Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Old World or Bust! (Part 4)

Sunday, October 24, 2021: On to Lake Garda — From Rustic to Ultra Modern
For us, Ca' Driano had been comfortable (but for Il Zanzara), serene, and spectacular. Leaving the villa was the most bittersweet part of our trip — at least until boarding the plane to return home. Hostess Wilma saw us off with tears in her eyes, and invited us again and again to please return when we could. I do hope we can.

Now, I will tell you, as I mentioned in the previous entry of this blog... from the start, our hosts were so gracious, so accommodating, and so friendly, we could scarcely believe we were going to leave the place without being drugged, abducted, and likely booted into the next realm of existence in grisly fashion. At all times, Terry and I remained vigilant and usually slept with one eye open (kind of a necessity with Il Zanzara buzzing about). We had made it thus far, so by now our threat alarms were buzzing overtime. The road leading to and from from the villa is steep and winding, so before leaving, we did our best to make sure the car hadn't been tampered with. That we managed to vacate the place unscathed is surely a credit to our keen situational awareness (not to mention our ability to translate horror movie tropes to real-life experience). But leave we did, and before long, we were humming along on the highway toward Lake Garda, a couple of hours northwestward.
A particularly tall chap hanging out
on a wall in Modena

We had decided that, on the way to our new lodgings, we'd stop for a while in Modena, a fair-sized city known for its balsamic vinegar and tortellini. There were also geocaches.

Modena was kind of like Bologna-lite — mostly urban, with an ancient and well-preserved city center — but not as large and nowhere near as frenetic. We enjoyed our brief time there, and I snagged a couple of fun caches. A large bazaar was going on in the city center, so Brugger and Beth had plenty of opportunity to indulge themselves. It turned out to be a most pleasant stopover.

And so, we were off again. Lake Garda is Italy's largest lake — about 30 miles long, 1.5 miles wide at its northern end, and 10 miles wide at its southern end. Surrounded by craggy mountains on all sides, the lake is a major tourist center, with most visitors coming from nearby European countries, such as Germany and Austria (we encountered more German-speaking visitors than any other). We had chosen Lake Garda as a destination because of its proximity to the Valpolicella wine region, which we had briefly visited on our trip to Italy in 2019. Fortunately for us, the tourist season had ended recently, so the crowds we encountered were manageable. I dread to think about having to deal with the oppressive numbers of people that must flood the area during peak tourist season. The only downside of our timing was that a good many places we might have otherwise visited had closed for the season. Still, we managed to work in more incredible experiences here than we could have even considered prior to our arrival.
Malcesine by night

Our lodgings in Benzone sul Garda were virtually the opposite of Ca' Driano. Where the villa was rustic, our apartment here was ultra-modern. Where Ca' Driano was warm, liberally adorned with traditional art, and brimming with character, our Lake Garda place was angular, bright white, and minimally decorated. Mind you, this is not a complaint; merely an observation about the stark contrast. Our apartment here offered plenty of desirable amenities, including private garage parking, a hot tub (of which we took considerable advantage), and a magnificent view of the mountains above Lake Garda. I suppose, if compelled to complain, we could do so about the flakey WiFi. It was pretty flakey, requiring constant resets, and the damned signal zoomed at about the same speed as the dead snails we often saw scattered about the lake area.

We needed several days' worth of supplies, so we decided to hit a nearby grocery store. However, one significant difference between home and many European areas is that, on Sundays, most stores are open only for a few hours early in the day. So, we ended up bombing out on our shopping errand, though we did find a decent dinner at Ristorante al Ristoro in Malcesine, a few miles north of Benzone sul Garda. I had some lovely roasted octopus tentacles with potato, which made for one of my favorite dinners on this trip. (As an aside, while I mostly managed Italian pronunciations with reasonable aplomb, something about Malcesine — pronounced "Mal-cheh-zeen-eh" — refused to roll readily off my tongue. According to Brugger, I called it everything from "Mendocino" to "Malt-chesty-knee" to "Madmagazinee.")

We had considered ending the evening in the hot tub, but after our day of it, we were all pretty exhausted and decided we would avail ourselves to it the following day. That we did, and so much more.
Polipo e patate at Ristorante al Ristoro in Malcesine

Monday, October 25, 2021: Campo Borgo Medievale — The Lost Town
While there are a goodly number of geocaches around Lake Garda as a whole, there weren't very many in our immediate area. To my dismay, the two nearest were disabled, which generally means they are missing; one was a traditional micro, the other a multi-cache that (would have) offered a scenic walk along the lakefront. Happily, upon reading recent logs for the micro ("Campo Lost Town," GC4WCC8), I learned that the cache had been replaced but never re-enabled online. Given such hope that I might actually find it, I decided to go on the hunt first thing on Monday morning. I knew from the description and terrain rating that reaching the location involved a fair hike. I was anything but disappointed.
Up, up, and up we go.

I headed out bright and early from our apartment and hoofed it down the main road for half a kilometer or so, where I turned onto a winding lane, which led up the steep ridge that parallels the lake. When I say "steep," I mean "STEEP." The hike up was about a mile, but with the high elevation and sharp incline, I had to take several uncustomary pauses to catch my breath. As I hiked, I saw not one other living soul, though some distance up the ridge, I heard a chainsaw buzzing (someone taking down dead olive trees, from what I could discern). But as I walked past the area, a big German Shepherd came barreling down the hill boofing at me, and the chainsaw stopped. At that moment, I had the weird feeling I might end up fleeing down the mountain from some mad chainsaw murderer — one of Fred and Wilma's minions, perhaps! But as I progressed farther without apparent pursuit, I began to breathe a little easier.

