21. To Verona!

I felt sorry for the old Hotel Rustichello.  It had real, rustic charm, just like the town of Lonato. Take this doorknob, for instance:

But for attracting tourists, they were both in a tough postition; too close and too far from Lake Garda. It would work as a motel out on the lonesome highway somewhere, but this close to the lake you could just drive another mile or two and stay somewhere within walking distance of a nice dip. That explained the good deal we got.

Rustichello breakfast     Travel Tip: I kept getting the wrong coffee in Italy. I ordered “Cafe normal” and got espresso. The big one with the hot milk is an ‘Americano’, presumably for us Americans, who go for quantity.

The air in the back smelled just like SoCal.

The owner gave me a couple pamphlets advertising the local museum, and he grumbled about the opening hours, and grumbled some more about the municipality’s lack of dedication to tourist infrastructure. It was killing business.

I said we were interested in seeing pretty, little Lonato, and could we leave our bags here at the desk for a while?

“Oh. We’re closing. You’ll have to take your bags.”

-Well, then I guess we’ll just be on our way. You said the bus to Verona picks up across the street?

It was already hot as we left the motel, and the bus stop had no shade. I figured we’d be all sweaty by the time the bus arrived. But the owner came out to open the back gate and let us sit in the shade. Time for K to get a little homework done.

See you, Rustichello!  I get it, you don’t need the parking space, but why advertise that?

 The road hugged the south end of the lake. A German friend told me Lake Garda is his top choice for a vacation. If we come back, it will be at the northern, mountain end. Down here feels a little too, I don’t know… Waikiki, Corona del Mar, Orlando?  Fine places but I want a little Italy thrown into my Italian vacation, not Ruth’s Chris steak house. I’m sure Clooney agrees with me on this. His chalet must be at the more rustic, mountainous end.

We arrived around noon in Verona. I expected some sort of depot but the bus driver just looked back and motioned for us all to get out, end of the line. An Irish family got off at the same time. I asked the father if he knew where the heck we were. He gave a hearty laugh. “Ha! Your guess is as good as mine!”

I left K in a park and searched for a wifi signal. Grabbed K and went in a Burger King but we couldn’t hook in. Plus the girl was one of those scowling, “Why am I here flipping burgers at BK?” types. so we made for the door and found this cool little family owned cafe with wifi, a friendly cashier and pretty good food. Here K eats a quesadilla with some Italian name, pizzapannola or something.  And if that doesn’t fill him up, he can douse that bread in olive oil and balsamico to his heart’s content.  Hey, what’s that in the upper right?

No more, “Would you like a Peroni or a Budweiser?” Italy has it all. And they’ve got a big microbrew scene. 

This friendly place was a good start. Verona felt just my speed after bustling Milan and ghost town Lonato. We found a deal and checked the map- only a five minute walk from here.

Here’s the view out the window of our place, only a block from the Roman arena, right in the heart of Verona.

We dumped the bags, showered and headed out to see the town.

They run open-air operas all summer long in the big arena. Every night they change shows so they keep the props out on the square.

 From the set to I, Caligula.

From the set to Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, Andrew Lloyd Weber version.                      Verona sister cities: 

 “rock bathed in the blood of saints Firmus and Rusticus” (early Christians who refused to worship pagan gods and got the treatment from Emperor Maximian. Bum luck because Constantine was only a few years down the pike.)

No sympathy for the Bolsheviks around here, I guess.

Here’s how to dine al fresco in Italy. VIPs sit by the river. The rest of you, in the alley.

 

This view brought to you by Banca Populare di Verona

“Smile, Keech!”“I am!”

 You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to photoshop the truck, sign and garbage bin out of this otherwise perfect picture. 

Everything but Italian for the heretics.

 Language Tip: In Italian, you have to know what to do with double consonants, and how to pronounce the c, the cc, ch, etc. You also have to know what syllable within a word should be stressed. Here’s a good example. Listen to the correct pronunciation of this sign. 

