As we hit the hills around Lake Como, the longer switch-backs now single-lane, curvy roads requiring a whole lot of skill to avoid either rock wall or another automobile. Now that we were officially out of the Alps, into Italy, I downloaded the photos of the Alps onto my computer and started fresh, as is my protocol, then started a new.
Shortly after crossing the border from Switzerland to Italy, this fixture on the horizon appears – and you know you’re in Italy!
The size and scope of the lake usually takes first-time visitors by surprise; Menaggio, Lugano and other inlet towns dotting the lake have their own unique vibe and attraction. We’ve gotten to know each more intimately during our travels, which changes if looking through the lens of having teen and pre-teen children in the group.
The waterfront road in Menaggio; wide, relaxed and the vibe easygoing.
Menaggio is the first town you will reach, its small waterfront area having a street or two of shops, as well as restaurants. One of the four ferries used for reaching Bellagio is in town, but be warned; the ferries only allow about eight cars, so you will be waiting an hour if you don’t get your place in line. My favorite aspect of Menaggio is taking the short walk (or drive) nearest the ferry because the waterside villas are massive, ornate and the grounds worth writing about. In my novel, A Convenient Date, Rick and Kaitlyn are in Switzerland for a business meeting, have a free day and he takes her to his childhood home in Lake Como. A few of these photos are the ones I used to inspire my descriptions. During that original trip, I neglected to take photos, but this time around, I did.
The villa directly across from the ferry in Menaggio
Lugano, further down the lake, is larger, the residents spread in the hills and has a denser downtown area, yet because of that, it loses a bit of the small town feel. On the upside, it has fabulous high-end shopping at half the price of Bellagio, so unless you want to say you specifically purchased your Hermes in Bellagio, do your pocketbook a favor and purchase it in Lugano.
If you are a first-timer, check out Rick Steve’s commentary on which city to visit first, and how to get there from your starting point.
Notice the slight difference in road width from Menaggio vs Bellagio? The above is a typical road in Bellagio, and what my daughter is doing was what all pedestrians must do–hug the wall so as not to get clipped by a car.
The scenic route around the lake or the ferry?
Once we decided to explore the lake and drive around the southern tip in order to reach Bellagio. That was a hair-splitting four and a half journey we’ve not made since. The ferry ride for 4 in a car was 28 Euro and took ten minutes, which we learned on the return ride after we’d spent the day on the peninsula (which is how Bellagio is typically called).
Lake Como from the sky as we took the ferry ride to Bellagio.
Today, we were second in line for the ferry, allowing Rog to send the drone up and over to our intended destination, and me and the girls to chat up a wedding party of girls. Sometimes, ferry’s with short rides don’t allow auto passengers to get out. This one does, and we took advantage of no-rule rule to walk around.
This is a view of Menaggio from the air. We shot it while waiting for the fery, which you can see is docked about mid-way in the photo. the villa I used as inspiration is right behind it.
Parking and walking off the ferry all happens in the same area, providing you with options. To the right, can walk down the quarter-mile, two lane white gravel path to sit under the blossoming white and pink trees nearest the water or on the grass, the shade provided by massive beech trees. City architects have made this picture perfect, as the center islands area bunches of colorful flowers and half-circle walkway extensions over and into the lake allow for the perfect pictures of either Menaggio in the background or the Bellagio center. This ends at the entry point of the expansive Giardini di Villa Melzi, and if you want to reach the other side (where our flat was located/the market square for locals), its faster and flat. Otherwise, you are walking on the road, up and around, taking your life in your hands.
Three views of the walk way going in to Bellagio–all taken from the perspective of the
Giardini di Villa Melzi
A large villa overlooking the town of Bellagio and the main square
Now that we’ve been a few times, Rog and I have a different perspective than the first time. Whereas we were overwhelmed with the quaint main center, steep paths leading through the narrow buildings, gelato and shops, we now realize something so obvious it’s a little embarrassing to admit. The “picture-taking-tourist-zone” consists of literally two roads, two steep paths and the waterfront path I just described. It’s basically a big U-turn you are going to walk. These are relatively crowded, everyone with a phone in hand, taking selfies, eating gelato and buying scarves.
The shops close at 7:30–this was taken about 8:30 p.m. The restaurants are still open, but gelato and all the other stores closed. It being July, the crowds were manageable. That won’t be the case in another month.
We watched (and then did it ourselves to revisit our first experience) tourists disembark from the ferry. Instead of turning right, you turn left of Via Lunga Lario Manzoni and begin your exploration of the inner Bellagio. If you are following a map, continue on Via Lunga Lario, and assuming you have the strength not to imbibe on pizza or gelato, take a right on Salita Serbolloni, and up you go until you reach Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. This is the only road paralleling Lunga Lario, and it’s a T. You can go right, but the shops end about fifty feet down. The only course is to turn left, enjoy the tiny wine, meat or cheese shops, pause and take a picture at the most crowded place on the peninsula (because looking down, the image offers both narrow street at the lake beyond). After that, you turn left down Salita Bento Conzi Di Cavour, the second steep steps and you are right back on Via Lunga.
Yet another villa on beautiful Lake Como.
From there, you head back on Piazza Giuseppe Manzini. This is the same road as Via Lunga; the reason for the name change is that shopping districts in Italy are have the name Piazza in the front as the designation to identify it’s about shopping. Awnings extend from the buildings which offers a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Tables are set closest to the street but still under the awnings, the pedestrians walking between the tables and heading into the shops. Yes, we’ve purchased leathers and watches in Bellagio, because some good deals and lovely items are to be had, but we know when to wait and when to purchase.
The narrow path in Bellagio less traveled. This is totally common outside the “U-turn” as I call it.
