The Heights of the Alps, The Flatness of the Plains. 

My last week in Italy had some highs in low places and lows in high places and a continuance of an adaptation to life on the road. The two towns I visited, Riva del Garda and Alesandria, each had their own beauty, albeit one a little more dramatic than the other. 

The trip to Riva was a little crazy. I was supposed to meet my Dad and Stepmom at the Cruiseship docks in Venice, so I went to the port a half hour before the official docking time of 9 am just to be on the safe side. From the docks, we were going to get a rental car and drive up to Riva. This was one of the reasons I absolutely needed to have a cell phone in Italy, to connect with my father. Now whether because of the steel of the cruise ship or the fact that my dad rarely turns on his phone despite me getting him to promise it would be the first thing he did when he woke up, we didn’t connect and I kept getting sent to voicemail. Fun European fact – countries don’t have roaming agreements, so my Italian phone number calling Dad’s German phone number burned right through my credit just calling and leaving voicemails. Also, with heightened security, you’re not allowed in the port unless you have a ticket. So there I stood, searching every taxi driving by for my parents, outside the gates of the port, in the hot sun for over four hours. My parents in meantime, didn’t see me when they got off the ship and assumed my plans had changed, boarded a bus to the AIRPORT to pick up their rental car. They didn’t see me as they were leaving the port and I wasn’t even looking at busses.  

Right before noon, some crew members from my parent’s Costa ship were coming through the gate – not a good sign. Crew usually can’t disembark until the passengers have been cleared through customs. They confirmed that passengers disembarking were gone. At this point, I figured my sister would have been notified if there had been a medical emergency and she would have gotten me some information, so I figured I should make my way up to Lake Garda. After going back and forth between Venice train stations, I find the train which will get me 3/4 of the way where I then had to navigate local bus time tables (not provided). Ok! Right before I get on the train, my phone starts ringing. Hooray – in coming calls don’t seem to go against my nonexistent credit. My father’s photo “Secret Agent Man” starts ringing. 

“Hi Daddio, where are you?”

“At the airport! Where are you?”

“At the train station! Maybe you can come pick me up?”

Well, it’s not as easy to drive back into old Venice as I hoped. I already had the ticket so why don’t I meet them at the end point. Even though it takes a little longer by train, they haven’t eaten and my step mom’s blood sugar is always in question. I figure 2 1/2 more hours is a small price to pay for a missed connection. 

Fast forward 2 1/2 hours and my dad is not at the train station.I figure lunch probably took longer than expected. I can’t call him, but I have just enough data to text my sister and have her call him. However there is a 6 hour time difference and she is juggling my 2 and 4 year old nieces. My dad calls right after the last bus for the next 3 hours leaves the area. 

“I’m here at the station.”

“Oh shit. We couldn’t find the station, so we headed to our hotel.”

“…?!?!?”

“No worries – I’ll find my own way up into the mountains,” I may have said, many decibels above normal.

And so I had dinner at the McDonald’s across the way. McDonald’s and or Burger King seem to have bought every piece of real estate available near a bus station in Italy. And they are cheap (at least out in the sticks). I thought about the mess over high grade European fast food burger patties and espresso and a chocolate coronet. I had been “Hangry”. I had a banana that morning and now it it was 6pm. This never leads to great decisions or communication. Both my dad and I were working under technology assumptions – that I would have this awesome unlimited phone plan and my dad would have data on his phone (something that never ended up working, not only affecting communication but also his ability to navigate). One bad day. Time to reset and and make the next day great. 


Easily done around Lake Garda. The location is idyllic with breathtaking mountains surrounding a pristine clear lake. I had a great and flexible host. My dad and I were able to connect devices to wifi. We got some hiking in as planned. We had some wonderful Italian food and gelato. I got in a good run. My host took me to his period dance class where I leaned to do a couple fancy dances from the 1800’s.  A petty good time, even though it ended up being the culmination of a couple busy and stressful weeks. 


The comparison to the Easter weekend couldn’t have been more different. Many friends and complete strangers have asked “Why are you going to Alessandria?” This is not a big town or a UNESCO heritage site. It was exactly what I needed. I was traveling there to see hosts that I had stayed with 24 years ago while I was in a cast of Up With People. Although I lost their contact information in a flood 20 years ago, Franco and Francesca had tracked me down on Facebook a couple of years ago, wishing for a reunion. I couldn’t be traveling in Europe without saying hi. However, even they apologized for not having the time to leave their own city. “I wish we could make time to go to the coast or another big city you haven’t been to”. As if their city didn’t have enough to entertain me. I explained they were the sole reason I came and if we played cards in the basement all weekend long I would be just as happy. 

