Wandering in the lakes region, Italy

April 28th, 2008

“I have a long weekend coming up, how about a trip somewhere ?”

My ears prick up just like a dog when it hears the word ‘Walk’.  My tail is all but wagging.  I am a bit surprised, he has just returned from a two-week long business trip to Australia and Argentina; I had thought he would like a quiet time at home.  But I have heard the word…there is no stopping me…I am at the door, scratching, ready to shoot out!!! I know where I want to go; I have had an interested eye open towards the Lake Como region of Italy and Ticino in Switzerland.  Finding a place to stay is a nightmare though. The prices are exorbitant.  I finally manage to find a reasonably priced motel, its in the middle of nowhere but we have our car, no worries. I book it and get down to researching the places I would like to see.

May 1st, 2008

001 En route

We leave nice and early, the skies are blue, the slight chill in the air is pleasant. I’ve decided I want to go over the Simplon Pass.  The internet tells me that it was known in Roman times but it was Napoleon who had the road constructed between 1801 and 1805.  The road to Brig is beautiful, I have always liked our drives here.  Its a beautiful valley with impressive mountains on either side.  The road to Simplon climbs steeply from Brig.  “Oh look at that valley!!!” I exclaim.  ” How on earth did they build that bridge ? ”  “Oh look !” But soon I fall silent. Sometimes there are no words. I tell myself, this beauty, this is life’s breath for me..

There is still a bit of snow at Simplon.  We get out to take pictures.  I look out far down into the valley before me and my mind wanders.  Who, I wonder, was the first man who saw this valley, who crossed this pass ?  Surely much before the Romans ? A caveman ? My eyes search for him in the slopes before me.  A small and compact Italian in skins.  A pole in his hand.  A pouch and tools on his belt.  Oh he has a nice face, bright and inquisitive, aquiline nose, gleaming dark eyes.  I worry for my poor Italian..is he the right one ? Can he deal with the cold ? Should I not go for a 2m German blond giant who would stride up the mountain effortlessly, looking at all this with arrogant blue eyes ? I look assessingly at my giant, he is indeed an impressive physical specimen…

My dear man calls out to me.  The Italian grins impudently.  “I know it is you” I tell him silently. I feel a certain connection, you understand ?  He is like me, he always wants to look at the next mountain, the next valley..But for now, I abandon my handsome Italian to continue our journey.

The road winds down past the Italian border and we get our first glimpse of Lake Maggiore, brilliant under the blue skies.

  011 Stresa022 Stresa

Stresa is charming with exquisite villas, tropical trees, and flowers in profusion.  But the holiday has drawn crowds and we struggle to find a parking.  We find a little bench to sit and eat the picnic I had packed.  We walk along the lakeside, looking out at the Borromean islands and their beautiful villas.  My dear man is not keen on looking inside villas and I let it be.  Its a day to be outdoors.  We sit in a lakeside restaurant and drink some wine, the afternoon sun pleasant upon our shoulders, looking at the ferries and the boats which ply the lake, the tourists milling everywhere, the gleaming reflections from afar.  We then wander through the town for a while, looking at pretty shop windows and then head back to the car.

Verbania is the next stop.  It is quieter and more sedate.  There is a little church which I go to examine.  I like churches in Italy, the slightly ornate decorations and beautiful marble-work attract me.  We come back to the lake shore; Like a true beauty, it looks good from any angle.

We head out to find our motel which is close to Malpensa airport. The room is spotless and very nice.  But strangely, the bathroom is separated from the room by a totally transparent glass window.  The person in the shower is on show, like fish in an aquarium.  There is a small concession to modesty however, the toilet is half covered by a translucent screen. My dear man and I spend a good few minutes wondering about this bathroom.  Was the architect saving money on tiles ? Is this his idea of ‘modern’ ? Perhaps he is a voyeur ? Aren’t rooms in Italy shared by friends or siblings who might not want to expose all ? Don’t they have conservative less-than-nubile (make that far-from-nubile) middle aged women who would not like to make a show of their sagging selves ? I am quite baffled by the thought process which has created this!!

