We Still Didn’t Drink All The Vino: Mai Tai Tom’s 2018 Return To Italy
After a 13 year hiatus, it was finally time for Tracy, Kim, Mary and me to return to the country where we made so many driving errors in 2005 (report here) that Italian car rental companies still have posters of us up on their office walls. Our three-week journey took us (after a quick stop in London) to Milan, Bologna, Padova, Ravenna, Piemonte wine country, Torino and Orta San Giulio, and although we navigated the country with relative ease, another of our rental cars sadly met an early demise.
We dropped into so many churches along the way that Mary now has “Withered Finger Syndrome” from all that hand dipping into holy water.
I am pleading with Tracy for us to move to Piemonte. I will give up all my worldly possessions for another bottle of Barbera or Barolo while staying at perhaps my favorite b&b and admiring the lush countryside (including catching a rare glimpse of the snow-capped Alps) from our terrace patio in La Morra. I am still suffering from white truffle pasta withdrawal. We would also meet our friends Greg and Gloria in La Morra.
For those who think Milan doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to sights, I’ll refute those claims.
I believe I could dine at a different restaurant in Bologna for 365 consecutive nights without encountering a bad meal.
From fascinating frescoes in Padova to marvelous mosaics in Ravenna …
… to an incredible movie museum in Torino …
… to a lakeside wine and cheese picnic at our spectacular b&b in Orta San Giulio, this trip had it all.
Speaking of lodging, we would highly recommend all the places we stayed (sans the last hotel at Linate Airport that we booked merely for convenience at the end). A couple of them (in La Morra and Orta San Giulio) were magical, while the others (including an Air BnB in Bologna) offered a home away from home complete with gracious hosts.
Although the crew threatened mutiny (or in Tracy’s case, divorce) at various junctures along the way (I can be a tough and evil taskmaster), we kept it together as we walked … and walked … and walked (seemingly only uphill) in every town we visited. The steep streets and alleyways of Monforte d’Alba nearly did me in as did the stairs of the Basilica di Superga outside Torino.
If only I had the dexterity and stamina of a white truffle hunting dog.
Kim’s new camera took some unbelievable shots (below), while Tracy’s eye (her photographer’s eye … she’s not a Cyclops) make her iPhone photos great, too. Every once in awhile, even I got a good shot.
We all survived (some better than others) our daily climbs and long walks to consume more pasta and drink more vino, but once again we left enough for the rest of you (although there might be a Barbera shortage) planning to visit wonderful Italia.
Here is, “We Still Didn’t Drink All The Vino: Mai Tai Tom’s 2018 Return To Italy.”
CHAPTER ONE: A BRIEF STOP IN LONDON
DAY ONE – Don’t Sleep In The Subway, It Pays To Be Early, Let’s Call It A Donation, Ceiling Fans, France in England, Sunday Roastie. Pick A Card, Cool Garden, Don’t Sleep In The Subway (Part Two) Go Tiger and The Perfect Hotel For Our First Night
Thanks to a cool deal, we had snapped up Air New Zealand tickets non-stop to London to start our trip. Our friend Susan took us to LAX, and after a PF Chang’s lunch in the international terminal came the five words I love when it comes to airline travel, “It was an uneventful flight.” As is usual with our group, we got a total of zero minutes of sleep. This turned out well for Tracy, who can now cite every scene from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which she binge-watched on the flight. I was just happy I had secured the seat with no seat in front of me, so I didn’t have to strangle anyone who tried to recline.
Passport control at Heathrow’s Terminal 2 was a snap, but it didn’t matter since our bags must have traveled to Paris and back, but they eventually came out nearly an hour later. We quickly scurried toward the Heathrow Express, got our free tickets and in about 15 minutes were at Terminal 5.
We ran into a friendly British Airways employee at the kiosk who helped us print out our boarding passes to Milan for the following morning and then walked the short distance to our hotel for the evening, the Sofitel London Heathrow Hotel. Arriving about 1 p.m., we took a quick shower and soon we were back on the Tube heading for our appointed destination of the day.
One of the things we had missed on our two prior trips to London had been The Banqueting House, so I had secured reservations for the final admittance of the day at 4:30, leaving us time to check out a few nearby places beforehand.
Lack of sleep reared its ugly head as I awoke from a Tube catnip just in time to see Kim and Tracy snapping some photos of me sound asleep. At least I didn’t snore. Thanks Kim.
After exiting the station …
… it was a little before 3:30 when we reached Parliament Square and Houses of Parliament. Weather reports had predicted dire weather (rain and heavy winds), but once again London was precipitation-free during our short visit.
It had turned out to be a gorgeous afternoon with cool cloud formations as we strolled around this area and the equestrian statue of Richard Coeur de Lion (aka Richard the Lionheart), installed in 1860.
The last time we had the opportunity to visit Richard I was in 2012 at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, France, which is where his body lies at the feet of his father. His heart, by the way, is buried in Rouen in Normandy.
We did a walk-by of the Jewel Tower, which, not coincidentally, was originally constructed to hold the royal valuables. The L-shaped building was built in the mid 1300s by one of the leading architects of the day (Henry Yevele) on a plot of land from Westminster Abbey recommended by the keeper of the Privy place, William Usshebourne. It is one of four surviving sections of the medieval Palace of Westminster.
Fun fact: Usshebourne stocked the moat with freshwater fish, and he choked to death on the bones of a pike he caught there. I guess he just couldn’t get down the pike.
Nearby stands St. Margaret’s Church, “the parish church of the House of Commons.” Among other things, it is where Sir Walter Raleigh and John Milton are buried and where Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan were married (not to each other).
