Just to say …

As we race towards the sharp end of the summer term with the dreaded sports day and activities week safely out of the way, the long summer break looms ahead and my postings are likely to be more erratic than usual. Without the daily routine that term time requires I fear that my time will merge into a summery haze although I have every intention of concentrating on some story writing and editing. beach-scene120412[1]

However, if last summer was anything to go by I managed to fail miserably on both of those counts, so I’m not promising anything or indeed setting a deadline that I will feel obliged to fulfil. I shall keep up with reading as many blogs as I can so won’t have evaporated completely from the stratosphere and I shall hopefully find some interesting places during August that will be worth blogging about later.

Before I go though, I must just share this with you.

The autistic son of an acquaintance of mine was recently banned from his school bus for a few days apparently for causing damage to said vehicle. He sat down next to a sign which clearly stated:

TAKE HAMMER AND BREAK THE GLASS.

So he did.

Enjoy your summers!

 

You know those things that you’ve always meant to do or wanted to do but you’ve either never been in a situation to do them or just never got around to it? Well, last year, while on holiday in the south of France, we took the opportunity to get around to visiting something we had wanted to see for a long time: The Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence. This simple little church, also known as the Matisse Chapel is easy to miss if you aren’t specifically looking for it – the signs are a bit hap-hazard – but we were on a mission.

Vence, a fairly large town, is situated some twenty-five kilometres north-west of Nice, slightly further on than the picturesque St Paul de Vence which is where we stopped for lunch. Full of steep cobbled streets, galleries and antique shops, St Paul de Vence siphons off the tourists and provides ample photographic opportunities as well as a plethora of small restaurants.

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Cobbles in St Paul de Vence

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Typical French style, St Paul de Vence

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A lunch time view, St Paul de Vence

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Simple al fresco lunch – seared tuna and a glass of Provencal Rose – dee-lish!

The artist, Henri Matisse designed the Rosaire Chapel between 1947 and 1951 for Dominican nuns in Vence after his nurse, Monique Bourgeois, entered the religious order and asked him to help. He was seventy-seven and in failing health when he took on the project; it was to be, by his own admission, his finest work.

We found the Chapel, perched as it is over-looking the main town, and parked fairly easily on the side of the road. Descending the steep steps down to the entrance we noticed sadly that photography is forbidden. Such a shame, although I’m not sure a still photograph could convey the audible gasp that goes up as you enter through an unprepossessing little doorway. The place is simple, white-washed and flooded with south-facing light – and that light creates magic as it beams through Matisse’s stained glass windows, throwing shapes and colours onto the cool stone floor and across the simple altar. Here’s a short video showing the interior of La Chapelle du Rosaire.

So, having seen this little wonder, nestling on its hillside in Provence, when Tate Modern announced its major exhibition this summer was to be the Matisse Cut-Outs, I booked tickets immediately. We went last week and were not disappointed. Our tickets were timed for 3.00pm and I’m pleased to report that the gallery was less crowded at this time of day than it possibly had been earlier on. Henri Matisse, in the last seventeen years of his life, turned to a new approach to making work, cutting shapes from painted paper – shapes similar to those he used for his stained glass window designs. With his health declining, his mobility limited, his scale, ambition and out-put increased with his new cut-out method. The exhibition at the Tate explores the development of his technique and is well worth visiting – if you can still buy a ticket.

On route to the Tate we stopped off for lunch at the Oxo Tower where you can enjoy far-reaching views across the Thames. Our association with Matisse seems to be connected to food and views.

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Sunlight on St Paul’s Cathedral, from the Oxo Tower

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Starter of smoked duck’s breast with lavender figs. The few salad leaves were undressed.

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Spot the langoustine

However, although the meal was good it was not outstanding and to be frank, there wasn’t much of it. The service lacked the finesse you’d expect from a London restaurant with high self-esteem. Our aperitif cocktails, for instance, although very nice, were served without mats; no sign either of a complimentary bowl of nuts or olives (something we have grown used to when in France or Italy at even the most ordinary of establishments); no receptacle was available in which to put the olive stones from our drained Martini’s. Should we flick them over the balcony, we wondered. The bill when it arrived was at least four times as expensive as the lunch we’d had in St Paul de Vence. Was it worth it? No way. Was the Oxo Tower buzzing with guests, as had that café been in the south of France? No, of course it wasn’t.

Some places in London just aren’t worth a second visit. The Oxo Tower is one of them.

