West Cornwall, Southwest England – Part 2

My drive from Tavistock to Penzance went so well that I decided to keep driving the extra 9 miles to Lands End.  Lands End is the most Western part of the England.  Without planning it, I had gone to the most Northern part of the UK when I went to John O’Groats in Scotland and now I was at it’s most Western point.  They have marketed the hell out of Lands End where John O’Groats seemed just a blip in comparison.  But, Lands End scenery is much more dramatic than O’Groats.  I had to pay 5 pounds to park the car so I took advantage of the trail that runs from a mile along the cliffs from Lands End to the coastal cove town of Sennen.  I also had a surprisingly really good fresh, not fried, piece of fish at the restaurant at Lands End.  As I was driving in to Penzance, I turned in the car just before they closed at 6pm.  I rented with Enterprise and as is their practice in the US, here they also give you a ride to and/or from your car rental.  My hotel in Penzance was only about 2 miles from the car rental and I checked in and was able to have a drink before dinner.  This hotel in Penzance was really nice.  It had a nice restaurant, nice sitting rooms and library, free coffee and tea anytime, a nice bar and, even a swimming pool!  Well, I didn’t have a bathing suit but found an “Old Navy” style store the next day and town and got one.  The summer has been quite hot and I was going to take advantage of having a pool.  Breakfast both here and at my Tavistock hotel were really nice.  I had salmon eggs Benedict more than once.  The salmon in the UK is mostly from Scotland and just tastes so fresh.  

My hotel in Penzance

My first day without the car, I took the bus to a little cove village called Mousehole.  And, as the name implies, it’s a little place but very nice with a beautiful position.  I had lunch at a little place with a nice garden courtyard which would have cost twice the price if they had a coastal view.  I have a lovely crab salad – fresh crab and a nice glass of sauvignon blanc from South Africa.  From the service to the atmosphere to the food, this was really nice.  Only 15 minutes by bus outside of Penzance train station, it’s a little escape.  There was a market fair at the church and I bought a 4X6 size photo from a photographer.  She had some really interesting close up shots of boats and coves in and around Mousehole.  It was a hot day so I took advantage and went back to the hotel about 4pm and sat by the pool a couple of hours and with 2 for 1 drinks at happy hour – just 5-6pm – I had a couple of martinis.  Whew!  Like I said, Cornwall was a vacation from my vacation.  
Mousehole before and after the tide

The next day without a car saw me going to, what I call, the Baby Mont Saint Michel, in England it’s known as St. Michael’s Mount.  I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed walking the causeway, exploring the castle, church and this little slice of island.  It’s what I had hoped the Mont in France would be.  Don’t get me wrong, the Mont was a dream fulfilled but St. Michael’s was just not as commercial.  It felt real and the history came through.  The extent of the commercialism was 1 shop and 1 cafe.  The castle and castle gardens, which have separate entry fees or you can buy the combo ticket, which I recommend because the gardens are just as glorious as the castle.  The castle is still inhabited as is the island.  I think they told us there’s about 40 people that inhabit the island and the island is closed on Saturdays for this reason.  The docent’s in the castle are really eager to let you know any info, if they have the answers and even if the don’t.  

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall – Low Tide
Hight Tide – St Michael’s Mount

My last tourist day in Cornwall I took the bus from Penzance to yet, another cove town, St. Ives.  The bus ride here was about 25 minutes or so through some very nice countryside.  I’m so glad I did not drive here.  The roads are absolutely minuscule and I witnessed about 5 cars having to back up a few hundred yards to let our bus through.  This was a full size bus, mind you, double decker!  Anyway, we arrived unscathed and about 15 minutes after I arrived, a downpour also arrived.  Luckily, I always travel with my umbrella and it was finally needed, for about 20 minutes.  Then, the sun shone again and it was quite warm.  It’s a much bigger town than Mousehole with a bit of a beach, when the tide is out.  I arrived around 11a, explored a while, stopped and had a drink on a second story bar terrace and then later had lunch on the cove at Alfresco.  I have a beautiful small dish of scallops and pork belly.  The scallops were lined up on one side and the pork belly on the other.  Lovely lunch looking out onto the cove.  I walked around some more and before I left, had another drink in a hotel bar with a commanding view of St. Ives, just below the bus station!  St. Ives has several art galleries, cute shops and really good sea food.  They also have a brach of the modern art museum, Tate.

