Friday, May 17, 2013

Amsterdam, The Costa Brava and Italian Lake District

European tour - Amsterdam, Costa Brava and the Italian Lake District.

Day 1 -2

I’m traveling with my brother; we arrive at the Amsterdam Schiphol international airport aboard an overnight cheap charter flight from Toronto.

This is a really big terminal, one of the biggest I've seen. But in true Dutch fashion it’s modern, efficient and easy to navigate with simple English language signs.

In this airport the trains to Amsterdam actually meet the flights. What an ingenious idea.

It’s about 6 am Amsterdam time when we arrive. I know from all my previous Trans-Atlantic early morning flights that I have only about an hour of reserve energy until the jet lag kicks in and kicks my ass.

So away we go boarding the train to Amsterdam with all the usual early morning commuters on their way to their frivolous jobs to pay for their frivolous lives the same scene the word over.

It’s a nice autumn day a little bit cool but none the less comfortable for this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

Upon arrival in Amsterdam's Centraal Station; there’s an automatic culture shock when I exit the station. The first thing that strikes me is the 100's of bicycles chained outside the station. Not to mention the sight of all the old tall lean buildings overlooking the canals with their fantastic architecture as the Dutch reformed churches featuring their clock spires reaching hundreds of feet into the sky. There is always a lot of hustle and bustle in European train stations. As they actually still take trains from point A to B. The air is crispy and damp with a light smell of salt air mixed with diesel fumes.

Trying to cross the road from the train station is like being in your very own Frogger game. There’s cyclist, street cars, cabs, rickshaws and wandering red eyed backpackers everywhere. It’s a difficult task especially when you consider the speed the cyclists travel; many of them also talk on their cells phones simultaneously.

We head to our hotel which is centrally located about 1 mile from the station up pick-pocketer's alley, a street I appropriately named years ago as I can't pronounce the Dutch name and the street serves a convenient target zone for oblivious travelers; whom don't realize that the street is so close to the Red Light district it’s a natural spot for junkies to feed their habit.

Upon arrival at the Kanopski hotel, it's apparent that we're too early to check in due to our arrival time now being around 8 am. Fortunately they allow us to check our goods while we head out to wander the streets with jet lag and sleep deprivation. A small cafe down the road gives us an opportunity to sample a real authentic Dutch breakfast at a cafe owned by Russians, with a Moroccan cook and a Polish waitress.

Amsterdam has been a very prosperous city for centuries a result which still makes it a Mecca for all new immigrants to Holland. The only thing Dutch about Amsterdam are the 17th century churches and canals which serve as Dutch monuments to a trade empire which once encompassed much of the world.

The hotel itself is a very old but beautifully well appointed and luxurious. Definitely one of Amsterdam's finest. Thank goodness for otherwise we'd probably be staying in one of the countless crack head 1 star hostels which speckle through and around the world famous Red light district, which just happens to be about 3 blocks away.

A walk through the Red light district by day is a much different experience than at night. The action starts upon night fall and the streets are indeed lined with Red lights. Despite its stigma in the west it’s actually very touristy; it reminds me of the Clifton Hill tourist area in Niagara Falls except there are ladies (hookers) dressed in lingerie dancing in the red neon windows and also there’s sex shops and live sex shows every where. Believe it or not there are countless bus tour groups that go through here. The Dutch definitely don't have the stigma about sex that many nations in the west do.

The other element worth looking at for curiosity sake is the many coffee shops in and around the district. Each openly sells marijuana, ecstasy, magic mushrooms, hash brownies and drug paraphernalia. Despite all of this, Amsterdam has a very low crime rate compared to cities comparable to its size in North America. Perhaps that's the solution, though I don’t personally condone it myself.

Think about it, they legalize and tax it what would normally be considered vice crime elsewhere.

There are a few cool coffee shops where you can just sit and have a beer while watching the pedestrian traffic stroll through the Red Light area which encompasses about 6 blocks in total and is separated by a number of small canals.

Amsterdam's Red Light district also has a strange feel about it at night. There are hordes of people every where including lots of Stag parties from the UK. Though hard drugs as heroin and coke are illegal, there are still plenty of street peddlers (drug dealers) mostly from North Africa and Eastern Europe aggressively marketing their product to all who should pass parallel to the canals that run through this district and the dark narrow alleyways leading into the district.

There are also a lot of really good Irish pubs; all of them authentically Irish run with good entertainment each night. They say the area is safe but it should be noted that the police vacate the area after 2 am.

