A Six-Day Escape to Northern Italy
Two summers ago my daughter and I set out for a few days to visit the Italian lake region, but the weather turned inclement there so we cancelled the trip. Instead, we visited the hill towns north of Nice and quite frankly, had a smashing three days filled with adventure. (You can read all about it here)
We vowed to try again and here we are, back in Nice after four days in the Italian lakes region and two days in Genoa…all by car. The drive to Lago Orta, our first stop, was a mere four hours from Nice heading first toward Genoa and then veering north just before hitting the edge of the Italian town. The road along the coast has 111 tunnels between Nice and Genoa. Yes, I counted once a long time ago. It’s torturous as you go from bright sun to dark tunnel to bright sun to dark tunnel and so on for 111 times…making you nuts and your eyes go wonky. At least, it does me. Fortunately, I wasn’t driving this time around; Erica was.
The hotel on Lago Orta, La Sibilla Cusiana Hotel & Residence in Pettenasco, is just a bit north of the biggest town, Orta San Giulia, and fit the bill perfectly for two nights. (I couldn’t help confusing the name of the town, “Pettenasco,” with a recipe I used to make often, “Spaghetti alla Puttanesca”—meaning literally, in the style of a prostitute!) The hotel was simple, lovely, immaculately clean and very welcoming. Our room had a large terrace and beautiful view of the lake—a heavenly spot, from which I am writing this passage…as the sun set, the moon rose over the lake and the mountains, on our first night in Italy.
The town of Orta San Giulio is pedestrian only, with no easy task to park and enter on foot down, down, down…and then back up many, many stairs and steep streets to return. Worth the effort, we had a beautiful meal in a lakeside restaurant that set the tone for the entire week—Ristorante Venus. In a location like this, with a perfect view of the tiny Isola San Guilio (only 275 meters [902 feet] long and 140 meters [459 feet] wide), one might go for the ambiance before caring for the quality of the food, but if you can achieve both, you’re scoring big time. Venus made the grade for great views and delicious cuisine that ended up quite reasonably priced.
Tuesday morning, we drove to the town of Stresa located on the Lago Maggiore just to the east of Orta. Rather than take the road along the edge of the lakes, we went via the mountain route—Via II Riviere to Via Golf Panorama to Via per Gignese and Via per Binda to SS33 del Sempione in Stresa. This road is the longer route, and is clearly the road less traveled—we barely saw a car on the entire stretch of what is a gorgeous wooded landscape that took our breath away. Erica murmured and whined constantly along the way, “I want to live here. I want to live here.” I could understand why.
At Stesa, we hopped on a private taxi/ferry that took us to the three Borromeo Islands one after another: Isola Madre, Isola Pescatori and then finally Isola Bella. It was an all day affair, island hopping, visiting magnificent Italian villas and their gardens, taking in the beauty of the tiny islands. The boats speed across the lake taking only a few minutes to reach their island destinations.
The Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Madre was the first stop. The entry to the palace is a long and winding path through some of the most magnificent gardens I’ve ever seen, with the likes of some very unusual birds wandering among the tourists, such as pure white peacocks and golden pheasants. A 200 year-old Cyprus tree stands guard at the entry of the palazzo, the largest tree of its kind in Europe that dates back to 1862. It had been totally uprooted in a tornado in 2006, but was successfully replanted, now supported by special cables. But, I can tell you as a witness that it looks healthier and more beautiful than it’s likely ever been.
The palazzo is a wonder, filled with baroque furnishings and paintings. While mostly everyone was looking up at the paintings as they strolled through, I was looking down at the myriad of terrazzo floors. It’s been in my mind of late to resurface the floors in one of our Fractional Properties using terrazzo and this gave birth to many ideas for styles that would look good in the Villefranche-sur-Mer seaside apartment. Terrazzo is a flooring I grew up with in New Orleans. Its history dates back to Egypt, but Italy is its promoter, having been used in palazzos all over the country. A composite of chips of marble, quartz, granite, glass or other materials, poured in place or precast, I find it durable, easy to clean, cool to the touch and beautiful in a classic way. I’m campaigning for its use in the new apartment and took photos of variations as we explored the various palazzos.
The private ferries pop around every 30 minutes and take the same order of island hopping all day long…from Stresa to Isola Madre to Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island) to Isola Bella and back to Stresa. That made it easy to hop back on and head to Pescatori, where there is no shortage of restaurants serving what else…but seafood.
Isola Bella, stop number three, was just a big rock in the 1600s, until the Borromeos arrived and began their project to create the palazzo and gardens…that took almost 400 years and teams of architects, engineers, plasterers, painters and cabinetmakers. To call it “baroque” is an understatement, as is its beauty. Should you travel to the Italian lakes, these are some of the monuments that are “musts” to be visited.
