Lake Garda, Land of Stunning Beauty and Bad Fashion

City people usually have an escape plan for the weekend. In and around Milan there’s almost too many options. For starters, if you pick the closest lake from the city you’ll end up in Desanzano Del Garda—- or some people just call it Desanzano because they know it’s a beachy town on the shores of Lake Garda. You can get there by train from Milan Central Station. The ride on a high speed train (Frecciarosa) is about 50 minutes. A 10 Euro taxi ride will take you to the center of town in 5 minutes where the Ferry Boats, water-side hotels and cafes are.

First you”ll be awed by the hypnotic turquoise of beautiful Lake Garda. Then–when you see what the people are wearing you”ll be appalled. If the fashion police were here—there”d be a lot of arrests. If you ever find yourself wondering…Hmmm what should I wear to Lake Garda? dig up anything you wore to a wedding or a funeral in the 20th century , then go to the clearance rack at your local Walmart for shoes and accessories.

Evenings in the town piazza are so lively and relaxing you might even start singing along with the cheesy entertainment. I was smitten with a musician who looked like he”d been impersonating the lead singer from Air Supply since the 80″s and was still wearing the same jacket and hair. It”s more likely he”s been wearing that sequined lounge jacket for 30 years but recently replaced his hair. It could be a snazzy wig he picked up on a trip to Vegas for an Elvis Impersonator convention. Whatever his story, he knows how to get people singing and making fools of themselves.

After a couple of Campai Spritzes, who cares if you”re singing Volate in Italian that”s “no molto bene” . It didn’t take long before I knew that my singing sucks as much as my Italian. As I sang along with the 80s guy I thought I felt multiple stab wounds in my eyeballs. I don’t know if it was the blinding flash of copper sequins on his jacket or a woman who was giving me the “death glare” . In Italy when you stare at someone that you would like to kill or put a curse on, this is called the “mal occio” or “evil eye.” Either this woman hated my singing or hated my outfit. I wasn’t wearing any 80″s throwback fashions… no rhinestone bedazzled leopard print or faux leather . My clothes are West Coast cool. Therefore I must die by the glare of the evil eye.

The great thing about Lake Garda (aside from the surreal fashion) is the relaxing ferry boat rides you can take from Desenzano to explore many other small towns around the lake.

A ride to Sirmione is about 6 Euros round trip. You can wander around this charming little town with its ancient castle and colorful gardens. Enjoy a drink and some lunch at a cafe near the castle where you can people-watch and see who”s dressed in hard core horrendous outfits. . It’s clear that no one who visits Sirmione has any gay friends who can at least help them look a little less like disco refugees. Oh yeah, there’s plenty of night clubby bling in the blazing sunlight of day. Just make sure you wear sunglasses — and sunscreen . Those Rhinestone studded sandals can burn your flesh if you get close to them. .

The excess and gaudiness of Sirmione also pervades into the food. Where there were tiny dollops of gelato in Milan…. here there are mounds and piles so big and fluffy you wonder if they’re made of something hatched in the laboratory of a mad scientist.

If your meal turns out to be larger than life , don’t try to eat it. I ordered grilled octopus and got a piece of the creature from the black lagoon. Usually grilled octopus area tender skinny pieces of tentacles . with tiny suction cups. I took a bite but stopped when I thought I heard it scream The at me in Italian.

Don’t be afraid. Order it on a pizza. The natural beauty of Lake Garda will make all the gaudy details seem like well deserved amusements. Go ahead , indulge in a pair of bedazzled socks, a colossal gelato cone and a T-shirt that says I love Leonardo.

Where I stayed : Hotel Europa . One of many Lake front hotels that skirt the shores. Europa has astonishingly comfortable beds ( thick memory foam) that groove to the shape of your body no matter what shape you’re in. It’s like sleeping in a cloud. I’m big on comfortable beds . There’s nothing like ending a magical day in Europe sleeping on a rock hard torcher rack. You’ll find plenty of this in Venice, but more about that later! My next post will be about another magnificent Lake — Como! Stay tuned !

How to Ditch Jet Lag at Milan’s Secret Happy Place

When you land in Milan — or anyplace else in the world — your body clock is more confused than a dog in a kitty litter box. The time zone is wrong.. You left the here and now at home and you flew into the future. Is it time to eat sleep or poop? Your body won’t do any of them. Ok, well–I can always eat. But the food feels wrong like you’re still digesting that $19 cheese & cracker snack you bought at the airport.

Here”s advice for jet lag when you arrive: dump your bags at your hotel and go to Milan’s secret happy place- the QC Terme Milan Wellness Center. For 40 euros you can spend hours at this spa soaking in pools and waterfalls, enjoying a buffet of unlimited wine, smoothies and healthy appetizers. This magical wonderland can wash away all those bad in-flight movies, screaming kids and passengers who smell like socks and garlic and spend 20 minutes in the restroom—alone.

Don’t even think about going to this amazing place. Just do it ! As soon as you dump your luggage, get an Uber ride to QC Terme Milan . And I hope to God you packed a swim suit. This is not a naked place. You have to wear proper spa gear. If you’re reading this and you’re still home, toss a swimsuit in your suitcase . Even if you aren’t going anywhere by the time you read this blog you”ll be ready to get the hell out of town and go to Milan!

An Uber ride to the spa might be pricey– like in the $25 to $35 range, but well worth the spend. You won’t have to buy dinner if you stay for Happy Hour, which starts at 7:30 pm. In Milan it”s called “appertivo.” There you can enjoy a huge spread of delicious healthy food and drinks–and vino! Imagine that!

