Saturday, 22 October 2011

Belles abroad: Ladies let loose in Italy

Imagine spending a long weekend in a house with four women you've never met before. The stuff of dreams or nightmares? When I signed up for the Travel Belles first trip to a townhouse in an Italian village, I was crossing my fingers for the former. Established by Margo in early 2010, the Travel Belles has a personal touch that many websites lack, manifested in the fact that its founder wanted to meet her contributors in person. This was no faceless networking event aiming to ascertain what we could all get out of each other in the way of blogger back-scratching, it was a trip designed for a group of women to get to know each other offline, brought together by a shared appreciation of travel (and food).

Our home for the weekend was a tastefully restored townhouse in the piemontese village of Vogogna, nestling in the Italian Alps. Arriving at 8pm on the Milan to Geneva train, I was already suitably excited by my first glimpse of Lake Maggiore at sunset. Fortunately my housemates for the weekend were no less disappointing: Margo, Katy of Starry-Eyed Travels, Krista of Rambling Tart and Kathy of Food Lover's Odyssey all greeted me warmly and plied me with risotto and wine. Just the kind of welcome I like. As we chatted late into the night, any lingering fears I may have had about holidaying with complete strangers were banished.

I could get used to waking up to that view

Awaking to the complete peace of a Saturday morning in Vogogna, I took a moment to admire the view before scrambling for the shower and piling into the hire car to head for the nearby town of Domodossola. From here, we caught the Lago Maggiore Express through the mountains to Locarno in Switzerland. For once, the idea of a touristy train trip didn't appall me: not when there was scenery like this. The splendour of the Alps might be mere backdrop to seasoned skiiers, but to somebody who ought to stay away from all winter sports for health and safety reasons, the journey into the mountains was a foray into unchartered territory. The scenery as we clanked up impressive gradients, passing through pine forests and clusters of flower-bedecked houses, had almost nothing in common with the sides of Italy I've experienced: the verdant slopes under early autumn skies had far more in common with parts of Austria or France than the gritty, glamorous whirl of Milan, the decadence of Venice and the ancient sprawl of Rome.

Katy and Krista capture Santa Maria Maggiore

Breaking our journey at the town of Santa Maria Maggiore, I noted that we were definitely still in Italy: the fashions in evidence at the town's boutiques were more cosy than chic, but I was reassured to observe that sunglasses were still very much de rigeur. A town whose good looks even Tyra Banks would be loathe to criticize, Santa Maria Maggiore was a photographers' dream: and oh, the Belles are snap-happy. As my companions wandered through the cobbled lanes clicking away at Alpine dwellings, the town church and a variety of street scenes, even I felt the urge to up my game and put my camera to good use.

Even the coffee's pretty in Santa Maria Maggiore

After a mid-morning coffee (another key fixture of Italian life thankfully upheld in the Alps), we re-boarded the train and continued across the Swiss border to Locarno. The change in scenery as we passed from one country to another was imperceptible; the only differences when we alighted were the multilingual signs and the currency (oh, and the more understated sunnies worn by the locals). A short wander around the lakeside town revealed little apart from its waterside setting to interest us on this sunny afternoon: well, that and food. After an hour spent lunching, I can confirm two things: both the gelato and the pizza are just as good on the Swiss side of the border.

More than adequately refuelled, we boarded our next mode of transport for the return journey: a ferry which would take us from Locarno to Stresa. Relaxing on the top deck, we chugged past sailboats and called at waterside towns, admiring their architecture and taking in the mountain views as the sun set on an eventful day. As Henry James surmised, 'One can't describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could'. On Mr James's advice, all I will tell you is that Lake Maggiore puts Windermere to shame.

You can read about part 2 of the Belles Trip next week.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Me, museums and stamina

Here's my post for this month's Across the Cafe Table: where the Travel Belles ladies (and you, if you like) get together and discuss a travel-related topic over a virtual coffee. This month, the question we're discussing is 'What's your favourite museum?'

The word 'museum' puts me in mind of a school trip. No matter how many interactive, state-of-the-art spaces I visit, I still imagine that museum visits will invariably involve trailing around some fusty gallery pretending to read the explanations of exhibits I couldn't give a monkeys about while secretly thinking about what's in my packed lunch. As attitudes go, I realise that mine is far from cultured, and fortunately I frequently manage to shelve it: for a while at least.

Travel and museums go hand in hand. Pick up a copy of any guidebook and you're bound to find more than one museum listed as a must-see. Art galleries, museums of national or indeed natural history, science museums... they're all lurking between those glossy pages, waiting to be ticked off like answers in an exam. Perhaps this prescriptive idea that museums simply must be explored otherwise you've failed in the cultured traveller stakes is what brings out the teenage rebel in me: after a guidebook-inspired schlep around a particularly dull maritime museum in Dieppe which failed to stimulate any of my senses other than smell (owing to the pungent presence of dried salt cod among the exhibits), I certainly wanted to stamp my feet and whine 'I don't WANT to go to any more museums'.

It wasn't until I met M that I realised everyone has their own museum visiting style. No, I don't mean putting on your favourite frou-frou frock and accessorising with a cute clutch in the manner of Carrie Bradshaw: it's how you visit a museum that makes all the difference. Some people arrive early; a rucksack full of supplies and plan their way around the space, prioritising which exhibitions to see first. Others might pop in to peruse just one or two rooms, returning at a later date to see more. Me? I aim for speed. The ideal museum visit lasts no longer than 2 hours (and is framed at either end by a tea break). That way, I get to see my personal highlights without reverting to my stroppy teenage years. And believe me, that's a bonus for my fellow visitors.

M at the Biennial. I think she's heading for the exit.

M and I met in Seville in 2008. We were both keen to see all the city's sights, even going so far as to write a list of everything we wanted to do during our three-month stay. But it wasn't until we visited the Contemporary Art Biennial that I realised we shared more than just a list of priorities. By the time we'd skimmed over most of the exhibits, lingering longer over those that held particular interest for us, our friend R was still in the first room. When she called us several hours later to ask if we were ready to leave, we were shopping in the town centre. Much like a child on a school trip, my attention span is short: I enjoy museum visits as long as I'm in the right frame of mind and able to choose when to leave.
Me outside the Biennial. I've already exited.

It's no surprise that my favourite museum visit was a trip taken with M a couple of years later. In Bilbao for the weekend, we made tracks to the gallery that has transformed the city's fortunes and made it into a top Spanish destination: the Guggenheim. But we didn't go there to admire the art: we went for the food. At €19 for a delicious three-course meal with a bottle of wine, this was the museum's highlight. Yes, the wine-fuelled visit around the gallery afterwards was entertaining, but the restaurant stole the show. Hey, that's my museum visiting style.

You can read the other Travel Belles' posts on this topic (no doubt more cultured than mine) here.
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