Landschlacht, Switzerland, 1 December 2017
Soon, thoughts of expatriates will turn to thoughts of home as Christmas draws ever closer.
My American friends will wish to fly back to California and Florida, Boston and Philadelphia.
My Canadian friend will wish to fly to Nova Scotia to proudly show off her new daughter, while my Indian friend resident in Canada will fly to Delhi to proudly show off his one year old son.
As for my coworkers, our Ethiopian to Addis Ababa, our Nepalese to Kathmandu, our Turks to Turkey, our Swede to Sweden, and so on, while the Swiss that surround me will probably want to go back to their villages and visit their friends and family for the holidays.
As for me and mine, we will work over much of the holidays as sick people still need tending and coffee drinkers still need coffee.
While the Mamas and Papas sing in my mind´s jukebox:
Above: The Mamas and the Papas: Left to right – Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty and John Phillips
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray.
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
On such a winter’s day
Stopped into a church
I´d passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I began to pray.
You know the preacher likes the cold.
He knows I’m gonna stay….
On such a winter’s day.
The desire to be somewhere else, anywhere else, is strong.
To be in some sort of faraway California where we could be safe and warm, instead of wrestling with the constant anxieties our respective jobs contain as we struggle against worsening weather and we hear ad nauseum infinitum of colleagues and companions about to jet off here, there and everywhere while we remain behind to fight the fight absurdium.
And in the process we forget the joys and benefits of remaining here.
I think about past travels and ask myself:
Does anyone actually learn anything from all the travel we do?
I think back to our own vacations together this past year….our trip to Reichenbach Falls, our summer fortnight in northern Italy, our October week in London, and I ask myself….
Do we travel simply to escape the trivality of our normal lives of quiet desperation?
Is travel only a means to relax or is wanting to walk away from my travels somewhat better than I started putting too much pressure on this period of time?
Of all the books I treasure in the library I have been building for myself over the past two decades, I have come to love the writings of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and his best seller The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims´ Progress, which humourously chronicles his excursion through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travellers in 1867.
As I write this blog and describe the places where I have travelled I hope that Twain´s complaints about others´ travelogues are not applicable to my own writing.
Granted I am not prone to lampooning or often writing in a humourous vein, and I can live with that assessment, but I do sincerely hope that I don´t regale my poor readers in such a way that they find me to be bland, pointless or repetitive.
I admit to a love of history but I hope that my historical anecdotes do not detract from the uniqueness of the present moment´s recollections.
For it is my intention to make a place as understandable as possible in ways that modern travel guides seem to fail, in their focus in helping the foreign traveller find as much as the common comforts he left behind everpresent wherever he travels, and show both the contrasts and comparisons between places….to celebrate the unique while embracing the common humanity.
I have often felt that the biggest problem with our modern world that we are so focused with the moving from place to place that we have forgotten about the significance of what lies between these places.
We have reached a point where only certain locations are designated worthy of being named places and the landscape has become an unimportant generic blur to be tolerated and travelled through as quickly as possible.
We forget that who we are is where we are, wherever we are at a given moment in time.
Wherever we go, there we are.
We have become indifferent and impatient with what lies between our starting-out point and our destination.
The faster we travel, the more we miss.
We have forgotten how to live in the here and now.
Lago di Lecco, Italy, 3 August 2017
Twain and I share similar observations about Lake Como:
Above: Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
“I always had an idea that Como was a vast basin of water shut in by great mountains.
Well, the border of huge mountains is here, but the lake itself is not a basin.
It is as crooked as any brook….
There is not a yard of low ground on either side of it – nothing but endless chains of mountains that spring abruptly from the water´s edge, and tower to chains of mountains that spring abruptly from a thousand to two thousand feet.
Their craggy sides are clothed with vegetation and white specks of houses peep out from the luxuriant foliage everywhere.
They are even perched upon jutting and picturesque pinnacles a thousand feet above your head.
Again, for miles along the shores, handsome country seats, surrounded by gardens and groves, sit fairly in the water, sometimes in nooks carved by nature out of the vine-hung precipices, and with no ingress or egress save by boats.
