Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Bellagio Center: Rockefeller Foundation

Our next adventure in Bellagio, Italy was one person short as Brian woke up feeling pretty under the weather (could be the excess of wine and Italian coffee, but he insists, it was a bug). So, we left him wrapped up on our balcony and headed off to the Bellagio Center for a tour of the grounds.

 The grounds of this estate were given to the Rockefeller foundation by an American woman who married an Italian prince. The villa and other buildings are used as a conference center and for artists and is managed by the Rockefeller foundation. Our tour of the grounds (we weren't allowed in any of the buildings) is conducted by the town of Bellagio as a way to make some money. Our guide was wonderful - knowledgeable, enthusiastic and really passionate about the area.

 Basically, we wound up the hillside on a wide road that was fairly easy hiking even though it was all up hill. Along the way, the guide told us a bit about the history of the villa and, of course, we stopped often to snap photos of the amazing views.

 This view overlooks the boulevard in Bellagio - you can see it just along the coast of the lake.

 Part of the path to the Center - we weren't allowed to take any photos of the villa itself as we might have interrupted the inspiration of the artists.

 Overlooking the rest of Bellagio. The town of Bellagio is really quite large - but the main attraction and where the tourists all hang out is along the coast of the lake. It was cool to see the whole town from this vantage point.

 Bellagio means two lakes and gets its name because it sits at the Y where the lake splits into Como and Lago. This view is the Lago side.

After almost two hours, we returned home to check on Brian (still not feeling great) and to grab some lunch. Luckily, Brian's bug retreated a bit and he joined us later for dinner and some cards back on the balcony.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Varrena and the Castello di Vezzio

The adventures in Lake Como continue with a boat trip to Varrena and a long hike up the mountain to the Castello di Vezzio. We were alerted to this adventure by Janine, whom you might remember from the Bellagio Water taxi adventure. She warned us in advance that about 1/2 way into the hike, we would start to hate her, but by the time we reached the top and saw the view of Lake Como, we would thank her for the suggestion.

She was right on both counts.

We took a ferry from Bellagio to Varrena - very easy and cheap to do. The trip was about 10-15 minutes. Then a walk along the lake to find the path up the mountain.

We started to wonder if we were going the right direction (signage in Italy can be hit or miss) and then we ran across this.

The path was beautiful but between the huffing and puffing and the sweat in my eyes, I'm not sure I saw too much of it!

Ahhhh, but that view was worth every sore muscle.

You pay to get into the castle grounds, which leads you to this spectacular view. At the top, there is a bit of a bird collection - falcons, owls and others just hanging out. Supposedly, there is also a falcon show, but it was hours after we arrived so we didn't stick around to see it.

The castle is pretty much in ruins, but there is a watch tower still functional and this is the view from the top of it.

We took a different route down with a narrow path covered in straw, which made it quite slippery - we were really glad we didn't find this route for the trip up!

Beautiful view of Varrena from the alternate path.

We rewarded our efforts with some pizza and wine (I had Italian beer actually) at a local cafe right on the water. Then it was back on the ferry to return to our home base, Bellagio.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como

After closely watching the weather, we traveled with Bellagio Water Taxi to the Villa del Balbianello, a stunning villa with terraced gardens that overlooks Lake Como. The villa was converted to a museum honoring the most recent owner, Guido Monzino (Italian explorer and artifact collector), who died young and after renovating the entire villa and only spending only a few months? years? in the place. He left it to the National Trust of Italy who now run tours of the villa.

 A view from the boat. And if it looks at all familiar, that might be because it was used in both Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones and the James Bond film, Casino Royale.

The inside of the villa was as interesting as the grounds. This room holds some of Monzino's collections from all over the world and all different time periods (note the glass lighted case on the left). The staircase here is free standing - amazing!

This was part of his mother's suite and actually sits suspended out over the lake - amazing views. The red piece along the wall is a priceless Chinese desk. The villa also had a hidden staircase that allowed a cardinal who lived in the villa way back when an easy escape route.

One of the amazing views from the gardens. The photos really don't do it justice.
 Notice how this tree is pruned so perfectly. The gardeners climb into the tree once per year to keep it this perfect shape so as not to obstruct the view too much from the villa.

A taste of the gardens. They follow all around the villa and are just gorgeous.

