Italy & England – June 2019

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Lago di Braies, Dolomites, Italy

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Fishing villages in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors; Venetian palaces on the Grand Canal; cocktails with a world-class view in Cinque Terre; a sunset cruise with no sunset; front row seats amongst Italy’s glitterati at the Verona Opera; an introduction to the new and unfathomable world of 20-something Instagrammers; a creepy old historic hotel located on the “Pearl of the Dolomites”; an unexpected searing Saharan heatwave and paragliding in 100F in the Dolomites … amongst other things!

This was the second part of our “Italy – the Grand Tour” vacation with American friends (Don and Sue). It has taken almost 9 years to follow “Italy – The Grand Tour – Part 1” (Lake Como and Tuscany) and a full year of plotting, planning, hotel bookings and poring over route maps by Don and I. All good things are, of course, worth waiting for 🙂

Italy is always hot in the summer but Venice was unseasonably hot and sultry in mid-June 2019 . The rising heat was to become rather a theme of the vacation – culminating in record temperatures in the South Tyrolean Dolomite mountains a few weeks later.

I haven’t re-visited Venice for almost 30 years. It was popular back then too and St Mark’s Square has always been best avoided during daylight hours. To the current ancient me (as opposed to the mid-20’s me) it felt as if all 20 million of the tourists who flood into Venice annually were there all at once during our 5/6 days.

As water to oil, we are repelled by crowds, tour buses and cruise liners. It came as a great relief then, to find that even approaching the height of tourist season, you can escape the hordes in Venice. Most tourists throng along the waterfront promenades, on the the Grand Canal, around Rialto Bridge and in St Mark’s Square. To escape them you simply have to walk in the opposite direction away from all of these tourist honeypots. It was easy! 🙂

Even our bijou boutique bed and breakfast hotel was only a few minutes walk from the waterfront, St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and from the Basilica but it was quiet much of the time. We sipped wine every afternoon and shot the breeze on our shady, light-dappled, vine-draped terrace awash with pink and red geraniums tumbling from their flowerpots. We watched gondolas drift by on the canal below us – the gondoliers with their striped t-shirts and straw hats. Occasionally, we would be indirectly serenaded by an opera singer “rented” for an hour by the wealthier of the punters to sing for them as their gondolier paddled them serenely through the canals. It was quite magical – the complete “authentic” Venetian tourist experience 😉

To avoid the crowds and the day-trippers you really need to go in search of where the locals live (albeit now real Venetians residing in the islands are rapidly dwindling in number). You will undoubtedly get totally lost in the back streets and by-waters and you will certainly wander aimlessly with only a partial sense that you might be going in the right direction – but in so doing you might also find the Venice you are actually seeking.

If you are hoping to locate your destination using GPS on your cellphone – know that it will be patchy to non-existent and the local tourist maps are truly pitiful. Geoff navigated by the position of the sun and stars 😉 … but I preferred the National Geographic city map which was surprisingly reliable.

We also purchased ACTV 7 day Transport passes with unlimited trips on the vaporetti (water buses) which zip about up and down the Grand Canal and in between the islands. With all of the waterways at our constant pre-paid disposal, we thought nothing of a quick jaunt up the Grand Canal for some palatial sight-seeing if we had run out of leg power … or an evening jaunt over to Dorsoduro for a late evening “passeggiata”. We strolled along the Fondamenta delle Zattere waterfront with one of Nico’s famous gelati dripping down our forearms whilst we tip-toed through puddles of sea water, dodging the incoming tide which lapped over the retaining sea-walls onto the path. I ruined a good pair of sandals but I didn’t care 😉

During our meanderings away from the crowds we found a floating fruit and vegetable market supplying Venetians with their daily produce. There was washing billowing in the breeze and boats bobbing in the canal. The Arsenale sestiere (one of Venice’s six and least visited “quarters”) was one of our favorite.

In Dorsoduro sestiere we saw craftsmen building gondolas using age-old skills in their tidal workshops at Squero di San Trovaso.

We sampled the best, most pretentiously and meticulously prepared coffee in all of Italy in the quietest of the quarters (Cannaregio) at Torrefazione Cannaregio. Not far away we also found an unusual landmark – Ponte de Chiodo – an arched historic footbridge which is notable for 2 things. Firstly, there are no guardrails which makes it uniquely dangerous after too many glasses of vino and secondly, it is very low. So low in fact, that when a gondola glided silently past us, the gondolier had to bend double to avoid losing his head on the underside of the bridge.

We wandered through tree-shaded squares such as Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio in Santa Croce. We watched the world go by in more open and expansive squares such as Campo Santa Margherita or Campo San Polo where a stall holder was hawking pin-up calendars of visually appealing Italian priests. September caught my eye but Sue had her eye more firmly set on February. Obviously, there’s a 25 year old black cassock-clad priest for everyone in la Bella Italia 😉 🙂

We frittered a respectable amount of time resting and sipping affogatos (vanilla gelato drenched in espresso) in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo with its dazzling white Basilica, imposing statues and shady street cafes. The Campo is in the north of the equally peaceful Castello sestriere. Close-by is what professes to be the world’s most beautiful bookshop. Libreria Acqua Alta (High Water Bookshop) has an unusual approach to dealing with the annual rising of the waters in the city. It stores its treasured tomes in tubs and boat hulls in the various labyrinthine rooms of the shop. The centerpiece of the long and narrow store is a black and gold-painted gondola over-flowing with novels. A family of well-fed local cats doze on the shelves or sit by the cashier waiting for a tickle and if you head back into the rear of the store you may well come across a strange new breed of young people called “Instagrammers”.

There is a now Instagram-famous “staircase” dominating a tiny terrace at the back of the store which is made from thick, heavy, old encyclopedias and above it is a sign encouraging the visitor to enjoy the (unremarkable) view of the canal below from the top of the “staircase”. More interesting than the view by far, is the gaggle of youngsters from all four corners of the globe who are prepared to wait a considerable amount of time so that one (or all of their group) can recline and/or prostrate themselves (individually or together) in some manner of contorted pose across the filthy, decaying book covers for a lengthy photo shoot. They immediately post their photos and videos directly from their cellphone onto Instagram and start racking up the “likes” before they have even left the store and headed off to the next “Instagram-worthy” sight.

