Monday, May 25, 2015

Italian Mountains and Lakes

If you haven't figured it out yet I love the water, coastal views, and sunshine. But... mountains can be just as mesmerizing. Put a lake in the middle of some mountains and you have a pretty good combo!

I took loads of pictures from the last week, even with some not so hot weather, while visiting the Dolomites for Mountains and Lake Como for lakes...

In all my debating of where to go after Venice, looking at Google Maps, and attempting to look at weather I settled on staying in Italy and heading to the Dolomites. These are Alps that are in Northern Italy and boarder Austria. I was specifically in a province called South Tyrol and spent one night in Bolzano (Bozen in German) and two in the smaller town of Castlerotto (Kastelruth in German). This area has a really interesting history and it's been hotly debated to which country it belonged - Italy or Austria. Eventually it was determined that it would be Italy but the Austrian influence is very strongly felt! Most of the residents speak German as a primary language, then Italian too, and there's a third native language as well that I think some people speak. I stepped off the train in Bolzano and it really did feel like I'd entered into a different country. All of the signage was in German and that's all I could hear people speaking - great I thought, yet another language I know no words of! And the building architecture was definitely a change from what I'd seen throughout Italy. Not to mention the food - I was now for three days choosing between pizza, pasta, schnitzel, sausages, and their local fare.

Bolzano was just for an over night and to figure out how on earth to actually get up to Castelrotto. In the winter there's loads of skiing in the area and summer is crazed with hiking and other outdoor activities. Since I was arriving between the seasons I wasn't quite sure what was going to be open and how the buses up to Castelrotto would be. I couldn't seem to find the info online so I figured I'll stop in Bolzano for the night, go to the tourist office, and then make a plan. With a map and bus schedule in hand I was now ready.

I wandered around Bolzano a bit along their nicely marked many walking paths, scouted out a route for a morning run, had some wiener schnitzel for dinner, and called it a night. For a hotel I had booked whatever was cheap and available in the town center and a quick walk from the train and bus station. Well, unbeknownst to me I booked some place that's run by the church and was basically like a well equipped dorm room. I realized after the fact that the place is actually in the guide book I have, this has happened numerous times, as a basic cheap option. I booked a single room so just a twin bed, closet, desk, and bathroom. Oh and a cross and some religious pictures above the bed. Basic, sterile, but just want I needed with good wifi. Maybe I'd be holier after sleeping there!

The weather hadn't been great when I arrived to Bolzano and I knew that rain was definitely on the way. And sure enough it arrived the next day. This was not what I had hoped for for my mountain stay and planned hiking! The week before the weather had been quite hot and sunny, dangit! My morning run was a little soggy but felt good to get out and after the heat of Venice the cooler weather was feeling good. I actually got to make use of some of the cold weather clothes I've been lugging around! Despite the weather onwards to Castelrotto I went.

Castelrotto is a small little village surrounded by, as I would only be able to see for myself a day or so later, beautiful hills and mountains. The hotel that I stayed in was fabulous and they were so incredibly helpful in giving information about how to get around and what was and wasn't open. Like for example realizing the first night that there was only one restaurant open in the town, it was hopping! Sadly the cable car lift that I was hoping to take up to another village where many of the hikes can start was opening over the weekend - just as I was leaving. So, I'd have to take a bus up and time my hike to catch one of the few return ones back down. Whatever the weather was going to be I was going to hike, it didn't matter. Too bad I'd carried rain pants and gear throughout South America and didn't need it once and I had pretty much nothing with me here. Oh well. I did think to myself as I took about a two hour stroll in the rain shortly after I arrived that this was what I expected the Inca Trail to be like and thank goodness it wasn't. I would not have been a happy camper!

