Thursday 14 September 2023

The Italian Lake District

Lake Maggiore by Train via London and Colmar

Our third (and possibly last) holiday based in Italy was booked almost as soon as we were home from the previous one, and again it was a Great Rail Journeys escorted tour. They offer a selection of holidays by train in the Italian Lakes but the one that stood out for us was a week or so in Stresa, on Lake Maggiore, because it included a trip on the Centovalli Railway which we had done once before in poor weather and wanted to visit again in the summer. It also included a stopover in Colmar (where we have stopped before and enjoyed) on the way there and Dijon (which we have never seen before) on the way back. It also included quite a lot of free time and would therefore be quite a relaxing holiday as well as a further exploration of Italy and eastern France. And although we would not be stopping there, a passage through the Alps would be good to do in a year in which, for once, we had not visited Switzerland!

We had tolerated a cool, fairy wet, summer and had been looking forward to getting away to some sunshine, and as we were about to leave the sunshine suddenly resumed, temperatures rose and England started enjoying summer at last, although, if anything, it was a bit too hot and we began to look forward to the slightly lower temperatures on the lake shore in Italy!

We began with London, as always when bound for the continent, but this time instead of going late in the day (Sunday, when we have no local trains until lunch time) simply to stay overnight we went earlier so that we could take the chance to see the King's and Queen's coronation robes on display at Buckingham Palace. In order to fit this in we asked both of our sons for favours: one to drive us to Peterborough to catch a Sunday morning train to London, and the other, in London, to look after our baggage while we visited the palace: it is always nice to see the family anyway, especially those in London whom we see only occasionally.

We had our usual breakfast at home before leaving by car for Peterborough station, but on boarding the train the smell of bacon rolls required me to have another breakfast on board the train! With orange juice and coffee this was a very satisfying start to the day. Sunday engineering work had closed the Hammersmith & City Line, so our journey to Shepherd's Bush for the personal left-luggage facility was more complicated than usual, but the Underground still delivered and we arrived there via a short visit to the Westfield shops where my wife had some pending business ...

Free of encumbrances, then, we made our way to Buckingham Palace, via an ice-cream break in The Green Park, and although we were half an hour early for our ticket time we were admitted and after the security check we were handed our audio-visual personal guides and began the tour of the Palace state rooms, which included the coronation robes displayed in the ballroom and quite a lot of information about the coronation service, the work of the monarchy and the life of King Charles III. It was all very well done but slightly amusing that the commentary spoke several times about what His Majesty normally or usually does each year, but he has not been doing it for a year yet! Clearly it is a description of what the monarch normally does, based upon what Queen Elizabeth II had established and often what the King has done just once.

We had tea with cake and sandwiches before leaving the Palace and returning to our son's home. We stayed a short while and took up their offer of dinner, although we did not need a lot after our royal tea.

For our overnight accommodation in London we try to get as close as possible to St Pancras International station and have often stayed in the Premier Inn opposite the British Library in Euston Road, but even the Premier Inn can be expensive in central London, so this time we tried The Hub (by Premier Inn), an even more budget hotel, and slightly further away, on York Way, east of Kings Cross station. Our room was two floors below street level but it had all we needed just for a night's sleep: a bed and an ensuite shower/wc, with space beneath the bed for two cases. There were mains and USB sockets for charging our devices (interestingly, continental as well as UK mains sockets), air-conditioning (no window, of course) and huge towels. We did not book breakfast and from getting up on Monday at 6am we were at St Pancras, after a ten-minute walk, just after 6.30 to check in with our tour manager before making our way to the Eurostar departure area.

