Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Magic of Lake Como

We are excited to be visiting our friend Betta in this fabulous part of Northern Italy.  We’ve become friends with Betta while teaching English in Ireland to the kids from her English Language School in Lake Como.  She picks us up at the train station and drives us to her family villa in the village of Capiago-Intimiano. 

It’s lovely to see her again and we are excited when we arrive at her family villa.  The villa is set in gorgeous gardens with fabulous views of the countryside it feels very relaxing.  She gives us a bit of a tour and shows us to our room.  After a shower we sit down for a chat and a glass of white wine.  Betta has a very cosy and welcoming place and we feel at home instantly and enjoy the aperitif that she has laid out for us – a much-loved custom in Italy.  Over cheese & salami and a refreshing glass of white wine, we share stories of our adventures since Ireland.  We continue chatting as we move to the kitchen for dinner.  

We sleep in the next day.  I hear the church bells ring in the distance and eventually wake up.  I walk to
the window and throw open the shutters – something I love doing in Europe.  Blue skies, sunshine and green forest views greet me this morning.  The weather is just perfect but we will enjoy a leisurely breakfast and this gorgeous villa before we venture any further.

After lunch we set off to explore as Betta has the rest of the day off.  She starts to share stories about life in this village.  Betta grew up in Milan but she always visited her grandparents at the villa, so this place has been home for most of her life and she knows many of the long-term residents.

Betta explains that life in the village of Capiago-Intimiano has always had many elements of communal living and like all villages the sense of community doesn’t really have to be created – it grows out of
living within close proximity to each other, going to the same schools and eventually every one knows each other!   Betta questions if an eco-village always needs to be built from scratch.  We say no – that in fact restoring or transitioning an existing village to have a greater sense of community and to be sustainable is certainly just as valid as an intentional community that has been created because of a common goal! 

Our first stop on this local tour is at a milk farm.  The farm has started an innovative scheme whereby they sell their milk directly to the community via a vending machine, cutting out the middleman and providing it at a cheaper price than the super market.  You bring along your glass bottle and top it up each time you need to purchase milk.  The farmer makes a lot more profit by selling direct and it was still cheaper for the consumer than purchasing milk at the supermarket! 

While the idea really took off initially and was a great success, the supermarkets and government have put a little damper on their success and innovation.  For obvious reasons the supermarkets would discourage the consumer from purchasing milk in this manner.  The state government perhaps influenced by the bigger players have also made their continuation harder, by enforcing strict regulations with regards to for example the temperature of the milk.  If you are found to be non-conforming during an inspection, then the farm is
banned from producing milk for about 6 weeks. 
You will have to undergo a second inspection at the state inspectors convenience and get a fresh stamp of approval before continuing to produce.  As you can imagine, it takes a lot of effort and determination to keep the scheme going.  EU regulations and taxes also make the farmer’s life difficult.  Today, a small farm must pay tax proportionate to the number of cattle on their farm, irrespective of whether you sell the milk or not.  As the farmer can make a better profit selling directly to the consumer, he keeps pursuing this option.   

However, there are other factors that put people off buying milk directly at the farm.  One of the main
issues is that this milk is not pasteurised, which doctors have convinced the public must be carried out before milk is drunk.  Pasteurising was done of course to increase the shelf life of milk but if there is only a small interval between milking and consuming, then the risk of drinking raw milk is minimised.  Many of the original converts have now dropped off and milk production and sale through this means may sadly not be viable for some farmers. 

Our next stop is to have a quick look scheme for buying your spring water on tap, in a scheme introduced by the local council to eradicate the need for bottled water.  Once again, you bring your own plastic bottle to fill up and pay a small fee for the water.  This eliminates the need to buy expensive bottled water and also saves the planet from unnecessary plastic!  We thought this was an extraordinary idea – one we had not seen anywhere else previously!   

While on a brief stop at the village square Betta bumps into a friend who is part of the village band.  In fact he has been singing and contributing to local festivals and gatherings for more than 65 years.  He s
hows us where they practice.  A small room decorated cheerfully, it is a place for both the old and young to meet and make music.  It is another informal gathering that helps create bonds through creativity in this village. We feel inspired already – what innovation in this small Italian Village in the North! 

Betta also points out the communal kitchen as we drive past.  The kitchen is used for festivals and other events organised by the town.  People will cook for the entire village or whoever shows up – what a great idea! 

We drive up the hill for an amazing panoramic view of this city and Lake Como.  This is a glacial lake, one of the larger and deeper lakes in Italy and is dotted with prestigious villas owned by rich landowners.  We love the drive and the views are breathtaking. Betta drops us off at the funicular so we can have a different view and experience on the way down. 

She picks us up at the bottom of the hill and we drive to a smaller village for our evening aperitifs.  In
Italy when you order a drink the aperitifs are included!  In fact it is quite a substantial meal and Betta says it is quite usual to go out for aperitifs with your friends of an evening and skip dinner.

But we are not skipping dinner today.  Betta has invited her friend Matteo to join us as we plan to go for a concert afterwards.  The pizza restaurant that Betta has chosen is on the lake and the views at night are stunning.

We enjoy meeting Mateo and have an interesting conversation while dining on pizza and enjoying the breathtaking views of the village and lake.  It’s a moon lit night and the lights from the villages across the lake as well as the one we are in combine to create spectacular views.  One of the biggest positives of this trip is that we have gone to places a little off the well-trodden place and seen them through the eyes of locals, which is a very special and precious experience! 

We are late for the concert but learn it is about the issues confronting Italy’s boat people, many of whom are from neighbouring countries in Africa such as Tunisia and we are fascinated to learn about
the similarities between Australia and Italy!  Italy is repatriating some of these refugees in the hope of discouraging others from trying to escape the hardships they face.  The issues seem to be a recurring theme the world over.  The concert is in Italian and we miss much of it since we have lingered over dinner but we catch enough to get the gist of what it is about.  

We have another lazy start on Saturday.  Betta is having a BBQ on Sunday and we are off to the farmer’s market so she can pick up some food.  The market is another friendly communal affair with fresh produce and home baked goods.   Most of the people don’t speak a lot of English so Betta helps translate.  We pick up some tofu rolls and rice cakes for lunch before moving on.

Betta drops us off in town so we can catch the boat to Bellagio.  It is another gorgeous day and we’ve decided on catching the slow boat, giving us 2 hours on the water to enjoy relaxing on the boat and
absorbing the special ambience of the little villages we call at before drifting on.  This is one of the most picturesque places we have been to on our trip so far and it is no wonder that the tourists flock here.  Many stars have had or have houses here including the likes of George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, Versace, Sylvester Stallone and others. 

We arrive at Bellagio to find another delightful village.  Perhaps the only negative is that the news has spread and this has become one of the more popular villages on the lake.  I think it would be quieter when the day-trippers have left and wish we were spending a couple of nights here – perhaps next time!  We have fun, wondering up and down cobbled streets, poking through little windows filled with knick-knacks and eating a slice of pizza before catching the bus back.

It is our last night in town and Betta has invited another friend for dinner.  We love meeting her friends
as they are laid back, love travelling and are easy to connect with.  Today, Betta’s daughter Carlotta is also with her.  She lives with friends as her high school is about an hour’s drive away but comes home for the weekend for a bit of mum’s cooking! 

We have a wonderful dinner, yummy food, great company and lots of laughs and we say goodbye to Betta and Lake Como. We have loved our stay here and feel sad to move on.  We are very grateful to Betta for introducing us to this beautiful region of Italy and for her hospitality.  It’s been a wonderfully relaxing and refreshing experience!  

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