Until this point we had managed to maintain an amused (more bemused) distance from this new breed of tourists who spend hours preening and pouting at their cell phone cameras and/or whacking unsuspecting passers-by with their selfie-sticks as they flail them in the air looking for their best angle. It doesn’t seem to be possible to have a photo taken (if you belong to this strange tribe) without either a) draping oneself provocatively over a background prop or b) standing in front of said “prop” (whether it be St Mark’s Basilica or a row of gondolas bobbing about in the harbor) without one’s arms raised at right angles in the air and palms pointed to the skies in a pose reminiscent of an Egyptian princess. And herein lies the problem, I fear. Not everyone can be a princess … but everyone appears to want to be one.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that this new type of tourist is more than likely completely unaware of their actual surroundings. Such appears to be the acute extent of self-absorption and self-obsession that the beauty and history surrounding them are but mere background accessories to yet another full-lipped pout picture. This is very sad.

Still, on the positive side, observing this exotic breed from our vantage points as invisible old people, we had to concede that their antics were a fairly constant source of amusement. Just for kicks (and after perhaps one or two alcoholic beverages too many) up on our terrace one afternoon, Sue and I attempted our very best (which was still pretty poor) full pout-lipped, droopy eye-lidded pose which Geoff subsequently digitally decorated for us (in true Instagram style) with rabbit ears, angel wings and red hearts before posting it on Facebook – social media for the elderly 😉

Our continued education into the strange world of Instagrammers kicked up a notch with a day-trip to Burano. A mere 45 minute ferry ride from the Fondamente Nove vaporetto stop in Castello and you are in another world. The island is utterly captivating. Early in the morning it was also relatively peaceful so long as you take a sharp left upon disembarking from the ferry and head in the opposite direction away from the rest of the tourists disembarking with you. Most make a beeline towards the shops on the main drag which was good news for us because we weren’t going shopping.

As we meandered through the back streets and over the canals, the only people with whom we crossed paths for quite a while were elderly ladies with their bags of groceries and locals sweeping their front steps or hanging out their washing. Burano is absolutely stunning – a photographer’s paradise. It is famous for its delicate handmade lace but we were there to marvel at the kaleidoscopic variety of brightly colored and immaculately maintained homes lining the canals and alleyways. The warm air was perfumed with the scent of jasmine flowers tumbling over garden walls. The island was mesmerizing in its beauty.

By long-standing tradition, fishermen on the island have painted their homes in bright colors as a visual aid to locate them when returning from the lagoon in the thick fog of a typical Venetian winter. Burano is still a relatively quiet and hard-working fishing village but it is in danger of being totally overrun by tourists.

I don’t wish to dwell upon the social ills of the Instagram tribe (although I haven’t finished quite yet 😉 ) but the obliviousness of this generation to the rights and privacy of others became startlingly obvious in Burano. Several of the more photogenic “Instagram-famous” fishing cottages in Burano had large “Private – No entry” signs affixed to the front of their beautiful homes. Others had signs explaining that tourists are not welcome to wander into their front rooms. Really??! I would imagine that visitors are also not welcome to stand in the open front doorway of a resident’s home in order to take endless posed photos of themselves spread-eagled across the porch. But there weren’t any signs specifically prohibiting that – so they did. I think this is worrying. I fear that there is a disturbing sense of entitlement which goes hand-in-hand with the self-absorption in some of this new generation of bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers that doesn’t bode well for the evolution of the human race.

Venice and its surrounding lagoon islands are hot and swampy in the summer and you have to make an effort to escape the masses on foot – as far away from the throngs of humanity as your little legs will carry you . Even so, it is still, 30 years on, fabulously wonderful.

I loved the crumbling painted walls; the faded grandeur of the palaces with their mosaic murals glinting gold in the sunlight; the Venetian Gothic and Islamic-influenced architecture; and the black painted gondolas with their shiny metal prow blades and extravagantly ornate armchairs fit for royalty (or anyone with 100 euros to spare for a 40 minute ride). I loved the shady courtyards with pink and white oleanders and geraniums cascading from window boxes. There are spectacular views on every street corner, in every obscure alleyway that we were lost in, and from every footbridge.

The most iconic view of the Grand Canal is from the wooden footbridge at the Accademia vaporetto stop. For this view alone you should concede defeat and run the gamut of the human snakes of tour groups. You will likely be impaled, tripped-up or injured in some minor way by at least one flailing selfie-stick – but it will be absolutely worth it to see Venice’s most fabulous Grand Canal view 🙂

Highlights of the culinary scene for us were Al Vecio Canton (superlative pizza and salad – conveniently located at a 1 minute walk from Residenza de l’Osmarin in Castello); coffee and cakes at Bar Pasticceria Ballarin close to Rialto Bridge; lunch at Fiumefreddo Bio (a fantastic organic vegetarian/vegan restaurant in a quiet square in Castello); coffee and dessert at Torrefazione in Cannaregio; dinner at Osteria Oliva Nera Venezia in Castello; coffee and pastries amongst the locals (and their various canine friends) at Caffe del Doge Cafeteria (in a narrow alleyway close to Rialto); lunch at the quaint Antica Osteria Ardenghi in Cannaregio; and dinner (in particular the pesto pasta) at Taverna San Trovaso in Dorsoduro.

Six days into the vacation and it was time to say “Ciao” to La Serenissima and head out of Venice. First we had to stop at Piazzale Roma to collect the rental car from Avis.

What a performance. We stood around in the blazing heat with other similarly sticky and frustrated customers for an hour (whilst the disinterested staff sat in the air conditioned office) waiting for someone (anyone) to locate and deliver our rental car from an apparently far flung part of the city. When it finally arrived it was half the size of the vehicle we had booked and pre-paid. Give him his due, it was a considerable logistical achievement that Geoff managed to wedge luggage for four adults into the trunk of the small car without at least one suitcase having to be balanced across someone’s knees. Piled high, it was miraculous that he could see out of the back window at all. He sat in the drivers seat in sweaty silence for a full ten seconds whilst I watched the steam rising from his ears before he got out again, without uttering a word, and headed back to customer service (a term which obviously doesn’t translate well into the Italian language for Avis employees in Venice). Ten minutes later he emerged just as flustered. Having lodged an entirely fruitless complaint with the uncaring staff that this vehicle was neither the make, model nor the size of the vehicle we had booked almost a year earlier he was told that if he didn’t want the car they really didn’t care – we could get the train to Cinque Terre instead! 😉

