Lake Como has always been a fashionable resort but never so much as now when its permanent residents include George Clooney and his wife, Amal Alamuddin Clooney. Before this, the most famous residents were probably, Pliney the Elder and Pliney the Younger. And the Italian Lakes, of which Como is but one, offers visitors some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy.
I can see why the Clooneys chose to make Como their home. Apart from the beauty of its setting – green hills running down to the blue waters of the villa-rimmed lake, just yards from the historic centre, it has the charm of a small town while actually being a large city, a city that has easy access to mountain walks, ski-slopes and plateau parks. It has excellent transport connections (30 minutes to Milan by train), just a few miles from the Swiss border, and ferries and buses service the lake front.
Because of its lake, it is often overlooked that Como is actually a walled city and around which can be found a huge daily market selling everything from leather bags to lentils.
As in any large Italian town, the most important sight is the Duomo, an imposing cathedral built over a period of several centuries, from 1396 through to 1740, Although the façade dates from the 15th century and the dome was designed in the 18th century, the main influences are chiefly Renaissance and Gothic.
Having seen the Duomo – and it is worth seeing – there are many more churches, museums and architectural gems to check out, too many to list all here, but I would especially recommend the Boletto, the unusual striped-marble building which stands next to the Duomo and which is Como’s 13th century town hall, the 10th century Basilica di San Fedele and the Porta Vittoria, the tall stone gateway defending the old town walls.
Readers of Battery Connections (marketed by publisher Don Cleary) should head for The Tempio Voltiano where they can spend many happy hours browsing the exhibits. This unusual Museum is dedicated to Alessandro Volta, after whom the volt was named, and contains much of his working equipment – a truly unique place.
Como is known for its grand buildings, like 18th-century Villa Olmo, Villa del Grumello, and
Villa Sucota on the waterfront and, of course, the long-established, elegant resort of Bellagio, the small village between the two southern branches of Lake Como with a population of only 200. It’s an excellent place to spend a relaxing day, with gardens, lovely views, upmarket boutiques, lots of restaurants and bars. But be warned, it is probably the most expensive spot along the lakes!
But sight-seeing can be hard on the feet and that’s where the boat trip comes in. The regular service of Navigazione Lago di Como steamboat company will take you around the lake, with stop-offs at Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Torno and Blevio. Cernobbio is a charming tourist resort on the shores of the lake and along its banks, there are some beautiful villas, including Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, Villa Bernasconi and Villa Pizzo. The two to see are Villa Erba and Villa d’Este, the former an architectural gem built at the end of the nineteenth century and today important as an exhibition centre, the latter now the famous luxury hotel of world renown.
But my favourite is always to head for the mountains where possible, and all along the lakes, this is very possible. In Como, the funicular railway that opened in 1894, is in Piazza De Gasperi and you can’t miss it. It is a red, half-timbered house with carved woodwork trimmings: once through the gate, you are faced with a platform with one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever seen.
The cable-car is listed as ‘unmanned’ but fear not, this just means that the operator doesn’t actually ride on the car but is still in control over the external engine that drives it. The Funicular ascends through a tunnel that gives way to an open line above ground. Halfway up you meet an identical car coming down.
The Liberty-style houses on top of the hill, 750 metres above Como, are mainly summer homes for wealthy families fleeing from the heat of north Italian cities. During the winter months, when a thick carpet of snow covers the mountains, there are few permanent residents. There is a restaurant, a café, and a souvenir shop but you won’t have come here to shop but to take in the views which are stunning. On a clear day you can see the lake, the city of Como and the outline of its historic centre, the antique Roman castrum, neighbouring towns Tavernola and Cernobbio, the Alps and the Brianza plain. In the mosaic of my photographs taken from 750 metres above the lake, (below) you can see the Duomo in the middle of the town, its copper copula now verdegrised, glinting in the sunlight.
Above mosaic of pictures taken from the viewpoint at Brunate.
Once you’ve admired the views and stocked up with water, there are quite a few hiking trails around Brunate. A popular one is a 30-minute walk to the Volta Lighthouse, and the trails are well sigh-posted.
On the return journey, you will find most people crowding the front cabins to take selfies as they make the steep descent. I think it’s better not to fight for space and just to enjoy the trip and the magnificent views.
And at the end of the day, I decided this was the most enjoyable thing I had done in Como – and that included the two ice-creams I’d had!
