September 2013 - alvers.info

Just a place for my old thoughts

Very almost nearly home
Tuesday, 3 September 2013 2:13 pm
(Deb)

So for the past couple of days we've been based in our hotel in Stresa, greeted with effusive warmth by the dragon at reception, breakfasted in the rather nicer restaurant next door (where the aging maitre d' has finally stopped calling me 'bambini bella'), shopped, eaten, gone for afternoon tea and/or spritz and tried out the public ferries.

The first day we spent mostly wandering around Stresa's little lanes filled with shops and cafes, with the occasional stint on our balcony to cool off (despite the forecasted rain it's been clear, dry and hot all tour) and watch some very expensive-looking powerboats scream around Lake Maggiore like formula 1 cars. The sound is similar and I'm quite happy they've buggered off, along with the thousands of people who were here at the weekend. They are still returning the car park in front of our hotel to normal, and every day coach loads of tourists turn up in front of the ferry terminal. It's quiet in Stresa, but yesterday we got Day Rover tickets and went first to Baveno, where there were markets, and then back via the Isle of Handbags, where the heat and boatloads of tourists overcame me and I succumbed to their bright, leathery charms.

I found a restaurant behind the hotel with a fantastic looking menu on our first non-tour night, but when we wandered down at 7:30 - a bit early, I thought - it was already packed to the rafters. So I made a rather theoretical booking with the surly looking front of house for the next night at 7 pm, and we went to a smaller cafe where we were served by a lovely Rumanian girl with hair like Leah's and a similar personality. I had gnocchetti verdi con pesto e pomodoro, Mum had a ham and cheese crepe, and we shared an insalata mista which our waitress insisted Mum finish like a good Italian.

The next night, post-handbag, we fronted up at 7 pm and to my amazement the front of house remembered my name and even smiled. We had a wonderful meal but it was huge. Mum had french onion soup followed by essentially veal schnitzel and chips. We heard the chef pounding the veal and she got two pieces which covered the massive white plate. I had gnocchi with a venison ragout, followed by duck with a chianti sauce. They sliced the duck so it again covered the entire plate. The head chef is a big French dude and I think also the owner. He spent little time in the kitchen and most time in the front of house, taking prosecco out to people waiting for tables. He must drive the kitchen and wait staff nuts. There was also a sous chef and two others in the kitchen I could watch through a glass window. The head chef and the sous, both male, wore toques, the two others were women doing pans and larder.

So now we come to our last day, today. We went for a walk, did some shopping, had lunch with our Rumanian waitress (I had the gnochetti again, Mum had an omelette) and I am trying to catch up my blogs before I lose my lovely free wifi. Dragonlady let me use the printer to check in and print boarding passes, and I shifted our seats to the back of the plane so we have an aisle, and (fingers crossed) an empty window seat beside us for the first and longest leg. I went downstairs this morning to check out the airport bus, which didn't seem to arrive at all, so this could prove interesting tomorrow. Still, I have a receipt that says it will pick us up at the church next door, so fingers crossed.




Stresa and the Isle of handbags
Tuesday, 3 September 2013 1:45 pm
(Deb)

Having exited Switzerland without buying a single chocolate or watch - although I did see some very attractive, cheap ones in a department store, along with men's cashmere sweaters in literally ten shades each of fawn, blue and green - we made our way to the last stop on the tour, Lake Maggiore. I was hoping for another Autogrill stop because the stuff they have packed into the Autogrills is phenomenal. They take long car journeys seriously in Italy - the place is full of chocolate, books, snacks, wine, food, more chocolate, more snacks, more wine, and in the last one we stopped at, seasoned salt which I now regret not buying. However we were in the coach for less than two hours, including an unscheduled stop which the guide said was something about topping up a water tank which I can't help thinking was a tour code for the bus driver needing a leak.

The drive into Lake Maggiore was quite spectacular, not only the lovely big blue lake surrounded by mountains, but also the magificent multi-storey hotels swathed in flowered balonies that line the lakeshore. It turns out that our hotel is actually two hotels - the Milan, and the Speranza au Lac - side by side. Needless to say the Speranza, where the tour was staying, was not as nicely painted as the Milan next door, but as we scored yet another balcony with a lake view, we could hardly complain.

