Updated: Aug 23
When we unexpectedly sold our house before it was even on the market (and subsequently had to figure out what to do once we were home-free) we decided to head to Europe before our planned August 1st start date in Florence. But where to go? After considering our options we decided to roam around Italy and see areas we'd never visited before.
For 13 days we'd crisscross Northern Italy from the West to the East (with a little backtracking to Parma because...well, food!) before settling into Florence.
So, in July, we landed in Turin with everything we'd own for the next five months (our winter bags will meet us in London in December). The capital of the Piedmont region of Italy, and located at the foot of the Alps, Turin seemed like a great place to begin before heading to our next stop - the Aosta Valley on the border between France and Italy. Even in Northern Italy, the heat wave and drought that has impacted the rest of the country was quickly evident.
The Po River was very low, and the temperatures were near 100 F every day. This was where we quickly learned a lesson that would serve us well the rest of our travels...and we became adept at reciting a very simple phrase that saved us: Birra alla spina, per favore (draft beer, please). The coldest beer was always on tap, whereas the bottles were cool at best. In the crazy heat, Birra alla spina became our mantra.
Yes, it was hot, but that didn't mean we weren't going to try the drink that Turin is known for: Bicerin. We headed to Caffe Mulassano, a small, historic cafe renowned for this traditional hot drink made of espresso, chocolate, and milk layered in a glass. I don't drink coffee, but Joe does, and watching his gorgeous chocolatey creation arrive, I decided to have the first coffee of my life. Fortunately, there was SO much chocolate I actually enjoyed it a lot. A definite must-do in Turin.
While Turin was a nice place to spend our first two days, it wasn't somewhere we'd suggest spending too much time.
That said, you've got to love a city that has library bicycles in the park!
At the end of our two days in Turin we were definitely ready (and super excited) to head to our next stop: Courmayeur.
When most people think of the Alps, they think Switzerland, France, and Austria. We discovered that the amazing town of Courmayeur, Italy is very much in the Alps and perfect for our summer tour of Italy. While a popular destination for Europeans, this is a little-known hidden gem for North Americans!
Situated adjacent to Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in the Alps at 15,774 ft), this lovely Alpen town is dramatically different than what most expect in Italy. Tyrolean chalet architecture, lush green mountains everywhere, and a melding of German, French, and Italian languages spreads across street signs, business names, and restaurant menus.
The cobblestone streets are lined with lovely shops, bistros, and restaurants. Many of the shops morph from ski equipment in winter to hiking gear during the summer. This place is something special.
After settling in on our first day, the next morning we were ready for an adventure. We strapped on our hiking shoes and set out for some altitude. The ski slopes are long closed, but we took a gondola, then a chairlift up onto the mountain for access to amazing summer hiking trails.
Before we knew it, the Mont Blanc peak and upper glaciers were in full glorious view. The meadows and hills were lush and green with wildflowers in full bloom everywhere we looked. The heat of the summer sun was melting the glaciers into torrents of water that flowed down into a multitude of mountainside waterfalls.
We crossed paths with many day hikers like us, but occasionally we came across a group of more dedicated climbers, doing a trek of ten miles per day for ten days, all the way around Mont Blanc, with pack
mules carrying their gear. Too serious for us but hats off to them for committing to such a journey.
Some of our hiking trails were mild mannered, and some came with a need for serious caution. With the multitude of languages spoken here, the verbiage free image on this sign speaks for itself. One false move and you'll fall straight down, landing on your head!
The hike would not be complete without a version of Julie Andrews' Sound of Music scene, with Jennifer playing Julie's character Maria joyously proclaiming that the hills are alive!
As we hiked back down the trail, thirsty from the eight-mile climb and the hot sun, we neared the ski lodge which doubles in summer as a respite for weary hikers. We were thrilled to order a frosty cold Italian beer while resting and enjoying the incredible view across the Italian Alps.
Courmayeur is a fantastic summer destination and after riding the lifts, hiking across ski trails, and observing the steep slopes of grass and rock, we fully intend to head here for the deep snow and a day or two of skiing next March when we are booked to ski Mont Blanc on the French side. Italy is just a short bus ride away! Salute!
From Courmayeur it was time to head to the other Italian peaks - the Dolomites! That meant traversing East with a short stopover in Lake Garda along the way.
Located at the edge of the Dolomites on its Northern shore, Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy. It's a popular summer vacation destination and it was a little jarring going from the quiet and remoteness of Courmayeur to a spot with lots of people and activity. We couldn't help but compare Lake Garda to our trip last fall to Lake Como. By comparison, the town (Desenzano del Garda) felt more crowded and commercial.
We were only on Lake Garda for one night, so we didn't get to do too much, but we did take a sunset cruise to get the full effect of the place, and it didn't disappoint. The crew served cold prosecco while the sun sunk beyond the horizon. Our boat was complete with a saxophone player providing background music as the sun went down.
We had a lengthy drive to the mountain town of Balzano the next morning, so this was a nice way end our day and visit to Lake Garda.
We hope you enjoy the view and the serenade as much as we did!
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