Sad day. Our Lake Como vacation ended.
We left the small town on the east coast, drove north to the end of the lake, and turned south to make our way along the west coast, which we stared at for the past to weeks. This route was an alternative to the way we came, which included a ferry trip across mid-lake. I wanted to inspect the villages hugging the lake shore all the way down to Como, which we had seen only from the boat. We continue to marvel at the old villas and marvelous vegetation planted by the original owners. If one had the time, this would be a good route for on foot, because a driver must concentrate on the narrow road, crazy drivers, and wide trucks.
We stopped a mall just over the Swiss border, which features all major designer brands. Big mistake. Prices were ridiculously low for desirable products. This is not a good place to take a woman...
Italians might be good at hanging houses on step hills, but Swiss can build tunnels. Although I enjoy driving over the Gotthard Pass, we decided to use the tunnel. One spends about twenty minutes under a large mass of granite, with the chance of some idiot veering from the oncoming lance. This requires less time than using the pass, but is far less scenic. A switch to circulate air within the car is advantageous.
To reach Interlaken, where we plan to spend a few days, requires a trip over a pass that is 2200 meters in elevation (you can look up the conversion). The road winds up many switchbacks, with breath-taking views up and down. Guard rails are not a feature of this route, which is closed by snow in the winter. More photos are not possible, because I chose to concentrate on driving.
Interlaken is full of Japanese tourists, who seem to be required to ride the train to the top of the Jungfrau, much like Muslims must travel to Mecca. We can see the peak of that famous mountain from our hotel room--the white bit in the center of the below photo, which resembles Toblerone on a bed of whipped cream.
We plan to travel to a small town opposite the Jungfrau: Murren.
Many might not enjoy vacation at Lake Como. Let them remain afar, but I will return.
Fans of Disney-style artificiality, brand name sameness, and packaged fantasy will criticize Old World authenticity, inconsistent uniqueness, and natural beauty.
People willing to pay inflated prices for mediocre food and drink might suspect the quality, because they have rarely, if ever, come face-to-face with good food at decent prices.
Anyone needing stimulation to find enjoyment will miss such blights of modern life as amusement parks, discotheques, and strip malls.
Those demanding multi-lane, divided highways to speed them past something worth seeing will criticize narrow, winding roads, which hug the lake shore, thread through picturesque villages, pierce rock in dark, narrow tunnels, or climb steep hills in numerous switch backs.
Someone unable to sit still and enjoy a lovely view will surely be dissatisfied or even go crazy.
People unable to appreciate nature and man’s ability to improve upon it with stone walls, hedges, flowering bushes, and towering trees should stay out of my way and beyond earshot. Who wants to hear moaning of anyone unable to grasp beauty, charm, or the appeal of tranquility in a place untouched by most “progress”?
NB. One unpleasant aspect of modern life has made it’s way to the shores of Lake Como. Lush vegetation needs trimming in a world designed and controlled by humans. Beautiful hedges do not get that way without care. Small plots of grass on steep, terraced hills must be cut. All this was done by hand in the past, but irritating machines have replaced manpower. One is frequently disturbed by weed whackers, noisily creating the beauty I praise above. I am reminded to take the bad with the good, but still feel that trimming shears would make be happier.
For the past three evenings, someone in a nearby house practices blowing into a French horn. He or she is not bad, but also not good. The unusual sound is not disturbing. The time is nine thirty, and notes still float up and down, as well as surely across, the lake. In Germany, someone would have called the police.
Some are surely disturbed, but I find the music (noise?) interesting, entertaining, and somehow fitting to this setting. I much prefer a horn serenade to violin chords or vocal scales. One is reminded of scenes from the movie The Vikings, where a horn welcomes returning ships to the fjord--a body of water not unlike this lake.
At home, I bore easily without something to do, read, or watch. I do look out the window at the garden or the street, but not for long. This is what happens most places I have been. Lake Como is different. I have yet to tire of staring at the lake and surrounding mountains. Without moving, the view changes with with time of day, weather, and activity on the lake or in the sky. Currents and wind constantly change the appearance of the water surface and light alters the color. No two cloud formations ever look similar and cast changing shadows on the ground below.
At the moment, for example, a man paddles by standing on a surf board with his dog pointing the way on the front--a new sight. I turn my head and spot another man on a board, but with two black dogs lying at his feet. The lake offers no waves for surfing, so humans have found other uses for surf boards. I have seen kite boarders, for wind is often strong enough to push a sail boat or lift a man with a board attached to his feet.
Occasionally, I stare at towns and houses across the lake and wonder about their history and occupants. Lights high on the mountain cause me to think about the arduous drive or climb to reach such dwellings. And, why live there or what does one do for work?
