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Italian Summer

Saturday, July 7, 2001

Dear Friends and Family,

Last weekend we went on our first summer outing. Marianne had finished school and I had a four-day weekend starting Thursday June 28, "Constitution Day". This was the fifth anniversary of the Ukrainian constitution. It was a good reminder of why the "rule of law" seems a bit haphazard here - law is a relatively new concept.

In fact, my "Constitution Day" started with a serious work meeting. The local nuclear safety regulator, my client, is being evaluated by an international panel concerning competence of the agency to handle the licensing of two new power units the West is offering to finance. Some of this international team had scheduled a meeting with the regulatory Chairman and I had been "invited" despite the holiday. It was an interesting enough meeting but the real complication was that Marianne and I had to leave to the airport about noon. I was to rush out of the meeting at 12:00 and jump into the waiting car.

At about 12:15, the meeting droned to a close. In a dignified manner I backed into the Chairman's outer office thinking I could turn and run down four fights of stairs and not be too late. Wrong. Marianne was already in the outer office. The Chairman rushed over to say hello. The "international team", who had been to a wonderful dinner at our house the night before, lined up for kisses and hugs from the previous night's hostess. In the end, I had to drag Marianne out of there reminding her that we could stand and chat with the folks -- or we could go on our trip to Milan and the Italian lake region.

Fortunately, we were testing a new travel scheme - no checked bags. It made the airport boarding gauntlet quicker and easier. We ended up with plenty of time for the flight to Frankfurt. Sometimes it seems that the air capital of Ukraine is Frankfurt. No matter where we go, the first stop is Frankfurt. It also seems that the Frankfurt flight is always late and the connection is a worry. Today however, we had plenty of backup flights since Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt to Milan every couple hours. And, traveling together, it's not like we have a problem getting stuck somewhere anyway.

All that said, the transfer in Frankfurt wasn't all that smooth. First, boarding was a half-hour late because of a small repair on the plane. We were bused to the plane, settled down and the pilot said it had just been "a small hydraulic leak" which his mechanic was in the process of fixing. But still we didn't move. Another half-hour and the co-pilot has to admit that the efficient Lufthansa maintenance system had misidentified the hydraulic fitting and a new one was on it's way from the maintenance stores. Passenger confidence is shrinking. After all, we do have to fly directly over the snow-covered Alps. Yet another half-hour passes and the captain is back on the speaker, this time announcing that perhaps the maintenance information about a "small" problem had not been accurate. This plane was too broken to fly, but not to worry, the neighboring plane was just getting some fuel and we'd go try that one. He added that the good news was that the major windstorm that had shut down Milan airport would now be gone by the time we reached there. Another bus ride. Another settling in. Two hours late, we were on our way to Italy, over the Alps, following a "major wind storm", in a borrowed airplane. I love travel.

Arrival in Milan was pretty uneventful. We managed to find the right bus to the downtown train station. We had booked a hotel near there because we knew we had to go by train up to Como the next morning. Of course we didn't know exactly how sleazy the train station neighborhood would be, especially since we were arriving much later (and darker) than planned. And the hotel, despite being relatively expensive, matched the neighborhood. Another joy of travel to unknown places.

Friday was another day. We were up early and enjoyed a very nice European breakfast at the hotel. We grabbed our hand luggage and walked the two-blocks to the train station. It all seemed much better in the daylight.

At the train station, we even found the right train with relatively little fuss. It turned out that Como was the first stop on one of the major international trains so our 30-minute trip was quite comfortable. In Como, we took a taxi down from the train station to the waterfront. (For other travelers: we later learned that there is a cheaper, more-frequent inter-city train that runs from the Milan-North train station right to the lake shore train station in Como.)

Did I mention that we had no hotel reservations for most of this trip? This was another part of the "new travel" scheme. Actually, we had tried to use the Internet - and our travel agent - to find space but what we tried was full or what he found sounded dull. The theory was that by now we are toughened by years of living in Eastern Europe so any clean place would be OK.

Fortunately, we did not have to test that theory since when we asked at one of the hotels that had reported "full" they said they did in fact have a room for two nights. We grabbed it and discovered our wonderful view from our small deck. Inspired, went to the market for wine, foccacia, grappa, calzone and calamari salad for a picnic. By now, we've decided that the new travel scheme was just fine. Deep down, I think we want more than "just clean" and our room at the Metropole Hotel fit perfectly.

For the rest of the day, we wandered around the old part of town - shopping mostly but not buying. There were plenty of wonderful shops but "no checked bags" puts a damper on shopping. I think I do like this new travel scheme.