Here’s what happened : I walked into the lobby with my travel buddy, Christine, trying not to look like a couple of lost tourist dorks who can’t speak Italian. We look like Italians so the hostess rattled off instructions in Italian. “This is our first time,” I said looking even dorkier when I asked her to repeat everything in English. “Alora” she says. Italians say this word a lot. When they’re trying to figure out what to say to you. Most people in Milan can speak enough English to help us get what we need.

Pay at the reception desk. Proceed to the cubby on your left and get a robe, flip flops, towels and water bottles. . Then go to the locker room, put your swim suit on and stuff your clothes into a locker. You have to drop in a 1 Euro coin into the lock, which releases a key that you wear on your wrist after you lock up your things. Take a shower then head for the pools. There’s two huge pools outside and several downstairs on the lower level.

I recommend starting outside if the weather is nice. Have a good long soak in one of the warm pools where you can gaze at the old fortress wall built in 600 AD. The property is surrounded by ancient red bricks of a distant world long gone. But their shadows loom over you as a reminder that anything can be transformed into a place of peace and happiness.

I was surprised to see so many young people there — mostly 20″s and 30″s. But wait a minute —- no wonder they’re happy. Unlimited wine, food, and dark places to canoodle make for a perfect date night or a healthy alternative to bars for socializing. If you’re not with a date or significant other don’t worry — its a very diverse crowd of all ages. Friends, families and solo travelers can all feel comfortable wandering from warm waters to cool showers, salt rooms, saunas, and lounge areas where you lay quietly in the darkened theatre of wonders to turn off your brain and listen to the jungle.

There are waterfalls, stone slabs that rain showers on you from head to toe, and plenty of peace and quiet. Stay as long as you need to –it’s open till 11:30 pm. You can get a day pass and also book a massage. I recommend booking online ahead of time. If you want to add a service to your visit, book it online at their website.

In a few hours the jet lag melts away. Your body begins to figure out when it’s time to sleep. To demand that cup of coffee. And finally poop.

Cooking with Strangers in Cinque Terre

Most people visit Cinque Terre (the five Villages) for 2 or 3 days then shove off to Pisa, Florence and Venice. But if you take some extra time to hang out on the Italian Riviera I recommend more beach time and a cooking class or wine tasing experience. Sure, it’s cool to see as much as possible when you’re abroad , but sometimes you have to slow down and smell the garlic.

For a taste of “slow Italy” I took a cooking class at the Cinque Terre Cooking School then a wine school to learn more about food and drinkies. So next time I order wine I can do more than just point at the cheapest glass on the menu and say ” err, uh…that one.”

The Cinque Terre Cooking School

This class takes place on the front porch of a restaurant high in the hills of Monterosso al Mare. A shuttle van picks you up in town and drives for 15 minutes up a steep winding road.. You never know who you”ll be in the cooking class with till you get into the van. It’s a little like moving into a college dorm room and meeting your roommate for the first time. The people in the class will be cooking, eating and drinking wine with you for the next 3 hours. Don’t worry about who your classmates will be. They immediately pump you up with cappuccinos and wine. After your 4th glass of Prosecco you could be cooking with Vladimir Putin and enjoying the chatter. You’ll be so buzzed everyone around you will seem cool.

Luckily I was in class with a nice young couple from Minnesota who were happily married and fascinated with their kids. Happy parents with no complaints. Amazing! But their children are still little. Give them 7 more years and teenagers, they’ll need a lot more Prosecco and more trips to Italy without the kids.

The Chef instructor was not an Italian. He was from the Philippines. What?? We’re not cooking Italian food with an Italian Chef? Isn’t that sort of like having to call your Stepfather Dad? Who is this guy and why is he posing as an Italian? To solve this, drink more prosecco At least Vladimir Putin isn’t teaching us how to make Gnocchi.

The first thing you cook is a desert bread that’s made of lemoncello, dried fruit and cement. It might be flour, but after a few bites of this cake it feels like you ate cement. In fact, after the cake comes out of the oven it feels like a heavy brick you can hurt someone with. Fun to make but don’t eat it. Make a list of all your enemies and give them cement cake for Christmas.

Next you make pesto by beating the hell out of basil leaves with a mortar and pestle. To achieve the smoothest creamiest textured pesto sauce, think about all your exes and bad break ups as you pound the garlic cloves and beat the pine nuts to a pulp with your bare hands.

Now, that you’ve worked yourself up into a hostile froth of vengeance energy —you can grab a sharp knife and fillet the fish. We had to chop the head off that mutherf*cking sea bass and slice the shit out of it till you get a nice fillet for baking. After all the mashing, pounding and stabbing I was feeling less like Julia Childe and more like one of Tony Soprano”s hit men.

We also made some stuffed vegetables and fresh gnocchi, which also included a ton of cement. When the meal was done we probably used enough flour to feed a third world nation. If gluten kills you, then write up a will before eating. The food we made was fun and delicious but, if you plan on eating it, just know it’s the polar opposite of Chinese food. It will “go right through you” in about a week and a half . It might happen when you’re on a train to Barcelona or in Venice during your gondola ride. It doesn’t matter. Your body clock is all screwed up any way. Have another glass of wine.

Cinque Terre Wine School

I wouldn’t call it a wine “school” but that’s what some clever tourist mogul branded 3 hours in a posh restaurant tasting 7 different types of wine with an extremely handsome waiter explaining each one as we slowly get sloshed drinking and tasting high end gourmet food.

Before the second glass of white the last thing I remember Lorenzo saying was that anchovies where called pan du mare ( bread from the sea) . There’s a shit ton of anchovies in the Ligurian sea and apparently every type of wine on the planet is paired with them.

