Fly into Italy - 2nd May 2011
After a 6 hour wait in Hong Kong and a 13 hour flight to Milan it was good to be on the ground in Italy just before 8am on a crisp 12 degree morning. It was a bit chilly around the knees but I've always preferred the comfort of shorts and tee shirt on long flights even if it means looking a little eccentric in either the origin or destination airport. Yes, I know what you're thinking but nowadays I'm not agile enough to do a one foot dance and clothing change in the confines of a tight aircraft toilet with it's suspiciously sprinkled floor. Furthermore, past experience shows that as soon as you get your shorts and shoes off and under your armpit and then step one leg into your jeans there'll be a loud boing followed by..... "passengers please return to your seats and securely fasten your seat belts".

The local Italian agent for Citröen arrived spot on the pre-arranged time and handed over our brand new Citröen C5 Diesel car. This is the third time we have used this special "buy a French car" method when visiting Europe. It's a great deal and utilises some kind of loophole in the French sales tax regulations. The bottom line is that provided you are not an  EU resident and provided you commit to the car for 17 or more days you get a brand new car and a buy-back arrangement that nets out better than renting a similar used vehicle from from a car rental firm.

Unfortunately Citröen's local agent spoke very little English so our orientation to the car's idiosyncrasies was almost non existent. This can be a big problem in a car loaded with all kinds of complicated but unnecessary electronic gadgets. We know from past experiences that this will cause us some problems in future but c'est la vie. Anyhow, we fired up our own personal  GPS navigation system which quickly took stock of our location and destination. Then we started the car. According to the fuel guage the tank was empty. However there's some sort of electronic readout which seems to be perhaps indicating that we have around 48 km worth of driving left in the tank. It's time to cross fingers and drive straight out onto the adjacent Motorway where the speed limit is 130 kph and most cars are doing that or a little more. And it doesn't help our equilibrium having them  all driving on the wrong side of the road!! We found ourselves with two choices. Choice one is to drive in one of the two "slow" lanes sandwiched between WALL to WALL heavy trucks doing 110 kph. Choice two is to drift out into the fast lane where bumper to bumper black motor cars are all doing 130 kph minimum and willing to chastise anyone who slows them down by a mere second. Hey.... my brain's not ready for this scenario quite yet!

Half the view from our Bardolino hotel window

Down by the quay off the square in Bardolino

Fortunately we found a service station 10 km along the motorway and with a full tank of fuel our stress level was somewhat reduced. We then drove 210 incident free kilometres to Bardolino, a very pretty town on the shores of Lake Garda. The hotel we'd booked proved a good choice and we have a reasonably spacious room right beside the lake with a large balcony and delightful lake view.

It was soon time for lunch and we found a promising place 200 metres along the lakeside footpath on a elevated terrace under an overhead vine. We ordered fish pasta with a creamy sauce, a simple side salad and a cheap glass of wine. The food and wine was only  so-so but the location was terrific. We enjoyed a relaxing meal looking out on the lake in sparkling Spring sunshine. We now have no doubt that the next few days will be very enjoyable.

Lynn buys herself a small toy

Local craft tied up at the quay in Bardolino

Next morning we went exploring on foot. This area is really lovely. We saw lots of mullet sized fish, heaps of ducks of different species and even discovered a pair of swans sitting on a nest amongst some lakeside reeds. We then walked about 600 metres to the town centre which was very neat and attractive. Just as in our own hotel, German seems to be the lingua franca in Bardolino. I truly think Lynn and I are the only non German speakers in the whole town and we certainly have the only non German car in the hotel parking area.


Lynn can't finish her disgustingly scrumptious cake

There were heaps of ducks everywhere in Bardolino

Returning to the hotel we just made it to a little supermarket before they closed for siesta. Armed with grissini sticks, butter, cheese, salami, pate and wine we set up a picnic spread on our hotel balcony in delightful spring sunshine. "How nice is this?". Our impromptu lunch was followed by a two hour nap and we awoke feeling refreshed and ready for anything.

