It had been nearly six months since the last vacation - the holiday to Copenhagen and Malmo was already just a speck of imagination, if we agreed to discount a couple of nights spent in Great Yarmouth, in October. Since that holiday, trees had shed their leaves and the cold snap had gripped the country in it's throes, for a lengthy period of time. The weather turned adverse far more often than one cared to count and a few storms battered the British Coast - Storm Angus, Storm Barbara, Storm Conor, Storm Doris - at eerily regular intervals. The security signage outside the house succumbed to the wrath of Storm Doris and had decided to take the route to freedom. Tracking back the path of the storm, the signage might well have ended up in East Anglia or it could have done the full circle - guessing is not going to bring it back.The heating bills swelled, car maintenance took a back seat and the work had gotten more intense and the pressures kept on piling until it was almost unbearable. An immediate getaway was needed as the perfect antidote and to help regain some semblance of sanity. It was time for a quick holiday.
There was not much of a preparation for this trip, as we had just allowed ourselves to be transported with the time, to the Italian Lake District. The Lombardy region in Italy is famous for it's magnificent lakes - directly to the north of Milan, and very close to the Swiss border, are the 3 famous lakes of Lago Maggiore, Lago di Lugano and, perhaps, the most famous of them all - Lago di Como. To the north-east of Milan are the 2 other lakes - Lago d'Iseo and Lago di Garda. In fact Lago di Garda is more closer to Verona than it is to Milan and the largest of all the lakes.
Our destination on this occasion was the Lago di Como or Lake Como. Our choice of holiday destination for this vacation was dictated by a need for relaxation and for slowing down the pace of life. Lake Como promised to offer just that. We told ourselves, that this will not end up as another "chase the light" photography intensive holiday, eventhough the destination is, perhaps, the most photogenic in Europe.
Lake Como is the 3rd largest lake in Italy after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore but one of the deepest lakes in Europe. The lake is shaped like an inverted "Y" and on the South-West end, lies the town of Como - from where the lake takes it's name. We flew into Milan Malpensa airport from where we took the train to Milano Porta Garibaldi station where we had 15 minutes to change trains to Como. The penultimate stop on this line is the town of Como and the final stop - a few minutes away - is Chiasso, which is a border town in Switzerland. The overall journey time from the airport to Como San Giovanni, including the transit time, is about 1h50m.
On arrival at Como San Giovanni station, we walked for a little less than 10 minutes to reach our hotel - Albergo Firenze - and after checking in - we dropped our luggage in the room and freshened up and headed out to the lake front. Unlike my usual vacation travels, I did not burden myself with a heavy bag full of photographic gear or lenses, so this time, I had just slung my camera over the shoulder and carried a spare telephoto lens in my jacket pocket.
The lake shore and the promenade was less than 5 minutes walk from the hotel and we soon found ourselves in front of a Boat Tours Office that does hourly trips around the lake from Como. It costs 5 Euros (as at Feb 2017) and we soon jumped in to soak in the sights and sounds and smells of the lake and the surroundings. The weather was quite beautiful with the maximum temperature of around 10°C and quite sunny.
On our return from the tour, we headed in a westerly direction along the shore and soon realised that we hadn't eaten the whole day. We found a kiosk/ van at an intersection and had a couple of paninis before continuing our walk along the shore.
We soon found ourselves by the Life Electric sculpture at the end of the Diga Foranea pier which can be reached from the Tempio Voltiano, a museum by the lakeside dedicated to Alessandro Volta, the inventor of electrical battery. The other construction dedicated to Alessandro Volta is the Faro Voltiano, a lighthouse on Brunate - a neighbouring town of Como - reachable by winding roads and also by the famous Como to Brunate funicular.
Life Electric is a stainless steel structure and during the day, reflects the city of Como, depending on where you stand in relation to the sculpture. In the below image I have tried to take advantage of this reflection while also attempting to capture the scene in front of the camera - both on the same shot. The difficulty was to keep the shorelines on both the perspectives aligned, as much as possible, besides keeping the shoreline straight and horizontal on the reflection, due to the curvature of the sculpture
After spending nearly an hour at the pier, we walked back to our hotel and before long we were fast asleep.
After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and fully armed with the information on ferry timings, we left again for the lake side to take the fast ferry to Bellagio. Having booked the tickets we realised we had another 45 minutes before the departure and so we decided to head into town to see the famous Duomo di Como or the Como Cathedral. The cathedral is most notably known for it's majestic cupola and one of the best known structures in the area. The picture below is the west face of the Como Cathedral, Cathedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.
