We’re taking you to Como. Minus the cramped 24-hour flight in economy class. In the 10 years that we’ve been travelling between Australia and Italy, we’ve never sat in one of those super cushy front row seats with the little TV that folds out from the armrest. Yeah, we know, they’re for families with babies, but you’d think just once, you’d win the airline seat roulette.
Lake Como is close to our hearts for many reasons. George Clooney rocks my boat. Giulio and Elio wouldn’t say no either. But more importantly, Lake Como is the family home of Gimoka coffee. Our coffee. Ivan Padelli founded a tiny coffee roasting house in Lecco on the lake’s shores more than three decades ago. It was nothing fancy. Just somewhere where local families and restaurants could come to try and roast their own coffee blends.
The Casa del Caffe is still open in Lecco for curious tourists and coffee aficionados to come and try Gimoka’s blends fresh from the roaster. And since you’re headed there anywhere, we thought we’d share a few insider tips for exploring Lake Como.
Lake Como is in Italy’s north, so don’t expect beautiful Sofia Loren types and ripe tomatoes. Northern Italy is the Germany of the Mediterranean. Everything operates better and everyone is better organised… and better dressed. How can they not be? They’re only an hour and half from Milan.
Lake Como is Italy’s third biggest lake, which means you’d need superhuman stamina to explore it all. Since we’re the laissez-faire breed of traveller, we prefer to follow on the heels of Albert Hitchcock as he shoots The Pleasure Garden (circa 1925) and head straight to the shores of Menaggio.
Menaggio beckons you to sit and sip spritzs as the sun sets. That’s Aperol mixed with dry white wine for the uninitiated. This beautiful town is a sea of pastel yellow and pink palazzos and the even more alluring luxury villas belonging to the likes of Madonna, Richard Branson and to a lesser extent Ronaldinho… good to know not all of his money went to parties and gold chains…
Stroll the streets of Menaggio and window shop (or just shop) Versacci and Missoni. The current head of Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci, was born here, while Emilio Pucci flirted with the lake throughout the ’50s, sourcing most of his fabrics from Como, which was and still is famous for its silks. Silk tie anyone?
Or you can leave the fashion to the fashionistas and head straight to Villa del Balbianello. Its sweeping lakeside gardens once belonged to the first Italian to climb Mount Everest, Guido Monzino, and appeared in Casino Royale, the Daniel Craig version. Now we can explore the incredible treasures Monzino picked up on his travels inside the villa and nosy through the perfectly manicured and very English-style garden with its box hedges and towering oaks. The villa is open to tourists most days.
If you want to be seen, darling, and you’ve already been to Menaggio, your next stop is the similarly named Bellagio. It has nothing to do with the casino, mind you. Forget about high-rolling and hightail through Bellagio’s backstreets instead. These winding mazes of courtyard gardens, coiffed gardenias and wisterias and the quintessential gossiping nonne is about as Italian as the lake gets. Squashed in one of those alleys is Enoteca CavaTuracciolo, a local wine bar serving spectacularly laden cheese platters and excellent glasses of vino to match. The choice tipple is the IGT Terre Lariane, a locally produced white wine that’s fresh and spiced and pairs well with freshwater fish, what else?
Or you could just follow the hype all the way to the Michelin-starred Mistral to rapturously wallow in Sicilian red prawns with guacamole ice cream, cuttlefish ink waffles and other molecular-gastronomy delights on the lakeside terrace.
As for the lake’s namesake city, Como, well… frankly you might be a bit disappointed. Como is lovely, but pretty chaotic. Breathing in the faint, but constant whiff of exhaust fumes from cargo boats isn’t exactly vacation living. But the birthplace of Roman philosophers Pliny the Elder and the Younger keeps its promise when it comes to cultural heritage at the excellent archaeological museum.
The neoclassical English gardens of Villa Olmo are also worth a gander, if only to catch whatever undecidedly non-mainstream art exhibition is on in the beautifully frescoed exhibition space.
But what about George Clooney you say? You won’t see him and we think he might have sold his villa anyway. That said, you can still cruise the coastline on a private boat or ferry. This is probably the most enjoyable part of any trip and your only way to see the breathtaking villas that enticed you to visit Como in the first place. You can naturally pay an arm and a leg for a tourist shuttle or you can save your hard-earned euros for that aforementioned Michelin restaurant and catch the local ferry instead. It connects Menaggio, Bellagio, and Varenna, plus Cadenabbia for a couple of euros a trip.