Sunday, October 23, 2011

Italy, Lake Como

The train started slowly as it departed Milano Centrale station, rolling past the backsides of concrete apartment buildings and chain-linked storage yards.  Eventually the city detritus receded and the landscape opened up to wheat-colored fields and small-town clusters of homes. The tracks began sloping upward and the rocky tops of distant mountains grew closer.  The scenery blacked out periodically as we passed through tunnels carved into the mountains.  In a flash of sunlight between tunnels, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Como.

It feels like forever since we packed our bags and left to explore another corner of the world, our last adventure was to the humid beaches of Tulum, Mexico to escape a long February.  We’re considering this Italian getaway to be our last hurrah before travel gets trickier, this is our “baby moon” before our son is born in March. 

We’re staying in Varenna, on the east shore of the lake, a pastel-colored sleepy town with a view north of the snow-tipped peaks of the Swiss Alps.  Our room is in an annex of the Hotel Oliveda, a bright yellow old mansion next door known as Villa Toretta.  The ground floor is furnished with a gilded table and chairs, glass-front curio cabinets, and a wall of stuffed animal heads over the fireplace.  The place is so quiet it feels like we’re there alone.  Our second-floor room has tall windows with panes of old glass that open onto a panoramic view of the lake.  The mattress is harder than the stone floor. 

Although there’s nothing but blue sky and warm sun during the day, the nights are chilly.  All the tourists seek warm refuge at cozy indoor tables.  After being turned away from four full restaurants by apologetic waiters, we settled on a casual café tucked into a stone niche just above the lake.  We sat down at a wrought iron table on chairs padded with faded blue sailboat cushions.  The white-tile countertop next to us was crowded with an assortment of glass domes covering pastries, tarts and pies.  The waitress pushed aside the tiny vase of flowers on our table to make room for a big salad plate of rocket, white beans, tomatoes and pistachios drizzled with olive oil, a dish of artichoke ravioli in cream sauce, and a bowl of spaghetti with a spicy red sauce.  We lingered after dinner over a dish of hazelnut and chocolate gelato while Mohit finished his beer.

In the morning, we rode the slow boat to take in the views and finally disembarked to explore glitzy Bellagio.  

We found a warm sunny spot to sit for a lunch of pizza and salad.  We wandered off the map to the outskirts of town and followed the voices of happy kids to peek over the top of a stone wall at a big family backyard feast.

In the softening afternoon light, we parked ourselves in café chairs beneath a colonnade and nursed a decaf cappuccino and a pale biere for two hours.  An endless stream of well-dressed people parade by, vespa helmets in hand or dogs pulling tight at leashes.  I’m amazed that after weeks of being so busy, so overbooked and overworked, we are absolutely relaxed here within 24 hours.  At lunch Mohit declared how happy he was- he was only thinking of work 20% of the time, instead of 80%.  I’m hoping to get him down to zero percent.

The next day, we got off the battello navetta (ferry) at Tremezzo to walk along the waterfront road to Villa Carlotta, the Italian equivalent of a Newport mansion perched on a steep hillside over the lake.  We wandered through the eccentric gardens; a bamboo grove with a Japanese gate, a tunnel formed by arched branches of orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, and a manmade waterfall of pumped-in lake water running down a ravine dotted with palms that reminded us of the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali. 

In the afternoon, back in Varenna, we hiked the cobble-paved trail up the steep hill above town (verrrry slowly, since my stamina at 5 ½ months pregnant isn’t what it usually is!) to the ruined Castello de Vezio.  We were greeted just beyond the entrance by a regal horned owl in a cage with intelligent, searching yellow eyes the size of silver dollars.  We interrupted an Indian film crew shooting a romantic scene in the castle courtyard.  We stayed to watch a falcon swoop over our heads and then land on the shoulder of his trainer to pluck meaty morsels from his gloved hands. 

On our last night in Varenna, we felt up for a culinary adventure.  Mohit convinced the grumpy proprietress of our hotel to call and make us a reservation at Ristorante il Caminetto, a traditional trattoria in a tiny village uphill.  The chef’s wife zipped down in her minivan to pick us up, wished us a quick but friendly “buona sera” as we buckled ourselves in, and then drove us fast up hairpin turn roads as the sun set.    She deposited us in front of a thick wooden door, which we pushed open to find a big empty room centered around a fireplace.

The warm and welcoming Chef Morena ushered us to a corner table and apologized for the empty room, explaining that it was the end of the tourist season. We received his undivided attention and followed his recommendations, ordering an antipasto of “tinned vegetables”, which turned out to be a delicious assortment of homemade pickled treats.  We turned next to a primi course of tortelloni stuffed with artichokes and flavored with bright green slivers of leeks, then a creamy risotto with porcini mushrooms and currants (that turned the risotto the color of blueberry pudding).  Already full, we managed to finish most of our secondi course; a beef loin spread with foie gras, wrapped in prosciutto, and served with a creamy sauce and fried potato coins.  He tried to tempt us with his dolci offerings, but we begged mercy, left a big tip, and thanked his wife for a return trip back down to the lake.  

1 comment:

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