Saturday, March 31, 2012

finally, Lago di Garda

Northern Italy is at the very tail end of its own heat wave – the temps climbed up to the high seventies today.

Weather stuff is tricky when you’re away. You want it to be nice. And on days when it does indeed exceed your hopes, you want to make sure you don’t waste a single minute of it. That’s a lot of pressure!

Still, as the pilot bumped his way to a landing in sunny Milan (and passengers grumbled at the added little bounce -- “that’s Altitalia for you!” -- one said, but then, a flight from Paris to Milan is always filled with people who look like this:

on the bus to the plane

Men in a hurry), I was looking out the window and thinking – wow, the Milanese spring is two weeks ahead of where our spring is right now. Amazing! (Both theirs and ours.)

Just to clarify, the lake region of Italy is just south of the Alps. You can this flying into Milan. Here’s the first of the big beauties – Lake Como, spreading its claws right up into the mountains.


On my return next week, I have to spend a night in Milan. That’s not the best way to end a trip, but early flights force my hand there. But there’s no reason to even pause in this city on my arrival. From airport, straight to the train station, where I catch the local to Brescia. (The local is always half the price of the snazzy intercity – there it is, that speeding devil, showing off its bright redness, like Mr Red back home, or my rosie, or my red hot lover. Forget you all! This time I’m on the pokey green snake.)


It’s always a challenge to take these trains after a long and convoluted series of flights. Far too easy to fall asleep and miss your station. The warm sun comes in through the windows, the train rocks gently, in the distance, the northern Alps frame your views...

No, I must stay awake.

Italian trains aren’t as on the spot punctual as those in neighboring countries (I’m thinking France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany) – so you can’t plan your connections around them. A little over an hour later, ss we pull into Brescia (a city at the southern end of Lake Garda), I see that we’re a tad late. So I miss a good bus to Gargnano. Ah well, there are plenty of others.

If I could fall asleep standing up (Ed can do it, I cannot), I would do it now, at the bus station in Brescia. It’s fairly crowded here, on this Friday afternoon. Lots of high school kids, too, returning (cigarettes out, ah, foolish kids!)  to their homes on the outskirts, or in the lakeside villages. When my Gargnano bus finally comes, it fills up quickly.

This is what people do when their gas gets taxed at higher rates – they cut back on using their cars and rely on public transportation, which then improves significantly to meet the growing demand. I’m one who believes that this is a good thing.

It’s my final leg of the journey and on the bus (an hour and a half ride), I can at last doze off. Mine is the last stop on the line. But who can sleep! Watching school kids get on and off, listening to the chatter of the older couple behind me – these rides are like café people watching: full of the excitement of being in a different country.

By the time I arrive at Gargnano (pronounced Gar-nia-no), the bus is nearly empty. I get off and look around.

What a stunning little place!


Gargnano is actually a handful of hamlets, clustered at the shore of Lake Garda and extending into the hills above it. I’m staying at the heart, where shops, cafes and eateries line a beautiful waterfront.

My hotel is a short walk – along a quiet street by the water’s edge.

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Let me say right at the outset that the prevailing mood here, at the family run Hotel du Lac is that of a gentle quiet. Right now, the deep waters of Lake Garda are very still. At night, the wind picks up and I listen to the splash of small waves along the pebble shore. But there is no other noise, no disturbance.

It is also true that I am here before the season starts. My little hotel really doesn’t open until tomorrow, but they moved things up when I asked about a six day stay. They rewrote their webpage and actually have another room now occupied as well – by a couple whose home in southern Germany is a mere five hour drive. Sort of like me going to Escanamba for the weekend.

And speaking of my reference town of Escanaba (it’s your classic midwestern lakeside place – not especially a big tourist destination, but with your standard motel rooms going for about $100 per night) – I’m paying comparable rates here (though with a huge breakfast included). Meaning it’s not dirt cheap. I could have done better pricewise along Lake Como. But you have to get off your “go for the cheapest” horse when you travel this far for a week’s break. For ten Euro more I have Gargnano. It’s worth the ten Euro, really it is.

I don’t do much on this first day. The haze of a long journey has set in. You know how it is – you feel you’re moving even if you’re not. Everything seems slightly more distant, slightly muted around the edges.

It’s late afternoon and I walk to the village center. The locals are out and about, as usual the older men prefer the company of each other...


...and the older women huddle over a baby carriage and admire a new Gargnano addition.


Gargnano. At the feet of steep hills. Narrow streets, colorful houses, lovely vistas onto the waters of the lake.

