June 9, 2012: Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como

We were up at a more normal time today, seven thirty.  Enough time to get ourselves ready before heading down to breakfast about as soon as breakfast was open.  Not quite immediately as a group of French guests, the only other guests that we have seen all this week other than the Norwegians, was just leaving to head out for the day.

We ate breakfast as quickly as we could which for us with the girls is rather slowly.  Luciana demands, every single morning, to walk around and we have to constantly chase her as she either goes out to reception or heads out into the driveway so that she can make an attempt at climbing the steps or the steed driveway itself where she has almost no chance of staying vertical for any amount of time.  So breakfast is quite a challenge for us.

After breakfast was done we set out immediately in our Fiat Panda to get up to the lake country in the far north of Italy.  We had wanted to do this drive yesterday but it is pretty far, over two hours, to get up there and we don’t want to be getting home too late.  So we saved it for a full day trip today.

The road north went through Asti and Alessandria which comprise, in our opinion, some of the most boring landscape around.  The landscape in that direction is completely flat as you go into the Po Valley.  It is a beautiful area, to be sure, but boring and flat.  Rice paddies are really common which really tells just how flat it is.  It makes even Oklahoma and Kansas seem hilly.

This ride helped to cement that the Langhe really is the right area for us to be looking in.

Coming into Lago Maggiore from the west heading to Spesa you go from the endless flat rice paddies to pretty quickly going into hills and the road goes into tunnel after tunnel.  Liesl loves going into tunnels.  She gets excited every time whether it is on the train or in the car.  She explained to us that cars go through car tunnels and trains go through train tunnels.  Her car seat in the back of the Panda is really high and she can see out the front of the car to some degree and she likes to look for them coming and shouts out to us when she sees one.

We arrived in Stresa and the GPS lead us down a winding road, too tight for two cars at once from time to time, into town.  This is where the GPS sucks – when it takes you off of the main road onto dangerous and crazy “locals only” roads that no tourist should ever be on.  The whole GPS phenomenon has done some really dangerous things.  I can’t believe the places that the GPS tells us to go.

While the drive down into Stresa was kind of crazy, once we arrived it was amazing.  We drove right into the middle of town and just managed perfectly to pull straight into a parking space right in front of the big, grand hotel right in the middle of the water front.  Amazing.  I pulled out little Panda right into the space and we were free to wander the main water front with free parking!  This was great.

We walked only the tiniest bit before everyone was hungry so at a place called Daniel’s, right in front of the Grand Hotel and in front of where we parked, we stopped and ate some pasta and gelato with wonderful views onto what must be the most beautiful lake in the world.  Lago Maggiore reminds you of a large scale, really breath taking New York Finger Lake.

The food wasn’t bad.  It was a tourist trap, semi-temporary place definitely not aimed at being fancy or special but the food was okay.  We ate and then went for a walk north along the lake until we came to the boat launch to Isola Bella and the cable car going up the mountain.  This was the end of the public walkway along the lake and we decided to end our walk here.  I would have loved to have gone out on the lake to the island but the boats are small and the water was choppy so Dominica was concerned about sea sickness so we decided to stick to walking and turned around to head back down south to the car again.

We got pretty warm on our walk as I had to carry Liesl in my arms much of the way.  It was not a lot of walking but it is amazing how quickly you get exhausted carrying a three and a half year old.  The entire walk was really beautiful.  Lago Maggiore is really something to see.  One of the most beautiful places that I have ever been.

We did not stay for long.  We wanted to get over to Lago Como today, yet, and there is only so much to do in Stresa.  I mean, it is a gorgeous lake, but other than walking along it and getting some food, what does one do on a lake, really?

The drive from Lago Maggiore to Lago Como really is not too bad.  On the drive over we got to experience getting petrol in Italy for the first time.  Easy, but any new fueling experience comes with some amount of anxiety.  It was fine, though.  It ended up being a full service place.  Fuel here is more than twice the cost as it is back home but the Fiat Panda gets around 53mpg so even though the cost per gallon is crazy, the overall cost is pretty normal.

