A Med Student in Montreal

Montreal, Canada – January 2009

(Disclaimer: I took these photos on a potato. They’re not entirely terrible considering they were taken a decade ago.)

Almost 11 years ago now, I went to Montreal in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec to do a medical school elective at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI). It was January, right in the middle of a Canadian winter, and the coldest winter I had ever experienced. Probably still the coldest winter I have ever experienced.

Montreal is set on an island in the Saint Lawrence River and named after Mount Royal, the triple-peaked hill at the heart of the city. It is the largest city in Canada’s French-speaking Quebec province. The French explorer Jacques Cartier first encountered the indigenous Iroquoian people here in the 1500s when he arrived at their fortified village, Hochelaga, while exploring the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in his efforts to establish New France. He named the nearby mountain Montréal. Seventy years later, a fur-trading post was established by the French on the island, from which grew the city of Montreal.

The Montréal Neurological Institute (MNI) is a hospital dedicated to neurology where I spent most of my time seeing and clerking patients, mostly in French. I am not a neurologist now, but for a while in medical school I wanted to become one.

I chose Montreal for my elective because of the MNI’s reputation, but also because it would be a good opportunity to use my high-school French (which was getting a bit rusty). Or so I thought. I soon found out that Quebec French can be quite difficult to understand even for native French speakers from France.

There was also the advantage that I would not need to sit any arduous exams to do my elective in Canada, unlike in the United States. For my placement, I was enrolled as an exchange medical student at McGill University. It’s a well-regarded school; “the Harvard of the North” is a commonly heard but perhaps disingenuous moniker for McGill. Medically speaking, McGill produced Sir William Osler of Osler’s nodes fame, a superstar physician described as one of the “greatest diagnosticians ever to wield a stethoscope” and known as “the father of modern medicine”. A quick Google of other notable alumni shows Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Star Trek’s William Shatner, and musicians Leonard Cohen and Burt Bacharach all attended McGill.

Wilder Penfield founded the MNI and has a street on the slope of Mount Royal named after him – Avenue du Docteur-Penfield. He pioneered neurosurgery and invented the Montreal procedure in which epileptic patients have their brains stimulated while awake to pinpoint which bits to chop out. His scientific contributions on neural stimulation informed a variety of phenomena including hallucinations, illusions, and déjà vu. He mapped the functions of various regions of the brain such as the cortical homunculus, and contemplated whether there was any scientific basis for the existence of the human soul.

I had three days or so to settle in before I officially started my month at the MNI. On my second day, I decided to go for a walk around the campus. McGill is conveniently located in downtown Montreal, spreading up the eastern foot of Mt Royal.

Here on this hospital sign is an example of Quebec bilingualism. French is the majority and sole official language of the province; about 80% of the population are native francophones. Being bilingual is just a fact of life in Quebec and although not everyone speaks English fluently, most people will speak some amount. In Montreal, recent statistics show about 50% speak French at home, and about 20% speak English.

Facing the threat of an overwhelming Anglophone majority outside of the province, Quebec has protective language legislation mandating signage to be in French; I was told that if there is accompanying English then it has to be half the size of the French lettering or fines apply (although this didn’t always seem to be the case). Another oddity resulting from bilingualism is strange doubled up signage like “District Central District” (for example, not a real sign), because of French and English grammar.

In the years since I did my elective in Quebec, more language laws have come into effect, no doubt a result of pressure from advocacy and lobby groups. For example:

  • Any new or replacement signage featuring a non-French trademark must include a “sufficient presence of French.” For example, a retail clothing store which has previously used signage containing only its trademark COOLKIDS, could comply with the new regulations by using signage with the following language: “Vêtements COOLKIDS” or “COOLKIDS – Pour Habiller Votre Enfant Avec Style”.
  • Added French words are required to be well lit at night.

And so on. Fines for failure to comply under the Charter of the French Language can be up to $6,000 for individuals and up to $20,000 for businesses.

