We spent a bucolic week in August with our good friends Dave and David in the Lake District of Northern Italy, near the Swiss border.
We visited two beautiful lakes, the more intimate Lago D’Orta, and the magnificent Lago Maggiore, the biggest of Italy’s lakes.
WW II Tragedy Brought to Life in Borgo Ticino
We picked up a rental car at Milan Airport, after flying in from Copenhagen, and immediately drove northward, toward the Lake Region, on back country roads. We found ourselves in an area of rural expanses and small villages, with almost no traffic.
There was no sense of being in proximity to a major city. This was a nice introduction to the region.
We arrived at our village, called Borgo Ticino, and found the address for our apartment. It was a grand old building fronting directly onto the town’s main plaza.
Immediately in front of our building we noticed a marble plaque and a recently-placed commemorative wreath with two Italian flags. It looked to us like some sort of Memorial Day installation.
We rang at the big wooden gates and were admitted to a cool courtyard within. The afternoon sun was blazing without mercy on the plaza and on the front of our building, and the whole plaza was radiating with intense heat.
Inside the wooden gates and the stone front wall we found a covered driveway, wide enough for a carriage or a small car, leading down into a green, shady garden. It was noticeably cooler and more comfortable than the plaza outside. The contrast was striking. We felt so much better after stepping through the door in the gate and closing it behind us.
Our landlady Michela spoke excitedly in very good English (she later disclosed she had a PhD in American Literature). She showed us to our apartment on the first floor above the entryway. It was a beautiful old property, called Antica Casa Balsari.
The apartment was luxurious and large enough to accommodate both couples comfortably.
Michela was intent on explaining the history of the property. She told us it had been owned by her family since at least the 17th Century, and possibly longer. Her grandfather ran an apothecary store on the first floor of the building.
As she showed us through what was now the dining room of our apartment, Michela told us with a smile that both her father and her grandmother had been born in that very room.
We asked Michela to explain the memorial plaque and wreathes outside. She told us the story of what had happened there, both on the plaza outside and in the old apothecary shop where we were standing.
Nearly 75 years ago, in August 1944, during World War II, some local Italian partisans ambushed a group of German troops, killing three of them.
German SS troops descended upon Borgo Ticino, where they embarked upon a rampage.
Purely as an act of revenge, they rounded up a dozen young men from the village, randomly selected, none of whom had any involvement with the partisans, lined them up in the square, and shot them. The local people were forced to watch as their sons and brothers were executed. They were not allowed to collect the bodies until the next day.
The wreathes and flowers we had seen in front of the plaque outside were remaining from a memorial service conducted just a day or two before our arrival. On the plaque are the names and birthdates of the 12 victims.
Just imagine the grief that engulfed this small village.
These events took place a long time ago. Still, we really felt the immediacy of the tragedy, described for us by the granddaughter of people who witnessed it and were themselves victimized.
Out & About With Dave & David
While we took note, with honest respect, of the tragedy Michela described, we did not lose any time moving on with our plans for the week.
Shortly after getting settled into the apartment, we got a text from Dave & David letting us know they arrived early at a train station in the nearby town of Straza.
Stresa’s waterfront along Lago Maggiorie was absolutely beautiful that afternoon. It is lined with villas and ornate old hotels. The city wisely preserved ample open space leading down to the shoreline and the beach.
Bathers were enjoying the clear water and the warm afternoon sun.
Plainly visible a short distance offshore were islands populated with ornate medieval palaces and villages.
We stopped at an outdoor café on the lake and had a drink together, the four of us.
It was a great moment — two couples, reunited, in an uncommonly scenic place.
During our vagabond travels, we describe ourselves as “living abroad.”
But for this week, with our good friends, we were on vacation!
First Outing, Lago d’Orta
Based on a suggestion from Michela, our friendly landlady, we drove west and a bit north to Lago d’Orta, a sizable lake in its own right but much smaller than the massive Lago Maggiore.
We spent the day hiking in the hills above the beautiful lake and hanging around the touristic waterfront.
It was thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing. Although crowded with tourists, they were mostly Italian, with a sprinkling of other European nationals. We saw virtually no other Americans.
We also took a water taxi and toured an interesting and very picturesque island just offshore called l’Isola di San Giulio. It is named for an ancient Christian saint (4th Century) who is buried beneath the altar of the church there.
What was so impressive about Lago d’Orta — and this was also true of Lago Maggiore — is the antiquity of the place, combined with its natural beauty.
The Lake District of Italy has been populated since very ancient times and is rich with architectural treasures and scenery. The entire area around Lago d’Orta and Lago Maggiore seemed pristine and unspoiled, touched only lightly by modern tourism.
Even though Dave and David had already passed through Switzerland on the train down to the Lake District, they were eager to show us the scenery in the Alps, only a few miles north of our home near Lago Maggiore.
Initially we planned to take the train up to Switzerland, but when we learned the round-trip tickets would be something like €100 apiece, we realized it would be a lot cheaper to drive up in our rental car.
What a glorious day we had. The northern reaches of Lago Maggiore extend almost to the Swiss Alps. Even in Italy, the mountains start getting very tall as you travel north.
