Bellissimo Lago di Como

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” That is exactly the way I felt during a September visit to Lago di Como (Lake Como) in northern Italy. It is sublime. Glittering waters at the feet of Alpine mountain ranges. Photo-opp villages with cobbled alleys and flowered promenades. Baroque villas and impeccably manicured gardens.

Like me, lots of famous people have been seduced by the lake’s beauty and charm. Artists, writers, opera singers and aristocrats have homes on the lake shores. Not to mention Hollywood stars: George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, Sylvester Stallone…

Varenna

My friend Karen, who knows the lake well, suggested we stop at Lake Como en route to her apartment in Croatia. I had fond memories of previous lake visits and was all in. She chose Varenna, considered one of the prettiest lakeside towns, as our destination for two nights. We enjoyed soaking up the vistas and the captivating ambiance of the lake and town.

The most heavenly time was high above the lakeside town of Tremezzo at the restaurant Al Veluu. Karen has friends who know the restaurant owner. She made a reservation mentioning her friends. We never did meet the owner. The waiter who greeted us was neither impressed nor happy to see us. It was close to 2 p.m.. The restaurant terrace was empty. He, no doubt, wanted to call it a day.

We had the spacious terrace and garden all to ourselves. The divine surroundings and spectacular views made up for the disappointing food. It was calm, peaceful, relaxing. We did not want to leave, but the warm sun was no longer so warm, and we needed to start the trek (taxi then 2 ferry rides) back to Varenna.

Karen chills out at Al Veluu.

Boats are the primary means of transportation for visiting Lake Como. Ferries of all sizes shuttle from town to town. The previous day we took a ferry to Bellagio, the “pearl” of the lake. Years ago husband Bob and I visited this treasure of a town. We visited the park and gardens of the grandiose Villa Serbelloni, hiked in the hills, took boat rides. It was all delightful.

Bellagio

Years later we returned with my mother who was overwhelmed. In addition to the gorgeous views and surroundings, she loved the shops. Bellagio, like most of the towns, has a plethora of boutiques and souvenir shops. On one visit, I purchased a large olive wood basket which I still treasure.

Varenna at night

In Varenna, we stayed at an Airbnb which promised a “bella vista” of the lake. What a joke. From a small bedroom window in a corner, if you twisted your neck you could spot the lake. Never mind. We had plenty of bella vistas as we climbed up and down the steep stairways in Varenna that lead to the lake, and strolled the path, Passegiata degli Innamorati (walk of lovers), along the shore.

Lake Como was the perfect start to my much-needed R&R break.

Thanks again to Karen, adventure in Croatia followed. Read all about it in an upcoming post. Don’t miss out.

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Bellagio

For more on Bellagio, read my report on a previous visit- click here.

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Vacation Fiascos

Not every trip is paradise perfect.   I’ve had my share of travel mishaps. In Buenos Aires, three gold chains were ripped from my neck (my fault for wearing them).  I missed out on an excursion to the Brazilian side of Iguaçu Falls because I did not have a Brazilian visa.

I never made it to the Brazilian side.  No one told me I needed a visa.
I never made it to the Brazilian side. No one told me I needed a visa.

The trip had been prepaid, but the travel operator failed to tell me that as an American I needed a visa, and there was no time to get one.  $100 out the window.  In New Zealand, I was so excited about the chance to swim with dolphins – something I’ve always wanted to do.  Alas, I swam in frigid water, but nary a dolphin to be seen.  (I’ve written about these catastrophes in previous posts. “Misadventures in New Zealand,” Apr.27, 2012;  “Cry for me Argentina,” Oct. 30, 2010; “Iguaçu Falls,” Nov. 19, 2010 )

Last fall husband Bob and I had some frustrating experiences thanks to GPS.  We are slow to get on the technical bandwagon, but finally decided to purchase a GPS gadget for this drive trip.  All went well in Germany.  Without it, we might still be driving around looking for some of those off-the- beat- and -track hotels I had booked.

When we got to northern  Italy and were trying to find my friend Trina’s apartment on Lake Varese, another story.  Suddenly we were crossing the border into Switzerland as directed by our GPS mentor.  (She’s British, and her pronunciation of Italian, French and German  street names is abominable, but good for a laugh.)

GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.
GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.

This can’t be right?   What’s with this wacko woman directing us?  What’s with GPS?  We stopped at the nearest gas station, and were told she was all wrong.  Reverse directions and go back to Italy.  We eventually found Trina, but with a map.

After the Italian/Swiss mishap, I verified GPS instructions with a map.  Until we were driving back to France on the autostrada in northern Italy, a stretch we had driven many times.  I relaxed. All seemed well.  Then out of the blue  we ended up at the toll booth for the Frejus Tunnel, 39 euros, no turning back.  Strange.  We had not remembered going through this tunnel before. Perhaps our GPS genius  knew a shorter route?  We had no choice but to continue.

It’s a long, long tunnel.  When we emerged, I checked the map.  Holy S—!  Where are we?  We had driven far out of our way to get home.  And, that GPS crackpot was leading us farther astray.  So much for advanced technology.

Time for another gas station inquiry. I was obviously distraught,  thinking about all those extra miles and hours lost.  The kind woman in the gas station took pity on me and explained that we had two choices, one route via Grenoble, much longer but all on the speedy autoroute, and one over the Col du Galibier, a slow but scenic mountain pass.  We opted for scenery. It was an adventure, up and up a twisty road into the wilds of mountain tops with no civilization in sight, but incredible views.  It was getting dark and this was not a road for sissies, so we took no time to stop and ponder the surrounding beauty. But, it’s a drive to repeat.  Sometimes bad leads to good.

Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..
Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..

And, sometimes, as with the jewelry theft in Argentina, you learn from the disasters.  Such was the case in Singapore.  I needed a few accessories for my new camera.  This was the beginning of a long trip, so best make the purchases here.  We paid a visit to a camera shop in Singapore’s Chinatown where a very eager and fast-talking salesman convinced me to buy, not only the needed accessories, but a few other items – including a very costly filter, which, he cleverly demonstrated, would do wonders for my photos.  I was taken in and made the purchases – over $400 worth.

As we ate lunch, I pondered the purchase.  Something did not seem right.  Should they have been that expensive?  I went back to the hotel and checked the items on Amazon.  I had been royally ripped off—the total for the items at Amazon prices would have been no more than about $50.  How stupid I was.

Not to be outdone, I printed out copies of all the Amazon data and marched back to the photo shop for a confrontation. I was all smiles and friendly and took photos of our chatty salesman before presenting the evidence of his deceit. I threatened to put his photo and the shop on Facebook with a warning if he did not give me a refund. The manager, another slick operator, appeared.  He was wary and not about to risk bad publicity.  I could have the refund, but first he wanted to delete the incriminating  photos on my camera.  I obliged, took my money and ran.

Back at the hotel, I related the experience  to the desk clerk who had helped with the copies.  Never do business in Chinatown, he said.  And, never be so dumb and shell out big bucks for items if you have no idea of the going price.

Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.
Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.

No trip is without some minor aggravations.  In Sydney, when we purchased our tickets for an opera house tour, we were given coupons for a free cup of coffee valid until 5 p.m. at the opera house café.  We showed up at 4:40 pm.  “Sorry. Too late.  We had to close early today.”  No big loss.  Back to the hotel, but by bus as it was raining. We waited and waited.  Finally bus number 53 came.  We proceeded to pay the driver for our passage.   ”Sorry.  No tickets sold on buses after 5 p.m. “  They must be purchased ahead at a ticket office, he explained, but we weren’t about to track down the office, which, by then, probably would have been closed anyway.  O.K.  We’ll take a taxi.  We wandered from street corner to street corner and hailed many a taxi.  All full.  Distressed and soaked, we gave up and trekked in the rain back to the hotel – a good hour’s walk.

Not our lucky day, but far worse could happen. It’s all part of the adventure that can make travel a challenge – and an educational experience.

Black Bean Pumpkin Soup was the overwhelming favorite at a lunch I recently prepared for friends. Several requested the recipe which is listed in the column at right.

Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right

 

Bellissimo Bellagio

Instead of moving to France from Germany eight years ago, I tried to convince my husband to consider Italy as our future home.  It seems such a happy, fun, cheerful place.  I love the language, the people, the food, the countryside.  But, Bob finds it all a bit too chaotic, so France won and life here is fine (see previous blog post, All about Life in France).  But, I still adore Italy and am always thrilled with visits.

