20190922

LATE SUMMER ON LAKE COMO



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During the end of August and start of September, myself and my boyfriend Jack took a trip to Lake Como (with a little bonus visit to Milan along the way). Today I’m sharing what we did, where we stayed and a few tips and recommendations if you fancy checking out this beautiful, vast Italian lake set amongst an alpine backdrop.

- FIRST STOP: BELLAGIO -

We flew over to Milan with Flybe, who aren’t always the best but they’re usually pretty cheap and they get you from A to B (faster than road or rail, did you know?!) Once we arrived we went to collect our hire car which was from a company called Sicily by Car, which we’d booked very cheaply through an aggregator, however in a post-booking Google search we found some rather troubling reviews. However we reluctantly decided to stick with our booking and I was sure to take pictures and videos of every inch of that car, so we couldn’t possibly be falsely accused of damaging it. And off we went, on our lakeside drive up to Bellagio! So far, so good...



It was around 6 or 7 in the evening by the time we arrived at the apartment we arranged via booking.com, which was around a 15 minute walk out of the main part of Bellagio and was one of the few affordable options we came across. Bellagio was expensive to the point that we seriously considered just not staying there. We did book a good 6 weeks in advance but it seemed everywhere pretty and central that came at a reasonable price was booked up or simply nonexistent. Our place was in a sweet, quiet part of town and overlooked the Giardini Di Villa Melzi (which we also got free access to with our booking). I honestly hadn’t been too keen on this place based on the pictures and we pretty much booked it out of sheer frustration, because it was very cheap in comparison to the general vibe in Bellagio. I was actually pleasantly surprised! It was functional, spacious, clean, had a lovely view from the window and a certain rustic charm. There was also a little garden shared by the other guests that you could sit out in, which was a nice touch.

In terms of Bellagio itself; it genuinely is beautiful. You get stunning views of the lake and the mountains across the town and it’s that classic charming, quaint Italian countryside town, in that there are beautifully rustic buildings and restaurants down winding cobbled streets. However it’s definitely quite touristy and pretty expensive. I also didn’t feel as though we had a truly incredible meal during our stay here, which was a shame because I love me some good Italian food. I don’t think anyone Italian really lives in Bellagio unless they own a shop or a restaurant, which is fine, however it’s not the most authentic environment. It’s postcard-pretty and well worth a visit, just try to avoid the tourist traps and for us; 2 nights was spot on.


Clockwise from top left: abandoned villa in Bellagio, the view over Giardini di Villa Melzi, Giardini di Villa Melzi and the view from our Bellagio apartment

My highlight of Bellagio was probably the gardens, which were absolutely beautiful. You could honestly spend hours in there just exploring the different areas and it’s all so incredibly well-kept with some gorgeous design, interesting flora and (obviously!) breathtaking views across the lake. We also went for a walk right up into the hills above Bellagio. I won’t lie; uphill in 30 degree heat with no actual pavement was pretty gruelling! However we wound our way up through some pretty hamlets on our mission and rewarded ourselves with beer and wine at a restaurant when we’d gone as far as we could go and the view was just stunning from up there.


- ON TO BELLANO -

We’d found a really lovely studio apartment further out in Bellano, over on the other side of the lake. It was, again, very reasonably-priced and had a pool and was away from the hustle and bustle of Bellagio. It seemed like a good idea to sandwich in something a little more chilled out and relaxing so we booked it on Airbnb. We decided to drive around the lake instead of getting the ferry across so we could stop at the supermarket down in Lecco and also in order to just have a nice drive in a beautiful part of the world. I absolutely recommend checking out the Italian supermarkets; the produce was so fresh, delicious and generously-sized for the price.


