Saturday, September 25, 2010


The train from Milan to Como was short but memorable. When we boarded and found our seats, across the aisle were an adult Italian family getting stuck into a whole pizza each, a whole salami, loaf of bread and more! There was something fascinatingly primitive with the way they were undertaking this consumption that was a magnet of interest to all who could see them. We were never able to fully understand why this was such compelling viewing ourselves, but it was quite disturbing in a strange way. The impression remained with us for days!

Chatting in Bellagio
We should have caught the ferry up the lake from Como to Bellagio, but ended up on a bus. Nevertheless the views of the lake on the way were stunning. At one stage the bus driver (who did not have a Masters Degree in customer service) stopped the bus opened the door, said "Arrivederci" to us all and walked off with the bus engine running. I looked around at some other tourists to see if anyone else could drive us the rest of the way, but after a while, another driver appeared and drove us the last five minutes of our journey.

We were delighted to find our apartment, located above a restaurant, just behind the famous Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. This hotel is a part of the history of the town and has been offering luxury accommodation since long before the turn of last century. You can stay there today for E600 per night. Thankfully our apartment was very reasonable, still located in the historic center of the town and exceeded our expectations. It was lovely and spacious and very well appointed and even had a dishwasher. The bed was sumptuously comfortable, not like many of the "ironing board" feel to many European beds. The outdoor area was also just lovely, provided you had some good insect repellant. Mosquitoes are everywhere around the lake towns.

Shopping, coffee in Bellagio town
Each time you arrive in a new town you can get a feel for its essence. Bellagio was clearly beautiful but full of rich tourists. It is a small place that consists of large hotels and glamourous shops. However, there is amazing beauty all around, including lovely flower gardens, lovely buildings and of course the lake dominates everything. All bars and hotels are built to make the most of the views and Bellagio itself is at the end of a peninsula that splits lake Como in two. For centuries it has been a strategically important piece of real estate to detect hostile travelers on the lake. There were significant Roman structures on the site, but after the fall of the Empire, the next lot hated the Romans so much, they deliberately destroyed all Roman structures in Bellagio. So, most of the buildings here date back to the Middle ages, as over the centuries Bellagio has always been a place of both beauty and strategic importance.

Today, (and for hundreds of years) Bellagio itself is given over wholly to tourism. It's accessibility to other parts of Europe mean there are lots of expensive cars with number plates from other EU neighbours. We found a surprising number of Kiwis and Australians here too. The shops have beautiful things in them and some things were affordable. Believe it or not I actually bought some clothes here.

Villa Serbelloni

Villa Serbelloni looking down over the town of Bellagio
One of the things to do in Bellagio is to go up to the summit of the hill that is at the end of the peninsula (which happens to be right behind our apartment). Unfortunately you can't just stroll up to the top any time you want to. All of this land is within the grounds of the Villa Serbelloni, which is now in the ownership of the Rockefeller Foundation, and the land and buildings were donated in 1959 "for purposes connected with the promotion of international understanding".  Today professors and academics are invited here to study with other world class colleagues, take sabbaticals and attend international conferences.  There are little buildings dotted throughout the property dedicated to various arts such as music, painting etc.  Those in residence don't like being regarded as tourist trophies, so there are strict rules around visiting times and what you can photograph.  A beautiful place, with lots of history.

St Michael's Church, Varenna

St Michael's solitude
One of the things that caught my eye in Bellagio, was a building directly across the lake, that had been constructed mid way up a very high cliff face. It intrigued me.  I was later to find out that this building was a church, (St Michael's actually) and you could walk up to it.  So, after having settled in to Bellagio a little, I got up early, found my way across the lake on the car ferry to a town called Cadenabbia.  After a coffee in a cafe by the ferry terminal, I began the walk up the hill.  I had been warned it was "up" ALL the way, but it really was not as bad as it could have been.  I got slightly dis-oriented part way up and LOVED asking an old Italian lady for directions (in Italian) and it was fantastic to fully understand her response (and it was very helpful!).  Charming.  There is no way she could have communicated with me in English and she was so nice.  My morning was shaping up well! It was great to get my heart rate up after quite a lot of tiring, but slow walking in Milan.  I was the only one on the trail and it was fantastic.  Firstly walking through the outskirts of the old town, through the back yards of houses that had been been there for centuries, with no vehicular access.  It felt like I could have been back in time several hundred years!  The path was steep and roughly cobbled and regularly dotted with "stations of the cross" with fresh flowers at each one.  Someone had been there recently! As I got further and further up, the views of the lake and surrounding country expanded and were stunning. The stillness of the morning, with no wind and the peace of the place was outstanding.  It was so still though, that you could hear the odd vehicle or other activity occurring from across the lake!  Once arriving at the church itself, it was tranquil with outstanding views up and down the lake, back to Bellagio and down into the village houses below (including an amazing villa).  I will always remember the moments of stillness up there.

Villas and Gardens

Villa Monestero gardens, Varenna
The other thing that the area is famous for are the villas and their amazing gardens.  Apart from Villa Serbelloni described above, there are hundreds of villas built hundreds of years ago dotted around the lake that have gardens that are simply astounding in their beauty.  We visited two in particular that took my breath away and I said to myself "I did not know it was possible for man to create such beauty!!"

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