Everyday life in Old Katmandu

I visited Nepal at the end of my trip through Bhutan in 2015. I flew home from Katmandu the day before the destructive earthquake of that year. It is always difficult to write my blog on the last day of any travels and I only noticed this ommission last weekend when chatting to a pal about his forthcoming trip to Katmandu. I couldn’t find any reference to Nepal on my website (markchesterton.com). In order to rectify this, I am going to post images and titles on a couple of blogs.

This first collection shows the hustle in the tangle, the chaos of narrow streets of Old Katmandu that gulp locals and visitors alike, down into the dark stomach of the old town.

Two wheels around Mandello del Lario

Found it at last – that magic spot, that feeling of contentment and fulfilment, that place which ticks all the boxes and makes all that effort and expense of travelling really worthwhile. There were times when the sheer popularity of Lake Como as a tourist destination was going to swamp any holiday dreams or blissful summer expectations. That was until the right inner thigh of the laked athlete figure (I now think Lake Como is like an athlete with raised hands above the head) and a final base at Mandello del Lario.

Yes, arrival day was a surprise with 60,000 bikers celebrating a motor bike convention but as the week went, it became apparent that this contributes to the character and charm of the place. Nothing too precious here.

Sitting out on the balcony, wine in hand, looking out across the lake, the silence, once the bikers had left admittedly, is enhanced with a very faint hum of motorbikes leaving the distant tunnel, two donkeys braying at each other across the town, the lunch siren of the factory and the church bells giving out their respective information, a few isolated doggy barks….and that’s it. Mandello is the home of the Moto Guzzi factory where for over 100 years iconic motor bikes have been produced for racing.

So the town is a manufacturing centre and accordingly a pretty ordinary kind of place with a railway line to Milan and inhabited by normal folk – commuters, factory workers, designers, service personnel & even Amazon drivers. So refreshing.

On the other side of the railway tracks, clustered on the lakeside, lies the old town. Narrow lanes lined with elegant villas and ornate, railinged gardens and gates head down to the water where converted fishing homes clutter around small beaches where a couple of covered boats are drawn up for the winter.

Wandering around its calm, lakeside streets in the fresh morning air or in the cool of the evening, is a pure joy. A few locals gossip easily on benches or over a glass of vino at a cafe. Wide arches and covered promenades lead from squares and through passageways between tall, multi-storied buildings, the still waters of the lake always providing a blue-skied, glass-covered backdrop. Tables are laid out in one square or another, one always available for food. Mama Ciccia has a few tables, a simple but interesting menu and carafes of excellent house wine. A clear favourite.

Although happy to while away time here, we did leave Mandello. I won’t go into the aborted trip to Bergamo. It looked magnificent from below and a fortress from a distance. However, exploring the rocky spine of the inner thighed peninsula of the lake was fascinating – wood-contained pastures, narrow winding roads, more pretty lakeside (and mountain) villages.

The gem on the route was the hill of Madonna del Ghisallo with its dramatic views over the lake which has long been an iconic location for cyclists of all ages and abilities. A museum at the top captures the Italians’ passion for such extreme racing.

Not only has the awesomely steep 10 km climb formed a stage in some of Italy’s most famous road races but generations of amateur cyclists ride up it for fun!!! An amazing feat. Not for me, thank you. I’ll appreciate it from the museum and 17th century chapel at the top.

I’ll pack the cool, pastel-lined streets of Mandello del Lario and images of Lake Como into my bag, take them home and appreciate them over cooler winter months.

Bye for now 🙂

A break from it all on Lake Como

The east side of Lake Como and the right bank down to Lecco, provides a calm relief from the bustling crowds, the palaces and villas of the rich and famous and the loud, brash American tour parties of the western side/leg. Surely, this will be the real Italy. The first indication that this is a different place can be found on the route south. There are two roads. Signage seems to always lead to the main, dual carriageway that runs alongside the railway line through, in many cases literally, the mountains and roughly following the shoreline. When it comes to some obstacle, a headland or a hard fold of rock, it simply drills down through in a dark, dimly lit, exhaust-hazed tunnel, the home of some ghoulish, worming creature that takes away any beauty the area has to offer. The longest distance you are cut off from the world is over 5 km.

However, be resourceful, use your instinct and you will be rewarded. Just outside Colico a narrow lane cuts through a scruffy site of caravans and old chalets and hits the lakeside. From here it runs quietly south to Lecco at the bottom, right beside the water, passing through delightful old fishing villages, some vaguely attractive holiday sprawl and runs of bars & restaurants. Traffic on this road is sensible, gently pacing itself around 40kph. Driving is a pleasure and stopping has it rewards.

