Lake Como and Monza Part 1
by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe
With the August rain hammering against the steamed windows of the local coffee shop, and in between the clinks and whoosh of cups and espresso machines I sat down for a long overdue catch up with my good friend Shaun. Shaun, I’ve known since High School and since we left that place many years ago we’ve always stayed in touch and our social meetups often involved two wheels. We’d cycled over Ireland together, the Isle of Man and would spend most weekends in a variety of weather, laughing and joking on our cycle rides. Yet, this was the first time in a year I’d seen him! Busy work commitments, my focus on finishing my PhD and a series of injuries this year meant neither of us had ventured out onto our bikes in a year, and our usual rides and catch-ups had been absent, except for the odd message here and there.
It was good to catch up, we had a lot to catch up on! Towards the end as the last drops of coffee dripped down the side of the cup, he asks “Fancy doing the Italian Grand Prix in a few weeks time, mate?”. Within 24 hours and many phone calls and messages later, flights, tickets, apartment were booked, and a rough itinerary agreed. We were off to Monza!
Monza is an iconic grand Prix, in fact, it’s the fastest Formula One GP on the calendar. One of the iconic historic tracks, along with Silverstone. I hadn’t made an F1 trip for a few years, I’ve spent many a coin in Silverstone and even abroad to Valencia for the now-defunct European GP race with my Bro Luke. A trip I remember fondly, having a holiday based around an F1 race is undoubtedly a good excuse as any to getaway! Truth be told, I needed the break. Since finishing the PhD I haven’t actually been away anywhere, and Italy was a place, despite my many travels, I hadn’t been to. Add to the fact that I hadn’t been away at all in 2019 (which for me is shocking! In 2017 I went away for a week or more every month, including Iceland and Canada and in 2018 another busy travel year with the highlights being Croatia, Switzerland and Norway) so I was desperate to get travelling again.
We agreed that we’d base ourselves out of the more expensive Lake Como (a place that is consistently on travel sites as the must-visit places in Italy) rather than the cheaper Bergamo, for a few logistical reasons. The flights were sold out on the Friday and the Monday to and from Milan in Manchester, with to my surprise, Ryanair being the only one to offer a daily flight to Milan from the North West. With Ryanair being Ryanair, their airport called Milan isn’t actually in Milan at all but situated in a town called Bergamo, an hours drive from Milan! So that meant a Thursday to Tuesday trip, five days we agreed in Bergamo was a bit too much. As pretty as Bergamo looked, five days would be a tall order, despite how cheap it was, i.e. £100 each for five nights! Also, to get to Monza, we’d have to get a 40-minute train into Milan and then another 40-minute train to Monza, with everyone else. Which would be chaos, especially after the race with everyone else heading to Milan. A bit of research and Como would be an hours drive to Milan from Bergamo and then a 40-minute train to Como. To get to Monza would only be a 20-minute train each day, going against the flow of everyone else. So we decided on that, plus Como has a hell of a lot more to do!
With an 8 a.m. flight, we were off to Europe after a godawful .4 a.m. start and drive to Manchester (thanks for the lift as always to the legend that is my Dad!). Manchester is still a lousy airport to travel through, but it was for once, rather painless. We did laugh as we boarded the priority queue with every else on the plane doing the same, only 4 people were not priority! It was something out of a Come Fly With Me sketch! After an hours sleep on the plane, I woke up as we were flying over Switzerland, the blue lakes and Alps reaching up towards us through the clouds. As we descended further, we flew into Italy, across the sprawling Lake Como, over the airport before hooking left onto the approach. There is a joke in the Aviation Community about Ryanair pilots being Carrier pilots, along with plenty of youtube compilation clips. On arrival, we hit the runway so hard I thought the struts were going to erupt through the wings. Brutal.
On landing, however, is one of life’s best moments, that blast of heat and sun as you walk outside of the plane. That sure-fire sign that you’re finally on holiday! We had left 9c and arrived in 26c and blue skies, the alps glimmering in the distance. Yaas! We were off the plane and through immigration and waiting for our bag all within 5 minutes. Why any Brexiteer wants to stand in a non-Eu Queue for years is beyond me, but then again I guess they wouldn’t holiday in Europe would they? That would be a bit hypocritical! After getting our bags, we walked out of the busy terminal and into the simmering sun to find a bus. To get to Como, we had to get into Milan’s central train station and then catch a train to Switzerland which stopped at Como, the final stop before the border. Lucky, despite Bergamo being an hours drive from Milan, all the other low-cost airlines use Milan-Bergamo airport and therefore there is no shortage of bus companies offering one-way tickets between the airport and Milan station for between 5 and 8 euros.
