Ciao! That’s Italian for hello. Also, the Germans use it to mean “Bye!” In Texas, it just means food and is spelled C-H-O-W. Those are the three languages I’ve encountered over the past week. My husband (who I will forever after refer to using “Tex”) and I are born-and-bred Texans living currently in southern Germany. And last weekend, we made the road-trip to northern Italy, where we stopped at Lake Garda, Verona, Vicenza, and Venice. It was lovely.
Here are the things we did on our first day:
»» Drove through the Austrian Alps in the rain. Even as we got into Italy, it kept pouring. My hopes of a hot Italian weekend and beautiful views of the Veneto countryside were sinking quickly. But within a short ways of Riva del Garda, our first stop at the lake, the Lord graciously cleared the skies. We met our friends there for a bathroom break (where I used my first squatty potty!) and also stuck our hands into the cool water at the foot of breath-taking mountains. Then we started driving down the little road on the eastern coast of Lake Garda. It was about a 2 hour drive straight from the north side to the southern tip, and it was so worth it.
»» Made a stop at the Scaligera Castle on the peninsula of Sirmione. IT WAS INCREDIBLE. I think this was our favorite part of the whole trip. The castle itself is unlike any other we have yet seen. Not only was it built in the 13th century, but it still seems to be completely intact. It had a moat and two drawbridges and a tall tower that we climbed up to, and there we were met by some of the best views of the weekend. For our entrance to the castle we paid €6 per person. While the area does at first seem to be crawling with tourists, it was much less crowded feeling than the bigger cities we went to later. After the castle, we took a little time to wander through the old town of Sirmione. And we happened upon some of the best ice cream I have ever put in my mouth. Mascarpone e biscottino!!!! It’s a creamy gelato made with mascarpone cheese and little chocolate-y cookie pieces. Yum.
On day two of our adventure, we:
»» Explored an ancient Roman arena in Verona. This was pretty neat, though there were lots of tourists there. This arena is actually older than the Colosseum in Rome. No, I don’t think it’s quite as grand. But, still, it was surreal to sit in the same place where people used to cheer on gladiators. Apparently, they now show operas in the arena. We didn’t watch one, but they were setting up while we were there.
»» Ate our first real Italian food. There is an eerily empty road coming straight off the buzzing Piazza Bra, where the arena is. Here, we found a splendid little trattoria and pizzeria called Il Bacaro dell’Arena. Tex ordered a calzone filled with salami, ricotta, and some other kind of cheese, and I had gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce. If I could go back, I would order that calzone. The generous amount of ricotta in it was what most enamored me. My gnocchi was delicious, but it was very rich. We both left feeling stuffed. Oh and it wasn’t too expensive! Around €8 or 9 for each of our plates.
»» Toured Palladio’s Villa Capra la Rotonda in Vicenza. This beautiful piece of architecture has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. One of my college professors taught all about it and highly recommended visiting if we ever got the chance. Palladio designed it to represent the “sancta agricultura,” the idea of farming as a sacred duty. This is especially demonstrated by the four porticoes on each side of the villa, a characteristic which had only been used on temples and holy places until that time. (It was a bit tricky to find parking for our visit, but we finally just pulled off the side of the road in a neighborhood. It seems like any time we park anywhere here in Europe there’s always a little doubt in our minds whether we will find our car still there when we come back.)
»» Bought ingredients for an authentic Vicenza meal– bigoli and duck sauce! After the villa, we wandered around Vicenza, gaping at the architecture and poking our heads into little shops. We came upon an adorable specialty foods shop (for lack of a better term) and browsed all kinds of pastas and sauces… They had asparagus sauce and rabbit sauce, to name a few of the more unusual ones. We tried asking the lady working there what was the best, but our ignorance of the Italian language kept us from clearly communicating the question. Finally, another customer came up and interpreted what we meant, subsequently pointing out the ingredients of the regional dish. Bigoli is basically a thick spaghetti noodle and duck sauce is, well, ground duck, I guess? We shall see!
»» Took a late-night walk around downtown Bassano del Grappa. Bassano is a rural town further north near the Airbnb where we stayed. It was busier than we expected for 10 at night! People were hanging around bars and ice cream shops and cafes all over the place. We stopped in at a lonely little cafe for a cup of Italian hot chocolate, which is almost a hot pudding. I would love to go back during the day and look around. It seemed like a fun town and felt pretty local.
On our last day there, we took a train into Venice and:
»» Ferried over to the island of Murano to watch a glass-blowing demonstration. This also turned to be one of our favorite stops, and we hadn’t even planned it! My friend actually came up with this idea. And boy, am I glad she did! For only €3, we were admitted into a dark barn-like building along with a small group of people to watch how they make Venetian glass. The fellow’s glass-blowing blew my mind. Over a period of about 20 minutes, he crafted two beautiful vases with handles and a pretty decorative glass horse. He ended the show with a surprise… blowing up a piece of glass like a balloon until it quite literally popped! Stopping at this factory was very insightful to the area’s age-old industry.
»» Got lost in the crowded, winding streets of Venice. We stopped for a short time at the Piazza San Marco, the most touristy part of the city (though really all of Venice is pretty darn touristy). After that, we just took off walking. Tex was the head navigator for most of the day, which I think he thoroughly enjoyed. “Take the next right. Over a bridge. Stay straight. Now we turn here!” On that note, a map is critical if you wish to find anything particular while there. We heard that cellphone service can be pretty spotty since the buildings are so high and the streets so narrow. It really is dreamy walking through this town built on water. Clothes hanging over the waterways. Mask shops on every corner. Mysterious alleys leading into bright piazzas.
We decided not to shell out the money for a gondola ride, and ended out being happy with our decision. Instead, we got all-day passes for the water bus, which allowed us to travel to any island in the area or up the Grand Canal. On the particular day we were there, however, the Grand Canal was closed off for a big boat race, the Regata Storica. This race is several hundred years old. Pretty cool! We got to watch it for a bit from the top of a bridge.
»» Ate, and ate, and ate… We tried slices of yummy street pizza, some more Italian pastas (spaghetti carbonara for Tex, and tagliatelle with salmon and cream for me), AND OCTOPUS! This was certainly our most adventurous dish of the trip. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t really feel the need to have it again. Ha! Surprisingly, the tentacles were the tastiest part.
That wraps up the details of our wonderful trip. Thanks for reading! There will be more coming soon ♥