nlike mountain climbers and boulderers, hikers aren’t generally party animals. But our friend Julia is celebrating her 50th birthday and her mountain guide companion Roberto has organized a special day. It’s party time!
Twenty of us will walk to a lunch at a tourist farm restaurant above the Lake Como town of Mandello (under Monte Grigna). We’ll work off the leisurely meal and celebratory cheer by hiking further up the path to the church of Santa Maria Sopra Olcio (664-meters), an easy, one-hour, 260-meter climb. Easy up to a point, since this motley group of adults (who might possibly imbibe a bit too much) will also include Abdul and Federico, a toddler and a rambunctious seven-year-old.
Marino and I drive north up highway SS36 from Milan to Mandello on a sunny mid-February morning, parking at the train station and exploring the town before meeting the group. Mandello is a small industrial town whose oldest quarter is a sleepy maze of lanes by the lake and ferry dock. Nearby, a 12th-century Romanesque bell tower rises beside the 17th-century Baroque church of San Lorenzo.
By the church’s side, we notice the outlines of a former Benedictine abbey cloister, which had already existed by 833 AD. Morning shoppers fill the cafes and pastry shops in Via Manzoni and Via Dante, behind the old quarter. Children play in the piazza by the statue of Carlo Guzzi, founder of Guzzi motorcycles. Mechanical companies are Mandello’s lifeblood.
Back at the train station, we meet our friends and car pool to Somana (405-meters), a nearby village that overlooks Mandello and Lake Como. Parking behind the town cemetery, we take an unmarked dirt road (Via S. Bernardo) that leads through terraced fields back towards Somana. After passing a votive chapel and following a narrow walkway marked with Viandante trail signs, we turn left into the narrow lane of Via S. Maria in the old village. This is Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) path n.15 that leads to the Santa Maria Sopra Olcio church and hospice. It is also a via crucis with votive stations and crosses.
Soon the path becomes a mule trail of steps. It’s icy today so we join arms and hang on to Carla, our oldest walker. After 20 minutes, just past the votive chapel of S. Preda (600-meters), we reach our lunchtime destination, the “La Selvaggia” agriturismo.
An agriturismo is a holiday farm. Some are working farms that board tourists; others are more like B&Bs or hotels, while still others emphasize their dining. Services and facilities can vary.
La Selvaggia is a low, stone restaurant-chalet that sits on a small flat area. Before entering, we admire the peaks of the Grigna massif — Grignone (2,410-meters, also called Grigna Settentrionale) and Grignetta (2,177-meters, also named Grigna Meridionale or Grigna di Campione). Garnished with pristine winter snow, they dominate the Meria valley below us.
“Look, ‘Rifugio Rosalba,'” says Roberto, Julia’s companion, pointing high up on Grignetta.
Rifugio means shelter. Once simple huts, most are now mountain lodges offering hearty food, beds and first aid.
Inside La Selvaggia, meal preparations are underway. We hang our coats near a warm stove and then pack in, sitting on wood benches along two long tables near the fireplace. With only four tables inside, and even with tables outside in summer, reservations are always required.
The fire crackles. Bottles of wine pop. The door opens to a rush of cold air and warm greetings as more hikers enter.
Soon the antipasto course arrives — eggplant, zucchinis, marinated quail eggs, platters of prosciutto and salami.
“Sweet and sour onions! My favorite!” Megan exclaims in Welsh-accented Italian to German-speaking Monika.
Next comes buckwheat polenta with stewed veal sauce, then roast rabbit — at once dry and succulent — followed by platters of local cheeses. A guitar strums. Everyone, including those at the other tables, sing happy birthday and cheer.
“Are the cakes non-dairy?” Carla asks after Julia blows out the candles.
“The coconut one is,” Julia answers. “Ordered especially for you.”
After poems, speeches, coffee and liqueurs, the group sets out for a slow walk up the trail under ever-present Grigna. The path narrows but the climb is easy, including the last few steeper meters to Santa Maria Sopra Olcio church.
The church is an 11th-century Benedictine sanctuary that was restored in 1600. The earlier Romanesque bell tower remains. The ristoro or hostel — destroyed by fire in 1997 — once offered hot meals and beds for wayfarers traveling to and from Mandello and the Valsassina valley. The church isn’t always open but today a volunteer caretaker offers tea, coffee and juices. Roberto shows us the artesian well under the church.
On the front terrace, Abdul, the toddler, throws a snowball at Marino. Federico, the seven-year-old, joins in.
“Why me?” Marino laughs as they pelt him.
“Good target,” I say and duck his snowball.
We return along the same route. The setting sun turns the snows on the Grigna massif pink. Abdul laughs as he bounces on his father’s shoulders. Before reaching Somana, he’s asleep. Would we could all do the same.
- By train: From Lecco station to Olcio or Mandello.
- Agriturismo La Selvaggia, Via Santa Maria, Mandello del Lario (Lecco), tel. 338.174.0083 (no website), set price and menu.