This was what I’ve been most excited about in Italy. It starts with a train ride from Milan up to Arona on the southern shores of Lake Maggiore. From here, I take a fast train up the historic Simpola route to Domodossola, where I’ll pick up the Centovali mountain railway to wind its way across to Locarno in Switzerland. Finally, from Locarno I’ll pick up a boat to bring me back down the lake, hopping from one side to the other, with various stops along the way, and ending up back in Stresa.
Not quite awake, I’ve dragged myself out of bed at 6am for this. It better be good! I’m on the way up to Arona and convinced I’m going to fall asleep and miss my stop. We’re not due to leave for another 10 minutes. Over the aisle, a young Leonardo is traveling alone. He has his suitcase by his side in a group of four seats, and is looking out of the window at an older Signor on the platform, who appears to be talking to him. All Leonardo says is “Si si. Si si.” I’m guessing it’s his father or grandfather waving him off and worrying about him traveling alone. The words he’s mouthing from the platform are probably “ring when you get there” or “did you remember your toothbrush?” or “don’t tell your mum about the limoncella…” Meanwhile Leonardo is nodding and saying “Si si” repeatedly, wishing the train would pull away…
When I wake up we’re approaching Sestro. So I know I haven’t over slept, but the next stop is mine so I’ll stay awake from here. I get off at Arona and buy my next ticket – to Domodoseydora. Given it’s a quick connection, I’m happy to just hang around the station. So I cross the road and get my first view of Lake Maggiore. Not the most scenic one, but a good opportunity to try out my camera. (For once, I’m not relying on my aging iPhone for photos). I even remembered to charge the battery, and ensure there were less than a few photos on it. So why then, when I try and snap the local wildlife, does it respond with “memory full” – what? This can only mean one thing… I open the side panel and yep, no memory card. Ah, but that’s ok *smiles smugly* I have Vesper with me, and she has a memory card in her, right? Wrong – I took it out when Vesper came into the office this week (that’ll teach me to be security conscious). Damn. Right, my casual half hour just became a mad hunt for a shop which sells memory cards! Luckily enough, in the midst of market stalls, bakeries, cafes and gelateria, I find a mobile phone shop which also sells memory cards. How lucky is that? So I now have a camera, a ticket and a train to catch…
Outside Milan, I’m now onto Italian time. So the Dingdongdoseydora train is late. If this was the UK, people would be looking at timetables, then checking then again five minutes later to check they hadn’t misread them, or looking at each other, wondering if their fellow passengers were concerned too (but saying nothing, of course). But this is Italy, so without word or worry from the stazione staff to explain the lateness, my fellow passengers and I just sit and wait for the train to arrive. That is, with the exception of a lone traveling woman with a huge backpack, who bears a strange resemblance to Mary from Coronation Street. I keep my head down, but unfortunately she approaches me and starts speaking to me in more broken Italian than mine. Now this could work in my favour… a) it means I stand half a chance of understanding what she’s saying, and b) I can also claim not to understand a word of what she’s saying. This could be fun! But in a moment of weak empathy, when Mary simply points to the platform number 4 sign and says “scuzi, Domo……..?” I just nod and reply “si”. She’s happy, I’m safely assumed to be Italian, and my inability to speak much of the local lingo is safely still a secret.
We board the train and, with little to look at, I fall asleep again.
AN: I really have to stop this; I have a strange ability to sleep anywhere – standing up, during exams, in nightclubs – Bobo Lobo, I say no more.
Out of the window to the left, is much of the same housing as we saw coming out of Milan, but this time I’m sitting on the right. This is intentional; I figured we’re traveling up the left of the lake, so there should be more to see out of the right window. And I’m right – there’s the lake; not much going on, just lots of water, but it’s very pretty.
