Sunday, February 5, 2012

Lake Como Part One: Varenna and Bellagio

It is another bitterly cold day in Lodi. I read that much of Europe is experiencing the same kind of icy conditions that we are here in Italy. Some countries, such as Bosnia, have even declared a state of emergency and in Rome there has been absolute chaos as a result of the snow. Hopefully this sudden cold spell clears up soon and no more lives are lost.

Thankfully Lodi seems to be through the worst of the weather and blue skies are on the horizon. It is unusually quiet outside and I think that most of the people in the city are indulging in a lazy Sunday at home with a blanket. My saviour is a tiny heater that I keep next to my computer. Without it, the room that I am currently in would surely be an ice box.

The mountains that are located within an hour of my home must be absolutely stunning right now. I was able to take a few photographs of them when I flew into Milan last month. The snow-capped peaks defined their rocky surfaces and created a wonderful view. Now they will be completely covered, making the area a photographer’s dream.

Of all the sites that I have seen in Italy, Lake Como (which is situated within these mountains) is arguably the most breathtaking. I was able to visit the famous destination this summer and took some of the best photos of my life while I was there. Most North Americans have heard of Lake Como because many celebrities, such as George Clooney, have homes there. Indeed when I mentioned to friends that I was planning on spending a week in Lake Como, many of them reminded me to say “Hi” to George, as if we would be frequenting the same places.

Until this year, Lake Como wasn’t even on my radar as a place that I wanted to see. Usually I am not very fond of places that are overly touristy and prefer to have a more authentic experience when I am travelling. Thankfully, my boyfriend Luca mentioned wanting to visit the area and so, on a warm August day, I found myself on a train bound for the small Lake Como town of Varenna.

Even the journey to Varenna was beautiful. As you depart Milano Centrale train station, the view gradually transitions from industrialised buildings to enormous mountains and a sparkling blue lake. It is truly amazing how close this picturesque wonder is to such a large city. Amusingly enough, there was a couple sharing our train car who seemed to be even more excited than my boyfriend and I. The woman opened the train window as far as it could go and kept leaning perilously outside while taking various photos. Her husband remained inside, but kept pointing frantically at different things, presumably directing the operation. On more than one occasion, she would re-enter the train only moments before it sped through a mountain tunnel with absolutely no fear whatsoever.

Upon our arrival in Varenna, Luca and I were drenched in a layer of our own sweat and began a 10 minute walk that seemed to last an eternity. The main road led us up and down the hills of the ancient town towards our hotel and although we were exhausted, we were completely in awe. Varenna really is one of those places that you envision when you think of Italy. With its cobblestone roads, multi-coloured houses and even a castle looming in the hills above, it is the perfect destination to relax and experience what the Italians refer to as the dolce vita.

Because Varenna is still largely unknown to the majority of tourists, it is also surprisingly free of the crowds, junk and cash-grabs that you find in neighbouring tourist-trap Bellagio. In addition to this, hotel rooms are very reasonable in the town. Luca and I stayed in a lovely place called Villa Elena which was located only meters from the lakeshore. One double room cost only 50 Euros per night, an absolute bargain in an area where you can easily drop more than 100 Euros for a single room. The only downside was that there was no air conditioning where we were staying. Surprisingly, however, this was not really an issue because we were out every day and the nights were cool and mosquito-free. On those occasions when you do need to cool down, drawing yourself an ‘ice’ bath can prove to be initially comical, but ultimately soothing.

In the mornings we would often venture down the cobblestone stairs to the lakeshore. The town is littered with these steep paths that are both unique and beautiful, albeit difficult to navigate. Most paths lead directly to the local restaurants that overlook Lake Como. There was one particular café that Luca and I were especially fond of where it was possible to eat a croissant, brioche in Italian, and simply watch the water. There were several days when we both agreed that we would be happy to remain in that spot and do absolutely nothing at all. Varenna is a place where you can literally feel all the tension and stress of your everyday life melt away.

If you do choose to venture outside of Varenna and explore the neighbouring towns, getting around is very easy. There is a ferry station not far from the hotels in Varenna and ferries depart frequently for destinations all over Lake Como. The best views of Lake Como can be seen from a boat. If you do not have money to spend on renting your own vessel or taking a private tour of the villas, the ferry provides a cheap alternative. You can really see a lot from the top deck and the feeling of the sun on your face, accompanied by a cooling breeze is enough to lull you into slumber.

On our first day out of Varenna, Luca and I decided to visit Bellagio because it was the one town that both of us had heard of before our vacation. The trip from Varenna is very short (about 15 minutes by ferry) and the views of the town are spectacular. As I mentioned above, Bellagio is extremely busy and filled to the brim with tourists of every nationality. Prices are expensive and I was definitely glad that I did not choose it as a base of operations. Thankfully there are many interesting local stores spread out amongst the cheap junk that are worth exploring. My favourite was a glass store. All of the ornaments, furniture and accessorise had been hand-blown by the owners. The most fabulous pieces included; a one-of-a-kind chandelier, a colourful penguin and some very unique pieces of jewellery.

There are a variety of restaurants in Bellagio but the best value for money that we could find was a local pizzeria. While I have had better pizzas in Italy, the food that we ordered was reasonably priced and delicious. For Luca it was an especially religious experience. After not having eaten true Italian pizza for several years, he appreciated his food as if he was eating in a Michelin standard restaurant. For those of you who have never eaten true Italian pizza in Italy…yes, it really is THAT good.

Overall I found that the best thing to do in Bellagio, just like in Varenna, was to walk around exploring the twisting allies and historic buildings. Make sure to wear your walking shoes, after a few hours under the scorching Italian sun, you will feel as though you have just been through a workout at the gym.

Bellagio was no Varenna, but in Lake Como every town is both spectacular and unique.

To be continued…

Be sure to read part two of three to hear about my day out Como!


  1. Wow, it looks really great. I want to go now!

  2. It's even better in person! Go check it out...and say "hi" to George Clooney for me! lol!