Hiking through the Cinque Terre

This was a special hike. A solo climb along the Ligurian Sea that took my breath with the views and literally too with the hike that threatened to send my heart jumping out of my body. It started a few summers ago when we met up with a young cousin of my husband’s, a brilliant chap who had backpacked through the villages in the Liguria region in Italy. I was hooked by his stories. I had seen tantalising shots of the rugged landscape of the portion of the Italian Riviera which is the Cinque Terre (pronounced as Chink-weh Tay-rreh).

Cinque is ‘Five’ and Terre means ‘Lands’ in Italian, referring to the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. They are part of the province of La Spezia.

Before my acquaintance with the Cinque Terre happened, I could barely manage to remember even the first half of Monterosso. Now, my friend, I can rattle off the names of the medieval villages – without a stutter. Cutting a trail through the stunning little hamlets is bound to imprint them into the grey cells.

At the start of this year’s spring, I sat on an intercity train from Milan for Monterosso al Mare, the oldest of the villages that was founded by hill dwellers in an effort to escape the invading Visigoths in AD 643. It was a long three-hour journey and in the company of two jocks and a trio of women in the train compartment, I slept in fits and starts. But my eyes shot open once the blue waters of the Ligurian Sea cropped up on the right and became a constant feature, only to be interspersed by ochre-hued Italian villas and multi-tiered brick red roofs.

Start of the blue trail in Monterosso.jpg

Spiaggia di Fegina, Monterosso.
Orchards terraced into the hills. On the Blue Trail.

The train passed by the city of La Spezia, capital of the eponymous province. I looked out with great longing. It seemed enticing even with just a glimpse and I quietly vowed to return to La Spezia in the summer months.

Stretching out my cramped legs at the small station in Monterosso, I figured from a map that I was in the westernmost (and largest village) of the Cinque Terre. My plan was to set out on the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) and hike my way from village to village. The five villages, deemed as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lie within the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre (National Park of the Cinque Terre).

This Blue Trail hugs craggy cliffs that skirt the coast line and is a paid-for hike but for some reason hikers could go free at the time. Before I started my hike, I stood on a pedestrian promenade facing the sandy stretch of Spiaggia di Fegina (beach of Fegina), part of the new town of Monterosso. Nibbling into a slice of warm spinach quiche, I questioned the reality of it all – the waters sparkling away like a million tiny diamonds in the morning sun, determined to hypnotise the onlooker.

Next I found myself in a dilemma. Did I have to turn left or take the path on my right hand side? I am terrible with directions (left alone in a desert or a forest with just a compass, I am positive I would never find my way back to civilisation) and even the GPS at moments fills me with misgivings.

A loquacious Italian led me to believe that there could only be one direction for the trail. I was indeed walking in the opposite direction. An about turn made, I set off in the direction of a medieval castle and a Capuchin monastery that are positioned above a cliff called San Cristoforo. Standing sentinel over the coast line, rather dramatically, is the statue of Neptune, or the Giant, as he is known by locals.

A gaggle of chirpy houses was clustered up charmingly, on my left, and sail boats tethered to the right, the sea immediately beyond. I was soon on the pedestrian path that led up to a hotel, which was my landmark for the beginning of the 11-km long Sentiero Azzurro.

The trail started off with gentle steps cutting a path through vineyards and orchards of lemon trees – oh yes, fat yellow lemons that called out to be culled (no, I did not dare give into the urge because my nerves, I fear, could not have taken on the wrath of a farmer if he caught me scrumping). Next came steep steps which must have numbered between 600 and 700. Even with my gymming genes in place, I was gasping for breath, my heart fit to explode. I stopped every five minutes. An own inner voice urged me, ‘Abandon this crazy scheme. Just take the train to the next village, will you?’

A gorgeous hike from Monterosso to Vernazza. The toughest hike on the Blue Trail.
Passing by small cottages and orange juice sellers.
Leaving Monterosso behind.

Soon came my way elderly couples who chirped out sunny ‘Buongiornos’ – must have been the fact that they were making their way downhill. I managed to gasp out my bit of goodwill and persevered in my uphill endeavour, seeing in my mind’s eye, giant cones of gelato waiting at the end of the trail. You have got to have some perspective in life.

The path became severely narrow and apparently would have been tread by mules and goats in the past. The trail took me through the heart of a beautiful landscape, past terraces cut into the cliffs, dotted with orchards, woods, tiny waterfalls, stone bridges and gushing brooks, in phases. I felt like George (you know sulky Georgina of our childhood Famous Five tales), except I was without my Timmy.

Often I would pass by farmers working on their crops, a cottage or two on the slopes with cheerful green and blue-hued doors, a lone old man standing with a pile of juicy oranges and selling fresh juice by the wayside, and even ‘orphan’ cats who had their own little homes and bowls and could do with some donation, thank you.