Eventually, I came to a sign that indicated "Campo Borgo Medievale" lay just ahead. And when I rounded a curve, I saw the old town: a sprawling series of stone structures, clearly long abandoned, with a few in various stages of restoration. This is my favorite kind of discovery: an intriguing location I would never have discovered but for geocaching. Much like my solo caching experiences in Venice — and my trek through San Giorgio on our previous sojourn in Italy (see "Return to Italy," November 4, 2019) — this felt like a transcendent moment; a personal, sensual experience almost without equal. Obviously, other folks visit this ancient ruin, and during tourist season, countless visitors may make the same pilgrimage, so to speak. However, on this day, all alone on the high ridge, I had a keener, deeper sense of the sheer age and history of the ground on which I stood than I could have felt in the company of others. After a time, a chap on a motorcycle cruised past, but he didn't stop; clearly, the lane to the town continues onward to some other place of habitation. Happily, that little interruption didn't really fuck up my zen.

After taking in the grandeur of the old town, I commenced my hunt for the cache. I knew from the hint it was located within a stone wall. However, within reasonable proximity of ground zero, there were numerous stone walls, and coordinates bounced me around from place to place without a smidgen of mercy. On the cache page, someone had posted a photo of the hiding place, but I could not find anything that quite matched the image. In the end, I trusted in the sketchy coordinates and basic geosense, which finally led me to the cache. What a gratifying find! It would be nice for the cache owner to re-enable it on the geocaching website; for me, I'm just glad I took the time to read the recent log entries, which prompted me to proceed with the hunt.

Just as I started back down the ridge, marveling at my physical prowess for having made it all the way to the summit without croaking, an elderly couple — clearly quite a few years older than I — came jaunting happily up the incline. "Buon giorno!" they bid me cheerfully. "Ohhhhhhhh," I replied with somewhat less cheer.

Eventually, I staggered back to our apartment, where a wonderful, beautiful, steaming hot tub beckoned me. Our gang hopped in with brimming glasses of cold Prosecco, and this only added a sparkle to an already satisfying morning.
So much up...
Brugger was hoping we might take the ferry from Malcesine across the lake to the reputedly scenic town of Limone, so we piled into the gang-mobile and once again drove northward. Unfortunately, the only ferry of the day had already gone, so we entertained ourselves for the rest of the afternoon by exploring, shopping, and a little caching. Eventually, we procured vittles at Bar Gelateria Centrale, right on the lakefront. I enjoyed a rather light dinner of spaghetti with olive oil and red pepper. Once we returned to our lodgings, we decided we needed some entertainment fitting for Halloween, so we settled in and put on Doctor Sleep, which Kim and I had watched some time ago but that I had clearly slept through, for I remembered practically nothing of the film. This time around, I really enjoyed it; it felt like Stephen King writing what he writes best and Mike Flanagan doing his usual bang-up job of directing. Granted, it may be a far cry from true classic status, a la Kubrick's The Shining, but in general, I'd call it a worthy enough successor to both Kubrick's film and King's original The Shining, even if the visuals are clearly based on Kubrick's vision.

To date, our European trip had offered us nothing but wonderful days, and for me personally, this one ranked among the most wonderful.
What a view!

Tuesday, October 26, 2021: I'm at the Top of the World Looking Down on Creation
Tuesday's main event was one to challenge the acrophobic: take the cable car from Malcesine to the summit of Monte Baldo, which rises 7,277 feet above sea level and thus a good 7,000 feet above Lake Garda. Heights generally don't bother me much, although I sometimes feel a touch of vertigo when I'm standing close to the edge of a high place. To take the photo above, I stood at the end of a sheer precipice, so every muscle in my body was pretty well clenched up.
Our gang spent a fair time at the top of the mountain — exploring, having lunch, taking photos, and finding a cache (in this case, an EarthCache). We ate at a lovely spot on the mountaintop called Baita Monte Baldo, where they served me up a pork shank that must have come from a wild boar. Huge, it was. And delicious. This required a couple of Campari spritzes to wash down, I can tell you. (I had discovered the Campari spritz on our previous trip, and it became a staple both during the cruise and at our ports of call. On this trip, I frequently reacquainted myself with the joys of this refreshing if bitter-tasting drink.)

Once back down the mountain, we mounted up again and drove to Riva del Garda on the northernmost end of the lake, mainly to kick around and see what we might see. I saw a couple of caches on the map and enjoyed going after them. At this end of the lake, no doubt being so close to Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, almost everyone spoke German. We should have boned up on our German language skills as well as French and Italian for this trip.

We found drinks at a café near the lake, and dinner at a lovely little establishment whose name escapes me at the moment. Since I had eaten most of a pig for lunch, I went very light — grilled prawns on a bed of lettuce, which, at the time, suited me nicely. Unfortunately, I believe they damn near did me in. That would be a story for the morrow....
Ms. B. attempting a conversation in English with a pair of Italian ducks. It didn't go that well.
It seemed a good idea at the time. They were delicious.
Once back at our apartment, we availed ourselves to the hot tub again. Once suitably refreshed and relaxed, we decided to continue in the Halloween vein, and Terry selected The Purge for the rest of our evening's entertainment. I had heard a good bit about this one but hadn't seen it. In general, we all quite enjoyed it. Some aspects of the story ring almost too true for comfort. It had been a fine day for us, but about the time we retired for the evening, I began to notice something didn't feel quite right....

