Lake Garda & Emilia-Romagna, Italy

“You cannot travel the path until you become the path yourself”
– Buddha

Sitting at the edge of the Dolomites, Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy, where this alpine region was formed by glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The lake is enormous and reminded me of an infinity pool; as you gaze out into the distance, it becomes unclear where the water meets the sky as they unite in perfect unison, discerned only by the passing clouds of white above. It takes approximately two hours to drive around the entire perimeter of the lake, give or take, depending on traffic and weather. As you wind through long, dark tunnels, you come out on the other side to adorable sea towns. If you’d like to visit the entire lake, you can certainly drive it in one day if you select a few towns you’d like to visit, but my recommendation is to explore it slowly over several days, meandering about through the small villages and tasting fresh seafood right from the source.

We started in Salò, which is home to TripAdvisor’s #1-rated restaurant in the area, Osteria Di Mezzo, where we had the most delicious tiramisu of our entire lives. An unassuming facade, this family-run restaurant is down a back alley, tucked away like the little gem it is. Here is how it looks like from the outside:

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They start you off with a complimentary cucumber cream soup topped with an anchovy.

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We ordered a fresh lake fish, as well as delicious steak topped with truffle shavings.

The tiramisu is the classic recipe, only served with an inventive twist. It is served with a shot of espresso, which is poured over the top of a chocolate cup that melts into the rest of the dessert. You are then left to your own devices to mix everything together and inhale…rather…consume slowly, if you can help yourself. We also ordered chocolate molten cake, which was good, but didn’t come close to sharing the spotlight with its fancy competitor, Tantalizing Tremendously Tasty Tiramisu.

And once you’re thoroughly satiated, it’s time for the bill, which comes in this adorable postcard with some free treats made in-house (probably to distract you from the shock of the total.) We managed to rack up a €65 bill for lunch, which is unlike us. We typically fall in the range of €30 for the two of us, but we figured we’re towards the end of our travels, so why not splurge a bit? After all the sub-par, overpriced food in Venice, It was well worth it.

Once you’re nice and plump, get back out on the lake and take a walk around to settle the food and marvel at the pristine views.

Sunset dinners are sublime, and temperatures are pleasant (we visited in early August.)

Hiking Around Lake Garda

There are plenty of hikes to choose from, but since we only spent two full days around the lake, we settled on two spectacular ones. (Just a heads up that Cascata Del Varone looks really neat, but when we drove up to it, we realized it was quite touristy and had an entrance fee of €5,50 for an individual ticket. Be prepared to get a bit wet, as you will be walking through and around the waterfalls, so visitors are advised to wear a rain jacket or poncho. We decided to give this hike a miss as we were looking for something more open with views of the lake and away from crowds.)

Sentiero Panoramico Busatte Tempesta

Duration: 2 hours (includes ascending and descending a steep flight of stairs in good condition)
Views: Open to the elements, beautiful lake and town views
Elevation: 120 meters above sea level (360 feet)
Classification: Easy & pleasant
Distance: 5.4 kilometers (3.4 miles)
Month & Year Visited: August, 2017
Best Time to Hike: A few hours before sunset when it is not so hot and the sky lights up in beautiful colors

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Sail Boats
Looking like tiny toy sail boats on the massive lake.
Boats
And here is the same photo, zoomed out to show the full spectrum.

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Stairs
Here is where the stairs begin.

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Monte Baldo

This was a delightful day. We actually didn’t do any hiking here because we were feeling lazy and wanted to enjoy the views without a workout. There is a funicular that ascends to the top that costs €20 per person. However, there is a way to avoid this high ticket fee! Simply go around to the backside of the mountain and take the ski lift up! The cost is only €7 and there’s a good chance that you will get your own lift (seats a total of four people), rather than being crammed inside a claustrophobic-inducing vessel with heaps of other people. The ride is beautiful and serene and takes only around 5 minutes. The views at the top are beyond stunning. They’re surprising, because you have no idea that on the other side of the mountain lies the lake, shining below you like a sheet of wet turquoise metal. On the other hand, if you take the funicular, you’re coming from the lake side, so you’re seeing the views all the way up rather than being surprised and delighted when you arrive at the top. You can also choose to hike up and down or only walk one way and the ticket is cheaper. Stop at Chalet Falco (where the free parking is on the backside of the mountain) and have a meal before or after your hike/ride up to the top. The food and ambiance is welcoming and relaxed and it feels as though you are in the Swiss Alps.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the views as you ascend on your own private lift, listening to the sound of beautiful mountain silence the entire way.

Once you reach the top, be prepared to be completely awed. Go ahead…roll your jaw back up off the floor.

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There are lots of paragliders to admire!

Where to Stay in Lake Garda

Well, we didn’t stay in Lake Garda because August is far too expensive (this is a popular holiday destination for locals and tourists alike, so hotels and Airbnbs can charge a premium). We stayed in a little town called Vescovato, located in Cremona, the city of violins. Little did we know that serendipity was about to lead us to the most memorable hosts we have ever met in our entire lives.

We booked this stay through Airbnb, but we almost didn’t take it because Vescovato seemed in the middle of nowhere. However, we learned that this home was in the countryside and only one hour away from Parma, Modena, Verona and Lake Garda, so we booked it! We started with three nights and ended up staying six because we loved our hosts and their animals (two cats and one dog) so much. Francesco is from Puglia in Southern Italy and Natalya is from Ukraine and speaks fluent Russian. Neither of them really spoke much English at all, so I am so glad that Natalya and Sasha had a common language to communicate in Russian. Since Italian and Spanish are similar, I would ask Francesco a question in Spanish, but he didn’t fully understand so he asked Natalya in Italian (which she also speaks fluently), and she would tell Sasha in Russian, which he would then translate to me in English. Travel…it breaks so many barriers and proves that you don’t always need a common language to connect with people. Sometimes smiles, hand gestures, offering copious amounts of food, eating breakfast together at the kitchen table, and genuine hospitality will suffice.  Here is a photo of us with our hosts, who now feel like family:

Airbnb Hosts

And here is the view from their countryside apartment:

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If you ever find yourself in this quiet little slice of Northern Italy and you are open to shared accommodation with the most trustworthy, kind and hospitable hosts, here is their Airbnb link. In mid August, we paid only €25 per night and spent the leftover money on gas and tolls commuting to and from our day trips.