Wednesday we left our nest in Orta to drive to Lago Como—an easy glide through beautiful countryside on well tended highways. I was impressed, expecting the roads and highways in Italy to be less attractive or not as well maintained as they are in France. It’s true that the country roads in France are manicured finer than those in Italy, but no one can argue the beauty of the Italian countryside and the roads were in perfect condition. We stopped in the town of Como for lunch before venturing north to Nesso where we had rented an Airbnb apartment for two nights.
Como is a “big” town with a population of about 85,000. Not surprisingly, it is the fourth most visited city in the region of Lombardy after Milan, Bergamo and Brescia. Very different from the other small towns on the lakes, we stayed only long enough to have an excellent lunch at a small in-town restaurant before heading north along the lake to the tiny town of Nesso where we had rented an Airbnb. The town itself didn’t make for much of an impression as we came to prefer the smaller more picturesque enclaves.
Lago Como is stunning, but we didn’t see a lake we didn’t like. Our apartment, once we located it (which was no easy task), was at the very beginning of the village with the obligatory church (San Pietro e Paolo) in our faces; the lake and the mountains being the perfect setting. The church bells rang out in force (and in a real tune) at 7:15 a.m. our first morning there, which gave me a chuckle and a kick in the rear to get up and get going. It actually plays a song that lasts quite a long time—I’ve never heard anything like it before. It didn’t help that shrubbery was also being cut down next door with a kind of mower making sleeping any later than 7 a.m. near to impossible.
Airbnb won’t be getting a good review from us, unfortunately, as there was no AC (stupid me didn’t realize that) and only one fan. There were almost no electrical plugs to be found which is essential for our many electronic devices. On top of that, we never got the WiFi to work, but thank goodness for our Personal Hotspots and our cell phone accounts with Free.fr making it free even in Italy. The redeeming features of the apartment were only the view, the bathtub and the washing machine.
Lake Como is now quite famous worldwide thanks to actor George Clooney, who fell in love with the area and purchased an 18th-century villa in Laglio with 25 rooms, an outdoor theater, a swimming pool and a garage to house all of his motorcycles…for which he paid a mere €11.7 million. I believe we could see it from our bedroom window in Nesso, as from all maps and photos matches one just opposite…but unfortunately we didn’t spot George himself.
Bellagio is just a 20-minute ride along a very winding lake road from Nesso. It’s as old as the hills, dating back to the Paleolithic era, more than 30,000 years ago. This is THE Bellagio—not the Las Vegas Five Diamond Resort & Casino or any other namesake designed to carry the same caché. It sits at the northern point at the inverted Y of the “Larian Triangle”—with the Alps as its backdrop. As with most of these Italian towns, one must park outside and walk in, first along the water, then up, up, up the staircases to the main streets of the town.
Thursday was a kind of repeat performance of Tuesday, by starting from Bellagio in the morning to ferry to other towns—first to Varenna and then to Tremezzo and back to Bellagio at the end of the day. Founded by local fisherman in 769, Varenna has had an eventful past, but is one of the lake’s jewels. When you disembark the ferry, you will be pretty much obligated to walk to your right along the water’s edge on a special promenade projected directly over the water. Ancient staircases and alleyways take you up and behind the front row of houses to the Piazza San Giorgio, the main square. Here the Church of San Giorgio dominates it by its tall bell tower. There are numerous quality restaurants and lakeside eateries to make this a perfect spot for lunch. For one restaurant not on the water, but in a beautiful location, a truly excellent meal at a more than fair price, try “Al Prato Restaurant” (Piazza del Prato, 6, 23829 Varenna LC, Italy, Phone: +39 348 712 4389). We counted it among our best and most memorable meals.
From Varenna, we hopped a ferry to Cadenabbia, then walked a good distance along the water’s edge to the Villa Carlotta. The Villa isn’t quite as ornate as the others we visited on Lago Maggiore, but the Botanical Garden is sublime. I opted for an abbreviated tour of the gardens after having trekked way more than any normal, reasonable day. At this stage we may also have been “palazzoed” out and ready for a somewhat new adventure. Little did we know what was in store for us.
