I was pleasantly surprised by Lake Como, in particular by the many small and more remote villages that are dotted around the Lake. You could say it was an awakening of sorts. My misconception about the area may have been based on all the hype one reads about villas, palazzi, gardens, tourists, film stars and wedding events. Most tourists head to busy traps such as Bellagio ( happily mispronouncing it every time), Varenna, Menaggio or Como, paying scant attention to the other 15 or so small villages of Lake Como.
A stay in Laglio in late October proved so refreshingly devoid of tourists, I wondered if we had found Italian nirvana. The small village of 600 residents included two tiny alimentari with totally random opening hours, one osteria specialising in local lake fish and a small enoteca which opened after 4 pm. There are more businesses open in the high season. I could happily head back there tomorrow, especially in October, spending a month or so jumping on and off the small ferry that leaves from Carate Urio, a two kilometre walk down the road from Laglio. I am sure that every village would have one local trattoria or osteria open for lunch. The few that I did manage to visit provided me with exquisite food memories.
One week in Laglio was simply not long enough. Below are some colourful images taken on walks around the village. The collage photos can be clicked on and opened separately.
Grazie mille Stuart and Linda for your lovely home in Laglio.
Now I see fire, inside the mountain
I see fire, burning the trees
And I see fire, hollowing souls
And I see fire, blood in the breeze. Ed Sheeran.
One of my favourite Ed Sheeran songs came rushing in as I watched a blazing wild-fire gain momentum on the peaks of the densely wooded forest high above Lake Como. It was a windy night, following yet another unseasonably warm late autumn day. The dark mountains near the comunes of Veleso and Tavernerio were on fire, the lines gaining speed and the fire front broadening. The few people we saw around the village and in the local osteria in Laglio didn’t look perturbed, and as I didn’t have access to the internet or television, I had to assume that this was a controlled burn off. Or an out of control controlled burn off. If I had been at home in Australia, I would have been terrified.
The next day we woke to the low buzzing sound of helicopters and Canadairs. The war was on. Not unlike a scene from Apocalypse Now, the planes swooped down into the lake, filled their tanks with water, then rose back into the sky in a circular aerial ballet before dropping their load on the smoking mountain. The mission went on all morning, though I did notice that all action ceased at 1pm: nothing, absolutely nothing, gets in the way of an Italian lunch! After the first day, the fire was still visible and threatening to take off once again. The helicopters and Canadairs kept up their vigilant water bombing for three more days until the area was declared safe.
Coming from a bushfire prone district in the low wooded hills, the designated Green Wedge and lungs of Melbourne, and having been personally affected by the disastrous Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, I was keen to find out what was going on. This required those old-fashioned and timeless investigative skills- chatting to locals, asking more questions, and buying the local newspaper in Como from a very happy dope smoking giornaliao.
The gentle dock master down at the Urio ferry stop was concerned about the lack of rain. It was late October, only a few days before All Saint’s Day, and yet it hadn’t rained for two months. The weather had been warm with temperatures in the mid twenties. The little lakes and sources of water high up in the mountains had dried up, and at night the ‘cinghiali, caprioli, volpi, lepri e cervi scendono per bere al lago’, (the wild boars, roe deer, foxes, hare and deer come down to drink at the lake). He looked concerned, apprehensive even, like some modern day St Francis. ‘They hide during the day,’ he said, ‘even the wolves come down to drink at night.’
By Monday, the newspaper was full of reports, with pictures of fire fighting scenes taken at the fire front, which was estimated to be around 400 hectares. The local brigade, i vigili del fuoco andthe local fire fighting volunteers were praised, and along with the aerial bombardment, the fire was kept away from hilltop farms, ancient trails, and the densely populated small lakeside villages. There was some discussion about pyromaniacs and the careless cigarette butt throwing drivers. The following day, another article suggested that the blaze began as a result of a contadino, a peasant farmer, doing some cleaning up by burning off.
In later discussions with other Lombardi, it was suggested that these fires may have been deliberately lit by those wanting to buy land cheaply. Start a fire, watch your neighbour’s land burn, then snap it up for a bargain price. The pernicious Sicilian mafia are alive and well in Lombardy. This behaviour is well documented in the rural areas of Sicily but in Como?
I raised the issue of global warming and the need for more care and vigilance in summer and autumn. The locals do worry about long, hot and rainless autumns that are becoming the norm, as well as the perennial yellow smog that chokes the beautiful historic towns, villages and hamlets within a 30 kilometre radius of Milano. They are also concerned about the long-term pollution of their underground drinking water, necessitating reliance on plastic bottled drinking water in some parts, about the nuclear waste buried under a recently constructed road in Lombardy that can never be removed (construction contracts have been handed out to the mafia as local government corruption takes hold in the North) as well as a raft of other environmental issues confronting Northern Italy. But global warming? Beh, what can you do? The issues are huge.
The blaze in the Comasco hills cost around €500,000 (AU$750,000) to quell. Let’s hope this fire was an aberration, but also a warning and a message.
Along the journey, I lost my way, though not in any real or physical sense. I lost my writing muse, a frequent visitor to my early morning half wakefulness. She still made some attempts, and suggested I take up the pen again but being out of touch with that older, and more time-consuming form of editing, I repelled her constant intrusions.
This drastic shift in daily habit came about due to the absence of WiFi. Our friend, SK, had generously offered us his house on Lake Como, and along with it, a non functional internet service. Ironically, this same friend is an IT programmer and when he left Como to return to London, he assured us that the internet would be up and running within a day. It didn’t happen, and while I don’t wish to sound terribly ungrateful for the opportunity to live in his gorgeous house just up the road from George Clooney, the internet free time had profound consequences.
During the first two days, I became extremely anxious and fidgety and came to understand my addiction as a physical thing, not unlike addiction to cigarettes, coffee, or obsessive behaviour. I felt totally lost and cut off and didn’t know what to do with my hands. I had been permanently connected for the previous 12 years, including during visits to the Australian outback and along remote stretches of the Mekong River in Thailand. After some tearful moments, I was ready to leave Lake Como.
Slowly things improved as I adjusted to the reality of the situation. We were staying in the small village of Laglio, some distance from the larger towns dotted around Lake Como. Our village was in November mode, with only one operating osteria and a tiny alimenatari with totally random opening hours, both a kilometre or so away. There were no internet cafes to tap into and the supposed community WiFi service near the bus stop was dysfunctional. So we walked, and asked more questions, and bought newspapers again, and read timetables on walls and at Batello stations. The nearest ferry stop was 2.5 kilometres away: the ferry left and returned three times a day and was the only reliable way in and out of the village. We never mastered the buses due to lack of faith or trust. We did have a car, but left it safely locked up in the garage, given the Lake’s goat track and hair pinned roads and serious dearth of parking. Getting out of the village meant access to other towns, tourist brochures, and a variety of restaurants, often stumbled upon and not tediously researched. We walked at least 10 kilometres a day in our search for food, services and information.
And as the week went by, I noticed a few things. I slept really well. I thought nothing of walking the 5 kilometers round trip to catch a ferry, even in the rain. Or walking late at night to the only winter surviving restaurant at Laglio. I became fit. I read Italian newspapers back to back, and read the books laying idle on my Kindle. And then I stopped writing.
In hindsight, I enjoyed the break and intend to do this more often. Even when reconnected once we arrived in Pavia, my addiction had abated and I rarely tapped into the service.
How do you cope, dear reader, when the internet is unavailable? Do you feel anxious, or relieved to have a break from constant communication and availability?