As I checked into the Hotel Bellagio, Daniele Leoni, the manager, reassured me. “You will be fine for most of your stay. No crowds” Then he lifted an admonitory finger. “But at the end. Easter Weekend. It will be like summer.” He raised his eyebrows to underline his final words.
Lake Como and Bellagio
Summer was the time I wanted to be anywhere but Lake Como, which nearly everyone agrees is over-touristed in the warmest months. It is a time of restaurants with no tables, ferries with too many passengers and not enough seats, narrow streets packed with people, and hotels charging top euro for accommodations.
But I wanted to see Lake Como. It has a history dating back to Roman times, iron-fenced villas and palazzos, scenery that moved Longfellow and Wordsworth to lyricism, and a reputation for food so good it almost makes your tongue smile. So why not try it in the off-season? Early spring?
For my base, I chose Bellagio, called “Pearl of the Lake.” It is centrally located with frequent ferry service, great panoramic views, and cobbled stairways called “salitas” lined with restaurants and shops. From my third-floor balcony, the view spread out like an oriental carpet. The lake was a wavering mirror of the setting sun. The harbor was spiky with masts. A ferry tied up at the jetty; three people got off, six got on. The horizon was serrated by the toothy, snowy Alps, some 30 miles away in Switzerland. Right below me, waiters stood with hands clasped behind their backs, looking over a few diners and many empty tables.
A major attraction is the lakeside villas built hundreds of years ago by the wealthy and the noble. One of them, the Villa Melzi, is a five-minute walk from my hotel room along the lakeside promenade. Like most of Como’s villas, the Melzi is still occupied and closed to the public, but its gardens are open. Azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons in full bloom. Blossoms litter the ground like confetti The gardens include a Japanese pond, a small chapel, and many classical statues.
I sit on a bench beneath an oleander tree and study the neoclassical villa that was built in 1810 by Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi, Vice-President of the first and short-lived Italian Republic and personal friend of Napoleon. The current owners are descendants of the original owners. The villa oozes wealth, inherited privilege, and la dolce vita. You can almost hear the servants polishing the silver. The French novelist Stendhal stayed here around 1830 and wrote from his room, “I lift my gaze to the most beautiful view in the world.”
The next day I set out for one of the few villas open to the public, the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, which is a 15-minute ferry ride from Bellagio. I am third in a line of three to purchase admission tickets. The 17th-century villa was built by a Milanese politician, and over the years it became a repository for 19th Century art, including sculptures by Antonio Canova. There are great colorful profusions of flowers in the terraced gardens. The roses haven’t bloomed yet, but most of the azaleas and rhododendrons are blossomed.
I check in with Rick Steves, whose guidebook raves about the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, with its swimming pool floating on the lake. But the restaurant looks empty and expensive, so I walk into town and find a family-run trattoria, where I have rigatoni with mussels, clams, and shrimp and glasses of the house red. I’m a curiosity to the locals, who talk earnestly, adding extraverbal effects–hand waves, shrugs, raised eyebrows–all while pitchforking bowls of pasta. Over 12 days I did not encounter a restaurant offering unsolicited music. Conversation is the important thing here.
The ferry landing in Varenna, a village of about 800 residents, is in the middle of a graceful lakeshore walkway. Rather than streets, the town is bisected by narrow cobbled passageways called contrade. I make my way to the Piazza San Giorgio, which has a ninth-century church on one side and a 12th-century church on the other. I take a cafe table, and as I order a cappuccino, church bells are debating the exact moment of noon. I sip and watch the passersby passing by.
The woman at the ticket booth for Villa Cipressi is having difficulty processing my credit card, and finally rolls her eyes heavenward and explains, “This is our first day this year, and we have to work out some kinks.” The gardens, which date back to the 1400s, are perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the lake. I am surrounded by a profusion of plants, branching and budding everywhere. It’s so quiet I can hear my shoes crunching on the gravel paths. The villa itself has been converted into a hotel.
Lake Como is on the same latitude as Montreal, so I didn’t expect to find cacti and palm trees here. But it has a microclimate that keeps it warmer than the rest of northern Italy. Days are warm in the middle and crisp around the edges, but the wind-chill factor was not a factor. Mornings were chilly, and I left each day’s excursion with a sweater, but by 11 a.m. temperatures reached the high-50 and low-60 degree levels.