I could not believe how efficient the operation at St Pancras had become! There was no queue at the ticket gates and I was caught off guard, not having bothered to have my ticket ready because I am used to taking five minutes to get to the barrier: still, with no-one behind me it did not matter that I had to ferret for my ticket before scanning it at the barrier. The security check was only slow owing to the need to put all my metal stuff, including my belt, onto the tray and then take it all back again after passing through the scanner. Then before I has time to get my passport ready I was being ushered towards the UK border post, fumbling now for my passport, for there had always been a queue here in the last few years, plenty of time to get ones passport ready. Once through the UK check at least I was now ready for the French border police who inspected and stamped my passport quickly and efficiently All done in less than ten minutes from turning up to being ready to go - with still an hour before departure. My wife had come through even faster and had found a couple of seats in the waiting area and then I went to buy coffee and we had our first breakfast: coffee and the apples we had brought from home, and in my case a croissant from the coffee shop.

We made our way early to the travelator up to the platforms, our tour manager having had a tip-off about the platform number. We were the first people up to the platform when the train was announced: never done that before, although we have been the first off when arriving.The train left London on time and our second breakfast was soon served, the usual Eurostar light meal on an early train, included in the price of our Standard Premier tickets. Engineering work in France made us just a few moments late into Paris, but that was not significant as we had a couple of hours there to walk to Gare de L'Est, have some lunch and board the train to Colmar where we were to spend the first night of the escorted tour. 

Bob the tour manager asked me to walk at the back of the group as I happened to have hat like his and he would know where the rear of the group was if he looked back and saw me, and he could tell the group to stay between the two hats! I have been chosen for many things in my life, some more pleasurable than others, but this is the first time that my headgear has been the criterion of selection ...

The TGV to Colmar was very comfortable, as TGVs generally are, but it was very disappointing that the bar car was not open ("il y a une problème"), so no after-lunch coffee. Colmar is a place we have stopped overnight a few times before, and it was good to have a chance to walk round for a bit before dinner. Just as on the last few visits the weather was very hot. In one shop we even managed to do a very little very early Christmas shopping! Colmar is a lovely town, and one of the great benefits of overland international travel over flying is that you do get the chance to see other interesting places on the way to you main destination.

Dinner, a good night's sleep and a decent breakfast completed our stay in Colmar and then we met the rest of the group and crossed the road to the railway station for the train into Switzerland on Tuesday morning. This was a local train to Basel (Bâle in French) and we were all together in the First Class coach at the rear of the train. We had about an hour between trains at Basel, a station we have used several times in the past, both on group tours and on our own: it is really two stations in one, a French section and s Swiss section. We sat in the sun for a while outside the station and then joined the next train which would take us on through Switzerland to Domodossola in Italy. The original plan has been to stay on this train all the way to Stresa, but engineering work on the line had cut this particular train service short and so we had to take a coach for the few kilometres to our hotel on the lake shore in Stresa, but not before we had seen the beautiful Swiss Alps and several towns we have visited in the past, including Brig which was our first Alpine destination almost ten years ago.

We had a beautiful hotel room on an upper floor with a balcony (where I am sitting typing this post!) overlooking Lake Maggiore and the islands we would be visiting the following day. We went for a walk around the town and then returned for a shower and dinner with the rest of the group at the hotel. And so to bed. It had been a fairly murky evening after a sunny day, but the sky was beginning to clear by sunset and held some promise for the morning, but with very thick curtains to our room we would not see the weather until we opened them after a good night's sleep ...

Dazzling Sun, and A Dazzling Palace

Our room had very thick curtains and when we finally awoke, on our alarm at 07:30 on Wednesday I opened the curtains and immediately had to close my eyes and back off as the sun was shockingly bright, straight across Lake Maggiore and into my face! Once I had recovered my composure and my eyes had adapted to the light I could see that it was a wonderful sunny morning and a brilliant day was beginning. 

The morning and early afternoon were completely free and so after breakfast I spent some time in the morning writing my weblog on the balcony and then we walked into town again did some of the Town Trail of interesting buildings, with a stop for a gelato at a place where we bought one last time we were in Stresa, but to be honest, not many of the buildings were particularly interesting ... then we sat by the poolside (or, rather, I did: Alison swam, after much grimacing at the cold, in the pool) at the hotel until it was time to get showered and dressed ready for our first included excursion.

