Monthly Archives: February 2017

The charm of Italy’s lakes in winter.


Intra is a small town, nestled snugly between the scenic shores of Lago Maggiore and the rugged Southern Alps in Italy.  Less picturesque maybe than other touristy locations near the lake, Intra is pretty nevertheless with its fascinating historic centre and medieval heritage.  A lattice of narrow cobbled streets, lined with exquisite boutiques selling designer goods and curiosities, crisscrosses the area between the lakeside and the impressive Cupola Church San Vittore.  Many of the townhouses in the centre bear baroque and Neoclassical features, evidence of the bourgeois sophistication of past inhabitants…  It feels kind of intimate to stroll amongst the rainbow-hued walls, light barely squeezing through the gaps.  And here and there a gateway gives a sudden glimpse of the concealed higgledy piggledy world of ornate balconies, louvred shutters and urban gardens cultivated in pots…

20170203_141914-2Italy was not on the list of holiday destinations for my winter break; as a matter of fact I had no intention to return to Europe for some time yet.  Having made the decision to stay in China for another year, I was looking forward to spend the three week winter holiday exploring exotic Vietnam and taking in the spectacular Ankor Wat temple complex in Cambodia…  I had plotted my itinerary, found a travel companion, and all but booked my flights…

But the intricacies of China’s employment laws for foreigners and the implementation of such by the agencies who recruit foreign language teachers put an enormous spanner in the wheels…and I had to swap the balmy winter sun of South-East Asia for the decidedly fresher parts of Europe.  However, the worst case scenario would have involved being stuck in China for the whole three weeks.  After a five month long semester breathing in Chinese air and Chinese culture, a break was essential for sanity’s sake!  So Europe it would be and surely trips to  the UK, Belgium and Italy still count as ‘travelling round the world’, although unfortunately no stamps in my passport…     Bring on Brexit, that’s what I say…

Whereas trips to Belgium centred around family and sorting out essential paperwork to make my return to China possible (more about this in future post(s)), Lago Maggiore beckoned after my fellow teacher and flatmate from India recently moved there.  One of the greatest perks of my nomadic and unconventional lifestyle is growing this eclectic group of friends spread across the globe, so instead of hopping in the car or on a train for a meet-up, I just hop on a plane for a long weekend…  Finances permitting, of course…



We set off for Milan, L. and I.  Not entirely sure how I was to get from Malpensa airport (Milan) to the lakes of Northern Italy in mid-winter, I had asked a friend along on my trip.  I believe there is more merit in getting lost in company, rather than on your own..  In the end, we rented a car, as the efficient bus service straight from the airport to Intra did not run in the winter, and our hotel was not exactly located in the town of Intra, but rather ‘up the steep hill’ behind it.  My duties were limited to map reading on Google Maps and translating such to the real world whilst L bravely took care of driving on the wrong side of the road, dodging Italian drivers.

The weekend weather was not particularly kind to us with the sun definitely preferring to play a game of hide-and-seek, leaving the mountains often draped with delicate drifts of fluffy cloud and rain never far at bay.  But it did not stop us venturing out and about and making the trip to a neighbouring lake, Lago Orta.  Much smaller than Lago Maggiore, it has barely been touched by tourism, yet it had both Liz and me enthralled.



We discovered Orta San Guilio, a quaint little town by the lake, and its sumptuous Piazza Motta, with its 16th century town hall.  A place where time stood still..  In the midst of winter there was hardly another soul to be seen and it was easy to imagine how this place in the past (and maybe to this day…) attracted poets and writers to find the necessary seclusion to put their pen to paper… Built on the slopes of a steep hill that forms a peninsula jutting out into the lake, the town oozed tranquillity, its cobbled streets and hidden passages a real labyrinth to explore…


We hiked to the Sacro Monte di Orta (literally: Sacred Mountain of Orta), the hill crest towering over the town, where  we meandered through the elaborate Roman Catholic complex of chapels dedicated to Saint Francis of Assissi.  Most of the buildings date back to the 16th century and have been decorated by some of the most influential and respected painters and sculptors of that period.  On our way back, we glimpsed into the direction of the boats making the short trip to Isola San Guilio, the island in the middle of lake Orta.  But our time was limited and, not with little experience of driving on the Italian roads, we wanted to get back to Intra before dark closed in.


