Italy's Land of Lakes
by Nancy Whitford Johnstone
Our first view of lovely Lake Maggiore came when our tour guide, Mara Giacometti, spoke over the intercom on the bus from Milan airport. "Look out the right windows" — and there it was, sparkling in the sunlight, far beneath us. Slowly we descended a lower tier of the Italian Alps and drove along the shore until we reached Baveno and the Lido Palace Hotel, our base for a week. Originally a private villa where Winston Churchill and his wife spent their honeymoon, today the hotel is run by a kind and help-ful Italian family.
The eight-day Alumni College in Italy's Magnificent Lake District tour began with a welcome reception and dinner. Our group of 41 Northwestern Alumni Association travelers spent the next seven days in a whirl of activity, including lectures, town walking tours, boat rides, delicious meals (lots of pasta!), and visits to cathedrals in Intra, Como and the glorious duomo in Milan, the third-largest church in the world.
My favorite day was a trip to the Borromean Islands, just off shore from our hotel. Settled and owned by the Borromeo family since the 12th century, the three are very different. Isola Madre, the largest, has a small palace, built in the 16th century, and a wonderful botanical garden. Isola dei Pescatori is a fishing village with seafood restaurants and tourist shops. Isola Bella has a much larger palace, also from the 16th century, built as a wedding gift for the bride of Count Carlo III Borromeo.
My roommate was very relieved when I finally got to see the islands and stopped leaning out the hotel window. I wasn't the only group member who found the islands fascinating. As we departed from Isola Bella, one of the ladies climbed up the somewhat precarious steps on the boat to take a last picture from the prow. As she swayed and aimed her camera, the captain shouted in mock alarm, "Madam, please don't jump!"
Usually on the Alumni Campus Abroad trips, there is an evening meeting with some of the local people. When our scheduled speakers were unable to attend, our guide persuaded her parents, who live across the lake in Verbania Pallanza, to fill in. It was so interesting to learn what family life is like in northern Italy.
Our trip to Lake Como began with a visit to Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo. A short boat ride across Europe's deepest lake took us to Bellagio, where we had lunch. Then we cruised the length of the lake past luxurious villas (including one owned by actor George Clooney) and the famous Villa D'Este hotel.
In Milan we visited the Castello Sforzesco and viewed Michelangelo's Rondanini Pietà, his unfinished last work. Then on to the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Because of the masterpiece's fragility, groups of 25 are allowed in for only a 15-minute guided viewing. I was really impressed by its size and the emotions portrayed.
Our trip to Isola San Giulio in Lake Orta included a visit to the basilica built in 390 A.D. and named for the saint who is said to have banished snakes from the island. When we returned to shore, we toured the town of Orta then enjoyed lovely views of the island during dinner.
We spent our last morning in Stresa, the most well-known town on Lake Maggiore. Some of the group had taken a cable car to the top of a mountain right near the town and said the view was fantastic. We chose just to check out the pretty piazzas and shops before heading back to the hotel, again by boat.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable trip. The scenery is fantastic, with the snow-covered Alps forming the backdrop. I had not been to this area of Italy and am glad I had the chance to see at least a little of it.
Nancy Whitford Johnstone (WCAS52) lives in Naples, Fla.
For more information on upcoming NAA trips visit www.alumni.northwestern.edu or call 1-800-NU-ALUMS.