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Eastern and Western Europe

Author: WFDoran
Date of Trip: June 2006

On Monday June 5th I headed out for a three week sojourn to Eastern and Western Europe which combined a week’s worth of work and two week’s worth of vacation. I hopped on Delta’s flight from Greensboro to La Guardia then took a cab over to Kennedy where I connected to Delta flight 30 direct to Moscow, Russia. There must have been tremendous tailwinds because we made the flight from New York to Moscow in about 8 1/2 hours which is normally a journey of about 10 hours.

Moscow was having an extremely late spring. The trees barely had any leaves on them and the temperatures were in the 60’s during the day and high 40’s at night. It was cloudy and a bit rainy most of the time.

As I was only staying in Moscow for two nights I decided to stay at the Novotel hotel located at the airport. I chose this hotel for a couple of reasons. The first was that at $275 a night it was a relative bargain for a Moscow hotel and secondly it cut down on the amount of time we would have to spend fighting the horrible Moscow traffic. Most of the hotels in downtown Moscow are at least $350 a night. The majority of our meetings were halfway between the airport and downtown so it really paid off to stay out at the Novotel rather than in central Moscow.

We finished up in Moscow on Thursday afternoon and flew off to Riga, Latvia. We brought spring to Riga with us. When we arrived the weather was in the 70’s and the sun was shining bright. It remained that way until we left on Saturday afternoon.

Latvia continues to show signs of a growing economy. New construction of all types is going on in the capital city of Riga and the traffic is getting worse. We stayed at the Radisson SAS Daugava hotel which is right on the river across from Old Town. The company we do business with there has an outstanding room rate at the Radisson of 72 euros per night including breakfast. If you tried to book it through a travel agency the same room would cost about $170. It’s classed as a five star hotel but it really isn’t although it is a decent place to stay and the location is fine.

Thursday evening our host took us to a supposedly great new restaurant that just opened slightly outside of town. I should have known by the name that it was not going to be a legendary culinary experience. The Martini Bar had no shortage of nubile young blonde Latvian ladies and loud music, however the food was forgettable.

Latvia, along with the other two Baltic tigers Estonia and Lithuania could make for an interesting vacation. All of the countries have beautiful beaches on the Baltic Sea and lots of unspoiled pristine countryside. All three countries are dotted with small farms and villages and are very clean and environmentally conscience. There’s great fresh water and salt water fishing, mountain biking, hiking, rafting and a relatively uncrowded atmosphere. Some castles dot the countryside and the small towns and villages are relatively inexpensive, plus the people are extremely friendly. I would recommend a trip to the Baltics for those who are slightly adventurous.

On Friday evening we had dinner at Monterosso Restorante Italiano at Valmueilea Street, Old Town. This restaurant was as good as the Martini Bar was bad. They served a wide variety of classic Italian meat, fish and pasta dishes and had an excellent wine list. I started with a great mixed salad and then moved onto penne arrabiata, which was spiced just perfectly and finished up with veal Marsala and mushrooms. We drank some nice Spanish wine which seems to have gained quite a following in Eastern Europe because of its price and quality.

We finished our business early Saturday afternoon and I flew to Paris. My wife Pat was coming in early the next morning and we would take off on our two week trip to Italy.

As usual I stayed at the Ibis Hotel at terminal 3 at Charles de Gaulle airport. This hotel is one of the best bargains in the world. On the weekends the rooms are 89 euros a night and breakfast is 6 euros. They have a reasonable restaurant with indoor/outdoor dining. I had a better than acceptable chicken risotto, a very good help yourself salad bar and a bottle of modest wine all for a grand sum of 24 euros ($31).

The other super feature about this hotel is that it’s right next to the RER subway station that runs directly into central Paris. A round trip ticket is 16 euros ($20) and takes about thirty minutes.