Wedneday, October 27, 2021: Disaster Strikes!
On Wednesday morning, I woke up early feeling pretty puny. After several trips to the head, I felt even punier. Then the nausea set in. Chills, body ache, total lack of energy. It became clear that I was suffering from either 1) food poisoning, which meant I might have a rough road ahead, or 2) a norovirus, à la Midland at Christmas 2017 (see "The Feel-Better Flight," December 2017, for the gory details; or better yet, don't), which meant the lot of us might have a rough road ahead. It won't spoil anything to say we were indeed fortunate it was the former. While I was a miserable for a full 24 hours and some change, no one else suffered any illness.

It was ugly. I haven't felt so horrible since that spell in Midland four years ago. When I wasn't in the bathroom, I mostly slept, for I didn't have the energy even to sit at the computer and work on this blog.

No day is a good day to suffer from food poisoning, but I found this spell particularly galling because we had appointments at a couple of wineries not far away — one called Spada and the other being Coali, which we had visited on our previous trip to the region. I had really, really wanted to return to Coali, as it was — and still is — the best winery I have ever visited. The gang enjoyed both wineries, and at least they brought back a healthy sampling of bottles from both.

That evening, I managed to sit up and watch The Purge: Anarchy, sequel to the previous night's movie, with the other folks. It too was enjoyable, if somewhat less gripping than the original.

I was not the only one hoping I would be feeling better the next day, since anyone else falling ill would mean a very, very bad situation, for we were due to travel back home in two days' time.

Some of us, at least, held our breath.

Thursday, October 28, 2021: Hallelujah, It Was Only Food Poisoning!
I woke up on Thursday morning feeling almost brand new. No nausea, no ominous internal rumblings, no lingering malaise. This was as much a relief to everyone else as it was to me. Granted, during the morning, I felt a little sketchy from time to time, but I figured that was to be expected after the severity of the previous day's affliction. Over the course of the day, my condition improved nicely.

Once again, we needed COVID-19 tests (negative, of course) in order to return to the US the following day. There was a pharmacy in Malcesine that could do them for us at 11:30 a.m., so we decided to get those done and then take the ferry to Limone on the far side of the lake. Once we had completed the tests (negative, thankfully), we boarded the ferry and churned across the water. There really isn't a place on Lake Garda where the view sucks, but the boat offered us impressive, panoramic views of both side of the lake.
Malcesine castle, viewed from the ferry to Limone
Approaching Limone
Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?
Lunch was our first priority. We found an appealing little establishment on the waterfront that specialized in burgers, and we all craved something less pasta-, cheese-, and sauce-ish (not to mention I was starving after such a long spell without eating). There was a cache very nearby, so after we ordered, I rushed to the old church where it was hidden. It was up a stairway in a secluded courtyard, and I had just begun hunting when a pair of young German women arrived and asked if I was geocaching. Indeed! So, we hunted together, and they turned up the hide in short order. I had run into several cachers over the course of the trip, so this made for yet another fun encounter. I hurried back to the restaurant just in time for lunch to arrive. The burgers were just okay, but still satisfying (the one other burger I'd had in Europe, early on in Malcesine, rivaled any I've ever had in the States).
Looking down from the top
of the castle stairs

Afterward, each of us being drawn to follow our individual callings, we split up to shop, drink, or, in my case (as if you couldn't have guessed), hunt a geocache. This one lay about half a mile down the shore, and I had a lovely walk down to it. Once I found it, I headed back to join the others. We decided it was time to seek and find gelato. Now, gelato is a treat that, at least for us in North Carolina, is simply not to be found. In Europe — Italy in particular — gelato shops are everywhere, and it goes without saying we had availed ourselves to them frequently. We did so again in Limone. And it was good.

At 3:00 p.m., the ferry took us back to Malcesine, where I hunted one more cache ("First Malcesine," GC1Z4MY). This one offered a decent physical challenge (well, two, if you consider the difficulty of navigating the maze of streets to ground zero), which was climbing a set of 114 steep, well-worn stone stairs up the side of Malcesine castle. (It was from this vantage point that I took the photo you see at the top of this section). A fun cache, and a spectacular setting. After this, we had cappuccinos at a little place down an alley. I noticed they had a plaque that indicated the poet Goethe had "lived" in that building for two days in September of 1786. Okay, pretty cool. At last, we headed back to the apartment and decided we would find dinner there in Benzone sul Garda, which we really hadn't done since we'd arrived. Ms. B. had looked up some possibilities and settled on one not too far southward that was tucked away in a "secret" courtyard and reputedly quite good. So off we went.

Dammit! The place was closed, no doubt due to the tourist season having passed. It really did look wonderful, so we were sorry we couldn't avail ourselves to it. However, we did discover another place nearby that turned out to be excellent. Here, I had my last dinner of Bolognese (or Ragu, as it's more commonly called in this region), and it really hit the spot. Happily, I make a fair Bolognese myself when I have the craving, and friend Beth makes Bolognese to rival the best of any I've had on the continent.

After that, we spent much of the rest of the evening, most pleasurably, in the hot tub. Then we set ourselves to packing for the return trip, for we knew the morrow meant another long, long day of traveling.