One thing I do like about the many late night pizza and sandwich shops. Go figure. There’s even a fast food restaurant that operates as a giant fresh to order vending machine. Put your money in, open the door and go. There are cooks in the back always freshly re-filling the windows as needed.

Outside of the Red-light district Amsterdam is a busy port city with fantastic International Street shopping, lively bar districts, hundreds of canals lined with vintage wooden house boats, museums as Van Gogh's, Anne Franks and some other 50 museums.

I find Amsterdam very interesting as it combines the old with the absolute latest from modern socialistic thinking, music, fashion and design.

Day 3

Two days into our trip and with the jet lag now behind us, its time to move onto Rotterdam. The sole purpose there is to see one of my favorite bands “Rush” at the Ahoy stadium. It’s about an hour train ride to Rotterdam from Amsterdam and the view of the landscape is amazing. Flower farms stretch from the edge of the tracks to as far as the eyes can see into the flat Dutch horizon which I would imagine is mostly reclaimed land from the sea. Small towns and irrigation canals powered by old wooden wind mill pumping stations still function as they may have centuries before.

Upon arrival at the Rotterdam station it’s apparent that Rotterdam is a collective of many people from all over the Old Dutch Empire. Surinamese from South America. Antillean's from the Dutch Caribbean. Asians from Indonesia. No where do you really see the stereo type Dutch man / woman, tall and blonde.

We have a hotel down near the waterfront but getting there is another problem. There's a street car that goes by the hotel but it appears there's about 4 connections in between and I don't feel like lugging my bags around for hours on end. The simplest solution is a taxi; unfortunately the Turkish cab driver doesn't speak English and can't read the direction in Dutch either. None the less I figure it out on my own and direct the cab driver to where the hotel is in my own form of traveler’s sign language.

The hotel “The Maritimer” is located at the harbor with a view of the ultra modern Erasmus Bridge which is a cable stayed bridge across the Nieuwe Maas river. It’s a another fine example of Dutch engineering along with the canals which crisscross the countryside into Amsterdam, the reclaimed arable land, century’s old churches and both new and old windmills which number in the thousands. I’d say Holland has been an engineering leader for centuries in the making.

Rotterdam itself is an ultra modern city with not much to look at. It’s very gray and has no real good photo opportunities. But like Amsterdam the people here are completely fluent in English. Stop anyone anywhere everyone speaks English fluently other than the Turkish cab driver. Even in the local mall all the store fronts are listed in English.

Day 4

The next night we take a taxi to the Ahoy stadium. Many western rock acts often play this stadium which also serves as a makeshift hockey arena. We arrive a few hours early and head across the street to a bar. In the bar were all the local Dutch Rush fans dining and drinking to the tunes of classic Rush cranked on the stereo. I noticed on the menu one of their specialties to be a toasted mushroom sandwich. I couldn't resist.

Off to the show. The interesting thing about arena shows in Europe is that they still have general admission on the floor with the higher priced tickets being the arena seats. Normally a Rush concert in North America would be a pot smoking paradise, the funny thing about this show is that despite relaxed marijuana laws in Holland there were no pot smokers at this show that I could detect.

The Dutch fans were very responsive to Geddy Lee as he addressed them in English throughout the night. At times you would've thought you were in a soccer match with the way the fans jumped up and down while punching large multi-colored beach balls back and forth and around the arena.

The following day it was off to the Rotterdam airport and a flight on Transavia a discount Dutch airline to Gerona Spain.

Day 5 and 6

The amazing thing about Europe is that every country seems to have a couple of discount airlines taking you just about anywhere in Europe you would want to go really cheap. All of them operate newer Airbus’s. It’s almost like the Europeans use airlines like North Americans use Greyhound buses.

We arrive in Gerona the flight time was a little more than 2 hours.
Our destination is actually on the Costa Brava and the small Spanish beach town Lloret de Mar. After picking up our rental car I notice a sign leaving the airport that says’s “Catalonia is not Spain”, sounds like the whole Quebec thing. A direct reference to the province believing they are culturally autonomous from Spain due to its distinct language and culture.

The highway to Lloret de Mar is typical of continental European highways. Unfortunately their highways don’t seem to just flow from point A to point B. Instead they wind around through many towns on the way and they don’t seem to be well marked at least from a North American perspective. They obviously are not designed for tourist traffic.

Upon arrival on the Costa Brava our goal is to find our hotel and settle in. That’s easier said then done as per usual the town is typical of many Euro towns in that there is no grid pattern and the streets tend to go in all directions without any standardized planning procedure.

