GoNOMAD Destination Mini Guide: Lake Como, Italy
By Catherine Richards Golini
Lake Como, 40 km north of Milan, Italy and a few minutes from the Swiss border.
Because in common with so much of Italy, Lake Como drips charm and romance – in ever increasing quantities since George Clooney purchased a few properties here. European writers, artists and composers ‘discovered’ the region in the 19th century and have been waxing lyrical ever since.
Italians have always known about the lake however, as for centuries wealthy Milanese and Lombardians have escaped the pollution and the humidity of the cities on a Friday, for weekends spent sailing and sunbathing.
Or simply breathing. The deepest lake in Europe and the third largest in Italy, Lago di Como attracts with its backdrop of the pre-Alps, its sub-tropical climate and the visual contrasts in colors and textures. In the middle
of the lakes, around Tremezzo and Bellagio, olive trees and orange trees will have you wondering if you aren’t, after all, in Tuscany. The Mediterranean fishing villages on the shores of the lake and the blazing sunshine will have you wondering whether this isn’t Liguria. As will the crowds in high-season I might add.
When to Go
Any time between late March and October. From November until March most of the hotels and restaurants close for the winter. Azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias make for a stunning display in March and there’s no shortage of things to do most of the year round – water-skiing, sailing, windsurfing, hiking, cycling…or simply soaking up the sun. Although Lake Como is moments from the Swiss border, the climate is mild and sunny, and in parts sub-tropical – complete with palm trees, olive trees, citrus trees and bougainvillaea.
July and August average 29 degrees and escape the heat and humidity that can cripple Milan. Snow is not unusual between January and early March, nor is rain and frozen fog. Unless you plan on viewing the lake from a hotel bedroom, these months are probably best avoided. Having said that, Como town has more than enough to keep a visitor entertained…and there’s much to be said for rain, romance and room service.
Switzerland a Good Choice
At the time of writing it seems cheaper for travellers flying from North America to fly to Switzerland. There are direct trains from Zurich to Como – journey time around 4 hours. The journey itself is very picturesque – meadows with Heidi-style houses give way to stone-built Italianite buildings, endless waterfalls, and impressive feats of engineering in the bridges and tunnels.
The Gotthard tunnel – built more than 130 years ago – is one of the longest rail tunnels in the world, and connects the north of the Alps with the south. Sobering thought: nearly 150 itinerant workers lost their lives in its construction. Swiss railway www.sbb.ch
Tourist offices and hotels will have updated timetables of the various boats /ferries /fast services operating on the lake. The same timetables can be accessed online at Navigazione Laghi. www.navigazionelaghi.it
The lake itself …an upside Y in shape, and at its best early on a summer morning. And the villas that line its shore. There are plenty to chose from: Villa Carlotta at Tremezzo, with its 40 acre park, Canova sculptures and romantic history (given to Princess Carlotta as a wedding present by her mother, Princess Marianne of Prussia); Villa Olba, 18 th century and a venue for art exhibitions.
Walkable from Como town. Villa del Balbianello – dating from the 17 th century and set on a promontory known as the ‘hump’. Film buffs might like to know that the final scene in Star Wars was filmed in the magnificient gardens.
Como town is often over-looked by visitors intent on leaping onto ferries and heading up the lake – which is a great pity. With a long history – the town was made part of the Roman empire in AD 172 – the town has examples of pretty much everything from its past: Medieval walls,towers and streets; Renaissance palazzi; a cathedral that took nearly four hundred years to complete; plenty of 18 th century architecture and a particularly elegant early nineteenth century theatre.
Varenna, built on a rock at the foot of a mountain is a boat stop from Bellagio on the east side of the lake and though popular it escapes the throngs in Bellagio (undeniably lovely, but like many other undeniably lovely places the crowds, higher prices and ‘tourist trap’ experiences can be very trying). Varenna dates from the 5 th century – you can still see in places the original Roman layout of the town: a geometric design which allows wonderful views of the lake. The reds, terracottas and yellows of its houses, its mild climate and the olive and cypress trees make you wonder whether you aren’t 200 km further south.
Best Unusual Attraction
Nearby Varenna is the shortest river in Italy – and one with most enticing name: Fiumelatte (River of Milk) Leonardo da Vinci was quite perplexed by the river as he and countless others failed to find its source. It runs for only 250 metres and this and the degree of descent give it its white ‘milky’ appearance. Like many hotels and restaurants in the area even this ‘closes’ in the winter – it dries up in the middle of October and reappears suddenly in the second half of March!
Check out Isola di Comacino, the only island on Lake Como. Until the 12 th century – when it was ransacked and burnt by angry residents of Como – the island had been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times. As a result it has enormous archaeological importance.
From being a Roman stronghold, it passed to the Goths and then the Byzantines, and then to the Longbards in AD588. You can get to the island by the private boat service from the village of Sala Comacina. The last week of June, the local festival of San Giovanni [the oldest in the Como area] is held on the island.
Mass is said in the ruins of the S. Eufemia basilica, there’s a costumed procession and fireworks later at night. The island also has a well-known restaurant – no menu, endless courses and popular with those who appreciate good food.
As an antidote to the classical elegance of all those villas, check out the modernist architecture that Como town offers. Giuseppe Terragni, the leading exponent of 1930s Rationalist architecture in Italy, had a studio in the town with his brother, and as a result Como has a number of fine examples of his work: the war memorial (Monumento di Caduti – easily seen from the lake), Casa del Fascio and La Fontana are well worth seeing.
