Alpine Adventure- part XI
Tuesday, July 26, 2016- Lugano, Switzerland.
We were rolling early this morning at 7:45 A.M. driving south and west along the Alta Strada Hwy. towards the Sanger Torte Tunnel and then on to Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. On busy days the tunnel here can have a twenty miles backup of cars. A newer tunnel, some 59 km in length would open up this December. They do like their tunnels here abouts.
The Ticino River runs high above us, draining down from the Alps into lake Maggiore and eventually into the Po River that runs all across Northern Italy. It was here that Lucy explained the formation of Switzerland as a modern state. Three of her Cantons, Uri, Intervilla and Schweitz, banded together in 1291 to fight the Hapsburg oppressors. Gradually they added territory in the shifting alliances of the time. The Italian ruling family, the Savoys, Napoleon from France and various Bavarian rulers had all warred back and forth across the intervening centuries until the modern state had fleshed out after W.W.I . There really are several Switzerlands. The western part speaks French, the southern Italian and the largest part, German. It is an interesting amalgam that works well for its inhabitants. I think the geographical obstacles of the Alps foster the separation of identities.
Lake Maggiore is beautiful. Slightly larger than Lakes Como and Lugano, it also seemed less populated. We bordered a small excursion ferry here for a ride out to the castle and villa of Isola Bella, one of three islands in near the North shore of lake Maggiore. It was and is the ancestral home of the Borromeo family. Starting out as medieval, Milanese bankers, they are about as close to royalty as it gets in Italy. Linked in with the ancient Medici family and then through recent intermarriage with the Agnelli’s of Fiat fame in Milan, had made them a powerful economic power in the region. Construction had started on the Villa in 1632.
As we approached Isola Bella, the formal Italian Gardens rose up several stories above us. They were outlined with Greco Roman statuary and impressive on this sunny afternoon. A small concrete berth, near the base of the villa allowed us entry onto the Island. Several vendor stalls and small shops crowded the winding stairway up into the villa, like a medieval market.
The four story Palazzo reserves the upper two stories for use by the Borromeos. When they are in residence, the family ensign flies from a flagpole. In the vestry we were treated to several medieval suits of armor and the first of many carved wooden structures. A large formal fireplace filled out the entryway. We wandered up through the formal dining room. Opaque chandeliers of Morano glass framed the formal china and blue crystal goblets laid our in a formal service on the lengthy dining room table. High, vaulted ceilings, with molded cornices, were enhanced by a Tromp L’oeil effect that gave the room a three-dimensional feeling.
In the family portrait hall, the most prominent portrait was that of the family saint, St. Charles. He had given the family its motto, “Humility.” In the music room, Mussolini had held a conference in 1935 to avert W.W.II. Framed documents of that conference adorn the walls. The rooms were all open to the sea, via large French doors giving light and delicious sea air to make the place comfortable. Napoleon had reportedly slept here one night in 1806 in the formal bedroom, with four French doors open to the sea. And no, there is no sign that reads “Napoleon slept here” on the walls. Several years later, Napoleon would level and destroy the family fortress at Verona , Italy, the ingrate. The house treasure is a small, glass-topped table, with a mosaic of 30 colors of glass, some 30,000 pieces in all. It had been given to the family by Pope Leo XII.
In the basement we were treated to a novelty. All of the several rooms, more like Blue tinted grottos, are lined with pebbled walls and slate flooring. They served as cooler quarters for the family during the hot months of summer. The walls here are four feet thick and insulate the Villa from the intense heat. The rooms are strangely appealing, if somewhat dark in appearance. The family had assembled several exhibits of its livery, horse tack and villa implements for casual view by visitors. Iron implements from 1,000 B.C were secured in a glass case. They are collectively casual about their antiquity here.
Finally, we passed through the tapestry room. Five enormous arras, each woven with silken threads and taking over ten years to create, lines the walls. They featured medieval village scenes and various animals in the region.
It was warm and we were tiring with the day. We descended the winding castle steps, past the vendor stalls and anchored ourselves in a small café on the island’s edge. We were joined by the California couple and their daughter. We enjoyed decent Panini sandwiches and sparkling water. We caught the 12:15 ferry back to Stresa. We had a great view of the shoreline here. The magnificent Palace and Bristol Hotels had housed the wealthy. Queen Victoria and favored the lake and visited often. A small statue of her stands on the grounds of the Bristol Hotel to commemorate her visits.
After assembling our crew, we drove up through the Toce River Valley and up six thousand feet, through the Sempions pass of the Alps and the Gondo Canton gorges.. There are several marble quarries here. At Isel village we were eyeballed by a border guard before crossing back into Switzerland. At Monte Leone, we stopped for a break and a grand view of the glaciers all around us. From a small hillside that we climbed Mary and I enjoyed a visage that we would not soon forget. The hard, black granite and speckled, white icy patched of glaciers all around us. Nearby, a small Augustinian Convent still operates. It had been here since the time of Napoleon.
While driving through this magnificent scenery, Lucy told us the story of the Vatican Swiss guards who all emanated from the Brieg valley near here. French King Francis I had whipped the Swiss cantons in battle, circa 1515. He was much impressed with the ornate costumes and fighting ability of the “Swiss Guards.” He offered the Swiss favorable terms if they would send a detachment of their “Guards” for use as a personal bodyguard, at his court. Like most things, it became the fashionable thing to do in European courts. Soon, most had their own contingent of “Swiss Guards,” including the Pope in Rome. Over the ensuing centuries, the practice had died out literally. The Vatican “Swiss Guards” in their ornate uniforms are the last vestige of this mediaeval protection scheme.
Late afternoon found us approaching Zermatt, Switzerland. The Rhone River here has carved a 1,000-foot trench for itself as it moseys down into western France. The view along the mountainside road is daunting for acrophobias. There are 50 peaks in the area that reach over 13,000 feet into the Swiss sky.
The Houses had returned to the Heidi style, dark wooden, A-frames with wooden balconies and lush green grass all around their barns and fields. The scenery here is awesome. The small railhead of Tasch is where we got off the bus. Trucks, cars and buses are not allowed in Zermatt. To reach it, we had to board a small cogwheel train, for and twenty minute ride upwards into the mountains, to reach Zermatt. From the Bahnhof “(train station” we walked down the town’s narrow and major street. People were scurrying hither and yon, day-trippers hiking here or taking the train further up the mountain. We found our small In, the Hotel Pollax and got our room assignments. We were berthed in room # 300. It opened on a small balcony into a courtyard behind the hotel. Ewe could see the many condos lining the hills above us. And if we stretched, we could even see the Matterhorn looming high above us, a spectral presence that commanded the region.
Mary and I wandered the small medieval street, window-shopping and people watching like everyone else. A small parade of goat like ibexes , tended by Swiss children, in native costumes, were a photo-op and amusing distraction. E found a small co-op and bought a bottle of cabernet and a few sundries. We prepared our gear for tomorrow and settled into write up my notes and enjoy a glass of wine, as we gazed upon the fabled Matterhorn high above us.
We were on our own for dinner, so we decided to try something Lucy had told us about. It a is a local custom called a "reclette.” Basically, it is a block of melted local cheese, with small potatoes and a pickle, accompanied by a glass of “fendant," a local white vintage. It is a. light meal that the Swiss have taken to. We sat on the small street balcony and enjoyed this tasty repast as people from everywhere strolled by. It was delicious and not expensive. After dinner, we took a short walk through the scenic streets of an Alpine village and then returned to the room to turn in. After a long day like this, we were as tired as old logs in a swamp.
Joseph Xavier Martin