Lockdown In Paradise: Lake Como

Living the lockdown on the shores of Lake Como: the testimony of a temporarily unemployed tourist guide.

Living the lockdown on the shores of Lake Como: the testimony of a temporarily unemployed tourist guide

By Julia Kolbert

I write from Lake Como. There are worse places to be during a Coronavirus Lockdown. The Romans called the lake ‘Larius’, an ancient Etruscan word meaning ‘the best’. The Romans rarely got things wrong. It has subsequently inspired the greatest artists of the world and caused the English poet Shelley to write, “This lake surpasses in beauty anything I have hitherto seen.” And Menaggio, where I live, is an unsurpassable resort, not only for its gorgeous views, but its position. It is in the famous central lake area, close to the Swiss border and the magnificent Valtellina valley is directly to its north, in the Alps, a gateway up to St Moritz, via the famous Bernina Express train.

Lake Como 2
View of Lake Como from Menaggio

Since March 12, we have endured the strictest lock-down in Europe. The only shops open here have been food shops, the well-patronized chemist (wish I’d been good at Chemistry), the newsagent and the petrol station. One isn’t allowed to walk more than 200 metres — a tough stipulation for those of us without a garden or even a balcony. And for dogs. Theirs has become a real dog’s life. The cat who walks alone definitely has the advantage. Felix has extended his territory to the immaculate lakeside promenade where the human passeggiata is no more. The carabinieri carry out regular road-blocks and have been authorized to use drones for surveillance. One has to carry the latest version of the self-certification form declaring the reason for your brief foray from home. Masks are obligatory in shops and your temperature is taken at the entrance to supermarkets.

Total lockdown was brought on by the national sport of flouting the rules, albeit by the usual minority. The reasons would be entertaining in different circumstances. One young man drove to another municipality to fetch his girlfriend, herself in quarantine — a double infringement. He posted a video on social media of his smiling face, boasting that he would get away with it. He took home a heavy fine, instead of his betrothed. Another lovelorn lad drove to make peace with his girlfriend. She immediately phoned the carabinieri. End of love story. One motorist hadn’t wanted to break his habit of showering at this mamma’s house after work before returning home. Another was on his way to the bank to pay a bill — after it has closed.

The prize for the most breathtaking honesty must go to a man in Naples. He calmly furnished his self-certification form. The ‘reasons for necessity’ box was neatly ticked. He’d even obligingly written the reason: looking for drugs.

However, if you are in total lockdown, Menaggio must be one of the best places to be. Here are the reasons why. First of all, the weather. In a fabulously warm spring, the lake is breathtaking and breathless, with no wind, the pre-Alps and pastel villas reflected in the mirror of its sapphire waters. Today, one breathes in the air, purified by lack of traffic and aeroplanes and there is time to stop and stare. The lines of Henry Longfellow penned here, come to mind;

I ask myself, is it a dream? Will it all vanish into air? Is there a land of such supreme And perfect beauty, anywhere? 

Sweet vision, do not fade away Linger, until my heart shall take Into itself the summer’s day And all the beauty of the lake. 

Secondly, there is the convenience and charm of daily life in Menaggio. The essential shops still open for those rare visits are family-run (even the supermarkets), selling zero-kilometre produce. Gigi, the fisherman, runs his fish shop by the lake with his family. It is open to the natural air, posing few Covid-19 threats and one can buy his immune-boosting fish of the lake, like the lavarello, unique to the Italian alpine lakes and full of Omega-3, which he himself caught that very morning.

Lake Como 4
Gigi the fisherman

One can buy the daily papers (entering one at a time) from the owner, Gianluca and his wife, Silvia and Sergio, an anglophile and brother of Silvia. Silvio the butcher is there at his shop with his son, Marco. Silvio is an Alpino. The Alpini are a mountain army in times of war and nowadays carry out many charitable works. At any festival or ceremony in Menaggio (not just the Alpini’s hearty parties), Silvio is on parade, cooking, organizing the lottery, recounting the names of the fallen at the annual Service of Remembrance, cheerfully giving up his umpteenth Sunday off. All these shops are a few paces from each other, so no car is needed even in normal circumstances.

