Lifestyle · Travel

Enchanted Autumn: A Road Scholar’s Hike Through the Lake Country of Italy

FullSizeRenderIsola Bella (Photo: Jane Moffett)

For landscape enthusiasts, the gardens on the island—ten tiered terraces in the form of a ship, commissioned by Count Carlo Borromeo for his wife, Isabella d’Adda—are lovely and offer panoramic views of the lake. On Lake Orta is a charming town called Orta San Giulio, which offers a picturesque town square and narrow laneways—too small for cars—enclosed by high brick and rock walls. Window boxes overflowing with flowers and houses painted soft pink, yellow, and lime green brighten the town square.

On the island of San Giulio, a short boat ride from the town center, is the Dominican monastery of San Giulio, which is still active today; it is the home of young nuns continuing to enter the cloistered life. The island has its own mythology: In the 4th century A.D., Father Julius (later Saint Giulio) yoked a team of wolves to an oxcart and single handedly slew the dragons and snakes dominating the island. The church is well worth the visit, both to enjoy the serene atmosphere and to take in the frescos and intricate marble pulpit and alter.

The sacred Monte d’Orta also has its enchantments. High atop a hill overlooking the lake, a series of 21 chapels dedicated to St Francis are accessed around a walkway. Each features life-size statues, made over a 200-year period, in 17th century dress; each enacts some part of St. Francis’s life. Originally intended for pilgrims, many of whom were illiterate and there on a spiritual quest, the life-size scenes were meant to be instructive and engaging at the same time. For art lovers and historians, they provide a fascinating window into the dress, art, and culture of the era.

My favorite day was hiking from the town of Bellagio on Lake Como, up steep, rocky, mountain trails to a family-run restaurant, Baita Belvedere. We arrived in Bellagio by ferry from Menaggio, and began our trip with a guided tour of the historic parts of Bellagio. We learned about the local traditions and were given a heads-up on differences between olive oils ( “just” olive oil may be blended from different producers and have another oil added; “virgin” olive oil is 100 percent olive oil, and “extra virgin” is the first press).

FullSizeRender(3)Making polenta in Bellagio. (Photo: Jane Moffett)

Once out of the village, we began our ascent as our guide led us through beautiful wooded areas. After two and a half hours of hiking up twisting mountain paths, we arrived at the restaurant. We were met by the son and daughter of the original family owners, who have run the inn and family farm for generations; it produces the restaurant’s eggs, cheese, grains, and sausage. Hikers were offered water and Prosecco, then seated around a table to watch a cooking demonstration. Our hosts made two polentas, one a main dish with cheese and the other a dessert cake with dates, raisins, plentiful fresh apples, and pears. Each dish had just under a pound of butter.

When we sat to eat, the cheese polenta was served swimming in brown butter, and there was plentiful red wine and sparkling water. For those of us who watch our fat and carbs—the better part of this fit group—there was laughter but great appreciation both for the meal and the warmth of the family who served it. If this is retirement, beam me up!

Many in the group opted to hike back down the mountain with the guide, but I happily took the heated van down to town and did a little shopping. The stores had lovely, original silks scarves, Italian pashminas, and cashmere sweaters. I found a lovely scarf that will be a reminder of a very special trip, then caught the ferry back to Menaggio for a festive farewell dinner.

Should you choose to visit on your own or with a group, there are so many other wonderful things to see. Among them are the small mountain villages of Breglia and Loveno on Lake Como; the city of Como and its cathedral; and the Villa Carlotta in Managgio. Or you can simply sit in a lakeside bistro and enjoy a glass of Bardolino, Swiss herbal tea, or sparkling water and some antipasto with the beautiful view. Certainly if you have the inclination to visit Italy, the lake region is well worth including in your itinerary.

Some holiday trips have a way of imprinting a slight shift of mindset. The takeaway from this one is that the good life is here to be enjoyed in small moments, if we stop to savor them. Upon arriving home I was greeted with the usual bundles of mail, clothes needing to be dry cleaned, and an eventual heap of laundry, as well as an assortment of shoes, toiletries, and clothing to put away. As I surveyed the mess, I realized that this was a moment to pause and make a cup of strong coffee. I opened an Italian dark chocolate bar, sat down to take a bite, and closed my eyes for a brief time-out to enjoy the flavors and a sense of gratitude for a lovely 10 days.

FullSizeRenderA corner of Cavandone, a town on the Lakes Tour. (Photo: Jane Moffett)


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