After sunning ourselves lakeside in Lugano we followed a narrow windy road east over the Italian border and down to Lake Como, holding up a tailback of frustated cars in our wake. The drive along the Lakes western shore was exquisite, piloting through little cobblestone towns and past baroque lakeside villas, our van weaved and farted. The old-lira town of Bellagio clung on the opposite shore, bathed in the afternoon sun. This was the retreat of the worlds rich and shameless, of Berlesconi and George Clooney. Eventually we arrived in the town of Como, and hunted for a good hour in the maze of the old city trying to find a decent parking spot where we could sleep the night without a ticket. We wandered through the piazzas and covered archway streets to the lakeside for a meal. I don’t know whether the lake has risen or the town is subsiding, but a fair section of the waterfront was knee deep in lake water, forcing some shops and restaurants to close. That night we listened to a free concert of a tight band playing kind of afro-world music while sipping an overpriced Peroni, and then slept in our van on a steamy night. That night, some prick stole one of the handle grips off my bike of all things.
After Como we took what our road atlas had marked as a scenic route to Bergamo, though whoever gave it that designation must have have had an aesthetic fondness for car wrecking lots and abandoned factories. Like many other European cities that can trace their history to pre-Bananarama days, Bergamo was made up of a historic old city and a regular options-not-included city where people give the impression of going about their business. In Bergamo’s case, the historic city was perched on top of a hill surrounded by revetments and high walls, and limited parking. We had a walk through it’s medieveal lanes with a particular quickness in our step, as both of us were busting to find a toilet. After success, we actually looked at the boutique shops and delis that lined it’s streets, buying the makings of a fine sandwich. While we scoffed this down looking out over the hazy vista of the lower city and plains, we debated where to head next. We decided we’d go straight down the guts of northern Italy and follow the line ancient roman Via Emilia from Parma to Ravenna.
Avoiding Milan, that i’ve always found an ugly city, we headed out across the flat plains of the Po valley through Cremona to Parma, of ham and cheese fame. We had some interweb business to do, so our main experience of Parma was a 4 story carpark and a north african phone and internet cafe near the train station. After a long sweaty session in the nonAC phone booth like cubicles, we drove that night near a park across the river and cooked dinner. We were running low on water so I took a collapsible carrier and filled up at local trendy bar. I copped a few questioning looks as I man-handled a bulging thirty litres back through the bar, but they were lucky I didn’t take a “travellers” shower while I was at it.
The next day we headed along the the straight and congested single-lane Via Emilia, opting for a roadside deli between Parma and Emilia Reggio to try some local procuitto crudo and parmesano reggiano that went down a treat. Becheesed, we continued eastward to Modena, of Pavarotti, Balsamic vinegar and Ferrari fame. Ferrari was a 14km hike out at Maranelo, and I’d prefer to drive one than look at it. And with the fat man having aria’d his last, we opted to have a look at a balsamic producer, Karina and I being big fans of the tangy vinegar. On the edge of Modena in an unlikey looking house near a railway overpass, we found a local producer of the good stuff. Georgio, a 6 foot 5 lanky bloke with a big moustache and smile, showed us around his house and attic filled with small barrels and the lovely sweet/sour smell of the fermenting vinegar. While the process had quite a few steps, and called for taste and judgement in a 15 – 20 year cycle, it didnt seem that there was an awful lot to do except sit out in the front yard ad read the paper, which is what we’d interupted him doing. A bloody good business, but heavily controlled by modena syndicate who control and protect their monopoly. The end results were something special; dark, rich and complex, and we splashed out on a bottle for future enjoyment.
After Modena we arrived in the big city of Red Bologne, with it’s sprawling heart of covered walkways, renaissance architecture, and ubiquitous red walls. We stayed the night in a campground on the edge of town, mainly because it boasted the respite of a swimming pool, and spent the next day wandering the city transfixed by it’s sartorial splendour as each new street presented itself. That night, after a spag bog I felt complelled to order (tasty, but not incredible. there’s only so much you can do with it) in a romantic open air restaurant, they started showing a free movie, Brokeback Mountain, in the main piazza by Neptune’s fountain. Given Italian mens macho self-image and catholic upbringing, I was surprised that this story of cowboy man-love pulled a huge and appreciative crowd that filled up the whole square, but it’s possible modern Italians are more open-minded than I give them credit for. I thought Heath Ledger’s introverted cowpoke was another fine example of his acting chops, underlying what a waste of talent it was when he popped his clogs on pills. We spent another sweaty night in the van in the city centre, waking up to a cappocino and breakfast at a cafe. We decided to head for the Adriatic coast at Ravena. Stay tuned