To Wander Is To Discover

Sometimes the best scenes are to be found behind building walls.
Sometimes the best scenes are to be found behind building walls.

Today I would like to spend a little time praising the virtues of aimless wandering. I say aimless in the sense that such wandering is not constrained by any particular pattern of the type that leads to predictability of your course. No, the type of wandering I’m referring to has to do with selecting a general geographic area and then letting your feet (and curiosity) take you wherever they want to take you. Not for a moment, but rather for hours on end, and even full days in some occasions. It is the joy of day-after-day discovery, and a constant reminder that there’s a world out there that is both dynamic and exciting, not to mention the source of endless visions that will last a lifetime.

It was wandering that led me through a beautiful, ancient door and into a magnificent courtyard in Milan where lovers lazily embraced on a sunny summer day. It is wandering that has led me to discover the everyday lives of people in cities and neighborhoods that practically don’t exist in most people’s radar consciousness. Life reduced to a lover’s embrace, to a smile from a stranger, or to the asynchronous rhythm of a city coming alive in the mornings. There, between the silence which makes its last stand in the mornings and the inevitable noise of humanity mercilessly charging forward at the break of dawn, is where I find the tumultuous nature (and beauty) of living. Wandering, in small or large quantities, makes such discoveries possible. Drive or walk to work? Try taking a different route on a regular basis. Going shopping? How about trying that Korean store, or a farmer’s market for a change. Ditch the car and walk sometime, enter a restaurant where most people don’t speak your language, or hang around people who are not like you for a while. Visit a new city just because and get lost on foot for a few days. Travel and linger. Wander with a purpose, or without one, as places have a funny way of guiding your steps sometimes. Who knows, you may even discover that most people are alright after all.

 

The Lakeside Town Of Como

Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region's hidden treasures.
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region’s hidden treasures.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta  is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town's main train station.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town’s main train station.

If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.

Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.

The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.

On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is.  Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.

 

A Short (And Wonderful) Visit To Milan, Italy

Milan is an elegant city where locals like to look good even when just strolling downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
Milan is an elegant city where locals like to look good even when just strolling downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
The stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the place to be when visiting the City Center in Milan.
The stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the place to be when visiting the City Center in Milan.
Just like in Rome and Venice, building doors open to reveal incredible courtyards usually hidden from the public.
Just like in Rome and Venice, building doors open to reveal incredible courtyards usually hidden from the public.
Along the flag-drapped and classy Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II there are some of the best cafés in the city.
Along the flag-drapped and classy Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II you can find some of the best cafés in the city.
Butcher shops, like this one in the Brera neighborhood just off the City Center, are typical fixtures in Milan.
Butcher shops, like this one in the Brera neighborhood just off the City Center, are typical fixtures in Milan.
The covered walkways surrounding the imposing Piazza del Duomo are the perfect spots for people watching in the city.
The covered walkways surrounding the imposing Piazza del Duomo are the perfect spots for people watching in the city.
The busy cafés along Via Giuseppe Verdi cater to an elegant clientele who know at all hours of the day.
The busy coffee bars along Via Giuseppe Verdi cater to an elegant clientele who know at all hours of the day.
If you suddenly woke up and saw a scene like this, you would immediately know you are in Italy.
If you suddenly woke up and saw a scene like this, you would immediately know you are in Italy.
One of the smaller concert rooms inside La Scala opera house in Milan.
One of the smaller concert rooms inside La Scala opera house in Milan.
One of the most-visited attractions in Milan is the Castello Sforzesco at the end of the shop-filled Via Dante.
One of the most-visited attractions in Milan is the Castello Sforzesco at the end of the shop-filled Via Dante.
Walk ten minutes in any direction from downtown Milan and you will find small, quaint parks in which to enjoy a quiet moment.
Walk ten minutes in any direction from downtown Milan and you will find small, quaint parks in which to enjoy a quiet moment.

The richest city in Italy is one that is often ignored by tourists. Not that they never go there, but rather that it just doesn’t get the same amount of attention as Venice to the east or Rome to the south. That’s a pity, because after spending some time in Milan, I am convinced that this northern powerhouse has to be one of the nicest cities I’ve visited in a long time. While Venice and Rome are representatives of the country’s past, Milan is definitely the poster child for Italy’s future. Sophisticated, classy, and energetic, this northern-most post of all things Italian oozes with class and energy. Not sure what it is, but there’s definitely a different vive about it that is hard to find in other parts of Italy. Not necessarily better, but different, and in a good way.

