My family and I took a month-long trip to Italy in 2015, and we stayed in Verbania (pronounced Ver-BAH-knee-uh). We knew nothing at all about Verbania before searching for an Italian apartment to rent online, but we quickly learned that it’s a region made up of several small towns along Lake Maggiore, and part of Italy’s lake district near the Swiss border. (More people are familiar with Lake Maggiore’s popular cousins, Lake Como and Lake Garda.) Most of our previous international stays had been to the country, and this seemed like an interesting mix of lovely scenery with more of an urban feel.
I knew before I left on the trip that I would write a story about Grandma Sybil, a minor character in my first book, The Lizard Garden. I decided she’d take her five grandchildren on a treasure hunt, and scouted for clues for them during the trip. But I didn’t know while I was in Verbania exactly what they would be looking for or how the story would end. That came as a delightful surprise later during the writing process as I got to know the characters better. I loved getting to know Grandma Sybil in depth and figuring out what made her tick. I knew there was something interesting she hadn’t shared in The Lizard Garden that must explain her extraordinary personality. She did not disappoint. Here’s a picture of the house I decided she must have lived in as a child.
Just like Grandma Sybil and the kids, our family got off the plane in Milan and took the train to Loveno Mombella. I used the train station closest to the lake in the story. The first look at Lake Maggiore was breathtaking, and the ferry ride across the lake to Intra definitely woke us up after a rough night with little sleep.
Along with the setting, a number of the situations in the story are true to life, including what happened to Milo, Charlotte, and Alice when they got off the ferry. The day our family arrived, the apartment owner told us that she had Googled various members of our family and discovered I’d written a children’s novel. She seemed quite impressed by this. Since many people who know me in real life don’t realize I write, to be recognized as a writer—in Italy of all places—was both hilarious and a total ego boost!
When we got to the apartment, it was quickly apparent to us that the owner must have used a wide-angle lens for her HomeAway photos. The place was much smaller than it had seemed online. However, we made it work and the location was ideal, very close to the ferry and the bus station. We could walk to several grocery stores, the Protestant church, and numerous gelato shops. Unlike Grandma Sybil, I’m a big fan of most desserts, especially Italian gelato, and we partook regularly.
But I do agree with Grandma Sybil’s advice about jet lag. The best thing you can do to beat it is to get outside as much as possible and keep moving. I’ve never been able to convince my children that this is worth the effort, but while they slept, I explored Intra.
The biggest church in town is St. Victor’s, the site of the first clue. The church is very dark inside, and the paintings have either faded or all need restoration. The picture of the prince is in the back of the church on the right hand side.
We did what Grandma Sybil did and bought month-long ferry passes between Intra and Loveno. On many hot days–and almost every evening–at least a few of us took the trip back over to Loveno Mombella to escape the heat.
Loveno’s main tourist attraction is is a sort of chair lift going up the mountain. I was somewhat taken aback at the lack of protection in the buckets going up, because it seemed like you could have fallen out of it pretty easily. But the views were stunning, and more than made up for risk to life or limb.