We were ushered onto a coach by an Italian Will.i.am including glasses and jaunty hat, paid him our 7 euros and basked in the relief from the sun in the air-conditioned cabin. The hour drive on the motorway and through villages was an excellent way to appreciate some of the countryside. However, what was a shock to both Shaun and me is how utterly terrible Milan looks. I expected Milan to be a beautiful Italian city, in reality, it gave off the vibe of an old eastern bloc town. It looked incredibly rundown, litter everywhere and most surprisingly, every building and sign had graffiti on it. Every. Single. One! Outside of the station as we got off the coach, with 60s prefab office buildings with a broken window and a scruffy park with beggars in it. Wow. This was not what I was expecting. I am sure there are parts of Milan which are beautiful, but the first impressions were less than impressive. We scurried inside of the mayhem of Milan central station. A huge station with over 28 platforms on numerous levels, going all over Italy and into Switerzland and France. After struggling to find our train and using Google translate we eventually bought our ticket, a whole 3.20 euro! Train travel is dirt cheap here! We spent ages trying to find our train, my go-to Google Maps had a train leaving, but the final destination was not the one on the board. In the end, we asked someone which train for Como. “Platform 5. Run”. We were at this point, on Platform 23 and the train was leaving in 5 minutes. We walked or maybe jogged with our rattling suitcases behind us, dodging the hoards of people. We managed to just bundle ourselves onto the train before it moved off Northwards towards Switzerland. Dripping in sweat but we made it!
As we rattled northwards, swaying in the aisles and being incredibly hot, an English family sitting down next to us asked us if we were off to Monza. We were indeed! We had a great chat as we heading through the Italian countryside. They were staying in Milan and were getting off at Monza to work out how long it would take over the next three days, they were sitting in the expensive seats in the Parabolica whereas Shaun and I were doing the far cheaper option of General Admission (£450 vs £98). We pulled up eventually into Monza station, bid farewell to them and then quickly took their seats (weirdly enough we’d bump into them again on race day!).
After 40 minutes on the train, next stop Como Giaovani station pinged on the tannoy. Como came into view, the coloured buildings clinging to the mountainside, the glimmering lake, the sprawling city below. We had finally arrived!
Exiting the station I phoned the number I was given for our apartment, through broken English and my poor Italian we managed to work out that we’d both arrive in 20 minutes or so. With the phone away, we set off through the town to the apartment on the other side of this lavish place. It had started to cloud over slightly, high wispy clouds increasing the humidity making the 26c heat uncomfortable, especially in jeans, a backpack and lugging a suitcase around. Instantly, the vibe of Como was a world away from Milan. Clean ancient buildings, tree-lined narrow cobbled streets, architecture wherever you looked. Stunning. We weaved in and out of small narrow roads, the buildings close in each decorated with sprawling, green ivy or flower boxes, the different coloured wooden shutters adorning the windows.
Cafes tumbled out into the street, clinks of glasses, laughter and hurried waiters taking orders drifted through the air. Turn another corner, and a square so often found in Europe comes into view. Grand buildings, the hustle and bustle, more cafes. Exiting the square back through more narrow streets, a man with a pin-sharp suit races past on a vesper, followed by a woman on a pushbike with a basket on the front. Stops and enters one of the grocery stores with bright coloured fruit and veg that formed a mountain inside the crates that were stacked against the shop. The smell enticing you in. Another turn, another square, a gigantic cathedral, comes into view. Impressive. Everything about this place was impressive. Another glance at Google Maps, not far to go. A jaunt across the train tracks and taking our life into our hands crossing the main busy road in Como and we arrived outside of our apartment block.
There wasn’t much for us to do except wait for whoever it was to turn up. An odd thing staying in apartments when you’re on holiday, you’re relying on a complete stranger. You don’t know who they are, what they look like, will they murder you or not? I assumed by the 8.6 ratings on Booking.com that I wasn’t going to be killed, but you never know. While we did wait, I gasped in glee as an old Lancia Abarth roared past me. A true iconic Italian rally car. You couldn’t get any more Italian of seeing a Lancia, in Como. All that was missing was the tune of On Days Like These by Matt Monroe. We got a real feel for the “don’t drive in Italy” message that so many people go on about. They go on about it because they’re batshit crazy drivers. We watched in amazement and horror of Fiat 500’s shifting down gears and darting in and out of traffic to make places up. Scrambler bikes and mopeds weaved in and out, overtaking, undertaking, traffic lights being a suggestion rather than a rule. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maseratti, supercar after supercar, their roaring engines echoing off the walls. This place was crazy!
