well engaged. But this drive was rather monotonous, lacked scenery with the exception of unremarkable hay and corn fields. 

The drive aside, I had the greatest expectation of Como on this trip – more so than the three other destinations – simply because it is so built up in the media, the travel sites, and even by word of mouth. In fact, I had such high expectations that I was hoping I wouldn’t be let down – especially given that we had toured Lake Garda while in Verona one afternoon, and I thought it was a lovely experience – even thought I could see myself as a resident there. So arrival came with great expectations, and anticipation.

 

Arrival

The Como apartment was located in the heart of the old town, as a matter of fact too much into the center. I neglected to pre-plan for a parking garage as my initial stop upon arrival with the car. This is something I usually do to avoid driving to the apartment, unloading the luggage, then relocating the car to a garage.

At first, this doesn’t seem like something particularly bad, or even to be avoided, unless you can imagine what driving in the center of some European cities, towns, and villages might be like. There are roads that are unfit for two way traffic, but are legal for it, and are used regularly in that fashion – at speeds that would both amaze and induce fear to a non-European, but especially non-Italian (where maniacal driving is an art form).

And so I pulled the Alfa Romeo right up to the apartment building door, and boldly parked wherever the heck I wanted, as if I lived in the neighborhood. And I did have to negotiate tight little lanes that not only had two way traffic, but pedestrians as well. Our hostess advised to move the vehicle to a parking garage as quickly as possible to avoid a hefty fine for parking in the residents-only center of town. She even took a photo of my license plates to notify the authorities that I was a guest, and avoid the automatic fines produced through the camera system monitoring the center.

The apartment was lovely, roomy for a couple, had an excellent shower (important every day), and a refrigerator that was up to US standards in keeping things cold – nothing worse than not getting your beer or wine down to the right temperature in your domicile. And most importantly, the bed was very comfortable.

 

Settling in

Walking around Como’s old town, just in front of our secure apartment building was pure immersion. It felt like we lived there, and we were part of the neighborhood. The old town was fluid with locals going about their daily lives, and lacked the density of tourism that denies any feel of immersion.

There were shops, restaurants, markets, and a beehive of activity as we explored right from our front door – and it had a small town feel to it. It would take only an hour or two to walk the entirety of the old town, even with a “smell the roses” kind of pace. The architecture is 400+ years old, with three lovely churches in the old part of town, but everything looked tidy and well-kempt. This gave me an overall excellent first impression of the old town, which continued as I spent more time exploring her.

 

Discovery Trek

The first opportunity for discovery is simply wandering around the old town of Como, inside its ancient city walls, randomly walking along narrow medieval lanes that are surprisingly vehicle accessible, and enjoying a gelato as the hour or two passes while taking in the scenery.

 

The other noteworthy discovery opportunity is the town of Brunate at the top of the 10 minute funicular ride. Restaurants and shops greet the tourist at the end of the funicular, along with an opportunity to take a 30 minute walk to the lighthouse, a waypoint on a much longer hike possible along the lake. There are grand views, and in particular exceptional views from the terrace and interior of the appropriately named Ristorante Bellavista, where we had a lovely, and relaxing meal as described in the Food Scene section of this post.

 

Lake Como Cruise to Bellagio

An excellent opportunity for discovery is hopping onto one of the regularly scheduled boat “navigations” to various parts of Lake Como, which allow for the exploration of a variety of towns on the lake, along with their majestic and historic villas.

A popular destination is Bellagio, a beautiful town in its own right, with excellent restaurants and historic villas. We had an exceptional meal with a view in Bellagio at La Punta, as described in the Food Scene section. Bellagio is a grand stop on the ferry system, taking tourists by the dozens on both a “slow” two-hour long, open-air type vessel, as well as an enclosed catamaran with a one-hour duration.  While the catamaran is faster, it tends to be a hotter ride as the vessel is enclosed with little wind circulation. We spent five hours round trip to Bellagio, walking around a bit, and enjoying a fabulous meal. One could easily spend days exploring the various little towns dotting the lake by ferry. This is what Lake Como is all about.

