Written Serialization Hubs

Where can you reach readers with your written serialized fiction? Here’s a list.


    • Wattpad (65+ million users)
    • Tapas (graphic novels as well as written)
    • Radish (requires application)
    • Inkitt (may want exclusivity, glitchy, Germany-based)
    • RoyalRoad (litRPG focus)
    • Curious Fictions (requires application)
    • WriterSky
    • ScribbleHub
    • Commaful (multimedia, optimal for short stories)
    • Swoon Reads (romance, Macmillan YA sourcing site)
    • Booksie
    • Fictionate.me 
    • Webtoons
    • 2Tale
    • Litnet
    • 4thewords.com
    • taylz.com
    • FicFun / Dreame (solicits from other services)
    • GetInkspired (monetized)
    • LoveNovel (LGBQT+)
    • Penana
    • Readitt.com
    • Movellas.com
    • Channillo.com (curated; requires application)
    • PenPee (UK-based, free tier requires participation, limits posting)
    • Unbound.com (crowdfunded print editions)
    • authorbitz



    • Ao3 / Archive Of Our Own (popular fanfic site with a section for original fiction)
    • LitHive.com
    • Quotev (old community)
    • FictionPress (pre-dates Wattpad, may want exclusivity)
    • Mibba (section for original fiction, young writers)



    • Belletristica.com/en (mostly German)
    • Webnovel (China, Qidian’s English site) and Boxnovel
    • Qidian.com (huge serialization platform in China; they may take all rights)
    • Joara (Japanese)
    • Snack Book (Korean)
    • Bagle (Korean)
    • MoboReader.com (Changdu’s English outreach, requires application)
    • CreativeNovels.com (webnovel translation site, requires application)
    • GravityTales.com (China/Korea translation)
    • WuxiaWorld.com (China webnovels translation)
    • Scribay (French)



    • SerialBox (SFF, hard to get in)
    • Galatea (an Inkitt venture)
    • EpisodicReading.com (2yr exclusive)
    • ThePigeonHole.com (sources from trad publishers)
    • AlexiBooks.com (sources from trad publishers)
    • Hooked.co (texting style stories)
    • Tap by Wattpad (texting style stories)
    • Peep.jp (was Taskey.me; Japanese; crowd-sourced translation if you serialize for free, texting style stories)



    • Describli (seeking backers on IndieGoGo)
    • ReaderCoin (audio focus)
    • Sweek
    • JukePop Serials (crowd-funded)
    • SparkaTale
    • WriteOn (Amazon; more like a critique group)
    • Book Country (Penguin Random House; more like a critique group)
    • Authonomy (HarperCollins)
    • CloudyPen
    • Figment


And what if you self-host?


    • Medium (ideal for non-fic)
    • SubStack
    • Steem (I hear ad bots rule)
    • Listing Hubs such as WebFictionGuide
    • Newsletters for readers
    • Crowd-funding platforms such as Patreon
    • Special interest groups on Reddit, Goodreads, Facebook, Discord, forums, etc.
    • Inserts in ebooks with a similar readership

Self-Publishing Before E-Readers And Apps: 1998—2006

In the early years of the internet, before Amazon was open to self-publishers, distribution for independent authors was very limited.

Print was still king.  Ebooks and Audiobooks did exist, but they were quite niche.  Tech-savvy people might read a PDF on their computer.  There were no smart-phones or tablets, and laptops were a rarity.  There were no apps.  Sony produced the world’s first popular e-reader device in 2006, with Amazon following that up with its Kindle in 2007.  Barnes & Noble was late to the game, offering its competing Nook in 2009. 

In the late 1990s through 2007, Audible was a boutique company that had yet to be purchased by Amazon.  Its selection of audiobooks was even more limited than what you could find at your local Barnes & Noble.  Since audiobook production runs to many thousands of dollars per book, it was prohibitively costly for small presses and independent authors, and besides, Audible only bought from major New York producers who worked with the Big Six.

So in the brand new internet era, print was still the most desirable format. 

If you lacked the patience or the desire to impress big publishers in New York City, might there be another way to get your books into print and into bookstores?

Enter print-on-demand services.

A tech-savvy author-entrepreneur or a small press could use Adobe QuarkXPress (the precursor to InDesign), or freeware tools such as Sigil or Calibre, to format their manuscripts for print (and for e-reader devices, once those became a thing).  That author could then upload the PDF to a niche retailer for independent books, such as JukeBox or NoiseTrade.  One of the largest was a site called Lulu, a darling of micro-press and small press publishers, which survives to this day.  Once your book became part of the Lulu catalog, it had a sales page.  It could be purchased, printed, and shipped to a paying customer.

Independent authors began to take advantage of these services. 

They were shy about it, at first.  Self-publishing had a major stigma attached to it, since at the time, it was synonymous with so-called “vanity presses.”

A Vanity Press meant pay-to-publish.  No publisher would admit to being a vanity press, but in plain English, they only published paying customers and they did not pay royalties.  In other words, the money flowed from the writer to the publisher, instead of from the publisher to the writer.  This arrangement was fine for mom’s cookbook, or for dad’s book of nature photos and poems, or for grandma’s genealogy book.  If you wanted a nicely bound version of those books, someone had to provide it. 

But for fiction?  No.  Booksellers steered clear of anything printed by a vanity press.  If you published your romance or your science fiction with a vanity press, you would never receive royalties.  You would never get it into bookstores.  The venture could only lose you money.  Fiction books from vanity presses were sneered upon as the province of complete failures.

Print-on-demand services such as Lulu were a new thing.  They offered fiction writers the services of a vanity press without the downsides, and—many hoped—without the stigma.  You, as an author, did not pay Lulu.  Lulu simply hosted the file of your manuscript, and if a customer bought it, the customer paid for printing and shipping.  That lent self-published books an aura of legitimacy.

It was supposed to, anyway. 

Unfortunately, many author-entrepreneurs in the brave new era had never tried to improve their craft.  They were hobbyists or amateurs, their books never workshopped or edited.  Some weren’t even proofread.  This was before proofreading tools such as Grammarly existed. 

A handful of these self-published authors solicited massive numbers of people, via email, to buy a copy of their print-on-demand books.  I got suckered in by two such emails in the early 2000s.  The idea of indie authors was a new and exciting thing, so I remember being eager to try their books.  After reading each one, I had regrets about supporting those authors in any way, shape, or form.  They were truly awful.  If that had been my sole experience with self-published authors, it would have left a very bad impression—and it did, for many people.

However, extraordinary innovations were happening on the digital frontiers of online serialization, fanfic, and podcast novels.

Creative hubs formed online.  If you sought free fiction that was more accessible, and fresher, than anything at your local library, then you would find sites such as FanFiction, ElfWood, DeviantArt, and LiveJournal.  These sites and their ilk were less popular, and perhaps less reputable, than today’s Tumblr, YouTube, Medium, and Wattpad.  However, they were the precursors to today’s biggest hubs of amateur and experimental fiction content offered for free. 

