The North of Italy by land, water and air
I am posting this from Saint Petersburg, the first stop of our big Russia crossing to Alaska. Time flies, but I do want to share our Italian experiences, followed by our Croatian ones and a few observations about flying in Europe, before reporting on the exciting times to come.
In normal times, it is not really a good idea to go to Italy during the summer because it is the hottest and busiest time of year, not a good combination. But we had already experienced that Covid times were not normal, so while our airplane was grounded in Cannes airport for several days, we made a short road trip to the Italian Riviera, and we relapsed with LV-GQF when its alternator problem was solved. We chose the former destination because it was close to Cannes and the second -the Italian Lakes- had been recommended by my friend Olivia from Rennes, who emphasized her advice by giving me her 2007 Guide du Routard “Les lacs Italiens” when I was at her house early June. Spoiler: not much has changed since 2007 at the Lakes 😊, except the pandemic of course.
As we had expected, there were not too many tourists (about 30% of the normal amount according to the locals), most of them very respectful of the new rules: masks inside or in transportation, maintaining distance in queues… which of course we also follow wherever we go since they have become part of social etiquette in addition to being sanitary measures. The exact rules and their interpretation vary from place to place, so we usually just copy the local majority -in Rome do as the Romans-, unless we feel we need to be more cautious (eg. a crowded narrow street is technically “outdoors” but feels more like a metro corridor…).
There are plenty of narrow streets in the towns of the Italian Riviera, compressed between the mountains and the sea, all different and all beautifully picturesque. Our escape to that region was not planned at all but the flexibility which we have been practicing since our departure worked its magic again: as soon as we knew the airplane would need to be on the ground for about a week, Alex quickly recalculated and the new plan became to go all the way to Cinque Terre which he had heard a lot of good things about, and to stop briefly on the way to explore other villages and cities, taking advantage of the freedom conveyed by our rental car. But before that, we executed our initial plan which was to go from Cannes to Nice and Monaco, in 3 days. In Nice we would meet Joël from Martinique and in Monaco we would have dinner with Alex’ university friend Pablo and his wife Katherine. So after a wonderful day and night in Nice, based in Hotel Beau Rivage, right on the Promenade des Anglais, we drove 40 minutes eastwards along the coast to our next “home” in Monaco which Pablo had gracefully booked for us. What we didn’t know, is that the Principality has its own set of Covid rules and that you could not sleep in a hotel without showing a negative PCR test or visit a restaurant without having a hotel reservation. Exactly for this type of situations, we carry our crew cards (in case we are exempt) and a box of Covid self-tests from the National Health Service in the UK which my sister Heleen had given us in Glasgow, the idea being that we would always be able to perform a test in case of emergency.
But the Monaco hotel would have neither: pilots were not exempt and antigen tests were not accepted. Fortunately, the border was only 5 minutes away so we could quickly book an alternative accommodation in Beausoleil (France), before enjoying a great dinner on the balcony of Pablo and Katherine’s apartment.
The next morning, we started our progression towards Cinque Terre, stopped in San Remo and Camogli for a walk, spent the first night in the beautiful bay of Santa Margarita de Liguria, continued via Monterosso and Manarola to Rio Maggiore where we spent our second night.
Santa Margarita de Liguria. Our Belle Epoque hotel Bristol is the one on the left with the white arches)
View from the hotel terrace
Monterosso del Mare
Rio Maggiore is where we stayed at the most difficult to reach apartment in our entire journey: all these villages are steep, squashed between the mountains and the sea, with small stone harbors and lots of narrow -medieval looking- streets and stairs, and our apartment was almost on top of the hill, accessible only through a labyrinth of pedestrian streets and steps (in which the GPS does not help much because it never knows exactly where you are between those thick walls that keep the sun away), and once you passed the front door of the building, there were still a few flights of stairs inside until you reached the apartment door, behind which was another! It was totally worth it however: the views of the whole town, the harbor and the sea were stunning.
Up and up!
View from the apartment, well deserved!
View from below (visiting the town after we had made it all the way up!)
We also took a short boat tour from Rio Maggiore harbor to see the remaining of the five villages -Corniglia and Vernazza- from the water, a whole different perspective.
