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     Volume 8 Issue 85 | September 4, 2009 |

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At Lago di Como
Beauty, Enchantment and Serenity

Azizul Jalil

“This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty…….”
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

The Como San Giovanni station is a pleasant thirty-minute ride by train from Milan. Arriving on a hot

Funicular going down from Brunate to Como.

and humid August afternoon, my wife and I were confronted by about twenty steps to get down and again another twenty to climb to exit the station. There were no escalators, elevators or ramps even for the elderly like us or the disabled. While we were pondering our fate and regretting our decision to come by rail, we saw a group of six young Bangladeshis waiting on the platform for their train to go home at the next station. They had just completed a full day's work at a foam factory at Como. Seeing us helpless, two of them, with the fullest encouragement of the others, volunteered to carry our suitcases to the street level. When we offered to compensate them for their kind assistance, they would not entertain any such suggestion. In fact, they actually offered us juice and invited us to visit their house in Dhaka. We were very touched by their sincerity and attachment to fellow country men, wherever they are in the furthest corner of the earth. We fondly recalled Sanjib Chandra's famous words- probashe Bangali sajjan.

There were no taxis to take us to the hotel-so we walked. With few Italians speaking English and our lack of knowledge of Italian beyond the obligatory ”Buongiorno” and frequent wrong turns, instead of ten minutes, it took us nearly forty minutes through the cobblestone streets and sidewalks to reach our hotel. We should acknowledge with gratitude that local people on the streets everywhere during our visit to Italy were more than courteous and helpful to us-utter strangers.

We tried to immerse ourselves in the enchanting beauty of the blue and transparently clear waters of Lago di Como (Lake Como) and inhale its pure, refreshing air. It receives contributions of 37 streams. Interestingly, the main stream is called 'Adda', a term denoting an activity so dear to Bangalis. Lake Como was shaped by glaciers long ago like an upside-down Y, with three arms. High mountains surround the town of Como and flank the lake's shores. One of the best travelled destinations on earth, the town was established by Julius Ceasar around 49 BC. It is the third largest lake in Italy with a perimeter length of about 160 Km. We had visited the Scottish lakes and the English Lake District in 2004 and were highly impressed by, as I then described in an article in the Star magazine, their 'Beauty, Bliss and Solitude.” The silent and somber beauty especially of Loch Lomond near Glasgow was breathtaking. But the lively colours of the Crepe Myrtles, Jacarandas and Hydrangeas in clusters on the lake shore, the manicured gardens and hanging flower baskets in the balconies of the yellow and pink-coloured villas and partly tree-covered rocky-mountains surrounding Lake Como were of incomparable beauty and serenity. No wonder, the area attracted romantic poets like Shelley and Byron in the early nineteenth century and film celebrities like George Clooney in this century. The town with a current population of eighty-thousand still retains a square-mapped layout created by the ancient Romans. It is good for tourism with its shops, hotels and cafes surrounding the square. The old town centre is around Duomo, the Cathedral. With intricate art work on the outside, it was started in 1396 and not finished until 1740. San Fedele Piazza (square) is nearby, where one finds outstanding monuments and eighteenth century villas. The Museum of history and archaeology, which we visited, is in the same area.

We took a two-hour boat trip to Bellagio, the famous and most picturesque holiday resort on Lake Como. In the sunny, warm weather we sat on the upper deck of the boat and watched the pleasing scenery. People in their fine villas were picnicking or bathing in shallow waters of the lake with children. Many had garage-like facilities under their villas to keep their small power boats right on the lakeside. Chance encounters with completely unknown persons and having discussions with them on wide-ranging topics are my cherished experiences. Sitting next to us in the boat was a middle-aged Rumanian couple, both with engineering degrees. The husband was a mechanical engineer, employed in an Italian firm with world-wide exports of pressure valves for oil refineries. The wife had abandoned her profession and become a producer of documentary films-currently working with National Geographic on a project in Rumania. We soon engaged in a friendly conversation on our family and personal interests.

Bellagio on Lake Como

It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the gentleman had worked in Bangladesh for a short while in the installation of an internationally financed natural gas-based fertilizer factory. It was indeed a small world! He mentioned how the foundations of the factory had to be raised high enough to make it safe from possible floods of the Jamuna River. I had read in the newspapers about the project contract being unfair to Bangladesh's interests and of possible shady deals. The Rumanian engineer laughed loudly, saying that had he participated in any unethical dealings, he would not be sitting with me in the public boat. He would have owned a big lake-side villa, enjoyed life and waved to me from his porch. The couple recounted the terrible days in Rumania under Ceausescu's dictatorial regime and absence of freedom to choose and pursue ones ambitions. Things have changed since and like in USA, people with ideas and hard work have now the opportunity to achieve their personal goals.

At Bellagio, there was a massive, lake-side grand hotel with a private beach. High level international conferences are held there in idyllic surroundings. We feasted our eyes with the charm and beauty of the tiny old town in the hills and took a pleasant walk along the canopied shops by the lake. After an open-air lunch by the street and enjoying the famed gelatos (ice cream), we returned to Como by a public bus through a winding and hilly road. Public transport, whether rail, bus or boat, were reasonably priced everywhere in Italy. I suspect these are partly subsidized from public funds. We were accompanied in the bus by a group of three Italian hikers who were returning to Como after a six-hour hiking and mountain climbing exercise, which had taken them to Bellagio. In their broken English, they were helpful and very frank and friendly to us. They all loved America, did not like Bush but were full of praise for Obama. They hated Duce (Mussolini) who they considered a bad man.

The nearby village of Brunate, high on a wooded plateau, provides a sweeping view of Como and most of the lake. It is called the “balcony of the foothills of the Alps.” We rode the funicular, an electrically operated carriage, which goes up 500 meters in about six minutes. The first funicular was built in 1894 and ran on steam power for 40 years. At Brunate, we met an 88-year old World War II US marine who took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily in1943. This time he went and visited the island but it has changed so much in the last sixty-eight years that he could hardly recognise it. He was dutifully accompanied by his 68-year old son, a marine veteran himself of the Vietnam War in the nineteen sixties. The latter showed me his golf cap, which was made in Vietnam. His point was that the US fights wars and bombs, later helps rebuilding those countries and trades with them, making them prosperous. He referred to the heavy indebtedness of US to China and lamented that in Europe the banks were now unwilling to accept and convert US 100 dollar bills. We noted with a bit of surprise the bitterness of the two war veterans about the Iraq war and George Bush's policies and their assertion that these were the reasons for the recent melt-down of the American economy. In their opinion, “Wars make only the rich, richer.” When we enquired from them what they thought of Barack Obama and his presidency, they said Obama was doing a “thousand times better job than his predecessor.”

An early morning forty-mile scenic ride in a large Mercedes taxi took us from Como straight to Milan's Malpensa airport. It was rather expensive but comfortable. The airport was most modern with a Business Class lounge, which was restful and efficient. A non-stop Delta Airline flight brought us back to Atlanta in USA in about ten hours. It was the end of a most enjoyable holiday and return to our usual, less than serene existence.


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