Woah Utah!!!

Utah is the most exciting and revealing destination I’ve been to after coming back from Europe. Visiting the magnificent Zion and Bryce national parks was so awe inspiring that I am determined to explore as many national parks as I can. This country has so many different landscapes with unique geological formations not found anywhere else in the world, so why not taking advantage of what the homeland has to offer?

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We took scenic highway 89 from Arizona via Sedona, where we spent some time with our relatives. Approaching the border with Utah, the red mountains open up to make space to a vast valley reminiscent of a classic Western movie. Everything is so grand and majestic that one feels lost and so small. Upon trespassing Utah, I was somewhat excited to be in a land so wild but tamed by so many rules shaped by their religious beliefs (aka the Latter Day of the Saints). We were warned by a friendly saloon bartender (yes, saloon! I wish I had a horse accompanying me on this trip), for example, that liquor would have been hard to buy, unless ordered at a restaurant and that the alcohol limit is way lower in this state.

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Zion National Park

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Checkerboard Mesa

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Virgin River

Perhaps the most obvious thing I noticed is the amount of gun shops at the side of the streets with giant signs combined with improbable other goods such as billiards, gas etc…The closer you get to Zion, the bigger is the amount of rock and gem stores in the most  interesting shaped buildings. Right by Zion, the landscape is mostly mountain and prairie-like with many horses and cattle ranches. We stayed in one of these ranches turned into lodging, where we actually checked into a so called ‘cowboy cabin’ right after dark. We met our fellow ‘cowboy’ neighbors by the nearby communal bonfire while roasting marshmallows and bonded with these Utans immediately. They gave us some tips on Zion and happily put them into practice the next day, when we entered the park. We were immediately taken aback by the exotic, out of this world red, coral and pink rocks layered one on top of the other like metal sheets and checkerboard mesas with horizontal and vertical lines sculpted symmetrically on the sides of the rocks. We drove through the tunnel and descended into the valley down to the visitor center where we hopped on the park shuttle. The shuttle is the best way to reach different viewpoints as cars are not permitted. We decided to see the Narrows first, as the name suggests, two tall rock walls open in the middle and are crossed by the Virgin river. At least 60 percent of the hike is spent wading, walking, and sometimes swimming in the river. We walked as further as we could without getting into the water, but next time for sure I’ll bring a wetsuit! We visited the Weeping Rocks and we hiked the Emerald Pools trail. Waterfalls, pools and a dazzling display of nature makes this trail a must see.

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The Narrows

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The Emerald Pools

I enjoyed visiting bohemian Springdale where we grabbed some dinner and of course, a beer called ‘Poligamy Porter’ which was actually graded 7. The reason being, is that beers brewed locally can be sold at a higher alcohol grade. Go figure!

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The Amphitheatre – Bryce Canyon

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Natural Bridge – Bryce Canyon

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Hoodoos – Bryce Canyon

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Fairyland Canyon – Bryce Canyon

The next day we drove through beautiful horse country to Bryce Canyon, only about an hour away from Zion. Bryce Canyon is the ultimate wonderland…I’ve never seen anything more spectacular in nature to date. Thousands of delicately carved spires rise in brilliant color from the amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon National Park. Millions of years of wind, water and geologic mayhem have shaped and etched the pink cliffs at Bryce, which isn’t actually a canyon but the eastern slope of the Paunsaguant Plateau. The spires, also called ‘hoodoos’, give life to magical worlds that can be seen from different viewpoints along the two hour drive up the plateau. The most sensational ones are the one seen at the Sunset viewpoint where a colossal amphitheater opens in front of you. The Natural Bridge is so incredible, it’s hard to believe it’s not man made but it’s in fact the works of ice and frost. The grand finale for me was , obviously, the ‘Fairyland Canyon’ the last viewpoint before the exit of the park. Hundreds of hoodoos form what looks like Disney’s castle (well, I guess it’s more appropriate to say that Disney might have copied these guys, as they have been here for quite a while) and there’s even a rock that looks like a sinking ship!! I mean, where can you find castles and pirates in the same picture?!?! A legend of the Paiute Indians, who inhabited the area for hundreds of years before the arrival of European Americans, claims the colorful hoodoos are ancient “Legend People” who were turned to stone as punishment for bad deeds. Surrounded by the beauty of southern Utah and panoramic views of three states, these hoodoos cast their spell on all who visit. Can I be turned into a princess now? I found my kingdom!!