So, we kept the car and headed off southwest towards the Ligurian Riviera. Because we had wasted so much time at Avis we were all suffering from extreme caffeine deficiency rather earlier than I had hoped. With no planned stops, no knowledge of the surrounding towns and absolutely no idea where we could find something sufficiently suitable for Geoff’s sophisticated caffeine tastes, the pressure was on me as official guide and vacation planner to rectify the situation. In desperation, I stuck a pin in the map and we ended up in an obscure town called Bazzano, just outside of Bologna. I wasn’t holding out the greatest of hopes as we pulled into the centre but by some incredible stroke of luck I managed to guide us to Area Gusto (of which any big city would have been proud). The coffee was great and lunch (even for vegetarians) was even better. The staff were amused and appalled in equal measure by our attempts to contort their lyrical language into some form of communication that they might understand. They obviously don’t see many foreigners in these parts 😉 And incredibly they surprised us by bringing forth a serving lady who (for reasons unknown) spoke very good English. She helped us navigate through the buffet style order and generally took us under her hefty maternal wing. I can’t imagine many tourists are going to stumble across this town without a very good reason for being there – but if you are passing and in need of sustenance – Area Gusto is one very good reason 🙂

The Cinque Terre villages on the Ligurian Riviera are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (now part of a National Park) which actively discourages tourists arriving by car so we followed the advice of many travelers before us and headed to the La Spezia Central Station parking lot. It was extremely busy … we bagged the last spot and we had to wait nervously outside of the car park gates for a while even for that. If we hadn’t got lucky I feared that we’d have been driving around the city in circles trying to follow other emergency long-term parking instructions I had printed out from my research (never a girl scout but always prepared 😉 ).

We were heading to Manarola to stay in a peculiar little hotel right on the harbor front for 5 nights – Hotel Marina Piccola – not to be confused with the restaurant underneath of the same name which is absolutely abysmal. The location is fabulous – the hotel is basic – but you can throw open your shutters in the morning and see the sunlight glinting like diamonds on the Mediterranean and the fishing boats bobbing about in the harbor. There is a short coastal path around the headland from which point you can watch the sun rising behind you as it lights up the headlands towards Corniglia. If you are up early enough you can be entirely alone 🙂

When planning a visit to the Cinque Terre national park, you can buy 2 kinds of cards to visit the villages. Either the more restrictive Cinque Terre Trekking Card (which gives you access to the trails only) or the Cinque Terre Train Multi-Service Card (which allows access to the trains and buses between the villages and also access to the hiking trails). During my pre-trip research I discovered that access to the trails is now surprisingly strictly controlled at the various points of entry to the trailheads. In particular, hikers footwear is coming under close scrutiny and is now individually checked for suitability for the terrain. I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course, because the five villages are literally swamped with Instagrammers in their usual attire – flowing tulle ballroom skirts and tiny gold jewel-encrusted sandals or impossibly high heels.

In the last few years the Italian authorities have understandably introduced strict new codes on accessing the hikes along with the imposition of hefty fines for “rescuing” people who are completely inappropriately prepared for the conditions. Unsurprisingly, they have become frustrated with the effort and cost involved in helicopter rescues of idiotic tourists who get stuck in the muddy, rocky vineyard terraces in a pair of 6″ Jimmy Choo’s. The Choo’s are (admittedly) far more photogenic with ones floaty pink frock than a pair of stinky, old, dusty hiking boots but they’re not terribly practical for such awkward terrain.

In our stinky, old, dusty sneakers we hiked a wonderful route along one of the few trails which was open during our visit. Most trails (in particular the most famous Via Dell’Amore which I walked many times in my 20’s) are still closed due to the floods, landslides and rockfalls back in 2011, 2012. The Azure trail which we hiked runs between Vernazza and Monterosso-sul-Mare. Starting in Vernazza (at the top of the village) is by far the best direction of travel judging by the condition of the hikers we passed coming towards us who had started out at the opposite end of the trail in Monterosso. There is a ridiculously steep and exhausting uphill clamber almost as soon as you start the hike if you commence it in Monterosso. It must have been a killer. Whichever direction you take, the views over Vernazza were lovely and the panoramic views over the Mediterranean and the rugged coastline were spectacular. Although not a long hike (a couple of miles/couple of hours depending on photo and water stops) it certainly got the blood pumping. The rugged, uneven, stone pathways which run through the vineyards are hair-raisingly narrow in parts and steep enough to benefit from hiking poles in others. This is not good terrain for a pair of fancy flip-flops 😉

In our view, this is an unmissable hike. Another easier terraced, vineyard hike is from Volastra village (a 10 minute bus ride from the top of Manarola village). The hike starts behind the church and is sign-posted towards Corniglia. We dragged Don and Sue with us as it promised to be a fairly flat walk suitable for the elders 😉 Only a short way into the vineyards, Geoff decided that our leisurely pace wouldn’t burn the required number of Prosecco-derived calories he had consumed the night before, so he ran the rest of the trail down to Corniglia leaving the rest of us literally in the dust behind him. As the 3 of us had no desire to break a sweat, we turned around and headed back to the nicely air-conditioned bus. Despite having to run for miles along the trail after he left us and down the steep cliffside into Corniglia (where he then had to catch the train back to Manarola) he still made it back to the hotel before us … which was a little bit embarrassing 😉

No-one was brave enough to join me in the harbor for a quick dip after our walk, other than Don. The tanned and youthful Italians were leaping in from the rocks around the harbor with gay abandon as if they were jumping into the warm, tropical waters of an exotic South Pacific island. If the sea temperature in the harbor was above 72F I’d be surprised. I’m brave – if you point me in the direction of almost any body of water I have a primal urge to leap into it. It was chilly for a Floridian but lovely if you kept moving. Don (who hails from the northern US state of Maine where the sea actually freezes in winter) should have had no issue whatsoever. However, by the time I had watched him descend a step on the metal ladder into the harbor water, wince, grimace, take a corresponding step back up again – repeated at least ten times – I had already swam around the harbor ten times, cooled off sufficiently from the hike and was ready to get out again before he had even got his upper torso wet 😉

In addition to hiking and exploring the other villages by train and ferry from the harbor, we also booked a sunset cruise which turned out to be on the only evening during our vacation without a particularly spectacular sunset. Nevertheless, it was relaxing and we were plied with wine and regaled with stories of yesteryear by Captain Daniele from Enjoy Cinque Terre Boat Tours. It seems that I was nearly as distraught as Daniele (born and raised in Manarola) as to the dramatic transformation of the villages due to mass tourism. In a former life, when I was engaged to an Italian from the Ligurian Riviera, Cinque Terre, Portofino, Santa Margarita, Camogli and Rapallo were our old stomping grounds during the long summer and winter vacations whilst I was a university student. Back then, these villages barely saw anyone other than local Italian families on a day trip to the coast. There were no places to stay the night and, at most, there might have been one or two restaurants per village and a gelateria. Now, 30 years later, 2 and a half million people from all over the globe descend upon these 5 tiny villages every year.