When I got to Paris the weather was absolutely magnificent. It was beautiful, clear, sunshiny and temperatures in the low 80’s. I hopped on the RER and buzzed into town for the balance of the afternoon and early evening. I had a wonderful time wandering around town shooting pictures. I spent most of my time on the right and left banks of the Seine River as did most of Paris on that lovely day.

I stopped by Place Dauphine and much to my surprise an art show had taken over the whole area. As I wandered through I stopped and watched what I thought was an artist creating an abstract painting. I took a picture of him doing so. He then stood up and said to me, “Monsieur, would you like to be part of this collaborative effort?” I said sure. He said, “Go pick a color and an instrument to apply the oils to the canvas and make your contribution.” I did, so now among other things I’m a Parisian artist.

All of the parks along the river were crowded as were the areas along both banks. The tour boats were filled with people and everybody was enjoying the magnificent, beautiful Paris day. At that time of year it’s light outside until at least 9pm so after tramping around for a few hours I sat at a sidewalk café and had a glass of wine and watched the world go by for a while before heading back to the Ibis hotel. As usual I met some interesting people and had good conversation over a nightcap glass of wine at the bar in the Ibis. This time it was a family from Oakland, California. Last time it was an entrepreneur from eastern Germany.

On Sunday morning I hopped on the shuttle bus and took the five minute ride over to Charles de Gaulle to meet Pat’s incoming flight. Everything was on time. For once we got lucky, her flight landed in terminal E and our flight to Venice was in terminal F, which is a short three minute walk. Everything worked perfectly. We arrived at Venice’s Marco Polo airport around 12:30pm. The weather was magnificent, mid 70’s and sunny. We took a bus to the Venice Mestere train station to catch our train to Verona.

The guide book had told us that the train trip from Venice to Verona was around an hour. They neglected to tell us there were various types of trains and the one we got on stopped at every town along the way so it took almost two hours. The train only had 2nd class accommodations and this particular train was devoid of air-conditioning.

We arrived in Verona hot, dirty, sweaty, tired and hungry. We went into the McDonalds at the station which was a combination McDonalds, pizzeria and bar. The pizza looked fabulous, better than anything they serve in our hometown of Greensboro. We had a nice big slice covered with fresh mushrooms and a couple of cold diet cokes while I called our hotel and got directions. Pat went to the restroom at the station and it cost 1.5 euros (almost $2) to use the facilities. When I got directions from the hotel they said it was right around the corner from the train station, which in essence turned out to be a ten minute walk.

Our hotel was the Novo Hotel Rossi, a three star hotel on Via Small del Coste, 2 37138 Verona, Italy. The tab was 103 euros per night including breakfast. We haven’t been on vacation to Italy in three years and I must say that these smaller hotels in the medium cities have made fantastic improvements. Every hotel we stayed in had a king size bed and the room was air-conditioned. Also, each one has been recently renovated or redecorated. They also got the message that people like a large thick bath towel. All of them provided a nice giant bath towel that was reasonably thick as well as decent sized hand towels. The prices range from 77 euros to 102 euros per night. All but the 77 euros hotel provided breakfast.

The only thing wrong with the Novo Hotel Rossi was the neighborhood. It was a bit isolated and not in the best section of town. The hotel was quiet and you’d only see a couple of people in the breakfast room and/or the bar.

Without luggage the walk back to the train station which is also the bus depot was reduced to five minutes. A twenty minute walk up Corso Porta Nuova, which starts at one of the old Roman gates, leads you through the commercial part of town into the historic center. Besides being home of Romeo and Juliet it has lots of important Roman ruins as well as medieval churches and buildings. It has the best preserved Roman theatre in all of Italy.

The main square in the old town is called Piazza Bra. This is an extremely large piazza, which has a number of bars, restaurants and outdoor cafés. There are a number of small streets that lead you off the Piazza Bra deeper into the old town. As you wander down these streets you come onto various other piazzas, which are a little quieter than Piazza Bra. Also on the Piazza Bra is the ruins of the old Roman arena which is now used for an opera festival.