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Red Rock Canyon

At the Court of many Kings & Queens

I’m back home in the States and I’m already feeling so nostalgic about Europe and the wonderful places I’ve visited. The ones that really struck me are too many to name but the ones that definitely left me speechless are the official royal residences of the Queen and her family; Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace in London, of course.

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Buckingham Palace

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The golden gate

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Royal Guards

I visited BP before and since I’ve already toured the Queen’s Gallery (a museum in its own right with prestigious paintings and sculptures by the Greats) this time I decided to see the twenty State Rooms that are open to the public exclusively during Summertime, only. Additionally, this year, the Ballroom, the biggest State Room, features a special exhibition of the Queen’s 1953 Coronation; definitely an extra reason to pick this option amongst the others!

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Buckingham Palace – The Courtyard

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Buckingham Palace – The Stairs to the State Rooms

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Buckingham Palace – The Gardens

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Buckingham Palace – The Gardens

The tour leads the visitors inside the palace’s courtyard and into the Grand Hall where usually dignitaries and illustrious visitors are welcomed. I managed to snap a few pics before being sent to the Tower of London to be beheaded…just kidding, but not really because pictures are not allowed and I’m sorry I’m not able to share the grandeur, the magnificence and opulence of the larger than life Throne Room, Music Room, Dining Room through images with you, as my description alone will never grasp all the infinite details of the carved golden doors, ceilings, mirrors, candelabras, drapes and frescos. It’s not only the prestigious materials one is drawn to, but the history that lives through those walls like a silent spectator. It’s not haunting, but rather fascinating and intriguing. My favorite part of the tour was the Coronation exhibit with memorabilia and objects from that day on display (invitation, pens, prayer books etc..); the gown and the robe, the jewels worn by the Queen, her family and her maids of honors. I particularly found so amazing the recreation of the Coronation Banquet in the State Dining Room where three tables are set up with all the original golden silverware set (with a total of 9 different forks, spoons and knives), the finest white and gold china and chalices. The centerpiece also reflects the floral arrangement of that day with the original seating map. I loved the beautiful view of the dining room on to the gardens and the adjacent blue Music Room with colomns made of lapiz lazuli where usually the baptized royal babies pose for their official picture. The grand finale is the walk through the Bow Room on to the vast gardens where the famous annual garden parties take place.

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Kensington Palace – Queen Victoria

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Kensington Palace – Gardens

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Kensington Palace – Gardens

If BP is the mother of all U.K. castles, Kensington Palace is the Disneyland of the royal exhibitions in terms of the interactive and visually stimulating experience that it offers. The palace used to be Queen Mary and King George’s residence and the birthplace of Queen Victoria who also spent her childhood and teenage years here until she received her privy council in the Red Saloon after becoming queen. This room, along with the ones she grew up in, is all covered with laser writings on the walls citing passages from the letters penned by Victoria herself during different phases of her life. The most touching quotes are the ones about falling in love and being married to Prince Albert, they are incredibly sweet and, paired with their personal objects such as fan, jewels, gloves displayed in shiny glass cabinets they make you feel a participant in the unfolding of their romance. Each room has a different mood but offers the same sensorial experience with some quotes softly whispered through some hidden speakerphones. The highlight amongst the different exhibitions at KP is the one on fashion, Fashion Rules, which features a few iconic gowns which belonged to Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and, Princess Diana spanning from the 50s to the 80s. Finally, the ultimate Disneyland moment is at the apartments of King George where a small booklet at the bottom of the grand stairs is available to whoever wants to play the ‘Top Courtier’ game, a quiz to test your likeability to become a staple at the King’s court. Basically, there’s a question related to a situation happening in each room you enter; my friend Kanako and I went as far as to win carte blanche and an all access pass to the King’s bedchamber; I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing but it was funny as hell! A courtier dressed like a 18th century notary, asked us tons of hilarious questions and also played cards to test our skills to make sure they are suitable for a King..LOL

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Kensington Palace – Queen Victoria’s Wedding Gown

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Kensington Palace – Queen Elizabeth’s Gowns

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Kensington Palace – The King’s Throne

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Kensington Palace – The King’s Gallery

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Kensington Palace – Playing Cards with Courtiers

The stunning KP gardens are the quintessential English gardens with romantic flower beds and water fountains. We could not leave the palace without having a traditional English tea at the beautiful Orangery, right across the gardens. Our crash course in British Season is complete!

