Every now and then we like to do a trip on the spur of the moment, especially in the fall when the weather can be iffy. We choose a few places in different parts of Europe, and then as we get close to the time to leave, we go with the one where the weather looks best. This year the Lakes District of Northern Italy won out. So we loaded up the car with paddle boards and put our bikes on the bike rack, and hit the road.
The Italian Lakes District is comprised of five major lakes and a series of smaller ones, situated in the northern part of Italy, near the Swiss border and just above Milan. Of the five primary lakes, Lake Como is the most famous. And if you just have time to visit one, this is the one. The lake is shaped like an upside-down “Y”, with the towns of Como and Lecco at the bottom, and the famous towns of Bellagio, Varenna, Tremezina and Menaggio congregated where the three arms of the lake meet. A number of ferries joins these towns and shorelines together, as driving to them would adds hours to travel time. If you are to visit anywhere on Lake Como, it is in the central area where you can quickly visit four of the regions most popular and most beautiful towns.
We left from Nice, entered Italy, taking the coastal freeway through Savona, then up to Mondavi, and then took the SP12 (a favorite highway) to Albi. The color of the leaves were turning and the day was just beautiful with clear blue skies. We took our time, enjoying the scenery of rolling hills of yellow, orange and red, as the vineyard leaves to turn to vibrant colors.
In years past when we’ve gone to Northern Italy in the autumn, it is usually to take in the Truffle Festival in Albi. But, as we got out of Nice late, we just drove through Piemonte, enjoying the colors and pastoral landscape along the way.
From there we continued on to Milan, and then up to Lake Como. Our apartment was in the small village of Laglio, famous as it once had George Clooney as a resident (our apartment overlooked his previous lakeside property). The apartment was situated in a small complex with parking below and then a lift to take you up to a building on the hillside behind that overlooks the lake. Lovely view.
We unpacked and then went for dinner at a restaurant just up the road called La Locanda, a recommendation of our host. I had the specialty of the house, a homemade pasta dish, while Flo had the duck breast with wild mushrooms – both were excellent. Our waiter recommended a bottle of local red called Ronchedone (pronounced Ronqaydonnay), which proved to be wonderful. He said it was the best wine of the region for the price, and he wasn’t the last to tell us that. We ended up buying a case before we left Lake Como.
The next day we drove north, up the western shore of Lake Como, through the towns of Lenno, Tremezzo and Menaggio, (SS340) and followed the road as it cut across the mountain that separates Lake Como from Lake Lugano. Our destination was the town of Lugano, in Switzerland, and where we met up with our friend Marilu for lunch. She was visiting her daughter who is attending school here.
We had lunch at a pizzeria and paid the most we’d every paid for a pizza (welcome to Switzerland). Afterwards we walked off our lunch by following the lovely tree-lined promenade that follows the lakeshore in front of Lugano. The town has a lovely setting, looking southward over the lake and the tall mountains that reach up nearly vertically from the lake’s edge.
After the walk we continued our drive along the lake shoreline, lined with hotels and majestic mansions, crossed by bridge to the other side of the lake and then once again made our way over the mountain, this time following SP13 & SP14, two very narrow and steep roads that wind their way up and over, and roads that must be closed during the winter, or at least on the Lugano side. On top of the mountain it was very picturesque, pastoral landscape with rolling hills, fields, a few vineyards and scattered small villages.
We returned to Laglio and I blew up the paddle board and went out on the lake, which was quite calm. I made my way south, passing the lakefront estate property that was once Clooney’s. There really are some amazing properties along the shoreline and above Lake Como on the hillsides. There isn’t much room along the lakeshore for homes right close to the water between Como and Laglio, as the narrow secondary road (Via Vecchia Regina) hugs the coast. So what most homeowners have done is to build their home on the hillside (better view), and then construct a bridge across the road to a private lounge area on the lake with a boathouse below. Why not?
On day three we drove up to Menaggio and took the ferry over to the infamous town of Bellagio. We stopped along the way in Varenna, also a very pretty village and worth visiting. These three village are situated at the middle of the lake where the three parts of the “Y” intersect. But to get to each you have to go by boat or ferry, or drive all the way around the lake.
In Bellagio we walked the waterfront promenade, lined with expensive shops and brand boutiques, and then made our way up the hill behind, exploring the narrow streets lined with more, but less expensive restaurants, wine and knick-knack shops. We found a nice restaurant (Trattoria San Giacamo) and had ravioli (John) and a carpaccio (Flo), with some local white wine – all very nice.
After lunch we continued walking, discovering the Grand Serbelloni hotel, where we stopped to enjoy the view and have a panna cotta.
We then took the ferry to Menaggio and drove back to Laglio. The lake was again calm so I went out for another paddle.
On day four we drove up the coast again, this time bringing the bikes, and parked on the northern side of Menaggio. We unloaded the bikes and headed north following the lake shore along SP340 on what is supposed to be a bike trail to the far end of the lake. Although there are some parts that involve bike-only trails, most of this ride is either highway, less-visited side roads, or shoreline gravel trails – it is a mixture of many things and very little actual dedicated bike trails. But it still made for a great ride, passing through small villages, castles, tunnels, sometimes high up for panoramic views, and sometimes down along the lake shoreline.
We did about ¾ of the ride before turning around, about an hour up. We returned to Menaggio and had lunch in the plaza, and then headed back home.