As far as I knew at the time, there was only one site where podcast novels were gathered and showcased.  I visited Podiobooks on a regular basis. 

I was skeptical, at first.  There were a bunch of authors on Podiobooks whom I had never heard of, and not a single big-name author or best-seller.  So why did I go there?  The answer is simple.  I ran out of audiobooks that I wanted to listen to, and I craved more.  I had upgraded to MP3s sometime before the year 2000, and I found audiobooks on cassette tapes or even CDs to be old-fashioned and unwieldy, not to mention expensive.  I subscribed to Audible around 2002, but all they had at the time were major best-sellers and classics, nothing edgy or new.  And I had a day job which involved 8 to 10 hours of animation artwork per day.  I needed audio-only entertainment, and I needed lots of it.

Nor was I the only digital artist who listened to audiobooks all day, every day.  Several of my coworkers and friends were almost as obsessed with audiobooks as I was.  I can’t remember if one of them introduced me to Podiobooks, or if it was the other way around.  One way or another, a bunch of us became fans of the site.

Sure, some of those random podcast novels were terrible.  But they were free—unlike print-on-demand books.  They were episodic, too.  If you listened to the first episode, you could pretty much tell whether it was worth listening further.  The site incorporated fan votes, much like Wattpad does now.  The most popular books ranked high and were the most visible.

That was how I discovered Scott Sigler, the first indie author whom I became a fan of.  His works dominated the sci-fi category of Podiobooks.  When I ran out of Sigler books to listen to, I tried just about every other book on the site, hoping to find another author like him.  And I did find a few other gems which stick in my mind to this day.

The year was 2005.

The way Scott Sigler marketed his books caught my attention, because it was utterly different than anything I had ever seen an author do before.  He thanked his readers by offering stuff.  In the opening of every podcast episode, he recorded a skippable ad which included a coupon discount code for a product which a tech-savvy reader might desire.

10% off a domain name at GoDaddy.  5% off a SquareSpace website.  $50 off Nike shoes.  Sigler respected his audience enough to guess what demographic of people they were.  He recorded his own ads, as well as narrating his own audiobooks.  He did it all in a professional manner, with intro music and high quality audio, which was edited and produced by a team of people, whom he credited. 

When I listened to Sigler’s podcast novels, I began to understand what might be possible without a traditional publisher.  Sigler gave away every audiobook for free.  Yet somehow, he seemed to be earning enough income to pay a team of friends to help him produce a high quality podcast of his own novels.  Somehow, he had wrangled partnerships with major corporations such as GoDaddy and Nike.  They were allowing him to advertise for them.

Mind.  Blown.  How was this possible?

I visited his website, and saw that every one of his books was available for sale as a print-on-demand book.  Want to see them on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble or Borders?  Well, then tell them, silly.  Write to their headquarters.  Oh, and also, you could buy Sigler merchandise.  If you wore a baseball cap or a T-shirt with a logo from one of his books, it was basically a counterculture signal to other fans.  It was sneaky.  And it was fun.

By the year 2006, I openly yearned to become a best-selling author, traditionally published by one of the Big Six.  At the same time, secretly, I also yearned to be like Scott Sigler.  Those two desires were at war within me, and caused a lot of internal confusion and conflict. 

So when Amazon opened its floodgates to everyone and anyone in November 2007, I was paying attention.

This article is part of an ongoing series I’m posting on Wattpad.

iLasik Post-Op, Day One

I’ve needed glasses since age six, with -10 vision (which translates to 20/1000), plus mild astigmatisms. Yesterday I got Lasik surgery to correct my myopia and astigmatisms, with an Intralase Wavefront excimer (molecular) laser.

From what I understand, this super-accurate laser was developed in the last 10 years. Prior to 2009 or so, I wouldn’t have been eligible for Lasik. There would have been blades involved, and a recovery period of months, if I could do it at all. This is a new kind of iLasik, which should have me recovered and seeing 20/20 within a week, and fully healed within 3 months.

You may be wondering what the procedure feels like.

First, they gave me a Valium and two Aleve. I sat in a waiting room with Adam (my significant other) with Disney-esque music piped in, so I felt like I was going to visit the land of Tomorrow, or maybe a theme park.

While those meds took effect, an assistant cleaned my eyes with drops and iodine around the skin. The surgeon came in and used drops to numb my eyes, and then used a marker to draw directly on my eyeballs, showing where the astigmatisms were. I was getting super nervous. The surgeon left and came back in to check on me. I must have been freaking out a little, because he backed out, saying, “We’ll wait a little longer for that Valium to take effect.”

Sure enough, I felt calmer after a few minutes, although still freaked out. The assistants put a surgical cap on me, and surgical booties on my feet. They led me to the operating room, which is kept chilly. A large window enabled Adam to sit outside and watch the procedure; he took the featured photo.

Three people were in the operating room, besides me: The surgeon, the surgeon’s assistant, and a laser tech. They lay me down on a bed that can rotate between two large laser machines. One machine makes the incision in the cornea. The other machine corrects vision. While the surgeon worked, the assistant talked me through everything that was happening, and made sure I followed the directions, which was very helpful and prevented me from completely freaking out.

They filled my eyes with numbing drops. Then they prepped my eyes, and began surgery on my right eye first. They used tape to keep my eyelashes out of the way, and a glassy monocle thing to keep my eye open. They used suction cups on my eyeballs, too. It’s a very fast and uncomfortable procedure, where I had to gaze at a blinking orange light while I felt weird pressures on my eye. No pain, due to the numbing drops.

Then that eye was covered, and they lasered my left eye. For some reason, I had trouble focusing on the orange blinking light with my left eye. It was so out of focus, it seemed to fill my vision. The laser stopped a few times, since it was having trouble tracking my eye. But soon it was done.

Immediately after surgery, my vision was streaky and steamed up, as if looking through warped and wet glass. I had to keep my eyes closed. A driver is necessary for Lasik, and Adam led me to the car and drove me home.

The Lasik place gave me eyedrops with antibiotics and steroids to help the inflammation, and told me to use those, then sleep for 4-6 hours, or to rest with my eyes closed. They told me there would be some pain once the numbing drops wore off.

Pain woke me up after about an hour of sleep. It was very intense pain, and I think that may be because I had such a high prescription. My eyes felt badly sunburned, as if I had witnessed a nuclear explosion up close. I’ve had eye pain before from contact lens problems, which felt like hydrochloric acid. This was more like burning. It was very intense. I took a Tylenol, and was alarmed enough that Adam called the Lasik center to make sure it was normal. They said that they pain should go away around 8pm.

Sure enough, it did!

I ate dinner, and noticed that my eyesight was improving in weird ways. It wasn’t 20/20, but it was definitely better than 20/1000. I estimate it to be somewhere in between, maybe like 20/200. Things up close were clear, but things beyond 5 feet or so were foggy and indistinct.

I went to sleep. Friends who have had Lasik say they see very well the next day, and I was hopeful that I’d be able to drive myself to my post-op eye appointment in the morning.

