By Doug Oster / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LENNO, Italy — Silvia Givera is standing on the picturesque bank of Lake Como. She winds up, underhand, to throw a tennis ball to her dog Diego. The dog stands transfixed until the ball sails far out into the lake, and then he happily swims after it. He brings it back but is reluctant to return it to Ms. Givera. Eventually she gets the ball and the two walk back to Bar IL Golfo in town. She helps run this place, which serves traditional Italian fare. The view of the lake is stunning from the restaurant, and it’s hard to fathom spending every day surrounded by such beauty.
I had just stepped off a water taxi after visiting the amazing topiary gardens of Villa Balbianello and walked past Bar IL on my way to meet my family, in Italy on a parallel trip. While I took 32 people through the gardens of Venice, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, my family used Como as its base to explore Switzerland, the towns around the lake and, most important, connect with relatives near the Austrian border.
When we met in Lenno, my family had already walked more than two miles from the Grand Hotel Tremezzo on the Greenway del lago di Como (Lake Como Greenway). It’s a 10 kilometer trail, a little more than six miles, that winds through neighborhoods and small towns from Cadenabbia south to Colonno in this part of northern Italy.
Of all the remarkable things I saw on my 10-day trip in September, this was one of my most treasured memories. People always say to get off the beaten path while visiting Italy, and it paid off for us in every way.
The greenway is well marked with metal emblems embedded into the trail and bright blue and yellow signs above. We had a few missteps and wrong turns but always found our way on the trail.
We started our walk by a couple of small restaurants and behind industrial businesses. Our first surprise was a rocky slope filled with pink begonias cascading down a rock wall. The second was the sight of a beautiful maid working inside a home. Once we tore our son away, we were back on our hike.
Before long, we stumbled onto a little lakeside boat launch several yards off the trail. The lake was calm, and we stood there for a few minutes to soak in another sweet view of the water and surrounding hills.
We continued through narrow cobblestone pathways flanked by stone walls punctuated by open shutters and window boxes filled with geraniums, ferns and other plants.
As we rounded a corner in Ossuccio we were struck by an odd looking home, filled with art and a sign saying “free entrance.” I wasn’t sure about going in, but my son led the way.
As we opened the door, Felippo Salice sat watching television. He rose and greeted us with a great smile. His home was filled with a cornucopia of odd treasures for sale. He didn’t speak English, but my wife, Cindy, is pretty good with Italian, and they were able to communicate. The walls were filled with photos of him as a young man, with other family members and even walking in a church processional.
After we talked for a while, Mr. Salice opened another door, which led to even more interesting items. My wife bought an old crucifix from 1950, and I purchased a crazy-looking little bronze face, which might have been at the front of someone’s home. As we bid Mr. Salice goodbye; we felt we had experienced something interesting and special.
We crossed a street and eventually came upon the faded frescos of San Giacomo, a church that dates to at least the 11th century. As we looked around the outside we were treated to another spectacular view of the lake. Standing on a narrow, overhanging walkway we could see big fish swimming at the bottom through the crystal clear water.
The trail ascended and as we climbed we passed an abandoned estate, where we briefly had an “Under the Tuscan Sun” moment. We thought better, though, of following in the Frances Mayes character’s footsteps and renovating an old villa. We took a breather at a small, cool waterfall that meandered. There were warm greenish purple figs hanging from trees for tasty snacks.
As we reached the summit and began to descend, we were greeted with a hard-to-beat view of the bell tower of Chiesa di Sant’Andrea in Sala Comacina.
I always recall George Clooney’s comments about Lake Como and why he chose to live here. One day he watched as workmen headed for home singing, each with a lunch pail and bottle of wine in hand. As we approached two men pouring concrete one whistled a tune as he worked on a modest trail-side home.
At the bottom, we were desperate for a bathroom break. Two Australians and their Italian friend pointed us toward the ferry home and also a bathroom.
We had to hike back to Sala Comacina for both, which was about a 20-minute walk. “It’s not safe,” I yelled to the family as I looked at the narrow berm and tiny, speeding Italian cars flying by. “This is how they do it,” my wife screamed and off we went, stopping to peer around curves, running to the next safe spot. We found what we needed at Enoteca Wine Bar.
A bit of serendipity
Alessandra Carminati was preparing the bar for patrons and was happy to allow us in for a bathroom break and point my wife in the direction of the ferry stop.
The printed ferry schedule at the dock confounded us. Two women sitting nearby tried to help. They didn’t speak English, but my wife was able to ascertain that there was no ferry going north to Tremezzo where they were staying and only one more going south to my hotel in Moltrasio.
They learned of a bus headed north, and we parted ways. Since I had 1½ hours to kill before my ferry, I headed back to the Enoteca bar, where Ms. Carminati poured me a large beer and made me a nice plate of meat and cheese.
As we talked, she told me of her love of Italy. How she lived out of the country for a time but longed to return home. She wondered what I thought of Italy, and when I told her of my unending love for the country she flashed a sweet smile and opened up, telling me where all the food on my plate came from.
“The cow cheese is from up there,” she gestured toward a steep hill. Each bite was better than the last, and as she poured me another beer, one of her friends stuck in traffic yelled and waved to her through the open front door. “Alessandra,” he screamed, which made her smile again. Her grandmother came in to sit for a bit and then her grandfather, who runs the nearby Grand Hotel Victoria. Another friend came in for a small beer and some cheese.
The two of us talked for 45 minutes — about tourists, food and her long journey on a bike to and from work each day. Despite our brief time together, we connected in the way that’s hard to explain. In another life, we’d be friends. It’s one of the beautiful things about traveling, stumbling upon a person and place like this.
“Will I see you again, maybe next year?” she asked. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we’d probably never meet again.
As the ferry slowly crossed the lake, I thought of Ms. Carminati and how her kindness had saved us that day. I couldn’t get her sweet smile out of my head. It embodied what Italy is all about.