Well, Varenna and Bellagio might be the most famous villages around Lake Como for quaint street scenery and alleyways that wind and scramble up and down the mountainside. But any of the villages on the western coast of the lake will offer plenty of opportunities for exploration. Just dive down any side street off the Via Statale and you will find yourself in a warren of ancient stone dwellings, linked by rough stone stairways and paved streets, so narrow that the eaves of the houses almost touch. All at once you leave the 21st century and become immersed in a very different world where the most sophisticated form of transport was the pony cart, and the ground floors may have housed animals during the winter, while the humans lived above. Life was harsh and hard for the poor, even in this earthly paradise.
This photo is a glimpse into the antico borgo of Gravedona.
For ages I have wanted to do a big hike in the Lake Como area, and this spring I am finally going to manage it. The Via dei Monti Lariani is a four-stage trek from the southern tip of the lake, at Cernobbio, to Sorico at the northern tip. But instead of making the journey at the level of the waters, with the perspective that most people see on this magnificent landscape, the traveller on the Via dei Monti hikes up to a level of about 800 metres above the lake, and stays there – for a week!
At the end of April I am going to do the first half, that is, just from Cernobbio to Acquaseria. But this journey that normally takes an hour in the bus, will take me three days, through woods, alpine pastures, tiny farm hamlets and rocky peaks. I’ll spend two nights in mountain rifugi, those rugged but welcoming inns for hikers and hunters, and I can’t wait to sit out late at night just gazing at the stars and the moonlight reflecting off the mountaintops and the waters of Lake Como and Lake Lugano far far below.
Here is a glimpse of what it would be like if I could beam myself there now:
This walk took me about an hour and a quarter, in fine early spring weather. With just a climb of 200 metres you get fantastic panoramas over the whole upper lake area. You can’t get lost because you can always see where you are in relation to the lake.
From Piazza Mazzini, at the western end of the lungolago, or the esplanade, take the steps up Via Castello, taking a short detour to the belvedere,.the look-out point. Carrying on up, take a quick look at Alessandro Volta’s house before crossing the main road and heading left up Via Dosi and Segna. The climb up to Segna is quite stiff, but you are rewarded by those fantastic views After the hamlet of Segna, a new panorama opens up over vineyards and gardens above the southern part of Domaso. You can really see how the village has spread over the more gentle slopes of this part of the lakeshore. Just follow the walled lane down and you come to the porticoed main street.
The villages around the lake evoke layer upon layer of history. It’s impossible to spend time here without occasionally imagining villagers from the 17th century appearing around the next corner, as you explore the cobbled alleyways. The houses and streets tumble down the mountainsides – hard to believe they have been there for three hundred years without crumbling into the lake. Every now and again, at the water’s edge, you can come across a relic of time even more ancient: an arched Roman bridge for example, or a portico sheltering the ghosts of stoneworkers and fishermen from ages past.
The period of the 18th and 19th centuries that saw the aristocracy of Europe turn the lake into an elegant playground for the wealthy, building their lavish villas, has shaped the image of the lake in the world’s imagination. Yet above the waterside ribbon of development, the lake and the hillsides around it belong to poor working people – farmers, villagers, tradespeople, fishing folk, spinners and weavers. Up until about sixty years ago, the hills above the villages looked very different from how they are today. The visitors to the grand villas looked not across at deep green forests, but at ranks of terraces where peasants eked out a living growing vegetables, wheat and fruit. Above these terraces were the alps that provided summer pasture. If you look along the shoreline at a village, and then let your eyes follow the road that snakes above it up the mountain, you invariably see another village directly above the first one. Here are the houses where the villagers from below would send a member of the family to spend the summer tending the animals, the animals they had driven up the stony tracks as soon as the spring came. This was not an easy life, and the beauty of the landscape must have been lost on these exhausted people much of the time, as they dragged their weary legs up the cobbled paths, or forced their heaving arms to row across the water to the village opposite.
For a long time I had been intending to do the walk from Croce to the panoramic lookout point called La Crocetta. The views over Menaggio and the midlake area are legendary. So on a not-too-hot day last week, three of us parked in Croce by the church and set off on foot up the road that leads to the golf club. After a quarter of a mile there was a sharp left turn and we were soon in the woods.
The big surprise of this walk was the extensive trench system up there, that has been restored to show how soldiers in the first world war hunkered down to defend Menaggio and the lake area. The fortifications are part of the extensive Cadorna Line, named after General Cadorna and built to keep out a possible invasion by the Austrian-German forces from Swiss territory. Although the Swiss were ostensibly neutral, the top echelons of the Swiss military were thought to be German sympathisers and therefore there might be a stealth attack from the Swiss side.
I haven’t yet been able to find out whether the trenches above Lake Como were ever used in anger, but they certainly are very evocative of the time. You can almost see and hear the men in their alpine feather hats and leather breeches running up and down them.
