Archive for May, 2010

21 May 2010 

The work at Bern finished early and so I was able to catch an earlier flight into Milan and so was able to leave from Milan earlier than planned to Lake Como. I had booked a hotel in a village called Abbadia Lariana, which is on the eastern arm of the lake. I was hoping to get to the hotel by early evening so that I could take a look around when there was still some light. However, the GPS in the car ran out of power just after Milan and the car charger provided turned out to be faulty. Hence, I had to buy another charger and locating a shop proved quite tricky with no GPS, no map and no knowledge of Italian. Anyway, I managed to get one and arrived at Abbadia Lariana in due course of time. The hotel turned out to be quite okay and I was a bit apprehensive as I had done the booking in a hurry without much research.

Lake Como has an inverted Y shape with Como, at the base of the Western branch, being the most important town in the region. The lake itself is one of the three or four most important lakes in Italy and is 46 km long, 4.3 km at the widest point and has a surface area of 146 km. The town of Como is very ancient and was founded between 59 and 49 BC by Julius Ceasar.

Abbadia Lariana is very near a town called Lecco, which has a population of about 60,000. I went to Lecco for dinner and the weather being excellent, had it outside on the street in one of those European style places. The food was quite good and the wine and the ambience turned out to be even better. I like these European cafes where you can sit outside and eat or drink and watch people go by. Since there is hardly any dust or pollution, this is quite enjoyable.

22 May 2010

The hotel is on the lake shore and I awoke to a brilliant view. After breakfast, I checked with the receptionist on some suggestions of places to visit and she reeled out the normal touristy places like Como and Bellagio. However, I wanted to go to less crowded places the first day and luckily there was a good tourist guide provided by the district tourism authorities and that proved to be quite handy. I wanted to go up north to the top of the inverted Y and drive around the lake. The receptionist had no clue of what was up there as she had never gone there. Guess the story is the same everywhere; we never visit places close to where we stay!

My plan for the day was to drive around, touching upon places like Dongo (where Mussolini was captured after World War II), Stazzona, Colico etc. The idea was to go to small hillside villages, look at old churches, houses etc. and then drive along the western bank of the lake, go round the top and get back to the eastern bank. This meant I had to cross the lake in a ferry and I caught one at a town called Varenna. The drive upto Varenna was stunning and breathtakingly beautiful.  The road hugged the mountainside and twisted and turned. At best, it had just enough space for two cars to pass and at some places not even that. So driving was quite interesting and challenging. The weather was just perfect and that itself brought cheer to the heart. I have never driven in Italy before and had not done much research on parking rules etc. As a result, I parked in a paid parking area in the ferry terminal without paying the parking fees and thus got a ticket. I have no idea on how to pay the ticket and I guess the car rental company will bill me. Anyway, I got into the ferry and had a pleasant ride across the ferry to a place called Menaggio.

Menaggio turned out to be a nice little town but looked to be a bit too full of tourists for my liking and so, I continued on my way along the western bank of the lake. My immediate destination was the village of Rezzonico which had a very old castle built in the fourteenth century. When I arrived at the castle, I found out that it is a private residence now and hence not open to public. It looked impressive from outside, though not very big. I wonder how it will be to live in a medieval castle, in these times!

I decided to continue up the mountains and drove up to Stazzona. The tourist guide had mentioned that there were some restaurants in cave like surroundings called “Crotti”. I don’t know whether the restaurants had caved in or it was the imagination of the guy that wrote the guide or whether I missed it, I couldn’t find any. I stopped at a couple of other restaurants on the way but could not find out whether they were open or not as there was total misalignment on the lingua franca. I continued up the mountain and soon came to another delightful small town called Garzeno but could not find any open restaurant there. Soon thereafter, I came up on a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere; it was quite a way up the mountain. This turned out to be a very nice restaurant and more importantly, I could establish that they were open and willing to give me food. This place looked like a remote corner of Italy and I was sticking out like a sorethumb and was drawing curious glances. This was then it struck me as to how Westerners must be feeling when they visit remote places in Kerala. The menu was totally in Italian and for the people there, English did not seem to exist. So, I landed up with two huge dishes (one being a plate of cheese!) and a litre of wine; whereas I thought I was ordering a starter, main course and a glass of wine and cheese was nowhere in my mind. The wine was very nice and deceptive and served in a nice little jug. Hence, I was soon in a state of bliss and wondering why people wanted to stay in cities.

