Fragrance in Travel Literature-The Italian lakes by William McCrackan

The Italian lakes; being the record of pilgrimages to familiar and unfamiliar places of the "lakes of azure, lakes of leisure," together with a description of their quaint towns and villa gardens and the treasures of their art and history (1907)
McCrackan, William Denison, 1864-1923


Let us suppose that the traveller has
walked up the mountain from Baveno or
Stresa on Lago Maggiore, has rested at the
hotel on Monte Motterone, and is now pre-
pared to descend the western slope of this
famous mountain to Lago d'Orta. If the
start from the top be made in the morning,
the alpine pastures of the summit, stretching
in great billows to all points of the compass,
will be vocal with jubilant larks; and, if it
is June, the grass will be joyously perfumed
with many thousand flowers of the poetical
narcissus. Moreover, if the day be clear,
Monte Rosa will loom up from among the
Alps with tremendous power and immanence.
A cart track with an easy grade marks the
way down to the rim of the timber line of
chestnut-trees, which is the limit to which
the villages in this region find it profitable
to grow. As high as this line they still clus-
ter in the hollows or perch on projections.
Perhaps you, too, may meet the ox-cart with
the patient beasts that carries provisions to
the hotel.


After turning the corner of the Punta Bal-
bianello, the boat glides into a nearer view
of that rich country and lakeside which lie
between Lenno and the farther side of Ca-
denabbia, stretched out upon the slope and
across the feet of Monte Crocione, thickly
strewn with gardens, perfumed with count-
less flowers, resonant with the song of night-
ingales, and bright with a never-failing air
of eternal spring, — in a word, the Tremez-
zina.

In this famous park of Villa Serbelloni
there is a lavish and luxuriant display of
foliage in extraordinary variety, made ac-
cessible to the visitor by woodland paths.
Here are dainty oleanders and giant cedars
side by side, laurels, myrtles, palms, cacti,
lemon, and even banana trees, amid sudden
glimpses and glances over the unmatched
splendour of lake and mountain. Take it
all in all, there is surely no spot on earth
better favoured than the Serbelloni park,
nor is there a forest more redolent with the
perfume of noble trees or resonant with the
song of happier birds. Surely there is spe-
cial provision here in the way of scenic beauty
of a profuse and, withal, of an exalted type.
Here as elsewhere in the region of the Ital-
ian lakes the key-note of admiration is
pitched for us by the startling contrast be-
tween the exotic and the arctic, by the simul-
taneous sight of sunlit waters and everlasting
snows, by the olive-trees set off upon a back-
ground of distant mountain pines, by the
sudden transition from the limpid notes of
the nightingale, hidden in garden bowers,
to the shrill cries of wild birds fresh from
their eyries on the frowning crags of Monte
Crocione, Cima di Pelaggia, or Monte
Grigna.

Out on the white highway some one is
•walking under a large red umbrella; there
is the tinkle of horses bells; a tiny donkey
picking its way with dainty steps and bowed
head draws an enormous funnel-shaped cart
on two wheels. When we look nearer a
man is seen inside sleeping under the awn-
ing. The gardens of the hotels, of the villas,
and of the nurserymen are redolent with the
scent of delicious blossoms and brilliant with
unusual hedges and bushes. Rare fir-trees
and evergreens cast dark 7 green shadows
among the fresh branches. Drooping wil-
lows lean from the banks over the water
and form cosy corners where a boat may be
moored curtained off from the vivid glare.
Surely nothing could exceed the wealth
of colour, the fragrance of the hour, the
nobility of curve and line, the tranquillity of
the fair prospect — and we are thankful.

WHEN the Italian lakes are mentioned,
the name of Como is very likely to rise first
to the lips. It is a name which carries in
its two short syllables a whole world of
sparkle, colour, and joyousness, and an at-
mosphere redolent with the scent of peren-
nial spring. Its delights constitute a perma-
nent possession, a part of mankind's stock
in trade of terrestrial romance. Its praises
are sung in distant lands, by foreign fire-
sides, and it has gathered for itself a veri-
table constituency of appreciators from
among those who love that peculiar classic
blending of nature and art, in which the
Italians are past masters.

" The villas of the Lago di Como are
built, par preference, either on jutting prom-
ontories of low crag covered with olives, or
on those parts of the shore where some moun-
tain stream has carried out a bank of allu-
vium into the lake. One object proposed in
this choice of situation is, to catch the breeze
as it comes up the main opening of the hills,
and to avoid the reflection of the sun's rays
from the rocks of the actual shore; and an-
other is, to obtain a prospect up or down the
lake and of the hills on whose projection
the villa is built: but the effect of this choice,
when the building is considered the object,
is to carry it exactly into the place where
it ought to be, far from the steep preci-
pice and dark mountain to the border of
the winding bay and citron-scented cape,
where it stands at once conspicuous and in
peace."