We all gathered in the hotel reception and Bob the tour manager led us out to the landing stage opposite the hotel where, a few moments later, a hired launch arrived to take us to Isola Pescatori for a brief visit - we had been there before for a slightly longer visit, but it was good to see it again - and then we were taken by another launch across to Isola Bella, the island we could see from our balcony and which we had never visited before. Isola Bella is the island on which the Borromean Palace stands. We had a swift guided tour around tha palace, which is still in use by the Borromeo family and in which the current Princess was actually in residence when we visited. The place was stunning. Buckingham Palace was still in our minds as we had been there just a couple of days before, but although the Borromean Palace was a lot smaller it beats anything else I have ever seen for decoration - except possibly some of the rooms at Burghley House ...

After the tour of the palace we visited its gardens and were served Prosecco and nibbles there before returning by another boat to our hotel for a later dinner and straight to bed to recover from the day: it did not seem that we had done a lot, but it all added up to some miles of walking and a lot of sunshine.

Freedom and Adventure

Normally on a Great Rail Journeys tour the free days are interspersed among days with included activities but for various reasons of non-availability on certain days it turned out that our two completely free days fell together, and immediately followed the first full day in Stresa when there had been only the island tour beginning late in the afternoon. Unfortunate in some ways but a free day is a free day and there was plenty we could do to fill them, or we could sit and do very little as I had tried in vain to do on Wednesday morning! We had toyed with the idea of visiting another lake, but the railway works which had caused us to use road transport for the last stretch to Stresa would also make reaching another lake rather long-winded, and in any case, there is much to see around Lake Maggiore without travelling so far. We decided to go to Verbania, the largest town on the lake and just across from our hotel. It could be reached easily by public boat service, by bus or, according to the timetable, by train. We decided to take the train, although I soon realised from the map that Verbania station was some kilometres from the town centre, indeed from the town, and even then I was daft enough to buy return tickets ...

Stresa station was about a ten-minute uphill walk from the hotel, pleasant enough, and although a little tatty in places with a faded splendour, a nice little station. We bought our tickets and went via the subway to the opposite platform to await the train. With a minute to go I remembered that the tickets had to be validated before travel so I nipped back and inserted them in the validation machine and returned to the platform just as the train was drawing in. No-one checked the tickets in any case.  Our train was a semi-fast from Arona to Domodossala, the first stop being Verbania. The station there was modern and pleasant but now we needed a bus to the town. Apple maps showed a bus stop on the main road nearby with a bus in a few minutes' time. It took a while to find the stop, but find it we did: nowhere to stand but the newly-mown verge (which must have resembled a meadow before mowing. The bus picked us up and then took us via a stop right adjacent to the railway station, but on the other side of the tracks and which we had not noticed, and would have been much more convenient. It was about twenty minutes into town and we were pleased we had not attempted to walk. We were already beginning to reassess the value of the return halves of our train tickets, the distance from the station to Verbania being roughly the same as the distance we had travelled on the train! I am not complaining: this is supposed to be an adventure, and an adventure it was! 

We had coffee at a café at the town hall and then went for a long walk along the lake shore, enjoyed a cold lemon drink overlooking the lake and then walked back into the centre of Verbania for a gelato and a bus back to Stresa. For our evening meal we had promised ourselves a cocktail and a pizza at a lakeside pizzeria near our hotel and that was what we did. While we were there two other pairs of people from our Great Rail Journeys group turned up, and we had seen another couple there earlier in the day. I hope they all liked it as much as I did. A good meal for two, with cocktails and coffee, €53.00, that's under £50: brilliant.

