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Northern Italy and a Little Bit of Switzerland

We have been to Europe more than a dozen times, but never to Italy. 2016 was the year! Since we were going in September and we hate hot weather, we decided to limit ourselves to northern Italy. I’ll cover each stop in a separate post below.

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Venice – I had wondered about Venice. It’s a place I’ve dreamed about going since I was a little girl, but I’ve known quite a few people who are not fans. Plus I expected it to be hot and crowded. Well it was hot (low 80s), though fairly pleasant in the shade and at night. And it was crowded. But I loved it! It is just so beautiful and magical. Everything was gently old and worn, and it was so picturesque. Great place for walking – a feast for the eyes!

Our strategy for enjoying Venice was to stay in the shade and stay away from the crowds. Fortunately, this was easy to do. You can wander forever on the back streets of Venice. If there is a street or canal that isn’t beautiful, I didn’t find it. We stayed in Dorsoduro, which was an excellent choice. (Thanks to everyone who recommended it!) The neighborhood is quiet and uncrowded, yet there are plenty of shops and restaurants. Our B&B was Casa Rezzonico. The location was perfect, the price was reasonable, the owners were friendly, and the A/C worked great! The only negatives are that the room was small and the breakfast was nothing special. I would stay there again.

We arrived in Venice around noon and took the bus from the airport to the bus station, then walked to our B&B. We had to consult the map many times, but we had no trouble finding our way. Our first venture to Piazza San Marco was after an early dinner. Our timing was perfect. The sun was sliding towards the horizon and shining right on St. Mark’s Basilica. It glowed! And the Grand Canal – Wow! The crowds weren’t bad, which was a bonus.

The next day we went back to the square fairly early and had just a 15-minute wait to get in the Basilica. Very beautiful. We also went to the museum upstairs. I hadn’t planned to do this, but we sort of got funneled up there and decided to go with it. I’m so glad we did because I really enjoyed all the exhibits – mosaics, tapestries, the real horses… lots of old stuff. Plus, there were excellent views of the nave and the square outside. After this, we took an extended walk on some of the back streets and did not get back to our room until 3:30. The sun was very hot, so it was nice to have a little rest (and air conditioning!) before dinner. After a pizza dinner, we took a walk along the south side of Dorsoduro around to the Grand Canal. It was lovely and peaceful.

The next morning it was back to the square again so we could to go to the top of the Companile before the crowds arrived. No wait and the views were terrific! After walking over to see the Bridge of Sighs from the outside, we took a traghetto to Dorsoduro. That was our only boat ride in Venice. We were too cheap to pay for a gondola and weren’t interested in crowding on the vaporetto. After visiting the Salute and Frari churches and eating lunch, my husband went back to the room for a nap while I walked to Rialto Bridge. The crowds were hideous, it was really hot, and the bridge was under construction, so I can’t say this was a pleasant experience. But I had to see it. Then I wondered around less crowded spots and went back to the room for a rest. We took the same walk we took the night before, and it was just as magical.

So I totally loved Venice. It’s beautiful and enchanting and unique, and it fulfilled a life-long dream. Yet I don’t feel I need to go back. I’m not sure why.

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Ortisei and the Dolomites – I know exactly how I feel about this place: I loved everything about it, and I definitely want to go back.

I got a lot of help from Laurel on how to do the Dolomites without a car. (Thanks again, Laurel!) It was easy. From Venice we took the train to Bolzano via Verona, then we took the bus to Ortisei. One tip from Laurel I will pass on – in Bolzano, walk to the bus station (just a block from the train station) to catch the bus to Ortisei. Don’t wait for the bus to come to the train station. Our bus filled up at the bus station and didn’t bother stopping at the train station.

The bus ride was about an hour, and the scenery was really beautiful. Unfortunately, we had to stand, but half way there I got a seat next to an interesting older Italian man who had learned English from playing hockey with Canadians. He told us to have a beautiful vacation and “do it well.” Great advice!