Some have great broad stone staircases leading down to the water, with heavy stone balustrades ornamented with statuary and fancifully adorned with creeping vines and bright coloured flowers – for all the world like a drop curtain in a theatre, and lacking nothing but long-waisted and high-heeled women and plumed gallants in silken tights coming down to go serenading in the splendid gondola in waiting.
A great feature of Como´s attractiveness is the multitude of pretty houses and gardens that cluster upon its shores and on its mountain sides.
They look so snug and so homelike, and at eventide when everything seems to slumber, and the music of the vesper bells comes stealing over the water, one almost believes that nowhere else than on the Lake of Como, can there be found such a paradise of tranquil repose.”
Lake Como is Paul McCartney´s Mull of Kintyre, Linda Ronstadt´s Blue Bayou, James Hilton´s Shangri-la.
While Twain and his companions voyaged by steamer down the Lago di Lecco from Bellagio, my wife and I drove through wild mountain scenery, passed hamlets and villas, with towering cliffs on our left and the pretty Lago di Lecco on our right.
Flanked by these mountains of scored granite, Como´s eastern fork, the Lago di Lecco, is as austere as a priest and fjord-like as an Norwegian postcard.
This is not the Como of George Clooney but rather the Italy of a Jude the Obscure.
One arrives in Como and Bellagio.
The traveller simply gets to Lecco.
Twenty-seven years prior to Twain, Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy) also took a steamer from the promontory of Bellagio.
Above: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 – 1851)
“We found that the lake soon lost much of its picturesque beauty.
Manzoni and Grossi have both chosen this branch of the lake for the scene of their romances, but it is certainly far, very far, inferior to the branch leading to Como, especially as at the end of the lake you approach the flat lands of Lombardy and the bed of the Adda.
At Lecco, we hired a caleche for Bergamo.”
Lecco is a workday world, a centre of commerce.
And yet some culture managed to escape this ancient town of ironmongers that unceremoniously straddles the River Adda, defenselessly striving to reach the safety of the Lake from the roughness of her passage.
Twain did not try to sing Lecco´s praises and spoke little of it except to say he was there to leave a steamer and board an open barouche with a wild and boisterous driver, hellbent determined to reach Bergamo within two hours so Twain´s party could meet the train.
Lonely Planet doesn´t touch the town with a thesaurus nor does Rick Steeves or any of the other guidebooks designed for the Anglo traveller.
Rough Guide begins its description of Lecco with the words:
“You almost certainly won´t want to stay in Lecco.”
Rough Guide expends itself exhaustively telling the trapped traveller how to exit Lecco posthaste: hop on the bus, Gus; take the train, Jane; there´s the ferry, Mary.
Clearly, there must be 50 ways to leave your Lecco.
Then RG suggests that if you have time to kill you could pop into the Basilica or visit the Villa Manzoni.
If you have time to kill?
Not exactly slaying the reader with seductiveness or enthusiasm.
Even the local Lake Como tourist guidebook, created by folks whose job is to compel the reader to explore the region, uses words like “industrious” and “commercial” to describe Lecco, in a manner similar to describing a blind date as possessing “a great personality” as if her beauty were so minimal as to not warrant description.
Anglo writers fail to generate even the slightest spark of interest in the town and guidebooks written for them reflect this.
Leave it to the underestimated, much-maligned Germans to save the day, for how easily we forget that it was they who invited the romantic novel and seductive poetry that can respectfully rival even Keats and Shakespeare.
These are the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that most famous of German writers, who while admitting that his people can be detail-obsessed in their “Ordnung ist Alles.” (order is everything) methodology, seeking to grasp the nature of all that he sees in his Italian Journey:
Above: Goethe in the Roman Campagna, by Johann Tischbein
Trento, Italy, 11 September 1786
Above: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
“I console myself with the thought that, in our statistically minded times, all this has probably been printed in books which one can consult if need arise.
At present I am preoccupied with sense impressions to which no book or picture can do justice.
