Glimpse of an Italian lake

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

I have an ongoing crisis of confidence whenever I have to be in sole charge of choosing where to go on holiday. This doesn’t happen too often, as we hardly get the chance, (moan), but eight precious days at the end of September had been tortuously squeezed out, like the last bit of toothpaste in the tube and I had to make the most of it, while John, as usual, seemed disinterested in the whole prospect. I used to feel upset about this but looking at his family habits, going on holiday is not top of their list of things to do, so I’ve put it down to genes. He does usually enjoy himself after a two day acclimatisation process – input from his camera and computer are an important part of this…

On the other hand, I love taking trips. Sometimes I just want to play safe and go somewhere we’ve been before. I have actually done this in the past but it has been in summer and then winter, second time round. This was in Wengen, near Lakes Thun and Brienz, the region of Switzerland known as the Bernese Oberland, which is famous for mountains such as the Eiger, the Mônch, and the Jungfrau. Wengen is a car free village half way up a mountain and very special in many ways (see another article I have written for further info.).

But it was now late September. Although I am always seduced by mountains and lakes, we were so paper thin and exhausted that we really did need the southern warmth of the sun to slowly soothe, warm up and relax our bodies and transfuse us with that intangible glow of energy. This promotes a specific ‘look’, which I remember on the faces of my schoolmates being back for the first day of school after the summer vacation. You usually only notice this ‘look’ after you get home from holiday and it doesn’t last for long. But when you have it, you look a million dollars.

For ‘luxe, calme et volupté’, I ended up choosing the Hotel Orselina, on Lake Maggiore – in the Ticino/Italian part of Switzerland. It was with a mixture of excited anticipation and dread that I opened the envelope containing the tickets. John, meanwhile, packed his case, not knowing where Locarno was. I was happy not to discuss it, in case it proved to be a disappointment.

Poster for Locarno

Poster for Locarno

We set off from home by taxi to Heathrow at 6.30 am. Mortlake Cars is now the favoured local service, John having had a set-to with an East European driver from another company, who went through a red light and acted as if he was in a dodgem car. John was right but as fisticuffs almost ensued I didn’t want to run the risk of getting the same guy. The taxi driver that came spoke very little English but all went well – and he got a good tip! Since then, we have been happy with this car company.

Heathrow was quite quiet but the plane was delayed by an hour. However, we got to Zürich in plenty of time to get the train and buy a sandwich. As we flew down to the airport the clouds looked just like extravagant scoops of vanilla ice cream. They were lit up from behind by the sun, which gave them a three dimensional, solid status, slightly golden at the clumped edges, suggesting clotted cream. I took a photo but don’t expect it will come out. John described the clouds to me in almost the same words I’d used, writing in my book… we do think alike sometimes – more not than often – but diversity is the spice of life…

Continental trains are quite massive and usually long, with signs on the platform to point out where your coach will stop. Some of the trains are ‘double decker’. The station at Zürich airport is just down one escalator. I had bought first class tickets, so we had lots of space.

Our destination was Bellinzona, via the St. Gotthard pass. Swiss rail is very smooth and the views were scenic, via Brunnen, Lake Lucerne and the Zugersee. A fine rain was falling, which made everything look green and misty and magical around the wooded borders of the lakes.

As we climbed slowly up the pass, there were a lot of cement works and gravel heaps on either side, with temporary buildings which made the villages look ugly and despoiled. These huts were low lying – rectangles with mean, small square eyes. However, I seemed to be the only person looking at the landscape. The trains all have plugs for computers and people were tapping away industriously with their brown paper bags full of lunch beside them. Comfort stations de luxe. If you are stressed, you can blow out and then breathe into a paper bag…..after a few times, you begin to feel relaxed. This is a tip I got from Dr. Thomas Stuttaford in ‘The Times’. I tend to keep a paper bag in my pocket now.

As we came over the top of the pass and left the tunnel, the trees became much more varied. The colours of the buildings changed to soft terracotta and ochre. Warm sunshine took the place of the mist and cast an atmosphere of increasing indolence. I could see that in the height of summer the sun could be pitiless, drying out the fields of sweet corn, which were now burned to brittle, jagged, brown sticks. But this September sun was lazy and pleasantly soporific.

Bellinzona lies on a fertile, alluvial plain at the top end of Lake Maggiore, full of orchards, sweet corn and vines. It looks as if the lake just didn’t quite manage to stretch into the last flat bit between the mountains, some of which have snow on top. The summits glinted pink in the sunlight.