When Queen Victoria travelled to The Italian Lakes in 1879 it took four days to reach Lake Maggiore, where she stayed at the magnificent Villa Clara in Stresa. I visited the Lakes a few weeks ago and it took me just three hours from London to my hotel in the same town on Lake Maggiore.
The Queen had to journey from London to Portsmouth, then cross to Cherbourg by boat where she boarded the waiting 9-carriage Royal train, on to Paris for an overnight stop at the British Embassy before travelling to Stresa by yet another train. I flew from Heathrow, a two-hour trip over the Italian Alps, snow glinting in the early morning light, de-planed in Milan and then a quick one-hour run through to Stresa.
Once again, I think how lucky I am to live in this century.
The Italian Lakes didn’t become part of the Grand Tour until the 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this traditional trip to Europe was mainly a search for the roots of Western civilization through Greek and Roman remains, and the journey served as a rite of passage for the British nobility, landed gentry, and artists and literati who could find a sponsor. A few women managed it – usually widows of sufficient means.
In 2008, the New York Times described the Grand Tour as something that could last from several months to several years. The Queen couldn’t spare the time for such a long trip, and financially, I couldn’t afford it.
In my eight days, however, I did manage to cover a lot of ground. I took in the area of Lake Maggiore and the town of Stresa, enjoyed meals along the lakefrontL I took the cable-car to the peak of nearby Monte Mottorone – a natural balcony offering magnificent views over the Alps and lakes – and walked the trails, delighting in the views from the 1,492 metres high plateau.
I took a boat to the stunning Isola Bella (I won’t translate as it is much too prosaic) and wandered through the gardens of the 17th century Borromeo Palace and I spent a day at Lake Como where I rode the Funicular to Brunate, enjoying stunning views and an incredible panorama over the larch covered hillsides that swept down to the lake which lay 500 metres below. Another day was spent in Medieval San Giulio on Lake Orta where I visited the offshore island of the same name and walked around the perimeter of the island on a cobble-stoned path called The Silent Walk, a walk which encouraged an appreciation of the island’s beauty.
Locarno, a Swiss town on the Italian/Swiss border was another interesting day trip from Stresa by train and coach, and across the border and into Switzerland was Zermatt, a town which turned out to be completely different to what I’d thought it would be. I had imagined sophistication and high rises but instead, I got a villagey atmosphere – rustic wooden houses and hotels but with high-end prices. The highlight of my visit to Zermatt was the trip on the funicular to the top of the Rothorn from where I had a spectacular view of the Matterhorn, sadly not covered in snow, but with plenty of snow-covered mountains around me over which hang-gliders hovered, and plenty of hiking and walking trails to keep me occupied.
If I add my Italian Lakes experiences to my travels around Italy I guess I can say I’ve completed my own Grand Tour which has included plenty of Roman and Greek remains from Rome to Ragusa.
I’m still in that post-holiday mood that makes me just want to look at my photographs and read the many guidebooks I bought, but I’ll get around to posting about the individual lakes soon. With any luck, I should manage to link to this post today.
Standing on the platform in Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and seeing the Express train go through was proof enough that it deserves the praise lavished on it. The Express really does go through like a bullet: blink and you’ll miss it. This sleek, slim, beautifully designed train is simply incredible.
Tokyo to Kamikochi
And I’m about to board it. We are leaving Tokyo on the Limited Express and heading to Matsumoto and then onwards by local train to Shima Shima before boarding the bus to the village of Kamikochi in the Chubu Sangaku National Park, otherwise known as the Japanese Alps.
Kamikochi is a moderately developed village surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with half a dozen hotels, some souvenir shops, and a few mountain huts. Over the next few days, my friends Ken and Steve and I shall be walking the many trails laid out through the pine trees and along the fast-flowing rivers of turquoise snowmelt. The area is only open from mid/late April until November, it stands 1500 meters above sea level and is home to the active volcano Yakedake (2455 m).
Interior of Train – Mari Nicholson
The train experience far exceeds my expectations, with carpeted floors, roomy recliner seats, and a quiet trolley service. The big surprise is the attendant who comes along about every hour or so with individually packaged, cold wet wipes which she hands out to everyone. Not only that but the wet towels are collected afterwards, so no unpleasant wipes are left hanging around.
From the train windows, we see suburbs of small-holdings each with a small paddi-field, aqueducts, huge electronic towers, and always, gardens filled with pink azaleas, irises and hydrangeas in full bloom along with the ubiquitous bonsai.