It took about an hour and fifteen minutes before I came upon a sight that is splashed all over postcards from the Cinque Terre. Lo and behold, the village of Vernazza, with its stack of tall and narrow pastel-hued houses, was nestled amongst the astonishingly jewel-like turquoise waters below. Edging past a group of extremely enthusiastic Oriental individuals who were frozen in various poses for photo and selfie sessions, I got my personal postcard shots. It was a bit of a self-congratulatory moment – for not turning my back on the hike and losing out on such undiluted moments of, natural and manmade, beauty.

Of all the five fishing villages of the Cinque Terre, my heart was captured by Vernazza. Charm lurks around its corners. The 12th century Chiesa di Santa Margherita d’Antiochia (Church of Santa Margherita), the fishermen’s cottages that hug each other and wind up and down narrow alleys, the harbour coloured up with fishermen’s boats and the 16th century tower that stands guard over the village (it once used to be a lookout for pirates) – these aspects of Vernazza fall together in place so naturally.

Picture-perfect Vernazza
The fishing village of Vernazza is the most picturesque of them all.

Life in Vernazza runs just as it would have in the old times, with the exception of the tourists trooping in. Fishermen still go about their business, clothes dry on lines spanning the facades of houses, piles of fishing nets dry in corners and century-old traditions of olive and lemon farming along with wine making continue undeterred.

Lunch in Vernazza, for me, was a humongous cone of gelato. I sat dangling my legs from the natural harbour and gave into the parade of colour around. The turquoise of the sea gave way to the vibrant yellow, orange and blue boats bobbing on the waves in the harbour. Pink, terracotta, yellow and beige shaded house fronts sported green window shutters. Colourful clothes on clotheslines fluttered in the wind. I had a most satisfying view as I walloped the gelato with relish. The kind of relish that can come only after a-few-painful-wheezes-and-then-some-more kind of a hike.

I could imagine the fortified Vernazza of the 1000s when it was supposed to have been a maritime base because of its natural harbour. It was ruled by the Italian noble family of Obertenghis and must have been a well-off village given the surviving architectural elements of arched loggias and arcades. The piazza I had walked through would not have been there in those times and neither would have been the breakwater that sits in the harbour today. Instead waves from the Ligurian Sea would have dashed against the houses on the rocks and boats would have been chained to the rocks.

Vernazza’s church
The harbour in Vernazza.
In Vernazza, I had this massive portion of gelato by the harbour. My lunch that noon.
The coastal train line that takes you to the various villages of the Cinque Terre. This is the part of it in Vernazza.
Villages that will have your heart.
Panoramic shot of Vernazza
A view of the hills from where I had hiked down to Vernazza.
Colour and Vernazza
A quick stop on the Blue Trail from Vernazza to Corniglia. That is Vernazza behind me.
Along the Blue Trail. Vernazza to Corniglia.
Lemon trees and Vernazza.

A fair share of daydreaming and it was time for me to set off for the next leg of my hike to the village of Corniglia. Steep stone steps cut through houses and led to the woods. I was back on the Blue Trail. I had another stunning view of Vernazza as I looked back. Lush olive groves and lemon trees paved my way with the occasional Madonna staring back at me from a stone alcove in the woods.

The initial part of the hike was made up of a lot of steps and panting, my hat flying off in the wind, and the like till it became fairly easy. Soon I found myself staring at the colourful houses of Corniglia sticking out atop a green promontory which sits upon a cerulean sea. The village itself is populated by houses that climb up in tiers and are surrounded by vineyards and terraces.


That, my friends, is Corniglia.
Corniglia 3.jpg
Church of St. Peter in upper part of Corniglia.
Corniglia and its quiet charm.
Lanes of Corniglia.
The lush orchards around Corniglia.
The incredible number of steps that lead to the station at Corniglia for the next few villages.

From a terrace in Corniglia, I could see the two villages of Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza one side and the two villages of Manarola and Riomaggiore on the other.

All the climbing meant that I was completely dehydrated even though I had finished bottles of water. I walked into a small café and amidst the loud Italian chatter of several locals managed to order a glass of lemon juice. The first sip I took made me jump. The lady at the bar had not added any sugar. She had also, rather generously, squeezed in the juice of a massive lemon. “These leeemons arre so sourrr,” she added with a grimace. She added more water to it but beyond a few more sips, I could not carry on.

After a quick look at the 14th century Church of St Peter that was commissioned by the noble Fieschi family of Corniglia and a bit of rambling around the alleys, I decided to take the train to Manarola.

Not a wise decision because the train station turned out to be down a monstrous set of stairs down. Those 380 odd steps down are called the Lardarina and my already trembling legs had a tough task cut out for them. It also meant that I would not be making my way up again in case the train options delayed me. My plan went haywire and I had to wait an hour before the next train was due. I had already bought the tickets, plus I was loath to climb the arduous Lardarina back to take the Blue Trail.

Time was suddenly spare because I had to return to Monterosso to catch the train back to Milan. That is how I ended up skipping Manarola and getting on the train to the southernmost village of Riomaggiore. The hike trails between Corniglia and Manarola and that from Manarola to Riomaggiore are pretty easy so I was missing out on the relatively smooth part of the hike.