Indeed it did.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Old World or Bust! (Part 3)

Thursday, October 21, 2021: Villa Ca' Driano
The view from the villa
On Thursday morning, we packed ourselves up and bid Venice arrivederci. Last time, we sailed out of Venice on board the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Rhapsody of the Seas; two years later, cruise ships are no longer permitted into the island's port, since their coming and going has inflicted considerable environmental damage to the city. The new restrictions are understandable yet sad, for seeing Venice from the deck of our ship as we slowly sailed past was a memory I will always treasure. This time, we rode a bus from the station at the north end of the island to Marco Polo International Airport, where we picked up a rental car, which Terry had reserved, to last us for the remainder of our trip. From there, we drove to the tiny town of Monteveglio, near Bologna, a couple of hours northward.
Ms. B. checks out the lemons growing
at Ca' Driana

Our home away-from-home here took my breath away. It's a roughly century-old villa called Ca' Driano (meaning House of Driano — presumably the founding family), which perches high on a mountaintop. From this vantage point, the villa offers staggering views of the surrounding countryside in every direction. The house itself is rustic, spacious, and comfortable, offering just about every amenity one could ask for. Our proprietors were a lovely, loquacious lady named Wilma and her somewhat more reserved husband, whom we called Fred (we didn't determine until our final day his actual name is Aristede). They live in the house next door and take care of the property as if it were their own. Fred doesn't speak English, so Wilma translates for him (their spirited interactions frequently had us rolling). They seemed to take us under their wings right away, and made us feel welcome and then some for our entire stay. (In fact, the more imaginative of our gang couldn't help but wonder if we were actually being fattened up for some unspeakable ritual to occur at some point during our stay. Well, we're still alive and kicking, don't you know... at least for now.)

During our conversations, we determined Fred was a hunter who loved to cook the game he hunted. And when he found out I possessed keen carnivorous tendencies, he brought us a pheasant that he had shot just a few days before. I promised that I would handle its preparation during our visit.

For our first night's dinner, Wilma recommended a wonderful restaurant: a place called Trattoria del Borgo at the site of an ancient abbey just outside of Monteveglio. An incredibly beautiful location — and what a fantastic dinner. We shared an amazing bottle of wine, locally made, and I had a wild boar stew that was probably the most delicious — and most memorable — meal of the entire trip. To top things off, there was a cache on the premises that I found after dinner, rounding out things on an even sweeter note.
Darkness falling over Casa Ca Driano
Ristorante Trattoria del Borgo at the old abbey outside of Monteveglio
Old dude signs the cache log
The one discomfort we suffered at Ca' Driano — a problem we've had to deal with throughout Italy, in fact — is mosquitoes. They're everywhere. And they're brutal. Since a number of windows at the villa didn't have screens, mosquitoes had gotten into the house, and they were apparently ravenous. I had the devil of a time sleeping on that first night, despite the comfortable bed, because of the constant whining, whirring, and biting of the nasty little bloodfuckers.

That wasn't enough to dampen any of our spirits, though, and by the end of the first night, our gang came to unanimous decision that Ca' Driano might be our favorite accommodations anywhere, anytime, ever.
Our hostess, Wilma, introducing our gang to Casa Ca' Driano
Friday, October 22, 2021: Flogging and a Bunch o' Bologna
Old dude lines up for a solid duff

Several weeks ago, with friend Terry, I played golf for the first time in about a decade. It was enjoyable enough, though "rusty" doesn't begin to describe my golfing prowess. In the photo above, you see Terry about to whack the living daylights out of a golf ball while playing at Golf Club Monteveglio. Somehow, he convinced me to join him in a round of golf, largely so we could claim to have played golf in Italy. The golf course was nearby, they had plenty of tee times available, and we could rent a bag of clubs (and a cart) once we got there. Being the gluttons for punishment we are, we headed on out, communicated with the pro using our best Italian (we didn't get pitched out the door on our heads, somewhat to our surprise), saddled up, and hit the links. I'll not say we didn't hit some mighty good golf shots; we did. But at the end of the round, we'd lost all ten balls we'd purchased and a couple of extra that came with the bag (it's a narrow course with lots of water hazards; I stand by that explanation). It was fun, but a  spectacularly unimpressive round for the both of us. In fact, at the end of it all, I felt obliged to offer an apology to the sport of golf and to Italy in general.

Once back at Ca' Driano, we got tidied up, grabbed the women, and set out for the city of Bologna, just a few miles up the road from Monteveglio. Ms. B. was particularly keen on visiting the old quarter in the city center, so we struggled through the considerable Bologna traffic and found ourselves a parking garage within reasonable walking distance of our destination.

Bologna was a madhouse. Even in the old quarter, where the majority of traffic is on foot, cars still zip back and forth and round and round at stunning speed. Numerous times while walking, we had to dodge vehicles driven by madfolk who weren't about to slow down for anything as paltry as pedestrians. Now, it's pretty much like this all over Europe, but at least on this day in Bologna, the nastiness reached daunting proportions. We did at least find some decent food and drink — Bistro Roberto was pretty nice, the Tagliatella con Ragu pleasing to the palate. I snagged a couple of caches while Ms. B. and the others went shopping. We didn't care to stay around very late, so after dinner we headed on back to the car.
Fun fact about Europe: oftentimes, little things — such as how you pay for parking your car in a public lot — differ just enough from what we're accustomed to, at least in our part of the US, that it can create small amounts of havoc. Sometimes slightly larger amounts. In this case, we had a gate ticket and didn't realize you pay for it in a separate area, not when you leave the garage, as we typically do back home. So, we ended up getting stuck in the garage for a while as we sorted out the proper procedure. The problem was that, once Terry inserted the ticket which would have opened the gate had we already paid, the machine ate the ticket and refused to let us out. This necessitated a call to an attendant, who resided lord knows how many miles (or perhaps I should say kilometers) away and whose grasp of English roughly equaled our grasp of Italian. There was considerable back and forth that got us nowhere, until finally, in exasperation, the kind signore opened the gate for us remotely, clearly to shut us up and get us the hell out of his hair.

