Tag Archives: Italy

A little bar hopping around Lake Como.

10th -13th May 2019

It’s not what you think.  No louche bars, no gaggles of giggling women, no boisterous men brawling in crowded, dank corners.  In Como, it is actual a very civilized, cultured experience which only on certain occasions calls for a dash of something intoxicating…  But it does revolve around potable liquid: coffee to be more precise.  I have landed in Italy, the land of coffee and cofficionados par excellence!!  And boy, do I love coffee.  Fuel for the morning, fuel for the brain, fuel for the body, just not particularly good for the heart…

I happened upon the word ‘cofficionado’ perchance…  It is entirely possible I had read it somewhere before, but here I was, totally convinced I had coined a new expression.  An effortless blend of coffee and afficionado.  It rolled off the tongue, as smooth and delectable as the finest Italian cappuccino.   The word may not have yet found its way into the Oxford or Cambridge dictionary, but alas, it transpires cofficionados are responsible for the superior flavour of Kenco Coffee administered to the taste buds of British coffee connoisseurs since 1923… Furthermore, the online Urban Dictionary seems much more open to novel and inspirational ideas and has already embraced the expression.  It will be only a matter of time before more distinguished lexicographers bow to the inevitable. No claim to fame for me, it appears.

I arrive at Malpensa – the lesser Milan airport where the budget flights end up – on a sunny Friday afternoon.  I travel on my own this time, feeling very confident of knowing the ins and outs of Italy’s public transport!  Of course, it helps that I have the expert advice of a friend in Como, a colleague and housemate from my teaching days in India.  Add to that the mountain of tips from my Airbnb host in Como, and, without so much as the need to utter a word of Italian, I find my way across Lombardy, all the way from Malpensa to Como, changing trains in Saronno.  I learnt the ropes of Italian trains and buses the hard way, some years back on a trip to Florence, only just getting away with a ticking off for not ‘validating’ my ticket.  How was I supposed to know it was not sufficient to buy a ticket, you also have to poke it into a little machine to add a time and date stamp… This time I get it right though and immediately spot the green ‘convalidatrice per biglietti magnetici’ next to the platform…  And just to ensure no tourist can claim ignorance, it even says so in English!

My first coffee encounter doesn’t happen until the next day, breakfast time.  Caffeine intake in the afternoons tends to have an adverse effect on my sleeping habits, so I leave the elixir of drinks to be enjoyed exclusively pre-lunch…   Although cooking facilities and coffee are supposed to be available at my accommodation, a rather prolonged Greek-brandy-infused bonding session with my Airbnb host the previous night did not stretch to breakfast practicalities.  Instead it spanned all kinds of topics ranging from politics and the dire state of Venezuela (host’s native country), singles’ life in Como, the dos and don’ts of online dating and vague notions of some coffee bars to the left and right of the building.  My bleary-eyed peruse of the kitchen does not immediately bring coffee making essentials to light.  There’s the authentic Italian Bialetta espresso maker – brainchild of the Italian engineer Alfonso Bailetta – perched on the hob, but without any ground coffee to hand, or in the few cupboards I cautiously open, there is no quick route to my wake-up cuppa.  Off I go to the nearest bar…  It’s what Italians do for breakfast according to my friend who has lived in Italy for the last three years. 

On a Saturday morning, the bar is empty, bar the barista of course and a whole display cabinet full of breakfast pastries.  I would have preferred something a bit healthier to start the day, but when in Rome – or in Como for that matter – do as the Romans do!  Not exactly well-versed in the Italian coffee lingo, I stick to the familiar and my friend’s recommendation: ‘Italians drink cappuccino in the morning.’  What I really thirst for is a simple, no-nonsense Americano-type coffee, milk on the side.  Not too strong, not too weak and definitely not too milky.  ‘Cannella  o cioccolato?’ the barista enquires with Saturday morning laze.  Cinnamon may have earned its place in many a spice cupboard, but not on my cappuccino.  I play it safe and opt for the more conventional, at least more conventional in the UK: ‘Chocolate, please.’  I choose a large croissant as accompaniment and hope it will stave off the hunger until lunchtime. 

When it arrives, I am blown away: a cappuccino of unrivalled frothiness, the like of which has never before touched my lips.  Not the sugar-laden confectionery I have drunk in lesser countries, but an unadulterated, wonderfully smooth shot of espresso melting away into the heavenly foam on top… Just a dusting of chocolate, and not a single grain of sugar added.  Perfection in a cup.  The only drawback??  Small cups!!  How can one cappuccino ever suffice as my morning caffeine fix?  As Italians opine that just one milky, airy cappuccino is a meal in itself, I don’t want to appear greedy and move on.  I settle myself in the next bar and repeat the whole process: another cappuccino and another croissant…  I admit that by day three I am no longer encumbered by such civilities and order two cappuccinos and two pastries in the same bar at the same time with not so much as a single blush on my face..

