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ITALY
WINTER 2004

Como | Firenze | Roma | Napoli
Reggio Emilia | Venezia | Verona | Magenta

Como

For the past several years we have opted to trade the freezing temperatures, snow and ice of the Toronto winter for winter Italian style. This winter no airlines were offering direct scheduled flights to Rome so we decided to fly round trip to Malpensa on Alitalia.

Since we would be arriving near Milano, we expanded our itinerary to include the northern destinations of Como, Verona, Venezia, Reggio Emilia and Magenta in addition to Firenze, Roma and Napoli.

We had 22 clear sunny days and 4 days with some rain. In the northern destinations, temperatures were 5-8 degrees Celsius; Firenze, Roma and Napoli were 8-14. Good weather, fewer tourists, seasonally lower rates in hotels, great sales in all the stores are all good reasons to continue to make this destination an annual habit.

As soon as our flight reservations and itinerary were in place, we ordered our rail passes from Rail Europe. We love the convenience of not waiting on line, lots of leg room, wide comfortable seats with space nearby for our luggage, and beverage and snack service on trains that require reservations. Trip planning is fun using the Flash interactive maps on the Rail Europe web site.

Our Alitalia flight was comfortable with ample leg room and we arrived on time at 08:15. One can go from Malpensa to Como Lago by bus or train directly from the airport. We opted for the Ferrovie Nord train and were able to catch the 09:15 which arrived in Como at 10:44, after a change at Saronno. The fare was 7 euro per person for 2nd class.

Lake Como viewIn Como, the Ferrovie Nord train station is located at the lakefront not far from the main square, Piazza Cavour. It was a five minute walk along the lake to the Piazza and the Hotel Metropole Suisse. Lake Como was sparkling, boats were bobbing and from the balcony of our lakefront room the sight of the snow capped mountains in the distance and the tiny villages tumbling down the rocky hillsides to the lakeside villas and resorts was glorious. This was a perfect venue for relaxing after a long flight.
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Since 1892 four generations of Cassanis have operated this historic hotel. The old has been beautifully preserved and blended with recent renovations. The rambling staircases, corridors and parlors with a variety of wallpapers, carpets and furnishings create a homey, restful environment. Our large bedroom and bathroom were tastefully furnished with all the requisite amenities. Most appreciated were the light fluffy comforter and four large, firm pillows which we put to good use later in the day as the sun was setting.

The National Tourist Office is next door to the Hotel Metropole Suisse in the building of the Lariano bank. The staff was happy to welcome us on this cool day in January and was extremely helpful. Marta Miuzzo, a local expert, provided useful guidance and ideas on making the most of our short stay.

Piazza Cavour is the waterfront center of the old city. All the boats and hydrofoils for lake excursions leave from here. The piazza was constructed (1871-1872) by filling-in the old port. The square gets flooded during periods of high water and possible solutions are under discussion.

Since the Ferrovie Nord Milano is a private train company and does not honor train passes, we did not bother to get our passes validated at Malpensa, electing instead to attend to it in Como. At the same time we purchased the reservations which were mandatory on some of the trains we had selected for our itinerary. Rather than wait until we were departing, we included a stop at the Stazione FF.SS. Como during one of our walks around the city.

Allessandro Volta invented the battery and discovered methane gas. The volt, the unit used to measure electric tension, is named after him. Como has dedicated a street, square, high school, scientific study center and a neo-classical temple (which houses a collection of his instruments and inventions) to their native son. Piazza A. Volta is a large friendly-feeling square dominated by a statue of Volta.

Via Armando Diaz is a lively and pretty commercial, shopping and eating street which leads to Piazza Della Vittoria, dedicated to the famous 5 days in 1848 when the Austrian garrison surrendered after being barricaded in the convent of St. Francesco. A monument to Garibaldi stands in the center and an imposing 40 meter medieval tower with two arches stands opposite.

