The first time I visited was when I had just moved to Italy in 2010. It was a warm September day and my outstanding memory is the crowds. Walking up a steep path in Bellagio, I remember thinking that it was like going to a major soccer match. A French man in front of me turned around to his family and announced in a loud voice, ‘thank God for the economic crisis’. In fact, he was quite right.
Fast forward six years and I’m back living in Italy, this time in Bergamo, and I want to revisit Lake Como. However, this trip is off season. And that makes a crucial difference, as I will discover.
Varenna-Bellagio Lake Como Ferry Boat
The Alps tower over the lake and a mist clings to the surface of the water in the distance. The whirring of the engines and the giggles of French tourists taking photos against the Alpine backdrop provide the soundtrack to the ‘Como Revisited’ experience. Our boat, a car ferry from Varenna to Bellagio, chugs along gently. The sun is shining through the thin film of mist and the sky is a pastel blue above us. Even better, my cellphone is out of battery and it feels good to be disconnected for the day. Taking a ferry off season on Lake Como is the ultimate in relaxation.
It is the polished diamond of travel on Lake Como. Six years ago I visited during high season and I have never returned, which speaks volumes. How does a visit during the low season compare?
Straight away on arrival, there are buses and ferry passengers waiting to disembark, not to mention scores of passers-by walking along the lakeshore. Bellagio lies on the sunnier side of the lake and it is a great place to have a passeggiata in the sun. However, I first decide to take a coffee break at Bar Caffè Rossi where the Caffè Americano is rich and dark. Locals stop to chat. In contrast to my first visit in the high season, this feels laid back.
Walking up the steep steps, I notice that there seem to be as many locals as tourists. The tiny streets are studded with little boutiques, artists’ workshops and the typical shops selling tourist trinkets and tat. This time the main square is quiet, the polar opposite of my first visit on that warm September day in 2010.
Lunch at Torre del Borgo
I decide to have lunch with a view in the main square and I find a cozy little restaurant in the corner by the tower. Again, I have the terrace at Torre del Borgo to myself. My main course of chicken breast, roast potatoes and salad comes served with a slice of fresh lemon. The oil and vinegar are, needless to say, provided so that the diner can season according to taste. I almost forget about the bread until afterwards, but this turns out to be a mistake because it is warm, fresh and crunchy. I order the homemade strawberry tart with vanilla ice cream for dessert and an obligatory espresso to help it all go down.
Dessert should provide the fireworks at the end of a meal. The tart is succulent and the crust has a hint of butter reminiscent of Scottish shortbread. Also, in contrast to the acidic taste of the strawberry, the ice cream provides a cooling balance. Meanwhile, in the background, I can hear the staff talking about their everyday lives. The atmosphere feels homey and relaxed.
In fact, it just feels so different to my day in Bellagio in 2010. I pinch myself. Can this really be the same place?
Villa Melzi d’Eril
The sign near the entrance claims that this is Italy’s most beautiful park. This is indeed a big claim, particularly when you remember the jaw dropping beauty of the gardens on the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore. Villa Melzi d’Eril turns out to be a perfect place to wander and explore and the sunshine only serves to add a note of colour to the elegant surroundings.
I sit on a bench by the lakeshore and listen to a soundtrack composed of birds chirping, waves crashing on the lakeshore and the whirring of the ferry engines criss-crossing the lake. I leave, still unsure whether the park really does live up to its grandiose claims, but the words of a passing Italian tourist sum it up in dramatic fashion:
Stupendo. Veramente bello. Incantevole.
My arrival at the pier at 15:00 means that I am just in time for the ferry to Cadenabbia and Villa Carlotta. As Bellagio melts into memory, I think to myself that an off-season visit showcases its charms that were hidden by the sheer masses of people and the frenetic pace of my visit in 2010.
From the fountain at the entrance to the views back across to Bellagio from the top floor of the villa, this is a place that drips with style. Climbing the steps in front of the building, there is a sudden tangy attack on the senses- a citrus fruit tunnel! This is only the first of many surprises. One moment you are looking at brightly coloured Mediterranean flowers. Next you are surrounded by tropical trees that you might expect to see in Asia, not on Lake Como. A Japanese bamboo garden on Lake Como? Is it possible? Look no further than Villa Carlotta!
Visiting off season offers you the possibility to stop and relax. Yet again, you can take your time to absorb the sights and sounds around you. In the high season, on the other hand…
On closer inspection, the village is truly postcard perfect. Although it may be on Lake Como, Verenna has touches of a Ligurian borgo. The lakeside path over the water vaguely recalls Cinque Terre, as do the bright pastel colours and the tunnel-like alleys. Down by the lake it is absolutely buzzing and I decide to search for some peace and quiet after the day’s long walks. The terrace at Albergo del Sole in the main piazza is ironically shaded and it proves to be the perfect place to wind down the day with a four season pizza and a refreshing draught beer. As I sip my beer in the last rays of the dying sun, I think to myself that I am glad I have returned.
Lake Como is a fantastic place, particularly when you have the time and the space to really explore it for yourself.
From Milan there are trains to Lecco from Centrale and Porta Garibaldi stations. Trains usually take an hour and cost around 5 euro. Direct trains from Bergamo to Lecco take 40 minutes and cost €3.60 one way. From Lecco there are regular trains to Varenna-Esino station.
Train tickets can be bought on the Trenitalia website.
Varenna has ferry links with all the main villages in the central area of Lake Como. A return ticket to Bellagio will cost €7, but it is worth buying a Central Lake Pass for €15 in order to be able to visit multiple points of interest in this area of the lake.
Entrance tickets at Villa Melzi d’Eril in Bellagio cost €6.50 while tickets at Villa Carlotta cost €10.
Lunch at Torre del Borgo in Bellagio cost €23. Pizza and a draught beer in Varenna cost €16.
Suggestions for the day (time guide)
9:30 Arrive in Varenna Esino station
11:00 Take ferry to Bellagio
12:30 Lunch in Bellagio
13:30 Visit to Melzi d’Eril park
15:00 Ferry to Villa Carlotta
15:20 Visit to Villa Carlotta
17:20 Ferry to Varenna
18:00 Meal in Varenna
19:00 Train to Milan or Bergamo