Change isn’t necessarily progress. Still, Manarola was relatively peaceful until 9am but by 10am the first tour groups had arrived snaking their way noisily down to the harbor. The crowds grew and grew until bursting point and it stayed that way until roughly 7pm when they started to dwindle. By 9pm it was relatively peaceful again. It is what it is – the villages and their surrounding terrain are absolutely beautiful (although not as beautiful as they once were) and many people want to see them – but the Cinque Terre of my youth has long gone. It has fallen victim to the Rick Steves effect – with his travel program and books he has single-handedly managed to destroy nearly every previously unheard of gem in Italy and across Europe 😦

On the other hand, without the deluge of tourists and the corresponding influx of euros, it is likely that such gems as Nessun Dorma would not exist. This bar on the headland overlooking Manarola (from which we watched the sun light up the village every evening at sunset) was the absolute highlight of our entire vacation. I wouldn’t normally say that a bar was the highlight of a vacation anywhere in the world but it is quite a special place. It helped, of course, that the food, Prosecco and cocktails were excellent, but even more so, the friendly young waiters found the old people (we were at least 30-40 years older than the average age of the other clientele) quite amusing. In addition we invested in many, many bottles of pricey Prosecco and attractively decorated cocktails each night. As a result, we found ourselves the recipients of a constant supply of free canapés as a token of the owner’s appreciation for our free-flowing cash 😉 By the second night we had already attained almost legendary VIP status. Whilst the lengthy line of young and far more beautiful prospective clientele waited patiently at the entrance for a table to become available, Geoff was spotted by the manager who smiled with undisguised glee, waved him to the front of the line and directed us straight to a table for four.

What it is to be old, grey and have some disposable income 😉

We also enjoyed plenty of free entertainment up at Nessun Dorma courtesy of the Instagram tribe which we wouldn’t have missed for the world. They arrived mainly in couples to commence their photo shoots on the cliffside by the entrance to the bar. We saw young girls dangling precariously over the precipice of the cliffside in their posh frocks and others tip-toeing along the wrong side of the “Danger – Keep Off the Cliff” sign in their teeny-weeny high-heeled flip-flops. So much risk just to get the perfect background for their perfect shot. They would then arrive at the bar and gravitate to the tables for two right at the top of the cliff edge overlooking the village. Whilst the old folk were having a riot, laughing, joking and acting like giggling children with the bar staff who plied us with non-stop booze, we watched the young people (who really should have been doing the same) studiously engaged in their ongoing photo shoots. Hours would pass in silence between them whilst they pouted into the setting sun with the “Manarola village prop” in the background. They checked their selfies, fiddled with various face imaging tools that I can’t even begin to understand and then took more selfies. Before I leave the weird and not so wonderful world of Nessun Dorma’s infamous Instagrammers, one particular couple of young girls caught our attention. They were dressed identically in shades of orange and pink. They ordered 2 items – one pink cocktail and a glass bowl of cut fruit – oranges, strawberries and raspberries etc. Their background prop was the spectacular village of Manarola upon which the setting sun was glowing orange on the pink, red and orange houses. Have you spotted the theme? All very cleverly contrived of course – but obtaining the perfect shot with the perfect light and the perfect pink-lipped pout had drained them of so much of their energies that they had nothing left to lift the cocktail glass to their lips or consume a single piece of fruit. They paid the bill and left their food and drink props completely untouched behind them. What a waste 😉

Aside from zipping about on the trains and ferries between the villages to explore, meander the winding, steep passageways, drink coffee, eat gelato, people-watch, drink Prosecco etc (and repeat) we also had to do our laundry. How exciting! For anyone finding themselves in need of a launderette in Cinque Terre – good luck! The hotels certainly won’t do your washing for you. There is only one launderette in all of the 5 villages and it is a tiny coin operated self-service laundry in Riomaggiore (Wash and Dry Lavarapido). I haven’t set foot in such an unsavory establishment since I was a back-packing student and my OCD’s were on the highest level of alert. As the whole operation took a couple of hours (there was nothing rapid about Lavarapido 😉 )we abandoned our loads to look after themselves and found the nearest cafe with coffee and a view. There are worse places to sit and watch the world go by than a street cafe in an Italian Mediterranean village with a coffee in one hand and a pastry in the other whilst ones laundry finishes its drying cycle 🙂

Escaping the crowds in Manarola for the day we headed out of Cinque Terre and caught a train via the main coastal route station in Sestri Levante to Camogli – another of my old haunts. At last – a town which hadn’t become totally unrecognizable over the past 30 years! The beach is still stony and impossible to walk on; the buildings are still immaculately painted with frescos; the tiny harbor where I used to take the occasional evening passeggiata with the requisite gelato in hand is still just as beautiful although busier; there are small colorful fishing boats in the harbor and tour boats taking tourists to tiny San Fruttuoso Abbey; but best of all Revello Focacceria is still there on the seafront serving the best wafer-thin freshly baked Focaccia al Formaggio (with cheese) or Focaccia alle Cipolle (with onions) in the world 🙂

Whilst I’m on the subject of food – restaurants and cafes of note in Manarola (in addition to the canapés at Nessun Dorma) include da Aristide, Il Porticciolo and Gelateria 5T (the best gelato in the villages – including vegan, gluten and sugar free options 🙂 ) which were all excellent.

Reluctantly, 5 days later we had to leave Nessun Dorma, Manarola and the glittering cobalt Mediterranean sea behind us. We took the train back to La Spezia station dragging our cases with us, retrieved the car and drove north to Verona for a very important date with Anna Pirozzi, a famous Italian soprano.

I can’t pretend that Sue and I weren’t a little apprehensive about enduring a four hour opera late at night. Given that Aida starts at 9pm (which is already way past our bedtime) and continues on until 1am, we were tempted to take a pillow each 😉 However, I was prepared to suffer in silence and made the booking the moment the tickets became available online because a night at the opera in Verona has been on Geoff’s bucket list for years. Don and Sue were equally enthused – despite the time issue – and despite the knowledge that the last time I was dragged kicking and screaming to the opera in Italy I was so bored that I almost curled up and fell asleep on Sue’s lap.