The thought of the difficult roads reined me in a bit and I decided not to finish the bliss inducing elixir. So, in due course of time, I parted company with the jug and drove to an Abbey called Abbazia di Piono. En route, I stopped at another nice little village called Peglio, which had an interesting complex of church, archway, assuary, rectory and cemetery. It was closed and so I could not go in. It was a very old building dating back to the VII Century.

After another spectacular, and at times hair-raising, drive I arrived at Abbazzia di Piona. The history of the place started in 610 AD and the abbey was thriving till the 16th Century. In the 18th Century it became a private property and was used as a farm. In the 20th Century, a wealthy family bought it and gave it to the Benedictine Cistercian congregation of Casamari. The current Abbey started functioning in the sixties. Many parts of the building date back to the twelve hundreds and there are some nice wall paintings in the courtyard.

Inside the abbey, there is a very nice courtyard with a tree and a hand pump. The chapel smelt of sandalwood and may be the wood linings and furniture are made of sandalwood. For some reason, I had not expected that sandalwood would be popular in Italy as I had associated Sandalwood with India and the tropics. One interesting aspect of the Abbey is that the priests distill their own liqueur even today and it is available for sale. At the store, I was subjected to the oddity of a priest in robes packaging and handing out liqueur. My curiosity got the better of me and I too bought a bottle. The liqueur is supposed to have some minor medicinal qualities and there are many flavours. The view around the Abbey is very beautiful and it is on the lake. Life in medieval times must have moved at a very slow, calming pace here. Today, the loud sound of some fast boat on the lake lends a jarring note to the atmosphere. I had parked the car in the village square and the walk to the Abbey was more than a kilometre and I met a couple from Milan on the way. They were impressed that someone from India had thought of visiting such a remote place.

The most noticeable aspect of the day was the beautiful scenery. It was absolutely gorgeous and while I have seen other places that are very beautiful, I have not experienced a whole day of such fantastic views. I drove for the whole day and it was beautiful everywhere – be it the quaint little villages or the mountain sides or the lake or the far of snow-capped peaks; it was just glorious. It was as if you want to take pictures all the time and that is all you want to do.

All the villages had a church in the centre and the churches were mostly medieval and built with stone – very, very nice. However, most of them were locked. I also noticed that many of these churches were built on hill tops – guess it was symbolic placement to show that God was above man! I have seen this approach in Indian temples too. Another aspect that struck me was about the cemeteries that were attached to these churches. All of them are maintained very well and have a peaceful, tranquil atmosphere. Having one’s loved ones being laid to rest in such surroundings seemed beautiful. Most graves had flowers on them and I guess one can feel the connection with those that have passed by, when there is a grave and in such calm environment. Another thing I noticed was that most tomb stones had pictures of the people buried there. I spent some time sitting in a cemetery and time seemed to stand still.

The night saw me at Lecco again and that was when I fully understood what madness football is for the Italians. Inter Milan were playing Bayern Munich in the European Champions League final and Inter Milan won the championship tonight. I was in Lecco when they won and soon the streets of Lecco were jammed full of people going around in their cars and walking around waving the Inter flags. They were honking incessantly and it was quite a cacophony and the traffic snarled up everywhere. The whole town seemed to go totally mad and it was quite an effort to get out!

23 May 2010

Today, my plans were to visit the tourist towns of Bellagio and Como and also take in some rural locales in between. Bellagio is located at the junction of the eastern and western branches and is quite an important point for tourists. Once again, the departure point of the ferry was from Varenna. Bellaggio looked very crowded and the streets that led to the town centre were very narrow, with space just enough for one car to pass. The receptionist had recommended some villa in Bellagio but after looking at the crowd, I decided to pass on it and went up the mountains to the village of Magreglio. Magreglio is interesting in that it has a church dedicated to cyclists, “Madonna del Ghisallo”. I had seen a lot of cyclists all around Lake Como and gathered that Italians were very keen on biking but I had not expected a patron saint and a church dedicated to cyclists. The church was built in the XVII century, which should be modern by the standards of the other churches I had seen! There is a picture of the virgin breast feeding above the altar and supposedly, it is greatly revered by the locals. What is most interesting is that the inside of the church is filled with medals, bicycles and other memorabilia donated by past champions. Most of the donors seem to be Italians and I could not find Lance Armstrong’s name there even though I looked for it – his was the only name I could readily recall!

