The Dolomites for Seniors

It  was hot  – too hot – in southern France, and much of the world this summer. Day after day.  Week after week.  I had to escape.  The mountains called.  I chose Italy’s Dolomites, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) from our abode in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France.  We made the drive in two days, less stress for seniors, with an overnight stop in Brescia. 

Brescia for an overnight stop and beer break. City cathedral in background,

As a passionate skier (sadly those days are over), I knew some of the Dolomite’s famous slopes, including the renowned Sella Ronda, a 500 -kilometer ski circuit.  It stretches through four valleys around the Sella mountain which are also connected by road passes.   And, I remembered a challenging ascent to the Adamello, a 11,000-foot peak, many, many years ago.  I was eager to return to these mighty mountains – even without the challenges and excitement of bygone days.

This would be a Dolomites for Seniors trip. I am not as fit as I was in younger days, and husband Bob is struggling with Alzheimer. No overnights in mountain huts for us. No all-day killer hikes. Not even strenuous 1/2 day treks. Been there. Done that. We would take leisurely walks and drive – not hike -through the heights. Thanks to tips from friend Noel and his Italian buddy Fabio, we stayed in a lovely, if not luxurious, apartment in the town of La Villa.  My  friend Karen was with us.

Unlike us, Karen is a very fit senior and dedicated walker.  She set off every morning for two-hour hikes.  Bob does not move too quickly in the morning.  While Karen hiked, I got Bob up, dressed and breakfasted.  When she came back,  we were ready for adventure at a slow, senior pace.

My trusty new Suzuki Swift, Poppy, was the perfect mountain car.  Agile, responsive and fun.  She took those curves like a champ, and they were endless. Not quite like my beloved Porsche, but that too was a different era.

We drove the Sella Ronda route, up and down, switchback after switchback. Fortunately, there are places to pull off for photos.  During our week in these rugged mountains, I went photo crazy.   I could not resist.  Every view was a postcard.

While Bob and I are not up to strenuous treks, we figured we could try a gentle mountain walk.  We followed the advice of a local and set off on a trail  to  the hut/rifugio, Munt Pasciantado. The jaunt was not exactly senior flat as we had been led to believe. There is no such thing in the Dolomites.  Yet, it was pleasant and the goulash lunch at the rifugio was delicious. Goulash, not pasta, in Italy?

We were in South Tyrol, known as Sud Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian.  The region borders Austria to the north, and was part of Austria-Hungary until it was annexed by Italy after World War I. There are three official languages:  Italian, German and Ladin. The latter is an ancient Rhaeto-Romance dialect derived from popular Latin and spoken by just four percent of the population. Ladin is also spoken in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland.

Most everyone in Sud Tyrol is  bilingual, and most Ladins are tri-lingual. We were in the southern part where more Italian than German is spoken, yet there is much that is Germanic, such as the  architecture and food.  

We had another fun and tasty rifugio interlude at Rifugio Valparola at the top of a mountain pass where  more German specials were on the menu: Bratwurst, potato salad and apple strudel. The cozy ambience was 100 % gemütlich, almost like being back in Germany. Hikers, bicyclists and motorcyclists savoured their accomplishments and replenished themselves after strenuous activity. We had not earned those calories, but we still enjoyed. I even went for the Italian finale:  Grappa.  The rifugio has 10 different flavors of this fiery brew, all homemade.  I followed the owner’s suggestion and went for Cirolo Zirm, delicious, although I have no idea what the flavor was.

The rifugio was on our route to Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski resort that is part  of Dolomiti Superski, the largest ski area in the world.  We were disappointed. in the town, but the drive was spectacular.

We could not hike to the peaks, but we could ride.  From Corvara, just a few kilometers from our apartment in La Villa, we rode a gondola then a chairlift to a windblown, barren area with super views of surrounding mountains and endless photo opps. Getting off a moving chairlift with no boards attached to your feet and no snow on the ground can be tricky — at least for some seniors. We conquered, but with senior angst.