These laws raise interesting questions about the role that language plays in identity. Battles over identity and language occur in communities everywhere: the struggle for self-determination by the Basque and Catalan people in Spain, the use of Mandarin Chinese over regional dialects (and minority languages) in the People’s Republic of China, the cultural appropriation accusations that play out on Twitter over the use of African American language.

In between the hospital and the uni campus, there were some students playing snow football, or at least some game involving a football in the snow.

Back home we have to travel many hours to even see snow, so it was constantly novel and remarkable to me how people here just went about their lives in this winter weather. A true winter, not the overcast drizzle we get back home in Australia.

I came across some road-workers undertaking the somewhat interesting process of clearing snow off the roads, using several vehicles specialised in different tasks. A local later told me one of the trucks microwaved the snow into a slush, while some kind of modified bobcat sucked it up and spouted it into the trailer of another truck.

Probably very mundane for a Canadian, but we have nothing like this back home.

Downhill along the Rue University towards the CBD is the McCord, a museum of Canadian things owned by McGill. Inside there are historical exhibits on popular Canadian subjects from ice hockey to Inuit art and native artifacts like this humanoid pile of rocks known as an inunnguaq. Used as a marker by Inuits, the inunnguaq is also meant to symbolise friendship, at least according to the organising committee of the Vancouver Winter Olympics when they took it as the official logo for the 2010 games.

Leaving McGill behind, I proceeded downtown along the aptly named Rue University, eventually reaching the main shopping strip, Rue Saint Catherine. Right at the intersection on this busy commercial thoroughfare sits a cathedral. What’s interesting though is the multi-level underground shopping mall beneath the cathedral called Promenades Cathédrale.

In fact, there is a whole Underground City underneath Montreal known as the RÉSO, the largest underground complex in the world. It stretches for 32 kilometres (20 miles), linking interconnected office towers, hotels, shopping centres, residential and commercial complexes, convention halls, universities and performing arts venues, completely integrating the city with the Montreal Metro.


Over half a million people use the network daily, and the well-lit and climate-controlled tunnels are particularly useful during Montreal’s long cold winters. Some of the city’s larger institutions such as McGill University, Concordia University, the Université de Montréal, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts also have campus tunnel networks separate from the Underground City.

I came across a couple having a wedding shoot in one of the tunnels. I’m not sure what was so special about this particular tunnel, to be quite honest. Perhaps where they first met? Perhaps because it was warm?

Back above ground, the weather wasn’t all too insufferable despite the frigid air. I walked around the CBD, trying not to slip on ice. Some of the street names didn’t make a lot of sense to me, like Rue Crescent, which is a completely straight street.

I saw a few of these liquor stores, called SAQ. In Quebec only the government sells alcohol, since they control the sale of it. Presumably because they don’t want drunks wandering the streets swearing at dogs in French. Note the bilingual anti-littering sign.

I was oddly fascinated by Montreal school buses, which looked just like the American school buses I’d seen in films and TV shows, but… French. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been so surprising. In any case, it took some time for the novelty of Montreal’s mixed North American and French identity to wear off for me.

I wandered out of downtown Montreal into Le Plateau. The Plateau Mont-Royal area is known as a young, student-friendly neighbourhood with streets full of charming townhouses, and it has been dubbed Canada’s most creative district. Avenue du Mont-Royal and Rue Saint-Denis are lined with casual cafes, laid-back eateries, busy bars, and contemporary galleries and theatres. I really liked Le Plateau and came back often to check out its bistros and used bookstores.

And of course, St Viateur bagels! A good spot to stop for lunch. Apparently the best bagels in town (although not according to competitor Fairmount Bagel, a few blocks away).

St Viateur Bagel Shop lies on the border of the Jewish Quarter and the Mile End neighbourhood and was opened in the 1950s by a Holocaust survivor. Jewish food has had a large influence on Montreal culinary culture. Montreal bagels, like New York bagels, were brought to North America by Jewish immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Compared to New York ones which contain sourdough, Montreal bagels are smaller, thinner, sweeter and denser, with a larger hole, and are always baked in a wood-fired oven.