But Alesandria is in Italy and by nature, looks beautiful to me, with it’s old buildings and beautiful design and wide open shopping and eating districts. I had time to get in a couple of long runs and relax and get some work and correspondence done and we got a lot of time together, eating and telling stories, and watching photos. Clearly 24 years had past but there was still an amazing pride at having affected each other’s lives so long ago. After 3 weeks of mad, hectic dashes over the Italian countryside, I truly felt I got some rest and focus and energy from peope who continue to care for me – first my dad and then some friends that proved that time is an illusion to the heart. 

Hanging With The Cool Kids In Venice


Walking down the streets of Venice can be difficult at the best of times. Regular tourists, cruise ship passengers, vendors, beggars, school children, delivery men with hand carts piled twice their height all jostling for space on these crowded streets all seem to part way for the guy leading our pack. A cross between a WWF wrestler and ‘The Dude’, he clears a path not only with a loud “Ciao” and the occasional clasped hand but also his purposeful walk and intense stare. Following behind in her tattoo sleeves and Magenta hair is the better half of the dynamic duo, making sure the group sticks together, has time to take photos, pointing out occasional architectural oddities, making sure nobody is hitting the wine bottle too heavily. They are the masterminds behind Venice Bites Food Tours and if they are taking you on their #1 ranked food Tour in Venice, Italy, they are also your new best friends. 

Why am I writing about Adam and Maya Stonecastle when I’m in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? Because Adam and Maya are Venitians of the Heart. In the city of Love and Dreams, they are lovers and dreamers, both for themselves and for their city. Five years ago when they met online, Adam had a final line to his profile “I want to live in Europe.” Maya’s was much more specific “I want to live in Venice”. How many people put those sorts of comments in their profiles and then never move out of MiddleAmerica City, USA? However, these statements were deal breakers. After a quick trip when Maya introduced Venice to Adam (she has been coming to Venice for 20mmpmmm years), they returned for a month to see if this was possible – that two Americans (Maya does have Irish dual citizenship) could be accepted in this tight Italian, even more exclusive – Venetian, community. The resounding answer from all the locals they talked to was “YES!” 

The Venetians are excited to have people who are so enchanted and enamored with their city that they will drop everything and move there to be a part of it. Venice has a resident problem. The city loses 1500 people a year, the old and the young. One of the problems is that with it being such a huge tourist destination, it’s more lucrative to rent rooms on Air B&B per week than to residents on a lease for a month. Check out the 1000s of listings on Air B&B. Despite that challenge and still having two homes back in the states, Adam and Maya set a goal of moving to Venice in 8 months. Not just with some luggage. Oh no, they doubled down. They brought dogs. They shipped furniture. They ended careers. Just days before leaving they signed a lease, sight unseen, of their new apartment in Venice. With that, they’ve never looked back. 

Two and a half years and they are going strong. After a slow start, where they may have been second guessing their life choices, they finally accepted that they had a great product, that they were an amazing experience and started allowing reviews on sites like Trip Advisor. Things took off from there.  They now live a dream life in the City of Love, the envy of Expats everywhere. They are my new heroes and friends and if you are ever in Venice, take one of their tours your first day, so they can coach you on the finer points of the city they love. I took their tour and I’ve included  my review from Trip Advisor below. 

Venice Bites Food Tours

www.venicebitesfoodtours.com

818-303-9175


Trip Advisor Review

Where ever you go on this tour, you will see that all the locals know and treasure Maya and Adam. It’s the rare street you walk down without hearing “Ciao Adam!” or see a quick embrace with the kiss on each cheek for Maya. Your two tour guides are Venitians of the Heart, Americans still on their honeymoon with the city of their dreams – Venice. As such they take nothing for granted, showering you with beautiful views and local lore alike.


