Europe Trip 2013 – Part Four: Lake Como, Italy

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

Part Three: Bern, Switzerland

Travelling to Italy has been a dream of mine for many years. Knowing that we would start our journey in Germany, Peter and I chose to head into Italy via Switzerland and visit the Lake Como district. Part of our rationale for choosing Lake Como was simply that we didn’t know anyone who’d been there. Well, except for George Clooney, of course.

We headed out of Bern and into Milan on 24 July. Our first impression of Italy was…not great. In fairness to Milan, we didn’t see much more of it than the train station, but what we did see was crowded, industrial, and dirty. Both Peter and I started gearing up for more of a third world experience than we had expected. From Milan we headed to Lecco, where we waited in the rain for our next train. The trains were humid and covered with graffiti inside and out. After the cleanliness and punctuality of Switzerland, we were finding Italy rather grim.

Then we arrived in Varenna. Varenna is a tiny town on the shores of Lake Como, where the train stops. From there we would take a ferry across the lake to Menaggio, where we had booked a hotel. Due to a bathroom break, we just missed the ferry and so had an hour to wait in this tiny, colourful town. It was beautiful, the pastel-coloured buildings facing a big, winding lake, surrounded by green hills and the Alps in the distance. The hills are dotted with colourful villas and other small towns. We sat by the water under a tree and ate bread, Swiss emmental cheese that we’d brought with us, and the last of our sausage from Fritzlar. Dessert was gelato while watching locals swim in the local.

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Menaggio is the closest town to the Swiss border and, for this reason, historically the wealthiest. These days most of Lake Como seems buoyed by tourism. The ferry across is quick, only about 15 minutes, the Grand Menaggio Hotel greeting you as the boat docks. Buildings are crowded in around the shore and up the hillside. Roads are narrow and cars are fast.

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Our hotel was tucked in on a narrow street, just off the lakefront. We stayed at Albergo Vecchia Menaggio. Our room was clean and very, very basic. The only decoration, a small crucifix hanging above the door. Fancy villa, it was not, but a great, central spot to stay for cheap. On the main floor, the owners run a restaurant and we checked-in at the bar.

We wandered through Menaggio, walking up the hill to see where the locals live, and then down along the Lake. Our guide book (Thanks Rick Steves!) said that most tourists would find the lake too dirty to swim. I don’t know if they’ve cleaned it up or if Peter and I have low standards, but we swam and enjoyed it.

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In the evening we wandered around for a long time, checking out the local restaurants. Knowing that Italians eat dinner late (8pm and onwards), we took our time and read menus and debated views. Finally, we decided simply to eat at the restaurant at our hotel. We sat at a table in the street and drank cold white wine. Delicious. I had cannelloni and Peter and ravioli for the pasta course and we both had lake fish with butter and sage for the main. The food was so simple and fresh and amazing. Italian dinner is an event, not just a chore to be got through. We took our time, lingering between courses and enjoying the house wine.

It was dark when we finished and we walked along the lakeside. Still warm but cooler than the daytime heat. In the square, a band of high school children played classical music.

Menaggio has a delightful amount of nothing to do so we could easily fill our days with swimming, sitting on the benches by the lake and wandering through the stores.

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In the morning, we went down to the restaurant again for breakfast, included in our stay.

“Buongiorno,” the lady behind the counter greeted us. “Espresso? Capuccino?”

“Due capuccino, per favore,” we replied, using up 90% of our Italian language skills. The capuccino was delicious.

When paying for dinner the previous night, the owner had handed us a 10% off coupon to his clothing store. Hotel, restaurant, clothing store – this couple was busy all day long.

That day we fully embraced the Italian siesta – napping in our room during the hottest part of the day, after a swim in the lake and time sitting by the water, attempting to guess the nationality of the other tourists.

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For dinner our second night, Peter and I chose a place a little up the hill, slightly off the tourist track, and had our first Italian pizza. Again, simple ingredients, done perfectly right. Italy was turning out to be exactly what we’d hoped for.

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Next stop: Venice, Italy

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