6:30 a.m. 22 August, Albergo Lenno
Our last day. I’ve woken early to see the sunrise. Our window blew open in the middle of the night, letting in the lullaby of the lake’s rhythm. Add to that the gentle rain and a perfectly grey morning. There is no sunrise to speak of but a soft, growing light. Out our three windows, vistas of this fairy tale place, the only other sounds to be heard – a few birds chirping, the occasional bump of two boats together, a duck now and then, and every half hour the beautiful church at the center of this village tolling the time. I’ve never felt so much a part of a fairy tale scene – never found myself enveloped by the peace of a place. I could stay here forever. Instead, I will carry it home with me and let it last in my imagination, shaping me by its peace and beauty. It reminds me of all the loveliest lines in European Romantic orchestral music – like Smetana’s Moldau or Mendelssohn’s sweetest moments. I don’t think I believed before that places this idyllic actually exist – unstained by even so much as a telephone wire cutting through the panorama. It is perfect. I think this is what people have in their mind’s eye when they imagine they are going to “see Europe.” I’ve seen Europe.
We lingered awhile in our room on Friday morning, sleepy and enjoying the ridiculous luxury of a large bathroom, complete with a “rain” shower head and an actual sink counter where we could both stand. Our ferry was due to leave from just beyond the hotel doors at … Breakfast was served in an unbelievable dining room on the second floor of the hotel, its large windows overlooking the pool below. The buffet offered completely blew us away: everything you could imagine was available, including a gorgeous array of meats and cheeses and raw vegetables. We are an enormous meal, planning to make a lunch out of nothing but the small remainder of salami & cheese from the day before.
By the time we’d returned to our room for our bags and checked out at the front desk the gentle rain had turned into a downpour, and we fumbled through it to the ferry ticket house with our umbrellas and our ridiculous number of heavy bags, drenching a couple of them thoroughly. After a few minutes we saw the ferry emerge from the dense fog and made another dash through the deluge to board. We sank into the first seats that caught our eye, but I wished through the whole ride that we’d taken the trouble to lug our bags just a few feet more to situate ourselves right near a window. With the rain sliding down the windows, and our position in the center of the wide boat, there was not much chance to glimpse the coastal hillsides we’d been awed by on our drive the day before. We hadn’t bothered with photos telling ourselves it would be a better view from the water the next day. The ferry sped down the water, covering the 15 miles of lake in about thirty minutes.
Even so, we were incredibly anxious. One final mad dash lay before us, the last tight connection of our trip. (I suppose not counting the distance from our shuttle to the ticket desk at Malpensa airport.) To make it even more interesting, this dash was going to be an improv. We didn’t have a clear sense of where we needed to end up or where we’d be starting from, only that we had to get from the boat to the train platform in under fifteen minute, on foot with all our bags. We used our mediocre map to form a rough plan and then set off running from the dock. (I was wearing a dress and sandals with a small heel.) If we missed that train we’d wait several hours for the next (slower) one and lose a large chunk of our short time in Milan. We made it with several minutes to spare, despite the several flights of steps that lay between our winded selves and the train station’s entrance.
The train ride was quick and we were in our terminal city: Milan. It took us as long to navigate Milan’s huge central station, ride a few stops on the subway, and emerge onto the city streets as it did to ride the train from Como. So we emerged from underground by an enormous flight of stone steps and sprawled before our eyes was the Duomo, Italy’s largest cathedral, and the fifth largest church structure in the world. It was a staggering welcome to a fascinating city. But we didn’t get there without a quick taste of local culture:
Saturday 23 Aug, 6:15 a.m., Malpensa Airport
Now all that remains to be told is the story of Wednesday. And the tale of the un-uniformed man helping people with tickets to board the metro under Milano train station: he smoothly, quickly guided us, then reached in the machine to retrieve our tickets for us, handing them to us and then taking the 2E coin of change and motioning as though he’d eat it, asking us to give it to him. We wouldn’t have dared say no, and so for the second time we were conned on the streets of Europe. Those streets more than made up for it five minutes later, though, as we listened to a violinist positively dancing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on the subway. The many kinds of street music we’ve heard and seen have been an amazing part of this trip, not least the saxophone plaintively rising as we climbed the Duomo yesterday, loud enough to match the immensity of the place.
Finding our hotel was a nerve-wracking experience, and another evidence of the small holes left in my obsessive preparations for our trip. We had no map of Milan and only the address of our hotel and a general sense that it was about a half mile southwest of the Duomo. So we began following our noses into a tangled web of strangely-angled streets, bouncing back and forth ideas for how to achieve our goal, eyeing various shops with the thought of going in to try out our English on a local and hope they’d know. We ended up asking an old man sitting in a public transit booth. He’d never heard of the hotel or the street, which we found alarming at first, but later when we saw the diminutive alley it was it made sense. He pulled out a tattered street atlas and helped us look it up. We thanked him and, like the quintessential tourists, snapped a photo of his map before setting off down the road he told us to follow. By this time the cobbled roads had finished their destruction of one of the wheels on our large suitcase so we were basically dragging it along the cobbled streets. It was becoming obvious that our journey was at its end.