In Piazza del Erbe they have a produce market each morning. Your best bet is to get a map with walking tours from the Tourist Information Center and traipse around the whole historic part of Verona. That evening we ate dinner at a placed called Bar Boomerang; a lovely old Italian name. It is on a small side street off Via Mazzini which runs off the Piazza Bra. I had a wonderful dish of sliced roast pork that had been cooked in a red wine sauce served with baked herb golden potatoes. This was preceded by a tomato basil mozzarella salad and a bottle of the local wine. My past the stage of blushing bride had a nice dish of pasta bolognaise and the whole bill came to 40 euros. There were two tables of hip local kids next to us who consumed lots of snacks and drinks while talking loudly on cell phones and each other. For dessert we stopped at one of the many gelato shops on Corso Porta Nuova as we strolled back to our hotel in the warm summer evening.

On Monday we spent the day exploring the big streets and back alleys on the historic center. We even stopped at Romeo and Juliet’s house. We found a delightful little spot overlooking the river with a great view of Castle Santiatro and the Roman theatre across the river. We sat under shade trees and enjoyed the view and the breeze from the river. We had a nice salad lunch at a place called Pizzaria Trattona Impero, it’s in the Piazza del Signore #8. We had a couple of wonderful salads and a liter of mineral water for about $25.

That evening we dined at Restorante Adriatico; Via A. Mario. Pat had a mixed salad, I had tomatoes and onions. She had a wonderful dish of large tortellini stuffed with ricotta and spinach while I had veal scaloppini with porcini mushrooms. A bottle of mineral water and a bottle of the local Valpolicella completed our repast. That lovely meal set us back about $55.

Both nights in Verona and in fact just about every night in Italy we ate outside and enjoyed the warm summer evenings.

On Tuesday morning we took a train to Padova, which is also known as Padua. Here we picked up a rental car and drove to a small city named Udine (pronounced Udina). We went down to the station, bought our tickets and hopped on the train. We were sitting on the train and the conductor comes by and I handed him the tickets. He said we didn’t get the tickets properly stamped and therefore he was going to fine us 25 euros. Of course that didn’t happen and he just signed the tickets to show that they were used.

You have to be careful in Italy when you buy train tickets many times they are good for sixty days. You can use them on any train going from the two points you purchased them for. For instance, the tickets we bought were good for any train, any day for the next sixty days going from Verona to Padova. However, before you get on the train there is a little yellow box that you must stick each ticket into where it’s date/time stamped to show that it’s been used. Later on when we were in Padova and took the train on two separate days into Venice we scrupulously stamped our tickets in the little yellow box. However, no conductor came by either time to check our tickets.

Udine is located about halfway between Venice and Trieste, about 75 miles north of the Adriatic Sea and about 75 miles south of the point where Italy, Slovenia and Austria meet in the mountains.

We stayed in Udine at the hotel Principe at Viale Europa Unita 51 – 33100. The tab including breakfast and parking was $99 per night. The room and accommodations were as I previously described. I must say the staff here was extra friendly and helpful. They recommended great places for us to have dinner each evening. When we asked them about going to the beach they told us to go to Bibioni beach, they selected a hotel and even called the hotel and made our reservations for us. They were just absolutely delightful people. This hotel is also located right across the street from the railroad station but a courtyard blocks all of the noise and traffic so you have a quiet little sanctuary back off the main street.

Udine is not an ancient city but a very attractive clean city. We were about a ten minute walk from the pedestrian district which is the main center of activity in the town.

On our first night there on our way to the recommended restaurant we stopped at Café Contarena located on Via Covore, 1. This ultra smart modern café is located in a huge new classical building located at Piazza Castello. We were thoroughly impressed with this place. It seemed to be the center of snap and smartness. The clientele were fashionably dressed and had edge. They had an extensive wine list and most of it was available by the glass. The barmaids at the wine bar know their wine very well and will take you on a nice little tasting voyage of the various local wines. The local wine producing region is Frujulia.