The journey to Bellagio took approximately 45 minutes with 2 to 3 stops en route of about 2 minute duration each. The ticket cost €14.80 per person one way. The fares are pretty reasonable and tend to be a lot cheaper if it is a regular ferry and not the fast service. Bellagio is perhaps the most famous of the towns, the pearl of Lake Como, as it is uniquely situated to access all the 3 legs of the lake. The South-East end of the Lake from Bellagio will lead to the town of Lecco, to the South-West end, the town of Como and to the north, Colico and the Alps. Bellagio is most famous for it's beautiful villas overlooking the waters of the lake.
As the ferry approached the pier, we were momentarily stunned by the sheer beauty of the waterfront and heightened sense of suspense of not knowing what lies behind the walls of the storefronts and the hotels lining the water front. One of the first sights we encountered is actually a French sounding name of a hotel called Hotel du Lac. As we got off the ferry, we were presented with various stairway paths that lead into the town beyond. We just happened to take the Salita Monastero because there were far fewer tourists on this path, but it was no less quaint.
On reaching the top, we found ourselves at the Piazza della Chiesa, where there is a Basilica of San Giacomo. After catching our breath climbing all those steps, it was time to lose our breath again, this time by the sheer elegance of the town itself.
Basilica of San GiacomoThe sculpture of the horse at the church parking provided an unusual angle from which to take this shot. The horse appeared oblivious and seemed to be taking a bite off the roof of a building
We soon ambled away from the church and walked on towards the town's main street, via Giuseppe Garibaldi. The narrow street is studded with cafés, restaurants, art shops, silk shops, souvenir shops and plenty of other interesting sights. Como is also the city of silk. The techniques in manufacturing dates back to olden times. There is an abundance of silk boutiques studded across the various towns along Lake Como - Bellagio has a few of them as well.
Perhaps the most famous and the most photographed passageway in the whole of the region is the Salita Serbelloni - with it's own fashionable boutiques, restaurants, gelaterias - and presenting a beautiful view of the lake and the town itself.
We walked further along and by the Villa Serbelloni, that is currently owned by The Rockefeller Foundation, we took a series of ascending steps and after a turn in the passageway, descended a series of steps to the Lecco arm of the Lake. The beach was a lot less crowded and the few people that were there, were fully immersed in a book or were listening to music when soaking in such beautiful settings.
After spending a few minutes trying different photographic compositions, we decided to head back to the ferry terminal to take the next ferry to Varenna - a picturesque village on the Eastern shore of Lake Como. The ferry ride from Bellagio takes about 15 minutes and costs €9.20 for a return trip. As the ferry approached the pier, we were captivated by the colourful buildings and the Church of San Georgio, identifiable from quite a distance, even from the opposite shore, by the majestic bell tower rising high above the rest of the buildings.
On arrival, we decided to have an overdue lunch and stopped by one of the many waterfront restaurants. The food was delectable and the service was fantastic. We highly recommend the Restaurant Olivedo. There was a good choice of vegetarian food on the menu.
Varenna is not known for it's fast paced life, and the tourists flock here in huge numbers primarily for rest and relaxation. The fishing village has a small harbour, a lovely narrow promenade along the water's edge and the old town has no streets, just lanes of steps. Perhaps the most famous attraction at Varenna is the Villa Cipressi with it's tiered gardens - even though we did not get a chance to visit, it has been meticulously added to our list for future purposes.
And then it was time to get the ferry back to Bellagio, to connect the Bellagio-Como fast ferry. On reaching the pier, we found that we had not understood the timetable well enough, and hence mis-judged the departure time from Varenna. This resulted in missed connection at Bellagio (being the last one for the day, as it was Sunday), necessitating some alacrity in thinking. We found that there was a bus to Como departing about 20 minutes after our arrival from Varenna, and we quickly found the bus stop and obtained our tickets for the return journey of a little over an hour. The ticket cost only €3.70 per person, a lot cheaper than the fare we paid for the fast ferry from Como to Bellagio. On arrival at Como, we ordered a pizza for dinner and soon we were fast asleep.
