One evening I had a passing thought that we should go to Italy for Jenny’s birthday. I wasn’t entirely sure she would want to, especially when my other idea had been to treat her to extended alone time, where I would take the kids away and she could do whatever she wanted. She got on board with the idea of the trip right away. Tickets to Milan were on sale, and it looked like an interesting area to visit, so we moved forward with the plan. I think that what tipped the scales was that one of Jenny’s core tenets in life is that when one is in Italy, eating gelato is a daily requirement. In fact, that was the main thing Jenny told Elena about to prepare her for the trip.
Even though flying in the sardine-tin atmosphere of a discount airline is a hassle, it felt quite good to be landing in sunny Italy after only a couple of hours in the air; it wasn’t an overwhelming amount of travel time for a three-day weekend trip. We spent the first day in Bergamo, a small city next to the airport we flew into, about twenty miles away from Milan proper. Straight off the plane we tried to visit the historic citta alta (upper city), but passed by all the parking and soon were driving down narrow cobblestone alleys that we probably shouldn’t have been on. By the time we figured out what was going on we were headed down the side of the hill and decided to try again later in the afternoon–we decided it would be best first to take naps to recover from our early morning wake up call.
It was good that we got some rest, because when we returned in the afternoon we took the first parking spot that we found, not realizing what a long walk it would be from there to the town center. The walk was a beautiful one, with incredible views of the town below, but Elena and Roman were not entirely ready for it and we needed a break long before we found the first gelato shop. After that, things were easier; the town center itself was picturesque and not too big. The highlight of the evening was our trip up a funicular to an even higher part of town; although the main attraction up there–an old castle on the grounds of a city park–was closed by the time we got there.
The next morning we woke up ready for a big day in Milan. We didn’t have the easiest time getting to a metro stop and finding someplace to park, but worked it out eventually. The trouble was all forgotten when we exited the metro on the far side of the piazza across from the magnificent Duomo. After we’d had our fill of gawking, we joined the throngs walking up the Via Dante towards Sforzesco Castle. I wish I knew more about the history of Milan, in order to appreciate the significance of these places, but Roman and Elena don’t make it easy to take time to read the historical explanations posted in various locations. As we wandered out the back of the castle, we looked down into the now-dry moat and noticed that there were about a dozen stray cats, some standing guard, others lounging around; there were even a couple that looked like they might get in a fight.
While we were eating lunch in the park, I thumbed through a guidebook (an actual book, not a website) to see if there were any nearby attractions we had overlooked, and discovered that there was a free aquarium on the other side of the park. It was perfect–not too big, but had plenty of fish. I can’t say it was mostly for Elena and Roman’s enjoyment because Jenny and I liked it too. From there we headed to the Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology. We thought it would have interactive exhibits for the kids, but they were mostly shut down on a Saturday afternoon, and small-scale models of da Vinci’s crazy inventions are not the kind of thing that hold Roman or Elena’s attention for very long. After the museum our daily gelato break was long overdue, but we took measures to rectify the deficiency while partaking in our other favorite tourist activity: wandering through whatever part of town seems interesting. Towards dinner we made our way back to the center of town, and on our way out we managed to go by the Duomo again; it may be more spectacular at night than it is during the day.
The next day was Jenny’s birthday. After we sang and she unwrapped the one small gift I had brought in our very limited luggage, we headed away from the cities, towards the Alps to enjoy the beautiful scenery from the vantage of our very stylish little rented Fiat 500. The first road we took was fast, but went through too many tunnels for us to enjoy the beautiful Lake Como on one side and mountains on the other, so we exited it at the first opportunity and made our way to Varenna, a lakeside town I had read about, where we enjoyed lunch in the little town piazza, then explored the lake shore and quaint cobblestone streets.
I had a plan in mind for the remainder of our trip at the northern end of the lake we would head inland, taking the valley road until a place where we could turn south and head up into and through the mountains back to our hotel. Jenny and Elena requested that we amend the plan to include a stop for gelato. When we arrived at to the town where we planned to head into the hills, we started to look for a gelato shop but noticed that some of the streets were blocked off; as we investigated further we found that we had run into the Italian Mountain Racing championships at the 55th Trofeo Vanoni. Luckily, the gelato shop was right next to the race course and open for business. It may have been the best gelato of the whole trip.
Heading up into the mountain from there, we crossed the race course several times; at each point we had to wait until the safety personnel spotted a large enough gap in the flow of racers to flag us through. After seeing where their course topped, I have a great deal of respect for the runners, and don’t know whether going up or down would have been harder. We continued on up and into the mountains, further and higher, each dizzying curve showing us a beautiful new vista, either of the valleys below or the fall foliage on the trees ahead, around, and above us. No matter how high we went, there were always cottages or farm houses visible much higher on the mountain than we were, so remote that we couldn’t even figure out if there was a route for cars to get up there or if the inhabitants always have to hike up to their homes.
Just when the road seemed to level out a little bit we came to a closed gate–the pass was closed and we shouldn’t go any further. It did look like there was a well-worn pathway around the barrier, but we didn’t want to take any chances. We contemplated taking a break there; it appeared that there was a trail leading straight up to a lodge, but Elena had just fallen asleep and we didn’t want to wake her up, so we headed back down the way we had come, past the cleanup crews for the now-finished race, and back into the valley. It was getting late, so we took the faster way back, tunnels and all.
I find it fitting that for Jenny’s birthday we happened upon what may be the only Italian/TexMex fusion restaurant in all of Northern Italy or possibly the whole world. When Jenny was young, she always asked if they could have tacos for her birthday dinner, even though her family had tacos at least weekly. True to those childhood birthdays, Jenny ordered fajitas. Back at the hotel we closed out celebrations with an unglamorous chocolate cake. It wasn’t the most birthday-ish birthday, but it will be one to remember. Happy Birthday, Jenny!