The drive to Lago Como was not bad at all.  It is a relatively short jump from Maggiore to Como.  Knowing both of these locations from travel videos it is odd to see them in juxtaposition to one another.

As you approach Como my first reaction was to marvel at the wall of mountain on the far side of it.  I truly had no idea that Lago di Como was set against such magnificent mountains.  Nothing that I have seen on video prepared me for this at all.  This is not the Como that I imagined.  The backdrop of the city is truly a vertical mountain face.  It is stunning to approach.  The lake is only a part of the story.  The city is really gorgeous even if you never see the lake at all.  The mountain setting alone is worth the trip.  Amazing.  I have not seen anything like this in the US at all.  You really cannot take pictures to explain what this looks like.

We drove down into Como and drove around town just for a tiny bit. Sadly Como was overrun with tourist and there was not even a place for us to park, that we found.  We drove a bit, saw town, had some adventures in regards to the driving where Dominica commented as to how “Italian” I had become and then we decided to head out of town.  I took some backroads hoping that they would lead us to some new and interesting areas around the lake.  Dominica did not want to leave either, we just wanted to be away from the tourists.

So we took a back road that headed to some higher ground.  This seemed interesting so we following our instincts and kept climbing.  This was probably really, really bad instincts.

Have you ever seen one of those movies where someone drives into an Italian village and it is a one car width (barely) medieval town and people come nose to nose and someone has to drive backwards so that someone else can get through?  Well, this was real life.  It wasn’t just a town but we climbed a mountain full of hair pins and nose to nose encounters and streets barely wide enough for the smallest of cars.  It was insane.

It probably took much less time but it felt like between thirty and sixty minutes of the most intense driving that I have ever done.  I was surprisingly un-stressed considering how insane the whole thing was.  I am not sure that words can convey how crazy this way.  This would never, ever happen in American.  I actually drove a stick shift car up a mountain side through the tightest little streets ever.  It felt like something that couldn’t possible be real.  It must be a ride or a joke or something.

Dominica was starting to freak out a bit just a little ways up the hill.  The roads were tight and the road was alongside a tremendous drop off.  Kind of scary.  Twice I had to come to a stop and drive backwards so that cars in front of me could come down.  I have never driven anything like this.  I cannot imagine that anything like this exists in America.  How could it.  This is insane.  That this exists here is impossible to really internalize.  We are amazed.  This is real?  This is really happening?

I really lack the ability to describe in words just how crazy this drive was.  Each turn caused us to be more and more amazed.  The feeling was a lot like what you get when you are on a roller coaster except this was real, I was really driving and having a real disaster (or more likely, scraping the side of the car or getting completely stuck) was quite a real possibility.

That I had to slow to a crawl to get the car mirrors to fit down the streets, that cars would come around blind hairpin turns and end up nose to nose with someone having to drive backwards down (or up) a very steep road that is so tight that normally you would not even consider driving it forward, that he streets are so steep that the car might stall, that you have to worry about your brakes overheating on a normal drive down the mountain… it was all unbelievable.

It took probably half an hour of driving like this with us sure that each new turn would lead us out of the quagmire and into a spacious, normal road before we reached, not a road, but the top of the mountain.  Yes, that’s right.  This wasn’t a tight backroad between two normal roads.  This was a dead end that had multiple villages along it.  The first village, clinging to the steep mountain side, was Brunate, which was actually very lovely.  It was truly amazing to us, far more than the fact that this road existed or that we saw other cars using it, that an entire, real village was located up here with restaurants, shops, churches, homes and everything.  You could totally make dinner reservations, drive this insane drive and eat at a restaurant on one of this crazy little cobblestone, massive angular grade, super tight roads with staggering views of Lake Como below.  How the food is shipped up here I have no idea.