This is not a quick in and out, tagging only the biggest and most convenient. We visited 9 locations eating and drinking our way over two miles of the city in establishments stilled owned by families who have run these businesses for generations and continue to do so in a city being engulfed by corporate Disneyfication. A block a half from where you meet, you start off with “Coffee Corrected” with Grappa and a sweet Coronet, Italy’s answer to the Croissant. With this, and at every location, comes lessons in etiquette and cultural behavior which will serve you well at any of the establishments you visit during your stay. How to approach ordering, how to not get cursed out from the nonna’s for a lack of respect. A variety of establishments follow with an assortment of Venice’s little bites which define the drinking and eating community here. Most places have a variety of choices so even if you have allergies or foods you avoid, there is always something pleasing to the palate. All sourced local. All produced locally. A large sit down lunch which fortunately our group loved seafood because we had a phenomenal pasta with all the luxuries of the sea piled on top. Two dessert places – gelato (which locals consider more like a coffee break) and a pastry place. A final perfect people watching cafe on the grand canal with a “spritz” and a gorgeous view. 


Sure there are more generic, corporate tours that will hustle you in and out as a huge herd. Take this tour if you want to intimately have this city lovingly interpreted by two passionate Americans who have entwined their lives with the most romantic of cities.


Pretty Little Pictures of Firenze, Italia

Originally, this year’s European trip was supposed to be slow travel. I started off planning 12 countries over 8 months and was thinking it would be a leisurely slow roll through some of the most historic and majestic cities in the world.

Fast forward to me hustling along cobblestone streets with a 40 lbs back pack (yes dedicated readers, I got rid of 5 lbs of extra clothes this week) and a 15 lbs man purse slapping my leg and my hip while the strap somehow keeps unbuttoning my shirt. Hustle hustle hustle. 3 and a half days in a city isn’t enough time to soak, it’s hardly enough time to dip. It’s been a week and I am a little exhausted. Culture shock? Marathon? An added 25-30 miles of walking in a week?

As I said, three days in Florence is not enough time to enjoy one of the great cities of the world. A World Preservation site, every church, square, building, cornice, brick has a story that could be turned into a six part epic mini series. It is also the ideal tourist city. It feels like the landmarks are laid out like the smorgasbord you find at the city bars during Appertiva, the most amazing foodie Happy Hour on the planet. You buy one drink and a amazing array of food designed to get you to order another glass is yours, laid out like cities conquered by the Romans.


The photo at the top of the page was taken at Piazzale Michelangelo. You cannot take a bad picture from this scenic hill overlooking the entire old city. Point the camera in any direction, click, automatic living room material.  As you follow the street down the mountain, maybe not every street leads to redemption but most lead to churches and many lead to the Duomo. Any street with the dome centered in the center will probably win you that local photography contest. 

A note about the people, I thought the style was all in Milan, but is it possible to get tired of looking at beautiful people? Even though midday reached mid 70s, everybody dressed for the mornings low 50s which means they dressed for winter.  Ladies wearing full length wool coats or fur lined attic parkas. The men however wear 5 stylish layers – shirt, vest, sweater, suit coat, over coat. Commitment to style. Barbers were on every streets and very affordable. 

Don’t be surprised to be ignored in Florence. Despite Italians well earned reputation for hospitality, if they don’t know you, you are nothing. This means you need to be aggressive ordering at a counter or getting on a train. If you pause you lose, because I believe they truly don’t see you. No matter how you are dressed they have spotted you as a tourist from a mile away. 

Milan Marathon


Milan, you will now always hold a special place in my heart. My first marathon in Europe, a true spring race, romantic scenery, and a fight to the finish guarantees you a place in the memory books.

Italian hospitality is renowned the world over. When I wrote the race directors to let them know I would be racing and wanted the opportunity to volunteer before the race, a member of the race organization, Alessia Andretto personally reached out and made me feel welcome and answered questions, but demurred my assistance as a volunteer. When I was at the expo, I could see why. It was a huge expo showcasing sponsors, products, other races, charity organization, and a new Italian Track and Field School based in Milan. They had a ton of volunteers and although lines for bibs were a little long, they moved very quickly. With my lack of Italian language, I probably would have been in the way.

The best thing Alessia told me about was a local running group Urban Runners Milano. I had asked because I like to meet all kinds of runners and do a shakeout run before the race. As it turns out, this is the group that also provides the pacers for the race. When I stopped by the pacer booth, they were very excited that I had come all the way from the states and they were grateful about my excitement for 5:30 and 6:00 pacers.