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Kensington Palace – The Orangery

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Kensington Palace – English Tea at the Orangery

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Kensington Palace – Royal Baby Souvenirs

Her Ladyship’s British Season

Oh, how could I have left Europe without stopping for a few days in the land of real duchesses and princes? Downton Abbey and Earl Grey tea? Cricket and Fish&Chips? Beatlemania and One Direction? There was no way I was going to turn down my friend Lady Marianna’s offer to stay at her fabulous Georgian house just a few doors down from Charles Dickens’ own pad in central London before heading back to the States. So, there I was driving in a spacious black taxi by Buckingham Palace towards my new neighborhood for the next 6 days and thinking to myself, why did it take so long to come back?? London is such a glorious town that like Paris, Audrey Hepburn would say, “It’s always a good idea!!” I’m determined not to let another 14 years go by, that’s for sure!

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Buckingham Palace

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The British Museum

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St. Paul Cathedral

I found the familiar palaces and monuments (too many to cite them all) waiting in all their eternal splendor to be photographed, touched and walked on but also many newcomers (the London Eye, the new Tate Modern Gallery to name a few) along with some new pop cultural entries (the most obvious one being Starbucks emerging at every corner just like a pubs appear at every corner.) Franchising aside, the city offers an array of cool new design stores, galleries, restaurants, bars and clubs that are amongst the best in the world.

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The Tower Bridge and the Pinnacle

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At the Tate Modern Gallery – selfie with St. Paul in the background

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London Fashion Week – Oxford Street

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The RosenfeldPorcini Gallery on Rathbone Street

All in all, London is people-friendly, easy to travel and not intimidating at all when it comes to public transportation; the ‘tube’ system is so straightforward, I find it impossible to get confused or lost (unlike New York.) Busses are also very organized with rides available every three minutes! Hello, Los Angeles?!!?!!

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The Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the Golden Eye

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Westminster Abbey

In terms of people, I find the Brits to be very polite, reserved and disciplined in general. Also, how can one not melt at the sophistication of their accent? Or perhaps, I should say..how could I not feel embarrassed every time I opened my mouth? I totally sounded like I just finished competing in a rodeo compared to them! LOL…And regarding the tourists, this is possibly the city with the highest amount of them, from all over the world and in large groups, like herds of Italians, Spaniards and Japanese to name a few. Amazing!

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Piccadilly Circus

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Blue Rooster at Trafalgar Square

And the weather didn’t disappoint…it was pretty cold and rainy during my stay, but that’s okay because it was so refreshing and different from the always sunny California that I actually enjoyed it! When it rains, it’s mostly a sprinkle that stops and starts several times during the day, so you learn how to go with it and always carry a portable umbrella just in case.

I walked for miles and miles in awe staring at all the beauty, history and architecture and I left so enriched and more in love than ever with Europe and its majestic wonders.

4ever Venice!!!

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The Canal Grande

Venice is the quintessential celebration of beauty and enchantment; there’s virtually no ugly corner or calle in this town, it’s truly stunning and charming through and through. I always feel the same awe and wonder when I walk out the steps of Santa Lucia railway station and look out into the Canal Grande. My senses are instantly awaken by many stimuli: by the unmistakable salty smell of the laguna, the many vaporettos'(water buses) and tourists’ sounds and shiny palazzos reflected on the water.

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Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti

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St. Mark’s Square

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The Bridge of Sighs

Being considered the most beautiful and unique city in the world, Venice is always crowded with thousands of visitors every day who stroll the labyrinth of calli, piazzette and campielli to get to the focal point; the glorious piazza San Marco, an outdoor museum in its own right. There are plenty of places to see on this square, which Napoleon once referred to as ‘the drawing room of Europe’, and St. Mark’s basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs are the main iconic attractions. Growing up only an hour away from the lagoon, I myself visited la ‘Serenissima’ multiple times on different occasions, the most memorable ones being the Carnevale (the most famous Carnival in the world with locals and tourists wearing traditional gorgeous costumes and masks), the Regata (Scores of typically 16th century-style boats with gondoliers in period costume carry the Doge, the Doge’s wife and all the highest ranking Venetian officials up the Grand Canal in a brightly coloured parade) and, New Year’s Eve (I celebrated the arrival of a few new years in St. Mark’s square dancing and admiring the huge fire works.) I had the honor of having a film I worked on screening at the International Film Festival in 2004, so I had a great time going to the premiere at the lido with my fellow actors and hanging out at the Excelsior Hotel. The 70th edition of the International Film Festival is currently under way and will screen the movies in competition until September 7th.