Whilst I was worried that I was never going to make it until 1am, I was even more worried that I wouldn’t understand a word of the opera and that it would all be absolutely pointless. So, in preparation, Geoff had bought a record of Aida with a transcript in an attempt to familiarize ourselves with the story. It did little to help me feel any more positive about the forthcoming experience. As luck would have it, however, at the open-air Arena there are enormous screens either side of the stage projecting the words of the opera in both Italian and English which helped greatly! For anyone tempted to spend a night at the opera, the advantage of buying the premium Gold Poltronissime seats at enormous cost is twofold – firstly you get a chair with padding and secondly, you are so close to the orchestra and to the stage (we were in the 4th row centre seats) that no-one could possibly sleep through the performance.

More relevantly, it turned out that Madame Pirozzi was absolutely spell-binding in the lead role and we were all perched on the edges of our pricey seats for the full four hours. With hindsight I think that we were all relieved that we chose to hobnob with Italy’s glitterati in all of their finery at the front of the arena, rather than sit for hours on a rock-hard stone step with those less fortunate.

Definitely money well-spent 🙂

We stayed at an unusual little bed and breakfast a 15 minute stroll outside of the old city in Verona. Casa e Natura Brevigliere is owned by a son and his mother who take customer service to new heights (the staff at Avis in Venice might learn a few lessons). The rooms are immaculate and the ethos is based upon organic living – this includes Nicola’s mother’s homemade breakfast delicacies (by far the best breakfast in our 2 1/2 week trip) – and extends to the provenance of the sheets on the bed and the soap in the bathroom. On top of all that we had exclusive access to the garden at the rear of the house and, even better, a cavernous grotto carved into the volcanic tuff rock cliff at the end of the garden. This was decked out with sofas and candles and all it lacked was a couple of decent bottles of chilled wine to make the evenings perfect. Geoff and Don left us girls sunbathing in the garden and watching the butterflies flitting between the flowers to go in search of cold libations. They returned with 2 warm bottles of white vino which were in desperate need of some ice and an ice bucket. It transpired that they had searched for quite a while in the few surrounding local stores but there’s obviously not much market for bags of ice in Italy. After some considerable efforts to communicate their plight, one shopkeeper came up with the offer of a bag of frozen peas. Whether he thought we could drop the peas into each glass like miniature green ice-cubes or whether we were to wrap many bags of peas around the bottles in the vain hope that they might cool the wine down before the peas started to cook in the summer heat, we have no idea. Luckily, the ever-ready Nicola awoke from his mid-afternoon siesta and came to the rescue with a bag of the real stuff and a bucket to put it in 🙂

Just along the road from the bed and breakfast is the Palazzo Giusti with its famous garden – considered to be one of the finest examples of a formal 16th century Renaissance garden replete with statuary and terraces overlooking the city. Further along the road is the recently opened funicular which saves a considerable uphill hike to the Piazzale Castel San Pietro with its romantic pink sunset views over the old city. Unless you need to burn the calories hiking up a steep hill for half an hour in the blazing summer heat, the 2 euro return fare is a wise investment.

Aside from Nicola’s mum’s breakfast offerings, we would highly recommend Osteria il Bertoldo (outstanding dinner), Ristorante Flora (vegan) and Pasticceria Barini for its coffee and budino di riso – soft rice pudding in a tart (which tastes a lot better than it sounds 🙂 )

I haven’t been to Verona in almost 30 years either. Back then I would have been far too poverty stricken as a university student to have spent the evening in Egypt with Madame Pirozzi, so a return to the city was long overdue for that reason alone. Piazza delle Erbe, Piazza dei Signori and Piazza Bra are as lively and architecturally beautiful as ever. The line of tourists stretching across the street outside of the 13th century house known as Casa di Giulieta (Juliet’s House) is, however, far longer than it ever was. Not only did Romeo and Juliet never exist, of course, but neither did Shakespeare ever visit Verona which begs the question why anyone would spend hours in a hot, chaotic, noisy gaggle for the sole purpose of having a photo shoot on “Juliet’s” tiny balcony for 60 seconds whilst someone in the crowd below struggles to take a photo of you on an iPhone. It isn’t our idea of time well-spent. But to each, his own! We headed off instead in search of more elevated pursuits – lunch somewhere suitably impressive, prosecco and gelato – not necessarily in that order.

When in Rome … do what the Romans do … but definitely don’t do what the tourists do 😉 🙂

Leaving the summer heat of Verona behind us, we skirted the eastern side of Lake Garda on a scenic drive heading north into the Dolomite mountains. Sirmione is to be avoided at all cost in the summer months which is unfortunate because it is spectacular. We swapped it for a quick stop at Riva del Garda for an overpriced and utterly average coffee on the waterfront. Bad coffee with a watery view = tourist trap so we continued onwards in the Sunday afternoon traffic to Malcesine which was far more beautiful and marginally less busy than Riva. Colorful red and yellow shops and restaurants line the tiny harbor front and there are narrow alleyways to wander. We were aiming for Joy’s Place for lunch which is wedged between a side street and a narrow alleyway facing towards the harbor. We sat in a tiny courtyard under an umbrella dodging the beating rays of the sun and the ever-increasing temperatures.

By the time we reached the Dolomites the heat was (quite literally) African in its intensity. We had hoped to avoid the worst of the incoming Saharan heatwave which was pushing up from the south and culminating in unprecedented temperatures across Europe. You might imagine that way up in the mountains we might have been spared the worst (and maybe we were) but even so it was still pushing 100F in a mountainous region of the country where air-conditioning is unheard of and (normally) never required. The next 6 days were predicted to be sweltering with 2 days of record heat surpassing 100F. Wonderful!

We stopped briefly in Castelrotto (also known by its germanic name of Kastelruth) – one of those beautiful tiny towns with ornately painted, Austrian-style rustic homes and hotels. We survived the heat of the town square (with its photogenic water trough in central Piazza Kraus) with the aid of a rapidly melting gelato. The town is best seen, I am sure, as we did in the late afternoon after the tour buses have departed. Another Italian mini-gem utterly ruined by Rick Steves and his infernal itineraries.

Still, we were heading on through the mountains to Ortisei to Chalet Hotel Hartmann – an adults only hotel – great view and excellent breakfasts – but no AC. Highly recommended if you are the outdoorsy type who likes peace and quiet – but best avoided during the next Saharan heatwave 😉

Tubladel – a 15 minute stroll away was an excellent restaurant – the acclaimed Alpin Garden Wellness Resort (also child-free) was a 20 second stroll from our hotel and was utterly abysmal.

