The Boot. Need I say more?

Milan Cathedral in background with large open area with people walking around - Duomo Square.

Milan Cathedral is an imposing presence on the Duomo Square.

Truth be told, Italy always draws me back. With more than a dozen trips to various parts of this enchanting and classical country, my venture in late spring introduced me to a new area: Northern Italy.

And what an introduction it was. My 16-day journey with 15 other travelers curated by Overseas Adventure Travel ( took us to two lakes, the Alps, the Dolomites and nearly a dozen charming small villages. Temperatures ranged from below freezing – at 10,000 feet in the snowy Alps – to the mid-80s.

The scenery was diverse – mountainous and flat with straight stretches of highway and rural roads to the agricultural plains near Venice.

Photo of open air vaulted ceiling area for shopping.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II near Milan’s Duomo Square – the largest active shipping gallery in Italy.

After a flight non-stop from Atlanta to Milan, our adventure began in Lake Como and the lakeside town of Lecco. Breathtaking views, very walkable lakeside promenades and quaint restaurants lined the harbor at the lower end of Como.

No, we didn’t meet George Clooney; supposedly people can be fined for seeking him out and interrupting him and his family. Rumor has it that his lovely Villa L’Oleandra is for sale, which in the media he vehemently denied in 2023. Oh, well. It was way under my available budget anyway.

Ferries took us on several excursions to the lakeside villages, just beginning to fill up with tourists for the summer season. We were lucky; most places were not yet crowded.

Gelato became an early and often necessity and we sought out gelaterie for fresh new flavors like melon, mixed berry and even rose, to complement standbys of Cioccolato fondente (really dark chocolate), amarena (wild cherry) and cioddo-menta (my favorite!).

A vertical slice of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" with artist in center.

A portion of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” featuring the artist’s self portrait.

Spoiler alert: Our visit to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan came early in the trip. The Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie is a heavily visited UNESCO World Heritage Site. Timed reservations made in advance helped manage the crowds eager to see what remains of da Vinci’s acclaimed masterpiece. After multiple restorations to attempt to preserve his work – not a fresco, but tempera on dry plaster – the latest in 1977 has been acclaimed.

However the painting is fragile, the colors continue to chip and fade and the painting we saw was not as vibrant as the many copies, most altered in composition from the original work, that we see in books and on the internet.

Visitors are allowed to view the work in its original location for only 15 minutes in groups of less than 30 people.

Nonetheless, to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece took my breath away. The emotions captured on each face, the body language of each character and the first use of perspective in a painting cannot be described. Da Vinci included a self-portrait in the work to say, “This is my creation.”

As we headed toward Tirano, we prepared for our customary “Day in the Life,” a time to visit a village or farm, learn about their daily life, help with chores and enjoy a meal.

Our destination? Baruffini, a town of 200 residents, was a hot spot for smugglers in the early to mid 20th century. Within a few miles of the border of Switzerland, it was ideal for smuggling cigarettes and coffee and during WWII as well as Jews hoping to escape the ravages of Hitler and the concentration camps.

Town leader Fulvio introduced us to a woodworker who turned bowls and created household items in his second-floor shop in an historic building. We met Celesta, now in her 80s, who actively smuggled people and tobacco for decades before giving it up for winemaking.

Fulvio took us to an ancient house with a basement that was used as smugglers’ headquarters and later as a church, owned by the community. When funds to maintain it ran out, it was to be sold. Instead, the Grand Circle Foundation and Overseas Adventure Travel have provided funding to save the structure and its history.

A view of a canal of water (melted snow) with bridge.

A river of melted snow runs right through the middle of the town of Tirano.

Tirano was our home base for three days. The town in a valley near both Switzerland and Austria has less than 10,000 residents and is home to another UNESCO World Heritage project, The Bernina Express rail system that crosses the Swiss Alps via 196 bridges through 55 tunnels and ascending to nearly 7,400 feet above sea level. It takes people from Tirano to Switzerland’s Chur or St. Moritz with stops along the way.

Train rides are always a treat as we in the US rarely choose this mode of transportation. It’s fun, very comfortable and provides much more up-close scenery than driving or flying. Our intermediate destination is the world’s highest Alpine crossing, but an incredible surprise was waiting.

Our pre-trip information suggested bringing a couple of cold-weather layers because we would be in the Alps, but even our local guide was not prepared for what happened on our train ride.

At the end of May, many natives expect snow in the high Alps, but when we saw the first flakes at 5,000 feet through the large windows of our train car, the excitement among us travelers surged. For a Florida native like me, I was ready for what awaited another 5,000 feet above us in Swiss Alps.

At 6,900 feet we transferred to a cable car that would deliver us to Diavolezza Ski Resort, up another 3,000 feet higher. By then the snow was blowing, sometimes so hard that it was difficult to see much farther than a yard ahead.

Writer Pam Keene, dressed in warm blue clothes, lays in the snow to make a snow angel.

There was only one who made a snow angel – me!

A few of us ventured outside the lodge to experience the wind and cold, but I turned into a little kid to make the lone snow angel of the day in about 20 inches of snow.

Our visit included lunch and extra time to peer out the windows before heading back down in the cable car and taking the Bernina Express back to Tirano.

That evening we split into several groups for another of Overseas Adventure Travels’ signature experiences: a home-hosted meal with a local family. Our host escorted five of us to his family’s home, a short walk from our hotel. The four-course home-cooked Italian meal included pumpkin soup, Italian quiche, pasta and tiramisu, along with a local wine – Franciacorta – Northern Italy’s answer to champagne. Our host, a 30-something IT engineer, introduced us to Erba Cedrina, an after-dinner liquor made of citron grass, alcohol, lemon peel, sugar and water.

It was difficult to bid arrivederci to our host, his wife and their two young sons but it was time to prepare for Part II of our Northern Italian adventure.

Even more highlights lay ahead including visits to Lake Iseo, underground Roman ruins, Otzi the Iceman and the Dolomites.

Photos: by Pamela A. Keene