The hotel which is only $55 a night was an Expedia Pick. After driving around for half an hour we find it sitting hillside to the beach about 9 blocks from the shoreline hidden among a maze of narrow winding streets and tacky souvenir vendors. The hotel will do for the price, but despite being rated as a 3 star I really believe the hotel is an aging 5 star in need of a lot of repair as evident in the cracked sidewalks, creaky old elevator which holds only 2 and moldy smelling room. I’m sure in its day this hotels would have been quite swanky with its grand ball room and lobby water fountains.

After settling in it’s a stroll down the hill to the beach passing dozens of hungry and aggressive Middle Eastern merchants peddling their cheap leathers, jewelry and beachwear.

It’s mid October and the weather on the beach of Lloret de Mar is beautiful and in the Low 70’s and sunny. The drink special on the beach is a Latina. It’s a sweet Spanish red wine mixed with orange peel. Despite the tourist season being quite late there are still quite a few tourists around, mostly English families soaking up the late autumn sun rays. The English love the sun.

That night we ate at the “golden oldie” buffet at the hotel and then headed out for a night on the town. Many bars are already closed for the season including the Go-Go bars which would normally feature Russian and Eastern European girls. The town reminds me of Niagara Falls but only on the beach, with its arcades, amusement rides, souvenir shops, fast food outlets and the overall feeling of a carnival by the sea. There’s also a ton of English pubs in this town with each I suppose catering to different Football supporter groups.

Day 7

After a few days of relaxing and drinking beach side, its time to move on to our next destination - a small beach town outside of Barcelona calls Gava. The map makes it look really easy to get to.

Driving down the highway towards Barcelona there are beautiful views of the turquoise Mediterranean and along the way we also notice several old castle ruins and many hundreds of odd shaped trees which I learn later are Olive trees.

Getting to Gava would take hours on this day as the town is simply not identified on the highway signage. After have drove about 25 miles past the town we find a highway service center and an English speaker that could direct us. There’s no way we would have found this otherwise, obviously a local secret.

The hotel is right on the beach, The AC Gava. Apparently it’s a favorite of Mick Jagger. The hotel is a very ultra modern Italian style urbanization spa with beach side gardens, Greco-Roman garden statues, black and gray marble throughout and lots of still ponds all of which blends beautifully to the natural bio rhythms of the surf crashing high onto the large deserted white beach dunes which stretch for miles along the Med.

A 15 minute stroll down the beach takes you into the small beach side town of Gava. The homes are large and red bricked with well maintained flower gardens and manicured hedges. They actually appear to be more English style then what you’d expect on the Spanish Mediterranean.

The town itself is small and tidy, with small flower boxes along the sidewalk and is somewhat typical for many European towns with a butcher, a baker and probably a candle stick maker. I also notice the curbside recycling. They really go all out here. There’s a recycle box for everything; plastic, paper, tin cans, cardboard, glass, food waste, wood and metal scrap. Wow.

Of course no Spanish town would be complete with out a Tapas bar. Tapas are the name given to a selection of Spanish appetizers. Though from what I can see there is no standard for this and it varies from region to region.

At this bar “El Toro Rojo” (The Red Bull), the Tapas consists of a variety of dry strong tasting cheeses, what appears to be some type of freshly sliced smoked Prosciutto, large pitted black olives, hard crusty European style bakery bread and olive oil sprinkled over everything on the plate. It’s all served together on a wooden cutting board with the idea to make small sandwiches from all the garnishes provided. The tables are nothing more then old wooden wine barrels turned upside down.

I attempted to communicate with the bar keep and the patrons in my broken Spanish but they inform me they’re prefer to speak in either Catalonian or English than to converse with me in Spanish. My feeling is they don’t receive too many tourists in this area as the bar keepers and handful of patrons give us a really warm welcome attempting to accommodate our every wish.

Day 8

On Day 8 we head off to Barcelona using Gava as our base. We chose Gava as our base simply because Barcelona is very expensive regardless of being so late in the season.

On the highway to Barcelona you can’t help but to notice all these skimpily dressed beautiful Spanish women on the side of the road first thing in the morning. Could these be hookers? I would later be advised that indeed Spanish hookers actually work the highways. I've never seen that before anywhere.

We follow the signs for Barcelona El Centro, this takes us right into the heart of Barcelona. My first impression is that Barcelona is very similar to Paris in its architecture, with its wide well laid out streets. Four story stone buildings with iron balconies rails and colorful draping flower box arrangements.

Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics but also played host in 1929 to the World’s fair. From both events there are still structures standing as the Olympic Stadium and The magic fountain. Our mission on this day is it to find parking near the Ramblas, view the marina and snap a few photos of some of the Gaudí architectural wonders.
Parking is a real problem in downtown Barcelona but we do indeed find an underground spot just a block or 2 away from the Ramblas and conveniently located within walking distance of many of the main tourist traps. The weather on this day is perfect, in the low 70’s with a big blue sky. There’s lots of tourist still abound.