Views from the mountains on our first attempt at San Giorgio Cola

This is where things went a little rogue... we had decided that in the time before we were able to check into our next apartment, we’d go on a hike up to San Giorgio Cola; a mountainside village only accessible by foot which was supposed to be stunning. It was meant to take around an hour and it was much less steep of an incline than we’d tackled the previous day so I thought; ‘why not?’ We set off armed with Google Maps and a litre of water... into the mountains... I think the fact that - within about 20 minutes of walking - Google Maps was telling us to cut through a working quarry should have been a red flag. However Jack had total faith in the power of Google Maps (despite the fact it showed no possible path beyond a certain point), so we ploughed onwards despite my protestations. There were many more signs that this could not possibly be the route and that we should turn back including the path I spotted over the other side of the wall, the increasingly rocky terrain and the mountain goat, trapped on a boulder, alone and bleating, surrounded by its own droppings... However Jack had seen a few overgrown steps up above from an old footpath and wanted to continue. After all; we were only 0.2 miles away. We pressed on through the brambles and the stinging nettles, which all left their mark on our legs, until it reached a point where he was out of sight and I was having a full-on meltdown, so I made him turn back. There were a few mutterings of 'we were definitely almost there' but I was relieved to turn back to safety (which, in this context, was a quarry).



The apartment in Bellano



Sunsets over Bellano

We headed to check into our Airbnb in Bellano and we had the most wonderful, friendly host come to meet us - it was just a shame we were so dehydrated and spaced out! Our place was up in the mountains, so we had beautiful views and the apartment building had a pool. It was a little studio apartment, which was very cute and even had an outdoor balcony garden just for us. We were around a ten minute walk down to the small centre of Bellano, but coming back took double that time, given it was so uphill! However it was nice to stay somewhere quieter and more relaxed after the hustle and bustle of Bellagio. On two of the three nights we just stayed in and cooked at the apartment - a tasty pasta with grilled vegetables and bruschetta, made with the incredible food we picked up at the supermarket in Lecco (helped along by the impressive herb and spice collection we found in the kitchen cupboard!) However we went out for pizza one night in Bellano; I'd say it wasn't the best for restaurants and a lot of places were closed on the weeknights we stayed there, so definitely book a table in advance if you're going to stay there or maybe venture over to nearby Varenna.



The sunset over Bellano



Varenna

The following day it was kind of my pick in terms of what we were going to do and I thought it would be nice to take it easy and just go into Varenna and have a casual wander. There's a train around every half an hour that only takes 4 minutes from the centre of Bellano (and you can purchase Italian train tickets on the Trainline app) or it's a 10-15 minute drive, so no trouble at all! I absolutely fell in love with Varenna - it was so beautiful and (although there was plenty going on) just a lot calmer and quieter than Bellagio. The town is pretty much spread across the side of the lake, so you have lovely views wherever you turn. You can walk up to the castle, which takes about 40 minutes, however my legs had all but entirely seized up following our misadventure the day before, so we spent a day on the ground - much to my relief! 



Varenna


On our final day in Bellano, we decided to attempt San Giorgio Cola again and in the afternoon I'd booked us a boat to take out on the lake! This time we found and followed the proper route, which is actually pretty well-signposted if you're coming from the right direction... It supposedly takes around an hour and 10 minutes but in the gruelling heat, with a reasonable amount of stops for water and rest, it took us a little over an hour and a half. It was still pretty tough and very steep but it was a defined, safe(ish) path. When we arrived at the village it felt like an incredible achievement. It was so quiet and peaceful; a community of no more than 50 people living in this beautiful, very inaccessible place. It was also a little strange, though, as we didn't see anyone at all and I was just really interested to understand how they live their lives! There's a pulley system up to the top but I was intrigued just to know who lived there, how often they went down to the the towns and cities below and how they dealt with matters such as resources. I guess that will remain a mystery! On the way back down it really struck me just how far up we'd climbed and it kind of felt like an achievement. However, not one I need to repeat in the immediate future...