They produce some real fruity white wines as well as a sparkling rosé and a number of good reds including merlot, cabernet sovereign and two new ones that I was introduced to named Refrosco and Pinolo. Refrosco is like a Cabernet Sovereign and the Pinolo is more like a Zinfandel. The first time we stopped there I had two glasses of wine, Pat had a vodka and they served us a complimentary appetizer of pasta with fresh vegetables. Our total bill was 12 euros.

We ate at a place not far from the Contarena. The Hostaria Alaa Tavernetta located at Via A. Vi Pampero-2 is just passed Piazza Domo. This place is not to be missed. It’s one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in. It’s not that expensive, it’s not that fancy but it is fabulous. The owner who explains the menu to you and takes your order and recommends wines is a dead ringer for Rod Stewart. His wife, who is also no slouch, is very active on the floor of the restaurant. The rest of the staff is relaxed, friendly and hospitable. Pat and I split a buffalo mozzarella salad that was a baseball size hunk of fresh buffalo mozzarella served on a bed of fresh greens with sweet cherry tomatoes, assorted greens and dressed with extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. Actually while we were perusing the menu they brought out a complimentary glass of the local sparkling Rosé wine and a basket of mixed homemade breads and breadsticks. Then “Rod” came and took us through the menu. I had baby roasted pork chops with a mushroom wine gravy and polenta. Pat had grilled strips of chicken breast over a bed of arugula topped with shaved pecorino cheese. The owner suggested the Refrosco wine. The food was simple regional cooking of the area but executed superbly. After dinner they brought out dark chocolate that was hacked off of a large bar, a mixed biscotti made of corn flour and local grappa. All of this set us back about $100.

We spent the next day exploring Udine. The highlight of which is the grounds of the castle. We had a nice little salad lunch at Bar Ala Rocca located at Piazza Marconi #9. We had two great salads and two bottles of mineral waters for about $13.

That evening we dined at Restaurant Vitello di Oro at Via Valvason #4. Even though we ate in the outdoor garden this place was extremely formal with impeccable service. The staff wore ties, the maitre d’ wore a suit and the menu was heavy with fish entrées. We watched them serve a whole fish at the next table. The fish was de-boned and elegantly arrayed on the peoples platters. For an appetizer we had ravioli with egg, cream, capers and mushrooms. To that, fresh grated pepper and cheese was added, wow, what a dish. Pat had an excellent beef steak and I had bacala which is salted cod fish in phyllo dough. The beef in this area comes from Tuscany and is as good as the good beef you get in the United States. We had another brand of Refrosco wine that night and it was excellent. They presented us a tray of homemade cookies at the end of our meal. We stopped for a nightcap at Café Contarena on our way home. In the Piazza Domo we stopped and watched the free opera production for a while. Again this is a city that comes alive at night and all sorts of things are going on. The outdoor cafés are crowded, there’s entertainment in the piazzas and people are just hanging out.

The next day we drove up to Treviso. The car we had was an Alfa Romeo 169 diesel with a six speed transmission. This vehicle was a combination station wagon/ SUV. It was extremely peppy and had good acceleration for a diesel. We could cruise along at 70mph at under 2,000rpm in 6th gear so I know we were getting close to 35 miles to the gallon. It took us about an hour and half to drive up to Treviso. I was going 70-75mph and people were blowing by me. I think on a lot of parts of the Autostrada there is no speed limit. I did notice that if you’re in the left hand land you better keep an eye on your rearview mirror because cars come up on you very quickly and they come just about to your back bumper and flash their lights expecting you to move over immediately.

The Treviso exit on the Autostrada is the last exit in Italy. This is the point where Slovenia, Austria and Italy come together. On the way up there were lots of cars filled with families towing campers or had roof racks. You could see it was mother, father and the kids going on vacation. The license plates were from all over Europe.

