I didn’t manage to write a post for just the Lake Garda section, so this one may be too long with too many details – but skimming the photos should at least be entertaining.
Sunday morning looked like a storm coming, so we did a quick ride up Monte Grappa again, and I abandoned Zack (who didn’t feel great) to summit alone. Sad memories from that, so will say no more ;)
We spent Sunday afternoon through Wednesday morning in Lake Garda (Lago di Garda). This is a huge lake in the PreAlps coming against the northern border of Italy. With beautiful mountains (known for hiking and mountain biking), wine and olive country, and water sports, it is a popular vacation destination for Germans and Swiss – and the price is much lower than similar areas in Switzerland!
|Rain starting to come in over Garda|
The first evening, we met up with my high school friend Lauren in a town Desenzano del Garda on the southeastern side of the lake; she is teaching elementary school in Brescia, and by chance saw on Facebook that we were in Italy – small world! Desenzano is full of cute restaurants and gelaterias, and gave us a nice first (and really only) experience walking along the lake’s edge.
On our way to Desenzano, we stopped by an Esselunga supermarket and stumbled upon delicious chocolate – coarse-made like Taza, for those familiar with the Somerville MA factory. We bought 3 random interesting-looking chocolate bars, and one of them was style “di Modica”. After, we scoured the internet and searched along the rest of our route in hopes of another supermarket selling these bars at a reasonable price to bring back to the U.S. https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cioccolato_modicano
|The plain package with the cinnamon sticks is the winner.|
We are semi-seriously considering setting up a double-boiler
and trying to make this ourselves when we move to Pittsburgh –
surely CMU lab equipment might suffice?
Monday was raining hard from the start, so we decided it would be a good relax-and-explore-by-car day. Our Airbnb was in a remote place mostly chosen for its nice swimming pool, so weather was unfortunate and we ended up driving a lot on this leg of the trip. There were 2 cute farm dogs, though! We visited 2 ‘museums’ and learned about historical and current techniques to make wine and olive oil, and enjoyed free samples of both:
|We also managed to cook ourselves pretty good authentic|
Italian pasta – Bigoli with truffles and bigoli with duck sauce
Tuesday was likely our last big bike ride. Weather looked OK for the morning, with high chances of rain in the area starting sometime between 11am and 3pm – an unfortunately broad range. I decided to be versatile and made up 3 routes of varying degrees of mountains using the Strava heatmaps, where we could change directions mid-ride if the weather turned. First we climbed another huge mountain, Monte Baldo, complete with a ski area and a bit of snow at the top. It was really beautiful, and the scale is hard to show with photos. After descending in a bit of mist, we decided not to risk the next peak (90% chance of rain, apparently, by then) and wove our way back on some beautiful bike paths that went through olive groves. While the riding is great in most of our Italy experiences, the bike paths were generally pretty terrible (often nice paved surfaces that abruptly ended after about…200 meters). The paths by Lake Garda were great, though. We could see the rain off behind us, but Lake Garda itself was still nice, so we added in a little loop and an extra gelato stop at the end and returned home about 15 minutes before it began to pour rain! Success.[Route]
Wednesday we had to return the car in Padua by 4pm, so I planned a brutal up-and-down shorter ride on the way to Padua in Parco Regionale del Colli Euganei. By mid-way up the first climb, my legs told me they’d had enough and didn’t feel like riding, so we stopped for a long pasta lunch instead of doing the last 2 hours. Still a success. [Wed little route]. In Padua we did a little evening walk in the rain through the university and along the river. We got dinner at somewhere that would have fit right in in San Francisco but seemed very unusual for Italy – they served farro, chickpeas, all sorts of healthy non-oily vegetables and whole grains, all organic (‘bio’). It hit the spot. Good sign the vacation might be long enough!
Thursday was a big walk-and-transport day; Padua all morning, then train to Florence. It was also an Italian national holiday - Festa della Repubblica – so we stumbled on a ceremony on our morning walk, which was neat.
|I also got my first (and only?) morning gelato. |
I call it ‘brunch’ since it was around 10:30am
and not my first food of the day, but Zack insists it is breakfast.
We had to pack up our bikes into the bike bags to take them on almost all trains, which was annoying/cumbersome but accomplished (and free; the unofficial rule is you can bring as much well-packed luggage as you can personally carry up the train stairs). We had this vague idea we would reassemble them in Florence and do a little bike-exploration of the city Friday or Saturday, but after packing them up and seeing more rain in the forecast, decided it made much more sense to do some big walking tours of Florence instead.