However, others on the tour didn't have a problem complaining. People had started griping about where they were sitting on the bus (we had started towards the front left, and thanks to the clockwise rotation went through the front seats to being towards the front right) and the Americans, who were not coping with the lack of eggs and bacon at breakfast, had a full on argument with reception about their rooms. Then the whole extended stay bookings turned into a debacle.

It seemed that if you booked extra nights with Cosmos then, with some rare exceptions, you were to be shipped off to a far nicer hotel in Baveno down the road. This suited the single American, who after bugging the tour guide for stuff to do and places to see music, declared Stresa to be too noisy, as due to a powerboat race taking place outside our hotel, there was music and markets stalls until midnight every night. Her roommate from Canberra confirmed her room and then booked the Lake Maggiore express for the next day, only to be told that the bookings were mixed up and she was going to Baveno and her American roommate was staying.

After much complaint, the other Americans got rooms on our floor with views, and the two tour-crossed singles got their hotel postings swapped around. Meanwhile, having booked our extra nights direct with the hotel, I tried to confirm if we had to move rooms to be greeted with a complete brushoff by the pushy lady at reception who told me to check with the tour director. Eventually she agreed to write down my name and check with the other half of the hotel, who seemed to be in charge of all the bookings. I wasn't too worried as I'd seen a note on the check in list when we first checked in, and sure enough I got a note (in Italian) left with my key at the end of the day, saying that we could stay in our current room. But since then, the dragon at reception says 'Welcome!' so effusively to me every time I drop the key in or pick it up (it seriously has to weigh as much as a boat anchor) that I now try to sneak out the front door when she's busy.

That night we had booked the optional excursion to Issola Pescatore, the fishing island, for dinner, which was quite nice apart from the whole powerboat thing moving the private boat embarkation point to a steep, shingled beach. I think that's possibly why everyone got shipped off to Baveno as well. The food was quite good and there were four courses of it, there were cats everywhere and the wine tasted like they'd contributed to it. Still, it was included so we kept drinking it and I swear the staff started watering it after the second jug. No-one seemed to particularly like the restaurant, food, cats, or where they were sitting, and the staff thumped the plates down vigorously to express their displeasure with us. Actually, I have to say they started first, although when they nearly put a knife through someone's hand (accidentally) at the table of Americans - by the water,of course - I think that was almost justifiable.

The next day we took the optional excursion around the three islands - Issola Bella, Issola Madre and Issola Pescatore again, which is also called Issola Superiore. The Borromeans still own Issola Madre and have a palace on both it and Issola Madre. Private boats can't land on Issola Madre, only ferries coming with tourists to view the palace, but we had a lovely guided tour of Issola Bella with Sandra, a local guide who must be sick of telling the same jokes every day but did it with apparent delight. There are elaborate and beautiful terraced gardens on Issola Bella which we walked through before lunching at Issola Pescatore, to which I have given a third name, the isle of handbags. It had the most prolific collection of bag and hat stalls I've seen outside of Florence, too many to choose from (I thought).

That night we had our final meeting, including the requisite accommodation fury from the single American as the swap hadn't been brokered yet, followed by dinner in the hotel restaurant next door, which was unexpectedly excellent. If all the hotels produced dinner like that - every course perfectly cooked, delicious, hot and with seconds offered - no-one would complain about anything. Dessert was Pear Belle Helene, which broke the above rule by being cold and also not at all like the dish I remember Daniel serving once, but by that time everyone was too content to care.


One day weekends
Tuesday, 3 September 2013 1:18 am
(DJ)

I am switching into a Monday/Sunday roster where my two days off are at each end of the week. So my first 'weekend' after coming back from holidays was only one day. So I made the most of it.

Sunday night I got a KG of beautiful Mooloolaba prawns and Furrg and I eat till our little tummies bulged. Monday I checked out a new Teppanyaki place that has opened on Oxford Street. Its run by the same guys as the sushi train and dumpling joint. They seem to be taking over Oxford Street one restaurant at a time.