Beyond Brunate, which was amazing on its own, at the top of the hill was the very small town of San Maurizio which, thankfully, had a tiny traffic circle (no, seriously) and a parking lot.  A parking lot where you had to pay a central town meter and it gave you a parking slip for however long you paid for.  Yes, even at the ends of the earth they have these new-fangled parking meters.

Dominica was really shaken from the drive and was not ready to face going back down the mountain so we paid for an hour of parking and got out to explore.  This is the end of the road, more or less.  Technically there is more road but it goes nowhere.  Just service roads for the people who live here.  The only way for us is to head back down the hill.  Totally crazy that we could just make one wrong turn, not be sure where to go and be trapped driving through this!  I can only imagine that most drivers, faced with this drive, would just panic and lose it.

Amazingly, at the top of the hill was a fancy restaurant!  We decided not to eat there as we were not really hungry and it was not what we were looking for but it was pretty amazing to find it there.  There was also a little roadside cafe selling coffee, prepacked ice cream, chips, maps, and other sundry items and had two or three people there taking a break after they, too, made the insane drive up.

From the parking lot you could climb up a bit (the drive had already had us climb over nine hundred meters!!) to a small playground.  Now that was a surprise.  A playground on a low Alpine peak.  We went there and the girls had a nice time playing on the swings, the slide and the teeter-totters that spun.  There was a public restroom there too.  It was actually built into a cave in the mountain side and it contained the first “squatter” toilet that we have yet come across in Italy.  We have seen pictures of them back home and so knew that they existed but they are pretty rare in this day and age and we have no actually seen one in person yet, but here it was.  Just some foot grips and a hole in the floor.  Very weird.  I took a picture.  It is on Flickr already.  There is something pretty neat about having done that crazy drive and arriving to find a toilet that is just a hole in the floor in a room in a cave in the side of an Alpine summit.

From the playground a short, but rather steep, hike up the mountain leads you to a large platform with some of the best views, well, anywhere on Earth I would imagine.  The view is one of nearly one thousand meters right down on Lago di Como!  Truly unreal.  You can see town after town clinging to its shores.  You are really looking down on some of the most expensive and amazing real estate in the world.  It is a beauty that I cannot describe.  The sun was out and very bright but there was a heavy haze today so the visibility was poor and the pictures that I took, since I am using the AW100 and do not have the D90 with the haze filter or polarizing filter, are pretty bad.  I knew that they would be but at least you can kind of get an idea from them as to how amazing it was.  It felt a lot like being in an airplane, it was so high and the view was so unobstructed.

In the middle of this platform is a lighthouse.  I have no idea what purpose a lighthouse on a mountain serves but I would guess that it must be used for navigation in some way as it is clearly visible from Lago di Como as well as several other, smaller lakes.  So you could use it at night to keep from getting completely lost, I suppose.  The lighthouse is dedicate to Volta and is considered to be a Voltaic Lighthouse.  It is more a memorial than anything else, I am thinking.

If you do any searches on the lighthouse you will find that my pictures from today are already the top hits for it.  That is how remote and rare this discovery is.  But there were a few other people there too.  Two or three hikers, two teenagers thinking that they had found makeout point and an old gentlemen who I am pretty sure was the caretaker of the lighthouse.  But that was really it.

The lighthouse and its views, to me, made the drive worth it.  This was something that almost no one, not even the locals down in Como, are likely to see.  This was a very rare and wonderful experience.  I made Dominica climb up and check out the views as well while I watched the girls on the playground.

(I later learned a few things that help to explain the odd placement of restaurants, shops, etc.  There is a funiculari that runs from Como to Brunate so people living there can go up and down the mountain without a car most of the time making it great for people down in Como to come up to for that special dining or walking experience or for people living in Brunate to keep a car below and go down for the more serious errands.  There is also some sort of shuttle service going all of the way to San Maurizio – I have no idea how this is possible – so that people wanting to get there can do so without walking, bicycling or driving to it the insane way that we just did.)

