Blog :: 08-2019

A River Tour of Northern Italy

Northern Italy River

Uniworld's river cruise "Gems of Little Italy" did not disappoint. The tantalizing itinerary promised a little bit of everything: big-city excitement, art history, charming villages, extraordinary wine, and unending culinary adventures. 
We arrived, jet-lagged, early one morning at Milan Malpensa International Airport, but a quick nap at the city’s Starhotels Rosa Grand was all that was needed to incite curiosity about our new location. Milan is tremendously walkable, and we took meandered, delighted to be within a stone’s throw of Duomo Square, elegant shopping, and endless restaurants. Ten thousand steps or so later (according to one traveler’s Fitbit) we decided on an outdoor table at a cafe near the hotel and collapsed into chairs at about 6:30 p.m. Mind you, it was somewhere in the wee hours our time, but we had inadvertently labeled ourselves hopeless Americans. After several minutes, the proprietor ambled out of the back of the restaurant where he and his staff were enjoying their dinner before the official opening of the restaurant which would not come for some time. He took pity on us, however, and poured a round of Prosecco for us to enjoy while he finished his own supper.   We were finishing up our meal when the first locals arrived. Takeaways from the excellent dinner: proper dinnertime is closer to 8 p.m. and Italians never (never!) sprinkle Parmesan cheese on fish dishes, something I was told in no uncertain terms when I requested some for spaghetti and clam sauce.
The next day began with a special tour of il Duomo, the fifth largest Christian church in the world which took 600 years to build. Not surprising, when one considers the mind-boggling details contained within its walls.  For example, a  minute opening high up in the ceiling is perfectly engineered to allow a tiny beam of light in each day to produce a line on the marble floor that traces the winter and summer solstices.
The scale of Duomo is otherworldly—the cathedral seats 40,000—and was a breathtaking preamble to our visit to the nearby small church where da Vinci’s renowned Last Supper is displayed in a setting that is both intimate and accessible. The refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the 15th-century masterpiece is housed, was appropriately hushed on the day we visited, as we absorbed the guide’s insightful interpretation of the painting’s depiction of the 12 apostles with Jesus and the meanings behind their positioning and expression.
Dinner that evening found us in the historic Biffi Ristorante, located in the famed Galleria, an emporium of designer shops. We opted for a table outside the restaurant, which facilitated world-class people-watching, from families pushing strollers and eating gelato to young lovers window shopping Prada and its displays of leather accessories.
The next day our itinerary called for a road trip via Mercedes bus to Venice, with two side trips to Verona and a famed Valpolicella wine estate. The day happened to be a holiday celebrating workers, so Verona was teeming with people who flooded the street markets and especially the famed balcony where Juliet was purported to have awaited her Romeo.
The winery at Valpolicella, however, provided a peaceful counterpoint to the Verona craziness and we disembarked happily at the owner’s 800-year-old home for a sublime luncheon. Think creamy risotto, veal shank with a side of rich layered potato slices, followed by a strawberry mousse with chocolate and almond nougat. Then pair each offering with bespoke wines, and you’ll know why more than a few travelers napped on the last leg of the journey to Venice.
Ah, Venice! The first thing that struck us was that this picturesque city is composed of 118 different islands. Is it any wonder that Venice is known for its canals and bridges? A walking tour on our first morning there took us up and down, over and under many of them on our way to the Doge’s Palace where we met one of Venice’s real gems.  
Her name is Susan Ruth Steer, and she is an art historian from England who fell in love with Venice during her education. A resident of the city for more than 20 years, she wrote her thesis and dissertation on medieval art, architecture, and Venetian altar paintings. But even better, she’s wonderfully accessible and conversational, and you feel as if you’re strolling through the world’s masterpieces with an old friend.
The Doge Palace, of course, was the seat of Venice’s sophisticated republican government and the residence of the “doge” (Italian for top dog) more than 800 years ago.  But it is also an extraordinary art gallery with jaw-dropping works by Tintoretto, Titian, Bosch, and so many others. It also provides a fascinating peek into early Venetian justice, as the prison is located here, within view of the famed “Bridge of Sighs” which the accused passed under on their way to judgment. (After touring the grim jail, we can only assume they sighed with deep remorse.)
The afternoon was spent on our riverboat, the River Countess, cruising the beautiful lagoons, before meeting up with Susan Steer once again, this time for a private visit to St. Mark’s Basilica, after hours and far from the maddening crowds.