I heartily recommend Verona if you haven’t been there. It’s a very romantic town. I’ve already told my daughter that I’ll chip in for the honeymoon if it’s in Verona, and I can come along. 

Perhaps the feel of Verona is best captured at night.

Next: Verona at night, without irritating commentary

20. One of the Family

At the Happy Burger, I spent so much time using their wifi, looking for a place in Milan, unsuccesfully, that I felt like I was taking prime space away from other hungry travelers. I ordered a beer to buy a little more time, and decided to just find a place on our route. I checked out the route of the train on the map. It passed through Desenzano, a town that was right on the Lago di Garda, a famous vacationing spot for all kinds of high-class Europeans. I picked a good budget option and thought about the fun we had in Nice and was imagining a fresh-water dip this time, some time around 5pm while the sun still beat down.

 Haste makes waste, and I would find out on the train ride that I’d reserved a place in Lonato, the town just before Desenzano. It was inland a couple miles and probably too far from the lake to sneak in a dip- blaaaa. What do you do after a hot, tiring slog around a big city when you promised your 13 yr. old a refreshing swim in a big, mountain lake minutes after the train ride? You promise him something easier to deliver- a hotel room with A/C (keep fingers crossed), a TV, a soda. Six one, half dozen the other, far as Keenan’s concerned.

Arriving in Desenzano, I scouted out means of getting back to Lonato. We should have gotten off the express in Brescia and boarded a local. I tried to find a bus, then I went back to the little station to inquire about local trains heading West. I asked an old man for help and he said go ask at the candy counter. Then he said where are you going and I said Lonato, the next station to the West and he said he might be headed in that direction and maybe he could drop us off. We got in the back seat of his car. Sitting shotgun was a very old man I took to be the first’s father. Though they spoke an Italian that seemed a bit non-standard and garbled, we seemed to understand each other pretty well and I congratulated myself on being able to communicate in Italy with my Spanish (throwing in words like notte, mi figlio, mangiare, etc. now and then). I asked him if he was from around here. “No, I’m from Ecuador.” and of course I realized we’d all been speaking Spanish the whole time.

Like the Mexican in Cuneo, he’d been here a long time, raising a family and everything. I gathered he was some kind of handyman because he said he worked on the villa something-or-other and too bad we weren’t staying there because there was a pool and lido on the lake, etc.

25 years in Desenzano and Guillermo didn’t know how to get to Lonato, the next town on the train line, about 2 miles away. He asked the old man if he knew the way a couple times but abuelo just frowned and shook his head as if to say, “That’s a journey I took long ago but nowadays I couldn’t begin to tell you the way.”

We pulled into a gas station, Guillermo made inquiries and came back shaking his head. “No, it’s not the place I thought. It’s much farther, in the other direction.”

What was this, a scene out of Garcia Marquez? We weren’t searching for Macondo, for crying out loud! And we were actually headed in the correct direction. I wanted to say, “Just keep going down this way, aim West, I’ll show you!” but this wasn’t a taxi ride so we let Guillermo take us back to the station, getting lost once in an up-class neighborhood where the kids stopped splashing in their pool for a sec to look at this motley bunch in the compact car intruding on their fun.

There was only one more local train heading west that day. It was due to arrive in an hour so I went to the candy counter and got Keenan a pop and a panini and we sat in the little square outside the station, sweaty and dirty with our bags while vacationing German, French and Italians, mostly kids in bright, brand-named beachwear, laughed, chatted and occasionally looked our way as we munched on panini and refilled our Fanta bottles from the hopefully-potable water fountain.

 waiting for the Lonato train, which was right on time, as all the trains in northern Italy were.

I studied the map on the way to Lonato in the nice, air-conditioned wagon. Small town, easy! I had all the coordinates in my head when we alighted and I said, “This way, Keech!”

Ten minutes later we were lost on some highway.

“Hmmm. I coulda sworn it was….” 