St. Ives – Low Tide

LUNCH!

High Tide


Cornwall is an area I would love to come back to and that the British are quite aware of but foreign tourists are not so aware of.  I will be back!

Complete photos here: Cornwall Part 2 Photos

Cornwall, Southwest England – Part 1

CORNWALL – North Coast – SOUTHWEST ENGLAND – My stay in Penrith was done on Saturday the 19th of July.  I left Penrith for Manchester Airport.  There was supposed to be a direct train and it’s only supposed to take 2 hours but the train line had other ideas.  The train was late and we had to switch trains at Manchester Piccadilly but I still arrived Manchester Airport in about 3 hours, maybe a little less but when something interferes with your plans it can seem like it takes a really long time.  I stayed overnight by the airport to catch a flight from Manchester to Exeter.  Things went pretty smooth for me here and my arrival in Exeter.  Now, speaking of cars, I did pick one up at the Exeter airport (Hyundai i30) and drove to Tavistock.  The hotel I picked there, The Bedford Hotel, has free parking for it’s guests and looking at the Traveline info and the places I wanted to visit, a car for a few days was the right choice.  
The drive to Tavistock from Exeter was a little over an hour and had a mix of, what we call, highways and what I consider tiny roads.  After a bit of time trying to find the A30 out of Exeter, I didn’t have any problems finding the hotel in Tavistock.  The Bedford is a very nice hotel.  Some of the furnishings are starting to look a bit worn in the rooms but the bathroom I had was very new and the rest of the hotel very nice.  The food served here is very good.  The breakfasts have been wonderful and are included in the price of the room.  I paid 55 pounds per night here.  I think that’s about $95.  But, I had eggs Benedict with salmon this morning with coffee and grapefruit juice and it was very fresh and yummy.   Even back home that breakfast out would be about $20.  You can also order what you’d like and today I had 2 poached eggs on brown bread.  They are very conscious of dietary needs here in the UK and both this place and the Foundry up in Penrith have gluten free and vegetarian options.  They also have a variety of herbal teas and decaf items if you need that.  I did splurge for dinner here when I arrived Sunday night and I had a lovely beef and oxtail pie covered in mashed potatoes which make the “crust”. It was accompanied by some very fresh veggies, asparagus, green beens, baby carrots and broccoli.  I had it with a nice glass of Syrah from Chile.  I haven’t written much about food since I mostly try to stay in apartments and cook for myself.  Here in the UK, it’s not been about the food, it’s been about where I am and where I’m going.  
This is a very luxurious hotel and I picked it both for the price and the location.  I’m on the border between Counties Cornwall and Devon.  I’m trying to be an hours drive or so from where I want to be and with this in mind, I knew I wanted to go up to Tintagel and Port Isaac which are an hour north of here on the North Cornwall coast.  That’s where I went yesterday.  Without getting lost, I did get to Tintagel in a little over an hour.  Tintagel’s story is that it was home to King Arthur.  There is a castle ruin on a dramatic coastline with tons of trails and views of the coast.  There is the mythical Merlin’s Cave – which can only be reached at low tide.  I wasn’t there for that but it was fun roaming around the site and hearing the tie to Arthur.  I only paid for 2 hours worth of parking – dumb so I thought, let me go to Port Isaac.  Port Isaac is now famous because the show “Doc Martin” films here.  Back in the US it’s on PBS and here in the UK it’s on  ITV.  Well, on my way to Port Isaac from Tintagel, I did get lost but it was a glorious wrong turn.  I ended up about 10 miles East of Tintagel, when I meant to go West, in a different more secluded cove/harbor town of Boscastle.  The parking here was easy to find and again I paid for 2 hours worth.  This town had a few trails that sprung out one on each side of the port to stunning views of the cove and cliffs beyond.  It has a Witchcraft museum, which I did NOT go in to but seemed to be decently popular.  I stopped for a drink in a riverside pub and with that it was time to go.  I was determined to get to Port Isaac and this time I did not miss my turn when I got back to Tintagel and in about 40 minutes arrived into Port Isaac.  Luckily the parking area was at the top of town before you come in because the couple of roads you can take your car through are crazy small.  As I was going to pay for parking, an older could came up and said they had gotten an all day ticket that was valid till midnight and did I want it.  Score!  It’s about 1/2 mile to the harbor from the parking lot but it’s clearly marked.  It’s a quaint place and I had some battered shrimp and a drink before I left.  I was really craving some fresh fish or mussels, but I arrived at 4pm and lunch service was over and dinner service didn’t start until 6pm.  We get so spoilt in the US.  Most places open around 11a and run continuously until 9p or so.  That is not the case here or in Europe.  Most places do lunch 12 – 3p and then close and reopen 6 or 7p to about 9p or 10p unless they are takeaway (take out) places.  Anyway, I enjoyed Boscastle more than Port Isaac and I’m glad I spent more time there.  As the poets Public Enemy would say, “Don’t believe the hype”.