Silvio the butcher of Menaggio, Italy
Silvio the butcher and his son Marco

Then there is the health care system, second to none in the world, as my more unfortunate guests over the years who have landed up in Menaggio hospital will testify. They have unanimously praised its quality of care, advice and cleanliness. It provides delicious personalized dietary regimes and meals, according to your condition. A friend remembers to this day the excellent ravioli she enjoyed after giving birth. Set high up in the hills above Menaggio, there are stunning views of the lake, which must help the recovery process (if your room/bed is on the right side of the building). It’s a four-star hospital.

Another bonus of living in such an efficient small town is that within half an hour of a plumbing emergency, three plumbers had offered to come and fix the problem.

One feature of life here is different from yours. Our beautiful parish churches remain open for private prayer. Menaggio’s church bells are heard clearly up in the neighbouring villages, a celestial unifier. The Pope has a huge following on state television for the daily mass at 7. The Bishops are angry that PM Conte did not consult them before the latest decree of April 26, which maintains the ban on holding mass.

The news that on Monday May 4, we shall finally be allowed out to walk has been tarnished by the fact that we shall still have to carry with us the state’s self-certification form. People are confused by the latest decree, which contains some vague clauses. One measure allows grandchildren to visit their grandparents but schools will remain closed until September. The governors of some regions have ignored or amended other measures and been taken to task by the government in Rome. Without widespread testing, will there simply be a continuous cycle of in and out of lockdown? No shops in Lombardy can open until May 18, except those already operating — except for the gelaterie. Not as useful as some shops at this stage, but good for the Italian morale. But the overall atmosphere is growing restlessness.

Meanwhile, the swallows and majestic black kite have returned to grace the lake, where the fun and skirmishes of the ducks puncture the silence. It is a joy to watch the swallows skimming the sparkling lake to drink; an image of the liberty which we humans have lost for some time. If you walk across the piazza, its soul in limbo, your footsteps resound. For Italians, who are accustomed to hug and kiss a lot of people in the course of the day, stop for the daily caffeine fix and head to the piazza on a nice day, the regime is challenging.

Lake Como 1
View of Lake Como

This month, I should have been taking our first visitors of the year to the world-famous gardens of the Villa Carlotta, where the famous spring flowering, which draws people the world over, is without compare this year. We have to imagine the abundance of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas as in a dream. Most of us cannot see the frothy wisteria trees. But their scent is heavy in the air. For the tourist industry, whose bookings were exceptionally high this year, the reality is heartbreaking.

Between Menaggio and the Villa Carlotta, a few kilometres away, lies Villa Margherita, where Verdi composed ‘La Traviata’, inspired by his view of Bellagio across the lake. Verdi had within his field of vision the Villa Melzi at Bellagio, whose glorious garden is also usually open to the public and was voted the most beautiful garden in Italy in 2016. Here Franz Liszt found his inspiration in 1837 and wrote, When you want to write the story of two happy lovers, choose the shores of Lake Como for your setting. I do now know any area more obviously blessed by Heaven, neither have I seen anywhere else where the enchantments of a life of love could seem more natural.”

We are sitting it out on the lake, which has been minimally affected by the virus. We are being ‘bravi’; good boys and girls. We wish you the best of luck in your own coronavirus-blighted life. Quarantine was invented by the Venetians against the plague in the 14th century and means 40 days. Our lockdown has been rather longer. But when this surreal life is a memory, the divine beauty of Como, which COVID-19 cannot alter but only enhance, awaits you in happier times. We are ready in Menaggio to welcome both our faithful regular visitors and those of you who have not yet sampled the delights of this incomparable lake, and to greet you with open arms — when that is allowed again.

The lake’s gift is to restore, revive and delight the soul, just as Winston Churchill discovered in September 1945 after the Second World War, which was a far greater slayer of mankind. But that is another story.

Photos courtesy of Sig, Emilio Lanfranconi, Menaggio

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