In a surprisingly short time, we found ourselves in the majestic Alps. Up, up, up we climbed on the excellent Swiss road.
We stopped in Mörel, a classically quaint little Swiss town situated on a valley floor and surrounded by high mountain peaks.
We wandered around the town for about 20 minutes, snapping photos. Frank paid a visit to the Catholic church. This part of Switzerland, we realized, is mostly Roman Catholic.
Ah, but something very special was awaiting us in Mörel!
Just down the road from where we parked our car was the base of a gondola ride. Its cables stretched up the mountainside as far as we could see.
The gondola system was not at all crowded that day. Their peak is the winter ski season. Within a few minutes we had purchased tickets and were seated together in the gondola.
On the high mountain we found a restaurant for lunch.
The host was grumpy, but we took it as a cultural thing. It did not seem personal.
The Swiss food was just fine, nothing special, but the views up in the high Alps were exquisite.
Horse and Donkey Meat, Blended and Served on a Bed of Polenta
One day Brian was feeling a bit under the weather, so he stayed home while Frank, Dave and David returned to Stresa for a new adventure, yet another gondola ride.
Right next to the boat dock in Stresa is the starting point for a gondola that takes tourists up to the high point called Mottarone in the mountains nearby.
The gondola replaced an older electric railway that used to run up the mountain on a series of switchbacks.
You can still see the old railroad path from above when riding in the gondola.
Like the gondola in Mörel, Switzerland, the Mottarone gondola is mostly used to transport skiers in the winter. In the summer, it is a lark.
Frank and the boys had a great day together on Mottarone. The views of Stresa and Lago Maggiore became more and more dramatic as the gondola ascended. The people on board were all in holiday good spirits.
From the top you could see Lago Maggiore in one direction and Lago d’Orto in the other.
In the far distance, to the east beyond Lago Maggiore, you could also see Lake Como.
Among Americans, Lake Como is the best known of Italy’s lakes, largely because the charming and handsome film actor, George Clooney, has a home there.
And then there was the lunch. The food in this mountainous region was not like the Italian food we saw elsewhere in Italy, or in America. It seemed more influenced by Swiss cuisine. We stopped at a ski chalet-type restaurant atop Mottarone.
The waiter recommended the house specialty, a variety of meats in individual bowls surrounding a large bed of polenta.
The polenta seemed Italian enough, but the meats in the bowls were something else.
There was chicken, pork, beef and venison.
Then there was the item that caused us to do a double-take when the waiter pointed it out — a combination of horse meat and donkey meat, ground like hamburger, in a brown sauce.
We were determined to be good sports, so we all tasted the horse-donkey blend. One small bite, however, was all we could muster. It tasted just fine, hardly distinguishable from hamburger. But the very idea of it was a bit much for us.
Horse meat is pretty much taboo for Americans. Donkey meat? It’s unheard of. Yikes!
Climbing the Collosus
One day, while Dave and David went off on their own, we visited the Collosus San Carlos Borromeo, also known as Sancarlone.
The massive statue, built in the early 1600s, is a major landmark on a hilltop along the southern shore of Lago Maggiore.
It is a massive and impressive structure, a tribute to St. Charles Borromeo, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Milan, from a prominent local family, who was canonized as a saint in 1610.
Until the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York Harbor, in the late 19th Century, the Collosus was the largest statue in the world.
In fact, the designer of Statue of Liberty visited the Collosus and used it as a source of ideas for his own project.
We paid an admission to climb up the interior of the statue to the head. The base, roughly up to the saint’s waist, was built around a thick stone pillar. From there to the head it was all metal infrastructure covered with copper sheets on the exterior.
The climb up was a little scary, and the climb down even scarier. There were steps up to about the waist, and from there to the top was a ladder encircled with a metal cage, just straight up. Especially on the way back down, we found it necessary to try to put out of our minds the steep drop beneath our feet, and to concentrate just on the next rung of the ladder.
The enormous statute is so massive in scale, and in such good condition, that it is difficult to believe it has been standing for 400 years.
At the top, you can look out the saint’s eyes to see the view below, including the vast expanse of Lago Maggiore.
The Borromean Islands
On yet another outing, the four of us took a small water taxi from Stresa out to visit two small islands just offshore.
Both islands are owned by the Borromeo family — the same aristocratic clan that produced San Carlos de Borromeo.
Isola Bella, the second island, consists of a huge Renaissance-era villa. It is still the private property of the Borromeo family, but a portion of the villa and the formal gardens are open to visitors for a fee.
Last, Best and Final Outing:
Skipper Dave’s Boating Adventure
On Lago Maggiore
On our last full day in the Lake District, Dave arranged to rent a small boat from a marina. We spent about three hours buzzing around Lago Maggiore.
If Maggiore is a scenic wonder from along the shore, it is even more magical on the water. It is lined with beautiful villas and surrounded by majestic mountains.
We all felt very carefree out on the water.
It was reminiscent of our many houseboat trips on Shasta Lake in California. Dave was the original organizer of the Shasta outings, and he stepped up in similar fashion at Lago Maggiore.
What a great afternoon we had on Lake Maggiore!
The next morning, we drove to the Milan Airport.
Arrivederci, Dave and David!
Next stop – Munich…