The part of Sud Tryol around the Sella Massif is Ladinia, the heart of the Dolomites where 30,000 Ladins live. In addition to their language,  they have their own culture, traditions and culinary specials.  Since food is a travel highlight for me,  I was eager to try  Ladin cuisine.

Claudine Saltuari, a manager at our apartment complex (www.dolomit.it), suggested an agriturismo, Maso Runch. We have been to many agriturismi over the years, usually rustic farms which offer simple local food and lodging.  This one was especially popular, and only with Claudine’s assistance could we get a reservation.

It was like no other agriturismo – china, crystal and fine wines – and more popular with seniors than the younger set. The food was copious, course after course.  Following a hearty barley soup, we tasted three different kinds of tutres, pastry filled with spinach, sauerkraut or potatoes. Both are popular in the Ladin kitchen.


Next came a pasta course, ravioli filled with spinach.  And more — multiple platters with goulash, pork shank, polenta, sauerkraut, fried potatoes.   We were stuffed, but could not pass on the dessert: Apple fritters with ice cream.  After all that, a digestif Grappa was in order.    

For more about the Ladins, we visited the Museum Ladin Ciastel de Tor in the town of Badia – good senior activity. The informative and well-presented displays are housed in an ancient, restored castle.    For centuries Ladins lived somewhat isolated in this terrain of steep, rocky slopes.  They were poor, living off the harsh land.  Things began to change with more skiers and hikers discovering the attractions and beauty of the Dolomites.  Tourism brought opportunity for an easier life.  As they began to intermarry and intermingle, preserving the language became challenging. In Ladinia, children learn both German and Italian in school, and Ladin three times per week.

We found cool and delightful temperatures in the Dolomites – and much more.  No need to be a hardcore athlete to appreciate the Dolomites. Even old folks can enjoy this awesome region.

Scroll down for more photos.

When the sun is shining, sunset in the Dolomites is magnificent.
Same mountain as above. Dolomite clouds can also be spectacular.
I had a fun chat in German with this gentleman at a local products market in the nearby town of San Cassiano, a cute and classy village.
Church in San Cassiano
Apple Strudel. We could not get enough of this favorite which the French have not mastered. Several afternoons we did the German ritual, Kaffe und Kuchen (strudel). But, Italians not forgotten. Sometimes we opted for the Italian custom: Late afternoon apero with savoury snacks.

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Up on the farm

Agriturismo L’Oasi del Rossese

Way, way up:  A precarious auto journey slowly, cautiously climbing a skinny, twisty road.  We passed a few houses clinging to the hillsides, others hiding below the road down treacherously steep lanes.  Lots of overgrown vegetation all around.  More curves, hairpin turns, and more of each  

This was rough, remote terrain in Italy’s Liguria region above the Mediterranean.  I was driving, and hoping we would not meet a car coming in the opposite direction. I am not skilled at driving in reverse, and this road was barely wide enough for two vehicles.   How much farther?  I was nervous.  Did we miss it?

Alas, a small sign.  “ L’Oasi del Rossese,” our destination, an agriturismo above the town of Dolceacqua.  Agriturismo is a combination of the word for “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian.  Agriturismi (plural) offer farm stay vacations and are very popular in Italy.  In addition to lodging, most offer meals featuring local specialties, often made with products from the farm.

Bob, Steve and Yoshie.

Farm hostess Marinella greeted us and showed  us to our rooms.  My brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie from Colorado were with us. First order of business was a welcome  coffee and cookies on the terrace overlooking deep green valleys, mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance.  Sadly, we had no sun to enhance the views.  Even with overcast clouds, it was splendid.

We heard English at a long table under a wall of balloons.  A group was celebrating a birthday.  I got up to take a photo and one of the gentlemen stopped me.  “I think I know you.  Are you a member of BA (British Association of Menton)”?   Yes.  We sat with Wayne and his wife Veronique, who was celebrating her 60th birthday, at a BA luncheon not long ago.   It was Veronique who told me about this agriturismo.  They have a farm nearby.

Marinella, husband Nino and son Stefano harvest grapes and olives on their 7,000 square meters of terrain.  The main farm product is wine, Rossese, hence the name, Oasis of Rossese, the noted red wine of Dolceacqua which we enjoyed with dinner.