The train wound through tunnels and took a stunning coastal route into Riomaggiore that is the first village of the Cinque Terre if you are travelling north from La Spezia. Dating back to the 13th century, Riomaggiore is a beautiful assortment of pastel coloured houses piled on top of one another and stand above a deep ravine. Below lies a small wharf and a rocky beach.

Perched upon the Mediterranean Gulf of Genoa, I found it the quietest of the villages I had walked through and it was perfect that I got to spend sunset in its serene beauty.

The houses in Riomaggiore have an interesting history. They are mostly four or three storeys in height and have two entrances because when they were initially built, their occupants wanted an easy way out in case they were attacked by the Saracens. Many artists have been inspired by Riomaggiore. One of them was from Florence and he had a street in the village named after him while another artist has put up a huge mosaic mural up near the railway station that depicts the hard life of the local farmers.

Riomaggiore lanes.jpg
Via Colombo in Riomaggiore, the main thoroughfare of the easternmost village of the Cinque Terre
Mural at the Riomaggiore train station.
Peeling pastel houses of Riomaggiore
The village of Riomaggiore has inspired many artists.
The simple life in Riomaggiore

If you are not too enthusiastic about hiking, take the pass for the coastal train that charts a 19th-century railway line through the five villages.

I insist however that you cannot feel the elation of discovering each village unless you have felt the heart thud audibly, and then (because there is always a shining beacon at the end of it all) post the thudding and the huffing and the puffing, a big bad cone of gelato awaits you. Apart from multi-million dollar views.

Only then would you know this, my friend, that you have earned it.

A Derbyshire Day Out

Derbyshire is quirky. Church spires are crooked. Lanes are marked Unthank and pubs are often dedicated to ‘tickled trout’. Auto rickshaws sit atop porches. Old men sell copper kettles in antique shops and tell tales of men filling kettles with water to hurl them at wives in days gone by. Pet rabbits feast on iced cakes. These are just a few signs to go by.

So, it has been an extremely dull few weeks in England. Insipid and dreary are a couple of adjectives that come to mind but there could be a dozen more. But weather be darned, to get out on the road is the story of our lives, and on a ho-hum day, we set out for the Peak District National Park, England’s first national park designated so in 1951.

Just like the Cotswolds, the Peak District spans a substantial area of English counties. From northern Derbyshire to parts of Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire and Yorkshire. They lie in the southernmost Pennines.

Small settlements of stone villages pop out among vast stretches of wild moors, caves lurk in rocky outcrops, escarpments and gorges mark the region, and once in a while mansions loom on the horizon. It is a charming area for cyclists and trekkers.

The park is divided into the Dark Peak and the White Peak portions. We could see both in one day. The Dark Peak justifies its name with stretches of black peat moors, dark granite and gritstone plateau. The landscape is complemented by stories that often add to the atmosphere of such remote places. A few military aircrafts crashed in the area during bad weather and hikers claim to have seen ghost planes – usually wartime propeller-driven planes. Meanwhile, the White Peak is about limestone dales and a lush green landscape.

The drive into Derbyshire perked up when the crooked spire of the St Mary and All Saints church of Chesterfield showed up. The medieval church (from the 13th century) is famous for just that – its spire that leans and twists visibly.

The pretty villages in Derbyshire
Odd Derbyshire
Stately houses loom on the horizon
Derbyshire drives
Caves and woods

The folklore behind it concerns a virgin who was getting married in the above-mentioned and the church was so surprised that its spire turned for a look at the bride. And that if another virgin gets married in the church, the spire shall right itself again.

It speaks volumes, I suppose, of the imagination that can invent such stories.

But it is said that the 32 tons of lead tiles on the spire led to expansion and contraction of the lead and thus the spire is facing the brunt of it.

Now, however dull the day, the lush green of the British countryside never fails to make the heart sigh with pleasure. We passed through the bunting-clad stone villages of Hope, Hathersage and Barlow and arrived at Castleton that is wedged between the Dark and the White Peaks.

Peakshole Water, a tributary of the River Noe, rushes through the middle of the village of Castleton. It is a beautiful little place capped by the 11th century Peveril Castle, a Norman castle that belonged to William the Conqueror’s bastard son, William de Peverel.

We lunched at a 17th century coaching inn called the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese Inn. It was a traditional dark pub with low beams and timbered interiors. A list of the former landlords of the inn were scrawled on the beams of the pub. It was so atmospheric, that dark old pub, as we sat and tucked into crunchy beer-battered onion rings, fat chips, gammon and a local brew called Moonshine. Not the hooch that is commonly known but the Moonshine I am talking about is a kind of pale, straw-coloured craft beer that is brewed at the Abbeydale Brewery in Castleton.

The pub where we sat for a spot of lunch.
Pub lunches for us also involve a quest for the perfect onion rings
Pub thoughts

We walked off the torpor induced by the Moonshine with walks around Castleton. At a small antique shop which appeared to be set in another day and age and tightly stacked with decrepit collectibles, we fell prey to the charms of copper kettles. We bought one of those dented copper kettles that show their age and what came free with the service was the humour of the old man who cackled as he wrapped it up for us. “Now don’t you go boiling water for tea in this kettle,” he waggled his finger in our noses. “With all the austerity talk and recession, I have been hearing of people using these kettles to boil water for tea,” he said. After several assurances that we would restrain ourselves, he let us go.

