Varenna

 

Lake Como is dotted with many little towns and villages. There is a very efficient ferry service so it’s relatively easy to explore the area.

I took a ferry to Varenna, a small fishing village about 30 minutes away by ferry.

It was another beautiful sunny day. There were not many passengers and the ferry left as soon as everyone was boarded. I found a seat on the top deck under the shade and settled myself to enjoy the view.

We moved away along the shore. The mountain behind Lenno and Tremezzo was a patch of green. A long strip of rugged cliffs cut across its midriff and ran over to the other side. Houses with terra-cotta roofs provided a perfect match for the setting.

There is a reason why Italian towns and villages are so beautiful. I was told that Italians have always taken pride in the beauty of their own commune. In the old days towns and villages would compete against one another to be the most beautiful in the area. If you were to build or repaint your house, a local committee would have a few “recommended colours’ for you to choose from. Sounds rather autocratic but the end result is now for all to see.

The ferry crossed over to the east side of the lake, passing San Giovanni and its beautiful palazzi and gardens before stopping at Bellagio.

A lot of passengers got off here. Bellagio is a small town on the east side of Lake Como. Luxury hotels and restaurants stood on the water front. It looked like a pretty place where one could easily spend half a day exploring. It was a busy time of day and people were eating lunch.

The ferry went round a small promontory and Varenna came into view. A small cluster of houses lay right on the water’s edge. I disembarked and walked along a path along the shore to the village centre. Time for lunch. I went into a nice airy restaurant called Vecchia Varenna by the water and was taken to a corner table. Lovely!

It had been weeks since I was given a menu in English. I had parsley pasta cooked in a cherry tomato base and locally dried fish. It was absolutely delicious!

There was no hurry to go anywhere so I sat with my coffee and enjoyed the view and the ambience.

Varenna was a lovely little place. There were a few interesting shops and an artist’s studio up a steep flight of steps. Unfortunately it was closed. I followed the path and came to the other side of the promontory. It was much quieter here, with pretty old houses and narrow alleyways. There were a couple of hotels, one of which had a terrazza overlooking the lake.

I walked up some stone steps and found myself on the main road. I went through the square and came back down to the shore. It was a very pleasant walk.

I took the same path to return to the pier. At this time the place was filling up with tourists. It was time to head back.

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Heaven on earth – Villa del Balbianello

Where do I start? How do you describe heaven?

After lunch at a lake-side restaurant with Mina and Guy, I set off for Villa del Balbianello. It was accessible either by road or water taxi. I opted for the latter.

The villa is situated at the tip of a promontory in Lenno. The ride was no more than 10 minutes. As I approached it from the lake I could see the the buildings and the balustrades surrounding the premises. It was a lovely sight, but I still had no idea what I was about to see.

We came round to the promontory and had to wait until other boats had dropped off their passengers. At this moment I could see the buildings and the gardens above. The place was covered in lush green, accentuated by the yellow walls of the villa and its outhouses. It was like a painting coming to life.

As soon as I stepped off the gangway onto the stone steps at the entrance, I was in another world. A row of plane trees offered shelter from the blistering sun, and a bed of purple garlic flowers provided a perfect backdrop behind the reception table. I paid 20 Euros for a ticket to the gardens and a guided tour of the villa. The receptionist informed me that the tour would be starting in 15 minutes and we were to meet at the loggia.

I walked up the path to the gardens and came to a terrazza. It was shady and cool. There was a beautiful view of the lake and the mountains. Large stone planters were placed at regular intervals on the balustrade.

The path went the along the hillside, lined by tall hedges on the right and plane trees on the left. Stone statues and huge planters of bright pink hydrangea interspersed between the trees. Down below was the blue green water of Lake Como, surrounded by mountains. Apart from its breath-taking beauty, there was also an air of tranquility. The only movement on the water was the wake of a passing speed boat.

It is not surprising that Villa del Balbianello has been the setting of many movies. Brad and Angelina got married here.

The loggia was an outhouse on the crest of a hill. It opened out on both sides with fantastic views of the lake. People were taking photographs. A wedding ceremony was to take place shortly. Several rows of chairs were laid out tidily and there was a harp at the front. I was told later that a 30-minute ceremony would cost 4-5000 Euros! So if you’re thinking of getting married here better start saving up.

The tour of the house lasted over an hour. A lady guide told us in great detail the history of the place. It was built by a cardinal in the 13th century on the site of a convent. Throughout the years it was owned by Italian aristocrats but for a short time at the beginning of the last century when it belonged to an American. In the early ’70s it came into the possession of Guido Monzino, whose family owned Standa, a department store chain in Italy. He restructured the gardens and added extensions to the house. He bequeathed the villa to the government and the contents have been kept as they were when Sig. Monzino was using it as his summer residence.

There were about 12 people in the tour. We went into the map room and the library which occupied either end of the loggia. The map room was furnished with exquisite antique English furniture. There were prints of Lake Como on the walls. In the library there was a narrow staircase which led up to the balcony of the upper level.

We were led into the main residence. It has 6 storeys spreading over two buildings. We went from room to room, admiring the furniture and the numerous objet d’art, the porcelain, the chandeliers, the paintings. All the rooms had windows which looked out onto the lake or the garden. Sig. Monzino was also an explorer. Equipment and souvenirs from his expeditions to the North Pole and Mount Everest were kept carefully and displayed in a large room. Another one showed his collection of African and South-American art.