Best Activity or Tour
Get up early and take a fast boat right to Dongo or Gravedona at the northern tip of the lake. The lake is at its best first thing in the morning many visitors never make it past the ‘Lario triangle’ in the center. If there is a wind get down to the windsurfing centre in Domaso – the northern tip of the lake is where all the windsurfing and kitesurfing is done. Windsurfcenter www.breva.ch Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Take the funicolare up to Brunate and walk to the Volta lighthouse, located in a place called San Maurizio, 150 metres above Brunate. Alessandro Volta – pioneer in electricity and the man who gave his name to ‘volt’ – was born in Como.
The lighthouse, erected in 1927 on the 100-year-anniversary of his death, has a beam that can be seen from 50km. If you have the energy walk a little further to Capanna Cao and the Sanctuary of Santa Rita which is the smallest in Europe. The views are breathtaking: to the right Brianza, to the left the Lake of Como, to the north the Alps and Switzerland.
Book a flight over the lake in a seaplane. Como has the only seaplane training facility in Italy so even if you can’t afford a flight you’ll get to see them fly overhead. Aero Club Como, Viale Masia, 44 22100 Como. (Tel + 39 31574495)
Take a mountain bike tour (downhill most of the way!) or go for a hike into the hills. The CavalCalario Club offers a selection of activities around Bellagio – horseriding, canyoning, mountain-biking, kayaking, trekking and even paragliding for first-timers! ; Email: email@example.com
Como does luxury very well and if your budget stretches consider the Grand Hotel Tremezzo
( Tel: +39 0344 42491) www. grandhoteltremezzo.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
or the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio. (Tel +39 031 3481) www.villaeste.it Email: email@example.com
With celebrity guest lists as long as your arm ( particularly the Villa D’Este) you should be very comfortable indeed. These hotel are on the west side of the lake and so you get to see the early morning sun as it hits the lake.
If you prefer to see the sun going down, want to get as far away from traffic as possible and don’t have the budget for big luxury, try the Hotel Du Lac in Varenna. Owned by an Anglo-Italian couple, it’s an elegant, early19th century hotel in a great location. Some of the rooms have lake views, and there’s a log fire in colder months. (Tel+39 0341 830238) albergodulac.com Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Also in Varenna is the Albergo Milano which has very recently had a refit. (Winter 2004) In countless guidebooks these days so booking well in advance recommended. (Tel +39 0341 830298 varenna.net Email: email@example.com
If you want to stay in Como town on a budget, try the Hotel Quarcino, near the funicolare station. Simple and clean, it’s recently been refurbished and has air conditioning. It’s also very near a church and the bells might annoy if you’re intent on sleeping late! (Tel +39 031 303934 hotelquarcino.it
There are many camp sites on the lake, particularly on the north-west shore of the lake around Dongo and Sorico and some youth hostels: La Primula in Menaggio gets good reviews. The Lake of Como website has an excellent selection of accomodation in all caterogories – including campsites: lakeofcomo.info
As you would expect, fish predominates in the restaurants on Como Lake; you’ll find polenta and gnocchi in the kitchens in the valleys and mountains and south of Como you’ll find rich, meaty stews made from pork, beef or even ass (that might be better translated as donkey?)
In Bellagio the Trattoria San Giacomo, Salita Serbelloni, 45, (Tel +39 31950239) is quite small, always busy, and serves very nice regional fare. A short but good wine list too. Salita Serbelloni runs uphill from the lake, and the trattoria is right at the very top on the left. They don’t take reservations in the summer months. Around $25 for two course excluding wine.
In Varenna the Vecchia Varenna Contrada Scoscesa, 10, Varenna. (Tel and Fax: +39 341 830793) is known for its food. Located right on the lake near the tiny harbour, with a tiny outside terrace and local cuisine. Check out the website for this month’s menu. www.vecchiavarenna.it About $30 for two course excluding wine.
In Como town try Al Giardino, via Monte Grappa 52. (Tel: +39 31265016 )
Not central but in a residential part of town – a 20 minute walk from the lake. A 19 th century villa with a lovely fresh interior. Family run, relaxed service [the owners’ daughters often] and mainly regional cuisine. The incredible display of cheeses, prosciuttos and salamis as you enter the restaurant is quite something. In the summer you eat on the terrace. $30 a head for two courses excluding wine.
Como produces 80% of Europe’s silk and has been doing so since the 14 th century when silk worms were first imported. There are boutiques in the centre selling high-quality silk merchandise along with a few factory outlets. Scarves, ties and shirts all make good buys. Mantero Via San Abbondio 8, Como. (Tel +39 31 321510), supplies the big fashion houses in Paris and Milan and Binda have an outlet at Viale Geno 6, Como (Tel +39 31 3861629.) Frey is located at via Garibaldi, 10 (Tel +39 31 267012.) They also have a factory outlet outside of Como at viale Risorgimento 49/51 in Mornasco.
There’s a regular Saturday market – food and clothing – in Como town and once a month an antique market on a Sunday.
There are some great hikes to be had in the hills and mountains around Como. From Menaggio on the west side of the lake you can walk to top of Monte Grona – 1736 metres up and about six hours walking time. For this you need to be fit – it’s not for those who can’t remember the last time they ran for a bus. The view from the top is stunning: Lake Lugano in Switzerland to the west, virtually all of Lake Como, Milan and the Po plains to the south, the Valtellina and higher Alps to the north. The tourist office in Menaggio has other suggested hikes – many less taxing than this one. www.menaggio.com/eng/info-documentazione.
BE CAREFUL: a group of American backpackers were recently rescued from the mountains by the emergency services here. Cold, hungry and lost, they are a perfect example of how enthusiasm is no substitute for a map, compass and a plan!
Catherine Richards Golini is a freelance writer, teacher and editor. Born in Wales, raised in England, she is currently enjoying the quiet life in Locarno, Switzerland.