Lago D’Orta

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At the end of July I took my father, who was staying with me, on a short weekend escape from the sweltering temperatures in Milan. I didn’t want to join the crowds on Lago di Como or Lago Maggiore, but was looking for something a bit quieter. On the advice of others I opted to go to Lago D’Orta instead and was very glad I followed that advice.

Lago D’Orta is an approximately 1.5 hour drive from Milan and very easily accessible. I had booked into a small hotel on the lake itself, but outside of the village of Orta San Giulio itself. We arrived in good time and were able to go for a dip in the lake, which was particularly welcome after the seriously high temperatures in Milan. Dinner was on the lake itself with a spectacular view to the mountains surrounding us. One of the features that stood out was the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, a sparkling white church built on an a high outcrop of rock across the lake (indeed it is that white building on the rock in the picture below).

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The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we set out by car to reach the Madonna del Sasso, which involved some interesting hairpin bends, narrow streets through villages and really elevated my driving skills to the next level. Big kudos to my father who stoically sat through the drive, although I’m sure his eyes occasionally nearly popped out of his head! But we got there and the drive was absolutely worth it. And I was grateful I wasn’t one of the cyclists who laboured their way up the hill.

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The promontory allowed for beautiful views over the lake and the surrounding mountains. There is always something special about going higher up for a different perspective on your environment. After we descended again to the village of Pella, we continued our drive around the lake until we were back to our starting point.

The next day, after we checked out, we drove to Orta San Giulio itself and went to have a look at the very picturesque little village. Having negotiated the steep descent into the village and the cobblestone streets, we arrived in the main piazza from where boats run to take people across to the Isola San Giulio. Legend has it that once upon a time the island was infested by dragons and mad snakes terrifying the local fishermen. St Giulio used his cloak as a boat to reach the island and with few words and no violence he convinced the monsters to leave. Therefore sadly no dragons to see here, so we skipped the visit to the island, but had a coffee in the piazza instead, before driving back to Milan, with a little detour along the lakes of Lago Maggiore.

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As mentioned earlier, Lago di Como, Lago Maggiore and Lago di Garda are the tourist (both foreign and local) magnets. In summer Bellagio is overrun with visitors and the at times narrow roads around the lake become clogged with cars. It is similar with Lago Maggiore, but to a lesser degree; roads around Lago di Garda also become very congested. For those in search of serenity, Lago D’Orta is a much better choice. It’s very pretty, an easy drive to get to, nice and affordable hotels and not as hectic as elsewhere. There are also lots of walking trails in the surroundings, so those who like to be a bit more active, will enjoy this too.

 

Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia

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May was a busy month, but I did manage to catch the final day of the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition in Barcelona, where one of my photographs was on display. The timing was tight, but between arriving on Saturday morning and checking into my accommodation, I managed to see the full exhibition, have lunch and wrap up my picture and take it with me. The business part taken care off, I could now enjoy revisiting the city I had first seen in 1998. I walked around older parts of Barcelona in the late afternoon, did some shopping and picked up some food, before retiring to my hotel.

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The next morning I got up early and walked in the direction of Casa Battlo, a key example of Antonio Gaudi’s architecture. Already from the outside it is an interesting facade, but as the line for entry wasn’t very long yet, I got myself a ticket and followed the headset tour of the house. Inside the house was even more extraordinary than outside and in its shapes and forms it at times reminded me of the remarkable Hundertwasser house in Vienna. There were no sharp corners here, all soft flowing forms inspired by nature and beautiful colours.

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I walked for miles that day, eventually walking back through the Rambla, then to the Port where I had a leisurely lunch by the water, followed by a walk along the Barceloneta beach back to the hotel. I managed to get there just in time to avoid a big rain storm coming through. I had a nice siesta while it bucketed with rain and once it had dried up, I headed out again to walk to the famous Sagrada Familia church for my allocated entry time. I highly recommend buying your ticket beforehand, as it will be impossible to get a ticket on the spot. I had also booked the headset to guide me walking around the church.