We arrived and everybody spilled out onto the platform. The smaller train to Locarno, which is at the end of a branch line, was waiting. It’s a short journey and Italian was being spoken all around us. As we got off the train in Locarno, a procession of cars passed by, all hooting, with ribbons hanging out of the windows and on the radio masts… a wedding party.

There was meant to be somebody to meet us but nobody appeared. We waited. I then tried to phone the hotel from my mobile but it wouldn’t work. It was now about five o’clock and John was tired and impatient and said we should just find a taxi and pay for it. Plagued by my Scottish genes, I felt we shouldn’t pay for what was part of the package. I had Swiss coins, so went to the phone box. Joy – I got it to work! The hotel reception were very apologetic and within ten minutes a lovely, plump lady called Rosanna arrived. She was quite flustered, saying that she hadn’t had the message to pick us up. All good now, though. We walked through the door of the Hotel Orselina and I breathed a sigh of relief. It was fabulous.

A dear old-fashioned retainer took us to our room. He spoke German and was very proper. There seems to be a mix of languages… danke schôn, grazie, but anyway, all benissimo as the room is spacious with a sofa and armchair sitting area and an enormous, tiled balcony with loungers, table, seats and the most beautiful view of the lake.

The water was sparkling against the backdrop of the mountains on the other side, which are a series of green wooded slopes, slashed by dark ravines, the whole ruched like a pine forest green velvet evening dress; the slopes look mysterious and softly seductive as if they are holding a fabulous secret. John says they look like ash heaps and are very fractal. Ah well, to be fair, he’s totally exhausted and just threw himself on the bed. I used a photo of this view from the balcony at the beginning of this site. You will definitely recognise it from this description and can decide for yourself.

I walked out onto the balcony. There were big window boxes with red acer and geraniums on one side, oleanders on the other. Apparently, you should never make a fire with oleander bushes as the smoke is poisonous and could kill you. Am not planning to make a fire on the balcony however.

Our room is called ‘Le Tigre’. So now we have French in the mix. The furniture is mahogany with dusky pink cushions. The bed is kingsize with offwhite striped satin duvets and huge pillows. It is very comfortable. The curtains are thin cotton in pale blue with an impressionist white flower pattern – like batik. They are very restful to look through from the bed as dawn breaks. Later, John took a photo of me on the balcony with a towel on my head – behind said curtain – so I looked like an indistinct Arab sheikh. The pictures on the walls have walnut frames and seem mostly to be of men on horses in nineteenth century battle mode.

Sheikh stirs

Sheikh stirs

There are two long mirrors and, in the bathroom, yet another vast mirror behind the marble basin, with oceans of space for bottles and make-up and one of those illuminated, magnifying mirrors which are at the same time horrifying and intensely satisfactory. They are great for eyebrow plucking.

Somebody with a harmonious eye has put a pretty little vase of flowers with white dahlias and lavender daisies with yellow centres on the coffee table. There is a wealth of hooks for clothes as well as two built-in wardrobes. A small pull-out clothes line in the bathroom for drying bathing costumes and smalls. I dwell on these details because most rooms in hotels haven’t been thought through properly, even though it wouldn’t take much to improve them. Two of the worst mistakes that hoteliers make are bad lighting and lack of a full length mirror. Even in the smallest room you can find space for a long mirror. And hooks on the backs of doors are so useful, especially when space is at a premium.

The carpet is a dark, smoky blue with tiny, yellow flecks, reflective of the boats on the lake. There is a complimentary umbrella in the hallway and we can borrow sticks and a backpack for hiking. All in all, it’s well nigh perfect!
Time for dinner, which could be described along the same lines. We finished off with warm, white pudding bowls holding ripe cherries and fresh cream………


Wake from our balcony

Wake from our balcony

Slept very heavily. I woke with the feeling that I’d been unpacked from being folded in a plastic bag in a dark cupboard for months. So I ache, I’m stiff, and I feel shaky and unbalanced. The quality of light here is fabulous but a shock for cupboard dwellers!

After a shower, I lay on the balcony for a minute or two soaking up the lifegiving warmth of
the sun, which started my muscles popping and relaxing. John is immersed in his book, “A Reed Shaken By The Wind”, by Gavin Maxwell. He is totally overwhelmed by the writing. He has also lost my soft rubber ball for massaging my feet by unwittingly kicking it under the partition to the next balcony.

Maybe I will climb round and get it later as I can see it on the floor there if I crane my neck – but it would be embarrassing if they were in their room and I appeared rather hazardously clinging to the edge of their balcony! Same as if one hung one’s knickers out to dry and they fell over the balcony to the one underneath. I wouldn’t really like to own up to my old knickers….. maybe I should indulge in some Italian lingerie while I’m here. But I’m afraid comfort always seems to win out in the end. Mind you, it has to be the comfort of delicious silk or sea island cotton.

