When I was a teen-ager, long before my first trip to Europe, I used to read books about mountaineering. Some of the most dramatic were penned by legendary French, German and Austrian climbers like Lionel Terray, Heinrich Harrer and Hermann Buhl. Their pages were full of icy bivouacs on the Eiger, crumbling limestone walls in the Dolomites, fiendish crevasses on the Mer de Glace. But when the Alps got too hard even for these "hard men," they were wont to dash south to the Italian lakes -- and in particular to the smiling shores of Lake Como.
All hell might be breaking loose, weather-wise, on the Wetterhorn or the Grandes Jorasses, but my European heroes would loll in waterfront cafe's on Lake Como, basking in the sun, stupefied by the gentle lapping of the waves. They had earned their ease. When the Sturm und Drang up north in the mountains ran its course, they would turn their back on Italian indolence and charge off toward yet another unclimbed north face.
Last May my wife, Sharon, and I went to Lake Como, more than two decades after I had read those stirring books. In our first night in Bellagio, however, the tales came back to me with a Proustian pang of nostalgia for what one has never known. It was a cold, windy night. Our hotel had opened for the season only a day or two before, and the rooms still had the dank smell of winter. Somewhere a shutter was banging; you could hear the wind on the lake and imagine mountain climbers perishing up on the Monte Rosa. That day, as we had puttered among the shops and cafe's that line the lakefront, Bellagio had seemed almost deserted.
By the next day it was full springtime in Bellagio. The wind had dropped, the sun bore down over the cerulean water, and the cafe's with their red-checkered tablecloths were filling up with Germans, Dutch and French. There were the smells of fish and flowers on the air. Sharon and I were only two days from the United States, but we felt as snug and happy in our escape from the blizzards of our Boston responsibilities as any mountain climber ever did fleeing the foehn wind.
Lake Como is a long, skinny lake that crooks 35 miles from north to south under sharp hills covered with evergreen forest. On a map it looks like the Greek letter lambda, lower-case. The north end of Como -- less than 10 miles from the Swiss border -- is really in the Alps, and in May great snowfields frown over its tiny, backward villages. At the south end, on the other hand, you are on the edge of the Lombardy plain, only 30 miles from Milan. The Romans loved the lake; the town of Como was important even in Augustus' time. Both Virgil and Pliny the Younger praised the lake in lyrical language, and the latter owned several villas built in favored spots along its banks.
After two nights in Bellagio, we crossed by car ferry to the western shore and put up for the night in Menaggio. The shops in both towns are full of exquisitely wrought knick-knacks of Merano glass (from a craft city near Venice), and of silk scarves and ties, the Como specialty. The next day we made the obligatory detour to the famous Villa Carlotta, expecting a bit of a tourist trap. To our delight, the villa turned out to be a formal garden preserved with neither ostentation nor crass commercialism. It is a classic 18th-century artifact, balanced and gracious, full of open lawns as well as floral ensembles.
We spent the whole afternoon strolling through its ways and lanes: "strolling" is indeed the word for that slow, half-aimless gait that allows one to stop and peer and breathe. The rhododendrons, mountains of deep magenta star-bursts, were in peak bloom -- you wanted to bathe, to drown in them. And the rare Montezuma pines, from Mexico, with their low branches seeming to loll on the ground, the most sensuous conifer I had ever seen. There was nothing to do but stroll, and imagine what it might have been like to live here two centuries ago.
On several days we drove the narrow roads along the shore of the lake, poking our way through towns like Dongo and Nesso, Rezzonico and Gravedona. Each had its open-air cafe's along the beach. Daily we chose one at which to while away a couple of hours over a sunny lunch. One noontime we were gorging ourselves on insalata mista ("How do they get everything so fresh?" Sharon always wondered), cannelloni and risotto alla milanese, saltimbocca (ham rolled in veal) and vietello tonnato (veal in tuna sauce), with good hard rolls and acqua minerale gassata, a glass of Piedmontese Barbaresco, anticipating cappuccino and dessert (macedonia -- fruit in syrup -- or gelato -- Italian ice cream?), sensing that life could hardly be more pleasant, when a Middle American couple walked up and peered at the list in the restaurant window.
"It's the same old menu," said the wife with a whine.
"It's all right with me," offered the husband.
"I told you. I don't want it."
What did she want? Pizza? Big Macs?
Our last adventure on Lake Como was a hike up Monte San Primo, which stares down on Bellagio and the fork of the lambda from almost 4,000 feet above. As we drove the switchbacking road up into the nearest hills, we seemed to leave springtime behind, and the 20th century as well. In the unvisited hamlets high on the slopes of San Primo old women in black still hobbled out to the water pump and old men led their donkeys along ancient muddy paths. We climbed a cold north slope still patched with snow, then crossed over to the sunny south side, where we spread our picnic.
Little pincushion flowers were coming into bloom in pockets of the subalpine grass, and birds shot past on zephyrs far above our heads. We had bread and cheese and mineral water, and nothing to do from now till dark except loaf, sunbathe and walk back down the mountain. I thought again about my boyhood mountaineering heroes. The Alps could wait for another season.