The weather in Treviso was like Colorado. Jagged snow covered mountain peaks and thick forests of pine, beech and white oak surround the town. This is big ski country with nothing but restaurants and t-shirt shops. It’s extremely touristy, something similar to Blowing Rock. There was a nice quiet main street with all sorts down to earth stores such as hardware, clothing, a post office, etc. This was definitely the one used by the full-time residents.

When we got off the Autostrada just before entering Treviso we stopped at a little roadside place called Café Daiwat. They were extremely nice. They didn’t charge us to use the toilets or hassle you for doing so without sitting down for a meal. It’s very different than the Autostrada rest stops. After our stroll through touristy Treviso we went back to Café Daiwat for a delightful simple lunch of sandwiches on homemade bread and a sweet red pepper salad.

After lunch we discovered the town of Camporosso, which looked a lot more Austrian than Italian. There was a ski area right outside of the town and in fact the ski lift came almost to the town. The town was extremely quiet and I guess it was a weekend ski town and not many people were there during the week. You could tell by the names on the houses that the population was a mixture of Italian and Austrian. I would imagine that mix of people must cause each one of them to have a complex. The Austrians are industrious, energetic and neat while the Italians are laidback and prone to relaxing and chilling out.

We got back to Udine in time to have a cocktail at Contarena before dinner. We had dinner at Tratoria al Frati Piazza Antonini #5 in Udine. This part of Italy gets a lot of German tourists so when we walked in they gave Pat and I menus written in German. I guess we’re starting to look like Europeans. We had spaghetti with garlic, oil and pepperoncini which are hot peppers and another different but good version of sautéed chicken breast with arugula, tomatoes and cheese served with wine, mineral water and a grappa for $60. It was a good sturdy meal.

On Friday morning we headed down to the beach. We stayed at the hotel Presidente for 96 euros a night which included a nice big air-conditioned room with a king sized bed, parking, breakfast and dinner as well as a spot at the beach with a beach umbrella and one chair and one lounge. It was an easy drive down the Autostrada and then on a country road through some small towns to get to Bibioni. We stopped at a small town and took pictures of the local market. Pat used the restroom in the local bar and the people were very friendly.

Bibioni was directly south of Udine which puts it halfway between Venice and Trieste at the head of the Adriatic Sea. The water was calm and very clean. It was considered very healthy because it has an extremely high salt content.

Bibioni is the Myrtle Beach of Italy. It even has miniature golf. However, it is different in one respect. It’s mainly German, Austrian and Italian tourists. There are no inhibitions about wearing skimpy bikinis, with or without a top no matter what size or age. In fact I think some of the older women were still wearing the same bikini they had bought in the 60’s. It had shrunk and they had grown. To be fair there were lots of women who looked good with or without their tops. It was kind of funny to see them undressed on the beach and then dressed later in the dining room. They looked quite different.

The food in or out of the hotel was quite pedestrian but we did have some real good pizza. On Saturday we walked on the beach to the other end of the island. It was much nicer up there. Instead of wall to wall hotels it was expensive condos. There were plenty of open beaches. In the area we were at the umbrellas were lined up in perfect rows and columns and that’s all you could see; umbrellas, people and chairs as far as the eye could see. It seemed the other end of the island also had nicer restaurants and shops. However I can’t complain about our stay at the Presidente for $96 a night, it was a heck of a bargain. The beach was nice and sandy and the water was plenty warm enough for swimming.

On Sunday morning we drove back to Padova to return the rental car and stay at the hotel El Fagiano. We did get caught in a traffic jam leaving Bibioni that cost us about an hour of time but I guess that’s life at the beach.

After dropping off the car we took a cab to Al Fagiano, which I believe means pheasant. It’s located at Via Cotelli #45. This hotel is located right off Piazza del Santo, one of the main piazzas of the old town. When we arrived on Sunday the whole town was extremely hot and extremely quiet. It was like a ghost town. I guess everyone was at the beach or in the mountains or somewhere else.