Today was spent mainly in recovery but I did take lots of photos from the balcony of the lake, with all the boats plying to and fro. And John fiddled with his computer plugs and got in touch with the outside world before reading and sleeping.


Lake from above

Lake from above

Breakfast is a huge buffet of temptations. Half of the tables are set outside on the semi-circular terrace and half inside. We came down at 9.30 am and all the outside tables were taken. However, I did notice that they were being dive bombed by flocks of sparrows, swooping down on any stray crumb.

I had birchermuesli with black grapes, prunes, apricots and slices of apple soaked in Calvados (just the fillip!). There was plain yoghourt, pumpkin and linseeds, viscous pear juice, which was very sweet but delicious and pink grapefruit juice. And all the continental cheesy and meaty treats.

The waiter came and presented us with varieties of tea to choose from, which then arrived in a pot together with a small egg timer which told us when it would be ready to drink.

Afterwards we explored the gardens, which are on steep terraces, with wonderful exotic trees and flowers. There are two swimming pools. It’s a bit cool now for the outdoor one but there’s a Hallenbad – an indoor ‘mineral’ pool, which I will explore later.

We sat on the balcony reading for a while then decided to walk to Locarno, which takes about fifteen minutes down a long, steep path made up of over 600 steps. There’s a lot of overhanging greenery, including a very strong and invasive Kiwi fruit climber. Lots of lizards skittered down the walls and under the ivy. As we came out into the sunshine, we saw a contented looking cat licking its paws. It stared at us with a closed, Mafiosi face.

Then we found ourselves walking under old stone arcades where there were stalls selling jewellery, scarves and rather lurid souvenirs. We explored various alley ways, one of which brought us out to the church, where John took some photos. They reminded me of the artist, Hugh Buchanan’s, work. He shows his paintings at the Francis Kyle Gallery in London.

We meandered back to La Piazze Grande where we had coffee and ice cream. There were lots of people and it was noisy but a companionable sort of noise…. the buildings are old, many of them painted in pastel colours – faded yellows and verdigris, washed out blues, yellow ochre, white and greyish pink with beautiful, intricate filigree iron balconies and scrolled gateways.

We found a shop which sold John’s favourite Moleskine notebooks and bought an elliptically shaped glass vase, which is very graceful and magnifies the stems of flowers.

The top resembles the open mouth of a fish. It had been in a MOMA design exhibition in New York and cost us £43.00. Also, John bought himself a very stylish black backpack.

It’s just big enough for his notebook, camera, reading material and a sandwich. I was happy, as I won’t have to keep carrying around all his stuff in my bag.
On the way back we stopped off at the jetty, where the steamers leave from, to get a timetable. The town is full of tall palm trees and Japanese sago palms and generally seems to have a microclimate beloved by all sorts of plants which grow vigorously. Apparently, the lake acts as a giant storage heater which warms its banks in winter. Except for a plague of graffiti, the old town is very picturesque. As we made our way up the hill another wedding party passed us with car bonnets full of bouquets of apricot and yellow flowers. We can see the hotel from the boat jetty but it’s a long walk up. There is also a funicular for future use!

I now thought it was a good time for a swim. The ‘mineral’ pool was very warm and smelled fresh and inviting. We were alone. I swam some lengths and did some exercises and realised I was beginning to feel much less stiff and fragile. I wish there was a pool just like this one at home. There’s a lift from the pool right up to our room and as I came out of it I ran into our next door neighbours – happy recipients of the ball – and managed to explain in German what had happened. It was joyously returned! I expect they wondered what I did with it. I massage/exercise my feet, curling them round it while trying to pick it up. Oh yeah!

We sat on the balcony enjoying the view. There’s a surreal Magritte cloud loitering on its own above the mountain opposite. and it’s now time for dinner No. 2 – perfetto.

A wonderful spread. The food is fabulous and this is endorsed by 5* John. Our waiter’s name is Angelo. He is dark haired, olive skinned, chubby and delightful. One of the dishes that tempted us tonight was giant prawns skewered and roasted with saffron rice and broccoli.

We returned to our balcony as dusk gathered. John was watching the moon and said he could see it move quite plainly as it rose over the mountains. It did look quite luminous and wonderful, especially when a dark green wisp of cloud trailed across it like a veil and nestled around its edges. The sky is very clear and full of stars.

It’s strange how much of an effort you have to make to learn to swim or ride a bike but when you’ve learned you never forget. I hadn’t been swimming for a very long time but it has done my body such a lot of good already… I feel very freed up.