We stayed at Hotel Grones in Ortisei. This was one of our favorite places ever. We got the half board package (includes dinner). We have never done this before, but the reviews on Trip Advisor were so enthusiastic, and the price was reasonable thanks to a good exchange rate. What a great decision! The food was fabulous: four course meals plus a salad bar each night. You can’t imagine how much we looked forward to those dinners after a long day hiking. Each morning, we found the dinner menu on our breakfast table (you get an assigned a table for your entire stay), and we had to select from two or three choices for each course. What a fun way to start the day! Plus the breakfast buffet was great – so filling we could skip lunch. Our room was awesome too. If it’s in your budget, definitely consider this hotel and the half board plan.

As for the Dolomites, they are just spectacular. The scenery is beautiful, and there are endless hiking opportunities. From the town of Ortisei, you can take two lifts or a super long funicular up into the mountains. You get a bus pass from your hotel (this is true of most of the hotels, I believe), and we used this to go to S. Cristina and Selva and take the lifts from those towns to access different trails in the mountains. The lifts (and by this I mean cable cars, gondolas, chair lifts, and funiculars) were pretty reasonably priced. For example, from Ortisei to the Alpe di Siusi, it was 17 euros round trip. Or you could buy the Gardena Card that entitles you to unlimited use of twelve cable cars (eight of which were open when we were there) for three or six days (for 60 or 79 euros). I actually debated about this because I wasn’t sure how many cable cars we would use each day, and we had four and one-half days, which didn’t line up well with the pass lengths. Fortunately, I decided to go for the six-day pass, which turned out to be a huge bargain. We took several cable car rides most days, and the cost of these priced individually was more than twice what we paid for the pass.

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Ortisei and the Dolomites (cont.) -- The hiking was fantastic. We generally took a two to three-hour hike in the morning and another in the afternoon. We loved everywhere we rode and hiked. Our favorite lifts were the chair lifts from S. Cristina to Monte Pana and Monte Pana to Mont Seura – it was like floating in the air! Our favorite hikes were all of them! One day we sat on the grass behind three paragliders who took off from the side of a hill near the Seceda lift station. That was pretty cool. My husband says he would consider trying paragliding, but I know I never will do it – too chicken!

Getting around was really easy, but we made our share of mistakes. On our first day we went up to Alpe di Siusi and hiked to Compatsch then Saltria. From Saltria it was a one-hour uphill walk back to the cable car that would take us back to Ortisei. Given how tired we were, the sensible option would have been to take the bus. But we couldn’t figure out the buses. I really should have read up on this before we left, but sometimes I run out of patience reading about transportation details. I saw a sign that said it was a two-hour walk down to Ortisei, so I said, “Why don’t we just walk?” I was thinking two hours downhill would be easier than one hour uphill. Big mistake! I forgot how hard it is on your legs to hike downhill. We had a miserable walk with nothing to look at but trees. It took us well over two hours, and as a special bonus it poured the last half hour. I paid for this mistake with sore shins and thigh muscles for three or four days. Fortunately, once I got walking they kind of worked themselves out and I barely noticed the pain.

On another day, my husband saw a peak in the distance and said, “Let’s go there.” The problem was that somehow he determined that this peak was Monte Pana, and I somehow forgot that we had changed chairlifts at Monte Pana on the way up. This resulted in us having the same conversation about every 10 minutes. Me: “I don’t think we should be going downhill this much.” My husband: “You have to go downhill before you go up.” Me: “But the sign says Monte Pana is that way.” My husband: “Why do you blindly follow signs instead of paying attention to what is in front of your eyes.” Finally, I got out the map (duh!) and figured out the peak my husband wanted to go to was NOT Monte Pana. Whoops! We had to do some backtracking, all uphill of course. But it was still a great day. And so was every day we had in the Dolomites. We are dying to go back!

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Verona and Mantua – I had high hopes for Verona. I loved the idea of seeing the Roman arena and other Roman ruins, and it looked so pretty in the pictures. But I was hugely disappointed. It was partly the size – it was a lot bigger than I expected. It was partly the crowds – it was insanely crowded. And it was partly because we just wanted to be back in Ortisei. Pumpkin ravioli and crème brulee were on the menu that night! Our hotel room in Verona was teeny tiny and cost about the same as Hotel Grones, and it didn’t include dinner of any kind, let alone pumpkin ravioli and crème brulee.