We stopped by the little outdoor cafe, had some chips and fruit drinks and relaxed for probably half an hour.  The people who owned the shop thought that the girls were just adorable and wanted to hang out with them.

Then it was time to face the steep decent.  The drive down, as we knew how long it was, that there really was an end coming eventually, that we had seen each of the hairpin turns and tight passageways already was much easier, or at least, less stressful.  We made it down no problems and I really was not nervous going up or down.  Dominica was terrified going up (terrified that we were going to get stuck, scrape another car or something) and only a little bit going down.  Overall, I rate the experience as well worth it.

What was really probably the best result of today’s little driving adventure, beyond getting to see possibly the best scenery of our lives, was that I am not completely comfortable with driving in Italy in a way that yesterday I would never have imagined even attempting.  Driving through tight streets in ancient villages?  No way, are you even allowed to do that?  Yes, of course you are and that is how you get to tons of great stuff in Italy.  Avoid that and you are going to miss out a lot.  This explains all of those cars in places that I could not figure out who was driving there.  Everyone drives there.  Today was more extreme than that, but all of those towns in the hill country that we have been seeing – we can totally just drive there!  I needed today, it really made me into an “Italian driver” of sorts.  This is going to make life in Italy both on this trip and in the future much easier.

After that monstrous drive we decided that we needed to head back to Neive and our hotel.  The drive back took about two and a half hours and was uneventful.  We did note that driving through the flat Lombardi and Piemonte plains full of rice paddies was truly lovely in the late afternoon sunlight.  Italy’s Po Valley is far flatter than we would have ever imagined.  Very neat, but not where we are interested in being.  It makes driving through very easy, though.

I have to say that Italian roads are the best that I have ever seen.  The quality of all of the roads, from backroads to the highways, is really fantastic.  The roads are smooth and impeccably maintained.  Guard rails are high and useful too.  You feel much safer driving in Italy than in America, even at speeds that would be pretty crazy in the US and in very tiny cars.  Driving at ninety miles per hour in Italy isn’t odd at all.  The speed limit is just over eighty miles per hour on most highways and no one drives down at the speed limit.

We arrived back at the hotel and parked the car.  We spoke to the hotel owner briefly telling her about our day.  Dominica was not aware, as I was from having spoken to her yesterday, that she actually comes from Como so she knew the area exactly.  We explained that we drove up to Brunate and she was caught by surprise.  Even a Como native thinks that that is crazy and she knows Brunate well – her sister recently moved there!  And going on up the hill to San Maurizio… well that is just crazy.

Our goal tonight was just to have some wine and to work on updates for SGL and KAE back at the hotel.  So I dropped the girls all off and I walked into the middle of old town Neive where the village itself owns a bottega that sells nothing but local wines from the village and sells them at the same prices as the wineries charge if you go there directly.  So I walked up there and had them select their four recommended red wines for me.  They did, boxed them up and I walked back to the hotel.  I scouted out food while I was out walking around but there was no one not completely packed up on the hill so that wasn’t a good option.

Dominica sent me to the high end restaurant under the hotel to see about take-out pasta.  I did but the owner said that they would not consider letting us take food away to eat – even if it was elsewhere in the building (we were extremely confused about this as the hotel is advertised as having room service and he acted as if this was an affront to the restaurant.  How is room service supposed to work then?)  So we were quite confused and not very pleased with the attitude.  Italian restaurants really are often snotty and not very good at customer service – which actually makes them not as good as restaurants.  American restaurants are way better at some of the more important aspects of serving food even if the food itself might not be as good the process of getting it to you is far better.

So I drove downtown looking for food (this is downtown in the new town.)  I ended up stumbling on Il Camino, the pizzeria where our pizza came from our first night in Neive, so I just parked there and went inside.

