Lake Como, Italy: For "The Sweetness of Doing Nothing"
When you write the story of two happy lovers, let the story be set on the banks of Lake Como.— Franz Liszt
The Lake Como of Yesterday and Today
In the 21st century, Lake Como has the reputation of being a playground for the rich and famous. All but deserted in winter, the lake awakens from its slumber in mid- March when the glitterati flock to beautiful Bellagio, Menaggio, and Varenna. While it is true that George Clooney, Richard Branson, and Sting all own lakeside villas, this hideaway nestled against the Swiss Alps is not by any means a new toy of the “haves”. 200 years ago, the estranged wife of the Price of Wales, Caroline of Brunswick, made her home in Villa d’Este.
However, to tag this oasis as merely a playground of the wealthy is to ignore the sheer beauty and tranquility of this place. It is approachable by everyone.
Lake Como has not always had such a glamorous personality. During the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years), the area that is now Lake Como was under an enormous sheet of ice. A massive glacier left its mark, giving the lake its characteristic inverted "Y" shape.
Anthropologists believe that the Lake Como area has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In 196 B.C., the Romans conquered the area and established a colony. Under the rule of Augustus, the Via Regina, a road which is still used today, was constructed as an important trade route between what is now present-day Milan and the Rhine Valley (modern-day Germany). The population of the colony quickly grew to more than 5,000.
Of course, no history lesson would be complete without stories of invasions and conquests, and such is the tale of Como. Huns and Goths left their mark along with the Lombards and Franks. In 1127 Milan (to the south) destroyed the town and Como fell into the hands of the Visconti and Sforza families. (This is the time when many of Como’s magnificent Romanesque churches were erected such as the San Carpoforo, Sant’Abbondio, San Fedele, San Giacomo, and the San Provino.)
In 1158, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, helped to protect Como from Milan through the construction of several defensive towers until Milan was finally destroyed in 1162.
Like a baseball player caught in a rundown, the centuries that followed witnessed Como under the rule of France, Spain, Austria, France again (Napoleon), and Austria once more. In 1859 Lake Como joined the United Kingdom of Italy when the Austrians were finally defeated at the battle of San Fermo.
Three Must-See Towns on Lake Como
When you visit the shores of Lake Como, there are three major towns you must visit.
- Bellagio sits upon the landmass that divides Lake Como into two arms, forming the inverted Y. Bellagio is perhaps the quietest of the three towns; to the south is beautiful Lake Como and to the north the enchanting Swiss Alps.
- Menaggio, located on the western shoreline, is an attractive tourist destination. The town center is pedestrian-only and populated with snack bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and gelateria.
- Varenna (my personal favorite) is situated on the eastern shoreline across from Bellagio and Menaggio—a beautiful town of picturesque villas and lush gardens.
Christened la perla del lago (the Pearl of Lake Como), and perhaps the most beautiful town in Europe, Bellagio boasts an assortment of world-class hotels, five-star dining, and centuries-old villas.
Conveniently situated mere steps from the lakefront boat docks are flowerbox-lined cobblestone paths begging you to toss your itinerary into the lake and accept ‘la dolce non fare ninete’ (the sweetness of doing nothing).
The hills sweep upward from the shore,
Whith villas scatter?d one by one
Upon their wooded spurs, and lower
Bellagio blazing in the sun (?)
I ask myself: Is this a dream?
Will it all vanish into air?
Is there a land of such supreme
And perfect beauty anywhere?— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Directly across the lake from Bellagio is the Villa del Balbianello. Standing on the tip of a steep, wooded promontory, movie buffs will recognize this as the backdrop for scenes in the James Bond film Casino Royale, as well as Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
The Villa was built by Cardinal Durini in the 18th century on the site of a Franciscan monastery. Its most recent owner, Count Guido Monzino, was a famous Italian explorer—the first Italian to climb Mount Everest. Monzino purchased the villa in 1974. In 1988 he bequeathed the villa to the Italian FAI (a National trust) to preserve the villa and his collections for future generations.
Menaggio, with a total of about 3,200 inhabitants, is a bit larger and more populous than Bellagio, but it still clings to the charm that is Lake Como. Here, narrow walkways wind through the clusters of cafes, bakeries, gelateria, and boutiques in buildings which seem to have relatively untouched by the past 100 years. (By the way, the Bar del Campo has great food and a substantial beer and wine menu).
Our introduction to Varenna began at the Varenna-Esino train station. Just a stone's throw from the station is a bridge that spans the Esino River. On the uphill side of the river is the town of Perledo; on the opposite side is Varenna, a sleepy harbor on Lake Como. Hotel Albergo Olivedo was there to greet us and served as our home base for the next four days.
A passerelle (boardwalk) separates the lake from private villas guarded by wrought iron fences. Some of the villas stand proudly, their brightly painted walls glistening in the sun while others are hidden, shrouded in mystery, hanging wisteria, and bougainvillea. Narrow-stepped lanes cut between the villas and offer teasing glimpses of centuries-old gardens.
Several hundred years ago, the harbor of Varenna was a whirlwind of activity; stoneworkers carved Varenna’s black marble, coopers formed barrels from nearby chestnut and oak trees, and fishermen cast their nets for missoltino sardines. Today, the harbor is quiet. Other than watching ferry boats arrive and depart, or feeding the resident ducks, there is little to do—and that is exactly why one travels to Lake Como.
If you long for a romantic getaway, then Lake Como is for you. If you are enchanted by the flickering light of hanging lanterns as you savor a special dinner-for-two near the shore, then Lake Como is for you. If you dream of a glassy blue lake reflecting Alpine vistas, then Lake Como is for you. If natural vegetation of pomegranate, olive, and oleander trees mingled with Renaissance gardens is your idea of paradise, then Lake Como is for you.
At Lake Como, you will discover a feeling of peace and unique beauty not found in any other place on earth. Lake Como beckons—will you answer?
Your best option for getting to Lake Como is via Milan. The quickest, and certainly easiest route is via train to Varenna.
The train from Milano Centrale leaves approximately once every hour beginning at 08:15, and the last train departing at 21:10. The trip takes about one hour.
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© 2015 Linda Lum