Monday, August 10, 2015

Streetside at Cafe Lago

          Preface: Since we’ve stayed close to home this year, Gretta and I have spent time recounting some of our favorite memories. The experiences have been so varied that we never lack for sharing stories of far-away places and memorable adventures. From sipping beer at the back room of the Cheers bar in Boston in the dead of winter, to discovering a clump of hollyhocks along an adobe wall in Taos, or detecting the smell of minestrone wafting in the air while walking a cobbled street in Italy, it’s always fun to find those places that are tucked away in the brain — to remember the circumstances, the weather, the smell of the air, and the sheer joy of travel.
Locarno - the "Riviera of Switzerland"

Streetside at Café Lago
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           We start our Sunday morning stroll along the Viale Verbano in Locarno, Switzerland, with no particular destination in mind, but with the desire to relax in an outdoor café and spend a leisurely morning with some cappuccino and pastry. The surface of Lake Maggiore is steel blue and placid, with a backdrop of hazy-blue mountains in the cool, misty air. The climate in Locarno is such that palm trees and pines thrive side by side in the verdant park along the shore. Skiffs, sailboats and small yachts all seem to be asleep at the docks. Not yet awake myself, I yawn and think this is about as good as it gets on a relaxing vacation.
          Movement in the harbor and on the boulevards of the resort city is at a restful pace. Ferry boats are not yet running and the sidewalks are nearly empty. Gretta and I hold hands while we stroll through the park, past shiny red benches and beds of flowering impatiens. Opposite the shoreline park is a row of Italian restaurants mixed with hotels.

Gretta and flowers at the shoreline park in Locarno, Switzerland
          The outdoor cafés are slow to fill in the early morning, with couples scattered about drinking cappuccino and eating croissants. The smells of the buffets have made their way to the sidewalk. Pancetta, onions, potatoes, eggs, fish and a buffet of pastries await those who desire a big vacation meal. By evening these eateries will be full of the holiday crowd of Italians, Germans, French, and Swiss. Although the official language and the main fare is Italian in the Ticino region, the menus include weinerschnitzel, pomme frites and large steins of beer to cater to the many Germans and northern Swiss.
          Gretta listens to the phrases coming from all the native tongues of Europe as we walk past the cafés. Locarno has a definite cosmopolitan flair. The mixture of languages, customs, clothing styles, and modes of transportation all provide a great place to see and be seen.
Viale Verbano - Locarno, Switzerland
          The sunlight flashes intermittently on the clusters of bicycle riders as they glide beneath the branches of the large pine trees in the park. An occasional scooter or motorcycle buzzes past, as well as some fine automobiles (Porsches, Audis, Mercedes, BMW’s, and some classic Jaguars and Alfa Romeos) many of which are convertibles.
          We spy an outdoor café and bakery at the juncture of Viale Verbano, Viale Giuseppe Cattori and the shoreline. Café Lago has a classic Euro look to it, with Swiss granite planters defining the edge of the outdoor café at street side. Gretta and I find a small granite table under a colorful umbrella while the birds, which were seeking the restaurant spoils on the ground, scatter as we sit down to take in the surroundings.

Sitting streetside at Cafe' Lago
          A café waiter promptly appears and greets us, “Guten Morgen!” and provides each of us with a small menu. He assumes we are German; otherwise he would have greeted us in Italian.
          Gretta plays the game by responding, “Danke schön.”
          The waiter tells us in German to take our time in selecting from the menu, and he’ll return to get our order.
          I assume we’ll order a standard cappuccino and croissant, but Gretta surprises me. “Look!” she says, “There’s a Café Lago Cappuccino on the menu but it is more expensive. I want to try it anyway.”
          This is not the typical Gretta. Splurge is a rare word in her vocabulary. She reminds me from time to time that she is her mother’s daughter, and has a knack for bargains, coupons and inexpensive menu items.
          I’m in a holiday mood and respond, “Let’s go for it! We should each have chocolate pastry to compliment the cappuccino.” Gretta gives our order to the waiter and we sit back to relax while we wait for our treats.
          The pedestrian and vehicular traffic begins to pick up in this epicenter of the lake front. I detect a whiff of perfume as a well-dressed woman walks past with her poodle, and then crosses the street to the park. She appears to be a local resident as she greets and chats with people she meets.
          The waiter returns with a large tray full of small silver trays, baskets, glasses of seltzer water and, yes, two giant cups of cappuccino with swirls of chocolate powder on the surface, along with a floating piece of designer chocolate! In addition, we each have a large chocolate brioche and a shortbread cookie topped with powdered sugar. The cappuccino steam mixed with the chocolate smells addictive. We’re in Euro-heaven.

Cafe' Lago Cappuccino and Chocolate Brioche
          The ambience of the place puts me into a dream-like state. I imagine that Gretta and I become a part of an old European movie scene. All of a sudden, we are suave and sophisticated. I half-expect a sea-green Vespa to approach, driven by a woman in Capri pants, tight-knit top, large sunglasses and a powder-blue scarf. She’d stop the Vespa next to the granite planters, lower her sunglasses to look at me and say, “Good Morning Mister Larson.” Her arm would extend over the granite planter box to deliver an unmarked envelope full of secret information. Nonchalantly, she’d say, “Here’s something a la carte.” Her scarf would flutter as she buzzes out onto the shoreline boulevard. Although the secret envelope is a figment of my imagination, I’m sure it would contain something of great importance.
          I return to reality and look at Gretta. We smile at each other, and get lost in the moment while conversing and laughing, sipping our cappuccino and tasting the chocolate pastry. During those sidewalk café moments in the Swiss morning air, time stops. She is my Audrey Hepburn, and I, her Cary Grant. The memory of that is, and will forever be . . . priceless.