Lake Como, and the Italian Lakes District
George Clooney might be loping into town from his nearby residence, but Lake Como is far more renowned for its jaw-dropping beauty. Carved from glaciers during the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, the Italian Lakes District delivers snow-specked peaks above 2,500 meters, ancient stone villages and traditional mountain fare.
With 125 miles of inky-blue shoreline, Lake Como is a serene spot to sip Prosecco, but an even better gateway to mountain and hillside adventure. A well-established infrastructure of trails caters to hikers of all levels. While novices meander along mule tracks made by the Romans, elite runners meet each September for the Skyrace del Grignone, a 17-mile technical mountain run that summits Mount Grignone, 7,907 feet.
A unique Mediterranean micro-climate means mild temperatures in summer and winter. And, just 30 miles from Milan, Lake Como is easily reachable in Northern Italy’s Lombardy region. Once there, move around in many ways: ferries, trains, taxis, hiking trails, ancient mule tracks, via ferratas, rock climbing routes, buses and bikes.
Lake Como combines easy access to the outdoors with the comforts of picture-perfect towns. The villages are interconnected with lodging and delicious food options. As quick as you get to a day’s alpine activity you are back beside the lake for some antipasti. Depart your hotel in the morning, then arrive at your next night’s destination via some of Europe’s most classic hiking and walking trails.
Lake Como is rich in heritage. Emperor Augustus and the Ancient Romans established Como as a flourishing trade town. Sought after since prehistoric times, the region ping-ponged between rulers from the barbaric Huns to the Austrians under Charles VI – even the Spanish ruled from 1535-1713. Big names in history frequented the area including Julius Caesar (who named it Lake Larius, still sometimes used today) Charlemagne, Napoleon and Mussolini.
Hike high in the hills, low by the lake
Stretching more than 30 miles north to south, the Y-shaped Lake Como is surrounded by sheer nature as well as cultural wonders. Up north, the rugged Grigna Massif features famous climbing routes, but lots of moderate, high alpine trails as well. The Ryder-Walker itinerary offers a variety of hikes. Traverse beneath the Piancaformia Ridge with views of the Pennine Alps between Italy and Switzerland. Awe at the jagged peaks while enjoying lunch at Rifugio Bietti overlooking Lake Como. Then, crush the challenging climb to Bochetta Guzzi, 6,856 feet.
Ferries offer a nice option for starting any day’s trek. Bus transport is also convenient. Either works for accessing the infamous Greenway del Lago di Como. The 7-mile, leisurely walk passes through medieval villages with Romanesque and Baroque churches on the western shore of the lake. The stunning gardens of 16th century Villa Carlotta make for a nice picnic stop.
Take a historic walking tour along an old Roman road like the pilgrims centuries ago. Visit the Monasterio Benedetto, an 11th century Benedictine monastery. A steep climb to the Sacred Mount of Ossuccio unveils the Madonna del Soccorso, Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of Rescue, and 14 chapels constructed between 1635 and 1710. A UNESCO world heritage site, the monument sits among olive groves atop a rocky crag overlooking the lake.
Charming villages along the lake
With quaint little villages dotting the lakeside, Lake Como is the perfect place for a point-to-point trip with different daily destinations. The lake’s northernmost town of Varenna is considered by some the most heavenly. Stay at beautiful four-star hotel on the lakefront. Also check out the town’s rustic houses, cobble-stoned alleyways, lakeside promenade and bustling ferry port.
Once a walled city, Menaggio, was an ancient Roman commerce center connected to the outside world by the Via Regina road. The colorful village is nestled within the craggy hillside and often fog-hidden mountains. Bellagio is magnificent waterfront town surrounded by picturesque villas. The local shops feature handmade crafts found nowhere else in Lake Como.
Before settling into a delicious meal at the hotel Albergo Lenno in Tremezzina visit the neighboring Villa del Balbianello on the tip of a wooded peninsula. The grandiose 18th century villa showcases two towers from a former 13th century Franciscan monastery, elaborate gardens and panoramic lake views.
Arrive at the city of Como by riding the Como-Brunate furnicular. Como, population 84,800, has many attractions like museums, churches, gardens, palaces and theaters. Despite a history of turbulent rulers, Como permanently joined Italy in 1859. It combines the best of past and present like contemporary lodging with modern amenities set in the heart of the old town.
Half the fun of hiking is the food
There’s a good reason you dragged your weary self up the mountain or roamed all day on Roman roads. The Italian Lakes District dishes up fresh pasta, risotto, gnocchi and polenta. It serves hearty mountain cuisine, influenced by neighboring Switzerland – charcuterie sausage, farm cheese and ciabatta bread, a perfect mid-hike picnic.
Piano Piano – ‘which means no hurry’ –is important at meals. Diners are expected to relax as they refuel. Throughout the region, Rifugios, mountain huts, are great for lunch. Perched on a rocky cliff, the hiker-friendly abodes supply plates of pasta al funghi and dramatic views.
Breakfast and dinner are available at numerous establishments throughout the villages, including many hotel kitchens. For breakfast, cappuccino is mandatory – milk frothed to perfection drizzled over potent espresso. Combat the caffeine buzz with bites of biscotti, bread, jam, Nutella and fresh fruit.
Dinner can be traditional, and innovational. Il Ristorante di Paolo, for example, in Menaggio, has an elaborate menu with antipasti salads, followed by primi piatti of homemade ravioli and pasta. Secondi piatti satisfies with veal sirloin stuffed with marrow, wrapped with Parma ham or slow cooked red mullet fish with duck liver, spinach and sweet wine reduction.
Don’t forget the wine
The Lombardy region is a respectable producer of red, white and sparkling wines. Local varieties are available at any Lake Como meal as well as other well-known neighboring wines from Piedmont, Veneto and Trentino. Grappa is also popular. Grappa is originally a peasant drink made from the leftovers of winemaking. Now, the fruit-flavored spirit is crafted with careful care and the highest level of quality.