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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Lugano, Switzerland

One of my many favourite places!

Como is just up near the Italian Swiss border and right across that border in Switzerland is one of my favourite places, Lugano. I was taken there as a child by my relatives in Milan and loved it. I think it helped that it was during the summer, so the lake was gorgeous, the mountains were high and green and the town itself was typical Switzerland, clean, organized and tidy. Even as a child I liked places where there was organisation, I wasn’t overly fond of Italy! My love affair with Switzerland began there.

Lugano is an easy trip to make from Como, taking a regional train (cheaper it just makes more frequent stops) it takes about 40 minutes from the Como San Giovanni station. So off I went for the afternoon.

Be warned the Lugano train station is on the side of the mountain above the town, so it’s a steep walk down to the centre and the lake. Currently they are rebuilding the train station so it looks like a building site! Once down to the lakeside it’s fairly level so easy to walk around.

Part of the pedestrian walkway down to the lake.

Lake Lugano is lovely, and for me this visit quite peaceful. Two years ago when I visited, it just happened to be when a Harley Davidson meeting/convention was on. The peaceful lake was constantly being disturbed by the roar of Harley Davidson motorbikes!!! There was a constant “Rrrrrrrmmmmm” as they circled the lake, ruined the whole lake ambiance!

July 2013 Harley Davidson Convention!

This time it was lovely and peaceful, not very crowded as it wasn’t the weekend, had a late lunch in one of the squares, the one closest to the lake was set up for an outdoor concert and soundchecks were going on, so not so quiet! And then climbed back up the hill to catch the train back to Como.

The southern part of Switzerland where Lugano is situated is in the Italian speaking part. It’s the smallest of the language regions of Switzerland, and that’s the language that is in everyday use. It’s interesting how you can go to different parts of Switzerland and the language changes, from Italian to French to German.

It was a really nice way to spend an afternoon, a short train journey, a different country, more stunning scenery and then return to Como.

Over the rooftops, view from the train station.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Milano Centrale, Italy

Ode to a railway station

Milano Centrale

I love the Milano Centrale railway station, I always have. I’ve seen it grimy and scary with drug addicts hanging on the stairs, almost had my bag pickpocketed in the piazza infront of the station (unsuccessfully, a young trainee it seemed, he had an older man behind him probably training him!  I sensed the boy (12 to 13 year old) and turned to see him stretching out his hand. I responded by yelling at him, my aunt laughed and asked in what language when I told her what had happened. In English I replied, I don’t have the same turn of phrase and vocabulary in Italian!) Even today I saw that that grassed edges of the piazza (the central part has been cleaned up and repaved) has groups of African immigrants just sitting around, a stark reminder of the crisis Italy is facing with the waves of immigrants making their way in boats across the Mediterranean to Europe. It’s a major humanitarian crisis as the numbers are overwhelming Italy. To me it appeared that there were quite a large number there the days I was going in and out of the station. Not doing anything, just sitting.

I love the station for its over the top architecture, reflective of the era when it was built. Mussolini actively encouraged this architectural grandeur and the station was opened in 1931, seeing it now it’s very much a statement of ‘look how great we are’. It’s wonderful in its awfulness.

View from the piazza which has been repaved and cleaned up.

A few years ago, I was in Milan and saw that the station was undergoing a major refurbishment, the inside at least all the stonework was cleaned. It went from being black and grimy to white and gleaming. The outside though hasn’t been cleaned. With the station having such high ceilings, new floors were inserted, these now have a variety of shops.

The stairs used to go right across, it was a great sweeping staircase up to the platform level. With the refurbishment, the stairs were cut into and a walkway to the mezzanine floors put in. The left of the photo with the larger steps is where the drug addicts would hang out, away from the cold.

The large central entrance, the stonework has the signs of the zodiac.

Going out into the piazza

I actually flew into Milan, but caught the airport shuttle that drops people into central Milan at the side of the station. I went through and took some photos of this monument to self-aggrandizement.

Mussolini very much encouraged looking back to the Roman era, trying to make parallels with wanting modern era greatness as well. So there are Roman images throughout the station.

