Trip Report: Milan, Venice, The Dolomites, and Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore


We were two “over forty” friends who planned to see Northern Italy-Milan, Venice, the Dolomites, the Lakes Garda, Como, and Maggiore-over 15 days in 2011. 

Our goals:

1. Do not check any bags.  Carry on bags only and only what we can carry and lift ourselves.
2. Stay in great places, preferably with a view, at an average rate of about 100E-125E per night, including breakfast.
3. Explore the gorgeous country by train and car.

I borrowed an old iPhone from a friend and turned off the phone data so I could use wi-fi. I found a program using Google Voice that would make my iPhone capable of making FREE calls to anyone in the US! Plus, I downloaded Skype so that if my free program didn’t work, I could call my family with Skype. My friend (DF) had an iPod Touch with wi-fi.  I also borrowed an unlocked phone to carry with an Italian SIM card just for calling locally and for emergencies. We downloaded a few travel apps, some free walking tours, and books and podcasts for the plane.

We finally took off from JFK after months of planning, researching, studying, and organizing. We each had two bags, a 22x14x9 carry on and backpack for me, and a 19” duffle and attached hand held bag for her, plus we each carried a tiny travel purse with convenient pockets. We read Therese’s tips on fodors forum for packing with only a carry on, and also adopted the packing method that is demonstrated on onebag.com. Everything fit beautifully! We settled into our emergency row seats that I grabbed when we bought our tickets several months ago with tons of legroom. Our carry-ons made great foot rests.

Milan—we were only staying in Milan for 24 hours, long enough to see the Last Supper and the Duomo.  We knew we would be exhausted from the overnight flight so we didn't plan to do much.  We didn't want to be tempted to fall asleep in the afternoon, so we made the Last Supper reservations months in advance for 4:30pm. We easily found the shuttle to Centrale Station.  Our hotel, Hotel Bagliori, was walking distance from the station and only 89E including breakfast. The hotel was not in the best part of town and was not as nice as we were accustomed to, but for one night it served its purpose.  Being close to the station was a real benefit.

We headed out to find the Duomo. It was stunning.  We climbed to the very top where they allow you to walk on the roof (note to self: next time don’t wear your platform shoes) overlooking all of Milan. 


Next, we used a very poor map to find the Last Supper.  Tired and cranky, we knew we had to be there 20 minutes early.  We arrived in plenty of time. While waiting for our time a young tour guide approached us and asked if we could possibly give up our time and go 15 minutes later so that all of her group could go together. Of course!  When we finally went in to see the Last Supper we were glad we had made the effort.  It is such a historical painting and it is amazing what precautions have been made to preserve it.

The next day we walked back to the train station and bought tickets for Venice.  The machine said the second class tickets were sold out but we were able to purchase them anyway. We remembered to validate the tickets in the yellow boxes and we ran to our assigned car. At this point we have congratulated ourselves several times on only bringing carry ons!

Venice—We arrived at the train station in Venice after calling our hotel (with the unlocked phone) to tell them when we would arrive.  We were told to wait and someone would come to get us and take us to the hotel. We didn’t know if that person was coming by car, foot, or boat. After some miscommunication we followed a woman who didn’t speak English through the crowd and over bridges to the Hotel al Sole (www.alsolehotels.com).  It was a nice hotel but we were reserved at the B&B Casanova ai Tolentini (www.casanovaaitolentini.com)! The Hotel al Sole told us that the Casanova had asked them to put us up for the night and we would move to the Casanova tomorrow.  OK, no problem. We had a comfortable room comparable to the hotels where we were used to staying.  The Casanova was in the same neighborhood, right where Dorsodoro and Santa Croce meet. We immediately ventured out to see Venice.


Armed with our iPods and the map from the hotel, we went back to the station to pick up boat #2 on the Grand Canal. We got a front row seat.  We had downloaded R. Steves’ free podcast tour of the Grand Canal.  It was a perfect way to acclimate ourselves to this beautiful and unusual city. We were amazed at how it seemed time stood still and Venice was the still the same as it looked in the 1600’s!  Our favorite movie is “Dangerous Beauty” about Venice during the days of courtesans, the plague, and the Inquisition, and I couldn’t help thinking that the city before us was just one big movie set!