On our first full day my husband went to do laundry and get his hair cut (??? – this was a first) while I walked around. I started with Juliet’s balcony and it was predictably dopey, but of course I had to see it. I continued to walk around the city, hitting most of the major sites, but only going inside a couple of churches. Chiesa Santa Anastasia was gorgeous! While I thought many of the buildings and squares of Verona were beautiful, I just never warmed up to it.

In the afternoon, I met up with my husband and we toured the Roman arena. It was impressive, and it’s cool that they still use it for concerts. But the modern seating and bathrooms they added really take away from the ambience. However, it does provide a dramatic back drop for Piazza Bra, where we had pizza and wine for dinner.

I had scheduled another full day for Verona, but there was nothing else we wanted to do there. So after researching places online, we decided on a day trip to Mantua. I know there are more obvious options, like Padua and Vicenza, but I was looking for something much smaller and with way less people than Verona. It sounded like Mantua would fit the bill. I was partly right. It was a lot smaller than Verona. But it was a gorgeous Saturday, and it seemed that everyone in Mantua was out for a walk. Lots and lots of people. But as near as I could tell, they were all locals rather than tourists, which made it slightly less annoying. And, we had a nice lunch at a sidewalk café where I got pumpkin ravioli!

We got back to Verona by mid-afternoon, and it had gotten even more crowded – think Main Street in DisneyWorld after the afternoon parade is over. Perhaps it was because there was some kind of children’s festival going on. My husband napped, I walked around, then we had a nice dinner of pasta and wine and looked forward to moving on the next day.

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Varenna – We took the train to Varenna via Milan. From the train station, we walked down the hill to the lake and our little hotel – Hotel Olivedo. (My husband likened it to Fawlty Towers.) Even with a sky full of gray clouds, the view of the lake and mountains was stunningly beautiful. And we had that view from our room! My husband took a nap while I enjoyed a cup of tea and stared out the window. Our only criteria for dinner was we wanted to be outside looking at the view. There were quite a few places that fit the bill, so we picked one with an empty table. Was it the best food we’ve ever had? Definitely not, but it was good enough, especially with a glass of wine. And did I mention the view?

The next morning we walked up to Castello di Vezio – nice castle and beautiful views. In the afternoon we took a boat to Bellagio, which we discovered is bigger and more crowded than Varenna. We definitely liked Varenna better – it’s quieter and has a more relaxed vibe. For dinner, we went to the same place we ate the night before. Is there anything better than sitting outside on a beautiful day drinking wine and eating food (almost anything!) with a view to die for?

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Milan – Next was a short stop in Milan to see the Last Supper. We loved the Last Supper, hated Milan. I think we have trouble going from beautiful, quiet, scenic places to busy, crowded, urban places.

I also think Milan is not our scene. I’ve never seen so many hipsters hanging out on the streets drinking, smoking, and looking fashionable. I thought business suits were going the way of dinosaurs, but they are alive and well in Milan. And clogging up the sidewalks. Also, there is a lot of traffic, including zillions of noisy motorcycles. It was not exactly Varenna.

I know we didn’t give Milan enough time; we were there for less than 24 hours. But that’s all the time we could spare. We saw the Last Supper as part of a three-hour City Wonders tour. It’s the only way I was able to get tickets, and I liked that it gave us the opportunity to see some of the city. The tour was pretty good, and I loved the Duomo. My only regret is that we didn’t get to go on the roof of the Duomo. (Some of the tours include the roof, but none that worked for us.) I was planning to go back to visit the roof in the morning before our train left, but it was pouring rain, so I didn’t bother. Given this was just the second time it rained on our trip, I really didn’t mind.

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Murren, Switzerland – Back to heaven! Two years ago we went to Switzerland and fell in love with Murren. We did not have the best weather though. We had one beautiful day which we used to go up to the Schilthorn. Another day it rained, so we went to Trummelbach Falls and walked around Lauterbrunnen. The third day it was extremely overcast when we set off on the North Face trail. We missed a turn, which turned an easy two-hour hike into a very neat but exhausting seven-hour hike. (We had no food, no water, no map. Yes we are stupid, and yes we learned our lesson!) Every so often during the hike, there would be an opening in the clouds and we’d see a stunning vista. Then the opening would close and it was back to seeing nothing but fog. I kept thinking how beautiful the hike would be on a nice day. That was one regret. The second regret was that we didn’t get to do the Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg hike.

