We had never before been to Italy so had little idea of exactly what to expect. After crossing the border from France through the tunnel beneath Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco as the Italians say), we were quickly greeted with a much different vibe. Immediately, we found the driving to be more aggressive, the public restrooms to be more out of sorts (OK, gross!) and cigarette butts abound outside of buildings. France's affinity for haute manners is lost on Italians, at least at first blush, and we were a bit put off after picking up from a very comfortable Annecy to push further abroad.
The arrival at our B&B in Lake Como was, in a word, terrifying. In a second, disappointing. Navigating the windy hilly streets of Italy's Lombardia region are a feet for nerves perhaps stronger than our own. With a failing GPS, intense cloud/fog cover and impending darkness, the serpentine streets of 15%+ grades proved a worthy adversary. After several missed turns and a final ascent up a cobblestoned road we came to what we could only describe as a hidden medieval village built of stone, shrouded in the darkest of nights, with no available parking and yet, seemingly, no one around.
We spent the better part of 10 minutes repeating, “Is this it? Can this really be it?!!!”. The address didn’t contain a building number, only a street name which was undetectable under the conditions. We checked and re-checked our Maps app and reviewed what little correspondence we had had with the Bed & Breakfast owners searching for any clues that could indicate how to locate them.
The only sign of life could be heard from beyond a couple of alleyways; the muted tones of a few voices in conversation. Andy was the first to venture out looking for any demarcation that would indicate a B&B. He saw the non-descript façade of a restaurant but no indication of accommodations, and the grizzled older men out front smoking cigarettes weren’t the most welcoming. He returned to the car determined to devise a plan B, alternate plans on where to spend the first, and at this rate LAST night in Italy.
As a last effort of turning every stone Addie approached the osteria solo. First by asking “English?”, then “Bed & Breakfast?” fortunes turned immediately as she was welcomed with a boisterous “Andrew, Andrew! Yes, come come”. We were immediately welcomed with the Italian hospitality that one would hope for, first shown to our room, and then to a table in the crowded osteria that they had held just for us.
For the next 5 nights we would stay in the care of Carola & Gabrielle. They would point us towards sites, serve us breakfast of breads, meat, cheese and the most perfectly cooked scrambled egg (included in our fee) and even feed us an impromptu lunch of pasta and wine one day while we were relaxing in the B&B’s common room. The B&B was largely empty as this was the off-season. Their attention may have been uncharacteristic but was appreciated in every way.
We took one day to trip to Parma and one afternoon in the Ghisallo Cycling Museum (both of which will get their own posts) but for the most part we hung close to the Western side of the Lake Como region. From our little nook tucked in the hills above Mandello del Lario, we explored Varenna (just 15 minutes north by car), a small town of steep alleyways tucked into one of Lake Como’s many coves. Though all a bit lousy with American tourists, it’s nothing short of beautiful and worth the visit. Here we did a wine tasting, had the traditional apertivo over the lake at sunset, enjoyed dinner and a walk with some Hot Chocolate in hand.
The nearest larger “city” is Lecco, about 15 minutes to the south. We found it less picturesque but incredibly active. We experienced our first (and only) taste of Italian pizza while roaming the central concourse of the city filled with lots of small shops and eateries. There may also have been some gelato.
We visited Bellagio, another delightful little town in the heart of the lake region. It was in Bellagio we had our first afternoon espressos, popping into one of its many small cafes. It wouldn’t be our last on the trip and we may have just picked up an inexpensive espresso maker later in Turin for the return trip to Los Angeles. We did some window-shopping in the town of Como, where we snagged some wooden hand-carved wine stoppers, and generally took in the cobblestones and the fall foliage.
Addie had a cold for this leg of the trip, which paced down the activities and inspired one day spent in the B&B's great room. Our plan was the read books and drink tea and let the day be overcast, but Gabrielle insisted on serving us a personal lunch of pasta Amatriciana with some regional wine - maybe the best meal we ate in Italy, though it is hard to separate the cooking from the kindness - after Andy helped him load in the day's prosecco delivery. Upon learning Addie was sick, Carola brought out a tray of tea with honey, brewed with lemon and ginger to help alleviate her congestion. It was a moment of the kind of deep, moving, kindness that lives in travelers' mythology forever.
The weather was windy in the mountains, dipping towards fall, and we spent many afternoons just driving the winding roads to see the terrain before dark. We did not make it fully around the lake but drove north, above Varenna, into some national park territory, where the inhabitants were less touristy and more agricultural. We did not, however, set foot on a boat the entire time we were there. Goals for next time.
We ate our greatest meals at the downstairs osteria that Carola and Gabrielle run, known as Osteria Sali e Tabbachi. They hold a table every night for their in-house guests, and the menu changes with the available ingredients. Unless you have enough time to research the best restaurants in the lake region, stay out of the tourist spots and eat here. We had three hour meals that drew out deeper layers of conversation than one can have over a quick 20 minute bite.
In truth, Italy was a slow burn for us. What at first appeared disheveled, ramshackle, even dangerous (like the castles left abandoned and rotting in the hillsides along the highway) grew on us as we developed an appreciation for the wabi-sabi beauty, the cinematic flair, the fixation on regional variation. Italy is a new country, in many ways a newer nation that even the United States, but with a history that saw the birth of Western civilization. It's a messy conglomeration of contradictions and once we accepted that things were going to happen a little slower than they do in, say, Tokyo or London, we were fine - especially after we discovered that Italian is the most fun language to butcher, as we shouted "Arrividerci!" at every service-person (and machine).
Some sites in the region we visited, whether we made it there or not:
Our Air BnB - Highly Recommended - Tower of Barbossa
lovely Varenna with lots to see
spot for tea and apertivo in Varenna over the water at sunset at Hotel du Lac