We walk to the Ramblas which is a very wide street which runs through the center of Barcelona. Up the center of the street is a marble tile mosaic with dozens of the best street performers one can imagine. From Mimes and traditional folk musicians to performers painted to look like street monuments and others who could be acrobatic performers with the Cirque Du Soleil.

There are small flower and fruit markets to the side of the street and a real sensual stimulation over load and at the same time a nervous awareness to all the strange happenings around you. I’m always nervous with this volume of people as I know pick-pocketers thrive on oblivious tourists.

From the Ramblas we walk to the Port Olympic which is directly due south about 1 km or so. The entrance of the port is quite spectacular, with lots of Olympic leftovers as pavilion halls which now serve as waterside cafes and Tapas bars. Not to mention many a mega yacht in the harbor.

We chose a café directly overlooking these yachts and for some reason all the waiters at the lunch café we chose all seem to be Asiatic. I can only assume it’s because the wages are probably very low and they all have an uncanny ability to speak English well which definitely comes in handy when catering to such a wide variety of international guests.

Our lunch would consist of a Mediterranean style thin crust pizza and a pan of Seafood Paella (rice with Seafood cooked in a skillet). I’m not a big fan of seafood though I do like rice.

After lunch we head out to view the many Gaudí wonders around the town. Gaudí was a Spanish architect who has a Modernist style (Art Nouveau). The best way of describing the works is to say in English that they are just plain Gaudy looking. The structures though are brilliant all look like they are out of Batman’s Gothem City. All the corners have been rounded and there’s a real flow to the lines. I can appreciate the genius and perhaps mad mind that designed the buildings of Sagrada Família, Casa Milà, Casa Batlló, Parc Güell and Colònia Güell.

Well a few cappuccinos later and after dodging thousands of other tourists all day its time to leave Barcelona behind. I’m glad we only spent a day here. That night we drive back to our beach side hotel in Gava. We pack our belongings and ready ourselves for our next departure. I have my laptop with me on the journey but unfortunately there doesn't appear to be too many free WiFi cafes. Everyone actually wants to charge for the internet. After paying the hotels ransom, 20 Euros for 2 hours. I connect onto their WiFi server and attempt to figure out the next leg of our journey before we eventually make out way back to Amsterdam in a weeks time.

We are seriously considering going to Morocco, but there has been some recent violence against western tourists. Also, the flights to Morocco are absorbent. Just for laughs I check to see where Rush is playing next. As luck would have it they are playing in Milan Italy in two days time. There are also really cheap flights from Barcelona to Milan aboard Ryan Air.

That’s the beauty of the internet as still I remember the difficulties traveling just 10 years ago in Europe and now you have the power to design your trip on the fly.

Within 20 minutes I make all my plans, a flight to Milan on Ryan Air, I verify Rush ticket availability for the show in Assago (Milan), and I book a hotel right across the street from the show location. It sounds simple right.

Day 9

The flight time out of Barcelona is 6 am. The flight is full of lots of Italian nationals heading home. The Europeans love their quick cheap trips. What a way to live. The flight time couldn't be more then just a few hours. You can see the snow capped Italian Alps as we approach Milan. The exotic looking female flight attendants seem to be multi-lingual, Spanish, English and Italian with no problem.

The flight arrives at Milan’s Mariposa airport which is way on the out skirts of the town. This is a very common practice for the Euro discount carriers to use such airports thereby enabling them to keep their flight costs down. Unfortunately what you save on your flight will usually costs you in other ways as in extra transportation costs to your actual intended destination.

We immediately check in with the car rental booth at the airport. The clerk speaks amazing English which lulls me into a false sense of security that all Italians may have the same linguistic ability. On this day though he was out of cars and directed us to private commuter bus which for 20 Euros will take us in to the Milan Bus / train station.

We await at the curbside bus depot, when the bus arrived I attempt to make small talk with the driver but he looks at me dumbfounded like he’s never heard English before. Everything in Italy seems to be done opposite to logic as I would soon learn. You buy your ticket in the airport, hand it to the driver, he stamps it and then you have to walk back off the bus and deposit it in a ticket box beside the bus depot. Sorry I don’t really get it.

The drive to Milan is a long one about 1 hour in length. From the highway you can see small towns with very beautiful medieval clock towers and old buildings with red slate roofs.