Friday was the last of the free days and we had decided to take a bus in the other direction to Arona, farther south along the lake. Buses around Stresa were not a big tourist thing and it was not easy to find all the information we needed; stops were not always easy to find and the online data available to Apple Maps and CityMapper, our usual public transport information sources, was patchy and difficult to understand, but we were able to get a timetable and information from the tourist office. The buses were actually quite useful once we found them and stops included one at the rail station (we'd alighted there on our way home from Verbania) and one by the lake boat terminal, so there was some effort at integration, but not a lot. After a quick look around Stresa Friday market, we waited at the (unmarked) stop by the boat terminal, soon encouraged by local people turning up to wait for the bus, too. It was a little late which would have made us concerned if it had not been for the others at the stop. The vehicle was more like a coach than a bus and was very comfortable. Like the buses we had used the day before, they did not take card payment as we were used to in Britain, but only cash, although they did offer change so were able to pay with no difficulty.

Arrival in Arona was by the rail station in the centre of the town, by the boat terminal there, where there was also a tourist office where we were able to pick up a map of the town. Again we walked along the lake shore and stopped for our morning coffee at a little restaurant that was just opening for the day. We decided that from there we would walk up to the statue (described as a "colossus"!) of St Charles Borromeo, a member of the ruling Borromeo family who had become a Cardinal and Archbishop of the Counter-Reformation and was very popular locally. When you read of his reforms to the Church in his diocese you wonder if he had come a little earlier in history the Reformation, with its great divisions in the Church, might never have happened. It was a long, uphill walk to the church and the great statue, sometimes along the roadside, sometimes a long stepped footpath, sometimes on the road itself. It was hot and sunny, but we got there! Apparently this is second in size only to the Statue of Liberty in New York of the type of statue that one can climb up inside: I did not try that ...  We returned to Arona town centre by a different route which was a lot easier going but just as hot and sunny and with much more walking on the carriageway. On arrival in the town a gelato was the most urgent thing to find, and we sat looking over the lake and recovered from our exertions of the morning before taking the bus back to Stresa - once we had found it! We  knew it would go from the rail station forecourt but did not really know exactly where: a bus in the right livery stood among about ten others but with its engine running, so we walked to the front and saw that the destination was, among other places, Stresa, and the door was open. So we asked the driver, paid him and sat down. About three local people were already aboard and one more joined us. It was not at a bus stop but just among a pack of coaches and would have been easy to miss! The adventure continued ... back in Stresa we bought salad and fruit for our evening meal at our room and one to relax. We would be up a little earlier the next day for what would be, for me, the centrepiece of this exciting holiday.

The Centovalli Line in Sunshine at Last - and in Its Centenary Year

We last rode the Centovalli Line almost ten years ago, but it was in winter and on a wet and murky day. Winter is not a bad time to travel a scenic line, actually, when the deciduous trees are bare and there might be snow highlighting some features, but the rain and mist were, well, a dampener. We looked at doing it again one summer but on that particular day the forecast, although warmer, was not much sunnier, so we didn't even try. Third time lucky: the inclusion of this scenic line in Great Rail Journeys' itinerary for this holiday was one of our reasons for booking it, and it was sunny. Along with the rest of the group we walked up to the station from the hotel and awaited a train to Domodossala where we had just under an hour before taking the Centovalli Line train, just right for the morning coffee break. The station buffet operated the traditional Italian coffee bar system where you pay at the till and take the receipt to the barista who then makes the drinks listed on the receipt. We had become used to the concept on out earlier visits to Rome and other cities, but it was the first time we had come across it on this trip, the first time, I suppose, that we had been at a bar not specifically aimed at foreigners. The entire transaction was conducted in Italian; we are getting there.

The group had a block of seating reserved on the Centovalli train, Second Class in this case: I suspect there would not have been enough First Class seating on the four-coach multiple unit that comprised this train. It is a two-hour ride to Locarno on the express service we were on, and it is scenic for all but the first and last couple of kilometres. I did not take photographs because they would never do justice to the scenery: if you want to see it you'll have to travel the line yourself, well worth doing!

