I have to admit that I didn't do much research on the City of Como before our arrival. In my mind it was the jumping off point for our week on Lake Como. A place to drop off our rental car and catch the train to Venice at week's end.
We had just driven north from Milan with a diversion through Lissome to look for some furniture showrooms. But jet lag and "new country arrival anxiety" contributed to make a fairly straight forward trip a disappointing first encounter with Northern Italy. So, as Carol and I finally arrived in Como, it was with a sense of relief rather than anticipation. To our surprise, it was just what the travel-doctor ordered.
First order of business...FOOD! But first parking. A few accidental turns and we found ourselves in the area of the porta torre or the medieval walled section of the ancient city. Looking like an encampment of modern day invaders the grounds outside the walls were lined with dozens of portable shopping stalls for the regular Saturday market. This seemed to be a good starting place.
Ultimately, we found a parking place on a nearby side street. First Italian food...take away pannini at a snack bar. Two counter stools, good food, a place to unwind and a beautiful young Italian girl who spoke perfect English could direct us to a toilette at the bar down the street. We had arrived!
It was our third day on Lake Como but it was our first ferry boat ride. Varenna is on the opposite side of the lake from where we were staying in Ossuccio. Taking the ferry was the simplest and most direct way to get there. More importantly, it was definitely the "best way" for us to arrive there for a first view. The ride from Lenno made several stops along the way including Villa Carlotta and Bellagio. Every stop was beautifully unique but Varenna...this was special.
Here the colorful homes were built right to water's edge. There was a steep rock face where nothing could be built and seemed to divide the village. Cleverly a promenade had been built cantilevered over the water. The walkway leads past shops and a few cafes with "you-never-have-to-leave-your-chair" photo opps. Boats were most often merely pulled up on shore and tied off.
Varenna is home to two very elaborate villas and gardens - Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero. Both are definitely worth a visit. But in my mind, the real allure was exploring the walks and back lanes of the tiny town. I read somewhere that, "If Bellagio is the pearl of Lake Como then Varenna is the diamond". This seemed surely true.
I think there is a moment during every trip that captures the collective essence of the entire experience. This was our first full day on Lake Como. It seemed everywhere we looked was picture postcard perfect. It was late afternoon. We had seen a villa, lush gardens, walked along a lakeside promenade, and had just enjoyed a pleasant afternoon in Menaggio. We decided to explore a bit and drive further north. It seems I don't drive quite as fast as the locals and consequently I found myself pulling over frequently to allow the convoy behind me to pass.
At one point a quick right turn off the main road put us face to face with a castle! In fact it was Castello Rezzonico which turns out to be a real 14th century castle that is now a private residence. We decided to explore. Walking along the right side of the castle wall we were led to a long descending walkway. There was enough of a curve to it that we couldn't see the end. As I stood there wondering how far it went we saw an elderly woman ascending. Now I'm thinking, "If she can...I can".
So down we went. And down. And down. Suddenly we were aware of something new. It was really quiet. And beautiful. The shallow rise long run cobblestone stairs were very regular with solid stone along each edge. The doors to the homes along the way were individually unique and obviously selected and cared for with great pride. There were potted plants on the cobbles and window boxes above. The light was dim and the feeling was peaceful.
Finally, we reached the bottom and to our surprise the walk opened up to a beautiful piazza...with a bench. What was before us was Lake Como from a most spectacular view. We were looking directly at the crotch of the "Y" with the leg to Como fading off to the right and the leg to Lecco to the left. It occurred to us ..."the people of Rezzonico live with this beauty every day".
There is only one island on Lake Como and our "villa" was directly across from it. Every morning the same three fisherman would appear in the narrow straight between us in Ossuccio and Isola Comacina. They never seemed to catch much but as I have long suspected, most fishing has more to do with "going fishing" than with the "fish"!
The ferry boat from Argegno dropped us off at a much less sophisticated dock than we had seen previously. There was no ticket booth and only a single dock employee. There also was no town. Just a snack bar fashioned out of a huge reclaimed wine barrel and some rustic tables and stools made out of tree limbs. We had read that there was a well known risitorante somewhere but it was not immediately evident. In any event, this was definitely not a high volume stop.
The ferry boats made infrequent stops on the island so we knew we would be there for several hours...interesting or not, so Carol decided to bring her sketch book and look a worthy scene to capture. That effort was not very difficult. What an enchanting, peaceful place.
We followed a somewhat defined path to the site of the abandoned Church of San Giovanni which was built on the ruins of a Roman structure. Carol settled in to capture the moment and I set out feed my archeological cravings. We spent about four hours on the island relaxing and enjoying each other's company. This is a vacation after all.
Gravedona is almost at the northern end of Lake Como. If you have a car the drive up is really beautiful and worth the time. Otherwise I would recommend taking the ferry and walking around. We had been driving for most of the day and had seen a lot of churches and wonderful small towns. Gravedona was larger than most and it seemed worth a little more time.
Carol is an artist and is always keenly aware of light and shadow. It was mid afternoon when we arrived in Gravedona and everything seemed in crisp contrast from the autumn sun. We parked on a shady side lane where gardeners were pruning the trees of a large villa. There was the unmistakable scent of gardenias in the air that seemed to be coming from a tree with tiny white flowers.
