Stresa – On a Magic Gondola Ride

Stresa had a gondola, a rickety, steel contraption, dark green, existing solely to carry pale European tourists from the shoreline of Lake Maggiore to the peak of mount whatever.

Looking back, I can only marvel that we ever discovered the damn thing. Stresa was not a particularly big town and only moderately touristy. Plenty of appealing restaurants with open-air seating in the town square. A handsome coastline walk. Limited wi-fi. Many fishermen-type locals. The quintessential Italian village. Nothing that screamed “check out our scenic gondola.”

1386Like all young men, we were inherently drawn to the unexpected, the odd, the vaguely dangerous. Inexpensive gondola journeys in foreign countries tend to fall in all of those categories.

We spent our gold euro coins on remarkably similar gold tokens, which we then immediately deposited in a turnstile that let us into the gondola den. Someone didn’t think that one through. Once aboard the gondola, the attendant closed and locked the big sliding door and sent us on our way. No supervision, few safety measures, just a fifteen minute journey to spend cursing and farting and shaking the damn thing like animals in a cage. Actually, we took dozens of pictures of the increasingly majestic views and tried to interpret what the German tourists next to us were saying.

Lake Maggiore is the largest (or second largest) lake in the so-called Lakes region of Italy. You might be more familiar with nearby Lake Como and it’s association with George Clooney and the Hollywood set, but Lake Maggiore is just as gorgeous. Like most lakes in Italy, it’s nestled luxuriously between steep green mountains, ringed with fluffy clouds and bright villages. Maggiore’s unique claim to fame, though, is the series of islands just off-shore where some great Italian merchant prince built a series of a magnificent palaces and gardens. These attractions glowed in the morning sun like gold buttons on a sky blue suit.

The cost of visiting these islands was well outside our budget. But the view from the comparatively cheap gondola was easily worth the price of admission. We marveled at the island-encompassing palatial estates and gardens as the gondola continued to ascend.

1403A way station halfway up the mountain required us to transfer to a slightly less rickety chairlift for the last leg of the journey to the peak. The chairlift rose beside the wooden skeleton of an alpine coaster. These are essentially roller coasters that use gravity instead of magnets or engines or any form of propulsion. They also add the delightful element of imminent death. As if to emphasize this point, we noticed that sections of the coaster were mysteriously missing, as if forgotten or removed to add a sweet jump to the ride. We suspected that a turn on the coaster would almost certainly result in decapitation. It was a tempting ride nonetheless.

1443But then we reached the peak and all death wishes were quickly forgotten. Some 3,000 feet above the lake, we were surrounded by nothing less than the entirety of northern Italy. To the south, the foothills of Alps gently petered out into vast, gold-orange plains. Further on, the Mediterranean shimmered vaguely, like a distant veil of mist. To the north, the foothills exploded into imposing grey peaks, the darkest and tallest of these shrouded in smoke-colored thunderheads.

The immensity of our surroundings was staggering. On the previous day, we had scaled those great dark peaks in our little black car, driving through vast snowfields scattered between craggy outcrops the size of cruise ships. Later that day, our plan was to drive through those great gold-orange plains to the coast-hugging metropolis of Genoa. The majority of our journey thus far was encompassed in this single vista.

So, naturally, we did push ups.

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