Europe 2016 diary: day 6

Thursday, 3 November, 2016

We woke up too early again, this time around 05:00. M. fell asleep again, but I didn’t. We were up and showered and ready to go to breakfast shortly after 07:00. The breakfast buffet at the hotel was pretty extensive, with several cereals and types of yoghurt, different breads and croissants with three different fillings – chocolate, apricot jam, and custard – as well as plain ones. In the hot food warmers, as well as scrambled and boiled eggs, bacon, and sausages, there were also chicken skewers, Thai money bags, spring rolls, and small triangular samosas. M. took a croissant which she thought had jam in it, but it turned out to be chocolate, so she went back for a jam one as well. I was amazed to find, amongst various doughnuts and cakes, a row of vanilla slices! So I had to take one to review for my vanilla slice blog.

Continental Parkhotel sunrise
Morning view from our hotel window, Lugano

We lingered over breakfast, allowing me some more diary writing time. After eating our fill, and telling each other how full we were, I went to use the nearby toilet, and when I went to undo my belt, the buckle popped right off and fell on the floor! The leather bits holding the buckle on had snapped! When I returned to the table I tried to tell M. what had happened, but couldn’t stop laughing for several minutes.

About 09:30 we went back to our room to pack and check out. We dropped our luggage in the car and checked out, but before driving off we walked once more down the hill to the old town, this time to look around during the day, when most of the shops would be open. As well as browsing various things in the narrow streets of the old city, we crossed to the waterfront to look at the lake and the view across to the nearby mountains. We also popped into a department store to buy a new belt for me, which took some time as we found a few small displays of belts, none of which were particularly appealing to me, and only when M. asked an assistant did we get shown a huge display of belts on another part of the floor. I picked a brown leather one and we paid and continued wandering around.

We found a fruit stall and bought a couple of large apples, which were ridiculously expensive, costing CHF4.80 for the two. But they were delicious and crisp when we ate them later in the day. Then we returned up the hill to the hotel to drive off. By now it was about 11:30, so we’d spent a good part of the morning looking around Lugano.

Lugano waterfront
Lugano waterfront, on Lake Lugano. Monte Brè is the conical peak just right of centre.

Our first destination in the car was the top of Monte Brè, the tall conical hill overlooking Lugano’s harbour on the north side. Using Google Maps directions made this tricky winding route easy enough to follow and we zig-zagged our way up the hill, passing ever more expensive houses with ever more spectacular views as we went. The road was tight and the hairpins incredible. Near the top the houses petered out and the hill became more forested. We reached a small car parking area near the summit, with a restaurant nearby, but Google Maps said to keep driving up a tiny narrow path that I never would have thought we were allowed to drive up otherwise. It was like a driveway and indeed led to parking areas for a few houses, but then it continued on further up the hill through forest for about a kilometre. This narrow road reached a tiny unattended funicular station for the train that climbed the mountain, though not the top station which we could see another hundred metres or so up the sloping track. The path continued over a narrow bridge, which probably could have fit a car, but just before that there was a small clear area which could fit maybe three parked cars. It was empty and there was nobody in sight, nor any signs indicating if parking was allowed or not, and this was the end of the navigation path Google Maps gave, so we parked the car and got out.

Lugano from Monte Brè
View of Lugano from Monte Brè

The view from here was okay, but mostly obscured by trees. We walked across the bridge and continued up the path, where a sign indicated a viewing point 700 metres away. As we arrived there, a group of schoolchildren with their teachers was just leaving, to walk back to the funicular station I presumed. The view from this spot was amazing, looking down the steep hill to the sprawl of Lugano below, sitting on the shores of the lake and surrounded by huge hills and even huger mountains in the distance. The furthest visible mountains were covered in snow, but most of the peaks we could see were bare.

There was a series of steps leading up from here, to the restaurant at the top of the funicular, but we figured the view would be similar and we needed to get a move on for our day of driving to Como, so began walking back to the car. Along the way we passed a couple of houses, with carport areas, so obviously these residents could drive cars beyond where we’d stopped. And as we were walking, a man on a Vespa came tearing up the path towards the view point.

