THE ROMANTIC ALLURE OF LAKE COMO
Jun 8, 2015, 10:15 a.m.
By Rick Steves
Stretched out over two chairs atop the passenger deck of a 10-car ferry as it shuttles across Lake Como, I look south into the haze of Italy. I'm savoring the best of my favorite country with none of the chaos and intensity that are generally part of the Italian experience.
Turning the other way, facing a crisp Alpine breeze, I marvel at the snow-capped Alps. I'm just minutes from Switzerland, but clearly in Italy. The ferry workers have that annoying yet endearingly playful knack for underachieving. In this country, precision seems limited to the pasta – exactly al dente and reliably homemade. Rather than banks and public clocks (which inundate nearby Swiss lake resorts, such as Lugano), the lanes that tumble down into this lake come with lazy cafes and hole-in-the-wall alimentari brimming with juicy red produce and crunchy greens.
In Italy's romantic Lakes District, in the shadow of the Alps, wistful 19th century villas are seductively overgrown with old vines that seem to ache with stories to tell. Stunted palm trees seem held against their will in this northern location. Vistas are made-to-order for poets. In fact, it was the early nature lovers who wrote and painted here that put this region on the map in the 1800s.
A handful of lakes tempt visitors just north of Milano. The million-euro question is: Which lake to see? Tiny Orta has an offbeat, less-developed charm. Maggiore has garden islands, and Stresa offers a popular resort town. Garda is a hit with German windsurfers. But for the best mix of scenery, offbeat charm and aristocratic old-world romance, my choice is Lake Como.
Just an hour north of Milan by convenient train, sleepy Lake Como is a good place to take a break from the obligatory turnstile culture of central Italy. It seems half the travelers you'll meet have tossed their itineraries into the lake and are actually relaxing.
Today the hazy lazy lake's only serious industry is tourism. Thousands of lakeside residents travel daily to nearby Lugano, in Switzerland, to find work. The area's isolation and flat economy have left it pretty much the way those 19th century romantics described and painted it.
Bellagio is the lake's leading resort. The self-proclaimed "Pearl of the Lake," it is a classy combination of prim tidiness and yesteryear elegance. If you don't mind that "tramp in a palace" feeling, it's a fine place to surround yourself with the more adventurous of the posh travelers. Arcades facing the lake are lined with shops. The heavy curtains, which hang between the arches keep the visitors cool. And, while the fancy ties and jewelry sell best at lake level, the locals shop up the hill.
Lake Como is famous among Italians for its geographic shape — like a stick figure of a man with two legs striding out. Bellagio is located where the two legs come together (and the subject of funny and crude local rhymes you will undoubtedly hear at some point during a visit). For a delightful view, wander from the town right on out to the crotch. At Punta Spartivento – literally “the point that divides the wind” – where you’ll find a Renoir atmosphere – just right for a picnic while gazing north and contemplating the place where Italy is welded to the Swiss Alps.