Friday, June 3, 2011

La bella Varenna

[Notes from our short trip to Northern Italy the weekend past.]

May 27, 2011: Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

I'm writing this on a balcony, looking across Lake Como at the town of Bellagio, while classical music that I know, but can't name (Dvořák?), plays in a villa further down the coast. [The Wedding March could be heard a bit later, so I thought the first piece might also be Mendelssohn. Now that I'm home and fiddling, I know it was Bach's Air on the G String, at a point past that distinctive harpsichord.]

I am so happy to be here. So happy the ash cloud moved along. We had some rough weather coming into Malpensa airport, but the torrents didn't even last our whole bus ride to Milan.

Now... Well, now, it's just gorgeous.

Our train, in Varenna

We met a lovely older lady on the train to Varenna. She was very curious about two Canadians traveling there, but unfortunately my Italian wasn't up to the explanation.

This is the best view I've ever had from a hotel room or apartment. Ever. (And we booked it at the last minute at a little more than €200 per night.)

San Giorgio, Varenna
There goes the church bell. I'm almost giddy. [And a bit disjointed. What's with all these new paragraphs?] The sound of the lake lapping at the shore, the birdsong... Where could the locals possibly vacation? [I was reading Beppe Severgnini's La Bella Figura at the time, and he says Italians go abroad simply to reaffirm that they have it the best.]

The sun is filtering through the slowly dissipating clouds, down on the heavily forested mountain face; stunning. We came through so many tunnels on the train journey here. (Jules, Dev would love this place! Mountains in the foreground, snowcapped Alps at the horizon. Sigh.)

The hotel stocks Menabrea 150° Anniversario, "the flagship" of Forst (according to one of my beer books), in the mini-bar; nice touch. There's also a little grocery store across the street. Loving the Royal Victoria so far.

Parts of Milan reminded us both of Naples. Getting Severgnini's perspective on the same route, from Malpensa to Milan, was a treat, particularly when informed by Solly's take on Italians: I finished his book, The Xenophobe's Guide to the Italians, on the flight over.

10:00 p.m.

After the storm
Such an entertaining storm earlier! Stayed in the room, popping out for snaps of the scene, long past supper time. Eventually went out to our little grocery, and then to the pizzeria/hotel across the street, Albergo del Sole. There was a big family ahead of us, but it was well worth the wait. It's clearly a favourite with the locals: they moved a Reserved sign to a different table for one couple; the guy immediately went back to the kitchen to say hello. And it's cheap too: our appetizer, wine and pizzas only came to €32! We left a big tip, in case they made a mistake, as we'll definitely be back.

* * *

May 29, 2011

The view from our balcony
We're taking it easy today, beside the pool. It looks out over the lake to Bellagio. There's barely a cloud in the sky, again.

I was just saying to Tea that, in idle moments, I'm still trying to categorize this place. And failing. The view outside our window, off our balcony, convinces me we're cruising the Mediterranean each morning. This outdoor space reminds me of a resort, if only in my desire to stay on the property and relax -- no resort I've stayed at could hope to replicate these sights and this solace.

Yesterday, we took a slower ferry down to Como; it was about a two-hour journey. (You can take a faster one that will get you there in less than half the time, by paying a supplement.) It was so relaxing. Almost too much so: I nodded off in my seat, a cat in a sunbeam, and burned my thighs and forearms. (I'm writing this in the shade. Tenderly.)

On the ferry to Como
And such sights! We must've passed twenty towns on the way down, stopping at close to a dozen of them. The combination of the brightly painted houses -- just like the outport communities back home in Newfoundland -- the heavily forested mountainsides, the terraced gardens, the single belfry of each community, and the crew chatting in Italian behind us was pure bliss.

We heard a lady behind us comment on the water being too rough for her boat, so she and her husband decided to take the ferry to Cernobbio (two stops before Como) to meet friends for lunch instead. I cannot imagine living here, or how calm the water must typically be if that is considered rough.

We were hungry by the time we docked in Como, and so set about finding a restaurant. Nothing could be simpler in Como. We were soon sat on a shaded patio across from the amazing Duomo (Cathedral). Tea had a delicious bellini with her pizza, while I had a piadina -- unleavened Italian bread folded over like a wrap -- with cured beef, goat's cheese and chicory; a fantastic combination.

