We are still camped on the banks of Lake Maggiore and have spent a wonderfully relaxed day exploring the Borromean islands and some of the other little towns along the lakeside. We left Modestine on the campsite and walked down into the town to the quayside to catch the early ferry across to the Isola dei Pescatore just a few minutes off shore. This turned out to be the most picturesque of the three islands with tiny streets devoted to restaurants and souvenir shops for the tourists but also with a couple of little beaches with jetties where we could watch the huge fish swimming through the clear water. There were also grebe and ducks diving and swimming below the surface. There was even a church to serve the tiny community. On the altar were the gilded busts of four bishops, including a saint who was a member of the Borromeo family.
The next boat took us on to the Isola Bella where, back in the 17th century, the Borromeo family had built a magnificent palace with terraced gardens adorned with statues. There was less here to see unless you intended visiting the gardens but the views from the island were wonderful with the mountains of the Alps and the neighbouring islands as well as the little towns and gardens all along the lakeside.
We crossed to the mainland for lunch at the little town of Stresa with very pleasant gardens along the shoreline. We sat amidst the azaleas watching the small private pleasure boats mooring at the quay as we ate pannini filled with formaggio (cheese) with zucchini (courgette) roasted in olive oil. We then took the next boat to the last of the three islands, Isola Madre, famed for its wonderful gardens. However, we did not visit these, in part because it was claimed to be in the English style. It appears to be to Italy what Tresco is to Britain and is filled with azaleas, rhododendrons, hibiscus, camellias, wisteria and thousands of tropical plants unseen elsewhere in Italy.
Apart from a beautiful terrace offering a different perspective of the lake there was little for us to do on this idyllic isle so we took another boat across to Pallanza, part of the municipality of Verbania on the opposite shore from our campsite. This proved to be a larger lakeside resort and was a pure delight. It was fortunate it was the last place we visited as there was so much to see we would not have continued further had we arrived earlier. The shoreline consisted of beautiful, tranquil gardens filled with bright blooming azaleas, tamarisks and hibiscus flowers.
Ian summoned up his Italian to order a couple of coffees and we sat in the sunshine watching the boats arriving and departing from the quayside beyond the gardens. Later we explored the alleys of the old town with their terra-cotta and lemon distempered walls. In the church of San Leonardo we discovered a team of cameramen busy photographing all the church robes and vestments – a 21st century way of making an inventory of church goods, maintaining a tradition almost as long as the Christian church itself!
In the local museum was a free exhibition about the campaigns of Garibaldi in the region of Lake Maggiore. It was strange to imagine the tranquil shores of the lake teeming with troops as Garibaldi fought with the forces of France and Piedmont against the Austrians in 1859. So many of the disputes that have rearranged the map of Europe have passed us by in Britain and our history is so much less complex than that of Italy, Germany or the Balkans.
Upstairs in the museum we found a fascinating exhibition of five thousand ex voto paintings, commissioned after some major domestic event such as the birth of a child, the death of a parent or an accident. Italy seems to have been a very dangerous place to live, a veritable health and safety officer's nightmare. Wooden balconies were in the habit of collapsing, wells were obviously not properly fenced off, logs were always crushing hapless lumberjacks to death, the favourite pastime of horses was kicking the life out of people and the mad driving habits of Italians are obviously nothing new. All this was depicted with a naïve realism. Blood spurted from stumps of limbs, children lay crushed beneath the family cart, victims were caught in the very moment of their plunging to death from great heights; even the gore of a caesarean operation that went wrong was graphically depicted. Why the grieving relatives should find comfort in having these moments of death constantly before their eyes is a mystery. In a corner of the picture the saint to whom the work is addressed is represented and perhaps that is where consolation can be found for the devout. They are most strange to our eyes but were obviously very popular. They ranged in date from the eighteenth century to after the Second World War.
Finally we discovered the Villa Giulia, where the gardens beside the lake are freely open to the public - a glory of colour with azaleas in pink, purple, scarlet, lemon and white. The villa itself was hosting a free exhibition of art but we were far more interested in exploring its marble staircase, gilt-framed portraits, alabaster busts of local dignitaries and frescoed ceilings. On the upper floors were terraces and galleries overlooking the lake and gardens. It was very near to perfection and it was with difficulty that we dragged ourselves away to hurry back to the quay for the last boat of the day back to Baveno, dominated by the quarry that has made the town famous for its pink granite.
Back here, as we made our way through the town we discovered that the really smart Hotel Dino near the quay was hosting a free exhibition of "forgeries" of painting by artists that included Chagal, Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Klimt and Picasso to name a few! We wandered in and were overawed by the opulence of the place. People were smartly dressed in dinner jackets, the floors were polished marble and the upholstery new leather. We wandered along deserted corridors searching for the art gallery which we eventually discovered in a long subterranean passageway, the walls covered in canvas copies of famed paintings selling for around 400 euros each. Eventually we surfaced in the entrance lobby of a completely different hotel about half a kilometre from the one we'd entered by! It was a bizarre experience; above ground there were ancient cobbled streets, old churches, pizza parlours and the post office, while we had been in another, luxuriously modern world deep beneath the streets of the town. We'd seen almost nobody and certainly had not been questioned about our right to be there. Maybe we'll return again before we move for drink in the bar. Why pay to stay there if we can have Modestine nearby for a few euros a night and still enjoy the luxury of a smart hotel?
