Tuesday, 10 September 2013


Last night my brother and I were in bit of a nostalgic mood, we spent a good two hours talking about the trip to Italy we had taken two years ago...

On my return I had written quite a few travelogues on the trip for the now infamous Bengal Post...I doubt anyone had a chance to read them at that point considering the kind of circulation the paper boasted so I thought why not post it here. Here goes one of them. More to follow. Whole lot of Italy coming your way....And yes I ll post my next recipe soon. 

One of the few travel essentials that feature on my packing list, irrespective of my destination, is a story book. They come handy during the long hours on flight or while waiting in traffic in some far away city. Besides, on a few occasions, a book has been of much assistance in avoiding the irksome rattling of a gregarious fellow traveller or as a ‘Go away’ sign to eccentric strangers with flirtatious tendencies! It could be any book really, but preferably an easy read which wouldn’t haul you into deep ruminations. So, it was quite by chance that I tossed in my half-read copy of Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms, into my handbag just before I left home to catch my flight to Rome. And it was a curious coincidence too, I would realise later.
    And yet another weird and wonderful happenstance followed. After the book had remained untouched in the dark recesses of my handbag, for an entire week, under a pile of scraps and bits of paper, some cosmetics and used wet-wipes, it was on the bus en route from Milan to Baveno, a charming town on Lago Maggiore that I fished it out. And I opened it at Chapter 33 and resumed reading. 
    And if that was not enough, I was precisely reading the part where Lieutenant Frederick Henry reunites with ] his love Catherine Barkley in the small Italian resort town of Stresa on Lake Maggiore, less than five kilometers from Baveno where I was to stay. And later the riveting details of Henry’s escape into Switzerland, rowing across the choppy waters of the lake on a stormy night. Of course, this newly acquired knowledge only increased my interest in the area I was headed for, manifold. I wished, of course, that our hotel was in Stresa, instead of Baveno.
     It is needless to say, that the first glimpse of the blue waters of Lago Maggiore was a moment that would remain frozen in my memory for a long, long time. On one side were the quarries of pink granite and on the other the dazzling blue expanse of the lake dotted with little islands and surrounded by green hills. Further beyond were the faint outlines of the Swiss Alps. Tiny boats, white, yellow, blue and red, anchored near the shores, rocked on the undulating waters of the lake.
     Our hotel in Baveno, Hotel Splendid was splendid indeed and was right on the lake. My own voice as I hollered in delight at the view my room afforded, still rings in my ears! I could sit on that balcony all\ day, doing nothing, simply watching the striking beauty of the lake and its surroundings. But I decided in favour of exploring a bit of Baveno, while there was still daylight.
     Baveno is lovely indeed. No doubt it was a favourite sojourn for Queen Victoria who stayed at the Villa Branca, by the marina, and that Winston and Eleanor Churchill chose it as their honeymoon destination! Rich in history, Baveno is strewn with historical villas, quaint churches and other architectural delights and its lakeside promenade offers excellent views of the Lago Maggiore. Wandering around the central piazza of Baveno, where the Parish Church of Santi Gervasio and Protasio and its baptistery stand, was a pleasant way to flex the muscles taut from sitting on the bus for hours together. Unfortunately, I missed the famous mineral water springs of Baveno.
   Dinner tonight was on the Isola Pescatori, the fish-shaped island; a part of the Borromeon archipelago that comprises three islands and a few islets on Lake Maggiore, owned by Italy’s famed Borromeo family. The other major islands being Isola Bella and Isola Madre, the former famous for the stately mansion of the Borromeo family which has hosted none other than Napolean Bonaparte and the latter for its gorgeous ornamental gardens. We boarded a ferry from the docks at Stresa, which was a short bus-ride away, as the last light of the day engaged in an intimate coquetry with the tiny swells of the indigo waters of the lake. And although I  wanted to explore Stresa or at least visit the café reputed for being a favourite with Hemingway, and still has his signature on their guest album. And where perhaps, sitting at his favourite table he conceived A Farewell to Arms. After all, Hemingway like Lieutenant Henry was an American who joined the\ Italian Ambulance corps as a volunteer during World War II. He suffered an injury similar to Henry and also had an affair with a nurse just like Henry! But time was a constraint and I boarded the ferry anyway. A cloak of shadows was fast descending upon this tiny but pictorial island with its charming houses with red brick roofs, the Church of San Vittore, its spire silhouetted against the rapidly darkening complexion of the evening sky. In fact, the island was permeated by an amber glow, from the night lights burning in the houses. It was a pity I couldn’t make it to the island earlier in the day when I could walk down its cobbled pathways, sit on one of the benches on the promenade along the shores immersed in fancy thoughts or browse through the fare in the little souvenir shops whose shutters were now down. 
