An Italian Escape

At the start of the year we booked a couple of days off in March – partly to use up leftover 2017 holiday allowance, in part to celebrate 5 years together, but ultimately so we would actually have a bit of a break. I was determined not to just end up doing housework, but a week before we still had no-where planned in. We’d talked about a European city break – Prague, Amsterdam, perhaps Copenhagen – but they were all looking a bit too expensive. Having honeymooned in Italy, the country is close to our hearts and we’ve always enjoyed ourselves. So with just 6 days to go, sat on the sofa with a glass of wine, I left Simon to it. He proposed flying into Milan, and staying on the shores of Lake Como. Needless to say, it felt pretty rock and roll, and when the costs added up to not that much (~£250 each for flights, car and hotel for 2 nights) he pressed book.

Flying into Milan the following Saturday, we landed much as we’d departed in drizzle, but a massive improvement to Manchester. The Malpensa airport is relatively simple, but clean and easy to navigate – just what you want when arriving in another country. We almost always will hire a car when we go abroad for greater freedom and flexibility, so we drove from the airport into the centre of Milan, around an hour’s drive. We had no agenda, but had been recommended visiting the Duomo, so managed to find some valet parking in a relatively central locations. Wandering the streets with no real direction is quite liberating, and rare in today’s fast-paced world. To get out of the rain, we entered the marbled shopping galleria, and took a seat in one of the glass-fronted restaurants. People-watching is always enjoyable, but in Milan seeing the melee of tourists, families, and fashionistas was mesmerising.

Our hotel was an hour’s drive away from Milan, in the small village of Malgrate in the province of Lecco. If you imagine Lake Como as an upside down ‘Y’, Como is at the bottom of the left leg and we were at the bottom of the right. We chose the Griso hotel largely for location and price, but it turned out to be one of the best hotels we’ve stayed in. Friendly staff, large and clean rooms, a massive bed (very rare in Europe we’ve found), and beautiful views over the lake and mountains. It was the perfect location to relax, and after a late lunch in Milan, we opted to say in the bar for a toastie and salad (excellent alternatives to the pretty expensive main restaurant), accompanied by large G&Ts.

Sunday was our only full day of the trip, so our intention was to go to Argegno and take a cablecar to the top of the mountain, however the rain was relentless. Instead, we just took a drive around to Como itself and explored its harbour and town square, finding a cafe outside another Duomo for a coffee. The Italian culture of enjoying your food and drink really came to the fore over the weekend, with the weather scuppering most activities and forcing us to just be. That said, there’s something invigorating about walking in heavy rain with an umbrella over your head – it lends a misty drama to the scenery and makes you appreciate the respite of a warm room even more. Of course, we couldn’t go to Italy and not have gelato, so true to form we Brits didn’t wait for sunshine for a bit of indulgence.

We’d been told to take a drive up to Bellaggio too – at the tip of land between the two ‘legs’ of Como. Much smaller than Como, its streets wind uphill and are typically Italian – cobbled and mazelike, but all the more charming for it, surrounded by the curve of the lake on almost three sides. These are the places where you get a real taste of Italian life and cuisine – away from the typically tourist hotspots, particularly when you travel out of season, you’ll find hidden gems. As the rain continued to pound down we stumbled into a tiny restaurant that was already full of people – both locals and not. With a classic lunch of pizza and pasta, that homely food that warms you up and keeps you going, it rounded off our little adventure well. Driving back to the hotel the clouds came and went and we were treated to glimpses of the true views beyond.

As I’ve mentioned, the point of the trip was to relax and unwind. Sunday afternoon back in the hotel Simon settled down to watch a climbing competition. I was determined not to let the weather stop me, so set up camp on our little balcony, enjoying the sound of the rain. Wrapped up in two coats with a glass of wine, I was warm and cosy, and read a whole book in a few hours of peace. This is what holidays are for, and why they’re so important. It’s unusual to allow yourself time to just stop.

We did venture out of the hotel for dinner, to a restaurant recommended to us called Covo Nord Ovest. We ignored the suggestion to book ahead, and needless to say when we arrived we did question our complacency. The place was packed out, and probably only had room for 30-50 diners. Thankfully the staff were happy to accommodate us gatecrashers if we waited 10 minutes. I have to admit, we were told this would be the ‘best pizza in the world’. Having tasted proper pizza in the heart of Naples, we have been spoiled in the past, but nevertheless it was good, simple, Italian pizza. What I love is the exploration of flavours – the most humble of toppings are celebrated and indulged.

Thus ended our whirlwind Como adventure. Our Monday morning saw our only clear view of the mountains and lake, as though to tease us to return some day. Eating breakfast to that view is something I wish I could do every day. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait too long, with a two week roadtrip through the Alps planned for September. Having started teaching myself Italian, hopefully by then I’ll feel a little more native…

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