Lesson learned. But at the end of the day, Bologna endeared itself to us less than most of the other places in Italy we visited. Or let us say all, rather than most of. Returning to Ca' Driano was a relief. Or would have been, except for Il Zanzara (The Mosquito). This second night wasn't as bad as the first, but it was clear the little bastard was still around by the number of bites I woke up with the next morning.

Saturday, October 23, 2021: No Wine for You!
The view from some hillside outside Monteveglio
The first thing I did upon waking on Saturday morning was pluck and prep the pheasant that Fred had given me, since at least a couple of us planned on having it for dinner. Now, I have never plucked and cleaned a whole bird before, so I did a quick look on YouTube for some tips, and then went to town. I've gotta tell you, it went swimmingly. I trussed up the bird; put it in a bath in wine, olive oil, butter, onions, and herbs; and stuck it in the fridge so it'd be ready for roasting later in the day.
The bird before
"Get that camera out of my face while I am cheffing!"
There are all kinds of wineries in the region, and we had figured it wouldn't be hard to track down at least a couple. We did, but as it turned out, the few we found were either not open at all or required appointments for tastings. So, we satisfied ourselves jaunting about some of the scenic backroads to see what we might see. One of the coolest spots we found was one of the many ancient castles throughout the countryside. This one was Castello di Serraville, where I did find a cool geocache. 
Castello di Serraville
The bird after

After a fairly lengthy sightseeing venture, our gang headed back to the villa. We enjoyed a few miscellaneous nibbles during the afternoon, and a bit later, I finished prepping the bird and got it roasting in the oven. Once again, not having prepared pheasant before, I trusted in intuition, long experience cooking critters in general, and a fair amount of hope that the experiment would not end in disaster.

Our very kind co-host, Fred, had not only given us a pheasant but a bottle of very old wine — a 2004 Rosso di Montalcino to go with the bird. It proved delicious. As did the pheasant. Kimberly and Beth, not much inclined to eat critter, opted for other vittles, but Terry and I quite enjoyed the bird. I also took Fred a sample, which he raved about. (According to Wilma's translation, he said, "You are not just a cook but a chef!" He did add that it could have used a little more salt.) I'm sure he was being overly kind, but I cannot speak well enough of both our hosts at the Villa, and his compliments likely turned my face redder than our vino rosso.

Our last night at Ca' Driano turned out to be pleasant and very relaxing — except for, once again, Il Zanzara, who pestered me for the entire night. Even building a tent out of the sheets that covered my body head to toe failed to hold the little fucker at bay. I probably should have picked up some bug repellent, but I'm not sure a bed reeking of DEET would have been much preferable. Regardless, I'd have to say that Ca' Driano rates as one of the best lodgings I've ever occupied, and I would dearly love to return to it someday, should circumstances permit.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Old World or Bust! (Part 2)

Ciao di nuovo, Venezia amica mia
Monday, October 18, 2021: Au Revoir La France, Buon Giorno Venezia
Early Monday morning, our gang packed up la voiture — we had to squeeze in so snugly that Ms. B. and I were practically sitting on one another — and hit the highway, bound for Nice Aeroport, about two hours east. Getting past Aix-en-Provence was the usual traffic nightmare, but once we made it to the A8, things picked up and moved along swimmingly. When we arrived at the aeroport, we moved through security and such with minimal hassle, though we never did have to show our COVID-19 test cards, which was actually wee annoying, given the pains we took to actually get the things. Regardless, we had some peace of mind that we remained COVID-free, at least for the first portion of our journey.

We boarded an Easy Jet Airlines Airbus 319 for the relatively short flight to Venice. Upon our arrival, we took a bus ride to the station just outside the city and then hoofed it across the Grand Canal to the island. We had a relatively short walk to our lodgings in the Fondamenta Procuratie, where we met our proprietor, a lovely lady who spoke decent English and made us feel very welcome. Once settled, we headed out into the lovely afternoon and walked. I snagged a couple of caches. One of them was cache find #13,000, at a rather noteworthy location: (Banksy a Venezia, GC8F84J). We found wine. We found food. We retired to our lodgings before very late, but we did sit up with wine and goodies pretty far into the evening.
Banksy art in Venice
Tuesday, October 19, 2021: Bells Are Ringing
The weather was perfect for another early morning walk, so Terry and I went out among the madding crowd and sought a trio of geocaches. I found two, did not find one (though I would discover it later — after a fashion). Once back at our place and regrouped, the gang went out and about for a bit and found lunch nearby at Osteria San Barnaba. There were sights to see and caches to snag near the Rialto Bridge, so we headed for the more eastward reaches of the city. I claimed a webcam cache (Rialto Webcam; GC89135) and an EarthCache (Rialto BridgeGC7JZRA), as well as a stage of a nearby Adventure Lab cache.
View from the Rialto Bridge
Ms. B. before getting her hair done
Scary folk: the officiant and
the witness

The big event of the day, though, was first and foremost among our reasons for venturing overseas to begin with. Although Ms. B. and I had been legally married back in June, mainly to make sure our asses were covered — financially, legally, and otherwise — as we began merging our households, we really wanted to have our most meaningful ceremony in Venice. Terry had agreed to officiate for us, so all that remained was to determine precisely where and when. Once we had settled into our apartment, we decided it was the perfect location. Our elevated balcony overlooked a scenic canal, and from there, we didn't have to worry about muggles getting in the way of the proceedings. And on this afternoon, the timing struck us as right to proceed. Once we all agreed on this decision, our respective womenfolk decreed that neat dress was required. So, we old men dressed up all nice and such, gathered ourselves in most dignified fashion, and Brugger and I got hitched. Maybe not "legally" in the technical sense, but absolutely and positively as far as our commitment to each other.