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I sit down at a lakefront café and let the sun warm my right side. It’s slowly sinking, but I’m plenty toasty on this last (or second to last? One can hope...) summerlike day here.

The waitress comes over. Si signora? She asks.
I want one of those, please. I wince at my own rusty Italian. It's been a while. I point to the aperitif of choice here: an Aperol spritz (half Prosecco, half the deliciously bitter Aperol, over ice, with a slice of a blood red orange).
She brings it. Lovely little drink. With a tray of snacks.

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And a bruschietta with tomatoes.

I haven’t eaten since the morning snack at the Paris airport and even though I’m just a few hours short of dinnertime, I’m hungry. And I am especially hungry for that warm bread with tomatoes, drizzled over with a local olive oil and sprinkled with oregano.

It funny how quickly you get attached to the local stuff here, in the Mediterranean countries. When you go into a small food store (and I did), you see a shelf of wines – always local wines. Everyone in the village appears to drinks the local Lugana and the not too distant wines of the Veneto. And they use their own olive oils and they buy bags of their local cookies. If I stay long enough in a place, I’ll get into that habit too and I begin to think that these wines, these olive oils, these cookies are superior to all others and I’ll buy some and lug them home where they will at once taste... well, nice, but also ordinary. No different than the next good oil or decent bottle of wine.

Out of the six nights I am here, three of them are on a demi-pension basis – breakfast and dinner included. It was too good a deal to pass up, even as I hate being tied to just one eatery during my entire stay in Italy, so I made this compromise of three and they were fine with it.

Back in my room now... (and back to mirror photo snapping... where are you, Ed?!)


I notice that the sun has set. My room faces east and I see the shadows of my own Gargnano mountain on the hills before me. The sunlight picks up the reflection of a window pane and it throws a tail of twinkling light onto the water. It is an utterly sublime moment – a play of light on water, a touch of cloud, a dazzle of fading blue.


Today is my hotel dinner night. The one other couple here is eating here too. We are in a dining room that sits almost on top of the water. The views over the lake at this evening hour are stunning.


People always ask me if I mind eating alone when I travel. Of course it’s fun to have Ed or my daughters or friends at the table. Of course it is. But eating out alone is never an issue for me. I know Ed takes a book when he does it. I take my notebook. Often times I scribble stuff I never use. It’s the kind of writing that I used to do when I was younger. Journal like. Very indulgent. And sort of pointless. But fun.

I also watch others. And, when you are alone, people engage you. (They always leave you alone when you’re with someone.) The German couple began talking to me before I was through with my “pasta” course (barley, prepared as a risotto, with tomatoes and basil). A delightful duo. Very gentle, very polite.

They’re at least a decade older than me. We talk about our various travels and eventually they find out I am originally from Poland. They’re both surprised.
So you must be Catholic! – the woman blurts out.

No one has ever said this to me before, just like that, out of the blue. It was an idle observation, I suppose. Perhaps an association with the Polish Pope. I consider my answers. Well now, when I was born, right after the war, it is true that the country was 98% Catholic then. But I myself am actually of the 2% that were not.

As European countries struggle with a new wave of religious politics, I’m still riding the old one. And indeed, I am in a place in Italy that is just full of the old one. Mussolini occupied and set up residence in a Gargnano villa in 1943.

On the flight over the ocean, my Serbian friend talked about her family, especially about her father who, as a Jew, spent the war years in German camps. She said how he wasn’t one to look with hostility at all things German after the war. He drove a BMW, because it was a good car – she tells me. My first car was a Mini Cooper. I drove it every summer from Yugoslavia to Paris when I was a student. My mother was terrified for me, but I liked Paris. And tennis at the Bois du Boulogne. I smile at the image of this now big time doctor  as a Yugoslav student, driving her Mini Cooper across the continent to play tennis in the Bois du Boulogne.

But it is also true that we are the postwar children. We think about invasions and occupations on this continent. The next generation can think in a history textbook way about the war. My generation cannot. And it’s rare that I am in Europe and am not in some way reminded of my role as the child whose family and friends lived through the war. It’s just the way it is.

The food at the hotel? Delicious! It is their first meal service of the season and they were duly apologetic about not having all their eggs out of the basket yet, but I cannot see what could be better than my eggplant appetizer, the barley risotto, a fresh salad, and the most delicate lake trout I have had in a long time. Followed by a semifreddo with meringue and strawberries.


...and heaven too.

Outside my window, at the predawn hour, the lights on the other coast shut down and the sky begins to turn a bright blue again. A new day. May it continue to bring sunshine. Just one more day. Then I will feel satiated, I promise.