So Sunday was a partial travel day, and one fraught with a pile up of frustrations. First world frustrations, mind you, but frustrations nonetheless. I guess after hauling around a foreign country for 10 days, you get a little cranky. But with the bad, there was plenty of good.
We packed up our Florence apartment and headed to the train station for a 10am train to Milan and Stresa. I was unable to buy tickets at the kiosk for some reason so we went to the window and waited our turn. Apparently coach was sold out (second class), so I had to buy business class (not part of our budget travel plan) or wait an hour and a half for the next train (waiting is not my forte). OK, bonus, we had complimentary beverage service. But no coffee on the cart, which makes perfect sense because (I’m guessing) the Italians recognize that serving any sort of coffee beverage out of an airpot on a cart (instead of properly pressed through an espresso machine) would be total sacrilege. OK, I have to agree with them. I got water and Joe got a (real) coke.
Our seats were not actually together, but a very kind Italian man (this place is crawling with them….chivalry is a live and well in Italy) switched seats with me so I could sit next to mio figlio. Which reminds me….(tangent alert)…last year we were driving through Torino and the car in front of us stopped, the driver got out and ran around to my side back door. He was looking a little too stylish to be hijacking our car – not to mention he already had his own car which he’d momentarily abandoned – so I opened my window. He explained with great urgency that the belt to my jacket had been caught in the door and was in danger of dragging on the street. I mean really, that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me coming back!
We had to change trains in Milan to get up to Stresa, a sweet little town on Lago Maggiore (kinda like Lake Como but slightly to the west, and no George Clooney.) If you need a snack in the Milano station, go into the centrally located Bistro area. It’s a bit pricier than the cafeteria place on the North side of the building, but worth it. We grabbed a caprese salad with tomatoes, lettuce, fresh bread, oodles of prosciutto and a chunk of fresh buffalo mozzarella the size of a tennis ball…Joe being a new fan of fresh mozzarella and bread, it was the perfect lunch to share on the cattle train.
The next train was packed. There were some American tourists on the train who, well, were sort of the stereotypical American tourists that we try very hard not to be. Kind of loud, hauling a tremendous amount of luggage, entering the wrong end of the car so they had to travel the full length of the aisle with their bags and caused a 10 minute pile-up and were still not seated until we were quite a distance from the station. We deliberately made our way to the exit doors a few minutes before our stop, just in case they were planning another traffic jam. I saw them start to shuffle as we pulled into the station and, truth be told, I should have went back to help them. I can’t see how they could have mobilized their trunks in time to get off the train. (But I had my young son to watch and he was already 10 paces ahead of me….) Note to all: underpack.
Our hotel in Stresa is a short walk from the station. We went directly downhill to the lake so we could walk along the water. Joe kept asking, “Is this one our hotel?” with each Grand Hotel we passed. Nope. Keep walking. We turned up from the water to the town square (just about 100 meters in) and came to Hotel Elena. Mind you, Hotel Elena is not a grand hotel, it’s not fancy, it’s not on the water, there are no bell-hops or chandeliers. And I love it. It is a small family run operation with a bar (and reception and dining area) on the main floor, and maybe 15 guest rooms on the floors above. (I believe the family lives on the first floor). We were greeted with an enthusiastic “Buon Giorno!” from Marco behind the bar, and a warm hug from Laura, the owner. (I think Elena was her aunt.) We’d hoped for a room on the fourth floor but only the third was available. We could still see the peaks of the Alps over the rooftops, and had a lovely view of a rooftop garden next door.
Laura gave us our key and let us get settled before signing in and all. This is our third visit to Hotel Elena and we feel like part of the family. The little balconies overlooking the central square (Piazza Cadorna) are positively charming. We love to sit up there and watch the people below. I particularly like to watch the women setting up the tables in the square in the morning. Opening the canopies, smoothing the tablecloths, sweeping the cobblestones, straightening each chair….everything is done with such deliberateness and care.
So there were a few reasons we came to Stresa. First, it’s a lovely place to relax after a busy week or so in the cities…sort of a vacation from your vacation so you can arrive home rested (and it’s a reasonable distance from Milan Malpensa airport). Second, my husband and I love the amazing food and the charismatic chef at Ristorante La Botta. Third, there is a cable car that takes you up Mottarone mountain (elevation 4892 feet) which is lots of fun and has an incredible view of the lake and surrounding alps. We also like to pop in to the local Carrefour grocery store for souvenirs to take home – like Kinder chocolates, espresso coffee and other little things we can’t get easily at home.
While checking in with Laura I learned that the chef at La Botta was gone and there was a new owner and chef. The Mottarone cable car was closed indefinitely, or until they found funding for repairs (OK, I admit it was a bit shaky the last time I went up it). My only saving grace was a walk over to the grocery store. I did. It was Sunday, and it was closed for the day.
We’d spent the last four hours getting here, things felt like they were unraveling and I was starting to have a little pity party. I left Joe back in the room to test out the abilities of the free wifi, and I went for a walk. To remedy my disappointments I stopped at a new gelato place…well. new to me, I hadn’t seen it before. It looked homemade. I chose something called Viola. It was pale purple. I’m thinking it was violet or lavender, I know it was delicious. (Trying to figure it out though, there seems to be a famous “Viola Gelato” maker too….more research required) I also added Riso Flan – rice pudding(?) gelato. Totally yummy. Things were looking up. (I swear a good gelato can solve a lot of problems). Strolling up the street, however, I found myself standing against a stone building, eating gelato in the sunshine, and watching this:
I was glad I had my sunglasses on when the tears (of joy!) began….I was standing in the warm sun, enjoying a delicious gelato, watching old men play bocce. On a Sunday afternoon. In Italy. Life really was OK. Fabulous even.
We decided to check out La Botta that night. We dined early and had a nice chat with the new owner. The wife is the hostess and runs the front of the house, the husband is the head chef. They trained with the old chef for a few months while they transitioned the business. The menu was almost identical, the vibe was not quite so boisterous (but we were early), a line was growing outside the door, and the food was delicious. I recognized the edgy tattooed waitress from last year – she has been working there for 17 years. We enjoyed broiled mozzarella with speck (an unusual presentation but made sense in this alpine part of the country where speck is dominant and cheese is often melted), gnocchi (like fluffy pillows!) with venison ragu, risotto with gorgonzola and pears (a flavor combination I’ve enjoyed in tortellini at Quattro Leoni in Florence and on bruschetta in Rome), wine, desserts and water. And as part of the ambiance – a bowl on peanuts in the shell on the table. We thanked the owner when we left, wished her the best of luck, and told her we hoped to see her next year. I hope we do.
For a bustling little town, Stresa really quiets down in the evening. We bid Buona Notte to the mountains in the distance before turning in for an incredibly peaceful sleep.