These posts record our stay in Italy in September. We thoroughly enjoyed it, so we’re sharing our experience. You’ll get the (almost) full story of our travels, activities, and experiences; warts and all, in instalments.
26th September, Wednesday.
A very smart car, driven by a guy who could’ve been a doctor, lawyer or headmaster, arrived at 09:00 to ferry us to Florence’s main railway station. We waited on the concourse, (no seats, so everyone was standing) opposite a large information board, for our train to be awarded a platform. It had set off from Naples, via Rome, and was running 15 minutes late. With 10 minutes to go before it was due to leave, it was awarded a platform. We made our way along to the space allocated for coach 2, where our seats were reserved, until the train pulled in. This time, aware of the seat numbers listed by the entry doors, we went straight to the right entrance and boarded. As on the first journey, our seats were single and faced each other across a small table.
A couple of middle-aged Italian women, both deaf, boarded and struggled with their baggage. I helped them place their cases and we exchanged thanks and acknowledgements using sign language.
We were again offered complementary drinks and snacks by a uniformed steward. Much of the journey from Florence to Bologna was through the mountains. Tunnels, some of them very long, constituted a large part of that journey and we arrived in Bologna to find the station there also underground. The rest of the journey to Milan, however, took us across the plains, via some lengthy industrialised areas.
We arrived with 12 minutes to find our platform for Stresa, expecting that journey to be on a small local train. Fortunately, the information board was complete and told us which platform we needed. It was a longish walk, from one end of the concourse to the other. But we found our train and discovered it was modern and international, bound for Geneva, with our station the first stop. As we were about to board, a man grabbed Valerie’s case and insisted on helping us store our luggage. I thought he was a local porter. He took my case, too, and stacked both in the luggage area just behind our seats. It then became clear he was an unemployed man trying to earn some money. I gave him the only €2 coin I had and he expressed his thanks and left the train to ‘help’ someone else. Italy’s currently in a pretty bad way financially, so unemployment is high.
The comfortable express whisked us through the outskirts of Milan, past large industrial areas, and finally into the countryside beyond. There, the landscape slowly changed into a rural idyll that gradually became more wooded, and hillier, as we approached the lake. In Stresa, we had to lug our bags downstairs and through a tunnel under the lines and then back upstairs to the platform that led to the parking area outside. A local driver met us and took us the short distance to the La Palma Hotel, overlooking Lake Maggiore.
The lake from Lido Blu.
Our room wasn’t ready, as it was still relatively early for a check-in. They suggested we take a walk by the lake and return in half an hour. Just across the road was a small park and we sat on a bench and looked across the water to the distant shore and mountains.
Our room was on the 4th floor and the porter had already taken our bags up, so, as Valerie avoids lifts due to her claustrophobia, we used the wide stairs. These are obviously not generally used by guests, but serve as both an emergency escape route and the normal way used by hotel staff.
Very pleasant, our room overlooked the small town and the steep hills via a small balcony. There was a tall construction crane in view, working on a new hotel, mostly hidden by a school building, but we heard no noise from there during our stay. In fact, it was very quiet in the room. Modern touch-screens operated the air conditioning, which could be set to ‘eco’, and the ‘do not disturb’ option for the door. There was ample storage space, the bed was big and comfortable, and the large TV had 9 English language channels including the BBC World Service and Sky News.
On the surface over the small fridge, where the tea and coffee making facilities stood, was an ice bucket containing a bottle of rose Asti Spumante, together with a couple of flutes and a congratulations card for our wedding anniversary. A lovely welcome!
However, hungry, we quickly changed out of our traveling clothes and set off in search of lunch. We found a coastal place that looked okay and sat close to the water. Service at Lido Blu was slow and quite perfunctory, and the food was, at best, average. But it filled a hole and we returned to the hotel to unpack before taking a walk through the town, which is a small but quite busy tourist resort, nestling on the sloping hillside in the space between the mountains and the lakeside. Influenced by The Sound of Music, which I know is set in Austria, I’d expected hilly meadows with more distant mountains instead of the steep forested slopes that completely surround the lake. We wandered narrow streets, full of places to eat and shop, and then walked back along the shore of the lake. This is essentially a wide promenade with areas of parkland, a car park, some small businesses, and the ferry terminal. All beautifully kept and very smart, but not the wild shoreline I’d expected. Should have done more research!
We returned to shower (an open-fronted shower unit that took a little getting used to if the towels were to be kept dry) and to change for dinner, whilst guzzling the bottle of fizz the hotel had kindly given us.
We were greeted as we entered the large, airy dining room and taken to our nominated table, located by windows overlooking the gardens and the lake. This would be our place for the whole stay, as we’d booked half board, intending this to be a relaxing break after all our sight-seeing in Rome and Florence. Nicco, the head waiter, was both formal and kind, and very professional. He took our order, but the food was brought by Maurisco, also uniformed and a little less formal once he understood our preference. The food was very good and we accompanied it with just a glass of prosecco each, after swilling the Asti earlier! There was excellent cheese; proper Italian Gorgonzola – delicious! And a self-service choice of deserts to finish. Given that this is Italy, the inevitable coffee followed. A very satisfying and tasty meal, but served in the Italian way, which involves a number of small, and some large, courses. We were very selective in the courses we ate: neither of us wished to leave the country as beached whales!
Back in our room, we changed into less formal clothes and took an evening stroll by the lake, venturing in the opposite direction to explore that part of the coast. Very pleasant in the balmy evening air, with plenty of lights to show us the way and the ever-present accompaniment of small waves lapping the shore as we walked. Lovely.