North Italy Part 2: Romantic Lake Como
The Italian Lakes, at the base of Italy's Alps, are a romantic and popular destination for Italians and their European neighbors. The million-euro question is: "Which lake?" The answer: Lake Como.
Lined with elegant 19th-century villas, crowned by snow-capped mountains, buzzing with ferries, hydrofoils, and slow passenger-only boats, this is a good place to take a break from the intensity and obligatory turnstile culture of central Italy. Lake Como is Italy for beginners. It seems half the travelers you'll meet on Lago di Como have tossed their itineraries overboard and are actually relaxing. The area's isolation and flat economy have left it pretty much the way the 19th-century romantic poets described it. Finding a room on Lake Como is tight from July through September, and wide open most of the rest of the year.
While you can easily drive around the lake, the road is narrow, congested, and lined by privacy-seeking walls, hedges, and tall fences. This is train-and-boat country. Regular train departures whisk you from intense Milan into the serenity of Lago di Como in an hour. The lake is well-served by pricey little boats, but when you consider the included scenery, the cost doesn't seem quite so expensive.
The town of Bellagio, "the Pearl of the Lake," is a classy combination of tidiness and Old World elegance. If you don't mind that tramp-in-a-palace feeling, it's a fine place to surround yourself with the more adventurous of the soft travelers and shop for umbrellas and ties. The heavy curtains between the arcades keep the tourists and their poodles from sweating.
One hop away by ferry, the town of Varenna offers the best of all lake worlds. Easily accessible by train, on the less-driven side of the lake, Varenna has a romantic promenade, a tiny harbor, narrow lanes, and its own villa. It's the right place to savor a lakeside cappuccino or aperitivo. There's wonderfully little to do here, and it's very quiet at night. The passerella (lakeside walk, unlit but safe after dark) is adorned with caryatid lovers pressing silently against each other in the shadows.