October 1, 2012
Today is our last full day in Europe for the next two months and we are in Italy. After our overnight ferry crossing from Croatia we made our way to Rome for a couple of days. We are going to be back in Rome in early December as well, so we focused this visit on Vatican City, touring the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.
It was Darren’s first time at the Vatican and he found it to be an amazing collection of art and history. I had been to the Vatican only last year, when I took a mother / daughter trip to Italy with our youngest daughter after she graduated from high school. I enjoyed visiting the museum again and gained an even greater appreciation for the Sistine Chapel, which is truly one of humanity’s greatest art achievements.
We had planned to also visit Saint Peter’s Basilica, but, upon exiting the Vatican Museum, we discovered that the Pope was speaking in front of the church to a crowd of about 10,000 people! We watched his speech for a few minutes and then left to visit other sights. We will save Saint Peter’s to visit when we return to Rome just before we begin our cruise to South America.
Our original itinerary called for us to fly from Rome to West Africa, so we were to end our time in Europe here. However, since we changed our African itinerary to go to Kenya instead, we decided to spend a few more days in Italy and fly to Africa from Milan instead of Rome. This gave us the opportunity to visit the Dolomites.
We decided to stay in a village, called Castelrotto, in the Italian Alps above Bolzano. It seemed like a great place to go to recharge our batteries for a few days after being on the move for so long. So we made reservations for four nights and took an early morning train from Rome to Bolzano. It was a fast train that reached speeds of close to 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour, and we were able to travel the 365 mile (587 kilometers) distance in just under five hours.
From Bolzano, it is a short bus ride into the Dolomites. Although Castelrotto is only 16 miles (26 kilometers) away, it took 45 minutes by bus to make the journey on a steep and windy road. Once the road levels out after climbing into a valley, the views are spectacular. Small villages dot the main, two-lane highway and tall, craggy mountains rise up above green meadows. A sense of peacefulness came over us even before we got off the bus.
This northern-most portion of Italy is unlike any other part of the country. Stepping off the bus, one would think that he had crossed the border into Austria or Germany. The buildings are wooden with flowers adorning the window sills or stone with beautiful paintings on the walls. We heard German being spoken in the streets. The South Tyrol province was, until 1918, part of the Austro-Hungarian County of Tyrol. Today, it is an autonomous province within Italy. In 1996, an Euroregion was created, to promote regional understanding and preserve historic culture, that includes South Tyrol, the Austrian state of Tyrol and the Italian Province of Trentino. This grouping corresponds to the old Austro-Hungarian Tyrol region.
Among the 500,000 people who live in South Tyrol, about 70% speak German as their primary language and all signs are bilingual (German first, then Italian) in the province. As the entire province is located within the Alps, activities include hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. The weather was mostly rainy during our stay so we could not take any long hikes but we did enjoy short walks through the village or in the hills above the town.
Castelrotto, population 6,000, is a delightful village to stay in, with both a small-town feel and a variety of places to eat at night. Restaurants consisted of Italian and traditional German food. So one night we had pasta, pizza and tiramisu, followed by Wiener schnitzel, sausages and strudel the next. We spent some time relaxing at the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and getting caught up on computer work, which is important to us because Internet access will be more limited in Africa. We also used the time to work on our South American itinerary and got several key reservations made.
The four days went by quickly and this Italian respite was just what we needed to reinvigorate us as we ready for our time in Africa and beyond.