Posts Tagged With: garda

A Lake, Lots of Tunnels, and the Italian Suburbs of Austria

The weather was much improved today — though unfortunately it is not expected to last — so we pulled up stakes from Gardone Riviera, en route to Merano in a more optimistic state of mind than when we arrived. Lake Garda was bathed in a watery sunlight as the sun struggled with occasional success to break through the low clouds. Our very temporary landlord, the warm and genial Fabrizio, had suggested that driving up the west side of the lake was the more scenic route, and the choice proved to be a wise one: the road hugged the narrow strip between the lake and the granite cliffs above it, beneath, above, and occasionally through one seaside village after another.  Each offered its shares of bell towers, churches, and homes nestled on to the steep hillsides, enjoying watch over the clear lake. This is a typical view from the road, looking up the hillside:

Garda & Merano-2Where there was a safe pullout off the road  and there were more than a few — we took it, soaking up the view and snapping away like lunatics. Following our instincts, we would occasionally pull off the highway (and I use the term loosely) altogether, finding a parking space and walking around the town at water’s edge.

Garda & Merano-4During one such stroll we encountered this 94 year old lady taking a walk with her grown grandson, or so we assume. She was quite emphatic about her age, repeating it a few times in Italian as she spoke no English, and we were able to puzzle out that she had lived there for a very long time.

One of these random stops found us in the town of Limone, about three-quarters up the west side of the lake, where as it happened it was open-air market day down by the waterside. It was lively with visitors and seemed like a good place to walk around and break for lunch, so we parked in a garage and waded into the market place. Leather goods seemed to be a particular specialty, and the prices were good: Alice bought a bright blue purse and wallet, and I a new and much-needed wallet.

It seemed that aside from ourselves, every tourist in Limone — and there were a lot of them — was German. We had been told about this by Fabrizio but were still taken aback by it; other than the vendors talking among themselves, we hard only German being spoken, and the restaurants by the water all offered their menus in German and Italian. (German would become even more prominent as we approached and entered Merano, but more on that shortly.)

Part of the reason for Limone’s popularity among German tourists is its proximity to the Austrian border and the fact that it offers these views at the northern end of the lake:

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Garda & Merano-5You can see that that the town, like its brethren along the coast, is essentially sandwiched between the sea and the cliffs, with the foothills of the Dolomites looming in the distance.

The other common view from the highway as we drove up the side of the lake was no view at all, by which I mean the inside of a tunnel. There are a lot of tunnels on the route, all impressive feats of engineering as they are up to nearly a mile in length and are bored through solid granite. There is really no choice in the matter, as the cliffs come nearly right up to the sea and there is no other place to put a road. Even so, it was surprising: we probably passed through 15 tunnels, dark and windy and narrow, with lots of trucks to keep things interesting.

As we approached Merano it became clear that, the political border notwithstanding, we were entering Austria. And indeed, had World War I gone the other way, that’s exactly where we would be. This region is the South Tyrol, 40 miles from the Austrian border; the architecture, the language, and the culture are essentially Bavarian. A-frame roofs with timbers on the outside, a distinct absence of baroque Italianate facades on the buildings, street signs in German and Italian, and wiener-schnitzel on the menus of the restaurants. It’s slightly more Italian than Salzburg, but not by much.

Oh, and the restaurants close up at about 8:30, about two hours earlier than the rest of Italy. We almost missed dinner because our stomach clock time settings were insufficiently Teutonic. We will not make this mistake again tomorrow; we have ways of making you eat.

Anyway, here is a view of the town. If you think it resembles an Alpine ski resort, you are not far off the mark.

Garda & Merano-6Our apartment here is a spacious two bedroom condo on the fifth floor of a building, only about a block from the center of town. The decor and architecture of the place could not differ more dramatically from the other places that we have stayed. Unadorned white walls, right angles everywhere, and not a scowling 16th century portrait in sight. In fact, nothing in sight: there is not a single wall hanging or piece of decoration anywhere other than a couple of very spare-looking narrow Scandinavian-style bookcases in the living room. Gabriele D’Annunzio wouldn’t have lasted five seconds in this place.

There is a hillside promenade that overlooks the town, and, about ten miles from here, a tramway that goes to the nearest mountaintop. Both of those are on our agenda for tomorrow, so with luck I’ll have some pictures to show.

