Monday, 5 February 2007

Lake Como, Italy's finest Lake

At the base of the Alps to the west and not far from the Dolomites to the east, the Italian lake district has numerous lakes, but only two of any size that are frequented by tourists to any degree. These are Maggiore, with Locarno at its northwestern tip and Como the larger of the two and by almost any tourist standard, the more scenic of the two.

Lake Como (Lago di Como) stretches from the north to its southern limit at the city of Como on its longest branch - just under a hundred miles and about sixty miles on the shorter eastern arm. Como is the lake to visit if you have a limited number of days in Italy and want to see all you can fit in. Europeans and southern Italians who can afford it have long summered in the Lakes region. The shores are populated with pink villas of all shapes and sizes, hotels grand and small, quaint little villages, from the city of Como north to Menaggio.

If you're driving and approaching Lake Como from the north, perhaps from St. Moritz or Innsbruck, an excellent place to stop is Varenna. It's on the east side of the widest part of the lake where it splits into two branches and forms a near perfect triangle with Bellagio at the centre of the fork and Menaggio on the west side of the lake.

So park your car, check into your hotel or B and B for two or three days and soak up some Italian small town atmosphere. Varenna is actually on the quieter side of the lake, with a small harbour, a romantic promenade, narrow lanes and its own villa. There's benches along the promenade, so bring along something to munch on, watch the lovers walking up and down the "passerella" (lakeside walk) at dusk and watch the ferries and ubiquitous motorboats (and regrettably speed boats too) churning up and down the lake.

Next day, take a ferry south to Bellagio. Go anywhere you want around Lake Como, but go by ferry. There's lots of them, they're not that expensive and it really adds to your holiday here. Driving along the shores of Como is just not worth it. It's one small town after another, so most of the time you crawl along at 10-20 mph. And you can see very little of the lake, what you do see is a lot of fences, high walls, etc. and signs in many languages that all translate into one phrase: "Keep Out!" It was that way the first time I came here in 1960-61 and it has only gotten worse. Word from the wise whether you come by car, or by train from Milano, travel by ferry after you get here.

Bellagio, the "Pearl of the Lake" is a combination of class, Old World elegance and affluence. Lots of shops and stalls, selling high priced items for the most part. If you must buy something, shop up the hill where the locals shop. Some lovely lakeside cafes. As I was once told "A nice place to see, an expensive place to be".

When you have tired of Bellagio, then take the ferry to Menaggio. This puts you across the lake and just a short ferry ride back to your base in Varenna. It's also only eight miles as the crow flies from Lugano on the Swiss border. Menaggio is a lower priced smaller edition of Bellagio and my favorite of the two. Lake Como is too dirty to swim in but if you are in the mood to take a dip, Menaggio has a nice public pool. Take advantage of it, good public pools are few and far between in most parts of Italy.

If you can spend another day in this area, then next day take the ferry again to Bellagio, but stay on it (or change to another - it depends on the schedule) and get off across the lake at Tremezzo. If you are interested in Grand Hotels, this is the spot. The rich and famous have been staying here for two centuries, even Best Western is here, but where we want to go is the Villa Carlotta.

Built by a Marquis in the eighteenth century, later modified by a Count, with gardens designed by several Dukes. you get the picture; here you walk among the ghosts of royalty. There's a Botanical Garden well worth the visit by itself, but in addition there is a museum with marble statuary, famous paintings and a large collection of seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture. Some parts of the Villa itself have been open in the past to guided tours, mostly at the whim of whoever is the current owners and how badly they need the money for upkeep. It's hard to do this place justice with only word pictures. The Villa itself is an imposing building fronted by a series of ivy-draped marble colonnades facing onto the lake.

So there you have it, a fine three day restful holiday on one small section of Lake Como. Enjoy!

Oh and by the way, if you see George Clooney relaxing at his villa south of Bellagio on the west side of the lake, give him a wave for me.

Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Tourism

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