Most visitors come up here in search of the Chiesa di San Gottardo, Carmine's beautiful little Romanesque church. Built in the 14th century, the church is covered inside and out with some truly beautiful Lombardy-School frescoes, painted in the 15th century. The frescoes were recently restored under the direction of the Comune di Cannobio and are a wonderful sight. Some details are featured in the slideshow in the sidebar.
The personal bit
When I first came to live here, Carmine was mostly deserted, at least, there was no-one living here all year round. The centre of a thriving agricultural settlement before the start of the 20th century, the village had gradually emptied out (for the reasons, see here), and the last full-time resident had moved down the hill in the early 1990s. Many of the houses, though, had been bought as holiday homes and renovated in the 1970s, but some buildings still stood empty. After an association with the village that went back more than 30 years, my husband and I were offered the chance to buy two interlinked houses in 2001. In a fit of passion for the place, we rearranged our lives so that we could live here all year round, and in 2004, at the ripe old age of 40, I gave birth to our son, AJ. He was the first child to be born resident here for more than 60 years.
I now have two children who love to scream around the cobbled car-free alleyways, playing in the mud, kicking up a fuss and doing their best to disturb Carmine's ages-old serenity. But I still love those rare sparkling winter days, wrapped up in a warm sweater, drinking a mug of strong, sweet tea by the church, with a view over the lake, knowing that I am truly alone with the world spread out below me.
This post talks a bit more about life up here for a mother in the 21st century.
So what's to see and do hereabouts?
A very personal visitor's guide
Carmine is part of the comune of Cannobio, a small town just along the lake to the north. It's situated on the mouth of the Cannobina River, and was originally a Celtic settlement way back when. Cannobio is a gem. Its people are friendly, and its old town - with parts dating back to the Middle Ages - is charming. In the summer, the place is heaving with visitors, mostly German or Dutch. Cannobio's lungolago, the lakeside walk, is a great place to stroll and eat supper in the evenings, and water sports at the beach keep visitors of all ages happy. All year round the lungolago is the scene of an enormous Sunday morning street market, which is visited by tens of thousands each year, and the summer finds it a venue for musical entertainments, festivals and other events.
Cannobio's old harbour.
Copyright © tschutsch, reproduced by kind permission.
Moving further north along the winding lake road, you hit the border with the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino (passports at the ready), which is perhaps best-known for its association with writer Hermann Hesse, who lived in the area from 1919 to 1931. Ascona is the Swiss town that lies at the northernmost end of Lago Maggiore, a more expensive and rather more sedate counterpart to Italy's Cannobio. Ascona's summer highlight is the Ascona Jazz Festival, ten days of jazz in venues around the town, not least along the lungolago with the lake as a stunning backdrop. We also enjoy Ascona's February Carnevale celebrations. In winter, the lungolago is busy with ladies in fur coats, dripping with jewels and walking their poodles. You know the kind of thing.
Moving further north on the road towards the mountain passes of San Bernardino and San Gottardo, there is the city of Bellinzona, capital of the canton of Ticino. Bellinzona boasts not one, but three castles, which together form a UNESCO world heritage site. Dating back almost 2,000 years, the castles are said to be the finest example of medieval fortifications in the whole of Switzerland.
If, instead of heading north along the lake road from Carmine, you head in a southerly direction, the first town you come across is Cannero Riviera.
Copyright © ladigue_99, reproduced by kind permission.
The beach here is tucked away in a sheltered south-facing bay, and so while Cannobio is great for windsurfers and all sorts of water sports, Cannero is better for the less strenuous sports of sunbathing, paddling and people-watching. Cannero is famous at Christmas time for its nativity scenes. They seem to be on every corner and in every garden as you stroll around the town, which is beautifully decorated for Christmas. Some include not only the Christ child in the stable, but also entire landscapes peopled with figures carrying out agricultural and everyday tasks, rivers with real water that really flow, angels that fly through the air. Enchanting!
If you don't want to take your car along the lake road, it is possible to walk from Cannero to Carmine, and then along to Cannobio, along the ancient footpath, known as the Via delle Genti, which pre-dates the lakeside route. In fact, what's said to be part of the Roman road still exists in the midst of the woodlands. This is a lovely walk. It takes some time, and is 'moderate' in difficulty. Sensible shoes and perhaps a walking stick are recommended. Here you'll see the remains of the former settlements : broken walls, crumbling houses and stables, gardens for so long made to thrive and for so long now deserted.
If you're planning the walk and want to see inside the church when you get here, drop me an email or knock on my door, and if I'm around I'll try to arrange something for you. If I'm not, speak to the immensely helpful people at the tourist information office in Via Giovanola, Cannobio, near the church.
If you don't want to drive and you don't want to walk, the third possibility is to take a boat, and if you do this, between Carmine and Cannero you will run into the imposing Castelli di Cannero, the ruins of two medieval castles set on islands in the middle of the lake. The castles have a long and pretty swashbuckling history, full of ruthless pirates, noble Milanese dukes and downtrodden serfs. For the full story, see here.
Castelli di Cannero.
