Italy’s Precious Gem: Lake ComoSeptember 15, 2015 • By Kelly Glynn
(To follow is a text conversation between my mother and me on the train from Monterosso al Mare to Milan)
Kelly: Oh my god! If they talk the whole way, I might die.
Joyce: Driving me nuts.
Joyce: Marry her, fuck her or throw her off the train and cut the BS.
… And so began our strenuous journey from Monterosso in Cinque Terre to Lake Como via the train to Milan.
Hot and irritated (more me, less Joyce) after struggling to carry our luggage up the station steps, across the platform and through the train’s crowded aisles before securing it in a holding area and ourselves in our seats, we devised a plan of reading, resting and relaxing during our ride. It’s said the best-laid plans often go awry… so why should this trip be any different than others?
The peace of our three-hour scenic ride through the Italian countryside ended where it started when a young man seated next to me spoke in rapid-fire Italian without pause or even hesitation to the woman across from him–next to Joyce–from the moment we boarded at the Monterosso station. His voice reached singsong decibels reserved for the hearing-impaired, puppies or the love of a mother.
What 20-Something doesn’t at least play on his phone or text?
Silence is truly golden! Unfortunately, silence was nowhere to be found on this train.
About to lose my marbles, I placed my Bose sound-proof headphones securely in my ears and allowed my mother to suffer through the cacophony until a commotion prompted me to lift my gaze and I watched Joyce pour a glass of wine into a plastic cup. I peered over quizzically. She rolled her eyes, explaining loudly over my headphones she needed it for the pain. She never informed me which pain she might be referring to–the sciatica, hip or the constant bombastic sounds of the young man yelling full-blast in Italian. Eventually, we determined the awkward pairing of our talker and his attentive listener: a mother and son. If only I spoke Italian, and could have intervened.
Finally, we arrived in Milan a bit ragged but ready for the last stop on the Mother-Daughter 70th birthday bash. A car transported us through the streets of Milan, along a highway an hour and 15 minutes to Tremezzo on Lake Como. Tremezzo, situated on the western shore of Lake Como about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the town of Como, sits directly across from Bellagio, the pearl of Lake Como and one of my mother’s favorite spots in Italy. She reveled in the surprise.
Lake Como or as the Italians say, “Lago di Como” is Italy’s third largest lake and one of Europe’s deepest. Tremezzo is located center lake, or where the lake branches into two long arms (the lake is Y-shaped). The foothills of the Alps frame the lake perfectly to the east and west, creating a border of idyllic scenery. Small villages dart in and out of the landscape some at the shores of the lake and others dotted high on the peaks and nestled in valleys.
The region is known for historic villas, parks, shops, hiking trails, leisurely boat rides, risotto, lake fish, red sauce and wine. Lake Como is a popular retreat for the wealthy dating back to even Roman times. You will find stunning villas and palaces mostly converted into modern hotels or museums at this point, yet maintaining the ancient charm, character and the elegance of Lake Como. Generations of families live in the region, helping preserve its historical significance.
The likes of Gianni Versace, Richard Branson and Madonna have all had homes on Lake Como. If you are in the market to purchase, it is rumored George Clooney may be selling his villa for a mere $100 million. He paid $10 million in 2001, but apparently lakefront property is hard to come by and garners huge (even ridiculous) offers to sell.
Joyce and I stayed at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo opened in 1910 by Enea Gandola on the edges of the lake. The Gandola family said they wanted to create something of “class and sophistication” on the most beautiful lake in the world. They succeeded. Greta Garbo referred to Tremezzo as that “happy, sunny place” in the film the Grand Hotel.
The hotel is lavish and majestic, decorated in Art Nouveau style with a nod to today’s modern design and amenities such as a heated pool and private gardens, and a spa worthy of queens and kings. We marveled at the view of Lake Como from every angle in our room and we laughed when we learned the luxurious hotel catered to only wealthy tourists. During our stay, it seemed to serve my dearest New Yorkers.
While a week or even month in Italy’s lake region would be ideal, Joyce and I would make the most of our three-day escape before reality awakened us.