After a few more flights of wine here’s what the “instructor ” said: ” Blaaabbaa blabba bla blabba bla” We learned that he is “almost engaged” to the daughter of the restaurant owner.

We admired his stunning blue eyes as he blabbed on about the wine. We took lots of pictures of Lorenzo.

I would highly recommend this experience, even if you don’t know sh*t about wine. The food & wine at La Tortuga restaurant in Monterosso is superb. If you sit outside you’ll have a stunning ocean view, but I would rather sit inside in air conditioned comfort with stunning views of handsome waiters and plates of amazing looking food.

Speaking of food, my next blog will be from Florence , on how to eat your way to through the Central Market.

How to book:

Cinqueterrecookingschool.com

Cinqueterrewineschool.com

The Best of Cinque Terre in 7 Days or Less

The first day of a trip to Italy starts with gelato. Never go to Italy thinking you’ll just have a few scoops and be done. There’s too many flavors– each one labor intensive and obsessively hand made. Gelato making is an Italian super power. For every day of my 3 week trip I sample a flavor crafted by the local Michelangelo of ice cream. Wherever you begin your journey through Italy, start with Gelato. Then go to Cinque Terre and spend a week unwinding in Monterosso.

Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare.

Gelato of the day: Amarena Affogato / Vanilla Gelato with Black Cherries

Where to get it: Nuovo / Bar Eden Via Fegina 7 Monterosso Al Mare, Italy

A regular spoon won’t cut it when you’re working through the deep dark sweet tart cherries and vanilla channel to the bottom of your desert cup. You need a little shovel. Don’t worry about the calories. Somehow they burn off fast when you’re trekking across ancient cobblestone streets that were constructed during a time when being fat was a privilege. Anyone with a huge ass in the 15th Century was wealthy. Only the rich could afford enough food to have a bloated muffin top gut.

Monterosso

Of the five villages in Cinque Terre I stay in Monterosso because it has the most walkable areas that are flat and level. If I go to any of the other villages I’ll need hiking gear and a crew of paramedics ready to carry me on a stretcher in case I twist my ankle, hip or knees walking up 100s of steps for a slice of pizza . I’m 60 and that’s too f*cking old to be sprinting up the front of a mountain with a backpack and a selfie stick.

Monterosso has everything you need to relax, get rid of jet lag , workaholism, and any fear of second hand smoke you might have when you take your first breath of fresh ocean air and your lungs are suddenly filled with a waft of Camels from a guy in a Speedo on the lounge chair next to yours. When his girlfriend fishes a pack of Marlboro’s out of her Dolce & Gabbana bag you know they’ll be chain smoking while they sunbathe, swim and eat. So just don’t think about it. There’s a certain faction of Italians who do everything with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth. This is another Italian Super Power— the ability to do anything from changing a diaper to singing opera with a lit cigarette pressed between their lips.

.* Note: I took the first photo of El Gigante (sculpture of Neptune) 2 years ago. This year he’s “getting some work done.” While he’s being renovated his muscle beach bod is covered in scaffolding — so Monterosso will be missing a major chunk of eye candy for a while. Can’t wait to see his new look.

The turquoise ocean is cool and clean at Fegina Beach. I went to the far end, which is off a street called Via Fagina , or in English , it means “Chain Smoking Speedo Dude Street.” There you can rent a beach chair and an umbrella for 10 euros or go a little further to the free public beach and lay a towel in the gravelly sand beneath towering walls of mountain cliffs and rocks. In this enclave a giant sculpture of Neptune jutting out from the mountainside makes everyone seems small and insignificant. Neptune–god of the sea–is called “El Gigante” here. It was built in 1910 out of concrete—the stuff I made a dessert bread with in a Monterosso cooking class. (More about my cooking class in the next blog entry) . The sculpture is 46 feet high and weighs 1700 tons. I wish I could look that good weighing 1700 tons. The “sweet spot” is a cove of shoreline where you can lay in the sun or in the shady shadows of El Gigante, If your eyes start hurting from too many exposed Dad bods on the beach, look up at Neptune and be glad he stayed in shape.

Every so often someone tries to sell you a hippie blanket or a dress or a shirt or a massage. Say yes to the massage. I recommend spending a few hours every other day getting a massage on the sand. An Italian-Vietnamese woman gave me a 1 hour massage for 30 euros right there on my towel. I got so relaxed I didn’t care what day it was or what I had to do. There’s nothing like sun , salt air and a pair of human hands to dissolve the stuff of life that winds you up. Before you do anything else, wind down. Don’t think. Just be. In your zen moment on a beach in Monterosso, there is nothing you have to do but get your next gelato.

Cool places to chill out near Fegina Beach

Bar Gigante The ultimate beach vibe. Breathtaking view. Open early in the morning till late at night. You can sip your cappuccino, beer or cocktail any time of day. They have a diverse ” beach food” menu and lots of big colorful salads. Live music on Fri. & Sat nights.

L’Ancora della Tortuga

Top notch seafood restaurant and wine school with a stunning view.
Salita Cappuccini 419016 Monterosso al Mare, 
Barabba Ristorante on Via Fagina. Informal beachside dining spot great for lunch & drinkies

Slurp Gelato Artigianale Like Vodka, Not all gelato is created equal. The more detailed the process making it and higher the quality ingredients, the more flavorful and authentic my clean tasting it is. Some people are happy with anything sweet and creamy, but if you’re foodie into good quality and that “unforgettable” taste, go to Slurp. It was the best gelato in all of the 5 villages. There’s a nonstop cluster of people in there grabbing cones, handmade popsicles (non dairy) and cups . While marveling over your tasty You can sit at their tables along the seaside to gaze at the breathtaking coastline, people watch or just feel like you’re in heaven on earth.