Hotel Orselina

Hotel Orselina

We added scrambled egg to our breakfast this morning. Although we are fish eating ‘vegetarians’, I couldn’t resist a morsel of very tasty bacon. John looked on disapprovingly but I had to say how much I enjoyed it. He compared me to the cat of yesterday who had obviously felt the same after his lizard snack. John said he could feel the loud thrumming of my purrs!

There are lenticular clouds above the mountains this morning, which look like a school of large tuna fish, their backs just above the ocean. It is cooler but the air is very soft and I hear the gentle sound of the fountain in the background. We got to sit on the terrace at breakfast and were beset by the greedy, marauding sparrows. They are plump and very self important. I was thinking that the Hotel Orselina should invest in a marmalade coloured cat with a name like Scatellina. She would be statuesque and very fierce and chase the sparrows at every opportunity. Pauvres petits moineaux – but they do well… there are a lot of crumbs.

John was getting very excited about the cloud formations and we decided to take the funicular right up to the top of the mountain above the hotel. Half price tickets were to be found at reception. John put on his new backpack and kindly carried our water bottles. We flew up the mountainside to where there is a viewing platform strung out rather precariously over a gorge. I got excited as I could see the Monte Rosa range of mountains through the binoculars, which look as if they are heavily covered in damp icing sugar. They are beautiful and savage, and tinged with pink.

Lenticular clouds

Lenticular clouds

Ever onwards… a chair lift took us right to the summit, where there’s another viewing platform, 360 degrees circular this time, with the names of all the mountains. The whole hillside was alive with giant crickets, so many of them that it was difficult not to step on one. When they jumped and whirred you could see their ‘petticoats’, some of them ruby coloured and others in differing shades of blue. They were two inches long and enormously fat. From the top you can see how the rivers have made their way down through the mountains and met up to make a huge fan shape of flat land as they come into one and flow into the lake. The fan is the sediment and Locarno is on one side and Ascona on the other. Far away on the opposite side, looking down towards Milan, there is a tiny lake, high up, sparkling in the sun.

We started our descent. Initially, we meant to walk down half way and then take the funicular back to Orselina. However, the café where we planned to eat had been taken over by a hearty group of men having a celebration – the long tables were groaning with rösti and meaty treats and, no doubt, trifle for afters.

We decided to go on and we did go on and on and on downhill through the forest until our knees shook. It was beautiful and tranquil, except for the knees! From time to time, we came upon tiny chapels, with painted backdrops. A signpost hove into view, which pointed to the funicular and Monte Bré. When we got to the funicular, which took about fifteen minutes, there was a sign to say it wasn’t stopping. We walked the ten minutes on to Bré but could only find a rather dismal hotel restaurant, which was very smoky. We retraced our steps until we found the signpost to Orselina, which was a ‘sentiero panoramico de Noce’ – a path which kept leading us under the unreachable funicular until we started down another steep path through the forest.

I called this the Fru-Grain trail because, in the seventies, there was a breakfast cereal of this name. They were about an inch long, dark brown and looked like pieces of rotting wood – or like flattened, treacly milk flakes. They tasted malty, strong and sweet. The path looked as if it had been made out of hundreds of them but there was nothing to eat and I was getting hungry and tired. There was nothing else for it – we had to go on. The signpost had one hour marked for Orselina and we arrived at the paved road almost to the second – which was a satisfactory feeling! But the whole of Orselina is on a steep slope and we couldn’t quite work out where the hotel was.

We walked down the hill, past lots of well-to-do villas. Pictures of mastiffs adorned the heavy, wrought-iron gates. “Io sono gardien di qui” the notice says as the dog bears its teeth menacingly. The gardens are full of banana and monkey puzzle trees, bougainvillea, rambling creepers and large palms. Garages have grass roofs, covered in trailing nasturtiums. The only thing I found beautiful now was the sight of our hotel, which we didn’t have! We came upon another long flight of steps and walked down, while trying to work out where the Orselina was by memorising the view from our balcony. After yet another steep flight, we came out practically opposite the hotel. My legs were like jelly but we repaired to the terrace for a cappucino and an hour later felt able to go for a swim.

There was a woman of about sixty in the pool, with heavily blonded hair and a red ruched swimming costume. Her legs seemed to be made up out of flocons of cellulite. I was glad I hadn’t given in to eating a large tart on the terrace…..When she got out she was replaced by a very heavy, hairy man with a square head. I found I could swim two lengths to his one – but he could have been going slow on purpose. I also swam two lengths holding my breath. This wasn’t an Olympic size pool(!). John managed that too, while I did a lot of arm, leg and feet exercises.