So, today I am touring the World Heritage site town of Tavistock, catching up on the blog and photos and planning the rest of my week in Cornwall.  I will be going further West and staying in the town of Penzance for a few days.  I leave Tavistock tomorrow afternoon and will stop near Plymouth before heading West.  I will probably turn in the car the day after tomorrow as what I want to see from Penzance is all easily reached by public transport.  I then will head back to London completing my circle journey of the UK.

Here’s some pics and if you want to see more, go here:

North Cornwall Coast Photos

Tintagel


 Boscastle

Port Isaac

Tavistock and the Bedford Hotel


Lake District England

I went to the Lake District in Northwest England from the 13th to the 20th of July.  Again it was a Sunday when I left Inverness and headed down to Penrith.  My train took me via Edinburgh and just past Carlisle in England before you arrive in Penrith.  My 6 night stay in Penrith was at The Foundry.  Apparently, they were on some Gordon Ramsey show here in the UK and I have to confess that their breakfasts were fantastic.  Even the vegetarian breakfast was great, which I did try one morning.  My room was small but had everything I needed including plenty of storage space, great wifi service, a very nice shower room and a fan!  It has been warm and muggy most of my time in the UK.  It has been quite sunny but just recently I’ve had a couple of rainy days.  But, despite the rain, it’s been high temps and high humidity.  I tried to look for some tours here in the Lake District but I wasn’t in the right departure town for them.  Things still went well as I was able to go where I wanted on my own schedule.  I picked up a car on Monday, as most services are not open on Sunday, and drove to the Bowes Museum about 60 miles East of Penrith in County Durham.  Penrith is in County Cumbria.  I am having great luck finding fabulous museums that are small by the standards of the famous museums but I just love these smaller ones that are not overcrowded because of their fame.  This was a fairly rainy day so I happily spent a couple of hours touring the museum and a bit of time taking in some lunch.
The Lake District is beautiful.  I drove from Penrith to Windermere, the largest of these lake towns that sits on the largest lake in the area.  It was a great day to take the boat cruise and I did a lakeside walk that was close to 5 miles long.  Beautiful views at every turn.  The clouds rolling in and out, the green and multicolored hills from the different wildflowers growing on them and the waterside setting made it a great place.  As I discovered here, transport was quite good in this Lake District area and so, I turned in my car early the next day before heading out to Grasmere to Dove Cottage which was home to William Wordsworth when he wrote most of his famous poems.  It’s a good thing I did not drive today.  It was pissing down rain all day and the roads around here are tiny and winding.  You share them with tour busses, public busses and sometimes large trucks.  They are the only roads that go from town to town so goods and services have to use them.  Well, if the public transport is good, I’ll ditch the car.  Also, when I’m driving, I don’t have a chance to take in the scenery.  The public busses are mostly double decker and you get a great view.  Of course this day when it was raining, you couldn’t see much out of the windows.  But Dove Cottage is worth a visit even if you are not that familiar with Wordsworth’s work, as I am not.  Grasmere village is also nice to stroll, even when it is raining. 
I was amazed sometimes when there were bus stops in, what appeared to be, the middle of nowhere, but there were some B&B’s not far from the main road and there are several walking trails that will dump you near a main road where you can then catch public transport.  Although you need to be careful not to do this on a Sunday unless it’s August.  In August there are special busses that run even on Sundays. 