Lucca, our water taxi driver coming back to pick us up after the tour. The boat was beautiful too and Lucca and Janine, his wife, were great and gave us lots of advice on things to do around Lake Como. Much more than a taxi service.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bellagio, Italy: The Gardens of Villa Melzi d'Eril

Our first Villa visit was to the Villa Melzi, which was built in 1808-1810 by Count Francesco Melzi d'Eril from Milan. The gardens run right along Lake Como, and, as you'll see, not even an overcast day can make them look anything less than spectacular. We wandered around for a hour or two and just enjoyed the scenery.

Where's Waldo (or Brian)?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Beautiful Buildings in Bellagio

At the risk of having some of you hate me even more, let me describe where I'm currently blogging from ...

The four of us are currently at a quaint little cafe table, just outside our hotel in Bellagio, Italy, which is one of many towns on the coast of Lake Como. It's a balmy 82 degrees with a slight breeze and I've just finished a chocolate chip and creme caramel gelato. Life just doesn't get much better.

Our first day in Bellagio was overcast and a bit rainy in the afternoon, but we didn't much care because we're on vacation and the food and wine are delicious. Here are a few photos of the  buildings near our hotel.

This is the amazing little wine bar we stumbled across (luckily our first day in town). Tiny little place absolutely packed with wine and with the best cheese and cold cuts you can imagine. We've been once, but I'm pretty sure we'll end up back there at least one more time before the week is out.

This is a cute little restaurant not far from our hotel. Haven't eaten there, but thought it looked cute enough for a photo.

This is the view looking up from our balcony at the Hotel Florence. We have side by side rooms and share this amazing balcony that overlooks part of the town and Lake Como. More photos of the hotel in a future post.

Downtown Bellagio. Notice the small cars - very European. Not like the gas guzzling SUVs we've gotten used to seeing in Abu Dhabi.

Check out the flowers outside every window in this place. Flowers everywhere.

And if you liked those flowers, check these out ... really gorgeous!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Istanbul: Shopping!

We were sitting in the Milan airport in Italy waiting for our friends to arrive from the US to join us for 2 weeks in Lake Como and Tuscany, and I realized I hadn’t yet finished all my posts from Istanbul. What a rough life when the time between vacations is so short! ;)

On our final day in town, the boat trip idea was dashed due to timing so Brian headed back to the hotel while I wandered a bit to do some shopping. I expected to be able to bargain a bit, but was often met with signs saying fixed prices, no negotiation. A few stores did haggle, but not as much as I expected. No fun or interesting stories to tell really, just some nice photos.

Patient Brian waiting outside the umpteenth shop I visited. After this one, he decided to leave me to visit the rest alone and headed back to the hotel.

A sampling of the gorgeous pottery found all over Istanbul. I bought a small soap dish and a trivet for the kitchen. I’m sure I’ll soon regret not picking up a few more pieces.

Guard cat? Not helping much this particular morning.

One of the sweet shops selling Turkish Delight, Baklava and a thousand other syrupy sugary items. Really beautiful displays and almost every shop gave out samples. YUM!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Istanbul: Topkapi Palace

The last tourist attraction we were able to fit in during our short stay was the Topkapi Palace, which was the primary residence for the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years. Today, it is a museum and houses some of the most important holy relics of the Muslim faith.

The place was packed by the time we got there mid afternoon so it wasn't as enjoyable as it could have been. Still, we saw some interesting exhibits and the grounds are beautiful. Here are some of our favorite pics.

 Another Turkish tour guide cat - this one seems to be on break.

 To give you a sense of the crowds that afternoon.

Pretend Sultan with a pretend sword pretending to behead one of the tourists. You could pay to have this photo taken with the fake Sultan - we passed and I took this one instead.

 This is a gold plated window screen typical of those used all over the palace. Looks like something out of Disney's Aladdin, doesn't it?

 The entrance to one of the exhibits - most of them didn't allow photography inside. We saw jewels, the prophet Mohammed's sword and cloak, an amazing collection of ancient clocks, coins from all different eras ...

 One of the amazing views of the Bospohorus River from the palace grounds.

A glimpse of a baby Sultan in training. We saw a few kids dressed up like Ottoman Sultans and you could buy the costumes at many of the tourist shops. They were very cute.

Another stellar view of the city across the river.