Dinner is at a local restaurant recommended by our hotel receptionist.  All the clientele seem to  know the proprietors personally.  None of the staff speak a word of English but we manage to communicate.  The service is quick and matter of fact…but very warm and welcoming all the same.  The pizzas are excellent and we enjoy a relaxed meal.

 

May 2nd, 2008

We make a late start after a leisurely breakfast.  I don’t like late starts, I grumble. We head out to Como.  Once we reach the city, we are stuck in traffic for an hour.  The day is not starting well.  When we finally spot a parking, we grab it quickly.  We head to the tourist office and I get a map with the main attractions marked.  I appoint my dear man as navigator and we walk around the city, checking out the sights.  Como is charming, much more real than the too-touristy Stresa.  The pavement cafés brim with people eating, drinking and chatting.  The shops look interesting, bustling with shoppers.  Its very lively.  After we do our little walking tour, we find a small and trendy looking restaurant.  The food is good and we are happy with our choice.

042 Bellagio040 Bellagio

Our next destination is Bellagio.  The road from Como to Bellagio is narrow, hugging the lakeshore all the way.  Stunning views follow us from the beginning to the end.  I am a not enjoying the ride too much though; the road is narrow and we see quite a few reckless drivers.  I feel quite ill at ease.  We pass a number of charming villages.  Bellagio is bursting at the seams with tourists.  The police try to direct the traffic but there is nowhere to go, and worse, nowhere to park.  After another frustrating 30 mins in the car, we finally manage to find a short-term parking spot.  Next time I will take the ferry.

Bellagio is very charming indeed.  We wander around town absorbing the atmosphere.  The shops are selling a lot of silk items, leather goods, interesting pottery, gourmet food items, flowers, trashy souvenirs and Gelati. We fall for the last one.  The church is beautiful, with stunning views.  I would have liked to spend more time but the parking is going to run out.  Plus the crush of tourists makes it all to hard to enjoy.

We head towards Lecco but one of the roads is blocked.  We find the alternate route but there has been an accident and there is long queue of frustrated and angry Italian drivers ahead of us.  We give up finally and head back towards our hotel.  I don’t mind too much, we have had a nice day.  My dear man feels like eating Chinese food.  As we head back towards our hotel, with the sharply honed instinct of a truly hungry man, he spots red lanterns hanging outside a door.  Its dingy outside and I am reluctant but we are surprised by the interior, which is very nice.  The young Chinese girl speaks fluent Italian but no English.  I fish out my guide book and point out the “I am a vegetarian” phrase written in Italian.  She has never come across this word in Italian !!! How amazing !!! So she fishes out a huge, dog-eared Chinese-Italian dictionary and looks it up.  Ah, finally we understand each other.  Within a few minutes, she is chattering to me excitedly in Italian telling me what she will do for me and I reply in English with a laugh.  My dear man is well pleased with his meal and so am I.

May 3rd, 2008

051 Lugano056 Lugano

We are up early and are out in good time, to my satisfaction.  We head towards Switzerland and Lugano.  We are there within an hour.  We find a parking spot easily and set out to see the town.  Today is market day and there are stalls everywhere.  There is an antiques section and I enjoy a quick browse (quick because my dear man is not much into markets). There is a fresh food market as well.  This beautiful little city is very vibrant on this warm and pleasant Saturday morning.  It seems to have a unique character of its own…somehow Swiss and Italian at the same time.  We grab quick sandwiches and continue our stroll by the lake.

074 Lugano

The lakeside is beautiful, with nice walkways and gardens.  A sense of relaxation descends upon me.  Even in the midst of all the crowd, I feel surrounded by peace.

We drive to Mont Bre, just on the outskirts of Lugano.  We should have taken the funicular !!! The road is steep and narrow.  Mont Bre is a little village with lovely stone houses, very picturesque.  The view from here takes my breath away.

