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Lake Como, Italy: Simply beautiful
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Lago do Como to the locals, the shores of Lake Como are home to the rich and the famous of the world. And in between villas are towns that are destinations in themselves.
Lake Como is a lake of glacial origin in Lombardy, Italy. With its 416 meters of depth (near Argegno) it is one of the deepest lakes in Europe. It has an area of 146 square kms., making it the third largest lake in Italy, after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore. It has a characteristic shape to "turned upside down Y", with two 'legs' starting at Como in the South-West and Lecco in the South-East, which join together half way up and the lake continues up to Colico in the North.
I was on a 2-week holiday with my wife Vrunda. Accompanying us was my cousin Ujwal and his wife Jaya. There’s lot that can be covered in 2 weeks. But we decided instead, to explore just the northern part of Italy… essentially lakes, small towns and of course the iconic Dolomites.
Since exploring the countryside was integral in our agenda, it made sense to hire a car rather than depend on public transport and trains. Just so you know, the Italian rail network is pretty good and efficient. Most of the towns that we covered were quite accessible by rail too.
Our trip was scheduled from last week of September onwards. That was an ideal season from a landscape perspective. Unfortunately, that’s also the season when the entire world decides to visit Italy! Every popular place that we visited was full to the brim with tourists. The lines were really long at places of interests. And the parking lots full.
We landed at Malpensa International Airport at 1 in the afternoon. I had booked an Audi A6 with Hertz. I was lucky to get an upgrade to an Audi Q7… that too a brand new one. It had clocked just about 5000 kms. When Indians travel with families, you can expect more than usual numbers of bags. More true, if the travelers are vegetarians. One of the bags is generally earmarked for Indian snacks!
The city of Como is an ideal gateway to enjoy Lake Como. The drive to Como from Malpensa airport is just under an hour. We were booked at Hotel Barchetta Excelsior. The location couldn’t have been better. Thanks to my association with the travel industry, the management was kind enough to offer us a room on the higher floor overlooking the lake.
I take this opportunity to warn first time drivers in Italy. Be very careful with signs of Zona Traffic Limitato (a red circle on a white background). It simply means that if you enter the ZTL area, you are sure to be fined. And the fines are steep. Of course, the folks do have warning signs alerting drivers of ZTLs ahead… but then you can get carried away! Thankfully, I was more than careful and escaped ‘fineless’ during the trip.
Our hotel was just inside the ZTL! We parked our car in the premises of the neighbouring Palace Hotel (same management) and dragged our bags to our rooms. We quickly freshened up and by 5PM we were ready for a little walk along the lake and onto Diga Foranea… a board walk on the lake.
Since it was a Saturday, the place around our hotel was decked up with the farmers’ market as well as with sellers of souvenirs and works of art. It was a nice walk mingling with the local crowd. After an early dinner we decided to call a day which was rather long for us. Beginning tomorrow we would be having long days right throughout the trip.
Lake Como can be best explored by boat. Of course, the drives along the lake are also fantastic. You would have to manage negotiating on the very narrow roads and the Italian drivers… they are certainly good, but their approach and overtaking skills, at times, can be scary to the new! I got quite used to it in a couple of days. Now, I was one amongst them.
We would be in Como for 3 nights and days. The plan was to explore the next day by car and the day after by boat. That way, we would enjoy both the experiences.
The shores of Lake Como is home to many towns. Each have their own characteristic but notably (and not be missed visiting) are Bellagio, Varenna and Menaggio. Then of course, on the plan should be Villa Carlotta and Lenno (to visit Villa Balbianello).
Bellagio was about an hour’s drive from Como. To find a parking slot at Bellagio took me more time (it was a Sunday!). Finally I got one. By the time we were out of the car it was 12 noon.
Bellagio is situated at the tip of the peninsula separating the lake's two southern arms, with the Alps visible across the lake to the north. It is popular with tourists and also contains many weekend homes for the wealthy of Milan.