After Grasmere, the next day I went to the town of Keswick and it’s Lake Derwentwater.  This day was glorious again and luckily I had listened to the weather for the week because I had planned my lake days on when they said the weather was going to be nice and, luckily, the weather was as predicted.  Derwentwater is much smaller than Windermere but it is also less crowded.  The boats are a lot smaller and to circle the lake via boat with all the 7 stops included is only about a 50 minute ride.  I did this, walked along the lake shore a few miles and had a really nice Thai lunch while I was there.  The bus ride from Penrith to Keswick is about 45 minutes each way but that’s only about 10 minutes more than a car ride.  Plus, parking in small towns is a hassle.  Sure there are parking lots but the parking machines only take coins, unless you download a phone app to pay by credit card.  Parking wasn’t hard to find but when I factored in cost of the car per day, gas (petrol) and parking, renting a car on your own can get quite expensive.  I turned in the car early and only had it about 2 days and it was about $100 dollars for the rental from Enterprise.  Then, I put in about 20 pounds or about $35 which was about 1.39 pounds per LITER.  You need 4 liters (approximately) to get a gallon and so that’s about 5.50 pounds per gallon at an exchange rate of about $1.70 per pound and I spent $35 for about 4 gallons of gas.  Then, I spent about 15 pounds for parking the 2 days I had the car.  This was vs. the 3 day bus pass I bought for 24 pounds (about $40) that lasted me from Wednesday through Friday all fees included.  So, my advice to solo travelers is take the bus!  Had I done a bit more research on the transport in this area, I would have not rented the car and maybe not gone to the Bowes Museum in County Durham, but I would have saved quite a bit of money.  I was originally going on info that I had read in a Rick Steves book and he prefers to rent a car in this area.  He also tells you to skip Windermere and I totally disagree.  Maybe it’s hell in August when there are tons of families in the area when the UK kids are out of school but I found it very agreeable.  So, goes to show you to not follow guidebooks blindly.  If you have time, do more research and try to find local websites with information about the area to get a complete picture of what is available to you.  For transport info in the UK, I recommend thetraveline.co.uk. It gives you bus, ferry, train, tram, etc., info from any spot in the UK.  If you are coming over, use it.

Pictures from the Lake District – follow my link below:


Scotland

I spent 2 weeks in Scotland.  The week of June 29th through July 5th in Edinburgh and the week of the 6th of July through the 13th in Inverness. They say, Edin-boro, not burg like in Pittsburgh.  I had an apartment North of town in a suburb called Newhaven.  It’s close to the docks but close enough to town to have a good position to do all the touristy stuff.  I am staying about a 10 minute bus ride outside of Edinburgh in a suburb over by the docks called Newgate.  This apartment is really nice with views from the living room over to the castle and a partial view of the bay.  Out of the kitchen window you get a full view of the bay.  I’ve spent most of my time in the kitchen/dining area.  There is no TV here but I watch some tele via the internet when I’m here in the evening.  I’m on the top floor which makes things quite, no noise from people walking above me on wooden floors!  But, with silence comes sacrifice, I have to walk 5 floors every day at the end of the day to get up here – no elevator.  This is typical in both the UK and Europe.  If a building is older than the 1960’s, it’s a good chance there is no elevator.  It only makes it difficult when I arrive with my bag and have to hoof it up, but as I said, the quiet in the evening is worth it to me.
I arrived on Sunday after a long days journey from Oxford in England.  I opted to take the bus from Oxford to London Heathrow and then fly up to Edinburgh.  Bus to Heathrow was just about an hour, I was there for several hours before my flight left and the actual flight time was just about an hour.  From the Edinburgh airport it was a quick 1/2 hour in to the main train station and then I cabbed it from there to here.  All that hassle was less than the train fare would have been from Oxford to Edinburgh and about only an hour faster once you factor in waiting time at Heathrow.  I’m surprised as small as Britain is that the train and bus service is not as fast as it is on the continent.  There are no fast trains from London to Edinburgh.  The direct trains still take about 6 hours and, considering the relatively short distance, that’s a long time.  I believe it’s about the same distance as Paris to Amsterdam but that trip is only 3 hours via the high speed Thalys train.  From Edinburgh to Inverness this Sunday it will take me 4 hours on a direct train and, I’m considering renting a car to get me from Inverness in Scotland to the Lake District in Northern England.  The drive should still take me about 5 hours but it’s better than waking up to catch a 630am bus that gets me near where I want to be by 1pm.  My only problem with renting cars is that I can’t drive a manual vehicle, I need to get an automatic car and that sometimes seems to present a problem with availability and cost.  
The Scottish countryside is beautiful.  Yesterday I took a tour to Stirling castle and that tour also went to Rosslyn Chapel.  Rosslyn Chapel was recently made über famous by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and the Chapel recognizes that the increase from 35K visitors to over 150K visitors per year can directly be attributed to the book and the movie, they are quick to emphasize that Hollywood took many liberties with facts.  Same hold true with Braveheart and I’ll be taking that day tour tomorrow as long as I feel well.  Today I woke up with another cold, my second since I’ve been over here and the second one came too quickly after the first in my opinion.  I got the first cold about mid-May and that lasted a couple of weeks and now it’s only beginning of July and I have another.  This one is completely different from the first, so I know the first one did not linger and rekindle.  Since May the weather on the Continent and here has been quite warm and when it does cool off I relish the coolness and want it as much as possible.  I’m not one of those people that thinks a draft or going out with wet hair makes you sick, but I do think the ups and downs in the weather may make your immune system a bit wonky.    Anyway, I hope this doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of things.
I did miss the Braveheart tour more because I wanted to make sure that my mild cold didn’t turn into something worse and it didn’t. The following day I got to take my Robert the Bruce/William Wallace tour.  When you go to Stirling, there’s a statue of Robert the Bruce outside the castle and if you look across the way at the next hillside summit, you will see the William Wallace monument.  Today’s tour took us to that Wallace monument and I had fun climbing up the 263 steps.  Nothing compared to the 470-ish steps you climb when you go to the top of the Florence dome or the over 750 steps to get to the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower, but it was still some good exercise.  Towns like Edinburgh, Oxford and others I’ve been to recently are quite small and my per day mileage has been small compared to when I was living in Paris, Rome, Florence or when I was in London.  I’m looking forward to walking from Westminster to my apartment in South Kensington.  Anyway, the tours I took outside of Edinburgh were very nice and my time in Edinburgh was also excellent.  It’s a grand old city with some iconic buildings and the Scottish people are very nice indeed.  Within the city I visited the Castle and Royal Mile as well as their National Museum.  All worth a visit.