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Gomez Addams, Call Your Office

It is a chilly and rainy day today here on the shores of Lake Garda, so as I mentioned last time we shelved our more ambitious plans — a boat ride on the lake — in favor of visiting the very nearby Vittoriale di D’Annunzio, the sprawling home of Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom I slighted in my last post by calling an eccentric. He was, in fact, an Italian icon in the first third of the 20th century, an accomplished poet, playwright, World War I combat hero, ladies’ man, rabid nationalist, relentless (and spectacularly successful) self-promoter, and batshit loonball of truly epic proportions. If you have ever visited San Simeon, the Hearst Castle in California, then you know how far unlimited wealth and overweening narcissism will take you in the Over-The-Top Real Estate & Decor department, but even with that data point this place forces you to recalibrate your expectations. No photos are allowed at Vittoriale di D’Annunzio , so thanks to  Google Images here is a view of the estate and a few shots of the interior:

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That is a rebuilt Greek amphitheater in the foreground. What the photo does not show — because the estate is so large — is the torpedo boat that he commanded in World War I, which is installed on an adjacent hillside, nor the pet cemetery about the size and of similar appearance as the amphitheater. Inside the house — which we toured — is the biplane that he flew during a propaganda raid against Vienna in the war, in August 1918. (He led a squadron of 9 planes dropping leaflets urging the Austro-Hungarian Empire to surrender, which three months later they did.)

D’Annunzio suffered an eye injury during a plane crash earlier that year that made him averse to bright light.  He was in addition to everything else a raging hypochondriac, and as a result when he built his palatial monument to himself he ensured that it was always dark and gloomy inside. Which is good, because if you were actually to behold the inconceivable mishmash of religious, artistic, and general cultural in unfiltered daylight your eyeballs would melt. Here are a couple of images of the more sedately-decorated rooms:

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You stumble through the gloom half expecting Herman Munster to come lurching stiff-legged down the hallway, marveling at the heretofore inconceivable fact that this place makes San Simeon look like it was furnished by Ikea.

You’ve got to give the guy credit for sheer profligacy, though. In one room he has a reference to the Seven Deadly Sins painted above the doorway lintel. The phrase, in Italian, reads “Five Fingers, Five Sins”.  Five? Yeah. Turns out that D’Annunzio refused to recognize “greed” or “lust” as sins and so dropped them from the traditional list. He definitely walked the walk.

We spent a couple of hours touring both the house and the grounds, and by the time we finished the early afternoon mist had turned into a more robust drizzle. We therefore decided to have a late lunch at a trattoria just outside the grounds in the hope that the rain would pass or at least lighten before we had to make the 15-minute walk back to our flat. And that worked, if by “lighten” you mean “strengthen into a steady downpour”. It was a wet walk back to the flat, where we arrived at about 4:00 pm.

At that point we basically called it a day, reading, napping, and generally drying out. We may get ambitious enough to go out to dinner tonight. We leave Garda tomorrow morning, though, and it appears that the weather will improve somewhat so I am hopeful that we will still get our self-promised boat ride on the lake before heading to Merano, our next destination.

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En Garda!

With great reluctance we took leave of our castle yesterday afternoon, pausing only to hand out pennies to the serfs who were throwing rose petals in our path. Well, no actually. We did however, get to chat with the owners, or more accurately the managers, Maria and Gabriele, a handsome thirty-ish couple with two small children who run the place (and several others) on behalf of Maria’s grandfather , who bought the place from an eccentric baroness (really) ten years ago. Turns out that we were only the second guests, ever.

Maria also told us a bit of the castle’s history. (She has done some research and is preparing a brochure which has not yet been translated into English.) The oldest part of the castle dates from the 14th century, with various parts being added and renovated all the way up to the 19th. Our apartment was originally part of the one of the older sections, though has obviously undergone a series of renovations. (14th century electrical wiring was notoriously unreliable.)

Our goal lay to the northwest towards the mountains, in particular the resort region of Lake Garda, with a stop along the way in Verona. And as in the previous couple of days we eschewed the Autostrade in favor of the proverbial scenic route, wending our sinuous way through an endless series of hairpin turns up and down through the hills so that we could enjoy the views of the countryside, e.g.:

Verona & Garda-1

 

Those are grape vines in the lower right, by the way. They are ubiquitous.