Today, no sailboats crowd the lake, which seems strange. Saturday in July should be a day of leisure even for those without vacation. During the week, small boats often fill the view, so why not today? The wind is calm, but that has never stop ardent sailors.
I expected this region to be crowded in summer, because all other holiday regions in Europe fill with hordes from the north. Lack of large hotels and campgrounds keeps masses away, and many private houses remain empty, waiting for owners that traditionally take off the month of August. Italy, like France, still clings to the old ways, so I expect a few more people next month. But, I hear that crowds never plague Lake Como, which adds to the appeal.
Until today, we had enjoyed the relative calm of having no neighbors in the few surrounding houses. Some are owned by Germans, who must live the state just now receiving vacation. (Vacations are staggered by state to prevent all clogging the highways on the same weekend, as happens in other countries.) We hear voices through the vegetation or from the lake below the house. This not disturbing, but does make the place less tranquil. I can still stare at the view with the added sound effects.
I turn my head and look down the lake towards Belaggio, where the lake splits in two legs. White, puffy clouds fill blue sky over the lake. Clouds increase moving north. If I turn to the other direction and look towards the Swiss Alps, dark clouds cover the sky and threaten rain. Across the lake. A gentle rain begins to fall on the roof of the terrace, so I gaze through rain drops at the view at sun shining on the opposite shore. A stray ray of sunlight beams on one town, as if illuminating its significance in the grand scheme of things. Who knows what that might be?
What looks like a searchlight beam is merely sunlight reflected off a window on the opposite shore.
In case anyone is interested, I will explain what I like about where we are. I feel more like a visitor than a tourist. In the central towns of Belaggio, Menaggio, or Verenna, one can feel like a tourist, because more fill the streets and more establishments cater to that beast.
At the northern reaches of the lake, life is still pleasant, but more like "real" Italy and more like the old world. Shops and restaurants serve more traditional fare. Local men hang out in bars and trattorias. Prices are ridiculously low for a vacation region, suggesting that life here has changed little. For example, we had two cappuccinos and two croissants and the cost was only 4 euros. You can pay that for one coffee in Frankfurt. Finding traditional fare also makes the experience more pleasurable. One seeks different sights and flavors on vacation (and usually pays a price inflated for the tourist season).
I enjoy visiting the Old World, even if I--and all others--know that I'm just another bloody tourist.
That pesky low pressure system continues to bless us with one day of sunshine, followed by a day of showers and cooler temperatures. This is not as bad as it sounds, because we can read and stare at the lake.
Today, an irritating wed whacker drove us out of the house and into the car. This was also not as bad as it sounds, because we were able to discover a bit more of the surroundings. During a rain shower, we discovered a shopping mall and decided to check out the offer. Mall of America does not have to fear competition, but local residents are provided a bit of the modern world. For vacation, I prefer the shops of the little towns, but one tends to become soaked by the rain. The selection of shops, products on offer, and prices reflect the nature of society at the northern end of Lake Como, hard on the mountains separating Italy from Switzerland. Although close in distance, this spot is far removed from St. Moritz, Lugano, Como, and Bellagio.
But, because this is Italy, we enjoyed excellent pizza and gellato...
My grandmother told stories about my grandfather, who died when I was two. He would rise early to fish at his "secret" fishing hole to catch his breakfast. The location of his favorite spot accompanied him to his grave, but I have no need for the knowledge. I live too far away and do not eat fish for breakfast.
Times have changed, since American ate hearty breakfasts. No one goes fishing to catch his or her breakfast. (In his day, men fished, but emancipation has conquered America.) People now eat sweetened cereal or pop tarts, which are not much sweeter. And, little fresh water fish is even available for other meals, thanks to pollution and politicians.
Which brings me to my point...
Today, I enjoyed fresh perch from Lake Como, sitting in a restaurant beside the very water from which my lunch was caught. There might be a spot, but I know of no lake in the United States from which one can have a meal.
I cannot think of a spot on this planet where I would rather be...
Today we rode a typical lake steamer from Varenna, where the lake divides, to Como, which lies at the bottom of the western leg. The trip took three hours; the lake is long and the boat travels slowly. One enjoys good views of the towns and villas lining the banks.
Some towns are more picturesque than others, with tourist towns being easily identifiable: the ones with fresher paint.
Como is larger than most villages, but is rather pleasant. The narrow streets have nice shops and restaurants. Italian architecture, mixing old and new, adds to the appeal. Great ice cream is readily available.
Two conclusions came to mind during this trip. First of all, Italians sure know how to hang a house or a village on a steep hillside. Second, finding magnolias in bloom this late in the year surprises and please me.
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.