The water soon disappears from view, as we head up the valley towards Dingdongdoodah. And I’m joined in my four seat arrangement by an English couple. I keep very quiet; Jerry and Margo are apparently doing the same route as me, albeit with a different starting point and itinerary. They’re debating which stop to get off the train (interesting given that the train we’re on is terminating at the next stop – I opt not to tell them this, for fear of giving away my aforementioned success as appearing Italian). Margo pipes up with “well there’s no point stopping in Do-dah wotsit… (she clearly has the same problem as me in remembering what this place is called) …there’s nothing there except Benetton.” OK so now I’m thinking, have they given it a fair go, or is my rough guide about to get shot to pieces?
I don’t wait around to find out – as soon as we arrive in Diplodocus I hop off the train and up the hill into the old town. First impressions – there is actually a Benetton on every corner, yes. And the cafés and bars adorning the main road up the hill from the stazione, which probably would’ve been buzzing in the 50s, appear somewhat tired today. At the first junction, I pull out my guidebook and it suggests I head left. Things improve marginally, but I’m still not sold and am starting to realise what Margo was on about. I’m even cursing a white van for parking in the only spot worthy of a photo (additionally frustrating, given the lengths to which I went to have a camera with me).
But then I stumble across – the old town. This reminds me of Lakeland Italy’s answer to Stonegate in York. Old crumbling buildings, desperately being restored, with a gentle hum of people sitting outside little cafés and Osteria. In just a few minutes I’ve walked every inch of it, but it really is a little gem in an otherwise humdrum place. So I wander back to the stazione to await the next (and more exciting) part of my trip – the Centrovali train to Locarno.
Die Deutsche Saga
Oh joy; as I descent into the underground platform to find the Centrovali, I find myself encircled by at least 30 Germans, aged between 50 and 80. It’s Aunty Shee and the Saga group from Malpensa! Nooooooooo…
Unfortunately, yes. At the bottom of the steps, there is no other place to go but the train to Locarno. I therefore skirt around them as they dawdle on the platform and head for the far end of the train. Luckily, they continue to dawdle and seem to think that, despite there being six coaches to our train, they must all cram into the first doors they come to. Peace… but not for long – three of them manage to escape and find me in my otherwise empty carriage.
So I read in my rough guide that, when coming on the train from Locarno, you’re best to sit on the left to get the better views. So going in the other direction, I sit on the right. Within 20 minutes of our journey, I’m regretting this supposed intelligence, as Hans, Helmut and Helga onthe other side are enjoying lovely views down the grassy valley, whilst I have a rock face covered in trees up against my window. But hey, this is fine – I hop down the steps to the centre of the carriage, and get a floor-to-ceiling view through the doors through which I can take pictures. Perfect, only I wish the train would time its journey with my visits to the door – every time the view gets good, I hop down to the door, and the trees come across. I wait a few minutes then give up and wander back up to my seat, just as the trees clear. It’s like playing chicken with nature! I end up with some lovely pictures of trees…
Must have dozed off… I wake to realise Hans is standing over me uttering something in German (hopefully something like “I must remember to pick up some deodorant when we stop”). I look the other way and am presented with the most beautiful view – it reminds me of the dam at the start of Goldeneye, only the water is blue (not green), the valley is green (not grey), and the sun is shining. It’s lovely, and guess who has the best seat in the house?! Clearly seat envy has now passed to Hans, as he ignores the option of the floor-to-ceiling glass door down the steps, and continues to stand in the aisle for the rest of the journey. (I lay my scarf on the seat in front of me, remove my flip flops, and put my feet up, in hope that my ponky feet will give him other ideas!
The views generally get better and better until eventually we go into a tunnel and emerge in Locarno. As I hop down onto the platform, I realise the exit is at the other end. This means playing the Germans at their own game and weaving in and out Vettel-style down the platform, with the token “scuzi” thrown in for good measure.
AN: I’ve no idea what language I should be speaking now… we’re now in Switzerland, they’re German, I’m trying to be Italian, and everything is priced in Francs? It’s anyone’s guess.