One of the reasons we stayed in Padova was that it had proximity and good train service to Venice. For $5 round trip you could take a thirty minute train ride and be right downtown Venice. Our hotel cost 77 euros ($96) per night but no breakfast included. It was like all the other hotels; king size bed, air-conditioned, recently refurbished, clean, great friendly people and good service.

By the way we shouldn’t be complaining about gas prices in the U.S. When I filled up the rental car in Padova I put in the equivalent of about ten gallons of diesel and it cost about $5.70 a gallon. So gas is a real bargain in the United States.

The first evening in Padova we ate at a place called Restorante Vecchio Falconiere. This restaurant sat on one of the canals of Padova and was a very serendipitous find. The outdoor dining area was loaded with flowers. The owner came out with a platter of various pastas and explained the pasta menu of the evening to us. Pat had gnocchi with poppy seeds and smoked cheese while I had fresh spaghetti with porcini mushrooms. They also specialized in Tuscany beef which he brought out on a big cart and sliced it to order and then a cook came and ran it back to the kitchen and simply grilled it. We did not choose that, instead Pat had veal with white wine and lemon and I had bacala (cream cod fish) over polenta. We each had a salad and we shared a plate of mixed vegetables and had another bottle of delightful Refrosco wine. The tab for this repast was 75 euros or approximately $90.

The next day we took the train into Venice and got off at the San Marco station which is right on the Grand Canal. The first thing you should do when you get to Venice is buy yourself a good map which costs about 2½ euros.

We worked our way over Piazza San Marco and as soon as we got there we decided to leave. It was far too crowded and far too touristy. We walked through smaller less crowded neighborhoods on the way there. As we were leaving the Piazza San Marco I noticed Harry’s Bar. I said to Pat, “Let’s go in for a drink.” I opened the door, walked in and the maitre d’ dressed in a suit told me to leave because I didn’t meet their dress code. I had shorts on, so much for the drink in Harry’s Bar.

Venice is a place you must go to but I wouldn’t recommend staying in the city. I would do what we did and stay up in Padova and commute in for a couple of days. Really I was prepared to hate the place but when I got there except for Piazza San Marco and the area around the train station I found it quite interesting. The first day we were there we had a nice little lunch of sandwiches and mineral water for about $15, which is certainly by no means outrageous.

I must tell you though, navigating your way around all the little streets and alleys and piazzas is quite difficult. The map was helpful but not all of the streets are on them and it’s very easy to get lost. But if you do get lost just enjoy your surroundings. Keep on walking and eventually you’ll find where you’re going. The topography of Venice is much like New Orleans, in fact when you take the train in and out you go over a railroad bridge that sits slightly above the water level for a fairly long distance.

While we were in Italy we rediscovered beer. We found that a small draft beer at lunchtime is very refreshing and Italy does make good beer.

When it’s late in the afternoon and you want to get back to the train station and head back to Padova one of the smart things to do is take 5 euros and jump on one of the many water buses that run all around Venice. You get a great view of the city from the canal plus you get the cooling breeze from the water and you don’t have to walk because by that time your feet are usually pretty tired.

That evening we had dinner in Padova at Osteria del Fabbri, which is located in the heart of the university district. The address is Via del Fabdri 13. This place did not have outdoor dining but they did serve good solid food in a rustic atmosphere. I didn’t see not one male working in this place, the chef and all the serving people, etc. were all females. The tab for dinner that evening was 55 euros.

I started off with a complimentary Prosecco, which is sweet Italian champagne. Then I ordered a starter of pasta with a light pesto sauce with fresh tomatoes, it was wonderful. Pat had another version of the chicken arugula over salad and sprinkled with cheese. This one was especially different as the chicken was sliced from a whole big chicken breast. I had a pigs knuckle and polenta topped with a great mushroom gravy. On the way home we stopped for a gelato and a grappa at one of the local bars.

As we turned the last corner before our hotel on the Piazza de Santo we came upon another serendipitous moment. As we came around the corner we heard what sounded like choral singing. Well it really was. They were a group of eleven men standing on the corner across from the cathedral singing. The first song we heard I’m sure was a hymn then they moved into something more contemporary then back to religious hymns then onto other choir music. A small crowd gathered and they were vigorously applauded after each and every song. We stayed there for at least half hour enthralled by the whole occasion.

