Friday 15 June
My career as a fare evader continued yesterday when we took the funicular railway up the side of the mountain to get the aviator’s view of Lake Como. We bought tickets at the base camp office and, as Michelle and I stood waiting in the boarding queue, a whole family ducked under the turnstile arms to take the ride for nothing. How disgusting, I thought, to do such a thing. I’d never stoop so low – literally. They ought to be taken away in a paddy wagon.
We eventually got to the top, walked about, ooohed ahhhed at the view, stopped and paid a handsome price for a drink and lined up to take the trip down again. But I’d lost my ticket. Did buy another one? Well, no. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the turnstile arm – because I had been shown how. It was not easy, mind you. My body is not suited to such an exercise and it took some time. Just as I was ponderously straightening up, there came a bellowing from the open ticket office window which, I discovered, was in full view of the turnstile. Sprung! I bellowed back that I couldn’t be up here in the first place if I hadn’t bought a ticket – which I’d now lost. After some high volume debate the ticket officer must have decided it was more trouble to arrest me than let the felony proceed.
This is now the second time I have risked jail in Italy for successful fare evasion. I must guard against over confidence, however. My luck will surely run out.
Pay but no play
Saturday 16 June
Como’s superb cathedral but nobody played the organ.
Hoping to repeat my organ experience in Venice, I visited Como’s wonderful cathedral where, in a whispered conversation with a curate, was told there was no casual or recital playing of the legendary organ, but it was used during mass. We duly attended mass at 5 pm where the only music was provided by a flat-singing soprano – as part of the service. Not one note escaped from the huge, ornate organ pipes set in in two banks either side of the nave. We had to sit through a mass in Italian (it might have been Latin), stand up and sit down when the crowd did, put some money into the velvet lined collection bucket – and leave organless.
In search of George
Sunday 17 June
There is a general reluctance among Como locals to identify exactly where George Clooney lives, although it is public knowledge the town is Laglio and the house is called the Villa Oleandra. He bought it in 2002 but because it needed renovation he bought the one next door to use while the work was being done. Sensible move.
It’s a pity George was hard to find because I wanted to see him to discuss beards. However, there is now a law that prevents more than three people from loitering outside his house – in the unlikely event they can find it. Apparently, he moves in during the summer, has a collection of rare motorbikes in his garage, hoons around in a speedboat and goes to local restaurants for a feed with Mrs Clooney and twin daughters.
We followed a rumour that he sometimes frequented one of the most famous five-star hotels in the world, the lakeside Villa d’este at Cernobbio. (Average price per night is A$2324). We took the ferry there with a plan to spend a fortune having a drink in the lounge and surely bump into George. When we arrived at the gate, looking like typically daggy tourists, the security guard pointed us in the opposite direction. Michelle politely thanked him and, from behind a tree, called the hotel on her mobile and requested, in her plumiest pommy accent, a reservation for lunch. They’d heard that one before. Nuh.
No drinks at the Villa d’este
Still not having had enough lake or George, we took a ride plus commentary on a venerated steam boat, hoping we might at least be able to wave to him from the water. The hour tour had some shortcomings because the commentator spoke firstly in Italian and then English, which meant we’d sail past the point of interest before we knew what it was – including George’s house. Another villa connected to George was the one used for shooting some movies he was in, including Oceans Eleven and Twelve. George-search aside, the boat we were on was a delight. Built in 1933 and restored just three years ago, the paddle steamer bore the unfortunate name Concordia (remember the Costa Concordia sinking?) but this one didn’t sink and, as far as I could see, had a sober captain. It was unbelievably wide – to accommodate the paddle wheels. It looked pregnant, as though it would soon give birth to six small rowboats. And its steam driven deafening horn sounded like a giant blowing his nose. But the ride was smooth, unperturbed and stately – something I couldn’t say for the rest of the shuddering ferries we’ve been in on Lake Como.
This Concordia didn’t sink.
Tuesday 19 Jan
Still more lake; this time by fast and stifling hydrofoil (“in the belly of the beast,” Michelle remarked) to Bellagio which sits right on the point where the legs of the inverted Y of the lake separate. It is compulsory to visit Bellagio if you come to Como. A big, stylish, lakeside town, it is especially steep once you leave the wharf-level street. The stone steps lead to more stone steps and you never get to the top. Along the way there are little shops selling useless but attractive made-in-Italy potable goods designed for huffing and puffing tourists. One enthusiastic retailer sized me up as a car nut and sprayed the just-released Maserati fragrance on my arm. I was rewarded with the seductive aroma of warm motor oil, leather, exhaust fumes and burning rubber. No, I lie. The smell was conventionally attractive and quite sexy, but I prefer my Jo Malone grapefruit. After that experience, we followed Michelle’s google maps to locate a recommended restaurant high up in the stone walls that form the Harry Potter-style streets. I was inspired to order perch, because of our bird-territory position and the fact that the fish came out of the very lake we were travelling on. It was served in small fried fillets, along with some sliced roast potato and spinach. In front of me sat the best dish I’ve tasted on the trip so far. I raved about it to the waiter who, it turned out, used to run a bottle shop in Dover Heights. I’d bought wine from him when I was first trying to convince Michelle’s family that I was worth inviting to dinner. He’s travelled all over and he came back to Italy because that’s where he thinks he belongs, but still rates Australia as the number one country in the world in which to live.
George Clooney’s villa