Nino, Jordan (named after Michael Jordan), Stefano and Marinella.

We were hoping to see farm animals.  Their livestock consists of chickens and rabbits.  I did venture down to the chicken coop and rabbit hutch. The bunnies were big and beautiful.  I hated to think of their future.

Rabbit, Coniglio alla Liguria, is a local special and often served here.  Steve announced he would not eat it if it was to be our dinner. Luckily it was not, although I would have indulged.  The French are also fond of rabbit, and I prepare it occasionally. 

Yoshie and Steve hiked to the village of Perinaldo.

Food is a big attraction at agriturismi.  Our dinner was a never-ending, multi course feast.  Italian meals begin with antipasti. One after another, Marinella served us five different antipasti dishes:  Tomatoes with fresh sheep cheese, a slice of bruschetta, a frittata of zucchini and peas, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a tasty a slice of torte made with tiny fish from the Med.  This was followed by the pasta course, ravioli burro e salvia (ravioli stuffed with sage) – all homemade.  Instead of rabbit, for the main course we had both roast pork and goat with fagioli (white beans). The latter was our favorite. Dessert:  a strawberry tarte.  Plus, a bottle of Rossese.

Rossese (red wine) display in Dolceacqua

Marinella cooks, all from scratch. Nino lends a hand, stuffing the ravioli. They have a large vegetable garden, in addition to the chickens and rabbits, to supply the products for her cooking.  Stefano and Nino care for the grapevines and olive trees.  Stefano also makes the wine. Their production of both olive oil and wine is limited.  They only sell to guests and a few local clients.  

“People are happy here,” said Marinella.  She did admit that the first time is difficult due to the seemingly endless, challenging trek up the mountain. It is only seven kilometers, but they are long and very slow.  Many French come for the day from Nice just to eat, she said.   In August they have guests from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

Dolceacqua, photo by Yoshie.

Agriturismo began in Italy in the 1960s when small farmers were struggling to make a profit.  Some abandoned their farms and went off to work in cities.  However, agricultural traditions are sacred in Italy.  In 1973 an official agriturismo farmhouse designation was created to help prevent farmers from abandoning their farms, and to offer tourists a farm stay so they could learn about rural life.

In some regions, but not all, farmers need a license to take part in agriturismo. We have visited nearby Dolceacqua many times.  Every time it seems there are more “agriturismo” signs on houses in the village.   What do they have to do with farms and agriculture?

Steve explores the Dolceacqua old town.

According to a spokesperson at the Dolceacqua tourist office, to be considered agriturismo they must show documents to prove they have land and crops.  Of course, many may have such up in the hills. But all of them?

Marinella tells me that today many agriturismo are just Bed and Breakfast accommodations and have nothing to do with agriculture.  I asked Arabella, my Italian friend with whom I study Italian. 

“E una giungla,” (It’s a jungle), she explained.  In Italian the expression refers to situations when laws are not respected, everyone does whatever he/she wishes  … a bit like Italian drivers.

Agriturismo breakfast — Bob, me and Yoshie. No one looks very happy, but we were very happy. The farm and surroundings are a treat.

AZ Agrituristica, L’Oasi del Rossese de Zullo Stefano, Loc Morghe, 18035 Dolceacqua, Italy, Tel. xx 39 347 8821298.

http://www.agriturismo.farm/en/farm-holidays/liguria/loasi-del-rossese-dolceacqua/33419 Double rooms with breakfast, 60 euro per night. Multi course meal with wine, 30 euro per person.

Siesta in Dolceacqua

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Bellissimo Lago di Como

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” That is exactly the way I felt during a September visit to Lago di Como (Lake Como) in northern Italy. It is sublime. Glittering waters at the feet of Alpine mountain ranges. Photo-opp villages with cobbled alleys and flowered promenades. Baroque villas and impeccably manicured gardens.