As you may have already observed that Day 2 was quite heavy, and the original objective of the vacation was rest and relaxation, we abandoned any thoughts of heading out to Lugano in Switzerland, which is only 35 minutes from Como. Instead, we decided to walk up to the Como to Brunate funicular and took the ascending contraption to the top of the mountain. This is not as dramatic as the one we had been to in Interlaken in Switzerland, but good enough to keep the excitement flowing through. The return fare is just €5.50 per person and the journey takes about 7 minutes to reach the top.
On arrival at the top, we decided to walk northward towards the many designated trails. Along the way, there were some magnificent villas and holiday homes for the rich and famous overlooking the city of Como and the lake. After about a mile, we arrived at a breath-taking viewpoint, where we decided to spend the next 1 hour soaking in the scene and to make some pictures.
When in Como, tourists have an option of taking to the skies on a seaplane, that cost about €100.00 per person for a 30 minute flight to Bellagio and back. This provides a different perspective of the lake and the various villas that adorn it's shores. The scene in front of us was a little dull due to the atmospheric haze, but it was still worth it. On a clear day, one could look all the way into Switzerland from the vantage point.
In the picture above, the town to the right of the river Breggia is Cernobbio and the immediate forefront adjacent to the river is the Villa Erba, which was used as location for the film Ocean's Twelve. To the left of the river is the town of Tavernola, which is next to Como.
Having taken in all that peace and quiet, we headed back to Como to wander it's cobble-stoned streets to have some lunch in one of the many al fresco dining places and to cool ourselves with some gelato ice-cream. Every turn we took, every street we entered, there was always something interesting - be it the people, the shops, the architecture or simply a combination of all of these .
We had lunch at one of the eating-houses in the neighbourhood and treated ourselves to a triple-scoop ice-cream. We then spent some time sitting by the lake, before a steady and gentle breeze started to turn nippy and cold and we headed back to the hotel for early retirement.
We checked out of the hotel after breakfast and headed out to Como San Giovanni station for the return trip with a full day stopover in Milan. The weather had turned fickle and it was raining and very windy. We arrived about 20 minutes earlier than the scheduled departure time and were waiting when another train arrived at the platform bound for a different destination. The passengers that were waiting at the station must have thought that I had lost my marbles when I ran ahead of the train as it was approaching the platform, so I could get a picture of it.
Como San Giovanni StationShot with an iPhone 6 We soon got our train and arrived Milano Centrale, a massive train station that connects Turin to the west and to Verona and Venice in the East, to Bologna, Rome and Naples to the south and to Bern and Zurich in Switzerland to the North. Having once stayed in Milan, at a close proximity to the station, for nearly a month about 10 years ago, I was quite familiar with the place and it's Metro system. We dropped our luggage at the cloak room and decide to explore the city. We were keen on getting the two most important sights covered before attempting anything else. The Duomo di Milano or the Milan Cathedral is the largest church in Italy. It is an imposing structure that took about six centuries for the construction to complete. The best part about the place is the easy accessibility right in the centre of the city and surrounded by Metro exits. On arrival at the spot, we realised there was a massive queue to buy tickets to gain entry to the church but the weather was getting worse and it was rainy and windy and quite cold, so we just took a walk around the church.
We then headed out to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade that is on the same square as the Duomo. It is the world's oldest shopping mall and is an imposing structure with delicate artwork and high-end shops and restaurants.
Having spent a long time taking cover inside the shopping arcade, we finally decided to indulge in a bit of retail-therapy - but not at the arcade but at another place that I had been to over 10 years ago. We took the Metro and reached the outskirts of the city, to Abbiategrasso. We then changed to a tram and reached Fiordaliso shopping centre near Rozzano. We spent the next couple of hours at the shopping centre and had lunch before deciding to head back into Milan town centre.
We then met up with an old Italian business friend and well-wisher whose office happens to be very close to the Milano Centrale station and it was a meeting after 10 years. We had some lovely coffee and biscuits and exchanged a lot of news and views, before we bid adieu to each other and promised to be in touch.
Finally, it was the moment to depart, we went back to the station, collected our luggage from the cloak room, took the shuttle to Malpensa Airport and soon we were flying back to London.
Thinking back on the trip, we can say that we are proud of not going berserk with a lot of itinerary planning and not visiting a lot of places crammed into the 4 days that we spent, but did keep a relaxed pace about seeing the places and the things we wanted to.
There are other places within Italy that beckons us - the Tuscany region, Cinque Terre or the Italian Riviera, the Amalfi Coast down south, Venice, Florence and Rome and may be even Sicily. Be sure to watch out this space.