The latter shouldn’t have surprised me much, this place is the go-to summer getaway for the rich. In fact, not only is it one of the most expensive real estate places in Italy but the entire world! The who’s who of people have homes here. I can see why. The lake takes 2 hours by boat end to end, and if it was anything like the bottom, Como, then I can totally see why the rich choose to have their fancy villas dotted all along this gigantic lake. If you could afford to, why would you not? We were eventually greeted by two young students, whether they owned this place or worked for some rich guy who did I don’t know but after showing us around and signing a few papers over we got our keys to a fabulous apartment. Two beds, a kitchen and an unbelievable view outside of our first-floor balcony. Oh, how we’d make us of that this trip!
A quick unpack and we headed out to stock up the fridge with food and beer, mostly beer. I had fallen in love with this place already, it was everything I hoped Lake Como would be. Grand, luxurious, charming but stunningly beautiful. Italian architecture at it’s best. Wow, it felt good to be on my travels again! We took a walk down to the lake first, amazed by the view and how James Bond it all felt as a private Sea Plane took off from a villa and made its way skyward. This is the life! Before stepping into the supermarket, we took a little stop in one of the many cafes in this town, enjoying the warmth and the local beer. I tell you that went down a treat in that heat!
After spending our time browsing inside and then exiting the supermarket, I commented to Shaun how dark it suddenly felt. Those of you who know me know I do a lot of weather stuff, particularly storms and oh boy my storm senses were tingling. In the relatively short space of time the clouds had rolled in, the sun no longer visible, the still air now slowly increasing in speed with a coolness to it. The rain was coming, but the sky always has that look, those telltale signs of instability in the atmosphere. “I reckon it’s going to thunder soon, mate. I have a feeling this place is going to blow in a big way”. Shaun probably thought I was a bit dramatic, to him yeah it had slowly clouded over, but there were no black clouds on the horizon, the wind was gentle if not cooling, but it was ..6 p.m. now, of course, it would be cool. What is Tony going on about!?
We got back to the room and relaxed for a bit before setting about making our tea. To which we realised that we didn’t actually buy any oil for the frying pan, so tea was out of the question. Doh! Annoyingly when the apartment said Kitchen I expected the usual, fridge, sink, hob and oven but it had everything bar an oven or a grill, the only cooking appliance being a hob. A culinary challenge that would turn out to be to create a few hob only dishes! “Fuck. We forgot the oil!” … “ha! Shall we go for that classic Italian dish? McDonald’s?” “Yeah! Why not, we’ll cook tomorrow!”
We ventured back into Como and found a McDonalds, which was the grandest McDonalds I had ever stepped foot in! Using the self-service machine, I browsed the menu. Italian Mcies is far superior, loads more choice, including loaded fries and instead of water or coke, you could order beer! What!? A large chicken nugget meal and hamburger for me for similar prices here. The only problem with self-service is you better hope you know that languages numbers when they call them. We didn’t, so we hung around the front of the service area, and when they shouted if no one claimed it, it was probably ours. We gingerly showed our ticket each time; eventually, I got mine and then Shaun got his Grand Mac which was huge! We step outside, and suddenly all hell was breaking loose. I was right, a storm was brewing and it was close! Everyone else had started to make their way indoors while us typical brits sat outside as the rain began to fall, lightning forked across the sky in the distant alps, the claps of thunder rattling the old town and the wind howled.
I love thunder and lightning storms, I absolutely adore them, but I respect them. Sitting outside in what was quickly becoming one of the most intense lightning storms I had ever witnessed was not our best idea. I promptly ate mine, fighting to stop my fries being launched into the wind. Another clap and flash of thunder, closer, much much closer than before. Over the roar of the wind “How much you got left to eat mate?” I enquire, as another crack of thunder this time overhead. “Errrm, still my grand mac mate!”. We both burst into laughter. He hadn’t even touched his grand mac yet! Whether it was the fear of being killed in one of the most intense lightning storms this place has ever seen, I don’t know, but we laughed about that for ages. How he ate that and didn’t throw up from laughing, I’ll never know. Another rip in the air. It really was time to go. We walked back to the apartment, opened a few cans of beer and watched as the heavens indeed opened and one of the most magnificent, awe-inspiring and frightening thunder and lightning storms light up the ever-darkening sky. We sat in the safety of the balcony watching constant flashes of lightning, a frequency I had never experienced before, forking across the sky, waves of rain, rivers running in the streets.
We stayed outside for hours as the storm got more and more intense, daytime turned to night, not that we noticed much as the flashes continued to go off, the wind continued to gust and howl in the powerful downdrafts of the supercell. But watching nature at her most beautiful and most potent while looking out at a lit-up cathedral with a beer in hand was actually a pretty sweet way to end our first day in Como.
By time ..11 p.m. came, with the storm finally showing signs of moving away in the distance, we called it quits. Shut the balcony up and got into bed. Little did we know, however, that the storm we had just witnessed was an appetiser, to the real storm that was just behind it. It would make itself known in the early hours of the morning, in a massive way!
Part 2 soon!