Upon arrival at Milan’s station it appears that Italian confusion abounds. Milan is a very old city thus there is no organized grid pattern to the city. The streets branch out from the city center like a spider web. You’re trying to figure out the bus and train schedule when you can’t speak or read Italian, you’re tired and there are hundreds of people everywhere. I’ll always choose convenience, time savings and safety over saving a few bucks and wasting time trying to get the right bus and train connection.

I approach the Taxi stand which appears similar to Taxi stands around the world. The first taxi in the queue is usually the first taxi to depart next right. Wrong. Here it’s the last Taxi in the Queue and I got scolded well in Italian by the Taxi Dispatcher for not knowing.

I show the cab driver our hotel destination and he quotes us about 50 Euros. We proceed to head out from the town center and the cab driver who is an Albanian immigrant attempts to make friendly small talk in his broken English telling us about some of his local political pet peeves which includes members of the Ecuadorian immigrant community who seem to very noticeable with their small stature, brightly colored clothing and large loitering numbers outside the station. Same complaint the world over, every one likes to complain about anyone who is different from themselves.

We’re en route to the hotel, I have seen some crazy driving in my time in South America, but the Italians take it to the next level. The Taxi driver had so many near car crashes on the way to the hotel that it wasn't funny. I assume he was in a rush to get back to the Taxi Queue so he could get another fare soon.

He zig-zags in and out of traffic and as bad as he was all the other drivers was as bad or worst. I was getting motion sickness sitting in the backseat. Italian drivers don’t seem to understand the premise of staying within your lanes or keeping a safe distance from the other driver.

The driving style here is to drive an inch off of the bumper in front at 120 km an hour while straddling the highway lanes. I even saw people passing each other on the highway shoulders. After a 45 minute grueling drive to the hotel I was wiped out. My knees, stomach and body were well shaken; I felt like I use to feel coming off the old Comet roller coaster when I was a kid growing up near Crystal Beach.

The hotel (Jolly Hotel) is conveniently located at the intersection of A7 and A50 beside the ultra modern Milano Fiori mall and across the street from the Datch Forum where the Rush concert would be in a day’s time. Not much to tell about the hotel other than it was very modern, boxy and Italian in its furnishing. The hotel was located in a business park with modern 8 story office complexes each with small little malls and traditional sandwich and coffee bars in each, resembling Starbucks – gee I wonder you copied who.

Not a lot of renaissance or Roman history out this way. Actually if I didn't know I was in Milan I would swear I was in the States or Canada. The hotel would obviously be convenient for the concert but otherwise far away from Milan. Fortunately the hotel would offer private complimentary shuttle services heading into Milan each day.

After a quick rest and refresh it would be time to check out the mall next door. The Milano Fiori mall is a single level box shaped mall filled with the usual mall type of stores as shoe stores, women's clothing, electronic shops, a food court and perhaps the largest grocery store I have ever seen.

The deli section alone would be at least half the size of most grocery stores in North America. In true Italian fashion the food was stockpiled like it was going out of style. The store included live seafood holding tanks, pig carcasses hanging from meat hooks, Prosciutto being freshly smoked and sliced and packaged on the spot, an assortments of freshly baked crusty breads coming out of the bakers ovens, cheese spheres the size of basketballs and a wine section as far as the eyes could see, mean while the other side of the store was like a Home-Depot combined with a Wal-Mart super-center.

This place is seriously really big. I really believe if you want to judge a country’s true wealth then you should check out their grocery stores. In this case Italy wants for nothing; as this particular store has enough food in it to feed many's a small country.

The mall itself also has more ice cream and sandwich shops than any other mall I've ever seen. The food court was very interesting. In most mall food courts you usually have a choice from Italian, to Chinese, to Japanese, fast food American, Mexican etc. At this food court all the fast food restaurants specialized in Italian dishes; pastas, pizzas, seafood, cappuccinos, Italian pastries, Italian sandwich shops etc; There must have been 30 of them which each having something completely different to offer, I never knew the selection of Italian dishes was so great. They all also served booze. No liquor regulations here.

I found it most difficult here to order food. I’m so used to people queuing in lines and then patiently ordering, but here it seemed every time I went to order something someone would crash the line in front of me and order first and get served. Obviously it is also difficult when you can’t speak the language and speak up. I would eventually end up going from stall to stall trying to get served and in the end I ended up at a stall which served nothing but olive loaf bread. Fortunately there was no line up there.

After a few hours in the mall it was time to depart for the ticket box office at the Datch Forum across the street. This is an arena stadium where the local pro hockey team plays as does many a big western music acts; as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Metallica.

