Rick Steves: Lake Como, Italians’ honeymoon spot


Stretched out on two chairs atop the skinny passenger deck of a 10-car ferry as it crosses Lake Como, I gaze south into the haze of Italy. I savor the best of my favorite country without the chaos and intensity that is usually part of the Italian experience. Looking north, in a cool alpine breeze, I see the snow-capped Alps.

I am only a few minutes from Switzerland… but it is clear that I am in Italy. The ferry workers are Italian, with that boring but endearing and playful knack for underperforming. The precision seems limited to the pasta: exactly al dente. Rather than banks and public clocks (which flood neighboring Swiss resorts, such as Lugano), the alleys that tumble down this lake are lined with lazy cafes and wall shops, teeming with juicy fruits and crunchy greens.

In this romantic region of lakes in the shadow of the Alps, melancholy 19th-century villas are seductively invaded by old vines that seem to suffer from tales to tell. The stunted palm trees appear to be held back against their will in this northern spot. And the panoramas are made to order for the poets. In fact, it was nature lovers in the Romantic era who wrote and painted here who put this area on the tourism map in the 1800s.

The million dollar question: which lake to see? Little Orta has a quirky, less developed charm. Maggiore has Garden Islands and Stresa, a popular seaside resort. Garda is a hit with German windsurfers. But for the best mix of scenery, old aristocratic romance, and wisteria charm, my choice is Como.

Sleepy Lago di Como, just an hour north of Milan by convenient train, is a good place to take a break from Italy’s obligatory turnstile culture. It seems like half of the travelers I meet have thrown their routes into the lake and are actually relaxing.

Today, the only serious industry in the Misty and Lazy Lake is tourism. Many residents of the lake travel to Lugano, Switzerland, on a daily basis to find work. The region’s isolation and flat economy have left it pretty much as 19th-century romantics painted it.

Self-proclaimed “Pearl of the Lake”, Bellagio is the main resort on Lake Como, an elegant combination of cleanliness and Old World elegance. If you don’t mind feeling like a ‘tramp in the palace’ this is a good place to surround yourself with the more adventurous travelers. The arcades facing the lake are lined with shops. Heavy curtains hanging between the arches keep VIP visitors and their poodles from sweating. While ties and costume jewelry sell best at lake level, locals shop up the hill.

Lake Como is famous among Italians for its shape: like a stick representing a two-legged man going away. Bellagio is located where the two legs meet (making it the subject of fun, albeit rude, local rhymes that you can learn on your visit). I walk around town up to the crotch, following the view of the lake. At Punta Spartivento (literally, “the point that divides the wind”), I find a Renoir atmosphere, perfect for a picnic looking north and contemplating the place where Italy is welded to the Swiss Alps.

I head to the town of Varenna (another 10 minute hop on the ferry). Narrow alleys rise almost invisibly from the port to the old artery which crosses the top of the city. Varenna packs its 800 inhabitants into a compact cityscape – crowded like 50 oysters overloading a rock that’s too small. Single-family homes are only defined by their pastel colors.

With the dwellings of Varenna invading the lake, the charming footbridge (promenade) stretches from the ferry dock to the small port, passing through private villas guarded by wrought iron and wisteria. Two centuries ago the port was occupied by coopers skillfully fitting their chestnut and oak moats into barrels, stoneworkers carving and shipping prized black marble, and characteristic wooden boats setting out to catch the unique missoltino of the lake – freshwater “sardines” always proudly served by local cooks. Today, the port business is little more than the rental of pedal boats and a gelateria run by a guy named Eros.

Other than watching the ferries come and go, there is wonderfully little to do in Varenna. At night he whispers luna di miele – honeymoon. And as I stroll through its walkways, passing in front of these villas bathed in wisteria where caryatids lovers silently press against each other, I remember the importance of choosing the right travel partner.

– This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Rick Steves writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and arranges tours in Europe. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.


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