Piazza Vittoria,

I meet up with my friend in the Piazza Vittoria – Victory Square – with its imposing monument to Guiseppe Garibaldi, the famous Italian general credited with liberating the city from the Austrians in 1859. From there we saunter through Como’s delightful little streets and squares, towards the lake in search of Ristorante/Bar Il Laria… 

because, of course, how else to continue a day that has barely started than with another coffee…  My friend’s gentle nudges towards a macchiato fall on deaf ears…  Somehow this in-between coffee to be drunk at any time of the day and consisting of a measure of mind-blowing espresso topped with the tiniest dash of floaty milk just doesn’t enthuse my taste buds.  Or perhaps a caffe latte, she suggests, but I prefer coffee with milk rather than milk with coffee if you get what I mean… And I am definitely not tempted to order a latte; in Italy I would be served a glass of milk.  So mid-morning my fussy self – at least where coffee is concerned – sticks to the tried and tested Italian cappuccino.  No one does it as the Italians do…

With coffee needs tended, we get on with sightseeing:  a stroll along Lake Como and a fun ride on the funicular up to the little town of Brunate for spectacular views of Como’s historic centre as well as the lake.  And for those with energy to spare, there is a hike up to Volta’s Lighthouse, a hilltop lighthouse and memorial to electrical pioneer Alessandro Volta, that at night alternately flashes the green, white and red colours of the Italian flag. No such trek for me I’m afraid, as I begrudgingly concede that an hour-long climb up a steep hill might just be asking for trouble… Did I not spot a defibrillator box (minus defibrillator..) at my bus stop in the morning??? An omen, perhaps??? Better have another capuccino to smooth the day. The grey sky dulls the views but what the town and lake lack in lustre and shine on a moody, cloudy day is more than made up for by the glisten and glimmer of night-time Como. 

After yet another evening of fraternising with my Airbnb host – just a little less alcoholic lubrication this time  – she decides it is her turn to introduce me to the breakfast delights of Como… Sunday morning Como is slow to awaken and for a long while only our banter fills the empty streets.  Nevertheless her favourite bar is busy with customers on the hoof, barely touching the ground as they gulp cappuccinos and munch breakfast pastries at the counter.  My friend A. had explained this earlier, ‘Cheaper to drink your coffees at the bar, you will be charged more when you’re seated.’  But as it’s Sunday, my host and I want to enjoy our breakfast at leisure and decide to settle ourselves in a quiet corner. 

I pay for my coffee and the barista pushes the receipt into my hand.  ‘No,’ I signal, ‘I don’t need my receipt.’  She insists, I relent and immediately deposit the slip of paper into the nearest bin.  Such a no-no!!!  It is only later that I am made aware of the existence of Italy’s tax police.  In order to curb Italians’ lifetime habits of dodging a bit of tax – don’t we all??? – and maybe giving a friend a freebie, customers are expected to be able to produce their receipt on demand within the shop or restaurant as well as in the streets..  Proof of purchase is essential, otherwise the tax police slap on a hefty fine for not just the customer but also the shopkeeper.  I start my collection and on my return to the UK, purge trousers pockets and handbag from all the bits of paper that accumulate from then on…

With plenty of time on our hands on a leisurely Sunday morning, and my host not in a rush to head back home, she suggests another bar, another favourite…  ‘You must try the Marocchino,’ she advises as she selects some mouth-watering nibbles to complement the sweetness of her drink. But as I am still craving my second cappuccino, I am not yet ready to give that one a go.  ‘A mixture of coffee and chocolate,’ she muses, ‘often laced with a layer of Nutella at the bottom…’  Chocolate spread and coffee???  I make a mental note to give it a try, just not for breakfast… Cappuccino, please.

Today I am meeting my friend at the bus station for a trip to the neighbouring villages of Bellagio and Menaggio, with a quick glimpse of George Clooney’s Como residence along the way. No sign of George, of course… more’s the pity. Just a mere hint of his intended presence sets the town atwitter and these days rumour has it that George rarely visits Como, being too busy with wife and twins in more desirable parts of the world. What’s wrong with Como??? Unfortunately, the bus whizzes past, not even a chance of taking a blurry shot. Still the lake with the Alps as the backdrop is the real attraction and beautiful it is indeed, but better seen with the naked eye than through the lens of my phone camera. Somehow the pictures don’t do it justice…

It is pretty cold by the time we arrive in Menaggio and we immediately look for shelter in one of the bars. So is everyone else clearly and it takes us a while to find one with an empty table and two chairs inside.. Whilst my friend orders a cappuccino, I plump for a marocchino… let the chocolate extravaganza begin!! The addition of oodles of gooey chocolate happens to be quite pleasant to be honest, although not a patch on a cappuccino. Still, it pays to be adventurous and broaden the culinary horizons.

In the meantime a nasty wind whips up angry waves on Lago di Como. Not a good thing for us, and many other tourists, as ferries do not cross the lake on blustery days. Our plans for a boat trip to visit Belaggio on the other side thwarted, we trundle along the narrow, winding streets of time-honoured Menaggio and indulge in smoked salmon and pasta for lunch before heading back to Como.

Monday morning, after my last Italian breakfast cappuccinos for a while, I set off to meet up with my friend before she heads off to work and I board the train back to Malpensa airport and onwards to the UK… How better to say goodbyes than with another cup of coffee. I cannot remember what kind I chose, but for sure I never tried a real caffè… I leave that for my next visit, and might just ask for a caffè corretto: a shot of espresso ‘corrected’ with a shot of liquor!! That will definitely get a buzz going!

There’s much to be said about coffee in Italy, or Como for that matter…

Italia: un amore di caffè

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…