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2014 Grateful 46

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.

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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.

IMG_9964 (800x583)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.

IMG_9977 (800x598)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.

IMG_0113 (800x600)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.

Interior of the Duomo

Interior of the Duomo

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?

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An imposing failure

The linguistically challenged person that I am, I have a mono linguist’s habit of reading everything in English, regardless of the language it is actually written in. Fine is always simply fine and never finished. Worst will always be badder than bad and never a sausage. Die will always be an invocation to pass on and never simply ‘that one’. And as for bra? It may be good in Swedish and Norwegian, but I have days when I hate it.

I see a word in a foreign language that reminds me of something and that’s it. It’s etched in my brain…permanently. The Hungarian word for certificate or award – oklevél – will always have me wondering why anyone would want to show the world their bare essentials – their okay level certificate. How embarrassing. So, when in Milan, and passing one of the hundreds of signs around the city that tell passengers that the tram they’re on will pass the d’uomo, I immediately thought ‘dome’.

What’s worse – I managed to convince myself than when I’d been in the city a number of years ago on my way to the Alps (a magical trip where time literally stood still – but that’s another story) and had taken the time to visit this must-see , it had indeed been a massive dome-shaped building. No question of it. Not a doubt in my mind.

I’d been there. I’d seen it. And if we happened to pass by it again, great. But I wasn’t going out of my way to find it. I had more interesting things to do. But as fate would have it, stumble across it we did. Imagine my surprise… not a dome in sight.

IMG_0247 (800x600)Milan Cathedral is gobsmackingly big. I can well believe that it took six centuries to complete and is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Building began in 1386 and the last gate was inaugurated in 1965. So, technically, we’re nearly the same age but that was one helluva gestation.

IMG_0250 (800x600)Having taken so long to build, it’s understandable that the numerous architects involved would have drawn from many different schools (ask me and the best I could come up with is Gothic). Curious, I checked it out and found this quote by John Ruskin who reckoned it steals from every style in the world: and every style spoiled. The cathedral is a mixture of Perpendicular with Flamboyant, the latter being peculiarly barbarous and angular, owing to its being engrafted, not on a pure, but a very early penetrative Gothic … The rest of the architecture among which this curious Flamboyant is set is a Perpendicular with horizontal bars across: and with the most detestable crocketing, utterly vile. Not a ray of invention in a single form… Finally the statues all over are of the worst possible common stonemasons’ yard species, and look pinned on for show. The only redeeming character about the whole being the frequent use of the sharp gable … which gives lightness, and the crowding of the spiry pinnacles into the sky.

IMG_0251 (597x800)Be that as it may, John (and we’re all entitled to our opinion), you have to admit that it’s awesome – in the truest sense of the world.  Apparently Oscar Wilde, when visiting the city in 1875,  wrote home to his mother saying: The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution.

While I’m quite fond of Mr Wilde as a rule, I can’t agree. Yes, I prefer plain crystal to that that’s heavily embellished. I like simple patterns, minimal clutter, clean lines and were this, say, a wedding cake, I’d refuse a slice even if I was starving. But as an edifice that literally dwarfs everything around it, it’s … amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever stood in the shadow of somewhere that made ants of us all.

IMG_0257 (800x600)I didn’t go in. Sure hadn’t I see it before 🙂 But if you’re in Milan and have an hour or two to spare, it’s worth dropping in. Entry is free. A lift to the view tower will set you back €12 or, if you fancy the walk, €7. Plenty of priests on hand to give last rites should they be required. It’s all coming back to me know…  the last time I DID WALK UP TO THE TOP… honestly!