Italy, Chapter 2: Varenna, the Sleepy Village that Soothes the Soul

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We left Milan depleted. We were sad, scared, worried and trying desperately to stay optimistic in the face of adversity. The bad guys won but we weren’t going to let them ruin our trip. They just wore us down, temporarily. We were happy to be on the train heading for brighter horizons. Christine promised us that we would love Varenna. It would be just the place to cheer up weary travelers.

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And it was! The closer and closer we got to Varenna, the brighter and cheerier the day seemed. The sun came out, the buildings were painted in yellows and golds, the fall foliage burst all over the scenery with bright red and crimson leaves. It was so pretty!  The dreary graffiti-strewn city walls passed away behind us. We were in the countryside now and it was beautiful!

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We got off our train and hobbled our luggage up the cobblestone streets to our bed and breakfast. Here’s a thing about Christine: She’s a speed walker. Sometimes she doesn’t know where she is going but that doesn’t slow her down at all. She goes even faster in the wrong direction so she can figure it out sooner and report back to us, saving us some steps. However, Teresa and I were not familiar with this method of fearless leadership so we breathlessly tried to keep up and then shook our heads in bewilderment when we ended up very much going the wrong way. Eventually we figured this out and stopped trying to keep up with Christine. But it took a while. We were quite the bunch of pals racing all over in confusion.

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Varenna is a little village perched on the hillsides of Lake Como. It is so adorable. It feels like it’s set back in time. There are no Seven Elevens. There are no Big Gulps or Walmarts or chain restaurants. Everything is perfect and quaint and charming. In between the buildings are narrow corridors of steps leading down to the lake. Every corridor is different and boasts a view more beautiful than the last. I could live here. I could seriously buy a cottage and live here forever. It was like coming home.

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Our Bed and Breakfast was a gold building and our room was on the fourth floor. No more entry-level windows for us! We were good and high up and we felt it in our butts as we bumped our luggage up four floors of concrete steps.

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Outside our window,  just a block down was a church that rung it’s bells jubilantly every half hour and not necessarily in the right order. I could swear it rang twenty times at 7am. Time to get up and go to church apparently! Everybody is Catholic in Italy and there are a LOT of churches.

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The top left window was ours. In the night, the shutter swung open and made a loud banging noise. Both Teresa and I woke up with a start. We were sure we were getting robbed again and ran around in the dark of our room, checking our luggage to make sure nothing was taken.

Of course nothing was taken but it shook us up for good while and we had trouble falling back to sleep. It’s amazing how much scarier and illogically you can think when it’s dark. In the daytime you are fine but when it gets dark all kinds of things go bump in the night.  This is the PTSD I was talking about and it’s still with me now that I’m back in America. I can only imagine what soldiers deal with. We only had one night of terror (not even a night really, maybe a few hours). No wonder so many veterans are suffering. I’m much better now but I’m just saying it kind of stays with you long after you think you are fine.

Anyway, we did sleep and we woke up to a glorious morning in Varenna. We had been expecting bad weather on our trip. That’s what our weather apps predicted when we were back in the states but we had nothing but beautiful perfect fall weather. It was amazing. I cannot recommend traveling in the fall enough. The air is crisp but not cold. You can hike without sweating. You don’t have to wear boots or cart around coats. It’s just pretty. I especially appreciated it since I live in Southern California and I have thin blood and no experience with real seasons.

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This is the church that bonged it’s heart out at seven in the morning. Such a cheery little church wishing everybody would get up already and go say their prayers.

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I did love this church. I am not Catholic but I think if I lived here I would attend this church faithfully. It was so small but majestic. I especially loved the Amelie-esque painting of a woman saint. I don’t know her name. There is more information here but I can’t seem to find anything since I am a cursed speed reader.

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You get it right? Look at this village? Can’t you just see me holed up in some apartment, illustrating books for days without the internet interrupting me? I could be so prolific! My travel mates didn’t think I’d last though. I’d get bored soon they said. I’m not so sure. I think I could take this kind of boredom.

