Lake Como adventure a sheer delight

Bellagio on Lake Como. 313223_01

Erle Levey

It’s nearing the end of September. While the sun is warm in the middle of the day the gusts come down the valleys like a bullet.

The sail boats scurry across the surface of the lake and no freshly-washed clothes drying on balconies are safe.

Italy is more than just a pretty picture, it’s a lifestyle.

We were at Lake Como, just to the north of Milan and with the Swiss Alps as a backdrop.

What we found was Italy is the place to be …. the people are out and about enjoying their own country.

The vaccination rates are as high as Australia but the number of cases are less than half.

This is a country that bore the brunt of Covid – it was one of the first to be affected and the need to self-isolate must have been such an issue for a culture that prides itself on friends and family … the hugs, the kisses on the cheeks, the long lunches.

The people have shown an amazing resilience … and are very welcoming, especially if you hold good values and manners.

Sure, the cruise ships are starting to return yet Italy is more than that. It is about getting out there among the people – at any time of the day or night.

It’s about discovering their history and culture, their hospitality, their cities and magnificent geographic features – their lakes, their mountains, their rivers and their seas.

Oh, and did I mention food and wine?

After a flight from Brisbane with a four-hour stopover in Dubai we landed in Rome, but you can fly into Milan.

From there, the villages and towns on Lake Como are about an hour by train. These are comfortable, efficient and affordable.

And the railway line follows the lake so the stations are close to most accommodation places. The scenery is stunning.

Arriving at one of the most picturesque apartments in Bellano, we were amazed at the outlook.

Lake Como is surrounded by limestone and granite mountains that reach about 600 m in height in the south and more than 2400 m in the northeast.

There are three branches to the lake which is about 47km long and 4km wide.

One stretches northward past Colico, a village that serves the agricultural and horticultural industries as well as being one of the further commuter towns for Milan.

Of the other two, one stretches south-westward to the city of Como, which is the largest commercial centre of the region.

The other south-eastward beyond Lecco, a trade and industrial city dating back centuries. It is rich in history, architecture and geographic features due to its position between the serene lake and dramatic mountains.

Bellagio Promontory marks the division of these two branches of the lake.

Bellano is about half-way along the lake’s eastern shore and central to many of the other villages.

Sarah is the host of the apartment we are staying at, which is aptly named Eagles Nest as it sits about an 800m walk above the village.

One of the most fascinating moments was to stand still and take in what the local residents were doing.

The Italian man on the terraces below our balcony was calmly, peacefully smoking while plucking what seemed to be basil leaves from his herb garden and putting them in a dish ready to take inside – probably to prepare dinner.

Later he was tending to his vegetable garden and taking time to look around and reflect, because his eyes met mine at one point and I gave him a “Buongiorno” nod – the traditional greeting of “good morning” or “good day.”

Along with some other residents, he was just pottering on a Monday – turning the soil and doing some pruning, planting of a few new seedlings so that his amazing garden was maintained.

It’s hard to spot a dead leaf in an Italian garden – it’s as if it’s getting the love that Italians make time for.

The simplicity of village life is all around you. It’s easy to fall in love with the attitude of the people.

It is what it is.

The lady at the railway station prepared the best cioccolata calda densa – hot chocolate so thick you can almost stand a spoon up in it.

And she did it with a smile while bringing it out on a tray to where we were sitting in the sun.

Sarah was her name and we went back in the next day for seconds.

People are helpful where they can be – if it’s asking where the railway station is, which platform the train leaves from, what time the train leaves, or where the bakery is.

It’s always great to acknowledge them genuinely, especially if you preface it with “Buongiorno. Mi scusi, non parlo Italiano … do you speak English?”

You get a much better response that way … it’s a balanced way of life, the way life should be today.

After 10 days of travelling it’s good to settle into the apartment, put the groceries in the fridge and the washing on.

Goodness, what we’ve accomplished in those 10 days.

Now, with the washing out to dry on the balcony and batteries for phones, iPads and laptops charging, it’s time to head down to the village.

My travelling companion has been warned about the winds that blow across the lake – they may be gentle in the morning but by the afternoon you get these gusts that blow across the open water.

And if you’ve left your washing out you risk ending up with the underwear fluttering down to the garden below … and the new neighbour having to bring them up and saying “Mi scusi señora, are these yours or for your mama?”

The walk down to the village is past vegetable gardens, motor scooters parked out side in the street, rambling cottages as well as luxury villas.

Bellano is not to be confused with its famous near-neighbour of Bellagio.

While Bellagio is regarded as one of the most glamorous and romantic destinations in the Lombardy region, Bellano and nearby Varenna seem much more traditional villages.

Our destination in the evening was Bar Gelateria Pasticceria Arrigoni, right on the lake and run by Sarah’s mother Nadia.

