From Lake Como to Ventimiglia

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End May 13, 2009

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Flag of Italy  , Lombardy,
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The north of Italy has a number of beautiful lakes and I have wanted to visit for some time. We choose Lake Como, and when talking to a young couple while at lunch in Parma they suggested the town of Bellagio as a nice place to stay. So here we are on our way - the first sight of Lake Como is stunning - a large expanse of water surrounded by green hills and snow-capped mountains, picturesque towns, and boats going back and forth.
We find, a small hotel with a terrace overlooking the water, so I can sit out on the terrace and work on my computer. Yes, dear readers I am now a traveling nerd. After resisting for much time I have finally succumbed and got a little computer, one of the little ones with the 7 inch screen. So now I can download and sort my photos, burn backup DVDí connect to the internet over wi-fi, etc., and it is so small it can fit in my day bag.
Our time in Bellagio is relaxed and very agreeable. Although there are quite a few tourists we are a little out of town in a quite area and I spend a lot of time on the terrace, sorting photos, transcribing notes, etc. The lake is surrounded by any number of beautiful villas with lovely gardens and we take the ferry across to Tremezzo and look through one called Villa Carlotta and it's botanical garden.
I have to tell you one little anecdote, otherwise Yvonne will accuse me of hiding my stupidity. We try and find a restaurant I have been told about - it is a refuge in the mountains behind Bellagio, so we drive up to around 1500 metres as far as the road goes, park the car and try and find the refuge. There is a sign nailed to a tree stating the refuge is 30 minutes walk away and it's located near what looks like the start of a path up the mountain. At the end of the parking area there is a brick wall and gate, with a sign that says private property.
I head up the hill on the 'track', Yvonne looking very dubious, and after a bit of a climb the rough track peters out, so I return and have a look at the sign on the property again but it says nothing about the refuge so I try and find the track up the mountain again, with no success again. After half an hour of stuffing around eventually some people come past and I ask the way and it IS through the private property. By this time we are very hungry and tear up the path, and of course, we find the refuge closed. It is fantastically sited in a clearing in the mountainside overlooking the lake, but disappointed we drive down and have a very late lunch further down the mountain

After our relaxing time in Lake Como we pop into Torino for a couple of nights. Torino is another one of those cities that is off the tourist map, but very worthwhile seeing. It has been the seat of the Savoy monarchy for hundreds of years and all the kings of Italy came from this family after Italy became a sovereign state in 1872, until Italy became a republic again after WW2. We have little time there and it's raining most of the time but we tour the royal palace, built in the mid-1600s, and greatly upgraded by the Messinese Filippo Juvarra, who designed the famous 'scissors staircase, an amazing architectural feat for the time, which seems to use no supports at all for the grand staircase. Our guide, although almost hoarse from talking all day, enthuses about every room we go through and dwells lovingly on details, even though he must have done this thousands of times before. It must be very frustrating for Yvonne as I laugh along with the jokes and ooh and ah as he explains certain things, and I try and give a few whispered explanations in between the breaks. One of the things that most impresses us are the doors - they are large and heavy, and rather than being hung parallel on their hinges, which over time would sag and make the doors scrape the floor or jam and leave no clearance for rugs, they are hung on angled hinges that keep the doors well clear of the floor when open but enable the doors to fit perfectly in the frame when closed. They are also self-closing when they are left open at 90 degrees or less.
We also go up the Mole Antonelliana, the symbol of the city, a tall, unusual shaped building that was originally going to be a synagogue, but when sufficient finance was not available, was taken over by the city council, and now is a Museum of Cinema.
Unfortunately we don't have time to explore the 'magic and witchcraft' side of the city, which it is well known for in Italy. The first time I visited Torino was with my parents and sisters when we first visited Italy and at that time we had an uncle there who owned a silk tie shop, but he died many years ago.