Rio Maggiore and other "Terre" from the water
It really amazed me to see the density of villages and constructions in such a complex terrain, along with numerous green terraces full of crops. Since I learned about it in geography class, probably in elementary school, I have always had an admiration for the ingenuity of the people who “invented” this system of farming thousands of years ago. So smart! And the towns reminded me of bonsai trees which grow in the harshest conditions, adapting their shape to their environment.
On the way back to Cannes to pick up our new alternator regulator, we spent the night in Genova, discovering more medieval streets and the incredible 17th century palaces of Via Garibaldi which you van almost not see in their entirety because the streets are too narrow to take enough steps back😊
Palazzo della Nuova Borsa
Via Garibaldi: Palazzo Bianco and very many others
Detail of the municipal Palace
Palazzo San Giorgio close to the harbor
Medieval fitness class:)
Detail of the cathedral
Important accessory on the Piazza
All along the Italian Riviera, we drove either on winding roads with breathtaking views (and precipices) or on great engineering accomplishments: autostradas over elevated viaducts and through an infinity of tunnels. The (bonsai) roadwork is truly impressive, and for once I felt the numerous tolls were well deserved.
We later could appreciate the autostrada and the tunnels fully from the air.
At the end of the tunnels, on June 30th, LV GQF was equipped with its new regulator and ready to depart to our next destination: Milano Bresso (LIMB), our chosen base for the Lakes. Italy again but this time by air. Alex had been in touch with various local pilots, starting with the Aeroclub de Como specialized in seaplanes, and all agreed that Milano Bresso, managed by the Milano Aeroclub, was the best airport for General Aviation. We were a little worried about flying in Italy because we had been told that the controllers were not friendly but our experience was quite the opposite: they were very helpful, well organized, communicated very clearly in English and accommodated all our special requests, such as for example flying low over the coast to get better views and circling over the Lago di Garda.
Sirmione on the Garda Lake
When we landed at LIMB after a 1h20 flight (Europe is so small!!), we were welcomed by Stefano from the Milano Aeroclub who proudly showed us his tattoo of Zanetti when we told him we came from Argentina, gave us advice on the area and pulled our plane into the hangar where we were able to stay for free for 5 days – courtesy for visitors of the club!
We had landed early so we had plenty of time to go into Milano to rent a car and drive to Como. Alex absolutely wanted to take a seaplane tour of the lakes, so before doing anything else, we went to book it at the Aeroclub de Como which apparently is the first and only seaplane school in Europe. Unfortunately for us, it was high season there and all planes were reserved well into the month of July for instruction or member use, but after some begging, we managed to get a 30-minute slot two days later for a flight over Lake Como, to Bellagio and back.
Happy after securing the appointment for the flight
Knowing we would see Lake Como from the air, we decided to visit Lago Maggiore from the water the next day and quickly arranged a hotel and drove to the closest town on its shores: Angera where we had a wonderful dinner on the lakefront with views of the city of Arona at sunset.
Last minute hotel dei Tigli
Very happy with the 2007 guide
Alex' order (and I ordered fritto misto, on both days!)
A perfect example of flexibility again: we were thinking of staying in Como but circumstances made us rush to another place which we had never heard of and which turned out to be beautiful. Although this has pretty much become our lifestyle in the past 4 months, it keeps amazing the planner in me that most things end up being quite OK without lots of advance preparation. I do realize though that this might not be the case in normal, high season tourism times where finding hotels, transportation or restaurants at the last moment is probably a risk I would not take.
From Angera, we took a series of Navegazione Laghi Italia boats to the Borromean Islands, passing amazing sights of all the towns (incredibly elegant and not as steep as in Cinque Terre), villas and the Santa Catalina Monastery on the way. We had lunch on the picturesque Isola Superiore (aka dei Pescatore) and visited Isola Bella and its Palace, which are both over-the-top ornate. The Bella name suits the island perfectly.
Waiting for the boat in Arona
On our way!
Santa Catalina Monastery
In the exuberant grotto's and the garden of Borromeo palace
Isola dei Pescarori
Even the islands have lots of stairs!