It isn’t quite like that. I woke up seeing much more clearly, and the pain was gone. Far distances still look blurry. Everything looks like it’s though a soft light filter, the way wedding photos are softened. My right eye is seeing much better than the left. This is creating a weird, disorienting effect. If I close my right eye, this computer screen (as I type this blog post) is barely legible due to blurriness. If I close my left eye, it is crystal clear.

My post-op appointment was with my regular optometrist. He said the eyes heal at different rates, and the difference may also be due to inflammation. My high prescription meant they burned away a lot of cornea. He said I am healing well.

For now, this is pretty cool. I can use a computer and read without glasses! We will see how things are in a week, with my next appointment.

Putting the Science in Fiction

I’m stoked to be part of this anthology! It’s wonderful when real life crosses streams with my writing, proving that my job experience in animation counts for more than just having an income (pshaw).

Thanks to Dan Koboldt, the editor who put this together. And thanks to Writer’s Digest Books for taking it to publication and distribution across all major bookstores. Chuck Wendig, who’s been making waves in the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, wrote the foreword.

Have you ever wondered how sci-fi screenwriters and authors get their research right? And how many get it wrong? Every article in this book explores a branch of science that is often misrepresented in popular mass media. My article, “CGI is Not Made By Computers,” covers how the human labor component of special effects is often glossed over, or erased, in stories with a virtual reality or video game premise.

Every article I read in here turned out to be fascinating, and I’m honored to be included with so many engineers, physicians, and scientists.

“Putting the Science in Fiction” will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Writer’s Digest Store, and other major retailers starting Tuesday.

The Wheel of Time Turns, and Here Comes Amazon Prime

I was thrilled when HBO picked up “Game of Thrones”, one of my favorite fantasy series of books. But my all-time favorite fantasy series is “The Wheel of Time,” and I figured that would face bigger hurdles to TV adaptation. It’s a much longer series (yes, much longer than GoT). It’s going to require major visual effects (yes, more than GoT). It has a huge ensemble cast of characters (yes, more than GoT). And the author, Robert Jordan, is deceased, so he can’t have any input into the creative translation from books to screen.

When GoT proved successful, other TV studios began to experiment with book series adaptations, and then we all knew it was just a matter of time until someone tried to adapt the WoT. But I’m sure something this colossal is a hard sell. I mean, it’s colossal. If HBO threw $100 million at the first season of the GoT, and all the copycat series were less successful, then how can any studio justify giving a gigantic budget to yet another fantasy series adaptation? If the money managers are not fans of these books, they won’t necessarily understand why this one has potential to be as popular, or more popular, than Game of Thrones.

So Amazon Prime wants to make a big splash into the land of original TV content. Maybe they see the potential here.

According to this article, Amazon signed a director/producer who is a fan of the WoT books. So that’s good.

It sounds like they are going to focus the first season on Moiraine rather than on the main characters in the books. That may work, or it may end up coming across as boring. Moiraine is a female Gandalf; she isn’t the most personable of characters. However, the books have a great ensemble cast, which is key in making a great TV series.

“Game of Thrones” got an excellent adaptation, in part, because George R.R. Martin knew the TV industry well. As a former director and executive producer, he was able to recognize the kind of talent who would do his story justice in TV format and negotiate contracts with them. That won’t be the case with the “Wheel of Time.” And while I admire Amazon as an innovative company, they also have a rather industrial and non-artistic approach to their ventures, which could be an impediment to top-notch film-making.

The source material gives this TV show great potential, but there is also great potential for screw-ups.

Adventure in Italy: Milan and Home

It was time to check out and head to Val Calmonica. This was going to be most offbeat part of our trip, in an obscure mountain range, to see neolithic rock art. We packed up our stuff, checked out of the Verona apartment by 10 AM, and proceeded on the two hour drive through Brescia and past Lake Iseo, to Breno.

Lake Iseo, Italy

All of the Alps and alpine lakes of northern Italy are beautiful, but I think Lake Iseo might be one of the most stunning. It’s cradled between green mountains, like a volcanic lake, with a huge mountainous island in the middle. We took a winding highway along cliffs, past the lake, through a series of long tunnels. Some of these tunnels have archways that offer glimpses of a mountain panorama, but you can’t stop, because traffic moves fast and there’s no shoulder on the roadway. My GPS began to look like the cave level of a video-game. There were roads and towns on top of tunnels. A few of these very long tunnels slope downward, so it feels like a roller-coaster into the center of the Earth for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.

Lake Iseo, Italy

Lake Iseo, Italy

We arrived in the picturesque town of Breno. Hotel Giardino was easy to find, and it looked lovely. However, when we checked in, I couldn’t find my passport. This was a severe problem, since my flight home was in two days!

I emptied my purse and my backpack. I searched the car. It was nowhere to be found. I figured it couldn’t possibly be in my suitcase—why would I put it there? I never put important things in my suitcase, just clothes and gifts—so I figured that checking the tightly packed suitcase would be a waste of time. As far as I could remember, I only ever put my passport in one of two places, and it was simply gone. And my backup credit card was also missing!

Missing U.S.A. Passport in Italy!

It seemed impossible, since I keep a close eye on my stuff while traveling. Neither of my friends were missing anything, and they had left their passports in the Verona apartment during day trips, just like I thought I had.

So I had a mini-panic attack. I couldn’t begin to guess how I had lost the passport and card. We spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to obtain an emergency passport. Only the hotel lobby had Wi-Fi. I downloaded Google Voice and proceeded to try to get a hold of the nearest U.S. Consulate in Milan, which was closed that day, since it was a weekend. I called the apartment in Verona and asked them to search the room for my passport. They did, and when I called back, they apologized, saying they did not find it.

Then I followed government website instructions and reported the missing passport to Italian police. This needed to be done in person. The report can be made to any police station in Italy, and the local one was an 8 minute walk up a hill. Amy kindly offered to come with me.

I was wary of entering an Italian police station, especially since it had a locked gate and barred windows (albeit a gorgeous view of the Alps). But at least I wasn’t alone, and the desk officer seemed nice, and he expected me, since the hotel manager had called ahead. He filed a report. This took longer than I expected, maybe half an hour, and involved some paperwork. His office was decorated with interesting pictures of police doing good deeds, and also a large wooden Jesus on a cross. Finished, he handed me a paper and said, “This will help you at the Consulate.”

Breno, Italy

Breno, Italy

Breno looked like a beautiful place to spend a day, and I was sorry to miss touring the area. Apparently there was a Renaissance Faire going on at the local castle—the king and queen came downstairs in our hotel—and I am super curious as to how an Italian Renaissance Faire differs from the silly merchandise-fests we have in North America. But I was too worried about my missing passport to enjoy anything. As far as I could tell, the only way to get an emergency passport would be early on Monday morning at the U.S. Consulate in Milan. I needed to be in Milan by 8 AM the next day.

So we packed up again, and the hotel kindly offered a discount, since we had only stayed a few hours. We drove 2.5 hours to Milan and checked into our final hotel of the trip, one day early.