Montreal-style bagels also currently hold the title as the only type of bagel to have ventured into space, when Montrealer astronaut Gregory Chamitoff took three bags of sesame bagels with him to the ISS.

(Another must-try food for anyone visiting Montreal is a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s – Chez Schwartz – on Saint Laurent Boulevard in the Jewish Quarter. Much like the pastrami sold in New York Jewish delis like Katz’s, the meat is served on rye bread with yellow mustard. You can order the 10-day cured meat by fat content: lean, medium, medium-fat or fat. The classic Schwartz’s meal includes a medium-fat sandwich, fries, half-sour pickle, coleslaw, red pepper, and a black cherry soda. Which is what I ordered on a later visit to the area. Possibly better than Katz’s!)

Even further out from Le Plateau, I came across Le Parc Olympique – Montréal’s Olympic Park. The Olympic Stadium has a unique sloping tower which you can go up but it was closed for some reason.

Montréal held the Summer Olympics in 1976. While I was there I often heard people talking about how expensive the whole thing was. I later read the games left the city billions in debt that took over 30 years to pay off.

Next to the stadium sits the Biodome, the former Olympic velodrome that was converted into an indoor nature park/zoo. The highlight of the Biodome for me was seeing North American beavers. They were so much bigger than I thought they would be. One was swimming around and a camera inside their house dam showed another beaver busy arranging sticks.

The Biodome also contained many other North American animals which I had never seen before, like lynxes and porcupines. An Amazonian rainforest area contained birds, monkeys, anacondas, caimans, and a capybara. I got attacked by some kind of ibis. There was also a polar area but no polar bears, which was disappointing.

I headed back towards Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal), marked by the relatively sudden appearance of quaint signs and lampposts.

The first major landmark I encountered here was Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. Céline Dion got married here. Approximately 11 million people visit Notre-Dame Basilica each year, one million less than Notre-Dame de Paris, and it is one of the most visited monuments in North America. There were still some angels leftover from Christmas.

Outside Notre-Dame was a statue of Maisonneuve, the Frenchman who founded Montreal. One of the figures at the base was a native Iroquois, unfortunately covered in bird excrement. Perhaps representative of the overall treatment of North America’s native populations.

The day was nearing its end when I got to the Old Port of Montreal on the St Lawrence River. In the distance, the full moon shone over the Biosphere, a geodesic dome housing an environmental museum on Île Sainte-Hélène.

The lights of Old Montreal started to turn on as I made my way down Rue St Paul, the oldest street in the city. This was the centre of fur trade in Montreal’s early days. Nowadays it is the centre of nostalgia-driven tourism, with shops like Maple Delights (Délices Érable) slapping you in the face with “Canada!” (I did have a delicious maple latte there though, but it was too cold to try the maple chunk gelato.)

One end of Rue St Paul opens on Place Jacques-Cartier, a usually lively public square full of sidewalk cafes, artists and street performers in the warmer months, and horse-drawn carriages offering rides for extortionate prices.

Place Jacques-Cartier is named for the 16th century French explorer who claimed Canada for France, but its tallest feature is the Nelson Column which was raised by the new owners a couple of centuries later in homage to British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

Too bad for him most people were more intrigued by the glowing tree. I was one of those people. Cars were double-parking so tourists could run over and pose with it, illuminated by the LED glow.

I was getting hungry again so it was time to try another of Montreal’s famed contributions to culinary greatness: poutine.

Poutine is a local delicacy which has been exported all over the globe. The basic description sounds either delicious or disgusting depending on your tastes: hot potato chips (or fries) covered (smothered) in cheese curds and brown gravy. I for one really enjoyed it, and had it more than a few times during my time in the city.

(This was called Poutine T-Rex, which I would guess is so named because it’s covered in meat. A Montrealer took me here. I think I ate about a third of it.)

With my belly full of fried carbs covered with cheese, I was ready to brave the now blizzard-like conditions back to my rental flat.

(Note the Canadian pram, also known as a toboggan.)

Over the following weeks, I made new friends who took me to places only locals would know about. I loved my time in Montreal and look back at it with great fondness. It’s a wonderful city, full of culture and and unique in its dual European and North American flavours, like a swirl of maple syrup and espresso.

