Lago di Como & Monza: Lakes & Pains

Whilst staying in Bergamo, I thought I should take a look at some other places in Lombardy, to get more of a grasp on the region. In the City, Lombard St leads to the Bank of England and attests to their having got around. The image I had of Lombards was one of industrious, sober and particularly go-getter Italians; the distant origins of the original Lombards are more Germanic than Roman (although the centuries, as well as the internal migration of the jobs market, will have blurred the boundaries considerably). So, where else to go? The other local towns at the top of my wish list (Mantua, Cremona) are not particularly close to Bergamo. There are plenty of important cities, and most of them have an important antique church at their heart, but many of them sounded slightly sad for a summer holiday; working towns that are resolutely industrial or, what is worse, deindustrialised. All roads lead to Milan, with its iconic Duomo, Leonardo’s Last Supper and all that is bustling, metropolitan and chic, but seeing Milan on a day trip sounded like a folly on a par with trying to see all of London in one afternoon. There are, of course, the Great Lakes, and whilst I expected these to be saturated with mass tourism, moneyed Russians tucking into freshly caught rainbow trout and coach trip folks paying through the nose for defrosted pizza, the good thing about arriving with low expectations is the increased likelihood of their being exceeded…

I’d never been itching to see the Lakes like I had some of the towns of Italy; I think of myself as being more fascinated by built environments than by nature. I was a little concerned that I would spend two minutes looking at the view, and then think “Yup, that’s a lake and a mountain. Now what do we do?”. It was a surprise, then, to find Lake Como working its magic on me. Maybe it was having read Stendhal a few weeks before, and being able to visualise his surrogate, young Fabrizio Dongo, living in the middle of this wildly fabulous landscape and getting the wildly fabulous idea to run away and fight at Waterloo, maybe it was just the sheer prettiness; but I couldn’t get enough of the landscapes and I found that the mere act of looking gave me a huge sense of well-being. The more I drank in the views, the more my worries melted away.

Iseo, which is less of a household name than Garda or Como, was the closest lake to Bergamo but the most direct train went to Como, so we took a punt on it. Como is in the shape of an upside-down Y, or a torso with two legs, and the two principal towns are situated at each ‘foot’; Como itself on the west, Lecco on the east. Como appears to be the town which most people head for, and George Clooney’s house is reportedly somewhere near there, so it may have been our good fortune to be approaching the lake from the east.

The Bergamo train traverses some hills, valleys and a verdant landscape that gets rockier and rockier before terminating at Lecco, itself more of a working town than a pleasure destination (the station is surrounded by tall modernist edificies that I found weirdly reminiscent of The Hague). From here there are ferries, buses or another train to take you further in to the lake. We rode a train along the eastern shore, in the company of a friendly Jim Henson dog with wispy beard and eyebrows, admiring the combination of mountain ranges and calm waters. You’re not a million miles from Switzerland here, and the scenery seems to advertise the fact. Every few kilometers would reveal another tiny lakeside village with a tall, skinny stone campanile at its heart.

After half an hour of this we got off at Varenna. This village looks across the lake to Bellagio, the town in the narrow peninsula where Como’s two legs meet, famous as ‘pearl of the lake’ and holiday destination for numberless C19th authors, composers, &c. There were boats but they looked infrequent, busy and pricey.

The station is just at the edge of Varenna. We headed straight to the water’s edge, where you can take a wiggly promenade around the edge of Varenna that goes up, down, through arcades and under arches, with a different view around each corner. Having steeled myself for Leicester Square levels of overcrowding we were pleased to find that it wasn’t particularly busy, but blessed with an Amalfi-eqsue cuteness and charm. Passageways led back into town up steep flights of steps between postcard pretty houses painted deep earthy yellows and reds.

When you come to the end of the route, there are gardens attached to Hotel Cipressi and the old monastery, although we didn’t have time to explore these. The very end, at which point the sparse crowds have thinned out to no-one, consists of a tiny cove for dinghies, watched over by a carved Madonna col Bambino on top of a pillar.

Walking back in to see what there is of the town centre, I came across a public loo with an interesting line in bilingual signage.

At the centre of Varenna, the main through road incorporates a small, irregularly-shaped piazza of sorts. It being a few minutes before noon, we decided to check out the churches before they shut for the afternoon. The baroque one seemed to be hosting a jumble sale, but San Giorgio, the main medieval church next to the campanile, gave us far more than we bargained for.