The real Bellagio
No, not really. Bellagio offers many more restaurants and shops, but the truth is that tourists are usually walking and don’t bother explore either.
With the two main hotels a hundred feet from the ferry, and waterfront restaurants, you can literally spend your entire time within about 5,000 square feet of the Hotel Excelsior’s front door and be completely satisfied with your trip to the famed Bellagio shops on Lake Como.
This building is adjacent from the marina above, one of the many hidden marinas not far from the glitzy Via Lunga, but taking a few side streets open up the gems of every day Bellagio.
Ever the contrarians, we went for the anti-Bellagio experience this time around. We rented a top floor flat in a Bellagio neighborhood full of locals about two hundred feet from the waterfront, about half a mile from Bellagio center. This required we walk through tunnels, up and over bridges, using the 700-year-old lanes so narrow I could touch the rock walls on either side when extending my arms.
Unless you want to pay 10 Euro to walk one-way through the Villa di
Giardini di Villa Melzi, you will be walking on the road to Bellagio. This is about 1/4 of a mile from the center.
Butcher shops in a space no bigger than bedroom at home provided hand-cut prosciutto for our breakfast, a kitchenette size restaurant in an alley filled served diners on metal chairs and a table the size of my lap, all that was needed for two plates and lots of wine glasses. Laundry hung two and three floors above us, out of sight until we looked up, hearing the squawk of birds. Three babies in a nest were being fed by their mom, which made us wonder about the cleanliness of the clothes hung out to dry. It doesn’t get much more real than that.
One of the many inlets we found simply by wandering our neighborhood in Bellagio. The water was brisk but swimmable–the wind invariably picking up around 3 p.m.
Marinas and waterfront bathing
One of the appealing aspects of renting a unit like we did was the community “square” right down our street. We’ve found so many squares in Italy are based either right of front of, or nearby, a large church. This held true in Bellagio. Our first night was punctuated with the sounds of a big party. We unloaded then went exploring.
The community church near our flat where the party went down!
Sure enough, in front of the church was a basketball-size square, with community tables set up and a massive buffet-style offering. A band played regional music on a temporary platform, the tanging white lights straight out of a movie set. As the adults drank wine and engaged in lively discussions, teens lounged against the thick, stone perimeter of the marina below. It wasn’t exactly ideal for our girls, but was fun to take in and experience.
This lovely beach is free (as all the hidden ones are free vs for pay elsewhere in Italy), and has an eatery steps away. Another area found by walking around.
A bit more walking (about two minutes) and we discovered a connected area of sloping gravel and pavement which had a t-shaped dock attached. The following day, we returned to find the area sparsely populated, even though it was about 95 outside. Our girls jumped the dock, then followed the locals by hurling themselves off the high rock walls in to the lake.
More steps! A short cut connecting the waterfront, local road to the (only slightly) wider road used by cars above.
Later in the day, we continued our waterfront journey, discovering multiple inlets where the water from the mountains met the lake. These were usually alongside villas hidden behind dense shrubs, but we saw enough of the bamboo trees and glistening blue water to appreciate the property.
Our favorite places
In Bellagio, we’ve had gelato from every shop in the main area, and yes, we do have our favorite. It’s under the Hotel Excelsior right on Via Lunga. While it’s .50 Euro more than anywhere else in the main area, the store also offers a broader selection and bigger serving sizes. Right across from this store is a marina equivalent, owned by the same company. The portions are smaller, same price and not as firm (as in, almost runny gelato). I know this is getting in the visitor weeds, but some people pay attention to, and care, about the little things.
Our favorite eatery…
Our favorite eater isn’t one of the waterfront restaurants. It’s on the first and most popular path the tourists take, including ourselves years ago. We love it for the homemade soups, massive meat and cheese plates, bean soup, and pastas. Despite our intention to branch out and not go here, no matter what we do and where we eat, this is our version of the pilgrimage to mecca. We can’t come to Italy and not go to this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
Another local hangout- I shot videos of the girls jumping off the end of the rock pier. They figured if the locals could do it, they could too.
One of my favorite elements of traveling is meeting new people. This is Svetlana, who was in front of us at the gelato shop with her dog. She’s from St. Petersburg, Russia, staying in Bellagio for the summer with her boyfriend, an art dealer. She was adorable, and of course, had great skin which she covered under an enormous white hat.
My new friend Svetlana, a beautiful woman inside and out.
This other side of Lake Como
Leaving for Verona, we took the direct path, which in reality, means the single lane, lake-hugging road. And when I mean single lane, that’s not one lane both ways. It’s actually a single—one—lane. Cars going either direction share it as best they can at speeds one can only describe as uniquely Italian. Turn outs are rare, buses are common, and it was a torturous hour to reach the other side. Once there, however, the pace of traffic slowed, the buildings, while less pretty, more functional and crammed together along the waterfront, wasn’t a turn off. In fact, we thought this was the where “the real people,” of Italy lived and worked rather than on the well-known west side of Bellagio.
Important tip for parking
If you are going to drive a car and rent a place with parking, be sure to dig for details. While our flat had parking, what the owner didn’t identify is that the 800-yr. old, single lane road was barely wider than my arms spread apart (we checked this). The Fiats, Volkswagens and other mini cars could barely make it through, and at the end, the parking was in fact, plentiful. Probably is we are driving a touring wagon, and it’s as wide as a normal car. We ended up parking a quarter mile away at a park, but only after we dropped our luggage by the entry to this small lane, and hoofing it like college students on a weekend getaway down to our place. It was an unpleasant surprise, but in our lives, we’ve never encountered this before. Lesson learned; ask about the proximity of the parking to the unit, and width as well!