As I was planning our trip to Italy, I kept thinking that it wasn’t all that far from Murren where I felt like I had unfinished business. Or rather unfinished leisure. We finally decided to take four nights from Italy to go back to Murren and hope for better weather. We got our wish! The weather was perfect, and so was our time in Murren.

Our first day we went to Mannlichen and hiked to Kleine Scheidegg. It was a mostly gentle downhill hike; just as beautiful as I expected! We finished at 1:50, right before the train to Jungfraujoch was scheduled to leave KS. I had no plans to go there – it seemed too far from Murren and too expensive. But the skies were still clear, and there was the train right in front of us. I said to my husband, “We’re here; let’s do it.” Initially he said no; he thought we’d be too exhausted. I said it would be no big deal. But he changed his mind, so we went. When we travel, my husband is the realistic one. I’m the one who thinks I will never get tired. In this case, we were both right. We were pretty tired – we didn’t get back to Murren until 7:00 – but we had a great time and were glad we did it.

While outside viewing the glacier, we saw a guy trying to raise the Swiss flag, but it kept getting snagged on a wire, so my husband tried to help him. He left my husband holding the flag while he went to get a pole. A couple of young Japanese girls decided to have their picture taken with my husband and the flag, and next thing we knew dozens of Japanese tourists wanted their picture taken with him too. It was pretty funny. The guy came back with his pole, but he couldn’t get near the flag because of the crowd surrounding my husband. Good luck trying to get between Japanese tourists and a photo op!

Day two in Murren we decided to take it easy. We walked down to Gimmelwald and back, then walked around Murren. At dinner we saw a young guy with a Pittsburgh half marathon t-shirt, so my husband asked if he was from Pittsburgh. It turns out he lived there for 10 years and went to my high school! Super nice guy. He had taken a Rick Steves tour with his family earlier in the summer, but the Berner Oberland was completely fogged in the whole time they were there. How disappointing. : ( So he decided to come back with some friends from the school he was attending in Geneva. We had a nice chat.

Day three was another gorgeous clear day, so we decided to duplicate our infamous hike from 2014 and see if we could figure out where we had veered off the trail. It wasn’t hard – we did it again! But this time we recognized it right away, and we were able to retrace our steps from two years ago. The views were just as spectacular as we imagined! It was fun to compare our 2016 pictures with our 2014 pictures when we got back home. The 2016 pictures were a lot prettier!

Our time in Murren was really special. We felt really lucky to go back to one of our favorite places and do it over – just like we dreamed about.

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Paris – We chose to fly back from Paris because it’s the only place with a non-stop flight to Pittsburgh. We had just enough time to do our favorite Sunday-in-Paris things – listen to a band in Luxembourg Gardens, get take-away crepes at our favorite crepe stand, stroll around the 5th and 7th arrondissements and Ile St. Louis, get an ice cream cone, and see the Eiffel Tower twinkling.

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Love your trip report, especially three of our favorites- Venice, Dolomites and Lauterbrunnen area. My hubby goes into withdrawals, too, when we go from gorgeous outdoors to city locations : )

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Wow! Thanks so much for that comprehensive post! Probably of most interest to me since my wife and I are planning pretty much the same trip in Sept '17. You mentioned crowds a few times at different locations, I was hoping to miss most crowds by hitting the last 2 weeks of Sept. was your trip early in the month or late? Also, I've been debating between either Dolomites and berner Oberland... or both... as you did. I've spent time in Murren and the area before, my wife has not. Neither of us has been to the Dolomites. Is it possible to make a good decision of either, or both? I cannot make up my mind. Thanks again for your efforts in putting this posting together, very much appreciated!

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@france_aa - We were in Venice September 7-9, Verona from September 15-17, and Milan on September 20. I don't know if there is a lot of difference in crowds between the beginning and end of the month. Be sure to check on events such as festivals, which may make more of a difference. Weekends vs. weekdays may be a factor as well?

As for the Berner Oberland vs. the Dolomites, that is a tough one. They are both beautiful and offer lots of hiking possibilities. You cannot make a bad decision! One factor that might help you make up your mind if budget is an issue -- the Dolomites are significantly less expensive. It is possible to do both if you have enough time. I would say you should not go to both unless you have enough time for four nights in each location. That improves your chances for good weather at least some of the time.