Isla Madre and Bergamo

Before leaving the lake region, we decided to take a boat to one of the lake’s islands, the lake’s main tourist attraction. Boats to the islands from Cannobio leave only once a day, so we drove to the nearest big town, Verbania, from where the boats to the three islands, still owned by the fabulously wealthy Borromeo family, depart every half hour. En route, we passed picturesque ruins of a castle set on two small isles off the lake shore, and stopped at the nearby resort town of Cannero, a pretty town and a nice place to lounge for a few days, I am sure, but less deserving of a visit than other jewels around this region.
Verbania can be considered a bustling city when compared to Cannobio. It is a bigger version of Cannero – a resort town with grand hotels, shopping, outdoor cafes, and a lakeside promenade. It would be a stunner in any other country, but here, it is certainly overshadowed by its even prettier neighbors.
Of the three islands, we chose to go to the largest, Isla Madre. The boat ride alone was worth the trip. This lake is second only to Como, a bit less glamorous, less developed, sporting fewer palatial mansions, but stunning nonetheless. Isla Madre is an actual home to the Borromeo family, that is when they are not staying in one of their several other residences. Most of the palace and gardens are open to tourists, perhaps, to help pay for the landscaping, which is fabulously lavish! For me, the prettiest part of the garden here is a lilly pond, with red, purple, lavender, and pink water lilies, not the common white. There are more colors in everything here in Italy!
We ended the day in Bergamo, a medieval town not far from Milan. I expected a small village, but were surprised to find two towns in one: a medieval town on a hill, and a renaissance town around the hill. Just when you think that it can not get any better, it does here! You think you have reached an apogee, when another place bring you into the state of even higher exaltation.
Most definitely, the 3 hours I allocated to Bergamo were not enough. It would probably take us a whole day to see it all.
If nothing else, one thing makes a visit to Bergamo a must: the local Bergamese dessert, Polenta e Osei. This is a sponge cake layered with pastry cream and rolled into some yellow sugary mix, shaped into a ball and topped with chocolate (or marzipan) birds. This dessert, available in different sizes, from a bite-size to the size of a basketball, are sold in every bakery on the mains street. In the 3 hours we spent there, I only managed to sample two. And the first prize goes to Nessi bakery.
When we came to the small parking lot where we left our car, we found three cars waiting for a space and a small fiat parked in the middle of the lot, smack behind our car. Now, we always ask for a compact rental in Europe and always end up getting a huge car owing to the fact that those are the only ones here coming with automatic transmissions. It is hard enough to navigate these monsters through the narrow alleys of medieval towns, but even harder to pull out of a narrow parking space with a car parked right behind you. We tried, and tried, but failed. The three Italian drivers, coveting our parking space, combined their limited English skills and offered to help. With one of them driving and the other two directing, they managed the task with no blood pressure elevated, no angry emotions expressed in any way, and no verbal or physical abuse to the abandoned car. Then, they climbed back into their cars, smiled widely, and waved goodbye. I can only imagine what some hot-blooded males would do to such a car in the US!
So to round this trip up: minimize your time in Milan, spend a full day in Bergamo, spend 3 nights on Como and 3 nights on Maggiore, dress casually, and, for god’s sake, bring your sneakers!


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