Sadly there wasn't an Aussie flag to be found anywhere

Some of the delightful pathways running from our hotel

Looks like an escapee from Disneyland

The fort ramparts at Sirmione

Next day we went into town for a very early Fritto Misto luncheon and a glass of cheap wine. Then rushed to catch a ferry across the lake to the town of Sirmione via a whistle stop at a village called Garda. Sirmione has a big wrap as being the Lake Garda town everyone must visit and when we got there we found that a million tourists had done just that!! For us it was not our cup of tea. We don't enjoy walking shoulder to shoulder down narrow lanes past wall to wall ice cream shops and being continuously buffeted by tour groups of adults and excursion groups of screaming children or teenagers. We had planned to stay here for at least a couple of hours but we ended up just grabbing a few photos and hopping back on a ferry a little more than an hour after our arrival. On the other hand the village of Garda seemed pleasantly peaceful and quiet. Our friends Pete and Donna had spoken well of this place and we had seriously considered making it our base. However after some thought Pete felt that we'd be better off staying in  Bardolino and it has turned out to be very good advice. We're very happy with both our hotel and the overall ambience of Bardolino.

A lovely view of the castle in Sirmione

One of several bridges over the river through Verona

The maitre d'hotel at a nearby restaurant had rolled his eyes when we'd replied, "no, we did not intend to visit the nearby city of Verona (you all know how Lynn and I avoid cities). But the guy raved on in such an extravagant Italian way about "amore" and how we just HAD to visit the abode of Shakespeare's (mythical) Romeo and Juliett that in the end we did book a half day tour. The tour was surprisingly cheap and the reason became clear in due course.

The city of Verona in early morning sunshine

Verona added this fake balcony to Juliett's home back in 1935

Laneway to Juliett's home. He signed his name then took a photo!

Footpath angels busking in Verona main square

After a 20 kilometre bus trip to Verona we received a 40 minute guided walk and commentary before being told to then do our own thing until bus departure time a couple of hours hence. Lynn thought the city was beautiful whereas I thought it simply typical of smaller type Italian cities.... pleasantly atmospheric but short of remarkable. Perhaps my mood was soured by the fact that I had dressed in summer clothes and Verona on this day was very chilly indeed with ice cold winds whistling down every lane. Fortunately for her, Lynn had dressed more sensibly and fortunately for me she frequently massaged some heat into my back as she knocked of the icicles. 

Window display outside pork butchery in Verona

Lynn in the central Verona square opposite the Roman forum

Imposing roofline statuary in old city of Verona

A mountainside monk's retreat along the road to Portogruaro

On to Portogruaro
Saying farewell to Bardolino we opted to take a longer but more scenic route to our next stopover in Portuguaro located just north east of Venice. Our journey took us right along one side of Lake Garda for about 50 km and then we went up into the mountains where we picked up a "green road" that was both gorgeous and deserted. We didn't mind all the hairpin bends because the lime green forests of birch and beach trees were simply magnificent. Unfortunately travelling at 30 kph doesn't get you very far and after consulting our GPS navigator around mid afternoon it became clear that we needed to find a freeway and push on quickly to our final destination. Incidentally we would recommend to anyone driving through Europe to choose green roads wherever possible because are usually extremely scenic. If you have a good map or road atlas they're easy to find because they are (wait for it) coloured green (boom boom).

A famous Veronese poet - name forgotten

Portogruaro Wine and Food Festival

Upon arrival at Portogruaro we found many streets barricaded and we couldn't find an allowable route to our hotel. Our GPS system was stymied in this kind of situation so I had to dump Lynn in a laneway whilst she tried to find our hotel on foot. In due course she returned to report that the town was almost totally locked down for a annual food and wine festival due to start that very night. This was both good news and bad news. Luckily there was a very obscure and circuitous path to our hotel and when we finally got there we sure breathed a sigh of relief.