Past a huddle of houses, clustered around the gushing waters of the Peakshole Water, we reached the subterranean chambers of the Peak Cavern. There are three more caverns in the village – Treak Cliff Cavern, Speedwell Cavern and Blue John Cavern. Two of them, Treak Cliff and Blue John caverns, are encrusted with Blue John, a semi-precious mineral, and the mining of it means that the local high street is flush with Blue John studded jewellery.

Peveril Castle sits atop the village of Castleton.
The perfect cuddly mama and her lambs
Billy says hello
Where rabbits get cakes to nibble on
Billy and his friend
Free-range eggs on the farm
Carrot cake from a tea room in Castleton
Castleton’s high street
Charming vista of Castleton
By the gentle stream


Yet it was a grim day for exploring dark chambers, so we spent some time at a farm with a few fat sheep and their lambs, cuddly rabbits whom someone had had the bright idea of feeding buttercream cake and a trio of friendly goats.

Next on our schedule was Winnats Pass, a dramatic, winding stretch through a cleft that is flanked by towering pinnacles of limestone, but one that ignites the imagination to the possibility of various traditions of storytelling.

Drama is quintessential to Winnats Pass

In the mid-1700s, a young runaway couple were eloping to get married and riding through Castleton where they stopped at an inn. A group of lead miners observed the bag of money they had on them, and as the couple set off into Winnats Pass, they were robbed and murdered by the miners. One of the miners is supposed to have broken his neck at the pass, another crushed by stones and a third miner is said to have killed himself. Once the sun sets, the ghosts of the ill-fated couple apparently ask for help. Those of the miners lurk too around the entrance to the pass.

We, I am glad to say, did not meet the couple or the miners.


In the Borneo Bubble

It seems a lifetime ago that I was in the rainforests of Borneo. My husband and I had a big and beautiful Indian wedding (about five years ago). If you have been a part of an Indian wedding, you know you need a few tall drinks and a tropical getaway promptly after.

Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state on the island of Borneo, was our perfectly planned escape. Borneo is divided into three or four parts – the Sultanate of Brunei, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Untamed tropical forests spread out beneath us like swathes of wild green carpet, as we peered down from the flight. Sabah has a nickname. It is called ‘The Land Below the Wind’. It is how seamen from the past used to describe places south of the typhoon belt.

We landed in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and my hair decided to cast a frizzy verdict upon it. The humidity was unbearable and we were in the middle of December. My husband dubbed me Monica (ref: the frizzy hair episode in ‘Friends’).

We had to take a ferry from Jesselton Point, a quaint looking waterfront that is a legacy of Kota Kinabalu’s colonial past when it was known as Jesselton. Once known as North Borneo, Sabah was a British colony between the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

As it always happens when you are tired – and cannot wait to take up on the promise of a luxurious bed – things will go wrong, in a Murphy-esque way. We missed the ferry to the luxurious resort in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park where we had booked a couple of nights stay. With two hours to while away, we decided upon local grub at Nasi Padang Ibu, an Indonesian restaurant on Jesselton Point. Its bland rendangs did nothing for our mood, till I chanced upon glorious caramel popcorn in a large cone. That perfect blend of toasty caramel and butter, washed down with beer, made up for the disappointment of our first meal in Sabah.

When the ferry finally arrived, it took us past a cluster of islands to the biggest of the islands, Pulau Gaya (‘Pulau’ is Malay for island). The Gayana Eco Resort enchanted us straightaway. In the middle of a lagoon, among the startlingly blue waters of the South China Sea, stood a posse of stilted huts. It was a scene out of a postcard.

Gayana Eco Resort



That is how the breakfast arrives at the resort.

Those huts, once we walked into our appointed one, turned out to be villas. My chosen part was the deck and our own little pier. Breakfast arrived everyday by a motorboat. A fascinating spread would be laid out on the deck and we would sit watching the emerald green waters and nibble away at pancakes, freshly baked bread and sausages. If we peeked down into the shallow waters around our hut, lazy-as-lazy-gets Long Tom (that is needlefish) could always be seen to be floating around. We were as lazy as them.

The resort had a marine park centre on the island whose main residents were stone fish, sea cucumber, kingfish, clown fish and puffer fish. One of the centre helpers insisted I touch a few of them. I did, just to indulge his enthusiasm. Shudder.

Nearby, within the waters of the marine park which is named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, were the islands of Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug where one can snorkel and indulge in deep sea diving. We spent time in Malohom Bay bonding with ocean creatures. An abundance of seafood featured on the menu and if you wanted a speckled grouper on your plate, why you had to pay a ransom. It is a delicacy in this part of the world.

It was romantic on Gayana – they serenaded me the first evening that we reached – yet there was hardly anybody on the island apart from us. And I always like social contact on a holiday. I am a people’s person. It made me crave civilization, and by the end of our stay, Gayana was a sharp pinch on the pocket.

I was quite ready for the next leg of our honeymoon.