Our next stop is the Val d'Aosta in the far north-west of Italy adjoining France. It is one of the regions in Italy which has an official dual-language policy and many of the place names are French. We are headed for the Gran Paradiso National Park in one of the side valleys, which I visited many years ago and wish to visit again. It used to be the hunting ground of the Savoy royal family, but became state-owned and turned into a national park and is full of wild life such as ibex, chamois, marmots and other animals and birds.
We stay at Cogne, almost at the head of the valley (1,500 metres), and once the sun comes out, have magnificent views up the valley to a panorama of snowy peaks of 3,000 to 4,000 metres. It's my birthday the day after we arrive (May 18 if you must know) and I have a varied and splendid day. We start with a brisk drive along the mountain road back to the main valley :), then stop for lunch at a winery/restaurant in Morgex that makes white wine from grapes grown at the highest altitude in Europe, 950 metres. After a good meal and a bottle of excellent high altitude white wine (Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle) we drive up past Courmayeur to La Palud (1,370 metres), from where we catch a cable car up Monte Bianco (yes I know it's usually known as Mont Blanc in English, but it's half in Italy, so I'm going to call it by its Italian name) to Punta Hellbronner at 3462 metres. It is a thrilling ride up the steep sides of Monte Bianco and the only negative thing is that it is a heavily overcast day and you can't see anything above around 2,500 metres. When we reach the top it is around zero and snowing (Yvonne came here to get out of the oncoming Melbourne winter and get some warm Mediterranean sunshine and here I am taking her to places where it's freezing). The cablecar continues on to Aiguille du Midi on the French side at 3842 m then down to the French ski resort of Chamonix, but because the weather is foul that side is closed. I very seldom use the word awesome but I imagine that doing the whole trip in fine weather would merit that description.
My birthday continues with going to the thermal baths at Pre St Didier a few kilometers away. The complex is built around natural hot springs and there is a total of over 30 facilities. I think I manage to try nearly every one of them - outdoor pool and various spas, several saunas and a steam bath, half-hour massage, a run through cold water sprays, a dip outside in a solid marble bath in freezing cold water, etc, then a lie down in a room scented with dried flowers.
Finally we have dinner at a restaurant just outside Courmayeur that has been recommended to us. The owner is an intense young man who tells us what he has available. We are the only customers and have the full Italian meal - antipasto, primo, secondo (I have a fantastic pork dish, neck I think, baked in a thick layer of rock salt - very succulent and aromatic), desserts, wine, digestivo, etc.
The only downside is that it's nearly midnight and we still have over 40 kms of high altitude mountain road between us and our hotel, but luckily there's no booze buses out tonight and we arrive back worn out from our strenuous activities :).
The next day I have earmarked for a short walk up to Col Lauson, a high pass at 3,296 metres, which I last did around 30 years ago. Yvonne wisely decides to stay behind and go for a shorter low-altitude walk (she has read my previous blogs and knows that every time I try and climb mountains something interesting usually happens). I tell her not to send out a search party unless I don't get back by 8pm :).
So I set off reasonably early - it's a beautiful day and I am looking forward to retracing my steps of many years ago. I start off at the village of Valnontey at 1666 metres and I meander up through the forest to my first objective, Rifugio Sella at 2588 metres. Along the way I see ibex, chamois and marmots and take my time observing them and taking photos. They each have their own behaviour: ibex seem to be unafraid of humans and let me come quite close to them - at one stage there were 5 of them on or near the track and I had a fleeting thought they would jut stay there and make me go through them and possibly butt me (not a pleasant thought as they have long horns and thick heavy foreheads where they crash heads together when they fight), but fortunately they moved at the last moment; chamois are small and shy and keep their distance - when I tried to approach closer to take a photograph one would let out a screech and they would all take off (they also seemed to love running up slopes and chasing each other for the fun of it); marmots were the shyest of all - I really had to keep my eyes peeled to spot one. They are a gorgeous little animal - they sit up on their hind legs and look out over the mountains, and as soon as they see danger they give a little chirp and disappear into their burrow. I was very still and quiet but couldn't get any closer than about 8 metres.
After a couple of hours I reached the Rifugio and had a chat with the lady in the bar as I sipped my herbal tisane. She told me there was lots of snow higher up and I wouldn't reach the Col but I decided to go up anyhow and see how far I could get.
As usual, I was the only person up there, I was wearing shorts and a light thermal t-shirt and I soon hit the snow, which varied from knee to hip deep. I tried for a while to get through - there's nothing like stepping into the snow, thinking it's not very deep, then plunging straight through as you transfer your weight. The snow is so light and powdery that when you put your arms out to try and get some balance they plunge through the snow too so you can't actually find anything to push off from, and at one stage I was marooned in the snow, half on my back, and flailing helplessly to get out.
I eventually gave in to the inevitable about an hour further on and 200-300 metres higher, and found a tiny patch with no snow, and as it was relatively warm I stripped off and sunbaked nude for nearly and hour, and actually fell asleep until I was woken by a fresh breeze which made my extremities cold :). Clouds had come over and the weather was changing so I returned to the rifugio and had coffee and a grappa as fuel for my descent (I had no food with me), and thus suitably fortified I descended the mountain (well before 8pm).
We had a great time in our valley - as it is the off-season (between winter and summer) we were the only guests in the hotel and usually had the adjoining restaurant to ourselves and enjoyed excellent food and wine, and engaged in lots of banter with our hostess.
The next part of our journey was an epic drive of around 500kms through the Italian and French Alps in one day. We headed up through the Monte Bianco tunnel into France, briefly stopping to see the glacier tumbling down Mt Blanc near the road (it has retreated substantially since the last time I saw it), then drive this huge curve through Chambery, Grenoble, Gap, Barcelonette, over the Col de Larche (1991 metres) back into Italy, then down a series of never-ending hairpins in the rain until we decide to stop at the little fortified village of Vinadio at night. I think today's drive takes the cake for the most curves and the most changes of elevation I have experienced in one day. We stop at a bar and the barman calls the hotelier, who comes to meet us and once again we are the only people staying there (can you believe the only other people who stayed at our hotel this week were Australians).
Vinadio is unique in that it is a town entirely contained within a fortified castle - it was purpose-built by the Savoy royal family to guard the entry into their kingdom, ie basically to stop the French. It is situated in a narrow gorge at about 750 metres, with cliffs and mountains and dense forests all about.
Next morning we see a shepherd taking his flock out for the day, explore the tiny town, then drive around 200kms to Ventimiglia on the coast, the last town in Italy before France. The drive is over an incredibly winding road through the maritime Alps, going back into France over the Cold de Tende at 1,870 metres for about 40 kms, then back into Italy for the last section. Near Ventimglia the landscape changes quite quickly from a gorge with a fast rushing river and deep green forests (and clouds and rain), to a wide valley with hills of grey crumbly rock, dry Mediterranean vegetation and blue sky, and all of a sudden you feel the familiar atmosphere of an Italian town, cars and scooters charging around the streets, people everywhere, bars, cafes, etc. We go down to the sea for a dose of sunshine, as for the last few days we have been 'cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown'(title of a book by Alan Watts).
This is the last I will see of Italy for some time as we are headed for France and Spain (and a couple of little countries in between).

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