And guess what? Once we settled into our rooms, I methodically unpacked everything from my suitcase … and there it was. My passport and my credit card were both at the very bottom of my suitcase, buried under a lot of stuff.  I think that traveling causes me to be less organized and more forgetful than I normally am. My daily life at home can be such a routine that I never make mistakes like that; I know exactly where my stuff is.  I swear, I’ve never lost a credit card or a passport or anything like that in my life! This was embarrassing.

We tried to get a good night’s rest in this large hotel; a snazzy high-rise in the middle of a suburban area. For me, it was difficult, with hard beds and barely functional air conditioning. At least I didn’t need to wake up early to wait in line at the Consulate!

A Day of Exploring Milan, Italy

The next day—our final day of vacation together—we explored Milan, and the weather actually cooled off a little bit. First, we explored the canal, which the desk receptionist recommended as a nice area for shopping and food. This involved a bus ride on the tollway, and then figuring out the underground Metro rail. The bus was more difficult to figure out than the subway. We had trouble finding the pick up area, and we learned—by sheer luck, due to the kindness of an Italian stranger—that the return bus would depart from a different street.

Anyway, after some navigational confusion, we found ourselves in the canal area, populated by outdoor restaurants. Most of the shops were closed, since Italians tend to take off Mondays. We had a delicious meal, listened to thunder, and went back to the Metro before a downpour started.

Canal of Milan, Italy

Canal of Milan, Italy

We emerged at the Duomo of Milan; the enormous, ornate, pink marble Gothic cathedral which is the city’s icon. Of course, there was a line of tourists wrapped around one side of the building, so we decided not to go inside. The outside of the cathedral is impressive enough; more beautiful than Notre Dame in Paris. The spires look like drip castles, each one topped by a statue holding some kind of instrument or weapon. The whole front facade is crazy with statues and reliefs, and the iron doors are all embossed with scenes as well.

Duomo of Milan

Duomo of Milan

We strolled through the grand hall nearby. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II has high-end stores, impressive marble floors, wrought iron balconies, and an arched smoky glass ceiling that evokes the 1890s. We passed Armani shops and explored the bookstore, interested to see which popular American authors have been translated into Italian. I was pleased to see books by a couple of hybrid authors (traditionally published, but originally independent authors). Then we had some expensive and fancy gelato, waiting for the storm to pass.

Galleria of Milan

Galleria of Milan

At a break in the rain, we reentered the Metro and emerged at the Sforza Castle. The interior museums were all closed, since it was Monday, but the outer grounds and inner courtyards are open to the public. We passed an outdoor polka concert and proceeded over the drawbridge and into the impressive interior. Hey, I’ve watched “The Borgias” by Showtime, so maybe I know a little bit about the Sforza family!

There seem to be dozens of stray cats and kittens that live on the castle grounds. People were petting them. I wonder how they get into the grassy moat area, and how they get back out. We took a few kitty photos, pondered some ancient sarcophagi and Roman pillars, and then headed back to our hotel.

Sforza Castle in Milan, Italy

Sforza Castle in Milan, Italy

Dinner was at an Italian shopping mall next to our hotel. This mall seemed to be mostly devoted to a cinema, a playland for kids, and a floor full of restaurants, with very few stores. The restaurants were arranged like plaza restaurants, with outdoor seating, except it was in the mall hallway instead of in an outdoor plaza. The night before, we had eaten at one of these restaurants, and it blasted loud Italian pop music. So this night, we decided to explore the cinema floor. We discovered an American-themed restaurant called Old Wild West. Cute! It had bench seats designed to look like covered wagons. The menu featured dishes named after Western states (and a few not-so-Western ones, like Mississippi and Kentucky).

That was our goodbye meal. We clinked our wine glasses together, and prepared for our flights the next day. Brian was heading to Vienna, Austria for a week. Amy had a morning flight back to New England. I had an Emirates flight to JFK in New York, with a JetBlue connection back to Austin.

Milan-Malpensa Airport

There isn’t much more to recount. With help from Brian, I found the airport without any trouble, although we both got a little confused about the rental car return. We accidentally entered a long-term parking lot. Fortunately, we figured out how to get out of it, and into the WinRent garage section, on our second try. second try. They sent me a bill for the final half-tank of diesel, and it was a bit more than I would have wanted. Oops.

I went through a long mob of a line at the Emirates counter, and Brian had to wait a long time for his Austrian Air counter to open up. Once we each got our boarding passes and checked our luggage, we had a delicious meal at an airport restaurant called Rosso Pomo Doro. Then we had to say goodbye at the security checkpoint.

The Milan-Malpensa airport is weird (at least, to me). The airport seems small by U.S. standards, but the gates are spread far apart, so it can be a 25 minute hike to your gate even if you speed-walk (the monitors helpfully show walking times). Everything is glitzy and glamorous-looking. I figured I had some time after I went through security, but it turned out there is an extra “passport” checkpoint after the security checkpoint for overseas flights. There were no signs to forewarn people, so families were panicking, cutting through the slow-moving passport line so as not to miss their overseas flights to Dubai or New Dehli or Melbourne. I shuffled through this long line with everyone else, and managed to arrive at my gate with probably twenty minutes to spare.

The Emirates flight from JFK to New York was overbooked and crowded, but the plane had a nice interior design, with plenty of USB and electrical outlets, and recessed lighting. This is the largest Airbus possible, with two floors that run the length of the plane. It requires three separate gate tunnels to board all 500 passengers. And then there was the usual confusion at JFK airport, with rechecking luggage.

I downloaded the U.S. Government’s mobile passport app, but it was useless without an internet connection; I guess the overseas flight jacks up AT&T or something, because I was unable to get connectivity even after restarting my phone and restarting the wi-fi.  It works fine now, after a few hours.

Glad I built in an extra day of vacation to account for jet lag!

Adventure in Italy: Bolzano

We slept in a little bit, and decided to venture forth with our trip to Bolzano, a city close to the border of Austria. However, I checked the traffic map and was dismayed to see traffic jams lit up everywhere; the 90 minute drive would take more than two and a half hours. We decided to go for a train ride. This time, instead of hiking to a distant bus stop and then risking getting on the wrong bus at the end of a long day, we parked at Porta Nuova train station in Verona. It was only 7 Euros for the day, which is a nice bargain in Europe.

We were fortunate to get train tickets from a vending machine, and the next train to Bolzano Bozen station was leaving in twenty minutes. That was easy enough. But the train turned out to be uncomfortably crowded, packed with screaming infants and children. Our assigned seats were already occupied by a couple of Italian families who admitted to us that they had bought tickets from Rome to Verona, but apparently it was common to do this and then stay on the train a few more stops, to wherever they wanted to go. Seeing our confusion, some family members shuffled into different seats, and several stops later, the train emptied enough for us to move to a slightly quieter seating area.

