Monday, 5 April 2010

What we did on our holidays

written 5th April 2010

Buona Pasqua everyone!

We have had visitors!  Honorary day time van-dwellers no less  :)

Four lakes in four days and four nights of fine food, fine wine and excellent company, can't ask for more from an italian lakes mini break. well, except for nice weather to enjoy it all in  - sadly most of the views were through slightly steamed up, rain spattered windows :(  but you can't always have everything... and a fine time was had despite the weather

It started well, when we picked Kathryn and Austin up in glorious sunshine from Bergamo airport and set off bound for Como where we found their hotel, somewhere nearby to park and pizza in quick succession, but sadly the next day was horrible.  Grey and foggy and wet.  So much so that you couldn't see the other side of the lake, and it is not a wide lake :( 

Lake Como is an inverted Y shaped lake, with two legs which meet about halfway up with Como at the foot of the western one, Lecco at the foot of the eastern one and Bellagio in the crotch.  The sides are all fairly mountainous and still with snow on the tops, when you could see the tops that is...

We set off up the western shore to Laglio, to see our friend George (Mr Clooney, Sir to the rest of you ;) )  but sadly he appeared not to be at home to visitors - even those travelling in such fine style.  We were sure that we would find him, propping up the bar in some local, old men's cafe and that, had he been in, he would have been up for a roadtrip, Kathryn and I would happily have taken him for a ride at any rate... ;)  Such a disappointment, I mean, he must be here, who would be in horrible LA in unbroken sunshine when they could be in beautiful Italy in the rain...

So instead we went to the tourist office in Tremezzo in search of leaflets and things to do in the wet where a rather lugubrious woman said that she had only opened the previous day so didn't know where anything was, couldn't give us very much in the way of leaflets, and didn't really know why we might want to be here anyway.  When asked about what was good to see and do, she sort of shrugged and said that the west coast is very pretty and charming in the summer but there was really not much here.  She supposed we could go to a villa but really that was about visiting the gardens so in the rain we would be wasting our money. And everyone knows it always rains in the first week of April - well, not any of the websites I read two months ago when this trip was first discussed, and which in fact said that in March/April, we could expect 20 degrees and probably sunshine...  In fact, she suggested, the best thing to do, was not be here at all but either get a car ferry to Bellagio, where we could go shopping in the typical streets, or go to switzerland where we could go shopping in a big hypermarket/mall.  hmmmm

Still, with no better plan, and the weather getting worse, we decided to try switzerland reasoning that it was on the otherside of a mountain so bound to be different and anyway, they might organise their holiday weather more efficiently there...

They don't.  And it wasn't.  And Lugano town is a bit sterile and full of banks and expensive looking shops.  but lake was pretty enough and the tourist office lady was much more smiley and upbeat and we had simply the best hot chocolate ever - more like slightly runny mousse than liquid drinking chocolate mmm mmm mmm - but there is only so long you can look at watches and swiss army knives (no cuckoo clocks to complete the stereotype... ;) )

so we headed back.

And as we did, it magically cleared up and the sun even came out - hurrah!  So Jules heroically roared its way up the 1 in 12 switch-backed hill - even with 4 people, a full tank of petrol (surprisingly much much cheaper in switzerland, so worth the trip after all!) and a full tank of gas, it just keeps going up! - to Brunate, high above Como, where we found the last parking spot on the bend in the road that is the punto panoramico

and fabulous, fabulous views.

We celebrated the sunshine with tea and traditional easter cake

and toasted the sunset with apperitivi of prosecco and olives - well you have to follow the local customs for the full-on foreign holiday experience! -

before heading out for local speciality of Polenta in a mountainside restaurant.  Simply delicious - massive clouds of wholemeal, sticky, puddingy stuff with various meaty toppings, nothing like the nice but rather pallid slabs of white polenta I have had before - mmm mmm mmmm

As promised, the sun did put its hat on the following day, so we set out to play on the lake, having planned a boat ride to Bellagio, then a walk part way back along the Dorsale path, which runs from Brunate to Bellagio and was described in the leaflet as "a beautiful hiking's an easy trail following mainly mule track and cart paths.  From it you can enjoy beautiful mountain scenary."  All sounded good!

Our first mistake was not looking at how long the boat took from Como to Bellagio - about three hours, we realised, halfway in - but it was beautiful, despite the bitingly cold wind and Will's even more bitter complaints about being forced to "enjoy it".  To be fair to him, for a  good while, we were the only people brave enough to be up on top, woolly hats and everything but I maintain that you just can't appreciate the view from inside and it wasn't raining!

