After the cooler wide open spaces of the mountains, we returned to heat and tourist-city in Bellagio, on Lake Como. I happen to really love water and being on a boat. Lake Como is the place to do that for sure! Driving there from the mountains was a bit hectic and took a very long 5.5 hours due to traffic and roadworks. Beforehand, however, we did make a short visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, to learn about Ötzi.
Ötzi the Iceman is a preserved mummy thought to be over 5,000 years old. He was found (along with his clothing and belongings) quite by accident by a couple hiking in the mountains in 1991. He has been the subject of much research and discovery and is special because he is the only preserved wet-mummy and is even older than the pyramids. It was very illuminating and interesting visiting this museum and I am glad we did it. I will just include a picture or two of the artist’s reconstruction of what we think he looked like at the time of his death. The actual mummy itself is a bit gruesome but as I said, really fascinating. I will link the museum’s website here.
Onward to Lake Como! Lake Como is an interesting shape. To me, the lake looks kinda like a long-legged man without his head or arms. We stayed in the petite town of Bellagio which is positioned where the two legs meet (in the crotch, so to speak). Bellagio was cute, small, manageable, and very pretty, as were the other two towns we visited: Menaggio and Varenna. Some other facts about Lake Como: it is the third largest lake in Italy, the deepest lake in Europe outside of Norway, and its widest section is only 4.5kms. Here is a diagram of the lake, where we stayed and where we visited.
We got to Bellagio and proceeded to get very stressed as to where to park. Lake Como is not really a place to have rental car. We were aware of this before arriving but couldn’t negotiate with our rental company to drop the car off somewhere around the lake. It was Milan or nothing. So, we told our accommodation of our license plate. When we got close to our rental apartment, we didn’t know where to go. The street we were apparently allowed to drive down was packed with pedestrians and looked more like a laneway than a road. We had uncomfortable flashbacks of the time we accidentally drove through Sienna in 2015 with our rental car. We didn’t understand where to park that time, either. The road signs are really different and hard to understand if you didn’t grow up driving in Italy. We incurred a $300 fine or something from that time. So this time, we really didn’t want to do the wrong thing. We called the owners of the apartment to make sure we could drive down this tiny road and they assured us it was okay. We still weren’t convinced. So, we parked in a set-down-only area (we had 30 minutes to do so) and brought our small bags as we walked the road that led to our apartment. We fought through the crowds, astonished that we had considered driving it, found our self-check-in apartment at the end of a piazza, climbed a couple flights of stairs, and put our bags down in our unit. It physically was very close to the main area of the tiny town and the lake’s edge, but quite a trek through the old part of town with rolling suitcases. We decided to go back to our car, find a cheaper parking spot further away, and fill Callum’s backpack with the clothes and items we would need for the next couple of days. Each morning, Callum got up early to move the car to a new spot and we just lived like that. I would strongly recommend NOT having a car while visiting this region. It was not really worth it.
Other than this hiccup, we loved our time in Bellagio. I am not sure exactly what put Lake Como on my travel wish-list. Perhaps it’s always on those ‘best places to visit in Italy’ lists and videos. Maybe I saw pictures of it somewhere. Possibly I was hoping to glimpse George Clooney. Whatever the case, I did have to make a case with Callum to stay there. It is very close to Milan by train and many day-trippers make that journey quite easily every day. Callum wanted to just do that. He thought it would be boring and only worth a day in our already limited piggy bank of time. I just sensed that we needed to stay on the lake, and not just for one day. I am so glad we did! It was lovely!
After sorting out the car situation, we were in dire need of a drink, food, and gelato. I quickly searched for a restaurant that served either gnocchi or ravioli and found one that was pretty highly rated. We hiked up to it and thankfully, they had a table. We each ordered a cocktail and toasted to ‘making it’. We were very sweaty and tired. After the cocktails, our humour returned as it often does after a cocktail. We ordered our pastas and felt much better after eating. Afterward we found gelato and I felt very worldly when a couple of young American girls were trying to figure out what ‘nocciola’ was and I was able to confidently inform them that it was ‘hazelnut’. My Italian is pretty much limited to simple greetings, ‘thank you’, and gelato flavours. It’s all you need, really.
The next day we boarded a ferry to Menaggio and spent the morning and early afternoon swimming and sun-bathing…something we rarely do while travelling. It was so nice to take our time and relax. We managed to catch a ferry at the perfect time onward to Varenna, where we were going to have lunch and then board our boat-taxi tour. I had managed to find a boat tour that wasn’t 6 million dollars and booked it. I wanted to see the famed Villa del Balbianello. This villa is known for being in a few different movies: ‘James Bond’, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘A Month by the Lake’. It’s also a popular place for people to have their weddings. More on that later.
From Varenna, our boat tour took us in a counter-clockwise direction and our guide Luca showed us several beautiful villas and buildings from the water. Our main destination was the Villa, where we were met with our English-speaking tour guide who gave an hour-long tour of the whole villa. This only left us about 30 minutes to walk through the gardens and take pictures. This limited time was described by our guide as ‘plenty’ because the gardens ‘aren’t that big’. Sure, for a non-photographer 30 minutes probably IS enough time. However, I was running around like a maniac trying to get alllll the pictures. I wished we had left the tour halfway through to have more time outside. The tour was interesting but taking pictures is more important to me.
The villa itself is built on the site of where a Franciscan monastery existed from the 13th century. Remnants of the original building are part of the architecture of the renovated building today. The most recent owner was Count Guido Monzino who took ownership in 1974. He was the leader of the first Italian expedition to climb Mount Everest. Monzino was very wealthy, loved to travel, and collected many artifacts which he displayed in the villa in a few different museums. He had a room entirely dedicated to his travels which houses the second largest collection of Inuit ivory voodoo dolls in the world along with many other important items from around the globe. He decorated each of the rooms extravagantly with English Georgian and French antique furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries. He also added some hidden passageways which was due to his narcissistic worry that he would be kidnapped. He never was and the passageways were never used. When he died in 1988 he donated his villa to the national trust of Italy (FAI) and it is the most visited property among the FAI properties. (information sourced from Wikipedia)
While taking pictures, I missed my chance to photograph the main loggia because a wedding was being set up for that evening. Our tour ended at 5:50pm and the villa is closed to the public by 6pm. So, all the minions were busy as bees decorating, setting up chairs and bringing in floral arrangements for that evening’s ceremony. Callum and I along with our other tour guests speculated what the cost of renting the space for a wedding would be. We all reckoned if you are asking, you probably can’t afford it. We thought maybe 100,000€ As of today, the day I am writing this blog post, I did a little research and found that in 2020, for a private function with more than 50 people, it was under 7,000€. Quite reasonable! There would be other factors of course but the cost is much lower than all of us anticipated. Too bad we’re already married. I’d love to get married in such a romantic place!
We only had two nights in Bellagio but we made the most of the lake the morning we checked out. We hopped on the ferry boat again just to ride it. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love boats. We sailed to Varenna again, then Menaggio….thinking the next stop would be Bellagio…but we went back to Varenna, and then to Bellagio. It was a nice hour and a half or so of being on the water and enjoying the view, the wind, and the sunshine before getting into our car and driving to Milan.
One day I would love to rent a villa in Lake Como for the summer and write my award-winning novel. One can dream.