Stretched over two chairs atop the tiny passenger deck of a 10-car ferry as it shuttles across Lake Como, I look south into the haze of Italy. I'm savoring the best of my favorite country with none of the chaos and intensity that's generally part of the Italian experience.
Turning the other way, facing a crisp alpine breeze, I marvel at the snow-capped Alps. I'm just minutes from Switzerland...but clearly in Italy: The ferry workers have that annoying yet endearingly playful knack for under-achieving. Precision seems limited to the pasta — exactly al dente and reliably homemade. Rather than banks and public clocks (which inundate nearby Swiss lake resorts, such as Lugano), the lanes that tumble into this lake come with lazy cafes and hole-in-the-wall alimentari brimming with juicy reds and crunchy greens.
In Italy's romantic Lakes District, in the shadow of the Alps, wistful 19th-century villas are seductively overgrown with old vines that seem to ache with stories to tell. Stunted palm trees seem held against their will in this northern location. And vistas are made-to-order for poets. In fact, it was early nature-lovers who wrote and painted here that put this region on the map in the 1800s.
A handful of lakes tempt visitors just north of Milano. The million-euro question is: Which lake to see? Tiny Orta has an off-beat, less developed charm. Maggiore has garden islands and Stresa, a popular resort town. Garda is a hit with German windsurfers. But for the best mix of scenery, off-beatness, and aristocratic-old-days romance, my choice is Lake Como. And it's just an hour north of Milan by convenient train.
Sleepy Lake Como is a good place to take a break from the obligatory turnstile culture of central Italy. It seems half the travelers you'll meet have tossed their itineraries into the lake and are actually relaxing.
Today the hazy lazy lake's only serious industry is tourism. Thousands of lakeside residents travel daily to nearby Lugano, in Switzerland, to find work. The area's isolation and flat economy have left it pretty much the way those 19th-century Romantics described and painted it.
Bellagio is the lake's leading resort. The self-proclaimed "Pearl of the Lake," it's a classy combination of prim 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 posh travelers. Arcades facing the lake are lined with shops. The heavy curtains, which hang between the arches, keep the visitors and their poodles from sweating. While the fancy ties and jewelry sell best at lake level, the locals shop up the hill.
Lake Como is famous among Italians for its shape — like a stick figure of a man with two legs striding out. Bellagio is located where the two legs come together (and the subject of funny, if crude, local rhymes you can learn when you visit). For a delightful break in a park with a great view, wander from the town right on out to the crotch. At Punta Spartivento — literally "the point that divides the wind" — you'll find a Renoir atmosphere — just right for a picnic while gazing north and contemplating the place where Italy is welded to the Swiss Alps.
The town of Varenna (a 10-minute hop on the ferry from Bellagio) is your best Lake Como home base. Varenna packs its 800 residents into a compact townscape — tight as fifty oysters overloading a too small rock. Individual homes are defined only by their pastel colors. Narrow stepped lanes climb almost invisibly from the harbor to the tiny through road that parallels the lake along the top of town.
With Varenna's dwellings crowding the lake, the delightful passerella (boardwalk) arcs past private villas guarded by wrought iron and wisteria from the ferry dock to the tiny harbor. Two centuries ago, the harbor was busy with coopers expertly fitting their chestnut and oak into barrels, stoneworkers carving and shipping Varenna's prized black marble, and characteristic wooden boats catching the lakes unique missoltino "sardines" — still proudly served by local chefs. Today, the harbor's commerce is little more than the rental of paddle boats and a gelateria run by a guy named Eros.
Other than watch the visitors wash ashore with the landing of each ferry, there's wonderfully little to do in Varenna. At night, Varenna whispers luna di miele — honeymoon. And a good place to enjoy that romance is on its passerella. Strolling this lane, passing under wisteria-drenched villas and caryatid lovers pressed silently against each other, you'll understand the importance of packing the right travel partner.