The train from Edinburgh to Inverness was almost 4 hours and went through some beautiful scenery.  One of the stops was Dahlwhinnie Distillery.  I almost jumped out of my seat.  I was planning on taking the train back there and go for a tasting but when I considered the cost of the train ticket from Inverness to Dahlwhinnie and back plus the tasting fee, I could buy a nice bottle of the stuff instead.  Dahlwhinnie is not just the name of the whiskey, it’s also the name of the town. I always enjoy in Europe that you can leave a city and within a short time you are in what appears to be a lovely countryside.  Then, you can tell when you start to approach the next large city when you see the burbs and those signs of civilization like supermarkets and car parks that are necessities to us but really scar the landscape.
Inverness is even smaller than Edinburgh and on one of our tours we were told that 80% of the population in Scotland lie between the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Once you are north there are very few inhabitants.  Inverness being the largest of the cities in the Highlands and Islands region had a population of less than 150K.  As in a lot of European cities, Inverness is by a river.  The river Ness which is only about 7 miles long and it dumps into the North Sea to the East and starts at Loch Ness to the West.  Loch Ness is a beautiful place and I had spectacular weather the day I took a cruise on the Loch.  As we were told several times on the tours I took, a Loch is a lake but it can also be an inlet of water even if it is sea water.  I got to visit a couple of castles up by Inverness, on Loch Ness is Urqhart Castle and the castle that was featured in several movies including the original Highlander film Eilean Donan castle.  Just like in Ireland, the Scots say “fill-um” when they say film (movie).  I also visited the Isle of Skye, but briefly, on one of the tours as well as the most northern tip of Scotland’s mainland, John O’Groats.  Not on purpose, I’ll be visiting England’s most western edge, Lands End next week.  These two points are only 873 miles from each other and many people hike or bike the full distance; often in the name of a charity.  John O’Groats is only about 8 miles from the Orkneys, which I did not go to and could not see because we got fogged in at the tip of Scotland on the day I was there.  Most people come up here to see puffins and through the lens and zooming in afterwards, I did catch one!  Puffins are better than penguins because they can fly.  Inverness itself has some cool walking trails and one of them is right out of town.  I walked about 4 miles of it to some islands in the middle of the river Ness.  Since it got dark at 11pm, I was able to do these kinds of walks in the late afternoon before dinner, which I normally had about 8pm.  I had a very nice apartment in Inverness as well.  This one I booked through booking.com which I’ve used when AirBnB does not have something I like or I am not staying in one specific spot for more than 3 or 4 days.  I’ve tried to stay put for at least a week at a time in a base where I can explore an area without too much trouble.  Although I have tried to pack light for these remaining months of travel, I still feel I overpacked but I think that’s only because the weather here has been a lot warmer than anticipated.  I expected it to be in the 60’s during the day and drop under 60 at night, especially way up in the North and Scotland but it’s been mid to upper 70’s and has not dropped much at night.  It has also been very very humid.  
So, my Inverness apartment was right across from the tourist office which is where 2 of the 3 tours I took departed from.  The 3rd tour I took departed from the bus station which was only about a 10 minute walk from my place.  I had a view on the castle but this castle is not open for tourism as it is and has been the county courthouse and jail for over 100 years.  The current Inverness castle is an 19th century structure but it has a nice view and gave me a nice view from both my bedroom and living room windows which both led on to the same balcony.  The balcony of the apartment stretched the length of the apartment.  I only enjoyed the balcony for a little while since I was out most days.  But, I always enjoy having an apartment and cooking for myself, relaxing, etc.  It’s not the same for me since I’m a female, to go out to a pub or watch a band play late night because I don’t feel safe or comfortable doing that.  This is where some friends would come in handy!  It’s not the only activity where a friend would come in handy.  The other thing I didn’t do much of were long hikes in the hills.  Unless I knew a walk was a loop and clearly marked, I have not engaged in it.  The weather changes very quickly and not having experience with both the ordinance maps and the terrain, I didn’t do any of these extended walks.  The few walks I did take, as in Inverness along the river or in the Lake District, around a couple of lakes, were very pleasant and I felt safe even when I didn’t see many people.  