What it lacked in service, quality, and value for money it made up for in glitz, a lot of trendy white furniture and a shiny silver stag head hanging in pride of place on the white-painted restaurant wall. We were the only group ushered into the brilliant white dining room whilst everyone else was out on the sweltering terrace and for much of the time we were completely abandoned by the staff.

The head server (who bore a close resemblance in appearance, attitude and gait to Basil Fawlty) spoke an unusual combination of Italian and German, so we agreed to settle on English when he handed us the menus 🙂 We waited and waited and started to wilt whilst Signor Fawlty breezed past with giant strides and head held high until he deigned it was finally appropriate to approach us to take our order. A couple of relevant questions later and the order was placed.

Almost an hour later there was no sign of dinner so we sneaked off to the unattended salad bar for fear of starvation. Geoff had already made numerous increasingly frantic requests for Prosecco before he expired from dehydration but to no avail. Almost an hour after the order was placed, one of the underling waiters could avoid our glowering stares no more and rushed over to apologize and assure us that our dinners would be forthcoming very shortly. Several more aeons passed as we picked over what was left of the bread sticks and finally 4 identical fish dinners arrived at the table. This was unfortunate because Geoff had ordered an entirely different fish dish to the rest of us. It took a couple of bites for him to realize the error before he waved over the poor unfortunate server who fluttered about looking distraught and rushed off back to the kitchen to inform the chef. Basil continued to ignore us with a single-minded determination given that he had to stride past our table within a few short steps of us at least every 2 minutes passing from one direction to another.

Geoff’s correct order was finally delivered once the 3 of us had all but finished eating and Basil (who appears to have finally been informed of the mess up) strode over to express his consternation – not that he had taken and placed the order incorrectly and to apologize – no, not at all. He strode over to inform Geoff that the fish delivered was equally as good as that actually ordered (so what was all the fuss about? And, secondly, to inform us that it was actually Don’s fault that he had written the order down wrongly (which came as an unexpected surprise to the four of us!). He bounced around the table getting increasingly agitated waving his written order under our noses and bellowing at us as if we were naughty school children. As temperatures rose accordingly, he begrudgingly offered to remove the offending fish from the bill but, in the meantime, he had caused so much offense (compared to that actually caused by the offending fish 😉 ) that we felt compelled to reward him with a one euro tip commensurate with his charm and the quality of his customer service. I am sure he was absolutely mortified 😉

Enough about food and on to the fun stuff!

Ten minutes from the hotel is the start of one of the world’s most breathtaking scenic drives – through the Passo Sella and on to Sass Pordoi via the Passo Pordoi in the heart of the Dolomite mountains. We passed the iconic three peaks of Tre Cime and further on we stopped to walk beside a stony river bed with crystal clear water flowing alongside us. In the distance we spotted a tiered waterfall plunging from the mountain and headed towards it hopping over the riverbed at various points and scrambling through the largely untrodden undergrowth before popping out at the base of the waterfall. Not another human in sight …

Every one of the 28 hairpin bends along the mountain road offered up yet more spectacular scenery and, as early morning progressed into late morning, the adrenalin was flowing as freely as the waterfalls were plummeting to the ground around us as tour buses and suicidal motorcyclists hurtled around the blind bends towards us. The drive was as exhilarating as the scenery was dramatic 😉

Not much further on and we reached the base station for the cable car to whisk us up to the peak of Sass Pordoi. At almost 3000 meters high it was chilly despite the heatwave but more surprisingly it was still dusted with gleaming white snow. Apparently, up until 2 weeks earlier there had been snow on all of the surrounding mountain ranges but the Saharan heatwave had melted huge swathes of it almost overnight. From the peak you can sit and watch the wispy clouds drift past in the valleys below and you can see for miles across the Dolomite range in a sweeping panorama.

Sass Pordoi is unmissable – equally as unmissable as the hike from the top of the Seceda cable car in Ortisei (prepare to be mildly surprised by the elevated price of the cable car ride – but pay it and go up anyway!). At the summit of the Seceda cable car is the Pieralongia hike. For a short hike this is one of the most spectacular hikes we have ever done. From the summit you are surrounded by expansive views of the valleys, the Dolomite mountains, the Austrian Alps and rustic wooden mountain huts (rifugios) dotted about the mountainside. The hills were carpeted with yellow buttercups, blue gentians, purple campanula and bright yellow alpine pulsatilla. It was absolutely captivating.

Too hot to hike another day in the mountains, we took to the skies instead and went tandem paragliding with fly.2. By the time we got to the top of the Ciampinoi cable car station from the village of Selva di Val Gardena, Don looked quite pale (memories of the last paragliding adventure we had subjected them to in Annecy, France obviously looming large 😉 )

Strapped in and raring to go, my instructor and I hopped, skipped, ran and jumped off the side of the mountain to be caught and whisked up immediately in a strong thermal. It was mere seconds before I could reach out with my sneakers and all but touch the peak of the Sassolungo mountain. It was crystal clear and, up high, we could see as far as Austria, across the sawtooth Pieralongia range and down into the villages and valleys below. Because I have little fear of death (and my instructor obviously approved of my willing recklessness) I agreed to subject myself to some truly heart-stopping paragliding maneuvers. The precise terminologies of our various maneuvers escapes me now because I was too busy screaming with glee to fully absorb them but I believe the tame version may have been called a “cross-over” maneuver where you swing about as if you’re on a giant garden swing; and the heart-stopping ride was very possibly called a “turtle” where riders and wing spin around in a 360 degree circle as if you are on a roller-coaster ride – feet up in the air and heads below spinning in ever-increasing circles at great velocity – presumably until one of you vomits 😉

I passed the test and whilst my stomach was gently re-aligning with gravity, I noticed that we appeared to be the only flyers in the sky. Squinting, I could just about pick out Sue in the distance but there was no sign of either Geoff or Don. As we continued a more sedate guided tour of the various mountains, I suddenly spotted Geoff’s wing like a tiny speck below us. It seemed that Geoff’s pilot had struggled to find a thermal so he was brushing the pine trees at ground level with his trainers whilst I was touching the tippy-top of Sassolungo with mine. Poor Geoff 😦

Gradually the other 3 gained some height as we continued playing in our giant swing until it was time to swoop down and land in a rolling field of flowers back in Selva. It was brilliant – Geoff didn’t have quite such an adrenalin-fueled ride but loved it all the same. Don had made it down in 1 piece this time and looked quietly relieved to have survived the experience and Sue landed dripping in blood with gashes on both knees due to a breakdown in communication with her instructor at take-off. I can’t be sure, but I think they enjoyed it 😉 🙂

Back at ground level it was still pushing 100F and it was time to head further north in the Southern Tyrol region closer to the border with Austria. We had managed to escape the selfie-stick wielding tribes of Instagrammers for a good few days (perhaps they aren’t big hikers 😉 ). I knew from my research, however, that our next destination would be swamped with them – although even I was unprepared for some of the sights we were to enjoy at Lago di Braies.

