16 April 2007
faces in the crowd
If you've ever been in Milan over Easter weekend you know that it empties out like an upturned espresso. The streets are quiet. The stores are closed. Restaurants hang up signs with messages along the lines of "be back later." We stayed here last year and in our lonely wanderings muttered more than once, where'd everyone go? And wherever it was, it became abundantly clear that the next time around we should follow their example.
So, this year, we came up with an answer... the locals go to the lakes. How do we know they go to the lakes? Because we went there and ran into what seemed like half of Italy.
We spent Sunday on Lake Como and Monday on Lake Garda and felt spoiled rotten. Italy's lake region is amazingly pretty and when you're gifted with glorious spring weather it's hard to go wrong. And Milan, which has a reputation for being a bit grey and business-like, makes up for its everyday hum-drum by being within a mere hour or so from most of the lakes.
You just hop on a train in Milan and the next thing you know you're staring at gorgeous waters ringed by mountains, palm trees, and villas. (Ok, before you get to the lakes you have to deal with the train which is always a mild adventure. For example, see the above couple. Yes, they were like this the whole way. And no, I'm not exaggerating. The really romantic thing is, the way the trains are set-up each section is comprised of four seats, two sets of two facing each other. So picture the two people sitting across from these lovebirds. At least we were across the aisle!)
The other thing we saw for a nanosecond on our way to Lake Como on Easter Sunday was a field full of rabbits. Seriously. There was a field of semi-tall grasses filled with rabbits that were all sitting up, their ears raised. And I don't mean three rabbits. We're talking twenty rabbits minimum. Maybe twenty-five. It was surreal and creepy and the kind of thing that inspires recurring nightmares. If the train had been going any slower I'd have been worried. Like when we were on a bus in Peru and people at the side of the road started throwing rocks. But I digress.
Lake Como is probably the most famous of the lakes, perhaps because it happens to be the lake along which one Mr. Clooney lives. I haven't seen him or his villa but I've heard stories of the star joining pick-up basketball games in town. What town that is, I'm not sure. But we went to Varenna which is small and quiet and always boasts a healthy crop of sailboats. We've also become fans of having a cappucino and brioche in the piazza and happened to be sitting there as Easter Mass let out from the church at the piazza's edge. Families streamed into the cobble-stoned space as church bells sang and it was a far more pleasant reminder of the holiday than the strange field of rabbits we'd seen earlier.
We took the ferry from Varenna to Menaggio - a town we hadn't visited before. It was quaint and even promised some hiking opportunities. But after we'd made our way up a fairly steep path through town (passing a cat with no ears) and still hadn't arrived at the starting point of the hike, we decided it was best not to embark on that journey just yet. Instead we turned around and enjoyed the path going in the opposite direction - downhill.
After another ferry ride we poked around Bellagio. These ferries are great. They skate along the water, chased by a crisp breeze. Snow-capped mountains hang in the lakey distance and hills climb up out of the water. Lago di Como is a gorgeous place and so different from Milan. You can really understand why people would flock from one to the other - especially on a long weekend like this. (The Monday after Easter is called Pasquetta and is a holiday in Italy.)
For our Monday activities we again fled Milan and headed to one of Italy's lakes. Lake Garda is to the east of Milan and within about an hour and a half by train. We then took a ferry (this one a slow paddleboat version) to a small peninsula along the lake called Sirmione. It was packed - and I mean PACKED - with people. There were couples, and families, and groups of friends. Young people and old people and everyone in between. It was by no means a quiet and calming destination but it was beautiful.
Sirmione is a great place to spend the day. A place with flower pots on window sills and older folks leaning out of windows. It has a castle along the water with a moat. There are tall leafy palm trees and you can see mountains across the water on a clear day. The combination is strange and gorgeous.
The town's full of boutiques and restaurants and gelato shops - and if you look carefully you can find a little bar that will make you a great panino and wrap it in a napkin. Then take the panino and go to the shore. You can sit along the rock wall, and watch the lake lap at the beach, with the castle looming at your side. Just don't let the children throwing rocks at the ducks ruin your mood. And no, throwing rocks at the children won't make you feel better - although it may give the ducks a chance to get away. Still, don't do it.
The best part about a visit to Sirmione is the Roman ruins known as Grotte di Catullo. This gigantic villa, thought to have been constructed in the first century BC is crumbled and stunning, and occupies the entire tip of the Peninsula. You can walk the entire space of the peninsula, working your way higher and higher, with thick walls of rosemary edging the path. A vast spread of olive trees populates the flat top of the ruins, offering some of the only shade to be found.
The waters below are light blue and aqua, shallow with smooth rock patches here and there. It's a dramatic view and seeing it through the arches of a ruined Roman villa is stunning. You can't help but sigh and take great gulps of the lake air.
Milan this is not.
The only unpleasantry about Sirmione was having to leave Sirmione. And not only because it would be nice to stay there. The bigger problem was that all of us who were tooling around town had to leave town. And most of us were leaving at the same time. On the same ferry.
But since we were looking for the locals, finding them was part of the fun. (I'm not exaggerating when I say that the rabbits were far more menacing.)