Sunday, June 13, 2010

I wake up this morning determined to do one thing. Leave Milan. Yes, I’m holding a grudge, and it is an admittedly hasty and irrational one, but nonetheless I’ve scratched the remaining items off my to-do list. The Brera Art Gallery and the La Scala theatre museum? Nixed. I’m fleeing town to spend the afternoon on the shores of Lake Como instead.

First, though, I need to speed through breakfast, which is shame since the Hotel Berna lays out a mighty fine spread. I have a 9:30 AM reservation to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and given how hard those slots are to obtain, I don’t want to take any chance of being late. I had tried to book online months ago, but every slot on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday appeared to be full. It was a tip on the TripAdvisor forums that led me to call directly, and I have to be there thirty minutes early to pick up my ticket.

I take the metro’s green line down to Cadorna and walk from there, first along Via Giosue Carducci, and then Corso Magenta. There’s some ongoing construction in the piazza in front of the church and in navigating around it, I happen by a bus stop with two large posters advertising Almo Nature, alimenti per cani e gatti, dal loro punto di vista—“food for cats and dogs, from their point of view.” The ads depict humans wearing Venetian-style animal masks, posed amorously under the tagline l’amore… love. In each, there is a woman who is topless. I know that Europeans have a more relaxed view of these things and that they consider Americans to be rather prudish when it comes to nudity—and perhaps we are—but I still think it’s strange, and not just because of its proximity to a major religious site. It’s just such an odd way to sell pet food.

I collect my ticket at the front desk and read some displays on the history of the church as I wait for my time to be called. Leonardo painted “The Last Supper” over a span of two years beginning in 1496. It’s on a wall at the far end of the refectory, which was used as the convent’s dining hall. I hadn’t known this, and it makes the subject matter surprisingly appropriate, for it is, after all, the depiction of a meal.

Rather than traditional fresco, Leonardo used an experimental technique, painting tempura directly on dry plaster, and the application caused problems from the start. By the late-19th century when Henry James visited Milan, the work was in a state of serious deterioration. He wrote that it was “an illustrious invalid whom people visit to see how he lasts, with leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tiptoe precautions.” For my tour group, that includes standing in a dehumidification chamber before entering the room. And photography is, of course, strictly off limits.

When we enter at last, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim lighting. It’s a short visit, limited to just 15 minutes, and like with the Mona Lisa in Paris and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, it feels surreal to be standing here looking at something I’ve seen a thousand times before, on T-shirts, magnets, and computer mouse pads, to say nothing of the countless parodies, including an Annie Leibowitz version starring the cast of The Sopranos.

I’m standing with an English-speaking guide and she tells us that Leonardo has captured the moment when Christ says to his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The movement around the table is dramatic and it tells of their reaction. All of this would be easier to appreciate if our well-meaning narrator would just stop talking. She quizzes us incessantly, and valuable minutes slip by as she prods us to play what amounts to a hidden object game. Who can spot the salt on the table? How about a knife? An orange? When no one answers, she is clearly annoyed. With so little of the original paint left, and so many different hands at work in so many restorations, it’s simply hard to tell.

The miracle, however, is that it has survived at all, and not just because of Leonardo’s poor technique. The work was once considered so inconsequential that Christ’s feet were actually cut off to make room for a doorway. During the Napoleonic war, French troops used the space as a stable. And it only survived an Allied bomb during the Second World War because of some carefully placed sandbags.

I’m glad I came, and for this, at least, I may reconsider my harsh views on Milan, but for now Lake Como beckons.

My visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie has been so short that for a moment I think I might actually make the 10:20 AM train to Varenna, and I would have had the lines for the self-service ticket machines been shorter at Centrale station. The next train is at 12:20 PM, so I use the time to grab a panino and to pre-buy some train tickets for tomorrow.

The journey to Varenna is a memorable one, with increasingly beautiful scenery out the window. In just over an hour, I’ve left the traffic and noise of Milan far behind. I walk from the train station down to the docks, and stare out across one of the oldest, deepest, and loveliest glacial lakes in Italy. There are lumpy mountains all around, made of bald rock and half covered by a carpet of vegetation. As I look north towards the Alps, I can see remnants of winter at the highest elevations, although the white of the snow is melting into low lying clouds.

Just across the lake, I spy an impossibly tiny church—the Shrine of San Martino—hugging the cliffs above the town of Griante. Twain called Lake Como a “paradise of tranquil repose” in the Innocents Abroad, and waxed poetically about the “music of the vesper bells… stealing over the water.” It may be too early in the day for that, but surely he’s captured the spirit of the place.

At a small ticket counter on the waterfront, I buy a ferry pass to Bellagio. The lake is shaped like an upside-down Y and Bellagio rests at the fork, on a peninsula of land known as the “Larian Triangle.” The area has always been a magnet for celebrities and aristocrats, and when seen from the water, their lakefront villas—like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”—stir my envy.

Clouds are starting to gather overhead, so in the event of rain, I decide to stroll through the Villa Melzi Gardens first before heading into town. The estate was built in the early 19th century for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, a politician who served as Vice President of the Italian Republic during the years of Napoleonic rule.

It’s a beautiful space, built in a neo-classical style that feels more English than Italian. There are lily ponds and rock gardens, a shaded path along the lake, and an octagonal gazebo with a sky blue roof. And everywhere, it seems, there are elegant marble statues and flowers at the peak of their color. I once complained about the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and my grumbling seems even more justified now that I have a point of comparison.

When I leave I’ve already filled the third of my camera’s 8 GB storage cards. I reach into my pocket. It’s on to the fourth!

I walk back into Bellagio proper and wander its hilly lanes. I visit the 12th century Romanesque church of San Giacomo, which has an ornate golden altar and a superb apse mosaic with medieval knights in shining armor, but as in the Cinque Terre there really aren’t any major historical or cultural sites here. It’s simply a charming place to wile away the afternoon. I buy a lavender scarf made locally of raw silk, and before I go, I break for a late lunch under the awnings of Ristorante Suisse. It seems an appropriate choice being this close to the border with Switzerland, and I feast on what would seem to be a culinary compromise—a plate of fettuccine with sundried tomatoes, capers, caramelized onions, and goat cheese.

I reboard the ferry, and once back at the dock in Varenna—the self-proclaimed “jewel” of Lake Como—I walk along the lakeside promenade and into the town, which is smaller and quieter than Bellagio, more fishing village than resort. There is a small harbor where a collection of park benches face out toward the lake, and I sit there for a while, relaxing and eating a dish of chocolate and hazelnut gelato from a shop nearby.

It’s just after 6:00 PM when I head back to Milan on the train. The rain has held off and there is still light left in the sky when I arrive back at the Hotel Berna to tuck in early for the night.

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