Il Camino, it turns out, is the hub of evening activity in Neive.  It functions like the local diner in America with the whole town out for a normal dinner and a very large menu that goes way beyond pizza.  So I looked at the menu for a while and ended up getting some pasta to go (that is da asporto in Italian) and drove it back to the hotel and we all ate using our hands as I forget to ask for plastic utensils.  But the food was good and cheap and I figured out where the locals actually go out to eat.  A good experience.

It took quite some time to get the girls to bed.  They really have problems winding down and getting to sleep when we are in hotels.  This is tough.  We completely lose our late evenings dealing with that.  So pretty much we are falling asleep by the time that the girls are asleep.  It leaves pretty much no time to write or do anything else.

Everyone was finally asleep so I worked at getting a couple of posts done and started on today’s post.  I was talking to dad via email and he said that Oreo was really deteriorating quickly.  He was very weak and was putting almost all of his energy into just breathing.  We had known that his cough, what we had thought was kennel cough as that was what his vet had thought that it was, was coming back but this was way more serious than anything like that.  Dad said that he didn’t think that Oreo was going to make it until Monday when the antibiotics for the kennel cough would arrive.

I woke Dominica up and told her that dad didn’t think that Oreo was going to make it through the night.  We talked about what might be wrong and talked about options.  We found a twenty-four hour animal hospital in Rochester and called dad.  So dad made an appointment up there and my Uncle Leo drove up to help dad take Oreo up there.  It was about seven in the evening (Saturday evening) back in New York at this point, the appointment was for eight thirty.  Dominica couldn’t go back to sleep so sat at the computer with the phone.  I hadn’t been to sleep yet and it was really late at this point, about three in the morning in Italy, so I laid down with Liesl for a while.  She was fast asleep but I needed the snuggles – I wasn’t going to fall asleep but if I was in my bed alone I would have just been crying.

We didn’t hear anything from dad for a while but he doesn’t have Internet access on his phone and we don’t believe that our phone is taking calls while we are here – not a single call has come through in over a month – so I called dad to see what the status was.  It was twenty after nine, dad’s time, when I called.  Dad was just getting back into the car.  Oreo was already gone.  Dominica had guessed it correctly – he had congestive heart failure.  The hospital had looked him over but there was nothing to be done.  So he was put to sleep around nine o’clock tonight in dad’s arms.  He was, to the best of our knowledge, twelve years old.  We never really learned his early history and much of it was inaccurate so the guess that he was five when we got him might have been good information or may have been a complete guess by the shelter or it might have been another dog’s paperwork.  We will never know.

The hospital said that Oreo’s mange, which he has had quite badly since around autumn of last year, was a symptom of something much deeper.  Oreo had been fighting something for a while and the mange was a result of his weakened immune system.  It might have been cancer, it might have been just about anything.  We’ve known that he hasn’t been himself for a while.  He hadn’t been sleeping the same (more during the day, less at night) and wasn’t snuggling the same as he used to for weeks.

It took me several days to be able to actually write today’s post.  I will write a goodbye post for Oreo soon.  Right now I am unable.  For seven years Oreo has been a part of every moment of our lives.  This really took us by surprise, even though we really knew that it was coming.  We have been preparing ourselves mentally for a long time and this trip to Italy was really about preparing for “what we will do when we don’t have Oreo anymore.”  We had just been hoping that that would be at least two more years.  That he passed while we were on the trip, and especially during the Italy portion of the trip and during The Langhe portion of our Italy trip is an unlikely juxtaposition of events.  Thousands of miles away from home we learned of his passing in pretty much exactly the place where we intend to be living in the future while Oreo passed “back home” where he first came to live with us seven years ago after being rescued from the shelter in Houston.

