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Do's and Don'ts, Europe, General travel

My First Trip to Europe

September 1, 2017 • By

Right now, I am in Spain.

The last time I visited Spain it was 1996.  I was 22-years-old and a recent college graduate.  I didn’t have a job lined up and I informed my parents that a job could wait but my trip to Europe could not. College proved a rough four years and study abroad was not the norm during the dark days of the 90s.  I wanted to seize the day.

Fantasy Aisle, before my first trip to Europe, Graduation Day at Michigan State University with my parents

Graduation Day at Michigan State University with my parents

After a drunken debacle at Rick’s (or maybe Crunchy’s) on Michigan State University campus weeks before graduation, a friend hatched an idea to backpack through Europe.  I thought it sounded fun and agreed to join the adventurers.

We decided our first stop would be Paris and armed ourselves with a two-week Eurorail pass and an international student discount card.  We would depart in July with no itinerary.  Dr. Seuss’ book, The Places You Will Go echoed in my head.  Happy graduation to me!

Our group of bold travelers consisted of a few Spartan alums, all connected through one particular woman and her friends.  I flew to Paris with Amy, a fellow MSU graduate who I did not know.  After an eight-hour plane ride, we were fast friends.  We landed in Paris, groggy and disoriented, but somehow found our way to the hostel.  I had already determined the backpacking thing was going to cause problems, and I made a mental note of what to send home.

Once we unloaded our belongings, my new friend Amy and I headed out for lunch.  We picked a pizza place near our hostel.  It’s an American first-time traveler thing:  Go to the familiar, the safe.  New to the international scene, I did not know Parisians considered meals a leisurely experience.  We were starving, wondering when and if our food might arrive.  It eventually materialized, and the waiter placed a heart shaped pizza on the table.  My eyes rolled.  We ate it.  I assumed the pizza contributed to my overnight diarrhea–or maybe it stemmed from the highly aromatic smell of urine on the streets–but either way Paris did not leave me with the best first impression. (And that would not change until 2006.)

If you guessed I over-packed for my inaugural backpacking trip, you would be correct.  It’s a common mistake and one I regretted.  I shipped home $100 worth of clothing and hours later wished I had shipped the entire bag.

I did not take to backpacking. It was 1996 and designers had yet to style affordable wheelies and light weight ergonomic bags. (I am old but did not walk through the snow like my parents).

Fantasy Aisle, my first trip to Europe, Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

After the obligatory visit to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Musée d’Orsay and several tastings of street vendor baguettes, Amy and I rendezvoused with the rest of the group for a wild night on the town.  Traveling with a large mix of people can be challenging, and I learned quickly that I’m a person who does not adapt well to others.  I want to do what I want when I want to do it.

That has not changed.

Amy and I were not pleased with the perceived rudeness and inconsideration of the French people, and when our travel companions opted for partying rather than sightseeing, we planned to take our American snootiness and dollars elsewhere.

I realized it was time to go when Amy shouted to a Parisian, “Do you speak the International language?” Hint: it involves a finger.

Consulting our Let’s Go Europe guide book, we decided to head to Spain.  We boarded a train from Paris to Madrid with a change in Bordeaux.  It was an overnight train.  Back then, people smoked openly on trains and we didn’t have the luxury of a private sleeper car.  I remember standing on the platform in Bordeaux around midnight, exhausted, trying to stay awake ,thinking we’d acted a bit irrationally.

If my memory serves me, the trip–with smoke-filled cabins and upright seats–to Madrid took about 12 or 13 hours.  The journey left us battered but excited for our adventure and with a new stamp in our passport.  We exchanged our money (this was when each country in Europe had its own currency and also prior to the universal ATM) and found our hostel.  Amy and I both spoke high school Spanish and we delighted in trying to communicate with the locals.  The Spanish people smiled and packed entire plazas, eating and drinking.  I loved it.  It would be an entire day, two meals, and an onion-filled Spanish omelet before we resorted to a meal at McDonald’s.  We told ourselves we could eat at McDonald’s because the facilities provided free bathrooms.

I can still remember savoring that bite of my cheeseburger.  We failed the European immersion course.

Amy and I tackled Madrid and Barcelona together before heading to southern France. I lost track of her in Germany when I met another friend and she moved on to Prague, where I heard a man robbed her.

I often think of our first European experience and laugh at our innocence.  We got lost, overpaid for everything, misunderstood the language and learned a little about life in a foreign land.  I have no idea where Amy is now and, while I possess a few Kodak moments to preserve the memories of the trip, it’s the pictures ingrained in my mind that I treasure.

