Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lago Maggiore - the best of Italy rolled into one

Today we have planned to explore the communities around Lake Maggiore by boat. We begin the day with breakfast in the hotel dining room. While still a continental breakfast, it really is quite good and the service is the best we have had for breakfast for a long time.

As I said yesterday, we are only about 200 m from the Ferry Terminal. There are a number of companies operating from here - but really, they are not the smick, over-marketed ones we have found in the bigger cities. The one we are travelling on - Navigazione Lago Maggiore - is government run. I guess the only thing that really gives it away as such is the number of staff on the boats! Life runs to a different pace, and although the ferries are spot on time, there is a feeling that this could more just be the consequence of a habit as everything else works on laid-back time!

The view of the lake from the terminal is magical, there is a slight cover of haze which doesn't dilute the beauty of this region. We purchase our tickets for €12 each which entitles us to hop-on-hop-off at either of the Borromeo Islands, Isola Superiore; Isola Bella; Isola Madre, or the mainland. The choices we have to face, particularly on such a glorious day like today! So, what the heck - we'll decide what to do on arriving at Stresa.

The lake's surface is like glass, disturbed only occasionally by the wake of passing boats. The brilliant blue sky is mirrored by the lake, which adds lustre to our surroundings. Everywhere, all is a sparkle - life's a bugger when one has to work!

The ferry stops at each of the islands, disgorging its garrulous cargo and taking on additional passengers, who are just as boisterous! Life can be grand. The island of Isola Bella, is long and narrow with a palace equal in width and its high palatial gardens giving the impression this island looks like a ship?

Now, we had mentioned the two Irish fellows whom we met the other day, and who recommended the 'il Burchiello' restaurant - which is a gem. They also suggested we seek out the town of Stresa and in particular its market place. They were spot-on with the restaurant . . . as for the village?

The ferry births at Stresa, where we alight and make our way towards the town's centre. Initial appearances can often be misleading, no different today. Our first impression was one of disappointment, until we ventured beyond the waterfront. The sight which beheld us just took our breaths away, for here we have discovered another gem. This village just radiates an ambience which is captivating which somehow suppresses the 'tourist throng'. As we walk through the leafy piazzas the enticing aroma of food and coffee is just too much to resist.

Initially it’s COFFEE we yearn, however, as we enter the Piazza Cadorna and amongst all of the cafés we notice the chalkboard for the 'Mini Bar Ristorante'. The chalkboard announces the Ristorante's special for the day - Risotto con Gamberi e Zucchini (Risotto with Prawns and Zucchini) - however, it is COFFEE we yearn! Finding a table under shade, we sit and consider our verdict...Michael answers the universal question by stating: "To hell with this - I'm having the Risotto!" So, our yen for COFFEE had progressed into an all out feast..... Our young waiter arrives and takes our order but does not notice Helen is without cutlery, napkin and etc. A waitress notices this oversight and calls to the lad in Italian and in exasperation blurt out: "Huh...boys!” to which we all laugh and Maria indicates her approval with a 'thumbs up'.

The service, food and coffee are superlative. The risotto certainly did not disappoint, which was deliciously aromatic and the bread was a crusty and light accompaniment. However, our eyes are bigger than our stomaches...well Maria and Helen; whereas Michael displays his acuity as the 'human vacuum cleaner' and finishes the rest! We pay our bill and compliment the staff and Chef for their service - and round the experience off with a photo session with the Chef!

We resume our promenade through the streets of this delightful hamlet and find ourselves in the Piazza Possi. Here the piazza is bordered by various shops, and one in particular draws the interest of Maria and Helen. Initially, Maria selects an assortment of tea-towels and a book on the Borromeo Islands to be posted home. However, inside, this shop boasts such an array of Italian ceramics which one could not imagine. The proprietor is vivacious and friendly who possesses a style on how to work tourists, without being overtly 'pushy'. The shop does have a small amount of 'tourist junk' but the quality is within the stores' confines, which our hostess is eager to promote.

Helen looks to the ceiling in absolute glee "Oh look, Maria. That chandelier would be perfect in my room" "Ah, madam" Madame Christine says in her impeccable English, "you choose the most expensive item in my shop. Here let me show you the catalogue from the manufacturer. And yes, it is easy to post to Australia - I post many things to Queesland in the past. And look, the vat is less than the shipping so you save money! Instead of €6,450, you only pay €5,400 plus the shipping - see you save money!" Helen of course is still trying to swallow the bitter pillow of the price discovery and maintain a cool demeanor. Christine however is on a role and brings out item after item to show us. She really gets in to conversation with us and when Helen makes some comment about never thinking she will find someone who talks more than us, Christine volunteers that she is known as 'Radio Christine' to which I reply "ha ha and I am Radio Maria" at which point she chortles - "oh yes, we DO have a Radio Maria" and we tell her we know - and took a photo of the radio console when we found it after hiring the car!

It’s getting close to 3pm, so we saunter back towards the jetty and the ferry terminal for the homeward journey with a stop at Isola Bella. This island appeared particularly interesting on the forward journey, with its palace, gardens and statuary. Alighting onto the island we find it boiling with humanity - we're coming into autumn; imagine what the island must be like in summer? And it is geriatric central. The only people we see younger than ourselves are some of the souvenir stall staff! We wander through the narrow streets which are festooned with market stalls displaying clothing, trash and treasure. We stop at a stall displaying an array of clothing and scarves which Helen keenly scrutinises. Although, the stall seller does not secure a sale from us, she willingly guides us into the direction for the entrance to the gardens.

We arrive at the portico to the palace, and Helen and Michael head for the ticket booth for – you guessed it - ticket prices… Ooookaay, all we wanted was to see the gardens, however, at €12 each the visit wasn’t going to happen and we sure as s*it are not even slightly interested in the Palace and Garden combo ticket at €35! We were quite satisfied to admire and explore the exterior of the island – we weren’t disappointed. In retrospect, the island does resemble a large seagoing vessel as used in their marketing. Now that our curiosity has been satisfied it’s time to make our way to the quay to catch the ferry to Pallanza – ooh la la there is a gelato stand near the terminal! Yu-um - REAL italian gelato in ITALY!!!

The return journey was just as pleasurable and a satisfying ends to a most enjoyable day. Returning to the hotel its time to pass what remains of the afternoon to slumber or a good book – life can be a right bugger? However, we must re-energise for our evening at ‘il Burchiello’.

The evening has crispness to it as we walk towards the restaurant under a gossamer of stars. Upon entering the restaurant we are greeted with a warm welcome and directed towards our table, and no sooner are our orders taken.
Tortino di Pasta Spoglia Pere e Cannella con Crema di Bettelmatt (Cinnamon flavoured Pear Tart topped with Bettelmatt cheese sauce) Maria
Cozze Afogate Al Pepe Macinato Fresco (Mussel Soup with freshly milled Pepper) Helen and Michael
Filetto di Maiale con Verdure fresche Prosciutto e Strati di Patate (Pork Fillet with fresh Vegetables Ham and layered Potato) Maria
Ravioli Al Ripieno di Borraggine con Ragù di Pesce Spada (Borage-filled Ravioli with Swordfish Ragoût) Helen
Spaghetti Alla Chitarra in Guazzetto di Pesce al Cartoccio (Spaghetti in Fish Sauce baked in Tinfoil) Michael
Crèma Catalana (Catalan Crème Brûlée) – Maria, Helen and Michael

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