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La Biennale – At the Arsenal

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The Italian Pavilion – Biennale

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La Biennale

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The South American Pavilion – Biennale

The International Film Festival is part of La Biennale, one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. Ever since its foundation in 1895, it has been in the avant-garde, promoting new artistic trends and organising international events in contemporary arts. Since the art exhibitions take place every other year, as the name suggests in Italian, I decided to go visit it. I went to see the exhibitions at the Arsenale (the largest pre-industrial production centre of the world, where the Serenissima fleet was built here) where there are different pavilions organized by theme and country. One of my favorite pieces is in the South American one, where there’s an installation made of dozens of colorful plates of different spices which made the whole room smell like an exotic bazaar.

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Harry’s Bar

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Bellini & Espresso at Harry’s Bar

Speaking of the senses, I couldn’t leave Venice without tasting a delicious Bellini at the legendary Harry’s Bar, the place where it was invented for the first time in 1948. Guests included Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Peggy Guggenheim among others. Ernest Hemingway was a staple, having a table of his own in a corner. Oh Venice, what do you do to artists??

Rimini Rimini

‘Romagna mia, Romagna in fiore, tu sei la stella, tu sei l’amore’ (Orchestra Casadei)

‘My Romagna, Romagna in bloom, you are the star, you are the love’

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The lyrics of this traditional song dedicated to one of Italy’s most colorful and lively central region are not far from the truth; Romagna is indeed that great! I went to visit my friend Giammario in Rimini for a few days and I left wishing his family would adopt me as I felt right at home. The energy and vibe there are so different and everyone is extremely welcoming and nice. I also discovered that ‘Italy’s Ibiza’, as Rimini is called being the most mundane city on the riviera, is rich with history, culture and art and had a wonderful time visiting the surrounding medieval borghi.

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Arco di Augusto (Arch of Augustus)

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Julius Cesar (piazza 3 Martiri)

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PIazza Cavour

Founded by the Romans in 268 BC, throughout their period of rule Rimini was a key communications link between the north and south of the peninsula, and on its soil Roman emperors erected monuments like the Arch of Augustus and the Tiberius Bridge, while during the Renaissance, the city benefited from the court of the House of Malatesta, which hosted artists like Leonardo and produced works such as the Malatesta Temple. In the 19th century, Rimini was one of the most active cities in the revolutionary front, hosting many of the movements aimed at the unification of Italy. In the course of World War II the city was the scene of clashes and bombings, but also of a fierce partisan resistance that earned it the honor of a gold medal for civic valor. Finally, in recent years it has become one of the most important sites for trade fairs and conferences in Italy.

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Mondaino

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Piazza Maggiore

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During my stay there, I had the fortune to catch the ‘Palio de lo Daino‘ some 30km away in the town of Mondaino where the whole borgo reenacts the peace treaty signed by the rival noble families of the Malatesta and Montefeltro in 1459. Residents dress up in medieval costumes and host artisanal shops showcasing ancient goods (anything from armatures, helmets to manuscripts) on the first floor of their homes or garages. Old professions such as chair makers, candle makers, street musicians etc..joyously demonstrate their crafts in every corner. Streets are covered with hay and everything is set up with extreme accuracy, even the many food courts serving delicious foods (with the typical ‘strozzapreti’ pasta and fettuccine with salsiccie being my favs!) are styled like it’s 1459!

There are many other similar celebrations all throughout the nearby hills in castle towns like Coriano, Montebello and Saludecio and I’m planning on visiting them all one day. But I couldn’t leave Rimini without suntanning and swimming in the Adriatic sea, which is the quintessential Summer fun!

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The panoramic ferris wheel

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If Monte Grappa could talk…

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Bassano del Grappa

Growing up in the sweet picturesque town of Bassano del Grappa, one gets used to the familiar backdrop of the stunning green Pre-Alps, an image that is so filling and essential that is impossible not to associate it with Bassano. The name itself suggests that Bassano belongs to Mount Grappa (at 5,823 ft is the highest peak), as much as the the sun belongs to the sky and if you’re a ‘Bassanese’, you inevitably have a soft spot for Mount Grappa, the good giant that watches over our town like a majestic god!