Bolzano, Italy

Bolzano is a pleasant mountain town that looks and acts more Austrian than Italian. Most of the signs are in German, and it seems everyone there is bilingual or trilingual. A forbidding-yet-scenic Gothic cathedral dominates Walther Square at the center of town. There’s also an interesting statue of a nobleman with lions. Our first order of business was to grab lunch before all the restaurants shut down (most restaurants in Italy stay closed from 2 Pm until 7 PM). We found a lovely place shaded by umbrellas and facing the cathedral, and Brian got to speak German for the first time on this trip, ordering our food for us from an Austrian waiter.

Bolzano, Italy: Walther Square

Bolzano, Italy: Walther Square

While eating, we saw lots of hikers with huge backpacks and walking poles, and figured they must have come out of mountain trails. We also noticed a van parked nearby that said “Runklestein Castle – Gratis,” implying a free shuttle to the castle which we wanted to see. It drove away before we were done paying our bill, but it returned within 20 minutes. Sure enough, the driver was happy to take tourists to Runklestein Castle. We hopped into the gloriously air-conditioned shuttle, which we had to ourselves. The driver was playing country music from the U.S.

Runklestein Castle

The shuttle dropped us off at the foot of the castle hill, at a cobblestone walkway that winds upward at a steep angle. Up we went. This walk is scenic, but it would be a hardship for anyone with mobility problems. The cobblestones protrude a lot, and also worn smooth, so they’re slippery and bumpy to walk on at the same time, and the path is quite steep.

However, this was by far the most interesting castle of our trip, and well worth seeing. From what I gathered from the English-language brochure, the castle was originally built in the 12th century and soon bought by local wine merchants, who seem to have used it as the medieval version of a party house. This castle is renowned for its well-preserved “secular frescoes.” Before seeing the castle, I assumed that meant idyllic scenes of picnics and kneading bread. These frescoes are a lot more interesting than that.

Runklestein Castle in Tyrol

Runklestein Castle in Tyrol

Also, I figure this castle must be really off the beaten track, because the gift shop is tiny—mostly books in German and Italian only—and the elderly lady at the ticket counter was alone there. She seemed surprised that we came all the way from America.

Anyway, we proceeded with our self-guided tour. Unlike other places we had visited on this vacation, there were lots of places to sit and rest, and quite a lot of rooms to explore. The frescoes are somewhat worn and damaged, as one expects from paintings 1,000 years old, but instead of showing endless Catholic iconography full of sadness and suffering, they give a wonderful sense of happiness and whimsy, and even a sense of personality. There are scenes of jousts, epic battles, hunts, and ballroom dances. One room, dubbed “the couples room,” is decorated with lords and ladies gazing lovingly towards each other. Another room shows nude men along the upper walls, and they’re painted in a way that I think indicates an artist who was attempting life studies in an age well before the Renaissance. Why nude men? The reasons are forgotten to history, but someone (maybe a lady?) must have commissioned it.

Another room had frescoes of a wide variety of animals, including monkeys, and the species are mostly recognizable. An outer wall showed scenes from ancient Greek mythology, with mythological Giants. A window area shows two lords wooing two ladies; one getting rejected and the other accepted. One of the striking things about these frescoes is the apparent equality between lords and ladies. One odd fresco shows a procession where two ladies, dressed like royalty, are smiling, and the lords between them look inexplicably sad. I can’t guess what that’s about.

Fresco of procession with smiling ladies and sad lords

Fresco of procession with smiling ladies and sad lords

Other rooms of the castle display ancient tomes and other relics. The tower has an excellent view of mountains, including a local cable car. And there is a tavern which claims to serve medieval traditional fare, although we didn’t test it out.

There are absolutely no religious paintings or relics on display in this castle; at least none that I could see. One room had frescoes of the Cycle of Tristan, which I gather might be vaguely religious, but it’s some kind of epic sea voyage. When I look at the skill of the artist(s), who could not have had any training in realism, since realism in art would not be “rediscovered” until the Renaissance, I get the sense that this castle’s occupants might have been a little bubble of forward-thinking medieval people who managed to isolate themselves from their contemporaries and have an attempt at their own Renaissance, centuries before the real thing. Runklestein Castle was known as a waypoint for Germanic kings on their way to get blessed by the Pope in Rome. I suspect the more pious kings must have avoided it.

After we hiked down the hill, and took the air-conditioned shuttle back into town (that shuttle was very prompt), we had enough time to visit the Archeology Museum which displays the 5,000+ years old mummified corpse of Ötzi the Iceman.

Ötzi Museum in Bolzano

This museum is really worth seeing if you have any interest in prehistory. It’s air-conditioned, everything is in three languages, including English, and the exhibits are arranged so that you can walk through at an easy, steady pace without missing anything. We reviewed the story of how the mummy was found, and then we saw the mummy through a porthole window, where it remains frozen, with remnants of skin still clinging to the skeleton. All of the mummy’s clothes and belongings are on display, with extensive descriptions of what they are and how they must have been made. There is an interactive exhibit where you can see X-rays of the mummy, dissecting his health status, and how he was murdered. Towards the end of the self-guided tour, there is a stunningly realistic mannequin of the iceman as he must have looked in real life, reconstructed by forensic artists and top-notch sculptors. Although the iceman was 40 to 50 years old, he looked like an old man by today’s standards, with a bad knee and arthritis and gray hair streaked with white. He was shorter and smaller than most European women are today, although he had a robust build. His torso tattoos probably served a purpose akin to acupuncture. They’ve done DNA analyses on his genes, and his maternal haplogroup has gone extinct in humankind, but his paternal haplogroup remains alive in Europe.

Otzi reconstruction of the mummy

Otzi reconstruction of the mummy

So that was really cool. After the Ötzi exhibit, we had dinner at a different restaurant in Walther Square, watched a gorgeous sunset, and caught the late train home.

Strange Italian Train Ride

This time, the train was mostly empty. I guess Italians don’t like to travel at dinner time or later, since that seemed consistent everywhere we traveled in Italy. We avoided a loud troop of hikers who looked like girl scouts, and instead chose a train car that was empty except for us. The only strange thing that happened on our ride home was a back-and-forth chase between a teenage-looking black guy blasting music from his headphones and a no-nonsense Italian train official with a whistle. The guy got into our train car and sat down for maybe half a minute before the official burst in, yelling at him in Italian to get off the train. The guy argued back, then said, “Aw, man!” and ran into the next car. The official chased him, angrily blowing his whistle.

This happened three more times throughout our ride. It resembled a cartoon, like Wiley Coyote chasing the Roadrunner or something. Somehow, the teenage-looking guy managed to keep avoiding the official, who just got angrier and angrier, chasing him back and forth through the moving train cars. That same official told me to take my feet off the seat in front of me. He seemed very put out that I didn’t understand Italian.

That experience was an anomaly. Overall, most of people we encountered in Italy were very kind and helpful, and understanding of our confusion. Many receptionists and ticket-counter people went out of their way to help us, drawing maps for us, or asking their English-speaking friends if they had trouble translating.

Adventure in Italy: Sirmione

Since Brian had already been traveling for two months, he opted to take a day off, so Amy and I went on our own to see Sirmione on Lake Garda; a spit of land that extends into a mountain lake and features a beach castle and the ruins of a Roman villa.