091 Bellinzona

We head next towards Bellinzona.  There is some local sporting event on.  Its a very charming town looked over by a castle.  I head to the church and spend a little while enjoying its cool marble interior. We don’t have much time so we leave soon.

100 Locarno

Locarno is much larger than I expect.  I want to see the castle but we are too late, its already closed.  We wander into the city, into the midst of another market day.  We sit in the middle of it all, in a pavement café drinking some very nice wine.  It goes straight to my head on this mellow day and my steps are slow when we leave to see the rest of the town.  The central square is beautiful and impressive.  We do a little shopping and then walk beside the lake.

We head back towards our hotel.  We decide to go back to the local pizzeria.  Its busy with a large family gathering and all the tables seem taken up.  But today we are treated as long lost friends and are shown to a nice table at the back.  Our waiter from the other day comes and chats us up in Italian and brings us some nice wine to drink.  The food is again excellent and we enjoy a relaxed meal.

May 4th, 2008

140 Orta

Last day.  We pack our bags and set out towards Lake Orta.  Our only stop today is to be Orta San Giulio. But what a little gem !!! Its very small and charming.  I see an excellent art gallery and spend a while admiring the beautiful works of art.  I miss my boy, he has always been the companion with whom I could discuss art and share my excitement on seeing a new technique, a new artist, a new perspective.  Now my loneliness for him rises up from my gut, threatening to choke me.  I scold myself firmly for being maudlin.  Both my dear man and I enjoy looking around this charming town and talk about coming back to spend a few days here one day.

122 Orta146 Sacro Monte

Just outside Orta is the Sacro Monte devoted to St. Francis of Assisi.  There are 20 chapels set in beautiful gardens with stunning views of the lake.  We wander from one to another, in no real order, enjoying the beautiful day and the greenery that surround us.  This is a peaceful place to be in.

We finally leave, deciding to find lunch on the way.  I see a sign for a restaurant in a little village (Vecchio Forno, 28028 Pettenasco) and we stop to check it out.  It seems very busy.  We step in and are shown to a table.  The hostess speaks fluent English.  They have a big party on.  She suggests that she serve us the dishes being prepared for the party as otherwise it would take too long.  We accept gladly.  My dear man is served a raw seafood platter which includes creatures with eyes that stare at me balefully.  But he is well pleased with it, saying that it is simply delicious.  For the main course, we are both served a vegetarian lasagne and ricotta gnocchi with pureed vegetables.  After the amazed first bite, I concentrate on savouring every morsel of the most delicious Italian food I have ever tasted.  Ambrosia !!!  What a nice way to finish our holiday, we say to each other.

On the way back, I am somnolent, enjoying the beautiful scenery rushing past me.  My Italian hero wanders back to say hello to me.  He runs along the car to the end of the valley.  Dead-end !!!  I look around with him, one hill is shorter than the others and luckily, that’s the one to take.  He climbs over as we tunnel under.  It leads into a long and narrow valley, only as wide as a stream sometimes.  As we drive high above him, I see him clambering over rocks, stooping to take a drink from the stream now and then.  “Don’t give up” I cry encouragingly down to him “It gets better”.  It does.  The valley widens and I can feel his spirits lifting.  This valley is beautiful.  Our road is high and I watch out worriedly below…but he can’t take a wrong turn.  Straight ahead and we reach another dead-end.  I am worried now.  How does he know which mountain to climb ?  We have hugged the right side of the valley and we climb up….I look back.  Only chance can help him.  I send thought waves out to him, my hero of the past.  I get his attention and he climbs the steep slopes like a young mountain goat.  And what a sight greets him.  A long high valley with soaring mountains on either side.  His stride is a flight now and he speeds past the car, joyful in his discovery.  The end of the valley is before us.  We both halt.  It drops down below, far below.  Together we gaze at the other side of the alps.  He has done it !!

By the time I dreamed his adventure, we were home.  It was a good holiday, yes.

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