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.


Taormina – Saying Goodbye to Sicily and Mount Etna

Our last stop in Sicily is the small resort town of Taormina.  Taormina is just a little bit more colorful, crowded, expensive, and upscale than Cefalu.


Watching the World Cup in a bar in Taormina made me miss Lipari with its inexpensive beer and wine and large plates of free appetizers (or things to nibble on) as our favorite waitress called them.  Lipari wasn’t off the beaten track; a fair number of celebrities visit the Aeolians (Armani was in Stromboli when we were there – his black yacht is seen there regularly, Sting and Bono have also climbed the volcano), but it isn’t pretentious.  Taormina seems a little spoiled by the steady influx of rich tourists.

I'm not sure why you can't eat in Taormina - or what that sign even means.  Perhaps it means no picnics on the streets.
I’m not sure why you can’t eat in Taormina – or what that sign even means. Perhaps it means no picnics on the streets.

That said, if you visit Sicily it would be a mistake to bypass Taormina.  Only an hour away from the gritty, and slightly scary Catania, it seems a world away.  (Somewhat like Capri is a world away from gritty and slightly scary Naples).

Taormina’s most famous site is the Greek Theater, built to have a stunning view of Mount Etna.  It is huge – making me wonder how many people lived in the area when the Greeks were here.  Most of it was rebuilt by the Romans (probably turned into a stadium for their Gladiator games).  The town winds itself along a steep cliff from the Theater towards Mount Etna.  The beach is a cable car away – and a castle on the hill above the town likely offered protection from the pesky invaders that loved to conquer Sicily.



Bougainvilleas drape this city in a burst of color, and added to interesting architecture, a small, strollable downtown, music playing all evening, and the stunning views it really is set apart from some of the other villages and towns we’ve visited in Sicily.

Our hotel has what has to be one of the most stunning rooftop terraces we’ve seen so far in our travels.  Last night we bought a bottle of wine and some pizzas, and watched Mount Etna in the twilight.  Today, I’m watching Mount Etna ‘breath’ – letting out small clouds of steam that form into a long, milky cloud.


Mount Etna has been quiet since her short-lived eruption a few weeks ago.  Evidence of it remains with fresh ash on the steps up to the castle above town.


When she’s a peace it’s hard to imagine the power she holds to destroy cities like Catania.

It’s hard to say goodbye to Sicily and Mount Etna, but we’re ready to move on to northern Italy, France, and Switzerland and turn our attention to glaciers.  It’s time.


Still Making Rookie Mistakes – But Cefalu is Worth It!

We’ve reached the half-way point in our adventure, and have been on more trains, ferries, and buses than I can count.  But still there are days when things seem a little off.

Yesterday, we left Lipari, in the Aeolian Islands, and made our way to Cefalu, on the northern coast of Sicily.

The ferry ride was fine.  We are now used to the fact that there are no lines in Italy – people just get in one big mob and push their way up to the entrance of the bus, train, or ferry. It’s a little disconcerting at first  – but you get used to it.

The ferry port on the mainland in Milazzo is too far from the train station to walk.  I don’t really like taking taxis because they often overcharge tourists (we were warned about that in Catania and Rome), and there is a convenient  public bus, so we hauled our bags over to the bus stop.  Only it wasn’t the bus stop.  It was a bus stop – because it had the words BUS on the stop, but the stop for the public bus was about 200 yards further down the street.  Rookie mistake. Grrr.  It didn’t help that there was some sort of military ceremony (graduation) going on between the two stops.

We wavered about taking a taxi when we couldn’t figure out the bus – but the person organizing the taxis wandered off.  Then a bus went by and we could see where it stopped – so feeling like two very incompetent tourists – we headed back to the bus stop to wait.

All that considered, we made it to the train station in time for the train we would have caught if we had taken a taxi.  But we couldn’t buy tickets.  It was silly, but we couldn’t figure out how to type in our PIN code.  The keypad only had numbers, not letters, and we have memorized our code using letters.  Grrr.   The machine took cash, but only change (not bills), and there was no ticket booth with a live person.

As they announced the train’s arrival we decided to see if we could buy a ticket on the train.  Of course, the train was arriving on a middle platform, and we (and our bags) had to run to try to catch it.  The helpful? men on the platform told us to go over the tracks.  I guess the signs saying not to cross the tracks (use the underground passage instead) are just advisory in Sicily.  Or no one cares.  Anyway, we did just that, found the conductor, who told us not to worry about the ticket and just get on and not delay the train.  Grrr.  You think you’ve got things figured out, and then you end up looking foolish.

But Cefalu was worth all the effort.  This little resort town is nestled at the bottom of a huge rock, or “La Rocca” – a 270 meter high limestone crag that rises straight up.


The top of “La Rocca” was inhabited off and on over the centuries.  There are the remains of a megalithic (big blocks) “Temple of Diana” that date from Greek times.