The nobility of Como used to live on Via Allesandro Volta. Today it is lined with elegant 19th century buildings. Number 60 & 62 is where Volta was born. It was a short walk from there to the train station. Fortunately it took us very little time to do the validation and purchase the reservations because we were hungry and tired, which would be remedied very quickly.
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We spotted a cute ristorante, I Due Monti, at Via Lambertenghi 24 just off via Diaz. It was at the end of the lunch period but the owner assured us we would not go hungry and to take as long as we wanted. The soft yellow walls and matching decor and graceful wood ceiling created a warm and friendly environment to match the owner's demeanor. The 11 euro lunch special included a choice of pasta, main dish, vegetable, wine or water and coffee. We chose penne with a rich tomato sauce and orchetta with broccoli and olive oil as our starters. Home style meat loaf and roast pork were comforting and the accompanying salad and spinach were fresh and tasty. The lovely house red and jetlag combined to create a state of total relaxation, meaning I almost fell asleep with my head in the roast pork! Delicious espresso came to the rescue. Excellent preparation and fair size portions made this lunch an incredible value.

The folks at the tourist office had told us that there was complimentary internet service available at the Municipio (town hall) on via V. Emanuelle right after via Indipendenza. Now that we had a second wind, we thought it was a good opportunity to check emails and delete spam.

Via V. EmanueleThe town hall has been housed in the Palazzo Porta Cernezzi since 1853. The staff was incredibly friendly and caring. While Linda was at the computer. I was sitting, daydreaming. A woman waved to me and beckoned me to follow her to a room next door with more computers and showed me to a chair at a table littered with magazines which she indicated were available for me to read. They were all in Italian but I dug right in to show my appreciation.
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Via V. Emanuele is one of the nicest shopping streets in Como with numerous boutiques, tempting pastry shops and attractive, ornate, wrought iron balconies. We managed to easily dismiss the boutiques but passing on the pastries was a real struggle. Tiredness won out, and as the clock struck 17:00 we were under our cozy comforters and on the way to dreamland.

We woke bright and early to a blue, sunny sky and the extraordinary spectacle of lake and landscape that make Como so unique and memorable. Thanks to the lake's geographic location it is blessed with an eco-climate that ensures relatively mild winters and vegetation that is unusual for its latitude. After a good long sleep and a delightful buffet breakfast in the hotel's gracious Imbacadero Restaurant, we were anxious to take advantage of the glorious weather.

Como view from BrunateIt was a 10 minute walk along the lakefront to Piazza de Gasperi and the entrance to the funicolare to the pretty village of Brunate, high above the city with marvelous views of the surroundings. The first cable car left this station November 4th, 1894. For those technically curious; the maximum gradient ratio is 55 per cent, the railway is 1084 meters and the trip takes 6 minutes and 30 seconds. The Como to Brunate cable car is unique in Europe because of the speed of the journey. There are two intermediate stops, upper Como and Carescione, on request of passengers. Brunate is a popular small holiday resort and a starting point for numerous hiking, walking and biking tours. The 30 km pathway to Bellagio is one of the most popular. In good weather there is shelter and food available about halfway.
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The lake was calling and we embarked on a short excursion to view the magnificent historic villas up close while being entranced by the surrounding gentle hills and mountains. Lake Como is the deepest (410 meters) and narrowest (.43km between Torriggia and Cerano and 4.3km between Cadenabbia and Flumelatte) in Europe.

Village view from Lake ComoIn Como the Villa Olmo is a grand example of the Lombardian neoclassical style. There is a large park with an Italian garden facing the lake and an English garden in the rear. As we passed and stopped briefly at Cernobbio, Moltasio and Torno, the Villas Erba, D'Este, Versace, Fontanelle, and many more (all with splendid parks and gardens), were aglow in the noon time sun. They all have a long history of ownership and change and today, for the most part, have turned into commercial ventures, such as resorts or museums.

We returned to via Diaz 41, for a perfect lunch-on-the-fly of pizza by the slice at Peach Pit. What's in a name? We grabbed a couple of stools and sat down to enjoy the tasty preparation.

Just down the street, at number 69, is L'Angolo di Vino, enoteca con degustazione, which looked inviting. We popped in and made a dinner reservation and continued on our way.

Piazza San Fedele is at the exact center of the old town. In Roman times it was the marketplace and at the end of the 19th Century, it was the grain market. Nowadays a flea market takes place here on Saturdays. Even though it has been restored on numerous occasions the Basilica of St. Fedele, perhaps the first Cathedral in Como, still conserves its ancient charm. The main entrance opens to the central nave to the right and left of which are two smaller lateral naves with women's galleries. The baptistery has frescoes of Giovanni Andrea De Magistris from 1504 and paintings by Carlo Carloni depicting the Mystery of the Passion. Opposite the square is the ancient baptistery of St. Giovanni in Atrio which is enclosed in a group of medieval houses.