So, I had thought of renting a car to take me from Inverness to the Lake District but looking at Google Maps, that was still a 5-6 hours drive, same as the train, so the train won out.  Train travel here is not cheap either  but when it is comparable in time and price, I will take the train over driving.  I’m catching up on this blog on a train from Penrith in the Lake District to Manchester Airport.  But, that explanation will come later.

The thing on everyone’s lips was the vote for independence from England which will take place on September 19th.  It sounds to me as though it’s going to happen but there are so many questions as to the details like, will there be a boarder crossing between England and Scotland.  Will there be a Scottish Pound and will they have their own passport.  There are so many Scots that live in England or have family there and the same holds true for English that work or have family in Scotland. They were also very proud that the Ryder Cup will take place there next month as well as the Commonwealth Games which are about to take place in Glasgow.  In all I should have taken more time to explore the outer islands and the far north but maybe on some other sabbatical year!

Too many photos to post here so go here:
https://picasaweb.google.com/104823087906895041287/Scotland?authkey=Gv1sRgCPeWs4HX-bH-7AE#

Italy Part 2

So, I left the B&B Stella Polare in Verona at 8am on Sunday, May 25th.  The taxi was pricey but I had an 8:45am reserved train ticket to Milan and then a 10:20am train to Varenna.  The Milan train was smooth and that’s where I started catching up on the blog.  I was one train off from being on the same train as my other friends coming to visit for the second part of May.  Then, I committed a big error.  Trains that do not require a reservation require you to validate your ticket, basically date stamp it.  You can buy a non reserved ticket and it is usable for a couple of months, so on the day you decide to use it, you must date stamp it before you get on the train or else risk a fine.  So, on my train from Milan to Varenna, I forgot to do this and then freaked out.  I got off 1/2 way to Varenna in Lecco to validate my ticket which meant that I had to wait another hour before the next train to Varenna.  Well, I only made it to Varenna about 1/2 an hour before my friends did.  Varenna is a town that Rick Steves has made famous with Americans.  You see a lot of them in Varenna and the Lake Como area in general.  I guess we can blame some of that on George Clooney, too, as he has a villa nearby and this is very well known.  The town of Bellagio is also very well known thanks to the hotel of the same name in Vegas.  I can tell you now, the Vegas hotel is NO substitute for the real thing.  Just does not compare.  
Despite being sick, I had started to get sick in Verona, Varenna was really nice. Weather…check, atmosphere…check, good wine and food…check, good friends….we’re set.  We had an apartment in Varenna with a kickin’ view of the lake and mountains so we were able to cook ourselves breakfast and we could have munchies with wine whenever wanted, so we did.  We saw a couple of villas with exquisite gardens and even made a day trip in to Milan. 
Most people don’t like Milan because in the way of tourist attractions, there arren’t many.  You probably have about a handful and you could see them in a day.  As a matter of fact, if you don’t go to the Brera Museum or have an appointment to see the Last Supper, you can whizz through it in about a couple of hours.  You could hit the Duomo and the Victorio Emmanuele Gallery, walk by the Scala Opera House and then make your way back to the train station or airport.  However, I’ve been to Milan several times and have spent a few days there as a base and it is nicer than it appears on the surface.  If you can’t make a lake village a base or have time to chill out over there, then Milan could be a nice base to make some day visits to other cities in Italy.  With the new high speed trains, Florence is only 1:40, Venice 3 hours, Rome about 3.5 hours, Turin is only 1.5 hours away and you can also get to Bologna and Verona within 1.5 hours.  If you like the big American style hotels then you also have a better choice of them in Milan.  Hotels like the Hilton chain sometimes have great deals in places like Milan.  However, Milan is a big conference town and is often full of convention goers from a huge international house wares and design expo to all the fashion weeks you could run in to.  Anyway, it’s an alternative.
Our next destination was Florence where we once again had an apartment at our disposal.  We were there from the 28th of May to the 2nd of June. There were now 4 of us as another friend joined us on our way down through Milan to Florence.  This apartment was quite large for Euro standards and came with 2 bedrooms, another room area in a loft, 2.5 bathrooms and a large living room with a grand piano.  The hallway and kitchen/dining area were also quite large.  Like a lot of Euro places, this one had its quirks.  We discovered while trying to bake and do the laundry at the same time that, well, you can’t.  The lights all went out but we luckily found the light box and solved that problem.  We did not cook and clean at the same time again.  One of the bathroom doors got jammed and it took one of us a little bit to get out of there and then decided not to lock that door ever.  If the door was closed, you knew someone was in there.  The final thing was just that if one person was using the shower, we couldn’t use the water or they would be taking a very cold shower.  Just some quirky things that a 200+ year old building might have.  

We had a great time in Florence with great dinners, food and wine.  Is there a theme here?  If you come to Florence and are going to see a few of the museum sites, you may want to consider the Firenze Card.  It’s pricey but allows you to skip lines and not have to make any reservations to any of the sites.  Most places had a separate line for cardholders.  The most important and biggest line you will bypass is the Uffizi.  We got in less than 10 minutes after we got in line.  That is worth a lot.

Alas, I had to leave the ladies as they headed up north to Milan and I was heading for Rome.  I again went on the very fast train service from Florence to Rome.  This time around I was at a regular hotel that was pretty good for the price.  I booked it through Expedia.  I tried to walk to areas I’d never been before like the Jewish quarter, Isla Tiburtina and the Capitoline Museums.  I recommend the Capitoline Museums.  This was my first time there.  There were quite nice and very informative and they had some neat stuff.  I shelled out some extra Euros for the audio guide and it was worth it.

I also was in Rome to visit with some friends who were on their honeymoon and Rome was their last stop.  We had a pleasant lunch a few blocks behind the Campo de Fiori square and walked around town a bit.  I left them at the Colosseum and made my way back to the hotel.  

I left the next day for London out of Rome’s airport.  The Da Vinci Express is quite good and I’m told that Terravision also has a good service by bus from the airport to the main train station in town, Termini.  Terravision is cheaper but they don’t run as frequently as the train service.  I’m writing this a few weeks later, so my recollections are a bit fuzzy and I’m sure I’m mission out some fun details and observations.  Oh well, I didn’t have time to write then.