Can’t win ‘em all, can you?

 

 

Well, not so much a mystery actually, but it was a little magical. Last week Sea-Sick Friend and I took the day off and headed for The Smoke to pose as tourists again. You may remember that SSF valiantly accompanied me on a trip last year down the Thames to see the Barrier, dosed up to the eyeballs with tablets to quell her queasiness on the water. This time though we were on dry land lurching along with the wind and the sun on our faces aboard an open-topped bus, taking a tour of our capital city.

All aboard! This is how we whizzed around London for the day …

You might think it odd that a pair of once hardened London commuters would want to voluntarily spend time on public transport – even I find it hard to believe – however, we found out that we’d both harboured a desire to take one of these tours one day, so we did. I maybe should add here that I first met SSF on a broken-down train at Waterloo Station some twenty-six years ago. You must understand that there is a golden rule amongst London bound workers: commuters never speak to one another unless there is a problem with the transport. That evening there was so we struck up a whinging conversation about British Rail and have been friends ever since.

There are several companies running tours – we chose The Original Tour only because they seemed to run a more extensive route around the City of London, and that was the bit that we particularly wanted to see. There are three colour-coded routes to choose from and once you’ve bought your 24 hour day pass (£29 – or slightly cheaper on-line), you are allowed to hop on and off the bus as often as you like and swap between the routes. The buses are frequent – around every ten minutes, so there’s no real hanging around if you do alight. There is a “live” guide on every bus – that is, a real person in a very smart uniform as opposed to a recorded commentary accessed through ear-phones – another reason to avoid other tours as far as I’m concerned: I can’t bear ear-phones.

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The London Eye, seen from Westminster Bridge

We picked up our first bus near Waterloo Station, in front of the London Eye, chose the yellow route and headed straight for the City. Now, my memories of the rumbling old Route Master buses I used in my commuting life was that they were full of folk desperate to get to their destination in as little time as possible and being frequently disappointed. We should have all joined a tour bus. Ours set off at a cracking pace which we were to discover would be the default speed of the day. We simply WHIZZED around London. I’ve never seen the streets so traffic-free. There’s something to be said for this Congestion Charge malarkey we all moan about.

Even with the quick pace of the bus, the yellow route would take us around two and a half hours to complete. The calibre of guides differed from bus to bus – they were all pretty knowledgeable given that they were probably working from a script and some were definitely more theatrical than others but we were impressed that they all regularly reminded us passengers that a walking tour would be starting from the next official stop (for instance – The Jack the Ripper Tour would be commencing at Tower Hill) or that to swap routes we’d need to change buses in two stops time. The linking up of all the different sight-seeing opportunities was very well organised.

We decided fairly early on that we’d stick to the one route and that any walking tours would be another excuse to spend the day in London.

Because of the bus’s velocity and bearing in mind that I was on the top deck swaying around, I was not able to snap away taking as many pictures as I’d hoped. Here are a few, taken either from the ground during a hop-off spot or when the bus slowed slightly to allow pedestrians to use a crossing.

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A fleeting glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral

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View of Tower Bridge with HMS Belfast in the foreground

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The Shard – London’s tallest building and Europe’s first ‘vertical city.’

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A coffee and hand-made chocolate shop in Borough Market near London Bridge. What’s not to like?

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The Tower of London with the Shard in the background. If I was being earnestly pretentious I might use the word juxtaposition somewhere in this caption.

As we left the City and headed for Westminster, we decided to hop off at Big Ben,  walk up Whitehall for some lunch and meet the bus again in Trafalgar Square.

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Well, you can’t go to London and not take a picture of this, can you?

I was interested to see the Monument to the Women of World War Two just north of the Cenotaph on Whitehall. Sculpted by John W Mills, it was unveiled in 2005 by Queen Elizabeth, two days after the 7/7 bombings.

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I wonder if those young ladies in the background realised the significance of what they were walking past …

Feeling replete after a couple of Panini’s (not each), we re-joined the bus and toured around the city of Westminster. This is familiar territory to me; nevertheless, it was fun to view it from on high. As we hit Piccadilly Circus SSF spied a celebrity being interviewed by a film crew. She’s good at that. See if you can spot who on earth she’s talking about. I was none the wiser.

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Spot the celeb in Piccadilly Circus. Answer at the bottom of the post. Clue: It’s not Bruno Mars or Prince Harry.