The next day we moved down the street to the B&B Casanova ai Tolentini.  We discovered that it is not one place but actually three different buildings in the same neighborhood.  We received a key to the front door of the building and a key to our room.  The room was a very nice, small room on a quiet street with a modern clean bathroom.  We had two twin beds and free wi-fi (although the signal was weak in our room and we had to keep moving our gadgets around to pick up the signal). We were given the phone number of the owner Antonio in case we needed anything since there was no lobby or front desk.  It was like having our own tiny apartment in Venice! Across the street was a great little neighborhood bistro where we had our free breakfast the next morning.  Every day, housekeeping left vouchers for breakfast at a nearby café.. We loved being in this quiet, residential neighborhood instead of down near all of the tourists around St. Mark’s Square.

Once we realized that directions to major areas are posted on buildings, we were able to get around without worry of getting lost.  We were staying near the Piazzale Roma, so there were always signs pointing us home. Going to the Rialto Bridge or St. Mark’s Square was pretty easy even though the entire city is set up like an intricate maze.  But we weren’t afraid of getting lost; we knew that that is often the best way to discover a city! Venice is SO unusual, with no cars at all, boats carrying in the daily essentials, architecture that has been the same for centuries, and cobblestone pathways and little bridges everywhere.

We wanted to go see the lovely town of Burano where the lace is made and look at the colorful houses set along the canals.  So we took the DM boat from Piazzale Roma to Murano, then on to Burano. It was well worth the trip.  We enjoyed taking pictures and wandering around some of the out of the way areas away from the rest of the sightseers. Our B&B owner told us to also visit the island of Torcello, and to eat at the lovely Al Ponte del Diavolo. We followed his advice and had a leisurely upscale lunch in the beautiful outdoor dining area.


The boat back to Venice took us straight to St. Mark’s Square. We had read that the trick to avoid the crowds at the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s is to go at the end of the day.  We arrived too late to see the inside of St. Mark’s but walked right into the Palace with no waiting.  Afterward, we splurged on a 15E coffee outside at Café Flora and watched people scurrying around St. Mark’s Square. Walking back to our B&B, we stopped at our favorite gelateria, Grom, and had the dark chocolate granite.

When we were able to get a wi-fi signal we made free calls to the States with Skype and my Google Voice program.  Keep in mind I did not sign up for a roaming plan through AT&T.  I’m not even an AT&T customer! These calls were entirely free using a wifi signal rather than data on the phone. The calls were crystal clear and I was even able to send and receive texts.

Back to Venice….on our last day we packed everything up and walked to Piazzale Roma to pick up our rental car.  Again, we were complimenting ourselves for only having carry ons and for staying in a location so convenient to the main transportation hub. After an easy 10 minute walk, we found the Hertz counter where we had reserved a Mercedes automatic through autoeurope.com.  We normally don’t get an automatic but we were about to drive through the mountains and DF did not want to stress of driving a manual shift. The price for 9 days was great, $541 or about $60 per day.  (In Italy, rental cars are more expensive because getting their insurance is mandatory.) A stick shift would have been $200 cheaper. 

The very nice Hertz lady informed us that even though we had confirmed a Mercedes, they only had a Ford Fiesta.  A Mercedes is a compact, a Fiesta is an economy, which means they were downgrading the class of car with no reduction in price.  Not happy! We argued for a while, called Autoeurope, Hertz and Autoeurope blamed each other, until we finally decided to deal with it all when we got home.  We got into our Ford Fiesta and drove straight north to the Dolomites. As we pulled on to the Autostrada, we could see the majestic mountains in the horizon.

Dolomiti!
Our goal was to explore the Great Dolomite Road-- Belluno–Cortina d'Ampezzo–Pordoi Pass–Sella Pass–Val di Fassa–Bolzano-- and spend the night somewhere along the way. We had no idea how long it would take because we were driving through the mountains.  We knew that the little town of Canazei was about half way. As we approached Cortina, it felt as though we had entered another world. Every turn we took was more beautiful than the next. The drive was spectacular and not scary at all. I don't know what everyone is talking about when they describe the driving as "hairy and scary". Yes, there are hundreds of switchbacks every hundred yards or so but they are all well-paved and have guardrails.

We arrived in Canazei in the afternoon, ready for rest and a good meal.  We had not made reservations anywhere so we stopped at the first place that looked nice that was open.  It was called the Croce Bianca Leisure &Spa Hotel.  The price per room with dinner and breakfast was 59E pp.  The room was large and very nice, with a beautiful view of the mountains. The formal dining room was practically empty.  But the service and the food were impeccable!  We went on line and looked at the tripadvisor reviews and they were 5 stars all the way!  We really felt lucky. DF said she was going to tell her skier friends about this little gem.

