You may be forgiven for thinking I live in a dream world, where every town and country I visit shoots moonbeams from its ass and glitter and sequins line the roads we travel. My blog posts can be a little sickly sweet for some folk because I’m always completely gushing about our latest trip or experience. I can’t help it – I’m a megawatt optimist. I eat sunshine for breakfast and unicorn steaks for tea! I’m passionate, and I find it very easy to dwell on the good bits and make the best of the bad. My old travelling friend, Hannah, taught me to see the excitement in everywhere (even though we were very often returning to manky hostels and sweaty mattresses) and my new travelling friend, the husband, taught me to see the fun in everything, even on days when someone steals your shoes from your hotel room. Let’s just say; Lake Como is a place of extreme contrasts but don’t let that put you off!
A Lake Como Guide
For anyone who has visited Italy before, you will know that it comes with a lot of rustic charm. So rustic sometimes that a good earthquake would save them millions on improvements! Regardless though, it is one of the things that draws you in about Italy and, Lake Como is no exception. It would be easier to understand if the men’s shoes weren’t so highly polished and the women’s lipsticks weren’t so perfectly lined but Italians just don’t seem so bothered about brickwork and in the meantime you’d have a much better experience if you just accepted that their towns can look half abandoned.
After much research we decided to hunt for accommodation in Bellagio, partly because it seemed to look after itself a bit more and partly because George Clooney hangs there. Not surprisingly hotels are a fraction more expensive than some of the neighbouring towns but you can’t put a price on reliving a scene from ER and I had my best heartattack impression at the ready in case George was present. Actually, we couldn’t believe our luck at the airbnb we booked for £70p/n – I mean, this was our view…
I can no longer find the apartment we booked but this one is in the same block (and there are a few other similar ones nearby) and I cannot recommend this area highly enough. You are a 5 minute walk from the centre/front of Bellagio but this is a residential neighbourhood so it’s quiet and clean and possibly the best pizza joint on this earth is just around the corner and share the same view from an open second floor terrace. Locals eat there so the prices are low and the food is great! (Check out their website www.labellaginapizza.com). There’s also a nearby supermarket because you need to make the most of that balcony with those views and a bottle of red.
A Two Day Itinerary Of Lake Como
Mr MLLH, my long-suffering better half, rises way before I do and likes to scout out the lay of the land before I have even had my first cup of tea. Often he brings me my first cup of tea, with a croissant and a map of circled hot-spots. We had two desires from this trip : 1. Buy a day-rider ticket and make use of the ferries which cross the lake to other towns AND 2. Visit Villa Balbianello. The weather on Como is as changeable as my teenager and the forecast wasn’t great for today so we figured we’d save Villa Balbianello for tomorrow and work our way around the bars, restaurants and cafes of Como and try and stay out of mischief.
You catch the ferry from the front of Bellagio and the walk down there is most pleasant. Shops for people who think that €10 for a bar of soap is perfectly acceptable, and cafe’s which spill out onto the pavement where you can watch rich men in boat shoes and no socks, and their wives who have spent too long on the electric beach and don’t seem to care they have VPL in their tight white jeans. Down the front is no different and there are far more punters queuing for the elegant ride in a veneered Bond-like water taxi than there are waiting for the diesel-chuffing car/bike/pedestrian mode of water transport. The front is a great people watching spot and we returned later that evening for a sparkling white and a bowl of nuts. In the meantime we were headed across the lake to the lovely town of Varenna.
We hopped off onto dry land, happy to be away from the water as it’s a bit chilly actually on the Lake and spotted a restaurant with pretty lakeside views which seemed perfect to take our morning hot chocolate. Hot chocolate in Italy is like nowhere else in the world, resembling more of a melted chocolate sauce than the thinner more viscous versions that the rest of Europe pass off as acceptable, so you must try it and nowhere else will ever satisfy you again. A ten minute storm later we were paying the bill and off in search of Villa Monastero.
Villa Monastero is a beautiful museum on the waterfront but it was it’s gardens that interested us. In fact, not so much as interested us but facilitated a prettier walk to our intended destination – Fiumelatte : The shortest river in the world. I love stuff like this and have planned many a roadtrip detour in order to visit ‘the world’s largest rocking chair’, or ‘the world’s biggest collection of beer’, or ‘the world’s only squirrel made of cheese’. Handily for us, the 2km stretch of Botanical Gardens run parallel to the road we would have needed to walk anyway in order to reach Fiumelatte so we walked through 5,000 rare species of trees, flowers you’ve never even seen before and ornate stonework pagoda’s where the once-wealthy owners obviously enjoyed many an evening stroll. The gardens are gorgeous, only cost a couple of euro’s and are well worth a leisurely saunter. But then reality set in : there is no exit at the other end! We were parallel with where we needed to be and we could hear the road on the other side of the 6 foot wall but alas we couldn’t get out and would have to make a 6km round trip from this wall just to see the shortest river. I refused to give up so before Mr MLLH could convince me otherwise I started to climb. It wasn’t the most conventional way of reaching our destination and involved a bit of underwear flashing, but ten minutes later, a few scratches worse off, we emerged onto the road to puzzled looking drivers and Fiumelatte was in our reach. Never let it be said I am a quitter!