The most entertaining part of our holiday was spent on the Pantai Dalit beach in Tuaran, a town near Kota Kinabalu. We whooped with joy at the sight of long stretch of soft, white sands which were part of the private beach of Shangri-La Rasa Ria, one of the best properties we have stayed in. The warm reception at the five-star property was soothing and so very Asian in its hospitality. We were upgraded to a suite with a Jacuzzi. For a newly-wed, it is bliss.

We played beach football during the evenings, splashed about in the sea and at night had a cabana to ourselves with Continental-style dinners laid out beneath the stars.

We made the most of a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in the hotel that rustled up mean fish dishes and offered an interactive time with the chef while dining. My husband indulged in a bit of balancing-the-egg-act and had a pleasurable time cooking with the chef.

Now, for the rainforests of Sabah which are home to orangutans. In the vicinity of the beach a path led into the tropical forests. There live some orangutan orphans, protected by Rasa Ria Nature Reserve that offers them a home in their natural habitat.

Orangutans are a protected species because they are dying out.

We had to wait for them beneath a heavy canopy. The tropical rainforests are charming. They barely allow sunlight to filter in, and in those humid climes, it is a welcome respite from the heat. We had to peel our eyes out for them before we spied three orangutans swinging through the branches and making their way towards us with great alacrity. In a while I realized that they were actually making a beeline for the buckets of fruits that had been laid out on a raised platform in the trees. They came closer and we saw three long-limbed females. Their names were Wulan, Katie and Ten Ten.

Swinging around the slender branches of the gigantic trees, they did a few acrobatic feats. Then they decided that they wanted a potshot or two at the gaping crowd below with broken-off bits of branches. So they chucked a few branches down.

Their aim was off the mark. And we came out unscathed.

Rasa Ria


Meeting the orphan orang-utans.


The beautiful cabanas. We had one for an evening.




Sabah is not only about such naughty-playful encounters with orangutans. It is made up of virgin rainforests, emerald green rivers, coral reefs and remote tribes, deep caves, and it is home to Mount Kota Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

We rounded off our bonding-with-nature kinda holiday with exploring the city of Kota Kinabalu. My sister-in-law had gifted us a stay at a hotel which overlooked the bustling waterfront of Kota Kinabalu. I fell in love with the view from the hotel, the colourful barges and fishing vessels floating in the midst of the South China Sea and the local market adjacent the dock.


We indulged in some mall ratting during the day and at night, strolled through the night market that came to life outside the hotel. The overwhelming, almost putrid odour of dried fish had us gagging, but it did not stop us from browsing through the smelly array of dried sea food and worms and sea horses. Colourful sea horses (which look almost unreal) are a speciality in this part of the world. Locals bung them into their soups. Kiosks sell snacks or ‘pusas’ and shopkeepers try to sell you fake versions of designer bags. It is the kind of chaos and life that you see only in the East.

The best bit of a holiday in Borneo is that the budget goes a long way there. It is one of the few tropical paradises that does not break the bank.








































A Medieval Walled Town in Lombardy

There is something so charming about medieval walled towns. If you are a history buff, you can immediately imagine a well-to-do town which would have required protection from marauders. In the posh region of Lombardy, a throwaway distance from Milan, is the medieval walled city of Bergamo. It is a place oft overlooked in by most in their zeal to discover some of northern Italy’s other destinations.

At the edge of the Alps, Bergamo with its enviable perched-up position, is the perfect place to while away time in a deliciously idyllic manner.

I had landed at the airport near Bergamo and taken the bus to Milan. It wound through the beautifully lit up city at night and piqued my curiosity.

On another spring morning, a swift train ride from Milan and I found myself in the two-tiered city that is Bergamo.

Its name was derived from the word ‘berg-heim’ meaning hill-town. Julius Caesar is said to have granted it the status of Municipium (Latin for town or city) in 49 BC and Bergamo was home to Roman military forces for some time.

But the Roman town plan of Bergamo was overridden by the Venetians when they made it a part of the Venetian State in 1428. For over three centuries, Bergamo was a part of the Serenissima (Most Serene) Republic of Venice. The Venetians left behind a legacy that till today gives Bergamo an ancient atmosphere. They constructed the Cinta Muraria di Bergamo, megalithic walls, in the 16th century to defend the city – yet ironically enough the walls were never used for military purposes, just for romantic strolls.

A funicular links the lower and upper parts of Bergamo during summer. But it was the fag end of winter and I had to make my way to Città Alta (meaning Upper City where ‘città’ is pronounced as cheetah with an emphasis on the ‘t’) on foot along the winding axial road of Viale Vittorio Emanuele II. The moustachioed presence of Victor Emmanuel II is all over northern Italy. He was the first king of a united Italy since the 6th century.

Città Bassa
Church of St Mary of the Graces, Citta Bassa.
Porta Nuova

While still in Città Bassa (Lower City), I passed the Porta Nuova (‘New Gate’). If it were the old days and I was carrying goods, there would have been a tax to pay before the erstwhile iron gates would have opened up for me. The gate was erected within the defensive walls that ran through lower town as well and was built in 1837 to mark the occasion of the grand entrance of Ferdinand I, emperor of Austria, to the city. It was subsequently torn down when it stopped serving its purpose as customs border.