I then had a happy time poking through all the cookbooks in the lifeline book store before grabbing some groceries and heading home.

I had finally managed to get the recipe for San Sebastian cheese cake so that was the next thing on the agenda. I didn't want to risk making a full batch so I only did 1/4 size and baked it into two large ramekins. The results were very good indeed and made a sensational dessert last night.

Then off to bed with a good book ahead of a midday start today.

I cannot wait for Deb to get home Thursday night. I have late starts Friday and Saturday ahead of Sunday & Monday off.

Can't wait!


Bellagio and Lugano
Sunday, 1 September 2013 1:14 pm
(Deb)

The next morning we were taken by coach up to the ferry point and caught the ferry to Bellagio, which is on an island in the middle of Lake Como. There we had free time and the opportunity to either go back with the guide in a few hours, or make our own way home.

After the tourist train success in Verona, Mum and I tried the one in Bellagio, which had no music or commentary and seems to exist primarily to shuttle people around between the carpark and the ferry point. Bellagio is very steep and has lots of little artisanal shops stuffed into nooks and crannies. It also has some seriously expensive and beautiful things, presumably for the expensive and beautiful people staying on lake Como. One thing that surprised me was the lack of boats (apart from public ones) on the lake. I was expecting to see it stuffed with yachts and motor launches, but I saw maybe three or four all day.

We walked out to the end of the island, from which there is a magnificent panoramic view, and had lunch on the restaurant in that spot, which was still not half as expensive as some of the ones in the shopping area in Milan. By that time we were a little late to go back with the guide, so we wandered around and caught a later ferry, hoping to link up with yet another tourist train that runs through the villages around the lake. However this train only goes every hour and ten minutes, and we ended up with forty minutes to wait, so we started walking.

By now it was hot and the footpath was on the sunny side of the street. After about fifteen minutes walking (it was about 25 minutes back to the hotel) Mum wanted a drink, and so we stopped and sat at a cafe. By then it was only about 15 minutes to the next train, so I asked the porter at the fancy hotel next door where the stop was, as his hotel was listed on the timetable. Eventually it tootled around and we caught it up to Mezzegra and the walked the few metres back to the hotel, where the pool was now so inviting that even Mum got in up to her waist.

More prosecco preceded dinner (being far more drinkable than the house wine) and then we packed for another early start, this time to visit Lugano, which is on the lake that bears its name, and in an Italian canton of Switzerland.

I have to say I was hoping Lugano would feel more Swiss, but what it felt was more modern. I'd read this before, when deciding whether I wanted to visit Switzerland or not. Lugano had a nice lake and promenade, shops stuffed with watches and beautiful jewellery, and then only Asics Kayano shoes I've seen that cost more than they do in Australia (I took a wrong turn on the way to the loo in a department store and wound up in fitness gear). Everything in Lugano looked pricier due to being in Swiss Francs, which are worth less than the Euro, but also because it was expensive. We skipped the train due to the one in Bellagio being rubbish, but apparently if you took the one in Lugano and then went up the funicular, the view over the back looked over multiple lakes and was spectacular. We eventually decided on a place for lunch where the pizzas cost less than 30 AUD, shared one - which was excellent - and marvelled at everyone out eating when it cost so much. The one thing I didn't see was a chocolate shop.


Verona to Lake Como
Sunday, 1 September 2013 12:54 pm
(Deb)

So the internet has eaten the short post I did just before .leaving on the bus to Verona, and I had no idea what I said in it because it was so long ago :). After our momentous dinner we had a quiet day on Lake Garda while most of the rest of the tour headed out to see some of the other villages around the lake. We walked up to the local village - the long way, of course - which was not as picturesque as Sirmione. As we were a bit early for lunch we bought proscuitto, a baguette (from France), some prosecco (so I didn't have to find a corkscrew), matured asiago cheese (the only sort I saw near Milan) and supermarket pesto senza oglio, which still has me baffled. At the time I thought it meant without garlic, but garlic is aglio. It's a bit like the spaghetti con scoglio I see here all the time, which means spaghetti with seafood but which google tells me means spaghetti with either rocks or difficulty.