Finally, back to ‘Le Tigre’ – room 503. Looking forward to dinner. which included a potato and mushroom pudding. The potato is liquidised and has the consistency of grainy blancmange and the mushrooms, fresh from the forest, are laced through it. It went well with a red Merlot from the Ticino.

Angelo is still our much loved waiter but we’ve now been upgraded to a seat by the window from where we can see the moon’s antics.

Before bed, I went out onto the balcony to look at the lake, which is silver blue in the moonlight, and a steamer, illuminated by lights that look like beads from a necklace, is offering music and dinner to those on board. I am going to bed to read ‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras. My white cotton nightdress with lacy top and pearl buttons has been laid out by the maid on the bed – drawn in lovingly at the waist and looking very welcoming (for the husband), his T-shirt being more prosaic.


Elaine on  wall

Elaine on wall

We’re really chasing the last of the summer sun now. After breakfast, we strolled through the gardens and lay in hammocks under a vine heavy with grapes and visited by very close-up and personal wasps! Noble rot.
Today we did the 600+ steps again down to Locarno, scattering alarmed lizards at every turn. The signpost allows twenty five minutes and we came out with flying colours – twenty!

John bought an International Herald Tribune to read on the steamer on our way to Isola di Brisaggio, where there is a botanic garden.
We sat at the front of the boat and it was quite chilly on the water. We stopped at Santa Nazare and Ascona. Ascona has a pretty waterfront with an avenue of trees and lots of restaurants but is somewhat spoiled by toy trains and tourists dressed in ill-fitting clothes and comfort shoes, hauling around lumpy bodies and feasting on ice cream. Of course everybody isn’t like that but it’s depressing to see how many are.

The island is a joy with huge eucalyptus trees, exotic plants and multi-coloured parakeets.

There were lots of enormous black fish patrolling the shoreline – we could see them from above as we looked down on the deep blue of the lake water. I think people must throw bread for them as it seemed to me they were following us.

Lunch at the Botanical Garden

Lunch at the Botanical Garden

The old house in the middle of the island is very picturesque and we sat under the faded rust coloured awning, covering the wide arched, stone flagged verandah, to have lunch. John had spaghetti al pomodoro and I went for a mixed ceps salad – both delicious. Some time later, we returned to the small beach by the jetty and waited for the boat back to Locarno. The silvery, sandy shoreline was full of tree roots – like so many Anthony Gormley figures.

Gormley-like roots

Gormley-like roots

The boat finally arrived but everywhere on it smelled of stale smoke and it stopped at nearly every place on the lake. We were relieved to get back, nipping up the 600 steps in a trice.

When we got to ‘La Tigre’, I fell asleep on the bed. Then I had a shower and made a call to have a massage tomorrow.

I’m now reading ‘Late Season’ by Christabel Kent – a novel set in Italy. I enjoyed ‘The Lover’ but it was sad. John told me a very sad true story about Max Planck and his family, which he read about in Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Almost Everything’. His wife died, his two sons were killed in the war, one of his twin daughters died in childbirth, the other one brought up the child and fell in love with the husband. They got married and then she also died in childbirth. And something else horrible happened too but I’ve now overdosed on tragedy and can’t remember. We went for a swim before supper.


I woke up at 7am. I am certainly less stiff but still bad (cattivo), so looking forward to having a massage.

It was misty outside this morning and being under the duvet was luxuriously warm and comfortable. The fibromyalgia in my shoulders, neck and middle back is irritable. I imagine it being like thin slices of hard water residue, which you find at the bottom of a kettle, lurking between the connective tissue and the bone. The masseur arrived and started pulling the slivers out through my skin. After a while, he soaked my vertebrae in something equivalent to vinegar which melted or loosened the flakes remaining. He then told me to concentrate on the back of my neck and the connection to my shoulders. I could feel my shoulders widening and relaxing. I was defrosting. Then I was in my head and looking at how my face was put together from the other side. He gently rubbed around my ears, which was very relaxing – my stomach murmured happily.

The masseur then said I should think of being under a waterfall, breathing in all the negative ions while he flushed out all the remaining residue from my niches and crevices.

I woke up flexible, footloose and fancy free. This was my semi-drowsing dream….. I hope the real massage this afternoon will be as good.
This may sound a bit mad but there must be a build up of ‘stuff’ in the body over the years, just like in the kettle (if you live in a hard water area), so trying to dissolve it one way or another seems to me to be quite a sensible solution except it’s not quite as easy as popping in a sachet to fizz the stuff away. But it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that somebody will find a way …
Breakfast included some wonderful Seville marmalade, full of huge slices of orange. It is made here in the hotel to an old family recipe.

