Picturesque Lake Como is in the far north of Italy a short train ride out of Lugano. It was here that the memorial lighthouse to electrical pioneer Alessandro Volta was built in the centenary year of his death, 1927, in San Maurizio di Brunate, high on the mountain above Como San Giovanni. It was close to here, at Campione d’Italia, that the smuggler Howard Marks buried his Mr Nice passport (which was never found again).
To see Como San Giovanni at its best take a boat around the harbour or hire one of the many bikes and mopeds that litter the streets all around. Stay at the Hotel Paradiso, Hotel Como, or if you don’t need a pool the Metropole Suisse or one of the many other good hotels and B&Bs in town. If money is no object, the historic Via d’Este is reckoned to be one of the best hotels in the world, and it should be with rooms from around 700 euros per night!
The Hotel Paradiso is reached via the funicular railway that has been taking visitors up to Brunate for over a hundred years. Originally steam powered, it converted to electric in 1911. Cost: 5.50 euros for a return trip. The railway doesn’t take you all the way up to the top in Brunate, so unless you are an accomplished hillwalker you will want to phone ahead for a lift from the hotel staff. On the way up to the top, you get a good view over San Giovanni’s historic church. Some of the houses going up the mountainside look a little derelict, and have been painted up with elaborate murals by possibly more than one generation of squatters, but this is part of Italy’s rustic charm.
Incidentally, if some of the hotel furnishings look a little… cheap in the photographs, don’t worry. You will soon realise why – nobody wanted to haul a load of heavy antique furniture up the mountain. Most of the houses up here only date from around a hundred years or so ago – although they look much older, ornate and classical in style. It must be the advent of the motor car that made it practical for most people to live up here at all. In any case, all my reservations about flat-pack furniture were wiped out by the view.
The view from the top of the mountain is genuinely worth coming all the way to Lombardy for. At the top you’ll find the lighthouse, built in 1927, whose name commemorates Allesandro Volta, one of the most famous sons of Como, a scientist who was one of the fathers of the modern use of electricity. He also gave us the word ‘volts’!
I eat dinner at the restaurant by the cable car, which I’m amused to find the Italians call a bistrot and not a bistro like everybody else. On my way back up to the top later on I spot the proprietors of the establishment, hanging around outside with meat cleavers like two characters in a video game who have been turned hostile by some kind of glitch. Somebody must have forgotten to pay their bill. I’m tired, and the last thing I want to do is face down two hot-blooded Italians. Fortunately, they’re not after me. Maybe I’m just suffering withdrawal from my Xbox, hallucinating, tripping out? An English boy not used to this heat. I want to go on further into Italy, but that’s not the way things will pan out (for cooler weather, travel in the Autumn or Spring if you get to see Italy).
I don't know why I feel so strange... it must just be being so far from home. The pizza wasn’t even that bad. Maybe I should have laid off the mushrooms?