Lake Como, 28 miles long and never more than 2 miles wide, is shaped like an upside down y, dividing into an eastern and western branch about half way down. But for many visitors, the eastern branch is effectively invisible; and even the eastern side of the western branch is a bit of a mystery. The most popular parts of the Lake tend to be limited to Como; the western branch; the mid-lake ‘triangle’ formed by Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna and the northern end of the Lake. Dividing Lake Como into those four popular areas is like slicing a long thin cake, producing the following segments:
- The Mid-Lake Area
The mid-lake area contains three picturesque towns – Menaggio, on the western side of the Lake; Varenna, on the eastern side, and Bellagio, on the promontory where the Lake divides into branches. They are organised into one complete sightseeing experience by a dedicated ferry service that crosses the lake at this point rather than going up and down it. This is the part of the Lake that eighteenth and nineteenth century writers and musicians fell in love with – and remarkably, it hasn’t been spoiled since.
Menaggio contributes a handsome nineteenth century lakeside piazza and long, tree lined promenade below a medieval old town that climbs as high as it can up the relatively gentle lower slopes. The different dimensions of the place are illustrated by the contrast between the historic Menaggio and Cadenabbia Golf Club in the hills above the town and the crazy golf next to the large Lido at the end of the long, tree-lined promenade. It’s also a centre for hill walking, rock climbing, and other outdoor pursuits
Varenna provides quiet waterside shade situated beneath an almost sheer rock face. Intriguing local attractions include falconry displays in the remains of a castle, the shortest river in Italy, villa gardens and a pottery making and selling ‘Raku’ objects. Visiting Varenna also opens up the north eastern side of the Lake, including Bellano with its ‘Orrido’ water feature; The Abbey of Piona, and Colico, with its large lakeside piazza and nearby second world war defences.
Bellagio – the ‘pearl’ of the Lake – adds villa gardens and a collection of boutique luxury and craft shops in narrow alleyways between buildings that are handsomely arranged in front of round green hills. There’s also a museum of beautiful navigational equipment nearby. At Lezzeno, about fifteen minutes away by road, it’s possible to go waterskiing. And in the hills behind the town, it’s possible to enjoy parachuting and paragliding as a beginner. And speaking of leaps into the unknown, Bellagio is also a place where you can have a perfectly planned wedding and honeymoon.
- The Western Branch
The western branch is a looser collection of sight and attractions. You could say this part of the Lake can be cut into more, but thinner, slices. Here you will find:
- The Villa Carlotta, a major sightseeing attraction.
- The spot in Mezzegra where Mussolini was executed.
- A walk past thirteen shrines to an Abbey in the hills above Ossuccio.
- The stunning Villa del Balbianello, featured in more films than many actors.
- A celebrated, ‘theatrical’ restaurant on the only island in the Lake.
- The picturesque village of Argegno, with its fearsome cable car ride.
- George Clooney’s Villa Oleander in Laglio, and
- Open air restaurants in the elegant lakeside piazza at Cernobbio.
all connected by C10 and C20 bus routes that are as much thrill rides as public transport.
Como, at the foot of the western branch, is primarily the centre of Europe’s silk industry, with factory outlets and a silk museum. But it also has an historic old town, long lakeside promenade, funicular railway and more points of interest than it is sometimes given credit for. Historic buildings located in the old town include the mixed style cathedral and adjoining town hall, and the Teatro Sociale – good enough to stand in for La Scala when the latter was under repair. A ‘temple’ on the lakefront houses a museum dedicated to the achievements of Count Volta, who gave the world the first source of continuous electricity – the battery. On a less serious note, the ferry terminal is only a short walk way and on a Saturday night you can enjoy a dinner dance while cruising the Lake on a splendid, purpose built boat. Alternatively, you can take a flight over the Lake in a seaplane, landing on the water for a swim if you like.
- The northern end of the Lake
The northern end, or ‘alto lario’, is different from the rest of the Lake. The water is wider here than in many other parts and the mountains, though higher, are set back from the water’s edge. This allows a mild but constant wind – the Breva – to blow across the water every day. As a result, the ‘northern’ towns of Gravedona, Dongo, Domaso and Colico have become international centres for a range of water-sports, including sailing, skiing and both wind and kite surfing, as well as bases for hiking and mountain biking. At the same time, the area has many beautifully decorated churches, the museum of the resistance in Dongo and the remains of a second world war fortress. This part of the Lake is also ahead of the rest in developing agro-tourism. This can, though doesn’t necessarily, mean staying on a farm and helping look after the animals. It can also involve rural accommodation with spa facilities and therapies. You could say that the northern end of the Lake is both the more rural and the more modern part, though not devoid of both religious and secular historic attractions.
- The missing bit
It becomes obvious when you look at the map that there’s a bit of the western side of the Lake, between Menaggio and Dongo, that doesn’t fall into either the mid-lake triangle or the northern end. It includes the relatively little mentioned villages of S. Siro, S. Maria Rezzonico, Cremia, Pianello Del Lario and Musso. With your permission, I would like to just call that ‘the missing bit’ for now and come back to it some other time.