Lake Como

Lake Como

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Day 4 of the holiday (if you count the day we arrived, which I do). This was going to be one of the “big ticket” days where we actually had a plan, and a specific target of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. The plan was to visit Villa del Balbianello on the shores of Lake Como. It was one of the filming locations for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Wikipedia describes if as the “lake retreat”, but as far as our kids were concerned it is the place where Anakin married Padmé. There have been plenty of other films set there too, but the kids only pay attention to the films they like.

We began the day as we often do, with Kas getting up early and going for a run. She got back at 8:30 and we made breakfast at 9am again, leaving the hotel at about 10:30. We hadn’t really decided the best way to get to the Villa but on the Sunday night we’d decided to drive up to Bellagio and try to catch a boat over the lake, to add a bit of extra “tourist” to the day. We’d decided this at the same time as realising that we couldn’t go to the Villa on a Monday (because it’s shut) and so deciding to go to Bergamo instead (see previous post).

On the way up to Bellagio we had the opportunity to engage in some geocache “map colouring” – the exercise whereby you stop once in each possible administrative subdivision of a country and do a single cache so that it get’s “coloured in” on maps on various statistics websites. In Italy the smallest administrative subdivision is the “province”, of which there are well over a hundred in total. We’d already completed Milan and Bergamo on previous days. I’d failed to raise enough energy to make special trips out to do Lodi and Cremona while we were staying near Milan – I’d sort of resolved not to make special trips out as it was supposed to be a family holiday, not just a big caching trip. This day gave us the opportunity (if we drove the right route) to colour in three provinces.

The first of the three was Monza e Brianza. I’d had some troubles with this as the caches I’d downloaded into GSAK only contained 8 in the whole province, and none of them were anywhere near where we were going. Further research revealed that the problem was just that the GSAK macro I use to populate the provinces in the database is really inaccurate. I did wonder why the province of Monza e Brianza apparently didn’t contain any of the caches in either Monza or Brianza……. Thankfully I was able to target some specific caches by working through individual maps and figuring out whether caches were inside the right province or not. Anyway, I digress. Initially we pulled off the road into the town of Agrate Brianza to do a cache by a church, but upon reading the logs discovered it wasn’t there, so we moved on. We completed the province with a drive-by just off the motorway in the town of Vimercate.

Our next target was a roadside stop at a small church in the Province of Lecco. We’d been in the car for a while by this point, so not long after this cache we stopped at a garage to use the toilets and buy bottled water We were still some way from Bellagio. From here we drove through the town of Lecco, which is at the foot of the lower-eastern branch of the lake, and continued from here along the ever narrowing road that runs along the lakeside. The road was a bit scary when driving a large and unfamiliar vehicle.

Parking in Bellagio looked like it was going to be a challenge, but as is often the case we got lucky and found one fairly quickly. Once we’d figured out how to pay for parking and used the toilet again we wandered off in the general direction of the centre of town trying to understand how to buy tickets for a boat, and where we actually wanted to catch a boat to. It took us several attempts, but by the time we’d found the right place we joined a relatively short queue and bought ourselves tickets for a boat that was just about to arrive. Ideal.

The boat ride over was very pleasant and gave us loads of opportunity for taking photos of the coastline of the lake. The boat took us over from Bellagio to Lenno, which was the closest stop to Balbianello, requiring about a mile of walking at a leisurely pace. On the way there we passed a puzzle geocache that I’d solved, and this allowed us to tick off the Province of Como. The cache was a bit awkward to get at and when I was trying to put it back in place I dropped it, and heard the proverbial clanking noises of doom. The cache had dropped to an irretrievable place in the back of a road sign and the attached magnets had taken a serious grip. I couldn’t get it out. D’oh ! And to make matters worse we walked about half of the 1km into Balbianello before I realised I’d left my hat behind, so I had to run back again to fetch it.

By the time I caught up with the girls they were at the entry gate and contemplating which tickets to buy. We went with the “gardens only” option as we were a bit tight for time, plus the girls don’t really do “insides” of things. The gardens are perfectly manicured and make a great contrast with the more stark beauty of the lake and mountains in the background. The bit where the wedding scene took place in the Star Wars film was easy to find, partly because of the fairly obvious shape of the tree in the background, and partly because of the throng of people queuing up to get their photos taken. It took a little while before we could get ours.

We spent about 90 minutes in the gardens photographing as many things as possible before deciding it was all far too hot. We walked back to Lenno at slightly above geological speeds and retired to “The Ice Cream Factory” for the day’s mandatory ice cream, although Kas and I both had a slushie (known as a “granita” here).

We just about had time to eat the ice creams and sit on the side of the lake for 20 minutes before our boat arrived. At this point we started to discuss strategy to get the girls their promised trip to a beach, and decided the best bet was to try to go to one of the ones that came up in a google list that was on the way back. The boat back was boaty, and the car was where we’d left it, which is always useful.

We decided that the road up from Lecco had been so bad that the road down to Como couldn’t possibly be worse, and that’s where most of the beaches were anyway, so we picked our way around the village and headed off back down the “other” road out of town. As it turned out, the road road to Como could most definitely be worse. It was narrower, more twisty, and has a lot of blind corners. It also didn’t seem to have any empty parking spaces anywhere near any of the beaches, despite the fact that it was well into the evening by this time. The further along we went, the worse I was feeling about the driving. It was very stressful.

So at the point where I had a real problem with it we decided to give up on the beach and just go home. Thankfully we arrived in the town of Como without having hit anything, and after a bit of queuing and upsetting the locals by not knowing which lane to get into, we escaped the town and headed back down the motorway towards Milan. I was so tired of driving that I decided I couldn’t be bothered with finding a cache in the Province of Varese – I hadn’t found any near to main roads, so it would have been quite a time consuming exercise – so we just drove back home.