Or cheese curds on French fries.

Oh Montréal
(Oh Montreal)
T’es tellement froide

(You’re so cold)
Une ours polaire dans l’autobus

(A polar bear on the bus)
J’m’inspire du pire

(I’m inspired by the worst)
Pour m’enrichir

(To enrich myself)
Et je t’aime tellement que j’hallucine

(And I love you so much that I hallucinate)
― Malajube, Montreal -40°C

Autumn in the Japanese Alps

Shirakawago, Japan – November 2019

On my most recent overseas holiday I travelled to Japan, an increasingly popular destination which has become one of my favourite countries to visit. On a friend’s hot tip, we incorporated a night in Shirakawago into our itinerary.

Shirakawago (also spelled Shirakawa-go) is situated in the Japanese Alps in Gifu prefecture, central Honshu (the largest island in the Japanese archipelago). It is known for its traditional farmhouses with steep thatched straw roofs, named gassho-zukuri in Japanese meaning “praying hands”. This distinct architectural style is unique to the Hida area in the Japanese Alps, and looking at the roofs shaped like hands pressed together in prayer, it’s easy to see where the name came from.

The steep angles of the roofs prevent snow piling up during the harsh and unforgiving winters of the alpine region. All the traditional farmhouses in Shirakawago share other common features besides the 60-degree angle roof inclination, namely, irori (sunken hearths) in the middle of the living room, the absence of nails in their construction, and a north-south orientation to minimise wind resistance.

The main tourist village in Shirakawago is called Ogimachi. Along with the neighbouring village of Gokayama, the village was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It has the largest concentration of gassho-zukuri buildings in Japan, with over 110 farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old.

Located deep in the mountains, Shirakawago has spent most of its history as a remote spot. It is a relatively difficult to reach destination, not close to any train lines (and certainly not any shinkansen lines). By car or bus, it’s about a 75-minute drive from Kanazawa near the coast in Ishikawa prefecture (from where we came), and a 50-minute drive from Takayama (where we would be heading next).

It’s a common day trip option for visitors to Hida Takayama, with tourism growing particularly since it was named a World Heritage site. However, if you choose to stay overnight in a ryokan or minshuku (traditional Japanese inns or guesthouses, often family-operated), you will get to experience the village after the day-trippers have left in the evening. It’s also nicely tranquil in the early morning before everyone starts arriving by the busload.

We stayed at a ryokan called Shiroyamakan. This historic building has been selected as one of Japan’s National Traditional Buildings, and it was built in 1884, in the middle of a hugely significant period of Japanese history known as the Meiji era. Under Emperor Meiji, Japan was quite rapidly transformed from an isolated feudal society at risk of colonisation by European powers into a modern, industrialised nation-state. It saw the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the abolition of the samurai, the establishment of a constitution and parliament, and the industrial revolution. The capital was moved from Kyoto (capital for over a millennium under Tokugawa rule) to the old eastern capital of Edo – renamed Tokyo by the seventeen-year old emperor.

Ryokans have traditional Japanese rooms with tatami mats and futons which are only rolled out in the evening. There are only four rooms in Shiroyamakan and the inn has been run by a family for several generations. (We got to meet most of them!)

There is a vantage point (“observatory”) with a great panoramic view of the valley and the Ogimachi village on the previous site of the castle Shiroyama Tenbodai. A forgivingly gentle path up the hill only takes 15-20 minutes to walk from the village, but our ryokan offered us a short tour of the area in a minivan, which stopped at this viewpoint for photos. There is also a shuttle bus (200 yen one way) which heads to the observatory from the Shirakawago bus stop. (The only option in winter, when the footpath is closed due to snow.)

The beauty of the village from this spot makes it worth lingering here, despite the other tourists. Seeing the area from the observatory, I could imagine how isolated the village would have been in the past, nestled between tall mountains with incredibly heavy snowfall in winter. The geography and climate of the region meant villages would be cut off from each other and from other regions of Japan for much of the year, contributing to the development of unique architectural styles.

