Aaron Martina is an Florida based programmer and an international man of mystery. Well, he's not all that mysterious but he does travel the world now and then taking photos, eating interesting foods and diving the depths.

Italy trip - day 6

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5. Sleeping in The is the first day since landing in Italy that we have been able to sleep in. For me this meant that instead of getting up at 7am (1am EST) I got up at about 9am. Ah, the small joys in life. I quickly got some breakfast before the hotel restaurant closed and I set out on the day.

Driving to Malpensa The first order of business for the day was to deal with the rental car situation. This would require me to drive to the Malpensa Airport in order to return my rental car and get it swapped for another. This is about a 40 minute drive on a very fast highway which I didn't want to traverse with a donut spare tire which aren't rated for either high speeds or long distances. So I decided to take the non-highway route. I plugged in the airport as the destination into my GPS and told it not to take the highway. The trip took about 50 minutes and I got to see a lot more of the Italian countryside. The only frustrating part was when I cam up behind a dump-truck that was going about 10 kilometers per hour below the posted limit. I wasn't in a hurry so I just enjoyed the drive. When I arrived at the airport and the rental car return spot I had to go through the whole story again. Then I had to fill out some paper work and I was given another car. It was relatively painless and I was on my way within fifteen minutes. On the way back to the hotel I don't think I even used my GPS until I got into Varese. Once I got back to the hotel I packed my things and checked out. I left my luggage with the bellhop. One of my coworkers who was going to join me as a tourist today also checked out of his room and checked his luggage with the bellhop.

Trip to Sacro Monte My coworker and I decided that we were going to check out Sacro Monte while our other coworkers were stuck at the office for the day. So after driving about an hour and a half I was prepping to drive some more to visit what is considered a very beautiful church in the area. My coworker and I hopped into my car and I punched in Sacro Monte into GPS. There was one entry so I selected it and off we went.

Do not trust the GPS About 20 minutes into the trip we both knew something was wrong. The GPS said we were going in the right direction as we headed back towards the airport. I just figured that there must be a really indirect route to get to the destination. The GPS took us down another highway that cut back north west and we figured what the heck and the journey continued.

Sacro Monte di Varese Varallo

Sacro Monte di Varallo

After about an hour of driving on highways and in very quaint little villages we started to climb a mountain outside of the town of Varallo. Following signs to "Sacro Monte" we finally made it to the entrance to the hallowed grounds. The basilica and the almost 50 chapels/shrines all contain sculptures and artwork some of which dates back to 1500. These grounds were used by pilgrims during the periods of the crusades when traveling through Turkey to get to Jerusalem would be too dangerous. We spent a bunch of time going from chapel to chapel on the way to the basilica. Besides a maintenance crew there was only one other small group of people.


Overlook of Varallo

Creepy soldier

Italian lizards

Fancy ironwork

One of the chapels

Another picture of a chapel

A really big chapel

We made it to the doors of the basilica but it looked like the church was locked up. I took some pictures of the doors (should have gotten more).

The basilica (from afar)

basilica door

Basilica up close

Door panel 1

Door panel 2

Door panel 3

Door panel 4

Door archway

Then I went to push the front door open and just as I did a priest opened the door. It startled me a little bit. I asked him if it would be OK if we entered and took pictures. He said it was ok. We meandered around the pews and took pictures of the various alcoves and alters. It was very impressive.

After leaving the basilica I stopped at the gift shop and then we continued walking around looking at chapels. After having our fill we decided it was time to grab something to eat.

last supper

Pannini in Italy At the entrance to the grounds was a small building that was part snack shop part tourist gift shop. We decided that we might as well get something there as we would have no idea where to go when we got down to the bottom of the mountain. There was an elderly Italian couple that managed the stand and it took them a bit to realize that we were sitting and waiting to be served (I'm not being pompous as they had no difficulty serving another family that showed up after us). I don't think they were trying to be rude. I just don't think they realized that we were wanting to get food. Finally the elderly man took our drink order, 2 agua frizzantes, but his partner decided to give those to the other family. Anyway, after some minutes I decided to attempt to order food and drink from inside the stand but he decided to have us sit and take our order. I saw on the menu a prosciutto pannini and quickly decided that is what I wanted. I guess my idea of a pannini and the true pannini are two different things. What arrived on the plate in front of me was some (not many) slices of prosciutto placed on a rather large roll. No cheese. Not grilled/pressed. Just sliced ham on bread. The bread was good although a touch dry and just not enough prosciutto. Now I know for the next time I'm in Italy. After our late lunch we drove back to the hotel which took another hour or more. We got back to the hotel and very shortly afterward our other coworkers that had to go into the office arrived. It was almost perfect timing. After saying good bye to some of my coworkers I and two of my coworkers retrieved our luggage and piled everything into my car.