The Sirmione Peninsula

One thing we did not anticipate was heavy traffic.  It seems that August is when a lot of Italians take vacation, especially on a Friday going into a holiday week.  As soon as we arrived on Sirmione, we passed a few beach tourist plazas, and then we were at a standstill.  We’d already learned how hard it is to find parking in Italy, so when we saw the main parking lot shut down (two cars ahead of us!), we turned around and parked at a further lot, snagging a space out of sheer luck.  Then we resigned ourselves to a long, long walk.  In summer heat.  During a heatwave in Italy.

We couldn’t guess when we might see a restaurant, or if the castle area had anything along those lines, so we ate a pretty hotel outdoor restaurant overlooking the western half of the lake, shaded by umbrellas.  Refreshed, we continued our long trek.  We passed hundreds of tourists, including little kids on scooters and ladies with parasols.  I used my neon green umbrella for shade, since sunscreen runs into my eyes when I sweat.  At last, we crossed the moat into the castle area, which is set up like a scenic fishing village.  The castle itself is a beachside fortress, with extensive walls that extend into the harbor.

Since we had paid for parking until 6 PM, and we didn’t know how long things would take, we decided to go to our highest priority site first: the Roman “Grotto of Catullus” on the very tip of the peninsula.  So we walked past the castle and continued our hike through narrow streets choked with tourists.  Tiny cars attempted to push through the tourists, idling at a speed slower than walking, waiting in vain for the crowds to clear.  When we saw what appeared to be a shortcut away from the stifling, shrieking crowds of families, we took it.  We passed beaches full of bathers, and a shrine for Mary, and a children’s park.  There our path dead-ended.

We had to backtrack a ways, and find a better path up the peninsula.  At some point, we noticed a tram stop swarming with tourists, and we gladly paid 1 Euro each to ride the rest of the way in a covered tram.

The Grotto of Catullus

The sun was beating down, but we entered the Roman grotto area, eager to discover the ruins beyond.  Italian museums lack air conditioning.  The path led into a museum, and it had some interesting exhibits, which we were glad to see, despite sweat dripping off our faces and backs.  There were well-preserved Roman mosaic, pillars, utensils, jars, and other artifacts, all discovered at the site.  This lakeside villa used to belong to a wealthy “poet” nobleman who thrived during the time of Augustus Caesar.  The villa was destroyed by fire in the 3rd century, around the time when the Roman Empire was on the wane.  After that time, it was looted and used for various purposes, but the essence of its ancient grandeur lingers.

We saw that grandeur for ourselves once we stepped out of the hot museum and encountered a long colonnade of brick arches.  Tourists can explore these ruins at their own pace.  We continued onward, and saw ruined room after ruined room.  One part of the complex is labeled “room with a nice view,” and that’s an understatement.  Lake Garda is a crystal clear aqua color, with cloud-covered mountains as a backdrop.  It’s gorgeous.  This villa must have been a nice retreat for ancient Romans on their way between Rome and Gaul.  Local Italians apparently hang out here and swim in the aqua water, or pilot yachts and motorboats past the grotto.

The most impressive part of the ruins, to me, was a pair of a huge archways that must be four or five stories tall.  The fact that they’re in good condition, after two millenniums, shows that the medieval locals took good care of them, and respected whoever had designed and built them.  One of the archways has initials carved near the keystone at the top.  Someone must have used a ladder to get up there.

Archway at Grotte Catullo on Sirmione, Lake Garda

Archway at Grotte Catullo on Sirmione, Lake Garda

Satisfied that we’d seen what we’d come to see, we figured we had enough time to check out the castle as well.  So we sat at the tram stop and waited.  And waited.  An anxious mob of tourists eyed us.  When the tram finally showed up, it was only hauling one car; not nearly enough room for the mob of people waiting.  We tried to get aboard, but two people can’t compete with families of ten or more.  We couldn’t get on that tram, or the next one, which also took a long time and was also only hauling one car.  Maybe it was the time of the day, but it seemed the trams were no longer adequate.  So we had to walk back in the sweltering heat.  Three miles?  Five?  I have no idea, but altogether, I must have walked at least ten miles that day.  Not good for people with flat feet and plantar fasciitus, especially in a heat wave!

Scaliger Castle on Sirmione

We did take a quick look inside Scaliger Castle.  There are a few drawbridges, but most of what this castle offers to tourists today is beautiful views.  We saw a duck nesting in the moat, and a swan, and some large fish.  From the castle walls, we could see Lake Garda in all directions, as well as the medieval village.

Scaliger Castle, Sirmione on Lake Garda

Scaliger Castle, Sirmione on Lake Garda

We hurried back to our car, trying not to get a parking ticket.  By the end of that walk, we were both soaked in sweat and exhausted.  But I wanted to do dinner out instead of in the apartment, and I figured we must be near a lot of scenic lakeside towns that would soon open their restaurants for dinner.  So we headed to Desenzano del Garda, which is small by Italian standards, but indeed scenic.  Best of all, for us, the parking lot in town had open spaces!

The restaurant we chose looked nice, but it turned out to be the worst of the our trip, with poor service and food quality that was what you’d find in a low-end American chain restaurant.  We watched the sky darken over Lake Garda as the sun set, and wondered at some tourists in strange outfits, and a family with obnoxiously loud blonde children singing and marching in what looked like goose-steps, doing Nazi salutes.

Faulty Validation Tickets!

When we tried to exit the parking lot, the gate wouldn’t open and we got an error message.  So we were stuck inside the lot.  At a loss for what to do, I pressed the button on the machine that said “S.O.S.”  This turned out to be the correct course of action.  An Italian man spoke through the speaker, and he knew enough English to give us very unclear instructions.  He said, “Come to see me.”  Well, he was nowhere in sight.  So I backed my car up a long ways (dangerous in such a narrow aisle, but there was no way to turn around), and we saw a weird booth that looked like a shack.  Amy guessed the parking guy must be inside, and sure enough, he was.  He explained that the validation we’d gotten was faulty, and gave us one that allowed us to exit the lot.

Such a thing can’t happen twice in one night, right?  Apparently it can.  Our second mishap that night was another faulty validation ticket, this time at a tollbooth on the A4 tollway.  The gate wouldn’t let us through.  Once again, I pressed the S.O.S. button.  This time, the Italian man speaking through the staticky speaker sounded a lot less pleasant, and he hardly spoke any English.  After a lot of confusing back-and-forth, during which time the guy sounded angrier and angrier, we explained that we had come from Sirmione, and he told us, “Three Euros.”  That was enough to let us through.

But the worst mishap of that night happened after we were safely back in our Verona apartment and getting ready for bed.  The apartment had two bedrooms; one missing a lock on the door, the other with an old-looking key in the lock.  I opted to use the locked bathroom.  When I was done, I twisted the key to unlock it … and I heard a tiny breaking sound.  After that, nothing I tried could open the door.  I twisted the key every way, I tried to yank it out, I tried to turn the key while turning the door handle in different directions, I tried pushing the key further in, and so forth.  Nothing helped.