Flowing from a cavity in the rock face into Lake Como below, this hidden gem runs a total of 250m. Fiume (italian for river) Latte (for milk), the river runs so fiercely that’s the waters are white, hence the name. It usually dries up in the middle of October and reappears in March, much like Cadbury’s Cream Eggs. You can view it from the road but we fancied another climb (the 6 foot wall had got us in the mood) so walked 15 minutes to the top, past an old cemetery and makeshift bar, up to the balluardo for some amazing views of Como. Thinking that we’d already escaped an annoying situation once today we were feeling serendipitous and decided to try and get back to Varenna along a path we found which seemed to be headed in the right direction. We were right, and after a few tree-top vista’s when the foliage cleared we made it back in one piece and ready for a glass of Spumante in Varenna’s pretty square.
Varenna is the kind of place you want to linger a little : the locals continue as if these day visitors are just part of a pop-up film set and they’ve been hired as extras to bring in a little authenticity. And the heat and humidity has you hoping you can find a seat under a cafe parasol, for a Carbonara or Moretti in order to watch the residents buy their bread, confabulate with neighbours and transiently pause to cross themselves in front of the chiesa.
Day Two Of A Weekend On Lake Como
After last nights lightning show, circa 2am, I started wondering if moving all the African god-heads into the spare room had been a bad idea (I’m NOT ok with empty eye-sockets watching me as I sleep, and their grass hair is far too big a reminder of my sun-in days in the 80’s). But, this is the Italian Lakes and with The Alps in sight from the balcony, you have to take the occasional storm for this kind of view. However, Villa Balbianello was beckoning us so our lack of shut-eye was nothing a few extra Italian espresso’s couldn’t fix – 2 ounces of bitter black stuff in a cafe with my nose lodged in an Italian’s armpit : human sardines get their morning caffeine fix.
Do you remember Daniel Craig in Casino Royal at the most breath-taking spot on a lake taking R&R with the delectable Vesper? (probably the only time you’ve ever seen James Bond in a wheelchair) Well, Villa Balbianello was used as the location for that famous scene and if I ever need to pick a place to recover from multiple street fights and a few bullet wounds, then this is where you’ll find me too! It also makes a brief appearance in Star Wars – Attack of the Clones.
Built for a cardinal in the 1700’s and more recently owned by an explorer, Guido Monzino, the innards of this amazing museum on Lake Como are filled with secret doors and passage ways, and decorated with collections and works of art that make you comprehend the wealth of it’s history. I’d recommend the tour at Villa Balbianello, it sets off at regular intervals. But the most impressive aspect of this beautiful Italian Villa is the ornate architecture and landscaped gardens. Even if you’re not a green-fingered aficionado there’s no way you will leave without 40 million photo’s from every different angle.
Villa Balbianello protrudes into the lake so that it can flaunt its beauty to everywhere else on Como. Like a class auditioning for a school play, Balbianello sits forwards in its chair, bouncing slightly, arm stretched high in the air, shouting pick me, pick me! And of course – George Lucas and Martin Campbell (Casino Royal) did.
The most impressive bit’s I took home were the stories about how they prune the massive tree in the garden and how they trained the vine that entwines itself around the ornate patio’s columns – no UFO will ever be able to unhook it from it’s base for specimens of earthly beauty to take back to Mars and experiment upon.
Extra information for Villa Balbianello…
Location : Lenno, Lake Como
Opening Times : mid March to mid November, 10am – 6pm daily except Monday and Wednesday.
Prices: €20 guided tour plus house and garden ticket, €14 if you have English National Trust Membership (must show your card)
Exiting this architectural/landscaped masterpiece is coming back to earth with a bump, back to a rustic world of flaking paint and narrow cobbled alleys that smell like a bad vets. Not even a glass of vino at nearby Azzano on the waterfront was enough to renew my passion for Como, so we boarded the ferry back to Bellagio to absorb a sense of neat and tidy again.
Like I’ve already mentioned, Bellagio is a spot for rich folk and the little town can be a real tourist trap, but it doesn’t take much to find some hidden gems if you’re just prepared to veer off the beaten path a bit. We picked up a map from the tourist information which highlighted a hike of about 2 miles taking you around the back of the town. It included a couple of interesting facts about the local area and I love a good nosey into people’s homes and gardens, so I was well pleased. But to top it off, we came back to the water front around the other side of Bellagio and stumbled across a beach bar. I instantly fall in love with a place if it brings you snacks without you asking for them and when I asked for white wine and got a fizzy Spumante, I smiled at the arrogance – Italians are proud of their wares and when an area produces a certain variety of food or drink they just presume that’s what you want, why wouldn’t you, it’s the best! So Spumante I drank, alongside my free tapas style snack and lakeside view, and marvelled what a beautiful place Lake Como is, even with its crumbling rusticness .
Have you been? I’d love to hear your highlights? If you’re after some more inspiration for Italian cities you may want to have a read of my post about the wonderful hidden gems in Rome. Or if you’re tieing in Venice on your Northern Italy trip then be sure to have a read about all different neighbourhoods of Venice and the and two special little islands – Murano and Burano.
For the best hotel deals in the area, click here.
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