Stroll around town, shop, snap photos, eat. Do lunch at a beach bar, dinner at a seaside restaurant. You can’t have a bad meal or take a bad photo in Italy. Every country has its armpits but most of the places you’ll visit will be like walking through a picture postcard collage. If you have an eye for detail you’ll become a famous photographer in minutes!

I peeked into a window of a kitchen and saw this! Italy’s rocket fuel — is tomato sauce!

Monterosso part 1 and 2

I’ve seen people rushing around Cinque Terre trying to see the whole thing in 3 days. I don’t recommend it, but if you’re only there for a short time you should know that Monterosso has an “old part of town” and a”new part of town.” A walkable tunnel connects the two areas … so whichever side of the tunnel you end up in, be sure to walk through it and see what’s on the other side.

Explore the other Villages: Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Porto Venere

There’s 3 ways to explore the other villages around Monterosso: Ferry Boat, Train or Hiking. The entire area is not car friendly, so if you’re driving, stash your car in a garage. Monterosso has a big long term parking garage at the end of Via Roma in the historic district. You’ll see eye popping dramatic photos of the other villages on the internet, but once you get there, you’ll find they’re small and have 1 road straight UP. There isn’t much to do in Vernazza, Riomaggiore or Corniglia aside from hiking, taking some snapshots and a few ships and cafes. This is why I recommend Monterosso as your home base. It’s more expensive to stay there but you’ll spend more time and money leaving your little village to go elsewhere once you’ve been there for an hour.

Hotels are a little pricey but keep on the lookout for specials on booking.com, where you can also get a $25 discount on anything you book using this link click HERE for a $25 on bookings

In Monterosso, or any of the five villages for that matter, if you don’t book a hotel that’s on Via Fagina or super close to it, prepare to drag your luggage up dozens of steps and steep upgrades. If you like level ground, book a hotel or AirBnB on or close to Via Fagina or Via Roma ( historic district )

If you arrive by train you will be in the new part of town. The historic district is through the tunnel about 1/2 mile walk from the station. Taxis and little busses are everywhere but you have to call a taxi . You can’t just flag one down. Uber or Lyft? Nope!

How to stay in Cinque Terre if you’re on a lower budget:

Too broke to even think about a hotel? Good news– there’s a great hostel in Biassa, about a 10 minute bus ride up the hill from Riomaggiore, and several others in Cinque Terre.

Check Hostelworld.com for cheap digs

Lake Como– Where Everyone is the Papparazzi

Menaggio, Lombardy, Italy
Saturday, September 24, 2016

I didn’t take the private motorboat tour of George Clooney’s front lawn when I went to Lake Como, but maybe I should have. I figured this guy just be tired of seeing boats whizzing by his 10 million dollar villa loaded with tourists taking videos and photos with zoom lenses hoping to catch glimpse of him doing whatever movie stars do in Italy. While 2 of my friends were in a cafe in Rome they happened to be sitting at a table next to Alec Baldwin and some producer type guy, apparently discussing a movie deal. While Baldwin was putting away a whole pitcher of beer my friends were taking pictures of him. He looked a little bloated, like he’d been eating too much pizza. Instead of touring “la Villa di George Clooney”  I took a bus from Menaggio –where my hotel room on the lakefront was — to Como and then to Bellaggio. Maybe next time I would see some of the Cribs of the long gone mega wealthy that you can actually go inside and take tours of.  Walking through the towns were good enough for me, since every two blocks there was a store with awesome Italian fashion for not a whole lot of money. I bought lots of clothes and people watched to see where everyone came from and where they were going. One thing you might want to buy in Bellaggio are silk scarves. They’re amazingly cheap and locally made. If you bought them here they would be super pricey, so if you give them as gifts people will think you spent a lot on them! And when you wear them you’ll feel like a movie star. You could pass for George Clooney’s neighbor.
THe bus ride from Menaggio to Como is about an hour and runs past a lot of cool little villages along the lake that are worth a little stopover to explore.

IMG_1041.JPG
But Como is actually a huge city, where you can see a scenic view or a refugee camp of Serians living in tents on the lawn in front of train station. Piles of blankets and tents were on every square foot of dirt available, far far away from the world of George Clooney.  In moments like this I really want to punch people who complain about little things. They really should spend some time in a war zone.
I took the finiculare up the side of the hill for a view of the city from way up high. It’s a great place to have lunch and feel lucky I’m  not a war refugee. If George Clooney’s villa will make you feel envious and deprived, then I highly recommend touring the refugee camp by the train station instead.
The fast express ferry from Como to Bellaggio trusts me to a charming like town where I can gawk and ogle all the ornate architecture and upscale streets, where waves of British tourists are doing the same thing, only with a lot of booze. I kept running into the same groups Brits in different bars around the Lake drinking wine and shots of limoncello. Cennturies ago they might have been searching for the holy grail. Now they’re searching for George Clooney. Or more shots of limoncello.
They make sllk in Como, so you can get a killer silk scarf for the price off a pizza.
Photos of  celebrities who hung out there are available to buy in case you don’t want to stalk them with your Go Pro.
This lake area is a place I like coming back to. Mainly for the ridiculously clean air and the friendly ducks. The booze swilling Brits are always fascinating to watch. I don’t know how they can put away so much beer, wine and appertivos without being hung over the next morning at the breakfast buffet. They seem chipper and ready to start doing shots right after breakfast. If I drank like that I’d need a liver transplant by dinner time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I started watching a woman who were wearing full-on face burka trying to eat spaghetti. The guy she was with was sailing thru his pasta slurping while his wife had to lift the drape of fabric that covered her nose and mouth with revel walking her face to get a forkful under there without splashing sauce on the inside of it.
Not something George Clooneys wife would wear. The booze swilling Brits might enjoy this face gear if it had a built in barf bag. But so far it’s restricted to religious extremists enjoying a day in Bellaggio. Next time I might take the private paparazzi tour for a glimpse of celebs in their villas taking out the garbage. For now I just take mental images of the Alps that reflect on the deep blue lake. Switzerland is a few minutes drive across the border–where you can take a private tour of celebrity bank accounts.

