Perche Lago di Como? (Why Lake Como) A Travel Guide

Luca Casartelli/Wikipedia -- Lake Como in Italy, seen here with the Alps behind it, is a favorite destination for many American tourists.
Luca Casartelli/Wikipedia -- Lake Como in Italy, seen here with the Alps behind it, is a favorite destination for many American tourists.

Perche Lago di Como? (Why Lake Como) A Travel Guide

Good reasons to travel to Lake Como are legion: sightseeing, adventure, recreation, pleasure, education, nature, escape, romance, history, and the culinary experience being just a few.

To enjoy the best of Italy, you don’t have to stand in line in Rome, Florence, or Venice. Nor need you sequester yourself in a Tuscan farmhouse, far from the madding crowd. Many of the objectives for visiting Italy can be satisfied by a relaxed vacation on Lago di Como in the farthest, most temperate reaches of northern Italy. Vacation derives from the Latin word: vacare meaning to be empty, free or at leisure, or its derivative: vactionem meaning relieved of duty or an immunity earned by service. A more recent entomology would be the old French: vacacion meaning to vacate your normal world and to enter a different realm: one free of the quotidian, the prosaic, the mundane, responsibilities and your usual self.

From May through September, Lago di Como is an ideal place to enjoy the best Italy has to offer: nature and the dolce vita. United Airlines provides direct flights to Rome from SFO. After disembarking at Rome Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport, an efficient, clean, air-conditioned train i.e. the Leonardo, will whisk you to Rome’s main train station: Roma Termini.

Given 11 hours of flight time and eight time zones of separation between California and Italy, a little time-space recovery is recommended; the Hotel Mediterraneo, one block from the station is both adequate and affordable.

When your circadian rhythms and your gyros have stabilized, and you’ve seen a bit of Rome, walk one block back to Roma Termini and depart for Milan via Italo Treno: an ultra-bullet train that safely reaches speeds of 360 km/hr (225 mph) and routinely cruises at 300 km/hr (188 mph) — something you might never experience in your lifetime despite California bureaucrats having devoured $6 billion just contemplating a $128 billion track to connect San Francisco with Los Angeles. Even at 300 km/hr the ride is so smooth there are no ripples in your wine glass. Switch trains in Milan and catch the local to Como San Giovanni, follow the signs and in minutes you arrive, on foot, at the dock to catch a boat up the lake.

Take your pick of the best littoral towns Lago di Como has to offer: Lenno, Tremezzo, Bellagio, Varenna, and Menaggio. All are spectacular and all can be previewed online. Varenna and Bellagio are this writer’s favorites. Actor George Clooney bought into Lake Como, in 2002, by purchasing Villa Oleandra, for €11.7 million, in Laglio; as he explains, “When I realized how beautiful life was in Italy and how it really helped calm me and not feel so pressured.” Lake Como could do the same for you, without spending nearly half that much.

After a few days on this pristine alpine lake, you might forget what your day job was, certainly your boss, where you are from, or even who you are; if you are a teacher, you will even forget administrators and their top-down management style. Having lived in southern Italy for ten years, the Italian summer is often accompanied by a scorching wind, the Scirocco, bringing in superheated, dust-laden, unwelcome air from the Sahara Desert. By contrast, Lake Como is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, to wit, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

“Thou, (Lake Como) art more lovely and more temperate, rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, and summer’s lease hath all too short a date. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.”

Lake Como is Europe’s deepest lake, just as the profound Finger Lakes in New York moderate seasonal temperatures there, so too does Lake Como. Two reliable breezes, Breva and Tivano, fan the lake by day, confining the temperatures between 72 and 82 degrees. The winds are sufficiently strong for sailing and windsurfing yet not so gusty as to uproot your beach umbrella. In the summer, a third wind, Menaggino, vents in from Val Menaggio, freighting in non-threatening thunderstorms that keep the region verdant, grow the ingredients for garden fresh salads and feed the sheep and goats grazing on the picturesque hills. Like such mythological places as Land of the Lotus Eaters and Camelot, thunderstorms and rain are scheduled for well after tramonto (sunset); the effect is dramatic as the lightning illuminates the Italian Pre Alps and the Swiss Alps slightly north of the lake.