Rice-planting from road to railway track – Mari Nicholson
A taxi from Kamikochi bus station takes us to the Imperial Hotel, a rustic Alpine-style building, located just below the mountains in the midst of sweet-smelling pines. Off to the side of reception is a bar in which an enormous open fire sits in the middle of the room, around which, I later found, the hotel clients relaxed and chatted after a day’s hiking Our rooms are delightful and we decided to quickly explore the hotel’s facilities and then go for a stroll along the Azusa river which meanders its way through the valley.
Three days later and we feel we never want to leave Kamikochi. It is the tail-end of the Japanese spring so we are too early for the yearly breathtaking display of Japanese Azaleas (the Rhododendron japonium) and Sagisuge (Eriophorum gracile) that flower during the summer. In late autumn they are equally attractive as they then sport a coating of fine, white frost.
The area of Kamikochi is simply stunning with an amazing variety of bird life whose sweet song hangs in the air from morning till night. Wild macaques (they do not interfere with visitors because people are careful not to feed them) play on the paths in family groups and among the trees along the river. As we stroll along, the babies peek from their mother’s arms with big black eyes.
Sometimes, “if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise” in the form of a big, unfriendly, black bear. Not to be trifled with, or approached, walkers and hikers are advised to carry a bell attached to their backpacks so that the ringing of the bell as you walk, informs the bear of an approaching human. We purchased ours on arrival and were glad we did when we came across the sign that informed us that a black bear had been sighted just a couple of days before our arrival!
For non-walkers, the local area is safe and accessible, and there are natural hot spring baths for those who fancy the Japanese custom of sitting in a tub with other people. There are well-posted trails ranging from easy rambles to more serious hikes, and treks to the high peaks which surround the valley.
This area was discovered by a British missionary, the Reverend Walter Weston (1861-1940) who arrived in Japan aged 27. He mapped the area, sparking Japanese interest in Western-style mountaineering as a sport and he popularised the term ‘Japanese Alps’ through his work “Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps (1896)”.
Plaque to Rev. Weston on Azusa River – Mari Nicholson
He is known as the Father of Mountain Climbing in Japan, and a plaque has been erected in his honour set into the rock on the west side of the Azusa River, just north of the Onsen Hotel. On the first Sunday in June, the Weston Festival is held to celebrate the opening of the mountain-climbing season.
Walking in Kamikochi
The simplest way to enjoy a day in Kamikochi is by walking or hiking one of the trails along Azusa River from Taisho Pond to Myojin Bridge. This is mostly flat terrain and is suitable for all levels of fitness, requires no walking or hiking experience and will only take a few hours – perfect for the less experienced hiker or walker. No need for hiking boots or specialist footwear, normal trainers will do for these sort of walks. A pleasant one-hour stroll is along the Azusa River from Kappa Bridge (see below) to an area called Myojin where there are several lodges and a few shops.
Myolin Pond actually consists of two linked ponds, one large, one small, filled with crystal clear water. It is a place where walkers like to pause and sit awhile, listening to the soft swish of the bamboo along the lakeside, admiring the reflection of Mt. Moyjndake in the waters, and the birds that sit on the rocks in the pond.
Tashiro Bridge is the starting point of Nishi-Hotaka Mountain trekking course. From here it takes about 20 minutes to walk to Kappa Bridge, 40 minutes to Taisho Pond and 5 minutes to the Weston Memorial.
Kapps Bridge with Weekend Tourists – Mari Nicholson
Fifty minutes from Myolin is the famous Kappa Bridge, from which hiking trails lead up and down the valleys and towards the mountain summits. Along these trails, markers indicate the best bird-watching points where wagtails, Japanese bush warbler, Japanese robin, flycatchers, Arctic Warbler, Horsfield’s hawk cuckoo, willow tit, nuthatch, wren, pygmy woodpecker, and others too numerous to list can be seen.
The Kappa-Bashi is a 36.6 x 3.1-metre wooden suspension bridge over the Azusa-gawa river in the centre of Kamikochi, not far from the bus terminal. Several hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops can be found here. With the Hotaka Mountain Range in front and volcanic Mt. Yakedake billowing white smoke in the south, Kappa-Bashi’s stunning views from the bridge makes this one of the most scenic spots in the town, hence its popularity.