The first temptation is a sign off to Abbazia di Piona, a cobbled lane leads for several bumpy kilometres down to the lakeside. The abbey is gloriously set in peaceful, isolated splendour on the water’s edge amongst tall mountain peaks. To go inside, appropriate clothing is requested.

Bellano on the ferry route from Como. Despite this it is able to maintain a calm atmosphere and is an attractive place to spend a few days.

Varenna is also on the ferry route. Being that much closer to Bellagio is takes on some of the characteristics of this tourist hotspot.

However the crowds are smaller and visitors are quick to return further south.

Mandello del Lario is our base for this leg. Imagine the horror when we discover that our arrival coincided with the penultimate day of a motorbike convention – faint echoes of literally thousands of bikes floated up from the village below, along with the bikers’ distant appreciation of an AC/DC cover band sounding a bit like Suzie Quatro. Venturing in, we spied columns of parked bikes and straggles of greyed, worker ants overcoming the roads & pavements. We left to observe from afar. When they were gone we discovered this wonderful, peaceful place – the real Lake Como!

Lecco is an ordinary, commercial town at the foot of the lake with an attractive promenade by the water’s edge. In an attempt to get away from our biker friends we took the road to Lecco, only to find many of them on their way home and parked up there. We left quickly, to enjoy the now empty streets of Mandello.

The other side to Lake Como

Bellagio, at the groin area of the lake, and Lago di Mezzalo, which forms the neck & head of our striding figure, sum up contrasting aspects of Lake Como. The former is one place amongst many, the latter is uniquely special in this rich man’s, & woman’s, playground. They are like the rough & the smooth, the rich & the poor (though which is which you’ll have to decide at the end), the fact and the fiction.

The journey to each is a contrasting challenge in itself. Hitting the high speed ferry, Bellagio is one hour south of Domaso (as opposed to the slow one which takes an hour longer to complete more zigzags down the lake).

Bellagio is stunningly beautiful with high end cafes, high end hotels, high end eateries, high end villas & gardens & begonia-forested planters & cobbled steps.

Everyone seems to be wearing high end labels, dressed to kill and impress with high heels and swinging carrier bags, elegant suits & slits showing off beautifully tanned & toned flesh. Visitors compete in short, shorter shorts, flimsy lacey numbers, slippy T shirts & floppy flips and fail at every level. Boatloads of loud, large (in number and, mostly, in size), presumably affluent, Americans troop onto jetties and are led off to be fed prosciutto & melon, pasta and an Italian dessert and to purchase some expensive local tat. Other visitors wander the streets, savouring wine or lunch or cake, or all of them, before joining a melee of a queue at the stazione to somewhere else on the lake.

The place is hugely picturesque and photogenic, especially looking out across the lake under a blue, blue sky, taking in the varnished launches, the crossing ferries, a steam boat, the water taxis and small car ferries to appreciate the grand buildings and villages backed by mountain peaks and jutting headlands on the other side.

Lago di Mezzola is a wetland area at the top of the lake, best reached by car. One side can be accessed before the bridge crossing a narrow channel of mountain water and the other by using the bridge and taking the road to Switzerland.

There is a settlement on each bank composed of old fishing dwellings and holiday accommodation – chalets, caravans, apartments.

There is nothing grand or imposing, except maybe the proximity of the mountains ahead – just peace, calm, contentment.

This is hiking territory plus off road tracks for cycling. No-one is in a hurry. Indeed the campsite opened up its cafe specially to serve drinks. The water side is serenely peaceful, taking breath away with a hush of leaves, its sleepy solitude, balancing trout and softly-gliding waterbirds.

Bellagio or Lago di Mezzola?
Groin or head? These days, the head always wins for me!

Messing about on Lake Como

Lake Como is shaped like a tall armless runner, striding out across the foothills of the Alps. The ordinary village of Domeso lies on the west bank near the top of the body of the lake. To reach it requires a drive up the west bank of the left leg.

The differences with Lake Maggiore are quite striking. Como is narrower. The cotton wool clumps of bulging woods still close down along the water in the same way, but they reach up way higher giving way to proper, rocked mountains behind, like the teeth of lines of saws backed with layers upon layers of rising peaks and ridges.

Settlements do not really spread up into the foothills so much but wedge themselves against the lake, presenting the broad face of a triangle to the water and running away up narrowing, high valleys between folding layers of land.