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In 1998 I had only seen the church from the outside. Going in was a mind-blowing experience; the structure, shapes, lights and colours are completely unique and give an atmosphere of great lightness and joy, something I have never experienced or seen in a church (and may well account for why I’m not a big fan of churches!).

It was a treat to walk around and see the light falling through the coloured windows, shading the ceilings blue and green, or red and orange. Every detail is beautifully crafted and it will be amazing to see it in 2026 when it is finally finished. Sadly, due to the rainstorm in the afternoon, it was not possible to visit the tower for safety reasons, which I had booked. That was the only negative, but it was such an incredible experience that in the end it didn’t matter much.

Siracusa

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Long, long ago I studied ancient Greek and learnt about Archimedes and the city of Siracusa. It took me a while to connect the dots and realise that Ortygia, the city I was visiting in Sicily, was that Siracusa. The ancient city of Syracuse that was turned by Greek colonists into the largest city in the Greek world. Later it scored victories against Carthage and Athens and it was the home of Archimedes – yes, he of the bath tub and the Eureka! exclamation.

Siracusa / Ortygia is a beautiful place and on many people’s itineraries when visiting Sicily.  The city is full of old stone buildings, Greek ruins and remnants that often have a unique form and radiate soft hues in the late afternoon sun. It was a pity I didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, a mere day and a half, squeezed into a weekend before a work trip.

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If you arrive at Catania airport, it really pays to book the bus in advance. I didn’t and wasn’t able to buy a ticket at the airport straightaway, but would have had to wait to see if there was a place on it. Rather than waiting to see what my chances were, I chose to jump in a taxi to the railway station and catch a train from there. If you go for a taxi, anywhere in Sicily, negotiate your taxi fare before you get in and don’t believe what they ask you. My taxi driver was a cantankerous old man who kept fiddling with his meter during the relatively short drive, cranking it up to astronomical figures. I took issue with that, we ended up yelling insults in Italian at each other, and I threatened to call the carabinieri, before he settled on a fare that was still too much. The train ride was an oasis of calm compared to that.

After arriving in Siracusa I walked towards the old town and found a spot to have lunch and watch the scenery, while spending some time before I could check into my accommodation. I had booked Lemoni Suite in the old centre, run by Marcello and Milagros. I highly recommend it if you are looking for accommodation in Ortygia; it’s impeccably clean and they serve a breakfast that will fuel you for the day ahead. Having completed check-in, I headed out again, meandering around the old part of town, visiting the main piazza and enjoying the beautiful sunset before going for a light dinner at a small restaurant around the corner, recommended by Marcello.

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The next morning, after a copious breakfast, I walked through the old centre again, taking photographs in a completely different light compared to the late afternoon light the day before. I visited an interactive display about Archimedes, which was a lot of fun and just before midday headed up to the Parco Archaeologico Neapolis that features some amazing ruins. The enormous Greek Theatre is the main drawcard, but the park also features a Roman Amphitheatre. At the latter, I overheard a mother asking her young daughter about what differences the young girl had observed in both sets of ruins. I really had to bite my tongue not to blurt out my observation that in one they performed plays and in the other they killed each other. Quite the contrast.

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In another area of the park there is an astonishingly large cave in the rocks, known as the Ear of Dionysius. It refers to the tyrant Dionysius I of Siracusa. According to a legend he used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, using its acoustics to eavesdrop on plans and secrets of his captives. But another version claims that the cave was carved in this shape so that it would amplify the screams of prisoners being tortured. The acoustics remain impressive, although the only screams you will hear these days are those of kids who can never resist testing those acoustics at the highest volume they can produce.

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After a couple of hours in the archeological park, it was time to head to the railway station and jump on a train to return to Catania. I really wished I could have stayed longer in Ortygia and Sicily in general and will have to plan a return here to do the island full justice.

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