Not being the sort to settle for a normal amount of activity in any given venture, we were easily drawn towards a “quick little detour” in our itinerary as we planned last year.
Deciding where to go in Italy was a tough process. It became clear early on that we couldn’t afford the time to travel far in. Our friend and professor, who was leading the London expedition, had waxed poetic about the beauty of the Cinque Terre as we told him of our unfolding plans and it soon became our first destination, since we realized that travel as far as Florence, Venice, Rome, Sicily – all the famous cities – was impractical in our short time frame. Cinque Terre was easy: A quick flight into Genoa; a quick train down the coast. Other sources told us that Milan’s Malpensa Airport might be our most economical choice within continental Europe for a flight home, and being lovers of church history and church architecture, we happily settled on Milan as our terminal city: we could spend our last day seeing the Duomo and then be ready to catch our flight home.
As we read the travel guides we became aware of an incredible district at the north edge of the country, a lake lined with villages, villas, and resorts. Lake Como, home of famous resort town Bellagio, lies at the foot of the Alps. According to the travel guides, it is where the Milanese rich and famous go for their weekend getaways: elegance, luxury, unspoiled beauty. The train ride between Milan and Lake Como is little more than half an hour. So rather than a fourth night in Cinque Terre or a second night in Milan, we figured we could make a quick jaunt north, adding these vistas to the topography we’d get to see. It’d be a nice balance to bustling, unadorned Milan, anyway. We’d come away feeling we’d seen just that much more of the Italian scene.
So we poured over the books and the maps and eventually settled on Lenno, a tiny town about one third of the way up the west side of the long, fingerlike lake. This would be the counterpart to our extravagant Paris day. We’d book a lovely hotel and eat a long, lovely dinner. Settling on Albergo Lenno was one of those surreal, exciting moments in our planning in the dead of last winter. Even the website was all loveliness. The staff treated us with kid gloves when we wrote with questions. And the price for a room at this 4-star place was not much more than our 3-star splurge had been in Paris.
Thursday morning I got up for one more sunrise over the water. My heart wasn’t really in it but it was the principle of the thing… It was even colder than Tuesday morning when I’d been out, and I shivered in my light scarf as I sat at the edge of the castle cliff overlooking the fishing pier. Later, down by the water, was even colder, but the sound and sight of the water lapping against the pier was mesmerizing, and drew my attention since the cloud cover made for a pretty uneventful sunrise. As I read, someone’s puppy wandered over to give me some Italian love (lots of kissing, no reservations) much to my amusement.
Mike and I had arranged to meet there by the pier around 7:30, in time to find breakfast and shop the market for lunch and a few last gifts. He came up behind me, a moment vivid in my memory. In three weeks together I’d finally re-learned to look for his company and I had been anticipating his arrival to the point of distraction. After four crazy years of Life In Your Twenties together (by which I mean, barely together at all) I had grown accustomed to his constant presence again and missed him in his absence. There I was, sitting by the pier, and suddenly I saw him approaching and my heart started racing like I was back in college. Instantly my day was made. I’d say our “honeymoon-five-years-later” had worked its magic.
We ate an absurd number of brioches at the cafe on the market square, shared an orange juice, and I got adventurous and ordered an espresso in honor of my sister, who was sure I’d learn to like them if I drank them in the right context. No luck, Kilby, but I did appreciate the caffeine. The Monterosso market was substantial compared to its sister in Vernazza. We procured focaccia from the nearby bakery and then selected a couple cheeses, a small hunk of salami, half a dozen apricots. We lingered long over a huge spread of brightly colored ceramic ware, trying to talk ourselves into buying a big beautiful bowl of something equally impractical to bring home with us. We made our final gift selections for family and friends at home (save Milanese coffee for Mike’s dad), settled on a small ceramic plate, deep sky blue and shaped like a fish with a little eye painted on (it sits by the stove to hold cooking spoons now), and we found two more treasures for our kids: a pair of three-inch tall wooden Pinocchios to hang on our Christmas tree, procured from an amusingly grumpy vendor.