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I mean, really. Look at these views. And it snows sometimes! Imagine the fun of that!

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If you get bored of Varenna you can always hop on a ferry to Bellagio. The real Bellagio that the casino was named after in Las Vegas. I like this Bellagio a lot better. They don’t have any fancy waterfalls synchronized to music but it is not a loss at all.

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Everyone is stylish in Italy. All the time. All the men wear tapered pants and funky socks. Even the grandfathers and boring professors, police men and gardeners.  I bet even the thief who robbed me was wearing very cool shoes and a sporty jacket. It’s just the way it is. I learned very quickly that my hole-y jeans and white t-shirt were three shades of snoresville.

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In Bellagio we had lunch. We cheered with Apperol Spritz, like you do. It was very delightful and the pasta was always al dente. We had caffé lungos after lunch which is espresso with a bit of water so you get more volume. The Italians know how to do coffee. We all knew that but seriously, it is the BEST. They don’t have paper cups. Everyone gets glass. They don’t serve anything large. Twelve ounces is for those disdainful Americans. You get a wee little cup and you will appreciate that wee little cup.

I did! I really did. Even in the airport I got a cappuccino and it was the best cappuccino ever. I just loved Italian coffee. Not unlike how I loved Parisian coffee. Maybe I just hate American coffee.

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Then we shopped. I bought a lot of really nice handmade items for friends and family back home. I love supporting the local artists and Italy has them in loads. No imported crap from China here. You can actually talk to the artisan about his work for as long as you like and then he’ll wrap it up for you in a pretty red package! I was in love.

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Up and down the corridors we trekked, getting buns of steel as we went.

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There were so many nooks and crannies to explore. No main drag or strip mall in sight. Just little shops and coffee bars, tiny restaurants and apartments with laundry hanging outside their windows. If you looked up charming in the dictionary it should have a picture of Bellagio and Varenna.

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We ferried back to Varenna after our little day trip to Bellagio and sorted out where we should have dinner…

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Pizza, drinks or panini anyone? We didn’t eat from this little panini truck but if I lived here I would.

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Of course I had to have gelato and it was delicious! Sadly, gelato and ice cream are wasted on me. I have sensitive teeth and even though I love the taste, I don’t completely love the experience of my teeth being frozen off. But I took one for the team. Bug told me I had to have stracciatella because she read the book “Love and Gelato” last year and has been a huge gelato fan ever since. It was pretty good but I really loved the lampoon (aka raspberry) too. Most of all I loved the view of the boats where we sat on a cobblestone curb and ate our gelato. I could get used to that.

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That night we ate dinner on the water too. The food wasn’t as amazing as it usually was but we didn’t care because we had seats RIGHT ON THE WATER! How often does that happen in America? Not very often. We shut the restaurant down, talking late into the night and drinking wine.

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It was all so peaceful. Nothing like Milan.

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The next day we had breakfast in this cute little restaurant that cinched my love affair with Varenna. It was so charming! It reminded me of Zinc back home but a thousand times better. There was no fancy expensive marble counter top. Just regular formica and the exposed brick of a hundred years ago. A sparkly chandelier hung from the ceiling and pretty bottles lined the walls. It was an Instagrammers dream. Nothing fancy individually but everything together fancier than anything I could dream up.

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Breakfast was amazing. All that on a cookie sheet. See why I could live here? Le sigh.

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After breakfast we took a hike up the hillside to visit a cemetery. I would love to be buried here with that amazing view. My relatives would love to come visit me and picnic on my grave!  But Christine told me sometimes cemeteries have 30-year reservations and after 30 years they can dig you up and move you to make room for new dead bodies. Can you imagine that? They dig you up after 30 years and if no family member claims you and buries you somewhere else, you are moved to some mass grave and forgotten?!! What? That seems crazy. I think I’ll just be cremated and save everyone the trouble.