Driving to Milan Then we were off to Milan. Again I was driving as we three headed into the big city. The highway was an easy drive with mild traffic even for a Friday evening. As we got closer to the city the traffic became denser but flowed smoothly. About a quarter of a mile from our destination, where my coworkers' hotel was, the traffic was bad. We also had to stop at various intersections that really didn't have a clear indication of who had the right of way. Let's just say I got honked at a few times. The GPS deposited us directly in front of their hotel and they got out. We made plans to meet at my hotel in a couple of hours in order to get some food and maybe hit some night life.

Parking in Milan After dropping them off I headed towards my hotel which was about a half mile away. But due to all of the one way streets and traffic it took me a bit to get there. Once I arrived at the entrance to my hotel there was no place to park out front. I saw a sign for city parking so I followed the signs and they kept leading me deeper into the local neighborhoods and away from my hotel. Once I actually found the underground parking structure I was pretty much done. I talked with the parking attendant and we agreed on 25 euros a night for two nights. Like I said I was done and didn't care. I grabbed my stuff and the valet ticket and hoofed it back to the hotel. I did make sure to mark the parking garage in my GPS before going anywhere as I basically was lost.

The beautiful hotel, people, everything I got back to the hotel, Sheraton Diana Majestic, rather quickly and entered the lobby that although was rather small was very beautiful. There were tons of very well dressed people walking in and out of the hotel. Many of them looked like models in designer clothing. There were also people checking in that looked like models in their comfort clothes, aka sweats and big sunglasses. I only chose this hotel because I had SPG points and it was in the middle of Milan. I am so glad that I chose this hotel. I checked in and headed up to my room. The room was a bit small but I guess that is typical for European hotels. The bed was extremely comfortable and the bathroom was huge. Both rooms were decorated impressively and my window overlooked the garden. View in Milan

Where are my friends and friendly Italians So when we made plans I had mistakenly left it up to my friends as to when they wanted to show up. I had also mistakenly assumed that it would be rather soon after I dropped them off. I waited in my room for an hour or so. Watched some tv. Then I went downstairs and walked around the hotel a little bit. Then I started to get worried. I asked the concierge to call their hotel but they weren't there. I went back up to my room thinking that they were on their way. Another 20 or so minutes later and they still hadn't arrived so I headed back downstairs and sat in the waiting area that was just off of the lobby. This allowed me to view out through the windows to watch the people on the street while also watching the beautiful people walking through the lobby. I sat and read in my Milan guidebook and waited. I was really worried, and hungry, and I had no idea where my friends were. Finally, after about another 5-10 minutes they showed up outside the hotel so I went out to greet them. Apparently they got a little lost on the way from their hotel. Oh well. We started to discuss where we wanted to eat. They had decided on their walk over that they didn't want to eat Italian as we had plenty of that throughout the week. While we were talking I kept noticing that a really attractive woman was edging over towards us. She then blatantly interrupted our discussion in order to help us. Apparently she was somewhat familiar with the area and she helped us decide where to eat. In the middle of giving us directions to a local sushi restaurant her friends arrived, an attractive couple, and she greeted them with hugs and kisses as Italians are wont to do and then continued to help us. She was very nice and I probably should have asked her and her friends to join us. I guess I was just stunned.