We headed out the next morning after a huge buffet breakfast. 

We arrived in Bolzano with adrenalin flowing from the breathtaking drive from Canazei.  We parked across the street from the stately Parkhotel Laurin and went in for an espresso at the elegant bar.  The hotel was lovely and upscale, but according to the rate card, not unreasonably expensive. (As I recall, a classic double was 125E).  www.laurin.it

We walked around Bolzano and understood why many people suggested we stay there.  What a charming town! There were many interesting shops, flowers everywhere, and pretty architecture. 

We were on a quest to see Otzi, the 5,000 year old man that was discovered frozen in the Alps.  We were very surprised that there didn’t seem to be any signs leading visitors to this “attraction” since it is one thing that Bolzano is famous for!  We finally found the museum and were so glad we did not miss this exhibit.  It was fascinating and highly recommended. www.iceman.it

We left Bolzano, map in hand, excited to see where we were scheduled to stay for the next three days—Castelrotto.

Castelrotto--Are we in Italy or Austria? 

This charming alpine village was our home for three days.  We stayed at Haus Silbernagl, www.garni-silbernagl.com, a pristine B&B run by a woman named Petra.  The price was 38.50E per person, including breakfast.  Our cozy room had fluffy down comforters and a big balcony overlooking the church tower and the countryside. Breakfast was a hearty offering of yogurt, granola, eggs, meat, and cheese—and of course, good coffee. Petra joined her guests at breakfast to give directions and advice about hiking and exploring. Her English was good but her native language was German.


All of the signs in this area are in both German and Italian.  The food is butter and cream based rather than olive oil and tomato based as in southern Italy. I think I had apple strudel every day!

We are not what you would call “hikers.” We are more like “strollers.” Nevertheless we climbed on the bus that takes the hikers to the lifts and followed the German speaking travelers with their poles and boots to the Alpe de Suise.  It’s like another world up there!  I had an uncontrollable urge to break out into “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” We saw tiny villages way down in the valleys, goats, cows and horses on the grassy plains, and all around us were the rocky mountain peaks of the Dolomites! It was breathtaking.

Along the path we came to a “hutte” that served food and also had rooms for rent.  We enjoyed a strudel and coffee with the other hikers. 

The hike was long but not at all strenuous or dangerous.  I just wore my Merrill trainers and was fine. 

The next day we ventured out in the car to explore.  We went through the Val Gardena, through the Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi and down to Canazei (where we had spent the night on the way here) and then back the same way through Selva, St. Cristina, and Ortisei.  The scenery was incredible!  We had to stop every few minutes to take pictures, but they really don’t do it justice.  You just have to experience the giant, rocky peaks engulfing you while breathing that clear cool mountain air! This turned out to be our favorite stretch of road.


After three days of mountains, strudel, and German, we were ready to continue our travels to the more “Italian” part of the country. Auf Wiedersehen!

Lake Garda
Just a short drive south of Castelrotto, through Bolzano via the autostrada, we arrived in Riva di Garda, the northernmost tip of Lake Garda.  We wound our way around to the west side of the lake, driving along the edge.  The lake drive is beautiful, peppered with little towns and a backdrop of mountains. 

I had read somewhere about a village called Sirmione.  Located at the southern tip of Lake Garda, I read that it was a favorite location.  We were determined to find it and perhaps spend the night, as this was one of the nights we did not have a reservation anywhere.

Sirmione!  We finally started seeing signs for this popular historic village!  Sirmione is located at the end of a long, skinny peninsula that juts out into Lake Garda.  It is known for its thermal springs that were popular even during Roman times, and has Roman ruins that you can explore at the very tip of the peninsula. We arrived on a Sunday and it was crowded.

We stopped in the tourist office to inquire about a hotel, and were told that if you stay in the pedestrian-only area you are allowed to drive your car to your hotel.  We chose the Hotel Ideal, mainly because it was located at the very tip of the peninsula with gorgeous views of the lake.
The price for a double room was 160E including breakfast. The tourist office made the reservation and gave us a driving pass.

We slowly inched our way through the crowd, down streets (are you SURE this is a street?) so narrow we had to push in our side mirrors!  The ancient village is full of stores, gelato shops, hotels, restaurants and tourists. Since it is a long narrow peninsula there is water on both sides looking out to the beautiful Lake Garda.