Once these somber proceedings were in the can, we decided to remain dressed in our finest finery and go out to mingle with the population. If you guessed there might have been another cache in the bargain, you would be correct. If you guessed there might have been more food and wine in the bargain, you would be correct again. For dinner, we discovered a wonderful outdoor place called Ristorante Fuori Rotta, where I ended up ordering fish (filet of sole) and white wine. If you think that was pretty weird of me, you be yet again correct, but since this combination called to me at the time, it happened thusly. Dinner proved fabulous. As did the day. One could hardly have custom-ordered a better day or more exciting time.

Perfection, it was.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021: We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat
I woke up reasonably early on Wednesday, intent on going on a longer-than-customary walk through Venice to seek a couple of geocaches. Terry opted to stay put while I went out, so I pushed myself into an even longer longer-than-customary morning walk. One stop was at a walled park ("Parco Savorgnan," GC58W7X), which was probably the only deserted spot in Venice I encountered during our stay there. I also snagged a puzzle cache I had solved earlier ("Do You Really Know Venezia's Mysteries," GC7R0NH), one of those rare puzzles that was actually fun because you had to match up scenes in Venice to locations on a map to acquire the final coordinates. Once I reached GZ, this one took me a few minutes to find, but I finally managed it.

I wasn't back from my walk long before we headed out as a group to seek lunch. We found it at a little place along the waterfront called OKE Zattere, where we had pizzas — very good pizzas. Then Terry and Beth treated Kim and me to a gondola ride, something of a post-wedding treat. We all managed to pile into the boat without falling out (so none of the dreaded canal sharks got to have a feast*). We did have an excellent gondolier, who spoke decent English and more than politely tolerated our generally clumsy attempts to converse in Italian. We brought a bottle of wine with us, which made for a super-mellow ride through the canals. A first-class time it was. Thanks, Terry & Beth!

*No, there aren't really canal sharks. I don't think.

After this, our compadres retired to our home-away-from-home for a while, so Kimberly and I went out among the peasants to survey the grandeur. She was kind enough to accompany me to a few caches I was keen on finding — one  being a wicked-witch-of-Venice-themed multi ("La Sveglia Della Strega," GC8F85W), and a couple down by St. Mark's Square, my favorite being a particularly audacious little hide at a bas-relief sculpture at the edge of the square (Piazza San Marco, GC8VKZF). While we were there snapping photos, I caught something in one that I didn't quite get. It appears to show five distinct orbs in the sky, just about mid-picture (you can zoom in on the photo down below). No doubt, these were just reflections on the lens, or an odd diffusion of light, or...something.

Maybe UFOs.

Finally, Kimberly and I headed back westward to Piazza San Barnaba, where we met Terry & Beth at a nice little outdoor bistro called Dallo Zio. I had liver and polenta, which I found quite pleasing after so much pasta and cheese. Our dinner ran pretty late, and by the time we were finished, the gang decided to head back to our place. However, I had discovered that one of the caches I had been unable to find the previous day, due to it being missing, had just been replaced. From our restaurant, it was about a half mile to the cache. After the day's activities, I had about 15% phone battery remaining — and I didn't have my spare battery pack with me. Regardless, I set out after the hide. Once at GZ, I finally managed to locate the thing. Whew!

By now, the phone battery was running lower and lower, and though I know the basic geography of Venice, I do not know its labyrinthine streets that well. So, I made haste toward our place, fearing my phone might go dark at any time. Happily, I made it back with power to spare. What a fun outing for this evening. Quite the adrenaline rush there near the end.
Twilight at Piazza San Marco
UFOs over Venice?
Our time in Venice was short, as we were scheduled to leave the following day — for me, not such a happy thing, since both my visits to Venice have been dreams come true. Still, we had several different destinations ahead of us before our eventual return to the States. And our next destination — a century-old villa outside the little town of Monteveglio, near Bologne — certainly held some surprises, almost all pleasant.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Old World or Bust! (Part 1)

The view from our window in Eguilles, France
For well over a year, our friends and frequent traveling companions, Terry & Beth, and Ms. B. & I have been planning a second trip to Europe together. Initially our plans included another cruise (see "Mediterranean Sojourn" from October–November 2019, for the chronicle of our first trip across the pond); however, this year's cruise became a casualty of COVID-19 and, for a time, it looked as though COVID might quash all our plans. However, once we were vaccinated and able to pass the still relatively stringent European regulations, we decided the trip would be a go after all. We opted to limit our destinations to a few locations in France and Italy. Terry & Beth preceded us to Europe by a matter of weeks, with several other destinations on their itinerary, including Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Because they are generally good sports, they agreed to play chauffeur for us when we arrived in France on October 14.

Hold on to your hats, and let's rock!  

