Oggebbio, Italy. For an American in Europe, going “on holiday” usually means a short jaunt to one of several known locations. Paris, Milan, Venice, Barcelona, and Rome are likely destinations. If one is a bit more discerning and seeks something other than a city walking tour or a narrated guide from the top of a double-decker sightseeing bus, more exclusive locales like St. Moritz or Gstaad might top the list.
The allure is obvious and hardly blameworthy; why would an American choose to visit Gdansk or Dubrovnik (sans particular ties) before seeing Vienna or Moscow? Additionally, less known cities and small villages loaded with charming character and the “authenticity” sought but not found on the paths of tourists in major cities, is difficult to uncover and experience without personal connections to these particular regions. The exclusivity is a shame, I suppose, but it would be difficult to maintain these coves of authenticity if tourism were to run rampant through them. There is something special about regions relatively untouched by the hands of change, where people live as they have for centuries with only small modifications here and there, as if oblivious to the rapid pace of innovation just kilometers away.
On that note, don’t expect a postcard from Oggebbio, Italy. Not because I would mind sending one, but because they don't exist. Having spent much of my childhood and the last few years in Europe, you could say I’ve reached a critical mass of popular cities visited, and am fortunate to have friends willing to share their best hideaways. Yesterday, as we stood in a local coffee bar in the mountains where the football game was blaring from a wall-mounted TV, my friend commented on how little has changed here in the last twenty years.
An old castle turned hotel called Castello di Frino stands on a hill in Ghiffa. The rooms are gorgeous, the ceilings are high, the decorations are worn but ornate, and it sits empty. On the day we went for lunch, the kitchen was closed for lack of business and we were served apertif instead. Only two people were present on the grounds -- the owner and the receptionist -- both of whom were very attentive, friendly, and interested in our lives and plans. Although its grand style is hidden beneath the tattered chairs and tapestries, one visits the castle for the people and the atmosphere.
Trends pass Oggebbio by, as do supermarket chains, fast food joints, and restaurants not established by local residents. Most of my time here is spent on the estates rather than in municipal spaces since the area is built around several old houses, some dating back to the 1920’s. Oggebbio, Verbania, Ghiffa, and Porto Valtravaglia, with their big old houses, tiny mountain villages, and lake-front property, are all kept unwittingly under the spell of the old world, an ethos often sought by inhabitants of the new.
I’m charmed by places like Oggebbio. There is a sense of quiet respite and quaint comfort foreign to big cities. The eccentric local customs neither conform to nor are informed by rules or modern customary practice. I wish more people could experience the unknown and unchanging places of Europe, especially Americans. It is a world apart.