On Thursday the weather was a bit better. I woke up to being able to actually see the mountains but as the day progressed it was off and on. Regardless I was determined to hike. So with a trail map in hand and a suggested route from the folks at the hotel I headed up to the town of Compastch which is smack in the middle of the Alpe di Siusi - essentially the largest mountain plateau in Europe. I thought I was doing like a four hour hike but it turned out to be maybe two hours. It was all fine by me because while it was beautiful and there were a few moments of being able to see blue sky and back down to the village where the hotel was it actually started snowing on me. Eeeek! The last snow I'd seen was in February in Philadelphia when it was so fricken cold, I was not interested in that again! At first it was just a few flakes but then for about my last fifteen minutes or so of hiking it was coming down hard. I was almost in a run trying to get back to the town and find somewhere to get warm and kill time until the next bus. Again, one restaurant appeared to be open so I popped in and hung my coat and backpack to dry!

Even with the not so great weather the area was still absolutely beautiful and a place that I'd love to come back to. There are so many hikes to do ranging from just a hour or so, to many hours, and even multi-day ones. I want to get a ride in one of the cable cars up the mountain to the higher peaks because I'm sure the ride itself and then the destination are absolutely amazing. After my snowy hike I did some more wanderings around the town of Castelrotto as the clouds and light were shifting. As the day went on different parts of the surrounding mountains or hills would become visible so it was exciting to catch glimpses over the day.

After a stunning morning mountain run on Friday I headed via bus and three trains to my next destination - Lake Como which is just north of Milan. This is a popular holiday spot with multiple towns dotting the lake and some massive villas owned by folks like George Cloney. I was on the lookout for him but didn't see him wandering around :)

While the weather again wasn't picture perfect and a bit cooler than previous weeks Lake Como was still beautiful. There are three main mid-lake towns, Varenna, Bellagio, and Menaggio. The lake is shaped like an upside down Y or some like to say a man and Bellagio which is right in the center is the crotch and the towns of Varenna and Menaggio are each hip. Use whatever visual suits you. I stayed in Varenna - mostly because it's where the train stops and there's easy access via ferry boat to other spots. It's a cute little place with a few hotels, shops, and a number of restaurants with awesome lake views.

I went to both Bellagio and Menaggio and just wandered around. Bellagio, for which the Vegas hotel is named, is beautiful and definitely a bit more ritzy than the others but it didn't feel over the top. I'm sure the hotel rooms cost a pretty penny though! You can walk out to the Punta Spartivento which is 'the point that divides the wind' and right where to the two legs of the lake split. I also went into some beautiful gardens along the lake that made the views even more amazing.

Menaggio which is basically due west of Varenna on the opposite side of the lake seemed to be the most built up. There's a nice park and walking area that goes along the lake front so it's good for a casual stroll. The mountains behind it head into to Switzerland so apparently back in the day it was a wealthy town because there was a lot of smuggling of cigarettes and other items across the boarder.

Between visiting the other towns I did two small hikes around Varenna. The first was to check out the shortest river in Italy, Fiumelatte - apparently just 250 meters from source (right out of the hillside) to where it dumps into the lake. The water gushes for just a few months of the year from April to September and is quite otherwise. It's pretty impressive to see the amount of water that is flying down this hillside and into the lake. The second hike was slightly longer and went from Varenna up into the hills and then over to a town called Bellano. This hike had lots of beautiful views but the saddest thing was that many of them were obstructed by electrical or phone wires. Makes you appreciate places where they've moved all of the wiring under ground!

While the weather dry it was never totally clear. However, the clouds did lift a fair amount yesterday and especially by the evening it was much more clear than other nights. I could actually see the sunset. For the third night in a row I plopped myself down at a table at one of the outdoor bars and simple eating spots, ordered wine, got some free snacks, and then eventually ordered an actual bite to eat. Last night paid off with being able to watch the sun drop behind some clouds and then eventually the mountains directly across the lake. Not a bad last evening. And I'll say I'm definitely going to miss how cheap the wine here is! You can get a quarter liter which is at least two glasses for 3-5 euro, yes please.

With mountains and lakes of Italy now checked off my list I head to Milan for a night. From there I'm likely calling it quits on Italy for now. It's been a good run and I'm glad I stayed the extra days to get a taste of lake and alpine life and while touristy it was relaxing and much less crowded.

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