Landing in Milan I was well aware of the city’s fashion and publishing fame. In fact, the publisher who brought the world Boris Pasternak’s smuggled script of Doctor Zhivago hailed from Milan. And when it comes to fashion, you name it and it is in Milan. But what I was not aware of was how nice the Italians from this city were. Friendly, conversational, and kind of patient with the hordes of people who swarm the city during international events like the World Expo, they are approachable and always willing to help.  And then there’s food. It’s almost impossible to do it justice with words alone, but suffice it to say that if you spend any time in Milan and don’t put on some serious poundage, then there’s something definitely wrong with you. From the famous Aperitivo hours (a sort of Happy Hour where you buy a single drink and can gorge from a buffet for three hours) to the out-of-this-world Risotto a la Milanese, the city’s bounty is a perfect compliment to the fabulous wines from the adjacent regions (Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Amarone). And coffee. As far as I am concerned, standing along coffee bar counters for a quick caffè, macchiato, or marocchino in the afternoon is reason alone to visit Italy, and in Milan you’ll find yourself rubbing shoulders with perfectly coiffed locals getting their afternoon fix.

The visual rewards of the city are just as compelling as its lifestyle. The downtown is dominated by two of the most famous structures in the world: the gothic-styled Dumo Cathedral with its 3,600 statutes and the über-elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Both breathtaking to say the least. Drift behind the Galleria and you will find yourself face-to-face with Teatro alla Scala, the most famous opera theater in the world. Walk a bit further and you can get happily lost in Brera, a neighborhood of twisted streets, university-district ambiance, and a multitude of incredible, small restaurants that could easily be featured in postcards. The green Metro line will rapidly take you to the Navigli, where elegant canals designed by Michelangelo are lined with restaurants and stylish bars that provide some of the best nightlife in the city.

There’s a lot more to Milan that I could ever describe in these short paragraphs. Suffice it to say that this photo-friendly city (no doubt the result of the armies of models and designers that hang around the place) was a real joy to visit. And when the time came to catch my return flight, I simply wasn’t ready at all to leave this wonderful place. Like Zurich to the north, Milan is one of those understated cities where you immediately (and effortlessly) feel at home, even if most tourist brochures never tell you this. Then again, this may be one of the best kept secrets in the world, so I better stop talking. Just don’t tell anyone.

Expo Milano 2015

The American Pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015. [Click on photos to enlarge]
The American Pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015. [Click on photos to enlarge]
The imposing main hallway of Expo Milano, lined with  over 140 country pavilions, goes on for several miles.
The imposing main hallway of Expo Milano, lined with over 140 country pavilions, goes on for several miles.
Many of the national pavilions elegantly displayed products that have made their country famous.
Many of the national pavilions elegantly displayed products that have made their country famous.
Emerging countries like Vietnam went all out in designing their pavilions and showcasing their contributions to feeding the world.
Emerging countries like Vietnam went all out in designing their pavilions and showcasing their contributions to the world’s food supply.
World-famous Parma hams were beautifully displayed near the Italian section of the Expo.
World-famous Parma hams were beautifully displayed near the Italian section of the Expo.
The imposing Chinese pavilion made an impressive architectural statement at the Expo.
The imposing Chinese pavilion made an impressive architectural statement at the Expo.
With all the great food at the Expo, it was virtually impossible to avoid putting on the pounds.
With all the great food at the Expo, it is virtually impossible to avoid putting on a few pounds.
One of the many national groups along the fairgrounds displayed its mastery of Alpine horns in front of the Swiss pavilion.
One of the many national groups along the fairgrounds displayed its mastery of Alpine horns in front of the Swiss pavilion.
French chefs take a break and walk down the Expo grounds talking to folks along the way.
French chefs take a break and walk down the Expo grounds talking to folks along the way.
The many Expo canals between pavilions provided a quiet place for visitors to enjoy a meal or a glass of wine.
The many, small canals between pavilions provide a quiet place for visitors to enjoy a meal or a glass of wine while resting their feet.

Love food? Ever dream of finding yourself at a place where most of the food of the world can be found a mere short walk away? Then you should definitely make plans to visit the 2015 Milan World Expo taking place from 1 May to 31 October this year. For the first time ever, the World Expo is entirely dedicated to food, from its production and management, to its distribution and consumption. It is a spectacle like no other, and the fact that it is being held in the beautiful city of Milan, Italy just adds gravy to the mix, so to speak. More than 140 countries from around the world have gathered in Milan to educate and showcase their contribution to feeding the world’s population, and a lucky 20 million people are expected to visit the Expo grounds and consume endless amounts of food from every region of the world. In between education and consumption, everyone will will have the chance to meet neat people from all over the world while enjoying one of the most unique Expos in the history of these events.

Like any other major event of this kind (or city, for that matter), it is impossible to see everything there is to see unless you have lots of time to spare. This is particularly the case if you want to visit some of the largest national pavilions, where the lines waiting to enter can be quite long. However, some of these long queues will be well worth the wait (like the one at the incredible Japanese pavilion). Amazing technological shows, information booths, and elaborate information displays are everywhere. But perhaps of equal interest to us mundane consumers of good stuff, at the end of the presentations you will usually find a small restaurant serving some wonderful food from the country being represented at the event. Definitely not the place for dieters, or those over-concerned about an expanding waistline. Then again, who ever visited Italy avoid eating too much? But don’t despair, the Expo’s 1.1 million square meters will give you plenty of time (and room) to walk off those extra calories. Yes, the place is big, real big.