We arrived by valporetto water taxi (“like George Clooney!”our cruise director assured us) and were ushered into the quiet elegance of the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Venice. We could have stood in the entry passageway for hours following the chronological stories of the Bible on the ceiling, but there was so much else to see. The pala d’oro, for example, is a breathtaking enameled altarpiece made up of gemstones and gold, much of which, like many treasures in the cathedral, had been plumaged during early Turkish conquests. The crypt downstairs once housed the remains of St. Mark, but due to flooding concerns, the apostle has been relocated upstairs beneath the altar.
For a change of pace, our guides took us the following day to Chioggia, a working fishing village on the Venetian lagoon. An orientation walk was offered, although the heartier travelers opted to ride bikes, and we all convened at a local restaurant for an outdoor demonstration of the harvesting of mussels. A family-style lunch of steamed mussels, pasta with clams and eggplant parmesan followed, complemented by local wines served from carafes. Chioggia is also known for its weekly market, which is more like a traveling department store. Locals can purchase everything from dresses, shoes, and underwear to pet food and local produce. The morning scene was vibrant and noisy.
It’s impossible to know Italy without knowing the food, so another side trip, this time to Bologna, featured a pasta making lesson. Bologna is a foodie’s delight, known for its exquisite bolognese sauce which is wonderful paired with fresh egg pasta or incorporated in the area’s traditional lasagna made with green lasagne noodles and a rich bechamel sauce. But Bologna is also famed for its, well, bologna. Also known as mortadella, bologna is made of finely hashed pork, mixed with a few small cubes of pork fat and flavored with spices, olives, myrtle berries, and pistachios.
Bologna, as it turns out, is also known for its exceptional medieval architecture, such as the University’s famed Anatomical Theatre and the National Gallery of Art. But be forewarned: pushing oneself away from the local tortellini or tagliatelle is not easy, no matter the cultural offerings!
Seeing Venice from a small riverboat brought home again the realization that the city is really a collection of islands. Thanks to Uniworld, these islands seemed to have been carefully culled, as the ones we visited were each extraordinary in their own right.
Take Mazzorbo, for example. Mazzorbo is the home of the “last of the golden vines” from which the Venissa vineyards produce its famous wine. A stop at the famed winery, which was resurrected in 2005 when the elusive vines were re-discovered, allowed us to sample the rich, amber colored wine, which is produced like a red wine with the skins remaining on the grapes.
Or, Burano, home of the ancient art of lace-making. It is said that lacemakers learn one stitch, and one stitch only, so that every piece produced passes through a number of dedicated hands. The table linens, clothing, and charming accessories like bookmarks are understandably temptations for visitors. But Burano itself is a feast for the eyes, as the homes along the water are all painted different bright colors. Legend has it that sailors would be gone for long periods, arrive home in the fog, and occasionally stumble into the wrong home. Knowing that they lived in the bright orange house, or the sunny yellow house, presumably made their homecomings smoother.
Finally, no trip to Venice would be complete without checking out a Murano glass factory.  We visited a very special one on the Isle of Giudecca, where our tour began with a stunning glass blowing demonstration during which an artisan very calmly blew hot liquid silica into a figure of a high stepping horse. The showroom offered infinite examples of this art for sale, from charming necklaces and pendants to ballroom-scale Murano chandeliers that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Most evenings, after a full day of touring, we returned to our riverboat for dinner, always a treat on the Uniworld line. The company buys daily in the local markets, and the result is a magazine-worthy presentation of fresh and creative offerings to suit all palates.  At breakfast, guests find traditional American omelet stations beside cutting boards laden with olive bread and pain du chocolat, tray after tray of fresh fruits, smoked salmon and capers, and punch bowls of smoothies. The lunch buffet is equally tantalizing, featuring a pasta of the day along with eye-popping salad, sandwich offerings, and the ever-popular gelato bar. Dinner follows a cocktail time in the lounge and features three choices of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.  A recent addition to some of the cruises is a pizza oven, located on the upper deck, for those nights when travelers prefer a casual dinner. Every evening ends with featured entertainment—and sometimes dancing. It makes a wonderful day.
Perhaps a cruise is not for everyone wanting to explore Italy, but for those seeking a meticulously curated itinerary, served up with excellent food and wine, Uniworld’s “Gems of Little Italy” is hard to beat. Veterans now of four excellent European river cruises, we have become fierce advocates of this style of travel. The only question remaining is “where next?” •