What I remember from Spain 21 years ago holds true today:

  • Catholic Churches – there are lots of them
  • Picasso is a big deal
  • Women sunbathe topless
  • Spaniards eat lunch at 2:00PM and dinner late like really late.  Think 10:00PM
  • There is a real thing called siesta
  • Stores shut down from 2:00PM – 7:00PM, with most businesses like banks and government offices only open from 9:00AM – 2:00PM
  • McDonald’s is still prevalent although Burger King and Starbucks have joined the fray

 

Where did you go on your first trip to Europe? Was your adventure like mine? Or if you haven’t gone yet, where do you think you will go?


Europe

Italy’s Precious Gem: Lake Como

September 15, 2015 • By

(To follow is a text conversation between my mother and me on the train from Monterosso al Mare to Milan)

Kelly: Oh my god! If they talk the whole way, I might die.
Joyce: Driving me nuts.
Joyce: Marry her, fuck her or throw her off the train and cut the BS.

… And so began our strenuous journey from Monterosso in Cinque Terre to Lake Como via the train to Milan.

Hot and irritated (more me, less Joyce) after struggling to carry our luggage up the station steps, across the platform and through the train’s crowded aisles before securing it in a holding area and ourselves in our seats, we devised a plan of reading, resting and relaxing during our ride. It’s said the best-laid plans often go awry… so why should this trip be any different than others?

The peace of our three-hour scenic ride through the Italian countryside ended where it started when a young man seated next to me spoke in rapid-fire Italian without pause or even hesitation to the woman across from him–next to Joyce–from the moment we boarded at the Monterosso station. His voice reached singsong decibels reserved for the hearing-impaired, puppies or the love of a mother.

What 20-Something doesn’t at least play on his phone or text?

Silence is truly golden! Unfortunately, silence was nowhere to be found on this train.

About to lose my marbles, I placed my Bose sound-proof headphones securely in my ears and allowed my mother to suffer through the cacophony until a commotion prompted me to lift my gaze and I watched Joyce pour a glass of wine into a plastic cup. I peered over quizzically. She rolled her eyes, explaining loudly over my headphones she needed it for the pain. She never informed me which pain she might be referring to–the sciatica, hip or the constant bombastic sounds of the young man yelling full-blast in Italian. Eventually, we determined the awkward pairing of our talker and his attentive listener: a mother and son. If only I spoke Italian, and could have intervened.

Fantasy Aisle

Lake Como

Finally, we arrived in Milan a bit ragged but ready for the last stop on the Mother-Daughter 70th birthday bash. A car transported us through the streets of Milan, along a highway an hour and 15 minutes to Tremezzo on Lake Como. Tremezzo, situated on the western shore of Lake Como about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the town of Como, sits directly across from Bellagio, the pearl of Lake Como and one of my mother’s favorite spots in Italy. She reveled in the surprise.

Lake Como or as the Italians say, “Lago di Como” is Italy’s third largest lake and one of Europe’s deepest. Tremezzo is located center lake, or where the lake branches into two long arms (the lake is Y-shaped). The foothills of the Alps frame the lake perfectly to the east and west, creating a border of idyllic scenery. Small villages dart in and out of the landscape some at the shores of the lake and others dotted high on the peaks and nestled in valleys.

Fantasy Aisle

View from a hilltop Tremezzo, Lake Como, Italy

The region is known for historic villas, parks, shops, hiking trails, leisurely boat rides, risotto, lake fish, red sauce and wine. Lake Como is a popular retreat for the wealthy dating back to even Roman times. You will find stunning villas and palaces mostly converted into modern hotels or museums at this point, yet maintaining the ancient charm, character and the elegance of Lake Como. Generations of families live in the region, helping preserve its historical significance.

The likes of Gianni Versace, Richard Branson and Madonna have all had homes on Lake Como. If you are in the market to purchase, it is rumored George Clooney may be selling his villa for a mere $100 million. He paid $10 million in 2001, but apparently lakefront property is hard to come by and garners huge (even ridiculous) offers to sell.

Joyce and I stayed at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo opened in 1910 by Enea Gandola on the edges of the lake. The Gandola family said they wanted to create something of “class and sophistication” on the most beautiful lake in the world. They succeeded. Greta Garbo referred to Tremezzo as that “happy, sunny place” in the film the Grand Hotel.

