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Lago Maggiore

sunny 32 °C
View Midlife gap part 1 on aireland's travel map.

21 June - up reasonably early to pick up Mos sister and brother-in-law (Sheila and John) from Milan Airport - they are joining us for this part of the trip.

They have reasonably low expectations of this holiday based on the experience of their last holiday 2 years ago when they went to Las Vegas and were kicked out of Sheila's cousins house and dumped on the pavement in the searing heat of Las Vegas.

They have some story in which they are entirely blameless and it was all the fault of the mad cousin, her weirdo husband and a rabid hound but I have my doubts - I don't know what wild things they were doing but I have warned Sheila that I will have no qualms about evicting them from the apartment at the first sign of errant behaviour! I get a hint of what may have happened in Vegas later in the week during a wild game of scrabble!

We have a bit of a wander around Stresa (our base) just to get our bearings. It's a busy (but not frenetic) little place - some grand hotels and cutesy lanes mostly filled with restaurants and tourist shops - quite pleasant really

Since it's Sunday and therefore minimal opportunities to buy decent food for self catering, we eat out in a very nice restaurant (Rosa dei Venti) on the waterfront recommended by the apartment owner.

Its quite clear from what we have seen of Maggiore so far that the area is quite Mediterranean in atmosphere, with palms and oleanders lining the lakeside promenades and a peaceful, serene air, it's probably not somewhere for thrill-seekers (note, Sheila) but it is seductively relaxing. Orange blossom, vines, clear air and the verbena that flourishes on Maggiore’s shores - very attractive

The next days are a mixture of trips out to various places - highlights below.

Lake Maggiore Express. I had read about this in advance and we were all keen to go. It comprises three sectors, all of them great journeys in their own right: a fast train on the historic Simplon main line from Stresa to Domodossola; the stunning Centovalli narrow gauge railway from Domodosssola to Locarno in Switzerland; and finally a peaceful 3 hour boat trip down the length of Lake Maggiore back to Stresa - it's about 10 hours in total but worth every penny of the (cheap) 32 euros. You can do the trip the other way around too.

The scenery between Domodossola and Locarno is beautiful (see pics) and we had a really nice lunch on the old square in Locarno and then just chilled out on the boat trip back. It was very hot all day so Mo had Burka episodes on the boat and she has an ally in John who got sunburnt once 25 years ago so will not expose his lilly white skin to any sunshine. John does not don a Burka but it would be correct to say he is dressed in "sensible English attire" with minimal surface area of skin exposed to the sun. In fact he would be safe in a swarm of bees.

It was a perfect day.

Lake Orta.. The westernmost of the major Italian lakes, Lake Orta seems like a bit of an afterthought - a little croissant-shaped tarn that is closer to the Matterhorn than Milan. Perhaps that’s why it is relatively quiet compared to Stresa and to find it, you have to make a special journey; Orta is not somewhere you stumble across.

The main reason for coming here is Orta San Guilo - a medieval village on the shore of the the lake. It's largely unrenovated but very well kept. Lots of narrow, cobbled streets snaking between tall, pastel-washed palazzi with elaborate wrought-iron balconies. Life centres on the waterfront Piazza Motta , which looks directly across at the lakes other attraction–the Isola San Giulio . This wooded islet, 400m offshore, shelters a closed community of nuns, their convent built around a beautiful medieval church. The harmonious ensemble of town, piazza and island is pure Italian theatre, it's quite enchanting.

We wandered around the delightful streets and also took the boat over the the Isola - just managing to avoid a party of Chinese complete with gas masks or whatever it is they where over their nose and mouth. I' m a bit ignorant as to why they wear these when they are away from the pollution of their cities maybe they are being thoughful so as not to pass on bird flu or some other oriental speciality to us but when I see them I always mischievously want to sneeze very close to them just so that they can justify wearing the bloody things.

Lake Como. This warrants more that the day trip that we took but we wanted a flavour of it. The immediate impression (compared to serene Maggiore) is how busy it is. Lots of tourists crowding the many boats that run up and down the Lake. We managed to get onto a ferry going up the lake to Bellagio where (because of ferry schedules) we would only get about 30 mins before having to return. Once we arrived I actually managed to change us onto a fast service coming back which meant we had a couple of hours there.

The scenery as you cruise up the lake stopping at multiple little towns is spectacular bit it's difficult to get over the impression that it's all really busy and a bit frenetic.

Bellagio (the real one not the Las Vegas copy) has been called the most beautiful town in Italy and its not hard to see why. With a promenade planted with oleanders and lime trees, fin-de-siècle hotels painted shades of butterscotch, peach and cream, a spectacular mid-lake location and a crumbling core of stepped, cobbled alleyways, Bellagio appears to be the quintessential ItalIan Lakes town.

Looking north from Bellagio, the scenery appears to be even more dramatic but alas we had not time to explore.

We had a good wander around Bellagio in the mid day heat (Mo and John in Burka and Equivalent) and then found somewhere for a quick lunch before getting the (faster) ferry back to Como town. It was all a bit rushed really and I should have planned it better - checking out ferry times and getting there earlier. Well we got a taste and maybe it's one for the future.

