July 15, 2012

Friendly Lake Como

On our way back into Italy from France, we blitzed Milan for an evening. That was just enough time to see the locals draped in Louis Vuitton accessories and zipping around town on their scooters in 3-piece suits.

Our eventual destination was where the Alps meet the water at Lake Como

There are more towns and less villas than I expected along Lake Como, but when you do spot the villas, they are amazing. They just ooze old-time elegance.

We visited a dreamy little one called Villa del Balbianello.

Villa del Balbianello was originally built by a wealthy Cardinal in the 1700s, but it was the villa’s last owner who was the most interesting. He was the heir to Italy’s major department store chain and loved to organize and finance expeditions. The villa is full of his exploration equipment and souvenirs – like the dog sled and oxygen mask he used to reach the North Pole and Mount Everest in the 1970s. He was the first Italian to ever summit Mount Everest, and for that, he was made a Count. He seemed like such an adventurous, intelligent, and cool guy. I left wishing I had been friends with him.

The seemingly small building in the picture? That's not even the villa...that's just the loggia used to store his expedition maps and unprecedented collection of books regarding the Himalayas. More recently it's been used as a film set for Star Wars and James Bond movies.

In addition to the beauty of Lake Como, we also had several encounters with friendly locals which have formed our best memories…

Our home base was a quiet little town called Varenna.

We stayed in a guestroom at Villa Elena right on the main square.

Elena is a sweet old lady with broken English who told us upon arrival, “You have problems,
I fix it”. She also had Rick Steves’ family Christmas card hanging in her hallway.

On our last night in town, we wanted to buy a bottle of wine but all of the stores were closed. Elena marched into her little pantry and gave us her last bottle of wine with the instructions, “You drink this, then you sing”.

Duillo Riva prepares fresh gelato in Varenna every morning. One day we asked him if we could watch while he makes it, and he happily agreed. We met him the next morning at his shop and stood in back while he read from his “Bible” to mix the ingredients for coco, lemon and milk-flavored gelatos. Guillo’s little secret is that he uses a dash of 98 proof alcohol in the gelatos that require flavored concentrates. 

His best sellers are pistachio, chocolate, hazelnut and cookies. We tasted crema (milk-flavored) gelato straight out of the machine. It was the fluffiest and yummiest breakfast we’ve ever had!

Bellagio is a tourist-packed town, right in the middle of Lake Como, with big hotels and lots of shops that perfectly cater to hordes of middle-aged women.

While we were walking the streets, the plastic on my beloved Brazilian Havaianas flip flops snapped right in half. There I was stranded in Bellagio with only one shoe! While Steve was trying to MacGyver some sort of fix, a local jewelry shop owner observed what was going on and sprung into action. He whipped out a lighter and began melting my flip flop, which gave me a temporary fix long enough to get back to the docks. Leave it to an Italian to come up with on-the-spot cobblering.

That’s a little of what you can expect from the friendly people of Lake Como. I can promise you none of this would have happened in South America.

1 comment:

  1. Careful with the comment about South America! I would have gladly helped you repair your sandal while you guys were in Buenos Aires! I can't speak for the rest of the continent though..... The trip sounds like a great time and I enjoy reading the blog. Chris