Our hosts went above and beyond to ensure our stay was perfect, so we wanted to do something special for them. Because it is considered rude in Italian and Russian cultures to give your host money, we instead invited them to have dinner with us at their home and I would cook. Natalya decided that it would be fun to have a “dish-off” where we cook something and they cook something together in the kitchen, without knowing what the other person is preparing ahead of time. Deal, we said!

I decided to make Asian chicken and stir fried veggies since we miraculously found sesame oil, ginger and soy sauce at the supermarket! (not common ingredients found in Italy). Even though I only had half the ingredients of what I normally would at home, I made do. I figured home-cooked Chinese food is something they haven’t had in a very long time, if ever.

We cooked together in the kitchen for two hours, talking in Spanish, Italian, Russian and English, and some mixture of the four, laughing and gesturing and Googling photos to translate what things were. The result?…

Sesame soy chicken with garlic and pepper stir-fried veggies, Parmesano, and Risotto with mushrooms. Two classic Asian dishes mixed with two classic authentic Italian dishes on one plate, in one kitchen, brought together by four different cultures. We ooed and awwed and mmmmed, saying the word “delicious” in as many languages as we knew. Then, we were silent for a good two minutes, simply savoring the flavors and the moment and the sheer connectedness of it all. Through this travel experience, I can think of one word to explain our sentiments…connectedness.

That night was brilliant. That night reminded me of why there is good on this Earth. That night reminded me that regardless of your race, culture, ethnicity or background, food is always a uniting factor, breaking the barriers, breaking the awkwardness, and breaking through stereotypes. We learned so much from our hosts and left feeling as though we have gained two new family members.

Natalya said that seeing interracial couples from two different cultural backgrounds makes her very happy. And the fact that I am marrying someone of a different culture makes me very happy.

Here is the most beautiful joint meal I have ever prepared in my whole life with some of the nicest hosts we have ever met. 

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We cooked several more meals at home with them.

Did you know that in Italy, salvia is a commonly-eaten food item? It actually grows right outside their home! They fried the leaves in olive oil and served it straight up, as well as in pieces in pasta dishes. It reminds me of sage. It’s so interesting because in America, Salvia is considered a hallucinogenic drug. I had no idea you could eat the leaves! 

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Because they live on a farm, there is always a plethora of fresh fruits and veggies! Here were some of their loots, which they so kindly shared with us!

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The sweetest and most beautiful figs we’ve ever eaten!
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I paired them with gorgonzola dulce cheese and sweet hot pepper jam (home made by Natalya)
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Look at this!!!! Tomato heaven!

I celebrated my 30th birthday while staying in Vescovato with our wonderful hosts. So this is what turning 30 feels like. I believe over the past five months of traveling, the wrinkles around my eyes have increased, not because of stress or pain or tiredness, but because of happiness and life. My laugh lines have never been so prominent, and instead of seeing them as a sign of aging, I choose to see them as a sign of wisdom and worldliness.

I told Sasha that I was excited to be spending my first ever birthday abroad, but also that I was sad about hitting a milestone age away from all our family and friends. Our Airbnb hosts thought they had blocked out our stay (they only have one room for guests and the other they sleep in), but something got messed up through the Airbnb system and another couple booked a room, so they accepted, kept us in our room, and they slept in the living room. This couple ended up being traveling musicians from Munich! We all hit it off straight away and in the morning, I awoke to a table set with a beautiful breakfast. The guy got out his guitar and everybody sang happy birthday to me in the most beautiful harmonies and accents.

Our hosts presented me with the most delicious home made tiramisu, complete with lit candles. Natalya had woken up early that morning to make it while we were still asleep. The top I am wearing in the above photos was a gift from our hosts, whom we had known only for six days, an Italian brand made of silk.

The traveling musicians were actually quite well known and have a YouTube channel! They sang a mini concert for us in the most intimate setting in the living room with our Ukrainian and Italian hosts (and their puppy). My heart was so full I couldn’t tell whether I should laugh or cry, so I did a little of both.

Even though I am a world away from my family and friends, it was one of the most special birthdays of my whole life, celebrating with new friends and family members. I couldn’t feel more fulfilled. If this is how the rest of my birthdays will be, I have a whole lot to look forward to in life.  And I feel pretty darn lucky to spend the rest of my birthdays with this handsome man!

MODENA

Our main experience in Modena was the Ferrari Museum! At €16 per person, we didn’t really feel this was worth it. However, if you’re a car enthusiast, you may enjoy it. We stopped by the main piazza and it was a total ghost town! Since we visited during mid-August, all the locals were at the sea for the holiday called Ferragosto, so everything shuts down for between 2 – 4 weeks.

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Same situation with Parma; we only went for one day to check it out, and it was completely deserted.

We did, however, manage to visit a local delicatessen to ensure we tried all the Parma delicacies. 🙂

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You must try Parma ham, and of course, Parmesan cheese.
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Emilia Creamery is a delicious gelateria using all natural, biological ingredients.

 

NEXT UP: PIEDMONT REGION: TURIN & PARCO NAZIONALE GRAN PARADISO, ITALY

 

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