Traveling via water gives you a different perspective. Sitting in the front cockpit of a tandem kayak 200 feet off shore from Varenna, Italy, in the middle of Lake Como, I count three gelaterias faster than you can say, “I know why George Clooney spends so much time here.”
Navigating Varenna by road, you couldn’t get within 500 feet of a scoop of gelato. The town, founded by fishermen in the 8th century, doesn’t actually have any streets, just walkways.
Childhood summers spent on Maryland’s Eastern Shore taught me that water, when it’s around, is where the action is. Our front yard wasn’t the one facing the street, but the one facing the pier, ramp and beach. The heart of waterfront towns and cities — at least if they are of a certain age, like all the towns and villages on Lake Como are — is on the water.
So even though I’m an avid road cyclist and Northern Italy’s lakes have some of the most scenic and challenging cycling routes in the world, it’s always been my dream to visit this area by boat. And, of course, find a couple of days for biking while I’m there.
It is possible to travel among towns on Lake Como and neighboring lakes Lugano and Maggiore by ferry. But that isn’t the kind of boat I had dreamed of. I want a slower, more intimate experience. I sign up for a nine-day kayaking trip that hits Como, Lugano and Maggiore.
Three weeks prior to the trip’s start date, I have an accident that requires surgery. As surgeries go, it’s minor, but its recovery time isn’t: eight weeks. I won’t be able to paddle, but the surgeon says sitting in a boat is fine. Grant Thompson, the owner of the company I’m traveling with, Tofino Expeditions, graciously offers the front cockpit of his tandem kayak.
Sitting anywhere — relaxing in general, really — is difficult for me. When I explain to friends how I can still go “paddling” after surgery, I play along when they comment that mine now seems like the best kind of kayaking trip: all of the experience with none of the work. Inside, I’m severely disappointed. Rescheduling is not an option.
The disappointment is still there when I land at MilanMalpensa Airport. (Lake Como is 25 miles north of Milan.) During an afternoon and night in Milan, I forget the disappointment, but, the next morning when the group — 10 paddlers including me, Grant, guide Enrico Carrossino and logistic wizard Daniele Ratto — loads into two vans for the 60-minute drive to Lake Como, it returns. It doesn’t go away until Grant has been paddling me around for an hour and we’re in front of a two-story, buttercup-yellow home. The house is set back from the lake 15 feet, on land protected by a stacked-stone bulkhead. Directly above the bulkhead, running its entire length, are iron trellises dripping with jasmine thicker and bloomier than I’ve ever seen or smelled. At either end of the bulkhead are van-sized masses of hydrangeas, also riotously blooming. It is one of the most happily situated homes I’ve ever seen.
If I don’t have to hold a paddle, I rationalize, I’ve got more time to admire — and snap photos of — the scenery.
People have appreciated Lake Como’s scenery for millennia. It has been a vacation spot and a source of inspiration for artists and writers at least since the Romans settled here in the 2nd century B.C. Pliny the Elder had a villa here. Leonardo da Vinci visited the lake frequently and the two versions of his painting “Virgin of the Rocks” include streams and waterfalls he saw here. Verdi composed “La Traviata” at Lake Como. The Villa d’Este was built on the lake’s five-mile Riva Romantica in 1568 by a prince and became a hotel in 1873. In 1925, Alfred Hitchcock shot some of his film “The Pleasure Garden,” there. When Winston Churchill vacationed at Lake Como after the end of World War II, he painted almost every day.
Lake Como stands out among the dozens of lakes dotting this area — Garda, d’Orta, Varese, Comabbio and d’Iseo, among others — for the intensity of its blue water and its extensive shoreline. While only the third-largest lake in Italy — after lakes Garda and Maggiore — Como is one of the deepest in Europe. The depth is partially responsible for its color.
Because of its shape — most people say it’s an upside-down “Y”; I prefer to think of it as a walker without arms or a head — Como has more shoreline than any other Italian lake, 106 miles.
The city of Como sits at the foot of the western leg. Industrial Lecco is the east foot. The landscape of the Lecco leg is more rugged, with fewer towns and lakeside villas than the Como leg.