 We shot along Piccadilly, around Hyde Park Corner, up Park Lane and around Marble Arch, which we sailed around like Ben Ainslie sniffing a gold medal. Back in the day, this circumnavigation alone could take up to half an hour.

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Marble Arch – traffic used to crawl around here, nose to tail …

As we looped back past the Houses of Parliament, I couldn’t resist this final snap of a Henry Moore sculpture, ‘Knife Edge Two Piece’ on the lawn opposite the House of Commons and often used as a back drop for interviewing our politicians on the BBC news.

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Henry Moore’s Knife Edge Two Piece. Good grief – is that Cameron and Clegg in the background? How could we tell – they all look the same.

Our bus swiftly dropped us back at the London Eye and we called it a day, anxious to head for home before the main crush. Was it worth it? Yes, it was – and would have been more so if we had stayed for longer and joined the blue route which takes in all the Kensington Museums or the red route which goes to Regent’s Park.

Watch this space for a possible walking tour at some point – for now I’m content that I’ve crossed the bus tour off my list.

Celebrity Answer: Olly Murs

More Original Tour information here.

 

Last weekend we popped down to West Sussex to take a look at some outside art at the Cass Sculpture Foundation, part of the Goodwood Estate. The Foundation was established twenty years ago by Wilfred and Jeanette Cass. Their vision was to create a charity to support both emerging and recognised artists, allowing the public to engage with contemporary sculpture as well as providing a venue for displaying large-scale works. Originally established to promote British artists, the Foundation now includes work from across the globe.

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“Janus Head” by Peter Burke. I liked this because it made me think of Easter Egg hunts – it looks like moulded chocolate, although actually it’s bronze.

The twenty six acres of ground are enclosed by an impressive Sussex flint wall inside which the woodland has been left to its own devices; the floor is carpeted with coarse grass interspersed with nettles and the odd weedy flower struggling for light. The Foundation does not appear to employ much in the way of horticultural management. There’s allowing for natural planting and there’s leaving a place to go to seed…

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Stairway to Heaven? No, just “Stairway” by Danny Lane, made from glass and steel

From the park, there are far reaching views to Chichester and the south coast.

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“Peregrine” by Stephen Cox. This appealed because of the reflections bouncing off the polished Indian Granite.

The sculptures are placed randomly around a rough trail which you can follow on the map picked up at the visitor’s centre when you pay your £12 entry fee. I’m pleased to say that my Art Pass allowed me a fifty percent discount. Most of the sculptures are massive and one wonders who, other than large corporate bodies, would purchase such things. I can’t see any of them in your average domestic garden.

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“Passages and Circumstances” by John Isherwood, carved from Pennsylvanian Granite. This invites you to squeeze between the uprights to view from different angles.

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I loved this smoke and mirror illusory piece in stainless steel by Rob Ward. He calls it “Gate” which I think is suitably cryptic.

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Another one by Peter Burke, this is called “Host.” Conjured up creepy images of a Dr Who set.

Now, as you probably know, I am a fan of sculpture but I have to say, I found it difficult to pick out works here that were worth a photograph. Some of them were hideous (in my view) so I didn’t bother. Some of them were untitled, so I didn’t bother. Why do artists do that? Leave something untitled? It bugs me. Giving something a heading or a title gives it credibility. Thinking up inventive headlines is part of the creative process. If artists can’t express what or how they were inspired by giving the viewing public some sort of clue then I’ll be darned if I’m going to give the work to which they’ve doubtlessly slaved over for months a second thought. Even the wonderful Henry Moore is guilty of this but in his case I can probably forgive. There’s always an exception.

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This collection of copper tents was my favourite of the day. By Diana Maclean it is called “Encampment.” I might’ve been tempted to name it ‘Tepee or not Tepee’ or ‘Reservation’ – plenty of connotations to that one – but at least she titled her work.

At the risk of being showered by the particular bugbear of this post, do you know one of the things that really riles me? Profanities. Written ones. I don’t see the point: they really irk me. There I am, reading an interesting article when suddenly, out of nowhere and for no tangible reason, the writer shoves in a quick Anglo-Saxon style curse. What for? Effect? To display some sort of weird street cred? Sorry but that’s where I either lose faith in the writer’s point of view or stop reading altogether.

As when locked into a heated discussion it is pretty indicative as to who will eventually come out on top when one side resorts to using swear words loudly – the first sign of this in my adversary and I know I’m on to a winner. Not, you must understand that I partake in arguing often. Or loudly.