Already inhabited in prehistoric times, Bellagio was the residence of the Roman patricians and then of Lombardy's noble families, who built magnificent villas here. In the past Bellagio enchanted artists, poets, musicians from all over the world: Pliny the Younger, Longfellow, Twain, Shelley, Stendhal, Flaubert, Faure, Giordano, Toscanini and Franz Listz have been attracted by the place.
Cypresses and pines grow on the shore, vines and olives on the sunny slopes and chestnuts, beeches, nuts and conifers abound in the mountains. Flowers start blooming in March with daffodils and lily-of-the-valley. The highlight in April and May are the spectaculars colors of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. Roses, oleanders and hydrangeas bloom from June to September. The beauty of Bellagio's park and gardens are enhanced by magnificent warm autumn colors from the end of September and for the whole of October.
From the central waterfront, stepped and cobbled lanes rise up the hill in a tight little network separating the lakeshore from the town's main street, Via Garibaldi. This is a pretty lane where you'll find more shops, cafes and also Bellagio's main town square, Piazza San Giacomo, or Piazza della Chiesa. The square is dominated by the town church, the Romanesque Basilica di San Giacomo, which is worth a visit for its frescoes and statues. Externally you can admire the attractive bell-tower and elegant apse. On the opposite side of the square is a medieval tower, once part of Bellagio's now-disappeared defences and now a tourist office where you can buy tickets for the tours of Villa Serbelloni's gardens. The fountain in the centre of the piazza is said to have been originally commissioned by a resident Englishman for his garden to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.
Villa Serbelloni is a large, grand building on the slopes of the Bellagio promontory. The villa's grounds enclose the wooded hill behind the town, which dominates the headland and the centre of Lake Como. The villa building isn't open to the public, but the gardens and grounds can be visited on organised tours, which take place twice a day. The ticket costs Euro 8.50 per person.
Unfortunately for us the next tour was at 3:30 PM. There was no point waiting for 2 hours. We skipped the visit to the villa and decided instead to take a boat to Varenna.
Varenna is an attractive village on the eastern shore of Lake Como, looking over the central part of the lake towards Bellagio. Varenna's picturesque lanes and old fishermen's houses are unpretentiously appealing, and some visitors prefer the town to its grander neighbours. The main tourist activities in Varenna are relaxing by the lake, and visiting the gardens of two villas, Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi. Varenna is a useful gateway to Lake Como, as it lies on a railway line with direct trains to Milan, and is connected to the other lake resorts by regular car and passenger ferries.
From the ferry jetty in Varenna there is a footway leading around the shore to the right. This brings you to the village's pretty waterfront, with its characteristic lake harbour, an arcaded walkway and a little stone beach sloping into the water. Close to the water, you'll find a couple of gelaterie where you can buy ice creams. We couldn’t resist the temptation either.
Heading up the sloping alleys from the lake we came to the town's main piazza and the lake-shore road. The square is dominated by Varenna's principal church, the fourteenth-century Chiesa di San Giorgio, which features frescoes both inside and out - a large image of St. Christopher is painted on the facade. Opposite there was the smaller and more ancient Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista.
With good couple of hours at Varenna, we took a ferry back to Bellagio, took our car and were off to Como. The evening was young and we had time on hand to take the funicular up to Brunate.
The funicular departs every 15 minutes from the funicular base located at Piazza De Gasperi and costs Euro 5 for a round trip. The Funicular Como-Brunate connects the City of Como with the Comune of Brunate. The Funicular has been in operation since 1894. It takes approximately 7 minutes to reach the top to Brunate a small picturesque and peaceful town situated at 750 metres above sea level. From Brunate one can walk to San Maurizio which is 906 metres above sea level and visit the famous Voltian Beacon (lighthouse) built in 1927. The walk to lighthouse from the station was about 2.5 kms. Since it was getting dark, we avoided the trek, instead spent the time soaking the beautiful view of Como from up above.
