When I was 16, my friend Peggy asked me to babysit for her regular babysitting gig because she had to take the SATs. Kristina was a 6-month old baby living down the street from me. I liked Peggy. I didn’t really like 6-month olds. But I agreed to babysit for “that baby” just once.
My relationship with “that baby” turned into one of my most treasured relationships, the kind that makes you smile when you see their name pop up on your phone. Kristina’s name now shows up on my phone as “Haley’s Mom” because she and her husband, Mike, had a beautiful healthy baby girl in February. Haley Noel is now the same age as Kristina was when I first babysat for her. That makes me a little misty-eyed. And the fact that they gave Haley my middle name makes me even more misty-eyed.
In May, Kristina and Haley were going to Italy because Mike had a business trip there so I invited myself to come along for a few days. (Warning: If you mention you are going to a foreign country, I may invite myself.) Normal Amy-traveler would do tons of research on where to go and what to eat, but this trip I was going rogue. I did no research aside from smiling at photos of Haley counting the days until I got to meet her in Italy.
When I arrived in Milan, I drove to where Kristina was staying and finally got to meet Haley. Kristina and Mike are trying hard to not have a social media history of Haley but I did get permission to post this photo.
Kristina and I loaded up the car for a few nights in Lesa, located on Lake Maggiore, close to the border of Switzerland. I normally avoid hotel restaurants but there weren’t a ton of choices and there was one down the street from our apartment. We both ordered fish from the lake and Kristina said that her purple potato gnocchi was her favorite meal the entire trip. I’m not sure if it really was the gnocchi or the fact that we were in this beautiful Italian town enjoying catching up and oohing and ahhing over the sleeping baby.
On our first full day, we headed to Stressa, which Kristina accurately said is inaccurately named because it’s the opposite of stress. It’s a resort town on Lake Maggiore and is the launching spot for visiting the Borromean Islands. In 1918, Ernest Hemmingway was wounded in World War I and spent 6 months in a hospital in Milan. When he was released he was sent to Stressa for 10 days of R&R at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees and visited Pescatori, one of the Borromean Islands. Later he would include Stressa in “A Farewell to Arms.”
Mind you, I didn’t know any of this until after I got home. I just knew that Stressa had boat rides to islands which sounded like a fun way to spend a day and Haley would have a great story to tell later in life when someone asked, “where was your first boat ride?”
Pescatori has a population of about 60 residents and they work mostly at the restaurants and shops. We found a great lunch spot and although we were only supposed to be on that island for an hour before moving on to the other islands, we were having such a lovely afternoon that we ended up staying there for three hours.
The next day we headed to Arona for a pizza lunch with breathtaking views…and of course some gelato. We didn’t order the American pizza that came with hot dogs and French fries on it.
Arona had a wonderful lakeside trail lined with trees providing needed shade on a warm spring day. Most of the stores were closed during lunch time but it was still fun to walk on the old cobbled stones never knowing what would be around the next corner.
Cambiago is the town where Kristina had been staying with her husband. His work colleagues stay for months at a time and eat at La Giara most every night. They recommended some standard pasta dishes but I was still definitely on my “I want seafood” kick so I ordered the skewer of fish which turned out to be a skewer of everything in the water except fish. It was lightly breaded, versus how we fry everything in the South, perfectly seasoned and I could identify only about 1/3 of what I was eating.
Who doesn’t love a walled city? And even better when the walled city is on the top of a hill. Citta Alta looks over Bergamo and you get there on a slow-moving and stroller accessible funicular. We had lunch in the main courtyard of the Duomo, which was probably the only bad food decision we made. Aside from the view and the company, the best part of the restaurant was the Lego art in the cellar.
Dying to get to Lucca
Haley and her parents left to go home and I had a two days on my own. I originally thought I would head North to Switzerland to see the Matterhorn. But a storm was headed from Switzerland to Northern Italy with a prediction of snow in the Alps. I definitely was not packed to manage snow. I asked Mike’s coworkers for advice on where I should go and they recommended Lucca in Tuscany. When they mentioned it was a walled city, they had me hooked. It also looked like the only area on the entire boot of Italy where it wouldn’t be raining.
What they failed to tell me was that the road to Lucca was over a mountain range with limited guard rails, tons of trucks and long mountain tunnels with blinding neon lights…and it was pouring down rain the entire time. There were times when I considered turning around but dreams of a walled town pulled me through. I paid for the tolls with my credit card, even though I had enough Euros, because I figured there would be a trace of where I was if they needed to send out a search party to find me. (Me? Dramatic?) But, the minute I pulled into my parking spot in Lucca, the rain stopped and I found my new favorite place in Italy.
Lucca is a jewel of a city to get lost in for a day…or five. Many people use it as a base to visit Tuscany but if given the opportunity, I would find it difficult to leave Lucca for the hustle and bustle of Florence. In other Tuscan cities, the city walls were torn down when they were no longer needed for military purposes. But Lucca turned the walls into a pedestrian promenade and people stroll on it, ride bikes on it or just sit and enjoy the views. Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini so music comes from every nook and cranny of the city. And I had my most favorite gelato of the trip…pear, chianti and cloves. #geniusgelatomaker
Last Stop Brescia
My final day in Italy was in Brescia, at the foot of the Italian Alps in Lombardy. I picked it because it was about an hour away from the airport and the bold print on the map indicated to me that there would be things for me to do for a few hours in the morning before I went to the airport. Again, normally I would have done weeks of research to determine how to spend these last three hours but not this trip. I got to the hotel rather late and the restaurant was closed, but they were kind enough to make an exception and whipped up a meal for me. I know. Two hotel restaurants in one trip to Italy breaks all my rules.
As you are prone to do while on vacation, I had forgotten what day of the week it was until I saw the Saturday market. I tried to remind myself I only had three hours to stroll around but Saturday markets draw me in and the first time I checked the time, I had spent four and ½ hours…and couldn’t find my car.
I eventually found a police officer who spoke English to help me find the parking garage. I then had to rely on this phone map to make my way to the airport because my GPS on my phone decided to quit. Stressa, where are you when I need you?
One of the reasons I always encourage people to travel is because you end up learning things about yourself that you may not have learned sitting on your couch. I learned a few things about myself on this trip.
- Brace yourself. It’s not always about the food. Although I greatly enjoyed all my fresh fish and trying different gelato flavors, my favorite memories of this trip will always be just spending time with Kristina in her new role as mom. I love that we made these memories and cannot wait to one day share with Haley stories about her first boat ride and her first funicular ride.
- FOMO No Mo’. One of the reasons I have also over-planned trips is a fear of missing something that is only open on an afternoon, or something that is only 20-minutes away. But there is something wonderfully freeing about deciding where you are going in the morning based on the boldness of the letters of the town on a map. Next time I plan a trip, I will be sure to include days where nothing is planned. (Is that still considered planning?)
- Gratitude overflows. I am so thankful to still have Kristina in my life and that I have had the privilege to watch her grow from a sweet big-eyed 6-month old baby to a dynamic, practical, intelligent, funny, loving, strong and beautiful mom of her own sweet big-eyed 6-month old.
Ciao, Italia, for now. Amy Noel and Haley Noel will visit you again.
I’m Amy. And this is my feed.