(But there again, some might disagree).

The only acceptable place for a written obscenity is the dialogue within a play or a novel. If the imagined character would behave and speak in that way, then fine. Ron Weasley obviously wouldn’t, Mellors jolly well just might.

Writers have time to consider every word – even if writing under pressure to a tight deadline. The effectiveness of each word matters. There should be the time to come up with a word or a few words to better describe feelings of outrage/disappointment/astonishment than by resorting to the language of the gutter. Writing is a craft, it’s not just a string of words cobbled together – or it shouldn’t be – and by peppering an editorial with expletives simply, in my humble opinion, devalues it.

Social media is in part to blame. With instant messaging, people think they are ‘talking’ to each other so swearing comes naturally even if, more than likely, it’s spelled incorrectly. This of course then creeps into an otherwise worthy piece of writing – it’s a sloppy habit that is spreading through the media like an Australian bush fire.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not actually offended by the language. I’m as guilty as the next person in that I use it verbally and have been party to some pretty choice phrases while watching the beautiful game – usually directed inexplicably toward the referee. I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t heard. I just don’t want to see it written down, thanks very much.

Here is my list of top ten situations where swearing in my book is totally acceptable:

  1. Pain – Hitting your hand hard with a hammer or similar during a DIY job
  2. Frustration – when said DIY job turns out to be more complex than first thought
  3. Impatience – when realising that someone else had used the last of the toilet roll
  4. Anger – someone running into the back of your car at traffic lights
  5. Amazement at random achievement – a hole in one, for instance
  6. Disbelief at random achievement – a hole in one, for instance
  7. Annoyance – as in when the gas fitter fails to turn up for a pre-scheduled appointment
  8. Outrage – when you realise that the meagre pay increase bestowed makes not one bit of difference to the final box on your pay slip
  9. Exasperation – when you check in at the airport on time to find that your flight has been delayed three hours.
  10. Panic – when you realise that your passport will be out of date before your next return journey home. Especially in light of the current situation at the UK Passport Office – but that, fortunately, does not apply to me. (Smug).

 Feel free to add reasons of your own for a diatribe of expletive-ridden invective …

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Today is 6th June, the 70th anniversary of D-Day – one of the most significant dates which would change the course of World War Two. On this day the Battle for Normandy began. The American Airborne Division parachuted in ahead of  thousands of British, Canadian and American troops who arrived on the five landing beaches, many of whom made it no further. Thousands died on that first day alone, in a bloody battle which was to rage all summer.

With Son away this week in Normandy taking part in the commemorations and celebrations which occur every year to mark this event, I grabbed my chance and re-introduced a duster to his room. As he is generally responsible for the state of his chamber I very rarely venture in. It’s amazing how dense dust can get within a year. Was it Quentin Crisp who said: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”  I can see what he meant.

Anyway, as I was polishing along a bookshelf I came across a tiny sticker with the words:

“Enjoying your freedom? Thank a veteran.”

I was reminded of our extraordinary encounter last year with Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, a contact and friend of our son – an American Airborne veteran who stayed overnight with us while retracing his wartime steps through Europe. Son had taken him back to the English village where he had been billeted in 1943, to Stonehenge and to Bourne Woods in Surrey where “Band of Brothers” had been filmed before escorting him across the Channel to Normandy. Jim, age 92, astounded everyone by running some distance up hill, re-creating his tough training program in America before being shipped to England in 1943.

Some of you will remember that I posted a short film of his run last year. Here it is again, slightly longer to incorporate a second run he did when he got back to the States later that year: he ran up the original Currahee mountain in Toccoa, Georgia. It’s worth a second look. Make sure you have your sound turned up.

Son will meet up with Jim again in Normandy, over in Europe again to pick up an award. Thank a Veteran? Most definitely. Thanks to Jim and all those other young men who fought to give us all our freedom. May we never forget.

If you’d like to read more about Jim’s war, you can do so here, on my original post.

 

 

 

We’ve just spent the half term break staying in Tremezzo on the shores of Lake Como, northern Italy and I’m struggling to find words to describe it. The scenery is breath-taking, awesome, overwhelming. In fact it is so beautiful and so perfect that by about the third day we were becoming desperate for a graffiti’ed industrial estate, preferably with some razor wire, to even things up a bit.