STAIRWAY DOWN TO HEAVEN
Doing an online search uncovered a restaurant not far from Nesso with a very high rating—Trattoria del Porto. When I called to make the reservation for that evening, the gentleman first insisted that I be made aware it was a seafood only restaurant, and then insisted that when I reach the restaurant on the main road, to call him for instructions. All that was a bit curious. Just three minutes down the road from our apartment, when we reached the address of the restaurant, there was a small section inset from the road for parking with a sign for the restaurant’s clients, but no restaurant in sight. A chain across the parking area locked everyone out. By chance, another car came by at the same time. The driver seemed to know what he were doing; entered a code in a box at the left; the chain dropped and we all drove in.
The couple from the other car led us down the road by foot to a stairway leading down to the restaurant…but surprise, surprise, surprise…the stairway just kept going and going and going and going and going. “Yes,” that was correct they said. And that it was “worth it.” The stairs down became so incredulous that we considered going back up and skipping dinner altogether, but then we couldn’t be sure how far we had gone and if it was just a bit further. It wasn’t. The stairs seemed endless, and were.
Upon arrival, finally, we were led to an inside table with a view on the water from a window. We could watch if any ferries came in and never saw one come to the dock that was at the base of the restaurant, again down many steps. I surmised that it must have been hundreds of steps all the way down and for the life of me couldn’t understand from where all the people in the restaurant had come…via the steps or via the water…as there were no roads leading down at all. I spent the entire meal in awe and wonder not to mention anxiety about climbing back up.
It seems we got very lucky to have such an experience and I wish I could read the recent article about it in Italian. There was one menu—no choices. We had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t seen any prices. Every course brought out to us was made of fish… except for the dessert (fruit). Every dish was delish. Mama and Papa and Baby Bear seemed to be running the show and could not have been more welcoming and adorable. The entire restaurant filled up to capacity and that kept me wondering over and over again from where they had come. As I said, I never saw a ferry or boat come anywhere near the restaurant and the steps loomed over us that were impossible to avoid.
The bill came and it was a whopping 60€ for two four-course meals, two bottles of water and two coffees. That was plain stupid…it was the bargain of the century. The moment came when we set out to mount the steps, slowly but surely. Erica and I counted them up: 248 to be exact. When I reached the top, I had felt very accomplished indeed and realized that it was like going up mine in Paris 3.5 times. Perhaps that’s the reason I made it up as easily as I did? All that practice!
UP TOWN IN BERGAMO
Città Alta (Upper Town) in Bergamo was our lunch stop of choice on route to Genoa via Milan. Leaving the Lake Region, we practiced saying “Bergamo” with a proper Italian accent after having argued over its correct pronunciation (neither one of us was right). In the beginning of the trip, in compensation for her lack of Italian, and completely unconsciously, Erica spoke to a waiter in English, but laced it with an Italian accent. At first I thought I was imagining things, then realized she had no idea she was doing it. That had me in tears laughing so hard, putting us both into a hilarious giggle that wouldn’t end.
The main piazza in Bergamo, Piazza Vecchia, has been the center of activity for the city for hundreds of years. Doing what tourists who pretend they are not tourists do, we walked to another piazza and found an outdoor spot to lunch…on fried frogs’ legs. We didn’t stay long enough in Bergamo to get a real sense of the town, but enjoyed our brief encounter there.
Nicholas Walton said “If you want to catch a glimpse of Italy as it has been lived for centuries, rather than simply something that looks good on postcards, come to Genoa.” This is why I wanted to see it. This is the REAL Italy.
Entering the city was a bit of a challenge as was finding parking near our hotel, located in the old part of the city and very close to the port. Getting the hang of the parking meters takes some time, but thanks to helpful Italians (they always are, seemingly much more so than the French), we discovered a way of downloading an app that made it easy to add money to the meter. Once we parked, we vowed not to touch the car until we left for the ride home to Nice on Sunday…and didn’t.
It was here in Genoa that we met up with my first cousin, Leslie, who lives part of the year in Perugia. She had never been to Genoa and this was a perfect opportunity to meet up with us for a brief encounter and to visit the city. She scored a room in the same hotel—Hotel Cairoli in the thick of it all. The hotel left a lot to be desired, yet in other ways fit our needs very well. The room was not the kind one wanted to call home for more than the two nights we were there, but the location was excellent, the rooftop terrace pleasant, as was the staff. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t recommend it, nor wish to stay there again.
Genoa is exactly what I expected it to be: gritty. The labyrinth narrow pathways that make up the streets of the oldest part of the city remind me of Old Town in Nice, except not as nice, and certainly not as “Nice.” The grafitti is more the norm than not, but it’s part of the Genovese “charm.” At night, once the little shops seal down their steel shutters, the streets become sketchy at best. Three women late at night trekking down these narrow streets is probably what we shouldn’t have been doing, but we headed back to the hotel with the kind of attitude that clearly states that these are three fearless women not worth messing with. The guys hanging out along the edges seemed nonplussed and left us alone.