On our last day, we ventured northwards from Intra to Cannobio, into the direction of the Swiss border but not quite crossing into that country.  Did I miss a trick there??  Would there have been a stamp or two to be had???

By Monday, the weather had cheered up and we were rewarded with sparkling sunshine over the lake and finally got a view of the majestic snow-capped Alps which had been camouflaged by fog and clouds throughout the weekend.




We got to see Lake Maggiore in all its glory and could definitely appreciate what all the fuss was about…









I love Leuven! Everyone speaks English!!


Of course  I visited Belgium regularly after making England my permanent home.  But you know how it goes, those trips focused on catching up with family rather than exploring the touristy towns and attractions and there had been no need to return to the Alma Mater, my university town Leuven.  Actually, I cannot remember the last occasion when I was in Leuven before my recent sojourn a couple of weeks ago, but I believe the time span should be measured in decades rather than years…



The first thing that hit me after surfacing from the depths of Leuven station was the emptiness.  It was a Friday afternoon.  Deserted streets.  Silence.  The rumblings from the odd bus.  An assortment of bicycles hugging a pedestrianised area.  I did a double take.  Did I accidentally leave the station through the wrong exit?  It took me a while to discover the proper station entrance, roughly in the same place where I was expecting it, but hidden behind an enormous monument that had definitely been added since my last trip to the town…

The whole area has clearly had a serious face-lift recently and motorised, polluting vehicles are now discouraged from entering the town centre giving priority to the humble pedestrians and cyclists.  So much so that I suspiciously eyed  a driver who voluntarily came to a complete standstill to let me cross the road…  After two years navigating the congested streets of India and dodging feckless road users in China, it came as a shock…  Along the streets, wide pavements provide ample space for bicycle stands,  and near the centre of town, a huge underground bicycle garage, complete with bicycle repair shop, makes this one of the most cycle-friendly towns I have ever seen.


On a quest to legalise my hard-earned university degree (more about this in future blogs..), and with Google Maps as my guide, I set off to the KUL’s (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) admin headquarters.  Map reading has never been my forte, so here and there it was essential to turn to locals to get more precise directions.  Admittedly, I instinctively turned to members of a younger generation, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that even the shopkeeper in the chocolate shop, the assistants in the train station  and a random girl asking ME for directions in French reverted to flawless English without any hesitation.  I had absolutely no need to use my ‘native’ Dutch language.  I love Leuven: EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH!!! I almost felt at home…


I passed Fons Sapientiae, or  ‘Fonske’ as Leuven’s famous statue is affectionately known, smiling at memories of student pranks committed after maybe one too many drinks.  A statue celebrating student life as perpetually pouring beer in your head whilst studying the mathematical equation for luck…??  In my days,  the ‘Fountain of Wisdom’* was certainly a source of entertainment and amusement but had not yet been turned into an expensive confectionery.  7 Euros for 8 ‘Leuvense Fonskes’ chocolates…  They’d better be exceptional!! (I still have to open the box… just waiting for the right occasion..)

*The Latin name Fons Sapientiae translates as ‘Fountain of Wisdom’



I deviated from my route and sauntered towards the Oude Markt, where the pubs and restaurants used to keep students awake and alert until daybreak.  No such thing as the British 11:00 pm closing time here… If you stayed long enough, you could catch a hearty breakfast on the way home.   The market square still looked pretty much the same; most bars probably changed ownership by now and new, more trendy names are displayed above the doors, but the Oude Markt has lost none of its charm nor its purpose in a student’s life…



I stopped at Leuven’s impressive 15th century City Hall.  Barely touched by the ravages of two world wars, its restoration was actually not completed until 1983, just after my graduation…  How wonderful to explore the historic city centre, ambling through the cobbled streets, undisturbed by annoying traffic, just breathing in the beauty of  awe-inspiring architectural skills of the past.

And yes, I made it to the university, photocopies of my degree in hand, ready for the official stamp…  After heading to Leuven straight from the airport to start the laborious process of legalisation, the office was closed!!  I arrived just after lunch and the Student Administration Office is only open in the mornings…

It set the tone of things to come in the next few weeks; I just did not know it yet…