We descended to the lower floors, passed the rooms showing Venetian glassware and Chinese ceramics, and came to the master bedroom. A French tapestry with a hunting theme hung over one wall, and a desk occupied one corner of the room. The most eye-catching piece was the crystal chandelier, its light reflected on the ceiling.

We left the residence through the breakfast room, which was part of the old convent, and exited the building through the bookshop. I bought a bottle of water and sat outside on one of the benches.

It was about 4 o’clock and already not as hot as before. After a short rest I walked back up the path to the outhouse at the top. A wedding reception was going on and the guests were taking photographs on the terrace. I followed the path down to the garden on the other side. A ginormous tree shaped like a mushroom stood on the lawn, overlooking Lake Como beyond.

On my way back up the newly-weds came walking past with the photographer. I gave them my best wishes.

Before I took my ride back to shore I walked down some stone steps and found a quiet little place right on the water’s edge. I sat on the stone bench which was still hot from the day’s heat. I closed my eyes. I could feel the sun and the breeze on my face, on my arms. I could sit here forever. I didn’t want to leave.

 

Lake Como

I arrived at Como on the Sunday after my course finished. I was met at the station by Mina and Guy.

Mina is an old friend from university. She is a homeopath and yoga teacher, and Guy is a lawyer. They live in Hong Kong and have recently bought a house in Lenno on Lake Como. They have been doing it up and I was honoured to be one of their first guests.

We had lunch in a square behind the busy shopping area. It was quiet and peaceful. We were happy to meet up again and chatting away, catching up with our news.

Summer sales have started in Italy, and the shops in Como were no exception. Sale signs were up everywhere, offering discounts of up to 70%. After much ado, Mina found a pair of Scarpa hiking shoes. As they were highly recommended by our friend Debbie in Vancouver, the three of us bought a pair each. I must say they are really comfy.

After about 30 minutes’ drive we reached Lenno. The house perches on the side of a hill on the left side of the lake. It has a fantastic view of the lake and the Italian Alps beyond. In front of the house is a swimming pool.

Mina and Guy have taken much care and attention in refurbishing the house, and it has amenities of a modern home.

The house has 3 bedrooms. My room was on the top floor with a balcony. And on the first morning of my stay I woke up to a beautiful vista of mountain and lake.

We had a late dinner on the terrazza. Although it was nearly 9.30 it was still light. I could see lights from the villages on the other side of the lake. The air was cool, the sky was clear, and it was a beautiful night.

Coffee and Gelati

At my language school at home I learnt that “espresso coffee” doesn’t exist in Italy. The word means “quick” and “made-to order”, so calling a coffee espresso seems a bit superfluous.

Bearing this in mind, I ordered my first coffee in Milan by simply asking for “un caffè”, and it came in the form of what is known outside of Italy as an espresso. As one cup was not enough to satisfy my appetite for this beverage in the morning, I would sometimes have two. Other times I would have caffè lungo, or cappuccino lungo.

Coffee is drunk here all times of day, and night. The cost of a cup ranges from 1 to 2 Euros at a bar. My breakfast of coffee and croissant (or one of a wide range of pastries available) cost 2.5 Euros. I would usually sit outside and watch the world go by while I had my breakfast. A few times after an exhausting walk I rested at a street-side café under a canopy. There was one near Lima metro station which even had a ceiling fan inside.

Gelato is something that everybody loves. My favourite is lemon and blueberry. All gelati shops offer you a vast choice of flavours. The small one, a piccolo, would cost 1.5 to 2 Euros. I would usually get a medium one costing  2.5 to 3 Euros for a cone with 2 scoops. Most of these shops sell home-made gelati, with signs declaring they are made of organic ingredients. There was one in Lenno on Lake Como which also sold ice lollies in a large variety of flavours.

Castello Sforzesco

If you’re in Milan for only a couple of days, I would highly recommend a visit to Castello Sforzesco.

The castle was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, on the site of a fort from the century before. It is a popular tourist attraction. Inside the castle are also several museums, so one could easily spend the whole day here.

I went there on a Friday afternoon. It was a big place, but having read up about it beforehand, I was able to plan my visit a bit more efficiently.

I entered through one of the gates and found myself in a huge square, the Courtyards of Arms, which was paved by lawns parched by the scorching summer heat. At the ticket office I bought a ticket for 5 Euros which allowed me to visit all the museums in the castle. Right next to the ticketing counter was the entrance to Museo Pieta Rondanini, which houses Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

It was a plain and simple room. Apart from the fresco on its vaulted ceiling, it was devoid of any embellishments. The statue, raised on a marble pedestal, was placed in the centre of the room. Benches were put in front of the statue for visitors to sit and admire Michelangelo’s last masterpiece. At the end of the room was a bronze head of the master.

Another beautiful courtyard in the castle was the Ducal Courtyard, which was once the private residence of the Duke. The chambers are now the site of the castle’s museums. Unfortunately Sala delle Asse which normally shows Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings was closed for renovation.

I went up a winding staircase to the museum of musical instruments. There I found the most exquisite ancient instruments of all kinds from as early as the 16th century until modern times. There were lutes, guitars, violins, mandolins, organs, brass and keyboard instruments, all beautifully decorated and finished.

Although the grounds stayed open until late, the museums closed at 5.30pm. There was only time for one more, so I quickly made my way to the museum of antique furniture and wood sculptures. The exhibits ranged from 15th century religious carvings to chests and tables from the baroque and rococo periods, ending with post-modern designs. It was a bit of a rush and I was one of the last visitors to leave 2 minutes short of closing time.