The view from our window

The view from our window

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Night falls on Tremezzo

You get the peculiar feeling that you’ve stumbled upon a very luxurious Hollywood film set (or at the very least the set of the 1960’s cult show, The Prisoner). The buildings, although old, are well cared for and painted in hues of soft ochre and terracotta (none of the crumbling shabby-chic that is so de rigueur in Venice); the mountains are snow-capped and tumble down to the lakeside in a riot of greenery while the small towns which fan out along the water’s edge are awash with pots and tubs of flowers – not a weed to be seen. There is no litter, no dog mess, the people are friendly and the food is fantastic.

Restaurants, cafes and bars abound. Stopping for a drink elicits bowls of olives, nuts and crisps. A cup of coffee usually comes with a tiny biscuit. Lunch can be a snack or a full-blown Italian meal – whatever you have or however long you linger, you’ll be welcomed.

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Nuova cucina?

So what is there to do? Getting around is easy – just buy a day pass for the ferry and you can chug all around the lake, getting on and off as many times as you like, lurching from coffee in one place to lunch in another and then a drink or gelato somewhere else later on. Eating and drinking therefore plays a large part in what there is to do.

There’s walking, of course. With nice flat terrain along the lakeside it’s easy to follow the ‘greenway’ path, winding along for several kilometres on the picturesque west side. You can chart your progress with the map of the route, helpfully displayed at strategic intervals along the way.

Visit Bellagio, an attractive little town containing a plethora of shopping opportunities along its steep alleyways which then unexpectedly open out onto hidden piazzas with shady umbrellas.

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Bellagio from the ferry

Even though the place is full of tourists from early in the morning till late at night, the place retains a stylish charm. For somewhere equally as scenic but less commercial head to Varenna with its medieval heart and tiny church, currently in the process of renovating its recently discovered 12th century wall paintings.

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Uncovering and restoring 12th century wall paintings in St Giorgio

 But it is the villas with their Italianate gardens for which the area is famous. There are hundreds of them, dotted all around the lakeside and in the hills beyond. Many of them are no longer private residences – some have been turned into hotels and some have been bequeathed to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, Italy’s equivalent to our National Trust. We managed to visit three of them during our stay.

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Acers and goldfish pond at Villa Melzi

The first, Villa Melzi, stands a little outside Bellagio and has a stunning garden created on a hillside featuring Acers amongst ponds in a Japanese style garden, stepped grasses and a waterside walk under immaculately pollarded Plane trees. The villa is closed to the public but you can see the Orangery and the Chapel (at a supplement) or just wander around the grounds, between rhododendrons and azaleas and the odd statue or two.

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View across Como from Villa Melzi

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Pollarded Plane tree pathway

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Villa Melzi

 

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Villa Carlotta

 

 

 

Across the lake from Villa Melzi, stands Villa Carlotta, named as such because in 1843, the villa was acquired by Princess Marianna of the Netherlands to give as a wedding present to her daughter, Carlotta. This garden is less formal, with winding uphill pathways taking you through a forest of lush green plants, cacti beds and bamboo with waterfalls and fountains as well as seasonal displays of flowering herbaceous plants.

 

 

 

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Lush greenery in the gardens of Villa Carlotta

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The tropical garden at Villa Carlotta – a steep walk up a waterfall

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The rockery garden – a riot of planting

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Looking from Villa Carlotta across to Villa Melzi in the distance

On our way back to Milan airport we stopped off at Villa del Balbianello, strangely familiar because this most wonderful of settings was used in the James Bond movie, Casino Royale, when our hero was doing a bit of convalescing. And where better to pick up some strength for his next mission?

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The shaded garden of Villa del Balbianello

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From the terrace looking north towards Bellagio

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A peaceful spot for 007 to convalesce…

Near the small town of Lenno, the villa stands on a wooded headland with far reaching views up and down the lake. Take a walk from the town, up a very steep gradient, through woodland with glimpses of sparkling water below until you arrive in front of a set of very impressive gates feeling hot and sweaty. From here it’s a relief to find out that it’s downhill all the way and that a private boat will whisk you back to Lenno’s jetty at your visit’s end.

We had planned to take a cable car ride from the little town of Argegno to some ‘stunning bird’s eye views’ of Lake Como. Alas, when we arrived, it was shut for lunch and we had a plane to catch. There was nothing else for it – we just had to have another meal (minestrone soup – yum) sitting next to the lake before queuing up with all the other orange ‘Speedy Boarders’ at Malpensa airport. Lake Como was already a world away.

 

 

 

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