On race morning I thought I had plenty of time before the race, but there was a delay on my metro line and security at the entrance was very tight. After coming out of the metro and walking a couple of blocks, we were routed back down into the subway tunnels and as we came out, volunteers were checking bibs and bracelets. That took much more time than anticipated, plus there was a huge line at the post race bag drop off. However, I got to my starting corral with plenty of time to meet all the pacers from the later times and snag a start line photo!

Milan is a beautiful city and you get to see a wide sampling of it. Some locals complained that you don’t get to see enough of the historic buildings, but I was pretty happy with my view, even if there was more of the modern architecture on display.it is also a very flat course with a small bridge towards the beginning and a small dip under an overpass later on. Also right before 35K there’s a foot bridge. The incline on all these Allred pretty inconsequential.

There were quite a few differences from many of the big American city marathons I’ve run. There were not a lot of spectators. Certainly people had their own support teams on the sidelines (especially the charities) and one of the sponsors – Huawei, had cheer teams with signs every 10k or so, but the city as a whole didn’t seem to care too much for the marathon. It was not unusual for locals and tourists to burst across the street right in front of runners. In one section, I thought some company may have paid runway models to walk across the the street, the long legged, lovely ladies were so prevalent and dismissive of the runners barreling down the street towards them. Clearly the crosswalks are the runways of the city. Runners are also strangely silent. I know that I am loud and obnoxious even for an American, but the Italian runners’ silent pursuit of excellence was a little disquieting. However, their personal graciousness is apparent throughout the race. Even at the best of time I run and walk during the race. I have never had so many people grab me by the hand or tag me on the shoulder while I was walking, encouraging me to join them. I may not have understood all they said but their meanings were clear. “Run with me”, “Let’s go”, “You can do this” translated easily with their gestures.it seems this year they were trying out music along the route. The performers were really good but their selections were a little less than inspiring. I don’t think the “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel is on anybody’s top 10 running playlist.

I did not have such a great race. Those who have been following me know I have had a less than stellar training cycle. I gained weight, missed milage targets, and suffered more than my usual aches and pains. I also got some blisters on my feet walking around the city in the days before. This seems like a small detail, but it snowballed. I went out too fast. My first hour was close to 5 1/2 miles when I had been training under 5. I lost the 5:30 pacers just after the 10K. On the plus side, the 6:00 pacers didn’t pass me until after the Half Marathon mark. By that point I was wiped and finished. My left leg had cramped up terrible at Mile 10 and it took about 15-20 minutes to unfreeze my leg (with some help from Hyland’s leg cramp tablets. Wow! They really worked and worked fast). During that time, my lower back started cramping and that never really went away. The only reason I didn’t quit at the next relay switch station was because I didn’t see where the dump bus was and was too ashamed to ask. I figured I could do another mile. Eventually the dump bus will pick me up. We’ll one mile led to 4 and once you hit 18 you are going to need to force me to quit. Then when I texted my host that I was going to be much later than expected he offered to walk back to me. Well now it was a challenge. However at 30K, the final pace van starts following me, literally on my heels. I just ignore him. When the road widens, he pulls up beside me and says “Bus” and points behind us. I say “Marathon Fin” and point ahead of me. He says a bunch of Italian I don’t understand. “Io capito” but I know what he means. But by this point we’re practically at Mile 20. He points at my bib. I start jogging. They will pry my race Bib from my cold dead hands is what I am thinking. My host finally catches up (back) to me. I tell him, if I stop now they’ll load me into the bus. So we keep moving. Enter the new love of my life, Grace. Grace catches up with us. She is the last of the relay and it’s her first race. She says “All the volunteers are gone.” I say, “That’s because they are closing the course.If you want to quit, the guys in the van behind us will take you to the finish line.” “I want to Finish!” She says. “THEN FOLLOW ME!”
We eventually crossed the finish line. They counted Grace’s time. My time is the same as the last person to cross but it’s other my name and I guarantee you there was nobody in front of me, so I’m thinking there might have been some chip screw up. Whether they count it or not, this was another race where I proved quitting is a choice. It was a choice I wanted to mentally make multiple times during this race, but my body wasn’t having any of it, so finally my mind got on board. I’m paying the price today. Both of my feet are shredded and bruised. Every muscle in my legs feels strained and my back doesn’t feel so great either. But that doesn’t compare to the sense of resilience and confidence that this finish gives me. I’m on my way to Florence.Look for photos on Facebook and Instagram.