Saturday 23 August, 6:15 a.m. Malpensa Airport
Our hotel last night was plain and old but completely satisfactory for what we needed. It was deep in the heart of Milan’s narrow streets, just a quick walk SW of the Duomo. They graciously gave us our keys at 11:30 when we arrived yesterday and then we set out, stopping on our way to the Duomo at the most glamorous grocery store imaginable, in part only to wonder at it, but also to find our last gift: coffee for Mike’s Dad. We bought some bread, too, which we ate with the remainder of yesterday’s cheese and salami on the Duomo’s piazza after a couple hours wandering its interior, “reading” its tremendous stained glass, standing in awe beside the underground remains of the baptistery where Ambrose baptized Augustine. A pilgrimage, for sure. I think this was my favorite church. It was unspoiled by plaques to educate tourists and much of it was inaccessible to us. It felt sacred. The size fascinates me, too: built large enough at its time to contain every citizen of Milan, because of course all the city should gather in its walls simultaneously. Fires the imagination. After a rest we wandered the dim, immense, but rather unrewarding museum, and then climbed the stairs to walk the roof.
Afterwards we walked through the massive covered shopping streets – glamorous and immense as consumerism gets – the USA of Europe. From there we walked past La Scala but shamefully didn’t bother to gain access, and then past Sforzesco Castle into Milan’s “Central Park,” where we rested in a quiet spot and I fell asleep, exhausted. We returned to our hotel, navigating the surprisingly empty streets as best we could with the terrible map our hotel had to offer. The streets wander so haphazardly, giving way to confusing piazzas and perpetually changing names and directions.
We relaxed awhile and found a well-reviewed pizza place 2km south on the famous canals – a street that comes alive at night with Milan’s happy people out for a good time and sprawling buffets – “tapas,” free with drink and cover charge: Italy’s definition of happy hour. It was an ugly district, though, and like so much of what we’ve seen, clearly poor by comparison with what we know in the states – not just poor, or maybe not poor at all, but old, unpolished, less pretentious and tidy: humanity at its truest and a melting pot, too, of many cultures. America and monoculture – not just in farming!! We were tired yesterday and happy to take an easy peace.
We enjoyed the day as much because it was our last as anything. We didn’t love Milan but we were glad to experience it for a day. We felt satiated, and even our appetites were poor, our stomachs weary of endless cheese and brioche. Abstractly, we had high hopes for dinner, having saved pizza to be our farewell experience.
As we waited twenty minutes for the restaurant to open, perched on a bridge over the canal, we talked of the day, the trip, the city… And then we took a table indoors at Pizzeria La Tradizionale and what a farewell it was!! The best pizza in the Neapolitan style we’ve ever dreamed, the wood fire easy to taste with every bite of perfect crust. Mike’s was slathered in ricotta. Mine, fresh mozzarella, capers, olives, mushrooms, ham, anchovies, artichokes, oregano. It was marvelous, and the chianti alongside was perfect and exactly what we’d wanted. We bought a second bottle to bring home and drink in ten years. I think our waiter thought were on our honeymoon.
Our waiter!! Garon, from Croatia, thoroughly endeared himself to us. Though tipping is not customary in European restaurants we eagerly tipped in five euros. He took such good care of us, worked tirelessly to overcome the language barrier that arose when we tried to explain our desire to age a bottle of wine 10 years. (Would it keep?) It was an ordeal sorting out that enormous miscommunication, but he wasn’t happy until he’d gotten us exactly what we wanted. We’ll raise a glass to him in ten years, and remember all the laughter together. He sold us an unplanned piece of tiramisu when we’d finished, sold it like a pro. It was to die for. Better than the serving I had Thursday night at the fine trattoria in Lenno. When we’d finally paid our check he came out with two limoncellos, frosty-cold, a gift to us.
What a night!! We left enchanted, beyond pleased with our farewell meal, thoroughly in love with that restaurant and the Italian way: when we’d arrived the staff was dining and laughing together, like a family having dinner before their night’s work. Obviously they’d honored their siesta, too. A sane way of life. We laughed at the popped collars, ubiquitous here, but some are simply up and some are carefully styled with all the pains we might take tying a tie at just the right length, with just the right know. One of the waiters sported the most amazing specimen we’d ever seen and we laughed at his personality to match.
We left the restaurant in high spirits and walked north again, stopping to indulge in gelato one last time, feeling it almost a duty since we’d been so un-Italian as to go two days without it. Mostly, I was in search of a repeat of the perfect, barely sweet milk-flavored gelato I’d had in Manarola. It was not as good here, but still, gelato in Italy!