But is was definitely worthwhile for the villas and stunning views and we were soon joined in our foolhardy, tourist bravery by Tom, Ben and Dave, three americans on a business trip to Italy from Minnesota who had picked the right day to have a free day in the lakes before their early flight home the following day.

It turned out that they were all embedded electronic engineers, and Dave even has a ford campervan thing with which he goes regularly goes wild camping in the US - what are the chances, an american electronic engineer with a US marque van imported from Germany to the US, meets an english embedded electronic engineer with a German marque van, imported from the US to England on a boat on an italian lake...  So the conversation ranged happily and variously from chips to engines, campervans to RVs and all manner of subjects in between - all jolly good fun!

Bidding farewell to our new boat riding friends, we treated ourselves to a hot chocolate with a mountain of cream in a sunny, vine shaded pavement cafe,

 wandered the typical streets to the very point of the pointy bit

and then set off on our walk.

Our second mistake was trying to do the walk with only the very vague instructions from the only book the tourist office in Tremezzo had had on offer (the lady in the tourist office in Bellagio was too busy talking to her friend to want to help us).  Our third mistake, was attempting the walk in the opposite direction from that described in the book "Follow the track down to the village then it is a 25min walk to Bellagio along the road" does not help you find the path.  Our fourth mistake was thinking that the only sign we found indicating a path pointed up the stepped path, rather than along the residential street just next to it...  and so we went wrong at the very first instruction and, we later realised, to do the walk properly, you start at the top of the funicular at Brunate then the aforementioned easy path goes up and down a bit from there before descending to lake level again at Bellagio.  From the other end, you obviously have to get all that altitude on your own.... 

but it was all very lovely, even if most of the way up we were on the road (or scrambling up hillside to short cut switchbacks),

and when we did finally find the path, it was dappled

and foresty

 and strewn with wild flowers.

We did get as far as the snow-line - well, some vestiges of snow in a shady hollow, good enough for us! -

 before turning back down the actual path  - which is quite well signed once you are on it!! -

and back to the first village for a well earned beer in the half an hour before the last bus home.

Turns out, you can't buy bus tickets on the bus. obviously. You buy them in bars and tabacchi.  but not in this particular bar/tabacchi right next to the bus stop.  oh no, that would be far too easy. to get a ticket, you have to walk back to the centre of Bellagio. But fortunately we were able to look foreign and stupid enough that the driver let us on saying we could buy tickets 'on the road' whatever that meant, so for the first time this trip, we didn't miss the last :)   and we weren't the only ones who didn't know about the tickets thing either.  I guess it happens a lot with stupid foreigners...  And it turns out that buying tickets 'on the road' means that halfway home, the bus stops and the bus drivers shouts a lot, until you realise that he means that you need to hop out here, go to the bar and buy bus tickets.  At least that's what we assumed he meant - we sent Will and made sure we stayed on the bus as hostages, just in case the driver thought he could dump us all there and drive off without us - which of course he didn't :)

So home, safe and sound and visitors for home cooked pasta dinner - for the full van dwelling experience :)

Sadly, after only 27 hours of loveliness, the weather was thoroughly broken again in the morning and remained that way for the rest of the holiday :(  We drove right around Lake Como, past Lake Annone to Lecco then up to the top at Colico and back down the other side in search of sunshine but only found rain and fantastic icecream - so not all bad!  

Even the typical streets we tried were just a bit damp and weren't as nice as those in other regions.  

We even went to a whole other lake, Lake Iseo yesterday - a smallish puddle of wetness which randomly contains Europe's largest lake island, so there you go - 

which had stunning geography 

and a properly precarious shore road and windy switchback panoramic road, 

but it was still wet and misty and the icecream wasn't as good :(  

We did, by complete chance, get to watch the end of the grand prix, in one of those curious bar/tabacchi places, paricularly to Lombardy it seems, which is more than half betting shop and where there are about a million different lotteries and scratchcards with a new 90 ball lottery draw every 5 mins, with a count down on a big telly - where does the money come from??  Still GP was exciting!

We did have a lovely meal at Ristorante Sociale in Como on saturday night but still only managed two out of the supposedly typical four courses - well, most of us only managed two,  Austin had chocolate salami pudding and was kind enough to let me nibble a bit, mmm chocolate salami...) - and more homecooked van food by a lake on sunday before a late flight home as well as copious coffee so we have suffered our way through the weather in fine style :)  and we are very grateful for the things bought from home, and the use of the lovely shower!

but all good things come to an end.  back to work for some, on to pastures new for others - Slovenia tomorrow!

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