This is a guest blog from travel guru Thomas Quinlan.
Is it possible that one of the best travel destinations on earth has been known about for 2,000 years, and that you’ve never heard of it? Or that you’ve seen it in Hollywood films and never realised it? That famous people from Julius Caesar to George Clooney have called it home?
All this (and more) are true of “Lago di Como”, or Lake Como, situated in the north of Italy. Carved out in the shape of an upside-down “Y” by glaciers long ago, the Lake Como area has had a human presence for thousands of years. With a Mediterranean climate, it can be visited all year.
Situated on the lower left portion of the “Y” is the town of Como itself. Established by Julius Ceasar around 49 BC, the town of Como has a rich history, and the evidence of that is everywhere you look. Most obvious is the Duomo, the cathedral in the town centre, which was started in 1396 and not finished until 1740. With intricate artwork on the outside, you can spend a fair amount of time just admiring the craftsmanship that went into the hundreds of years of work, and there’s something indescribable about touching stone that was laid down almost a hundred years before Columbus even set sail. There are several other churches in the area, and each one is situated off a Piazza, or city square. Most of the Piazzas are named for famous inhabitants of the area, with the most famous sons of Como, Alessandro Volta and Giuseppe Garibaldi, getting more than one.
One of the best places to stay in Como is the Hotel Barchetta, off the Piazza Cavour, which is right on the southern part of the lake. A 40 minute drive from Milan Malpensa airport, what minor flaws the hotel has (hard beds) are more than made up for by the gorgeous view and attentive staff. (You won’t want to spend much time sleeping anyway.) Getting a room on the lake side is worth the extra euros, and you’ll have a great view of any bands that play the Piazza at night.
Venturing out the rear of the hotel brings you to “downtown” Como with its cobblestone streets, restaurants, and shops. There is plenty to see and do, so plan to spend at least a day walking around. It will be difficult not to find a place to eat – you can’t walk far without the appetizing smells drawing you in. I didn’t get far the first morning before finding a great place for pastries and macchiato! The restaurants in the town are reasonably priced, the food is mouth-wateringly fantastic, and you’ll definitely want to eat outside whenever possible. Meals are cordial and unhurried, and you’ll likely make a few new friends even if you don’t speak the language. If you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to relax after your meal to authentic Italian accordion music as played by one of the locals!
Walking out the front of the hotel takes you directly to the lake itself. It splashes up against the cobblestones, and sometimes even spills over onto the street. Strolling along the right side of the lake will give you a better view across it, as well allow you a good view of the villas built into the hillside. When you can’t walk any further down that side, you’ll come to a very large fountain. A popular hang-out with the local kids (who climb the fence to actually sit under the fountain’s spray), its beauty can be appreciated from farther away, and when the wind changes direction, the cooling mist provides a nice contrast to the warm air.
The real beauty of the area is getting out on the Lake itself. It is here that the most magnificent views can be seen! Poets from Pliny the Elder (and his son, Pliny The Younger) to Shelley to Mark Twain have described it, and far be it from me to try to do outdo them. Shelley’s words are fitting: “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty…”. There are three ways to get around the lake by boat, which vary primarily by speed; I recommend the “slower boat” (not the arrow boat or the ferry) that leaves from right outside the hotel on a regular schedule and is about 15 euros. It stops fairly frequently at the various towns on the Lake, and each of the towns have their own unique charm, from spectacular villas, to ancient aqueducts, to lakeside beaches (where cheeky Italian boys may just moon you!), and you can get off and on the boat at each town if you like.
I recommend taking the boat from Como to Bellagio, which takes about two hours each way. While four hours in one day may seem like a long time to be on a boat, the time will fly by – the warmth of the sun on your skin, the fresh air in your lungs, the smell of the water, and the sparkle of the lake will mesmerise you. A mid-morning start will put you in Bellagio at approximately lunch time, and will give you plenty of time to explore. While you’ll have to prepare for a fair amount of walking on the narrow stone streets (Bellagio is quite hilly, though many places have steps carved into the stone), the stores and restaurants of Bellagio are not to be missed. (If you’re not the wandering type, there are tours that can be taken, which last about three hours.) I highly recommend the gelato that can be had there – it provides welcome refreshment and puts stateside Italian ices to shame. There are often concerts in the early evening, and there are few experiences on earth that can rival relaxing and listening to the music while a very light breeze drifts off the lake as the sun sets and the stars peek into view.
If you’d like to get another country onto your itinerary, Switzerland is only 5km from Como. It’s a fairly easy drive over some not-all-that-high Alps, and the closest town in Switzerland is Lugano, situated on Lake Como’s sister lake, the eponymous Lake Lugano. Switzerland is one of the few countries in Europe that isn’t part of the EU, so you’ll need Francs if you want to buy anything there. If you do decide to buy things, keep in mind that things will be more expensive, though they’ll be the genuine Swiss article – from the basics like Swiss Army knives and delectable Swiss Chocolates to the higher end items like Swiss watches from Movado and Tag Hueuer.
It’s not all shopping to be had in Lugano, of course. The walk around the Lake is replete with sculptures by various Swiss artists, and about halfway along you’ll come to the Museo d’Arte Moderna, or the Modern Art Museum. Exhibitions vary, obviously, but I was lucky enough to take in a Baselitz exhibit while there. The Lake itself is beautiful, in a manner similar to Lake Como, though I think Lake Como has a slight edge in the beauty contest, with the Alps as a sublime backdrop.
Chances are, though, that you’ve already seen Lake Como’s beauty, and not even realised it! Due to its natural beauty, it is a popular spot for filmmakers. If you’ve seen “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones” (the wedding scene) or “Casino Royale” (Bond’s recuperation), you’ve already seen parts of Lake Como. Parts of “Ocean’s Twelve” were filmed there as well, and it’s no coincidence that Lake Como’s most famous resident, George Clooney, spent $7 million to buy property there. If you’ve got $7 million, you may want to follow his lead; if not, it’s worth the Euros to see in person, at least once in your life. It may be hackneyed to say that few places on earth can match its natural beauty, but people have said that for thousands of years, and it’s likely that they’ll continue for thousands more.
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