The charm of Italy’s lakes in winter.

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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