 

 

Food Scene

La Punta in Bellagio

This is a beautiful restaurant with outdoor seating facing the water in Bellagio, about an hour boat ride from Como. Smoked fillet of Lavarello with toast, and caprese salad to start, grilled lake fish, and fried lake fish as main courses. The fried lake fish selection included an anchovy-like lake fish which was missing from the grilled plate as they are too tiny to grill. The fish was very fresh, and the variety was good. I highly recommend this restaurant for both the views in Bellagio, as well as the the dining experience.

 

Cucina di Elsa

This restaurant was recommended by our hostess, and was very close to our apartment in Como. It also received great reviews on TripAdvisor. Shrimp and octopus salad to start, we both ordered squid and shrimp as our main, and my wife ordered a mixed salad on the side. The  octopus salad was actually quite exotic. It had, among other things, shaved almonds, fresh pineapple, avocado, cabbage and rocket salad in addition to the octopus and shrimp. A lot more than was described in English on the menu. The mix was a little unexpected,  but it turned out to be an excellent combination of ingredients. The shrimp and squid were skewered, lightly rolled in breadcrumbs, and broiled – both very tender.

 

Bellavista

A restaurant at the top of the funicular with a fabulous view overlooking Lake Como. I thought I was going to buy an expensive, but mediocre meal and get a fabulous view overlooking Lake Como and its city namesake way down below. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality and value of the meal we had. We ordered a charcuterie plate, and a cheese plate for starters to share, then fillet of perch with polenta each, and grilled vegetables to share for the main course. The charcuterie plate had six varieties of salumi and dried beef, along with thinly sliced fat. An excellent medley, with some a little spicy, some a little fatty – there was one variety that had a hint of liver to it, with an earthy flavor. The cheese plate had a very good array too – six samples from around the region, ranging from sharp, to pungent, and mild. Even the bread had an excellent assortment, with one type crunchy like paper-thin toasted focaccia – it was fantastic with the salumi and cheese. The Lake Como perch and polenta was an excellent blend of flavors, to my surprise. Honestly was expecting a tourist caliber meal with an excellent view and was very pleasantly surprised by the food. A highly recommended experience.

 

Ristorante Sociale

This restaurant was recommended by our hostess, a true example of local Como cuisine, and a good value. It is located just around the corner from the duomo on a quiet side street. Having been in Italy for 9 days without a pasta dish, I thought I’d try the linguine with octopus, fresh tomato, and potatoes as my first course. My wife ordered the Parma ham with melon. The linguine was simple, fresh, flavorful and an excellent first course. I particularly liked that it was not too al dente, something which upscale Italian restaurants tend to do with their pasta, and not to my liking. The melon was very ripe and juicy and tasted better than any melon we’ve had in the United States. I ordered the San Petro filets with potatoes and black olives. as I was in a fish mood that day.  My wife ordered the Osso Buco with risotto and gravy. The osso bucco was tender, with the saffron risotto slightly al dente. The San Petro filets were very mild and tender. A nice last meal in Northern Italy, which was topped off with gelato and a walk around town as a light rain started to fall. I highly recommend this restaurant for the good ambiance, dining experience as well as great value.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Como. I was concerned that my expectations of Como and its surrounding lake, were so high that I was in for a possible disappointment. My concerns were unfounded, because Como delivered on every level. The little town of Como was lovely and easy to get around, lacking the throng of tourism one might expect. The lake itself was a treasure, dotted with little towns and villas up and down its coast. This area would merit 2 weeks or more for a thorough exploration. And it’s definitely worthy of a return visit should I be traveling anywhere near this gem of Northern Italy.

Related Travel Planning

Related Destinations

 

 

Verona

This is the third destination in the Northern Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Northern Italy circuit are described in The Northern Italy Travel Planning post..

Verona is not on everyone’s itinerary for Italy. From experience, Verona is lightly touristed as compared to other destinations visited in Italy. There were no tourist buses parked en masse, there were no cruise ships pulled into port, and the city had a smaller town feel to it. There were plenty of discovery opportunities in Verona. There were interesting churches – one with origins dating back to the 4th century, and all kinds of points of interest – an intact, in-use, 2,000 year old Roman Era Coliseum, museums, and a lovely walkable riverfront that allowed for a grand discovery trek. The city was completely explorable by foot. There were plenty of excellent restaurants, some recognized with a Michelin star or two.

 

Arrival

It was a three hour drive from Genoa, Italy to Verona, crossing from Liguria into the Piedmont, then into Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna, and finally into the Veneto arriving in lovely Verona. The drive exiting Liguria into Lombardy is hilly, with lots of tunnels, and is an exciting kind of drive with twists and turns, if one is inclined for that sort of a thing. Once outside Liguria, the landscape turned mostly towards farmland, and the road became Northern Italian Autostrada. And to be clear, the Italian Autostrada is not an exciting road to drive. They built barriers on the Autostrada, like high walls, I suppose for safety reasons, that didn’t allow for scenery to be part of the driving experience. And so, most of the drive on the Autostrada did not compare well with previous driving experiences – in Italy specifically, and in Europe in general.

 

Settling in

Exiting the Autostrada and working my way into the old part of town to where our apartment was located didn’t take a lot of time – maybe 10 minutes. It speaks to the smaller size of Verona. Milan was grand. Genoa was scruffy and rough around the edges – but definitely a large city. Verona was a pleasant surprise on arrival, as compared with our previous experiences in Italy on this trip. As a smaller town with a concentrated historic center, it was a welcome change of pace from both Milan and Genoa.

With secure, covered parking just a two minute walk away, many good restaurants within easy walking distance, and similarly easy access to the historic center, the Verona apartment could not have been more accommodating to someone who defines discovery through being a pedestrian. The apartment was beautiful, and well appointed with all of the necessities to make home for the duration of the stay. It had a grand balcony with a outdoor seating and an umbrella to provide shade. But most importantly – the shower worked well, and the bed was comfortable. The air conditioning was both necessary and welcome as we were having a bit of a heatwave during our stay. There was even a view of one of the church towers through the front window. The apartment was secure, and our host was helpful and accommodating, answering our questions as they arose. The apartment made for a pleasant and immersive stay in lovely Verona.

 

Discovery Trek

With Grand Milan, and interesting, but “scruffy” Genoa behind me, I was looking forward to a more intimate, smaller town experience in Verona.

Walking around Verona was a very enjoyable experience. Being a pedestrian was a delight. There was traffic, but it was on a normal scale – lacking the din and density of a larger city. As we walked around town we noted on many occasions that there were available parking spots, and on one occasion we wandered into a section of town with a complete street-full of available parking spots, which was unseen anywhere else on this trip. That was but one example attesting to Verona being a smaller, more accessible, and less touristed part of Northern Italy.

I found Verona to be very immersive from my perspective. Amenities within easy walking distance, historic 2000-year-old Colosseum in the heart of the old town, and churches dating back from the fourth century, all add up to an extremely interesting place to visit. But moreover, it suggests a place that is livable as an expatriate retiree, as someone that wants to move to Italy and enjoy the ambiance of a historic Italian town with great attractions, but without having to endure the issues around grand tourism, and a large city.

 

Lake Garda Day Trip

The weather during our stay in Verona was hot and humid, with temperatures in the afternoon approaching 100F. It’s the kind of heat and exposure that requires attention to hydration if engaged in outdoor activity. Walking is my mode of discovery, and my way of getting the sense of being there – the feeling of immersion. And with heat and humidity of this caliber, walking is best done in the morning when the weather is cooler, and the sun less direct. So with the weather behaving as it did, it was a better idea to take a little road trip to easily accessible Lake Garda for the afternoon – just a twenty minute drive to get to the beginning of the scenery, and in the comfort of our air conditioned Alfa Romeo.

We ended up circumnavigating Lake Garda, stopping in the town of Garda at Parco Baia delle Sirene, and stretching out legs for a bit. My impression of the Lake Garda area was that it was much more densely populated and touristed on its East shore, as we passed through more towns along that part of our route. The Western shore of Lake Garda had more cliffs, and other terrain that made it inaccessible and sparsely populated.

 

 

Food Scene

Zen Pizzeria

This restaurant was a few steps away from the apartment and was very convenient for lighter fare and pizza. The service was good, prices fare, and we couldn’t beat the convenience factor.

 

Vesuvio

This is a restaurant just two minutes down the road from the apartment, with outdoor seating facing the river and a nice cross breeze. Antipasto plate with mixed salad for starters, a veal chop, and eggplant parmigiana for the main courses. The antipasto had buffalo mozzarella, black olives, picante salami, pickled cauliflower, and anchovies. The antipasto selection had a nice variety of flavors. With the buffalo mozzarella as a foundation, a pickled pepper added a bit of sour, the salami was spicy,  the anchovies salty, the pickles were savory, and the cabbage was bitter. What a well orchestrated variety of flavors. The eggplant was rated as fabulous by my choosy wife. The veal chop could have been a little more tender, possibly because it had drifted past medium rare on the grill.

 

Tre Marchetti

Smoked salmon, seabass, swordfish as a starter, fresh squid over veggies as the main, paired with a bottle of local white wine recommended by the knowledgeable waiter. The smoked fish was very tender but the smokiness was mostly an aromatic as opposed to a flavor. The presentation for the smoked fish was very interesting as it was served under a cloche with thick smoke trapped underneath it so that the fish was not visible.  As the waiter lifted the cloche, the smoke dissipated in a puff around our heads – it was a fanciful presentation. The tiny, 3 inch squids over vegetables were very tender and tasty. This restaurant was upscale, with excellent professional service, and the only place on this trip that added a 15% service fee to the check.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Verona. I did expect a smaller town experience, and a nice diversion from cities the size of Milan, and Genoa. And I was pleasantly surprised by how pedestrian accessible and explorable this lovely little city turned out to be.  The Lake Garda side trip was a bonus. Altogether, we had a lovely experience living like locals in Verona. I would consider being a resident of Verona for an extended period – it was that lovely.

Related Travel Planning

Related Destinations

 

 

Genoa

Immersive Travel Genoa

This destination is the second of four on the Northern Italian Travel Planning circuit, as described on that post. As a coastal city which has revitalized its old town over the recent years, and with an opportunity to visit Portofino as a day trip, I looked forward to this stop.

It was a relatively uneventful drive from Milan to Genoa, mostly highway driving through farmland. On approach to Genoa, about 30 minutes out of town, the terrain changed from the flat, rich farmland of the Piedmont to the rolling terrain of Liguria. Driving suddenly became much more fun, speaking for myself. I like driving, and driving on twisty roads is like nirvana to me. Thirty minutes of it was pure joy. Two hours after leaving Milan, we arrived at the designated cafe to meet our apartment hostess. I had enough time for one Italian draft while waiting for her, just enough to descend from the adrenaline of driving through the hills.

 

Arrival

We were sitting at an outdoor cafe by the harbor, having a beer while waiting for our hostess to arrive and show us to our apartment. Apparently getting there was too complicated in her mind to direct her clients straight to the property. I would soon learn just how right she was. I realized how different the cost of living was in Genoa compared to big city Milan. A large beer and a black tea set me back 6 euros, which would have cost 10 – 12 euros in Milan, depending on the location. As we relaxed and enjoyed our drinks, we did some people watching. There was a contingent of African immigrants living local to the waterfront, walking around, going about their business. Their garb and mannerisms gave them away as fresh immigrants. For example, there were multiple women walking by with babies in slings on their backs while balancing large loads – like a tall basket full of stuff – on their heads, dressed in what appeared to be colorful native garb. It reminded me of a scene from a National Geographic documentary somewhere in Africa.

Soon Roberta arrived, and she drove us to our home in Genoa. There was no way I could have found the property on my own. Not with Google Maps, and a professional navigator. The property was located in the medieval center of the city, comprised of streets (in name only) that accommodated at most, one smallish vehicle, but was regularly used by all kinds of vehicles. Driving in these quarters requires an Italian mindset, inclusive of talking to the other drivers, gesticulating hand gestures, and maneuvering a vehicle in a way most people can’t imagine. I was so glad she picked us up and chauffeured us to the property. At one point on the drive, we were on a two-way street too narrow to accommodate two cars, like most of them. The rule was that the uphill bound vehicle receives the right of way, and the downhill car should yield. The downhill bound taxi driver got an earful from our hostess because he didn’t properly yield – lots of hand gestures. The taxi driver was oblivious. The very last left turn she needed to make to access the apartment was not navigable because a vehicle was parked blocking the turn. She ranted under her breath, I caught some of the words, all of them unlady-like. She sounded the horn several times. A little old lady arrived to move the vehicle a few minutes later, words and gestures were exchanged, and we finally arrived. Wow, how unnerving, but so happy to have arrived.