George Clooney’s Villa Oleandra and any Lake Como villa you’ve seen in a movie is on the Como leg.
The village of Bellagio is at the lake’s crotch.
I’m ashamed to admit that before I saw “Bellagio” on the paddling itinerary, I didn’t know that Bellagio was more than a casino in Las Vegas. I knew that the Vegas Bellagio’s shtick is that it’s a recreation of an Italian village, but I didn’t know that it took the village’s name.
Whatever your feelings are toward the Vegas Bellagio, the original Bellagio is better.
Narrow cobblestone paths lined with boutiques, cafes and galleries tumble down a steep hillside. Italian flags flutter among palm trees. Gothic, baroque and Renaissance buildings are painted in colors ranging from peach to tangerine, pale pink, white and mustard. The tallest structure in town is the bell tower of the Church of San Giacomo, parts of which date to the 12th century.
Enrico, with 80-some-year-old Marilyn in the front of his tandem kayak, guides our group along Bellagio’s waterfront. Looking to shore, we see men with cigarettes dangling from their lips fishing and looking at us dubiously. Tourists pause in the shade under ordered rows of densely leafed trees and take photos of us. Couples walk dogs or sit on benches holding hands and watching us.
While kayaking is not unusual in the United States, it is in northern Italy. Tofino Expeditions is the only company that regularly does organized trips here. During the week, I see a couple of random lakeside outfitters with “kayak rentals” signs but don’t see any boats I’d feel comfortable taking out. Nor do I see any kayakers outside of our group.
Grant and Enrico have a schedule for us. Enrico is a proud native of Genoa but has been living near Como, Lugano and Maggiore for 10 years. He knows the spots that are overhyped and the ones that are overlooked. A kayak guide for 15 years, he also knows that schedules, especially when weather is involved, are not set in stone.
Our second day on Como is more leisurely than originally scheduled. The day’s scenery is so diverse, though, it feels like our longest day.
The northernmost tip of the land that pushes up to the bend in the upside-down “Y” of Lake Como is just past Bellagio. In Italian, it’s called Punta Spartivento, “the point that parts the wind.” It’s not windy as we paddle around it, but it is as if we’ve been swept into a completely different landscape.
Gone are the villas that dot the peninsula’s western side. Instead, I see 100-foot-tall, sheer, white limestone walls. Waterfalls of prickly pear cacti, some with yellow blooms, cascade down them. Every inch of land that isn’t sheer rock is dense with greenery. Mallard ducks swim between our boats, but pterodactyls seem more suited to the scenery.
From here, we set off for Varenna, the town of many gelaterias and the ruins of an 11th-century castle.
First we pass Fiumelatte, home to Italy’s shortest river, 820 feet in length and also named Fiumelatte. Just past where the Fiumelatte comes roaring into the lake, its water milky white and about 20 degrees colder than the lake’s, I spot a home I’d live in if someone felt like giving it to me. My home is fairly modest, as far as Lake Como homes go. It is peach and its shutters are the same teal as the lake. I’d plant more hydrangeas, but it has some of the bushiest jasmine I’ve yet seen. Evidence of a stone bulkhead peeks out from a mass of ivy. A floating dock extends into the lake from a pool house the same size as my real house. Eight 50-foot-tall cypress trees stand in a neat line. Not that I’m looking for fault, but they’re ready for a haircut.
As I’m thinking that the cypress deserve a more meticulous caretaker, and that I know just the person, one of the upstairs shutters opens. Out of habit and politeness — who wants to be caught staring into someone’s home? — I quickly look away. But the woman in the window waves at me.
I’m not proud of it, but in Varenna, I get a gelato at each of the three gelaterias on the harbor. I tell myself I’m showing restraint by limiting each to a single scoop and getting cups rather than cones. And then, despite the fact that I really wasn’t supposed to, I tell myself it’s time to do more than sit in the front of a boat.
