Viva Italia

With pristine waters and the Swiss Alps in the distance, Italy’s lake district has drawn visitors for centuries. In September, 31 Flying Longhorns got to see what all the fuss was about.


Hotel La Palma sits on the rocky banks of Lake Maggiore, Italy’s longest lake, in the quaint weekend town of Stresa. The hotel looks out on the Borromean Bay and two magnificent islands, both owned by the famous Italian family for whom the bay itself is named. In 1800, Napoleon arrived unannounced at the palace on Isola Bella and demanded to dine outside in the gardens. Strong winds ended up ruining the meal, and when Napoleon told his hosts he thought Lake Maggiore’s climate not conducive to his health, a shrewd Borromean had the good sense to tell him, Oh yes, monsieur, quite right. You should never come back.

Italy’s lake district has long played host to international visitors, as well as prominent Italian families, who have found the lake country ideal for vacationing. On a cruise of Lake Como, Italy’s most famous (and deepest) lake, the Flying Longhorns slow-rolled past villas owned by the Versace family, Sophia Loren, Caroline of Brunswick, Richard Branson, and, yes, American heartthrob George Clooney. In Como, the group explored the monument to Alessandro Volta, inventor of the battery, and wandered the local shops in search of the town’s world-famous silk.

Italy_2“Lake Como was so gorgeous and so peaceful, you just wish you could stay longer,” says longtime Flying Longhorn Martha Spear, BA ’57, Life Member. “Even when you go back a second and third time, you never feel like you’ve been there long enough.”

A day trip to Milan showed what life is like in the big city for all those villa-vacationers. First stop was the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to view the miraculously restored Da Vinci masterpiece, The Last Supper. What is perhaps most striking about the painting is its location—the wall of what was once the monks’ dining hall. Years after the work was completed, the monks decided to add a door in the center of the wall and in the process destroyed the lower portion of the artwork. That’s why you can no longer see Jesus’ feet in the painting.

“Seeing The Last Supper was a life-defining experience for me,” says Rene Starr, BJ ’76, Life Member, a first-time Flying Longhorn. “Da Vinci was not just an artist, but also a mathematician and a scientist, and all of that is in the painting.”

From The Last Supper, the group headed to the famous Duomo, a 14th century Gothic cathedral that also happens to be the third-largest church in the world. There wasn’t much time to linger, however. The shops of Milan beckoned, and since it was fashion week, the people-watching was just too good to pass up.

On the final day, the group motored over to nearby Switzerland for a morning jaunt through beautiful Ascona and its row of lakeside shopping stands. Chocolates for all. The last stop, on the way back, was in the tiny smuggling town of Cannobio and its world-famous Santuario della Pieta church. Inside stands a painting of the Virgin Mary that was said to have miraculously bled in 1522.

“As a newcomer, I didn’t know what to expect on this trip,” Starr says. “But it exceeded all of my expectations.”

Top, the Flying Longhorns at Hotel La Palma’s rooftop bar. Inset, a clock tower in the Swiss town of Ascona. Photos by Tim Taliaferro.


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