Like me, lots of famous people have been seduced by the lake’s beauty and charm. Artists, writers, opera singers and aristocrats have homes on the lake shores. Not to mention Hollywood stars: George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, Sylvester Stallone…

Varenna

My friend Karen, who knows the lake well, suggested we stop at Lake Como en route to her apartment in Croatia. I had fond memories of previous lake visits and was all in. She chose Varenna, considered one of the prettiest lakeside towns, as our destination for two nights. We enjoyed soaking up the vistas and the captivating ambiance of the lake and town.

The most heavenly time was high above the lakeside town of Tremezzo at the restaurant Al Veluu. Karen has friends who know the restaurant owner. She made a reservation mentioning her friends. We never did meet the owner. The waiter who greeted us was neither impressed nor happy to see us. It was close to 2 p.m.. The restaurant terrace was empty. He, no doubt, wanted to call it a day.

We had the spacious terrace and garden all to ourselves. The divine surroundings and spectacular views made up for the disappointing food. It was calm, peaceful, relaxing. We did not want to leave, but the warm sun was no longer so warm, and we needed to start the trek (taxi then 2 ferry rides) back to Varenna.

Karen chills out at Al Veluu.

Boats are the primary means of transportation for visiting Lake Como. Ferries of all sizes shuttle from town to town. The previous day we took a ferry to Bellagio, the “pearl” of the lake. Years ago husband Bob and I visited this treasure of a town. We visited the park and gardens of the grandiose Villa Serbelloni, hiked in the hills, took boat rides. It was all delightful.

Bellagio

Years later we returned with my mother who was overwhelmed. In addition to the gorgeous views and surroundings, she loved the shops. Bellagio, like most of the towns, has a plethora of boutiques and souvenir shops. On one visit, I purchased a large olive wood basket which I still treasure.

Varenna at night

In Varenna, we stayed at an Airbnb which promised a “bella vista” of the lake. What a joke. From a small bedroom window in a corner, if you twisted your neck you could spot the lake. Never mind. We had plenty of bella vistas as we climbed up and down the steep stairways in Varenna that lead to the lake, and strolled the path, Passegiata degli Innamorati (walk of lovers), along the shore.

Lake Como was the perfect start to my much-needed R&R break.

Thanks again to Karen, adventure in Croatia followed. Read all about it in an upcoming post. Don’t miss out.

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Bellagio

For more on Bellagio, read my report on a previous visit- click here.

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On to Venice and Padua

I had visions of an empty Venice, like those I had seen during the lockdown. Deserted alleys and waterways. No gondolas on the canals. No lines to enter attractions, such as San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica). A dolphin or two frolicking in the Grand Canal.

That was then. Fast forward to early July when I visited. Even though travel restrictions were in place, tourists had returned to Venice. Long, long lines to climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Basilica. Gondolas aplenty gliding through the canals. Happy crowds feeding pigeons on the Piazza San Marco.

And, it was hot, much too hot. But, I adore Venice. I was spending a week at Abano Terme, about an hour from the city. (See previous post, “Taking the waters – and the mud”) I could not pass up a visit, especially after a conversation with a staff member at the spa. 

“I love Venice,” she said. “You must visit.” She planned an all-day itinerary for me. “Don’t schedule any treatments on the day you visit Venice. You will need all your energy for Venice.”

More energy than I had. I followed her recommendations, took the train to Venice, then hired a water taxi to take me to the Piazza San Marco, under the Rialto Bridge, past magnificent centuries-old palaces. There was no shortage of boats of all sizes on the Grand Canal. No dolphins in sight. 

Campanile (bell tower) of the San Marco Basilica

I was surprised and disappointed to see the lines, both to enter San Marco and climb the campanile. I decided against both, instead opted for a very expensive cappuccino (11 euro) at one of the many cafes lining the piazza. The pricey cafes had few customers. However, the legendary San Marco pigeons happily soared above, then landed and soaked up attention from tourists who were happy to fed them and pose for photos.

Even though the waiter at the cafe complained of little business, restaurants I passed during my wanderings were not lacking for customers. Gondolas seemed to be in high demand, yet a young gondolier also complained. “It’s very quiet. There are not a lot of people. Normally in July and August, it’s crazy. You can’t walk around here.”