We then wandered the streets -- very much like Florence, I found, particularly around the Duomo -- and open-air markets, before taking the fast ferry back as far as Bellagio. It was so fast, compared with the morning. I dozed again, below deck this time, thankfully. The biggest surprise was that Tea didn't need to take any motion sickness medication, as it was a rough ride at times, as we crossed others' wakes.

The Duomo, in Como

Bellagio is beautiful, but for your money, staying in Varenna or Menaggio and taking day trips over has to be the way to do it. Still, at no point did I feel like I was dabbling my toes in the pool of my betters: Tea got gelato at the oldest gelateria in town (from the turn of the century, no less), and we enjoyed drinks on a patio later, right down by the lake -- at no point was anyone anything less than warm, friendly and helpful.

We were enjoying ourselves so much that we missed the last passenger ferry to Varenna. No matter. We caught a car ferry back shortly thereafter. And what a view, pulling in as the last of the day's light hit our beautiful town. (Ours for the weekend, anyway.)

We stopped for supper shortly after docking, as we figured we wouldn't leave our room again if we went straight back: the local wine we bought in Bellagio, Sant'Andrea Valtellina Superiore, from the north, and a special harvest of grapes on the thirtieth of November each year -- for a mere €17 -- was calling our names.

Waiting for the ferry in Bellagio

Vecchi Varenna caught our eye with its inspired, confident menu, and then rewarded us with such good, beautifully-presented food and friendly wait staff. Add to this their passion for serving locally sourced food from a menu they change monthly, and I absolutely cannot recommend this place enough. The prices are even reasonable. I defy anyone to correctly guess their bill based on Vecchi Varenna's fantastic location, down by the water, and the calibre of their food -- both its taste and presentation. Honestly, it felt like a glimpse of the life of the rich and famous -- as I imagine it, anyway -- all for €85 (which included excellent wine, starters and dessert).

Pulling into Varenna
At the risk of boring you, dear reader, one final point: an Italian family with two young children came in partway through our meal. Later, as Tea and I wondered what the children would eat off the (largely lake-fish based) menu, they came out with meals made especially for them. At no point was it a big production, for them or the wait staff. And the little ones were nibbling off their parents' plates of local delicacies to boot. Such a contrast to the chaos of the large British party at Albergo del Sole the other night; their staff were saints for what they put up with.

10:30 p.m.

We weren't out and about for long before we settled on a lakeside cafe for another break. Over rosé, bruschetta, prosciutto and melon, and pizza (topped with the most exquisite mushrooms), we watched the world pass by.

Cuppa Fruita
A woman in a bikini, rowing nowhere quickly, puzzled us. I'd almost accepted Tea's theory of a fisherwoman -- "Does anyone actually work in a bikini?" I wondered -- when she tied up to a buoy a bit out from shore and proceeded to lay out for a few hours. I guess that's one way to stake your claim on a sunbeam. As Tea enjoyed her enormous 'cuppa fruita' -- "Do you want to share?" should've been a hint at its size, but Tea persevered -- the sunbather called it a day, expertly guiding her boat in.

At this point, Tea decides she wants to hike up the quarter mile to Castillo di Vezio. An Aussie couple we met partway up let me know how it could be worse: their hiking epiphany came after three bottles of rosé.

Such a view! Probably the most spectacular we've been treated to to date. It recalls memories of our drive through the Alps last year, but then add the lake beside them, train tunnels between the two, brightly-coloured roofs all 'round, and the quaint -- particularly from this height -- Varenna, with its belfry, below us. And the cherry on top was the sun setting on another gorgeous day.

After quickly freshening up at the hotel, it was back out to the attached restaurant for yet more pizza -- Tea concluded it was the best so far -- wine, and, to finish, our first taste of grappa.

* * *

May 30, 2011

Another piercing blue sky. I'm on our balcony (again), fascinated by the variety of birds that live around here; and even right above me now, in the roof of our hotel. One species in particular has captured my imagination: they're small and dark, with what seems to be a splash of white at their throats. The odd bit, in my mind, however, is their movements: I mistook them for bats yesterday evening, the flit of their wings is so quick and free from visible feathers.