The truth is that, in putting my powers of observation to the test, I have found a new interest in life.
How far will my scientific and general knowledge take me?
Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes?
How much can I take in at a single glance?
Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced?
This is what I am trying to discover.”
Lecco, Italy, 3 August 2017
Eberhard Fohrer – what an uninspiring name – the writer of Michael Müller Verlag´s Comer See Reiseführer, though not so verbose as the reader might hope, still manages to pique interest in this industrious and commercial town with a great personality.
Fohrer speaks of how the town nestles besides the lake with its long promenade of large trees and how pedestrians pleasantly stroll between sidewalk cafés and open air restaurants, shops and boutiques.
Lecco, lying at the southern extremity of the east branch of Lago di Como where the River Adda adds its substance to the lake, seems as disregarded as one´s nether regions or the heel of one´s foot.
Does no one see the imposing outline of Mount Resegone that has protected the town since Roman times?
Can no one sense romantic purpose to the determined currents beneath the Ponte Visconteo as plain plains have wrought lovely lake?
Does not the Palazzo della Paure (Palace of Fears) still inspire trepidation to the visitor as it did to the citizenry who were compelled to leave their taxes within?
Can no one sense the quiet majesty of the Basilica with its high neo-Gothic 98-metre bell tower and 14th century Giottesque frescoes and feel the divine protection from the relics of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and boatmen?
Is there no history worth discovering within the Torre Viscontea which once belonged to a mighty castle guarded by long high walls?
Is the neoclassical Teatro della Societa or the rationalist Justice Building on Piazza Garibaldi unworthy of a glance, a photograph, or even a mention?
Is Lecco nothing more than a historical hub, the frontier´s border between beauty and boredom?
Is Lecco simply a place to disembark, to fuel up, to stock up, before dashing down to Bergamo or eagerly anticipating the much-touted delights of Como and the other branches of the lake?
The town contains over 48,000 people.
Are they nothing more than unwilling residents resigned to their fate or do they simply exist to serve those rushing through?
Yet can not poetry, literature, music, adventure and progress not emanate from such a place?
Lecco has produced some citizens that stand out for attention:
- Alessandro Manzoni (1785 – 1873), poet and novelist, author of the Italian classic The Betrothed
- Antonio Ghislanzoni (1824 – 1893), journalist, poet and novelist, who wrote many librettos for the great composer Verdi
- Carlo Mauri (1930 – 1982), a great climber and explorer
- Antonio Rossi, Olympian kayaker and five-time medal winner
Just to name four that even the foreigner can learn about.
This is not a “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” kind of town.
Of the aforementioned four, the casual visitor quickly deduces that it would take very little convincing for the town to rename itself Manzoniville as his name and image seem to be everywhere.
Above: The Villa Manzoni, Lecco
There is the Villa Manzoni, the Manzoni Monument, the Piazza Manzoni….
Above: The Manzoni Monument
Manzoni, Manzoni, Manzoni….
Who knows who this is, outside of those who are Italian or who study things Italian?
Above: Alessandro Manzoni
Lecco won´t help you in your quest if you don´t read Italian, for the stores don´t seem to stock his classics in translation.
Which is a shame, really, for Manzoni was considered so talented a writer that the Count de Gubernatis remarked that there was “one genius having divined the other” when the great Goethe defended Manzoni against attacks on his first tragedy Il Conte di Carmagnola which in its day violated all classical conventions of how a poet was supposed to be poetic.
The death of Napoleon in 1821 inspired Manzoni´s powerful stanzas Il Cinque maggio (The 5th of May), one of the most popular lyrics in the Italian language.
Above: Napoleon on his Deathbed, by Horace Vernet
The political events of 1821 and the imprisonment of many of his friends, seeking Italian liberation from Austrian suppression, weighed much on Manzoni´s mind, so he sought distraction in historical studies.
These studies suggested his greatest work, I Promessi sposi (The Betrothed).
The Penguin Guide to European Literature notes that “the book´s real greatness lies in its delineation of character”.
