The secrets of Lake Como

24 October 2014



Words & Photos: Andrew & Lisa de Villiers


Lake Como is a tranquil and picturesque slice of heaven that is surrounded by mountains and hills and dotted with beautiful villas and resort villages. There’s also something magical about it. As you travel northwards, you feel like you are travelling deeper into a storybook, as the ever-present towering Alps dusted with white snow take your breath away.

The beautiful Villa del Balbianello on the banks of Lake Como.

A popular playground for the rich and famous during the summer months, the lake is a veritable feast for the eyes as they dart from George Clooney’s magnificent villa with manicured gardens to the next celebrity’s glorious villa, including that of Villa del Balbianello, which featured in Star Wars Episode II. Boasting panoramic lake views, picturesque stone lanes and stairways with expensive designer boutiques shops, gelato bars, cafes, and restaurants, Lake Como is a top romantic travel destination and a great spot for photography.

This is how most travel books or blogs will describe Lake Como (or Lago di Como in Italian), the most popular and deepest lake in Italy. However, it is when you search beyond the pages of travel books that you discover there’s so much more to the lake than millionaires and their toys, and this lake really comes to life. Here are a few secrets that not many people speak about when referring to the lake, and that we are willing to divulge.

The first secret is that Lake Como can be done on a relatively reasonable budget. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to wear Dior or Gucci to visit it, or pay huge amounts of money to eat at overpriced restaurants on the water’s edge. If you do some research, you can find many amazing restaurants with superb lake views. An example of such a find is the Argritorismo, in Lezzeno, which is run by Alarico and his family, and it’s here that we had our best anti-pasti dish in Italy.

Accommodation at Alarico’s Argritorismo in Lezzeno.

View of Lake Como from Lezzeno.

Benito Mussolini’s assassination site in Lenno.

The Argritorismo, a small working farm that offers accommodation, is nestled in the fairy-like forests high up on the hills and boasts spectacular vistas of the lake. Homemade meals are served on a deck that overlooks the vast waters, providing an excellent and authentic way to experience the area while sampling superb meals under the Italian sun.

It’s not only the food that is excellent and reasonable on Lake Como; the accommodation is also top class and doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg (our second surprise of the trip). Again, small working farms, like Alarico’s, are a wonderful option.

Another choice is to rent an apartment for a few nights, such as Casa Bellagina in Bellagio. It is about a 10-minute drive from the water and has all the amenities you could possibly need. The real bonus of staying here is that it is in a small piazza. which gives you a glimpse into the non-touristy village life. You get to watch Italians in Noddy-type cars navigating tiny roads, neighbours’ children dancing on their balconies, people dropping off fresh produce at the local pub, greeting each other and laughing together, and the aroma of pizza luring you down the street. It’s brilliant and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

This type of accommodation also gives you a more authentic experience of a foreign country. In a hotel, you don’t often experience living among the locals and observing their comings and goings. Somehow, hearing English-speaking tourists quarrel about their plans for the day doesn’t have the same appeal as hearing passionate Italians converse in their musical language about which type of tomato to use in their pasta.

Delicious homemade antipasti at Alarico’s Argritorismo in Lezzeno.

Another wonderful accommodation option is in Verenna, a fishing village on Lake Como. Although smaller and less touristy than Bellagio, it is equally as beautiful - definitely one of our favourite destinations on the lake. Here, you can enjoy some pasta and vino, listen to Ella Fitzgerald, gaze at the snow-capped mountains from the terrace at Bar ilMolo, meander along the promenade or explore the Castello de Vezio, an ancient Roman fortress. Another charming place to stay is at Rossella and Massi’s apartment, which sleeps five, as it is just one road away from the lake, clean and comfortable.

The final secret is a rather dark one. Prior to exploring Lenno, a small town on the banks of the lake, we did some research on it and found many glamorous tourist spots typical to the area. A little more searching brought us to a website that told us of a fascinating and well-kept secret that seemed to shatter the idyllic image of the lake: that Benito Mussolini, one of the famous leaders of World War II, was assassinated in the streets of Lenno! Puzzled that we hadn’t heard anything about the historic assignation from anyone else, we asked around and got conflicting stories. Our host believed that Mussolini was shot elsewhere, the tourist map of Lenno didn’t mention it, none of the Italians seemed to know what we were talking about or seemed skittish when we mentioned the ‘M’ word, there were no major signs pointing to the historical spot, and there were no other tourists looking for it. We started to doubt the website, but were determined to get to the bottom of this.