Another image of power and strength, there are stone eagles all around the station.

Leaving by train from the station has changed as well, the platforms used to be open and anyone could go out onto them. Now at each opening glass doors have been fitted, the electronic board tells you what gate to enter by for the train you want to catch and then you’re checked to see that you have a valid ticket. No more waiting on the platform to greet a person coming off the train! There’s also an increased police and military presence in the station as well I noticed, there are quite a few uniformed people around, considering the station is huge and the number of travellers that use the station, it feels quite safe wandering around.

The Mezzanine levels, there are now 3 floors where once there was 2. The new floors have low ceilings and are linked by escalators.

Before entering the actual station, you come through this enclosed area, taxis used to pull up here (now they arrive at the right side of the station) This whole area, plus the piazza in front are a pedestrian only area.

Having family members that moved to Milan years ago, and the fact that Milan is a transport hub, I’ve been travelled through countless times. (Literally countless times I have no idea how many!) In the past few years the changes in the station haven’t just been cosmetic, it used to have somewhat of a dowdy, seen better days, a bit seedy feel to it. Not anymore, it’s still as busy probably more so, now it’s become somewhat trendier!

I think these are the names of the architects.Their names forever associated with their wondrous creation!

Right side of the station, the stonework outside hasn't been cleaned, no idea why not.

Milano Centrale is a major transport hub, it has a huge amount of traffic moving from its platforms. But the station itself is worth seeing just for its grandeur. (Eclectic content on this blog, dear Reader, we go from the beauty of Lake Como to the monument a dictator built to self-aggrandisement!) 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Varenna,Lake Como Italy

When Plan A doesn't work out, there's always Plans B, C and D!

One of the problems with booking things like accommodation fairly late is that many places are booked out! That’s what I struck with wanting to stay at Lake Como, I had no problem securing accommodation at Il Vicolo for the Thursday and Friday, but Saturday and Sunday there was nothing. So Plan B, I would stay in Milan and have a day trip to Lake Como.

That’s how I found myself surrounded by the mass of humanity that is the travelling public on a Sunday morning in mid July at the Milano Centrale train station. My original plan was to catch the 10.20am train to Varenna, spend the day there and then catch the ferry back to Como and the train to Milan from there.

Weeeeellll, best laid plans and all that, here’s what actually happened.

Had leisurely breakfast at hotel just next to Milano Centrale, had already checked internet for train times, so knew there was a train at 10.20am meandered to train station at 10am planning on buying a ticket with plenty of time to spare. I can just look back now and smile wryly at my naivety. It was a Sunday! It was summer! Milano Centrale was heaving with people. Everywhere was packed with people, the ticket office, the automatic ticket machines. Still with time to catch a train I managed to fight my way (well more like firmly stand my ground!) to get to a ticket machine that was working. Then it wouldn’t accept my credit card!! Grr, after some messing around it was too late to catch 10.20am train. For some reason there was no 11.20 train, next one was at 12.20pm. Ok still doable, managed to buy ticket, (a different machine liked my credit card!)

Arrived at Varenna-Esino station, pleasant train ride on different side of Lake Como, the Lecco branch. Walking down from train station to ferry dock to buy ferry ticket had a quick change of plan, thought it would be nice just to spend day at Varenna and then catch late afternoon train back.

These were the third set of stairs I passed I didn't take any photos at the others as they were full of people sitting down and having an ice-cream!

Varenna was lovely, have been there before, busier (and larger) than Menaggio was the day before, but nowhere near as many people as Bellagio.

A local produce market in the piazza in front of the church.

It was quite a hot day but walking this part of the path, between 2 very thick old walls, the temperature dropped noticeably.

 Found lakeside restaurant again, had the most gigantic salad for lunch, appreciated Italian way of having oil and balsamic vinegar on the table for you to add dressing to your taste. In mine, lots of balsamic!
View from lunch spot.

Trudged back up the hill to train station late in afternoon, once at train station couldn’t find anywhere to buy ticket. (Hadn’t bought a return ticket because originally planned to leave by ferry) There’s no automated ticket machine at Varenna-Esino, the tourist office shut at 4pm on a Sunday. Only place open was the bar, I asked there and was told I could buy a ticket on the train. Well OK then.