Zack had the great idea that rather than try to pre-purchase museum and entrance tickets, we should just pay the 72 euros and get the 72-hour “Firenze-Card”, which allowed entry to all sites and to take the ‘priority’ lines. This worked out incredibly well; we definitely would not have waited in the long lines for many places otherwise, and having already paid made it mentally very easy to pass through ‘lower-priority’ museums and places we might have otherwise hesitated over entry fees. Like in Rome, we were very successful and had an action-packed 45 hours in Florence (4pm Thurs – 1pm Sat). Zack’s dad drove nearby and stayed with us for this time too (and we made a successful hand-off of the Saris bike rack back to him). List of main sights in the order we visited below, with some highlights:
Uffizi Gallery – Thursday evening we spent ~2 hours here, huge collection of artwork and sculptures, including some Da Vinci and Michelangelo. We both really liked the marble sculptures that have been restored over time, and sometimes show several different types of rocks:
|One of many impressive sculptures|
Ponte Vecchio – our Airbnb was right next to this wooden bridge full of expensive jewelry shops and tourists. Location was easy for sightseeing.
Friday in Florence we filled with sightseeing. [Walking route]
We started with the Duomo; this was totally unexpectedly fantastic to me, and basically impossible without the FirenzeCard (and likely a long wait on weekends/more popular times of day). They should have signs and warnings like to avoid for people with heart conditions, claustrophobia, fear of heights, tendencies to twist ankles, etc! They allowed only around 20 people per ‘wave’ into the building, and I thought we were just going to see inside a (nice, impressive) cathedral, but we actually blindly followed the people in front of us up about 500 very steep narrow dank steps in a dark stairwell that felt like a cave, with 2 vista points: first halfway up the wall of the Duomo, to look at the the paintings and stained glass windows inside; and second all the way at the top on a platform that looked outside.
|View from mid-way up the Duomo|
|View from top of Duomo|
After Duomo, we considered going into the Academic Gallery where the famous David statue is, but there was a long line even with the FirenzePass for that, and while it’s a “checklist” kind of item, I was more interested in some nerdier museums.
San Marco Museum (~45min) – serene place with some amazing old manuscripts. It’s crazy to me how many different portrayals there are of Jesus on a cross.
Museo Opificio delle Pietre Dure: (~30min) This is a lesser-known museum, less-funded since it is secular, but totally cool. It showed the tools and methodologies used to make mosaics and some brilliant examples of mosaics from the 15th century-ish.
|So many rocks and minerals with different colors and textures used in just |
the right way to make art.
|They reproduced some paintings as mosaics – pretty neat.|
|(Not a sight) – We deviated from sightseeing and walked |
out of the center to an Esselunga, where we succeeded
in our mission of acquiring more Modican chocolate!!
If they’d had more on the shelves, we would have bought more.
Mercato Centrale for lunch – lots of vendors selling food and other leather and trinkets.
Museo Galileo (~1hr) – This used to be the history of science museum, which I think was a more appropriate title than Galileo, since it doesn’t talk much about Galileo. However, scientists/engineers that we are, we both really appreciated seeing old astrolabes and sundials and rudimentary electric machines and old maps and globes. They also had some really nice videos explaining scientific phenomena that would be understandable to non-scientists.
Palazzo Vecchio (~1hr) – We looked at frescoes and more nice artwork and learned about the old powerful families of Italy. There are also some Roman gods and mythological scenes mixed in with the Jesuses, which intrigue me rather more. Fun fact: The Medici family included a few Popes. One was designated for the church at age 1, became a cardinal at age 13, and as Pope led the papal armies to conquer some towns then gave those towns to his cousins/family…
Saturday we did a nice walk for a few hours in the morning, passing through the Rose Garden, Piazzale Michelangelo, near a Fort and through the Boboli Gardens then ending with some excellent panini [Walk Route]. Now back near the Rome airport, and flying out early Sunday then back to work!
Some overall takeaways:
Overall, this was a great vacation! Very little went ‘wrong’, and a lot went right. I have gotten really spoiled compared to how I felt going into our first trip 2 years ago, given that we’ve done a few big trips now and especially since our every-weekend riding in California can be as good as these exotic routes – but still can’t wait to come back (in another 2 years, maybe?)
Just a few cultural takeaways related to food:
- Lunch and (late) dinner are a big deal, take a lot of time, and dishes are either cooked correctly or are wrong.
- Espresso and wine can both be drunk at nearly any time of day, but coffee does not come alongside a meal or snack, rather afterward.
- Breakfast for most people is
coffee and a brioche, if anything (which is ridiculous. I can’t wait to eat
some eggs and some oatmeal/yogurt). Well, I will say it and defend it to death:
If Italians don’t approve of big nutrient-balanced breakfasts, then I will eat gelato in the morning. Breakfast is an area where the Swiss, Germans, Brits, and Scots surpass the Italians, in my experience and opinion.
Next up, we head to Denmark in August for a ‘working trip’ – Zack has an academic conference, and I will work at our company’s head office there, but we should get some good sightseeing and will post again then!