Ahead of me lay a charming tableau from a postcard – a hill crowned by domes, campaniles, palaces and towers. In the early 20th century, an architect had purposefully kept the height of the buildings in Città Bassa low. The Città Alta had to stand tall proudly above.

Walking along the Venetian walls, I entered Città Alta through one of its four Venetian gates, the Porta di Sant’Agostino. From atop it, a winged lion known as the Lion of St. Mark and carved in sandstone, proclaimed that the Venetians were here. The ascending road unfolded a town below that was nestled into a valley networked with sloping velvet greens, orchards and a gaggle of villas. In the backdrop were the Bergamasque Alps or the Orobian Alps which are part of the Central Eastern Alps.

In the heart of medieval Bergamo, I got conned by my rumbling stomach into an expensive lunch of soup in a café. Thereafter, all kinds of delectable, baked goodies and polenta sweets mocked at me from bakery windows. In a rueful state of mind, I found myself in Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe (Shoe Market Square), an old square that was supposed to be the city’s market during Roman times. Through it ran Via Gombito, the main road in the centre of the upper city.

Porta di Sant’ Agostino



Torre del Gombito
The bastions and old Venetian walls

A tall tower, that you can climb in a matter of 180 steps – the 12th-13th century Torre del Gombito/ Gombito Tower – stood by Via Gombito declaring its exalted status. During the medieval ages such towers implied power. The bird’s eye view of the city that Torre del Gombito offers is not exclusive to it – the Torre Civica/Civic Tower and a castle too promise spectacular views over the city. Not feeling particularly well (if I were in my elements, I would have climbed all three), I dragged myself up a steep ascent to the castle. The Funicolare San Vigilio takes you to straight to the Castello di San Vigilio, but it was not in operation. Yet when I stood atop the ruins of the castle – the views of the vineyards, villas clinging to the hills, a golden statue on a grey dome down in Città Alta glinting in the evening rays of the sun – it drove away all cares from my mind.

Now, the nerve centre of Bergamo is Piazza Vecchia. In pre-Venetian days, the piazza used to host a grain and fodder market but the Venetians brought down the medieval structures and supplanted them with their own architectural vision.

Piazzas always overwhelm me, in terms of the fact that I never can decide which building should receive the first sigh of appreciation. The Piazza Vecchia is, however, dominated by Torre Civica (Civic Tower) which snags the onlooker’s attention by the virtue of its campanile (bell tower). At the centre of the square stood a fountain that was donated to the city by a podesta (high officials in Italian cities from the late Middle Ages onwards) in 1780. Next to the campanile was the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione, the city’s seat of administration in times past. On the palazzo’s façade, I met our old winged friend, the lion of St. Mark, all over again, but this was only a 20th century replica of the original 15th century carving which was destroyed when Napoleon invaded the city.

Piazza Vecchia with Torre Civica rising above it
Cappella Colleoni













The steep climb to Castello di San Vigilio
The views on the way to the castle are your reward
The sweeping vista of Bergamo from the castle

Directly opposite stood the white porticos of the Palazzo Nuovo/Biblioteca Angelo Mai, which was a town hall in earlier times and a library since the 1870s while northwest of the square was an impressive frescoed building, the Palazzo del Podestà, home traditionally to the Venetian Podesta.

This was definitely a piazza to confound the senses with the amount of buildings it offered up for the senses.

My vote went to a chapel, the façade of which seemed to be almost woven richly in white and red Italian marble. The Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel) is a masterwork of Renaissance architecture. It houses the tombs of the condottiere (military leader) Bartolomeo Colleoni, captain-general of the Republic of Venice during the 1400s, and his daughter Medea. I could quite forgive Colleoni for bringing down the sacristy that had stood at the spot where he built his mausoleum.

The highlight of my trip was walking the narrow alleys of Bergamo, flanked by houses with slatted windows, at the end of which almost always stood out the dome of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, a campanile or the spire of a church. From the beautiful boutiques and shops in Bergamo, it is easy to figure out that it is a town with taste. And taste can sometimes come at a hefty price. Bergamo does require deep pockets.

Post my wanderings in Città Alta, I climbed higher above Bergamo and entered a village, clustered with beautiful old villas and a church at the end of the road. It was quiet village with a few people wandering out from a trattoria after clearly a good meal. Food can do wonders at any given time.



Spot the kitty
Quiet churches in equally quiet villages above Bergamo
Rich chocolate pastries
Venetian gates and Roman aqueducts

A day of exploring the ancient walled town demanded a rich chocolate pastry and tea, after which I made my way back to lower Bergamo, past the old Roman aqueduct. The area around the aqueduct is said to be scattered with caves, secret passages and underground cisterns. A bit of mystery and romance was added to it all when I heard locals speak of the possibility of stashes of the Venetians’ treasure buried somewhere in the caves. Point to ponder. Should I have stayed behind to lay my hands on those hoards?