Scenes like this were a fine reward for taking this route, of course, but the driving itself was exhausting, a master-class exercise in heel-and-toe work on the clutch, brake, gas, and stick. It was one of the few occasions when I would have been happy to sacrifice my Manliness Points for driving a stick shift in favor of a good old pedestrian automatic transmission.

Verone lay at about the halfway point between Vicenza and Lake Garda, so we stopped there for lunch and to look around. It’s a lively city of about a quarter-million inhabitants, dating all the way back to about 500 BC. It became officially Roman in about 100 BC, and as they did everywhere else the Romans left their architectural mark, in the form of high city walls that encompass the city center and, most notably, a large amphitheater that looks remarkably (and unsurprisingly) like the Roman Coliseum.

Verona & Garda-2

It is, however, in rather better repair than its big brother in Rome, because the choice was made to repurpose it for modern performances rather than preserve its full archaeological value. Hence the performance space, rather than being a field of collapsed columns, looks like this:

Verona & Garda-3

Great for Bar Mitzvahs

The bowels of the structure are a lot more historical looking, however:

Verona & Garda-6

Lions enter on the left, Christians please continue around to the right.

 

The arena has a seating capacity of 30,000 and is used for every kind of performance: opera, plays by Shakespeare through Tennessee Williams (“Gatto Sul Tetto Che Scotta” = “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), and rock concerts (Mumford & Sons this June!).

As you can tell, the seating is a mix of folding chairs down at ground level, and both aluminum bleachers and the original stone steps above. The stone steps, though brutal on my poor arthritic knees, are beautifully preserved and beautiful in their own right, being a mix of different colored stone:

Verona & Garda-5

 

We climbed to the uppermost row of seats to get a view of the town, in particular the teeming square adjacent to the amphitheater. Verona is quite the tourist draw, in part because of its mention in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course for the amphitheater itself as well as other Roman architectural legacies.   The square is lined with restaurants and alive with tourists, strolling locals, tchotchke vendors, and political groups making their pitch from canopied folding tables.

Verona does not shy from its literary connection to Shakespeare, far from it. The local authorities will no doubt be forever grateful that Romeo and Juliet was set here, as that fact alone is probably responsible for a measurable fraction of the tourist traffic. And indeed, somewhere in the city there is a balcony that is advertised as the one that Juliet stood on for her immortal “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech. This of course is completely idiotic, Juliet being a fictional character and Shakespeare never having left England. I was ranting on this topic and complained, “Hey, if you have any friends in Missouri who live in a house with a white picket fence, tell them that they can make money by advertising it as the one that Tom Sawyer talked his friends into whitewashing!” Whereupon Elaine informed me that such a fence does in fact exist, in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO. Which just goes to show that it is not possible to be too cynical. In any case, we did not seek out the pointlessly-famous balcony, so I cannot tell you what it looks like.

We left Verona, and our driver (me) having tired of hairpin turns, headed directly to the resort town of Gardone Riviera on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the foothills of the Alps about 60 miles from the Swiss border. The weather, alas, has been deteriorating, and so our view of the gorgeous multitude of orange-tiled roofs along the shore was hindered by low-hanging clouds and a very light drizzle.  Still, we found our flat, a modern two-bedroom affair, nothing compared to our previous digs but enjoying a beautiful view of the lake. Here are some shots taken from the balcony outside our bedroom:

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Our flat is high on the hillside, nestled in a maze of the ever-present steep, narrow, winding cobblestone streets. (Navigating them by car is all sorts of fun.) The owner recommended a gourmet restaurant right down the street, where we enjoyed an excellent meal whose dishes included a rather unusual array of ingredients: Alice’s included spelt pasta with octopus sauce; mine was a fish mousse. If for some reason you ever find yourself in this particular town, by all means eat at Osteria Antica Brolo. Tell them that Fabrizio Pollini sent you.

The weather today is pretty bad, chilly and drizzly, and so we are setting aside our more ambitious touring plans. As it happens we are very close to a large and famously bizarre Addams-Family-style mansion, the Vittoriale D’Annunzio, whose eccentric owner decorated it with knick-knacks like gilded turtle shells that happened to catch his fancy. A more complete report later…

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