On day one, we settled ourselves at the Grand Tremezzo, toasted our good fortune with cocktails on the lakeside pool deck and savored the moment. A few hours later, we dined at Crotto dei Platani in Brienno about 20 minutes from our hotel and inches from the lake.
Family owned since 1855, Crotto dei Platani is Lake Como’s oldest restaurant and maintains one of the last traditional cellars in the area. It specializes in lake fish and pasta and delivered up one of the best Tiramisu desserts I’ve ever tasted. The restaurant accommodates guests wishing to be seated inside or outside, but we prefered al fresco dining and opted for a table overlooking the lake. The view speaks for itself, but as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the lights from the nearby villages twinkled alive, we pinched ourselves, hoping to make the evening last a little bit longer.
The second day of our Lake Como adventure coincided with my mother’s 70th birthday and I plotted various surprises to make her day memorable. Before I left the U.S., I asked friends and family across the globe to send cards, letters or assemble a video on the occasion of her milestone. People delivered recorded greetings, acting out memories from the past or simply sang happy birthday in various languages and tones. My dad told a story about their wedding day, my mom’s brother and sister-in-law recounted a famous family mishap about a purse gone missing and friends from near and far composed beautiful stories and heartfelt passages for her to treasure the rest of her life.
We kicked off the day with breakfast lakeside followed by my presentation of the videos and letters. She loved the gift. My next surprise entailed a two-hour boat trip on Lake Como, complete with strawberries and champagne. We boarded the boat in front of the Grand Tremezzo at 10 AM and it took no less than 15 minutes for my mother to abort the mission. Who knew she was afraid of boats and rough water? I always knew she became ill in rough seas, but apparently I missed the fear memo. She nearly abandoned ship, holding onto the sides of the boat with a death grip. Our Captain spoke limited English so I acted fast and I pointed to Bellagio for a quick escape. We swiftly moved through the water’s waves docking safely in Bellagio. With my mother off the boat, the Captain and I worked out in befuddled Spanish/English that he would return in two hours and transport us back to the hotel. I made a mental note to Google “fear of water” in Italian.
Visiting Bellagio (code word for “shopping”) was planned for later in the day but when Lake Como gives you lemons, you make lemonade!
We ventured to the main thoroughfare to see if our favorite stores remained. Our good fortune continued as we quickly identified our favorite linen and lingerie store, Molinari Silvana. We entered, we browsed, we scrutinized, we conversed, we reasoned, we negotiated (with ourselves about how my dad will feel paying the bill) and then, clearing all obstacles, we BOUGHT lots of very much needed pretty napkins, hand towels and nightgowns. Our two hours were nearly up, and we made our way back to the dock.
I explained our dilemma to the Captain, who assured me a smooth return trip to the hotel just across the water. The lake calmed, and he safely and swiftly delivered us back to the hotel in about 10 minutes. As we departed the boat, he handed my mom a beautiful display of strawberries and she commented at the loveliness of a gesture. (She believed this to be a result of her alarm and subsequent panic, not my thorough planning.)
The day continued with less drama. We hiked a low-grade hill behind our hotel, giving way to a spectacular panorama of Lake Como and a better perspective of the nearby villages. It is without doubt a must to see Lake Como from high in the hills. Given it was a clear day, we could see the entire length of the lake, boats and ferries whisking people to and fro and the topography of the mountains. It’s a breathtaking view that delivers a rare tranquility away from the bustling main road. I dare say I preferred the elevated vantage point to the ground level because it provided an opportunity to take in the entire scene, the lush vegetation surrounding the lake, vibrant flowers in backyards and varying sizes of villas hidden in the brush. Lake Como is clear, crisp and mighty. When cloud cover creeps over the mountaintops, the lake’s current moves briskly and ocean-like waves crash against the break walls of the towns. Then the sun emerges and weather patterns change, and wind gives way to calm and flat and sparking waters.