Back  toward town we hiked, to try another road. I know you are supposed to face traffic when you walk the street, but sometimes I choose to go with the flow, back to the motorists, because even though my roughing-it traveling skin is thicker than some, I hate walking down some road on the outskirts of an unknown town, being the only pedestrian, locals whizzing by, knowing exactly where they’re coming from, where they’re headed, giving you brief, unsmiling looks that say, “Who the heck are you?”

So you focus on other things, like the nice gas station over there, or the graveyard on the top of that hill. And sometimes in all your desperation and fatigue, you get giddy: 

“Judging by these numbers, Keech, I’d say we’re either halfway, or a quarter of the way there.” 

A couple right turns and we made it to the little town of Lonato, which was very pretty, maybe even worthy of the cliche guidebook moniker, “a hidden gem”. Speaking of gems, I walked into a jewelry shop and the ladies were very helpful and friendly, guiding us toward our hotel.

A block further I passed a small alley on my right, and lying in the open-door entrance of the first house there was jet-black long-haired and leggy, pretty girl looking out on the alley with complete boredom- small town teen ennui you could say.  As we went by, she looked up from the street and her beautiful, cold “machine gunner blue eyes” (sorry Hemingway) met mine. We passed the alley and I turned back to Keenan. “Hey Keech, did you see that girl in the alley there?”

-No

-She was really beautiful. And I think she was just your age!

Keenan just stared at me.

-Why don’t you ask her the way to our hotel?

-Nahh.

-OK. I’ll ask her.

I expected Keenan to protest. Another dumb idea of papa’s. But Keenan just stood there. I get giddy when fatigued. K just becomes resigned.

Now here is where the magic begins. You’ve been reading, thinking, “Well I never let things get this unorganized on my trips. You won’t find me ambling down some highway, completely lost. While these two are still bumbling around I’ve checked in and am having a daiqiri in the pool or shopping for handicrafts on artisans’ promenade in town.”

Fair enough, but when I asked pretty Valentina for directions, immediately, like a hawk that has spotted prey, or a mama bear aware of danger to her young, Sra. Bellandini came rushing to the door.

Now with perfect planning, A to Z, these type of chance encounters might never come! You can have your poolside Maitais and handcrafted salt shakers, I’ll take the experience that was about to unfold. What happened will need a separate blog post, or maybe even another blog, so I’ll just summarize here for now.

I expected to be shooed away with a broom by the rotund matron of the house. She wasn’t going to let some stranger from another land get near her beloved niece. But to my surprise, Mrs. Bellandini was as warm and welcoming as can be. When she found out we were staying at the Hotel Rusticcho, she said, “Ah, but you cannot walk that far! You are hot and tired! Come in and have a drink and Arturo will give you a ride.”

There was a big decanter of home-made lemonade on the table. When I told the woman my name was Daniel, there was a big commotion. Her husband’s name was Daniele! What a coincidence! Providential! Uncle Arturo grabbed some special bottle of local firewater off the mantel, gave me a wink and poured a couple shots worth into my lemonade glass. He poured himself a glass too, without the lemonade, and I wondered about our ride to the hotel. And then the fun started. Like I said, I won’t get into everything now, but we had stumbled upon a party celebrating the wedding of the oldest son of the house the very next day, and as far as the Bellandinis and deSantis were concerned, the more the merrier. The wine flowed, champagne was uncorked, appetizers and all kinds of Italian cheeses on platters, then some smoked salmon thing, then pasta, a beef dish a pork dish, potatoes, more wine. Fantastic!

When everyone was eating gelato and sipping champagne I brought the house down. After dinner, speeches were being made. I excused myself and slipped into the bathroom, grabbing my ipad on the way. I’ve got this translator app that I’d programmed for Italian. Someone was soon knocking on the door so I only had time to get something short.

I’d been using Spanish all night long, but when I was asked to stand and say something for Maria and Giancarlo, I bolted up confidently and belted out,

“Evivva gli sposi!”