Surprisingly when we get to the box office there are still good, no great seats available. For some reason it seems in Europe people scramble for the cheap tickets which in this case like the show in Rotterdam would be the general admission floor tickets. This in turn enables us to purchase tickets in the stands elevated to the stage and looking dead on center.

Day 10

The day of the show we took the hotels free shuttle into Milan. We really didn't have a good idea as to where we were going or what we’d want to see, we figured we could just wander around, kill a few hours during daylight hours and wait out the show that night. Since it was the show after all that had brought us to Milan and not necessarily Milan’s reputation for being an international fashion mecca.

On the ride into Milan I noticed the city has a very gray appearance to it, it’s not a warm and exotic as Barcelona and it’s not picturesque like Amsterdam. It’s just very drab and there’s a ton of graffiti everywhere. I also notice many of the billboards display advertisements in English. This is very funny considering most Italians don’t speak English but apparently English on the continent is considered an upscale language, so to advertise in English is to upscale your product even if the local populace doesn't speak English. The shuttle would only take us as far as the first subway hub, which shouldn't be a problem since subways are subways right. From there we’re to ride the subway into the town core to the world famous Duomo district.

Well I thought the subway was confusing in Toronto, but the subway here is in true Italian fashion and is equally as confusing. You have to buy tokens from the token machine but none of the machines are working and the English display doesn’t make any sense. After a half hour of getting frustrated at the process we bought some surplus tokens off an Aussie backpacker. You can always count on the Aussies.

In the center of Milan is the fashion district commonly known as the Duomo, and refers to the Milan Cathedral. This is an impressive Gothic cathedral which first broke ground in 1386; it took 500 years to complete and is one of the largest churches in the world. Around the church is the town square; water fountains, gothic statues, cafes and lots of beggars including Roma street gypsies and their newly arrived competition Ecuadorians. The latter group I would imagine may be used as cheap migrant labor for Italy’s fashion industry which is still very much centered in the Milan area. Also close by to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most exclusive shopping areas in the world. You enter through a large stoned arch standing at least 200’ high and reminiscent of the Arc de Triompe in Paris, and then it becomes apparent that the entire street is covered over by a glass and an iron arched roof. It was completed in 1877 and today under its roof are some very pricey and exquisite designer shops as Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton and believe it or not even a McDonald’s. At its center there is a glass dome which much be suspended some 250' above the marble tiled street surface.

Yes the prices here are expensive, but to buy Italian designer goods else where they would be considerably more. From one small Italian designer house I purchased a hand stitched leather belt for 20 Euros. A belt as this in North America would be at least 5 times that if you could even find it all.

I had actually seen this structure one time before many years ago on Canadian television during an interview with Canada’s ice hockey coach Glen Sather during the world hockey championships which were once held in Milan. Glen was having a Cappuccino under the Dome talking about how beautiful Milan is.

No trip to Italy would be complete without trying Italian food. So in true tourist fashion we went to a small café just outside of the Galleria and directly across from the Duomo.

I should really remember that in touristy areas whether it be in Milan’s fashion district, Niagara Fall’s Clifton Hill or Paris’s Champs-Elysees the food will always be crap as its mass produced for profit.

None the less it was a good spot to watch the 6’ tall sexily dressed Italian super models strolling through the cobblestone plaza past the water fountain while ducking the pigeons and avoiding the Gypsies and Ecuadorians on their way to the fashion district to purchase from the many dozens of high end designer boutique outlets. This area gives a new meaning to fashion district. Forget about all those cheesy designer factory outlet malls in places like Niagara Falls, Las Vegas and Birch Run, this is the real McCoy. Probably the world’s first such district.

Well after a day of this it was time to get back to the hotel to rest up for the big Rush concert at the Datch Forum that night. Once again we had to get back on the subway and return to out meeting spot with the hotel's shuttle while walking among the graffiti, street garbage and Gypsy beggars.

This was a very gray over cast day, and it appeared to me that much of the architecture in Milan also tended to be very gray. Outside of the Duomo and the Galleria I’m not sure I’d want to spend more then a few days here.

An hour before the Rush show we walked over to the Datch Forum for a few pre-concert beverages. Having seen Rush numerous times in North America and now most recently in Rotterdam, I thought it would be interesting to see the demographic makeup of the crowd at this show, and to witness their over all connection to the music which I've been following since I was a kid. I still find it very interesting that a little band from Canada could have that much impact so far away.

A quick glance at the crowd it appeared to me that they didn't look much different from any Rock’n Roll crowd you’d see in North America or anywhere else, with their 80’s style long hair, leather jackets, ripped jeans and concert T-shirts. Unlike Rotterdam the crowd here only spoke Italian. It was however once again interesting to see advertisements in the stadium in English. I still can’t figure that out.