To be fair, Lago di Braies (also known as Pragser Wildsee) is now so super-cool trendy due to its stunning location and undeniable beauty that every Instagrammer on the planet will undoubtedly have it on their list of unmissable European photo shoot destinations. I knew this already but I also knew that we had to see the lake anyway 🙂

The only way to avoid the worst of the tour bus tourists and the Instagrammers is to stay at the hotel on the lake – the eponymously named Hotel Lago di Braies. I had pretty much unilaterally added this side trip to the Grand Tour schedule, so determined was I that we visit this lake outside of tourist hours. Hence, I was the only one who really knew the horrors of some of the reviews of the hotel. To say it is an odd place is an understatement. It is family run and far more Germanic than Italian. I had read that the owners were uncompromising, unfriendly and an overnight sojourn was an experience to endure simply for the location alone. We arrived in reception and my hands shook in trepidation as I handed over our passports and booking form, so nervous was I not to offend the strange man glaring at me from behind the check-in desk. I explained that we had a reservation for one night in lake view rooms and he glowered at me and said “Hmm … let’s see about that, shall we?”

Several excruciatingly slow minutes passed as he clicked away on the computer, huffing and puffing and sighing as my heart continued to sink. I was certain that he was going to say that we didn’t have a booking at all and that he would send us away with a flea in our ear. I wasn’t sure, in the end, whether I was actually relieved or not that he finally handed over two unwieldy heavy key fobs and shooed us out of reception to find our own way to our rooms. During check-in, he had tried to talk us into staying at the hotel for dinner ( I held firm with the gang that we were only to suffer one meal there and that was to be breakfast). All of my research had confirmed that the chef was likely the worst in all of Europe and so, as chief vacation planner, I took it upon myself to decline the offer.

The lake is positively gorgeous – it was late afternoon when we arrived, the light was amazing, the reflections for which the lake is famous were almost perfect and it was time to see what all the fuss was about. Polished, wooden rowing boats were gliding across the clear, emerald green water; there was a scent of pine in the air; tiny white edelweiss flowers peeped through the undergrowth along the paths and most of the day-trippers had already left. Not an Instagrammer in sight. Perfect 🙂

Back in the hotel, I still felt uneasy. There is something unwelcoming … or at least very unsettling about the Hotel Lago di Braies which may have something to do with its history but also has a fair amount to do with the lack of homely touches.

There are huge historic paintings of the hotel and the lake in reception with large “No photos” signs on them. What harm could a quick snap for the photo album do? The corridors are wide, bleak and uninviting … the staircases are cold grey flagstones and the locked doors to the rooms are behind old, heavy, creaking wooden doors padded with thick velvet. I couldn’t shake the image of a knife-wielding Jack Nicholson rampaging up and down the dark corridors in the dead of night looking for victims shrieking “Here’s Johnny”! Thankfully, the rooms weren’t quite as terrifying on the inside as they appeared to be on the outside. As to the rest of the hotel, it felt as if every attempt to sap the warmth and comfort from one’s experience appeared to have been made. In many respects it felt as if little had been updated since 1899 when the hotel first opened its doors entertaining such dignitaries as Archduke Ferdinand along with other members of the Danube Monarchy 😉

Some history of the hotel might help to explain the slightly melancholic atmosphere which pervades the interior of the hotel. Towards the end of the Second World War, German Luftwaffe generals and staff occupied the hotel which is geographically situated in what became known as Himmler’s Alpine Fortress. This was a region stretching from southern Bavaria across western Austria to northern Italy. It was intended be the retreat for the government when the regime fell. At the same time, 139 very high profile prisoners of the Nazis were moved from the Dachau concentration camp upon the orders of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Muller and were to be taken to the hotel where they were to be held as hostages of the SS. The idea was that they might have marketable value upon the fall of Nazi Germany. There was much confusion in communication as the regime started to fall across Europe and although there were orders that these prisoners were to be executed, the orders were never carried out. During their transportation to the hotel there was a stand-off, the prisoners escaped to a local village and although they were still in great danger, a Wehrmacht officer was instrumental in their rescue and so they continued on to the hotel where they were safe under the care of the owner of the hotel Emma Heiss-Hellenstainer until their ultimate release by the Allied Forces.

Still … enough of the gloomy War World II history. There is a distinctly faded grandeur to the hotel which prides itself on the motto “Here time stands still”. Well inside the hotel … it really does. Ultimately, I lost the battle to head out for the evening to a local restaurant and Geoff suggested we meet in the dining room at (or in) 1945!! 😉

Before that, however, photos taken, legs stretched and it was time for cocktails at the bar. There was a large and bleak (mainly empty) main living room and a bar (which was closed). The place was completely dead aside from a few tables being arranged on the deck overlooking the lake. Canapés were being laid out and a make-shift bar was being assembled. Party for the hotel guests perhaps? Nope – that would be far too cheery. It was a private party to which we invited ourselves. Obviously, the option of an evening in a hotel stuck in the middle of nowhere without a bar or access to a bottle of ice-cold Prosecco was utterly scandalous to Geoff so he made suitable overtures to the young manager of the bar and restaurant who agreed to sneak over some free canapés to us and four glasses of Prosecco if we maintained a low profile. Poor soul – he was very chatty and forthcoming and clearly desperate to escape the constant turnover of middle-aged guests and dismal restaurant food – he dreamt instead of a life with the young and beautiful people in South Beach, Florida.

At some stage during the canapés there was mutiny in the ranks and I was outvoted on staying at the hotel for dinner. I fought valiantly but lost. I was, of course, absolutely correct – as I knew I would be 😉 The price for dinner was 8 euros per person which would be added to the bill for the night. That alone should have told my companions everything they needed to know about the quality of the food they were about to enjoy. It was completely inedible – as, in fact, was breakfast. Geoff and I didn’t bother to order anything other than the side salad from the set menu. Sue ordered the cauliflower soup which resembled dirty dish water not only in texture and color but also (far too closely for my liking) in flavor. Because none of us ordered a main course we were then given 2 desserts each. The young wait staff had apparently taken pity on us for some reason which was unfortunate because then we had to show wiling and eat them both but, in reality, the desserts were equally as awful.