Since I started road cycling a decade ago, I have heard about riding here. Italy is one of the most cycling-mad countries in a continent that is crazy for the sport. And Lombardy, the region of the country that includes Como, is arguably the heart of Italian cycling. It has an estimated 700 cycling clubs with nearly 12,000 members. The church of the patron saint of cycling, Madonna Del Ghisallo, is also in Lombardy.
The church sits at the top of a classic climb, the Madonna Del Ghisallo hill. I know this climb from television. It is sometimes used in the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s version of the Tour de France. The climb starts from Bellagio. According to Google, the top is 6.5 miles from my hotel and about 1,800 feet higher. According to Yelp, there is a worthwhile cycling museum, the Museo Del Ciclismo, next to the chapel.
It sounds perfect for my first European cycling adventure. Except the road does not have shoulders. I start out with my senses set to 11.
The climbing starts immediately. The corners at switchbacks are often 180 degrees. Still, I’m grinning like an idiot. My quads are ready to explode, but so is my mind.
My worry about the roads having no shoulders is unnecessary. Every car that passes slows and gives me plenty of room. Several times passengers even shout encouragement: “Go! Go! Go!”
I’ve ridden tens of thousands of miles, and my town is fairly bike-friendly, but never before have I felt respected while riding. At home I feel tolerated; it’s a good ride if someone doesn’t flip me the bird.
When I arrive at the chapel and museum after an hour of climbing, my quads are quaking. I give them a rest by visiting the museum. A circa 1915 folding bike issued to Italian soldiers is cool, as are the several racing bikes used by various Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winners, but I spend most of my time staring at three modern custom bikes made from heavily shellacked marine wood. They’re gorgeous, more art than bicycle. The views out the museum’s wall of windows down onto Lake Como are equally gorgeous.
By going on this ride, I miss the group excursion to one of the lake’s most famous villas, Villa del Balbianello. It was the “hospital” where James Bond recuperates at the end of the most recent “Casino Royale” and the site of the wedding of Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala in “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.” The villa was private until 1988, when Count Guido Monzino died and left it to The National Trust of Italy. While the villa was built for Cardinal Angelo During in the late 18th century, on the remains of a 13th-century Franciscan monastery, Monzino’s style and belongings decorate it today. (Also, Monzino’s ashes are buried in the villa’s ice house.)
Until now, we’ve had to imagine the insides of all the villas we’ve paddled past. Balbianello is closed the day the group goes, but Enrico explains to the manager that this is a group of kayakers; Monzino, leader of the first Italian expedition to climb Mount Everest and a lifelong traveler and adventurer, would want us to see his home.
At dinner, I hear tales of gardens where gardeners prune trees while standing on stilts, while admiring porcelain dating from China’s Ming and Tang dynasties, African, Mayan and Incan sculptures, Inuit figurines carved from whale bones, gilded verre églomisé paintings and 18th-century English and French furniture.
If I come back to Lake Como, I’ll definitely go to Balbianello. But, this trip, I don’t mind missing it for my bike ride.
From Como, we move on to a couple of days paddling on Lugano, less than an hour’s drive away, but a whole other country. Partially. The shared border of Italy and Switzerland runs right through the lake. The top third of the lake is Italian. The bottom two-thirds are mostly Switzerland. Both sides are very different from Como.
The first difference I notice is the jasmine. Or lack of jasmine. Paddling around Como, we were in a haze of blooming jasmine the entire time. The trellises in Lugano’s gardens are draped instead with a species of wisteria that, while colorful, isn’t particularly fragrant.
Lake Lugano is busier, too, on shore and on the water. The city of Lugano — population 60,000 — sprawls across and up several hills. Vendors in Lugano’s harbor rent both shabby powerboats and stylish paddleboats. I never knew the latter was a thing, but Lugano’s are — they’re painted to look like Grand Prix race cars.
Enrico leads us away from this, though, to quiet and quaint Morcote, where we tie up our boats next to the ferry pier and explore the village. A half-mile hike up steep, cobblestone paths through a sleepy residential neighborhood — Morcote is like Varenna in its lack of streets — is the Church of Santa Maria del Sasso. This church was the first part of Morcote we saw from the water, and I thought it was about to fall into the lake. Walking around the complex, it’s obviously old — 15th century — but in no danger of collapse, no matter how precarious its hillside position.