Locked in the Bathroom!

So I called for help, and luckily my friends could hear me.  Once they understood that I was trapped in the bathroom, they called the front desk for help.  The nighttime receptionist-manager was alone at the desk, possibly stressed out, and didn’t understand the problem at first.  He entered our apartment, apparently expecting some different problem, and he was surprised when I rattled the door.  “There is a person in there!?” he exclaimed.  Brian and Amy explained that the lock was broken, and he hurried away with assurances that help would be on its way.

I could only hear what was happening outside if I shut off the light, since the light and the fan were operated by the same switch, and the fan was loud.  So I stood by light switch and shut it off whenever I needed to talk to someone.  Brian and Amy assured me that the manager was getting help.  This turned out to be a process that took about an hour, and did not seem to include any locksmith.  The manager returned with a toolkit and attempted to get the key out of the lock, to no avail.  I tried to help from the inside of the door, to no avail.  “But this is incredible!” the manager said, and left again, maybe to find more help.

I wondered if I could sleep on a hard bathroom floor, using a towel for a mattress.  As stressed out as I was, I doubted I would sleep at all.  Meanwhile, Amy was working the far side of the door with the toolkit which the manager had left behind.  She pried off the lock plate, exposing the keyhole.  I could see my friends through the keyhole, but we still couldn’t get the key to slide out or unlock the door.  After a bit more work, Brian jammed the key through the keyhole and it came out in my hands.  The door remained locked.  The stressed-out manager returned, and this time, with the old key removed, he was able to unlock the door using his master key.

I did not lock any more hotel bathroom doors during this trip.

To be continued …

Adventure in Italy: Verona and Venice

Thanks to my friend Amy’s navigation skills, we drove the 3 hours from Turin to Verona without getting lost on confusing unmarked highways and spaghetti-shaped interchange ramps. We checked into the Residence Viale Venezia on the outskirts of town. This dormitory-style apartment was a welcome break for us, since we each got our own private bedroom, and we had booked it for four days. It turned out to be a little on the run-down side, with shower water that turned ice cold at random times due to a mysterious water heater, which we only learned how to reset on the last day. The neighborhood was a little bit sketchy, with homeless people sleeping on the streets.

Verona, Italy

Once settled in, we opted to skip the 2 hour walk around the city in scorching hot weather, but we did hike straight to the center of town to see the ancient Verona Arena, which was built during the 1st century A.D. by the Roman Empire and is still used today for opera performances. This arena looks like the Coliseum in Rome, and although not quite as big, it is better preserved, with a section of the outer wall still standing, and many of the inner gates in use for opera attendees.

Verona Arena

We spontaneously hopped aboard a tourist tram to see the rest of historic Verona. The tram had a loudspeaker recorded loop in three languages, including English. However, it was impossible to hear the recording over the noise of static and four shrieking children seated behind us. I can only guess at what the tram showed us. One site, for sure, was the “balcony of Juliet,” draped with vines, which was supposedly an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

We had a lovely dinner in the square around the arena, with lots of open-air restaurants and a tourist tram stop. Well-dressed opera-goers strolled through the square, and I noticed some local residents climb sloped rooftops to watch the performance in the arena, or sit on steps to listen. We could hear the opera and the applause inside. Since we walked completely around the arena, we noticed heaps of theatrical props piled outside, including gigantic sphinxes and pharaoh heads larger than cars. And on the way to and from our little excursion, we saw the ancient San Fermo church, and also what looked like a Roman gate.

Every day of our trip has been hot weather, so we end up as bundles of sweat. I needed to do my laundry at the apartment, and Brian warned us that European washers are slow. When I started my laundry around 10 PM, I was disappointed to see “3 h” light up. I assumed that meant 3 hours. When I checked the laundry around midnight, it said “6 h” and it was still going. Very disheartened, I fell asleep and hoped my clothes wouldn’t be wrinkled messes in the morning.  But fortunately, it turned out all right, and I hung my clothes around the apartment to dry. Later on, I heard from Brian and Amy that the wash takes about 3 hours.

A Day Trip to Venice from Verona

During our second day in Verona, Amy stayed in the apartment to recover from lack of sleep. I talked Brian into a day trip to Venice (it didn’t take much persuasion) by train. A quick internet search showed that trains travel regularly from Verona to San Lucia Station on the Grand Canal of Venice, and the trip is as little as 9 Euros per person, and less than two hours. So off we went.

We ate lunch in the Verona Porta Nuova train station, then caught a slow train that arrived in Venice at 3 pm. From there, we had no itinerary, so we crossed a scenic bridge over the Grand Canal and began to explore. Every street looked beautiful and strange. We passed lots of tourists hauling their wheeled suitcases, searching the maze of streets for their hotels. There didn’t seem to be any cars in that part of Venice, but boats serve the same purpose, with large “water buses” and “water taxis,” as well as private motorboats, kayaks, and gondolas with men in striped shirts poling them. The waterways are as busy as city streets.

I wanted a boat tour of the city. We passed some waiting gondolas, but we kept moving when the pole men told the us the price, figuring we could find a less expensive ride elsewhere. We crossed bridge after bridge, and went down crooked and curving streets, and soon got lost, but we figured we’d see the towering domes of big buildings along the Grand Canal and find our way back. Instead, we found other main waterways, with ancient and grand-looking buildings along them. I saw lots of water taxis passing by, so I stood on a dock and called out to one. Sure enough, he was happy to take passengers on a tour and end up back near San Lucia Station. We had the rather large taxi boat to ourselves! And these water taxis are in very good condition, with shiny polished wood. Our driver spoke good English and pointed out sites along the way. We went through some narrow canals where people live, and onto open water which is full of water buses, and so much boat traffic, it’s amazing no one crashed into each other. We passed a Gothic-looking hospital with water ambulances docked outside, and also the island which is used as a cemetery for the city.

Venice Grand Canal

Venice Grand Canal

Once our ride was over, we headed into a marketplace, where I bought some masquerade masks and other items for prices that are probably 1/5th what I’d find in Texas. We had dinner at a lovely restaurant along the Grand Canal, with spikes to scare away seagulls, and a canopy that retracted as soon as the sun went down. Then the lamps all lit up, and it was even more beautiful, with the colors of sunset lingering in the sky.

On the way back to the train station, Brian and I both bought watercolor paintings of Venician scenes from a street vendor; the artist and his daughter. I’ve noticed that the prices for artwork in Italy are seriously lower than what I’ve seen in the States. Food prices are on par, and gasoline is three times as expensive, but good artwork is so affordable, I’m sort of in shock about it.

We took the high speed “Frecciarossa” train back to Verona. Although this train looks aerodynamic, we thought it was not a whole a lot faster than the slow train. It had fewer stops, and we got back around 9 or 9:30 during a sudden thunderstorm. Our plan was to take the bus back to our apartment, but the weather was so gross and the signs were so confusing, we hopped aboard the only bus with the right route number. It turned out to be going in the wrong direction. Six other passengers made the same mistake, so we all had to wait for the bus to get to the end of its route and then loop back in the other direction; maybe 45 minutes extra.

