BAVENO, Italy—A 10-piece band with a harp and an accordion cranked out a mambo from a stage in the overflowing plaza. A tall man with blue-black hair beckoned my wife over to a long table.
"Vino rosso?" he asked, and he poured Bobbie two glasses of a robust red wine. Four hundred people filled the square, eating free bread, cheese and salami and drinking glass upon glass of wine. It was a festival, we later learned, in honor of the Piedmont truffle, another excuse for a party in a land of eternal celebration.
All were drawn to the Lakes District for the same reason: its beauty. Depending on the light and the time of day, the lakes can be emerald, turquoise or sapphire. Gouged out by glaciers rolling down from the Swiss Alps during the Pleistocene era, the last ice age, they owe their color to their extraordinary depth and the reflections of the mountains that surround them. Of the seven lakes, all in northern Italy near the Swiss border, Garda is the biggest--29 miles long, 10 miles wide--and Como, at 1,345 feet, is the deepest lake in Europe.
Five years ago, when the dollar bought only 1,460 Italian lire, we could not have afforded to stay here. Last summer, with the lira down 33%, we were finding bargain after bargain. Most rooms in Bellagio on Lake Como, for instance, were now cheaper than those in that other Bellagio in Las Vegas. There were no dancing water displays at the Italian Bellagio, but there were spreading cypress trees, lush green mountains, silver sailboats, salmon-colored villas and, best of all, cheap ties.
No place in the Lakes District was cheaper than Baveno, a bucolic village, population 4,400, lined with pink oleander bushes and filled with red azalea blossoms and purple and blue hydrangeas. A 25-minute ferry ride from the hot action in Stresa on Lake Maggiore, an hour's drive west from the glamour of Como and the glitz of Bellagio, laid-back Baveno on Lake Maggiore had to give away the store to compete.
The town is built in two tiers, lakeside and hillside. The lakeside level winds past parks, villas, a castle, cafes, gelaterie and an outdoor market, centered on a piazza that faces the boat landing. The castle, Castello Brance, was Queen Victoria's headquarters in the summer of 1879. Her attendants lodged next door at the Lido Palace, where we stayed.
The hillside tier, dense with lush greenery, is the heart of the backpackers' Baveno, built around the 11th century Church of Santi Gervasio e Protasio and a tiny train station that looks like a toy. The church's little octagonal 5th century baptistery is a jewel. Nearby, drying laundry flutters in lake breezes, and girls on bicycles carry loaves of bread under their arms.
Our room at the Lido Palace overlooking Lake Maggiore cost $130 a night in August, in the middle of high season, and dropped to $87 this month. In the autumn of 1908, Winston Churchill spent his honeymoon at the Lido in Room 124, and Ray Charles stayed here for three nights last year. Built as a villa in 1857 for the Marquis Durazzo of Genoa, the Lido has ornate white marble carvings over each doorway, 22-foot ceilings, antique furnishings and walls of etched glass. A statue of Queen Victoria towers over a formal garden. In a lounge, for four hours every evening, a Romanian pianist and violinist play music from a vanished world.
As guests, we were treated like royalty. We had only to approach the front desk to receive our room key without a word; the staff knew our room number. The staff was so charming that Jack Teal, a hotel guest from Newport Beach, peppered them with questions just to hear them talk.
Teal was on our group tour, our first in 30 years of travel. For years, Bobbie had been complaining that traveling with me--jumping off moving trains and eating in hellish dives--was too much work. "Why couldn't we just plop ourselves down in air-conditioned buses like normal people?" she asked.
To appease her, when we received a flier from UCLA Alumni Travel listing a week's tour of the Lakes District for $2,445 per person, including air fare, accommodations and all meals, I sent in a deposit immediately.
I had fears of regimented days and distasteful companions. I was wrong on both counts. Because we spent the entire week at one hotel and never had to make a connection, we were free to skip any group activity and go off for romantic outings of our own.
We liked most of the tour's 42 other members and found much in common with many. After a few meals together and endless wine at lunch and dinner, we began to bond, like kids at camp. We giggled over the fish heads on our plates and the antics of the more eccentric members of our group.
Most were married couples, ranging from mid-40s to mid-90s, and professionals. Nearly everyone was well traveled. Although this was a UCLA Alumni Assn. tour, many of us--including Bobbie and me--were not UCLA alums.
Everything ran like clockwork. For me, though, there was something lost in having no opportunity to miss trains, to lose our way, to need help at a pay phone or the Laundromat: contact with the locals. We did not get to know anyone who was not in the tourist trade.
Those we did meet were warm and welcoming. Each morning, the hotel's owner, Pietro Paolo d'Amico, who always wore a yellow suit, greeted each of us with a hearty "Buon giorno" and poured us what he called "my delicious coffee."
One night, choosing to skip the prepaid meal at the Lido, I asked Pietro's son and the hotel's manager, Paolo, to send us to the best restaurant in Baveno, and hang the expense. His recommendation, Posta, was a family-friendly ristorante that was packed with kids playing "rock, paper, scissors" and--as is customary in Italy--drinking red wine.
Bobbie and I shared rigatoni filled with ground veal, ravioli in tomato sauce, breaded veal cutlet, grilled lake trout, lemon gelato and crème caramel, plus French fries and breadsticks, and we drank a half-liter of Barbera wine. It was a hearty feast, all for $27.