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Lake Como is just 25 miles north of Milan, cities of Como, Bellagio, Varenna, Lecco charming towns ring its shores with elegant 16th to 19th century villas.
Lago di Como
This restored 19th century villa is set on the western shores of Lake Como, 1.5 km from Cernobbio. Its elegant rooms boast parquet floors and a marble bathroom.Set in a private park with orange and lemon groves, the historic Hotel Villa Flori features Venetian stucco work and frescos. The Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi was married here.
The view from our flower-adorned terrace is dazzling with the distant Alps softly silhouetted against the morning sky. A romantic lake promenade skirting the shore clings to the cliff below the steep-stepped streets. Colorful rooftops, vividly painted walls of ochre, sienna and yellow, and small sailboats in the deep-blue harbor create a perfect picture.
Our tour of the Italian Alps has taken us to one of the most scenic spots in all of Italy, Lake Como. Virgil once called it the “greatest lake.” Just 25 miles north of Milan, charming towns ring its shores with elegant 16th to 19th century villas. Ferries carry passengers across its shimmering waters from town to town, while lovers steal kisses in the shadows. This is one of the most romantic places in Italy.
The small mid-lake fishing village of Varenna with its 800 permanent residents is home base for our Lake Como explorations. My husband, Les, and I are staying at the Albergo Milano, an eight-room hotel that sits above the lake and soaks in its grandeur. Special touches of lace curtains, and a balcony overlooking the harbor makes our room inviting. This morning we are taking our breakfast of sweet pastries on the sun-drenched terrace. As we sip hot coffee, Amelia, the proprietor, converses with us in her broad smile and flowing Italian. Though she speaks no English, we understand she enjoys her clients and this beautiful spot she calls home.
A trek into town turns into a breath-defying experience as Les and I climb precipitous steps that stretch uphill. At the top of a trail we stumble upon the crumbling Castle of Vezio. Here Theodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, is said to have died in the 7th century. Below, the small town square is dominated by a 10th century Romanesque church, and a few street cafes that dot the tree-lined streets. Before descending, we savor the panoramic view of the Alps, and Menaggio and Bellagio, two neighboring towns on the lake. The two of us wander the town and discover the Villa Monastera, an elegant villa (now science center) where physicist, Enrico Fermi studied. Nearby, lies the Villa Cipressi. Its lush gardens are inviting, so we pay a small fee and explore the spectacular perfumed pathways, rich with foliage, that cascade to the shore.
It’s time to catch the ferry, so we hurry along the lake promenade towards the harbor. Our destination is Menaggio, directly across the lake, for a bit of sightseeing.
On the middle west bank of Lake Como, Menaggio is larger than Varenna and home to many residents who commute daily to Lugano, Switzerland, just eight miles away. The ferry dock right outside town is crowded with sightseers waiting to board. We stop in a small store to buy our lunch and begin the short walk into town. Stretched out alongside the lake, a beautiful, flowered promenade runs the length of the village. Benches are filled with lovers and other tourists who drink in the view. Les and I stop to absorb the atmosphere and eat our picnic. This is the true ambiance of Italy.
Menaggio has a few piazzas spread throughout the town. In one we discover “loaner” bikes which we are able to borrow for an hour. What a great way to see the sights! Peddling up one hill, we pass by multicolored shops and trattorias, then whizzing downhill, they go by in blinding brilliance.
Bellagio – The “Pearl of the Lake,”
Our next ferry stop is Bellagio, the most famous Lake Como resort. Bellagio lies at the tip of the headland that splits Como’s two branches (the west branch toward the town of Como, and the east branch toward Lecco). One of the “prettiest towns in Europe,” it is home to the rich and famous. Royal visitors, like King Leopold I of Belgium, once owned the 18th century Villa Guilia. Other Lombard aristocrats of that century built their villas in grand style. Villa Melzi was home for Duke Francesco Melzi d’Eril, then vice-president of the Italian republic founded by Napoleon. The Villa Serbolleni, once belonged to Pliny the Elder. Today, it is the property of the Rockefeller Foundation, and used as a study and conference center.
Like its neighboring towns of Varenna and Menaggio, a colorful promenade with flowering trees, quaint outdoor cafes that serve cappuccinos and gelato, and elegant restaurants, hug the shoreline. There are boutiques galore huddled along the narrow steps that march up the hill. Elegantly dressed patrons purchase Italy’s famous silk, pottery, and leather goods. Window boxes of red geraniums and fragrant bougainvillea decorate the cobblestone streets. Arcaded buildings with flowing draperies (to shade the shoppers), palm trees, and balmy weather give Bellagio a Mediterranean feel.
Near the ferry dock we find a unique wine cellar run by Tony, fondly called “the wine king.” Tony insists that you taste every variety of his wines. We met tipsy tourists and locals who had been sampling his liquors for hours. After sipping a few reds, we settled on a mellow Montepulciano, and we’re on our way to the “the point that divides the wind.”
Tony’s Wine Cave
La Punta Spartivento is land’s end for Lake Como’s central headland. There, a park filled with linden trees and park benches overlooks the grand waterway. Gazing nortward, past Menaggio and Varenna, the Swiss Alps touch the waters at the end of the lake. Les and I find a spot near the breakwater and dine alfresco with the gulls and pigeons. Tony’s vino is a fine addition to our focaccia, cheese, salami, and fruit. We relish our meal and remark, “This is what Italy is all about.”
Our mile walk back to the ferry is pleasant as we pass Renaissance-styled villas and enjoy the sounds of chirping swallows. Before departing on the afternoon ferry, we stroll through the manicured gardens of the Villa Melzi with its many sculptures and magnificent view across the lake to the mountain Crocione.
A short ferry ride brings us back to picturesque Varenna. As the sun sets, we find ourselves at Nilus Bar near the small harbor. Its lakeside tables are perfect to enjoy our dinner of crepes and salad, drink in the landscape, and sip another rich glass of Italian wine. Our Lake Como getaway has been postcard perfect.
Article & Photos: Courtesy of Rita Furnanz