Porta Torre was erected in 1192 to strengthen the southern side of the town walls. It is a rare example of fortified Romanesque architecture. There are 3 solid sides while the 4th one, facing the town, is open with 4 rows of big coupled arches. Viale Cesare Battisti runs along the outside of the city walls and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the area beside the walls is lined with market stalls selling everything from food to clothing and household goods.

The neoclassic Teatro Sociale (opera house) is located in Piazza Verdi. It was built between 1811-1813. In order to build this theatre the gorgeous old castle called Torre Rotonda was demolished, which demolition was very controversial at the time. The city council, headed by Alessandro Volta, eventually authorized the demolition and the building.
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It was time for our first gelato and what a marvelous surprise! We were about to have what turned out to be the very best of the whole trip. Al Bottegone dei Gelati, via V. Emanuele 17 is owned by 2 young fellows who have been at it for 4 years. The flavors were rich and real without being too sweet (a common problem) and the texture was tantalizingly smooth. From the array of flavors, the choice was chocolate and nocciola for the lady and pistachio and chestnut for me. The panna was superb.

The Cathedral, Broletto and Clock Tower are all grouped together in the Piazza Duomo. Work on the Cathedral began in 1396 and finished toward the end of the 18th century, about 400 years. In order to build the cathedral the existing church of Santa Maria Maggiore had to be demolished. The main entrance has very rich decoration and is quite stunning. For some reason The "door of the frog" on the left hand side of the Cathedral has become a matter of folklore, perhaps because the sculpture of the frog was mutilated by vandals and that all that is left is a stump. The interior is large and imposing with 3 aisles and 10 pillars with arches of various widths. The stained glass windows are truly glorious, painted in vivid colors. The art work is dazzling from the 9 tapestries of the late 16th century to the gilded wood sculptures; it's a Cathedral not to be missed.

To the left of the Cathedral is the Broletto, built in 1215 and restored in 1899. This palace is built in layers of gray, white and red marble. In order to build the Cathedral two spans of arches and the main stairway of the Broletto were demolished. The stone tower next to the Broletto was rebuilt in 1927.

Silk has been one of the main elements of the history of Como. It was introduced in 1510. The beginning of silk manufacturing dates back to about 1554. Today the manufacturing has moved offshore, but the designing and production of the finished product remains an integral part of the local economy. We visited one of the Frey silk shops. Frey, in the silk business since 1899, designs and produces their own label goods as well as working with the designer industry. The collection of ties, scarves, jackets, shirts and lots more was gorgeous and, you know, you can always use one more tie and scarf.
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L'Angolo di Vino, via Diaz 69 had only been open for 2 months before we arrived and, judging from the activity, seems to have been well received. We were impressed with the crisp, contemporary design created by the use of light woods, stone and cool white paint. The front wine bar invites you in and the rear dining room beckons you to stay. The mother and daughter team, aided occasionally by father and son-in-law to be, are gracious and warm in their welcome and eager to assist in making choices.

The brief menu offers 3 antipasti, 5 primi, 4 secondi and 4 dulci. Nothing is priced higher than 9 euro. There is an outstanding wine selection; it too is reasonably priced. The house offered a delicious Prosecco, a Bisol from the Veneto region, always a wonderful way to start. The gnocchi alla boscaiola was incredible, tender rolls of pasta were dressed with a savory tomato, mushroom cream sauce. The special pasta of the day was spinach-filled ravioli in butter sauce, simply sensational. It came as no surprise to learn that the pasta is made fresh in-house each day. We enjoyed a Barbera d'Asti while waiting for our second courses. Stinco di maiale al forno, roasted pork on the bone in a reduction of juices, and entrecote alla senape, tender steak in mustard cream sauce, were served with polenta, roast potatoes and broccoli, superb. The dessert of the day was a must for us, chocolate bread cake with walnuts and raisins, laced with chocolate sauce - divine. We look forward to a return visit and hope there’ll be a table available next time.

In the morning we crossed the street and caught bus #7 at 10:26 (10 minutes late) to the front entrance of the train station. There was ample time to make our 11:06 to Firenze, which left right on schedule.

Como was the perfect place to spend our first two days in Italy.
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