On our fourth and final day of sightseeing around Milan and environs, we took a day trip to Lake Como. The excursion we’d bought included our train tickets and a guide for four hours. We met Renzo at Stazione Cadorna, a commuter railway station near the center of Milan from which trains come and go to the north.
Renzo was an affable guide – a lawyer who’d supported himself in school as a tourist guide and eventually returned to it professionally after tiring of the corporate legal grind. He was a native of Como but lived now with his wife and children in Milan. We let him know we knew some Italian, so we had the benefit of listening to him and speaking with him in both English and Italian. During the hour’s train ride to the end of the line at Como, we talked politics, social economics, history – whatever came up – and passed the time pleasantly.
The names of two men come up in association with Como. One is native son Alessandro Volta, who is credited with the invention of the electric battery. Anytime you are abroad, wondering if your electronic device is dual voltage, or anytime you thrust one of those hulking 9-volt batteries into something like a smoke-detector, you’re invoking his memory.
The other frequently-mentioned name is that of George Clooney, who in 2002 bought the 18th-century Villa Oleandra on the shores of Lake Como at Laglio. With tongue in cheek, Renzo claimed that Como is grateful for Clooney, since he single-handedly lifted real estate values around the lake when he bought there.
We walked around the center city with Renzo for a few hours, seeing historical buidlings and peeking into courtyards and gardens. The highlight, of course, was the Duomo. There was a lot of interest there, and I was struck again by how well-preserved and maintained the churches I’d seen on this trip were. It should probably be no surprise, as Northern Italy is the more prosperous, industrialized part of the country.
One statue was rather unusual. In Catholic iconography, Christ is frequently depicted as an infant in the arms of his Mother Mary, and then, of course, as an adult. He is almost never seen as an older child. The statue of him as a young boy with his father Joseph, who’s placed one hand affectionately on his shoulder, is charming in its naturalness: Joseph seems to look up, beaming with parental pride.
Since I first discovered them during a college semester in Madrid in the early ’70s, I’ve had a fondness for Spanish polychromatic church statuary. The Spanish are the masters of these life-like tributes to saints and the holy family. Most recently I saw some great ones in the cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala. But the crucifix in the apse of the Duomo at Como is right up there. I especially like Jesus’ fright wig and beard, which looks a bit like he bought them in a costume shop to use as a disguise. The dramatic expressions of the women beneath him are great as well.
After our tour, Renzo left us in the main square, Piazza Cavour. It was lunchtime, and there was a café right on the square with the usual Italian spread of tables al fresco. I had to persuade Anthony, who was feeling a bit chilled, and who probably – unlike some people – has a BMI near zero, that it would be warm enough to sit outside in the sun. It was in the high 50’s without a cloud in the sky, and there was no way I was going to sit inside in semi-darkness on such a beautiful day.
We were seated with the usual warm Italian welcome by the maitre-d’ and began looking at the menus. At the table next to us, practically at our elbows, was a couple who seemed right out of Central Casting for The Sopranos. Everything about them was a little “too” – he was a little too slick, maybe his hair was a little too even in color; they were a bit too loud; she wore a bit too much make-up, her hair was a bit too platinum, she had a bit too many conspicuous designer brands visible in her accessories.
Covering the side of his face nearest them with his menu, Anthony gave me a “listen closely to what I’m about to say” look and said, “You’re going to have to switch seats with me, or we’ll have to get another table – she bathed in perfume, and I’m LITERALLY gagging here.”
When I was growing up, we had a Siamese cat who used to gag on a hairball from time to time, so I’m familiar with the sounds and actions of something that’s LITERALLY gagging. No such behavior was observed, but you know, I’m easy-going most of the time. We changed places. The perfume smell was really strong, but I got used to it after a while, they eventually left, no one was gunned down in cold blood, and we had a lovely meal in the nice, warm sun. Afterwards, we took an hour’s boat trip around the lake.
The boat is a shuttle that stops at various little towns and villages along the shore of the lake. Renzo suggested we get off at one to wander around, so we did so at Torno, on the eastern shore at the northern end of the loop the shuttle boat makes.
We were completely off-season – Lake Como is a bit like Provincetown or the Hamptons, swelling during the summer with tourists and those escaping the cities. So everything was closed and almost no one was in sight, except some tree-trimmers and a few other tourists who got off the boat with us.
We wandered up a narrow, winding street from the dock to the center of town just past the City Hall. For such a small town with narry a soul around, a sign suggested a lot of places we could not go and would not see.
There was one sign on the way back to the town that particularly amused me. The large Italian type translates as “Our Shoes are Full of It.”
It was getting on toward 3:00pm when we finished our boat ride. I saw some people walking around with ice cream cones, and the urge struck me. There was a big Gelateria sign in a café near the water. We went in and were confused by the lack of tubs of different flavors; “only table service,” we were told.
I was not deterred. I have a sixth sense for gelaterias and was sure there would be one nearer the train station, and indeed there was. We got on the train with cones and headed back to Milan.
For our last night, we’d bought tickets for a Maurizio Pollini piano recital at La Scala. We had seats in a red-velvet box or palco that we referred to as “the coffin,” though I think most coffins are lined with white silk or probably rayon today. But it was that small. The concert was great, however – short pieces by Chopin and Debussy – and it was certainly charming to walk out onto the Piazza della Scala afterwards in the late evening.
I’d forgotten that Carnegie Hall was modeled on La Scala, but a comparison of photos when I got back demonstrates it.
After the concert we went back to Il Ristorante Galleria, where we’d had lunch after seeing the Duomo of Milan, and had a late dinner. Anthony’s mostly a vegetarian and a light drinker, so when we’re out to dinner, my portion of the bill is generally more than his. I’m careful to try and split the check fairly rather than 50/50. When we’d put our cards on the table – credit, that is – I asked the waiter to split it 60/40, with the greater to me, in more ways than one. Perhaps it was the bottle of wine, or just the opportunity to chat up the waiter in Italian, but indicating Anthony, I explained to the waiter, Lui è più rico, ma io mangio di più. “He’s richer, but I eat more.” At which the waiter, with typical Italian generosity, commented that while Anthony may be fit and slender, I was più normale. More normal. This is one of the many things we love about Italy.
We left the next morning, amazed at how much we’d seen, done and eaten in four short days.