I finished ‘Late Season’ by Christabel Kent which was well written and enjoyable. I have two books left. ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, by Haruki Murakami and ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by Douglas Coupland. We read all morning on the balcony and then decided to go and see the neighbouring church/sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, which was a nunnery – and perhaps still is. There’s a small footpath through the woods behind the hotel which takes you there. I had to encourage John to come because of his aching calf muscles.

The day was warm and a little overcast, one of those afternoons which ‘breathe’ siesta.

The path took us down past a jungle of greenery and some deep ravines. Suddenly, John stopped. We had disturbed a three foot long black snake, sunning itself on a ledge. It moved so quickly, coiling itself up and making off into the undergrowth. I missed seeing all of it but it was the highlight of the day.

The church/sanctuary/nunnery was a bit of a mish-mash of designs and very cluttered with unexceptional paintings. We walked around for about ten minutes but my thoughts were elsewhere….. would we have a repeat encounter with the fabulously terrifying, long, black, poisonous? reptile on our return along the path?

Sadly, this was not to be and my massage, though ok, was slightly disappointing. I got back to ‘Le Tigre’ to find John asleep. I managed to shoehorn him down to the Hallenbad for a swim before dinner.
Dinner was an ‘Italian’ buffet with about twenty dishes to choose from. I can’t remember any of them because I was so greedy but we did have a fabulous wine from Sardinia – Terre Brune 1997 – which was made from Carignan grapes. The other wine which has been exceptional, is called ‘Planeta’ and it’s from Sicily.

Tonight is a full moon and John spent some time on the balcony watching bats. It’s been a lazy day and I must try and find out the name of the long, black snake.

Luna Locarno

Luna Locarno


I woke up in the night to find I’d been attacked by a vicious mosquito. My wrist had swelled up enormously. Aaargh! I tiptoed off to the bathroom and bathed everything with TCP, then put on insect repellent and stumbled back to bed. John woke up to the pervasive smell of disinfectant, which made him get up and escape to the terrace for breakfast.

Today, there were small green offerings of sweet, ripe melon. I had scrambled eggs with mushrooms and smoked salmon with horseradish mousse. Then I spread a rose-coloured, darkly fragrant, luminescent quince jelly on fresh, nutty bread. This should take me through the day!

We decided to explore the contemporary art gallery at Casa Rusca in the town but it was mainly uninspiring, although I did buy a postcard of an old man called ‘Le Vieillard Debout’ by Rusconi (1946). It is a simple, fluid drawing of an old man with a slightly melancholy, abstract expression…. looking at me quizzically. He’s wearing an old beret set at a comfortable angle and an open coat with a substantial shawl collar, his hands in the pockets. There is a dark scarf around his neck, folded over his waistcoat. I just wish I could knock off a drawing like that. It would be so satisfying. The other card was of a black bear, which looks very top heavy as if its feet would have trouble propping it upright. There are certain middle-aged women who look like this too.

As the sun was out, we decided to walk along the lakeside and join the river, where a ‘planet’ walk takes you along the bank. There are sculptures of all the planets at various points and also a higher path for bicycles only, which is a brilliant idea.

Down by the river we could see huge, dark fish circling around slowly – they looked quite menacing, as if they were on the prowl for something. The path was silver sandy against the green grass and lots of people were promenading with their dogs. We came out in a new part of the town which had some buildings that I thought were very ugly. The Civic Centre, for example, is a muddle of sharp rectangles without windows. The light must come in from the glass in the roofscape. The blank walls make it look like a prison.

In the end, we came back to the old town and took photos of the old Castello, while waiting for it to open after lunch. The only loo had no lock on it, no paper and smelled rank. The reception was manned by two ancient chronic smokers, who grinned at me toothlessly. I then went back to investigate the mens’ loo in case it was more usable but as I was peering in, a man came out, buttoning up his flies. He gave me a nasty look, so I just gave up.

The 1925 Geneva convention was signed here and the photos of the groups from the different countries who attended were wonderfully idiosyncratic. For example, the English (Austen Chamberlain, etc.) all look slightly stiff, with an upright, moral tone, the Italians, well, very Italian, the French look somewhat louche, the Belgians all look like Hercule Poirot with hats and lorgnettes, pass on the Germans, while the Czechs look very cheerful and include women and the Poles look rather hearty and happy too.