The residents of Lago di Como are especially vigilant to protect not only the environment but the esthetics of their architecture, their history, their tenor of life, their cheeses and wines, their subdued ambiance, and the independence of the region. Loch Ness may have Nessie, but Lago di Como has her cousin: Larrie, a mid-Triassic fossil discovered by Giuseppe Crivelli in 1830 that initiated a fissure in the Creation Myth and provided supporting evidence for Evolution.

Lake Como never bought into the Fascist hysteria that consumed most of Italy starting in 1922 with Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister by Victor Emanuel III. In April of 1945, Mussolini, fragments of his general staff, his consort viz Clara Petacci, and his hundred pounds of gold were intercepted by the Partisans of Dongo and Musso. The Resistance Museum in Dongo tells the eye-witness story of Mussolini’s capture. Mussolini’s judgement had been weakened by twenty-three years of undisputed power, his censorship apparatus, and an inner circle of fawning bobbleheads — sic sempre tyrannis as the Romans would say. Instead of sneaking anonymously into Switzerland, Mussolini put on a German General’s uniform, rode in the lead vehicle of a German convoy, and vociferously spoke Italian while transiting Menaggio — not smart.

The trip to lakeside Dongo can be easily combined, on foot, with the Museo Barca Lariana at Pianello del Lario and lunch at the delightful Laguna Beach Ristorante. Unlike municipalities that sell out to developers poised with wrecking balls and bulldozers, Lago di Como does not squander what it has invested in elegant infrastructure wealth; it preserves its century-old pastel hotels, earthtone villas, manicured gardens, and grand palazzos. Every city on the lake has hiking trails ascending the hills; those with grit enough to follow them reach spectacular panoramas. Just riding the boat up from the city of Como, a traveler witnesses the splendor of the magnificent cities that punctuate the shoreline. If you ride all the way north to Colico, you reconnoiter nearly a dozen cities you will want to visit either as a day trip or an overnight.

Most of the hotels are within easy walking distance of the dock serving that town. My base of operations was a rustic shepherd’s house attached to the hillside town of Alta Croda, just up from the lakeside town of Musso — for a man halfway into his 70s, it was a 10-minute walk down to the lake and a thirty-minute walk back up. This house still had the fireplace and large caldron for boiling goat milk, racks for aging the Caprino, Pecorino, and Romano and a stable in the basement. Although the rent was very affordable, i.e. free, I was drawn away by overnights to Varenna and Bellagio and sojourns to Lenno, Villa Del Balbianello (a must see), Menaggio, Pianello Del Lario and Colico. The most stunning of the options were Varenna and Bellagio.

For those of you interested in Quantum Mechanics, Varenna is a QM Mecca, in 1970 it was declared the “Woodstock of Physics” when cadres of subatomic physicists descended on Villa Monastero to enjoy its botanical garden and utilize its neo-Renaissance convention center. The Villa hosts summer courses for the “Enrico Fermi” International School of Physics and has heard lectures by more than thirty-four Nobel Laureates. No Large Hadron Colliders are housed there, and you need not fret about being bombarded by neutrinos, getting drawn into mini black holes, having gluons glued to your cargo shorts nor mesons messing up your coif.

There is no such thing as a mediocre restaurant on Lago di Como; furthermore, nearly every establishment features Insalata Caprese with real, undiluted Mozzarella di Buffala from the Campo di Capua. Every photogenic town is pedestrian heaven, the coastal roads are diverted well behind the waterfront, out of sight and out of ear shot, broad promenades lead you, past sidewalk cafes and ristorantes, from one end of town to the other. Above all, Lago di Como is quiet: no freeway noise, no auto horns or theft sirens, no BART screeching, no aircraft, no train traffic; just the sounds of subdued conversation and sandals patting the sidewalks and trails. Because of the quiet, the birds actually sound like they are amplified; you hear lots of Cuckoo bird calls and they are not emanating from Swiss clocks either.

You might not have the bragging rights of the tourists that frantically crowd the environs of Rome, Pisa, Florence, and Venice, but you will have the privilege of enjoying the tranquility, beauty, and the restorative ambiance of one of Italy’s most precious regions; and don’t forget the exceptional local wines and the Mozzarella di Bufala.

Jeffrey R Smith has contributed reviews, opinions and puzzles to the Alameda Sun since its very first editions in 2001.