Monte Brè panorama
Panorama view from Monte Brè

We got back in the car and managed to turn around and begin driving down the hill. Shortly after we began, the Vespa guy came roaring up behind us and zoomed past. And then as we got near the larger parking area, we came across the group of children, who clearly hadn’t caught the funicular at the stop where we’d parked. The teachers herded the kids to squash as close to the side of the road as they could, while we drove past them at an absolute crawl, with virtually no clearance.

From here it was back down the switchback road until we met an intersection about halfway up the hill, where we turned onto a new road that we hadn’t come up. This led down and then along the northern shore of Lake Lugano to the Italian towns of Porlezza at the northern tip of the lake, and then south-east across the mountains to Menaggio on the shores of Lake Como, from where we would drive south along the shore of that lake to Como itself.

Lake Como villa
View of Lake Lugano’s north shore

We took our time on this drive as it was an incredibly scenic road, with breathtaking views of Lake Lugano. We stopped in several places to take photos and just enjoy the views. By the time we reached Cima just short of the end of Lake Lugano, it was 13:45 and our breakfast was wearing off so we stopped to seek food. Cima is a small village and most of the shops and things had signs indicating they were closed from 12:30 to 16:00 for the afternoon siesta. We found one cafe bar open, and I asked if they had anything for lunch. The women told us in Italian no, that if we wanted something to eat we would have to go through the tunnel. I presume she meant the road continued on and passed through a tunnel, after which would be another town with more eating options. This turned out to be correct, as we soon reached a long tunnel some 2 or 3 kilometres long, and immediately out the other side was Porlezza, a much larger town.

Tomato pesto focaccia
“Ligure” focaccia, Gallo Restyle, Porlezza

We stopped here, paying a couple of euro for parking in a metered zone, and went for a walk in search of lunch. The place looked rather deserted, but there were some shops open, and we found a cafe bar called Gallo Restyle that did panini and focaccia. The woman inside seemed surprised to have customers, but said yes (in Italian, she didn’t speak English) when we asked to get some lunch. We took a seat at a table inside and the woman rummaged through the whole store, including the back room behind the bar, until she found a couple of small menus in white leather folders. These basically just listed some sandwich options, a “cheeseburger”, and drinks. We ordered focaccie, a “Ligure” for M., which had fresh tomatoes, cheese, and pesto, and a some other name I forget for me, which had Tirolean style ham, and cheese. We also got a cappuccino for M. and some fizzy mineral water for us to share. The focaccie took some time to arrive, but when they did they were large and impressive looking. The bread was a lot crunchier on the crust than focaccia we get back home, but nice and chewy inside, and the flavours were very good. We both enjoyed this simple lunch, possibly because we were so hungry, but it still tasted good.

Back on the road we crossed over the mountains separating Lake Lugano from Lake Como, to the town of Menaggio, and then turned right to take the road running along the lake shore to Como at the southern tip. This drive was also very beautiful and scenic, but in a different way. Lake Lugano is more wild, with forest lining much of the sore, whereas Lake Como has a chain of towns and villages along the shore and is clearly a place where people have lived for a long time, with church towers and walled gardens along the lake shore and tiny villages where the road narrowed to a single lane between old buildings.

Across the lake
View of Bellagio, across Lake Como from Cadenabbia

The road was indeed so narrow in places that passing traffic had to stop or back up a little to allow cars past. The Italian drivers are very gung ho about squeezing their cars through tight spaces at speed, whereas I was a bit more careful and slowed down when passing on the narrow road. We stopped a few times in random places to walk around a bit, admire the views, and take photos, but by now we wanted to get to Como before sunset so we didn’t dawdle too long.

On reaching Como, we had to negotiate suburban roads to reach the centre of town. M. was following the Google Maps suggested route to “Como”, and this basically led us right into the heart of the city. Nearly there, we had to give up on the map as it started taking us through tiny cobblestone streets that looked almost like pedestrian zones. But having seen how Italian cars go just about anywhere, I drove on. I spotted an open piazza, which actually had a couple of cars parked in it, and decided to turn in there and park so we could search for a hotel. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid as we pulled into the piazza and simply stopped the car and got out.