Stresa seen from the water
The beauty continued the next day on lake Como where we had just enough time for a quick cruise with the “fast boat” to Verona and back, before the highlight of the day: the sea plane flight departing and arriving on the 01-19 water runway, marked with buoys. The water was not very rough but the take-off and landings were, and to some extent, even the climb was far from smooth since the maximum speed the Cessna 175-S reached was 70 knots and it took a while to reach 1500 feet (which was only 800 feet above lake-level) as this video shows:
Verona from the fast boat
Our 2007 Guide du Routard contained several itineraries and the recommended one for a 3-day trip was: one day at Como Lake, one at Lago Maggiore and one in the city of Bergamo, so we headed to the city on the third day without hesitation, especially since we had found out that an Ipsos Italy colleague lived there. Nando had recommended a hotel and when we met him for lunch the next day he told us all about his city and showed us around the “Città Alta” afterwards, highlighting the sights as well as the places where he was often to be seen in his youth, such as his school, the road he walked to go there every morning and the public water pump which used to work.
The Città Alta of Bergamo has a perfect Piazza, medieval city walls and gates, ancient churches and winding streets with almost no cars: just like many of the other towns we visited, the centers are exclusively pedestrian which makes for pleasant experiences. I suspect it is not all thanks to good city planning, it is sometimes just the consequence of the fact that even the smallest Fiat 500 does not fit in the narrow, steep streets!
A familiar name on the gelati store
Inside the Monastery (which by the way is being recycled into a culinary academy)
Newly restored (to inspire the students?)
We felt like celebrities during the whole time we were with Nando because everyone greeted him: he is quite famous in Italy due to his mediatic profile as a pollster. He often speaks about public opinion and elections on television and has even become a word in crossword puzzles where the correct answer to the description “famous pollster” is “Nando” if there are 5 letters or maybe “Pagnoncelli” if there are 11. Our Bergamo day culminated with another experience that was not described in the Guide du Routard: a conference by another famous person, the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky- who was speaking that night in the courtyard of an old monastery. When Nando invited us to this unique event, we immediately accepted (following our earthrounder friend Amir’s motto of “always say yes to make the most of your trip”) and enjoyed being inspired about the topics of super-technology, super-individuality and super-consumerism in the heart of a 12th century building. The topics gave us plenty to talk about during our drive back to Milano, our last one-day-stop before heading further East.
But what a day again: we strolled through the city, over the plaza del Duomo, in the Galeria Vittorio Emanuele II, past La Scala, to the Museum of Modern Art (a little disapointing because it was modern in 1950 or before...), the Giardini Indro Montanelli, the Castello Sforzesco and, as a cherry on the cake, we had dinner with our long time Milanese Ipsos colleague and friend Jennifer Hubber and her husband, on the top floor of the Trienale di Milano center with views on Milan’s “vertical Forest” buildings.
A real espresso, according to Alex
On the terrace of the Trienale (the two vertical forest buildings in the distance, more or less behind my head)
Vertical forest up close, on the way to the airport the next day
I realize that you, as readers, might have trouble at times keeping up with the order and nature of our travels, by air, by car or even by boat, and with all the people we talk about, but we feel exactly the same way. We are moving very fast and are constantly amazed by the incredible experiences we are living, the fantastic people we are meeting or seeing again -especially after more than a year without travel-. Some days we wake up wondering where we are, or trying to recall what happened in which place (where was the restaurant with that delicious octopus again? Was that before or after the hotel room with the great view of the mountains? How long ago was Iceland?). I am counting on these posts, all our pictures and videos as well as our tracker (which works everywhere except in the long Italian tunnels) to help us share and remember this wonderful experience which is not over yet!
On July 5th (i.e. less than a month ago today), Federico at the Aeroclub Milano pulled LV-GQF out and sent gli argentini off with lots of water bottles and a big smile.
We left LIMB (Milano Bresso) with the idea of flying to Zadar in Croatia (LDZD) after a quick lunch stop in Venice’s Lido airport (LIPV) which had been highly recommended to us because of its beautiful approach and seemed like a great place to close our Italian chapter. However, due to regulations, our own ignorance and some misunderstandings, we ended the day in a different, albeit lovely, place. I will expand on that small adventure as well as the complexities of the European (air) space in my next post.