We arrived at the Hotel Ideal and were given a small room with a balcony that looked over the pool and the side of the lake.  We were tired from driving, so we enjoyed an espresso as we sat on the terrace looking straight out to the lake.  We watched the sky burst into flames over the lake for one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen. Away from the crowds, we could really appreciate why it was worth the trouble to find Sirmione.


The next morning we enjoyed a buffet breakfast with a beautiful view of the lake.  After exploring the Roman ruins, we packed up and loaded our little car for Lake Como.

We drove from Lake Garda to Lake Como on the autostrada through Brecia and Bergamo towards Milan.  The countryside is beautiful, farmland in the foothills of the Alps. I would have liked to explore the area just north of Bergamo and perhaps stay in an Agriturismo (farm that offers room and board, kind of like a B&B). But we had reservations at a little fishing village near Bellagio called Pescallo and we really didn’t know how long it would take us to get there. 

Lake Como is shaped like the bottom part of a person—two legs and a body.  Bellagio is located, well, if you don’t mind me being graphic, at the crotch. We started at the “foot” of the eastern “leg” and drove up the “inseam” along the lake.  (this description of the shape of Lake Como made us giggle hilariously at the locations of the towns we would visit…) The road was very narrow and curved around the edges of the lake.  We had been warned that the Great Dolomite Road was terrifying; it was NOTHING compared to this! The views were gorgeous; however, when we finally arrived in Pescallo we were exhausted from the stress of driving.

Pescallo is a quiet fishing village just a 15 minute walk down and up cobblestone paths to the not-so-quiet Bellagio.  Our adorable B&B, Hotel Miralago Bellagio, overlooked the lake and was 85E including breakfast.  Our room was small but spotless and very comfortable. Double doors opened to a little balcony with a direct view of the lake. 
Hotel Miralago Bellagio

We walked to explore Bellagio and were so happy that we were staying in Pescallo instead.  Bellagio was crawling with wall to wall tourists.  The lakefront area was pretty and there were nice restaurants and shops, but I personally would not want to stay there. 

We hopped aboard a boat to Varenna.  The lake was beautiful.  Not as big as Lake Garda but to us it was much more commercial.  Varenna was much more laid back than Bellagio.  We walked along the old section built at the very edge of the lake.  We stopped at an old hotel and had coffee on the veranda.  Looking out over Lake Como on a beautiful fall day, sipping Italian coffee poured from a silver pot, we felt so lucky to be us.


Breakfast at Hotel Miralago was a plentiful buffet of fresh pastries, yogurt, fruit, cereal and good coffee.  Our hostess was a friendly woman with a great sense of humor.  When I asked her the name of the Irish Setter who greeted us, she said, “That is not a dog, that is the concierge!” She recommended a wonderful restaurant (I can’t remember the name, so sorry!) within walking distance where the food was outstanding and they even shuttled us back to the hotel! 

On our last day at Lake Como, we had signed up for a cooking class given by the chef of a restaurant in a little village above Varenna.  I mean, literally above Varenna. We took the ferry to Varenna, left our car in the parking lot, and waited for someone to pick us up.  Soon a taxi pulled up and said, “Cooking class?” and we jumped in.  We drove straight up the road, high above Varenna, to a small village with a gorgeous view of the lake. The taxi let us out in front of a very old restaurant that has probably been there for centuries.

We were two of a class of about 14.  The class was 30E a piece.  We enjoyed learning how pasta is made from scratch, how the food in different parts of Italy is based on what ingredients were readily available, and hearing commentary about the chef’s life growing up in Italy.  It was a fun class, but we both agreed that it was way too long.  It started at 11:00am and we didn’t get out until nearly 3:00pm, and we still had to take another ferry and drive to Lake Maggiore that day. Two hours would have been plenty. 


We bought our tickets for the ferry to Menaggio so that we could start our journey on the western side of the lake.  Our next decision was to go straight over to Lugano, up to Locarno on the northern tip of Lake Maggiore, and down the western side of the lake to Cannero Riviera where we were staying, or to go south down the western leg of Lake Como towards Milan and up from the south side of Lake Maggiore.  According to the map, going through Lugano was the obvious choice, but we chose to go south because: 1) Lugano and Locarno are in Switzerland.  There is a 40E tax just to drive through Switzerland. 2) Going north meant more mountain roads and we were tired of winding through the mountains, and 3) the weather forecast called for snow in the mountains and we really didn’t want to drive in the snow.

