James: Our first trip to Europe was a huge success and tremendous fun. Our three week circle tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy was enjoyable from start to finish. For the past several years, I have wanted to return to Europe, especially to Italy. Rachel usually watches Rick Steve's Travels in Euorpe on PBS, and I had been growing increasingly frustrated at watching Rick travel, but not being able to go ourselves. We always had a trip planned six months away. In the spring, we talked about going in the fall, and in the fall, we talked about going next spring. I had been looking into traveling on my own in 2001, which I think finally caused Rachel to realize that I would be going, with or without her, and we finally began to get serious about planning a trip. I left the decision where to go up to her, but we both liked Italy so much on our first trip that it was an obvious choice.
Rachel: We chose November 1st was because the "off season" airfare to Italy starting November 1st drops dramatically from about $800 to $500, thus saving us about $600. Additionally, I did not want to leave Minnesota in the early fall because I wanted to enjoy Minnesota's lovely autumn and Halloween.
James: Rachel's packing began months ahead of time, with a detailed list and preparations. My packing begins the night before. We brought so little that it really didn't take very long to assemble everything. Eventually, Rachel could get me so mad by asking, "Do you think I should bring these pants?," which was a daily event for some time. But I suppose that my packing was made much smoother and easier by her careful planning ahead, so I will give her thanks despite the pulled hair.
Rachel: The night before when James began to pack, the first thing he asked for was my list and then he went through it item by item to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything! It takes careful planning and weighing every ounce-as it turned out each of our packs weighed only 15 lbs. And I had carefully planned and gotten ready many of the items he packed.
James: Our flight to Milan through Newark was very good. Both arriving and leaving Newark, we flew next to the Manhattan skyline, and even saw the powerful lights at the WTC evacuation sight on the way out. We also flew over Ireland, southern England, the English Channel and northern France at night, with all the city lights glowing, and a full moon reflecting on the ocean and lakes. It was perfectly clear and a truly amazing sight, probably the best I've ever had from an airplane. As if trying to top that, we flew over the Swiss Alps at sunrise, which was also spectacular. The only other memorable event was that a little girl sitting across the aisle from Rachel threw up all over the floor when landing in Milan. For some reason, these things always happen to Rachel.
Rachel: The only two little kids on the whole plane had to sit across the aisle from me-coughing nearly the whole trip. It wasn't my fault I sat in the aisle seat. What can I say?
Part 1: Menaggio
James: In Milan, we caught a bus that would take us directly to Menaggio. However, just north of Milan, traffic came to a full stop. Europeans treat a traffic jam as a kind of impromptu party. Every gets out of their cars, people break out food and drink, and wander around talking to other people. It was something to see. A group of college kids in front of us even planted a school or team flag of some sort by the side of the road, and broke out the champagne and set up a buffet. Eventually, many police cars, tow trucks, ambulances, and a crane passed us on the shoulder, and we heard that an accident was blocking the highway. Soon cars were turning around on the highway and heading back on the shoulder. Our bus couldn't turn around, so we waited about two hours before continuing. Three semi trucks had collided and rolled over, requiring the crane to remove them from the highway. I don't know if anyone was hurt, but the trucks didn't appear to be badly damaged, and I think we only saw one ambulance.
Rachel: After finally clearing the accident, we made our way around the beautiful Lake Como to Menaggio, talking with our driver Antonello, who was exceptionally friendly, and a good driver, considering the roads are about 20 feet wide with a nasty drop into the lake if we missed a turn. We had been to Menaggio on our last trip, and it was our favorite city in all of Europe, and it did not disappoint this trip either. The weather was perfect: warm and sunny, with some of the best scenery in Italy. It really is hard to beat. It is a small town in the foothills of the alps, between the steep mountains and the stunning lake. The people were friendly and had a pleasant, warm, and relaxed attitude. Although the town is great, we really came to stay at the La Primula youth hostel. Despite being an exceptional hostel in every conventional way, their real claim to fame is the communal dinners that they serve each night. Italian women work all afternoon to prepare a traditional multi-course meal with wine, bread, salad, soup, pasta, main course and dessert. They even served us vegetarian meals on request, although more often than not, vegetarian meals were served as a matter of course. And best of all were the large communal tables where we shared stories and get to know fellow travelers. We met an American biker, Josh, who is living in Switzerland, two French ladies (Isobel and Veronique), a group of American girls who were studying art and architecture in Florence, a web-designer from Amsterdam (Anna), and many others. It was a great mix of the more numerous younger crowd, and some older folks (like us). The hostel closes on November 5th, and the last night they had a Ska party, with friends from Menaggio and travelers filling the hostel to overflowing. Free (spiked) punch, an excellent buffet, and great (if loud - hey, we're getting old) music made for a great time.
James: During our three days there, we took hikes in the surrounding hills, visiting small towns, country lanes, old churches and spiritual sites, and medieval walls and buildings. It was definitely the best hiking that we would encounter on our whole trip. We were taking a short break in the small village of Camozzi, when the whole town came towards us with flowers and banners. We had sat on benches next to an old war memorial, and this must have been a kind of Memorial Day. All the veterans in the town had their uniforms on, and they read off the names of those who had died in various wars. A priest said a blessing, kids held banners and flags, and the mayor made a speech. After about 30 minutes, it dissolved about as quickly as it had started, and we continued on our way. We visited an ancient oak tree on a hill side called Rogolone, where people used to meet to make important decisions in medieval times, and also the church of San Giorgio with a crypt with rows of bleached skulls on the shelves, and frescoes from the 13th century. About a 5 1/2 hour hike - Rachel even made a new friend on the way. We also took the ferry around the lake to the town of Varenna, where we hiked around and visited the old fort that overlooks the lake (Castello di Vezio). We had to bring warm clothing everywhere, because as soon as the sun set behind the mountains, it turned instantly cold.
Rachel: Our first night in the hostel we slept in separate dorm rooms, but the second night we were told that we could have our own room. There were four bunks, but they said it wouldn't be a problem to have it to ourselves. It was a little surprising when at 11 o'clock that night, a young couple [he was Bavarian; she was from Spain] walked into our room and began unpacking. They had come in late and these were the last beds left. It wasn't too bad sharing, but they were making out together in the morning in the same bunk bed (it's kind of a romantic place). But we had the room to ourselves on the last night. The weekend was actually a long weekend in Europe, as most people have All Saints Day off, so many Europeans were traveling.
James: In the evenings, the Italians come out to stroll around the central piazza, and by the lakeside. It is a wonderful and very social scene (it sure beats everyone staying inside and watching television). I was taking a picture of a Smart Car, when an older Italian gentleman stopped us and talked to us about the little cars, his country, and the war in Afghanistan. Soon, his family and friends joined us and we had a lively little circle around us engaged in a big discussion. It was mostly in Italian, but the man that we first met translated for us. We really didn't get a chance to say much, as they all talked at once. We found friendly Italians all over, but we found that only in the smaller towns that people talked to us on the streets.