Italy – Venice, Road trip to Piacenza, Verona, Lake Garda and Milan
Ok, so housekeeping first, if you follow us on Instagram (@gratitudelaurie) or you have seen us in Slovenia or Montenegro, you may be wondering why I’m talking about Venice. Well, the answer my dear friends: we are swamped. Which is to say, our lives are fuller than I have the time to document. In fact, even our digital presence on social media has been sparse.
Nonetheless, it is important to us to chronicle this adventure, and the people we enjoyed, even if it is a bit behind schedule. The good news is while the winter months are much slower for me writing wise (but fuller in school and winter activity), I’ll have more things about which to write when February comes along.
As I write this, we are tucked into our winter home already in Porto Montenegro. I am perhaps, even more excited to write about this amazing place because it is the view from our ports right now. When I am in a place, I am so infused with appreciation for the surroundings that it is hard for me to imagine any other place more or even equally lovely. But I digress – we must return to mid-August when we were still in Venice, and the majestic green velvet mountains of Montenegro were yet to come.
Venice – Parte Terza (Part 3)
My sister’s visit was full to brimming in complete and total US touristic fashion. I knew that Alec, Jack and I would be going to Verona and Lake Garda, and we had considered going for a few days, which would be our preference. Kelly only had 6 days to enjoy us and Italy so when I asked her if she would like to go there, she was an enthusiastic YES to the plan. Still, going for 2 or 3 days would be a bit of a waste with all that there is to do or see in Venice. So, we took the train from Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia to Verona (1 ½ hours). Once there, our guide collected us and brought us on a whirlwind tour of Lake Garda and Verona. As a reminder, we receive no compensation for any recommendations here -ever. When we find a tour guide so wonderful that we recommend her/him, it is because I want everyone to experience it. If you read the blog, you know that only a few and far between guide gets a mention here. I only give details when the guide is exceedingly wonderful at their job, and it is unlikely you will find a comparable guide on your own. Maria Pia is such a guide. Her whatsapp number is +39 335 367 063
Maria Pia met us at the station in Verona and walked us around the town in Lake Garda and Verona. Her true love and knowledge of history and her own town was apparent. Now- fully initiated, I would say that no trip to Northern Italy is complete without a visit to this truly special UNESCO World Heritage Site. Awarded a place on the list due to its “urban structure and architecture”, most visitors come to see the famed Juliet balcony from Romeo and Juliet. According to Wikipedia, it is unknown if Shakespeare ever visited Verona or Italy. But according to Maria Pia, the hero and heroine of the play lived here, and she showed us the homes in which they lived.
The First century Roman amphitheater is another spectacular site and the venue for shows and operas.
But for me, the history of Verona is the main reason one should visit- and be sure to get a guide – so much is lost just meandering the beautiful streets. A literal timetable of the centuries is played out in every piazza and with a qualified guide, one can begin to see which architectural detail is attributed to each century. The history itself is stories of Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Della Scala’s and Lombard’s. Any lover of Italy or its history would love a week or more here. Symbols of Italy’s storied history are present throughout, from the Lion of St. Mark (the symbol of the Venetian Republic) and the She Wolf (the symbol of Rome) – though now, Verona is a remarkable city in her own right. Stunning architecture from the Middle Ages is present throughout, but much of it (including the remarkable Arena) was rebuilt following a 12th century earthquake. The re-building was done in a Romanesque style. Itself a city worthy of a week or more, we crammed a trip to Lake Garda into the same day.
Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy and located between Venice and Milan near the base of the Dolomites. Formed by Glaciers, the clear waters now draw tourists from around the world. The permitter of the lake could be traveled in 1 day if not for the slow traffic that winds around at 30 km/hour at the fastest. The towns are charming and filled with chic restaurants, shops and even a few theme parks. Coming from Florida, we will have our fill of these when we return in October, but they are a big business for visitors traveling from all of Italy and beyond. We had hoped to visit Lake Maggiore and Lake Cuomo but alas, it will have to wait for another time.
Kelly’s visit was memorable for so many reasons, not the least of which, during these crazy Covid times, we have been missing family and that connection more than we realized. Having the opportunity to share with my sister these impressive and special places did so much to add to our experience together. I hope that she will remember these lovely towns as fondly as we will.
Sending Kelly off with tears in our eyes and the reminder that we will see each other soon, we changed the sheets on the bunks and welcomed Serena and her boys a few days later.
Serena, Gabriele and Tommy
Friends and readers will recognize from the photos Serena and Gabri and Tommy, our Italian teacher, and her family from Sicily. We became fast friends over the winter spent in Marina di Ragusa, but when we left, we weren’t sure if/when we would see each other again. When we arrived in Venice, I reached out in hopes that our return to Italy would permit another chance at spending time together.
I knew that Serena and Marco had another home in Piacenza, but I didn’t know that Serena would be there all summer to complete an accreditation course for teaching English. The timing was perfect since Kelly was leaving Venice just as Serena’s class was coming to an end. So, the rendezvous was set for her to arrive- first in Venice with the boys- and then we would travel with her back to Piacenza
In the same fashion that many people close to and so familiar with their own national treasures don’t visit them (I can go anytime…) Serena had never been to Venice. Even though it is but a 3-hour train trip away, like so many of us, she just figured she would get around to it another time. So, Serena and her boys made their first trip to Venice while coming to visit their American friends.
We spent 4 days together here -slowly and comfortably meandering through the 120 or so islands which make up Venice. This in sharp contrast to the week earlier spent with my American sister seeing and doing absolutely everything that could possibly be crammed into a 1 week stay. So, in this way, my “assimilation” as an Italian was already underway. Which got me thinking…
Why do we travel and why specifically do we live aboard a boat moving from country to country? Surely it would be far easier by hopping aboard a cruise ship (the current climate of covid notwithstanding) and having a leisurely trip, with all meals prepared, and maintenance done by other people, through these magnificent countries.
There is something completely different about the experience of LIVING in a new country. Something gained through having to find goods and services in a town or cook vegetables and eat fruits obtained in season at the local market. When we don’t have English speaking people around us, we become pretty good at communicating with neighbors in their language or more likely and accurately, in the universal language of hand signals. But even after nearly a year of living in Italy, we were still experiencing it as if through a pane of glass. We had Italian friends with whom we socialized, for whom we prepared dinners and who graciously and constantly showed us the loveliest bits of what it means to be “Italian”. But even still, I wasn’t aware until recently that I was only looking at life as an Italian rather than living life as an Italiana.
On this most recent trip to Piacenza, I felt at once home in Italy and as though I was truly living as and with my Italian friends. We spent 6 days together there and, in that time, we fully relaxed and experienced the dolce Vita and each other. If we needed to rise early, we took a relaxed approach to the rest of the day. If we were able to sleep in, we did. If we had the time to sit and chat over a café, we took the opportunity and we enjoyed it, thoroughly. But the biggest immersion into Italian life came at Mateo’s birthday party. Mateo was turning 9 and the celebration was at Mateo’s Nonna’s house. For nearly everyone present, English was a struggle. But those who could try – did try. I tried my Italian but rather than it improving in the presence of native speakers, it seemed to get worse. But I was able to understand more of the conversation than in the past, and my lack of understanding did little to hamper my love of the language. For my ear, Italian is the loveliest sounding language, and I could listen for hours.
Paola, Serena’s mother, prepared a melanzana (eggplant) parmesan which was simple and amazing and something I will be preparing as a regular addition to our meal rotation. Paolo, Serena’s brother, brought me on a tour of the extensive garden and shared with me the most amazing pomodoro (tomatoes) I have ever eaten, sun ripened and delicious right from the vine. Figs were ripening on the tree as were pears. A nut which I could not identify was the source of a liquor described to me by Elena who invited me to her father’s house a few blocks away to try it. How could I (a non-drinker by the way) say no? Off we went to be invited in and shown exquisite hospitality by her mom and dad. With no invitation, no notice whatsoever, I was unceremoniously walked into their home and invited to sit and enjoy. In Italian (of course) Elena explained to her parents who I was and why I was sitting in their kitchen. They could not have been any warmer or lovelier. It turns out, even if one can’t understand a single word of the others language, there is absolutely no mistaking the energy emitted from them. Pure kindness, pure hospitality. Out came the finest glasses and a bottle of the noce liquor. Several days later I discovered that it was walnut liqueur that I was drinking, and it had been in the cabinet since 1975!!! Insisting that I take some with me, they poured a huge helping into another bottle and sent me on my way. As nobody could possibly have more than a few oz. and remain standing, it will likely be on board Gratitude for the next decade.
Caretakers of the Italian Villa next door, Paola and her husband (tragically one of the early victims of this pandemic) have been working for Signora Franca’s for decades. The villa was built in 1903 and still has most of the original furnishings and floors. Surviving 2 wars and 3 generations, this villa has been impeccably maintained and managed. Signora Franca invited us to have a look and at once, it was as though I was transported through the decades.
Signora Franca’s husband (also recently deceased) was a writer for the national newspaper and frequently covered the events at the Teatro alla Scala – the opera house in Milan. This lovely villa, an hour by train from Milan, hosted musicians, and entertainers for a century.
During our time in Piacenza, we visited the Farnase Palace, The duomo in Piacenza, the Palazzo Gotico, the Castelli del Ducato di Parma e Piacenza, and the Borgo Bobbio on the Trebbia River for some swimming and gelato. Look at a few of the photos below.
But the absolute highlight and tesora (treasure) of our time here was the connection we made with our new and old friends. This connection is what has reached into our soul and become a part of who we are. This is what we will take with us as we prepare to leave Italy. It isn’t the Murano glass, it is the stories, the laughs, and the smiles. It is also the recipes and lessons taught to us by our friends. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Honorable mention before I close out Italy, my birthday celebration at the famed Farnaci Opera House to see “Renaldo” with Aty and Mohammad.