Lake Como off the beaten path

I was born in one of those awe-inspiring places that almost everyone seems to love or to have heard of: the Lake Como area.

When I say to people from other parts of the world that I was born here, I usually get reactions like these:

“Wow! Lake Como!”

“And you live there? Beautiful!”

“You are so lucky!”

I am. I am lucky because I, of course, had no say at all in where to be born. So I was luckily born in the Lake Como area.

View on Lake Como from Monte San Primo
Lake Como stretching North.

Lake Como. Northern Italy, not very far from Milan. Weird shape, like a Y but upside down. I always thought it looked like a person with no arms running towards the west.

Its glacial origins make it one of the deepest lakes in Europe. The Adda river plunging itself in the lake up north and flowing out through the southeastern branch makes it one of the most dangerous lakes to swim in: you really don’t want to end up dragged away by underwater currents, or drowned by whirlpools, or entangled in the lake weeds.

Despite the whirlpools, despite the lake weeds, despite the monster that supposedly lives in its depths, Lake Como is and has always been a favorite holiday destination. And we all know that George Clooney has a villa here.

Lecco in the snow
Lecco, on the southeastern branch of the lake.

Truth is, even before George Clooney and all the actors, musicians, and football players, Lake Como was a fancy place to buy a holiday house in Roman times. The town of Como that sits at the very end of the southwestern branch of the lake was Comum then, and the lake itself had a Latin name: Larius.

Now no one really ever calls it that, we all know it by Lake Como. But the name stuck somehow, and it can be found in all sorts of things. The Triangolo Lariano, for example: a triangle of mountainous land nestled between the two southern branches of the lake, its vertexes being Como, Lecco, and Bellagio.

Bellagio. The pearl of the lake. So beautiful that they had to try and replicate it in Las Vegas. Bellagio, Italy, came before The Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nevada. Just to make it clear; I know some people are utterly unaware of the existence of a little lake town in Northen Italy called Bellagio but know very well its Americanized, glammed up version.

Bellagio is such a nice little town, with its nice little alleys and lanes and their nice little stairs winding up the side of the hill, in between nice little gift shops. There’s a nice little belvedere, a scenic viewpoint right on the lake; better, right in the lake, at the very heart of Lake Como. From there, your gaze can follow every branch’s path: north, toward Colico; south-east, toward Lecco; south-west, toward Como.

Most people who come to visit Lake Como are satisfied with seeing Como, a bit of the lake, and Bellagio; but there is so much more!

Here’s a nice little list of other true gems you could stumble upon if you just let yourself wander around the Lake Como area, straying from the beaten path.

Varenna

Across the lake from Bellagio, on the eastern bank, there sits Varenna with its colorful houses reflecting themselves in the deep blue water.

Varenna is Bellagio’s less famous but equally beautiful cousin. Its lakeside walkway makes you feel like you’re strolling on the surface of the water, while all the scenery around you makes you feel like you’re stepping into a painting. Like most little towns perched on Lake Como’s shores, Varenna has its share of fancy and garden-equipped villas: Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero, just to name a few.

Orrido di Bellano

Right north of Varenna, we find Bellano, another nice little lakeside town. But most importantly: we find the Orrido. A natural gorge carved throughout the centuries by the flowing and patient waters of the Pioverna river, the Orrido can get almost impossibly cool even during the hottest Summer heatwave. The place is not to underestimate. Springtime is when it’s at its best: the river flows more powerful than ever, fat with the water coming from the mountain, a gift from Winter.

Fun fact: orrido also means horrid in Italian. When I was a child I thought that the Orrido di Bellano must look exceptionally awful to deserve such a name. Was I wrong.

Villa del Balbianello

Villa del Balbianello sits on the very tip of the peninsula Dosso d’Avedo (southwestern branch, toward Como) and boasts an exclusive view of the lake and an amazing garden, along with one of the most beautiful terraces in the whole area. It was once a monastery (only the two bell towers remain), then it was converted into a villa by the end of the XVIII century; from then on, it hosted writers and artists, politicians and aristocrats.

It is now the most visited property of the FAI, an Italian foundation with the aim to protect and promote Italy’s historical and natural beauties.

Castello di Vezio

As if plenty of villas, a natural gorge, and Instagram-worthy little towns weren’t enough, Lake Como also has a castle.

A castle like Castello di Vezio is definitely worth a visit. Especially when said castle enjoys one of the most spectacular views of the lake, is more than a thousand years old, hosts a school for birds of prey (well, sort of), and displays some of the creepiest pieces of art ever (white faceless hooded figures staring into the distance; that is my definition of creepy).

Abbazia di Piona

If you feel like purchasing some extremely strong alcoholic beverage, you might want to seriously consider paying a visit to the monks at the Abbazia di Piona. Why? Because the Cistercian monks who live in this centuries-old abbey perched on the Olgiasca peninsula distill one of the strongest herbal spirits your tongue can taste without melting.

Gocce Imperiali is distilled following an ancient and jealously treasured recipe: only the Cistercian monks know how to prepare this bright yellow spirit. Lacing coffee is the most frequent use of Gocce Imperiali; it has to be carefully dosed: no more than a few drops (gocce means drops in Italian). Given its alcoholic strength of 90°, and considering its power to turn the darkest espresso at least a couple of shades lighter, having it straight might not be a good idea.

I once mixed by mistake a spoonful of Gocce Imperiali with hot milk and honey to soothe a cold and a sore throat (granny’s remedies): one sip was enough to make me tipsy.

Lecco
Lecco and the lake.

The Lake Como area is truly an awe-inspiring place, but there is so much more to see and to be awed by if one were to trail off the beaten path.


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