So we had a picnic on our very toasty balcony, and then I braved the very chilly outdoor pool, which also had an outdoor bar and was surrounded by vigorously pruned olive trees, so was very pretty. I notice they prune all their trees vigorously here, so what I think are elms I've seen in many places have a single, fat trunk and then a pretty bunch of leaves on top, but no arching branches.

We ate in the restaurant that night which was uninspirational. I did smile when I noted that the penne with tomato and cheese also had a bit of meat floating around in the sauce - hard luck if you were vegetarian!

The next morning we got the bus into Verona, which is a very pretty city indeed, a bit reminiscent of Venice. There was a guided tour but we just got on the local tourist train, which tootled around the city playing opera and telling us about the sights in four different languages. Cobblestones wreak havoc with photography! We went and saw Juliet's balcony, which is not at all convincing and has a wall covered in love graffiti. We stopped in a little cafe near the church for a delicious (and cheap) panini and piadini, and then after a quick spot of shopping it was back on the bus and off to lake Como.

The drive into Como was quite spectacular and I was grateful that I wasn't driving, and that we were in a large coach, as the winding roads are reminiscent of Tuscany. Como itself looked large and beautiful, but we stayed in Azzano di Mezzegra further round the lake. Once again we were lucky and scored a balcony in our rather pretty hotel, which had a glass conservatory and also a pool. It was clear that we were eating in the hotel for the next two nights so that we didn't go far up the road in search of sustenance, as there were infrequent footpaths on the narrow and busy road that runs around the lake. We sat outside in the garden with some more prosecco before dinner, which was slightly more inspiring that the previous night's attempt, but with absolutely undrinkable wine (which we had to pay for).

Verona to Lake Como
Wednesday, 31 December 1969 11:59 pm

So the internet has eaten the short post I did just before .leaving on the bus to Verona, and I had no idea what I said in it because it was so long ago :). After our momentous dinner we had a quiet day on Lake Garda while most of the rest of the tour headed out to see some of the other villages around the lake. We walked up to the local village - the long way, of course - which was not as picturesque as Sirmione. As we were a bit early for lunch we bought proscuitto, a baguette (from France), some prosecco (so I didn't have to find a corkscrew), matured asiago cheese (the only sort I saw near Milan) and supermarket pesto senza oglio, which still has me baffled. At the time I thought it meant without garlic, but garlic is aglio. It's a bit like the spaghetti con scoglio I see here all the time, which means spaghetti with seafood but which google tells me means spaghetti with either rocks or difficulty.

So we had a picnic on our very toasty balcony, and then I braved the very chilly outdoor pool, which also had an outdoor bar and was surrounded by vigorously pruned olive trees, so was very pretty. I notice they prune all their trees vigorously here, so what I think are elms I've seen in many places have a single, fat trunk and then a pretty bunch of leaves on top, but no arching branches.

We ate in the restaurant that night which was uninspirational. I did smile when I noted that the penne with tomato and cheese also had a bit of meat floating around in the sauce - hard luck if you were vegetarian!

The next morning we got the bus into Verona, which is a very pretty city indeed, a bit reminiscent of Venice. There was a guided tour but we just got on the local tourist train, which tootled around the city playing opera and telling us about the sights in four different languages. Cobblestones wreak havoc with photography! We went and saw Juliet's balcony, which is not at all convincing and has a wall covered in love graffiti. We stopped in a little cafe near the church for a delicious (and cheap) panini and piadini, and then after a quick spot of shopping it was back on the bus and off to lake Como.

The drive into Como was quite spectacular and I was grateful that I wasn't driving, and that we were in a large coach, as the winding roads are reminiscent of Tuscany. Como itself looked large and beautiful, but we stayed in Azzano di Mezzegra further round the lake. Once again we were lucky and scored a balcony in our rather pretty hotel, which had a glass conservatory and also a pool. It was clear that we were eating in the hotel for the next two nights so that we didn't go far up the road in search of sustenance, as there were infrequent footpaths on the narrow and busy road that runs around the lake. We sat outside in the garden with some more prosecco before dinner, which was slightly more inspiring that the previous night's attempt, but with absolutely undrinkable wine (which we had to pay for).