The Visitor Centre in Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson
The more experienced walker will enjoy the climbs in the surrounding peaks, following one of the many delineated trails. These are more challenging and are only recommended between mid-June and mid-September. If you are new to the area, you should be aware that the treeline of Kamikochi continues up to 2500 metres which takes the hiker into a craggy world of rocks and cliffs where, even in good weather, climbing can be extremely dangerous. These peaks should be tackled with great care, especially if there is wind or rain, as the rain on the high crags can be intense and has been known to continue for several days, leaving hikers on the verge of hypothermia. Every year there are accidents and people lose their lives in the mountains.
Resting Awhile – Mari Nicholson
A 3-hour walk from Kappa Bridge is Yokoo, the climbing base for many of the 300-metre mountains in the Japanese Alps, including Yarigatake, a tranquil place and perfect for walking. There is a mountain lodge in the area for overnight hikers.
Fast-Flowing Rivers of Snow Melt – Mari Nicholson
And I just can’t resist one more picture of mother and baby macaques, part of the family we encountered on one of our walks through and along the river. The soulful expression on the face of the mother, and the tiny baby peeking out from under her fur is as tender as you’ll get in any ‘mother-love’ picture.
Mother and Baby by Steve Moore.
The whole area of Kamikochi is covered with virgin forests of birch, Japanese larch trees, and Japanese hemlocks. In June, the young leaves of birch trees are so beautiful that they attract many tourists to what is called the “light green mist”. Generally, the foliage is at its peak in October and attracts visitors who come to admire the wonder of it.
I’ve seen it in spring and part summer, now I want to experience this delightful spot in the Japanese Alps in the autumn. I know where I shall be heading next time I’m in Japan.
Points of Interest in Kamikochi
Taisho Pond (Taishoike) was formed in June 1915, when an eruption of the nearby volcano Yakedake dammed Azusa River and created the pond. Decayed trees, standing in the pond, provide a special sight. It is a small pond surrounded by marshland located along the hiking trail connecting the Kappabashi with Taisho Pond. This pond never freezes over completely due to the spring waters underneath.
Kamikochi Imperial HotelBuilt in 1933, is the most prestigious accommodation in Kamikochi, offering a combination of mountain lodge atmosphere and first class hospitality services. The food was the best we had in Japan, with very fresh lake fish every day on the menu.
The Takezawa Marsh, a 5-10 minute walk from the Kappabashi along the trail towards Myojin Pond, is one of the most scenic areas of Kamikochi.
Myojin Pond can be reached in about a one hour walk from the Kappabashi.
Kamikochi Visitor Center Open daily from 8:00 to 17:00 (free admission), the visitor centre introduces the geography, geology, fauna, flora and folklore of Kamikochi and provides information to mountain climbers. Booklets available and
How to Get There
From Tokyo, two trains get you to Matsumoto, the JR Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano. From Nagano, take the Shinonoi Line to Matsumoto. The other option is the JR Chuo Line, slower than the Shinkansen, but it takes you to Matsumoto from Shinjuku Station. At Matsumoto, take the Matsumoto Dentetsu Railway to Shin-Shimashima, this is as far as you can go. From here, a bus, or a taxi will take you to Kamikochi.
Visitor Centre in Kamikochi: Phone: 0263 95 2606
Hours: 8:00 to 17:00, mid-April to November 15, free admission
7:00 to 18:00 July 20-August 20
Closed November 15th through winter
The temperature in Kamikochi is 5 to 10 ℃ lower than Matsumoto and in late autumn it sometimes falls below freezing point. Winter clothes are recommended from mid-October to early May when snow may be encountered, and carry rain wear at all times because it rains a lot in the Kamikochi mountains.
Sicily has long been one of my favourite countries to visit. Some will say it’s not a country but an Island that forms part of Italy but to me Sicily is so different in every way that it can be considered another country. The food, the people, the extreme variety of environments and the landscape that can change within the distance of a few miles make this almost a paradigm of the Mediterranean.
With over a thousand miles of coastline, the highest volcano in Europe, woods, lakes and rivers that attract tourists from all over the world, it can easily be forgotten that Sicily is also blessed with magnificent parks, one of the loveliest being the Madonie National Park in Palermo Province which covers a large territory in the central-northern part of Sicily. What makes it more attractive to the visitor is that this is not just a nature reserve: it is an area where people live and work, making it perfect for culturally rich travel. It incorporates 15 towns and villages including Polizzi Generosa, the twin Petralia towns, Soprana and Sottana, Gangi, Castellana Sicula, Castelbuono, and Isnello, the latter two probably the most interesting. Throughout the area are several monasteries, hermitages, and churches, many of them isolated and seemingly deserted.