Olive tree

Olive tree

John reflecting

John reflecting

We made our way back to the Piazza Grande and sat in a café for a while. I like doing this but John soon gets bored and is impatient to move on. Under the arches I bought a tiny, silver necklace, which I have worn ever since. Then we went into a bookshop and found the snake in a book on reptiles. It’s an ‘Orbettino’ – long, black and smooth, with a head indistinguishable from its body. It exudes a poisonous liquid but isn’t harmful to humans.
It’s the shrews that get it in the neck then!

We climbed the 600 again! It’s getting easier by the day. Past the morning glory plant at the bottom and the bird twittering in its cage in the crone’s garden, then lizard pandemonium and ever upwards, until we are out of the ravine of jungle plants where the wild things are and back in the hotel garden. We passed by the corner shop, having not eaten lunch and bought a bag of mixed nuts, a tranche of Fontal cheese and a bunch of black Ticino grapes, which we ate on the balcony.

Much refreshed, I went for a swim while John stayed behind to do email. I did lengths walking through the water, which is quite an effort – I am on points as I get to the ‘deep’ end and feel it’s good exercise for my feet. I wonder if it would be possible to do a successful underwater ballet…
John was very pleased that he had saved the new cover of RADAR (magazine brought out by the office at SustainAbility) from looking ‘tacky’, and, having finished his email, he conveniently forgot about swimming and is now heavily into Bill Bryson (the book on science) -which he loves.

My mosquito bites are still vilely swollen and suppurating – John does not want to discuss them. This evening there is a blue haze on the lake and in half an hour it will be dinner time! There was a potato and brie tart and ‘fera’ – fish from the lake – among the many delicious offerings.

I am now very much enjoying ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by Douglas Coupland.




I pulled back the curtains to find the sun was up and burning off the mist. The sky and the lake make a pale blue pastiche, with sparkles on the water in between. Joyful.

We decided we’d go to Ascona and explore the town and art galleries. It took about half an hour to walk there, round the lake and river route. There are lots of tiny, picturesque alley ways which are full of galleries and stylish clothes boutiques. John came upon a wonderful little restaurant tucked away down one of these crooked alleys. Outside they had water running down a glass wall, which looked and sounded very refreshing.

We went in and sat in a room with white tablecloths and black, frilly ironwork tables and chairs. The ceiling was made of yellow, opaque conservatory glass, which cast a shade of dark sunlight – very Italian. The name of the restaurant is The Hostaria San Pietro.

We started off with fabulous fish soup. Then I chose a mixed salad of lettuce, rocket and endive with beetroot, butter beans, sweet corn and tomatoes. It could not have been fresher. John had marinaded smoked salmon which arrived laid out in narrow, crescent shaped strips like a fan. It was accompanied by small squares of what appeared to be essence of lemon in a jelly like mould. It was a great choice of restaurant with the best cappucinos around! And a delicious bottle of Sicilian vino nero. Wholly recommended.
After buying a few small presents, all beautifully wrapped, we walked back to the esplanade and jetty, which was bathed in sunshine. The lake was smooth as silk. There were a few old fishing boats around, a pedalo or two and a very graceful yacht. The scene was quite old fashioned and romantic. Three old men stood together in the shade, under the avenue of trees, enjoying playing violin and double bass- Eine Kleine Nacht musik-. I gave them some money. I thought their wives would be pleased that they were happily engaged and not under their feet at home.

We sat on a bench by the water’s edge, watching the various comings and goings, until the steamer arrived to take us back to Locarno. It was quite crowded but we got seats. We could have walked back but it’s nice to be out on the water, pulling in to various small villages en route.

As we were making our way across the road to the funicular, John lost his footing because there were two steps instead of one from the pavement. He fell and twisted his ankle very badly. We sat there for a moment, wondering whether it was broken but he decided it was just an enormously appalling sprain. Luckily, there was a pharmacy near at hand. We slathered arnica cream all over it and put on a sock support.

Poor John! He very bravely hobbled back to the funicular and we were soon back at the hotel. I think we’ve done all that the doctor would have recommended. I put on a cold compress when we got back and he lay on the bed and did email. I hope he will manage to travel home tomorrow. A slightly melancholy tinge to the end of the holiday.

The dinner was a self-service buffet and unfortunately our table was the one furthest away from the food! The centrepiece was a wall of dramatic flames, where meat was being roasted by chefs, dressed all in white with tall hats. Others were stirring things in vast copper cauldrons, which reflected the light of the fire. The queue for meat was long but the one for fish was short. The fish was a huge salmon trout which had been encased and cooked in a salted pie crust (which you didn’t eat). It was removed to reveal the succulent inside.
Desserts included a bombe glacée with bitter amaretto cherries and a passion fruit sorbet, which was deep indian yellow and tongue prickling, like sherbet.
A pianist, who was the spitting image of Placido Domingo (he sang as well, with much rolling of the eyes and expansive hand movements), made the dinner into something of a soirée. The songs were a mixture of the traditional, with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra playing leading roles. We made off quite early to look after the poorly foot but I kept the door open and could hear almost every word, as the crescendos of music vibrated the heartstrings! I really have to say that I rather like those sorts of evenings!