This is not a huge church, but a very atmospheric one, with a cool interior of bare stone, romanesque arches, unadorned brick pillars, gilded altarpieces and some rather ancient-looking (and rather excellent) frescoes.

The Last Judgement on the rear wall was a bit frayed by the centuries, but I was quite taken with the big devil tossing sinners into his mouth like the monster from the Chewits advert.

At the lakeside end of the piazza, further back from the road and the posh hotels, was a modest little building which also turned out to be a church, and turned out to be surprisingly open; this was the C11th San Giovanni Battista. With its timbered roof and plain cemented walls, it is very modest and felt more sincere for it; the old frescoes here are good too but if the newer-looking ones are ‘restorations’, less said the better.

For lunch, we snubbed the two extremes of establishments on the water’s edge and ate at Al Prato: come here and you will sacrifice a view of lake for excellent food at sensible prices. It’s on a little corner in the promenade along the outside of town, the views are pretty, the menu is replete with fresh fish from the lake and despite their workload, the staff are courteous and obliging.

On the way back, we stopped to take a quick look around Lecco (not as quick as I had hoped, since we missed the first Bergamo train by one minute). By now it’s late afternoon and you can forget the midday sun, as 4pm is the time when the heat starts to feel properly radioactive, climbing to 36C. Something of a second fiddle to Como, Lecco is best known as the hometown of the novelist Manzoni and the setting for his romantic, nationalistic, Austria-bashing classic I Promessi Sposi.

The lakes are close to the Alps, and the WWI front. A large memorial to the violated motherland and her martyred sons receives pride of place on the Lecco lakeside. The rocky mountains unfold before you, as if beckoning you to jump into a motorboat and see where the lake takes you.

In Lecco itself, the ornate campanile seems to be the standout architectural feature of city centre and the one landmark that you can spot wherever you stand.

For the second excursion, we chose one of the towns; Monza seemed to fit the bill because it was a short train ride, in the July heat we didn’t want a hefty undertaking, and it somehow seemed smaller than Bergamo or Brescia. This is entirely down to my habit of judging the size of a city by the size of its football team. Monza is home to the Italian leg of Formula One and is actually bigger than Bergamo. I feel bad for admitting it and have no wish to offend the city’s residents or any millionaire racing drivers, but in all honesty I did not really get on with Monza.

The highlight of the train journey comes when you cross a river via an iron suspension bridge that is vertiginously high. As you walk in from the station, the distinctive clock-faced campanile of the Duomo looms into view fairly quickly. The church is at the heart of the old town, distinctive and elegant with its Gothic facade decked out in hoops of green and white marble (talk about laying on the Catholicism with a trowel).

The centro storico has wide roads where you can see that the city walls would have been, with a diminutive river running through the centre and one of the largest parks in Europe on its northern border, but not much of it looks that storico; apart from a couple of churches and a medieval civic palazzo, the architecture all seems to be Risorgimento-era or later. Apart from a couple of cute bridges, one flanked by four stone lions, the town largely turns its back on the river.

The Duomo is holding a funeral when we arrive and the timed tickets for Monza’s star attraction, the Chapel of Theodolinda, don’t start until the gig is over, so we have a while to explore the town. Besides Piazza Duomo, the other focal point is Piazza Trento e Trieste (these two formerly Austrian-ruled cities were Italy’s somewhat pyrrhic reward for entering WWI, and the name was given to piazzas and corsos all over the country). It’s market day, the entire piazza and surrounding streets are packed out with stalls and -at 10:30am on a Thursday- such dense crowds that one wonders why no-one is at the office. The piazza has a large WWI memorial at its centre with a bewilderingly long list of casualties (littered with empty beer cans and bottles), showing that the rest of European society suffered much the same as the British population. It also has an amiably bland old palazzo, and a post-war block that is so strikingly, jarring ugly that one can almost hear Marinetti tossing his hat in the air and whooping with approval.

Another church catches the eye around here; Santa Maria in Strada, with its very pretty Gothic facade. There is something quite Ruskinian about it, and the Internet does informs me that it was heavily restored in 1870. On the inside the red brick, niches and terracotta intricacies do, as in the nature of things, give way to baroque, curtains pulled back by Neapolitan cherubs to reveal late frescoes and a dark marble altar.

