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.

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