     Isola Pescatori as the name, literally meaning fisherman’s island, suggests is a fisherman’s hamlet, although currently the economy of this sparsely populated isle pivots around tourism. And fish caught fresh from the freshwaters of the lake and the safely guarded age-old recipes that go into cooking it, make for an irresistible treat. Dinner was served in a tavern perched on the edge of the island, its glass wall overlooking the lake, flames fluttering in iron torches were the only source of light and warmth too.
        The food was oh-so-delicious – the juicy salmon fillet topped with a lemony dressing and served on a bed of crunchy greens and fresh fish (I do not know the name) breaded and fried to perfection served with lemon wedges and fried diced potatoes and finally a bowl of delectable chocolate soufflé. Luscious, fruity wine and fresh baked bread accompanied the scrumptious spread. Outside the glass wall, the lake shimmered with the lights from the surrounding towns which glittered like a myriad diamonds studded in the black cloak of night. I do not know if it was the taste of the food or the refreshing air from the lake and the picturesque setting or both, that the dinner here was an exceptionally satisfying experience, almost overwhelmingly so. Back in my hotel, I sat on the balcony for long, hearing the soft murmurs of the waves lapping on the shore. A lonely light glimmered at the top of the hill opposite. I wondered who stayed there, in such seclusion. Soon after, I called it a night.
Next morning we were headed for Switzerland! Our destination was Lugano — a beautiful town situated in the holiday district of Tricino, on the northern banks of Lake Lugano, in Southern Switzerland. It was a relaxed Sunday morning in the charming town and most of the shops and designer boutiques that lined the roads were closed. The streets almost empty other than a few locals out on a walk or a bicycle ride. But Lugano was a feast for the eyes. Streets festooned with immaculately trimmed beds of colourful blossoms, ornate fountains, beautiful villas and gardens, posh cafes and restaurants, arcades and typical Mediterranean squares, youngsters canoeing in the lake and ducks wading in its turquoise waters and finally the lake-side Belvedere Gardens, famous for its camellias and magnolias – Lugano was all about brilliant hues and pictorial
views. Here too, green hills surrounded the lake but the mighty peaks of the Swiss Alps were clearly visible against the clear blue sky.
         Much to my delight the peaks were snowcapped! And although the sun was shining bright there was a distinct chill in the air. After an hour or so of loitering in the centre of the town and lapping up a cup of delicious cappuccino at a sidewalk café, I joined the others for our excursion to Monte Tamaro. The best part of the excursion was without doubt the cable car ride to the top of Monte Tamaro, approximately at an altitude of 1600m. Monte Tamaro is a favourite with trekkers, hikers and mountain bikers. We saw quite a few bikers, take the cable car to a mid-point station, their bikes propped up on the cable car, where from they set off through the dense woods, on narrow, winding mountain trails. The cable car ride afforded some spectacular views of the ring of lofty Lepontine Alps, the nearest ones were greenish brown or perhaps a brownish green and further beyond they were a cobalt blue and finally milky white, the snowcapped peaks shimmering in the sun. The valley down below steadily diminished in size until it seemed like the face of a board game, toy houses, toy cars, et al! And was then hidden from view altogether till we reached the top.
         At the top, there is a café, an adventure park of sorts with some dangerous (I thought so) rides. Imagine zooming downhill on a double-bob sleigh or sliding down a cable along the edge of the mountain, hanging only by a harness and a pulley! A miniature amusement park for children completed the setting. And perched on the edge of the mountain was the charming, stone Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, though its award winning design hardly resembled a conventional church. The terrace of the church is a long aisle that ends in a platform that almost juts out of the cliff, a miniature viewing gallery of sorts and affords the best views from Monte Tamaro. A mammoth iron cross is propped up on the balustrade of the viewing gallery.
     Lunch comprised turkey breast cutlet, a heap of French fries and a glass of sweet white wine, which I chose  to have al fresco on the terrace of the café, where local musicians played typical alpine music to which a few old couples matched steps. The stinging chill in the air, the warm comfort of sunshine, the clear blue sky and the soothing alpine music reverberating in the mountains, what could be a more perfect setting? Besides, the wine was already having its effects on my excited nerves. I simply sat there, smiling.

    Post lunch, I walked down the terrace of the church, to the very end and climbed on to the platform. Strangely, my legs were shaking. I don’t know if it was the height, the chill or the wine. The wind blew so strong that it threatened to blow my scarf away. The quite of the morning was almost disconcerting. The sound of music came drifting from the café. Otherwise there was pin drop silence. And there I was, alone, as if floating mid air, below the giant Cross and in front of me was the breadth taking sweep of the majestic Alps; just the mountains and me. The hair on my neck was erect and an alien chill ran down my spine — this was one of those few extraordinary moments that define a life, a moment of epiphany, a surreptitious ecstasy that is almost painful, when you feel blessed! A few more tourists had arrived by now and were waiting for their turn. But I wanted to stand there some more time. Perhaps, just an instant more

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