The next day, we purchased a Euro 25 ferry ticket that allowed us unlimited rides for the day on Lake Como. We alighted the 10 AM ferry and reached Villa Carlotta at 12:08 PM. The boat ride gave us an opportunity to see the towns, the mountains and many villas from the waters. Notably, the ferry made a little ‘unscheduled’ stop near Villa Del Balbianello presenting us with a photo opportunity.
Villa Carlotta welcomes visitors with its magnificent botanic garden and art masterpieces in over 70.000 square metres of gardens and museum. The beautiful villa was built at the end of XVII century by the Milanese marquis Giorgio Clerici in a natural basin between lake and mountains, facing the dolomite Grignas and the peninsula of Bellagio. The architect created for the Clericis an important but sober building, with an Italian garden decorated with sculptures, stairs and fountains.
In 1801 Gian Battista Sommariva, famous politician, businessman and patron of arts, bought the villa. Thanks to this owner the property in Tremezzo attained the summit of its splendour and became one of the most important halting-place of the Grand Tour. The villa became a temple of XIX century art with works of Canova, Thorvaldsen and Hayez: Palamedes, Eros and Psyche, Terpsychore, The last kiss of Romeo and Juliet are only some of the masterpieces that enrich the extraordinary collection. Under Sommariva part of the park was transformed in a fascinating romantic garden.
Sommariva's heirs sold the villa in 1843 to Princess Marianne of Nassau, Albert's of Prussia wife, who gave it as a present to her daughter Carlotta in occasion of her wedding with Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen. Hence the name Villa Carlotta. Very fond in botanic, Georg enriched the park, today of great historical and environmental value. The gardens of Villa Carlotta chiefly owe their reputation to the rhododendrons' and azaleas' spring flowering, consisting of over 150 different sorts.
But the gardens are worth to visit in every period of the year: old varieties of camellias, century old cedars and sequoias, huge planes and tropical plants, the Rock garden and the Ferns valley, the Rhododendrons wood and the Bamboos garden, the agricultural tools museum and the wonderful views on the lake built in the ages the celebrity of this place, still today consider "a place of heaven".
Post Villa Carlotta visit, we had lunch in one of the bistros on the lake. At 3 PM we took a ferry that got us to Menaggio.
Menaggio is situated on the western shore of Lake Como, at the point where the road bordering the western side of the lake and the road leading through the Val Menaggio to Lugano meet. Its central position, makes Menaggio an important and lively town. The town consists in a centre and three hamlets Croce, Loveno and Nobiallo and has a total of about 3200 inhabitants.
In its historical centre there are various interesting monuments which recall Menaggio's importance through the ages. In the 18th century it was discovered by the first tourists, and the grand hotels and luxurious villas date from then. The splendid lake side promenade with its lovely flowerbeds, offers a unique view of the central lake.
By the time we were back in Como it was about 6PM. There was still time on hand to explore Old Town Como – especially the Duomo and the many streets surrounding the Piazza Duomo.
The centro storico, old town, is a typical Italian network of pavement cafes, little squares and picturesque lanes, some bustling with shops, others empty and peaceful. Como has been a successful town since Roman times and has a sense of purpose independent of tourism.
The most important sight in town is the cathedral, the Duomo. This imposing church was built over a period of several centuries, from 1396-1740, and shows a range of influences, chiefly Renaissance and Gothic. The facade dates from the fifteenth century, while the dome was designed by Filippo Juvarra in the eighteenth century. Alongside the Duomo is the Broletto, Como's thirteenth-century striped-marble town hall.
Within the old town centre is another important church, the Basilica di San Fedele, which dates from the tenth century (though it has been rebuilt). The visitor exploring the town will come across various picturesque sights, including the imposing Porta Vittoria, a tall stone gateway defending the old town walls, narrow arcaded lanes, and tower-houses which are the legacy of the warring Middle Ages.
The next morning we would leave Como to our next destination – Bolzano.
Lake Como Image Gallery Photo viewer
Como Image Gallery Photo viewer
Bellagio Image Gallery Photo viewer
Varenna Image Gallery Photo viewer
Villa Carlotta Image Gallery Photo viewer
Menaggio Image Gallery Photo viewer
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