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Rolling hills

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Monte Grappa

I decided to go pay a visit today and I forgot how truly beautiful it is. The winding roads through the rolling hills filled with a large variety of oaks and pines lead to the most breathtaking views. Hills spotted with darker shades of green pines, sparse colonial homes and farms surrounded by the happiest cows I’ve ever seen (sorry, California!)

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San Giovanni

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San Giovanni Church

Once in a while, a rustic trattoria offering delicious meals with local traditional produces pops up in the most surprising turns. San Giovanni is one of them, it’s a restored hotel with tons of red geraniums hanging from the windows and dotting the outdoor sitting area overlooking the little church at the top of the hill. I stopped here for a morning espresso and croissant and, as I was sipping my daily dose of highly concentrated caffeine (espressos are no joke, in my homeland!), I happened to notice a small room filled with army memorabilia. This tiny museum features dozens of bullets, rifles, helmets, medical supplies,  watches, pipes, glasses and myriads of other personal objects which belonged to fallen soldiers and infantries who fought here during the two great wars. In fact, Mount Grappa is rich with history, having been the stage of crucial battles during World War I and World War II.

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During World War I, in 1917 it became the front-line of defense against the Austrian troops who, after the battle of Caporetto, were looking to conquest the river Piave and control the mountain area. In 1918 the Italian troops suffered two other Austrian attacks but they were able to crush the Austrians who retreated, giving the victory to the Italians. During World War II, in particular the period from the fall of fascism (25 July 1943) and its return to power after a few months (8 September), in the Bassano area brigade groups of antifascist partisans were formed and located, in the most part, on Mount Grappa. From here they were able to control the Valsugana, a communication route for Germany with the nazi forces operating in Italy. This came, however, after the fascist-nazi regime responded to the partisans by conducting a tragic ‘clean up’ operation involving 15-20,000 men against the 1,500 partisans. In their honour, an Ossarium and a bronze statue, the Partisan Monument, were erected at the very top of Mount Grappa. To this day, huge holes caused by grenades can be spotted all over the area.

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Alpenise

Mount Grappa is also known to be the perfect training ground for cyclists, given that it has the most beautiful uphills in the country. Other sport activities include hiking, snowboarding and skiing in the winter. In the last couple of years, a new outdoor adventure has become very popular; climbing ropes with carabiners offered by Alpenise. I was tempted to try it, but I could not shake off my fear of heights and opted instead to take a few pix and chat with the guys who run the facilities in the middle of the woods. I promised them I would be back armed with more courage and a few friends in tow next time, after that I took a 5 minute stroll through the hills and had a delicious ‘boscaiola pasta’ Alpe Madre.

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Alpe Madre

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The ‘malga’ (farm)

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The cheese room

I could not end my day trip without paying visit to one of the several farms open to the public for their produce sale. I got some delicious cheese and milk from the happy cows!!

Asiago

For the first time since I moved to the States, I’m back in my homeland during Summertime and I’m so thrilled!! Italian Summers are legendary and so fun, the whole country comes alive with piazzas filled until the wee hours with residents and tourists strolling with a delicious and refreshing gelato, chit chatting with friends over a spritzer or some iced drinks at an outdoor cafe’ or catching a street performance or movie.

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Mom posing in via 4 Novembre

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Dad (from the back) strolling along via 4 Novembre

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Adler, my favorite cafe’

This was exactly the scene happening last night in the elegant mountain town of Asiago, (just 40 minutes away from my hometown Bassano del Grappa and 100 miles from Vicenza and Trento), where the centre with beautiful classic and German influenced palazzos was crowded with large groups of tourists and residents flocking the bars and the live music stages. Nestled in the most beautiful green plateau at the feet of the Alps, this resort town was the theatre of an Austro-Hungarian attack on the Italian front in May 1916 during World War I, a battle in which also Ernest Hemingway fought. Asiago is world known mostly for the sweet, tender cheese that goes by the same name and other local produces such as honey and milk. To my folks, Asiago is also a breath of fresh air to escape to when the rolling hills of Bassano gets too stuffy and humid in the August heat; having experienced the scorching desert heat for the last three months; I, of course, find the weather here extremely lovely and refreshing..LOL, but that’s a different story!

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Piazza Risorgimento

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Piazza Carli