The following morning Geoff kicked me out of bed at 5am to tell me the light on the lake was amazing. We slung on clothes wishing we had sweatshirts and gloves as it was freezing at dawn (a temperature difference of roughly 70F from the evening before). We were alone by the boathouse marveling at the tranquility, the other-worldy reflections and the quality of the light. It was absolutely magical watching the sun rising over the lake and catching the surrounding mountains. We passed an occasional professional photographer or two setting up their expensive kits on tripods and soon we noticed that there was a small gathering of people back over by the Instagram-famous boathouse on the other side of the lake. By 6.30am the show had started. There were teenagers and 20-somethings in evening gowns pirouetting in bare feet on the rugged stone path with the sun rising on the mountains behind them. Their friends hovered around them with cameras and cellphones recording their antics for posterity. There were girls flailing their hair, pouting and dangling their legs in the frigid waters of the lake. And one, poor child, was dressed in a bikini, shivering blue with the cold and wrapped in a blanket whilst she waited for her boyfriend to give her the green light to jump in when the light and/or the reflections and/or whatever else had to be perfect for the perfect Instagram photo was – well -perfect. She was then instructed to descend into the water without causing a single ripple to ruin the perfect reflection and swim off into the lake. Time for a new boyfriend I think 😉

As the crowds continued to grow and the first tour bus arrived disgorging a gaggle of elderly ladies clutching hiking poles and sporting plastic name badges dangling from lanyards around their necks, we knew that it was time to leave the lake. Not, however, before the final pièce de résistance. Most walkers were dressed for a hike in the Alps (which was very much overkill given that the walk around the lake is flat and is no more than 2.5 miles). It is not surprising then, that the lady in the staggeringly high heels and ballroom gown and her male companion dressed in skin-tight cream trousers (to enhance the effect of all of those bulging Italian dancer’s leg muscles) and cream suede loafers caught our eyes. It became evident that the idea was that he would grab her around the waist and launch her up into the air above his head whilst their friend snapped away on his cellphone. The crowds of middle-aged gawkers (presumably startled by the antics of Instagram world – whilst we were almost immune by this stage) started to gather to watch the spectacle. With every heave of what was obviously becoming a dead weight in his arms, she collapsed and staggered dangerously ever closer to the waters edge in her treacherously unstable heels. It was entertaining for five minutes or so as we watched the poor man start to wilt under the physical strain of repeatedly launching his girlfriend into the air. I’m sure Geoff was holding out for a watery calamity but the rest of us could take the suspense no more and we had to leave them to their very public and embarrassing performance. We couldn’t help but wonder that if one is going to make such a spectacle of oneself that one might have at least practiced in a less dangerous and considerably less public location until the maneuver had been perfected for us all to enjoy.

So, in summary. Go there – Lago di Braies is fabulous. Stay at the Hotel Lago di Braies in the most expensive room you can afford so that you can enjoy the lake in the evening and again at dawn before the ballroom dress and stiletto crowd arrive but under no circumstances eat the food.

Heading south towards Belluno for our final night in the Dolomites, we made a pit-stop in Cortina d’Ampezzo (a super-trendy ski resort which continued the theme of the Austrian alpine architecture). It was a specific lunch detour to Panificio Pasticerria Alvera. My research did not fail me 🙂

Belluno is known as the bridge to the Dolomites. At last – it felt like we were finally back in real Italy – the old city of Belluno is resplendent with Gothic and Renaissance architecture and our surprisingly modern hotel was at one end of Piazza dei Martiri with its fountains and shady park. The one major upside of a surprisingly modern hotel (the Suite Hotel Astor) in the Dolomites is that they promised the joy of air-conditioning 🙂 The downside was that it was struggling to keep up with the ongoing heatwave and the AC was “down” as much as it was “up” 😉 The other downside was that it was the only trendy destination in the town and was strategically located with the only terrace bar with a view over the river below the old city. Consequently, the entire population of the young people of the town congregated on the terrace in the evening and the bar music blared until at least 3am. If our rooms hadn’t been directly above the bar this might not have been such an issue – but they were … and it was.

Bleary-eyed the following morning we took a final detour into the mountains to see the teal blue waterfalls at i Cadini del Brenton before returning to the even more searing heat of Venice. An unexpected afternoon in Padua in at least 110F – the heat positively radiating from the sidewalks and the cobbled-stone piazzas – and it really was time to escape the oppressive temperatures of one of our favorite countries and head back to England for the final 10 days of our trip.

One benefit of the heatwave baking most of southern and northern Europe, was that it had pushed a warm front into previously soggy England so that the sun shone (almost) relentlessly on the righteous throughout our visit to family and friends across southern England. We hiked mornings and evenings in the South Downs with our friends Dave and Ali whilst visiting their new home in the beautiful Kent town of West Malling. We returned to their other home in Eastbourne, East Sussex where we dressed up and went to the famous Grand Hotel for lunch. We walked the coastal trails of the South Downs to Beachy Head; we ate at the excellent Pilot Inn (mere steps from their apartment); and hiked across the Seven Sisters Country Park where the dramatic white limestone cliffs tower 530 feet above the sea. The clifftop trails were covered with a spectacular profusion of blue, yellow and white wildflowers. We visited Bosham, West Sussex with family for lunch at the absolutely gorgeous rose-covered Millstream restaurant (where it rained continuously). I met my friend Kate for lunch at the equally beautiful Swan Inn in West Malling where we sat in the dappled sunlight of the courtyard garden and I bored her to death with my yearnings to return to the England of my dreams – country pubs … wisteria-covered cottages … hollyhocks and old english roses 🙂

And, finally, despite the extreme danger of being a passenger in my 93 year old father’s car, my mother and I were whisked about the countryside to our favorite local garden cafe, Dorney Court Kitchen Garden; also to Windsor where we pottered along the riverside watching the royal swans at Eton Bridge and waved at the Queen up in the Castle; and finally to West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, a medieval National Trust village in the Chiltern hills dating from the 16th century. 18th century West Wycombe was an important stage-coach stop between London and Oxford and at that time boasted 7 inns and alehouses. We stopped for lunch there at another idyllic flower-filled garden cafe (The Apple Orchard) in the medieval village – which similarly did nothing to dim my home-sickness for a sunny day in England in the summer 😉

Regardless, it was time to leave our friends and family behind and head home to the State of Eternal Sunshine …











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