After a lot of walking and no sign (literally) of anything vaguely resembling a tribute to this historic event, we started to lose hope. Fortunately, just before we were about to give up the hunt, we stumbled upon a small hidden sign board that read, 'Fatto Storico - Historical sight 28.04.1945'. This gave us the fuel we needed to believe that something did in fact happen here during World War II. However, we were not convinced that it had anything to do with Mussolini, as there was absolutely no mention of him.

After some seemingly aimless wandering, we eventually came across an ordinary looking house with a big wall around it and a cross in the front of the driveway. This is what we had been looking for! There, on a small board next to the wall, was Benito Mussolini’s face, a small plaque and cross on the wall with his name on it. The small plaque detailed how he and his mistress (Clara Petacci) tried to flee Italy over the Alps, to find solace in Switzerland, and how he was recognised, captured, held overnight at a nearby villa and eventually shot at 4:30 p.m. on 28 April 1945 outside the house where we stood; thus ending the fascist regime in Italy.

What fascinated us the most was that there were thousands of tourists in Lake Como and in the 15 minutes we stood outside the villa and read the plaque, only one other tourist visited this momentous historical sight. To our minds, this made the assassination site of Mussolini the best kept secret of Lake Como.

It’s easy to see why Como is so popular. Its vast clear and clean waters, with small scattered scenic towns between grand villas, make it a must for any tourist visiting northern Italy. For the more inquisitive, we’re sure that Lake Como is full of other secrets just waiting to be discovered. All you have to do is go there and explore. However, whatever you do, whether exploring magical mysteries, marvelling at the opulent splendour of villas, taking ferry rides all day or eating gelatos while watching the lapping waves of the lake, the most important thing to do is go there. Go and find secrets of your own as you visit the bottle-green waters of Lago di Como.

More on Lake Como

Lake Como is in the region of Lombardy and part of the northern Italian Lakes District. It lies between Milan and the border of Switzerland with its southern tip about 40 km north of Milan.

When to go
July and August are the most crowded months. Spring and fall are the best times to visit as it is less crowded and the weather is usually pleasant. During the winter, some services may be closed, but you can ski in the mountains nearby.

Where to stay
• Alarico’s Argritorismo in Lezzeno:
• Casa Bellagina in Bellagio:
• Rossella and Massi’s apartment in Verenna:

Getting there
Lake Como is on the Milan to Switzerland train line. The train stops in the town of Como, the main town on the lake. Milan's Malpensa Airport is 40 miles away. To get to Como from the airport, take the Malpensa Express Train to Saronna and transfer to train Le Nord to Como.

Getting around
Ferries link the major villages and towns of Lake Como, providing both a good form of public transportation and a good way to do some sightseeing from the lake. There is also a bus system to the villages around the lake. There are aloso several funiculars to take you into the hills. You can rent cars in Como if you want to explore other nearby areas on your own.

Other attractions:
• Outdoor activities include biking, mountain biking, hiking, boating, paragliding and windsurfing. In the winter, you can ski in the nearby mountains.
• There are some interesting cruises around the lake on commercial boats, mainly on weekends in the summer season.
• You can see the entire silk-making process in the Silk Museum dating from 1900 or buy silk in many shops.
• There are several walking paths near town or you can you can take the funicular to the village of Bu Brunate, 720 m above Como, for hiking trails and beautiful views of the lake and Alps.
• Bellagio, known as the 'pearl of the lake', is in a beautiful setting where the three branches of Lake Como come together. It's easy to get to by ferry or bus from other cities on the lake.
• Villa d' Este, in the village of Cernobbio on the west coast, is the most famous of Lake Como's villas. The villa is now a luxury hotel on a wooded peninsula. Each of the 161 rooms is unique.
• Menaggio, a lively resort with a lakeside promenade, is popular with outdoor enthusiasts for walking or hiking, swimming, windsurfing, and rock climbing.
• Villa Carlotta, south of Menaggio, has beautiful gardens. You can tour the inside with its original 18th century furniture and art works.


View of Lake Como from Alarico’s Argritorismo in Lezzeno.

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Welcome to the 24 October 2014 issue of DO IT NOW Magazine.