Having previously posted a blog in 2013 about our trip to Switzerland (Cœur des Alpes), it was remiss of me not to complete the story. Since – following our time in the Alps – we had continued into northern Italy for a few days in the Italian Lakes. I am righting that wrong now. It helps that I have plenty of time on my hands, stuck as I am nursing a painfully-situated (ahem) hematoma. The result of a tumble down our stairs. Given it doesn’t seem to be subsiding, I’ve succumbed to a couple of duvet days. Writing this felt marginally more productive than continuing to binge-watch Riverdale.
So… After a last breakfast on our glorious hotel terrace in Zermatt, we got the train back to Täsch, retrieved our hire car and drove through the stunning mountain and valley scenery to Stresa, a small town on the shore of Maggiore. La Palma, a grande dame of a hotel, is situated right across the road from the main promenade, and we spent our first afternoon getting our bearings, strolling in the sunshine, and lunching in the main square: Piazza Cadorna. As the sun set, a refreshing swim, followed by a stint in the rooftop jacuzzi and a poolside cocktail was a fantastic prelude to a delicious meal in town at Lo Stornello and a drink (or three) at what was to become our favourite wine bar, Al Buscion. I distinctly remember thinking, as I walked home hand-in-hand with Paul along the shore, listening to the lapping water and swaying slightly from the bottiglia di vino rosso, that I am incredibly lucky indeed. I don’t ever want to be complacent or think otherwise.
The next day, we jumped on a boat to the Borromean Islands in the middle of the lake. Isola Bella, our first stop, is home to an imposing palazzo, majestic gardens and a cute fishing village. And, more importantly, the most beautiful white peacocks you’ve ever seen (check out some photos in my ‘Cocks & ‘Hens post). We spent hours exploring the tiered Italianate gardens, stalking the birds and enjoying views across the lake, stopping to find shade whenever possible. There were also plenty of water lilies to divert my attention…as I realised when I edited my photos back in England! The second island – Isola Madre – is bigger but much quieter and, in my view, less impressive. After a speedier look around Palazzo Borromeo and the pretty Giardini Botanici, we boarded the boat to Isola dei Pescatori, our final stop. “Fishermen’s Island” is the only one of the three still inhabited and has a gentle yet bustling vibe. We ate a very late seafood lunch on the shoreside terrace of the family-run Trattoria Imbarcadero and visited the church of San Vittore, before returning to our hotel for a well-earned siesta by the rooftop bar. Paul discovered the joys of floating his glass of beer in the pool, whilst I read under the canopy of lemon trees and admired the sun setting over the islands we’d spent the day exploring.
Lake Orta was our destination the following day, the route ably navigated by Paul, a comfortable continental driver by this point in the trip. We’d read about Orta in a magazine article that had promised a “hidden gem”, a pleasing counterpoint to Maggiore. And we weren’t disappointed. The Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they consider it the secretly superior sibling to the larger neighbouring lakes. It gets far fewer visitors and the main town – Orta San Giulio – is a gentle, authentically homely place. The lake has always been popular with writers – in the 19th century, Nietzsche, Byron, Samuel Butler, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all spent time there, and poets still visit from around the globe for inspiration. It’s steep, elegant streets invite exploration, and the 21 chapels of St Francis are certainly worth the short pilgrimage. Of course, you must also cross to St Julian’s Island. We ate lunch at the island’s only restaurant, Ristorante San Giulio, a somewhat disappointing meal but worth it to admire the ceiling frescoes and to sit on the vine-covered lakeside terrace. Captive audience. A single path leads you round the circumference of the island, skirting the vast Benedictine monastery, a journey you are encouraged to take in silence. Meditative signs line the route, beseeching quiet reflection. It is a wonderfully peaceful experience. By the time we left, the golden hour light casting enchanting shadows on the villas that line the shore, I sighed happily as we sailed back to the town. Another trip to Al Buscion and a far tastier meal of chargrilled squid followed by ravioli swimming in sage butter rounded off a pretty perfect day.
The final couple of days of our trip were spent in the brasher, but still attractive, Como. We stayed in the Air BnB apartment of artist Walter Riva, a warren of rooms filled with ethnographic objet and photographs hung from string criss-crossing the walls (long before it became fashionable). A great little place, which I’d highly recommend – if he’s still letting the space. The little alleys were, however, stifling in the summer heat, and after a brief walk and too much wine at the delightful Osteria del Gallo I became dehydrated and had to rest back at the flat. Recuperated, we then managed to enjoy the old town properly and visit the impressive Duomo. Como is larger and more cosmopolitan that the other towns we’d stayed in, and I personally found it less seductive as a result. My impression probably not helped, admittedly, by the abrupt change in weather at the end of our stay. Grey clouds rolled in and our boat trip on the lake was marred by drizzle. Still, my mood was lifted by an amazing evening meal (isn’t it always?) at Ristorante Cibooooh on Via Adamo del Pero. Octopus with purple potato and pickled fennel, followed by perch risotto. Yum, yum, yum. Will just have to return one day to give Como a second chance!
“Sii semplice, sii te stesso”