What overseas vacation would be complete without a few mishaps? Keep reading and I’ll get to those….

Adventure in Italy: Isola Bella, Sacra di San Michele, and Turin

Three days go quickly when you’re having fun!  We arrived in Turin, checked into our hotel, then visited the Sacra di San Michele, which is a 10th century monastery on a mountaintop west of Turin.  Like most tourist attractions in Italy, there is a lot of walking once you park.  We hiked up for a ways, past vendors selling souvenirs and cheese, past a man playing a calming musical instrument.  Once we bought our tickets, we were given an English-language brochure so we could follow along with the Italian-only tour group.

Sacra di San Michele

Sacra di San Michele

Sacra di San Michele

The brochure only included five or six points of interest, so I figured it must be skimpy on the information.  The monastery is huge, with multiple turrets, larger than many castles, with extensive grounds and ruins of more ancient structures around it.  But it turns out the tour only goes through a tiny portion of the place, and it does this at a snail’s pace.  The tour guide spent 20+ minutes on each point of interest.  Those of us who do not understand Italian found it tedious. 

But what we were able to see was very impressive, anyway.  The Stairway of the Dead includes several tombs and huge windows, with a very Gothic atmosphere.  We walked underneath Gothic buttresses, and under a Roman funerary slab repurposed with Christian symbology, through a doorway inlaid with serpents and swords.  An elderly Italian nun nearly turned away me and Brian, and we’re not sure why.  After an argument with her, she seemed to realize we were harmless tourists and let us in.  We sat in a mass of pews and then checked out a lot of ancient sarcophagi. 

Later, we walked through a ruined tower where a woman was said to have fallen to escape rapists, and survived due to the intervention of angels, only to die when she threw herself out of the tower again to prove how blessed she was.  The view from this ruined tower is spectacular, and it was especially amazing for us due to an incoming rainstorm over the mountains.  The sun lit up the ruins area while the backdrop was dramatic clouds over steep mountains.

Lake Maggiore, Isola Madre, and Isola Bella

The next day, we went to Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands.  We had planned to make a day trip to Portofino, but we decided that was too far a drive for something that sounds scenic-but-overpriced, like a resort.  Isola Bella was closer.  So off we went, and we are very glad that we saw this amazing lake, which has plenty of its own resorts. 

The Borromean Islands were, and I guess still are, owned by ancient royalty whose family crest is the unicorn.  They used a lot of unicorn and clam motifs in their decor, and they apparently had a great sense of style and decor during the baroque period.  At least one of the women in the family was a renowned painter.  Another family member collected exotic plants, and created a truly impressive baroque garden on an island, complete with Roman statues holding bronze sprigs or tools, and albino peacocks roving around.  We glimpsed some kind of pheasant bird colored like a parrot, with crazily bright colors.  There was an extensive grotto with golden horse armor, model ships, and interesting oddities collected during the 18th century.

Isola Bella

Isola Bella

We had to keep an eye on the time in order to catch the ferry boat from one island to the next.  Although we’d bought a ticket for three islands, we only ended up on Isola Madre and Isola Bella, and that was plenty for the day.  After that, on our way home, we stopped to see a statue in Arona which is said to have inspired the Statute of Liberty.  It’s a large statue of a saint, which can be entered and climbed inside.  It was closed when we arrived, which was for the best, since there was an intimidating warning sign about the interior stairs being so narrow and claustrophobic that people aren’t allowed to wear backpacks or carry umbrellas inside.

The Egyptian Museum of Turin

The following day—today—we slated for a relaxed day in the center of Turin.  We spent more than a few hours in the Egyptian Museum, which is a must-see for anyone interested in Egyptology.  This is said to be the biggest collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt outside of Egypt, and it really is a lot.  Egyptian displays usually only have one or two of each thing, whereas this museum had so many artifacts, with such a variety of styles, it gave a better sense of what was commonplace during which dynasty.

Egyptian Museum of Turin

Egyptian Museum of Turin

After that, we stopped for gelato, which is easy to find anywhere touristy, and artfully put into cute dishes.  We ambled to the Plaza Reale, the royal palace, but we didn’t have time to explore the armory and art museums inside.  We checked out the royal garden, but after seeing Isola Bella the day before, it was underwhelming.  So we headed down a few tourist marketplace streets, and explored the narrow alleys of Turin, which are very European and full of street cafes.

Finally, driving back to our hotel at night, we saw lots of street prostitutes.  Which brings me to the topic of our *weird* hotel-motel.  This place looked pretty respectable on the internet when I booked it.  In reality, it is out in the middle of a cornfield, in an industrial park, on a street of hookers.  Brian has a nice room with a key card that works.  Amy and I have had to ask for a new key card every single night, because ours stops working.  And we changed rooms on the first night because of a missing deadbolt and a key card that was non-functional.  The whole atmosphere of this place is creepy, with more staff than guests visible.  It’s dark in the lobby.  There is weird muzak playing softly in very empty hallways.  The showers have mirrors.  There is a giant stuffed animal panda with fake bamboo as the only apparent decoration.  No other hotel art or wallpaper. Now that I know how easy it is to navigate and drive in Turin, I wish I had gotten a hotel in the downtown area instead of on the outskirts.

Overall, Turin seems to be a rundown city, to me.  There is a lot of graffiti and empty streets, with boarded-up shops and restaurants.  Like most places in Italy, shops tend to close by 6 and restaurants shut down from 2 till 7:30.  This gives most of the city a deserted, desolate appearance, with dry leaves blowing across streets.  Only the downtown area, with the major tourist sites, is busy.

Driving in Italy

I’ll end this entry with some notes for North Americans about driving in Italy.  Is it scary?  Yes.  Is it fun?  Sort of, yes.  I’ve learned a few things. 

  1. When you are in a city and you need to make a left turn through a busy intersection with eighteen different lanes and only one traffic light to rule them all, there are no rules and it is a free-for-all, but the traffic sometimes opens up at the last minute and that’s when you can floor the accelerator and get to where you need to go. 
  2. When you are on a super-narrow cliff road with blind hairpin turns, and you can’t see around each corner, and motorcycles and trucks tend to whip around into your lane, it is smart to flash your brights while edging around each turn.  This is what the locals do.  It (hopefully) signals to oncoming drivers that you exist, and might prevent your death.   
  3. When you encounter a major round-about with multiple lanes, always, always, always check your blind spot. 
  4. When you are driving in a city and the upcoming traffic light turns yellow and red at the same time, this is normal and it means yellow.  
  5. When your map shows a road and all you see is a cobblestone alleyway at a very steep angle, don’t trust the map.  You may not be able to turn around. 
  6. Parking signs are often lies.
  7. The autostrada are easy driving and very similar to U.S. interstate highways, but be prepared for tolls of 1 to 16 Euros.

That is all.

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