We look up again. A pale blue line is
stretching itself steadily in the direction of
Torbole. Suddenly the line arrives in the
harbour. The air freshens, and the washer-
women look up from their task. The ora
is here, the delightful fair-weather guest of
Riva and of the -hot Sarca valley, expected
punctually at ten in the morning or at two
in the afternoon, according to the time of
year. Presently the pale blue line has
painted the whole lake a rich dark blue, and
some sailboats, which have been counting
on the ora to make port, are seen to turn the
Ponale corner and advance quickly on the
home run, bellying their sails. By and by
the Desenzano steamboat also arrives, and
with it a further contingent of travellers to
rejoice in Riva. This change of wind seems
as fixed as the law of the Medes and Per-
sians. It acts upon schedule time, and regu-
lates both trade and pleasure jaunt. The
people call the ora also simply the aria, and
its opposite, the night wind, the vento. It
is the ora which cools the hottest day and
keeps green the luxuriant gardens of this
warm region. The air, though laden with
the scent of exotic flowers, is pure through
the presence of the mountains.

The Italian lakes are bordered by the pick
of Italian gardens. Their blue basins catch
the drip from the melting snows and are set
in a land of pink palaces, of orange and
lemon groves, of camellias, azaleas, and rho-
dodendron bushes. It is the land of the
nightingale in the thicket, the cuckoo in the
forest, the lark on the uplands, and the gor-
geous lizard in the crevices of the walls.
Arboured walks, pergolas of vines, and rare
shrubberies lead from parterres to porticos,
from grottos to grand terraces. The moun-
tainsides of this lake region rejoice in the
lilac crocus, early and late, in the primrose,
the starry anemone, and the scented violet
of the spring, in the lily-of-the-valley, seek-
ing the shade, and in the gay narcissus on the
grass lands. The forest-trees are of chestnut
and walnut, larch and cembra and decora-
tive laburnum; and in the heights the alpine
flowers, the gentian, the soldanella, the ra-
nunculus, the primula, and a galaxy of others
cling and cluster about the rocks.

This path is a sauntering Red Riding
Hood. It seems to loiter once in awhile for
a special outlook on lake and mountain,
to listen to the songs of the nightingales in
the thickets, or to smell the verdant hill-
sides. At times it loses itself in mazes of
myrtle and rhododendron hedges, and when
we think it surely must have come to a stop
at last, it suddenly reappears as debonair
as ever at some point of special vantage,
wearing a provocative expression which
might be translated into, " Don't you wish
you knew where I've been? " The life along
this path and in the villages which it serves
seems as remote as the middle ages. There
is no shriek nor puff of steam, not even the
rattle of a carriage along the whole of its
course, only the gentle clattering of patient
little donkeys treading its cobbles daintily,
the clicking of women's wooden sandals, the
laugh and song of people homeward bound
from the vineyards after the day's work is
done, the barn-yard sounds, and, when the
path dips down to the water, the usual noises
of the voluble Italian lake-front.

We are off! The cool morning air soon
removes all traces of heated arguments about
seats. An astonishing alpine freshness per-
vades the whole landscape. A slow-moving
panorama of pictures unfolds itself and con-
tinues throughout the trip. The sun rises,
and odours of mown fields, of thyme and
heather, of larch and pine, issue from the
side valleys. Toward noon the diligence
reaches the outskirts of a village larger than
the rest. The horses swing with a will into
its single narrow cobbled street, their hoofs
reecho loudly and their bells strike an im-
perative note. The driver cracks his enor-
mous whip with professional dexterity, as
the great yellow coach curves into the vil-
lage square, where stand the post-office and
the posting-inn. Another stable-boy with
tasselled cap rushes forward with buckets of
water. There is a noise like that of many
pumps, as the horses get their noses into the
buckets. Then the stable-boy pulls some
troughs from under the eaves of the inn and
feeds the horses with oats and bran. There
is some pushing and shoving, to see who shall
be first, and we are led to remonstrate mildly
with the fat one whose legs are white for
trying to crowd out the bay mare that cocks
one ear. The horse-flies, too, annoy our good
steeds. In alpine regions these flies seem to
make up in size and industry for the short-
ness of the summer.