Copyright © Anton Engelsman
Beyond Cannero, heading south along the west side of the lake, you come to Verbania, the provincial capital. Verbania is made up of three separate towns - Pallanza, Intra and Suna. The towns were gathered together into one entity under the Mussolini regime, and, consistent with Mussolini's ideology of reviving Italy's great Classical identity, the Roman name for the lake (Verbano) was used.
Copyright © gneopompeo, reproduced by kind permission.
As you would expect from a capital, Verbania has lots to offer. The old town is crammed with good shopping, and the lakeside area in particular is a good place to be if you're feeling peckish. Year round, there is a full diary of concerts, film, theatre and dance, plus activities for children and local festivals. Carnevale is particularly colourful. One of the most famous of Verbania's sights is Villa Taranto with its beautiful botanical gardens. A visit to the Museo del Paesaggio, Verbania's museum of archaeology, painting and sculpture, is also well worthwhile.
Copyright © corto.maltese, reproduced by kind permission.
And as if the lake isn't enough, there are also the mountains all around. The Val Grande National Park is Italy's largest wilderness area, offering miles and miles of marked trails. A few miles into Switzerland and you're in the beautiful Val Verzasca, and can also reach Valle Maggia and the Centovalli.
Nearby mountain peaks include Monte Carza (1100m), Monte Zeda (2157m), Monte Mottarone (1491m, accessible by cable car) and Cannobio's own Monte Giove (1298m).
I'm of course just skimming the surface of the many things to see and do in the area. I could be waxing lyrical about so many places to see: Orta San Giulio with its car-free old-town, so picturesque that brides fight to be married and photographed here; the stern Rocca d'Angera castle; the 35-m-high statue of San Carlo Borromeo in Arona; the Santa Caterina monastery with its beautiful frescoes, clinging to the side of the cliff and accessible by boat or on foot; and the Sacro Monte at Ghiffa (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). But I know you're already pricing tickets to Milan Linate or Malpensa and looking at the kids' holiday schedules for next year. So I'll return to base for just a couple more paragraphs.
The changing seasons
One of the greatest gifts Carmine Superiore has given to me, is the opportunity to see and celebrate the changing seasons each year, a virtual impossibility if you live and work on London's South Bank, my former home.
Spring brings the camellias for which Lago Maggiore is justly famous, and planting time in the garden. It brings Carnevale and, later, Easter, with the real-life chicks we time to hatch on Easter Day for the delight of all the children.
Summer brings the pipistrelli back to Carmine's nighttime skies and wakes the scrabbling dormice in the attics. There are busy days in the garden and lazy days on the beach. Carmine fills up with summer visitors, and the lake is a-flutter with colourful sails.
Week after week, the various towns round about find an excuse for fireworks and celebrations, and we in Carmine are in the evenings to be found on the church 'piazza', glass in hand, for a perfect view. When kindergarten closes for the year at the end of June, our routine changes, to include a daily dip from Carmine's very own pebble beach at the foot of the hill. July is the hottest month, with August and September gradually cooling until, some time in October we get the first rains (that'd be about now).
Autumn brings castagne and funghi, and what seems like the entire population is to be found in the woods in search of sweet chestnuts and the much-prized porcini mushrooms. Most towns and villages (even my son's kindergarten) put on a castagnata, with huge pans of chestnuts roasting over open fires. Autumn also brings wild boar to root around in any garden with an open gate, causing havoc among the spring bulbs.
The All Saints holiday signals the start of winter for many people, as they bring candles and flowers to the graves of their loved-ones and attend mass in memory of those who have left us (this year, too many). Winter is most often a season of dry, sunny days with clear brilliant blue skies and a glassy lake, but sometimes we have some snow. After All Saints, everyone seems to want to hibernate, but before anyone can get too snuggled in, the Christmas lights are up and the nativity scenes are being dusted off. Christmas is celebrated with pannetone and mulled wine, and on Epiphany, La Befana, an ugly old witch, brings gifts to all the children. In Cannobio, the Christmas holiday is extended by two days for the annual celebration of the town's patronal festival, during which the entire old town is lit by thousands and thousands of candles, and the SS Pieta' is brought in procession from one church to another.
Cannobio's candlelight patronal festival.
Copyright © ladigue_99, reproduced by kind permission.
At the end of January, Cannobio's townspeople take part in a night-time lantern-light walk through the woodlands, a pilgrimage to mark mid-winter that has its roots in the time of the Romans and perhaps even earlier.
When I first came to live in Italy, a colleague in Milan told me she disliked Lago Maggiore in the winter. She thought of the lake at this time of year as being 'abandoned', 'triste' and 'unloved'. But today, as I look out of my kitchen window and see the first sprinkling of snow on the distant Alps and the lake lying below me, steely and calm, I know that my love for this place, with its age-old memories and its big-hearted people, can only grow with the years. While I'm still here, the lake, and above all Carmine, will never be unloved.
Have a good day - and to all you Americans reading, please, please elect the right guy!
Come back to Sasso Carmine soon!
Unless indicated otherwise, all text and pictures copyright © Louise Bostock 2007, 2008. All rights reserved. My grateful thanks go to all the Flickr members who so kindly gave me permission to use their beautiful images - thank-you for your collaboration at such short notice.