Oh, man. What a roar and round of applause that got! Mama Bellandini was in tears and grandma deSantis came up to give me a big hug. After a while arrangements were made. We were going to the wedding tomorrow. And no member of the family would be allowed to stay in a crummy hotel on an occasion like this. Unthinkable! Sra. Bellandini got on the phone with the desk guy at Hotel Rusticcho and seemed to chew him out a bit. He was probably a local and how could he show his face tomorrow at the wedding if he didn’t give Daniel here a full refund! Case settled!

To top it all off, as guests were filing out and Keenan was in a corner with a fascinated Valentina, teaching her Japanese kanji characters, Maria, bride to be, tearfully approached with Giancarlo and asked that I be godfather to their first child.

You see. These are the kinds of things you miss.

 

Actually, you can cancel everything from the alley on. I’m just funnin ya. We did see a girl with machine gunner blue eyes and long, black hair, but in Shumway fashion, neither of us had the guts to ask her anything. Another 15 minutes of schlepping our bags down the road, we found our hotel, and there was a soda pop, air conditioner and television for Keenan, as promised.

 

 

next: These two gentlemen discover a very nice city, and no tall tales.

 

19. We tried

An Internet connection was all I wanted. I couldn’t find the tourist office, McDonald’s wifi wasn’t working, Starbucks was a zoo. I gave up on that for the time being and said to Keech, well we may as well see some of this city.

Here is the entrance to the famous Galleria, and Morvic, on a group tour with friends from Slunj, Croatia.

McDonald’s was booted out in 2012, after 20 years of slinging BigMacs under the stylish dome of the Galeria. They sued for compensation for the lost lease, but relented when they were offered a prime spot on the main square.

Spoiled scene: the young lady on the left- Now that’s how you dress for Milan! The two blueshirts front and foreground right- ugh. The Saudis have their morality police; couldn’t the Milanese have a fashion police? Me and Harry here would be in the stocks, not a bad tourist attraction in itself.

 

I suppose dressing like this is also fitting for Milan:

Taking a break in front of Allesandro Manzoni.

We came out in the main square again and circled the Duomo. The back side was a little less congested. I gazed high at the stonework of the windows, and Keenan gazed low at the bikes of La Policia Locale 

Very nice but I was hot and sweaty and tired of lugging my crummy backpack, my work briefcase, and a garbage bag full of dirty clothes and hiking boots. I said darn it I’m gonna find a hotel to shower, crank the A/C, and crash. If we couldn’t find a deal in Milan then so be it.

I had to get relief. My condition in Milan is summed-up by this video K took while the jackhammer pounded

 

We were a hop and a skip from the front door of Burger King when I noticed another place called Burger Fun or Burger Crazy. I’m all for local ownership so I asked if they had wifi. In no time Keenan was in heaven with the cheeseburger set, and I looked for lodging.

Milan is a megalopolis of X million and when you filter by price (low to high in case you wondered) you get places that would take a day of subway/bus/train transfers just to get to. There was absolutely nothing facing the main square, with air-conditioning and a veranda under 50 dollars so I gave up and found a place far from Milan and on our route. Sad to leave Milan, but you can see from the pictures that we saw pretty much everything, and this next place would be on the waters of Lake Garda, where K and I could take a cool dip with the sheer faces of the Dolomites looking down on us from three sides, and George Clooney’s villa on the other.

Keenan liked that idea, and the promise of AC. Here,in the Milan subway he exults: 

and not even Justin Bieber could dampen my spirits now 

 

Next: chillin’ with George on Lago di Garda

18. Milan Zoo

Between Vercelli and Alpbach, Austria, we still had to find lodging for three nights. Here is the thing about winging it on vacation- It’s all fine and dandy if you don’t mind sleeping in the the grimy, cooped-up waiting room at Munich Station on Christmas Eve, some time in the 1980s, but if your wife would rather your 13yr. old son not sleep with the bums and drug-addicts, you otta do a little planning. And for crying out loud, don’t come to Milan in August without a plan!