San Giorgio Cola

We actually timed our boat trip perfectly - I'd always recommend allowing more time for walks than you think you'll need - and arrived bang on time for our booking. I just dropped Econoleggio Boat Hire an email a couple of days ahead and they had availability when we wanted to do the boat ride - it was that easy! Whilst it wasn't a fancy speedboat, it was a lot cheaper so we just shrugged and went for it. We spent an hour on the lake, not really going in any particular direction, just having a laugh. Jack dived in a few times for a swim and we took in the views from another perspective. I wouldn't say the boat was the easiest to steer or the fastest, but to be honest - we had fun! For our last night in Bellano, we went out for lakeside pizza, which ended up being very nice, though (as I mentioned) we tried about three restaurants before finding one that was actually open.



- 24 HOURS IN MILAN -

By the time we'd dropped off our hire car (we had no problems whatsoever - they just gave it a quick once-over, signed it off and we went on our merry way, with the hold on Jack's card being released a few days later) and got the train to central Milan. By the time we got to the centre, it was definitely a little later than we'd anticipated, so we just headed straight to our Airbnb apartment. It was perfectly functional and in a good location for our short stay there. There's also an incredible gelato place I have to recommend to anyone staying in that area called Linzi - they had everything from fruity to dessert-y to vegan and it was all so good! We decided just to go on a bit of a walking tour of the city in the beautiful weather, taking in the major sights like the cathedral, Sforza castle, the San Lorenzo columns and the overall vibe of the place. The cathedral was the most incredible sight for me - it is just stunning; the dedication it took to create it, the intricacy of the design and the sheer awe-inspiring quality it holds. Unfortunately, it was flooded with Ferrari fans for an event, so it was pretty crowded but I still found it so, so impressive! 




Milan Cathedral

We stopped by a bar opposite the Porto Ticinese and had a couple of cocktails before having a quick rest and then heading out for a casual dinner on our doorstep at a place called Flower Burger. It was essentially a vegetarian / vegan burger place that had really tasty options for burgers inspired by everything from Japanese to Mexican cuisine. The following morning, before our flight, we had a walk along the canals and got amazing, very affordable coffee and pastries at a place called Kate Away. Then it was time to head back! We had a fleeting visit to Milan, but one that kind of left me wanting more. Far from the chaotic, noisy vibe that Rome has, it felt pretty chilled! I was expecting busloads of tourists, crazy drivers and a really fast pace, however I just didn't get that from Milan at all and it was pretty welcome. I'd definitely go back there if the opportunity arose, especially as we decided against going to see Da Vinci's the Last Supper. Essentially; if you want to go to Milan and really want see this then you need to get tickets from the official website a good three months ahead (for about £10) or you'll be forced to buy tickets for a 'guided tour' you aren't that fussed about for a good 5-7 times the price - it really is something of a racket.




Clockwise from top left: San Lorenzo columns, Galleria Vittorio, Sforza Castle, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Linzi Gelato

- MY PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS -

I think my personal favourite moments involved wandering around a new are on foot with nowhere to be, at a casual pace, just taking in the feel of the place. I really loved just having a look around Varenna and our brief but worthwhile little tour of Milan. The views we got from San Giorgio Cola were also incredible and we knew how hard we'd worked to get there! I guess the moments of peace also felt extra nice and relaxed because we'd done so much intense exercise in-between them.

- TOP TIPS FOR VISITING LAKE COMO - 

Don't blindly trust Google Maps - there are lots of shortcuts that aren't on Maps apps in rural areas, so just use your common sense to avoid taking the long way round if there's a sign or a little back passageway suggesting otherwise. One night in Bellano, Maps told us to walk right the way round to get to a restaurant and said it would take 24 minutes. It didn't; there was a little back pathway up and it was 5-10 minutes!

Invest in a hiking map and do some research for your walks - again, if you're going on a proper hike then research your route before setting off, ask locals and use specific hiking resources to ensure you don't persist going up a quarry when there's a proper walking path two minutes away...


Don't be afraid to stay in a place a little off the beaten track - I honestly preferred our time in Bellano to our time in Bellagio, so don't be afraid to stay in a place you've heard a little less about. I couldn't really find much information on it before we went but we just booked it and it ended up being a really nice place! We didn't even go to Como itself! If I was going back to Lake Como, I'd definitely stay in Varenna as my top choice.


