Across the lake and up the mountain

It’s funny how quickly we settle into what I think of as our “Italian mode.” Eleanor and I haven’t traveled together to Italy since the late 1990s but I notice that we are in the same pattern as before: two meals a day, gelato in the afternoon, exploration all day long, and an earnest search for good food and good atmosphere every night.

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Being on the shore of Lake Maggiore certainly inspires relaxation. Although our hotel is along a busy street right at the waterfront, it is quiet in our room. Just a few feet from the front door are narrow alleyways paved with cobblestones that lead to hidden ristorantes, shops, and pasticceria, forking off at angles periodically in a fun-house maze.

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It’s impossible to ignore the draw of these alleys; after all, this is where the fun is. They are sort of the Italian version of malls, filled with life, and unlike American alleyways they are safe and clean. We rarely buy anything but we do take a lot of pictures and find surprises. I’d much rather wander the alleys of any Italian city, especially the hill towns, than follow a guidebook.

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Inevitably in any Italian city you will encounter the duomo (church), near the center of town. Being a fan of architecture I will always stop to take a look, but the real beauty of the duomo is inside, so even if you are shy it pays to walk in and quietly explore. Because we know we will be doing this, we are careful to leave the hotel with appropriate clothing. (You can get tips on what to wear from any decent guidebook.)

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After walking the town for a couple of hours, we hopped on the ferry across Lake Maggiore to Laveno. The warm humid weather has continued, so it was a nice change to feel the breeze on the lake and get a cheap tour in the process.

I have been noticing all the motorcyclists along the route through Switzerland and here in Italy. The passes we drove were popular for motorcycling, probably because of the narrow twisting roads and of course the exceptional scenery. I didn’t envy them, though, because the Furkapass was rife with blind corners where cars were encouraged to honk their horns before continuing. That’s a little bit outside of my comfort zone on a motorcycle.

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For my brother I have taken a few pictures of BMW motorcycles in action, which is not hard since it seems that about 80% of the bikes here are BMWs. The photo above shows two fully loaded BMW F650GS bikes, the same type we ride in New England.

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Laveno is a smaller town than Verbania (our base location), and the main attraction is the Funivia (gondola) that climbs steeply up a mountain overlooking the town and Lake Maggiore. At ten Euros a person for the round-trip we thought it was a little expensive but then we didn’t have a clue what we were in for.

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The gondola baskets are offered in open and closed varieties. The closed ones I suppose are for sissies or when it’s raining, so we happily chose the open one. It’s one of the steepest gondolas we’ve ever ridden, and quite long, ending up at 3,000 feet elevation about 25 minutes after you board it.

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Your vista of Lake Maggiore quickly emerges, and it is stunning even on a cloudy day such as we had. I thought I’d be a little nervous about being in an open basket strung on a wire high above the ground but honestly it’s a very pleasant ride—and the view is distracting.

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The top is developed with a restaurant, bar, gift shop, snack shop, a small hotel, and an antenna farm, along with what appears to be a small house for permanent staff. A hiking trail leads off to points unknown (to us), and with the tiny peak being so exposed, the wind is ever-present.

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The big surprise at the top is a platform for launching hang-gliders. It looks like a place for convenient suicide at first, but then after considering it I could actually see myself jumping off a spot like this with a trustworthy wing strapped to my back. After a lot of training. After a lot of gear checks. After a lot of other circumstances fell into place. The sign at the launch ramp says that launching in a north wind is not recommended, for example.

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We thought it might start to rain so we walked back through town without much more exploring … but we did of course stop for a couple of gelatos. That’s just mandatory.

At dinner we just popped into a place around the corner (in an alleyway). Here in Verbania we have found, unlike Switzerland and Germany, most of the waiters, gelato servers, newsstand clerks, ticket sellers, etc., speak no English, so we have finally had a chance to dredge up the Italian words & phrases we remember and put them to use. Ordering dinner last night was fun, and I finally had a chance to say “piu lentemente” so that our waitress would go through the dolce choices a bit more slowly. Dolce is serious business and you want to be sure to get the right item. I had creme caramel, which in Tucson would be called flan.

We’ve planned our final days. (Having wifi in the hotel is extraordinarily useful for that purpose, and these days almost every hotel offers it.) Today we are heading to Milan for a night, then we will work our way back north via St Gallen Switzerland, and up to Frankfurt. We return to the US on Monday. I hate to think of leaving, but we have had a very good trip and the memories will sustain us a long time.

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