We got back to the hotel at 8pm and decided to have a quick shower and return to the Monte e Mare restaurant we’d been to the night previously. We couldn’t go back there though, because they were closed on Tuesdays, so instead we returned to “Zhu MaoChao”, where we’d been on the evening we arrived, because we knew at least that the kids would find something they’d eat. We’d done most of our packing already too, because it was our final night in Milan before heading off to explore some more of the country on the following day.


Bergamo

Bergamo

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Kas ducked out of going running this morning, so we had a relatively relaxed breakfast at 9am and then promised the girls a couple of hours in the hotel pool before going to do anything else. We’d managed to do everything we wanted to do in Milan the previous day, so had found ourselves with an unexpected Brucie Bonus of a day. A quick search in the bar the previous night suggested that Bergamo would be worth a look.

Kas braved her first go in the car and drove us up to Bergamo. On the way out we had a debate about whether the car’s fuel tank was full or not, so to err on the side of safety we stopped at a motorway service station and incurred a look of displeasure from the service attendant as the car took in a massive six litres of diesel before being full. Obviously that display on the dashboard meant it was pretty much full already.

By this point, we’d definitely agreed that the Sat Nav was called “Violet”, and she did a respectable job of getting us somewhere near the place we wanted to be. Not quite close enough, though, and we ended up driving all the way up a long hill and back down again before eventually finding an underground car park with a fairly narrow and rather steep entrance ramp. Once inside it was OK, but Kas, like me the day before, took it very gently.

The city of Bergamo, for those not in the know (which we weren’t, until we googled it), consists of a new bit sitting on a flat plain and an old city on top of several hills, enclosed within a massive old Venetian defensive wall system. The old city is accessible by car (that’s the hill we drove up), but more interestingly (if you’re a tourist) it’s also accessible by one of two funicular railways. We Found the base of this lower one and bought some tickets (and cold drinks) from a bar at the station. Italy works that way. The bar sold tickets, which is useful for people who don’t want to pay in any of the ways that the ticket machines take. It’s also useful when the ticket machines don’t work. Next to the bar was a geocache, which took me a couple of attempts to find.

The top of the funicular brings you out at the bottom end of a street which runs right up through the lower part of the old city. We meandered gently up the street with no particular purpose other than the search for a pharmacy so we could acquire some gel for insect bites. It took us a while, and when we did find one it was shut for lunch. Ho hum !

On the way up the street we were passing plenty of food joints and eventually we gave in and went inside one. The girls were in need of snacks. Well, I suppose we all were. We had a thoroughly eclectic mix of food types – Ami got some meringues, I got a sweet bread with raisins, and Izzy waited a few extra minutes and got some pizza. Rather more pizza than she was expecting, I think. I think Kas may have skipped, but can’t remember now.

We walked all the way past the square with the cathedral, and through an archway up to a square containing a massive dinosaur sculpture, before eventually arriving at the base of the second funicular, which takes you up a bit further to the Castello di San Vigilio. There was a bit more uphill walking to do once we got to the top of the funicular, but the view from the top was rather impressive. You get a great view of the lower part of the upper city sitting above the new city on the plains below. To the north you get a nice view of the bottom end of the Alps.

The castle is home to one of the new “virtual reward” geocaches, with this one requiring one simply to find the metal plate with all the distances and labels on, and to take a photo to prove you were there. It took us a little while to find the correct way up to the top, but that forced us to walk around a part we otherwise might not have done. While we were up top I tried to find what other caches were nearby, and discovered a puzzle that had been “de-puzzled” for a while – the cache owner had just provided the coordinates in the description. Those coordinates proved to be right below us, where we’d accidentally walked 20 minutes earlier, so on the way down again I scooted back round to fetch that cache.

Even though we’d bought a return journey on the upper funicular we decided it might be good to walk down the road instead, especially after I’d discovered it was actually only 500m down (and all downhill). So we walked back down the road, taking a few good “overlook” photos on the way, and ended up back in the square by Bergamo Cathedral and Santa Maria Basilica. Here we decided to have a drinks break and to generally assess the state of the union. We found a nice looking gelateria on the square and grabbed some for takeaways, with some more cold drinks, and sat in the shade for a while before attacking the “churchy” bit. The ice creams were good.

As it happened, both churches were quite good too. Very heavily decorated on the inside and (thankfully) nice and cool. The cathedral also has a serious hypno-floor. Don’t look at the floor ! Don’t look at the floor !

It was getting a bit late by this time and we decided we’d had enough, so we walked slightly more quickly down the hill back to the funicular. By this time the pharmacy was open again, so we popped in for the much needed insect-bite gel. The funicular was both funny and peculiar, as these things should be, and we found ourselves back at the car in good time. Kas managed to get the car back out of the car park fairly easily and Violet managed to get us back to the hotel with a minimum of fuss too.

We weren’t quite sure what to do for dinner but decided to go and try a different place in Caleppio. We ended up at the “Mare i Monte”, which might also be called the “Pizzeria Edelweiss” – it was all very confusing. However the menu wasn’t confusing and nor were the prices (again). And the food was very good. The girls especially liked the part where we made the waitress run all the way through the dessert menu before eventually just walking over to the display cabinet and pointing at things that looked nice, which was pretty much all of them. After driving home we frequented the hotel bar again and downed a few more amarettos. The bar staff were getting to know what we wanted by now.

That had been a surprisingly good day out for something totally unplanned. Bergamo really is very nice, and after a day in the hustle and bustle of Milan it was relaxing to go somewhere with fewer people. The weather was still hot though.