Book your restaurants - like I mentioned above, a few times we showed up at restaurants to find the lights off and no one home! This is the countryside, after all, and if there aren't bookings and customers, the management might just decide to close for the evening, so I definitely recommend booking in advance.

- THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO -

Locations

Lake Como essentially has an upside-down 'Y' shape to it and you can get a ferry across to the different parts, which operate more regularly and for extended hours during the summer months. It's north of Milan and Como and Lecco are situated on each of the point
 of the 'Y' down to the south. If you travel up the central part of land then Bellagio is on the very tip - from here you can see across to both the other sides of the lake. A bit further south of Bellagio, you have smaller towns like Nesso and Lezzeno, which we looked into staying at instead of Bellagio, as they're a little quieter and more affordable. Menaggio (the home of Villa Carlotta) is over to the west of Bellagio on the other side of the lake - we didn't end up fitting in visiting that area, however I think that area is slightly more tourist-y than the east side of the lake, which is where Varenna is. Bellano is a short 15-minute drive or 4-minute train ride north of there and you can travel much further north if you so wish, though expect those areas to be a little sleepier and more rural (we only went north of Bellano to visit San Giorgio Cola).

Transport


As I mentioned; we hired a car for the trip, which allowed for maximum freedom and was very cost-effective (just be aware if you're sampling the wine along the way that the legal blood-alcohol level in Italy is effectively zero, so don't assume you can 'just have one' like in the UK!) That being said; not everyone is comfortable driving on the right-hand side of the road or on such narrow, twisty roads (including me...) There are other options; you can get the train from Milan to Como and there are trains operating between the main towns along the same side of the lake as each other, with the ferry there if you need it. It just makes hiking in those areas that are off the beaten track a little more difficult and it means you're more likely to stick to the tourist destinations and move around less. What I loved about this trip was that I really felt we explored a lot of the lake, given we were only there for a week, and we wouldn't have been able to do it like that without the car. 


Weather


I found the weather forecasts to be really inaccurate. I'd entirely braced myself for thunderstorms and a lot of humid rain during our trip but pretty much every day at ground level was 26-30 degrees and blissfully sunny. I think it's hard to forecast the weather in an area with Lake Como's topography - at night we sometimes saw flashes of lightning up in the mountains but they never touched ground level, which was interesting. It was a relief to have beautiful weather when we'd prepared ourselves for the worst!


Eating out


I definitely noticed that restaurants closed and people ate earlier in the Lake Como area than I'm really used to in Europe. In Barcelona, for example, it wasn't unusual for us to eat at 10-11pm. In terms of pricing; this varied wildly depending on where we were, with the most expensive area being Bellagio. Just do your research and use your common sense - restaurants near popular tourist sights are going to be more expensive and often lower-quality so it's worth checking out TripAdvisor and making some bookings, like I mentioned previously.


Pricing


Lake Como really doesn't have to be some expensive, super luxury place to go on holiday, as you may have been led to believe. I think we spent about £300-400 in total for all of our accommodation for the holiday. Yes, we could've splashed out a little more but we just got cute apartments that had good reviews and were reasonably-priced. We knew we'd be out and about exploring and not spending a lot of time in them, so getting a happy medium suited us. One thing I would warn you that is pretty expensive is fuel! We didn't use a lot over there, however it was universally quite expensive compared to the UK. This was also reflected in taxi prices - there's no Uber in Italy and whilst there are taxi apps, they're still far more expensive than the average ride in the UK. Train and ferry prices were both pretty reasonable, though obviously only operate during certain hours, however I didn't find anywhere in Lake Como had lots of 'night life'; at the end of the day, they're towns and villages out in the countryside!



I think that's everything and I hope this was helpful! Have you ever visited Lake Como? Is it on your wish list, if not?


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