 

Settling in

Wow, what a lovely apartment. Two balconies, one larger than the other, and both with nice city views overlooking the rooftops. The apartment was on the seventh (6th European) floor of a historic building with marble floors, statuary in the entrance lobby, and on its own private piazza. Our hostess lives in the apartment when not rented out, so naturally it was decorated to suit her Italian flair and style. The apartment was rather large as European apartments go, with ample outdoor space exposing grand views. The Genoa apartment was larger than the one we had in Milan, at just over half the price. The holiday just got less expensive. I don’t focus on cost in general because my blog isn’t about “farther, cheaper, longer”, but it is noteworthy how much less expensive some destinations are as compared to others – even on the same itinerary.

 

Discovery Trek

Emerging from our Genoa apartment, from our grand lobby adorned with romanesque statuary, crossing marbled floors to egress through the grand door onto our private piazza, we stepped into the heart of the medieval part of the city.

 

Medieval Genoa is best described as scruffy and rough around the edges. There was a clear effort to rejuvenate some parts of the old town – it was visible in some of the buildings, and there were works in progress we observed as we walked along our discovery trek. But the flavor and feel of the old town is in high contrast with the elegant and historic building from which we emerged.

Medieval Genoa is collections of meandering alleys that pass for streets – where I would have thought I was in a pedestrian only part of town. Cars, service vehicles, delivery vehicles, transportation vehicles – all make their rounds through those narrow, hard to believe a single vehicle would be accommodated, let alone two, lanes.

 

It is rough around the edges in the sense that it is unkempt. There is a distinct smell of urine in many of the passageways that pass for streets, probably due to so many days having passed without a good rain. Many people have dogs, as we’ve observed lots of folks walking them at all hours. I should say that there wasn’t a lot of evidence of dog poop during our discovery trek.

 

Portofino Day Trip

The route to Portofino from Genoa is pretty interesting. Getting out of town is harrowing. Genoa is a snaggle of twisty roads, seemingly going in all directions – fraught with heavy traffic comprised of scooters, trucks, buses, and endless maniacal little vehicles. It takes 30 minutes to leave town. Continuing on, we encountered a blissful 30 kilometers of toll road with a 1.70 euro tariff outbound (2.90 euro inbound). And once we left the highway, the fun began. A 8.5 kilometer drive on a two lane road with buses and trucks that sometimes required a full stop to allow oncoming traffic to pass due to the narrowness of the road. It wasn’t quite the Amalfi heart-attack drive, but it was so similar. The difference being that I was a passenger on the Amalfi drive, while on this occasion I was the panicked driver. The drive was all along the coast, rock wall on the right, cliff to the ocean on the left. Panic city. The drive did pass through two lovely little towns along the way, Rapallo, and Santa Margarita. Both of these little towns had extensive pedestrian areas along the waterfront where it looked like it was possible to walk for miles along the water, with breathtaking scenery as the reward.

 

Portofino itself is very compact. Without doing the climb to Castle Brown, and the Faro Lighthouse, the whole town was walkable in an hour or less. It was picturesque, and to my surprise, possibly because I was there on a Tuesday morning, not swamped with tourists. It was definitely a worthwhile day trip from Genoa, but folks that have been to Cinque Terre, or have done the drive from Sorrento to Ravello on the Amalfi coast, will grade this experience as less impressive.

 

 

Food Scene

Antica Sa Pesta

A genuine local eatery. No one spoke English, but the owner, and no English menu. Packed with locals for lunch. We both ordered a mixed salad and grilled octopus. It was the first time we were served octopus whole. The ink sac had been removed, otherwise it was the whole thing. My wife’s serving was on the smaller side, and I think that’s why hers was very tender. Mine was quite a bit larger, and either overcooked, or otherwise a bit tougher due to its size. One out of two ain’t bad. I’d go back to this place if I had the chance, and try their other menu items.

 

La Buca di San Matteo

Mixed plate of Ligurian appetizers, risotto with seafood, stuffed anchovies, and Ligurian fruity white wine. This was a quiet little place very close to the apartment, discovered on the fly as our first choice as recommended by our hostess was closed. The food was good, but not what was expected per the menu description. Stuffed anchovies turned out to be anchovies over baked veggies. Not bad, but not as described..

 

Trattoria Tripoli Portofino

Ravioli stuffed with seabass, fried squid, shrimp, and anchovies with frites. This was a little place at the bottom of the port, facing the water. We stopped in for lunch after our long hike to Castle Brown, and the Lighthouse Faro. The food was middle of the road, as was the presentation. The service was good.