Tonight is cool and I managed to kill the mosquito that had attacked me! I dreamed then of being bitten on the foot but it was only a dream. Maybe in sympathy for John’s swollen ankle…?


Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling ...

Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling …

The lake is very misty and there are coils of cool air reaching my feet now, which I have stuck out of the duvet. I put on a dressing gown and go out onto the balcony. Everything is seen through a fuzzy blue lens and the noises of boats are muffled.

In my mind, Lake Maggiore has always been a soft, light blue colour. Lake Garda is blue like delphiniums, Lugano is violet and Como a blue green. The other three are still a treat in store, I hope. Colours are one of the great joys of my everyday existence.

Last breakfast and I insist on taking it out on the terrace as it’s the last time we’ll be able to eat outside this year. Once we’re packed, we go and sit downstairs in the lounge, where a log fire is crackling cheerfully. There are some postcards and stamps on hand, so I sit down and write a few. I always think it’s nice to get postcards from abroad. Does that sound like a comforting Joyce Grenfell aunt?… well, I suppose I could end up being someone much worse…

Then our lady taxi driver appears to take us to the station and the owner of The Orselina, Alberto Amstutz, shakes our hands as we leave. We’ve had a good, restful time and done enough not to have been lazy! I give Rosanna a large tip – I also left one in our room for Carmen, our cleaner, who made my nightdress look so inviting! The warm, mineral pool has been one of the high spots of the week, as I think we both feel a hundred times better for it – except for the poor, swollen ankle.

There are three castles at Bellinzona – must look up its history. The station is very busy – huge freight trains pass through about every eight minutes. We find ourselves on the platform with a lot of young, Swiss army men in their combat gear. There are also large groups of schoolchildren – all cheerful and well behaved. On the train back to Zürich, we eat oatcakes which are emergency rations I found in the bottom of my bag and I finish ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by Douglas Copeland, which is brilliant. Thanks to Gaia for recommending it.

The St. Gotthard pass is pretty today, with mist wreathed round the top of the mountains, from which pour masses of waterfalls. It’s a long way up and as we get higher I can see the road, which is supported on vast, tall pillars careening into the void below. It makes the cars look very brave at attempting the ascent.

The carriage is quiet until we get to Gold-Arthau, which is by a lake. Then it fills up with people going to the city and the airport. I noticed a rather wild looking, middle-aged hippy, with silvery locks and an earring, carrying a very battered, silver ridged ancient metal case, which looked as if it had been round the world a few times. I saw it again on the carousel at Heathrow. I would have made a good spy because it’s always the small details you have to be beady eyed about…..

Zürich airport has been expanded and there’s a lot of trekking with the cases. Then I recognise the place where John lost the tickets coming back from Davos last January. I was wondering how many times this had happened to other people and at that moment I looked up from our place in the queue to see a group of Russian men. One of them was frantically emptying his briefcase and hand luggage, totally panic stricken. He’d lost his passport. His colleagues looked anxious. I looked away. We got to the front. I looked again and was rewarded by smiles all round. Phew!

We checked in our bags and then followed a series of countless corridors and escalators, before boarding a small train which swooshed along like a mole underground. Long queues for the x-ray machine and it was a relief to get to the gate for boarding. John seems to have managed with his ankle. He is very stoical about these things. I’m utterly exhausted.
Still, I have some lovely presents to give. Beautifully packaged boxes of florentines, done in parchment coloured paper, with a score of music across it and decorated with red ribbons.

The flight home was fine except for an enormous amount of circling above Heathrow, which always makes me feel anxious. We finally landed with a big bump into the real world, where it was grey and raining and very autumnal.
The house smelled closed and airless – I ran round opening the study, bedroom and bathroom windows even though it was cold. And, before bed, there was an enormous spider, trapped in the bath, to put out of the window.
This holiday should have been longer but we did have a very happy and relaxing week.

View from Orselina

View from Orselina

P.S. I should mention that most of the photos in this article were taken by John. I did not have a digital camera then and although I dearly love some of the ones I’ve taken, the quality of them on the computer is not good. I did have some of them on disc but one of the discs turned out to belong to somebody else and instead of views of Locarno and Ascona, they seem to have been taken by an ‘anorak’ trainspotter. I have had to discard them. Oh, woe!

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