Saint Anthony is the patron saint of Padova and on the square where we were staying is the basilica of Saint Anthony. Attached to it are a number of other ecclesiastical buildings and residences, etc. They also have formal gardens inside the walls of the compound. The church is gothic and is extremely ornate. Pilgrims come from all over to touch the tomb of Saint Anthony as he is considered the patron saint of lost causes. People come and pray for his help and then when they get it they return and put pictures and notes, etc. all over his tomb. Every time I look at one of these huge medieval churches I wonder how they were able to build something like that. I’m sure it took 25-50% of the GDP of the area for a number of years to construct and decorate this mighty edifice.

Padova is a big university town. The university was started in the year 1222 and is still going strong today. There are thirteen separate schools within the university including music, medicine, literature and I don’t know what all. Some of the more famous graduates of the University of Padova include Donatello, Giotto and Galileo. They and many other of the graduates left their mark on the city in terms of art, architecture, medicine and other disciplines.

The university gives the town a vibrant life. In the daytime you pass the university there always seems to be a demonstration or an outside meeting or gathering of some sort. They also post giant newspaper articles on the walls attacking some professor or some situation which I couldn’t quite understand. One smart thing we did was hop on an open air tour bus that gave you an overview of the whole city. Once you saw that then you could decide the areas you wanted to go back and explore deeper.

The second evening we were in Padova we ate at Al Fagiano, which was in the same building as our hotel but not a part of the hotel. When we passed by there on Sunday the place was packed. However, it was only open for lunch and closed at 4pm on Sunday. I guess that’s where all the people were, having lunch rather than out on the streets.

We went there on Tuesday night and it was virtually empty. There was one other group in there. The restaurant was large and probably sat 150 people if you counted the outdoor dining. It was a family owned affair and there were three brothers running it. They said their parents also worked there but they were away on vacation.

We had a lovely meal and great service and good conversation with the boys. I had very simply grilled pork chops preceded by pasta in a light tomato sauce. Pat had a roasted chicken leg served with polenta. We finished our wine with a nice little plate of cheese and then the boys bought us a grappa at the bar on the way out.

The next day we rented a car again and drove to Lake Garda, which is about 1 1/2hours away. Lake Garda is the southern most, the largest and the cleanest of the famous Italian lakes. The first place we went to was Sirmione. Sirmione is on a peninsula that jets out from the southern shore of the lake and has lake water on the east, west and north side of it. It’s basically a preserved small walled medieval city. To enter the city you must go through the castle area. There are basically no cars allowed in the city except for some businesses and residences. The city is well preserved and there are lots of old buildings; however they’ve been turned into shops, bars and restaurants that cater to the tons of day tripper tourists that visit the area. You can walk out a little further and there are some delightful private residences, condos and posh hotels.

We walked out of town and found a nature walk around the peninsula which is very interesting. We were able to see the town from the backside as well as view some interesting nature and other sites.

When we left there we went over to the east side of the lake and drove up to the small towns that nestle up along the eastern lakeshore. They seemed a lot more appealing than Sirmione. The towns on the east side of the lake that really seemed appealing to us were Pescheria, Bardolina and Garda. These are small towns on the lake, laidback and non touristy. Yes there were tourist facilities there but it was not overcrowded and I was in the opinion that you could mix in with the locals and enjoy yourself and feel a part of the atmosphere rather than the tourist trap in Sirmione.

Driving in Italy is not a problem at all. On the Autostrada it appears that most areas are not governed by speed limits. There are some as you go through cities and other area. Cars will come up right up on your back bumper, flash their lights and push you over. At one point I was driving about 100mph and I was by no means blowing by anybody. The tolls on the Autostrada seemed to be expensive. At the rest stops you can get some excellent food, however you can also get alcohol to go or to drink there.