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Lake Life

It’s early morning and my senses are tuned to the quiet of the world around me. As I sit lazily on the dock in my Adirondack chair sipping my morning coffee, I watch the mist slowly rise off of the pristine lake before me, Lake Glenville in Western North Carolina. Hues of green and blue emerge as the soft water becomes dappled in the morning light. You cannot beat the tranquil sound of lapping water as it slowly rolls to shore. My family and most of my neighbors are still asleep with the exception of a few anglers in canoes off in a distant cove. The only significant signs of stirring are the tall trees caressed by a soft breeze and the gossiping birds that fill them. With each breath I take of clean, fresh air, the sun gains altitude and slowly shows itself over the blue mountain range in my view. The warmth of the sun soothes me. My cozy plaid wrap slips off my shoulders as I ease deeper into a meditative state of relaxation. Ah, this is the life—lake life in the early morning.

With each hour of the day, this lake takes on a different personality. In the early morning, it supplies fuel to the soul for early-risers. Shortly thereafter, the paddle boarders and kayakers emerge to take on the glass-like waters. Once the day warms, the powerboats pulling skiers and giddy kids on inner tubes arrive. In the early evening before sunset, you’ll see friends and family lounging in pontoon boats idling along the shoreline exploring the lake one neighbor at a time and waving along the way. As darkness descends, the smell of charcoal wafts through the air as people fire up the grill for a summer supper under the stars. Laughter fills the air as groups gather, and the happy sound ripples across the water.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, second homeowners flock to these parts in the summertime for the cooler temps this altitude affords. It is a tough choice when buying a home here between mountain or lake views, although there are those lucky enough to have both. If you seek a low-stress life with a deep sense of peace, adventure, and community, then lake life might just be for you. 
A lake community is a deeply woven place centered on fishing, water sports, family time, and barbeques. Neighbors come together for cocktails on the dock, impromptu dinners, and toasting marshmallows on an open fire. Life is good on the lake.
Although there are many pristine bodies of water in the Highlands-Cashiers-Sapphire Valley area to consider, there are several lakes that have a great allure to many. A public lake offers lots to do and see all day, while private lakes cater to those looking for a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere with less distraction. Regardless, each area lake is unique with its own vibe, and the trick is finding the one that fits your dream of life on a lake.

The largest public lake in the area and the only one that allows gas-powered boats, Lake Glenville is an emerald gem offering a dynamic lifestyle. With the highest elevation of any lake east of the Mississippi River, a vast size, and tremendous depth, there is much to be found on this public lake aside from water sports. Packed with islands, beaches, fishing holes, and waterfalls, this reservoir calls to those who want to live in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains while overlooking an unspoiled body of water. Residents marvel in the richness of flora and fauna, the landscape contrasts of mountains sinking into the water and the glorious sunsets glistening across the surface of the lake. 
Signal Ridge and Lakeshore are two marinas that help supply the fun for the community and visitors with boat and equipment rentals. From jet skiing to wakeboarding, one can find plenty of adventure on the water along with boats of all sizes and speeds. For anglers, Lake Glenville has a bevy of fishing holes teeming with bass, trout, catfish, and perch. Explorers will love the three big waterfalls and a hiking trail that leads to a fourth one (High Falls) with a breathtaking 150-foot drop. 
Golfers who have dreamt of living on a stunning 18-hole championship golf course while enjoying lake and mountain views have found their wish at Trillium. This private residential club is adjacent to part of the lake and offers a multitude of recreational diversions and amenities. 
For all lake homeowners, events of all kinds support the community including a season kick-off cocktail party hosted by Friends of Lake Glenville, barn dances throughout the summer, and the immensely popular Fourth of July fireworks show on the lake. 
It is important to note that as a public lake there is an active recreational park, campground, and beach on the northern end where day-trippers and vacationers enjoy quick lake access.

This historical 55-acre plus lake completed in 1896 was once land Cherokee and Creek Indian Tribes called home up until the early 1800s. Later in the nineteenth century, the land became the country’s primary mining site for gold and sapphires (word has it Tiffany & Co. once mined here). Just after the lake was created, a Victorian-style inn called Fairfield Inn on the National Historic Register was built and had a life on the lake, serving as a vacation resort for families looking for rest and relaxation in the mountains. Despite the diversified history of the land where the lake now lives, the sheer granite rock face of the beloved landmark, Bald Rock, has remained a constant. Standing watch over the lake, this magnificent natural sentry makes living near this lake all the more spectacular. 
As part of the Sapphire Valley Resort, Fairfield Lake is an exclusive attraction only for its lucky members. You can find anglers fishing for bass and bream, kayakers, sailors, and swimmers. A boathouse offers rentals of fishing gear, kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards, sailboats, and electric motor boats. Residences high above overlook the gentle lake and have magnificent views of Bald Rock, the surrounding national forest, and/or the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are three miles of hiking trails around the lake and one steep trail leading up Bald Rock. Nearby are waterfalls, mountain bogs, Camp Merrie Woode (where the gem and gold mine once stood) and an old Wishing Well that was once considered a “healing spring”. 
Sapphire Valley has other private lakes such as Sapphire Lake and Hogback Lake. The latter, known for its fishing, is 35+ acres of pristine water surrounded by forest and Hogback Mountain. Charming residences and home sites are nearby with direct lake access.

The largest private lake in North Carolina laced with million-dollar homes is Lake Toxaway, a charming Southern hideaway for the country club set. Steeped in a rich history dating back to the late 1800s, prominent families like the Fords and the Vanderbilts summered on the lake for relaxation, fresh air, and golf. 
In the 1960s, the Lake Toxaway Country Club was founded with the same high standards in mind for family and friends to socialize in the mountains while living on an unspoiled lake. Members enjoy the 18-hole championship golf course with dramatic fairways created by Master Architect Kris Spence and a Tom Fazio Learning Center where golfers can perfect their practice. In addition, club amenities include a pro shop, clubhouse, fitness center, tennis courts, croquet, and dining. 
The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests and mountains such as Hawk, Panthertail, and Mt. Toxaway surround the lake. Its high elevation with long and short-range views creates a beautiful landscape to enjoy outdoor leisure including hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. While much of one’s life here is spent outdoors, there is an active social calendar filled with soirees, social clubs, and events throughout the season.