Friday 20th April 2007, Baveno, Italy
On Wednesday evening we called at Baveno's little railway station to enquire about times and prices of trains to Milan. Not only was the ticket office managed by the signalman, but he even managed to understand Ian's Italian! When we arrived for the train yesterday morning our tickets were ready and waiting for us. It would seem most visitors through the station are escaping from Milan rather than travelling to it. Certainly, as we travelled along the side of Lake Maggiore we had the carriage to ourselves and it was only as we neared the scruffy urban sprawl of Milan that we were joined by other travellers.
Milan is Italy's financial capital and the second largest city in the country. This is sadly reflected, as with most major cities we have visited around Europe, in the neglected state of its outskirts. Rubbish, and graffiti add to the dismal appearance and the mass of railway gantries and electricity cables along the trackside, past disused factories and blocks of flats made us doubt the wisdom of leaving our lakeside paradise. We were far from reassured when we eventually arrived at Porta Garibaldi. At first appearance it seemed to be surrounded by wasteland. There is a metro to the centre but trusting our very basic map, and not wishing to miss certain places en route we chose to walk. Soon things changed completely for the better and we found ourselves amidst smart streets of banks and businesses, museums and monuments, patisseries and perfumeries. From a pasticceria we bought pizza and a spinach tart and picnicked in the Parco Sempione behind the castle. While in Munich we discovered the streets littered with huge, brightly painted lions; in Berlin the same theme was of bears. Here in Milan, there are life-sized cows by the thousand around the city and in the park we discovered a display of prize-winning calves painted and decorated by primary school children. We also discovered hundreds of life-size photos of donkeys providing an artistic but incomprehensible accompaniment to the massive 15th century brick castle of the Sforza family.
Milan is very much a city of culture and of contrast. Thus contemporary street exhibits are juxtaposed with the city's older monuments and buildings. Impossible to photograph Leonardo da Vinci without a cow or the cathedral without the late Mr. Gulliver, but somehow it did not detract from the appeal of the city's historic centre.
After our picnic we needed a coffee and where better than in the restaurant of perhaps the world's most famous opera house, La Scala? The opera house was unfortunately closed to visitors and we ran the gamut of touts trying to sell us cut-price (probably forged) tickets for the evening performance.
Refreshed we threaded our way through the cars, motor scooters and assorted cattle cluttering the streets, past Leonardo and his fellow savants, into the stunning 19th century shopping arcade with its high glass-domed roof, polished marble floors, street cafés and shops selling luxury goods to tourists. We found ourselves in the huge Piazza del Duomo, dominated by the amazingly elaborate cathedral started in the 13th century and finished only by order of Napoleon during the 19th. Unfortunately, but inevitably with a building of such a size, it was partially draped in cloths and scaffolding as the process of restoring its towers, pinnacles, turrets and statues to their original gleaming white slowly took place. To the side of the cathedral lay a humungous model of a human skeleton, for all the world like Gulliver, tied down by the Lilliputians and left to rot. Its actual title is Cosmic Calamity and it appears to have done the rounds of many of Europe's major cities. It presumably travels in countless boxes complete with a screwdriver and skeleton key for quick assembly on site.
Inside the cathedral it is as dark, gloomy, cold and oppressive as the exterior is light, ethereal and bright. It is unusual to see such a vast gothic building in Italy and it is surprising that the style has been preserved over the six centuries it to took to build.
In the square hundreds of teenage girls were gathered, cheering, waving banners and gazing in adoration up to the imposing balcony of the huge 19th century building fronting the north side of the square. Here a young man was waving down to them, sending them into hysterics of emotion. One of the girls, rolling her eyes in a delirium of joy, explained to us that he was an Italian television presenter and they all loved him! Unfortunately his name escapes us.
Our next stop was the Ambrosian library, one of the great European libraries. Our 1970s guidebook told us of treasures on display, including manuscripts and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. It was something of a disappointment to find that this was no longer the case after a modernisation of the galleries, but there was an excellent collection of paintings, including works by Leonardo, Botticelli and various members of the Breughel family and sculptures by Canova and Thorvaldsen. Jan Breughel was a personal friend of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, a member of the family that owns the islands in Lake Maggiore. He opened the gallery in 1618 to house his collection of picture and had opened his collection of books as a public library in 1609. Looking down from the picture galleries we could see the reading room below with researchers looking at manuscripts with gloved hands, tapping their transcriptions into laptops (difficult while wearing gloves) but we were not allowed to photograph it and did not have time to register to see inside the reading room itself. The only manuscripts on display formed part of a special exhibition of Bulgarian icons. Something of a disappointment therefore, but the rooms in which the pictures were displayed were very attractive, ranged in part round the courtyard of the neighbouring church of Santo Sepolchro.
We had already been walking around Milan for nearly six hours and were beginning to feels footsore as we made our way circuitously back to the station, taking in the 17th century Brera Palace on the way. This now houses the city's main picture gallery with paintings and frescoes by Lombard painters of the 15th and 16th centuries. Our interest though, was in the courtyard with its statue of the Napoleon sculpted by Canova in 1809 depicting him as a victorious Caesar in a costume which our guidebook claims "considerably angered the Emperor!" Costume? What costume? At least we could see that he was small but perfectly formed!
A couple of Italian breadsticks sprinkled with olives and pistachios helped revive us during the slow, 100 kilometre train ride back to Baveno. There are two types of train in Italy, the ultra fast pendolini that effortlessly negotiate really sharp curves, their carriages swinging out to remain stable, and the other ones. These are so slow it can be quicker to walk and they are often so long they cannot fit on the platforms of the little stations so the guards come around asking your destination before hustling you down the central corridor to the bit where you can alight. On the plus side for these, they are very cheap. Our trip cost us less than 20 euros (£14) for the two of us and we avoided all the problems of driving and parking.