As promised, here is some more detail on my holiday in Italy, and with pictures as well! The holiday was booked with Solos Holidays who I've travelled with before. Their style of holiday works well for me, since you can have time to go exploring by yourself but also have people to eat with and socialise. We were based in the Italian Alps which are very attractive, and particularly pleasing to me since I've been considering visiting Switzerland recently, and the landscape and architecture are very similar, so I'm saved a journey.
The holiday itself was only 4 days long, but we packed so much in that it seemed like a week. We were staying in the Hotel Monte Bondone which is 1300 metres up and with the views to go with it. This picture shows the view from my bedroom, so the hotel doesn't need much more to recommend it, but the hosts were very friendly and the food tasty. One mark against it were the very soft beds, although I have to admit after the first night I had no problem sleeping. When the sun came out it was pleasantly warm without ever getting hot, and being at cloud level made for some interesting views with the mountains disappearing and re-appearing through the mist.
We arrived late on Friday night, then on Saturday morning we headed down to Trento the nearest city which has a compact well-preserved (or perhaps well-restored) centre. Many of the buildings had frescoes and usually a discreet sign outside describing the building and the pictures, so you could walk around without resorting to a guide book. The picture at the top of this entry is a detail from one of the buildings in the main square.
One of the 'expeditions' arranged on the holiday was cheese-tasting in a delicatessen in Trento, which introduced the strange combination of cheese and honey. It worked really well, and on reflection cheese and fruit cake is an acknowledged combination, so perhaps it's not so strange that sweet and savoury should work so well together. I'll definitely try cheese and honey at home some time - and I even have some Italian honey to try it with, since I succumbed to the sales ploy :-)
Due to lack of time, I only viewed the castle in Trento from the outside, which is one small regret since I hadn't realised it contained the Torre Aquila which are some exquisite interior frescos depicting life throughout the year, perhaps I'll get there another time. The castle itself seems a real hodge-podge of styles, and because it's at the top of a hill also looks rather squat, even though it has towers. In contrast, the cathedral dominates one side of the main square due to its height. It is quite a severe building, with hardly any outside ornamentation or statues, inside is also fairly bare, and it lacks the painted decoration that I associate with Catholic churches. A group of us met up for lunch and dined outside a cafe, luckily without being bothered by insects apart from one wasp - always the drawback with al fresco dining. (And I've just realised that fresco painting and al fresco dining are from the same root meaning 'fresh'. Al fresco amongst the frescoes!)
In the afternoon we had one of the loveliest trips of the holiday, which was a visit to Lake Lagolo where we went swimming. This is a very small lake, so you probably won't find it on a map, but it was well-known to the locals. It's down in a valley so the water was not too cold - although it was quite refreshing when you first stepped in :-) And being in a valley meant that it was surrounded by hills and mountains, so if you sculled slowly round on your back, you could look up at the mountains. Drying off consisted of lying in the grass, letting the sun evaporate the drops of water. It's one of those unique occasions that will always stand out in the memory.
Sunday morning we headed back in the same direction and went for a little stroll through the fields and woods. It was almost all level going so easy walking, and the views were still gorgeous ... particularly when we realised we were in the middle of a cycling race and there were all these Italian men passing by in their cycling shorts ;-) We ended up at the Alpine Botanical Gardens at Viote which were pleasant to explore, although I think the main season of flowers had finished by then. Alpine flowers tend to be quite small anyway, so huge sweeps of colour are not really possible, but they did have beds of other flowers to give some contrast.
In the afternoon we headed off for the main highlight of the trip which was a performance of Verdi's Aida in the Arena di Verona. The Arena is a Roman amphitheatre with what appears to be much of the original building still standing (I don't know how much restoration has been done). The acoustics are excellent; we were sitting about half-way up and could clearly hear the singers, and could probably have made out the words if we understood Italian! The performance itself was enthralling. I've been to operas before and enjoyed them, but there was something about the atmosphere this time that I ended up completely engrossed in the story. We had an English synopsis of the plot which gave you the gist of what was happening, and with that springboard I was able to appreciate the opera as sung emotion for perhaps the first time. I particularly enjoyed the female singers, which was a surprise since I find sopranos usually too 'sharp' for me, but this time the voices had depth and richness. One of our group was an opera singer and was able to explain that these were 'dramatic' roles as opposed to 'lyric' or 'colatura' which has been the case in most operas I've seen recently. Also, a recording of a female voice will usually sound higher than one heard live, and the most popular aries tend not to be the 'dramatic' ones.
The spectacle of the opera was wonderful as well, with the Victory March in Act II being an extravaganza of effects - dancers, fireworks, flames, thunder and lightning (actually the thunder and lightning was real, I just didn't realise that until Act II had finished!) There was also an amusingly whimsical touch with cloth elephants parading in the background, in ever-dimishing sizes. It was about a 2 hour drive back to the hotel after the opera and most of us probably expected to drop off, but the thunder and lightning actually turned into a thunderstorm once we hit the foothills. I have to hand it to our young driver, he drove very safely up the corkscrew road back to the hotel, no doubt inspired by the white knuckles he could see in the rear mirror when he looked up :-)
The storm had cleared by the morning and we went off for some wine-tasting, with a quick description of how champagne (or champagne-like wines to be precise) is made, and an explanation of 'grappa' which I'd never quite identified before - it's am alcohol made from grapeskins. In it's pure form it's like brandy or whisky, but it's often mixed with other flavours. A bit hit with our group was the chocolate grappa which managed to be darkly bitter without being too thick. I think it would make a great after-dinner chaser.
We travelled on to Lake Garda where for the price of a ferry ticket you can go for a cruise around the lake. With the mountains rising sheer either side of the lake you can see that it must have been formed by glaciers, and it makes for stunning scenery. We disembarked at a couple of villages. Malcesine which has a picturesque castle, and very confusing winding streets which lead you out to the lake, but not the part of the lake where the ferry goes from. Argh! There are also lots of leather good shops with excellent quality leather. Now I'm disappointed I replaced my 20-year old handbag last year, since there was so much choice there, but I know where to go in another 20 years time. Limone was a smaller version of Malcesine with what looked like the pillars of ruined buildings everywhere. Afterwards we found out that these were part of the terraces for lemon trees, no longer used but left as a memento to previous centuries.
Back at the hotel in the evening after dinner, dancing was perpetrated. I choose my verb carefully since any event that involves limbo dancing, Mick Jagger impressions, and a Riverdance fling should probably come with a health warning :-) Needless to say, much amusement was had by all.
Sadly the last day of the holiday was the worst weather, but the rain held off long enough in the morning for use to do a quiet ramble around the village. 'Village' suggests a main street of some kind, but there are no shops or streets of houses, just individual dwellings that happen to be clustered on the same section of the hill. Although it must be frustrating for the locals, it's interesting to just wander past houses and see how people live. One of the nice things about this area is that it does appear to be lived-in and not just a tourist attraction. In the afternoon we drove down to Verona and wandered around, trying not to get too damp. I hadn't planned on visiting Juliet's House but after viewing the balcony outside we went in and the museum is quite well presented. It has a half-dozen rooms which have a few select items in each, highlighting various aspects of Romeo and Juliet's story. Heading back to catch the bus to the airport we managed one last ice cream, which is a must if you go to Italy :-)