The hotel is lavish and majestic, decorated in Art Nouveau style with a nod to today’s modern design and amenities such as a heated pool and private gardens, and a spa worthy of queens and kings. We marveled at the view of Lake Como from every angle in our room and we laughed when we learned the luxurious hotel catered to only wealthy tourists. During our stay, it seemed to serve my dearest New Yorkers.

While a week or even month in Italy’s lake region would be ideal, Joyce and I would make the most of our three-day escape before reality awakened us.

On day one, we settled ourselves at the Grand Tremezzo, toasted our good fortune with cocktails on the lakeside pool deck and savored the moment. A few hours later, we dined at Crotto dei Platani in Brienno about 20 minutes from our hotel and inches from the lake.

Family owned since 1855, Crotto dei Platani is Lake Como’s oldest restaurant and maintains one of the last traditional cellars in the area. It specializes in lake fish and pasta and delivered up one of the best Tiramisu desserts I’ve ever tasted. The restaurant accommodates guests wishing to be seated inside or outside, but we prefered al fresco dining and opted for a table overlooking the lake. The view speaks for itself, but as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the lights from the nearby villages twinkled alive, we pinched ourselves, hoping to make the evening last a little bit longer.

Fantasy Aisle

Eating Tirimisu at Crotto dei Platani a delicious restaurant on the shores of Lake Como in Brienno

The second day of our Lake Como adventure coincided with my mother’s 70th birthday and I plotted various surprises to make her day memorable. Before I left the U.S., I asked friends and family across the globe to send cards, letters or assemble a video on the occasion of her milestone. People delivered recorded greetings, acting out memories from the past or simply sang happy birthday in various languages and tones. My dad told a story about their wedding day, my mom’s brother and sister-in-law recounted a famous family mishap about a purse gone missing and friends from near and far composed beautiful stories and heartfelt passages for her to treasure the rest of her life.

Fantasy Aisle

Opening cards from friends and family across the globe. Happy Birthday! 70 big years celebrating Italian Style, Lake Como

We kicked off the day with breakfast lakeside followed by my presentation of the videos and letters. She loved the gift. My next surprise entailed a two-hour boat trip on Lake Como, complete with strawberries and champagne. We boarded the boat in front of the Grand Tremezzo at 10 AM and it took no less than 15 minutes for my mother to abort the mission. Who knew she was afraid of boats and rough water? I always knew she became ill in rough seas, but apparently I missed the fear memo. She nearly abandoned ship, holding onto the sides of the boat with a death grip. Our Captain spoke limited English so I acted fast and I pointed to Bellagio for a quick escape. We swiftly moved through the water’s waves docking safely in Bellagio. With my mother off the boat, the Captain and I worked out in befuddled Spanish/English that he would return in two hours and transport us back to the hotel. I made a mental note to Google “fear of water” in Italian.

Fantasy Aisle

Bellagio, Pearl of Lake Como, our favorite place to shop and eat

Visiting Bellagio (code word for “shopping”) was planned for later in the day but when Lake Como gives you lemons, you make lemonade!

We ventured to the main thoroughfare to see if our favorite stores remained. Our good fortune continued as we quickly identified our favorite linen and lingerie store, Molinari Silvana. We entered, we browsed, we scrutinized, we conversed, we reasoned, we negotiated (with ourselves about how my dad will feel paying the bill) and then, clearing all obstacles, we BOUGHT lots of very much needed pretty napkins, hand towels and nightgowns. Our two hours were nearly up, and we made our way back to the dock.

I explained our dilemma to the Captain, who assured me a smooth return trip to the hotel just across the water. The lake calmed, and he safely and swiftly delivered us back to the hotel in about 10 minutes. As we departed the boat, he handed my mom a beautiful display of strawberries and she commented at the loveliness of a gesture. (She believed this to be a result of her alarm and subsequent panic, not my thorough planning.)

The day continued with less drama. We hiked a low-grade hill behind our hotel, giving way to a spectacular panorama of Lake Como and a better perspective of the nearby villages. It is without doubt a must to see Lake Como from high in the hills. Given it was a clear day, we could see the entire length of the lake, boats and ferries whisking people to and fro and the topography of the mountains. It’s a breathtaking view that delivers a rare tranquility away from the bustling main road. I dare say I preferred the elevated vantage point to the ground level because it provided an opportunity to take in the entire scene, the lush vegetation surrounding the lake, vibrant flowers in backyards and varying sizes of villas hidden in the brush. Lake Como is clear, crisp and mighty. When cloud cover creeps over the mountaintops, the lake’s current moves briskly and ocean-like waves crash against the break walls of the towns. Then the sun emerges and weather patterns change, and wind gives way to calm and flat and sparking waters.