Many of the villages are semi-deserted due to the younger generation having abandoned agricultural life for the charms (and better earnings) of the city and resorts along the coast – and who can blame them? The back-breaking toil of bringing in the olives for pressing, tending the vines and the citrus trees, and shepherding sheep and cattle in the searing heat of summer does not bring in a lot of money.
In parts of the Madonie however, there is a movement to re-open some long-closed houses, as former inhabitants return home with savings that enable them to upgrade these dwellings and use them as vacation homes.
The Park is rich in flora and fauna with the northern slopes covered with thick woods and centuries old olive groves, cork, chestnut, ash and oak woods. The sunny southern side is characterised by hilly slopes cultivated with wheat and barley and although the park only covers 2% of the island’s surface, more than half of the Sicilian vegetable species can be found here.
The Sicilian countryside is full of wild edible plants that are still used in local cooking and the Madonie is rich in vegetables like wild asparagus, funghi of every imaginable shape and colour, wild figs, wild chard, wild mustard, edible thistles, wild onions and wild garlic, and herbs such as fennel, borage, mint, thyme, rosemary and oregano.
As regards fauna, Madonie houses about 70% of the nesting birds and about 60% of the invertebrates of the island, among them several endemic, rare and protected species. The Park is a paradise for bird watchers and for those who like to see mammals living free in their native habitat. Among the animals likely to be encountered are wild boar, fallow deer, Italian hare, European hedgehog, and red fox. And everywhere you will see butterflies of every colour and hue.
Specialities of the mountains which I can recommend are the Madonie Sfogio, Manna, and a delicious cheese called Madonie Provola, a characteristic pulled-curd cheese made with cow’s milk. This is still produced in the traditional way when small ‘pears’ of cheese are made towards the end of the process, straw yellow in colour and with a thin rind, which are then tied up in pairs and hung astride a pole.
Madonie Sfogio is characteristic of the Park, a pastry dessert which has been made for over 400 years and nowadays mainly produced in Polizzi Generoa, Petralia Sottana and Castellana Sicula. A short pastry case filled with mountain cheese, candied pumpkin, egg whites, chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon, it is baked and served cold. It can sometimes be found in other villages, often with a pistachio filling (another product of the mountains).
Manna is described as the Gold of Sicily despite the difficulty of harvesting it. It is made from the sap of specific varieties of ash trees, extracted by making incisions on the bark of the tree – rather like rubber tapping – causing a whitish resin to flow out which crystallises and creates stalactite forms which are then dried before being sold. In the past, families used to move to the country for the summer harvesting of the manna: men incised the trees and the women and children collected the manna, but nowadays the manna is only harvested in the territories of Castelbuono and Pollina. A few young men still follow the traditional way of doing things but as few of them have the knowledge to determine when exactly to make the first incision, it is mostly left to the older generation to harvest the sap.
Manna has medicinal properties as well and items made from the sap are sold in many of the villages. It is an intestinal regulator, a digestive, a light laxative, it soothes a cough, it decongests the liver and it is rich in mineral salts. Nowadays it is used in pastry making and in cosmetics (soaps, creams etc.) and although its taste is sweet it can be used by diabetics as it doesn’t modify glycaemia.
A visit to part of The Madonie can be made in a day if time is short, or there are some excellent hotels and hostels in the Park and the tourist board can advise on holidays for walkers, riders, bird-watchers, photographers – even cookery holidays. It is a very pleasant drive, easily accessible from Palermo or Cefalù – but take it slowly as there are some very dangerous bends through the mountains – or it is possible, and not too expensive, to hire a car and driver for the day, leaving you free to stop when the mood takes you, to photograph the landscape and the people, and to relax and drink in the beauty of the park.
When to go? Well, spring sees spectacular spreads of wildflowers carpeting the mountain slopes while summer offers cool temperatures and an escape from the crowded coasts and cities down below. Autumn brings rich colours from the forest foliage, wild figs to pick along the road, and a bewildering array of wild mushroom dishes in every restaurant, and in winter the ski slopes are brisk with downhill action.