Perhaps I was lucky after all. I could walk without being pushed by throngs. I found a quiet restaurant adjacent to a canal and enjoyed a fascinating lunch. A government building stood on the opposite side of the canal. A police boat arrived. Two scuba divers jumped off and quickly disappeared under water. Looking for underwater explosives? It was intriguing. I also wondered about the wisdom of being immersed in this water which I assumed was dreadfully polluted. Then I noticed fish. I mentioned this to the restaurant proprietor. He threw some bread in the water. More fish appeared. The dolphins have not returned, but, at least for now, fish are thriving.

Police diver on a secret mission?

Thanks to a recent ruling by the Italian government to ban cruise ships from approaching Venice’s lagoon, things could be looking up for those fish, not to mention the foundations of the city.

Cruise ship opponents argue that the massive ships which can transport more than 5,000 passengers each are responsible for waves and pollution that damage the delicate fabric of the city. Work is underway to construct a cruise terminal outside the lagoon. 

The Wall Street Journal quoted Gianluigi Rizo, a porter at the Piazza San Marco, who summed up the sentiments of those whose business depends on tourists. “It’s good that tourists are back, but the real money comes from the cruise ships with the Americans and the well-off Asians. They spend big in a short time, before sailing out.”

View of Venice from the Terrazza Panoramica, a new observation deck a top a multi level. upmarket shopping gallery.

Even with the tourists and the heat, I was happy to return to Venice. I love to meander, discovering intriguing alleys and passageways, off the beaten tourist track, usually getting lost. However, since I had a train to catch this time, I dared not be too adventurous. 

The trek to the station was longer than anticipated. I panicked, walking faster and faster so as not to miss my train. I made it, exhausted and perspiration drenched.

That excursion should have been enough. Perhaps best to stay and relax at the spa.? No, I needed to see Padua, again urged on by my mentor. She raved about the city’s star attractions, the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes by Giotto and the Basilica of St. Anthony.

Scrovegni chapel with Giotto frescoes.

Giotto, an Italian painter of the late Middle Ages, and his team covered the walls of the entire chapel with frescoes illustrating the life of the Virgin and life of Christ. Their work, completed in 1305, is considered a masterpiece of the early Renaissance. It is mind boggling.

St. Anthony’s Basilica with Byzantine-style domes and art treasures was a must for me. St. Anthony played a role in my Catholic upbringing. My mother was a fan of the saint, the patron of lost items. Whenever she or we lost something, “Pray to Saint Anthony,” she urged. Often he came through. 

St. Anthony’s tomb.

The church shelters the saint’s grandiose tomb. Worshippers place hands on the tomb and pray. St. Anthony holy cards are available for free. I gave a donation, took a few, and mailed one of each of my three brothers.

Praying at St. Anthony’s tomb.

I passed up relaxing days and therapeutic treatments at the spa for Venice and Padua. I have no regrets.

Statue of St. Anthony.

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Another monumental church in Padua: Basilica of Saint Giustina

We recently returned to Marseille, one of my favorites. It merits a blog post. And, soon I will off for Adventure Croatia with friend Karen.

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Giotto’s Last Judgment fresco.

Taking the waters – and the mud

Volcanic mud is the attraction at Abano.

Hot! It was sweltering. The pool waters were warm. Taking a walk left me drained, clothes and hair glued to my body. Even lounging in the shade was unpleasant.

I blew it. Yes, I needed a week of R and R. Life as an Alzheimer’s caregiver is stressful. But a thermal spa is not the place to go in July when temperatures soar.

Unfortunately I had no choice on the timing. I wanted to take advantage of the July visit from Bob’s son and two grandsons who could take over care of grandpa. I should have opted for a cool mountain resort. Instead, I chose to spend a week at Abano Terme, a spa town in northeastern Italy recommended by friends. I have never been that enamored of spas, but I figured it would be good for my decaying body and uplifting for the spirit.

Not all was negative. Just being in Italy, where joie de vivre is in the air, is therapeutic for me. I enjoyed speaking my broken Italian, chatting with the super friendly spa staff, and learning what a terme is all about.

