Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Report 847: Top Of The Boot To Tuscany
By RonGom from Louisiana, Summer 2003
Trip Description: First two weeks in September. Drove from airport in Milan to Desenzano on the south shore of Lake Garda. After a week there, drove to Colle Lungo at Castellina in Chianti for a week's stay.
Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Lake Region, Tuscany
Categories: Vacation Rentals; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 3-4 people
Page 1 of 3: Week One in Lake Country at The Top of The Boot
Giant Bougainvillea at Sermione, Italy
We’ve been traveling Italy since 1989. In seven previous trips we’ve logged thousands of miles by car and train and stayed in hotels, villas and even a cruise ship. We’ve never had a bad trip. For this trip, good friends and very compatible traveling companions, Judy and Randy joined us. We had shared one other Italian trip and one to France with them. The idea for this trip was to slow things down. This would be more of a vacation than an exploration. With two weeks to work with, instead of packing and unpacking, moving from area to area every two or three days, we would settle in one place for a week before moving on for the second week in a different location. We would be traveling the first two weeks of September, a time of year we had experienced in Italy several times before with usually good weather. On a previous trip with Judy and Randy, we made the requisite Rome visit then drove to the Sorrento peninsula, Amalfi etc. then returned to Tuscany for visits to Florence, Cinque Terra and many of the hill towns. Since my wife Carol and I had spent some time at Lake Como during a previous trip, we wanted to try a different lake locale. Then, we wanted to settle in for the second week in our favorite part of Italy, Tuscany. Using the internet, I researched several locations in Lombardy and Veneto before settling on the largest of the northern lakes, Lake Garda. I found a facility that looked almost too good to be true. Castello Belvedere is located just outside of the south shore town of Desenzano on a hill overlooking the lake. The Tuscany location I chose was a working vineyard and villa that we had visited twice before on previous trips and had tried to book several times unsuccessfully. Podere Colle Lungo is located about two miles outside of Castellina in Chianti, a perfect central location for day trips throughout Tuscany. It is also near several restaurants that have become our favorites over the years. I started planning and booking this September trip seven months in advance. Frankly, I find the planning process almost, well somewhat, as enjoyable as the trip itself.
Week One in Lake Country at The Top of The Boot
We flew via Continental Airlines overnight into Milan’s Malpensa Airport arriving around 10:00 A.M. local time. I had reserved a car rental by internet. Since we travel only with carry-on luggage, we avoided the baggage pick-up, whisked through customs and the rental process and were in our car leaving the airport by 10:45. When we first traveled with Judy and Randy, she didn’t believe that two weeks worth of travel needs could be packed into a 22” roller board for each traveler. In addition the women carry large shoulder bags and the men medium size camera bags and everything is well taken care of. Judy and Carol even had practice packing sessions leading up to that first trip. It definitely can be done and is a real time-saver on arriving at your destination. We haven’t checked baggage on an airline in fifteen years.
One of my favorite things in Italy is driving on the superb roads. Fuel is expensive but the Italians seem to put the tax money back into their roads. They are generally in good repair and the signage is exceptionally helpful. Even the rural roads are well-marked and in good condition.
We drove the A4 autostrada from Milan to the exit at Desenzano in less than two hours and found Castello Belvedere very easily with the directions that had been e-mailed to us when we made the reservations.
The Castello was even more impressive than its website. Set on a hill overlooking the lake, it is the centerpiece of a 50,000 square meter National Park. The park features centuries-old olive and stately, slender, Italian cypress trees. The original 18th century structure has been beautifully preserved. An interior courtyard is surrounded by gracefully arched walkways leading to the 27 well-appointed apartments.
We had chosen one of the seven three-room units that rented for about $230 a night. It was very spacious with a large sitting, dining and kitchen area opening to a covered veranda. One of the two bedrooms also overlooked the veranda and each bedroom adjoined a private bathroom. The veranda was surrounded by lush landscaping and provided a sensational view of not only the beautiful expanse of Lake Garda with its backdrop of the snow topped Alps mountains but also of a lovely swimming pool on a level below the apartments.
Anxious for our first meal back on Italian soil, we quickly unpacked and drove the winding road down into the village of Desenzano. Since we have rarely been disappointed in any food in Italy, we weren’t even hesitant of stopping at the first trattoria in sight, La Bicocca. Old and family owned, it lived up to our expectations. After a delightful lunch, we strolled the waterfront of the town, sat in the glorious sunshine awhile, picked up a few basics for the apartment kitchen, then returned to the Castello for some downtime.
That evening we walked seventy-five yards or so to the Castello’s adjoining restaurant where we dined under the stars next to a giant cypress tree while looking out at the winking lights around and on the dark shadow of the lake.