Armpits to Awesomeness–From Milan to Monterosso

A Tale of Armpits and Awesomeness–Trekking from Milan to the Italian Riviera

For the average workaholic American who has to shove as many sights into a one or two week time frame in Italy, tough choices will plague you. When you visit a place where you can’t eat a bad meal, can’t take a bad photo and everything around you is oozing with thousands of years of art, magic, and history– How do you cram all that into a week or two without going home feeling like it was all a blur?

Three weeks is really the minimum time you need to be there. Ideally one to three months would be the perfect trip to Italy. But you’re laughing now, right?  Hey, 3 months in Italy might seem like an impossible dream, but this is the age of the digital nomad. If you can work at home, you can work from anywhere in the world with a phone, an iPad, and some toilet paper.  I spent the first of three weeks in Sardinia just unwinding at the beach till I remember how to take my time doing things like eating, reading, and being in the present moment– not thinking ahead into the future or about the past. You know, slow down and smell the garlic.

When I’m traveling I feel like I have to be in the “now” as much as possible. If your brain cells aren’t perceiving everything that’s “right now” trust me–you won’t remember the details of your trip. Time will seem like it flew by at 100 miles an hour.  As I enter the second week, I feel like I was in Sardinia for a hundred years. Time to go to Milan.
I was supposed to meet up with my friend, Kat who invited two of her friends whom I never met, and those two friends never met each other.  We were all meeting at the Espresso Hotel that’s a short walk from Linate airport. When I go to Milan, I fly into Linate –not Malpensa.  It’s a much smaller airport, not crowded and only 8 miles from the city center. Malpensa, the huge insane airport is a 1 hour jet lagged ride to the city. I like the Espresso Hotel because you can walk there from the airport, and the vibe is informal and friendly–very generation X.  The guys who work there are an assortment of attractive looking underwear model types, dudes with beards and man-buns, and a few lesbians.

Oh, and there’s a fuzeball table in the entryway, like what you would see at the Standard Hotel in Downtown LA. You never see any humans playing with it. It’s more like a MONUMENT to remind you that you’re not old and boring if you enter these doors. My friend, Kat was supposed to arrive early enough to introduce us all—but her flight got canceled, so we were three women who had a mutual friend who wasn’t going to arrive till the next day. This was either going to be loads of fun or the vacation from hell. The first friend, Melanie was a low maintenance and likeable chiropractor from Arizona who laughed at my jokes.

The other lady, who I’ll call “Norma Desmond” was a whiney, fussy , bitchy, narcissistic tantric healer from Florida. A refugee from the “Summer of Love”  I assumed. For you younger readers, the Summer of Love was in 1969 when people were all about “discovering themselves” ” and “letting it all hang out” –which means they can saying anything they feel like and do whatever they want — even if it’s rude and annoying for others. They rebelled against their parents and ignored their children and had a lot of random sex while tripping on acid.  These self obsessed egotists were called Hippies. Some made a valiant effort to change the world. But most of them were just assholes. Norma Desmond was a little bit of both.

One thing you have to know about  Milan–it’s Italy’s most fashion forward, innovative design- oriented city. If Milan were a human, it would be a speaker at the TED talks.  (TED,  an acronym for Technology, Education, Design is an expensive conference where people pay $6000 just to hear people who are NOT assholes talk on stage)
When you only plan to be in Milan for a short time short time you have to avoid the mediocre and go straight for the awesomeness.
I dragged everyone to Linate airport where we took the local 73 bus to Piazza Del Duomo. Ignore all the shiny stores and cafes and go straight to the Duomo– the massive white Cathedral that dominates the ancient cobblestone square.
The initial sight of the Duomo takes your breath away, and you just have to stare at it — because IT is staring at YOU.  This enormous cathedral is covered in thousands of statues hewn from granite. Thousands of eyes on thousands of faces gaze at you from everywhere on the building.

