Crowds of well-heeled tourists.
If you’d asked me about Lake Como a week ago, that’s about all I could have told you.
I knew it was a pretty blue lake in northern Italy, close to the Swiss border with several small towns perched on the surrounding hills. I also knew it could be damn expensive, with the rich and famous being spotted on a regular basis. And, like everyone else, I knew that George Clooney owned a place there, so I presumed we’d probably meet up for a coffee at some point.
Although the area had been on my list of places to visit for years, it wasn’t until I spent time in Laos with some new Italian friends back in 2010 that it moved into the ‘definite’ category. “Come and visit us in Como”, they said. “We’re probably going to open a restaurant when we get home.”
Which is precisely what they did, and why I found myself on one of the lake ferries bound for Torno on a sunny afternoon in late May, enjoying the fresh air and beautiful views after a day that had started far too many hours earlier in San Sebastian.
With half an hour to kill before my friend arrived to pick me up, I should have seized the opportunity to explore the narrow alleyways of the tiny township. Instead I took my pack off and sat in the sun with my feet dangling over the water’s edge, lazily contemplating just how much I loved a life that let me spend time in places like these.
“Ciao Dave!” rang out across the church square, and with a hug I was bundled into the car and we bounced off over the cobblestones. Up into the hills we climbed, the engine straining as the track turned to dirt and got ever steeper.
I distracted myself with the remarkable view as my head hit the roof for the third time, sliding from side to side as we made hairpin turns on a path little wider than us. This was fun!
After maybe ten minutes we arrived in Piazzaga, a tiny village consisting of twenty or thirty old stone houses high above the lake. Most of the places are used as summer or holiday houses, and the residents I met seemed to be of a similar vintage to their cottages. They all looked fitter than me, mind you – I guess a lifetime of cutting firewood and scrambling up mountainsides will do that for you.
Welcomed into the little community, my pitiful Italian skills got a workout over the next five days. Still, as always, it’s amazing what a smile and a dozen words of the local language can do. Ensconced on the balcony of Crotto Piazzaga, I got to know the same handful of locals that popped in and out for a glass of wine throughout the endless sunny days.
Pampered on a diet of wonderful fresh food, great company, free-flowing wine and majestic views, I found it impossible not to love this little village in the hills. I’m not sure it would be quite so appealing in the snow-filled depths of winter, but in early summer it was something very special. Life continues on there much as it has for centuries, with self-sufficiency a vital component. In Piazzaga a well-stocked wood pile makes all the difference between a great day and a remarkably bad one.
With the nearest towns requiring a not-insignificant effort to reach, I took the opportunity to take a step back and enjoy a very local experience. After a while the slow pace of life became second nature, and I started to love it. On the one day we bundled into the car to enjoy an aperitivo in Como itself, the traffic and chattering tourists seemed loud, almost out of place. Drinks in a small piazza were fun and gelato beside the lake was excellent, but it seemed almost a relief to retreat back to the relative solitude of my temporary mountain home.
After several days there, I realised my Lake Como experience had been rather different to what I had expected. Instead of waking up to the sound of roaring Ferraris, it was the local birdlife that interrupted my slumber. There were no tour groups noisily clattering past – I can’t have seen more than twenty people the entire time I was in Piazzaga.
And I never did get to catch up with George for that coffee. I guess he must have got lost on his way up to the Crotto to meet me, or perhaps he couldn’t find somewhere to land his helicopter. His loss, really – there are some wonderful views from the verandah on a sunny day, and Katia makes a mean espresso.
Maybe next time…