Watching the boats go by.
Watching the boats go by.

On the way home from our recent trip to Germany we spent three joyful days in Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como.  Friend Trina, whom we visited later in nearby Comerio, suggested the perfect hotel, Silvio, www.bellagiosilvio.com, just outside of town where we had a room with a balcony overlooking the lake and the distant Alps.  We’d been to Bellagio twice before, once with my mother who was also a fan of bella Italia and loved Bellagio.

View from our balcony at the Hotel Silvio.
View from our balcony at the Hotel Silvio.

The ancient village is perched on the shores of this idyllic lake ringed by mountains.  Steep steps climb skinny alleys lined with intriguing shops.  Sightseeing ships and ferries blow their horns as they pull in and out of the harbor.  It’s the perfect place to hang out and enjoy il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing)

Our journey began with a car ferry ride at sunset from Colico on the northern end of the lake to Bellagio which sits on the promontory jutting into the water at the junction between the Como and Lecco legs of the lake.  Unfortunately the lens on my Canon Rebel camera froze on our last stop in Germany, so my photos were limited to my Blackberry.  I was amazed.  Not too bad.  And, there were

Lake Como at sunset.
Lake Como at sunset.

scenic, spectacular photo opps all around —  splashes of coral and orange across a dark sky streaked with wisps of clouds, rays of light dancing on the rippled water, postcard villages hugging the shore — all framed by deep blue silhouettes of mountains.

We did more than lounge on that lovely hotel balcony and ponder the Bellagio scenery.  Walk.  Down to the shore and through the perfectly manicured gardens of the Villa Melzi along the lake.  The English garden is enhanced with

October at the Villa Melzi Gardens.
October at the Villa Melzi Gardens.

sculptures, small ponds, a stream, exotic plants and ancient trees.  The complex, including the neoclassical villa, was built between 1808 and 1816 for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi, and vice president of the Italian Republic under Napoleon. www.giardidivillamelzi.it

The  garden walk led us to the village where we wandered in and out of the shops and found the perfect souvenir – an olive wood basket.  It was pricey, almost beyond our budget.  I tried to bargain, but the proprietor and craftsman, who had his workshop on the premises, would not budge.  He explained that it was a very time consuming process to create this piece.  We splurged – and are happy we did.  It’s a sensation on our table.Basket

Bellagio is known for another villa on a hill above the town, the Villa Serbelloni, owned by the Rockefeller Foundation.  It is used mainly for conferences.  On a previous visit we toured its gardens which are open for guided tours from April to October.  In town the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is the address of class where Churchill and John F. Kennedy stayed.

Along the shore in Bellagio.
Along the shore in Bellagio.

Another day we walked up a hill and along a road to Pescallo which I had remembered as being a quaint fishing village.  My memory failed.  It was not much.  No fishing boats.  We did find a lakeside restaurant where we had an expensive but disappointing lunch.  The next day we set out by car for a hair raising ride along the all- too-narrow- winding coastal road (well suited to the Honda S2000) to Lezzeno and a fabulous lunch at the restaurant of the Hotel Villa Aurora adjacent to the lake.  www.hotelauroralezzeno.com   There, as well as at the restaurant in the Hotel Silvio, we enjoyed fresh fish from Lake Como.  Twenty-eight different species are said to thrive in its waters.  Lavarello is a favorite.

On the way back home to France, we stopped first to visit the major town on the lake, Como, and its majestic cathedral, then to Comerio to visit Trina in her gorgeous apartment overlooking Lake Varese.  I met Trina years ago in an Italian class in Germany (she was the star of the class).  Her husband Ian, who used to work in Italy, now works in London. Trina, who teaches English, and her faithful companion, Lucky, a precious 16-year-old Bichon Frisé, are holding down the fort in Italy.bellagio17

We arrived on the evening of Bob’s birthday.  Trina prepared a delicious mussels pasta dish for our dinner – and there was a tart with a candle for the birthday boy.

See slideshow below for more photos. For a holiday brunch, try the Puffed Apple Pancake, recipe in column at right. Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

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