As the sun went down, it was time to head back to the ryokan for dinner.

Let me tell you, the dinner alone is worth staying a night for. The star of the gorgeously elaborate meal was definitely the local delicacy known as Hida beef (or Hida wagyu, which just means Japanese beef).

Hida beef is a highly regarded Japanese beef brand that rivals other famous brands such as Kobe or Matsuzaka beef. The Hida brand name is given to beef which has been raised within Gifu prefecture and has meat quality classified as A/B rank and 5/4/3 grade (marbling).

The presentation and plating, as you can see, was pure delight with seasonal flourishes.

We were also served another delicious example of local produce known as maitake mushrooms on the grill.

Maitake mushrooms grow in clusters at the base of trees such as oak. The mushroom is commonly known among English speakers as hen-of-the-woods, ram’s head, or sheep’s head, but the Japanese call it “dancing mushroom”. According to a Japanese legend as recounted in this article, a group of Buddhist nuns and woodcutters met on a mountain trail, where they discovered a fruiting of maitake mushrooms emerging from the forest floor. Rejoicing at their discovery of this delicious mushroom, they danced to celebrate.

Maitake has been used in Japan and China as part of a traditional diet to treat diabetes and hypertension. Like other medicinal mushrooms, it contains a complex sugar called beta-glucan. It’s even undergoing study for anti-cancer activity (although there are no robust scientific data for its clinical use yet).

After dinner, I went to the onsen for some relaxation, which was pretty much empty for most of the time I spent there. I personally enjoyed the outdoor spring much more than the indoor one, and I spent most of my onsen experience sitting in the hot water with the mountains looming around me in the dark and nothing but the stars for company.

The next morning, we were treated to a traditional breakfast of hoba miso: fermented soybean paste (miso) that is grilled on magnolia leaves (hoba) over a claypot charcoal grill (shichirin) until it bubbles at the edges. The magnolia leaves are soaked in water first, which stops them from burning.

Hoba miso is a regional specialty and is usually served with leek or scallions and a bowl of white rice. It is sometimes an accompaniment to Hida beef. The miso is both sweet and salty, and full of umami. In older times, farmers would eat hoba miso as okazu (a side dish to accompany rice) as other produce was scarce in the area during the isolated winter months.

Among the many beautifully presented small dishes at breakfast, we were also served a small portion of dark meat of which I tried and failed to guess the identity and provenance. It turned out to be local bear meat (kuma niku). I was not sure I had even known there were bears in Japan, but apparently there are, and they are both fair game and a Hida region delicacy.

In fact, our hosts told us that last summer, bears had come down from the mountains and into the village. One bear had attacked a villager and ripped off an ear. They were killed by local hunters, and the villagers enjoyed the spoils.

After breakfast it was time to venture out and see the village before the busloads of tourists arrived. As the morning sun peeked over the mountains, the first rays of sunshine hit the thatched roofs, making rising steam visible against the pale blue sky.

Walking around Shirakawago was like stepping into some kind of rustic autumn fairytale. The village is a postcard-perfect place, not just for the iconic gassho-zukuri farmhouses, but also for its idyllic rice fields, water channels, and vibrantly coloured (at least in autumn) forests reminiscent of the picturesque settings found in Japanese anime. Some views really appeared like stills from a Miyazaki film, rendered in 3D. It was easy to imagine a Joe Hisaishi piano tune playing over the sound of birdsong and running water.

The villagers rethatch the roofs in springtime using grass harvested during autumn. Traditionally, all the villagers join together to work on one house, making quick work of the task. In the past, their houses would be rethatched every 40 to 50 years. However, these days the roofs are rethatched less frequently as hearths have been exchanged for modern methods of heating. We saw one farmhouse in the process of rethatching, looking a bit naked with its exposed wooden roof beams.

Throughout the village, there were trees bursting with bright orange, yellow and red foliage, and neatly lined fields of rice. And the occasional scarecrow.