And then there's their cry: easily twice them, so strong and sharp, like a falcon's. They don't seem to go far, but circle our hotel and call out to one another. I've spent so long trying to get a decent shot of one -- without success -- but oh, how they surround my head with flapping and screams the moment I sit down to pen this. Clearly I amuse them.

[Subsequent discussions, and a flip through Collins Bird Guide, suggest that they were a species of swift, because they never seemed to land in that roof nest and their voice matches the description to a T. Thanks, Katy!]

Speaking of amusement, I think the cleaning staff got a good chuckle from us. Tea heard them laughing and whispering outside our door this morning when they found our homemade sign. (We didn't have a "Do not disturb" sign when we checked in, and kept having the Italian, non-English-speaking maids come in on us in the mornings.) I'm pretty sure the translation of our sign would be closer to "No trouble, please," like we feared being held up by gunslingers each morn.

At least they replaced it with a proper one.

2:00 p.m.

In the gardens of the Villa Monastero
Enjoying some wine -- a pinot grigio for Tea and Villa Sandi prosecco for me -- in the cafe of the Villa Monastero. It's amazing what the waiter can offer from these limited facilities; my gnocchi is delicious, and Tea says the Torta Santa Honore is heavenly; like a roulade.

What a way to spend the day. Before this, we wandered the gardens of the Hotel Villa Cipressi, and dipped our toes in the lake from a (very secluded) public access.

5:00 p.m.

The beach outside our hotel
The gardens continued well down the coast. So beautiful. By the time we're up and back, however, the heat was getting to us. Our hotel pool called.

So cool. "Like swimming in a glass of water," is how I put it; no chlorine to speak of, and unheated. Sipping our Sant'Andrea poolside now, dozing off. There's talk of seeing the boardwalk in Menaggio later, or maybe tomorrow.

* * *

May 31, 2011

Definitely a muted feel to the morning. Like we've had a four-day party and this is the morning after, is how Tea put it. Strikes close to the mark, I'd say.

* * *

We're at Varenna's station now, waiting for our train to Milan. Thick black smoke blanketed the area as we started up the hill from town; looked like the station was in flames. We got the tracks in view in time to see an old-fashioned steam-powered locomotive leaving with its load. Incredible. That's a sound from film and recordings for me.

Hard to believe this is a travel day. Started walking by the lakeside, watching swans and ducks pick at yesterday's bread, discarded in the water from nearby restaurants. Then we got the ferry to Menaggio and walked its lovely boardwalk for a bit. When we got hungry, we stopped for a fantastic lunch on the lakeside patio of the Hotel Bellavista.

In Menaggio

We even caught the ferry back to Varenna in time to enjoy a glass of wine on the waterfront. Such a relaxing day -- in spite of the prospect of driving from Gatwick looming ahead of us.

* * *

On the bus now. Ah, Milan Centrale; such grandeur and beauty. It, and our train -- so, so old -- inspire romance. Well, and the kids sneaking kisses around the corners. Severgnini likes the noise of the trains, and the open windows -- for precious ventilation -- certainly permit a cacophony. He also warns us to reject this romanticism, though.

* * *

Antipasti at the Bellavista
An old man preps for surgery in the toilet. A young woman pumps her arms to an unheard beat -- to squeals of delight from the other end of her Facetime et al. conversation, judging by her smile -- half a bottle of wine to one side.

Malpensa airport is alive.

Speaking of wine, to sit down in a restaurant, and enjoy a delicious red -- oh, the wine we've had on this trip! -- and al dente pasta sounds about as far from the airport experience as one could get. And yet, here it is; able to support the number of travelers around me and then some.

These Italians are on to something: why deprive yourself, even if you have somewhere to be? There's always time.

* * *

[We've been home a few days now. Time enough to realize what an amazing trip we had; honestly, probably my favourite one to date.

The drive back was tiring and a bit stressful -- largely thanks to the closure of the A417 near Cirencester and subsequent detour to the M5 -- but, oh, the sights we saw. To have the Alps, but also the feeling that you're by the sea -- it doesn't feel like a lake -- checks two of my top-five boxes. Then to have that food, that wine and that weather... Paradise.

As usual, we have a Picasa album with more pictures from the trip. Tea has an album on Facebook as well.]

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