There is nothing fancy about this arena, its no Madison Square Garden or Air Canada Center. No fancy restaurants, bars or business clubs. Instead there is one greasy café at the ground level selling beer, hot dogs and cheeseburgers, and everyone therefore is forced to use its services. We did meet up with a couple of funny Aussies and Kiwi’s also drinking up before the show. I’m not really sure what it is about the Aussies and Kiwi’s, perhaps it’s the whole commonwealth connection that as a Canadian you always feel a brotherhood kinship to them.

Well what can I say the show was great, my seats were excellent. It’s the first concert I've been to that featured Italian sub titles on the video screens. The folks next to us were actually from my hometown in Canada. The audience responded to the show with the passion of a soccer crowd, jumping up and down throughout the concert. I never thought of Rush as a dance act but I guess every country and culture responds differently.

The one thing that is most memorable is exiting from the stadium. While its common to always have people selling pirated concert t-shirts outside of any major show, I didn't expect to see literally dozens upon dozens of such vendors as this show. There are obviously no copyright laws in Italy. The other amazing thing is all the veal sandwich trucks on site. Each of the trucks offers fresh veal sandwiches topped with grilled onions and peppers and a fine selection of spirits to wash it down. How Italian is this? Apparently liquor sales are also not regulated as they would definitely be in North America.

Day 11 and 12

The next morning it was time to say good bye to Milan and head for Lake Como in the Italian Lake district in a little Fiat we rented at the hotel. The map makes it look like a really easy drive at only 25 miles or so and being right a major intersection it should be relatively easy to get to. Essentially all we have to do is follow the Milan ring road (E 35) NW to the E62 NW and then hook onto the A9 North.

As we get on the E35 we immediately feel the driving intensity and pressure from the other drivers. Like a Déjà vu from our Taxi ride just several days previously, the Italian drivers are just inches off our bumper pressuring us to drive faster. They zigzag in and around us blowing their horns and waving their hands out their windows despite us driving just over the speed limit of 100kmh.

So out of Milan we head but wait a minute. Where are we going? Though the map makes the trip to Lake Como appear really easy there are very few highway signs marking the exits or connecting routes. Somehow we miss the E62 connection which would have taken us NW to the A9 and Lake Como, and instead end up on the A4 heading west towards Torino (Turin).

The problem with the A9, it’s a toll highway and there are no turn around off-ramps which means once your committed to traveling west then your heading west. It wasn't until about 30 minutes down the A9 that we realized we were on the wrong road, as once again there are few signs telling you where you are and where you’re going.

We had to cut across the highway median and turn around. The tolls booths in Italy digitally track your plate and boy were they confused when we arrived back at the toll gate, you could only see them reviewing their computer screen and not understanding why their highway cameras had only picked up our car going west and never registered us coming back heading east. They argued in Italian a few moments to us, and finally they accepted our 2 Euro payment and let us go.

So we finally connected up to the A9, Lake Como bound. I didn't know a lot about Lake Como other then a lot of stars hung out there as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, David Beckham and Tom Cruise.

The night before I depart somewhere I always try to pinpoint exactly where I’m going with useful internet tools as Google maps. Lake Como though it’s only a small town is typical of Italian towns with its central planning. Like Milano there is no grid pattern to the town, the streets flow in all directions from the city center like a large spider web with tons of one way only roads.

We kept following the general direction of Lake Como once we exited the A9 following the occasional sign. Up hills and down hills through one old village and then another, finally we discovered a tourist info center by random chance and got directions to our hotel. In true Italian fashion the tourist info center wasn't sign posted along the way.

It’s a dark gray and misty day in Como, the largest city on Lake Como. There’s heather in the surrounding mountains. It is pretty late in the season and you can feel the dampness here in the Italian Alps near the border with Switzerland. Despite its location it actually enjoys a Mediterranean climate with tropical and subtropical plants growing year round.

My first impression of Lake Como is awe inspiring. Not only is this a naturally beautiful location surrounded by snow capped mountains and features a crystal clear glacier lake but there is a real sense of old money abound. The lake shore is dotted with old European royal palaces dating up to 500 years old with each surrounded by magnificent well manicured Italian ornamental gardens complete with water fountains, roman style statues and speed boat docks.

Yes this is definitely a place where the rich play. It makes me realize just how much life most of us are missing out on when I see how the other half lives surrounded by such richness, luxury, beauty and grandeur.

