The bad bit is the bit of highway that reaches from Florence north to Milan and Torino. The E35 stretch of Italy's A1 artery is one of the ugliest drives I've ever taken, with an electrified Mussolini-era train line on one side, and factories and warehouses everywhere else. The industry to blight this landscape? Food. And good food at that. This is the road that connects such culinary capitals as Parma (...giano), Modena (balsamic vinegar) and Bologna (as in Oscar Meyer, but more). Perhaps the side roads reveal the region's rich farmland to be a bucolic idyll, but as it was, the prettiest thing we saw from the E35 was ye olde Barilla spaghetti factory:
As you can plainly see, Villa d'Este was a sight for sore eyes.
Even the bathroom amenities were stunning:
And I could hardly complain about the view from our terrace:
Do you have a bucket list? One hundred 'holy cow' things that you just have to do before you die but pretty much reckon you never will? Well, number 42 on my list was to cruise Lake Como in a Riva, and on day two of our three night stay at Villa d'Este, 42 came true.
Welcome on board! Please make yourself comfortable while we head up the coast and meet the neighbours.
This first house, in a platinum blonde yellow, is Donatella's.
This next one, with the very private garden and gazebo, belongs to my mate George. (That's Mr. Clooney to you.)
And finally, this sprawling estate, with the sharp looking Cyprus trees, is Sir Richard's.
I can't remember the name of our captain but he was evidently a sharp wit. Like me.
That night we headed up the hill behind the hotel to have dinner at Il Gatto Nero, allegedly my mate George's favourite restaurant, although I suspect that a lot of places in the area claim to be George's favourite restaurant/bar/turkish bath. It was nonetheless spectacular, with friendly service, fabulous food and an amazing view.
It also had an amusing menu:
In case you're wondering, the veal with tuna souse from the cat looked and tasted much more appetising than the description suggested.
Now I'd like you to feast your eyes on this:
Check out the moustachioed dude and his nifty goatee-ed friend. At first I thought they were Italians; the kind of Italians that you don't mess with unless you wanna swim with the fishes. But boarding the small boat to the town of Como together (this secret spy shot was snapped waiting at the ferry dock) I overheard them speaking English with a distinct Manchester accent. What, I wondered, could this group of spiffy Mancunians be up to?
Welcome to Como, host of the annual Swing Crash Festival, with events such as Dance Camp, "The Dirty Stompers" and Vintage Hair Styling - and lots of street dancing and live music in between.
We couldn't believe our luck for visiting Como while such a zany festival was going on. It added a wild party atmosphere to what's already a lovely town with amazing shops, good (and inexpensive) restaurants and little delights around every corner.
And all that is just a 10 minute ferry ride away from the picturesque village of Cernobbio and Villa d'Este, which ain't no Bologna.
Style File Followers Take Note:
1. Apart from all the food factories, Ikea's massive main Italian distribution centre is located on the E35. It took us almost a minute to drive past - it was that huge.
2. I know what you're thinking and don't worry: I had a pedicure the day after that photo was taken.
3. If you think I'm anal with my packing list mind-maps, check out Richard Branson's trees and tell me he shouldn't be in therapy.
4. The M&S bag should have given it away.
5. Sorry for the ultra-long post but some of those pictures are far too pretty to stay hidden in my c:drive.