I’ve been quite open about my Balkan love affair. I’ve made no secret of the fact that three of the most gorgeous men I know all happen to be Serbian. Not necessarily gorgeous gorgeous in the Clooney sense of the word, but lovely lads – gems, all of them. There’s a fourth I could add to my list but I’m loath to do it as he’s fictional – created by the pen of Srđan Valjarević. Yet I suspect (and hope) that he might be somewhat autobiographical as both the character and the author spent time by in Bellagio by Lake Como on a Rockefeller fellowship. The book my hero narrates is titled Lake Como and has been translated from the Serbian Komo. It’s up there on my list of all-time favourites so when in Milan recently and offered the chance to visit the real Lake Como, I didn’t need to be asked twice.
Just 50 miles north of Milan, Lake Como, Europe’s deepest lake, came into being as the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated and melted. It’s featured in movies like Casino Royale, Star Wars, Oceans Twelve, A Monthly by the Lake, What a Beautiful Day, and The Shadow of Suspicion. It’s so popular as a location that you can do a Hollywood-style tour of the villas that have been captured on celluloid. Once I realised that George wasn’t home, I lost interest.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen towns ‘nestling’ before.. or even registered the fact that I’ve never had the opportunity to use that word till now. But nestle they do… in the shadows of the Alps, all around the lake’s peculiar y-shaped perimeter (think inverted wishbone) that runs for about 170km. Multicoloured houses pitched almost on top of each other come right out to the edge of the water. Sailing across the lake, they look like miniature villages, toy towns reminiscent of the pastelled vision that is Burano, one of the Venetian islands.
Schoolkids flock to the lake in droves, guided by geography teachers eager to show them where European and African continental plates collide. Apparently the great plates meet in the Alps and the peculiar geographic formation is something to behold – if you’re interested in that sort of thing. The town of Como was home to Alessandro Volta (no prizes for guessing what he’s famous for). This man, born on 18 February back in 1745, who didn’t speak until he was nearly four, was all but written off as ‘slow’. Yet he turned out to be a genius. Something to think of next time you change a battery. With its medieval walls and imposing churches, Como is a jewel of a town. We were only there for a few hours but it was enough for me to know that I’ll be back. There’s so much I didn’t get to see or do.
Whether it’s the relative empty marbled expanse of the Basilica di San Fedele which dates back to the 11oos or the plus interior of the Cathedral (Duomo) itself, there’s a church to suit every taste. The skyline is dotted with steeples and spires and numerous church bells provide an unforgettable soundtrack to a movie that plays year-round. Como is the epitome of quaint, with its narrow streets and piazzas, its fur-coated gentlewomen and its designer-clad youth. People watching rarely gets this good, particularly when the sun is shining and the coffee is hot.
I had to be dragged away. Had there been a Como equivalent to Rome’s Trevi Fountain, I’d have tossed a piggybank of coins to make sure I return. And next time, I’ll be better prepared. Maybe if I start saving now, I might be able to afford a room – with a view – in the Palace Hotel.
This week, as I search in vain for my copy of Lake Como (did you borrow it?), I’m grateful for the random happenings in my life that simmer, half-forgotten and then come to the boil as if that had been the intention all along. A job in London back in 2003 started a lasting friendship with my Milanese mate. An invite to spend Easter in Subotica in 2010 got me hooked on Srđan Valjarević. Both of them together took me to Lake Como in 2014. Who needs plans eh?