Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dispatches from DC #12

07 September 2011

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Extended Posting Alert - Italian Vacation Edition

Photo Update Alert:

"Italia 2011" and "Italia 2011 2"

As some of you may be aware, Anne and I recently returned from a two-week vacation in Italy, specifically the real estate around Lago Maggiore, including the towns of Intra, Pallanza, and Verbania as well as the villages of Cavandone and Vignone. Check out the basic geography, if you like ( In the summer, the area is a mecca for tourists, mostly Italian (Milanesi), English, German, and Swiss. It is exactly what you'd expect: unreasonably beautiful scenery replete with indigenous shoppes, restaurants, cafés, and geletarias. In a word, classic.

Those two weeks, fraught with activity, passed by so quickly that the experience has acquired a dreamlike patina, making it somewhat difficult to write about. (Like, just what the world needs: another fulsome Italian travelogue, am I right?) So I've elected to organize my scribbling into three categories, offer some possibly apropos facts/impressions, and hopefully not bore the hell out of anyone. Andiamo.

I. Food & Friends - Northern Italian cuisine is basic, simple food prepared from really fresh ingredients. We dined primarily at the home of our dear friends and hosts Gino, Lisa, and Edoardo (one of the "boychiks" chronicled in DfDC #11) in Vignone, with several outings to Cavandone to the home of and restaurant run by Claudio and Patrizia. (Their son Claudio, an enthusiastic neophyte juggler, being the other "boychik.")

We also ate at the home of Renato, Gabriella, and Arianna, had pizza with "Mingus" and Letezia, lunched with Gigi and his friends, supped with Gino's sister Anna and her friends, chowed down at the La Palma hotel in Stressa, took in a "pig festival," eccetera, eccetera. The expected food coma failed to materialize, but summer fare is lighter after all. We had wine with everything (the only time I drink wine in measurable quantities is when I'm in Italy), and Mirto, an exotic liquore from Sardinia, a bottle of which came home with me. And espresso, naturalmente.

[Bad News: There is now a McDonald's in Intra. Merda. That's the only fast food franchise I spotted in the area, but dang... Good news: The tradition of a two-hour-plus break for lunch (pranzo) is still going strong.]

II. Music - I brought my eccellente Italian accordion, massive flight case and all, and had several opportunities to play.

- Recorded tracks for six songs for Gino's next album (hopefully completed by Christmas) in his studio/wine cellar, affectionately known as "The Cave." (

- Sat in with Trio Elétrico (Renato, Fabio, and Carlo), an absolutely terrific jazz group; talk about the deep end of the pool. The venue was the rooftop bar of the La Palma Hotel, overlooking Lago Maggiore. It was a perfectly cinematic evening, with clear skies, a lovely breeze, and Isola Bella lit up like a psychedelic wedding cake. Magical. I'm also pleased to report that A.J., who never lies, reported I held my own as a jazz accordionist. Cool. Renato ( is one of the two best musicians I have ever worked with; the other being jazz pianist Eric Byrd (

- Played at a festa in Cavandone that also featured Gino and Dr. Wim, a German dentist turned jazz cat (; spent my 64th birthday somewhere up in the Italian Alps fielding requests from some very hospitable folks; friends of someone, I'm sure.

- Took in a performance of Eduardo (aka "Dado") and his band Sformat, a four-piece (guitar, bass, drums, vocals) Rock & Roll outfit. Dado, who is a great-looking young guy and future chick magnet, sings very well and has good stage presence. The band, which includes a woman drummer, has lots of energy, is appropriately loud, and does a quite credible job playing mostly classic American songs. (Jimi Hendrix lyrics sung phonetically are especially entertaining.) I enjoyed them very much.

III. Tourist Notes - Lago Maggiore is ridiculously spectacular and the ferry is the most convenient way to access major tourist attractions. Among our points of disembarkation:

- Giardini Botanici Villa Taranto ( These botanical gardens were established by a Scotsman who bought an existing villa and its neighboring estates and substantially rearranged the landscape. The gardens are a great place to spend an afternoon, particularly if it is unseasonably hot. I especially liked the dahlias.

- Isola Bella ( The Borromeo family was/is rich and influential; e.g., one of them married into the Medicis and another became an actual saint. Naturally, they own several islands in Lago Maggiore. Isola Bella is the sight of a 17th century palace and gardens built with splendor uppermost in mind. It is sumptuous, it is fanciful, it is completely over the top. And Napoleon stayed there.

- Isola Madre ( Larger and more tranquil than Isola Bella, Isola Madre is perfect for strolling, taking in the greenery, and getting hit up by the peacocks and other exotic fowls. A lovely place.

- Stresa ( Located on the Gulf of Borromeo (This family even has its own gulf? Classic.), Stresa is chock full of hotels, grande and otherwise, catering to throngs of summer turisti. The town centro is small, easily navigable, and a great place to shop; although between 12h30 and 15h00, not so much. So just do lunch.

There's a boatload more to report, of course, but I don't want overdo it, since you've been kind enough to read this far. Anne and I are fully aware of and appreciate our buona fortuna in having such wonderful friends in a place so worth visiting. If you have been to Italy, you understand. If you haven't, and if at all possible, spend the money and go.

[Bonus Tourist Tip - Unless you have no alternative, avoid JFK International Airport in New York City like the plague. Absurd layout, heinous connections, and waiting for takeoff is like being in line at the DMV.]