A lovely balcony overlooking a lane in Portogruaro

Small bridge leading from our hotel to main square in Portogruaro

We participated in much of the weekend's festivities but sadly it was a bit of a squib. All the stall holders were dressed in medieval costume but most of the products were what you'd find at any small market in Australia or Europe. As to the food and wine side of things, this consisted of several dozen stalls selling glasses of much the same cheap wine accompanied and fairly boring tapas. As for the wine you could buy a glass of very rugged Pinot Grigio, Chardonay, Merlot or Cabernet for one Euro which tasted like paint stripper or you could pay two Euros and get a glass of very rugged wine which actually tasted a little bit like wine.

Councillor's wives in period costume for the Festival

This band under our hotel window fortunately finished at midnight

Lynn and I also went to a completely gratis 30 minute degustation outside the Town Hall. The wine was a little better and the food was various types of tiny pastries in different shapes, each with a dab of similar tasting pizza style sauce. The best thing was the fact that the Town Councillors were all done up in their burgundy robes and their wives were also dressed in period costume.

Festival stall holders sharing lunch during siesta

Portogruaro town Councillors at tapas degustation

Look, the festival wasn't a roaring success but it was a bonus as far as we were concerned because it was completely unexpected. It also added an extra dimension to our holiday tour and provided some photo opportunities.

What we ate and drank in Italy
Lynn and I always been tentative regarding main stream Italian culinary offerings. We tend to limit our consumption of dishes built around highly concentrated tomato sauce with cheese. Once or twice per month is enough for us. On the other hand we rather enjoy the more subtle pasta dishes with veal, seafood or vegetables an olive oil or creamy sauce. We are also fond of mussels cooked with garlic, oil and butter or risotto dishes featuring either mushrooms, seafood, vegetables, parsley and whatever.

Having said all that, on this visit we had all of our Bardolino evening meals in our hotel because we had purchased a "Spring Special" deal some months previously which threw in a "half board" meal package for no extra cost. For those Aussie and Kiwi readers who are unfamiliar with the popular European "half board" option, this provides a breakfast plus multi course Table d'Hote evening meal for the period of one's stay. In our Bardolino hotel this included a hot and cold breakfast buffet and  a five course evening meal. Consequently most days we tried to limit lunch to a small simple snack and a glass of vino.

In Portogruaro I discovered a love of scampi (same as langoustines or Dublin Bay prawns). I also discovered that they could be really sweet and tasty or boringly tasteless and hardly worth eating. It seems you must pay your money and take your chances.

Lynn and myself are light drinkers so we usually only had a glass of house wine with dinner or lunch. Notwithstanding our 4 star hotel dining room this always cost €2.50 per glass so at current exchange rates this was no more expensive than a similar purchase at an RSL Club bar back home. The quality was not great but better than what you'd expect for the price.

As usual in most of Europe, one buys bottled water with every cafe or restaurant meal. I'm a very thirsty guy so we always bought a large bottle and it always cost €2.50 no matter where we were. We're also drinking bottled water in the car and in our room. By the time we get home we'll have probably spent the equivalent of $500 on just plain drinking water. I won't complain about the cost of  lovely clean tap water ever again. Oh ok then.... I probably will !!

I think the whole of Europe must be paved with Gelati bars and Italy is certainly no exception. And it's just not decoration either. Most of them seem to be doing a roaring business. As to supermarkets here in Italy, they seem to have caught the American and Australian disease. So many items are packaged in large multi packs when you only want to buy one. Or they are ticketed on the basis that you can have four for €5.00 or one for €2.00. You know what I mean.

Boring medical footnote
On the first day of our vacation I hurt my left shoulder. Unfortunately episodes of pain are becoming more frequent and more intense. Lynn has come up with a number of dire diagnoses but I think it's "just" a strain of some kind. Maybe it's one of those rotator cuff thingies which so many sportsmen seem to get nowadays. That could do heaps for my macho image! Seriously though, I'm becoming somewhat concerned especially in view of the weight of luggage that has to be moved in and out of hotels and cars during the course of the next two months. Hopefully I'll have some better news on this subject when I publish the next web page.

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