So on the bathroom floor on room 100 at the Hotel Villa Lauri in Neive, Piemonte Dominica and I sat and cried over the loss of our baby while Liesl and Luciana slept in the other room.  Oreo will be missed by so many people.  He was well known and had friends that even we did not know.  He was truly the best dog that I have ever known.  In seven years with us he never once bit us or even growled at us.  He was nothing but love and snuggles.

Dominica and I have known for many years that we could never bare having another dog after Oreo.  It was when Mr. Humphries died, and Oreo was still pretty new living with us, that Dominica dealt with her first ever loss of a pet and then understood why I was so scared to have one.  It was then, I believe, that we decided that we could never have another dog after Oreo.  We’ve always known that losing him was going to be too painful.  Oreo truly made us a family long before the girls arrived.  We spent most of our marriage being known as “Oreo’s parents.”  Of our eight years of marriage, seven of those have been spent with Oreo sleeping between us every night.  That we used to snuggle with each other is truly a distant memory.  Even on vacation we naturally leave a space between us where Oreo should be.

For weeks, Liesl has a “missing Oreo” episode every day or two.  She talks about home in Texas and how much she misses Oreo.  Then she cries for a bit that Oreo is so far away.  Until tonight we thought that he would be waiting for her when we return.  She keeps talking about how we will go back and see him at grandpa’s and how daddy will drive Oreo back to Texas so that Oreo will be waiting there for Liesl to see him when she drives back a week later.  Not having him there is going to be really hard for her.  For Luciana it will be easy, even though she calls every dog that she meets “Oreo”, because she is young enough that he is just a fuzzy memory and he was never active with her like he was with Liesl.  Oreo has been “winding down” for nearly Luciana’s entire life.

Now we will return to no Oreo but a house full of memories.  Our plans for our return are, understandably, completely focused around Oreo.  Dominica and the girls are remaining in New York while I was to drive Oreo back to Texas with me early.  I was to drive him back in the GMC Acadia that we bought for him (if it hadn’t been for Oreo we would have bought the GMC Terrain instead as we only needed the extra space for him) to the house in Texas that we bought for him (no steps, enclosed yard.)  If it hadn’t been for Oreo we would likely have kept renting in Dallas.  Oreo couldn’t handle the apartment living as he was blind and we knew that we had to do something for him.  We always knew that the Dallas house was going to be very temporary but thought that Oreo was going to get to use it quite a bit longer than he did – he was completely healthy, other than being blind, when we bought it.

But you can’t make plans.  In reality, that we are away in Europe when Oreo left us is probably a very big blessing.  I don’t know how I would have handled this in person, I can barely handle it now.  Having Oreo go with Liesl and Luciana there to witness everything happening might have been really awful.  Now we have time to shelter them and ease them into it.  Oreo will already be, to some degree, a memory by the time that we return to New York.   The girls will already be separated from him by a month and a half.  By the time that they get back to Texas it will have been nearly two months and I will have had time to make sure that his beds, his blankets, his toys, his binkies, his dishes, his food and all of the other painful reminders of his life in progress in Texas will have been removed.  Dominica and the girls will not have to go back to a house full of the evidence of our friend who is no longer there.

I dread being alone in that house for a week or two, though.  That is going to be really, really tough.  That was going to be Oreo and my time to just be together.  For years now we would regularly spend time together when Dominica would take the girls for the weekend or whatever.  It was “easy” for me to be away from everyone because Oreo and I loved our quiet time to ourselves.  I was never lonely if I had Oreo.  Now I will be far more than lonely.

Goodbye my dear friend.  You will be truly missed and remembered.  We love you so much.  There is a hole in my heart that will never be filled again.

At least I know that many, many years from now a little old woman, named Liesl, long after I have passed, will sometimes remember,  probably quite vaguely, this wonderful little Boston Terrier from her early childhood who taught her about dogs and pets and snuggles and she will think fondly of him still.  He is not a dog who will be easily forgotten.  He affected people, he impacted lives.  He was very much a real part of our family.

Leave a comment