From Magreglio, I decided to go further up to Asso and Canzo, which were referred to as places of “great interest” in the guide. All these fall under the Valassina area and the spectacular natural beauty continued here as well. On the way, I happened upon a very delightful old church and I could not resist stopping there to take a look. These unexpected opportunities are indeed the essence of such freewheeling drives.

Asso and Canzo turned out to be nothing more than small villages and in Canzo I came upon another church, which was open for a change. The interior looked quite rich with a very nice altar and well done ceilings, panels, organ etc.

By this time, I had less than half tank of petrol in the car and I was getting a bit worried that I may not find petrol stations in the mountains and since it was a Sunday, most places were self-service. Hence, I decided to drive on to Como as that is the largest town in the area. At Como, I parked near the Duomo (Cathedral) and had lunch at a nice pizzeria. Being wiser this time, I stuck to beer and ordered only one dish. The Duomo was closed and I could not go in. The building was not very impressive from the outside, especially as the word Duomo had automatically raised my mental reference to the one I had seen in Milan. The Duomo is very close to a nice square, where there were a lot of activities going on like music, dance etc. The one place that I wanted to visit in Como was the Volta Temple, dedicated to Alessandro Volta. He was born in Como in 1745. The museum itself was quite small and housed in a nice looking building.

Inside there were all sort of instruments that were used by Volta and in his time and also samples of his inventions. The most impressive was the various phases in the invention and development of the electric battery. Looking at the artifacts and reading through the text, I could not but be impressed at the amount of innovation and creative thought he had come up with. How could he have identified the proper materials for electrode, electrolyte etc.; what challenges he must have faced – I was left wondering about all that. In school when we learnt that he invented the battery, one almost took it as an everyday occurrence and never gave it a second thought! Given below are the various phases of the battery that were on display. Unfortunately, the artifacts were inside a glass cage and not well lit and I could not do much justice to the photographs.

There were also a few photographs and certificates and other documents but all of it were in Italian and I could not understand anything. It was an impressive experience overall and one felt an increased appreciation of Alessandro Volta.

At Como, there was also an exhibition of paintings by the Dutch artist Rubens and I wanted to see that. Unfortunately, there was a big crowd with the same idea and hence I could not get any parking. With that, I left Como and headed in the direction of another small village in the mountains called Palanzo, the main interest being the scenic drive. En route, I stopped at various petrol stations. At the first one, I could not find petrol mentioned and instead, found the word “gasolio” and that sounded close enough to gasoline for me. Fortunately, I decided to use my Blackberry and get an online translation and it turned out that gasolio was diesel and petrol was benzina in Italian. However, in all the gas stations I stopped, I found no mention of benzina and there were three or four different types of fuel with little price difference among and gasolio was present everywhere. All these petrol stations were unmanned and I was starting to get a feeling that Italians were very partial to diesel. After Palanzo, I did not want to take any more chances and decided to head to the next big town in the region – Bellagio. In the morning when I saw the town centre, it had looked like a nice to stop for a leisurely stroll in the evening.

At Bellagio, I located a petrol station (or rather, the GPS navigation tool did it for me) and fortunately, there was a person attending to the pump. Here again, I found no mention of benzina and I asked the guy where I could get some petrol. He seemed surprised at my question and pointed to one of his pumps that Super NB or something like that. That was when I realized that I had seen that at all the petrol stations I had stopped and this is how they referred to petrol. In any case, it was in a much relieved frame of mind that I drove off from the petrol station to the town centre.

It was very nice to walk through the narrow, winding lanes and it reminded me of the old town (Gamlastan) in Stockholm. Ice cream seems to be a big favourite among the Italians and it is referred to as gelato. I also tried a couple along the way and it was quite good; may be also because the day was quite warm. As in most lake side towns, Bellagio also has got a nice promenade along the shore, dotted with restaurants and bars. It was quite enjoyable to sit there quietly and watch people go by. It was starting to get late and the ferries had stopped operating. It was not very far to Abbadia Lariana by road and I was soon back at my hotel.

The two days were quite enjoyable with the great sceneries, weather and good food and I found the experience very nice even if I was by myself. Such a great place at such proximity to Milan must be a boon for all those that live in Milan. An hour and you are in this scenic setting – I guess many must have week-end homes in the Lake Como area. I felt very happy that I had decided to take this excursion in the week-end and not spent it wandering around Milan; there was no way that could have been as rewarding as this.