At one end of the village there was a Shinto shrine, with a shimenawa (enclosing rope) hanging from the torii gate. Shimenawa are lengths of straw or hemp rope used for ritual purification in the Shinto religion, believed to act as a ward against evil spirits and often set up at a ground-breaking ceremony before construction begins on a new building. They are frequently festooned with zigzag-shaped paper streamers called shide.

We spent a couple more hours wandering around the village and then it was time to leave for the larger mountain town of Hida Takayama.

As we headed back across the Shogawa river and up the mountain, the village disappeared from view behind the thick forest.

I’ve only seen pictures of course, but Shirakawago looks strikingly different in each of the four seasons (which are even more distinctly pronounced, thanks to the high altitude): blanketed in thick white snow in winter, splashed with pink cherry blossoms in spring, painted vivid green in summer with rice fields bordered by sunflowers and hydrangeas.

I think getting to experience Shirakawago in all its blazing fall glory was really very special, but I wouldn’t mind coming back to see the whole place turned into a winter wonderland, snow clinging to the thatched roofs and hearths burning inside. In January and February, visitors who stay the night can catch special illumination events when farmhouses are lit up and the entire village is bathed in a frosty glow.

As if I really needed a reason to return though. This remote gem ensconced in the mountains may be one of the prettiest places I’ve been to in my travels, and the aesthetic benchmark is already set high in a country with such love and appreciation of natural beauty. It is well worth a detour and I would suggest a trip here to anyone heading to Japan.

La Bella Vita: A day on Lake Como

Lake Como, Italy – June 2019

Another day, another conference.

There’s a meeting held every two years in Lugano, a lovely lakeside town in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland bordering Italy. I attended for the first time this year. After arriving in Milan, the closest big airport, I headed north and across the Swiss border by train. With one day to spare before the conference properly kicked off, a day trip was planned to perhaps the most famous lake in Italy – Lago di Como, Lake Como.

It was shaping up to be quite a warm summer day when I met with my colleagues after breakfast at the Lugano train station. We crossed the border back into the northern Italian region of Lombardy. Como (the town on the southern tip of the lake) is actually a stop along the railway line from Milan, and perhaps a 40 minute trip from Lugano. It’s actually not that easy to tell that there’s any huge difference between Italy and this Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, at least on the surface. The language, the food, and the architecture seem to be the same. Of course, you certainly notice it once you get your wallet out, not just because Swiss francs and euros look different, but the conversion rate is definitely not the same.

A short while later we were out exploring the town of Como. (Which to be honest was a nice town but had nothing over Lugano, really.) We walked towards the main square where we were hoping to find a way across the water. On the way, we stopped for gelato; we were in Italy on a bright summer day after all. What could be better?

We found a boat and were soon making our way across the green water of Lake Como.

The lake is an inverted Y shape (if north is up) and Como (the town) is on the tip of the southwest arm. As we travelled north, we passed many towns with names I don’t know.

We went past Villa del Balbianello, a villa built in the 12th century which has featured in several blockbuster film franchises including James Bond (Casino Royale) and Star Wars (Attack of the Clones). I would have liked to stop and visit if we had more time. Perhaps next time.

We stopped at the sleepy medieval fishing village of Varenna, on the eastern shore where the three arms of the lake meet. It was a quaint village with wooden signs pointing towards different villas and gardens. We strolled along a lakeside promenade of wood and stone called the Passarella, between fishermen’s cottages and mansions to the Villa Monastero.

Villa Monastero, as the name would suggest, was a Cistercian convent built in the 1200s and dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen. After it declined as a convent and was eventually dissolved in the mid 1500s, it was bought by a noble family and turned into an eclectic villa. The gardens have grown over time and now stretch over a kilometre, containing different citrus trees, pine trees, cypresses, and many other species of tree.

It was acquired by the government in more modern times and has become an international cultural and scientific centre, hosting summer courses for the Enrico Fermi International School of Physics. At least thirty-four Nobel Laureates have given lectures in the conference centre at the villa.

After walking around in the hot sun we all felt like sitting down for a drink. We stumbled upon a spot called Restaurant Du Lac, which importantly had an open air terrace and garden facing the lake. Very soon, we were into the aperol spritzes.