Mottarone. Towering behind Stresa, separating Lake Maggiore from Lake Orta, is the Mottarone mountain. A cable car serves the mountain from CARCIANO , on the lakefront about 750m north of Stresa; it’s an epic twenty-minute ride, swinging high above the forested slopes, which delivers you to a point just below the summit, offering stupendous east-facing views across Maggiore. A chairlift (free with cable-car ticket) –or a ten-minute walk –covers the last bit to the very top, where 360-degree panoramas open up. Beside the midway cable-car stop is the Alpinia Botanic Garden with fountain, lake and lookout point. So said the guide book says.

In fact the cable car was under repair. Not just for a couple of days but A WHOLE YEAR. This meant we had to drive to the top including hairpin bends so there was a lot of grunting, sighing and attempts to press non-existent brake pedals from the seat next to me (guess who).

We stopped at the Botanical Gardens which really were very impressive. not manicured but attractive in a semi wild way with great views over Lake Maggiore. I'm sure they are really pleased with the authorities who decided to close the cable car for a year - it will decimate their business.

On to the peak which again offered great views but just felt a little abandoned. There was a strange cafe/restaurant at the top which although served very good coffee including Sheila's decaf which the Italians kept calling (correctly) "coffee without coffee" every time she asked for it (I don't understand the concept either - it's like alcohol free beer - WHY?)

This particular place had decided that because it's at the top of a mountain and in winter is a ski resort, it is perfectly reasonable to be playing Xmas songs over the sound system (Johnny Mathis - When a Child is Born) in June - bloody odd.

Borromeo Islands.. Probably Lake Maggiore’s leading attractions are three lush islands rising from the waters of the bay between Stresa and Pallanza. All three are often dubbed the ISOLE BORROMEO after the banking family which owns tow of them (banking family called Borromeo - you couldn't make it up!). They are Isola Bella, Isola Superiore (dei Pescatori) and Isola Madre.

Each island is markedly different. The most celebrated is Isola Bella , just offshore at Stresa and taken up by a Baroque palazzo and formal terraced gardens. Behind, in open water nearer to Pallanza, is the larger Isola Madre , occupied by a modest villa, with gardens that are wilder than its twin. A stone’s throw northwest of Isola Bella is the slender Isola Superiore , also known as Isola dei Pescatori –once the residence of fisherfolk and still a pleasant little nook, with its narrow lanes and old houses.

They are all really romantic places. The atmospheric journey by boat from Stresa, as the Baroque terraces of Isola Bella rise from the water, is pure fantasy brought to life. Views of the palazzo from different angles, as your boat circles to approach the porticoes and shuttered windows of Isola dei Pescatori, are delightful.

We did a tour of the islands with Sheila and John earlier in the week and then Mo and I went back to Isola Madre later in the week to visit the gardens and the Pallazo. This was partly because we wanted a more detailed look but also to have a little time on our own as the time was rapidly approaching when Mo would have to return to the UK for two months as not even the Burkha and a wardrobe would offer her sufficient protection from the South European heat in July and August.

The visit to Madre was a real pleasure - we spent 4 hours there without realising it. The gardens are a mixture of formal and informal with great views from all sides and the Pallazo was full of interesting artefacts and frescos. Mo and I both agreed that we could easily spend a week just floating between these three islands - really special.

Those are most of the highlights but I should mention our neighbours at the apartment - Gaetano and Gianni.

One of the things I have not mentioned on any of my blogs is that I have been trying to learn to play the guitar (one of the reasons for not flying anywhere on this trip is that I have a guitar with me and the airlines would just smash it). I tend to do a bit of practice most days and whilst doing it here, I heard someone else playing a guitar (far better than me). Anyway one morning after about three nights at the apartment, this guy approached me downstairs and in very broken English and lots of Italian suggested that we play together. My immediate response given how much I really am a total beginner was "no".

A few hours later I realised that this may have appeared very rude (it was not the intention) so I quickly used google translate to explain in Italian my lack of skills and therefore confidence and then managed to lean around our balcony to his, get his attention and show him the translated text on my iPad.
His reaction was just to ask us round for a drink. We had a fantastic evening with them (husband and wife, mid sixties) - Gaetano and John (who does play guitar) strumming away, Sheila and Mo screeching out some lyrics and me enjoying his whiskey. Through a combination of French, laughable Italian (on my part) and doing the English thing of speaking very slowly and loudly we managed to communicate. We had shared music tastes and I promised to copy some music for him - which I did when we repeated the evening a few nights later.

They were a lovely, friendly couple who made us very welcome in their home - I went back again on the last night in Stresa after Sheila, John and Mo had flown back to the UK and they gave me some gifts. We all promised to keep in touch and I know John has already sent Gaetano some CDs and I have sent them an email (google translate again). A nice memory to keep from Maggiore.

Sheila and John managed to avoid eviction from the apartment though there was a close moment. One evening, in a fit of devil may care spontaneity, Sheila suggested a game of Scrabble. Now I'm quite adventurous on holiday but this was quite a departure. John obviously felt he couldn't quite reach the required level of derring-do so it was just me, Mo and Sheila. If this is an example of the sort of behaviour they exhibited in Las Vegas then I can fully understand and empathise with the cousin who turfed them out. Too much excitement!

We had a great time with Sheila and John and hope they enjoyed their holiday

Lake Maggiore is a top spot. We will go back and I would certainly like to explore Como a bit more

Mo flew back with Sheila and John on 29 June. I had the last night at the apartment in the company of our lovely neighbours and on 30 departed for Southern Italy on way to Greece - more of that in next blogs

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Posted by aireland 05:54 Archived in Italy

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