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The cemetery was very small and most of the people seem to have died in the 50’s which is long after their 30-year eviction notice so maybe they are lucky or just well cared for.

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After the cemetery Christine and I attempted to hike to a castle further up. We weren’t intending to hike all the way up to the castle but we ended up doing it anyway because Christine is a speed hiker and I am competitive.

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It was a really pretty hike. The path was narrow and winding along narrow crevices that opened into breath-taking views. Every once in a while we would happen upon an alter to the Virgin Mary and there were little notes and pictures stuck to it. It was amazing to me that so many people had taken this hike, maybe as a pilgrimage to pray for their loved ones. I think it’s a really beautiful way to deal with grief. A lot better than anti-depressants.

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Just be outside in all this beauty and take it in. It heals the soul. But all that view-taking-in made us late and we had to run down the mountain like crazy mad billy goats to catch a train! Christine sped-hiked and I practically threw myself down the mountain with flying dirt and gravel leading my way. It was pure comedy. I have a twisted tendon on the back of my knee for a souvenir.

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But of course we made it. And then we were off to Venice!

Next up: Venice

Solana Beach Weekend

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I wasn’t going to blog our weekend in Solana Beach because it was one of those rabble-rousing weekends of debauchery BUT as I was going over my photos (I took my camera with me!) I realized I had more to say about this fun little weekend trip than I thought! Added value, right?

First of all I cannot express how much fun the train ride is. On the way to the races it was quite crowded and rowdy and even though we had splurged on business class we didn’t actually end up in business class or reap any of the business class benefits. However, on the way home on Sunday we did and let me tell you, they treat you like first class!

Free snacks, free water, free coffee, free tiny bottles of wine, free smiles and jokes from the guy who collects your ticket… It was actually really amazing and you only pay $10 extra! You get way better treatment in business class than you ever would on first class on an airplane. It’s like the trains are still back in time.

So before they figure out they are losing money you should treat yourself to a little surfliner cruise. It’s really fun, peaceful (I love watching out the windows) and you meet new people. And I haven’t even mentioned the BEST PART OF ALL: you beat the traffic on the 405 on a weekend! It’s so satisfying to look out the window as you whiz past zillions of cars stuck in traffic. SO LONG SUCKERS! you’ll say in your brain. Trains are the BEST.

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Next best thing about our Solana Beach weekend is my friend Erika’s parents’ condo. Having a friend with a vacation condo is key. I really love her condo because it is all white and if I blur my eyes I can pretend I am vacationing on a Greek island. It’s close enough to the ocean to see it from their balcony but not close enough to actually walk, unless you really want to get a good walk in. But that’s okay because we were there for the Del Mar races anyway.

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I’m not like a super huge race or gambling fan but I can appreciate it once a year or so. There’s something fun and exciting about being in the stands with a bunch of people and rooting for a horse that has a pretty name. Payam is much more of a gambler than any of us and he actually referred to some stats in a book but that was way beyond me. I was obviously more into picture taking and having a drink or three.

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In fact I had so many drinks I had some pictures in my camera that I don’t even remember taking. These people look like fun.

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I’m not sure why I took their picture but it looks like they were a fun bunch.

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Most of all it was fun being with our friends. It was Erika’s birthday so we celebrated all day long, like you do. Lots of good food, lots of drinks and lots of being silly.

But before any of you worry about me being an alcoholic (believe me, I worry too) let me share that I have seriously cut down and because of that I’ve lost weight! Go figure! I used to love a glass of wine when I was cooking a complicated recipe but I’ve cut wine out completely (watching my sugar intake) and after a week of not having it I didn’t even miss it anymore! I think I was addicted to the sugar and not the alcohol. Of course, I still love a Persian margarita  (lime, lots of ice and expensive tequila) now and then but I’ll save the caloric drinking for special occasions with awesome train rides, white condos and friends.