For a few Euros we took the Ferry out along the lake from the town of Como. The Ferry acts as public transportation to the other small “Commune’s” along the lake. Its gives you a good chance to see up close the architecture of the palaces, the splendid beauty of the gardens and the overall opulence

Along the way the ferry passes the palace (villa) owned by actor George Clooney. The 18th century villa named the Villa Oleandra is one of the larger Villa’s on the lake. Clooney paid $ 6 million dollars for it and featured it in his movie Ocean’s 12. Right next door is Tom Cruises some what smaller but equally impressive Villa. Which all brings me to the million dollar question of what good movies has George Clooney made recently, that now allows him to live such an opulent lifestyle ?

Perhaps the most famous Commune on Lake Como is Bellagio. This is the place which inspired its hotel namesake in Las Vegas. Though having seen both, I have to say there is nothing like experiencing the original. The beauty of this Commune is beyond description. Like most things in Italy it pre-dates the discovery of the America’s. Lake Como is shaped like a wish bone with Bellagio sitting out on a point where the lake divides. The result is a 270 degree view of the snow capped Alps as they rise up from this pristine glacier lake.

The town itself represents in my mind the way I've always pictured small Italian towns to be. Narrow medieval winding cobblestone streets with pastel colored buildings, lots of stone stairs, little bakery’s, wine bars, church bells ringing, palm trees swaying in the mountain breeze, stone heads atop Roman pillars and the smell of some really good Italian cooking. This could be one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

Back in the town of Como we find many businesses have already closed for the season. Though my brother swears he saw both Alyssa Milano and Brad Pitt in town shopping, though not together as that would be a National Enquirer exclusive. Como is much like Bellagio but on a grander scale and with much more shopping and five star restaurant selection. The food here is as impressive as in Bellagio.

I’m so use to going for Italian food in North America and have my “home made authentic” dish appear magically just 5 minutes later. Here there is no rush. No rush in its preparation and no rush to you in you enjoying the experience and staying a while. You own the table for the evening. What a concept. The Italians have a saying for this La Dolce Vita, the sweet life.

Near the medieval water-front park, which I swear I've seen in so many movies over the years, there is a soccer “football” stadium. I've heard Italians were nuts for the beautiful game but I had no idea they literally surrounded their fields with 2 twenty foot high barbed wired fences designed to keep their passionate fans off the field while the game is in play. There is also a seaplane base here and on this day my brother whom is a pilot would fly us over the lake with a first class view of palaces and surrounding snow capped mountains dotted with old Roman ruins.

You can’t really get a true idea of how large these centuries old royal palaces are until you see them from the air. Looking down you can also see the many Commune’s with their church steeples, red tiled buildings, mountain side vine yards, beautifully manicured gardens and small marinas with both seaplanes and wooden race boats.

After a few days of enjoying La Dolce Vita and gaining at least 10 pounds each its time to head back to Milan for our early morning flight to Amsterdam, and then from there onto Toronto the center of the universe (or so they think).

Day 13

Its 5 am, we checked out the night before loaded up the car with our bags and now it was time to leave Como behind and drive the 30 minutes to the Milan Malpensa airport departing from our 3 star Best Western conveniently located just 2 blocks from the world famous jet set haven of Lake Como.

Driving out of Como seemed not as bad as the way in, though this time it was dark and raining and there were actually a few signs pointing us to the A9 route towards Milan. Once on the A9 those very convenient things we call road signs in the west would once again disappear, which meant I literally had to navigate as if I was a GPS and validate the road bends against the map features.

I believe a less experienced traveler couldn't have pulled off my navigation to the airport not to mention my brother being a professional driver very much handled the excessive dark, slippery and downpour driving conditions. The funny thing is that once we did arrive at the airport all of sudden they must have had 25 direction signs on one corner pointing in all directions. Like information over load. By the time we got to the airport there was just an hour before our flight. Then we found out that the car rental could only be dropped off at terminal 1 though our flight was leaving from terminal 2 which conveniently seemed to be on the other side of town.

A few Brits aided us in flagging down the airport shuttle. The Brits are always great except for always asking me what State I’m from.

Once we were in terminal 2 we ran to the Easy Jet check-in counter with are heavy bags in tow only to find ourselves at the end of a long queue. The clerk spent so much time small talking with the Italian nationals in front of us that we ended up right at the check-in cut off point to the very minute, and even then she deliberately dragged her heals trying to disqualify us from checking in by checking her watch every 5 seconds as opposed to speeding up to expedite us on to the plane.

Yes Italy is very beautiful country but it is very frustrating as nothing seems to be logical in the manner in which things are done, its a real beauracratic society.
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