Italy has several beautiful lakes in the northern region, but the favorite seems to be Lake Como. This uniquely shaped lake looks like the letter Y, only upside down. We decided to end our stay in Italy by relaxing on the lower west leg of the lake for a few days. It’s an easy thirty minute train ride from Milan to the town of Como, on the southwest side of the lake. If you want to stay on the east side of the lake, there’s also a route from Milan to Varenna. Once you arrive at either town, you can use the bus service or ferries to visit other towns along the lake. A car isn’t really necessary.
There are so many towns to chose from on this huge lake—big and small. If you choose the more popular towns of Bellagio, Como or even Varenna, you won’t find any bargains, but you’ll have plenty of amenities, such as great restaurants and cute shops. If you chose a smaller town, like Torno, you won’t pay as much for lodging and more important, you’ll have a more peaceful and authentic stay. We used bedandbreakfast.com to find our spot. Just make sure that the town you pick has a ferry stop.
Late spring or early summer are some of the best times to enjoy the lush gardens of the old villas and monasteries that you can find along this deep glacier lake. The mild Mediterranean climate along the lake makes it a perfect local for growing a wide variety of plants. This year, Italy had a late and colder spring, so we saw lots of blooms. In early June, the Wisteria was just finishing up and the strong scent of Jasmine filled the air—and the roses were in full bloom. It was a good time to be exploring this verdant area.
Como’s ferry system makes it easy to visit the famous villas that are open to the public most days. We chose Villa Carlotta, on the west side opposite Bellagio, and nearby Villa Balbianello. Villa Carlotta has over 700,000 square feet of gardens, a small museum of garden tools and the Villa’s art collection to explore. It’s a great spot to spend a morning or lazy afternoon. Although we were there in June with plenty of other tourists, the gardens are large enough to offer some quiet paths and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the views. There are even two areas for outdoor picnics. The terraced gardens and wide pathways are all nicely labeled so you can find your way around and appreciate the vast collections in the botanical gardens. The azaleas and camellias are some of the tallest we’ve ever seen and the variety of tropical plants is impressive.
Don’t miss the small museum of agricultural implements tucked away in the back corner of the property. Although they don’t have any written descriptions, it’s fun to imagine the uses for some of the old farm tools that are displayed in an old out building on the edge of the property.
Inside the impressive villa, there’s a small museum with a collection of sculptures by Antonio Canova, famous for his delicately rendered marble statues. During the 18th century, the owner of the villa was an art collector who acquired several famous works by Canova as well as other artists of the times. The Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet, by Francesco Hayez is also on display.
From the Villa Carlotta, it’s a short ferry ride to the town of Lenno, where you can visit the smaller, yet very impressive Villa Balbianello. If you arrive around lunch time, like we did, skip the crowded restaurants on the boardwalk and head for the quiet Piazza XI Febraio to Trattoria San Stefano. This family owned restaurant has the freshest seafood and delicious home made pastas. The outside seating provides a distant view of the lake and the quiet piazza. Save enough room for one of their tasty deserts.
After a lunch stop in Lenno, you can take another boat ride to the villa, or take a twenty minute walk. We chose the walk, which is a gentle, uphill stroll along the shady hillside. Once inside the gates, you are presented with the manicured gardens and spectacular views of the villa and lake. For some reason, this villa had fewer visitors on the day we were there, which made it a peaceful place to wander around.
Although the villa itself isn’t open to the public, the grounds are worth a visit. Situated on its own small peninsula along the lake, this 18th century villa has a spectacular setting. As you walk along the gentle paths lined by tall cypress and classic statuary, there’s the deep blue lake in the background. This somewhat smaller villa was first built by a cardinal, so the beautiful steeples of the original chapel are still on the grounds.
If formal gardens and villas are not for you, Lake Como has several series of trails for day hikes or longer treks. On the lower part of the lake, we were able to start from our small town and hike up into the hills on well marked trails. From the town of Torno, we hiked up through the small village of Montepiatto and over to another tiny village called Piazzaga.
Along the way, we had great views of the lake as we meandered through a shady path. We also found some ancient graves, a beautiful church with panoramic views of the lake and quiet farms with local life. Most of the villages are so small that it’s a good idea to pack a lunch and have water on hand. However, on the more major trails, there are rifugios (small restaurants, some with lodging) and some larger towns located throughout the area.
On another day, we walked a small section of the Via Regina, which was an old Roman road from the town of Como to Bellagio and beyond. The trail we chose starts in the town of Brunate, a picturesque village above the town of Como. Although we drove up the the trailhead, it’s also possible to take a funicular from Como.
There are several choices of trails that either hug the ridge of the mountains or climb up higher for more spectacular views. The trip to Bellagio could take two or more days,with pleasant stops at the various rifugios. Even on a short day hike, we were able to sample a superb lunch at a small rifugio along the trail. We enjoyed fresh pasta on the pleasant deck and then we sampled the best homemade cake we’ve found in Italy.
There are many more scenic hikes on the western and northern sides of the lake. A good website that describes the trails is the Lago di Como website: http://www.lakecomo.it/en/excursions_and_trekking.
Lake Como offers plenty of options for a break from the big city. Wherever you go along the lake, you can decide on a wide variety of activities—from fine dining and museum visits to challenging hikes or water sports. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to hang out in a smaller town or walk a quiet path to get to know this amazing area.