 

Osteria Migone

We were once again foiled in our efforts to dine at Roberta’s highly recommend restaurant, as it was closed for reasons only an Italian speaker would understand, based on the recording I got when trying to call. Fried anchovies to start, followed by Catalan style crispy octopus, with a mixed salad on the side. The anchovies were presented too hot to eat, and they were very good, fat and crispy. The octopus was very tender, and a smaller portion than Sa Pesta. An excellent local experience with very good service.

 

Epilogue

Final thoughts on Genoa. The city gave me the impression that it was larger than it actually was – something like a quarter the size of Milan as a population center. It might have been because Genoa was less organized, more chaotic than Milan, and took more time negotiate the route on entering and exiting the city. But whatever the reason, Genoa seemed large and intimidating. The medieval part of town had its own sort of charm, with very nice restaurants, and enough sights to keep busy discovering for a day, or two. The side trip to Portofino was a huge highlight, and a great compliment to the stay in Genoa, with incredible contrast between the two places. I enjoyed my stay in Genoa, and had a great immersive experience at Roberta’s apartment. It was impossible to feel more like a local at this destination.

Related Travel Planning

Related Destinations

Milan

This destination is the first of four on the Northern Italy Travel Planning circuit, as described in  that post.

Milan is the capital of Italian commerce, design, banking, and industry. But there’s so much more to this city. Milan is Italy’s fashion capital, and the locals dress to look the part – especially style-conscious women. In fact it’s easy to distinguish the locals from the tourists and out of towners just by their dress.

There are restaurants of high-quality scattered throughout the city, with impeccable service. I specifically call one of them out in the food scene section of this post. And then there are architectural treasures like the Duomo, and works of art like DaVinci’s Last Supper to be discovered.

The city overflowed with architecture, history, and art. There were plenty of things to do in Milan over a few days’ stay in the city center. But, I kept in mind that Milan is a big city with all those things that accompany big cities, like traffic, congestion, population density, and large scale tourism (think buses). So location was key, and the right location left me with a much better overall experience, because it minimized my need to deal with many of those big city issues.

 

Arrival

We landed at Malpensa international airport, which was on the outskirts of Milan, and the airport used by most long haul international flights. It was about a 50 minute train ride from Malpensa into central Milan. We landed at terminal one, and had no trouble finding the train to the center  of town, called the Malpensa Express.

We had had a 15 minute walk from the central train station to the apartment I selected for our three night stay in Milan. The apartment was conveniently located with easy access to the highlights of the city, and within a five minute walk of the Duomo, the Milan Cathedral.

We had no rental car while in Milan. As a matter of fact, it’s unwise to have a rental car in most large European cities, because getting around is much easier by walking, public transportation, and if necessary by taxi, if pressed for time. I do note that Uber is not a thing to do in Italy. Italy is the only place I’ve experienced Uber being more expensive, and more complex than taking an ordinary taxi ride, having tried it in Rome previously, and confirmed it in Milan.

 

Settling in

Our apartment in Milan was located on a quiet square, provided easy access to the old part of town, and most of the sights were within walking distance. The weather was a little on the warm and muggy side for this part of Italy. The really great thing about the apartment was that it had four air conditioning units, and kept the apartment to an American standard for summer cool. For Europe this is out of the ordinary!

 

The apartment was lovely, and I include some photos. It was large enough for a couple, and comfortable, with 14 foot high ceilings, and views over the city from the 9th floor. It was an excellent base of operation from which to explore the old part of Milan, and it definitely gave me that immersive feeling, like I was a local for a few days. The only downside was that our host Franco was a bit of a fascist. He not only required a deposit, but had a bookful of house rules, which included a complete inventory of the apartment’s contents, and generally lacked the patience to interact with his guests like a gentleman.