Opposite the ferry wharf, it’s as if we have taken part in a scene from Death in Paradise or a scene from a Poiret movie.

Travellers mix with locals sitting outside in the garden and are ordering Aperol spritzers with their pizza.

The crowds of summer have gone and only a few take the opportunity to promenade on the boardwalk.

Soon we are the only ones still sitting outside as everyone else has moved inside out of the cool evening breeze.

That’s where we go … to decide on a gelato.

Next morning we are back at the wharf. Ferries criss-cross the lake at regular intervals and it is a matter of whether to plan where to go or simply take the next ferry to dock and be surprised at how the day works out.

There are all-day tickets to suit the areas you most like to visit … central, southern and a combination.

These allow you to hop on and hop off at whichever villages are in your ticket zone, and the prices range from about e16 for an adult to e25.

While the type of ticket to purchase seems complex at first – especially with the Italian language barrier – the ferry ticket office staff are very helpful and it doesn’t take long to realise you can get a pass that takes you to your desired region of the lake.

There is a coloured map to help decide.

It’s then a matter of visiting the villages, and soaking in the magnificence of the lake and mountains.

The villages hang onto the shoreline where forests meets the water – and you are surprised at how much greenery there is.

Our first stop is Varenna – a picturesque and still somewhat traditional village with some beautiful walks and gardens.

Il Giardino Botanico is an amazing experience. The gardens are part of the Villa Monastero that dates back to the 13th century.

They are part of a narrow strip of land that stretches about 2km from Varenna to the nearby Fiumelatte, overlooking the waters of the lake.

It is the result of centuries of adjustments to the steep sides of the shore and allows visitors to appreciate the remarkable architectural decoration that goes hand in hand with the plantings from near and far.

Entry is a nominal fee of about e8, but more to investigate the villa; that has now been transformed into a museum, and also home to an internationally-renowned conference centre.

We buy the ingredients for a picnic lunch from Macelleria Salumeria Lillia of crusty roll, salami and cheese with a truffle basil pesto spread, and some fresh fruit – then catch a ferry ride across to Menaggio.

From Menaggio, it’s a few more stops – Grianto, Tremezzo and Azzano – and you are at Lenno.

It’s as picturesque as you could imagine and there is an oasis at the southern end of the promenade, La Fabbrica del Gelato – a place of home-made icecream.

Overlooking the lake, it has the motto: Dove la Nattura Sceglie I Colori – Where Nature Chooses Colours.

Inside are choices of gelato, milk shakes, and iced red orange slushies to die for, especially on such a warm day.

There are many gracious villas along the shoreline and at the furthest point is the Villa del Balbianello – the famous setting for a scene in Star Wars episode for the wedding of Queen Armadella and Anakin Skywalker.

At the wharf, waiting for the return ferry to Bellano, I complimented a couple of fellow travellers: “That’s a mighty fine hat you have there, sir.”

“It’s from Australia,” he said. “It’s very good, it doesn’t get hot.”

He was from France, she was from Germany.

They had both lived in Australia and she told me the hat was well-accepted here in Europe – from a fashion sense as well as for the functionality of the wide brim.

I told them the next day I was giving a similar hat to a friend’s step-father as a gift – someone I had yet to meet. And a silk scarf with colourful Great Barrier Reef designs, for the mother.

They were impressed.

The ferry back to Bellano saw a stop at Bellagio, and I realised the attraction of Lake Como was it being totally unexpected.

Instead of being Little Hollywood I had imagined – something really expensive and filled with A-listers and movie stars – that it was very welcoming and intriguing.

Instead of having to wear Louis Vuitton shoes just to get a takeaway pizza, it was home to some lovely people.

The old men sitting on the bench by the water, talking, passing the time of day. The fishermen and women working on their boats in the sunshine.

The mechanics in the little corner garages mending motor scooters.

Arnold‘s Bar and Gelateria at Bellano encapsulated it perfectly. Waterside dining, while inside the cafe are old photographs featuring the early days of the Italian manufactured Ducati motorcycles.

Recommended for its local, affordable, food and wine.

It wasn’t fancy but it was just delightful. That’s what Lake Como was in a way.

It was an adventure, rather than a walk through a picture postcard, and there were many little surprises along the way.

It’s not until you get there that you realise how easy and enjoyable it is to travel from one village to the next, across the lake with others who are there to appreciate the natural beauty of this magnificent location.

Then there are the stunning views from the ferry – looking to the lake shore you get a different perspective.

The villages are still very restricted by the mountains and the forests … restricted and authentic.

They don’t have that modern urban sprawl we see in so many places, which is just astounding given the sheer volume of visitors that come to the area.

Lake Como … sheer delight.

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