When we arrived the lake was very flat (it was flat every day we were there!) so I got out the board and paddled across the lake to the mountainside village of Careno, followed the coast southwards to Pognana Lario, and then back over to Laglio. A great paddle as there were very few boats on the lake and it was like glass. We were both pretty tired after that, so we just had dinner at home; left over pasta!
On Friday we drove north again and visited Villa de Balbianello, which is situated on the point of Punta de Lavedo that juts out into the lake, near Lenno. We took the tour of the home and the gardens and it was amazing. Not only were the gardens immaculately manicured and the home very impressive, but it was the history, especially that of the previous owner, Guido Monzino, that really made it worthwhile. There are some very impressive properties around Lake Como, and many are open to the public, but if there is one that you must see, it is most likely this one.
The villa was built in the 1700s by Cardinal During, who acquired the whole peninsula of Punta de Lavedo. When he died the property went through a few owners, abandoned at one point, until purchased by an American general, who kept it as a summer home and worked extensively in restoring it. On his death the property was purchased by Guido Monzino, whose family were quite wealthy through the ownership of a chain of department stores. On his father’s death, Guido sold the business to do what was his passion – exploring. He made 21 major explorations in his lifetime, including to the North Pole in 1971 and Mount Everest in 1973. His home is decorated with memoirs, souvenirs and art pieces he collected during his expeditions. Upon his death, according to his will, the property was placed in a trust and opened to the public to cover its maintenance costs.
At the top of the property is the Loggia Durini, which is comprised of just two rooms, connected by a shared terrace that looks north to Bellagio and south towards Como. One room was Guido’s library, and holds over 4,000 leather-bound books, mostly on geography and travel. The other is the map room, which holds the maps from his expeditions and travels. On the walls is a collection of old prints of Lake Como.
The home itself has four levels, each uniquely decorated. He installed an elevator whose shaft had to go through solid rock, taken out by hand, as the home was already built. His smoking room on the lower floor is decorated by wood panels that originated from a chateau in France. So as to retain the original height of the wood panels, he had the floor lowered a meter, again going through solid rock, removing it by hand. There is a secret escape in the Loggia Durini in the library, hidden behind a wood panel, that goes through the rock down into the home below. From there it secretly makes it was through the home before coming out on the last floor by the lake. It was originally installed by the Cardinal, who I guess had some enemies. Amazing. The tour costs 20 euros and was worth every euro of it.
We returned to have lunch out in the back lawn of the apartment, overlooking the lake. Afterwards, I headed north again, back to Lenno, to paddle the coastline and around the island of Comazina.
For dinner we drove south to Cenorbbio, to a small pizza-and-wine place, for pizza and rizzuto. While in Cenorbbio I took a picture of the waterfront (above). When I returned I noticed a print on the wall, that I hadn’t noticed previously, and it was the same photo from the same place, only taken about a 100 years before!
On day five we biked from our place in Laglio, along Vecchia Regina, a small coastal secondary road that runs right along the lake, to Como. This is the only area around Lake Como where there is a secondary road, which has less traffic, and has allowed for homeowners to build on the side of the hill, but still have their boat launch and terrace on the beach, connected by a bridge over the road. It makes for a great bike ride, right along the lake, passing through villages such as Carte Urio, Moltrassio and Cernobbio, before arriving in Como. This is a drive well worth taking, by car, motorbike or bike.
Como is the largest town on the lake and has a lovely old town area that has been wonderfully restored and is extremely well kept. We walked the narrow streets, lined with high-end boutiques, gourmet food stores and wine shops, before stopping for lunch in a small plaza at a restaurant called Numeronove. Not listed high on TripAdvisor, but should be as we thought it was great. Friendly service, great setting, and good prices. We both had pizza and agreed it was one of the better one’s we’d had. I thought it was excellent.
After lunch we biked back to Laglio, showered, and then I returned to Cernobbio by car to pick up some wine. We’d had a bottle of Ronchedone on our first night and really enjoyed it. The waiter told us that in his opinion, is was the best wine from the region. I then had two wine stores tell me the same thing later on. So I went to the “La Cantina” wine store to pick up a case to take back with us (great wine store in Cenorbbio). We enjoy finding good wines for under 20 euros, and this has great value at 17.
For our last night we both were tired from the ride and a rather large lunch, so we stayed in and I made pasta. We opened a bottle of Ronchedone, which was as wonderful as the first time we tried it!
For our last day we got up early and headed back to the Med coastline. The drive to Nice is over five hours so we decided to break it up by having lunch in Portofinio on the Cinco Terre coastline, just east of Genoa. We parked in Rapallo and rode our bikes the rest of the way to Portofino. It was good we did as there is limited parking in Portofino and the police were limiting the number of cars that could enter. Most people walked, and it’s a long walk.
The bike ride is very beautiful, right along the coast, passing through St. Marguerite on the way. We enjoyed a drink and lunch in one of the cafes in Portofino, and the fact that it was now later in the day so let’s visitors in the picturesque but small seaside village. After lunch we made our way back to the car and then drove back to Nice.
What a trip! We basically had blue skies the whole time, great temperatures, and because it was shoulder season, there wasn’t a lot of tourists nor traffic. This has become a regular autumn trip – I’m all ready for the next one!