And even with a plan, you might consider Milan during a more tranquil season, like say, the dead of winter. 

We arrive at Milan Central, which is impressive enough: 

But now what? Bag check? Hotel? Get a wifi signal and research your options? If things aren’t certain, you spend a lot of time like this, squatting on a dirty floor, checking train times, calculating how long itl’ll take to sit through the bag check line, re-adjusting plans, finding a place to pee, etc. 

I know, we’ll schlep our bags around town, find a wifi, a bargain pension, shower, leave the bags and see the city. How about asking where the famous Duomo and tourist info center is? Nah, it’s gotta be around the station- that’s how they design these stations, central to all the stuff, right?

The yellow trolley might have taken us there, and K would get a kick…

, as well as the bus or subway, but I’m pretty good at gettin around on instinct. 

After getting lost and seeing some cool buildings in the financial zone, 

…I gave up and got the all day subway card, and spotted Duomo on the map.

Three stops later we made it! 

Here’s a glimpse of the scene:

Here come the newlywed Wongs, Wei-Ho and Suzy. Kal-ar-Majab sees his mark and tells Mustufus to get lost, you got the last Chinese lovebirds, dig? 

Wei-ho, the gallant groom, protects his precious Sui-Lin (Suzy), by taking point position but Kal-ar has seen this move a million times and jumps in deftly.

-Hallo. Dis ees for memory Milan. It is Milan Cateedral memory bracelet. You weya heea. Ees free (until you pay me to stop demanding a donation.)

It’s a piece of woven thread. It comes in different colors but the BurkinaFasonians have discovered that the red-green-yellow-black combination sells best as it’s popular with unwashed, dreadlocked young Brits and Germans wearing sandals who pay the first price you ask.

but Mustufus will have the last laugh, because Suzy ain’t no Shanghai princess. She’s from the mean streets of Kwangpei, where she did three years hard time in People’s Teddy Bear Factory 32J before finding Wei-ho and marrying up, and she knows a piece of crap when she sees one (I’m not talking about Wei-ho).

Kal-ar tries to put the “bracelet” on Suzy’s wrist. Suzy says something that, thanks to Google Translate, is unprintable here, and loses no time on her way to the Coach handbag store, which would be only half the distance if this stupid building weren’t in the way.

Kal-ar takes note of Suzy’s interest. Figures she’s playing hard to get, gives friend M-George Da-HipHop a nudge and cops a little rear-view delight as she marches on by.

 

 While the Africans have the monopoly on the hand-crafted artisanry in this square, it will be an Iraqi who will approach you with the selfie-stick built at Suzy’s old toy factory. Think about it before you say no-thanks, ’cause it will be at least 15 meters before you get another opportunity to buy a selfie-stick.

Behind us there was a McDonald’s, to the left a Starbucks and a sign for a Burger King only 75m away. I didn’t see the KFC but Milan’s gotta have em.

Oh, yeah. And there’s like this church there, too. It’s that pointy thing in the first picture I think.

and as for that free wifi. Free wifi my arsch. Five minutes to get a connection, then agree to terms, then give you and your family’s medical records and bank account numbers, then transfer power of attorney for your 401K to Hesh, Tony Soprano’s lawyer, and then you can use the mini-band wifi, before it craps out in three minutes…free wifi.

 

Next: Escape from Milan!

17. Vercelli part due

Virginia has traveled in the states, studied in the states, plans to get her doctorate in the states (evolution of US presidential inauguration speechifying/speechification or something along those lines), and wants to raise her children in the states. Massimo also speaks excellent English, has travelled to America and is completely on board with this plan. When they settle down in Knoxville they will, of course, maintain and promote the mother country’s language, cuisine, and expressive hand gestures while at home.

