Just ninety minutes from Milan lies Lake Como and surrounded by the Italian Alps. This beautiful lake has recently been made famous by two James Bond movies and the fact that - allegedly - George Clooney has a house there.
We stayed in a fabulous self-contained house named Il Borgo in Vestreno. The road up is narrow and windy but totally worth it. For four years, husband and wife team Luca and Marina renovated two tumbledown villas. Check out their website to read more and see before and after photos. The house overlooks the hills, lake and mountain and has a hot tub and sauna in the garden,
This being April, there were variable temperatures of between 6 and 14 degrees C plus some heavy rain occasionally. There's something quite bizarre and fun about sitting in a hot tub of 35 degrees C while outside is 7 degrees while supping Prosecco.
Despite the threat of rain every day, we went out exploring. I'd hired a car and expected a VW Golf (perfect for the windy roads of Lake Como) but got upgraded to a tank (Range Rover). The tank felt safe but is scary to drive on windy roads and on the right hand side, Italian drivers don't appear to stick to speed limits and I didn't see any indicate before turning or overtaking. Lake Como has countless road tunnels from a few hundred metres to over three kilometres and overtaking is allowed.
I made a critical error of judgement before leaving Hong Kong and one that came to haunt us during our holiday. I left it too late to change money into Euro assuming that it would be easy to do so in Italy. Massive mistake. The ATM's do accept Union Pay but none worked for us. Plus these machines were scarce. When we tried to change money in a bank, HK dollars weren't accepted and we were also asked for an Italian fiscal code. There are no exchange places anywhere. We found a bank in Gera Lario who took pity on us and helped us change cash.
Both times we visited Gera Lario the weather was clear and found the little pier to be the best place to see the Alps in all their glory. There is plenty of free parking and plenty of photo opportunities. This being off season, there weren't many people about or shops open for that matter.
Maximum concentration is required when driving the roads between various villages around Lake Como. The road is windy and narrow and then widening out for a tunnel before shrinking again. We visited Menaggio and counted 18 tunnels back to our villa. Some were poorly lit and two way while others were fast motorways with two lanes.
Parking is a problem in many of the villages and we saw the police towing away illegally parked cars. We were told not to bother driving to Bellagio for instance because it was impossible to park. Plus it was at least a two hour drive and we'd need to leave super early. Fortunately, there's a ferry from Verenna to Bellagio that does take cars as well as people. We left the car at the pier and became pedestrians for the day.
Bellagio is Lake Como's most famous village and first impressions were that this is where the seriously heeled live and come to stay. From the ferry pier, we strolled along cobbled streets and discovered a narrow path that led to the opposite side of Bellagio with many rustic houses and quiet lanes. There's nothing at all in the way of cafes and shops. Having a vague idea where we need to get to (thanks Google Maps!), we walked for half an hour to Villa Melzi.
This is a private residence that has opened up their grounds and gardens to the public. After handing over a small fortune (€6.50 each and dipping into our meagre cash supplies) we went in. Although the lake views are nice, and there's all manner of plants, trees and flowers, it's a bit disappointing. Perhaps that's the appeal. We expected more but perhaps the intention by the owners was to make it as low key as possible.
Historical sights don't need to be over commercialised to be made more appealing. Just the odd signpost here and there, labels to tell people what the trees and plants are, and info boards to highlight factual aspects of the gardens.
We liked Lake Como. It's damn expensive and the roads/drivers delivered untold scares yet the place we stayed in was beyond our expectations. At Il Borgo we opted for breakfasts and dinners and each were a full on production of amazingness. The best lasagne I've ever tasted for example.
The night before we left there was a landslide near Lecco meaning a main tunnel was shut. Fortunately, all the traffic was on the other side leaving us with more or less a clear run to Milan airport. I only mention this because the queue was very long with multiple articulated lorries caught up. The very worst of my fears was to meet an artic on a narrow windy road as these beasts are too wide to fit within the lane and the corners are tight. Fortunately, they were immobile and we sailed past them all.
Great holiday. Lake Como is a place I want to return to and explore more villages high up in the hills. I don't think I can consider staying anywhere else but Il Borgo. We booked via their website and the owners were very nice. I just don't believe there is anywhere matching their level of service, kindness and cooking skills. Certainly it's in my top three places that I've ever stayed.