“You’re going to take the Lake Maggiore Express tomorrow? I would not recommend that,” the ticket agent at the Stresa, Italy, train station advised through the antique brass screen.
“Why is that?” we asked.
“Tomorrow’s weather is predicted to be terrible rain and storming. The Maggiore Express may not go tomorrow, and the boat may not be able to bring you back from Switzerland,” he explained.
Always respectful of advice from locals, we instantly changed to Plan B, buying tickets for the famous train set to arrive in about 30 minutes at the wonderfully old-fashioned station in Stresa, a small classic northern Italy town where author Ernest Hemingway, then 19, lived and set portions of his 1929 masterpiece novel “A Farewell to Arms.”
Using the wooden benches, we frantically rearranged our backpacks into smaller day bags, dumping the backpacks at luggage storage just minutes before the train arrived to take us to the Domodossola connection where riders have only minutes to jump on the “quaint narrow gauge rail Centrovalley train” to Locarno, Switzerland. The unexpected blip on our schedule was a good lesson that in traveling, one must always be instantly adaptable to changed circumstances.
Although I looked forward to this day trip because it is so iconic, it did not, in my view, live up to the hype. Except for the unique stacked stone cottages, the promised spectacular views were ordinary mountain fare.
During our about 3-hour turnaround time in Locarno, Switzerland, we took a public bus to the Ascona suburb, touted as an artists colony, then boarded a late afternoon ferry across Lake Maggiore back to Stresa for some hot pasta next door to our small downtown Hotel Elena. The walls of rain and whipping winds began about midnight, banging open and shut the French doors on our balcony in a fearsome storm the agent warned us about.
For us, this was a return visit to Stresa and the Milan, northern Italy area. Like Hemingway, the “Lake District,” as it is known, was a magnet pulling us back after several years. For rainy day filler on our second day, we took public ferries to a street market in tents across the lake. It seemed to us that in our seven-year absence, the Lake Maggiore area has become more commercial: still charming, but not as charming.
The next morning an early train snaked us past lakeside mansions into Milan, where we switched to the subway, stopping briefly at a street market along a canal in the Navigoloni area. A light rain persisted.
In a previous Milan visit we had not seen the famous Vittorio Emanuel Galleria with its very high-end shops under a spectacular glass dome. So we poked around there enjoying an afternoon tea. We wanted to, once again, walk on the roof of the Duomo, a spectacular church next door to the Galleria. But a high slick roof did not seem to be a wise choice in the cold rain and wind.
We boarded the high speed express train to our hotel Moxie at the Milan airport to be ready for our crack of dawn flight back to Houston.