We worked our way up the cobbled walkways and found vividly painted buildings of yellow, terra-cotta and coral interspersed with structures completely of stone. As we walked we saw a sign that read "Panorama". We turned the corner and saw a spectacular view of the the town's lakeside with the water sparkling in the afternoon sun.
The villa rental company's directions read:
"From Como Nord exit, follow signs for Menaggio...From the white sign with black writing indicating you have entered OSSUCCIO, continue for approximately 800 meters, passing an Alimentari (small grocery store)...Perbacco (our villa's name) is on your left hand side with a gate post marked number 21."
I couldn't remember the name "Ossuccio". Must have looked it up a dozen times. But Ossuccio was where we were headed. The directions from the Parker Company seemed incredibly precise. Could they really be that together? But there it was...our villa. Ok, so it's the first floor flat of this little house, but we were in Italy and we were home!
The drive up had been spectacular. The two lane road followed the serpentine shoreline of Lake Como. Carol's and my conversation on the way up had been truly creative. "Look at that!", "Did you see that!", "Wow!", "There's another one!", "Look at that!". You get the idea,
We were early so we drove around a bit. Ossuccio (the name was starting to sink in) was tiny but charming. At 4:00 we returned to our villa and met Aldo, our host. He helped us up the twenty-five steps to the house and introduced us to his 90 year old Aunt Rosa who lived upstairs. Rosa was beautiful and Aldo was a true Italian gentleman. A few formalities and we were on our own.
Everything was as had been promised. Tomorrow we would begin in earnest, but first, "What about breakfast? The Alimentari seemed the answer. We could walk...but where's the sidewalk? In fact, the buildings and retaining walls were barely one foot (often less) from the road and from the cars and from the trucks and especially from the buses! Ok, single file, walk quickly, peek around the corner, listen carefully and dash. We made it. Was it worth it? Pancetta, eggs, fresh pane, two kinds of stinky cheese, coffee...we were set!
We might have skipped Argegno. That would have been a mistake. Our main reason for going there was to catch the ferry to Isola Comacina. Argegno had the most convenient schedule to and from the island but even so it was mid afternoon before we returned. Hungry, we happened upon the La Piazetta Snack Bar and enjoyed one of the best and most reasonably priced panino lunches of our trip .
Rested and fed, it was time to explore. Off we went up a typically narrow walkway ...I mean way up! What we hadn't realized was that the terrain on which Argegno was built was much steeper than what we had previously seen. We climbed and climbed not wanting to give up on what was just a little further up. The payoff was worth it. Quiet winding lanes, Terraced gardens, beautiful houses built on precarious landscapes and most surprising of all a river gorge (actually the Telo Stream) spanned by a Roman bridge.
It seems that once again we had discovered that the best experiences are often unplanned.
On vacation the unexpected is what I relish. I am not much of a car enthusiast, at least, not these days. But, in 1967 driving was much more than mere transportation. On a pleasant June afternoon I fell in love with ... a white Morgan sports car. In the blink of an eye the decision was made. I would return after dinner with checkbook in hand and she would be mine.
Home now. Full of excitement and anticipation. Pickup the mail and rush inside. "What's this fat manila envelope?" What's this !@*#! "Greetings", from Uncle Sam? I was drafted into the military. :-(((
That would be the closest I'd ever be to the dream car of my youth until Carol and I turned a corner in Menaggio. Carol seemed puzzled by my sudden lack of interest architecture and my uncharacteristic automobile fascination, but I was stunned. There she was just as remembered her, leather hood strap and all. I guess 37 years later the spark is still there.
Favorite thing: This I took at Tremezzo, in front of Villa Carlotta, in a late November afternoon. There was nobody around, as it's the dead season, and as usual, they are performing works, but it was no less beautiful than in other seasons, and the sunset was so serene... There are many spots along the lake where you can enjoy a romantic sunset.
Favorite thing: Climb up a bit higher above the lake, it's practically possible at any place, but I'd suggest the side with high mountains - around Lecco and Varenna. On the way, just by the road you'll find many wonderful viewpoints, where you can admire the beauty of the lake from high above!
Favorite thing: This is the famous Santa Maria Maddalena church in Ossuccio, the one whose bell tower is so beautiful and destinguishable, and usually it is represented on the pictures when Ossuccio is photographed. The church is small, but surrounded by the mini old-town and in the alley is the music practice hall?!?! I was very surprised that the rock band was practicing once when I was there...
Favorite thing: Only 52 km Milan, Lago di Como has always been a destination for the Milanese. The lake takes an inverted "Y" shape and each little town and village beckons to you. Lake Como is long (50km), slender and extremely deep. The southern end forks into two long "legs, with the picturesque town of Bellagio situated on the promontory between them.
Favorite thing: Many VIP people are having extremely expensive villas by the lake side. Just some of the names: George Clooney, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Schumacher... All are worth dozens of millions of euros... Spicy!!! But there are beautiful villas for ordinary mortals as well, for some more reasonable price!
In the towns around the lake you'll find the squares connected to the other squares or little streets with arched passages, and the break through of lights in there can be so charming! EVerything is so beautifully arranged, with taste (what else to expect in Italy?!)
Taking a walk is a real pleasure, wherever your eye turns, you'll find something beautiful...
Favorite thing: Beside the chit-chat bench there is another arhaic feature - a water tap. Before, people used to bring water from this place. Nowadays it's used for refreshment. Pay attention to the tree behind, the famous chit chat labeled tree. It is growing over the plate hanging from it!