We had heard that the Acquario di Genova (Aquarium of Genoa), the largest aquarium in Europe, was worth a visit. Tickets were not cheap—27€ per adult with a 4€ discount for seniors, but we booked entry for Saturday afternoon. Within moments of entering the enormous facility located on the port, seeing the fish, turtles and other sea creatures, in captivity, in their tiny tanks, actually made us remorseful to the point of Erica shedding tears. It was an experience we regretted having…and why hadn’t we realized it or thought of it before? Seeing a singular and quite beautiful octopus in a tiny tank sent us all into a tailspin. Four dolphins seemed clinically depressed in their tank no larger than my Paris apartment. We felt inhumane for being on the outside looking in and wondered how anyone thought this was an okay thing to do…capture a living creature, take it out of its natural environment, stick it in a tank and let humans gawk at it. There was only one part of the aquarium I can honestly say I enjoyed—the jellyfish, or “meduses,” as the Italians call them. Such magnificent creatures; such wonders.
The aquarium was filled with families of course. The Italians are NOT at all like the French. They were loud and animated; the kids running around without much discipline. How different an experience that would have been if in France where they whisper to one another and always maintain a kind of controlled decorum. Which do I prefer? Not sure!
Sunday morning, on route out of town, we drove to the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno that I was told was well worth a visit. Friedrich Nietzsche, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain and Evelyn Waugh are just some of the numerous historical figures, writers, travelers, artists and philosophers, who have left evidence of their visits to Staglieno and their wanderings along the great monumental galleries. It’s vast and the sculpture on the tombs is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Even the Père Lachaise can’t top it.
Traveling up to the cemetery gave us an opportunity to get to know a part of Genoa we hadn’t seen from the center…the Castelletto residential quarter that has a fabulous panoramic view of the city and its beautiful bourgeois buildings are clearly occupied by well-heeled Genoveses. It changed my opinion of Genoa—no where near as gritty as the old town. It was here we had lunch on an outdoor terrace at Osteria Maniman that was one of our best meals of the entire week.
Dining out in Italy is a real treat and far more interesting than French cuisine. (Don’t tell the French I said this.) Nothing is ever quite the same—every restaurant has its specialties and there are almost no classic dishes that one might find on every menu like you do in France. The Italians score big when it comes to pastas and coffee (what I call “nectar of the gods”), but they can’t hold a candle to the French when it comes to bread-making—so just don’t bother eating Italian bread. But, dining out was much less expensive than if we had been in France…meals averaged about 25€ to 30€ a person compared to 30€ – 35€ a person in France.
To scout out great meals, we used Google and TripAdvisor to find highly rated restaurants in the vicinity. It paid off more often than not. In Genoa we learned that salads are simply not part of Genovese culture. Normally, all over Italy, in just about any restaurant, you can order an “insalata mista” or something similar, that you dress yourself at the table with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper…but, not in Genoa. These are basil-lovers—the local specialty. The best of basil is grown in Prà, a western delegation of the city of Genoa. Even the name, “Basilico Genovese,” is protected by the European Union with the Denominazione di Origine Protetta certification. The best is said to be grown near a large steel mill. We ate it everywhere we went and yes, I seriously went off my diet on this vacation! (Don’t tell anyone!)
The trip ended when we found street parking near the apartment in Nice to our great fortune and had time to unpack before heading out for Sunday night dinner in Nice. Nice turns out to be perfect in so many ways, so that while we enjoyed every minute of our trip, I wouldn’t have traded anywhere we went for living full time in Nice!
TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO THE ITALIAN LAKES AND NORTHERN ITALY:
• In the Lake Country, supermarkets are hard to find, as are banks! Go prepared, meaning take cash and bring food for the car!
• Rent the smallest car you can bear to drive, as many of the roads are very narrow
• When trying to decipher the ferry schedules between towns, it’s a challenge. Ask the ticket seller who may have more interesting suggestions for how to get where you’re going faster
• Wear thick-soled shoes in order to maneuver the cobblestone pathways…everywhere you go
• Don’t worry about being able to speak Italian. The Italians are very forgiving and can manage to communicate with you regardless of your ability to speak
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian with Erica and Leslie
P.S. Special thanks to Drew Tal and Stephen McCrae, Lulu Lolo and Anne and Jean-Luc Pujalte for their suggestions, recommendations and insights into the Italian Lake Country and Genoa that proved to be very helpful indeed to getting the most out of our time there.
P.P.S. Special credit to Erica Simone for most of these photos taken during our six days in Italy!