There was a party atmosphere in Locarno when we arrived, with a large music festival happening in the streets, a sort of urban Glastonbury.
Above: Locarno market place this summer
Right: Locarno market place on our previous visit

In Locarno we revisited the pizzeria Al Portico where we had had lunch the last time we were there, but this time we could speak to the staff in Italian. On my iPhone I showed the waitress my blog post with a photograph of the restaurant. It had barely changed, although we did notice that the menu now had a German translation of each item - not that that was any use to me. By the time we had eaten our salads and enjoyed the coffee it was the to wander back to the rendezvous with the group to await the boat ride back to Stresa. Our tour manager was keen to ensure that we boarded the boat fairly early in order to give us the best choice of seating, and as it was so hot and sunny we chose a shaded area on deck, bt eventually moved under cover with an iced drink from the on-board bar. It was a three-hour journey back to Stresa, the boat calling at several places on both sides of the lake on the way, including two stops in Verbania, which it was nice to see again from a different angle. By then the sun was much lower in the sky (we arrived at Stresa at seven o'clock), so we were out on the sundeck for the last part of the voyage, from which we could see the side of the Borromean Islands that we not visible from Stresa, and could spot our hotel among the buildings as we approached the town. Dinner was back at the hotel after a very quick shower.

Another Lake

Sunday dawned with another sunny morning but we had a chance to recover from the three preceding days' adventures in the heat as the included tour to Lago Orta did not start until 13:30. After a snack lunch in our room we joined the rest of the party for the coach trip to the small town of Orta San Giulio: it was not far as the crow flies, but was in the next valley and so further by road (and would have been even further by rail!). From the coach park we took a little road train down to the town centre and lake shore where we had a few minutes (another gelato stop!) before we all boarded a boat to visit the tiny island of San Giulio on which stands a church founded by Saint Julius and in which his body is buried. The church is beautifully decorated with wall paintings throughout and well worth a visit. The island is densely packed with homes and a large Benedictine convent and there is a walk around the island, the "Walk of Silence" in one direction, with plaques about the value of silence, and the "Walk of Meditation" in the other direction with plaques of platitudes which really did not make a lot of sense to me. Either way round, though, and we had ample time to do both, was a very pleasant walk. Lake Orta itself is much smaller than Lake Maggiore, much more the size of the lakes we know in England and Scotland. The boat to the island took us the long way round so that we could see something of the lake and the island's numerous boathouses where the residents keep their boats. The boat back took the shortest route and we were soon walking back to the little road train and our coach back to the hotel for dinner and bed.

Food and Wine

Bob the tour manager had warned us to have a light breakfast on Monday morning because we would be fed amply during the day! It was quite a long day out by coach into a wine-producing area some way south of Lake Maggiore, and began with a visit to Ghemme, including a tour of the Rovellotti winery, which must be unique, followed by a tasting, with accompanying nibbles. The winery is situated in the town centre in a collection of building which began as a fortress in which the citizens could try to hold out in the event of an attack on the their town when it was situated between two warring dukedoms but which become surplus to defensive requirements when peace broke out between those families. We were shown around by a young member of the Rovellotti family who have had premises in the former fortress since its founding in the medieval period Two generations of the family and a couple of other employees currently run the wine-making business and we sampled four varying wines accompanied by light bites to suit them - trying to keep consumption of food as low as possible because of what was to follow ... but needing something to stop this being nothing but wine, and before noon, too!

This followed by a drive through the countryside (which was possibly gorgeous but most of us slept through most of it after all that wine) and lunch, a generous lunch, with wine, at Cascina Monchucchetto, an agriturismo even farther south. The views from the agriturismo were fantastic but it was so hot in the sun that we did not want to enjoy the sun for long. It was necessary to go a bit steady on the food and wine as well after the morning's indulgences at the winery. No dinner was necessary that evening.

We spent some time that evening packing our bags, for this was our last night in Stresa: the next day we would begin the journey homeward, and although it would be quite possible to get home in one day (as we have done from, say, Neuchâtel when travelling on our own), we still had one more interesting place to see.


We were all taken by coach with our luggage to Stresa railway station where we caught a Geneva-bound express through the Alps to Lausanne where we changed trains for a Paris-bound TGV as far as Dijon, a city we had never visited before. We arrived in Dijon on-time mid-afternoon and after finding our room at the hotel, the Oceania le Jura, a short walk from the rail station, we set off for a stroll in the city centre. We bought a gift, mustard, of course, for our kind neighbours who have kept our plants watered in our absence, and by then a little rain had begun, so we started back in the direction of the hotel, past the miniature version of the Arc de Triomphe which graces the city centre, and went for a drink in the hotel bar. By the time I had ordered the rain was very heavy and we were soon joined by other members of the tour who had baled out of walks around the city centre, looking considerably more bedraggled that we were. Later we heard tales of those who had ventured farther and who developed a sudden need for coffee or for prayer, sheltering in a café or the cathedral ... 

The evening meal was a fixed menu of local specialities at a nearby restaurant and the eggs in a burgundy sauce were especially good in my opinion, as was the cassis-flavoured sorbet with which we finished. Unlimited water, and coffee, were included but we had to buy the wine and I must say that for a cheap house red the wine was magnificent. My opinion of Burgundian cuisine and wine has been enhanced by this visit. We brought a selection of mustards home for ourselves, too.

The rail station at Dijon has a large cylindrical booking hall very reminiscent of Charles Holden's inter-war designs for the London Underground, in white concrete rather than brick as in London. We were back there in the morning to take a TGV train to Paris (it was the same service, earlier in the day, as the one on which we had arrived the previous afternoon from Lausanne). This time we arrived at Gare de Lyon and Great Rail Journeys had provided a coach to take us through the streets to Gare du Nord, where we arrived neatly in time to check in for our Eurostar train to London. By the time we had all been through passport and security checks (and, like London, this all seems to have become much slicker now) it was almost time to board: I don't think I sat down in the departure lounge at all!

Taking a seat on Eurostar now I almost feel like I'm already home even though I still have two more train rides after this one and a time zone to cross! The light meal, lunch to us, was soon served and we had our final conversations with the people who had shared (some of) our adventures of the past week and a half and before we knew it we were in the familiar space of St Pancras station. It was a long walk from the last coach of the train to the exit, but that did mean that we got to enjoy the vast and glorious railway station that London St Pancras has now become. We walked across to Kings Cross and although I had booked seats on a train to Peterborough at 16:06 we had a look at LNER's app and saw that pairs seats were still available on a train that would be leaving in about twenty minutes, and hour earlier than that, so I reserved a pair of seats on that, cancelled the ones I already had and by then its platform was announced and we took our places. Again, a light meal was served, although I kept the pudding course to eat later at home since it did not seem long since Eurostar had fed me! There were only four minutes in the timetable between the arrival of this train at Peterborough and the departure of the train to Stamford, so we knew we might not make that connection. The idea was that we would shop at Waitrose in Stamford if we got it and in Peterborough (it's right by the station) if we didn't! As it happened our train from London slowed down to a crawl on approach to the station and we began to give up hope of getting the tight connection (so tight it was not advertised) but by being first at the door, and choosing a door near the footbridge steps we were able to get over the bridge and be going onto platform 7 for the Stamford train just as the whistle blew, and the kind dispatcher had the doors opened for us to board. For whatever reason it was still held at the platform for several more minutes, so perhaps the haste was not necessary after all ...

Back in Stamford we took the familiar walk across the Meadows and stopped for tea at the open-air Italian restaurant at the Sheepmarket square, a last little glimpse of Italy as we made our way home. While we had been away there had been a heatwave at home, and we were actually less hot (high twenties Celsius) than England, and specifically Lincolnshire, had been. Now both places were beginning to cool down and autumn looked like it was coming at last!