That initial silence that sweeps over you even shut Norma Desmond up. For a minute she stopped complaining about muslims and gluten.
You don’t need to go inside the church, but you have to go up to the roof and walk on it.  We have to pay 10 euros to take the elevator to rooftop. All of the funds they collected are used to restore this 14th  century’s masterpiece to its original wedding cake white and pink granite color. I was there 25 years ago when the whole facade was black as a barbecue grill. I used to imagine what it looked like without the soot. Now that it’s being restored, all I can say is WOW.  On the rooftop, I have to  take my shoes off off and give myself a holy reflexology treatment by taking a barefoot walk across the cool slabs of stone. Say hello to all the statutes of saints.  Take a shitload of pictures. No matter how many times I go to the Duomo, I’m still smitten by all that hard rock shaped into soft, flowing curves.
I had to use a lot of impulse control. IT was hard to stop taking pictures. And it was REALLY hard not to throw Norma Desmond off the roof.
As I snapped away, She rambled about evils of pasteurized cheese, ranted about how you have to “sage” the hotel room before you use the toilet, and how everyone who doesn’t detox in an infrared sauna is going to die of gluten poisoning and how it’s terrible that people are killing themselves with cigarettes and junk food and not having enough sex. “Did you KNOW that a person with cancer has the same vibration as a person who doesn’t have enough sex.??” She exclaimed in the elevator.
In that moment, I learned something about myself. I learned that I will never end up in an Italian prison. Because I will not strangle Norma Desmond. I will not punch her in the face. And when she moans about her fear of gluten, I will buy her a slice of pizza.
Directly facing the Piazza Del Duomo, next to the money exchange, there’s a pizza place where you have to stop and just binge on tomato and cheese covered carbs. We said ” OMIGOD” a lot. And “holy shit! This is awesome!”
Next, we jump on the red “Hop on Hop off ” bus and see all the neighborhoods from the top level while listening to gobs of history facts spew from the earbuds you wear to find out where you are and who conquered it in the 5th Century.
The best thing to do for dinner, is NOT a restaurant. We got off the bus in a bohemian flavored neighborhood called the Navigli where hordes of locals go to sit in cafes on the river bank and smoke cigarettes while they drink spritzes and consume unlimited quantities of appetizers for 9 euros. We grabbed a table — and in a cloud of outdoor cigarette smoke thicker than the smog in LA– we ate little plates of eggplant Parmesan and salads, roasted potatoes, and all kinds of veggies till we had our fill of Milan.

The next day we lugged our suitcases up a zillion flights of train platform stairs to go Cinque Terra to overdose on photo snapping and gelato…and take a ferry to each of the five villages clustered on the Italian Riviera.
This was my second visit to the Cinque Terra, but this time I discovered a beach I didn’t know about in Monterosso. There’s a bunch of cafes, stores and restaurants snaking along the cliffs, and down below there’s the turquoise sea with a nice sprawl of sand and beach chairs. Sure, we’ve all been to a beach before. But in Monterosso, while you’re laying under the raging purple sky, you’ll hear church bells clanging on the hour. You’ll gaze at the colossal carving of a guy who looks like the Incredible Hulk jutting out from the mountain rock and looming over your head. A chubby cat from the neighborhood might wander near you and give you a friendly meow. It’s a whole different vibe.
We took the ferry to as many of the little towns as we could possibly walk through. The  great thing about Cinque Terre is that there are no cars. Everybody has to walk to their houses which are usually at the tops of a steep cliff or a hill. I guess the locals are used to it. I even saw an old grandma trudging up a hill with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

The bad thing is that there are too many tourists crammed in small places like the town of Vernazza which is kind of an armpit.  It’s as if there was pipeline from New Jersey that dumps obnoxious douche bags straight into the center of town. Although a lot of people go there to hike along the cliffs, I go there to sit on my ass and sip cups of thick as mud hot chocolate, and wander through the tiny shops, hoping the hot chocolate won’t make my ass too big to fit into the interesting clothes I’m buying. With the exception of Vernazza, most  of the Cinque Terre is pure awesomeness. Luckily we picked the perfect neighborhood to stay in, right by the beach in Monterosso where the only armpit I encounter is the one that belongs to the colossal muscle man that’s carved out of a mountain.

The Weird Secrets of Cagliari

Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy
Friday, September 9, 2016

Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia is awesome when you can find what you’re  looking for. But good luck with that! Every inch this ancient city is a mystery grab bag treasure hunt type experience, where you try to find something, but there’s no signs or specific info pointing toward its whereabouts. Even if you’re looking for a specific attraction, their website gives vague information, like a street but with no number…or a street address you can’t enter with a car.