Stressed in Stresa

I am hardly blue on any trip. Even if I am making a go of it alone. On an evening out with a friend, over a few pints of beer, I was asked recently, “How do you travel alone? Do you really enjoy it?” The friend had travelled solo once and did not have much to say for it. It is a matter of habit I suppose when you keep travelling on your own and start savouring the experience. The fact, however, remains that I miss my husband intensely everywhere I travel on my own.

Stresa, a resort and former spa town for the rich and glitzy from the Belle Epoque era, was the only place in all my solo trips where I was worked up. Waiting out six hours (for a train) in a town that is as dead as a quiet village with only four people in it is a tedious affair.

Before I wade into the whys and hows of my blue state, let me go back to an early morning in March when I took the train from Milan to Stresa. The surroundings changed as the train rolled into Stresa, passing by country cottages in woods populated by tall, bare trees and enveloped in thick snow. The thrill of that transition from sunny to snowy climes – ah, it was special.

On the walk from the railway station to town, I was told by a woman walking her furry four-legged companion that it was unusual for Stresa to see snow at that time of the year. She was referring to its mild Mediterranean climate which is responsible for the lush tropical vegetation around it. With directions, I ambled down to the shores of Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy that spans the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy. At its northern edges, the lake extends into the Swiss canton of Ticino.

When Lake Maggiore loomed up, so did a hotel with a large garden and a distinct neo-classical style of architecture show up on my left. It was at this Regina Palace Hotel that George Bernard Shaw had put up during his time in town. I do not know about you, but I find myself charmed by the thought of my favourite authors and poets preceding me in my rambles.

Hemingway stayed in Stresa and described Lake Maggiore as ‘one of the most beautiful of the Italian Lakes’. Lake Maggiore does have this sublime beauty that surpasses that of Lake Como, which to my mind appeared to be the commercial big brother of the two. In 1918, after he had left his reporting job in the American Midwest and enrolled as an ambulance driver with the Italian Red Cross, Hemingway had been wounded extensively during duty – he was delivering chocolates and cigarettes to soldiers serving at the front.

To convalesce Hemingway arrived at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa. He spent 10 days there as he rowed on the lake, played billiards with a fellow hotel guest, a 99- year-old count, took a trip to Mottarone from where he had a view of the seven Italian lakes and had declared, ‘This beats paradise all to hell’. Yet he was in love with a nurse from Milan and cut his trip to Stresa short to get back to her. Which must remind you of A Farewell to Arms where the hero is Frederic Henry, a Red Cross ambulance driver, just like the author, and who also ends up falling in love with a nurse at a hospital in Milan. Lake Maggiore was featured by Hemingway as the lake which Frederic Henry and his nurse crossed in a rowing boat to escape the Carabinieri. Even the count made an appearance in the novel as Count Greffi.

The amusing bit is that though Hemingway had only a platonic relationship with his nurse, Frederic Henry had a steamy time with his. So much so that the magazine, which was publishing the novel in serial form, was banned in Boston from being put out on newsstands.

Stresa’s quaint railway station
The resort town where Hemingway had stayed and where he had based part of A Farewell to Arms.


The grounds of a grand hotel
Snow clad day
Piazza Marconi


The mode of transport on Lake Maggiore
Avenue of gnarled trees along Piazza Marconi
The Alps

At Piazza Marconi, the docks from where boats take the enthusiastic for excursions to tiny islands that emerge out of the shimmering waters of Lake Maggiore, I watched the morning rays light up the snowy Alps with an ethereal grandeur. In the immediate neighbourhood of Stresa are three islands called Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori and Isola Madre. They are the Borromean islands, named after the Milanese aristocracy that ruled the town. In medieval times, the lords of Castello and Visconti held the reins of Stresa but the Borromeos left their mark on Stresa with their beautiful architectural legacies.

Now there are three reasons why you should not travel before summer to Stresa. One, they shut one of the two Borromean islands; two, another island lies almost unoccupied and uninhabited; and third would be the way Stresa looks towards the end of winter. Which is almost fantastically desolate. Unless you go with a friend or your beloved, it tends to be a lonely experience.

With just about six people including me, the boat chugged on to Isola dei Pescatori (pronounced Pesha-tori). The island of fishermen. This was my favourite of the two islands that I got to lay my feet on. Because on Isola dei Pescatori, life carries on as it did before, as an old fishing community that is home to barely a handful of fifty. A promenade runs around the houses that are built on a higher level and the doors strategically positioned on the inner streets to take care of the flooding that is a common phenomenon there. Narrow alleys are nestled between traditional buildings with arches and cobbled lanes while fishermen’s brightly coloured orange and blue nets hang off walls and the occasional fisherman docks in at the tiny harbour to bring in his haul of fresh catch.

I was wearing neon orange sneakers that caught the eyes of one of the fishermen. He gave me a broad grin and then drawled away in Italian. The plus side of the fact – that there were hardly any visitors on the island – was that I could feel the slow pulse of life on it. The spire of the Church of San Vittore (Victor the Moor) towered over the island and revealed a simple but beautiful ancient chapel that was to a martyr called Saint Gandolfo. It takes about just about all of 15 minutes to make a round of the island – that is how small Pescatori is. I had so much time at hand that I spent about an hour, munching on a slice of pizza on the waterfront, staring at a Virgin Mary standing at the end of the pier. I suppose her presence is of comfort to humans who eke their livelihood from the sea.