Driving alongside the lake is just beautiful, looking across calm waters dotted with the wakes of criss crossing ferries or private launches to distanced villages clinging tightly onto the edge. The road narrows to a single shaded passage between high rendered facades as it passes through old villages which open to reveal a centre of restaurants and bars around a simple harbour before entering yet another spread of uninspiring suburban landscape. The original road follows every promontory and bay between villages but progress has come to the aid of the weary traveller by cutting through the sticky-out-bits in dark, badly lit tunnels filled with the trapped fumes of exhausting traffic. It takes time off the journey but adds nothing to the quality of the journey.

The more opulent resorts with their majestic hotels, grand palaces & galleries, with their mahogany launches & fine-dining restaurants and their uniformed staff and status Ferrari’s, tend to be situated at the southern end of the lake within easy access of the Milanese wealthy.

Tremezzo is a strip of classy real estate near the groin area of our figure.


Menaggio is a bustling resort a few villages up. Bustling but still calm, genteel & sophisticated.

Where is George Clooney’s place?
Exploring the lakeside, whether it’s the classy spots or the more mundane, suburban sprawl around the old fishing settlements, is best done on the ferries or by bus – the C10 route. The advantage with a car is you can stop in any village or roadside hotel/bar/restaurant you want, the disadvantage is the gamble you take with finding a parking space.

Taking the 200 ferry up Lake Maggiore to Locarno

This is a real time blog. The engines of the 208 steamer service from Stresa to Locarno, at the top of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland, are throbbing beneath my red plastic chair on the low back deck where I can capture a few rays. Time 5.30pm. This is the return leg. Came up this morning having captured a position on the top deck for a great view of the lakeside and the backdrop of rising Alpine peaks and cloud formations that take the imagination on a journey of dreams through a suggestion of gorges and hazy ravines, overwhelmed by cotton wool ghosts & ghouls.

Looking over to the starboard bank (I think), the green-wooded bubbles of foliage and forest cover the hills and soft peaks that lead away to distant mountains. Dwellings, individually or in clusters large & small, salt & pepper both banks, faithfully following the contours around the hillsides or running in zig-zags diagonally through the green-leaved fluff of the growing slopes or winding in scars like huge helter-skelters.

Close up, little remains of the original lakeside settlements. A nucleus of cobbled streets around a proud spire of church or chapel is all that remains of past fishing communities. Firstly wealthy folk built their holiday villas at the water’s edge, then hotels & apartments went up from the centre and now modern shapes and lines dominate the hills around every hamlet & village, aiding the spread of mass tourism. In the Italian way, a grand hotel dominates a village beach with furled umbrellas & folded sunbeds for hire, thus preventing any hoipoloi, Tom, Dick or Marco from enjoying the sand.

Cannobio is an exception to all of the above. Almost the last stop before Switzerland, first impressions are not good. It’s market day and a line of white vans line the quayside, hiding magnificent buildings with tarpaulins, rails of hanging cardigans & sweaters (wool & cashmere), crates of winter socks and piles of sheets & bedding. Disembarking from the boat into this hubbub and scrum of calling traders, heated tourists, angst waiters, crying children is a real shock.

Narrow cobbled gulleys and stepped paths lead away from the water and up into the old village.

As the market finishes around two, it is a race out of town – to pack away stock, curl away the rain cover, and get onto the lakeside road – White Van Man Convoy. Like robots, two town cleaning vans move their way along the quay and the full glory that is the waterfront of Commodore is revealed. What do you think?

Exploring the Italian lakes – Stresa & Lake Maggiore

On the western bank of Lake Maggiore, Stresa started life as a small community of fishermen & peasants. Gradually it became a piece of prime real estate for the Milanese aristocracy who built palaces and gardens on the islands that lie offshore. With the arrival of the railways, Stresa itself became a popular holiday destination for the wealthy of Milan. Today, the imposing, impressive, multi-lit hotels along the front mix it up with fading apartment blocks behind, a jumble of cobbled streets containing bars, restaurants and the usual tourist tat, all that remains of the original fishing village.

In the winter the places closes up. In season, the hotels are filled with coachloads of slow-moving Americans, Brits & Germans, mostly grey-haired and rather loud. There is still room in the streets and the eateries for those of a younger disposition who are searching for a more local Italian experience.

At this end of Lake Maggiore everyone has to take a tour of the islands. In the 16th century the Borromeos, members of Milan’s aristocracy, bought land here and built palaces on the islands of Bella and Madre. Private tours to visit the grand buildings and impressive gardens are available at quite a cost. Or one can take the public ferry from the centre of town for a few euros and visit them all, plus a few mainland villages, from the water.

Isola Bella

Isola Pescatori

Isola Madre


And the ferry back to Stresa