Lake Como: beneath snow-capped Alps, a subtropical paradise, picturesque villages, magnificent villas and historic gardens

Lake Como
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Lago di Como is a great place to go and relax while on vacation. Its calm water, spectacular landscape and friendly residents combine to make it a memorable destination. Although savvy Europeans have flocked here for centuries, it wasn't well known in the States until recently. Now (especially since George Clooney bought his fairy-tale estate on the shores of the lake) it has become a popular tourist destination for Americans too. Hotels tend to be pricey, which is understandable considering the many activities that can be done in the Alps or in the water. It is also not far from the border of Switzerland. I remember my first look at Lago di Como. I was surprised by the shape and size of the Alps soaring up from the lake. My relatives took me to the summit of Monte Bisbino for a bird's-eye view. What I saw was a vast body of deep-blue water, lined with colorful flowers and surrounded by brilliant green hillsides dotted with clusters of cream, gold, pink and terracotta red homes. Above that loomed a ring of rugged peaks, some of which are snow-capped even in summer.

One of my favorite things to do here is just take a steamer around the lake and soak in the scenery every time the boat stops at a village. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit every town. My goal was Bellagio. Como is shaped like an upside-down Y, with Como and Lecco at the tips of the arms. Bellagio sits at the intersection of the arms. Its cobbled alleys and paths start from the lakefront and take you up and down the hill. There are many shops to see and wonderful quaint little restaurants to try. St. James Basilica, one of the finest examples of Romanesque-Lombard architecture, is an official national monument that goes back to the 10th century. Its interior is made of soft grey stone that resembles very fine flannel, with gold accents.

Another great thing to do in Bellagio is just sit at one of the hotel cafes that line the shore, have a drink and watch the steamers go by. There's a lot of coming and going, but the boats have electric motors which are virtually soundless, so they're never a nuisance and always lots of fun to watch. You can visit all of Bellagio in just a couple of hours, but definitely be prepared for some uphill walking.

Cernobbio is another beautiful town with a different feel. It is the third largest, after Como and Lecco. The oldest part of town is stretched out along the lake. You'll walk past lots of elegant shops, restaurants and the ancient church, and eventually you'll come to the gorgeous Villa d'Este, a 17th-century cardinal's palace that is now one of the world's most luxurious hotels. It is surrounded by beautiful Italian gardens and the inside is like a museum with art work everywhere. Unfortunately it is not open to the public, unless you are a guest or you know the right people. But you can't miss it from the steamers, especially if you look for its second swimming pool, which floats right on the lake. The piazza where you catch the steamer is a great place to sit and relax, have an ice cream, or visit with the locals.

If it's water activities that you're interested in, the best places are at the northern side of the lake. This is where we went to go wind surfing, swimming, or simply lie out on the beach. The locals all go to the north. They told me the water is cleaner there, with more beaches to explore.

For hiking, a number of towns set high above the shoreline beckon to be explored. Monte Bisbino towers 4350 feet above Cernobbio. There is a small old chapel that still attracts pilgrimages, and a breathtaking view across the water to the Swiss Alps. Another great place to visit above the lake is Brunate, reached by funicular railway from Como. The vegetation is entirely different up here, dominated by fir trees. I remember taking walks down residential streets, appreciating the beautiful sub-Alpine architecture, stumbling upon a small park and relaxing for a while. Apparently, if you are in good shape, there is a footpath from the village that goes through San Maurizio to the 4044-foot-high summit of Monte Boletto.

Como is the largest and probably most visited city along the lake. It has an imposing, quite ancient cathedral. Because it took four centuries to build, and because the three different styles were executed with equal flair, many consider it to be the best example of fusion of styles in Italy. It is ornately decorated inside and out and definitely worth a visit. In the evening it's nice to go to Como and take a walk along the narrow streets and window shop or take a stroll down the boulevard along the lake to see the town lights reflected against the water. It's also a great way to see the locals interact.

On my visits back to Como, I always try to get to a new town I haven't seen before, and I always feel like there is still so much to see and do. Unfortunately, Lecco is not visited quite as much as Como. The surrounding mountains seem to have less greenery and more rugged rock formations in the landscape, making it a unique backdrop. The train station is also much larger in Como and trains from Switzerland stop on their way into Italy, helping add to the tourist population in Como. All in all, Lake Como is filled with wonderful towns from which to explore, each with its own personality and interests.

by Cynthia Lambakis, Los Angeles

Como: The Facts

Lake Como is ideally located, 75 km. and less than an hour from Milan. If you are driving, get exact instructions before you leave: navigating the autostrade right outside Milan is tricky; the rest of the drive is just a matter of following signs. You can also take easy day trips by train. They run almost ever hour, day and night, from Milan's Stazione Centrale to Como (occasional trains also go to other Milanese stations). Or stay in Como and take day trips into Milan.

To visit the many towns of the lake, either drive the perimeter, drive part way and take a car ferry (Cadenabbia or Menaggio to Bellagio or Varenna), or get to Como and take excursion steamers which ply the shoreline all day; in summer months you can also take a nighttime dinner-dance cruise. If you want to see as much as possible in one day, start early and take the Centro Lago excursion, with stops at Como - Argegno - Lenno - Tremezzo - Cadenabbia - Bellagio - Menaggio - Varenna - Bellano. Stops in bold are recommended for visits. If you like gardens, you'll have time to include at least one of the jewels: Villa Carlotta (Tremezzo), Villa Melzi (Bellagio) or Villa Monastero (Varenna). For information about routes and schedules, contact the local tourist board at E.P.T. del Comasco, Piazza Cavour 17, 22100 Como (CO), Italy; e-mail, tel.: +39-031-330-0111, fax: 261-152.

The best way to see if Lake Como offers the right atmosphere for you is to watch A Month By The Lake, a very nice film starring Vanessa Redgrave, Uma Thurman and Edward Fox.

Click here for a Photo Album of Lake Como.

There are plenty of fine eateries of every level all around the lake, but we think the best restaurant experience is at Bellavista, located on the hillside above the intersection of the "arms" of the lake's Y shape. What a view! Sit outside on this terrace and we guarantee it wouldn't even matter whether the food was good. You will never ever forget this sight. Oh, and the food is good. The official address is Via Nuova 2: just drive about five miles past Bellagio headed for Lecco. You can't miss the restaurant on the right side of the road. Reservations recommended: tel. 031-951-416.

Another characteristic place with great food is La Pergola, in Pescallo, which you reach by taking a small road off to the left of the Bellagio-Lecco road. Here you'll have lake fish specialties served on a vine-covered terrace right at the edge of a charming fishing harbor. Piazza del Porto 4, tel. 031-950-263.

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