Sushi and miso The friendly Italian's directions were ok and we were able to find the restaurant, Ristorante Shun, after a little hunting around some of the side streets off of the main drag, Buenos Aires. It was a Friday night and the place was packed. When we entered the host asked for our reservation. Since we didn't have one he stated that it would probably be about 15 minutes before a table was open. We ended up getting a table in about five minutes. We sat and the host took our drink orders and handed us English menus. And by English menus I mean they attempted to translate the items and got most of them. After a while our waitress arrived and didn't speak any English. We were able to point to the items that we wanted and the order was placed. I realized that I wanted some miso soup so I tried to get a hold of the waitress. We couldn't get her so I got the attention of another waiter and attempted to explain that I would like some miso soup. You must understand that all of the employees of this Japanese restaurant were of some sort of Asian descent. But no matter how I pronounced it or pantomimed a bowl I could not convey to this guy what I wanted. He ended up pulling over another person and final a third, the host and apparently the one most familiar with English, and I was able to get my soup. The soup was good and worth the hassle. Our sushi arrived very quickly which is not what I expected based on my experiences in other sushi establishments. The sushi was really good even if we weren't totally sure what was in some of the rolls. The "Mario Roll" was really good and was always followed up by a comment in the really bad Luigi imitation "Hey Mario!". After we finished dinner, I had another interesting attempt at conveying to the waitress that I had added miso to the bill but I think they had already added it when I got my check. Anyway, we paid and left the establishment content with our bellies full of fish.

Ethnic Neighborhoods We had to go back to my friends' hotel because one of my friends wanted to freshen up and possibly change before going out again. Me and my other friend waited in the lobby as the third went up to her room. About ten minutes passed and we decided to call up to her room to see how much longer. We didn't get an answer. Figuring that she was out of reach of the phone we gave her some more time. After about another five minutes we called again still got no answer. Now we were starting to get worried. I went up to knock on her door to see if all was alright and it became apparent that it wasn't so I went back downstairs. My friend in the lobby and I decided that instead of waiting for some indeterminate amount of time that we would go for a walk and get some gelato. We left a message with the desk clerk and left the hotel. As we walked from the hotel we noticed that almost all of local restaurants and bars were African of some sort. Quite a few were Ethiopian. There were always a small group of people outside of each establishment and it was interesting to me that there were ethnic neighborhoods in Italy. I had read that there were quite a few residents or transplants of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern descent but I guess it didn't hit me until we were walking through these streets. We found a gelato place on a corner and ordered some. It was good but not as good as the gelato from the previous night. I don't recall what flavor I had so I guess it wasn't memorable. Probably some sort of chocolate. After finishing we decided to walk a while as it didn't take that much time to find and consume the gelato. We walked back to Buenos Aires and walked a good five blocks in each direction. Corso Buenos Aires To me it seemed a lot like one of the main thoroughfares in New York City such as Broadway but my friend, who grew up and lives near NYC, thought it was more like 5th Avenue or some other street known for shopping. Anyway, we had figured that we should head back and check on our friend.

It's raining men… On our way back through the ethnic neighborhoods, this time we ventured into the Chinese area, we came to an intersection that seemed to be having a huge gathering. It was almost like a street party. As we got closer it seemed like there were a lot of men. In fact, out of the probably 200+ people in this intersection I think I saw only one woman. Apparently we found an Italian sausage party. We hurried past the throng and on to the hotel.

And the walking continues... Once we reached my friends' hotel we were notified by the desk clerk that my female friend had indeed come down looking for us so we called her room. She came down shortly afterward. Earlier in the day she had made plans with an Italian coworker to meet up at a Milanese bar that was close to our hotels. With a local map in hand and some shaky instructions from the hotel desk clerk we set out again (by the way it's well after midnight at this point) in order to find this bar. We headed up a street that seemed to be the banking district. Had a short conversation with a lost American student just outside of the Central Transportation Station. Stazione Centrale Then we took some smaller streets to get to the street where the "bar" was supposed to be. On a side note, we were attempting to contact our Italian coworker throughout the night to get any specifics/logistics about the meet up locations. We failed to make contact and therefore we were utterly in the wrong location. So many things converged to get us at the wrong location but we were done. We all decided that the night was done.

Too much walking Using my better than average (I was going to say super or keen or amazing but then I would be lying) map reading skills I plotted us a faster course back to their hotel and off we went. As we were walking it seemed like we were going into maybe a not so great part of town and this was probably the reason the desk clerk gave us the directions that he did. There were literally red lights along one fence. Then we saw an amazingly beautiful woman in a very tight red dress and tall heels (with an collapsed umbrella) on the side of the road. We will never know if she was a lady of the night or just a model waiting for someone to take a picture. I should have volunteered to take a photo. We scurried along and the rest of the walk to their hotel was uneventful and actually rather quick compared to the walk that got us out in Timbuktu. I split from my friends just short of their hotel and walked down another street. I saw the "block party" and continued to the next block. Eventually, I made it back to my hotel with aching feet and no desire to do anything but go to bed.

My Nickname - Martinatime

Italy trip - day 5