Dispatches from Italy

Cities visited: Venice, the Vatican, Rome, Milan, Como, Florence, and Bellagio

City Ratings: Venice-10 (incomparable architecture); the Vatican-10 (unique religious experience); Rome-9 (beautiful ruins and archaeology);Como-8 (spectacular vistas); Florence-9 (incredible art)

Our AA’s abroad: An AA family of four from McLean, Virginia

Should you visit Italy? Our AA’s say YES! Here’s why:

Although it is easy to be deterred from travelling in Europe this summer because of reports of anti-American sentiment and exorbitant costs, my husband and I overcame inertia and decided to forge ahead with our plans to visit Italy. My daughters are touring Italy for 12 days with the Children’s Chorus of Washington and are singing in some wonderful venues including St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and the Vatican, and we decided that we would tour some of the rest of Italy as well and conclude our trip by meeting them in Rome to see their concert at the Vatican. We have learned through emails from the Children’s Chorus that they have been very warmly received in small Italian towns and larger cities alike. They sing both sacred Italian music and contemporary works, but the audience favorites are always the Negro spirituals and jazz selections made famous by Duke Ellington and his contemporaries. It is wonderful that some of African- American culture is so widely known and appreciated in Italy!

All of you who are seasoned travelers will know the locations on our itinerary well but there is always a wonderful feeling that the unexpected is just around the corner in Italy-it is the combination of the familiar and well-loved sites as well as surprising new discoveries that makes Italy so satisfying.

Although I suspect that many readers of this website are familiar with the lake region of Italy, it was a new discovery for my husband and for me. We flew into Milan and travelled by car to Como, a smaller city which provides many spectacular views of Lake Como, the deepest lake in Europe and one of the most picturesque, seated as it is, between peaks of the Italian Alps. One of the most famous tourist locations in this region is Villa d’Este (Via Regina 40, 22012, Cernobbio, Italy, phone (39) 031-3481). This resort has hosted the famous and privileged and luminaries in the field of entertainment for generations. The $1200 a night price tag for a one night’s stay assures that it will continue to host more of the pampered rich and famous from around the world. We opted to have just a meal there to get a glimpse of the luxury that the website describes. We ate outdoors, along Lake Como, attended by polite waiters and accompanied by a refined, silver-haired clientele and families straight from pages of Town and Country. A modest meal here was 150 Euros (about $200 at the current rate of exchange). There is an aura of faded grandeur here with beautiful grounds and vistas, and a sense of being part of an era long past, but fondly remembered. My preference, though, is the more modest but appealing hotel where we stayed in Como which is just a few miles from Villa d’Este but world’s away in terms of cost.

Lake Como

The Palace Hotel (Lungo Lario Trieste, 16 Como, Italy phone (39) 866-559-3296) was our hotel in Como. English is not widely spoken in the lake region, and our GPS was malfunctioning on our car trip from Milan Airport to Como. Knowing that you must fend for yourself in your non-native tongue adds a sense of adventure (not to mention a sense of accomplishment when after 5 inquiries for help with directions in broken Italian and English, we finally reached our destination!). The décor is less ornate, but the room was immaculate and our room had a beautiful view of the lake that rivaled the scenery from our outdoor meal at Villa D’Este. We found small sidewalk trattorias around the hotel and delicious gelaterias like those found all around Italy in the summer and I have consumed gallons of stracciatella (chocolate chip), nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolate (you guessed it-chocolate) gelato in my week here in Italy. The continental breakfast offered at The Palace Hotel is the best I have had in Italy so far and we have had delicious breakfasts in Venice, Florence and Rome. Who could resist fresh croissants with delicious jams, individual packets of Nutella, fantastic yogurts and fruits of every flavor, coffee and teas and authentic, fresh Italian breakfast pastries available in limitless quantities served in an elegant, light and ornately decorated salon. Any place that serves individual packages of Nutella to spread on everything is irresistible as far as I am concerned.

If you are brave, and don’t mind driving on a two-way winding mountain road only wide enough for one Smart Car, then hop in your auto and make your way to Bellagio “the jewel of the lake”. It is a small town, nestled between the two “arms” of Lake Como, just about a 30-40 minute trip from Como. Travel to Bellagio is not for the faint of heart or the bargain-minded, especially this summer, but it is a great way to spend an afternoon. The road to Bellagio is tortuous and very narrow and bicyclists and motorcyclists intent on making their way no matter what or who is in their path make the trip a bit harrowing, but well worth it.

We stopped at a beautiful little outdoor restaurant (Bar Carillon) where we were fortunate to meet some fellow African American travelers. Seated just a few tables away from the table where my husband and I were seated was a convivial group so I couldn’t resist stopping to say “hello” and introducing myself since we had not seen other African Americans in this region, as we had in other parts of Italy. The group was several friends from Boston and an African American artist who lives in Bellagio and was still wearing her beautiful artist’s smock splashed with the vibrant paint colors from one of her recent paintings. They were kind and greeted me warmly.

An AA expat and AA tourists enjoying Bellagio, Italy

Bellagio is the part-time residence of many artists, as you might imagine, because the scenery is so inspiring with the Alps reflected in the Lake, and a feeling of “scenic decay” in the old buildings, winding pathways and beautiful flowers and stores full of silk goods and other colorful items. We also saw another gallery which is worth a stop. The Paolo Demaria Guaitamacchi Gallery in Bellagio houses the artwork of both Paolo Guaitamacchi and Bruno Guaitamacchi (Paolo’s father, now deceased). The paintings are brightly colored and are reminiscent of the art of the Impressionists. Next year, the gallery will be moving to nearby Varenna, but if you are in Bellagio in the near future, the small gallery holds several beautiful paintings which depict scenes from the lake region of Italy and the American Midwest.

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