The town might even be populated by Vampires! During the day it’s a ghost town, then at night people are all over the place. The merchants of Cagliari definitely need some business advice on how to earn tourist dollars. (They don’t seem interested in selling or prepared for it)  But for now, if you want to find something you better freakin’ work hard and hunt for it!
And somewhere during your hunt you might end up buying something you would never own in a million years. Cagliari has a subtle impermeable way of influencing you until you cave in and roll with the way things are.  My first search was for the AirBnB of Roberta–a small room in her top floor apartment for only 35 euros per night–which helps even out getting hozed on the expensive shit, like gas and renta car insurance. Pretty much everything other than gas and car insurance is reasonably priced in Sardinia. A tank of gas is about $80. Local stuff is a good deal. I never shop in Europe, too pricey– but shopping in Sardinia is fun. Most of the clothes and shoes are made locally or made in Spain, so no cheap-o Chinese slave-made stuff for sale here. The prices are super low compared to mainland Europe. It seems like they don’t WANT to charge you a lot. The Jews haven’t discovered Sardinia yet. The French haven’t discovered it yet either. Food is also moderately priced. And you’ll stumble upon thoseTunisian guys selling those same bags you see on the streets of New York and on any street of any tourist city are here too. It’s never hard to find those guys..,Take a walk anywhere and you’ll find them sitting on the curbside selling sunglasses and knockoff designer bags that will fall apart in a week or two. The Pakistan’s have corned the market on selfie sticks. As for finding my room, I’m not worried, my GPS seems to know where the apartment is. But it tells me to turn down a street that I don’t see a single car on. After receiving several traffic tickets in the mail from Italy over the past few years, I know better not to attempt going down a desolate street with a car. The polizzia are hiding somewhere with cameras. On the freeways, they have a little trick. They put up signs for speeds that are very low, like 50 & 80 kilometers. So naturally you want to drive faster, and you notice everyone else is flying past you if you go the speed limit. But guess what? All those speedy German tourists are going to get tickets in the mail. Don’t be tempted to speed–or drive down streets where you don’t see any cars and just people walking on. I backtracked up a steep hill crowned by a massive Castle, and parked in their garage. 6 euros a day was nothing compared to France where it was 35 euros a day. I take it! So I rolled my luggage down a huge hill and down another hill where my AirBnB room was. This means I’ll be walking uphill if I forgot something in the car.
After settling into my room (five flight up the stairs with my suitcase) I take a walk up another steep hill to Piazza Yenne where supposedly there’s a tour bus that drives you around the city. It’s not a hop on hop off bus. That’s the one people like and use most often. No, just offer something less appealing.  After reading all the details about it on Trip Advisor, I seriously couldn’t find the bus. There were no signs around anywhere, so I up gave up and wandered down the steep hill to the waterfront. I found a restaurant down a dark alley that didn’t look very exciting, but it started raining at that point, so I settled in and order some grilled tuna. The waiter told me the fish they serve is caught fresh everyday. The tuna turned out to be the most amazingly fresh and flavorful tasting fish I ever ate. My advice here, is eat as much fresh fish as you can–IF you can FIND IT. You might have to wander down a dark alley, they haven’t figured out how to use YELP or Trip Advisor yet. The smart thing every restaurant does here is they give you their card with the check. After all, how else would you remember where you ate? After the awesome fish, I knew the rest of the trip would be a treasure hunt full of surprises. I definitely like following Trip Advisor and Yelp, but sometimes you just have to discover things for yourself.  In my case, it was before, during and after walking up and down that steep hill multiple times! The next morning my calves felt as hard as baseball bats. This must be a good thing. Can I get that same effect for everything else on me that’s sagging??
I got a late start the next day and the street was a ghost town. Stores were closed. And no one was around aside from this old dude selling rings he was making. Was he the only Non Vampire here that hasn’t been bitten yet.?  I found kind of a cool ring and it was 10 euros but he didn’t have change of a twenty in bills, just a whole bunch of coins. He actually left me alone standing at his table with all his shit and ran up the hill to try to get change. I could have robbed him blind and left! Either I look like an honest person or his ability to sell really sucks. He came back with no bills, and handed me a pile of coins that equaled 10 euros.  As I wandered up and down the hill laughing at all the cheesy rhinestone covered clothes and shoes , something weird happened . A supernatural power pulled me into a Store that sold bedazzled shoes. Maybe one of the Vampires owned a shoe store and hypnotized me?? I felt myself losing all control of my own will and the power of Satan forcing me to buy GOLD sandals!! What??. I would never buy or wear gold sandals. I think they look ridiculous. But I bought them. For 50 percent off. LIke the Speed limits on the roads… Everything seems to be 50 percent off. You drive half as slow as usually drive, and you pay half price for anything with sparkly shit on it. Now I own gold shoes for the first time in my life. Oh well, if I wear them in Miami no one will notice. But maybe these tacky gold shoes had magical powers. As I walked back UP the hill for the millionth time, there it was .., the tourist bus parked in a tow away zone.

Attack of the 50 foot Octopus in Sardinia

Notteri, Sardegna, Italy
Monday, September 5, 2016

As I wander through the beach side villages of Sardinia, an island near Sicily, I’ll run into a funeral or a pizza place. Sure there’s a big concern here about where your soul goes–you don’t want it to land in Satan’s brick pizza oven for all of eternity, roasting next to a pepperoni calzone. But in a tiny village where there’s a whole lot of nothing going on, a funeral is—well….an event. Italians are big on weddings and funerals, especially when there’s ravioli involved.

In Sardinia there’s a special kind of ‘leaf shaped” ravioli that all your dead friends and relatives probably had for their last meal.

And judging by the way people speed around the hairpin turns up steep winding roads, maybe there’s more funerals than weddings. One wrong move on a skinny mountain road here and your wedding party can instantly turn into a funeral procession. I mention the funeral to Francesca, my AirBnB host. When I told her that I wasn’t sure if there was a wedding or a funeral at the local town church because everything was piled up with white flowers, she said, “It’s not a wedding because it’s Monday. Nobody goes to a wedding on Monday. It’s also bad luck to die on a Friday,” she added. So you can get married on Friday, but just don’t die on a Friday. Either way, Ravioli will be served. And Octopus. Yes, that purple creature with tentacles and suction cups.

I have an Octopus problem when I visit Italy. The Italians call it “polpo” . It’s so insanely delicious tasting that I eat it every day and then –thanks to a grade B horror movie I saw when I was a kid about a giant Octopus attacking Chicago, I have nightmares about getting bitch-slapped by a giant Polpo for eating one of it’s tentacles. There’s a fishing boat trip you can go on in Villasimius called “Pescatori Tourismo” where you go out on a fishing boat with a bunch of hard core fisherman and catch Octupus then grill it and eat it on the beach.
I’m not doing that one. Polpo might be succulent and tasty, but I don’t need to remind Mr. Octopus that I’m at the top of the food chain and he will never go to Chicago to destroy the city.

Local people are very surprised to see an American here.  Mostly Europeans and Australians are running around here with beach gear and bad sunburns. And why would an American from CALIFORNIA want to visit Sardinia? Doesn’t it look and feel just like California? Umm…yea sure, a lot of the time it feels like you’re driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, and sometimes the beaches look a lot like the stretch of coastline between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, but nobody here says “AWESOME” and nobody at home takes life at a slow pace like here in Sardinia. Their phrase here is “Keep Calm”. It’s on T-Shirts and souvenir salt shakers so that means it’s official.