The next morning we had coffee, juice and rolls in the apartment before getting a few dining and sightseeing directions from our very accommodating Castello host, Vincente. Our plan for the day was to drive the perimeter of the lake. Garda is a little over 30 miles long north to south and about 2 miles wide at the north tip and 10 miles across at the south. So, with sightseeing stops and meals, we figured this would be an all day affair.
We marveled at the magnificent weather: clear skies and temperatures in the upper 60’s and low 70’s. Amazingly, this clear, cool weather system would be with us the entire two weeks. The drive around the lake is all you could ask for beauty and grandeur; granite mountains of the southern Alps cascading to the blue waters; sail, speed and ferry boats streaking the water with white wakes and beautiful foliage of every description. We saw a man standing on a second story balcony of a restaurant clipping sprigs from a rosemary bush (tree?) that reached at least twenty-five feet from the ground.
We drove the car off the main highway up a winding mountain road to the tiny village of Upper Fasano (never did see Lower Fasano) to the Ristorante Riolet that had been recommended by Vincente. The ancient structure was set on a steep hillside some 1500 to 2000 feet above the lake in a virtual forest of trees and blooming plants. The meal was served on a porch cantilevered out from the main structure into the treetops and overlooking the lake. Lunch for four, including wine, bottled water, entrees for each, dessert and coffee came to 77.00 euros.
Our orbit of the lake, unfortunately, was interrupted by what must have been a serious accident near the northern tip. Polizia stopped all traffic heading north and diverted it back down toward Desenzano.
Since we had been short-circuited, we decided to explore a thin peninsula of land that prominently jutted some three miles into the lake from the south shore just east of Desenzano. Like a giant I it is dotted by the town of Sirmione. This is obviously the favored tourist and native vacation destination on the lake. It is a quaint, rustic town of about eight square blocks that is jammed with tourists and vacationers, souvenir shops, gelateria, sidewalk cafes, wine bars and the mandatory castle. It has a fair sized marina and the drive up the narrow peninsula is lined with palm trees. In the center of the village is an old three story stone building with the largest bougainvillea we had ever seen. This plant covered most of all three stories of the building. Its beautiful hanging garlands stretched some forty feet from side to side.
One of the original reasons for choosing Lake Garda as the center of our first week’s activities was its proximity to Verona and Venice. Judy and Randy had never been to Venice and Carol and I were interested in seeing the city that Shakespeare used as the setting for Romeo and Juliet.
We drove the A4 autostrada the 20 or so miles to Verona on another brilliantly sunny but cool day. This vibrant city is a real treat; classic old Italy with a surprisingly modern feel. The ancient Roman coliseum, dating back to A. D. 100, has been beautifully restored and is in good enough shape to host summer concerts, plays and operas that draw fans from all over the world. Unfortunately for us, the opera season only lasts through August.
The walk through the old city is delightful. The old Roman forum is a beautiful market place with umbrella-covered stalls bustling with people and centered by a centuries-old fountain. A short distance down a side street, we made the mandatory stop at the home of Juliet Cappelletti, casa di Giulietta Cappelletti. The famous “wherefore art thou, Romeo?” balcony overlooks an interior courtyard that was jammed with young and old. Naturally, we took pictures of the ladies on the balcony and the guys next to the bronze statue of Juliet. The walls of the courtyard has been papered several layers thick and at least a story high with calling cards and scribbled love notes in every known language. Ah, romance.
Leaving the old town area we walked across the Adige River on an ancient stone bridge and had lunch al fresco sitting virtually in the parking lot of a small ristorante. Again, the meal was wonderful.
Another mandatory stop was the Castelvecchio whose crenellated turrets overlook the river. It is now an art museum well worth visiting.
Our next excursion was Venice. We decided to give this beautiful city only one day of concentrated touring. I figured after a full day of walking the canal ways we would have a good dinner with wine and I didn’t need to be driving back to our Castello after that. A round trip train ticket for the 90 mile ride to Venice cost about 12 euros each. We took a 7:45 A. M. train from Desenzano and were in Venice before 10:00 A. M. Following a walking guidebook, we made the circuit.
We toured all the major sights of the city: the Rialto bridge, at least a dozen churches, the open-air farmers’ market and the Musei Civici Veneziana. We stopped for lunch at a small osteria called Al Pantalon on Via Dorsoduro. The ladies and I settled for various forms of pasta but the adventurous Randy opted for the sardines. I’ll only say that the Venetians obviously like their sardines somewhat gamey. We ended up at the Doges Palace and St. Marks Square. We even made it to the top of the Campanile. On a previous visit, Carol and I had passed up the blocks-long line waiting for the elevator to the top of the 324-foot tall bell tower. For whatever reason, this time there was no line. At around dusk we stopped for dinner and had a pleasant after-dark train ride back to the lake.
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