Raleigh is buried under the window made for Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. There are no photographs allowed inside this UNESCO site (combined with Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster), which is why I stole this photo off of Google Images. The church was consecrated in 1523 and contains lots of memorials and plaques.
This large statue of Winston Churchill at Parliament Square was unveiled in 1973. I read somewhere that the 12-foot tall statue contains an electric current, which supposedly keeps pigeons from standing on his head and depositing their “gifts.” I try and offer the straight poop.
It was a little after 4 p.m. by now, and we were getting hungry, so we walked to the Banqueting House (not open for dinners) to see if we could enter early. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered to purchase tickets because September 23 happened to be the second day of Open House London Weekend where many places in the city were free. I hope they appreciated my “donation,” and we entered at about 4:10.
This is actually the third Banqueting House, this one built by King James I Surveyor of Kings Work, Inigo Jones. It was completed in 1622. The Banqueting House is all that remains of Whitehall Palace, so it does not take long to check it out.
The room’s claim to fame is the incredible ceiling painted by Flemish artist, Peter Paul (and no Mary) Reubens. The ceiling panels are entitled The Apostle of James I, and the work was commissioned by King James’ son, Charles I. We love ceilings.
While most of Reubens’ works are found in galleries worldwide, these nine panels still exist in the very ceiling for which they were intended. They were in all probability the last thing Charles I witnessed before heading out the first floor window onto a scaffold where he was beheaded by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian’s in 1649 (sometimes it’s not good to be the king). It’s said he dressed warmly for the event because he didn’t want to be cold.
As we exited the building at about 4:30, we noticed it had been closed to more visitors, so had we showed up at our allotted time slot we would have been shut out of seeing it.
We had 6:30 dinner reservations, but I could see the troops were weakening, so I just had one more sight to quickly see. The Centotaph was originally a temporary memorial erected after World War I. London citizens clamored for it to be made into a permanent memorial, and in 1920 it became just that, with the words “The Glorious Dead” inscribed on it.
We decided once again to skip the London Eye. Maybe next time.
We zipped by some more statues on our walk, including one of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (center), the most famous “Monty” on earth until Let’s Make A Deal.
Walking toward Trafalgar Square and our old friend Vice Admiral Nelson, we made a right turn and, after walking through this charming neighborhood for about 20 minutes …
… we were at the restaurant I had booked us for dinner located in Covent Garden … Boulevard Brasserie (40 Wellington Street). I had also secured a 25% off coupon when I booked.
More than an hour early for our 6:30 reservations, I asked whether we could dine early, and after taking one look at the bags under our eyes, we were escorted upstairs to our table at this soon-to-be jam-packed restaurant.
Kim and Mary got into the swing of things by each ordering a Sunday Roastie (Mary – chicken … with sausage. Kim … beef complete with Yorkshire pudding).
Tracy was already in Italy mode and started with a Rocket salad with roasted peppers and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then both she and I ordered a very good beef bourguignon that actually earned a “Wow.”
Passing on dessert, we walked to the nearby Covent Garden Market, which was happening on an early Sunday evening.
One of the vendors treated Kim to a card trick so impressive I spent a couple of pounds on a deck of cards, which has yet to be opened. We shuffled off.
A lot of folks were being entertained by a gentleman singing and playing guitar. He sounded remarkably like Cat Stevens. It’s a Wild World.
This was our first time at Covent Garden Market, and since our visit I have learned that “Covent Garden is actually a bastardization of ‘Convent Garden,’ which it was called as early as the 1500s for being the vegetable garden of the monks of Westminster Abbey.” I guess that’s why it is so en-chant-ing.
We hung around here for a bit and also checked out the adjacent Jubilee Market Hall.
Of course Tracy can never pass up the opportunity for flower photos …
… lots of them.
This piece we saw reminds me of our neighborhood squirrels who like to devour the holiday gourds on our porch.
We might stay in this area on a future trip and definitely spend more time at the market.
The one hour tube ride back to the airport saw Tracy and me (deftly clutching my phone) occasionally slipping in and out of consciousness …
… amongst a few thousand of our friends.
As we walked past the packed hotel bar, we saw a familiar face on the Telly. Tiger Woods was teeing off on the 5th hole on his way to winning The Players Championship. My guess is that there were lots of people who were also interested because England’s Justin Rose was going for the Fed Ex Cup title, which he eked out. Although interested, a bed seemed a much better choice.
The Sofitel was the perfect hotel for our first night. A great bed made for a good night’s sleep, and the location meant we could sleep in until 4:30 a.m., before we made the short walk back to Terminal 5 for our early morning flight to Milan.
We would hit the ground running (ok, you got me … I can’t run any more) in Milan the following day. After checking into our terrific b&b, we took a short metro ride and exited near one of the most beautiful shopping areas I might have ever witnessed (it almost enticed me to go shopping … almost). After a quick lunch, we’d find ourselves in a room full of bones and skulls, check out the mind-boggling roof of the Duomo and take an unintended detour before actually seeing the interior. Finally, we’d view numerous treasures of the Duomo at the nearby museum and end the day with our first (of many) incredible Italian dinners.
I nodded off to sleep at Heathrow that first night with visions of pasta dancing in my head.
NEXT: DAY TWO – Wild About Harry, “Don’t Go To Milan”, Glorious Galleria, Tracy Renews Her Love Affair With Italian Olive Oil, Quick Encounter With Leonardo, Traversing The Roof, Should Have Taken The Elevator, Incredible Interior, Duomo Treasures, Pick A Menu … Any Menu, Sounds Better In Italian and “We Don’t Take Hotel Room Cards.”