The next day I’m in Lenno on a 20-minute steep uphill walk to the Villa del Balbianello, and when I reach the top I’m perspiring. The original owner of the 19th-century villa made it a popular destination for writers and artists. Today it’s famous as a wedding venue, largely because it was the setting for the wedding of Luke Skywalker and Padme Amidala in one of the Star Wars movies. Indeed, there’s a wedding in progress right now, and the bride seems annoyed about all the uninvited people strolling around the gardens.
The villa is set on a wooded bluff jutting out into the lake and offering spectacular views of Bellagio and Varenna. The much-chandeliered, much-marbled villa holds 15th-century tapestries, Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan antiquities, silk-covered walls, 18th-century French furniture, and Chinese statues from the Qing Dynasty. I take a guided tour. Afterward, I’m thankful that the walk back to the ferry is mostly downhill.
Because there were relatively few tourists, five or six days into the trip I began seeing people for the second and third time. A guy with a King of Spades beard, a woman whose blond ponytail emerged from the back of a purple New York Yankee cap, a craggy-faced American who squinted like a cowboy in a cigarette ad.
The ferries provide a dependable link to the dozens of lost-in-time villages along the lake. They are anchored by small churches that for hundreds of years have seen baptisms, marriages, funerals–life chasing its own tail. For no particular reason, I got off at Bellano, where a lively flea market was buzzing with little stalls of free enterprise offering paintings, scarves, purses, second-hand clothes, and postcards. Women with shopping bags fingered fruits and vegetables, seeking perfection. Bellano’s Gothic-style church was built in 1348. The public fountain, installed in 1895, is still in use. Bellano seems like a postcard lost in the mail for a century or so.
Three days later, I’m in Gravedona at the northern end of Lake Como. It’s only 10 miles to the Swiss border, and I need a sweater. Nevertheless, barefoot boys are dribbling soccer balls in the town square. Gravedona seems to be going in one era and out the other. Its Romanesque 12th-century church sits on a headland while paragliders drop into the lake just offshore. Towns like Gravedona are too small to attract the attention of McDonald’s or KFC, but each invariably has a friendly cafe.
As Easter weekend approaches, the merchants in Bellagio are washing windows, putting out sidewalk displays, and generally primping for the coming multitudes. Gradually, the wait for the hotel elevator grows longer, restaurants are overflowing, and the sidewalks are paralyzed with people. I take a jam-packed ferry to the town of Como, where I encounter masses of people, jostling like sheep on the way to slaughter. A tour guide cruises by, leaving a wake of dates and superlatives.
I decide to escape the masses by taking the battello navetta, known as the slow ferry because it stops at nearly every town. A few tourists are on board, but mostly it is local people getting on and off as we zig-zag from shore to shore, tying up at every village. Tavernola, Cernobbio, Blevio, Moltrasio, Torno. At each stop, the ferrymen toss a looped line, cowboy-like, to the waiting deck cleat. They never miss. Urio, Pognana Careno, Nesso, Brienno. Sailboats inhale the wind on the slate surface of the lake while the jagged, snowy Alps loom incongruously behind. Cloud shadows skipped across the lake. Colonno, Sala, Lezzdeno, Campo, Lenno. Red-tiled roofs climb up the steep hills, clinging precariously like climbers who have lost their nerve. Tremezzo, Cadenabbia, Bellagio.
Time for Reflection
It has taken two hours and 15 minutes to cover a crow’s flight distance of about 16 miles. It is one of the great scenic bargains. Working my elbows like oars I row through the crowd to my hotel. I get a takeout pizza for dinner and eat on my hotel room balcony. Below me, the street is paralyzed with people. I’m glad I came and glad I’m leaving.
Written by: William Ecenbarger
William is an award-winning journalist whose magazine and newspaper articles appear in markets throughout the world. As a travel writer, he has produced more than 400 articles for major newspaper and magazine outlets. He has won 17 writing awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, which named him “Lowell Thomas Travel Writer of the Year” in 1996.
More bio at www.ecenbarger.com.
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