To the north-east of the centro storico, Piazza San Paolo is quite pretty and Santa Maria degli Angeli piqued our curiosity, looking as it did like a Victorian neo-Elizabethan church. It is indeed a C19th replacement for the original. The decently-done and pretty Gothic revivalism continues inside with a gorgeous pulpit and collections of un-Victorian sacred hearts on the walls. It gets very interesting on the floor, where mosaics are in the Roman style include imagery that looks rather pagan/masonic.

As for the Piazza San Paolo, its eponymous cafe was advertising a lunchtime aperitivo so we stopped off for Campari spritzes and nibbles, and found ourselves billed almost double what one would expect to pay anywhere else in Italy. I fished out a note whilst wishing I had the guts to tell the cashier “non sapevo che eravamo in Piazza San Marco”, and making a vow never to set foot in Milan if it’s anything like Monza.

Monza Cathedral was established by the C6th Queen Theodolinda, and its greatest treasure is her chapel, painted in 1444 by the Zavattari brothers and recently reopened after many years of painstaking restoration. As far as I understood the guide’s spiel, Theodolinda’s life was taken as their subject because Milan’s ruling ducal family, the Viscontis, were marrying their heiress to the condottiere Francesco Sforza, whose family soon took control of Milan, and the point of the frescoes was to emphasise continuity through the example of a woman that had ruled these domains.

Anyway, the frescoes are €8 to visit. They are some of the greatest in all of Italy, and in the format in which they are currently presented it is quite impossible to enjoy them.

You are in the chapel for about 20 minutes. As you enter, the tour guide begins speaking in fairly quickfire Italian. She does not stop to draw a single breath until her speech is finished 20 minutes later, at which point you are taken out immediately. The longer she talked, the more information I was juggling in my increasingly addled brain- in the vain hope that I would be allowed to translate for my partner during a pause that never came.

This is galling because the information -a dove told her to build the church when she was out hunting, she was crowned queen, she married twice, they both died- is, in 2016, a bit ‘So What?’ and the real pleasure of studying frescoes from this period is noticing the details, as it is in the detail that the personality shines through; the costumes, the expressions, the food they are eating, the dogs and children playing at their feet. In Urbino, the wonderful oratory charges €3 to stay as long as you like; in Naples, the volunteers of the San Gennaro catacombs do at least provide a few seconds’ silence between their minute-long nuggets of information. Even Kenneth Clark in Civilization knows to shut up every now and then, and just allow the camera to pan across a sculpture, a painting, or the aisles of the cathedral, accompanied only by a snatch of early music or monastic singing; allowing the viewer to look and reflect. In Monza you are not given a moment’s silence to contemplate the art, follow your own thoughts, pick out details, or feel anything.

The Pythonesque climax of the visit comes when the guide unlocks a treasure box and reveals the Iron Crown of Lombardy; an interesting artefact in that it was used at the coronation a few Holy Roman Emperors (including Charles V, whose sack of Rome turned England Protestant- a house-arrested Pope being in no mood to humour Henry VIII’s libido), Napoleon Bonaparte, and one of the late Austrian Habsburgs. Mythology asserts that the crown is made from nails used in the crucifixion of Christ, which rests on an old story that Constantine’s mother Helena managed to locate and dig up the True Cross. If you take this seriously I’d love to have your bank account details, for I am a Nigerian prince who needs to get $70,000,000 off my hands.

Apart from this let-down, which frankly had me wishing I hadn’t bothered making the journey, the other local celeb is the vast park (Europe’s fourth largest) behind Villa Reale- which was the summer residence of the Habsburgs whilst they still ruled Milan, then of Napoleon’s Viceroy in Italy, passing over to the Kings of Italy who abandoned it after Umberto I was killed here. I’m not sure whose gaff it is in the days of the Italian republic. It does look like a cousin of the Schoenbrunn set.

We ponder the palace and its pretty fountain, then realise that you cannot access the park from the palace without turning back to the main road and walking quite a long way; this, admittedly, would be no biggie were it not another 36C afternoon. We find an entrance to what we think is the park, all inviting tall trees and huge dragonflies, but turns out to be the palace gardens, separated from the main park (and any roads back into town) by a tall brick wall with no sign of any gates. It’s at this point that it seems wisest to write the day off as a bad job and head back to the cool evenings of enchanting Bergamo.

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