 Virginia is a real sweetheart, and she makes a great cup of Italian Coffee (molto forte, a mi gusto) and a fine tuna tortellini (though she is just as likely to whip out a winning macaroni and cheese, Philly style) but please tell me you’re not using processed, Kraft American slices, Ginny! If that’s the case this America thing has gone too far.

 Let’s look around the apartment. Even an American electric coffee pot- good thing ’cause it’s real hard to find cool appliances and coffee stuff here in Northern Italy.

If I needed a break from the Americana, I could just pop out on the veranda, watch life along the tree-lined street, share a little gossip with Sra. Molinari next balcony, and do something really Italian like air out my shirt.

Now let’s take a walk around charming Vercelli.

Basilica di Sant’Andrea: completed in 1227.

   It was an early gothic monastery church

What a treasure chest of grand old buildings is Italy, even in the lesser known towns.

 Many walls had been plastered over in this town, to prevent the crumbling of old masonry.

My old friend Pappagallo Papapicco would’ve never forgiven us if we didn’t stop by. (Careful with your double-consonants in Italian.)

This building was remodeled on the inside and serves as offices of the department of justice.

You can still find functioning phone booths in Italy. Here I argue with cousin Domenico. The phones function too.

 

Swap the Peugeot with a Porsche, the Fiat with a Ferrari and this becomes the parking spot on the the plaza of my Piedmont palace. (Cheap illiteration permitted once per blog)

 1849 was the year of the Battle of Novara, a terrible defeat for the Piedmontese against the Austrians in the First Italian War of Independence- I’m just guessing that’s what she’s bummed about.

Time for lunch. The Order of the Knights of Saint John, Hospitallers was created to aid, feed and shelter poor travelers on their sacred pilgrimages to Lourdes, Santiago, Rome and Jerusalem. The Royal Order of Industrious Turks was created to provide fast food to globe-trotting cheapskates. 

Pizza, Sprite, Keenan, Angkor Wat.

 

This local lager washed the pizza down nicely, plus the shiny label.

 

At these prices ya gotta go for two.

What Keenan is doing is seen as TABOO around here. (Transfer of Artichokes, Black Olives and Onions, unauthorized)

Back on the street to continue our tour.  Mind the midday break while in Italy, France, Switzerland, etc. and on Sunday you may not shop but you can scream and shout for la Juve!

 

 These cute Chinese kids monopolized the swings. Jeans and T-shirt for mom, but she’s keepin’ hip with the YSL.

The reverse-mullet is especially popular in Italy. Two specimens  passing another, sporting an also popular, but in this case more restrained than usual, arm tat.

here working on my best cunning trickster look: 

Before heading back to Virgina and Massimo’s for our second and final night here, K said he was still hungry so we found this place, rustic with vaulted, brick ceilings and good deals on spaghetti and salad. This was the appetizer and my paleo-diet is still on hold while I go for a hunk of this wheat-bomb.

K. considering strategy.

 

Well, thank you Virginia and Massimo for a great stay in Vercelli! Good luck in the good ol’ US of A and we’ll be watching for you on TV at the ‘Bama-Auburn game!

 

Next: How not to “do” Milan.

16. Torino/Vercelli part 1

 

Cuneo to Vercelli via Torino 

Torino: 

 

Keenan was a bit hungry, as always. I ordered him a plate of spinach lasagna and told the waitress I wasn’t very hungry. She said how ’bout I make you up a plate with a few slices of meat on it. 

 

She was a real nice girl from the South. She poured both Keenan and I a glass of some great Italan liqueur with a kick as I payed the bill (no, he didn’t). Had we stayed in Torino, I think I would have made this home base for food. 

Goodbye Torino! Goodbye Spider-Man! Sorry it was so brief. I had heard it was a working class industrial city without quite the culture of Milan, but downtown was fantastic and I intend to return.

 

Vercelli, halfway between Turin and Milan: here was a bargain right along our route.

 Virginia and Massimo took a vacation to the U.S. and were smitten, especially with the South. pics of their place and town in next post.