Another day, we have a Mediterranean al fresco feast at a shabbily elegant villa near a museum dedicated to smuggling. Because the Italy/Switzerland border runs through the middle of the lake, smuggling on Lugano has a long history. After this lunch, we take turns jumping into the lake from the villa’s pier.
On Lake Maggiore, we take a break from paddling to jump into the water from a craggy rock. I think the barefoot scramble up the boulder’s mossy backside is the difficult part until I look down from the top, 20 feet above the lake. From the boat, it didn’t look that high. From this height, it looks like something my surgeon probably wouldn’t want me to jump from.
But it’s the last day and I’ve dutifully not taken a single paddle stroke the whole trip. Also, more than the other two lakes, Maggiore feels removed from reality. Here, we’ve paddled beneath 300-foot-tall rock walls, around hydrofoil ferries exuberant with summer visitors and past Isola Bella, one of the three Borromean Islands, where white peacocks wander ornate 17th-century gardens under the watch of a unicorn statue atop the tallest fountain.
I run off the end of the rock before I can think about it too much.
Mishev is editor of Inspirato magazine.
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This U.S.-based outfitter works with local guides to offer all-inclusive, small-group paddling tours around the world. Currently, it is the only company offering multi-day kayaking tours of the Italian Lake District. No experience required. $4,650 for a nine-day trip.
Locanda della Maria
Via Ludovico Moretti
522021 Bellagio, Lake Como
Historic rooms and modern apartments in a quaint lakeside village, where the cobblestone streets through the neighborhood are too narrow for cars. Downtown Bellagio is a 25-minute walk. Rates start at $99 and include breakfast.
L’angolo dei pescatori
Via dei Pescatori, 2
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Be sure to ask for one of lake view rooms at this eight-room boutique hotel, which is a short walk away from a pleasant public beach. Two rooms offer outdoor terraces overlooking Lake Maggiore. Rooms from $99.
Four Seasons Milan
Via Gesù, 6/8
This repurposed convent, dating from the 15th century, is in the heart of Milan’s fashion district and has the same unaffected, easy stylishness of Lake Como and the largest courtyard gardens in Via Montenapoleone. Rooms from $726.
The Winery of Villa Crella
Via al Crotto, 26
22021 Bellagio, Lake Como
Groups, including Tofino Expeditions, reserve the private dining room of this historic family villa overlooking the lake. Individual travelers can buy a bottle of Casa Della Maria olive oil, made from olives grown at the estate, from $15.
Contrada dell’Oste, 14, 23829
Varenna Lake Como
Recipes with nothing but the freshest natural ingredients make this the best of Varenna’s three lakeside gelaterias. Scoops from $2.50.
Via Dalmazia, 5
Laveno-Mombello, Lake Magiorre
When you want the best pizza on Lake Maggiore — rather than the best views — come to this locals’ favorite away from Laveno’s Lido. Pies from $12.
Via Santa Marta, 11
Few waiters at this hidden, neighborhood trattoria speak English, but finding the location is more difficult than finding an entree. Lunch options from $13, dinner options from $18.
Castello di Vezio
Frazione Vezio, Perledo LC
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Museo del Ciclismo (Madonna del Ghisallo)
Via Gino Bartali 4
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Travelinkayak Riviera Xplore
Various locations. Company can arrange hotel pickup.
Guided, private one-day kayak trips on Lake Lugano and custom multi-day trips on other area lakes. Trips from $100.
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The cable car to the top of 4,892 ft. tall Mt. Mottarone takes 20 minutes from the shore of Lake Maggiore. But the view from the top, looking down on Maggiore and six other lakes, is worth it. Adults $19, kids ages 4 to 12 $11.
Lake Como tourism: lakecomo.org/en
Lugano Tourism: luganotourism.ch/en
Lake Maggiore Tourism: illagomaggiore.com/en_US/home