Wednesday, October 13, 2021–Thursday, October 14:
To Marseilles and Beyond
A few days before we were set to leave, Ms. B. and I acquired our international drivers licenses, since we would have to rely on rental cars to transport us from place to place. On the afternoon of Wednesday, 10/13, we loaded up our well-stuffed bags and drove to Terry & Beth's place in Kernersville, where we transferred the bags to their big honking pickup truck (this to accommodate all our combined luggage on our return trip), and sallied forth to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. After a couple of damned Bloody Marys at one of the airport bars (damned good Bloody Marys, I can tell you), we boarded a big old Lufthansa Airlines Airbus 350 for the long flight to Munich, Germany. About nine hours it was; nine uncomfortable hours, which we found disappointing, as we had paid for premium seating and the accompanying perks. We got the perks — mostly — but let me tell you, those seats were rocks, far less comfortable than their considerably less expensive counterparts on our previous overseas journey. Other than that, things went swimmingly, with no delays and relatively easy customs checks. I ended up watching Godzilla vs. Kong to while away some flight time; for that purpose, it was decent enough, I reckon. On Thursday, October 14, we made an early morning landing in Munich, where we boarded a smaller jet bound for Marseilles, France, where Terry and Beth awaited us in their rental car.
From Marseilles, we headed to the village of Eguilles, a few miles northwest of the city. Eguilles is a charming little community dating back to the 1st Century AD. We had reserved a three-story villa with a grand view of the French countryside; we found the place mostly comfortable but for the somewhat limited toilet facilities and a steep, narrow, curving flight of stairs that damn near whooped us every time we had to go up or down. Eguilles is also a town best seen on foot, for many of the maze-like streets are barely wide enough for a single compact car. It took some time for us to become comfortable navigating these treacherous lanes, especially since figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B frequently proved problematic, even with GPS maps.

Like so many old European towns, Eguilles is filled with cats. Catses, everywhere, roaming and lounging wherever they please. Happily, all the ones we saw appeared to be well-fed and reasonably healthy. A few turned out to be quite friendly, especially a cat whom Beth called "our little greeter" because she frequently turned up at our doorstep and, if the mood took her, trotted on into the villa to socialize for a bit.

On our first evening, the group accompanied me on a walking tour of Eguilles by way of an enjoyable Adventure Lab cache, which led us to several scenic and/or historical spots around town. Shortly thereafter, that we might procure victuals (a commodity somewhat scarce in Eguilles), we drove down to Aix-en-Provence, a bustling town we had briefly visited on our 2019 trip. Here, we did indeed manage to find decent food and wine in one of the myriad outdoor restaurants. There was a cache very nearby — "Les Cardeurs" (GC5NTME) — but I gave it only a half-hearted hunt, since the prodigious numbers of human critters congregating near the site made searching problematic.

Not a one of our group has typically been enamored of French wine — at least the brands we're able to find back in the States. We had enjoyed some French wine on our last trip, and this time, we found more good wine. Lots and lots of it. Clearly, back home, we are relegated to second-rate fare from France because I'm pretty sure the worst French wine we had on the continent proved better than the best French wine we've ever discovered back home.

After no sleep for something like 36 hours, Ms. B. and I finished our first day in France at quite a late hour, exhausted but highly satisfied with the state of affairs to date.
Aix-en-Provence: little town, big bustle
Le Rotonde in Aix

Friday, October 15, 2021: Gordes et Roussillon
Gordes, France
"Je ne parle pas très bien le français. J'ai l'étudié pour quatre ans – deux au lycée et deux à l'université — mais c'était il y a plus de quarante ans, et je suis vieux et oublieux."

I became fairly proficient at prefacing any attempt at communication with the native French speakers using the explanation above, which translates as "I don't speak French very well. I studied it for four years — two in high school and two in college — but that was over forty years ago, and I am old and forgetful." Once that was squared away, the four of us managed quite well even in places where no English was spoken (which was rare — in most cases, the people we dealt with spoke English at least as well as I speak French). Unlike our previous trip, where we visited mostly places that catered to cruise ship tourists, this time around, we aimed for more remote, less-tourist centered destinations. In fact, while in France, we scarcely heard another American (or British) voice anywhere.

On Friday, our little band hit the road, bound for Gordes, about an hour northwest of Eguilles. It's another village founded in the 1st Century AD, built on a high ridge in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. It's a stunning location, with numerous high overlooks, a few shops and restaurants, as well as a handful of caches (most of which I was able to claim). For lunch we ended up at a place called La Bastide de Pierres, which — perhaps oddly — served Italian food. I went for their Bolognese, which was pretty good. Kim and Beth occupied themselves shopping, while Terry and I found a cache and then a wine bar.

Once satisfied with our time in Gordes, we drove a few miles to a wonderful winery called Vignoble Chasson-Chateau Blanc, whose wines turned out to be the best we found in France. Prior to visiting this location, enjoying a fine (free) tasting, and purchasing a few bottles, none of us thought we'd find red wine in France that could rival the quality of our favorite Spanish and Italian reds. This wine did. In fact, I believe it's safe to say that the "Secret de Famille" and "Le Vigne Oublie" red blends were as good or better than any wine we've had at any winery on either side of the Atlantic.

The winery is located outside another small, very old village called Roussillon, so we decided to check it out. Just outside of town, there was a cache (Why, yes, I did claim it!) that required some tricky negotiating of terrain (that was one steep hill — and it didn't help that the coordinates were 100 ft. off). We wandered the ancient streets and alleys, found some interesting art (including a particular butterfly on a window, which I named "Inna Gada Da Vida," for obvious reasons), a few shops that Beth and Kim enjoyed, a staircase that for visual effect damn near rivaled the "Hitchcock Stairs" in Georgetown (best known for its appearance in The Exorcist), and a terraced restaurant called Cafe des Couleurs, which offered us a spectacular view of the valley below as well as a beautiful sunset. The food was decent, the service quite good.

We came away from Roussillon with at least one memorable moment. Terry entered a shop, and the proprietor offered him a cordial greeting. With equal cordiality, Terry said what was intended to be "Bonsoir!" ("good evening"), but what came out was "Bourgeois!" The proprietor either didn't notice or let it slide, but it was the very devil getting Beth up off the floor about then.