Fantasy Aisle

Make a wish! Celebrating 70 years at Grand Tremezzo with Chantilly cream cake and it was yummy

For Joyce’s 70th birthday, we celebrated at the restaurant La Terrazza in the hotel and I was able to somewhat unsuccessfully deliver the champagne by faking a bathroom break and accosting the maître d’. It wasn’t the best meal in Italy, or even our favorite setting, but we enjoyed each other’s company. The kitchen delivered a sweet, freshly baked Chantilly “birthday” cake scripted with “Happy 70th Birthday” in Italian. My mom made a wish (I hope it was for me to win the lotto), inhaled, and with ease extinguished the candle. We concluded the evening with a Baileys and coffee in the T-bar where my mother tried really hard to convince the piano player (classically trained) to play something upbeat. She failed, and with one look around she announced to the room, “this looks more like the Book of the Month club than a bar.”

She wasn’t wrong. Guests abandoned people-to-people fun, live entertainment and more cocktails for solitude and comfort in whatever their phones delivered.

At this point, it was a wrap on Joyce’s birthday but that didn’t mean it was time to throw in the towel. For breakfast, the kitchen asked if we wanted any remaining cake. I replied without hesitation, “Why not?” Who doesn’t want rich cream and cake with their eggs and oatmeal? It’s a vacation! While my mother chose to eat her piece sparingly, I went all out–which I later regretted. We readied ourselves for the day and hopped a ferry to Bellagio (size of the boat = safety) for a day of shopping.

With purpose and attitude as knowledgeable tourists, we marched jagged steps, tore through shops, wandered alleys and wove our way through the charming streets of Bellagio with the finalé to our adventure firmly in sight: lunch at our favorite wine bar Enoteca Cava Turacciolo. The gregarious owner retired since our last visit but the staff carries on his attention to detail and service. Carved from the bowels of the old-city, exposed stone and brick contribute to the ambiance of the cave-like space as much as Italy’s finest wines and olive oil lining its shelves. At the suggestion of our server, we paired two white wines and two red wines with a sampling of meats and cheeses: cow first, goat second and sheep last. There is nothing wrong with a day starting with cake, followed by shopping and wine.

Fantasy Aisle

Al Veluu service and food matched by stunning views, making mustard, Tremezzo, Italy

To cap off our evening and our last dinner in Italy, we booked a reservation at Al Veluu Ristorante per the recommendation of a friend. The affectionate owner greeted us with homemade Bellini’s, which we sipped as we admired sweeping views of the entire Lake Como region. The moon illuminated what was left of the pink and turquoise rays of light as we dined on sweet tomatoes and fresh zucchini from the garden and filet with bitter and spicy mustard sauce served tableside. I highly recommend Al Veluu for the heartwarming welcome, the farm-to-table flavors and the impressive views of Lake Como. Its romance and simplicity can be found in a secluded spot overlooking the lake, perfect for couples or even mothers and daughters.

Fantasy Aisle

Toasting with bellinis and sunset at Tremezzo Al Veluu, Lake Como

MUST DO IN LAKE COMO

    1. Spend a day in Bellagio shopping and eating – Check out Molinari Silvana, Saraceno Michele and Enoteca Cava Turacciolo.
    2. Visit Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, known for its impeccable views of Lake Como and its vibrant gardens. Pack a lunch and spend the day strolling through the immaculate and stunning grounds.
    3. Plan a trip to Villa del Balbianello. Wander the expansive villa and gardens and admire views of the lake from the grounds. If you are newly engaged, plan a wedding! Built in 1787, it is the site of a Franciscan monastery.
    4. Take a cooking class–eat your own risotto while sipping wine.
    5. Sail, ferry or boat all day on the beautiful waters of Lake Como. Captain your own vessel, hire a private guide or hop on a ferry darting to each of the villages.
    6. Walk from village to village, admiring the different views of the lake.
    7. Plan an adventure: Hike the foothills of the Alps or rent a kayak or canoe and become more acquainted with the lake.
    8. Drive the scenic 4-hour loop around the lake or plan a day trip and stop off in Mennagio or Varenna and end in Como town.
    9. Taste your favorite Gelato.
    10. Check out Duomo de Como in Como town. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Como considered one of the most beautiful places to visit in Northern Italy.
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