We dashed back to our room and I showered while Mike packed. We checked out and said goodbye to the owner’s wife, Marisa, and the housekeeper, who upon seeing pictures of our two toddlers (by this point in the journey we missed them enough that it took very little encouragement to whip out their pictures to share with strangers) were completely surprised to find out we were not honeymooners but had been married almost five years. They bid us an affectionate Italian goodbye and we were off to the train platform, where we discovered, this time in our favor, that I’d remembered our schedule wrong again. So we sat by the water’s edge for an hour with our bags and enjoyed people-watching. Our train was more than a couple minutes late. We sank into our private first-class cabin with a fresh sense of adventure, keeping our fingers crossed that we’d make our connection in Milan.
Thursday 10:00 a.m. 21 August Monterosso al Mare
We’re waiting out the last hour of our time here on a bench overlooking the Ligurian Sea, flanked by mountains, listening to high surf crashing and happy Italians chatting on holiday. Behind us, though, a local bar is blaring some of the worst country music America has to offer. You can’t have everything.
We’ve enjoyed these three days too much to spend time writing about them. It’s hard to believe we’ve been here almost exactly as long as we were in Paris, our first days. We feel seasoned now, and our trip has taught us almost all it has to teach us. We miss our kids madly. We are starting to look ahead to the next five weeks and the next five years in these last hours as we’ve spent much time already looking back at the past five years. This has been a true holiday and we are ready to live a new chapter, if a little stricken with nervous energy about all the very immediate unknowns that will greet us in just another week: where we’ll live and work and worship – hard to believe it’s all likely to change now.
These three days we’ve rested intentionally, I suppose like only type-A people can rest – even this with energy.
The country singer just crooned “Sometimes I feel like Jesse James.” The world is small.
We’ve loved being situated up the hill from the beach on a street that seems populated by endless terraces of locals, wandering past fig trees, lemon trees, bougainvillea, roses, aloe. Our hotel was up 3 flights (thus the address 85/3 Via Molinelli, as we discovered) in a jumble of a building leaned into the steep mountain. We’ve also loved the cheap food – we’ve subsisted mostly on foccacia – sometimes with salami, cheese, prosciutto sandwiched in – or brioche (croissants, donuts, and all the rest) for only 1 euro and gelato – we ate it three (four for me) times in our three days – large servings at less than half the cost we saw in Paris. We’d drop 5 euro and each walk away with a large cone of 3 flavors.
2:30 p.m. the train from Milan to Como
We made a tight connection in just a couple minutes – seamless, flawless, satisfyingly successful. Now for a night of “vacation” like the wealthy of Milan spend their weekends. We made a meal just now of food bought this morning in Monterosso’s weekly market – salami fontnia, focaccia, and an amazing pair: apricots and the same goat cheese we loved on Tuesday. Delicious.
This evening we are enjoying luxury – drinking it in (literally!) as we think toward a season of poverty to come. Our arrival here at Lake Como was perfect. We disembarked from the train to see a large, middle aged Italian smiling in our direction, holding one of those enticing signs you always see at the airport. This one said “Powell.” We carried our heaviest bags and navigated us to his van and then serve as our tour guide with perfect English, up the scenic edge of Lake Como, past George Clooney’s villa, to Lenno. This afternoon we walked the tiny village, awed at our room and our view, wandered the grounds of Villa del Balbianello. We napped an hour and got up for our reservation at the Trattorio our driver had suggested, sitting outside for a completely exquisite meal and coming back after dark to the lobby of Albergo Lenno where we’re sitting now, reading and nursing our complimentary Kahlua and cognac. Three windows in our room, a balcony on the lake, and wide, shallow stone stairs girded with red carpet. We are celebrating this journey tonight.
In the restaurant it felt so familiar and comforting – dear – to hear the waitress speak to our neighboring diners en Francais.
