It was a two hour drive from our hotel in Saronno to Bellagio on Lake Como. At our first sighting of water, there was an audible gasp from the bus group. A flood of older ladies with book-sized phones and tablets stood up en masse tottering from side to side, desperately trying to take photos through the glare of dirty windows. “Ladies, ladies,” our guide called out. “Seats please. Or at least not all of you at once, lest we tilt the bus on the curve!” he half-joked over a series of loud ker-cherks from camera phones.
The road tapered in the small Lombardy towns to the extent that the distance between the walls and the bus was less than a foot. We bottlenecked through with everyone else, marveling at overflowing window boxes, multi-million dollar homes, and old Europe (or mock old Europe) details. Such was the price of land along the water that some homes were carved into the sloping land, hobbit-homed into the earth with switch-backed driveways: garage on top, living on the bottom.
We pulled into the city center and were shocked that even in September, the town was awash with color. Bursts of hyacinths bloomed next to trees pruned back into puffy orbs. Their gnarled trunks warped and twisted into little clubs with long whippy branches. Begonias and other cheery blooms glowed from little boxes along the water which glittered under the high sun like all the pocket change jingling in locals’ pockets.
We boarded a little boat and made our way to the back deck. The wind breezed through the haze on the water as we chugged off.
We passed the filming location for James Bond and Star Wars (the unfortunate one) Villa de Balbianello. People moved about the gardens like little ants. Alas, we had no time to stop (such is the travesty of tours).
Back at the dock, we disembarked via the surprisingly soft yet bronzed hands of the deck hands. Most of the women tittered and giggled at being called Signora (or even better if Signorina) as they helped them along, casualties of the Diane Lane School of Italian Adventures. On the coast line we were promised a Make Way for Ducklings style “orientation” of the city.
“Can we not?” my mom asked conspiratorially. Even though she was fairly close in age to most of our group, she had made it clear on the boat that she was not one of those old people. She was still hip and cool. And, even as hard as it is to admit your mom is hip and cool, I had to concede she was, at the very least, hipper and cooler than, you know, any of these people.
So we did what any normal adults would do: we waited for the whole group to begin their trudge and sped off the other direction as soon as they weren’t looking.
Our first stop was a little shop for underthings. Each piece was handmade of Italian silk and lace, loose and breezy and extremely expensive. Naturally our favorites were in the $300+ range though a beautiful piece tempted for considerably less. But I don’t wear a lot of white and that seemed to be the predominant Bellagio bedthings color. So, again, when the clerk wasn’t looking, we ducked out the door and made our way through little shops crammed with knickknacks and costume jewelry, alleyways, and steep stairwells.
Following a meandering hill path, we passed the Basilica of San Giacomo, a candy shop, row after row of cafes, and the little Gelateria del Borgo. With Dark Chocolate and cherry ripple in hand, we traipsed from end to end of the peninsula before coming across Quelli della Pelle. The owner was hammering away at her bench next to her viszla puppy, Rusty, as we perused beautifully supple belts, bags, and shoes. I chose a deep mahogany belt and silver buckle while my mom picked out a strappy leather bracelet- each punched out and crafted before us.
In a side alley shop, she bought a hand stitched floral headband for my four year old cousin and a miniature watercolor in another. While numerous shops boasted kitschy Italianesque imports, we found it surprisingly easy to find handmade items within a reasonable price range (think under $50 unless spectacularly special).
Our gifts for the day sorted, we made our way to Hotel Florence‘s little restaurant along the lake. Tables clustered beneath fluffy hyacinths molded into trees. A breeze rustled the leaves, letting the scent of the few remaining blooms filter down. I tried to imagine how even more absurdly beautiful it would be in full bloom. We ordered white wine and risotto- lake fish with saffron broth, rich and golden with flakes of fish on top- and finished with an airy tiramisu. The lone waiter braved the busy intersection to take on two flights of stairs to deliver our meals. Due to mistranslation, our request for two spoons, one desert resulted in one spoon and two deserts. Just as we were about to tell him to just leave the two (nevermind each was the size of my face- they looked wonderful), another couple offered to take it off his hands rather than make him face the kitchen journey again.
I inquired as best I could about the linens, of all things. But they were beautiful and wonderously soft in their shimmery pink and cream check. “We just rent them from a company. They deliver them twice a week from the laundry,” he said with a shrug. But I was determined to find linens. Each trip has its souvenir goal- a goal typically not realized until the trip has started. This trip would be linens.
And mudlarked treasures, as it turns out. Back at the dock, our bus was running late. I sat at an access point to the shoreline which was sparse and rocky. Tethered to the stone walls were a few little rowboats and littered among the stones were fragments of pottery and flooring. I plucked a few treasures from the sand and rock, eyeing a quarter of a plate a good foot into the cold water. “You’ll never know unless you go in there and get it. What if something spectacular is on the other side?” one side argued. “It’s probably just a white plate and then you’ll be wet the whole ride home. You can live without it,” said the other.
In the midst of this internal argument, I heard Chris Kimball’s doppelganger call out, “Whatcha doin’ down thar! Putting rocks in your pocket so ya don’t float away?” A small collection of the tour group craned their necks over the walls to gawk at me as I stooped and plucked discarded items. My mom scuttled down to join me, finding treasures of her own. We stopped to compare tumbled glass, bits of ceramic, and other odds and ends. Suddenly public derision turned to curiosity and our tiny 10×10’ patch of land was swarmed with busmates eager to get a little piece of Bellagio history for the ride home.
Back in Saronno, we finished up some shopping (I stocked up on Italian silk lingerie in a little shop. “What are you doing here?” the sales girl asked me, handing me mis-sized bra after mis-sized bra through the practically open curtain. “What do you mean the lace shows through the top? This is not bad thing.”) and compared little pebbles and other ephemera over Four Seasons pizza at Pizzeria La Perla (a local’s recommendation). A few hours later, we had finished an excelled carafe of four dollar house wine and tottered back to our hotel for a blissful buzz-induced sleep. We would need it. Tomorrow we were off to Lugano and I was ready for more cobblestones, crisp water, and all the risotto I could find.