Eventually, we made our way back to Eguilles and enjoyed a few of the fruits from Vignoble Chasson-Chateau Blanc before retiring for the evening.
Closed-off entrance to an old mine in Roussillon
Sunset from the terrace of Cafe des Couleurs
Night falling in Roussillon
Saturday, October 16, 2021: My Head Aix
On Saturday morning, I got up early and took another walk after a cache — Ils Sont Fous Ces Romains #2 — which was the last of those I had yet to claim in Eguilles. This one lurked just outside the village's cemetery, which, hardly unexpectedly, proved scenic and serene. Happily, I found the cache quickly and easily.
Kim wanted to check out an artsy place or two in Aix-en-Provence and then head out to hike at the Gorges of Regalon, about 40 minutes north of Eguilles. Terry and Beth stayed put while Kim and I hit the road for Aix; unfortunately, as Aix was never designed for 21st Century traffic, the entire town was jammed to the point we couldn't find an unimpeded passage into town, much less a vacant parking space anywhere within reasonable walking distance. So, we turned around and retreated to Eguilles. Such are the rigors of muddling about unassisted in a strange land!

We all needed to get COVID-19 tests — negatif — for our flight to Venice on Monday, and, as it turned out, the sole site in Eguilles offering them was closed during the window that we needed them. So, with Aix offering the only possibility of an open testing site — shy of trying to get one at Nice Airport just prior to our flight, which seemed a risky proposition — the four of us piled into the car and headed back down the road. This time, we managed to find an unimpeded point of entry, as well as some reasonably convenient parking. So, we set out to find a testing center. The first was another washout, but the second — a tiny pharmacy in the middle of town — provided us with the requisite tests. As we anticipated (and hoped!), all of our test results were negatif. Say what you will, but the stringent precautions in Europe are by all accounts paying off. And if you aren't vaccinated, for the love of God, do it. If you aren't doing it for any reason other than medical, you are very much the reason we're still in this mess.

From there, I managed to snag a few caches, Kim found her artsy establishments, and food and wine found their way to us with nary an impediment. While the ladies did their traditional shopping, Terry and I sought — and discovered — much-needed refreshment at a small joint called Charly's Coffee, where we actually did get coffee, but also some wine once our better halves returned from their errands. After yet more wanderings, we procured dinner at one of the many outdoor establishments along the Rue Marcel Provence. Pour moi, A big old duck breast — and daggum if it wasn't the best duck I ever tasted. (I do love me some dead bird, don't you doubt it.)

On this evening, the crowd around "Les Cardeurs" wasn't so prodigious, so I managed to make a quick find. A novel cache it was, hidden in plain site.

At last, satiated and well on the way to weary, we hoofed it to the car and drove back to Eguilles. Early that morning, given our frustrating experiences, I had feared we had a long, fruitless day in store, but all in all, things worked out for the best. Not a complaint from any of our gang.

On the morrow, Kim and I anticipated visiting the Gorges de Regalon, which we had sadly passed up on Saturday. We suspected we would find the location stimulating. We had no idea.

Sunday, October 17, 2021: Gorgeous Gorge
Clearing a path for the old man is a heavy job for Ms. B.
Since circumstances had dictated a change of plan on Saturday, our gang figured we would simply move the Les Gorges des Regalon outing to Sunday. Unfortunately, some nefarious consumable from the previous evening left friend Beth's innards feeling rather unkindly, so Ms. B. and I drove ourselves out to the rugged highlands of the Petit Luberon mountain range, less than an hour from our home base at Eguilles, France. The gorges are narrow crevices —some no more than a meter or so wide — cut through the towering limestone ridges by the waters of the Mediterranean and lingering river systems several million years before most of us took to wandering about on this planet. Rockslides have led to several closings of the area over the years, but it is currently open to the public, and we were fortunate enough to avoid any geological hailstorms.

When we arrived at the parking area, we found a large number of people had preceded us, but we managed to park easily enough and set out on our hike up the ridge. Ms. B. and I knew the trails here are far more extensive than we could manage even in a day or more, so we just decided to hike until we decided we were done.

That ended up being about a three-mile round trip, in terrain that grew higher and more rugged the farther we went. We encountered numerous fantastic natural formations — grottoes, tunnels, and patterns intricately sculpted by nature. In a few places, boulders hung precariously above our heads, wedged within the crevices following plummets from unknown heights. I managed to find each of the caches I hunted here. In several places, continuing our forward progress required scaling rock walls of varying heights and difficulty, and when we finally reached one that Ms. B. considered prohibitive, we opted to head back.

Once back on the road, we stopped for a cache at a very old suspension bridge, which was clearly once the main road through the province. Here — quelle horreur! — Ms. B. readily found what the old man could not. On our outbound drive, we had noticed a little restaurant/wine bar out in the middle of nowhere, which appeared to be open. So, on our return trip, we decided to give it a try, and what a great discovery for us! It was a place called L'Escale des Vins, and here we found excellent food and drink indeed. I tried their white martini, which was unlike any I had drank — citrusy, a little sweet, and not particularly strong, which I considered just the ticket under the circumstances. For lunch, I had foie gras with cinnamon crumbles, a savory sauce, arugula, and grapes. It was absolutely delicious; one of the best dishes I had on this trip.

For the evening, we hung out with the gang in Eguilles, and since almost all neighboring restaurants were closed for Sunday dinner, we visited a supermarket not too far away and picked up miscellaneous goodies to prepare ourselves. There might have been a little wine as well.


Above left: One of the sizable tunnels we passed through; above right: one of the grottoes containing a cache
Above center: foie gras at L'Escale des Vins