It’s a great little walk (about an hour and a half there and back) and brilliant for children. But give them strict instructions to them not to overturn any stones lying on the ground – when I came back down I was told that there can be vipers in those woods.
Now normally I’m not a great fan of graffiti, but one sign on the Via Panoramica between Como and Menaggio has my full approval. In letters half a metre high somebody has written (on a concrete wall – natch) ‘Basta cemento’ – enough cement. And sure, it’s time to call ‘Basta’ on cement, concrete, brick, tarmac, and all the hard stuff that is relentlessly eating up the green space on the shores of Lake Como.
There are basically two industries on the lake – tourism and building. Don’t say it too loudly, but two or three big building companies have a stranglehold on planning decisions up the length of the lake. When you think about it, the building companies are much bigger than any of the tiny comunes along the lake shore. Starved of income since Berlusconi did away with property tax (except for second home owners), comunes will apparently agree to almost anything in the hope of bringing in some euros, even if it means digging up every last garden and bit of terreno left, in order to build boxy apartment blocks to be sold to foreigners.
Well, you might say, with some reason, aren’t you one of those foreigners who’s been lured to the lake by its climate and heart-stopping beauty? Erm yes, but we took a decision to buy a place in an antico borgo, a historical village centre, like scores of others, that’s just full of neat little houses just begging to be renovated. These villages, and the lovely stone houses, have been around for three hundred years. Two centuries ago the industry on the lake was much more varied, but included textiles, farming and hatmaking. These industries supported a strong working population, and this, more than the scenery, explains why there are so many villages around the lake. The houses have walls half a metre thick and are warm in winter and cool in summer. Why don’t foreigners buy these up? Well, two reasons. The first is practical and concerns cars. Understandably, people want to be able to park near to their holiday home. That’s fair enough. But does everybody have to have their own garage? And their own pool? The second reason is because, presumably, new build is more profitable for the construction companies than restoration. It’s a shame. The old villages can’t be demolished because they are ‘heritage’ (unless, that is, somebody wants to widen the road), and so more and more of the greenery, that brings the tourists, gets eaten away by cement. And all for a tourist season that only lasts four months of the year (more about that to come!)
This time we really needed to cool down because the temperature on the lakeside had zoomed up to 35 degrees and climbing. We took the kids across to Varenna on the ferry and then via Bellano, up into the Valsassina. At Margno we took the cablecar (newly re-opened) up to Pian delle Betulle, dubbed l’ultimo paradiso, the last paradise.
What a treat it was to be up there! Still very warm, but gorgeous, with stunning views across the valley to the Grigne, and even down to the lake. Pian delle Betulle has playgrounds, bars, another Jungle Raider Park like the one at Civenna, and a crazy dry bobsleigh ‘trenino’ thing (loved by the children, not for the fainthearted). It will be a perfect place to go for a family ski day in the winter. All in an idyllic mountain environment. What’s not to like? Maybe the drive back down into the sweltering heat?
This year, for the second year running, we have had our two young grandsons with us on holiday for a week on the lake. Tom is four and Will is just coming up to eight. There is loads and loads for adults to do on and around Lake Como, but it’s not always so easy to find things that the children love. However… these definitely passed the kid quality test.
Castello di Vezio, Varenna – a challenging walk up from the ferry port at Varenna, but so worth it when you get there, for the stunning view, for the magnificent birds of prey, and most of all for the tower. Climbing up the inside is thrilling for children and scary for grown-ups! An interesting place with a wealth of atmosphere, and excellent value for money.
Jungle Raider Park – this is a rope park high in the pine trees on the northern slopes of Monte San Primo, on the Triangolo Lariano, above Bellagio. It is about a half hour drive from the ferry at Bellagio. Information services (apart from this one!) will tell you that it’s in Civenna. Well, in fact you need to drive straight through Civenna and on to Magreglio, where the famous shrine to cycling is, and just opposite the Ghisallo Chapel, take a right turn and start snaking up the hill. It’s quite a long way and you may think you’re never going to get there before somebody gets car-sick. But when you get there it is worth it. There are well-staffed and well-organised rope challenge courses for children from 3 years up to adult. You can get very scared indeed on the higher courses, but safety is a primary consideration. Will had a great time taking on the challenge, and Tom, who was a bit more cautious, enjoyed watching. From €10.
Lido di Cadenabbia – arriving back from Bellagio we parked up and took a look at this newly-refurbished lido, which is run by the Hotel Britannia across the road. It retains all its original 1930s glamour and charm and has been done up very sympathetically. Admission is just €5 to the public and the pool has a constant depth of 1.4 metres, so children can swim lengths confidently. Changing facilities are good, and sunshades and loungers are also €5 each. It is right on the lake and, sitting with a cold drink on the terrace, you can feel like a movie star.