Soaking in thermal waters supposedly does wonders for the body.

The entire town and numerous hotels are all geared to take advantage of thermal waters and volcanic mud from the surrounding Euganean hills. Hotels offer packages which include room and board and treatments. 

Fango, or pure mineral-rich volcanic ash, forms the basis of the mud which is said to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended for  strained joints and muscles, arthritis, rheumatism, as well as the stress of everyday life.

First step: Visit to the hotel/spa doctor. Before undergoing the mud treatments, a doctor must give the OK. He was a jolly chap who spoke four languages. After examining me and studying my MRI and X-rays, he asked questions. “Do you do Yoga?” No. “Are you a vegetarian?” No. “Thank God.” 

He said I was fit for mud, and advised I eat more protein, take vitamin D, drink more water and build muscle mass. He failed to provide details on the latter. Weight lifting?

He wrote a prescription for the type of treatments that would help my arthritic body. Next came a visit to Zoia, the charming and effervescent spa manager. She checked my package plan and the doctor’s rec’s, then devised a schedule for me which included gentle massages, mud, a fruit peeling facial.

Mud relaxation

I was a bit leery of the mud. I feared it would be more intense heat. Fortunately it was pleasantly warm, but I found the odor anything but pleasant. Carmela slathered a huge slab of mud on a bed which I then lain on. She smeared mud on my arms and legs, then wrapped me in plastic and covered me with a sheet. I was a mummy for 15 long minutes. The first time was annoying. I had an itch on my nose which was driving me crazy. My arms and hands were cemented to my body. For future sessions, I requested my hands be kept free to scratch if needed. 

About half way through the treatment, Carmela returned, delicately wiped my face with a cool scented cloth. After the allotted time, she returned again to unwrap me. I stepped into a shower and she hosed me down, washing away all the stinky mud. This was followed by a 10-minute soak in a tub of warm bubbling thermal water scented with therapeutic oil. I liked it all.

Aqua gym was intense

Water – thermal water – is also an essential part of the Abano experience. My hotel had five different outdoor pools, plus a large indoor pool. The most popular pool had all sorts of water jets and bubbling fountains. Since this is thermal water, it was warm – too warm for me. I preferred the lap pool, cooler water, not thermal, thus no healing benefit. 

Few swimmers in the lap pool.

Again I blew it. To get full advantage of the mud I should have spent leisurely days soaking in the waters. Not me. I spent a day trekking, wilting, through nearby Venice, another day slogging through Padua, and a half day hiking to and shopping at the market in Abano. None were relaxing. All were exhausting. But, I did see the sights and added some bargain Italian fashion to my wardrobe. More about those escapades in an upcoming post.

In between my sightseeing, in addition to the mud treatments, I enjoyed “gentle” massages from Joanna, another delightful staff member. We chatted as she massaged. “Only speak Italian while your are here,”she advised.

Hotel provides bathrobes, white to wear to the pools and blue for the treatment area..

According to Zoia, Abano is especially popular with Germans and Austrians, many who come two to three times per year. Italians are among the clientele, however, they “don’t spend so much on the treatments. They come for relaxation, the pools.” The British? “It’s not in their culture,”she said. 

My hotel, the Metropole, was less than half full during my stay – not due to Covid, but the heat. This was not spa season, but “the cheapest time.” Fall and spring are the ideal times for the terme, she said. Russians love it during the holidays, staying at the five-star hotels. The Metropole rates four stars. There are Americans who patronize Abano, but, like the Russians, they go for five stars. 

Classy dining at the Metropole.

My friend, Angi, British, is an exception to Zoia’s take on the Brits. Angi swears by volcanic mud, but that on the island of Ischia, just off the coast from Naples, where she spends two weeks every fall. She claims it does wonders for her aches and pains. Abano did nothing for mine, but I have myself to blame. Maybe I should try Ischia sometime, take both the water and the mud – minus sightseeing and shopping.

Red berry smoothie for a healthy terme treat.
Desserts were not for those on a diet. Masks are required indoors in Italy – strictly enforced at the hotel.

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Coming soon: Venice and Padua.