For Joyce’s 70th birthday, we celebrated at the restaurant La Terrazza in the hotel and I was able to somewhat unsuccessfully deliver the champagne by faking a bathroom break and accosting the maître d’. It wasn’t the best meal in Italy, or even our favorite setting, but we enjoyed each other’s company. The kitchen delivered a sweet, freshly baked Chantilly “birthday” cake scripted with “Happy 70th Birthday” in Italian. My mom made a wish (I hope it was for me to win the lotto), inhaled, and with ease extinguished the candle. We concluded the evening with a Baileys and coffee in the T-bar where my mother tried really hard to convince the piano player (classically trained) to play something upbeat. She failed, and with one look around she announced to the room, “this looks more like the Book of the Month club than a bar.”
She wasn’t wrong. Guests abandoned people-to-people fun, live entertainment and more cocktails for solitude and comfort in whatever their phones delivered.
At this point, it was a wrap on Joyce’s birthday but that didn’t mean it was time to throw in the towel. For breakfast, the kitchen asked if we wanted any remaining cake. I replied without hesitation, “Why not?” Who doesn’t want rich cream and cake with their eggs and oatmeal? It’s a vacation! While my mother chose to eat her piece sparingly, I went all out–which I later regretted. We readied ourselves for the day and hopped a ferry to Bellagio (size of the boat = safety) for a day of shopping.
With purpose and attitude as knowledgeable tourists, we marched jagged steps, tore through shops, wandered alleys and wove our way through the charming streets of Bellagio with the finalé to our adventure firmly in sight: lunch at our favorite wine bar Enoteca Cava Turacciolo. The gregarious owner retired since our last visit but the staff carries on his attention to detail and service. Carved from the bowels of the old-city, exposed stone and brick contribute to the ambiance of the cave-like space as much as Italy’s finest wines and olive oil lining its shelves. At the suggestion of our server, we paired two white wines and two red wines with a sampling of meats and cheeses: cow first, goat second and sheep last. There is nothing wrong with a day starting with cake, followed by shopping and wine.
To cap off our evening and our last dinner in Italy, we booked a reservation at Al Veluu Ristorante per the recommendation of a friend. The affectionate owner greeted us with homemade Bellini’s, which we sipped as we admired sweeping views of the entire Lake Como region. The moon illuminated what was left of the pink and turquoise rays of light as we dined on sweet tomatoes and fresh zucchini from the garden and filet with bitter and spicy mustard sauce served tableside. I highly recommend Al Veluu for the heartwarming welcome, the farm-to-table flavors and the impressive views of Lake Como. Its romance and simplicity can be found in a secluded spot overlooking the lake, perfect for couples or even mothers and daughters.
MUST DO IN LAKE COMO
- Spend a day in Bellagio shopping and eating – Check out Molinari Silvana, Saraceno Michele and Enoteca Cava Turacciolo.
- Visit Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, known for its impeccable views of Lake Como and its vibrant gardens. Pack a lunch and spend the day strolling through the immaculate and stunning grounds.
- Plan a trip to Villa del Balbianello. Wander the expansive villa and gardens and admire views of the lake from the grounds. If you are newly engaged, plan a wedding! Built in 1787, it is the site of a Franciscan monastery.
- Take a cooking class–eat your own risotto while sipping wine.
- Sail, ferry or boat all day on the beautiful waters of Lake Como. Captain your own vessel, hire a private guide or hop on a ferry darting to each of the villages.
- Walk from village to village, admiring the different views of the lake.
- Plan an adventure: Hike the foothills of the Alps or rent a kayak or canoe and become more acquainted with the lake.
- Drive the scenic 4-hour loop around the lake or plan a day trip and stop off in Mennagio or Varenna and end in Como town.
- Taste your favorite Gelato.
- Check out Duomo de Como in Como town. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Como considered one of the most beautiful places to visit in Northern Italy.
Now I know where you get your spunk from. Joyce is hilarious!!
What a great birthday present to gift to your mum. I think I’d keel over from happiness and drown in my tears. Joyce is lucky to have a vivacious, thoughtful, and amazing daughter like you!
What a great birthday trip. But after reading (and editing) this post, I’m only more convinced there HAS to be a Joyce and Kelly show on YouTube!