And while the endless, world food venues are reason alone to visit the Expo, a more sober and important reason to visit is highlighted by the event’s theme: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Great costs have been incurred by over 140 nations to showcase the endless networks of producers, laborers, managers, and distributors that are necessary to feed our world’s ever-growing population. With its underlying theme that food is life and good food leads to a good life, the message being sent by the Expo is a crucial one for us to understand the complexities associated with feeding the world. Globalized resource networks work around-the-clock to guarantee the availability of these food products, but behind it all there will always be a person. Someone to walk the fields to plant and harvest the goods; someone to sort, preserve, and distribute the goods; and someone to transport the goods to markets near and faraway. Along the way, these individuals also live their everyday lives, go to work, get paid, try to achieve their dreams, and plan for a better tomorrow. They are the heroes being celebrated at the Expo this year. Their efforts and sacrifices sustain our lives, while allowing us to engage in a myriad of non-food-producing activities thousands of miles away from the source of our food.  This is indeed an incredible world we live in.

 

The Magical Town Of Ascona

The wonderful small town of Ascona is flanked by Lago Maggiore and the imposing Church of San Pietro e Paolo.
The wonderful small town of Ascona is flanked by Lago Maggiore and the imposing Church of San Pietro e Paolo.
After a break from the constant November rains, locals come out to meet around the postcard-perfect shores of Lago Maggiore.
After a break from the constant November rains, locals come out to meet around the postcard-perfect shores of Lago Maggiore.

 

Even when flooded, Ascona's Piazza Giuseppe Motta is one of the most beautiful pedestrian walkways in Switzerland.
Even when flooded, Ascona’s Piazza Giuseppe Motta is one of the most beautiful pedestrian walkways in Switzerland.
The romantic Ristorante al Torchio along the Contrada Maggiore is one of those rare finds everyone dreams of experiencing.
The romantic Ristorante al Torchio along the Contrada Maggiore is one of those rare finds everyone dreams of experiencing.
While a small town, Ascona's narrow streets are a joy to walk while searching for hidden restaurants and small, one-of-a-kind shops.
While a small town, Ascona’s narrow streets are a joy to walk while searching for hidden restaurants and small, one-of-a-kind shops.
Just like in every Alpine town in Switzerland, walking through an open door will often reward you with scenes right out of a movie.
Just like in every Alpine town in Switzerland, walking through an open door will often reward you with scenes right out of a movie.
Along the Via Bartolomeo Papio, an old well sits at what appears to be the divide between the old town and its more modern sector.
Along the Via Bartolomeo Papio, an old well sits at what appears to be the divide between the old town and its more modern sector.
The serenity of a November morning in Ascona is beautifully represented by two lone palm trees along Lago Maggiore's flooded shore.
The serenity of a November morning in Ascona is beautifully represented by two lone palm trees along Lago Maggiore’s flooded shore.

A short bus ride from Locarno (Bus #1) along the shores of Lago Maggiore sits the sleepy town of Ascona, Switzerland–a lakeshore town for which there are simply not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe it.  A major tourist destination during the warm summer months, it dramatically slows down the moment the days begin to shorten and the wet, cool days of fall begin to appear before the winter snow.  Depending on your climatic preferences, this may be a good or a bad thing, but for this tired traveler, fall is the perfect time to wander along the Alpine wonderlands like Ascona.  Empty cobblestone streets, incredible restaurants tugged away along the winding, narrow streets, and friendly locals not worn out by the endless masses of tourists from the summer months.  It is the slow life at its best, and it feeds something in us that never gets much attention during our busy, everyday lives.

For most people like me, places like Ascona are the stuff we generally view through movies or old postcards.  They are indeed “the road less traveled,” too detached from our daily lives, too remote, and somewhat off the front pages of most travel guides.  Mention Tuscany to anyone and you will sure get a smile and the usual “I’d love to go there.”  Mention Ascona (or Locarno for that matter) and most likely what you’ll get is a “where’s that?” type of response.  Can’t blame anyone for not being familiar with the place, for after a nearly six-hour train from Geneva followed by a 20-minute bus ride from Locarno, I can fully understand why this place is not on people’s everyday radar.  It certainly was not in mine, but once I discovered, I couldn’t help but think that I should have placed places like this much higher in my to-do travel list.  With a local population of just over 5,000 people (2008 figures), this Locarno municipality is not the kind of place you would visit if late-night revelry is your kind of thing.  But if you are a writer, or a creative artist, then this is certainly the place for you, specially during the off-summer months.  It is a place for leisure walks and self-renewal, in town or beyond its borders in the Centrovalli (100 valleys) area.  But one word of warning: once you’ve visited Ascona, you will never be the same.  The mere thought that places like this actually exist in this world at all is enough to take your wanderlust to a new, stratospheric level.  And no matter how much time it takes to get to this quiet, romantic shore, it will definitely be worth every tired, aching step on anyone’s journey.