Isola dei Pescatori
The houses on Isola dei Pescatori have been constructed so that they are not flooded by the lake waters.
Isola dei Pescatori means Fishermen’s Island and the folk who live here eke out their livelihood just as they had in the years gone by. Only now there are tourists to augment their income.
My seat on the rocks (with a view) on Isole dei Pescatori
Neon orange
Fishing boats on Isola dei Pescatori
Inside the only church on the islet. The Church of San Vittore (Victor the Moor) which has traces of an ancient chapel that is supposed to have been built for the monks of Scozzòla in the mid-9th century.
Life as it is on Isola dei Pescatori.
A man takes off with his boat and four-legged friend.
Isola Bella
The palazzo of Vitaliano VI Borromeo, the founder of the islet, on Isola Bella.
The solitude of Isola Bella when the tourists are away.
Old houses on Isola Bella.
One of a handful of residents on Isola Bella.
Deserted wine bars on Isola Bella.
The quack-y residents of Isola Bella who decided to follow me around. Only I had no crumbs to share with them.
Islet of Malghera and then beyond is Isola dei Pescatori. From the shores of Isola Bella.

A few minutes by boat and I was dropped off at Isola Bella, which when translated means The Beautiful Island. A grand baroque palace, gleaming golden and white, stands on the edge of the island and is filled with treasures of the Borromeos – tapestries woven in silk and gold, medieval frescoes and sprawling gardens. None of which I got to see. The palace was shut for renovations. Count Carlo Borromeo had built the four-storey palace in the 16th century for his wife, Isabella, in the Lombard Baroque style of design. Prior to that Isola Bella was an island of fisherman. What a transformation it must have been. And so very romantic because of the natural grottos that must add a hint of mystery to the gardens that are referred to as Giardino dell’Amore or ‘Garden of Love’.

Isola Bella.

I saw only four to six people on the island, sitting around sunning themselves or behind the counter of the odd expensive looking boutique. The other inhabitants of the island were a solitary cat and a trio of ducks who insisted on following me around. I have a feeling that tourists feed those ducks enough for the quacking four-legged beings to get excited when they find a two-legged one walking around unsuspectingly. So, I was stalked by ducks.

In between Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella, I spotted the Islet of Malghera which is known as Lovers’ Island and stands out of the lake as a small outcrop swathed in dark vegetation. Its beach, I am sure would be the perfect spot for some sunbathing and skinny dipping. But the boat does not make a stop there. As also it did not make a trip to Isola Madre because of the season I had chosen to visit Lake Maggiore in. And I had really fixated on the gorgeous Renaissance palace that looms over Isola Madre even as I had spied it from Stresa. It is supposed to be quite the paradise-on-earth kind of an island.

Within about an hour and a half I was back in Stresa. With six hours at hand before I could catch the train back to Milan. I spent time mooching around the promenade with its surreal view over Lake Maggiore and the majestic Alps. I sat and read on stone benches by the promenade and I daydreamed about how it must have beguiled Dickens and Lord Byron with its beauty. Had they sat on the same spot as me?

The town acquired the tag of a tourist destination for the wealthy during the 19th century when grand villas came up on it. The Simplon Tunnel opening up and passing through Stresa in 1906 certainly did the rest. The beautiful people of the Belle Époque adopted Stresa as their own favourite spa town and it never looked back as a haunt of the rich and the famous.

Lake Maggiore kinda selfie (and I am quite terrible at it).
The boulevard in Stresa next to Piazza Marconi.
Contemplative mermaids in Stresa.
The resort town wears a deserted air when there are no tourists around.
Iced houses
The main thoroughfare to Mottarone. But for cars it seemed. Because I got a fair bit of bewildered looks from the carabinieri passing by.


I spent time lunching for a lengthy couple of hours at a café by the promenade and then, later, when I could not stand sitting on the promenade any more, I decided to walk up to Mount Mottarone. As soon as I reached the main road leading up to the mountain, I was the recipient of honks and suspicious looks from Carabinieri passing by. The road was flanked by snow piled high on the sides. A hike to Mottarone was beyond the realms of possibility and the cable car to it not plying at the time – with a huge sigh I gave up on dreams of seeing the seven Italian lakes from atop the Mottarone and scurried back into town.

My last hours in Stresa were spent shivering on the promenade. Oh, it was unaccountably freezing, that evening. I did take refuge in a café for a long, long time over a few cups of coffee and pastries. The only people who sat as long in the café were a trio of women. When they were about to leave, the oldest of them – a dame with white hair, wrinkled skin and the kindest smile – turned to me and chattered away in Italian. From what I could figure out, the middle-aged women were her two bambinas (little girls). With arrivederci and sweet smiles, she left me to my own device.

Thus it was that I finally got on the train from Stresa to Milan. My nerves thoroughly undone.