This morning, after breakfast, Hillary and I ran to catch the bus to Lenno, which is in the same direction as the original town of . Our hostel owner had given us an incorrect time of departure, and we ended up having to run up a hill to the bus stop, dragging our matching luggage behind us at great peril to their structural integrity, and jumped on the bus without tickets. In Italy, you have to buy your bus tickets in advance at a newsagents…or, apparently, at certain bars?? Problem is, the newsagents close at 12pm and then re-open at 4:30 – so you really must plan to buy the days' worth of bus tickets ahead of time! After trying to smile cutely and convey that this was our first bus in Italy, the bus driver conceded to our paying 3 euros and letting us stay on board (I'm sure he put the coins directly into his pocket).
Our destination of the morning was the beautiful Villa Balbianello, on a promontory overlooking Lake Como, about a 2km walk from Lenno. The grounds are open to the public, and were originally built by a politically important cardinal in the 16th century, but most recently was owned by an business entrepreneur and world explorer by the name Guido Monzino. I was initially drawn to the property because of its rise to fame in the movie world: it was used as a backdrop for a palace on Naboo in Star Wars: Episosde 2, and more recently (and excitingly), as the location for the place of rest and recovery to in the most recent Casino Royale film.
The grounds were magnificently beautiful, with tended tiered gardens that were breathtaking. We took a guided tour of the villa itself, which was fascinating, especially since the owner was such an interesting person. The entire top floor of the villa is a museum he created dedicated to his 27 world expeditions to places such as the , Everest, Patagonia, and Kilimanjaro. There were some incredible photos and artifacts on display, as well as an extremely impressive collection of ancient art that he had collected over the years on his many travels. The villa and the estate was donated to the Italian as a piece of cultural heritage upon his death in 1987. It turned out to be well worth the morning's visit, in addition to fulfilling my geekish interest in the property as having been used as a film set.
After re-collecting our luggage (I had beguiled the young worker at the tourist information center into letting us leave our bags in the office) we hungrily acquired some fruit for our journey on to Como and waited for the bus (all the while praying, as a police officer had informed us that the bus MIGHT not come due to a strike. Of course, being Italian, he and everyone else standing in the bus queue seemed completely unperturbed at the possibility!)
Which brings me to some general observations of Italia in general. First of all, going to the bathroom is quite an adventure. There are all manner of levers and buttons that one has to push in order to flush and produce water in sinks. All needing much hand-eye-foot coordination.
Second, everything and everybody here takes their sweet time. Hillary and I have been standing in line waiting to buy, say, a bottle of wine, our cash at the ready, and we have to wait 5-10 minutes for the girl at the check out counter to complete her ever-so-much-more-important social conversation with her gal pal before she will even notice we are there. To a customer centred American, this is quite annoying at first, but in a few days, I've already grown accustomed to waiting…albeit impatiently. It is no longer strange because it happens all the time.
Third, everyone here is so relaxed and happy. It is apparent in their faces, the way they smile, the pace at which they move, every pore of their being oozes contentment at their being….well, Italian! I've yet to see someone looking harried, upset, rushed, or even slightly sad. It is very infectious, and one can't help but smile along and stroll again, giving up "walking" entirely.
Upon arrival in Como, we bought our train tickets to Florence (SO expensive!! About $65 for a 3 hour train journey) and sat down to a sandwich and beer. The train itself was comfortable, fast, and efficient. And containing four men sitting opposite us who made it their goal to flirt tirelessly with us (well, primarily Hillary when I was napping) for the entire journey. They couldn't speak a word of English, we couldn't speak Italian, but somehow it was all very funny. As we went to disembark the train…one of the 4 guys got up with us too, even though they were travelling on to Naples. Hillary and I were a little nervous at what he was going to do…but apparently, his sole intention was to carry our luggage for us off of the train with nothing more than a smile. We were both melted at his gentleman like behavior, and mourned the lack of such men in the USA…
The heat hit us as we walked through the train station. It was 7pm and about 88 degrees. Whew! We had a 15 minute walk through the very busy city before we eventually found and checked into our hostel. It was perfect: clean, welcoming, cute, and very well maintained. We immediately bonded with the other two girls in our dorm: Robyn from Oz, and Laura from…. ! – and after a refreshing and much needed shower…we set off into the hot evening in search of the perfect Florentian meal.
As we walked towards the city centre, the girls told us that all of Florence's main attractions lay within easy walking distance of each other, and that all we had to do was take this "via" in a straight line from the hostel and all would be very easy to find. That was when we turned a corner and were literally blown away by the Duomo, (meaning Cathedral in Italian) appearing suddenly and without any warning, spectacular in its sheer giant proportions. Hillary and I stood, silent, and open mouthed for some time. I'd never seen anything like it. It's the 4th largest cathedral in the world, and is striking in its ornate facade as well as white, green, and pink exterior. Nothing could prepare you for the sight, photos simply do not do it justice. Wonderful.
Happily for me, we all had a lovely dinner at a Trattoria aptly named "Anita"! Again, the pasta, wine, and olive oil brought tears to our eyes and yelps of joy to our throats.
After dinner, Robyn gave us all a little impromptu guided tour of the many piazzas in Florence, abundantly littered with glorious statues, fountains, cafes, and monuments that you get tired of sighing. We also visited the famous Ponte Vecchio- a bridge crossing the river that unusually contains storefronts along its length.
After a packed day (both with food and walking) we slept very hard indeed.