A brief aside: the now ubiquitous spritz came about during the time of the Austrian Habsburg empire, which dominated much of Europe including northern Italy during the 1800s. Habsburg soldiers, diplomats and merchants in Veneto found the wines somewhat boozier than they were used to back in Austria, and started asking the Italians to spray (spritzen in German) a bit of water into their drinks to dilute it down. The original spritzes were thus diluted sparkling white wine or red wine. Nowadays the generally accepted recipe is three parts bubbly, two parts bitter, one part soda, add citrus. Aperol spritzes are popular everywhere now as an aperitivo.

After downing our drinks we realised we were hungry and decided to get lunch. I didn’t take any photos of our food but I’ll just say my ravioli was probably one of the best I have ever had. (And we paid Italian prices too, which is a win in my book.)

After lunch we walked around the village a little longer before getting back onto the lake.

Lake Como has, for most people, become associated with George Clooney (and Amal) since he bought the eighteenth-century Villa Oleandra in Laglio in 2002 (you can google it to see pictures). But rich and famous people have been coming here for aeons, drawn by the steep hills and rugged peaks, the mild climate, and I suppose the main attraction – the water. Since the Renaissance, Italian nobles have built sumptuous villas along the lake; the Victorians would always stop here on their tours of the European continent. The poet Shelley wrote that Lake Como “exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty.” Mark Twain too said “nowhere else than on the Lake of Como can there be found such a paradise of tranquil repose.”

It has also been the setting of more sinister affairs. The lake’s most famous hotel, Villa D’Este, was converted into a Nazi hospital in 1943. In fact, there are local rumours that Nazi officials had plastic surgery here after they lost the war, to escape to South America with new identities. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress also stopped at the villa while attempting to escape Italy to Switzerland after the war ended in 1945, supposedly disguising himself as a drunk German officer, but they were caught and allegedly executed nearby.

The Clooneys weren’t the first famous couple to live it up on Lake Como either. (In fact they had just hosted the Obamas a few weeks before we were here.) Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner honeymooned at Lake Como. Edward VII and Wallis Simpson were first photographed as a couple at a villa here.

Winston Churchill and his wife came to Lake Como after he lost the election in 1945, and he sat around painting the lake to get over his defeat. (There are rumours too that he ordered the assassination of Mussolini as part of a plot to destroy potentially compromising secret letters he had sent the Italian dictator. And that this was the reason why he chose to come to Lake Como: to get rid of the evidence. All rumour, however.)

We didn’t have many more hours left in the day, so we settled on Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo as our last stop.

The villa itself was gorgeous, but the real highlight was the botanical gardens, covering eight hectares, and full of ancient trees, palms, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and many other plants (over 500 species, according to the pamphlet). Besides the usual perfectly manicured gardens you’d expect to find, there were also century-old cedars and sequoias, a Japanese bamboo grove, and most surprisingly an entire valley of ancient ferns complete with a waterfall. It was quite strange but wonderful to walk out from amidst the tall hedges straight into a mini-rainforest.

Eventually it was time to head back to Como to catch the train to Lugano. The boat trip itself was so enjoyable and the views of the towns and villages scattered along the lake were delightful.

Even though it was in the middle of peak season, the tourists weren’t overwhelming in my opinion. Pretty much everyone has heard of Lake Como, but as with anything, it’s popular for a reason. It is an absolutely charming part of the world and yes, it really is as picturesque as all those Instagram photos show. And only an hour away if you’re coming from Milan.

We definitely didn’t see enough in one day, and I’m bound to return at some point. Or at least, I’d like to. I mean, it’s nice to have a taste of the life of luxury once in a while. Maybe next time I’ll run into George and Amal?

I ask myself, Is this a dream?
Will it all vanish into air?

Is there a land of such supreme
And perfect beauty anywhere?
Sweet vision! Do not fade away;
Linger until my heart shall take
Into itself the summer day,
And all the beauty of the lake.

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Cadenabbia