A WINTER WEEKEND IN ITALY, PART II. LAKE COMO
Surrounded by a crown of Alpine mountains, the ever-so-beautiful Lake Como has always been celebrated by its visitors. First favoured by wealthy Romans, then by royalty, poets and artists, the scenic landscapes of the lake and the historical villas are now frequented by a great many tourists and Hollywood celebrities. For example, Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen held their wedding ceremonies here. Since buying an 18th-century estate by the lake in 2001, George Clooney has also been spotted here on multiple occasions.
The pre-alpine lake is narrow, 50 kilometres long, and shaped liked an inverted letter Y. Locals recommend spending the mornings on the western shore and the afternoons on the eastern so you stay in the sun all day. But regardless of what side you visit, there will be plenty to do and see: from hiking to skiing, from fishing to sailing, from wandering around cute villages perched on the mountains to cycling along the shores. And since we are in Italy, there is always some delicious food to try.
But why would a traveller want to visit Lake Como in winter? Most of the hotels, shops, and restaurants are closed. It is cold outside and the streets are empty... where's the fun in that, you might ask? Sure, it might be not everyone's cup of tea, but it could also be exactly what you are looking for. The scenery is still there, amazing as ever: a pristine, quiet lake, serene nature, and no crowds to interrupt your retreat. Stripped of the frills, the area reveals its tranquil allure.
Poetic descriptions aside, I left Milan early in the morning and went on a day-tour of the east side of the lake. With a tentative itinerary in mind, I aimed to spend a couple of hours in Varenna, Bellagio, and Como, returning to Milan shortly after the sunset.
VARENNA | 9:30
How to get here: There are multiple trains a day leaving from Milano Centrale, and it takes 1 hour to get to Varenna. You can buy a ticket at the train station, on the website (but still need to print it out) or on your phone (no need to print it then). I took the train at 08:20, my ticket cost €6.70.
I arrived in Varenna at 09:23. For navigation, I used my old trustee Triposo, an app where you can generate a city walk based on your current location. It's also worth mentioning that I borrowed a WiFi modem from my hostel in Milan, which enabled me to do my research on the go throughout the day.
Varenna is an exquisite lakeside village on the eastern shore of Lake Como. Traditionally a fishing village, its draw is in pastel-coloured houses, historic churches, and a rather relaxed atmosphere in comparison with the more touristy places around this area.
From the train station, go straight ahead to the lake. Take a pedestrian walk along the waterfront called Passeggiata degli Innamorati (Lovers’ walk) that leads to the historic part of Varenna. The quaint village centre is a maze of narrow staircases and restaurant terraces. Be careful when walking; the paths are made of cobblestones, and some alleys are also quite steep and slippery. In this part of the village, you will find the Church of San Giovanni Battista, built in the 10-11th centuries, and the Church of San Giorgio, which was built over an ancient temple.
The main tourist attractions of Varenna are botanical gardens in Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero. The latter was once an old monastery that became a Cistercian female convent. Here, you can also see Casa Museo, a museum collection of four centuries of history set in refined decorations and furnishings. Keep in mind that Villa Monastero is open to the public from March to November only (so I did not get to visit it, but walked above it).
Other than two fishermen and a few groups of cyclists, I did not spot any locals on this early Sunday morning. I really enjoyed how peaceful the village was, but after about an hour walking around decided to head to Bellagio.
BELLAGIO | 10:45
How to get here: The ferry between Varenna and Bellagio takes 15 min and costs €4.60 (adult ticket). The schedule is not consistent so be sure to double-check on this website. I took the boat at 10:25.
Bellagio is the ultimate tourist destination on Lake Como and is often referred to as its Pearl. Indeed, its picturesque location - the town sits at the crux of the three legs of the lake - makes it for some amazing postcard material. Yet during the winter, it is virtually deserted.
A quick look at a map, and you will realise that life in Bellagio revolves around one main street, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, that crosses the centre through to the tip of the village. The southern part of this road houses many restaurants and shops with local food, clothing, leather goods. Since Bellagio heavily relies on tourism, with winter comes hibernation. Many hotels and establishments close for the season and reopen in mid-March.
After a brisk stroll along the promenade of Lungo Lario Manzoni, I went for coffee to Bar Sanremo (€2.50 for an espresso). Weather-permitting, take a seat outside to watch the boats (and people) go by. Here, you can also buy a ticket for the bus to Como and check current schedule.
Afterwards, I walked to the Villa Melzi botanical gardens (pictured above), which are a must no matter the season. A long avenue of trees starts at the point where the boats land. The garden features many exotic and rare plants as well as an artificial pond in Japanese style. As for the villa, it was built between 1808-1815 as the summer residence of Francesco Melzi d’Eril, duke of Lodi and vice president of the Italian Republic founded by Napoleon in the early 1800s. Since its construction, Villa Melzi has welcomed many notable figures, including the composer Franz Liszt. Some stories claim that it was here he wrote his famous piece Dante Symphony,
Unfortunately, the Villa is not open to the public but you can visit the gardens for €6.50 (however, when I was there, there was not a single person on the premises).
After a quick lunch, I sat outside with some mulled wine to drink in the views while waiting for my bus to Como (pun intended). The bus stop is located 100m to the right from Bar Sanremo. Be sure to grab a seat on the right-hand side for some stunning views!
COMO | 15:00
How to get here: It takes about an hour to get from Bellagio to Como by bus. Bus fare is €3.70.
Alternatively, you can go by boat. The slow boat takes between 2-2,5 hours and stops at multiple locations on the way, whereas the fast boat takes only 45 min.
Sitting at the southern end of the lake and only 5 km away from the Italian-Swiss border, Como is a proper city with the population of 80,000 and a rich history. Built by the Romans, Como still displays many signs of its origins in the orderly grid of streets and the remains of Porta Pretoria, ordered by Julius Caesar. It is even more prominent in the medieval walls with the imposing Porta Torre at Piazza Vittoria.
One of the main sights of the city, Duomo Como dates back to the 14th century (rightmost picture below). The Gothic façade of the cathedral features a marble face pronounced by the detailed stone carving as well as statues of Pliny the Elder and Younger around a rose window. Do not forget to go inside and see for yourself why this church is considered Italy's finest example of the 14th-century transition from Gothic to Renaissance styles.
If you are in Como on any day but Sunday, check out the funicolare (funicular) that connects Como with Brunate, a small village on a mountain at 715 meters above sea level (you can also climb there if you like). The journey takes about 7 minutes and the views encompass the town and southern lake, with the mountains in the background. From there, it should take about two hours to climb to the summit of Monte Boletto. Unfortunately, so I did not have a chance to experience it because I was there - rookie mistake - on a Sunday.
Having walked 15.5km (9.6 mi), I got on the 16:52 train back to Milan (ticket price is €4.80).
Admittedly, for someone who has never been to Lake Como before, January might not an ideal time to visit it for the first time. However, I am now convinced that this area is incredibly charming at any hour of the day, on any day of the year.