The entire rock is encircled by a thick wall (except where it is sheer), and during medieval ties there were buildings to store grain, water cisterns, a small castle (fortified with a second wall) and a whole lot of lookout towers.


From the lookout points the city’s guards could see invaders coming from miles away, and get the townfolk up to “La Rocca” for safely.

 In a strange way, Cefalu reminded me a little of Dubrovnik – with the medieval part of town topped with bright red roof tiles.  Only the wall wasn’t around the city, it was behind the city.


Oh – and I should probably mention that Cefalu has one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever seen in this part of Europe.  Long, sandy, with calm water.  It’s already packed in late June, so I wonder what it’s like in August.

beach (Medium)

We’re heading to Taormina tomorrow, by train and then bus (I think).  I’ve got my fingers crossed that it’ll go smoothly.  From there we’ll decide whether or not to go back to Mount Etna.  The eruption a few weeks ago turned out to be a very minor one – over almost before it began – so we didn’t head over to see it.  Since then there have been a few minor “burps” but nothing more than when we were there a month ago.


Water, Water, All Around and Not a Drop to Drink!

Parts of Sicily have a water crisis.  When we were in Messina, our guide told us locals only had running water one hour a day.  (Not to worry if you are planning a visit – the hotels have water – tourism is too important to the economy.)  Out of the seven Aeolian islands, only Salina (slightly to the north of Lipari) has a fresh water spring.  And rain water isn’t plentiful.  It’s sort of unbelievable that these islands have supported settlements for thousands of years without a steady water supply!

Lipari has the largest population – and has had the largest population for centuries.  It used to support a lot more agriculture – the evidence is in the terraced hillsides that you can still see today – much of it adapted to take water out of the thick mists that roll over the hills.  But the Aeolian Islands also have a huge history of emigration – to all parts of the world.  Stromboli used to have around 5,000 residents at the turn of the century, but increased volcanic activity and a decline in agriculture (I believe our guide said that a pest destroying the crops – I think grapes – was the last straw) led to most of them emigrating – many to Melbourne Australia.

DSCN6530 (Medium)

You can see the old terraces behind the active terraces on the south side of Lipari island.
You can see the old terraces behind the active terraces on the south side of Lipari island.

Lipari doesn’t feel like it’s got a water shortage.  People don’t drink the tap water, but I think we’ve seen them wash the streets here – and the large hotels have pools.  There is nothing in the apartment to indicate that we need to be frugal with water (but we are just in case), and some of the plumbing in the apartment leaks (we’ve had the landlord in once to fix it – but my guess is it’s a constant problem because nothing seems to work quite right.)  Many of the tour boats offer people fresh water showers after each swim (they shower you off as you climb back onto the boat).

At the same time, we’ve noticed water supply ships making regular rounds to the various islands.  Best I can tell the ships bring water in from Naples (but possibly parts of Sicily as well) to the thirsty islands.

Water supply being brought in to Filicudi
Water supply being brought in to Filicudi

After doing a little research, I learned that there is a desalination plant on Lipari that’s been in operation since around 1998.  It produces enough water for the winter population of Lipari – some 11,000 people.  With around an estimated 200,000 tourists coming to Lipari each season – the supply can’t keep up.  They are building (or perhaps it has been completed) a larger, more energy efficient, desalination plant right now.  I think it is /will be the biggest in Italy.  Of course they need to ship in diesel fuel to run it.  Tourism is just that important to the local economy.

Since the Aeolians became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 tourism has really increased.  I can’t help but wonder if the increase in tourism is related to the decrease in agriculture.  It was in Cinque Terre.  It is very labor intensive to grow crops on the terraces – really hard work – not too many people are willing to do that anymore, not when there are easier jobs that are more lucrative.  I should note that there are a few upscale wineries on Lipari, and efforts at agri-tourism, but small scale compared to how it must have been in the past.  And obviously the UNESCO designation came at the cost of pumice mining – another foundation of the local economy.

I love being a tourist – and it’s a little hypocritical to talk about how unsustainable tourism is for the local economies of these small places – but it seems to me that these quaint little villages that people love to visit are in danger of being loved to death.  If tourism were to disappear – would they be able to go back to normal?  What even is normal?

Footnote:  we visited the least visited island in the Aeolians – Alicudi – where donkeys are still the only way of carrying goods up the main street.  Electricity only came to this island in the 1990s.  As tourism goes, there isn’t much to do there except sit and watch the donkeys go by, as the locals (who aren’t out fishing) sit and watch the tourists watch the donkeys.  I guess there are still places where time stands still.

Alicudi has a road from the ferry dock to the power plant - maybe 500 m.  There are probably a half dozen vehicles on the island - sharing space with the donkeys.
Alicudi has a road from the ferry dock to the power plant – maybe 500 m. There are probably a half dozen vehicles on the island – sharing space with the donkeys.
This is the main street in Alicudi - donkeys do all the heavy lifting.
This is the main street in Alicudi – donkeys do all the heavy lifting.