 

Discovery Trek

The very highlight of Milan has to be the Duomo. It is incomparable in Christendom as its third largest church. The largest of course is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, followed by St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. However, the latter can’t hold a candle to the Duomo in Milan. It looks nothing like the others. It looks like nothing else I’ve experienced in my travels, with more than 3,200 sculptures and 135 spires adorning its exterior alone. It has flying buttresses – like many of the cathedrals from this era, but they’re hidden in its design so that they do not take the eye from the work of art that is the grand façade of this cathedral. The exterior façade and all of the interior, except sections of its roof, are done in marble from Lake Maggiore. It took five centuries to complete, with the very last of the work ordered by Emperor Napoleon for his coronation there as the King of Italy. The interior is equally majestic and impressive as the exterior. The word incomparable is unavoidable in describing this icon of Milan

 

A treasure that can’t be missed in Milan is an oil painting on plaster depicting The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It took DaVinci 3 years to complete the work of Art, which miraculously remained unharmed through the allied bombing raids in WWII, while the rest of the church sustained significant damage. It is a thing to behold, and difficult to describe with any chance of justice at all. Pictures can be taken and shared, but I found myself lacking the vocabulary needed to describe this work of art. Reservations are required, and view times are strict with visitors having at most 15 minutes to admire the work of Leonardo per visit.

 

A Milan wonder that should be visited is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, named of the first king of unified Italy, but simply called the Galleria. It is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls, and it is just stunning to wander about. Filled with symbols of the major powers of Italy at the time of unification, like Milan, Rome, Florence, and Turin. The tourists pay special attention to the mosaic bull – the symbol for Turin, and stand in line to spin around 3 times on its genitals for good luck. As a result, there is a hole several inches deep where its genitals used to be. Ah, tourists.

 

And shopping should be on the agenda, even if not ordinarily inclined for that sort of thing – simply because it’s Milan. There a several kilometers of Corso Buenos Aires dedicated to the less expensive outlets, and discounters that draw local shoppers and tourists alike. People watching is a bonus, as I strolled along the avenue, taking it all in.

Walking around central Milan, I got the impression I was in a grand place. The old part of town had architectural structures around any given corner that grabbed my interest. My impression of Milan was that it is a preeminent city in Europe, with a pedigree all its own – but comparable to the likes of London, Paris, and Vienna. I do know that I wanted to return to catch some of sights I missing during my too short first visit.

 

 

Food Scene

Milano Centro Cafe

This was a restaurant on the same piazza as our apartment, and frequented by locals for lunch only – not open for dinner. It was efficiently run to get the most throughput for the lunch hour – the wait staff moved around like Ricochet Rabbit the whole time we were there. Smoked, aged ham – Tyrol Speck – smoked Scamorza cheese, roasted potatoes. Mixed salad with grilled chicken. Good lunch at a reasonable price for Milano.

 

Viveca Pizza

No trip to Italy is complete without one stop for pizza. This restaurant was a 15 minute walk from our apartment, and was filled with locals (or at least Italian speakers) while we were there. Tre Salumi, with a little red wine. It was as good as I remembered, and still ponder what would happen if some Italian pizzeria would start slicing their pizzas for their customers. The unthinkable.

 

Dogana del Buongusto

We stopped in early for aperitivo. I had a sparkling rose and they offered us some prosciutto and bread as appetizers on the house. We ordered a cheese plate and a charcuterie plate, and we both had Osso Bucco as our main. The cheese plate was divine it had four different cheeses from around northern Italy and they were just so well balanced and just so tasty. The charcuterie plate also had good variety, was complementary to the cheese plate, and made me want to order another round. The Osso Buco was very tender – no knife was necessary, but wasn’t what I was used to previously. The risotto was a little al dente, which I expected, but still very good. The service was fabulous, very attentive, and the price overall was reasonable. This was the best restaurant experience in Milano.

 

Stop

This is a restaurant around the corner from the main drag Corso Buenos Aires. I could tell that it was a local place because it took three of the staff to translate veal shank. My wife ordered a seasonal salad with ham, cheese, egg and mixed vegetables. I ordered grilled lamb and a side salad. I was served a very generous portion of sparkling rose. The food was basic, but very good. The service was prompt. It was a nice place to stop over for lunch from our long shopping trek on Corso Buenos Aires.

 

Replay Mare

This place was just around the corner from our centrally located apartment. We had a rough time finding a restaurant that was open on Sunday and went here as a result of a recommendation from our host. They have a nice outside seating area as you work your way through a shopping area. I had the Spanish sardines with toast and butter, and my wife had octopus with mixed vegetables for appetizers. I had the sea bream with roasted potatoes as my main dish, and my wife had a mixed grill with julienne zucchini. The service was very prompt and the food was served piping hot.