Boarded train, conductor came around. I said I didn’t have a ticket and wanted to buy one. Important information to insert here was that I speak Italian quite well, so this conversation was in Italian, I don’t speak English at all when in Italy. The conductor then proceeded to tell me that I would get fined! “But, but…” He asked if I were Italian as he pointed out there were large fines for Italians who rode trains without a valid ticket, and I said “No an Australian who could speak Italian.” In the end he was quite nice, I bought the ticket and he complimented me on being able to speak Italian well! I was still miffed though, I had asked and was told that I could buy ticket on the train! The irony was that for 3 days I had been catching an assortment of trains around Lake Como and not once had a conductor come to check that I had a ticket. The one occasion I didn’t have one, a conductor appears!

So lessons learnt:

Varenna-Esino station doesn’t have anywhere to buy tickets after 4pm on a Sunday.

Milano Centrale station is  swarming with people on a Sunday in summer! Dream on if you think you can get anything done in less than an hour. (There was even a huge line for the Left Baggage!)

Don’t try and buy train tickets on a Sunday.

As well, we live and learn!

Why a picture of cobblestones? You may well ask, practical me after having wheeled suitcase over an assortment of cobblestones in various places, thought "Hmmm nope, you wouldn't want to try and wheel a suitcase over these!"

More scenery

There's a nice boardwalk type pathway from the ferry dock along the water.

An iconic spot for a photo, there was a queue of people waiting (well a short queue!) to take a photo from the path through this stone archway. Naturally I took one too!

Friday, 17 July 2015

Il Vicolo, Como Italy

Il Vicolo are a series of apartments in this building. Discrete sign on the wall. The studio apartment is at the balcony level.

The different apartments have a theme colour, the studio apartment's was red.

Good Value for money when you consider it’s an apartment in the centre of Como. Happy with what I paid.

Narrow pedestrian street leading to Duomo where Il Vicolo is located.

Terrific location, right next to the Duomo (Como Cathedral), around the corner from a supermarket, 5 minutes from the lake and the ticket office for the ferries. It was a 10 to 20 minutes (depending on with luggage or without!) from the Como San Giovanni train station, and 2 minutes from the Como Nord station. From Como it’s also possible to take an airport bus to Malpensa airport, check the timetable as the buses aren’t that frequent. (From memory as didn’t take one this time.)

I stayed in what was listed as a ‘studio’ it had a full kitchen (side note here with a kettle! Not a standard feature in Italian holiday apartments, or Italian kitchens for that matter, it wasn’t an electric kettle but one on the stove. No microwave though, again as they’re not standard in Italian kitchens.) There were snacks and drinks provided, 2 bottles of orange juice, 2 of water and on the table were a variety of biscuits. (cookies, biscotti)
Kitchen, note kettle on stove!

Had ironing board, iron, TV with satellite channels (had never seen Armenian TV before, or Iranian for that matter!) 800 channels it was too much, couldn’t cope so watched very little! As it was a ‘studio’ the bed was a pull out one from the couch. Comfortable none the less. Free wifi with a good connection. And it had air-conditioning.
Lounge area

Now it's a bedroom!

As it was an apartment, you were left to your own devices as far as cleaning was concerned, although they did come to empty the bins each day.
Very helpful manager who explained how everything worked and also left a folder of tourist information, recommendations on things to do, restaurants, etc in the local area.
It’s not a hotel so you needed to have rung the manager the day before your arrival, or on the day as I did since I didn’t read the instructions until late the night before! He meets you outside at the street entrance to take you inside.
Despite it being an old building, it had an elevator! (Can be rare!)

Large bathroom
I thought this was a nice touch, out in the hallway umbrella stand was an umbrella. A red one to match the decor!

Optional Extras
Old historic building, since I had the studio apartment it came with a small balcony which was nice. The 2 bedroom apartment on the top floor comes with a small rooftop terrace.

Out on the balcony

Loved this apartment and already planning on staying there again!