“Why do you come to Sardinia?” They ask with a raised eye brow. My answer to that is…” To chill.” <i>Per Rillasarsi</i>. To do a whole lot of nothing.

The American attitude is to pack in a busy schedule of sightseeing , look at as much you can possibly see and take pictures of everything so you can look at it later. But my attitude is “slow down, relax, and experience.”

I arrived here 3 days ago and all I did was watch  Fiery sunsets on the beach, sleep, chat with my air BnB hosts, Patrizia & Francesco who rent out the guest room of their awesome beach house just to meet visitors and socialize, and eat polpo. They cook dinner at home every night and invite me to join them.  Late in the evenings we eat outside on the patio, drink wine and have interesting conversations. Italians take a three hour lunch break,  so they have dinner pretty late around 8:30 PM to 11 .  Yes Italians actually sit there for two hours eating and digesting which we don’t do in America. We inhale our fuel and run .So here I have to slow down and let the food settle, breathe and be in the present moment .  Maybe I’ll snap a picture or maybe I’ll use my Mind, body and soul to capture the moment.  After all, one day there won’t be any more moments. Death is inevitable. And so is pizza.

Don’t even think of avoiding carbs when you’re in Italy. My advice is to visit Sardinia first (before all the other cities) to unravel recharge and then go sightseeing on the mainland when you’re sane and rested.  In Sardinia, doing nothing is very deceiving. Your senses are re-booting. You notice that –holy shit–food, people, plants , animals and fish are a gift from the universe to Keep you alive. Who knew?  But damn it–carbs make me fat. My body expands with every carb I eat. Strangely, since no one is super fat here, when I run into a pizza place I’m not worried about it.
In Italy I always think, what the hell, I’ll have a slice. It won’t kill me.

Bologna–A Whole Lotta Bologna

Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Thursday, September 17, 2015

What’s all the hype about when people gush about Bologna? Before I leave for Barcelona, I’m spending a day here to find out. I don’t love traveling around Europe by myself, but I’ll have to like it since my travel buddy had to go back home and back to work. The fun of traveling, for me, is joking, laughing and silliness. Alone, I would look like a schitzophrenic, which would make it a problem booking a rent a car. I dont think Hertz will hand me a set of car keys if I’m saying, to no one in particular, “If you had to choose between a screaming baby on the bus or and an 80 year old with a Flip Phone…which one would you pick?”
With my travel buddy, The daily joke ritual was to play that goofy Italian remix of “No Americano” and dance around like a clowns on a double dose of Wellbutrin.
No, I’m getting on the silly ‘tourist bus that looks like a choo choo train” alone with a heard of seniors from Scotland.
The first thing I do in every city, is get on that silly hop-on hop-off bus to get an overview of where I am, and see what neighborhoods I want to walk around in. Most big and medium size cities in the world have them. If you live in LA, you know the kind I mean…with the open roof full o’ tourists. Like most cities in Italy that you access by train, there is a luggage storage room at the train station, so for $10 or 15 bucks, you can drop you bags for the day  and do a quick excursion around town, then get back on the train and head to your next destination.
Today was my one day solo exploration before flying from Milan to Barcelona where I would meet up with my daughter, who’s been traveling alone all over europe for the past 5 weeks and having a blast. But then, she has excellent social skills and Im kind of a shy weirdo. Don’t get me wrong, I can walk up to people and introduce myself and chat, but it I have to shift into another personality–my public persona. Writers tend to be observers, and it’s more natural for me to be off in the corner watching everyone rather than in the mix, casting threads of conversations. Every where I go, I see a few of those people in opposite corners of the room, sitting alone, watching people. I’m thinking that these people are thinking. Or writing lyrics, poetry, blogs, articles, notes, scenes for the novel…or… if they’re laughing–they’re coming up with material for their stand up comedy set.

Like most of Europe, the remains of the past are all around you. Archways, castles, cathedrals, and fortresses that remind you of a time when cities had to be surrounded by walls with wrought iron gates and watchtowers and guards and cannons, so you could be protected by whoever ever was going to conquer and destroy your town. It’s still happening in Syria, while I’m peacefully rolling around town snapping photos, but they don’t have great stone walls fortresses there. Once in a while I catch a news report that tens of thousands of refugees are pouring into Germany and other places in Europe–land of the fortresses.

Most of the ancient buildings are covered with steel netting, so your windshield or your scull doesn’t get hit with chunks of crumbling gargoyles. The high point of the day is winding up the side of a hill where there’s a covered walkway that people of Bologna hike up, all the way to the massive cathedral at the top called San Micheal (pronounced San Mik-e-lay) Thats the Italian pronunciation. Then, in the old town you canwalk through more labrynths of covered walkways (built before the Bolognans thought of  umbrellas ) Don’t worry about finding something awesome tasting to eat. One thing you have to know about Bologna, is that the food is stellar, everywhere you go. You wont have to check your Yelp reviews or your Travel Advisor…every corrner you turn you can get a plateful of grilled vegetable with slabs of cheese, or a flavorful meat dish with spaghetti bolognaise. Yes, meat sauce was invented here. Usually Italian marinara sauce is just tomatoes without the meat. Even though they built walkways with ornate, towering tunnel-like roofs over them, instead of inventing umbrellas…they totally excelled at food flavors and superior taste. I dont usually eat cheese in the States, but I was totally macking on it in Bologna

The hype about Bologna is a whole lotta Bologna because city is a little bit of a worn out shit-hole that’s knee deep in graffiit tags.  But it’s definiely worth dropping by for an afterrnoon tour, and  a kick ass lunch, no matter what you order.