CG European Tour '07 - "Where we lay ourselves to sleep"
It seems so long ago, now, after the wedding. The wedding side-tracked my ambitions and attention for a few days. Such a grand event; two such dear friends. But there it is, the connection: the newlyweds, Lago di Como, my trip, their imminent honeymoon. Andreas and Maria, and everyone else, please pay close attention.
It has been called the "vacation of lifetime". It is something so filled with experiences that it can never, at least not by my hand, be summed up adequately. I will give you a taste of it though, through themes that were important to me during the trip. It starts with where, and how we slept.
We came to Varese in the afternoon. Our ambitions of crusing along in the Alfa Romeo had been thwarted by the Avis clerk. He had, we suspected, given our dream car away to someone with more cash and, or better looks. We were stuck with a Volkswagen Passat which we, due to its great size, diesel engine and its maker's origin, eventually came to refer to as "Bismarck". Affection for that powerful, but clumsy and unmanoeuvrable German was however far from my mind as we climbed the slopes of our first lodging; frustration added on as I accidentally sped into the railing of the parking with the front of the car, and gave it the first of many wounds to come.
I linger on these early misfortunes, as they are among the few ones, if not only ones, that befell us on our trip, and as they stand in stark contrast to the "hotel of our dreams" that appeared as we left the parking area. The "Palace Grand Hotel" of Varese - a noble relic of the past, with all the elegance and grandeur of a hotel for the rich and undeserving, and a location which keeps it secluded and - surprisingly - affordable for the odd tourist that happens to pass by. The century-old architecture, its dwindling stairs, the rooms with the view and the engraved slippers, the bar and its hospitable tender providing perfectly bittered Camparis, the beaten-down tennis courts, the patio on a starry night with a beer in the hand and a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, planning for the trip next day, the next day's early awakening and swim in the pool, followed by a luxurious breakfast buffé in a spacious, ornamented dining room with wall-to-wall carpet and somber mood, and a drink - on the house - before leaving on new adventures. It was indeed a grand experience.
The next day - Tuesday - we made our way towards Lago di Como, via Lugano. We marvelled at the sights of clear blue, sweet-watered lakes, surrounded by forest-clad mountains, its coasts dotted, in perfect concord with the rest of the landscape by small, thriving villages, where we found ample opportunites to refresh ourselfs in cool waters. Nevertheless, the trip was long and exhausting, and as we reached Como we were eager to find room and board for the night. I knew that my friends had reserved a hotel in Como for their forthcoming honeymoon that was supposed to be up to standards, but we were not keen on fighting traffic and hunger, map-less as we were, to try and find it. Our way was that of chance, and chance made us turn left into a small road in a village 10 kilometers up the eastern side of the lake, where we found "Villa Flora", beautifully lit up to pinkish hue by a descending sun. That hotel was the second-best lodging experience of the trip.
The Villa Flora is an 18th century villa, with a foundation partly supported by pillars erected in the water, thus creating a space, call it catacomb, cave or garage, where the hotel keeps the kind of small, swift motor boats which are popular to local residents. It also boasted a swimming pool, for anyone who did not want to make the perilous 10-feet walk to the lake itself. The rooms were a pale comparison to what we had enjoyed the previous night, but it mattered little. We stayed long on the restaurant terrace, first indignant of the slow service, then lazily repleat by the excellent risotto dish made from fresh fish of the lake. The sun set, the pool lights shone on, and we placed ourselves by the pool, some of us in it, smoked, drank, and I feel asleep on the cool stone, as the others talked into the late hours of the night.
On our third day, we eventually made our way south, towards Pisa. We came as far as Via Reggio, after a prolonged stop in Riomaggiore, one of the five villages of "Les Cinque Terre", where we got into argument about where to stop and where to sleep. Approaching mid-night, tired as we were, but also economically hard-up after two expensive hotel nights, we ended up at a parking lot, sleeping in the car. Uncomfortable, hot, mosquito-infested and confined as it was, none of us complained. It seemed appropriate that a trip like this,of such diversity, should include all kinds of lodging. The morning after, as my aging body creaked itself out of the car and I went to find food and drink, I came upon a small bakery where I supplied myself with croissants, pastries and ice tea; spoils which I took back to the car and showed my friends, who made the same journey. We sat in a derelict park and ate, in no way beaten down by the night, though - I think - all of us secretely wishing that our fourth night be a more comfortable one.
It was. The "People Like Us", or "PLUS" camping is far from what its name would suggest open to everyone, from camper to backpacker, to a very affordable price. It provides its guests with a view over Firenze in all its splendour, set with all the facilities needed for a weary traveller. We had beds! There were showers for us to rinse off the filth of two days and 600 miles and 40 degree heat. Jackets to load our cameras and phones. Internet. Fresh, free water. And a combined bar and restaurant, where we spent most of the night, drinking, eating, smoking, chatting away with people from all corners of the world. Well, at least other scandinavian people, and one or two Brits. I woke the next day with a headache, but still very much enchanted by our trip.
Friday, my mood changed frequently along with the different contexts we found ourselves in. We went from museums in Firenze, to wine yards in Tuscany, and through rolling hills to the dreary salt fields of Milano Marittima on the Italian east coast. I had wanted to stay on in Tuscany at a B&B, picturing I would wake up the next day, rise and open up the shutters to a sun-filled, crisp morning to see countless rows of grapevines and paradise on earth. The four of us ended up in a small room with bunk beds and no air conditioning. But we did the best of it, sipping wine and eating paninis from the kiosk around the corner. Around us, music was playing, restaurants and bars filled with Italy's bold and beautiful. The place was happening. We stayed two nights, avoiding the room as much as possible, spending the day on the beach and the night trying, but failing, to get into the posh night club. Sunday came, and with that the break-up of our party. The others dropped me off in Bologna, and I started making my way back to Sweden, slowly.
The Second Week
The second week was fundamentally different from my first. I was alone, I travelled by train, and found comfort in books, preferring solitude to socializing with other travellers. I compensated the social bit through visiting friends of old, in places like Val d'Isere and Geneva. The nights spent there, were nights spent as if at home, albeit on a mattres on the floor. Paris was the best. My friend in Geneva had friends there, in Belleville, who happened to be out of town. He had the key to their house so we decided to go there for the weekend. It was a semi-detached, three-storey haven in the centre of town, with a wine cellar and a small garden where we drank the contents of the cellar. We reposed in that house after sight-seeing tours with other friends of my friend; we prepared for late night dinners, and we made ourselves coffee and croissants the morning after. That house was a fitting end to two weeks of lodging splendour. I would like to have remembered it as the last on my trip, but that was spent in a couchette on the night train to Copenhagen with two danish people, who chattered away half the night, while I lay sleepless, thinking about what I had done.