In the cities you must be careful for the pedestrian crosswalks. Pedestrians have the right of way at any crosswalk and you must stop for them. There are also lots of roundabouts, which can be a little tricky if you don’t know what you are doing. The other problem is that many of these cities are extremely old and the streets are narrow. The streets were put there before cars were invented so it’s extremely difficult to navigate through the streets, make turns or park.

That evening we had dinner at Al Santo, located at Via del Santo 47. We had pig roasted on an open wood burning fire. Pieces of pig were hacked off and put on a plate and served with roasted potatoes and a salad. It was excellent. That meal which included wine and coffee cost us 48 euros. Not bad at all.

After dinner we had yet another serendipitous moment. We were walking down a street looking for a place to have a grappa and we stumbled into what I thought was a bar. It turned out to be a restaurant but there was a guy standing at the bar talking to the bartender. It was about 10:30pm so the restaurant was in the process of closing. I ordered a grappa and we started talking.

The guy standing at the bar turned out to be a Jesuit priest from Boston College who taught ethics there. He was in Padova to run a meeting of 450 ethicists from around the world coming to talk on various ethical subjects I guess. He was a very interesting guy, an Irishman from Brooklyn whose father was Chief of Detectives in Manhattan. Well I ended up buying the good padre a couple of grappas and had a few more myself as he, Pat and I, and then the bartender discoursed through the evening. He also told us that this was one of the best restaurants in Padova so we planned on going there the next night.

On the last day (Thursday) we went back in Venice to visit the Dorsoduro area. This area is across the Grand Canal from San Marco. It is a quiet world of residences, shops and small piazzas connected by canals and bridges. We stumbled into Campo of Santa Margherita. I’m sure the good saint is extremely happy to know that there has been a pizza named after her. We ate lunch in a place called Marcel Duchamp’s, a bar with a wide assortment of draft beer. As became our custom we had two small beers to help wash down our lunch of focaccia sandwiches.

We visited some small piazzas and walked through narrow alleys and crossed over canals and went through residential areas and looked at hidden gardens and rooftop rooms and nifty shops. We passed a place that had a sign that said they made the masks for Eyes Wide Shut. At about 3:30pm we stumbled upon the Marine Stazione. This is where the boats and ferries dock. There is a little bar there and we sat and enjoyed a wine and watched the passengers scurry by to and from the boats. We finally got up and walked along the Canal Bella Guibecca and stopped by the floating beach and I ogled the bathing beauties. If you can, try to find the boatyard where they build the gondolas. It’s at the end of the Canal San Tommaso. I could not find it but maybe you can. This area is a wonderful place to spend the day in Venice but not of Venice.

That evening we went back to the bar where we met the Jesuit. It’s called Restorante Antica Trattoria Deipaccagnella and is located at Via del Santo 113. As it was our last night on vacation in Italy we decided to indulge in a little vodka on the rocks before dinner. Much to our surprise they had Muskovshya vodka which is our favorite. This was a good omen.

Pat and I split an order of homemade fresh pasta that was in the shape of little twists. It was sauced with a light pesto that had chopped fresh tomatoes added to it. It was wonderful. We each had a perfectly grilled veal chop and a wonderful bottle of Valpolicella selected by the owner/bartender. For dessert Pat had a tiramisu and I had a small plate of parmesan and pecorino cheese. The pecorino was absolutely the best I have ever had. I finished off with a grappa and decaf espresso. The tab for this wonderful repast was 58 euros. The good food and conviviality with the bartender/owner relaxed us sufficiently so we could go to sleep almost immediately upon returning to our hotel. This is good as we had a 4:15 am wakeup call for a 5:15 am cab to the Venice airport. We flew to Milan for an 11am flight to Atlanta. However, because they had to change a flat tire on the plane we left Milan 1½ hours late. We had a three hour connection so it gave us not too much of a worry.

We got home that night tired but with fond memories of a wonderful trip through Eastern Italy.

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