Toward evening, we took the funicular up the hill to a village called Brunate. On the trip up, we had a wonderful view of Como. From up here, it was easy to see the walled perimeter of the old city. The walls were built by Romans under Caesar in the First Century BC so "old" really means old in this neighborhood. In fact, every place we went was an interesting mixture of modern Western Europe fitted into settings probably unchanged in a millennium or two.

Saturday, we went out onto Lake Como. We picked the town of Bellagio as our destination because it was about halfway up the 33-mile long lake and was reputed to be one of the nicest lake towns. Going there, we took the hydrofoil. It was a quick 30 minutes with two or three stops along the way. Every stop, and indeed every part of the shoreline, was filled with wonderful villas, homes, hotels and vacation "condominiums." (There were so many nice places I've decided to make a second diary with just pictures.)

After we arrived in Bellagio and wandered around for a while, we knew why a Los Vegas casino has recreated this wonderful village. It was filled with streets and alleys that made it feel timeless. It also had plenty of restaurants and shops to keep us busy but again, our new travel scheme had us focus on food and not finery. Good for the budget but bad for the waistlines.

The return trip on the "slow boat" took a couple hours. More stops. More villas, homes, etc. After the trip, we stopped by our room, cleaned up and hit the streets again - "just to walk off the lunch". That was a wonderful intention but by the time we walked for an hour or two, we felt there just a bit of room for yet another small Italian meal. This one turned out to be the best so far. We had wandered away from the lakeshore and found a very local eatery - big, but definitely local. By the end of the day, we felt like we'd been eating our way through Italy for a month.

Sunday was to be another adventure in unplanned travel. We knew we needed to stay near the airport because we had an early flight the next day so, after a leisurely morning in Como, we grabbed a bus to the new Milan airport. There we asked the information desk for hotel recommendations. She had a couple two-star hotels in Oleggio "near" the airport and we picked The AER HOTEL because it was $5 cheaper (true) and air conditioned (not true). We also asked the information desk if there was anything to do for the rest of the day and she had no useful suggestions other than "ask the hotel". Little did we suspect that that was exactly the right answer.

Our first hotel-provided adventure was the van ride from the airport. The driver, Serafino, took us on a wild 25-minute ride on and off freeways, over bridges, around blind corners and down country roads. I think it was his way of bonding with hotel guests - shared near-death experience and all that. But we made it and when we asked the desk clerk what we should do, he and Serafino agreed that we should take a local train to Arona on Lake Maggiore. We were not given options.

Serafino gave us a short ride to the Oleggio train station, greeted everyone there like long-lost friends (this IS Italy), guided us through the ticket purchasing process and waited to make sure we got on the right train. A half-hour later, we were in another wonderful Italian lake resort town - views and all. Whereas Como was a mix of sophisticated villa-people and foreign tourists, Arona seemed like just a normal summer place for people to boat, tan out, eat, drink and stroll around. Each clearly had its own charm.

Since we were traveling by train, we had to leave after just a few hours and head back to Oleggio. As expected, Seraphino met us promptly and we headed to the hotel. This time, we didn't even have a chance to go to our room. The desk clerk asked us if we wanted to go to dinner, with the condition that we leave immediately with a couple other families. No options. After 15 minutes riding around the Italian countryside, I checked with the other hotel guests to see if they had been given an option on the restaurant. No. No options on that either.

Eventually we arrived at a good-size but plain country club. There were a few people just finishing their day along side the pool but our group doubled the club population. The dining room was large - and empty. But still, the AER HOTEL had done all right by us so far so we had faith in their dinner choice. We were not disappointed. Marianne started with an antipasta that was memorable and we followed with more food than we truly needed. Again.

The rest of our Italian vacation was uneventful. Our early morning alarms went off. We fell out of bed and into clothes. Another van ride and two on-time Lufthansa flights found us in Kiev's Borispol Airport. The last hurdle is always the entering formalities but these have gotten much easier over the last year and so it was on this trip. I point this out because the horror stories about clearing Immigration and Customs seem no longer valid and we certainly don't want to unnecessarily discourage visitors. Who knows, maybe Kiev and Ukraine will become as popular with tourists as Milan and the Italian lake region?

Stay in touch. Write if you get a chance. Enjoy your summer vacations. Remember, even a few days can give enough memories to fill pages of a Diary.

John and Marianne

p.s.: We will be putting this on the website ( along with a picture tour of Lake Como.

















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Originally emailed July 6, 2001. Reformatted for the website July 8.

This page created on a Macintosh using PhotoPage by John A. Vink.