So we headed toward Milan, clutching our map and hoping we had made the right decision.

Next….Lake Maggiore, Cannero Riviera

It took us only about two hours to reach Lake Maggiore.  We approached the lake from the eastern side, going through small towns and many round-abouts.  We learned later that it would have been faster to take the autostrada all the way around the southern part of the lake and up along the western bank, but it looked so much farther that way on the map.  (Note for future travel in Italy—always take the autostrada unless you are sightseeing, even if it looks farther.)

We drove the car on to the ferry in Laveno. We were tired and anxious to get to our hotel in Cannero Riviera. 

Driving up the western side of Lake Maggiore, we sensed that this lake seemed less crowded and more residential than lakes Como and Garda.  It was peaceful and beautiful.  

We arrived at the charming village of Cannero Riviera and found the “promenade” by the water’s edge. We pulled the car up in front of the beautiful old Hotel Cannero.  There were tables set outside overlooking the lake, and we could see a busy formal dining room inside. This was by far the nicest hotel we had stayed in the whole trip.

A lovely woman greeted us warmly and another woman led us to our room.  I had reserved a room (standard, 116E with breakfast) with a balcony and had hoped to have a view of the lake, but our room was in a back building with a very nice terrace next to the swimming pool.  The room and the bathroom were pristine, but the beds were like rocks!  Oh well, we were so tired it didn’t matter.  We cleaned up and went down to the dining room for dinner.  The prix fixe menu was 25E for guests and well worth it.  We felt like we had really “stepped up” for our last two nights in Italy.

Despite the hard beds we slept like babies.  We took a table outside right on the lake and enjoyed our coffee and buffet breakfast.  An array of cheeses, meats, boiled eggs, fruit, cakes, panne cotta, cereals was served with amazing coffee and fresh juice.  The food was incredible. The service was incredible. The view was incredible.  Wow! We had really picked a great spot!

The ferry port was right in front of the hotel.  We decided that even though there were many wonderful things to see on the lake-- villas and gardens, mountains, islands, and quaint Italian towns—we frankly just wanted to relax and enjoy the luxury of doing nothing.  So we took a relaxing ferry ride and saw parts of the beautiful lake.  We went over to another town to the flea market and looked for last minute bargains (there were none, everything seemed to be from China). Then we came back and had a coffee on the terrace overlooking the lake.

Now, to those of you who love Lake Maggiore and can’t imagine a trip without seeing all it has to offer, please understand.  DF and I have an agreement that we don’t feel guilty about missing a sight, because travel is ongoing and you can always come back.  Our trip consisted of 5 days in Milan and Venice and 9 days driving all over the mountains and lakes. By the time we got to Lake Maggiore, we just needed to chill.

I loved Lake Maggiore so much I would definitely book at least a week here.  The hotel has free bikes you can use for exploring, and reportedly one of the purest sandy beaches in Italy.  I want to see Stresa and some of the other charming towns around the lake.  I want to go into Switzerland to Locarno.  I want to visit Isola Pescatori, Isola Bella, and the gardens of Hotel Villa Crespi.  I want to ride the chair lift to Mottarone.  I want to explore the Borromeo islands - palace & astonishing grottoes, villa and gardens.  I want to take the Lake Maggiore Express around the lake. And, now that I have been to Hotel Cannero, I want to splurge on a lake front room with a balcony and watch the sunset over the lake.


We ate another fabulous prix fixe four course dinner in the elegant dining room. Afterward we went to the desk to check out and to get the best directions to the Milan airport, Malpensa. The desk clerk made sure to tell the dining room staff that we would be leaving before breakfast was officially served and that we would be eating and having coffee. Then he personally got our car out of the garage and drove it to the door so that it would be convenient for us the next morning.  Such service!


We left very early in the morning to return the car and catch a 10:30am plane. The drive was about 1 ½ hours from Cannero Riviera to Malpensa.

Following the hotel’s directions was pretty easy. Make sure to follow the signs to Milan and Genova on A26/A8. What was difficult was finding the rental car return once we got there.  It was stressful driving around looking for Hertz.  We finally found an area called P3 with a turnstile.  We got a ticket and went through as if we were parking.  We found Hertz and returned the car with no problem. It sure would have been nice to have a sign somewhere that said “rental car return”!










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