We sat tonight over drinks and books: “Here’s to being the As.” … “And the Ms.” (Along this journey, we’d been awakening to a recognition that we have the same capacities and qualities that we see in a couple we immensely admire; a husband and wife we have only wished we could imitate both in our professional and personal lives. Our wishes had begun to shift to aspirations as we’d talked about these five years and all we’ve pursued and achieved, and we began to realize that, really, the world is our oyster. We can be who we want to be and we have a pretty good shot at making as much of ourselves as this particular pair we look up to has done. So much of life is a choice – even if the choices are more about how you handle what you’re given then what you choose to have. And thus our toast to “being the As.”)
Wandering Monterosso al Mare in the early hours of the morning
The colors of the buildings were inspiring!
We loved the narrow alleys and sometimes it just felt like we were in a movie, for how quaint a spot was.
Our view from breakfast. Under the train bridge were the various market vendors.
This impressive building and landscaping sat right next to us as we ate at the cafe.
I miss this. But it’s for the best, because I put on seven pounds in these three weeks, even after all the walking.
This was my favorite building of all in Monterosso. It was even more lovely seen from a distance when we were swimming out in the water. The gold walls with bougainvillea climbing them were so dramatic and so quintessentially Italian.
Happy girl playing in the sea
This is where we sat to wait for our train.
And this was the source of the blaring country music behind us.
I took these photos from the train platform. Not your average train platform.
We were pretty awed by our luxurious first class accommodations on the train to Milan and we settled in for three happy hours of incredible scenery.
Out the train window…
Also out the train window.
Again, out the train window.
You might recognize this villa from the Oceans movies. It is George Clooney’s residence. Apparently he whines to the local authorities about how close tourists come in ferry boats to snap photos.
Lake Como is completely magnificent.
This was our view out one of our bedroom windows at our hotel.
And this was our other “window.”
This was the ferry dock.
As we napped that afternoon – and slept that night – the sound of the lake lapping at the edge of the walls was peaceful and enchanting, such a contrast to the crashing waves of the Ligurian Sea.
This one was for Mike’s dad. (And for Mike…)
We were drawn to Lenno in part because of its claim to this 11th-century octagonal baptistry, just across the square (and, incidentally, next door to where we ate dinner) from the parish church. We were disappointed with it, though. It’s been repurposed to a generic community space and while we were there was home to an art vendor.
What you have to understand is that these photos were not staged to capture “the best of” what we saw all that day. This is just what the whole lake looks like. The best word I found for it was “unspoiled.” Nothing crass or ugly or strictly utilitarian to be seen anywhere.
We walked to the far end of this edge of the lake and then up into the hill towards Villa del Balbianello.
It was about a 20-minute walk through the outlying grounds of the Villa to get to the garden and residence.
You don’t make this stuff up.
This famous villa was the home of a 19th-century explorer and gentleman. We were too late (and too cheap) to walk through the actual residence, but the grounds were enough!
Looking back towards the village
The villa at a distance
Can you say “celebrity wedding?”
Back by the water’s edge, swans were hanging out here. Some guy tried to get up close to take pictures and we witnessed a hilarious Angry Swan moment.
This is water running down from the snow melting up in the Alps. It roared through this gutter in between these buildings and spilled into the lake.
Back at our room for a siesta
The view from our window as we set out toward dinner
We split a magnificent bottle of dry white wine with dinner.
This was our first course–salad with figs topped with goat cheese on toast. This food was unbelievable. We were glad we’d taken our driver’s recommendation. He grew up in the town and said this was as good as it gets, and all interesting creations drawn from local, seasonal offerings. We were not disappointed!
For our second course, a light fish served with potatoes and an avocado cream.
We branched out after our first two shared courses and each ordered our own pasta and our own dessert. This was our attempt at “doing pasta right” while in Italy. For Mike this potato ravioli. The sauce was oregano and sage and I swear it was almost exclusively butter. I have never tasted anything so magnificent and magical.
For me, mussels with linguine and red sauce and fresh tomatoes. This was actually Mike’s favorite. It was also completely fantastic.
Mike had the lemon tart
and I went for the tiramisu.
We lingered almost three hours over dinner, watching as the night got dark over the lake just a few yards away. This was on our walk home.