Aside from having the most enormous ice cream ever (think a whole pot of Haagen Das in a cornetto), there’s not much to write about Locarno. I was somewhat disappointed, if I’m honest. The architecture was very well maintained and much of it is new. There are big hotels in the central piazza, with fountains and underground car parks, and a department store resembling Peter Jones, John Lewis or House of Fraser. Clearly, we’re now in Switzerland, but whilst the cleanliness and modernity is pleasant, it seems to have stripped the place of any charm? I wander around for a while, trying not to head straight for the harbour (I’m going to get four hours of lake on the way home, so really should try and explore a bit) but the best I can do is an ice cream, a bag of amaretto biscotti and a temptation to dive into Kookai (just for the aircon, really Mum).
I last until 3:45 before heading down to the harbour for my boat trip. The train here was lovely, and probably something I’d like to do again, but stopping at each stop for a drink or something, as the villages we passed through were lovely. But the boat trip is the bit I’ve been looking forward to the most. So I head down to the harbour and am soon rejoined by Hans, Helmut, Helga, and the rest of their Saga chums. We board the boat and set sail off down Lake Maggiore.
Wow. Wow. Yeah ok, wow…
Can you get bored of something beautiful? Perhaps a million dollar question, but we’re now two hours into the boat trip and I’m bored. The views are stunningly beautiful, there’s no question. But the boat travels very slowly and I was expecting to be able to get off for a bit at each stop. Instead, we literally stop to let passengers off and pick others up. Meaning it’s a bit like watching paint dry, even if it’s a lovely colour. I want to make the most of it, but there’s only so long you can stare at water or a hillside, with little change in vista, before you want to nod off! So I head below deck for a change of scenery.
At the bar (well it is after 6…) I soon learn how to say “same again”. Sarah and I learnt this in Venice, as “ancora losteso” and when I said this, the lady behind the bar knew what I meant. But she suggested I could also use “uval a prima” – maybe they’re regional dialects or something? No idea, but I’ll try both again before I leave Italy, I’m sure.
Weirdly enough, it’s usually about this time of day / week I’d arrive at an F1 weekend, yet this time I feel like I’ve done heaps already. Probably because my holidays these days tend to be weekends away, so by day 3 I’m almost waiting for the mean reds you get when you realise it’s nearly the end of your holiday and time to go home. But this time, I still have a weekend to go! Right, time to get off the boat and explore a bit more.
Stresa – and a good looking birra
I’m sitting in a bar in an Italian stazione, with a decidedly tasty view, sipping a birra, listening to Italian radio, and feeling quite content.
The rough guide suggested that, in its day, Stresa was a haven for the rich and royal. When the first tunnel opened to connect Switzerland and Italy, it connected northern Europe with the Med and therefore attracted the Orient Express and various wealthy travellers to stop off at Stresa. Today, it’s lost much of the popularity, as other areas have become equally (if not more) accessible. So I wasn’t expecting much as I walked up to the stazione from the harbour.
But I found it really lovely. This could be because of the time (people are starting to come out for Apertivo, and evening meals) there’s a buzz (live music in one of the piazzas I walked through) and having had a chilly breeze on the lake, the still air is a pleasant change again. But much like Locarno, Dingdongdodah and Arona earlier today, there’s little to do for more than a few hours.
This has made me think about my experiences on and around Lago Maggiore. All the places I’ve been to have been lovely, for a limited time. None have a great deal to see, perhaps enough to occupy a visitor for a day. The scenery is delightful; on land, it’d be great to explore at your own pace, stopping as and where you chose, rather than chugging through on a timetable. The lake itself is much the same – maybe a day trip from one place to another, with the option to explore, rather than chugging through on a timetable. But had I not done this trip, I’d probably only ever have seen a little piece of it. Instead, I’ve seen a lot, in one go, giving me the taste of it to come back again, should I choose to create such an opportunity. I’d love to have brought Bruno down here – it’s something I said I’d do one day, but the days of having such a lovely car have gone for now, and so has the ease of doing it. It’s not an opportunity lost, because I could still do it, just not quite so easily. But it’s another part of Europe I’ve now seen and one I’ve enjoyed.
Now, time to finish my birra and hit the binari for my train back to Milano…
Ciao Ciao xx