The heroine Lucia, the Capuchin friar Padre Cristoforo, the saintly Cardinal of Milan…
These are what Republicans should model their Christianity upon, instead of the weak perverse President upon whom they serve.
The novel, much like Lecco itself, is rich in pictures of ordinary men and women, filled with irony and disenchantment which always stops short of cynicism.
In 1822, Manzoni published his second tragedy, Adelchi, turning on the overthrow by Charlemagne of the Lombard domination in Italy, with clear allusions to the existing Austrian rule.
Above: Statue of Charlemagne (742 – 814), St. Peter´s Basilica, Vatican City
Manzoni was brought up in several religious institutions and his wife´s conversion to Catholicism led him to become an austere Catholic intensely interested in the subject of human morality.
He tried to lead a life true to his beliefs.
For example, in 1818, when Manzoni had to sell his paternal inheritance as his money had been lost to a dishonest agent, rather than having his heavily indebted peasants compensate him for his losses, Manzoni not only cancelled the record of all sums owed to him, he allowed the peasants to keep for themselves the whole of the coming harvest.
Yet much like Job, Manzoni´s faith would be sorely tested.
His wife died in 1833, preceded and followed by the death of several of his children.
Manzoni married again, but his second wife also died before him, as did seven of his nine children from both marriages.
The death of his eldest son in 1872 hastened Manzoni´s own demise.
He was already a weakened man when on 6 January 1873 while exiting Milan´s San Fedele Church, he fell and hit his head on the steps and died after five months of cerebral meningitis, a complication of the trauma.
Above: Chiesa San Fedele, Milano
His funeral was given great pomp and ceremony, attended by princes of the realm and great officers of state.
Above: Manzoni´s funeral procession in Milan
Giuseppe Verdi´s (1813 – 1901) Requiem was written to honour Manzoni´s memory.
Yet outside of Italy, distant from the 19th century, I, like many non-Italians, had to ask:
“Alessandro Manzoni? Who?”
Does our education teach us nothing beyond the national or linguistic love of ourselves?
Have the Bielievers of our society any clue as to who Verdi was or that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in The Big Bang Theory or The Simpsons?
Do they know or care that there was life and love before Kayne West and that self expression does have and should have its moral limits?
Above: Kanye West taking the microphone from Taylor Swift, MTV Video Music Awards, 13 September 2009
This grumpy old man accompanied by his truly lovely lady strolled through the town which, by the time of our arrival, was slowly ending its business day.
The Villa was closed, the shops shuttered, the streets mostly devoid of pedestrian traffic, yet Lecco still quietly charmed us.
The Cathedral did not need throngs of tourists to reveal its importance, nor did the promenade need scores of visitors to suggest it was a place worth lingering on.
The human spirit, much like the human mind, must sometimes meander about in unfamiliar marketplaces and wander uncharted and unheralded towns.
Let the Rough Guides dissuade their sychophants from visiting.
Let Lonely Planet lead the Australians to another pub and the English to yet another club.
Steeves is blind to Lecco´s hidden charms and Frommer caters to the armchair traveller who will only leave his comfort zone when there is no other choice.
Let´s Go to that budget bistro, the door of which no local´s shadow will cross.
Or instead we can find in a place like Lecco, that industrial, commercial, unloved, unremarkable lady of a town that unwavering strength of character that Manzoni could see and so eloquently showed.
Como has charisma and Belgamo has beauty, but Lecco is…real.
We too had made the error of following the advice of guidebooks and disregarded the possibilities of Lecco beyond a few hours´ visit.
Our prepackaged, preplanned trip, though not at all horrible, did not allow for much spontaneity.
Our night´s accommodation lay outside of Lecco´s limits in better advertised, more recommended, Belgamo.
We did not remain in Lecco, but Lecco remains in us.
May we have the strength of character to visit her again.
Sources: Wikipedia / Google / The Rough Guide to Italy / Lariologo, Lake Como: Itineraries and Photographs of Lario, Ceresio and Surrounding Valleys / Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us about the World / Eberhard Fohrer, Comer See / Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey / Alessandro Mansoni, The Betrothed / Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy / Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad