Category Archives: Italy

Ken’s Field Notes – Vulcano, Aeolian Islands, Italy

Bomb on Vulcano Rim 2_DxO
The Fossa Cone on the Island of Vulcano indicates why the place was named after the Roman god of fire. A very active fumarole field steams away along the northern crater rim, producing stinging sulfur dioxide and rich sulfur deposits.

Full notes here: Field Journal 2014 Vulcano

Ken’s Field Notes – Mount Etna

Mt. Etna is designated a Decade Volcano due to the proximity of Catania and its extremely active history. Summit eruptions are common but the frequency of flank eruptions make this volcano unique. There are over 300 vents along the flanks, each of which was active only once. These vents, and the lava flows that come from them, are the primary hazard to the surrounding communities.

Full Field Notes can be found here:  Field Journal 2014 Etna

Nuovi Coni 2002-03 3_DxO

Lake Como – Is George Clooney Enjoying this Weather?


You cannot google Lake Como without George Clooney’s name coming up. Clooney is undoubtable the most well-known international movie star to own property on the lake, outshining Donatella Versace, Sting, and Richard Branson. Can’t he do something about this weather? It has rained almost continuously since we arrived – heavy rain with lightning and thundershowers most evenings. Perhaps it is because Switzerland is just a few kilometers away.

In one of the brief breaks in the steady downpour, we took the public ferry from Varenna (mid-lake) to Como (on the south-western end). The ferry captain may not have read about the Clooney laws, because he cruised by Villa Oleandra – close enough for many of us to snap a picture of Clooney’s home away from home. Thankfully, Clooney didn’t launch any raw eggs at us. You see, he has managed to get the town of Laglio to pass a law saying that you cannot stop on the public road outside of George’s Villa, and you cannot swim or boat within 100 meters of his shoreline – on the public lake I should add. He’s also installed an egg-launcher – to scare away private tours of the public shoreline in front of his villa. According to the news articles I read, the paparazzi have gotten out of control, desperate to snatch a photo of Clooney, his latest lady friend, or one of his A-List Celebrity guests. And locals are offering private “Clooney” tours. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration. No one was stalking the villa as we cruised by on the ferry.

George Clooney's Villa on Lake Como - Villa Oleandra
George Clooney’s Villa on Lake Como – Villa Oleandra
George Clooney's Villa on Lake Como - Villa Oleandra
George Clooney’s Villa on Lake Como – Villa Oleandra

While Clooney’s Villa is nice enough (18th Century – formerly owned by the Heinz Family), it is only one of many huge Villas that ring Lake Como. Villa Balbianello (held in public trust) holds one of the most prestigious spots on the lake – on a promontory just south of the town of Lenno (mid-lake). This lovely 18th Century Villa was the setting for the movie “A Month of Lake Como.” It was also used in Star Wars (Episode 2) as Senator Padme’s hideaway (the kiss and wedding to Anakin Skywalker scenes were shot here), and James Bond Casino Royale (as the clinic where James recuperated on the lawns).

Villa Balbianello - Lake Como
Villa Balbianello – Lake Como
Villa Balbianello
Villa Balbianello

The mid-lake ferry also stops at Villa Carlotta (in the village of Tremezzo). This 17th Century Villa is known for its gardens (70,000 sq meters) and artwork.

Villa Carlotta - Lake Como
Villa Carlotta – Lake Como

Across the bay from Varenna in Bellagio is Villa Melzi. The main villa is off limits to the public, but the gardens sweeping down to the lake are a huge tourist attraction (when it isn’t pouring).

Villa Melzi
Villa Melzi

Varenna has Villa Monasero, built in the 16th Century, and also known for its gardens. Of course we haven’t seen any of these great gardens – because of the steady downpour.

While the Villas provide the lakeside bling, the real gems are the small towns set up from the lakeshore. In Varenna our town center has a lovely church (we met a young man from Norway who is getting married there as I write this) and a 12th Century Chapel – very similar to a Chapel we saw in Lake Garda.  Most of the little towns we’ve walked through have medieval town centers, tumbling down the hillsides.  There are all sorts of walks (including one on the west side of the lake that follows an old Roman road) that lead through these tiny town centers.

I wish I could write more about Lake Como – no – I wish I could see more of Lake Como – even if I feel like the scruffy hiker in a room full of socialites when we venture outside of our apartment. The ironic thing is that Lake Como is known as a great tourist destination because of the mild and pleasant – wait for it – weather.

Update: We finally had one great day of wonderful weather and took the ferry to the north of the lake. Like Lake Garga (to the east), the north of the lake is very different from mid-lake and the southern legs. Even though the north is ringed by high mountains, the shoreline is less rugged, and the towns seems to sprawl a little more. But there are still gems up there – including the lovely Piona Monastery.

Piona Monastery
Piona Monastery

The northern lake is also much more windy, and the lake is filled with wind-surfers, small sailboats, and parasailers.

North Lake Como
North Lake Como

The funny thing about Lake Como is when the sun starts shining, you can completely forget that it has rained continuously for the past week!

Haute Route Summary Blog


Our Adventure on the Haute Route

During one of the rainiest summers (July 2014)  in Switzerland, my husband and I walked the walkers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt.  Along the way we made great friendships, hiked/slid through snow in the high mountains,  stayed in B&Bs, hostels and hotels in bucolic Swiss and French villages, tested our mental and physical stamina, witnessed a deadly avalanche, and saw a few snow-covered mountain peaks.

I won’t say it was the adventure we had expected, but I don’t think we’ll ever forget our three weeks in the Alps.

This page brings together all the blog posts (now with photos) as well as some practical information for people planning for the walk.

Practical Tips for Hikers

Grocery Stores and ATMs

Chamonix – everything you could possibly need

Argentiere – smallish town – at least one grocery store and a few sports stores.  Our friends stayed at the Belevedere and loved it.  We were at the Randonneurs – a walk out of town.  It was ok.

Trient (first time you may need Swiss Francs) – theRelais de Mont Blanc has a bar and small store – they take credit cards.  The other place (next door) was rumored to serve great meals.

Champex – Pension en Plein Air charges 3% for credit cards.  The dorms here are better than most (more privacy) but upgrade to a double room isn’t much extra.  Good radiators to dry things – and washing facilities.  Town has a very small grocery store (closes mid-day) and an ATM outside the store.  One small sports store as well.

Le Chable – Pizza place (second floor on main drag) is good and reasonably priced.  Two grocery stores – closed on Sundays.  We didn’t take out money here – but I’m sure there was a bank or ATM.  Verbier has everything (short cable-car ride away).

Cabane du Mont Fort – takes a credit card.

Cabane de Prafleuri  – cash only.  Must pay for dinner before dinner (and also order drinks before dinner).

Arolla – We stayed at a three star hotel – Hotel du Pigne (since the rest of the town was booked – it had a bathtub – great for weary legs). Hotel Glacier / Edelweiss was supposed to have a great breakfast.  Not so for the Ecureuil. Two small grocery stores – didn’t look for an ATM.   Only a small grocery in Haudreres (and out of the way – down the road the opposite direction).

La Sage – No store or ATM as far as I know – really tiny village.  Ecureuil was cheap, but not that clean, and the food was canned and over salted.  Showers didn’t lock.

Cabane de Moiry – will take credit cards for the deposit, but must pay the balance in cash.

Zinal – larger town – two grocery stores open every day.

Gruben – tiny village.   Hotel Schwarzhorn charged 3% for credit cards.  No ATM or groceries available.  Double-check if they say they have no room in the dorms.

St. Nicklaus – Grocery store and ATM (I think).

Blog Posts – July 6 to 26, 2014

Heading into the Alps – Haute Route

Haute Route Day 1 – Raining and Stormy

Haute Route Day 2 – Conversation and Laughter

Haute Route Day 3 – Wet and Muddy  – Are we crazy for pushing on?

Haute Route Days 4 and 5 – Worst Summer in Switzerland’s History

Haute Route Days 6 and 7 – Should we go for the crossing?

Haute Route Day 8 – We are alive, and We had our most Spectacular but Grueling Day Ever

Haute Route Day 9 – Snow is Gone but the Ladders to get Over the Pass were Out

Haute Route Day 10 – Arolla to La Sage – A Quiet Day

A Rough Day-Witnessed an Avalanche that Claimed Two Lives

Haute Route – Days 12, 13 and 14 – Saying Good-bye 

Haute Route Days 15 and 16 – Into Zermatt

Zermatt – Crowded, Carless, and at times, Sunny


Packing List

The biggest mistake people made was taking too much.

My Essentials:

  • Good boots – well worn in (we wore low boot/shoes and they worked fine – but everyone else chose leather hiking boots.)
  • Socks (I took 3 pairs – one to wear – one that was usually wet – and a spare).
  • Light, quick dry pants, shorts, and shirts.  I took 3 tops – one to wear, one that was drying, and a spare to wear in the evenings after my shower.
  • One long sleeved light cover up.
  • One mid-weight fleece
  • A rain coat.  (I didn’t use rain pants and I was fine.)
  • A sun hat and a fleece hat (it got cold, I used my fleece hat a lot.)
  • Something to sleep in for the dorms (or to get up to go to the bathroom at night.)
  • Good backpack
  • Water bottle (we didn’t take purifier stuff but if it was hotter out, we would have needed more water.)
  • A sleeping bag liner (lightweight).  They don’t wash the bedding in the cabins.
  • First aid and blister stuff
  • Headlamp and space blanket for emergencies
  • Personal stuff
  • Camping towel (ours was the smallest – I’d get a larger one next time)

We also took:

  • Kindle with guidebook loaded (lighter than a paper copy, plus had other books to read).
  • Cell phone (worked in most places)
  • Chargers
  • Maps and compass (used the maps in the evening, but felt safer that we had them. )
  • Sandals (the huts provide sandals, but its nice to have your own for the hotels as well).

Is the Route Well Marked?

Yes.  If you have Kev’s book for directions (get from Amazon) and a decent sense of direction, and the weather is fine, you shouldn’t have a problem.  Most people carry maps and a compass as well as backup.  We didn’t need them at all, but used them in the evening to better understand the next day’s route.  It can get confusing in the valleys where there are many roads and trails – but the maps won’t help there, and getting lost isn’t that big of a deal – except you waste time.

How fit do you need to be?

Fit.  You should walk – a lot – before you attempt the route.  You need to be comfortable with heights, exposure, and scrambling over uneven surfaces.  It’s also high -so expect shortness of breath going up the passes.  You don’t need to be a super athlete.

Book in Advance or On the Go?

Accommodations fill up on the weekends, so book those as much in advance as you can.  Those that booked in advance found canceling expensive or a pain.  Those that booked one or two days ahead found accommodations sometimes expensive or hard to find.  It’s a coin toss in my opinion.  If the weather is bad, it’s nice to have the flexibility to change things around.


Heading into the Alps – Haute Route

After a wonderful family visit near Verona, we’re heading into the Alps to tackle the Haute Route – from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland.  It is supposed to be one of the best hikes in the Alps, traveling below the summits of ten out of the twelve of the highest peaks in the Alps, and covering 180 km. We’ll be staying in small hotels, B&B’s, and mountain huts – although even the huts are equipped with bedding and provide meals.  That means we don’t have to carry camping gear or food! Here is the route: HauteRouteMap-Medium We should emerge sometime around the 26th of July, but can check emails along the way, and maybe even blog once in a while.