Right nearby was the Albergo Firenze, which happened to look promising. We went in and up to the reception on the first floor, where a man informed us that a room would be €80 for one night. This was so much cheaper than anything in Switzerland that we didn’t blink and took it. We then asked about car parking, saying we’d just parked outside in the square. The man said, “Didn’t you see the signs saying this is a pedestrian zone, and you’ll be fined for driving in the piazza? The police have cameras that capture your number plates.” I barely had time to register this shock, when he continued, “But we have an arrangement with the police. If you give me your licence number we can let them know and you have half an hour to unload your bags at the hotel without getting a fine.” So we did this, and then he told us that the hotel had a discount parking agreement with an underground garage two blocks away, where we could park for €15 a day. He gave us directions to the garage on a map and told us to unload our bags and then drive over there.

With the provided directions this was not too difficult, though I’m not sure we would ever have found such parking by ourselves, so we were pretty lucky that we chose to stay in that hotel, so we could get the grace period without being fined for driving in the piazza! We parked the car and waled back to the hotel, which I realised was on Piazza Alessandro Volta, which had a big stone statue of the physicist in the centre. This was quite a coincidence, since in Lyon we had passed through Place Andre Ampère on the way to pick up our hire car! So within the space of a few days we’ve been in squares named after two of the most significant physicists in the history of the study of electricity.

Duomo di Como
Como Duomo in twilight

After settling into our room, we went out for a walk through the historic centre of Como. Being early evening, all the shops were open and we had a good time browsing around, while wandering the narrow streets almost at random. M. stopped in at an eyeglasses shop to look at some frames, which were much, much cheaper than back home, maybe a third of the price or even less. And then in a clothing shop, where she tried on a dark brown leather jacket, and eventually bought it, after the assistant got a brand new one from the back room after noticing a stitching defect on the display jacket.

While strolling we passed the Duomo of Como, which looked beautiful in the evening twilight, but which was closed so we couldn’t enter. We also found an amazing pasticceria, with loads of delicious looking biscuits and tarts. And walking back towards our hotel we passed a place called Pane e Tulipani, nestled in a quiet corner on the edge of the historic city centre. It appeared to be a florist by day, and a restaurant by night. It looked cool, so we remembered it for a possible dinner venue.

After returning to our hotel and resting a short while, we ventured out for dinner. There was also a wine bar near the hotel which looked like it might be good for dinner, but a look at their menu showed the food selection to be somewhat limited, so we decided to walk back to Pane e Tulipani. Here we entered right behind a party of four people, who got a table after waiting a minute or so at the bar. When the lady at the counter learnt we didn’t have a reservation, she seemed to make an “oh, this will be difficult” expression and told us to wait a minute. After a short wait, in which she checked with various other staff members, she had a waiter take us to a table. He led us through a small room, up some stairs, through a very low ceilinged hall, and into a mezzanine floor overlooking another room below. The mezzanine had four tables on it, and each room of the old building in which the restaurant sprawled through had two to four tables. The entire place was decorated with an eclectic collection of antiques and other bric-a-brac, such as trunks full of old teddy bears, a giant wash basin, and so on.

Pane e Tulipani
Inside the restaurant Pane e Tulipana, Como

The ambience was homey and cosy, and the menu was interesting, with a variety of delicious sounding dishes. M. wasn’t feeling very hungry, after our late lunch and general travel tiredness, so chose a salad of warm red cabbage with apples and walnuts. I had an entree of duck liver pate, followed by a main course which the English menu described as chicken “chest” cooked with “beer” and some other stuff. This turned out to be small medallions of chicken breast meat, seasoned with something which might well have been a beer marinade, topped with what I think was spinach, and then a single pine nut on each of the six medallions, which were served on a slate slab. This was not a large dish, which was actually good, as we’ve been eating a lot of large meals on this trip! I even had room for dessert, which I was keen to try after overhearing the waiter reciting the desserts in English to two women at another table. One item was “liquorice ice cream”, which sounded like a good way to round things off.

The ice cream turned out to be a fairly small serving, which was fine as I was already fairly full. It had an interesting taste that was quite subtle for liquorice, with perhaps some hints of other things in it, but a lingering aniseedy aftertaste. During the dinner, we were surprised when a medium sized dog came walking past our table, up to the edge of the mezzanine, peered over into the room below, the. wandered back off down the stairs again. on the way out we saw the dog again, sitting by a table of people in the downstairs rooms. It’s interesting how here in Italy dogs are allowed into all sorts of places like shops and cafes and restaurants. After this delicious meal, we walked back to our hotel where I had a shower before turning in for the night.

Leave a Reply